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Don't call me Wordsmith!

Posted by Gordon on November 30, 2010 at 4:18 PM

Wordmonger would be better.


Wordsmiths labour away to create quality. Me? I should be hawking words on the street with all the other purveyors of tawdry merchandise.



As I enter the square, shrill cries from the wordmongers break in on my reverie.


"I got words. I got words. I got the best words, the freshest words. Get your words right here at the right price," shouts one.


"Hey buddy. How about a nice word for the little lady? Take some home for the kids?" calls another.


"Hey pretty lady! You look like you could use a word. Nothing prettier than a pretty lady with some pretty words," leer's a third, offering an evil wink; the evil compounded by the lack of an eye.


"Go 'way, kid. I give you two words last week. No more freebees. Your parents know you using words like that?" snarls a humpbacked one, his face scarred by blows from a pica-space ruler. A sure sign this one had run afoul of one of the many gangs of roving typographers that curse our village.


"Father! Hey, padre. You wanna get yourself a few new words for the sermon this Sunday? That holy book, its real good but you gotta go modern. Gotta have new words to bring in the younger crowd," wheedles one who may have once pursued Holy Orders, but now finds sanctuary only in the bottle.


"No way, buddy. It’s all American-made words. No cheap imports here! No Nordic influence. No Latin prefixes. Not a single diphthong in the lot. One hundred percent guaranteed," declares one whose pallor speaks of those who toil in the ruins by night, unearthing things long buried and better left that way.


"Honest, Officer. We were just shooting the breeze," the smallest one complains as he is led away. "You see any words on me? I don't even own a dictionary. That? Nah, that's just a shopping list. See, I gotta' pick up some...stuff. Stuff, that's right. Gotta pick up some...uh...stuff, for my...uh...the thing, right? The thing with my whatchyacallit. 'S real, bad, Officer. Real bad."


I quickly make my way out of the square, the precious burden tucked safely under my arm.

The literary junk drawer: Kipple or untapped writer's resource?

Posted by Gordon on November 26, 2010 at 4:39 PM




Today I’ve resolved to clean out my office junk drawer. So I’m sorting everything into piles, mentally labelled: Keep, Toss, and What the Heck is That?


Call it kipple.


SF-author Philip K. Dick (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and a whole bunch of other stuff) coined the term for "The collection of useless bits of trash we wallow in; all the paper and junk that is not recycled."

Kipple is sometimes used pejoratively for "useless" but, c'mon folks, if it was useless why would I be keeping it?

  • That dead ballpoint pen? It just so happens that I once used a ballpoint pen to repair the office refrigerator. Take that, MacGyver!
  • Used AA batteries? Well they may just have one last emergency channel change left in them.
  • The Voodoo doll? It’s bound to come in handy sooner or later. Besides I am informed by impeccable sources that, properly used by a qualified professional, Voodoo can be used to work good as well as harm.

I am failing to make progress on the kipple, but I’ve got at least three new story ideas.


Which brings me to that other junk drawer – the one for the ideas that haven’t yet found a home.


My current kipple storage is on Outlook sticky notes. I've never been much for notebooks, though I do tend to scratch notes on envelopes, calendars and business cards -- which I promptly throw away or use as napkins.


Some of these eventually turn onto blog posts. I also have various business ideas; book titles (any takers on Ventriloquism for Dummies?), game concepts, lottery numbers, lists of things to do (which always includes keeping to-do lists) and, of course, deep thoughts.


My point being?


An artist friend once told me that art was the process of getting things out of your head so you could take some measure of control. His example was the earliest cave marking of a handprint. He said it was as though the artist were asking: What is this thing? What is it for? What can it do? How much money should I give it to carry my luggage to the taxi?


Every idea you ever came up with has a purpose.


It may have been just for the sake of getting something out of your head so you could look at it. But now it's Out There and it takes on a life of its own. You owe it to readers to give that idea a life and a home. (This gives me a great idea for an info-mercial. Does anybody have Sally Struthers' number?)


As Gene Fowler said - "Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead."


Don't throw that idea away. It may come in handy some day.


Whenever you run dry - as we all do once in a while, that's the time to reach into the Literary Junk Drawer and pull out some of those ideas that have been kicking around.


Or at the very least, maybe try out that Voodoo doll.


If Your Eye Falls On A Bargain...**

Posted by Gordon on November 22, 2010 at 4:03 PM

I've always been told spell checkers are wonderful tools but they don't substitute for proof reading.

Here are some examples of how spell checking can send a story in new directions: (every one of these really has come across my desk)

  • He was being kept on a short leach. (Wasn't that in the second Star Trek movie?)
  • The crowd disbursed. (As high-ranking government officials, the first order of business was to give away money.)
  •  She could not bare it any more. (An exotic dancer decides she needs a new line of work.)
  •  Steven placed his cup on the mantle. (Who needs a thermos cup when you've got molten lava to keep the coffee hot?)
  • At times he loved her; at other times he wanted to slit her juggler vein! (Well that will put an end to HER circus career.)

News Headlines:

  • Basting accident sends two to hospital. (Thanksgiving dinner will never be the same.)
  • HazMat team removing condiments from building after mysterious fire. (That would be the really, really hot sauce.)
  • New sceptic system will improve water quality. (I remain doubtful on this one)
  • Bridge remains clothed after heavy rains. ( I hope that would include a good raincoat.)


**my title is taken from the work of Leo Calvin Rosten, whose phonetic renderings of English, as spoken by recent immigrants, would bring any modern spell checker to its knees, metal fork ably spay king.

Necronomicon 2010 - St Petersburg, Florida

Posted by Gordon on October 22, 2010 at 3:00 PM

Babora Books is at Necronomicon 2010 featuring the work of CA Dawson.

My Life as an SF Book Editor

Posted by Gordon on October 2, 2010 at 12:49 PM

My Life as an SF Book Editor

Gordon Williams, Babora Books


I get asked a lot about what I do as an editor to get a manuscript ready for print. Mostly from authors wondering where the heck their book has got to.


Editing is a key part of the publishing process, regardless of the platform. When a manuscript is nearly ready but still needs that final polishing, it’s the editor’s job to take it to the next level.


One of the hardest things to learn as an editor is not to insert yourself into the story. Just because I want to say something in a particular way doesn't mean that is how it should be said. And I'll admit that in the early days I tended to give in to temptation to re-write things in my own voice.


The goal is for an editor is to be invisible. Readers need to see a book as well written, not "well edited." (Although they will notice work that has been poorly edited) Motto for editors: Healthy sales is its own reward.


Why a professional editor?


The fact is, doing a serious and careful edit takes a lot of time and effort. Anything less than a professional job is going to make a poor impression on publishers, reviewers and your audience.


A basic edit for a 100,000 word novel (around 300 printed pages) can take several weeks. Good freelance editors generally charge in the range of $75 to $100 per hour.


So if you're thinking about hiring an editor to get your novel ready for print, the cost can add up quick.

If someone tells you they are an experienced editor and will edit your novel for a flat fee of $500 or $1,000, they're probably not going to do a lot. Keep in mind that there are still "agents" around who want $500 just to read your work! You'll generally find these listed under "publishing scams.” (Or maybe that is just wishful thinking)


So here in broad brush terms are my editing steps.


Step 1) Read the entire novel.


What I'm looking for on first read is how the story hangs together, how it works as SF, how the characters work and really, how good a job you've done with spelling, proofing, punctuation.

This also gives me a chance to become familiar with any unique style conventions you've adopted. For example, if your characters are having internal dialogue, do you use quotation marks, italics or plain text? Its up to you to decide but once I know your style I can look for any inconsistencies.

I'm a fast reader and I can usually do this in 10 to 16 hours, assuming:


a) No major flaws. By "major flaws" I mean your story flows in a logical pattern, i.e. you haven't killed a key character in Chapter 3 and then resurrected him or her later in the book without any reasonable explanation.

 b) You have proof-read a hard copy of your work. It’s easy to tell the difference. There is a whole lot of science that shows reading comprehension is way lower on screen than on paper. I've been using computers for more than 20 years and I still don't do proofing on screen for print products. 

c) You've spell checked. OK, there are lots of mistakes spell checkers won't catch, and a few places where they can insert errors. But the upside is that spell checkers are consistently bad, so at least I know what to look for. 

Step 2) On-screen edit.


If I get through Step 1 without sending your manuscript back for re-working, we move to the interactive part of editing. At this stage I'm going to be asking a lot of questions: 

  • How did Mary know how to fly a space ship?
  • Wouldn't the police be involved if a giant alien landed at a shopping mall?
  • How credible is it that a passing time traveler just happened to stop by to solve a problem?
  • Wouldn't a race of super-advanced aliens think to get their flu shots before invading Earth?
  • If John has the ray-gun in his right hand and the treasure map in his left hand, is he going to be able to fly a hovercraft with his arm around the princess at the same time?
  • Would the expression "Don't have a cow, man" (or similar) be in common use in the 28th century?

All right, those are extreme examples, but I need to put myself in the place of a reader who is pretty sophisticated when it comes to SF and is used to having logical consistency.


This also where the rubber meets the road with "show, don't tell."


Do the actions of the characters fit a logical pattern? Do they advance the story? And - what is missing here? If you are writing an action sequence there has to be continuity for events, objects and where people are. It’s like blocking a stage play. Your actors all need to get from A to B in the story, and not just miraculously appear where they need to be for the action to continue.


A Few Words about Fact Checking

Editors love to maintain the illusion that we have vast knowledge of many subjects. The reality is we just have a good sense of what's easy to get wrong.

Suppose your main character happens to be a former Canadian Air Force pilot who fondly recalls his time with 3 Wing during the '60s at Lahr in West Germany. Oops! It turns out that 3 Wing was based at Zweibrücken until 1968; they didn't move to Lahr until the 80s. Easy enough to fix but it’s the kind of thing that would simply annoy a reader who knows the facts. And, since your audience for military thrillers is military people ...well, you get the picture.


I recently read a crime novel written by a British author but set in the US. In one scene there is a description of a bar where the owner has framed the first two-dollar bill the business took in. There actually is a US two-dollar bill but it is so rare that a lot of businesses won't even take them. Canada had two-dollar bills in wide circulation until they were replaced by the two-dollar coin. So chances are that the author picked the denomination as being iconic of US commerce without having the background. The funny thing is that I can't remember the title or the author but that two-dollar bill line sticks with me.


Guns: For some reason television and movies always show actors handling firearms as though they are plastic toys. From time to time I see writers describing guns in similar terms. I always fact check anything to do with guns - how much they weigh, how the safety works, what part you push to make bullets come out. It’s worth a writer's time checking this kind of thing on line. And besides, I think my ISP might be wondering why I'm spending so much time searching subjects like "how to load and fire an UZI machine pistol."


This isn't to say you can't play around with history, science and geography from time to time. You just need to know when you are doing so and why.


SF can be particularly hard because its core readers are a lot more likely to be aware of at least basic science.

So at this point you'll be getting a revised MS back with a pile of questions and comments and, hopefully, minor revisions.


In the old days, this would have been done with red pen, sticky notes and lots of phone calls. Now I use Word's track changes mode and comments almost exclusively.


This is where the writer-editor relationship can get a bit stressed. I'm open to negotiation and there is nothing I'd like more than to see some really innovative writing forms. But at the same time we're in the fiction business, so whatever we produce needs to work for the audience.


Don't take any of this as personal criticism. The company took your book on because we feel it is worth publishing. I'm here to add value to your work, not because I want to write a book of my own.


Step 3) hard copy edit.


This is time to catch all those things like punctuation errors, misused words, (bear/bare, two/to/too, council/counsel/consul/console, weather/whether, hare/hair), and places where the spell check misses variations for US, Canadian and British spelling and word use.


I'm also looking for places where previous fixes contradict something else. Example: You found out earlier that John (ray-gun + treasure map + princess + hovercraft) ran out of hands a while back, but now he just threw something across the room that he was never holding in the first place. Is it any wonder film and TV productions have whole departments of people whose whole job is keeping track of continuity from one scene to the next?


Rather than send back a marked up hard copy I'll transfer those changes to the electronic file and send back to you for review once again.


Step 4) re-read a clean copy.


Is this sounding like a lot of printing? Sure is. But at least you're not retyping everything for each version.

This is the fine-tooth-comb stage that is best described as "beyond tedious." Is that character a dark-haired woman? Or a dark haired woman? (Read the two sentences a few times and spot the different meaning.)


Step 5) Proof read


On a really good day, steps 4 and 5 can sometimes be combined. But often we hand over your work to a professional proof-reader.


It’s a bit risky for the editor to double up on proofing because, now that I'm on at least the fourth read-through, I can be really tempted to skim.


Have you ever seen one of those tests where you are given words that are deliberately misspelled but you still read them easily? That is what skimming does and why its easy to miss little things.

The up side is that I'm a lot less likely to get caught up in the story.


Proof-reading isn't actually reading at all because I'm not looking at sentences and paragraphs, but at words and groups of words and the punctuation that keeps everything in its tidy little boxes.


There’s a handy tool that used to be standard issue called a “proof reader’s ruler.” It’s a regular plastic ruler with a clear window running its length. To use it, you slide the ruler down a page of text and read one line at a time.


Another trick proof readers use is to tap each successive line with a pen or pencil. Both methods work to focus your attention on individual words and word groups.


So how do I know when it’s done?


If I can get down to where a fix is only needed every five or ten pages I'm going to be comfortable that I've caught everything. Anything more than that and I'll repeat this step.


And that's about it. A lot of time and energy but if we can turn out a first rate product it’s well worth it.