Memoir vs. Autobiography: Does It Really Matter?

Happy November! For most of America, the transition from October to November heralds the end of trick-or-treating and pumpkins and the anticipation of Thanksgiving and the bigger winter holidays, whatever your family celebrates. For writers, however, November first means only one thing: the start of NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month! Our staff has covered this venerable tradition in the past, and we’ve got advice for you if you’re participating this year for everything on staying motivated  to the importance in staying connected with like-minded individuals to reviewing your work after the big rush . Here are some links to get you started:

This post is for the portion of our friends out there who swim in the autobiographical end of the writer’s pool or for those who are thinking about testing those waters this November. We are seeing more and more of a trend towards autobiographical submissions. This is becoming a very popular category of the nonfiction section, and why not? It’s easy to see why people might want to draw from their own personal histories to create an epic novel; there’s an endless source of inspiration to draw from. Anyone can do it, from celebrities to political figures to a person with a story to tell. But hold on a second: does anyone remember that moment in time back in 2006 when A Million Little Pieces was first hailed as a masterpiece then ultimately crucified as a work of fraud? Written by James Frey, the book was billed as a memoir, but on January 8, 2006, The Smoking Gun published an article exposing large portions of the book as fictionalized or gross exaggerations. Mr. Frey was interviewed by Larry King to defend his book three days later, but the real media storm happened on January 26 when Mr. Frey made an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He was confronted by her and admitted to fabricating many sections of his memoir, which he had previously stated had been fact-checked by his publisher. This ultimately caused an ensuing controversy in which Mr. Frey’s literary manager dropped him and his publisher broke a two-book, seven figure deal. A legal settlement for readers who felt defrauded was also reached, and people were entitled to a refund of their book. That’s a massive consequence for someone who embellished the truth a bit. So where’s the line? Should writers be expected to remember every conversation they’ve ever had when they are recording memories to the page? Is any creative license allowed, or are we in danger of being sued by some disgruntled cousin who doesn’t remember the family reunion going down the way we do? How can we sort through what is fact and what is reasonable fiction? Luckily, there’s an answer to these questions and more.
Everything on this list falls under the umbrella of non-fiction. If I think of writing as dessert, then autobiography is cake. Memoir, narrative nonfiction, personal essays and roman à clef are all just slices of the same cake. Let’s break it down:

Autobiography: An autobiography can be distinguished from the others on the list as the most factual of the bunch. It is told in a linear fashion and should relay all the major life events of the subject in a chronological order. It concerns itself with the entire scope of a person’s life and all of the events, people, places and subjects that relate to a person’s existence as they move forward through their life, not just a few key years, events, feelings or observations of the narrator.

Memoir: This form gives someone more creative license. It can cover a few short years or a major event. Examples might include how someone survived their time in a concentration camp or how they overcame an addiction. It doesn’t have to be harrowing, but it may just focus on one developmental stage and is more likely to reflect strong feelings. It is generally less factual and more emotional. It is far less encompassing in scope than an autobiography. It is generally less formal and may have a more literary feel.

Narrative non-fiction: Narrative or creative non-fiction is a somewhat new and emerging genre. It draws on real-life scenarios, usually something journalistic, but incorporates elements of fiction to become a readable novel. According to literary critic Barbara Lounsberry, there are four recognizable elements to narrative nonfiction: the topics and events must exist in the real world (not in the mind of the author), there must be exhaustive research, all scenes must be in context, and it should all be presented in a literary style. Some examples of narrative nonfiction are The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly.

Personal essay: This is exactly what it sounds like: an essay that is personal to you. It is generally just a short memoir. A great example of a classic personal essayist is David Sedaris.

Roman à clef: Roman à clef is from the French, meaning “novel with a key.” It began as a way for people to write an expose of famous social and political figures without the risk of reprieve. It is truth with an overlay of fiction. Names or identifying situations can be changed to avoid persecution, but the general public could still understand and enjoy the jab. This could be done for protection of the author or for satirical purposes. The Marquis de Sade often employed the roman à clef to skewer prominent religious and political figures of his day. Today, the roman à clef is still in use for various reasons, including satire, but it can also be used when you’d like to write a memoir but perhaps you would like a bit more creative license than your own story affords you. This is where certain authors—cough, Mr. Frey, cough—could simply have stated his work was inspired by real events. That little disclaimer would have saved him seven figures plus and a whole lot of embarrassment.

These are all just guidelines. Most of them bleed into each other. The important thing to remember is if you have a story to tell that you don’t fret which category you bill it as, but that you get it all down on paper, especially this November! A good editor can help you decide how your memories and your story fit together and what you’d like to call it. Happy writing!

Ask An Editor

As a writer, you have questions. It’s in your nature, so why fight it? Here are some of the most frequent questions posed to editors!

How do I get published?

This is definitely the number one question I hear as an editor, and there’s no simple answer, so strap in. If you’re not choosy about where you want to be published, it’s pretty easy these days. There are more literary magazines than I’ll ever be able to count, and each one has its own standards and methods of selecting work. Frankly, I’ve seen work I considered unpublishable grace the pages of quite a few digital lit mags, so if you can slap together a moderately cohesive story and email it to the right place, you could be a published author in no time!

There’s a similar trajectory for self-published books, which has given them a less than savory reputation, despite a handful of passionate, talented writers who utilize the format to avoid book industry runarounds. If you can finish a book, you can publish it cheap, but there’s no telling whether anyone will actually buy or read the thing.

Now, if you want to write a book that a reputable publishing house will release, or a story that a notable magazine will print, you’re going to have more work ahead of you. You will likely spend more time editing than you did writing the first draft, and then there’s the process of bringing in beta readers and editors, then querying publishers or submitting to magazines. Amanda has written an extremely helpful post that lines out the basic steps that you will take on your journey:

Eleven Steps to Becoming a Published Author by Amanda Wayne

Once you have a manuscript that can ascend to the echelon of major publication, you can also try to secure an agent. Agents are a writer’s best bet for bypassing book industry gatekeepers and placing your manuscript into the right hands. They usually take around a 15% fee, but if they can lock you into a deal with a major publisher, it’s usually worth it. Querying agents is a subject for another post entirely, and fortunately Catherine has run down some of the details here:

The Big Book Proposal Part One by Catherine Foster

What’s the deal with “show, don’t tell?”

Which do you enjoy reading more: a fast-paced crime caper, or the instruction manual for your television? This is “show, don’t tell” at its most basic. Telling is essentially listing the mundane details that most readers already understand, or don’t care about, where as showing puts the reader into the action, informs the feel of the scene, and lets them fill in the blanks with their imaginations. Like any other piece of writing advice, this is a suggestion, not a hard rule. While there are many specific instances in which you will need to break down and lay out some exposition, more often than not, your writing will be more effective if you let your characters show your readers what they’re up to.

Do I really need an editor? Can’t anyone be an editor?


via GIPHY

I get it, some folks think anyone who can operate spell check on their word processor can be an editor. While that might technically be true, a good editor does so much more than line up your grammar, fix typos, and correct spelling errors. Depending on when we are brought into a project, we may help with character development, plotting, overall flow, and sometimes brainstorming if an idea isn’t working and solutions are hard to find. We embed ourselves in the tone of each piece and, like literary chameleons, adopt the author’s voice, ensuring our edits will not stand out from the surrounding text. Essentially, we’re here for you. Whatever your project calls for, editors have the skills to work with you and make it the best it can be!

What’s the most common problem editors see in writing?

Beyond the usual grammar nitpicking, there are many other elements we’re on the lookout for, but I think passive voice is probably the most common. To be fair, it’s not always an issue, which makes it tricky! But what is it? Passive voice occurs when you make the object of an action the subject of the sentence, rather than the performer of said action. Suppose your character is playing soccer. Writing “the ball was kicked by Josh” is passive. Read that out loud. It sounds a little clumsy, doesn’t it? “Josh kicked the ball” is more direct and natural. This is a frequent problem when writing in past tense, so stay vigilant and watch out for objects leading the action!

Here are a few more common issues to watch for:
Adverb overuse
Tense shifts
Word choice and repetition

How long does editing take? How much does it cost?

This varies from editor to editor, but we make it easy. Right on our homepage, you’ll find our hourly rates for projects over 2,500 words, and hour per word rates for anything up to 2,500 words. The latter also comes with a two week guarantee, and we will work with you and set a deadline for longer projects before we begin!

In addition, these posts by Catherine are extremely helpful if you’re looking for more in-depth exploration of some of the topics I covered above:

What Kind of Editor Is Right For You? By Catherine Foster 

Can You Afford A High Quality Editor? (The Answer Might Surprise You) by Catherine Foster

Have questions we didn’t answer? Drop them in the comments and we’ll address them in a future post!

Author Spotlight: James D. Taylor Jr.

James Taylor is a Renaissance man, delving into music, history, and writing in his decades long career. As a military veteran, composer, amateur astronomer, and historian, he brings a depth and breadth to his work that is priceless. His penchant for finding a good story in history and talent in finding true sources combine to create intelligent, engaging biographies that reveal his favorite aphorism: truth really is stranger than fiction. He has written four biographies detailing the lives of some of the lesser known Tudor royalty and two about the women behind the enduring Betty Boop. His fantasy novel, Checkmate, entwines Egyptian history with the lives of present-day researchers trying desperately to solve the puzzle that will save the world. You can check out his full list of publications at https://jamesdtaylorjr.com/literary.

 

What first attracted you to Tudor history?

I watched a movie about Lady Jane Grey, which fueled my curiosity… I encountered nothing but inconsistencies with everything I reviewed, such as the spelling of her name and her birth date, to mention a few. I realized that there should be a single unbiased reference available free from embellishments for researchers or just anyone interested in Lady Jane. This led to the following six books for the same reason.

How do you find the documents you use as the backbone for your histories?

Eighty percent of my research still involves reviewing material in libraries and private holdings, as many of the original documents and books are too fragile to be handled for digitalization. This may require traveling out of state. While accumulating material for Helen Kane, I located a single copy of the court trial transcript in New York. The day I was to leave, the copy disappeared. I was rather devastated as the trial transcript was to provide the foundation for the book, and it appeared the project would have to be cancelled. The library frantically searched for the missing copy, but it was never located. About three weeks passed when the librarian located another copy in a law library—that saved the project.

 

What a relief! That would have been disastrous. How do you even know where to look for these materials?

The Tudor era projects are perhaps a bit easier as there is a rather limited selection of published material through history, though sometimes scattered throughout the world. I lost a very dear friend, Dr. Charlene Berry, a research librarian at Madonna University who sometimes helped me with locating pre-1600 books. More often locating sources is like archaeology, but cleaner. I just kept digging and most of the time found nothing, but occasionally I did. I utilize Worldcat.org and Melcat for locating sources not found in local University libraries. The University of Michigan, by the way, has one of the finest libraries in the country.

Your work really brings alive the drama, intrigue, and excitement of people’s lives. How do you do it?

We too often imagine what a person’s life and times are like through the media’s portrayal, which is often very different. Pirates are a good example. Media presents them as dashing, swashbuckling Errol Flynn types instead of deadly, ruthless individuals who patrol the seas looking for easy prey. The Somali pirates we encountered off the coast of Vietnam when I served in the U.S. Navy killed two dozen refugees before we could save the remainder. Usually, fact is more interesting or even unbelievable than fiction. That is my driving motivation, to present the unembellished facts.

 

Tell me about your fascination with Betty Boop.

I felt that Mae Questel’s story had to be told, and the more research I conducted about Mae’s contributions to Betty Boop, the more untold elements I discovered about Betty Boop, which included Helen Kane. Betty Boop was and is an iconic figure known worldwide, but very little is known about her creation and the tragedy that followed. Some of her early (pre-Hayes code) cartoons are very dark even by today’s standards.

 

How on earth did you get celebrities like Woody Allen, Lou Hirsch, Doris Roberts, and Bob Newhart to discuss Mae Questel’s career with you?

I cold contacted all those who worked with Mrs. Questel based on who was still alive, and who would possibly respond; some by direct contact, through the studio, production faculty, or an agent. Constant diligence and persistence yielded those few who did respond. No one simple answer, as each individual warranted a different method. Many of the actors never met her on the set because of the scheduling of shooting times were different. Perhaps as high as eighty percent never responded. This includes family members.

 

That takes real tenacity. Any other tips for budding authors out there on how to research effectively?

Ask questions. Learn to decipher fact from fiction through persistent research. In a class I attended, a woman turned in a report based upon facts she obtained from Wikipedia. When the professor asked if her facts were true, she replied, “Yes, Wikipedia said they were.”

Oh wow. That is sad. You are quite the Renaissance man. Do you find your varied interests help when you sit down to write?

While serving in the military, I visited a dozen countries and had a chance to experience much that those cultures offered. These and life’s experiences have provided me with a valuable tool set allowing me to sometimes view things as others may not.

 

How do you organize your time for your work?

Writing biographies (to me anyway) is like patch-quilting. I will pick a pattern (subject), assemble the swatches (facts), lay them out and assemble them until the final result is something I am proud of. I maintain the discipline required to allocate time and it can vary from an hour to 14 hours a day and if travel is required, more.

 

How do you approach the editing phase of writing?

That is the most tedious aspect of any project in determining what remains or goes. Generally, if information is unclear or I am unable to validate or substantiate it, it is a time consuming decision as to the fate of that information. Depending on the complexity of the project, I will set it aside and re-review it at a later date to possibly gain a fresh perspective.

 

Thank you, James, for your time! It’s been wonderful getting to know you. I look forward to reading your upcoming publications!

Author Spotlight: Ed Myers

Over the course of a week last September, I had the opportunity to administer a series of in-person interviews with the subject of our latest author spotlight, Mr. Ed Myers. I usually conduct my business via e-mail, so this was a rather unusual medium for me, but it turned out to be an unexpected blessing. I don’t use the word blessing lightly; with its overt religious overtones, it can alienate those who disdain the subject, and it can carry a distinctly heavy sort of preaching when it is put into use. I can’t deny that it fits in this case, however; to meet with Ed in person when I would normally choose the more modern route was a blessing to me. I had to consider that, while I am far from tech-savvy, I have taken refuge in insulating myself from much of the lesser social graces that come with meeting someone in person if I can avoid it. That’s the beauty of e-mail and text! I have embraced skipping over that awkwardness that comes with making small talk and chit-chatting about the weather, the uncomfortable pauses, having to listen and feign interest while someone talks about their kids and then trying to decide when it’s too soon to extricate myself from the meeting without being rude. All of this is a moot point over e-mail: it’s quick, to the point, and we none of us must suffer each other’s annoying personal qualities. What could be a more efficient arrangement?

In meeting with Ed this week, particularly for such an extended session, I came to see that there is something more important than efficiency. A connection is forged in that awkwardness borne of face-to-face interaction; there is a certain beauty in the pauses and there is the heart of human experience to be found in time spent in the presence of a person, even a person we don’t know that well. This is lost over e-mail. It may be uncomfortable and inconvenient, it may be time-consuming, but it is necessary sometimes. Especially when the topic is writing or poetry, which deals primarily and fundamentally with the subjects of the heart and how one can best explore those emotional connections. As a writer, I know I am an introvert. As an editor who works with many other writers, I am comfortable in stating that I believe many of my clients also exhibit introverted tendencies, as well. This leads us to the path of avoidance sometimes: avoidance of social contact, uncomfortable situations, and new people. In meeting with Ed this week, I’d like to share that these new experiences wake the sleeping talent in us. They revitalize our creativity even if the cost seems high and we’d prefer to shy away from that source of discomfort. I’m not counseling anyone into a panic attack, but I am pointing out that it is easy to hide behind our wall of technology and forget that human interaction is the best and most important inspiration there is for a writer. I’d like to thank Ed for reminding me of that and for giving me back my inspiration. Now, without further ado, his interview and a poem he wanted to share:

Catherine Foster: Did you like to read poetry growing up?

Ed Meyers: Yes. Edgar Allan Poe was my favorite.

CF: How long have you been writing poetry?

EM: About thirty-five years.

CF: Do you write out of passion or in hopes of publication?

EM: both

CF: What is your inspiration?

EM: Shannon

CF: Your poems are often very emotional and deal with subjects such as love, loss, longing and grief. Many authors struggle to be so open about these feelings. Do you have difficulty tapping into deep emotions and sharing them on the page for others to read?

EM: Yes and no. It’s easy to let my feelings out. It’s not easy to let people read it.

CF: Tell me what you love most about writing.

EM: The chance to express my feelings. It makes me proud.

CF: Poetry is an art form that requires an abundance of patience to master, which you have cultivated; Do you have any words of advice for your fellow poets who may need some direction?

EM: Let it flow.

CF: Thank you for your time with me. Do you have anything else you’d like to say?

EM: It’s hard work to write poetry, but the end product is usually worth the effort. It’s easier to write poetry if you write it with feeling.

Shan

Playing the role of a broken heart

is not easy,

No, not easy

Way to proceed

Like putting

the horse behind the cart.

Being with you

is simple, satisfying, serene; an art.

Tactics to endure.

You move out of the past

but it’s hard to be sure.

Being with you

is so simple

Like learning how to breathe,

for you are the reason for my reprieve.

I’d like to thank Ed for the time he spent with me and for the enormous amount of patience he had with me during these interviews. I’d also like to extend my sincere gratitude to the staff at Origami, particularly Bethany Simon and Kaitlyn Cavazos, for helping facilitate this process.

Poetic Devices. Why Should I Care?

Let’s cover poetic devices! I can just hear the groaning in the back row. Alright, alright. Hear me out. In no way are these just for poets. Each one addresses unique ways writers of all kinds play with words to create more polished prose. Whether you are a news reporter or a novelist, mastering them can bring a subtle sophistication to your writing. We experience the effects of these devices all the time without realizing it. It’s what makes good literature feel musical and inviting. Think of some of your favorite passages of your favorite novel. Inspiring words, or a well-written article will certainly embrace them. You’ll find it in moving storytelling and clear expositions all over the place that just… sound better. So let me introduce you to your ten new best friends.

  • Alliteration.

Alliteration is rhyme’s mirrored twin. It’s when words begin with the same letter, rather than end. Aunt Annie’s Alligator from Dr. Seuss’s ABC book comes to mind. But we see it used to create emphasis, or a certain mood, all the time in literature. The Great Gatsby is the classic example, as F. Scott Fitzgerald seemed particularly fond of it.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly against the past.”

Keep an eye out for alliteration as you go about life, and notice what effect it has in its context. Does it slow things down? Does it add a punch of humor? Does it draw your attention in a certain way? Next time you’re warming up for writing, give it a try! The more you experiment and play with the sounds of words, the more you will be able to use it intentionally.

  • Assonance.

Assonance is when interior vowels echo each other every so often within a phrase. (See what I did there?) As with most of these devices, it creates emphasis and a certain mood, depending on the sound emphasized and the context.  A favorite example from literature is found in Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan:

“Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.”

It’s also a great example of the next tool for your literary cabinet, and some others I am sure you will discover on your own.

  • Consonance.

As you may guess from the sound of it, this is a close cousin to assonance. It’s referring to consonant sounds that pop up with in a sentence or phrase. Depending on the consonant repeated, you can really amplify a mood with consonance. Hard /k/ sounds command your attention and might make a phrase more lively or harsh. Sibilant sounds tend to create a hushed mood. Great speech writers use this tool all the time to produce a lyrical  quality that makes you want to listen. Here’s an example from Martin Luther King’s famous I Have a Dream speech:

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

Alliteration, consonance, and assonance are all about playing with the interior sounds of words, and are well suited to all kinds of writing. Because they are surprisingly easy to incorporate and are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye, their value goes far beyond poetry. They don’t make a stab at your attention the way overtly poetic phrases do, but give that certain je ne se quois to our favorite quotable quotes. Play around with them the next time you are dreading that blank screen.

  • Imagery.

Okay, so this one is pretty self-explanatory. Images are what make good writing come to life. But it’s about more than just the visual components. It’s engaging all the senses to tell your story. If readers feel as if they are experiencing the action, they will be drawn to your work. We read because we want to feel transported to another place, time, or reality, and good imagery is key in making that magic. E.B. White does this excellently in Once More to the Lake:

He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.

Ouch. The boy feels it. The narrator feels it. We feel it. Experiment with this in areas of your work that just feel disconnected or bland. What experience can you craft for your reader that will show not tell?

  • Metaphor.

Every time I encounter this word, I think of the hilarious and poignant old Italian film, Il Postino. Metaphor is when we say one thing, but mean another. In a good way. It’s a key means of using imagery to convey more than what can be seen with the eye, or felt with our skin. I love Carl Sandburg’s poem, Landscape. It can mean so many things to different people at different times.

See the trees lean to the wind’s way of learning.
See the dirt of the hills shape to the water’s way of learning.
See the lift of it go the way the biggest
wind and the strongest water want it.

We use metaphor all the time in common idiomatic phrases and figures of speech. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. A stitch in time saves nine. Music to my ears. The ball is in your court now. Consider this popular quote from Hellen Keller; made all the more significant because of her native blindness:

Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see a shadow.

We use metaphor all the time to convey a stronger, more intimate meaning than can be conveyed with simple factual description. Notice it in the literature you read every day, and consider when you might use it more effectively.

  • Meter.

This is, loosely speaking, used to describe the rhythmic combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in language. In poetry it can be a very specific set of patterns to follow; we typically think of very structured poetry examples such as Shakespeare’s famed use of iambic pentameter. But we aren’t going to be writing sonnets, generally speaking, so let’s look at this in other great works. Examine this excerpt from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural address. Notice where the stresses fall in these lines:

This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself-

Can you see the rhythm created in his word choice, emphasized in his delivery? Paying attention to where the stressed syllables fall in your most crucial concepts can lend that extra oomph to make your work stand out.

  • Onomatopoeia.

Clickety-clack. Pitter Patter. Squelch. Words that mimic the specific sounds they describe are abundant in English and can be playful or powerful. They help the reader really hear what is happening, making descriptions more vivid. Exploring onomatopoeia can be a fun writing warm up before your real writing assignment begins because it’s really all about appreciating the sounds of the words and the feelings evoked by them. The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes is full of great sounds that pull the reader into the action.

Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
He tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred…

I would argue that in this case, even the sounds of words like locked and barred lend to the delightful commotion and energy of this piece, even if they aren’t typically words we think of as onomatopoeia. I recommend giving it a read in its entirety! Then see if you can write some noise.

  • Personification.

Personification is when the author or speaker ascribes emotion to the inanimate. It’s in the whispering winds or angry clouds that bring alive the storm. It’s in the lonely road and forlorn shack that set the mood of a place. Edith Wharton demonstrates this beautifully here in an excerpt from The Mother’s Recompense:

“Hadn’t she known that something good was going to happen to her that morning – hadn’t she felt it in every touch of the sunshine, as its golden finger-tips pressed her lids open and wound their way through her hair?”

  • Repetition.

Repetition is really the soul of many other devices on this list. Rhyme, assonance, consonance, and alliteration are all about the repetition of various sounds. Meter is about the repetition of emphasis creating a repeated rhythm to the words. Here repetition refers to the reappearance of words or phrases throughout a sentence, paragraph, or even the entire text. Have you ever noticed that the funniest parts of any stand-up comedian’s act are when they cycle back to ideas you thought they’d abandoned? Watch a few Drybarcomedy shows and you will absolutely see it. It’s the same concept. It just adds a little candy for the brain. Some of the above quotes give great examples of this; as in FDR’s famous speech, three times just in that excerpt; throughout that short Sandburg poem; and in two other places, if you can find them. Comment below if you think you see it!

  • Rhyme.

Nope. This one isn’t just for poems either. Listen to this well-loved quote from the Buddha:

Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship.

Does it sound overly rhymey and trite? Not really. Rhyme doesn’t have to be at the end of a line of poetry to be rhyme or to have impact. Ok smarty pants in the front row. So that last phrase spills over into consonance rather than rhyme, you’re right! That’s what makes it such a good example for use outside of strict poetry. Hear the pleasant echo of the “th” sound in each phrase … health, wealth, faithfulness? See how it bounces from the beginning of the line, to the end of the next, back to the beginning? It makes it memorable and underscores the importance of those words in his message. It goes back to the principle of repetition in fine art, whether visual, auditory, or written. Our brains like it. Whether it’s because it makes things easier to remember or because we like the familiar, it just feels good.

  • Simile.

This is basically a more explicit kind of metaphor that really calls out the comparison by name. The classic example is Robert Burns,’ “O my love’s like a red, red, rose…” It differs from metaphor in that it employs clue words to tip you off that a comparison is being made: like, as, shall I compare thee… you get the idea. Charles Dickens was fond of using simile, and did so with great success, adding vivid imagery and personality to his stories. Check out this quote from Great Expectations:

It was a rimy morning, and very damp. I had seen the damp lying on the outside of my little window, as if some goblin had been crying there all night, and using the window for a pocket-handkerchief. Now, I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; hanging itself from twig to twig and blade to blade.

He personifies the wet quality of the morning by comparing it to a sobbing, miserable goblin or a network of spiderwebs strewn about. No plainly visual description could achieve the same kind of creepy, foreboding mood at the same time as painting clearly the damp, wet landscape.

Alright. Now you try it. Keep noticing these poetic devices being used by good artists everywhere. Jot them down in your writer’s journal. You can hear it in the music on the radio, and that friend who’s a great storyteller. These tools are found in important, famous speeches and your favorite childhood books. If you want to dive right into it rather than waiting for opportunities to pop up along your path, I highly recommend reading Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven in its entirety. He uses each and every poetic device to wonderful effect. Here’s just one stanza. See how many you can identify. Leave your answer in the comments section!

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me — filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating,
Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door —
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; —
This it is, and nothing more.

6 of the Most Commonly Misused Words in the English Language

We interact with the world in print as much as face to face in this, the Digital Age. We buy, sell, leave reviews, comment, text, and share our lives all through written language. Many who cross your way will know nothing about you aside from that indelible mark you leave on their page, or your own if you are a blogger, so make sure it reflects your intended image. Here are some of the more commonly misused words online. Say what you mean to say!

 

Breath vs. Breathe

The verb breathe means to inhale and exhale. “Just breathe in that fresh mountain air!”

The noun breath means the air that was expelled, or can be used to refer to life or vitality. “My grandkids are a breath of fresh air around this lonely apartment.”

 

Lose vs. Loose

Lose is always a verb meaning to find yourself without something, or to fail, as in the opposite of win. “I always lose at Mahjong, but at least I don’t lose my temper.”

Loose can be a verb meaning to release or let go, as in, “Loose the bloodhounds!” Or an adjective describing something not secure or put together, “I am just tying up all the loose ends.”

 

Affect vs. Effect

This one can be tricky, as both can be used as either a verb or a noun, and both can be used in multiple ways. The noun part is fairly easy, as affect is rarely used that way outside the field of psychology. Here’s a rule of thumb to help when you’re using one or the other as a verb:

Affect is more Active. The subject is doing something to cause a reaction. “Her mood affected the whole room.” “That cold snap really affected the my neighbor’s garden.”

Effect is more passive. It’s the result of something else. Or the power to produce results itself. “His speech had no effect on his audience. The video presentation finally produced the desired effect.”

 

Accept vs. Except

To accept means to agree or submit to receiving something, except means everything but that. “She gratefully accepted the award. She was ready for any outcome… except that!”

Side note: Expecially… what is this? It is not a word. Look up Mr. Rogers and his world of make believe inventor friend, Cornflake S. Pecially. I’ve always remembered this is an S not the X so many say because of that little rodent.

 

Hone in vs. Home in

To hone means to sharpen something, like an axe. Or your writing skills. To home, usually to home in on something, means to go home, or direct something to a precise point. Like a homing device. Or a pigeon. “He really homed in on their fears and created a panic.”

 

Defuse vs. Diffuse

I usually see this misused when trying to use the phrase “defuse the situation,” which refers to reducing the tension, or taking the sting out of an intense moment. To defuse is the one you want. Just like it looks, you want to de-fuse, or take away the potential catalyst for disaster. Just like defusing a bomb.

Diffuse means to disperse something widely. It can make sense when used in the phrase, “diffuse the situation,” but it means you are somehow spreading out the tension in the air or potential conflict rather than removing the threat through humor or some other strategy. It’s better used elsewhere.

 

Of vs. Have

Should have not should of, would have not would of. Could have not could of. Or should’ve, would’ve and could’ve work too!

 

 

Behind the Book: All of Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Ramez Qureshi (Part 2)

This is the second in a two-part series. if you missed part 1, click here!

Welcome back! Last month I promised I’d get down and dirty with prepress details and insights when working with traditional print houses. Depending on your book, it may make more sense for you to self-publish and use a print-on-demand service like Lulu, or Amazon’s CreateSpace, but for the first editions of All of Yesterday’s Tomorrows, we were on a mission to create a limited release hardcover that felt unique and had character, an artifact that Ramez’s family, friends, and readers could treasure forever. Whether you have written a book and are thinking about self-publishing, or if you are operating an independent publisher, I hope this clarifies some of the mystery behind bringing a book into the world.

As you may recall, we had a last minute print house swap, which led to some cover measurement readjustments. Now this was not only an issue we had to shovel onto our brave jacket designer, Jason Yocum, but I also had to retool the file for the foil stamping on the spine behind the jacket. Fortunately, we only went with a single hit of foil, but if you add stamping to the front cover, be mindful of additional costs.

Foil stamping on the book spine

While we’re on additional costs, are you ready for the big one? Our primary financial surprise came in the form of shipping charges for proofs. Due to some color matching issues, we had to get a second proof of the jacket. Two jacket proofs and one text proof cost a mere $5 less than we paid to ship the entire order of finished books! We were aware of the base price for proofs, but we did not know that the shipping would be expedited and the additional cost would be added to our invoice. If you’re on a budget and not crunched for time, you’d be wise to ask for more shipping options on your proofs.

Jacket Proofs
The difference is so slight, yet so critical!

Another thing to remember is that proofs are the very last line of defense, so do your side-by-side comparisons and knock out all those edits before you send those final files to the printers! We’ll be happy to take care of this for you—our rates are right there on our homepage. This is an important detail, because both printers and eBook converters will charge for additional edits, and those rates are nowhere near as reasonable as ours!

Digital editions are somewhat less complicated during these stages, but that doesn’t mean they require less attention. What’s that? Did I just hear you say, “But Josh, I’m not going to release an eBook?” Let me stop you right there. I don’t care how much of a physical book purist you are, you aren’t the one who will be buying all of your books (I hope), so offer eBooks to your readers. Still not convinced? Digital books are a necessity for a lot of people with disabilities, and are significantly cheaper, which is great for folks with limited incomes. Even if you’re a heartless bastard, you can’t deny that a bigger audience pool equals more potential readers, and why publish if you don’t want readers?

If that last part applies, maybe we can work on you being less of a heartless bastard in a future post…

Until then, BACK TO EBOOKS! There are several DIY options for eBook conversion, such as Calibre, but these programs are notorious for their steep learning curves, so don’t even click that link if you struggle with everyday apps. If you’re feeling bold and have a simple layout, Bookow has an automated eBook layout program that appears easier to navigate than most, but if you have any specific layout elements in mind, you’ll want some human input. Fortunately, you can get an eBook conversion done for as low as $200, just make sure you’re getting both .mobi and .epub formats. Remember Bookow? They offer custom formatting from $250, but ultimately we went with Bookmobile because of the relatively complex nature of poetry formatting. Hot tip—poetry eBook conversions cost more due to this complexity. Our eBooks came out slick thanks to Arna & the crew at Bookmobile, and I fully endorse both their work and their customer service!

As soon as you have a manuscript that’s ready to publish, it’s time to also start thinking about high-resolution file formatting for both print and digital. Once  you are in contact with your printer and eBook converter, start asking questions about files. If you’re not familiar with the deep and varied range of options available within PDF files, brace yourself, because both formats require specific types of PDFs with fonts embedded. Get measurements for EVERYTHING. Find out what file types each company needs for images and text. Our eBook cover had to be at least 300 dpi and a minimum height of 2560 pixels, so keep this in mind when you’re sourcing cover art as well! If you haven’t had any experience with digital design, you might be better off hiring someone to handle this for you.

At the very least, I absolutely recommend hiring a designer for the cover. This is one of the most discussed topics I’ve ever seen in the worlds of self and indie publishing, and while anyone can slap a title and author name on a stunning piece of art, that usually doesn’t make for a great book cover. Design as a trade has been so diminished by the wide availability of programs like Photoshop and even the MS Office Suite, that anyone who can navigate a computer thinks it’s as simple as stacking the required layers and making the text readable. I assure you, fellow do-it-yourselfer, that a trained designer has an understanding of how and why visual elements work that most of us couldn’t hope to grasp. Give them your money, it will absolutely help you sell books. The same suggestion applies to cover artwork. Self-publishing is plagued by bad book covers, and I’m willing to bet more than a few outstanding authors have missed their shot because despite what we’re taught, we judge books by their covers.

Are you forgetting anything?

Did you buy ISBN’s? You’ll need these before you can finish your cover and your title page, so get these early. You can only get them from Bowker and they’re not cheap. Buy a pack if you can, because your eBook will need its own number as well.

Did you get a barcode? There are lots of options out there, but I’ll mention Bookow again because we used their killer barcode generator. These barcodes meet all retailer requirements, are high-resolution, and the generator is free! Once I tested ours out, I made a donation because Steve at Bookow was super helpful when I inquired about poetry formatting, and this utility is just so good, you’ll feel like you’re stealing if you get these barcodes for free!

Want your book in the Library of Congress? Of course you do! You’ll need to submit some information to their website before you send your final files to your printer and digital converter, as your PCN number will go on the publication data page. It’s a little confusing, but read the instructions carefully and you’ll have it in no time.

There’s a lot to this process, so if you have any additional questions, I’m happy to answer them in the comments!

Now that you know all the details that made this book a reality, get a copy for yourself!

Buy direct from Bedlam Publishing
or
Buy on Amazon

Behind the Book: All of Yesterday’s Tomorrows by Ramez Qureshi (Part 1)

We at The LetterWorks were recently involved in the publication of the first book by Bedlam Publishing, an indie publisher and sister company to TLW. (Full disclosure: I’m the Editor-in-Chief over there!) That book is Ramez Qureshi’s All of Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Collected Poems, and I wanted to take this opportunity to discuss some of the behind-the-scenes action that we don’t often consider when reading, writing, or even editing these wondrous little artifacts we call books.

It all started with the pitch. Bedlam doesn’t typically consider book pitches, as we are a tiny, D.I.Y. operation with a budget equivalent to the contents of the space beneath your couch cushions. Under normal circumstances, we can’t afford the cost of printing … but this was no normal circumstance. Writer, modern thinker, and all around top-notch individual, Ali Eteraz (whom we published in the first issue of our digital art/lit magazine, Loud Zoo in 2014), reached out to us with a poet, a vision, and a budget. We were definitely interested, and once he told us about Ramez and sent us a selection of his work, we were on board.

Ramez Qureshi
Ramez Qureshi

Ramez Qureshi was an astounding person. Both brilliant and compassionate, he earned his master’s degree at the age of 19 from the University of Pennsylvania and tutored underprivileged children in the area while in school. He was an avid reader and loved the arts profoundly. In addition to poetry, he wrote and published several critiques of books and gallery shows. Shortly after his college graduation, he was diagnosed with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, and spent time in and out of institutions. Through his struggles, Ramez held tight to his love of poetry, and those closest to him have stated that poetry and the poets he befriended through his online and local communities kept him alive for a number of years. The world lost Ramez in March of 2001, a victim of suicide spurred by his illness.

Ramez’s family made attempts to publish his work over the years, and though progress was made, nothing quite panned out. When Ramez’s sister, Sofia,  met Ali, the gears began to turn once more. In the original plan, Ali was to act as the editor, making final decisions on selections and order, as well as writing the introduction. Unfortunately, just as the book was picking up steam, he was sidelined by personal projects and responsibilities, and had to walk away. After discussion with Ramez’s family, it was decided that we would proceed and I would take on a more active role. Nikki Moen and Catherine Foster (who pulls double-duty, working at Bedlam and The LetterWorks) jumped in to read through the thousands of pieces and start deciding which ones would make the cut.

At this point, Catherine’s role expanded into The LetterWorks territory, as Ramez’s family had a box of handwritten pieces that they wanted transcribed and considered for the collection as well. This box of poems doubled our pool, but Catherine worked dutifully and had them transcribed before we knew it! Attention: writers who love to compose longhand, we can help with those stacks of stories you don’t know what to do with!

As things started firming up, Nikki, Catherine, Sofia, and I went on a mission to find the perfect cover art. We scoured the web, reached out to artist friends, and passed images back and forth until we saw “Cosmic Love 1” by Artem Mirolevich on the fine art website saatchiart.com. When Sofia shared a dream she had had about an “art office” that was promoting an artist who used a parachute in his work, we knew we had it. Was it meant to be? Look at this cover and tell me it wasn’t!

All of Yesterday's Tomorrows cover
All of Yesterday’s Tomorrows cover

We hired the incomparable Jason Yocum to design the jacket, and he was a joy to work with, even when we had to switch print houses at the last minute, requiring all sorts of measurement adjustments. (Thanks ‘n’ sorry, Jason!)

Wait a minute, did you just say you switched print houses … at the last minute??

That is correct. After working out the numerous details of production with [NAME REDACTED], there was a sharp and inexplicable price increase. When I politely inquired about said increase, I was met with silence. Ghosted by the print shop … So, I went back to my bookshelf and noticed that some of the best looking tomes from small presses had come from Maple Press in York, Pennsylvania. I reached out, got a quote, and we were back in business!

I highly recommend Maple Press if you’re looking to produce a book that has more character than your average print-on-demand book. Ramez’s family wanted something that looked and felt special, so we opted for a short-run of hardcovers with heavy, off-white, recycled paper with rough edges; which Maple delivered exquisitely. They were easy to work with, always friendly and professional, and, well … look at these books!!

Once we had completed two rounds of voting on which poems were most likely to make a great collection, Sofia consulted Associate Professor of Literature and Visual Studies at NYU Abu Dhabi, Shamoon Zamir. Not only did he help with the final piece selection, he ultimately developed the thematic order of the book. He also made a strong case for the title poem, which we nearly left out. “All of Yesterday’s Tomorrows” (the poem) is a forty-plus page experimental behemoth that explores Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, a Marxism conference, the Popol Vuh, statements made at the end of relationships, and somehow, quite a bit more. Ramez himself described the piece as “a philosophical meditation on the dialectics of arts and politics.” You may understand our hesitation to include such an extensive, experimental piece, but of course Shamoon was correct. We placed it at the end of the book, and while it’s not a light read, it is certainly Ramez’s most ambitious work. It evokes a tangible movement, and while you may not know where it’s taking you, its pull is undeniable.

We had a table of contents. We had a cover. We thought we were close. We had no idea…

Check in next time for Part 2, in which I get detailed about the prepress process in hopes of helping prospective publishers avoid some of the headaches and financial missteps we faced! In the meantime, you can buy Ramez’s wonderful book in the special edition hardcover (includes free eBook!), or all digital formats!

Buy direct from Bedlam Publishing
or
Buy on Amazon

The Ruthless Side of Storytelling

Ira Glass is one of the most recognized voices in radio. He’s the man behind This American Life, which has landed no fewer than six Peabody Awards, among other accolades and nominations. Glass has spent the last 30 years of his career as reporter and host for numerous NPR programs and was nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming. He is known for his thoughtful, relatable stories and was acknowledged for setting the aesthetic standard for nonfiction programming in both radio and television when awarded the Edward R. Murrow award. What is it about Glass that captivates audiences so effectively? Let’s take a look at two undervalued bits of wisdom from this four-part interview shared on YouTube.

1.      Finding the Right Story

 

“Often the amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story… if someone wants to do creative work, you have to set aside just as much time for the looking for stories.”

–Ira Glass

 

Did you hear that? Just as much time needs to be set aside for finding the story for TV or radio. Maybe not in exactly the same ratio, but this counsel is so relevant and necessary in the lives of so many writers, both fiction and nonfiction. It takes time to really find the right story to tell, and it’s important not to be discouraged every time you hit a dead end. That’s just the way this works! Ira admits, “between  half to one-third of everything we try, we go out, we get the tape, and then we kill it…I think that not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” I’d like to add that this time spent on odds and ends that don’t pan out is not time wasted. All of that work, every interview, paragraph, and character sketch is just making you better at what you do. It’s an essential part of the creative process.

 

“… failure is a big part of success… you’re going to run into a ton of stuff and it’s going to go nowhere, and you should be happy about that.”

–Ira Glass

 

Why would we be happy about that? Because it means we’re doing it right. You have this lightning bolt idea, but toss it around, do the research, spend some time on it, and ultimately realize there are some key flaws and it’s not going to take shape the way you need it to. It’s okay to let that idea die! There’s a reason the age-old adage, “kill your darlings,” never goes away. It’s just a fact of creating good art. The key is knowing when to quit. Stop shoving effort into a blah story. Be encouraged by those discarded scraps of Not Quite. They are freeing you up to pursue something much better. Just keep looking, keep showing up and doing the work and you will be on the road to creating something special.

 

“You will be fierce. You will be a warrior. And you will make things you know in your heart aren’t as good as you want them to be. And you will just make one after the other.”

–Ira Glass

 

2.     Ruthless Editing

 

“You have to be, like a killer about getting rid of the boring parts and getting right to the parts that are getting to your heart, and you have to be, you know, just ruthless if anything is going to be good.”

– Ira Glass

 

You’ve found the right story to tell? Fantastic! Don’t hang up your machete. The savage work has just begun. Create and stitch and solder together your anecdotes, reflections, and revelations. Then get brutal. You will have to make tough choices about what needs to be there, and what is a distraction.

 

“Things that are really good are good because people are being really, really tough, and you’re going to be really tough.”

–Ira Glass

 

Evaluate the purpose and power of each part of your manuscript, and if in doubt, cut it out. Read it again. Does something new stand out? It is surprising how much impact is made when you’ve left only what’s most meaningful. If it’s causing your work to lose focus or spin off kilter, it’s got to go. It can be hard to see your work objectively, which is why I recommend letting it rest before diving in with the carving knife. If despite all this you know you’ve got a story, you’ve cut what you could but still aren’t satisfied; consider hiring an editor to point out the areas that need work.

 

“You don’t want to be making mediocre stuff… that’s not why anyone gets into this. The only reason why you want to do this is because you want to make something that’s really memorable…”

–Ira Glass

 

Your Editor is not the Bad Guy

 

Red ink bleeds across the page. Hard questions scrawled down the margins. Rewrite this whole passage? Really? Sometimes confronting your work after a thorough edit can be as daunting as running into Darth Vader in a dark alley.

 

“Editing might be a bloody trade, but knives aren’t the exclusive property of butchers. Surgeons use them too.” – Blake Morrison

 

Your Han Solo self might not think your beloved Millennium Falcon is in any need of repair, but you can’t see the entire ship from the cockpit. Here’s the thing: our minds see and feel the whole picture, and it’s incredibly important to recognize the many mini-jumps your brain makes when reading your own text that will be impossible for the reader to replicate. You know the protagonist inside and out, and it can be challenging to see where you’ve misled readers by providing incomplete or inaccurate information. You know it’s supposed to say, “He dashed over the log…” and your brain may not flag you that it actually says, “He dashes over the leg…” because it already knows what it should be. That’s what your editor is there for! Even the best of the best need editors, which is why the acknowledgements of practically every book published are practically gushing with gratitude for their editors!

 

Patrick Ness advises, “Learn to take criticism. Your first draft won’t be perfect, and it’s damaging to the book to think that it is. Every great book you’ve ever read has been rewritten a dozen times. This is the hardest thing to learn (trust me), but very, very important.”

 

A good editor will jump at light speed on issues with story arc and continuity in a developmental edit, or search with the uncanny precision of a Jedi for errant language in a line edit. The purpose of it all is to make your work the best it can be. At The LetterWorks you’ll find some of the most encouraging and gentle editing services out there, but they also strive for a letter-perfect edit. All the editors are authors themselves and fully understand the incredible honor it is to be entrusted with your younglings! It is precisely for that reason a manuscript may come back with some serious work to be thoughtfully considered and executed.

To reach publication, sometimes to even be considered for publication, your manuscript needs to reach a certain caliber. Even a vigorous plant is sometimes in need of some pruning to really let it shine and flourish. So take courage, and take up that pen. Let your editor be your ally.

May the “fourth” be with you.