Tag Archives: Writing

When Good Writing is Bad

“This is an engaging read, but can you revise it to sound more academic?”

Most of us want to read writing I describe as demonstrating the Five Cs: clear, concise, compelling, correct, and complete. I tell my students and creative writing seminars to resist overwriting. Avoid affected academic prose, with words you’d never use in a passionate, but professional, conversation with colleagues. Stop trying to adhere to high school writing “rules” that generate more fluff and filler than refined thought.

Imagine my disappointment when a journal editor said, “You should being with, ‘In this paper we…’ and then outline your points. Frame it, state it, repeat it.”

Wow. If ever there was bad writing advice, that would be it. Imagine a novel written with that structure:

In this novel we will follow the actions of Jane Eyre, though childhood to marriage. The themes explored include….

If your writing has to be “framed” beyond basic foreshadowing, you write weak prose. Fix it. Punch up the paragraphs and streamline the sentences. We don’t want a world of five-paragraph SAT-ready essays that only impress a handful of English teachers and test scorers.

Academic writing represents the worst writing a reader must endure. Often pretentious and inefficient, we should leave the formulas behind and break free from the tyranny of “rules” that foster creating complicated compositions with little content. Write with passion and flare. Compel your readers to move from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph.

When I tell students to be concise, I explain this does not mean leaving behind a good stylistic twist. A student recently mentioned that I advised parallel construction and repetition, devices other writing instructors warned against. They preferred “variation” of words, so every “said” in an essay became a sighed, yelled, asserted, declared or other action.

“What about Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech?” I asked. “The title phrase appears nine times, with two additional variations. Does that make it bad writing?”

“It breaks the rules,” the student asserted.

I explained that some “extra words” and “repetition” strengthen writing. That’s why we like rhyming poetry and alliteration as readers, especially as children unaware of artificial rules. Give me Dr. Seuss over most modern free-form poetry any day. Learning when to repeat, and why to repeat, takes practice.

One rule should guide writing, including academic writing: Engage the reader. If you fail to engage the reader, nothing else matters. The reader honors you; treat the reader with respect. Drop the annoying academic filler, weak transitions, and empty academese. The “rules” about framing, stating, and summarizing help students reach arbitrary word counts, but they do not encourage good writing.

Academic writing treats readers with condescension and bores them with the routine. Being able to engage in “academic discourse” might earn a student better grades or help a scholar publish research, but it is a lamentable metric by which to measure writing ability.

Yet, I did rewrite the academic paper, because I must. It is now properly dreadful.

Reviewing a Book, Part I

Book reviews allow us to share more than our opinions about specific books or authors: they are an opportunity to defend what we consider the qualities a good book should have, while often giving us easy examples of the traits a book should not posses. A well written review offers a lesson to writers and readers.

In this first part of “Reviewing a Book” we examine basic school book review assignments and promotional marketing reviews. Our second part will explore impartial reviews such as those appearing in newspapers and magazines. Some college courses also encourage students to compose long-form impartial reviews.

Beginning with Book Reports

Our first experiences with writing about books is the elementary school book report. The genre is the simplest form of a review. Consider one possible assignment outline for young students:

  • Title
  • Author
  • Setting
  • Protagonist(s)
  • Antagonist(s)
  • Other Characters
  • Summary
  • Why I would or would not recommend this book.

In the lower elementary grades, students might complete a basic form with spaces for the required information. Teachers want students to develop the ability to identify elements of narratives. Early reviews reflect this emphasis on identification. Once students can identify narrative elements, teachers encourage more advanced comprehension and application activities.

Once you can identify the role characters play within a narrative, you are ready to explore the lessons taught by the choices characters make. In upper elementary grades and middle school, students begin to compose five-paragraph reviews exploring the themes and theses of books. The theme of a work is often a generalization. A thesis is the core argument of a work.

Theme: A family is more than genetic inheritance.

Thesis: An adopted child is as much a part of a loving family as any child might be.

Appreciating the relationship between a theme and the thesis of a work helps you understand why a writer makes certain choices when developing a plot. Exploring such complex concepts as “theme” requires more than a simple fill-in-the-blanks approach.

The (infamous) standard school essay format leads to a review that might be structured according to this model from the state of New York (http://www.nysedregents.org):

Catchy Review Title

Paragraph 1: Introduction of the Review. This paragraph mentions the author and the book title. Indicate your overall recommendation in the first paragraph, which will be rephrased in the conclusion.

Paragraph 2: Summary and Main Characters. Summarize the story and describe the main characters.

Paragraph 3: Favorite Section. Describe the best part of the book, explaining why other readers will enjoy it, without giving away the entire plot. If you are writing a negative review, explain your least favorite part of the book.

Paragraph 4: Lessons Learned. Explain the theme of the story and any lessons that the author wants readers to remember.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion of the Review. The last paragraph should restate if you recommend the book to others or not.

Book reviews expand in detail as we gain experiences as readers and writers, but the underlying structure remains the same. A New York Times book review tells us a bit about the author, the basics about the book, and tries to persuade us to either read or avoid an encounter with the text. The breadth and depth increase, but those elementary school models remind us that most of us have written book reviews.

In high school, book review assignments resemble marketing reviews. Teachers tend to ask students to write about books they enjoyed reading. As a result, the book reviews of high school students read like promotional materials.

Blurbs and Marketing Reviews

If you read dust jacket endorsements, known as cover blurbs, you are familiar with the shortest form of marketing review. A marketing review is meant to sell a book; rarely does a marketing review teach the potential reader a meaningful lesson. Of course, if you do buy a book based solely on blurbs, you do risk learning how useless blurbs are.

Blurbs read like the snippets of movie reviews studios use (often out of context) to promote their films. Hyperbole is the norm in blurbs. “The ‘must-read’ book of the year!” “This book will change your life.” “I had to read it cover to cover. It is impossible to put down this book.” If blurbs were accurate, then every book published would be superior to all previous books. Blurbs are less than 100 words and seldom longer than 50 words.

Marketing reviews are short reviews commissioned by a publisher or author. Some writing groups offer to review member books, so these reviews can be cited in marketing materials. Such reviews are collegial and supportive, rarely examples of detailed critical analysis. However, before dismissing all marketing reviews as useless, appreciate that there is a difference between being supportive and being dishonest. When writing groups review books by members or when an agent asks an author for a review, these reviewers tend do their best to compose honest reviews.

Marketing reviews tend to be less than 750 words. Within the constraints of their purpose, the reviews adhere to the conventions of longer form reviews you might find in newspapers or magazines.

A sample marketing review structure:

Catchy Review Title Review Subtitle

Paragraph 1: Introduction. This paragraph includes short, easily quoted sentences about the best qualities of the book. Mention the author and the title in the middle of the paragraph. The wittier your statements recommending the book, the better in a marketing review.

Paragraphs 2 and 3: Summary. In the summary paragraphs, continue the positive and witty recommendation model. Marketing reviews tend to embrace adjectives and adverbs, without the absurd hyperbole of blurbs. Clichés pepper marketing reviews, but we wish they didn’t. You do not need to write, “The dangerous voyage across Lake Superior during a squall had me on the edge of my seat.” Replace a cliché like “edge of my seat” with more detail to make the marketing review more substantial.

Paragraph 4: Characters. People want to know what makes the main characters compelling. Marketing materials know that people remember characters better than plot points.

Paragraph 5: Promote the Author. Marketing reviews tend to include more promotion of the author than impartial reviews do.

Paragraph 6: Style Points. Because most marketing reviews try to associate an author’s style with his or her biography, praise of the style tends to follow the biographical information. For example: “Drawing on her experience as a surgeon, Dr. Garza vividly describes the operating room scenes. Readers witness the common mistakes surgeons make under pressure, from a firsthand perspective.”

Paragraph 7: Conclusion. Again, the wittier, the better. The first and last paragraphs of a marketing review are the most important because they are meant to be quoted.

If you are asked to write a marketing review, we suggest outlining the review using the above model. A marketing review needs to fit on a page or two. The sentences and the paragraphs are short, allowing them to be quoted. As Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

Part II

In our next post, we will address composing long-form reviews.

Interview with Mystery Writer Brad Geagley

Brad Geagley is the author of two mysteries published by Simon & Schuster: Year of the Hyenas (2005) and Day of the False King (2006).

Brad has recently written and self-published a new, noir thriller, The Stand In, which  appeared on Kindle and eBook in December 2011. The new mystery is set in Hollywood in 1957, is bursting with murder, intrigue and suspense.

As an established author who decided to take self-publishing into his own hands, we’re interviewing Brad about his decision to self-publish ebooks.

What can you tell us about yourself?

I’m a writer.  Baby Boomer.  I worked in the Entertainment Industry for many years as a Producer, ending up as a VP of Production for a firm located in New York City.  Lived down the street from the World Trade Center, and watched the towers fall.  Decided I couldn’t put off my writing career any longer.  Four books published.  One play produced.  I love Ancient Egyptian, French, and American history.  I’m an expert on the 1963 film “Cleopatra” and currently live in Palm Springs, CA.

What can you tell us about your book(s)? We see that you are writing in the noir style of the 1940s. What authors were your inspiration? Are you fan of Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane and other authors from this period and style?

I can’t say that I’m writing in the noir style, though I love Raymond Chandler and, particularly, James M. Cain, who wrote Mildred Pierce and Double Indemnity – what a storyteller!  In fact, the more that I think about it my style is, in this instance, more Cain than Spillane (Ha – I rhymed!). The Stand In is set in Hollywood of the 1950s and we put it into the hard-boiled category for readers because that’s usually the decade when all those kinds of stories occur.  For modern mysteries and thrillers I have one author to whom I always turn for inspiration and guidance – Martin Cruz Smith (who wrote the Gorky Park series, and many other novels.)  Other authors who have influenced me are Shirley Jackson (the so-called Virginia Werewolf of American Fiction), Pearl Buck, Patrick Dennis and Gore Vidal.

Do you use any organizational software for writing?

For screenplays (I teach “Writing for Film” at Mt. San Antonio College) and plays I use Final Draft 8.  All of my prose is composed in Microsoft Word.  That’s about it.

Do you set specific daily hours or word count goals for yourself?

I start work about 8:00 in the morning, having finished the New York Times and the Washington Post, during which I have downed copious amounts of black coffee.  The muse joins me and I work until about 11:30 a.m., then resume work at 1:30 p.m. and work until 4:00.  Sometimes, if I’m on a roll, I work in the evenings, too.  But I try to quit at least an hour before I go to bed, simply because the process of writing jazzes me up so much I can’t go to sleep directly afterward.  I try to write three usable pages per day, though I’ve done as much as thirty.  (That occurs, usually, during the thrilling conclusion of a novel – I’m going so fast I can’t stop.)

Why self-publishing? Was the decision difficult?

I lost my editor, the sublime and legendary Michael Korda, during a palace coup at Simon & Schuster.  The editor to whom I was then assigned was merely an assistant who was promoted to editor-hood during the shake-up.  I wanted to write history, she wanted chick-lit.  The twain did not meet.  The Author’s Guild had been telling us writers for years that, with the Internet, we no longer needed publishers; that we could target our audiences even more specifically than before.  I was also appalled at the amounts of money the publishers collected above and beyond what the author made – a factor of 10 to 1.  I simply want to see if I can do better than that.  If not, then I will go back to traditional publishing.  The Stand In is a bit of an experiment.

What were the challenges of self-publishing?

Basically, the challenges are to replicate the services provided by a publishing house; editing, proof-reading, design, and publicity (with particular emphasis on the latter.)  I’m also consistently surprised at how many legitimate newspapers and book review sites do NOT cover digital literature.  That will change, though, as the sales for downloaded books are now exceeding that of hardbound books.  As with music and movies, the public will soon have to content itself with purchasing an experience, and not a physical object.

Did you use a service to create the various eReader formats?

I used Bookbaby.  Though they’ve been responsive to my inquiries, they offer no way to track the sales, but then neither did Simon & Schuster.  I’ve adopted a “wait and see” policy as to whether or not I will use them again.

Did you hire other experts, such as an editor or cover artist?

I work with a wonderfully gifted online PR/Publicity agent, Ms Cynthia Copeland, who handles all the online promotion for me – I could never navigate the opportunities that she has found and exploited there.  (For anyone looking to hire a publicist/PR person for their book, I enthusiastically recommend her.  She can be contacted at cynthiacopeland@mac.com)  Cynthia, in turn, found a cover artist for me, Augusto Ferriols, who created a wonderful book cover for me.

Some genres are doing better as eBooks than others. How is the mystery genre performing?

I have no idea.  I know that the Authors Guild, when advising self-publication, was speaking at the time about non-fiction.  Fiction still needed shelf-space in a book store.  Now, with all the book chains disappearing, fiction writers need to do all they can to find (or re-find) their audience.  Luckily, I have a following who knows my work and with any luck they have purchased eReaders. Mystery readers are avid readers and intensely loyal.  I love them and know they will find their favorites – of which, I hope, I am one.

How are you handling the marketing? What are you doing personally and what is your agent doing?

I write a blog at www.bradgeagley.net and have developed a surprising amount of followers.  (I have to admit that I was opposed to writing a blog, simply because I thought it took up the time I needed for “real work”.  But I find that writing it is both inspirational and energizing.  It’s far more personal writing, too, and I like that it’s part confessional, part lectern.  Very fun.)

With Cynthia’s help and guidance, I’m on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads and Shelfari. Cynthia lets me know of other writers to follow, other blogs to comment on, and has found sites like yours where I can share a few words with your readers (and hopefully entice them into purchasing The Stand In – its premise being, what would a movie studio do if they found out that the leading man on their very troubled wide-screen production might well be a serial killer?  How would they protect their film, their studio – their leading lady?  The answer, hint hint, is in the title.)

Brad Geagley
On Twitter at @BradGeagley
amazon.com/author/bradgeagley
https://bradgeagley.wordpress.com/

Creating eBooks with Free Tools

The future is digital, no matter how much we might resist. My wife and I will always be “book” readers. You know, those things that collect a bit of dust, take up space, and weigh a lot. There is and always will be something nice about the tactile act of reading a book.

But, I’ve created ebooks and will publish many more in the years ahead. Lately, small groups have been asking if I would present on how to create an ebook.

I can offer whatever training is needed for those interested, but the training isn’t that involved. In fact, the new, easy-to-use tools are why so many of my colleagues in book and magazine design are losing their jobs. Too many of my friends and colleagues didn’t make the transition to online publishing because the skills differ from those we needed in print.

The publishing world is definitely changing. I posted an ebook with a very narrow audience on Amazon and sold over 1000 copies last year. For those of us with decades of experience in the print publishing world, this causes both excitement and anxiety. Truly, anyone can be a publisher.

The tools required for online publishing change based on your distribution goal. Sadly, Amazon, Apple, and other distributors cannot agree on a single file format. The best books are assembled two or three times, so they can be sold via several distribution channels (such as iTunes and Amazon).

The good news: the tools are generally free and easy to use.

To create ePub files that work with almost every eReader sold (except the Kindle), you can use Sigil. This is a free tool from Google and works with Windows, Mac, and Linux. To download Sigil and create your own ePub book: http://code.google.com/p/sigil/downloads/list

The ePub format is used by the B&N Nook, Kobo, Sony, and most other readers. Even the iPad and iPhone can read ePub files, or you can use the free Nook app on the iPad/iPhone to read an ePub.

To create iBook files (which are ePub files with some extra Apple features), you do need a Mac and an iPad. The free creation tool is iBooks Author: http://www.apple.com/ibooks-author/

The iBooks Author creates the best-looking ebooks I’ve seen. My wife and I have used desktop publishing tools since the 1980s, and nothing has ever been as amazing as iBooks Author. (We use InDesign for print publishing and PDF creation, but PDFs are lousy as ebooks.)

Sigil and iBooks Author are no more difficult than using Microsoft Word. The thing to remember is that ebooks are not about pretty designs. The user can change the font, page colors, and more. It frustrates designers, but readers (and many authors) are glad that the focus is on readability and usability.

Amazon makes creating a decent Kindle book a royal pain. You do need to edit the raw HTML, XML, and CSS to make the book work properly. There is an InDesign “plug-in” for Kindle, but our experience is that the files still require hours of hand editing to work on all Kindle models properly. (The black and white Kindle doesn’t even do “grayscale” images well.)

If you want to learn about the Kindle tools:
https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A3IWA2TQYMZ5J6

I have made the journey from etching offset plates to phototypesetting to ePub creation. Each step of the way, the industry changed dramatically. More people can publish today than ever before, yet fewer people are “professionals” in the publishing industry full-time. I’ve also co-owned bookstores and my wife’s sister still owns a small bookshop. It is worse than brutal to be in any business related to publishing.

People ask if I am a “writer” and I always answer, “It depends.” The truth is that today’s writer has to be a designer, editor, agent, and publisher. You learn that the more skills you have, the more likely you are to win freelance contracts or full-time assignments.

Maybe one of my ebooks will do well. Maybe not. But it won’t cost us much to create them and we won’t be “sharing” the money with dozens of experts from a publishing house.

I always recommend hiring an editor or consultant to help with the digital publishing, mainly because we all need an editor. However, even with the cost of professional editing and cover design, the cost to publish has never been this low.

(Of course, we’d appreciate it if you considered working with us!)

Writers: Share Your Story (about Writing)

Are you a writer? We want to share your story (about writing).

Susan and I have been swamped much of the last year, but we really want to make the Tameri blog a great place to learn about the craft of writing and the business of writing. It isn’t enough to be passionate about writing if you want to be a professional. Writing is sometimes the easy part.

Even if you don’t care about making a lot of money, you still need to market a book that you believe is important for others to read. You have to consider how to promote your book and how to promote yourself. That’s part of being a writer in our media-saturated world.

If you are a published writer, and we include self-publishing as published, then we would love to interview you (via email) and share your insights with other writers and aspiring writers. Our goal is to have at least one new Tameri blog entry each week on the “business” of being a writer. We can’t do this without you, though.

We aren’t going to blindly promote your books. Our goal is to share what it means to be a writer. Of course, if you would like us to review a book let us know and Susan or I will read it and post an honest review.

We are looking for the following interview topics:

  • Why I do/do not use an agent — and any experiences with agents.
  • Self-publishing, especially your stories about editors, cover artists, and other specialists you might have hired.
  • Book tours, real and virtual, are always good for a story or two.
  • Interview experiences that went great or not so great.
  • Getting into magazines or publishing on “big” websites.

Our visitors will likely look for your books if you share your stories about the craft and business of writing.

Send a bit about yourself and why you want to be interviewed for the Tameri blog! Write to either susan at tameri.com or cswyatt at tameri.com and we’ll respond as soon as possible. Interviews are promoted on our Facebook page, LinkedIn, and Twitter.