During the exchange, which took place on Kindle Boards, I was caught out being knee-jerk defensive over the meaning of a word - and I was a little impolite to boot.
This rather brought me up short. I am somewhat inclined to pontificate (that's what this blog is for, after all), so I need to be called on it from time to time. After all, I am all for definition by consensus and I support rather than resist changes in meaning.
In UK English, hopefully, is used idiomatically to mean 'I hope', as in "hopefully it won't rain tomorrow". People of my parents' generation (including one or both of my parents) are sometimes offended by this, and almost always take a dim view of it. Decimate means to reduce in number by a factor of ten. It is usually used in modern English to mean "destroy", "obliterate" or just "defeat". As far as I'm concerned, that's just fine.
Nonetheless, I did get uppity about "erotica" being used to mean "anything that can cause sexual arousal in some people". I'm well aware that most of the time in English, erotic is used as a fancy synonym for "sexy". And most of the time, I suspect, that usage does no harm to the general (if rather vague) denotation of erotica.
If I got uppity, it was not, at the time, justified. But it set me wondering whether there were situations where defending the nuance between two very similar and highly subjective terms is justifiable. I think it may be that in tagging on Amazon, a case can be made for some sort of moderation of meaning. I suggest that in tagging a book I'm not just saying what I think of it - as I would if I used the same term in a review. The act of tagging is one of communicating - of suggesting, proposing, offering - the content of a novel to other potential readers.
If I tag Judy Blume's Forever as "erotica" because it contains a positively portrayed sex scene, then I am doing a disservice to Ms Blume, all her readers all her potential readers. Because her book is not about sex. Nor is it any kind of exploration of the psychological, emotional, physical or sentimental content of sex, even though each of those does feature. I am also doing a disservice to all those readers who are looking for "sex presented in a literary context as opposed to explicit pulp titillation" - the former I would describe as erotica, the latter I would describe as porn.
Thinking about this post, I began to realize just how difficult it would be, even dealing with tags that are not already muddied with the coyness derived from taboo. If you tag a book "horror" because you find it horrifying, someone else tags it "violence" because although they were not horrified, they were aware of a level of violence that they felt needed signaling. I for one don't find "Lady Chatterley's Lover" either erotic or sexy. I believe it is classed as the former because it was written by an established writer of literary fiction, but contains sexual words. Which would show that the traditional means of classification is itself corrupted with prejudice and favour.
On the whole, in the end, I come down in favour of consensus definition. At least on the Amazon page you can see how many times it has been tagged with a given word. I do worry that most of what is tagged as "erotica" is actually porn - Amazon.com has 2500 titles tagged as "porn", but over 24000 tagged as "erotica". Those numbers aren't enough to convince me that my understanding of the meaning of erotica is wrong (or even that its meaning is changing). They tell me that the American public is more comfortable buying something labeled "erotica" than something labeled "porn". Valuable information in my opinion.
For your consideration, I have linked to a collection of stories that is resolutely "erotica" in the Old Skool sense.
What you get is noir, firmly in the tradition of the Maltese Falcon or Key Largo - the first person style has Chandler's flair and Hammett's grit. Even so, Dennis manages to deliver something that is in the present, something that is colourful, surprising and in places, new - all the while preserving the elements that make the 'hard boiled detective mystery': the slang, the violence, the drama.
I don't want to reveal anything about the story - it has so much in it, in terms of mystery and surprise; the tension drives you to read more - and I advise sitting down with a big glass of whiskey and reading aloud. In the end I had to stop editing and read through to the end, because I kept finding myself reading three or four pages without looking for faults.
Three words: read this book.
* - rule four states that whenever you are looking for something of which there may be many, but hard to find, such as coins down the back of the sofa, a particular type of Lego brick or a shard from the glass you just broke, there will always be one more that you missed.
Authors, and those, like me, providing services to authors, need to keep a hand on their web-rep. Anyone who is interested in you is going to Google you. As an author, they want to know more about you, because they're curious ... or ... creepy. As an editor, authors want some bona fides - they want to know you aren't a scam.
I added a new page to my commercial website. I call the page Harry Dewulf on the web, and I've put links on it to sites that you might find if you Google me. This is partly because I think it is a good idea. It's partly because I found out this morning that way back in march I got another letter published in my favourite periodical, New Scientist. You can go read it here.
p.s. I really love M.I.A. right now.
Coined by French author and critic Roland Barthes, semiotics is the study of the language of signs - and by signs, he means nonverbal clues.
In all nonverbal media (the graphic arts, theatre, film and television), semiotics is restricted to the use of visual clues that give you essential information, typically about character, setting or location. Barthes gives the example from professional wrestling, of how to recognise the good guy and the bad guy:
The good guy wears a mask that covers his upper face and (sometimes) his hair. The bad guy wears a mask that covers his whole face and head. Colour clues are also given - greens, blues, yellows, gold and white are used by good guys, combinations including black and red are used by the bad guys. (I don't watch professional wrestling but I'd be interested to learn if these signs still exist).
In film, he gives the example of how to recognise an ancient Roman (and distinguish him from and ancient Greek). Both Romans and Greeks in film wear togas, but Romans Have Fringes. This sign is so strong that even in recent years, film-makers have a hard time breaking free of it.
In verbal media, signs go under another name: symbolism.
Symbolism in literature is the use of visual clues, in the same way as in other media, however in literature it can go much further. From using an animal emblem for a character, through using repeated allusions to rotation, circles and wheels throughout your text to fix the idea of the Wheel of Fortune, semiotics in literature is rich and almost infinite in potential.
Arguably, the use of poetic imagery in literature is a subtle form of semiotics, as are analogy, simile and metaphor.
The author should therefore have a heightened awareness of words that have visual connotations. I just came across a borderline usage of "thundrous*" for a sound. Thundrous is normally a rolling, rumbling sound, but is often (carelessly IMO) used to mean "very loud".
'The thundrous beating of the rain on the tin roof' is one of those weird ones where while it isn't wrong, by associating it with rain, you activate the visual component - thunder makes you think of the sky when it thunders, of the sudden arrival of darkness, and clouds, dark with rain, heavy and pendulous... easy tiger. This might be what the author intended but in this case I didn't think so.
* I prefer the often supposed incorrect alternative spelling "thundrous". I think it should be encouraged. Your spell checker will tell you it is thunderous. Along with murdrous and wondrous.
Writers who are aware of this kind of thing can achieve extraordinary effects on their readers - some of the time. Attention and perception are tricky, and your subtly misleading paragraph that will be understood quite differently the second time it is read may fail completely if the reader is distracted halfway through. Poetry, of course, relies on this kind of thing, and the writer would be well advised to spend some time with the masters. Donne, Marvell, Coleridge and Pope all display some skill at this (the links are to my favourites, but not necessarily the best examples of what I'm talking about). The absolute master in English is Shakespeare, who in both poetry and plays constantly peppers the text with both vocabulary and imagery that foreshadows later events without signposting them. Just count how many times blood is mentioned in Macbeth before so much as a drop is spilled - and once the first drop is spilled, how many more...
Mel Comley pointed out that I had made an error when posting about her work a few days ago which I think reveals a very simple but compelling example of perceptual effects. The first two DI Lorne Simpkins novels are called Impeding Justice and Final Justice.
Now go back and read the title of the first one again. I, along with a whole lot of other people, read that as impending until the error was pointed out. I suspect that this is because the second book is called Final. Impending and Final are a natural sequence, so knowing that final is coming, I bet a lot of people will see impending even though impeding is written in big impact caps.
Tangentially - though not off topic - I cannot recommend enough Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind. Not only does it reveal an awful lot about the author, it serves to teach a basic vocabulary of perception, and alert you to the way that you deceive yourself.
In contrast to the romance languages that I translate from, English words frequently select their denotations not only from syntactic modifiers but also from context. Um... in plain English please.
In English, the meaning of a word can be changed not only by the words next to it in a sentence, but also by the situation being described. Examples:
The verb to get is one of my favourite words in any language*. On its own, to get is to obtain or acquire. Consider what happens when you add the preposition on to it:
The cat got on the table.
In this example, to get on is to change physical position, to a position where you are on top of something.
I'm getting on in plastics.
In this example, to get on is to advance your career. In plastics? A little outmoded isn't it?
I'm getting on with my homework.
In this example, you're doing what you are meant to do, rather than procrastinating.
Each time you change the context (cat, plastics, homework), you change the meaning of to get on.
This feature of English - present in other languages but by no means as common** - can make English both very tricky but also very rewarding. When you studied English at school, it is a pretty safe bet that your teacher encouraged you to avoid get, and employ something more explicit or more interesting instead (see my previous post on "said"). They may even have tried to encourage you to vary your vocabulary for variation's sake. In writing, this is not a good thing. English reads better if you take advantage of the metamorphic nature of words like get, and only use something more specific when you really need it.
In their defence, I don't think your teachers were wrong to tell you to do it, but they should have told you that the purpose of the exercise was to expand your vocabulary, but that slavishly trolling the thesaurus is not how to write good prose.
* my absolute favourite word is causa in Latin. That is how much of a geek I am.
** feel free to cite examples of languages that I don't know where this is as common as in English; I'd love to know.
Part 2: What to Expect from an Editor
All editors are not alike. Each will have his preferred methodology. Each will have strengths and weaknesses, just like a writer. I am aware that there are editors whose principle is that there are a few "standard" ways of writing a good (or saleable) book, and they will coerce your text into meeting the standard. This may well suit you. One might be tempted to divide editors into those who edit to create a commercial success and those who edit to help the writer improve his work. This would be wrong for a couple of reasons. Firstly, commercial success is too much of a chimera for an editor to be able to suggest a few changes to get. Secondly, editors are trying to make a living too. Thirdly, the landscape of the marketplace is changing due to e-publishing, and I hope ... expect that the change will favour authors' individuality. (More about this another time.)
As I intimated in Part 1, what a writer ought to get by working with an editor is a better book.
I'm going into opinion here - so don't hesitate to disagree, especially if you are an editor. An editor needs to be a rigorous, skilled critic, and an ally. Here are the things I think an editor must provide:
- Detailed analysis of the flaws in your text, and some suggestions as to how to correct the flaws
- Analysis of opportunities for improvement of your text. Opportunities are not missing elements (those come under flaws). Your editor must be able to show you where and how you can make additions to your narrative that will make it stronger.
- A view of the possibility of favourable or unfavourable comparison with other books or writers, and suggestions of how to deal with this. This is especially important for new writers, but becoming less important for writers with a well established style in the indie market.
- Mentoring. While a master gives instruction, a mentor shows you how to improve yourself. The best editors do this for their writers. And all writers can improve. I think an editor should be able to give advice and make suggestions that will help the author to write better next time.
I think the editor's job is to help the author to improve his book, not to correct the author's book for him.
I also like to provide a summary of my editorial notes. This includes a short literary analysis, and details of any general issues that I think the author needs to address. This is valuable because it is hard for the author to get a view of any global issues when reading notes in the margin. I also like to chat with authors (via Skype call) - though I understand entirely why this is not possible for other editors.
Part 1: What makes an Editor
What is a Good Book? I'm sure the reply is pretty much unanimous: a good book is subjective, personal. But just as I can tell a good violinist from a bad one, although I know nothing about playing the violin, so most people can recognize a bad book. So can most people be editors? I don't think so. Most people can be proofreaders*, however.
Who is a good editor? Derek Prior and I both studied drama theory, and in the course of our studies learned the craft of textual analysis. Textual analysis arises on the one hand from the kind of literary criticism developed by F. R. Leavis and his contemporaries, and on the other hand from the desire to apply scientific rigour to the study of literature. I have applied textual analysis in every type of work and writing that I have done**. A good editor needs to be able to combine his analytic skill with a deep understanding of what makes a story work.
What makes a story work? This is not as hard to pin down as what makes a good book, because what makes a story work is contextual rather than subjective. I have read manuscripts that contain no story - just a series of related events. Sometimes this results from the naturalistic fallacy (that I will discuss another time), sometimes just from narrative incompetence. Narrative incompetence is the inability to tell a story. As long as your manuscript features a story, your story can be made to work. How to make it work means getting down to the nuts and bolts of narrative mechanics, and putting right what is obviously wrong. Sometimes an editor's work is limited to this, but this alone does not make a good editor.
So what makes a good editor? A good editor needs to know what makes a good writer. After all, an editor needs clients, and a client who is a good writer will be good publicity for an editor. So a good editor will be able to show a writer not only how to improve his book, but how to become a better writer.
* The techie culture surrounding indie publishing has made "beta-reader" the favoured term. Literally, 'proof read' means 'test read'. A proofreader is someone who reads as if they are the intended reader, whether for pleasure, information, study, who is able so state, thereafter, whether the book met their need.
** In French academia, there is a vast, rich, and mostly redundant vocabulary of technical terms that can be applied in textual analysis. I try to steer clear of this kind of thing, though some of the terms are indispensable.
Broadly speaking, nonliterals can be divided into two categories, which, whatever you call them, are either local or general. Local nonliterals are those confined to single phrase or sentence, and the most familiar of these are simile and metaphor.
This includes everything from the mildly metaphorical - 'we're having mild weather' - through improbable simile - 'as obvious as a lead brick in a bowl of rice pudding' - to extreme mixed metaphor - 'his whole body was a sword which sang like a ribbon in the wind'.
General nonliterals are those that spread through a whole paragraph or engulf an entire novel. Symbolism is the most frequently named of these, and - though it's forms can be as myriad as your imagination - is one of the easiest to describe. Symbolism is the repeated use of symbols to evoke or enhance a particular theme or characteristic. Symbols are generally images but sometimes gestures or sounds, which carry a specific meaning. Imagery can be used symbolically, through repetition, such as associating a particular symbol with a particular character or type of event.
I have so much material on this stuff that I will be posting examples of the above, and more, in future posts. I had meant to devote this post to the following:
Those who know their Latin will know that classical Latin is a vocab-poor language. There are very few actual words in it, compared with modern languages. This is because the authors of the Classical Roman period deliberately restricted themselves to words of known Latin origin when writing and orating. So, when they had to describe a concept for which there was no single word, rather than neologising, they would prefer to use metaphor. A familiar example might be campus martius - a battlefield (also a fairly ubiquitous place name). Campus is a field, martius "of Mars" (the Romans' god of war). Indeed Caesar uses the this and that of Mars to describe all sorts of military matters, and I remember an example (those more learned than me can perhaps confirm whether it is Caesar or someone else) describing 'Mars moving among the armies on the field' as a way to convey the currents of activity on the battlefield.
I gave the example mild above because the expression mild weather, and its much less used counterpart inclement weather are fine examples of unwitting metaphor. This usage of mild in modern English is so familiar that it doesn't occur to most of us, meteorological anthropomorphism notwithstanding, that it is a metaphor. But mild means gentle, kind or merciful.
We generally describe as cliché*, any simile or metaphor that is so familiar that we tend to use it automatically ('rooted to the spot'), however it isn't general used for those single word examples like mild that have become so familiar (Doug Harper says that the earliest usage for weather is 14th century).
The writer ought to be aware of when he is using them. The editor has to be sensitive to every single one.
*I will be coming back to this
Yes, I am really pleased with 'meteorological anthropomorphism notwithstanding' !
Dialogue is pretty easy to invent. Most people spend plenty of time imagining future conversations and recalling past ones. It's a short step to imagining conversations between characters. It's when it comes to writing them down that difficulties arise.
Various style guides will give you invaluable aid in laying out your dialogue* on the page, and there are all sorts of conventions about acceptable proportions when combining speech and non-speech in the same paragraph and what-have-you.
The most common difficulty seems to lie in maintaining the pace and flow of a natural conversation when reading, while at the same time giving indications of tone, gesture and other nonverbal communication, not to mention ensuring that the reader doesn't get confused as to who is speaking.
In French, there is a convention which while it is somewhat vertigo-inducing the first time, does away very nicely with all these problems at once:
Armand and Philippe were sitting outside their favorite café on the Champs-Elysées as usual when their attention was caught by the appearance of an elderly lady with a small dog, followed closely by a leggy blonde with a huge alsatian.
Writing in English, you have to say who said what and how they said it.
Now a whole lot of you will have been enjoined by your English teachers to avoid "said", and use something "more interesting" or "more descriptive". Others will have told you to "use adverbs".
"They are together, those two, do you think?" Asked Armand.
"I do not think, Armand my friend, I only observe," Philippe replied.
"But," Armand continued in a gently teasing tone, "what do you observe, Philippe my old chum?"
"Sultan and César are taking their ladies to the park," Philippe smugly concluded.
How much do those complements really add? We know the first line is a question, even without the questionmark. What Philippe says can only be a reply, Armand then continues his earlier thought and Philippe concludes the dialog with a rather weak joke. These words are almost completely redundant - they are there only to hang something else onto. The first one tells us who speaks first, and the third and fourth enable us to attach some color.
Those aforementioned English teachers would probable have been disappointed that we didn't say inquired, reposted, insisted and declared, but these would have been no less redundant, and more than a little distracting. Indeed, the more you search for alternatives to "said", the more distracting it becomes, and the more your characters sound like schoolgirls in something by Elinor Brent-Dyer or Frank Richards. And not for nothing, since Frank Richards often used this for comic effect, though he was equally capable when using plain old said with adverbs. Notice especially the use of "repeated" in the second example, and why it isn't redundant.
So here at last are Philippe and Armand as I originally wrote them:
Armand and Philippe were sitting as usual outside their favorite café on the Champs-Elysées when their attention was caught by the appearance of an elderly lady with a small dog, followed closely by a leggy blonde with a huge alsatian.
"They are together, those two, do you think?" said Armand.
"I do not think, Armand my friend, I only observe,"
"But," Armand leaned forward, with the beginning of a smile, "what do you observe, Philippe my old chum?"
"Sultan and César are taking their ladies to the park."
In conclusion, if conclusion there be, I think there is a place where Janet can justifiably expostulate, but much of the time nametagging isn't even necessary, and when it is, said will generally do.
* I use the UK spelling to differentiate between: dialogue - discussion or conversation and a dialog: an educational roleplaying exercise or political/diplomatic exchange. This may be a little fussy of me but it acts as a landmark.
First time writers who know their story and characters well, and want to get to grips with the story, and want to get to the end of the book, are making a strong start. However the same writers can and will make a whole range of errors because of this strong start.
To assume is to take something to be so without evidence. Assumption (in spite of what your management training textbook might have told you) is not always bad. Indeed for a creative writer it is often essential. However there are certain assumptions that are almost indistinguishable from hope.
The author who wants to get to grips with his story as fast as possible will often assume that the reader will recognize the world of the book, and consequently he will forego description. Knowing his characters and locations well, he will omit to portray them to the reader - especially since he may find this a tedious distraction from moving the plot along.
If the characters are well developed in the author's mind, then by the end of the story the reader will have got to know them quite well - though not without a little frustration. If they are not well developed ...
Of course, exactly the same effect can arise when the author has done no preparation at all in conceiving characters and locations.
Literary commentary that purports to tell you how to write well is always open to debate, disagreement and controversy. A good storyteller can make almost anything work, and anything described as a pitfall might, in the hands of a skillful writer, be viewed as a strength. This disclaimer notwithstanding, the new writer would do well to seek to develop his skill by understanding his weakness.
I got interested in the indie stuff largely thanks to Derek, who asked me to review some books for his Kindle boards review site (see the lynx on the right), and then started forwarding some editing work to me when he was overloaded with requests for editing himself.
It is more fun than traditional editing - basically you have to work fast and cheap.
Mainly this post lets me use the word "pleonasm".