Archives for category: Writing

Kristine Kathryn Rusch tells a cautionary tale of family greed and contractual casualness, all resulting from a novel that almost never saw the light of day. This she labels Part 1 — it’s Part 1 of a 3-part examination of licensing books for television or film. Because, novelist that she is, Ms Rusch adds some suspense by disguising the identity of the book she’s discussing until later in her piece, I will allow you the same discovery process by delaying my response for a few minutes. So don’t read my next paragraph yet: click on the link to her Part I above, and return after reading it. And don’t click on the internal links in her story — that’ll risk giving the game away prematurely.

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Ms Rusch scolds us: “I know that Clancy’s New York publishers made a boatload more money than Clancy ever did. That’s due to traditional publishing contracts. The traditional publisher makes 80-90% on the book; the writer makes 10-20%. The movie studios made a boatload more than the publishers did. And other studios are poised to make even more money.” No doubt Ms Rusch’s assertion about maritime cargo is absolutely true, movie-makers’ boatloads are bigger than publishers’ boatloads which are bigger than authors’ boatloads.* But what it ignores in its best case analysis, is that Putnam’s larger percentage carries all the costs and all the risk of the book’s publishing, while the author’s percentage is guaranteed (if the book sells). Same goes for the movie makers too. Furthermore Putnam publishes more than one book, and they will have lost “boatloads more money” on a bunch of projects we never hear about. If they didn’t make out on one or two books, they’d go out of business.

Now I’m not crying out for sympathy for publishers who make bad bets, but I do think that the implication that this breakdown is somehow “wrong” is the problem with this sort of writing. I’m not sure where Ms Rusch is getting her information about publishing finances, beyond the jejune assumption that all the revenues apart from royalty represent income. The assertion that the traditional publisher makes 80-90% on their books is impossible to bring into alignment with any kind of reality. For starters the publisher gives the bookseller something around 50%, and has to pay something to get the book printed. You might as well complain that the printer only makes 5% while the publisher makes 95%. Once the book has become a bestseller the origination costs become pretty irrelevant having been amortized by the previous sales, and the publisher starts to make money. That’s the conventional reward for risk-taking. And of course when the publisher starts making money so too does the author.

Ms Rusch refers to Tom Clancy as a “Big Name author” in her Part 2, but of course he was a little name, even a no name author, at the time he signed that contract with Naval Institute Press. He may have had a bit of a Name in the insurance sales world, but an unknown author is, surprise, surprise, and unknown author. (By the way, Naval Institute Press doesn’t/didn’t habitually send copies of their books to the White House. Blind luck caused that copy to be sent along and then picked up by the president. If only publishers knew how to make blind luck work for them on a regular basis!)

It took the Naval Institute Press quite a few years to get over the effects of this utterly exceptional success. The book had actually already sold about 20,000 copies (a huge number for a university-press-type publisher) before Reagan implied that he was actually reading a book by picking it up and waving it at reporters as he left the White House for a vacation. This presidential endorsement caused sales to take off. Huge sums of money flowed in to a publishing organization unaccustomed to such a phenomenon. The temptation for managers to think that such success actually has something do with their actions, and the feeling that greater participation in the financial rewards might be nice, are almost impossible to resist. I’ve pointed out before that publishers should deal with printers of like size — so too should they deal with books of like size: a smaller publisher needs non-bestsellers. The trouble here was that though they started off with a like-sized author, the book exploded into a wild success; a success of the sort that even a medium-sized trade house might have struggled to control.

Of course authors really should read, study and think about their contracts before signing them, but if you don’t care too much about money, flying blind may not be very problematic, particularly if, like most books, your’s doesn’t make much impact. The problem here is that someone who didn’t care about money at the outset quickly turned into someone who did care quite a lot, and the head of a family who also cared a lot once they became used to the gravy-train that the book and its sequels turned into. Now everyone is suing everyone else. The way everyone wants to be the only one to enjoy all of it has resulted in the Bleak-House-like consequence that nobody’s able to enjoy any of the money.

Moral: I guess — however hard it may be on your innate modesty, you, author, should always review the contract you sign with your publisher working on the assumption that the book will turn into the wildest of wild successes. The hard part may be avoiding internalizing that assumption, and thus courting devastation when the dumb-born book doesn’t make any bestseller lists.

Not that it has much to do with this cautionary tale, but for the sake of completeness, here’s a link to Ms Rusch’s Part 3. This represents an interesting discussion of the pitfalls of writing the screenplay adaptation for your own (or perhaps any) book. I suppose it’s possible that she’ll eventually do another Part or two, but for those you’re on your own!


*Movie makers’ accounting departments are, unsurprisingly, larger than publishers’ and are more skilled at being able to account for all their projects as making a loss. Thus the last money the publisher (and therefore the author) is likely to receive from the studio is the advance they get up front. A clause claiming you’ll get more when the film starts making profits refers to a moment which such accountants are expert at postponing indefinitely.

Protecting the Right to Organize if you needed to ask (as did I). The National Law Review has a piece about it and its recent passage in the House of Representatives for the second year running. The Senate now takes over, doubtless just to bury it under a mound of filibustering.

This rather underwhelming rallying cry from the Authors Guild carries the inspiring news that it won’t affect your freelance status — I think I’d regard my poor rate of pay as part explanation of my status, and would be more inclined to action if I thought there was any chance of change in monetary status! But one sees what they mean — it’s all about tax forms 1099 or W2. Might we not have been justified in the hope that an organization so named might have been able to express their thoughts a little better. Just inserting the word “tax” would have helped.

There are obviously very widespread implications in the encouragement of collective bargaining, which in principal I support. But if full passage of the PRO Act did come to pass, one consequence would apparently be to allow freelance workers and authors (gig workers) to bargain collectively with the companies handing out the work. I don’t think that this means that all book contracts will have to be negotiated collectively in a huge group — when it comes to writing, the change will be more relevant to newspaper, magazine and other freelance writers, where there’s a “rate for the job”. The Authors Guild is all excited about this, and will be doing a webinar on 9 April. Publishers Weekly reports on the AG agitation.

My cynical take on the filibuster’s ability to protect us all from any kind of socially desirable change suggests that book publishers probably don’t have to worry too much about any kind of organized, legally-sanctioned pressure to see royalty rates raised.

What’s the shortest paper ever published in a scholarly journal? Several contenders for the title are shown at Paperpile. (Link via The Digital Reader.) There is a surprisingly large collection of impressive contenders.

I quite liked this one:

The Passive Voice reprints a substantial extract from a The Paris Review article entitled What writers and editors do by Karl Ove Knausgaard. There’s a link there to the whole piece.

Whether writers are depressives or alcoholics is not, despite the Passive Guy’s commentary, the main point of this article.

Mr Knausgaard, reporting on his dismay at the critical reaction to some of his books tells us “It feels almost as if there are different books, one belonging to the editor, another to the critic, and for the author this can be difficult.” But isn’t it a bit of a current commonplace that there are as many versions of a book as there are readers. Isn’t what the author is aiming at actually a sort of silent conversation between themselves and each one of their readers, with each conversation being unique?

Mr K obviously has a good relationship with his editor — no surprise there: with an important author you’re unlikely to remain editor for long if the author doesn’t like you! They discuss a lot on the phone. The editorial pencil is not in evidence — pencils probably feature less and less in our digital world. He says he has a special, almost unexplainable relationship with three people: his mother, his wife and his editor. The basis for this special relationship seems to boil down to trust.

Trust may well be the basis for excellence in editorship. Mr Knausgaard mentions two “great” editors: Gordon Lish, apparently almost a co-author for Raymond Carver, and Maxwell Perkins who might be said to have taken a tea-chest-full of paper and quarried it into Of Time and the River. One of the problems with the idea of a great editor is that, as with design, the essence of great editing is that it should be undetectable. If an author suspects you are out to “put your mark” on a book, trust is obviously not likely to be forthcoming. New York Review of Books’ authors used to be gobsmacked to receive phone calls from Robert Silvers in the middle of the night proposing a grammatical or a structural change in their latest piece. He was always right, and they all trusted him implicitly. In my youth I worked for Michael Black in Cambridge. His judgement about new subject areas to move into was daring and prescient; his work on manuscripts discrete and authoritative. Anyone who knew him trusted his editorial judgement absolutely.

Have things changed? Mr Knausgaard suggests they have. “For anyone harboring ambitions of becoming an author in the late eighties and early nineties the way to do it was this: you wrote a book and submitted it to a publishing house, after which you waited a month or two before receiving a reply in the post, very likely a rejection”. Nowadays Mr Knausgaard claims editors are more likely to contact a young author on the basis of a short story or an essay seen in a magazine. If this is really true, and who am I to doubt it, then it might be put down to an acceleration of life, and an increase in informality brought about by our move online. Maybe: though I suspect this insight of change may be more of an artifact of Mr Knausgaard’s experience than a real trend. Maybe many books are now floated on the basis of an outline and sample chapter, but this isn’t really a new development. And Michael Farris Smith tells us he wrote Nick in its entirety before submitting it in 2015 for instance.

According to The New York Times someone is stealing unpublished book manuscripts. There appears to be no motive for this — or at least, no consequences have yet been observed although the scam has been going on for at least three years. Could this just be criminal joie de vivre? “Look I can do this, so I’ll show you that I can do it”? Disruption of authorial equanimity (if such a quality exists) is about all that it appears to have achieved.

Once upon a time this would have been a more serious problem — and probably impossible to pull off. When you had to write your book by hand the loss of the manuscript would have been rather terminal. Even after the invention of the typewriter an author would have been reluctant to let one of their two (maybe) copies out of their sight. There used to be a man in Cambridge who was always seen with a sheaf of paper under his arm. He was rumored to have lost the manuscript of his life’s work on the Liverpool Street train, and to have spent the rest of his days trying to put it together again. The loss of just another digital copy is the loss of next to nothing. “Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing.”

Could this just be an aggressive acquisition push by The Brautigan Library, the library of unpublished manuscripts? I suppose there is a tax deduction for manuscript donations.

Although they use a “western” QWERTY keyboard for their computers there are people in-putting Chinese characters who are actually able to type much faster than those for whom the keyboard was designed. This represents an incredible turnaround. When computers first arrived in China they appeared to present an overwhelming challenge to the very existence of Chinese script. No way could you get 70,000 characters onto a keyboard with space for about 70. Clearly getting the efficiencies offered by computers would involve adopting an alphabet, wouldn’t it?

To avoid this loss of heritage, the key turned out to be to “spell Chinese characters, not by sound, but by shape”. Professor Wang Yongmin broke the structure of Chinese characters down into 125 elements. Think of early mobile phones with numbers-only keypads on which you could access letters by hitting each number key once, twice, thrice and selecting the letter you wanted when it was displayed — using this technique for all the keys on the QWERTY keyboard Professor Wang managed to create a working computer QWERTY keyboard for his 125 Chinese character elements: select the first element you need for the character you require, then move on to the second element and so on. He demo-ed his keyboard at the UN in 1984, to general incredulity.

One consequence of this method is that different people can use different keys to carry different information based upon their speciality. Chinese QWERTY keyboards, many of which don’t even have any symbols on them, can be and are programmed in a variety of different layouts. Predictive text and auto completion arrived on Chinese computers before we got them — when you type a text message or do a Google search, you get these prompts suggesting to you what word the computer thinks you’re trying to type, and even the next word which you’ll come up with. A bit annoying perhaps, like the related Auto-correct “service”, but an efficient use of artificial intelligence. They were already doing this in China in the 1980s: key in a bit of a character shape, and the machine will suggest how you might want to complete it. Select the correct suggested target and Bob’s your uncle.

By the 1990s the Chinese government had decreed a move to Pinyin transliteration of Chinese, and many computer keyboards now work using Pinyin. However lots of people are still using the Chinese character keyboard — which is more universal than the Pinyin one. Pinyin which is a transliteration of sounds, will look different in different dialects. These dialects/languages use the same script system but pronounce the characters differently, so output from a keyboard with character generation will look the same all across the country, where Pinyin-generated text may be regionally incomprehensible. Another of script input’s big advantages turns out, paradoxically, to be speed. Using the multiple-elements-per-key technology allied to autocompletion and predictive suggestion has resulted in a typist being able to “type” 244 characters/words per minute at a 2016 input contest in Beijing. An extraordinary typist in English can get to 100wpm.

National Public Radio’s Radiolab program tells the story at The Wubi Effect. You can listen to the broadcast there, or, via a tab, go to a transcript of the program.

Do we have to make some allowance in such typing speed trials for the fact that many Chinese words are represented by a single character, whereas the average length of an English word is 4.7 characters? Some maybe, but probably not all that much since the characters are of course the problem: they’re rather complex, and probably more complex than that average 4.7 letter long word.

I wonder if speed is sufficiently important for us to try to emulate the Chinese by coming up with a more efficient method of keyboard entry. We know that when we read rapidly we are tending to recognize word-shapes rather than the individual letters which make up the word. Just because we have an alphabet doesn’t have to mean that the alphabet is the best way to reach any reading or writing destination, does it? But do we need to tread carefully? If you just use predictive text you might go fast, but would you be typing what you wanted or what the cloud thought you should want to say?

See also Setting Chinese, and Chinese typewriter.

  1. The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte
  2. Lila, Lila by Martin Suter
  3. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
  4. In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo
  5. Death by Publication by Jean-Jacques Fiechter
  6. The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester
  7. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
  8. Hocus Bogus by Émile Ajar
  9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Well, one of them isn’t actually a novel, it’s true-crime, but this is Antoine Laurain’s list of the top ten books about books, published in The Guardian. Mr Laurain is the author of another one, The Reader’s Room, which modestly he doesn’t include in his list. (Link via LitHub.)

Of course one might argue that any (serious) novel is to some extent about the way to write a novel. A notable recent full-frontal example is Martin Amis’ latest, Inside Story: A Novel, a very conscious meditation on life-writing and fiction. It took reading the Economist review for me to realize that Inside Story actually has a proper subtitle. The jacket carries only the quasi-subtitle/catchline A Novel, as does the title page, but buried away on the half title page and nowhere else is the full title + subtitle, Inside Story: How to Write. Even the CIP information calls it Inside Story: A Novel, though the Canadian version omits A Novel. This coyness about the subtitle has to be significant* doesn’t it?

Hate that logo!

In a charming note lower down the imprints page we learn “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental”. Boilerplate, but bullshit. Characters in the book include Martin Amis, his wife, disguised by the use her middle name only, Christopher Hitchens, Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and his wives, etc. etc. Lots of real people are there as large as life, however fictionalized some of what they say and do may be. Now it seems to me (and all dictionaries) that a novel is a work of fiction. And while I don’t really care what the author decides to designate his book as, I did feel a little bit curious about this one. I dare say I’d never have read a memoir by Martin Amis (never really warmed to him as the saying goes) so I guess I have to be grateful for the category shuffling as I’m glad I read the book. If this is really a memoir masquerading as a novel, is that as bad as James Frey‘s novel masquerading as a memoir? Not sure it matters in either case, but I keep wondering why Amis would do this. It can’t be, can it, that presenting his personal history as quasi-fiction makes it easier for him to be frank about things? The book copes with three deaths: the Essayist thread (Christopher Hitchens) is the most affecting: the Poet (Philip Larkin) and the Novelist (Saul Bellow) are less shattering. The heart of the book is a telling of Christopher Hitchens’ death. Little Keith (as the Hitch would call him) clearly loved his friend, and writes movingly about the awful. Maybe pretending this pain was fictitious is a mechanism enabling him to bear it. I’m not sure however that I can believe my suggestion here: Martin Amis is after all a very experienced writer, and such subterfuges are surely unnecessary for him.

At the start of Chapter 5 the author addresses us “The book in your hands calls itself a novel — and it is a novel, I maintain. So I want to assure the reader that everything that follows in this chapter is verifiably non-fiction.” Does a novel have to consist of fiction? I rather think it has to, and as I don’t know Martin Amis I find it hard to determine where fiction ends and non-fiction begins in this work. I assume Phoebe Phelps is fictitious — I hope she is — but of course I can’t be altogether sure M.A. didn’t hang out with something like this. The Daily Mail claims that she’s real: apparently someone called Antonella Gambotto-Burke claims she’s the pattern, but her claims seem too modest and restrained to match up to Phoebe Phelps. So here be fiction I suspect.

The book is structured as if we, the reader, had come round for a chat with the author, a chat which we appear to have solicited, and which is going to unfold in extenso: we’re going to stay the night. Amis chats directly with us in his introductory chapter and in his final chapter, pretentiously entitled “Preludial” and “Postludial”, promising to give us concrete advice on writing and then bidding us goodbye: “Goodbye, my reader, I said. Goodbye, my dear, my close, my gentle”. Advice he does indeed give us along the way: valuable insights like “don’t worry about splitting infinitives” and “everyone’s got a book in them” are fortunately accompanied by a whisky or two. That’s too harsh, and is actually unjust: his bits of advice, uniformly good, are set up perhaps more to demonstrate that it’s not so much the direct advice that’ll help, it’s more the surrounding story-telling and the thinking about books and writers and reading that are important. The index provides a list of his writing advice, and if you stick with those precepts you’ll do OK. Of course it’s the story-telling that’s the vital bit, and while we may indeed all have it in us, it’s tough to clear away the overlying debris in order to get at the novel buried in there.

I wonder if the two strands of writer’s manual on the one hand and the fiction/nonfiction issue on the other don’t in the end coalesce. Maybe showing us how to write a memoir which you can get the world of publishing and criticism to accept as a novel is the ne plus ultra of authorial cleverness. Follow my lead and you too can do anything you want: even write a novel which isn’t a novel. They say it’s not Amis’ best, but Inside Story is well worth a read.

A rather less obvious example of a novel as a book about writing a book is John Williams’ Stoner, which I wrote about in these terms a couple of years ago.


* In a footnote — yes this novel has footnotes, as well as several photographs, and an index! — Amis tells of a brilliant crossword puzzle clue: “Meaningful power of attorney”, the answer being “significant” — sign-if-I-can’t. Not bad, I thought.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to criticize typos. They happen even in the best regulated houses: even our own.

It’s well known, from all of our own experience, that it’s tough to proofread one’s own writing: well, it may actually be all too easy — the hard part is detecting errors. Wired assures us rather flatteringly, “There’s a good reason why we’re so terrible at catching these typing errors, and it has to do with our brains being a little too efficient.” (Link via Mental Floss). Apparently because we are so smart, and our brains are running way ahead of our dumb old bodies, we are always anticipating the right word. Accordingly we run the risk of seeing the right word even though our laggard fingers may actually have typed the wrong one. 

Well, OK. If that makes you feel good, run with it. For my part I suspect it all has a bit more to do with vanity — what I type must be great — but it doesn’t really matter; we tend to have difficulty noticing our own errors. One might note that Autocorrect often gets into the act. Reread slowly, carefully and often. 

In this context, might I direct the reader to a recent exchange of comments with Charles Foster about Susie Dent’s book, Word Perfect? You need to scroll down, since Mr Foster commented at the “Comments” tab, which a few others have done before, so our conversation is quite a way down.

I am conscious of committing a typo or two on this blog. I do read and reread, but stuff slips by. (I just noticed that the second paragraph above began “It’s well know . . . ” No doubt this is a survival from the first version which probably said “We all know”. History shows me I’ve read this piece 23 times already!) Other typos do get by though. Perhaps I can ask frustrated readers to attribute these errors to the fact that my brain is super-efficient, not to any carelessness or lack of attention on my part!

See also Proofing.

Map by Steven Melendez, Atlas Obscura

This interactive map, delivered by Atlas Obscura, allows us to follow literary journeys around America. (You have to go to the Atlas Obscura site to access the interactive map: the picture above is just a photo of it.) The map compiled by Richard Kreitner and Steven Melendez includes place names from fourteen travel books from Mark Twain’s 1872 Roughing It to Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 Wild. Click on the link and you can select individual routes and enlarge the map to see detail: Scroll plus Command keys will enlarge/shrink it.

Mr Kreitner describes the effort as quixotic, but his map does have a charm. And seeing where various trips overlapped does provide interest, as do the little quotes from the books which you can find by clicking on the dots. You can compare and contrast what Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac had to say at Ogallala, Nebraska for instance. Conclusions from such a comparison may be a bit hard to draw though.

Via The Digital Reader comes this CNN story about the publishing of 25 works by women under their real names, rather than the male pseudonyms they originally used.

The Reclaim Her Name series is being financed by Baileys, to celebrate 25 years of the Women’s Prize for Fiction which they now sponsor, and they are getting a bit of stick from many quarters. The Guardian runs down these critiques.

Now I dare say some women were “forced” to use male pseudonyms, but I always thought that the decision was largely one of pseudonymy rather than of gender concealment. After all ladies writing novels was by no means unheard of, nor indeed unspeakable, when George Eliot was writing. Of course you could no doubt find one or two ladies who’d mutter disapproval, but you can always find someone to disapprove of anything. Charlotte Brontë did however write “we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice.” Mary Ann Evans was clearly a shrewd business woman: one probably has to assume she thought it more likely that books written by men would sell better than ones by women.

Whatever the inadequacies in execution it’s nice of Baileys to do this. And just think — when the books are donated to libraries as planned nobody will be able to find them, because who’d look under Dupin for a book by George Sand, etc.? Maybe clever librarians will think to cross reference and/or shelve non-alphabetically.

In my post on Pseudonymy I did discuss the case of J. K. Rowling, though CNN takes this instance even further. Pseudonyms were (are) far from uncommon. The king of disguise would appear to be Søren Kierkegaard who apparently wrote under about twenty pseudonyms.

Here’s a relevant infographic from Mashable.