The other day on NPR, Diane Rehm rebroadcast a conversation with the editors of The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE). The fifth and final volume of this massive work was published in January, but I’d missed this interview. It became another “driveway moment.” You know, those shows or stories that are so interesting you sit in your car to hear the end of it. Except my husband and I weren’t in our driveway. We were at a rail trailhead, and we left the radio on and our car doors open while we hoisted our bikes down from the roof rack.
Now, I could listen to a discussion of language shifts and regional slang for hours. It’s just so fascinating to watch English evolve. What do you call meat or other fillings in bread? A sandwich, sammidge, sangwich? If the filling is in a roll, do you call it a hero, sub, hoagie, torpedo, grinder, spunky? Of course, hubby and I wanted to call in with the little quirks we’ve come across—“all” used to mean “all gone” in Pennsylvania Dutch country, or the variations of “ayuh” (yeah) in New England. My grandfather’s dramatic pronunciation of “Gawd.” Or the odd Mennonite custom of dropping “to be” in phrases like “the car needs fixed.” Even my DIL’s addition of “the” to road numbers: the 309, the 202.
Ever since My Picture Dictionary dropped into my five-year-old hands, I’ve loved dictionaries. I often get carried away when I go to look up a word, and find myself five columns down from where I started. I never throw one away, even when I buy an updated one; I still have my dad’s big old Webster’s from 1949. The gold title on the binding is nearly gone, and the dark blue fabric has faded to gray, but I won’t let it go. It carries the scents of my early home, the memory of my father’s big rough hands turning the fragile pages, and the mystery of words.
Earlier this summer, a friend gave me a wonderfully strange lexicon: The Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by the Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D. The version my friend found at a yard sale is a 1978 facsimile of the 1894 edition, complete with random ink blots and lacunae. Given the good reverend’s interest in religion and literature, it includes many entries on assorted heresies and often goes into detailed discussions of minor characters in classic literature. But there are also some colorful terms and phrases from ordinary life: going by the marrow-bone stage, i.e. walking. (This expression is listed under “Bayard,” a horse of incredible swiftness, and is an alternative to the ironic “ride bayard of ten toes.”)
Beyond its obvious value in deciphering outdated or archaic terms and characters, Phrase and Fable provides a fascinating insight into what constituted the world of a well-educated Englishman in the late nineteenth century—a thorough knowledge of classical Greek and Roman literature, plus Moliere, Milton, Shakespeare, Scott. The book is also invaluable for tracing the origins of words—though sometimes the origins Brewer gives are suspect. Take, for instance, London, which he claims comes from the Celtic Luandun, City of the Moon. Two lines later, he admits “it would take a page to give a list of guesses made at the derivation of the word London.” So dip into this dictionary with a box of salt (skepticism) at hand.
Above all, Phrase and Fable is a glimpse into the inquisitive, eclectic mind of a man of his times. I would love to eavesdrop on a conversation between him and another great scholar of language, J.R.R. Tolkien. Wouldn’t you?
Either DARE or Phrase and Fable would make a wonderful gift for any writer. Put them on your wishlist and see what happens.
Contributed by Nikki,
Editor with Champagne Books
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
In my opinion, there is entirely too much CSI on television. New York, Miami, LA, East Podunk. I get the picture--crime is everywhere. And the investigators are smart, sexy people with great educations and devastating logic. My beef is not with the stories or the actors. What I object to is the way writers have picked up on the noun “exit” used as a verb.
English is always turning nouns into verbs. Look at tasked or surfed. As a further example, until about the 1960s, jet was strictly a noun. Then people started flying in jets. They started jetting. That was cool; jet as a verb is exciting. It implies speed, high fashion, importance. It has an emotional content and descriptive power.
Not so exit. Police investigators are specifically trained to write emotion-free, neutral text to avoid prejudicing any possible prosecutions. Their reports are dry as dust: “The subject exited the area.” It may be accurate, but it certainly doesn’t carry the same impact as “The perp ran away,” does it?
I see exit so often in the submissions I edit that it has become a no-see-um, the ubiquitous New England pest. They’re barely visible, but their bite can jolt me right out of whatever I’m doing. And the last thing you want to do is jolt your readers out of your story.
Fiction writing is all about emotion. Every time you can choose an emotive word over a non-emotive word, do so. Exit is flat and boring. It shows the reader nothing about the character or the action. It’s an easy choice when you’re writing fast, but in your rewrites you should reserve it for police and military reports, stage directions, and computer instructions. Find verbs that play multiple roles—leave, emerge, step out, run away, saunter, take off, veer, sidle, slink, stride. A horse can exit a barn, or it can bolt, skitter, trot, slip, meander, or plod. See how each verb creates a different picture in your mind?
So barricade the exits. Do a search in your manuscript and examine each use of the word. Replace it ninety-nine times out of a hundred, and watch your writing come alive.
Editor, Champagne Books
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Writers toil over getting their prose just right, but then it hits the editor's desk and a whole new game begins. The rule of thumb is that your prose should be as perfect as possible before you submit anything for publication. So what's the point of editing, if you can get it perfect by yourself?
That's the catch. You can't. You need another eye; you need an editor's eye. Sometimes you might have your manuscript pass through beta readers, or even an independent editor, before submission. This is good, and it helps, but it does not mean the editor at destination's end will be twiddling his or her thumbs through the publication process.
A book is a product. You, the author, write the manuscript - the design. Even though, as the writer, you are the designer and the artist behind the product, that is only the starting point. The publisher is the manufacturer, and the final product - the book you sell and promote as the author - is a team endeavor.
Ultimately, and most importantly: the book that has your name on it is the publisher's product, not your own.
If this is the case, then, how can a writer feel secure? After all that time you spend laboring over your words, getting the story just right, how can you be sure that wonderful vision you painstakingly captured isn't going to be something alien to you with your name stamped on the front cover?
This brings me to one of the most important things about an editor's role. Being in such a position, he or she is bound by an agreement to honor and respect the author's voice. The publishing team, during the acquisition process, base their decision on whether or not the voice - the story as it is - is suitable. The editor then has the job of taking the author's manuscript and turning it into a book. It's a bit like taking a knife and making it sharp, shiny, and ready for display. If you want to extend the metaphor, publishers are knife sharpeners, not knife-makers, so picking the right manuscript is akin to picking the knife that looks like it's going to do the job.
Editing, when it is most effective, places the true work on the author. It's a game of devil's advocate. "Are you sure you want to do this?" "Check out this website, it's got lots of good examples of passive vs. active voice and why the active voice is stronger in fiction." "Look for where you've used the word 'was' and see if you can use stronger verbs instead." True, the editor makes in-line changes, points out cliches or confusing passages, but all along, the author is in control, and it's the editor's job to point him or her toward the product the publisher expects. The editor's goal is to bring out the most in the writer, and that comes from a belief, from the beginning, that the author has the talent to turn manuscript into book.
At Champagne Books, during my short time working with the great team of editors we have here, what I have found most remarkable is how far we go to ensure the author's voice is respected. It means authors who submit their story can be rest assured that when their book hits the shelves, they can feel their name on the front cover is the centerpiece, the way it should be, while the hard work of the editing and production team can proudly stand behind them in the logo.
Wednesday, April 3, 2013
Welcome to the first ever Wordy Wednesday, where Champagne’s editors come out into the open and discuss topics designed to help you perfect your work, or wax philosophical about writing and publishing.
The first topic for discussion is point-of-view (POV) or the world as a character sees it. It’s no wonder this causes dilemmas for writers, since some very famous and successful authors use omniscient POV, flipping between different character’s heads even within one paragraph. These authors are usually best sellers; why won’t Champagne let you do this with your book? Well, when you are as prolific and successful as Nora Roberts, you, too, can convince your publisher that head-hopping is perfectly fine. Until that time, your publisher will ask you to restrain from head hopping. This doesn’t mean that you can’t switch into several different characters’ heads, but it does mean that you have to be in one character’s head at a time.
Why is this considered better? For one thing, head hopping can be confusing to your readers, making it hard for them to really get to know and distinguish between your characters. It’s also very hard to do omniscient POV well. For these reasons, most publishers, and definitely Champagne, will ask you to limit POV to several main characters, and to stay in only one character’s POV per scene or chapter.
How to do this when you’re used to head-hopping? Basically, when you’re in a character’s POV, you can only present things that the character can see with her eyes, hear with her ears, smell, taste, or feel, as in emotions. And unless your character is psychic, she can’t know what other characters are feeling or thinking. At least not unless they know each other extremely well. It’s cheating to just say, “she knew,” or “apparently” in an effort to convey what someone else is feeling or thinking. There’s also no room for an impersonal narrator voice to step in and tell readers things the POV character doesn’t know. Narrator voice is usually “telling,” and we all know that wise writing adage, “Show, don’t tell.” For example:
“She watched him cross the room. She knew he was tired.” This is both head hopping and telling. How does she know he’s tired? What is she seeing that tells her this?
What you can do is describe the body language or facial expressions of another character. This lets your readers draw the conclusion you want. You can, if you want, backtrack and relate a conversation or action that would justify knowledge that your POV character has. Instead of using a narrator voice, have an older, more experienced character convey information to your POV character through dialogue. Or show readers what you want them to know through actions. Avoid narrator voice and telling, not showing, by choosing a few main characters and alternating their POVs. Consider a better version of the example above:
“She watched him cross the room. Dark circles shadowed his eyes, and he shuffled slowly.” This example shows us what she sees as she watches him, and lets the reader conclude that he must be tired.
Your work will be more polished, and your characters will come alive and distinguish themselves more clearly to readers using this technique. And your editor will be most pleased!