READING & WRITING LESSONS

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Trying to do some search engine optimization, I discovered that this article about writing skills and literary prowess was one of the most popular on my blog. It’s also ancient, probably morphing onto the net from my handwritten pages from the 1980s. I hadn’t even published any books when I wrote this. And the article’s programming is so old it’s messed up. I’m announcing this right now: If all of this comes out as one big paragraph, I tried to fix it. Many times. I’m done with trying to fix. Let the blog  begin!

Sandy Nathan

I’d read my way through all the books in the house. In withdrawal, I found myself in Rite Aide, the literary capital of the universe. Helpless to stop myself, I gravitated to the book display.
I found myself facing a wall of book covers bearing major muscle displays. Pects. Abs. Other muscle groups that I’d never seen. Men with long wavy hair, women who had lost most of their clothes.
I’ve never read a mass-market book. Unbelievable, but true. Even as a kid I never read such down-scale writing, though I do admit reading the Tarzan books when I was ten. They might qualify at mass market.
But I was hungry for a read . . .
Rationalizing my behavior as research, I told myself I was just checking cover design. I was examining rear covers to see how the Big Publishers’ Copy Guys wrote copy for fiction. (Yes, my first novel was nearing production. I wanted to make sure that it was tricked out properly.)
I bought two books. I’m three-fourths of the way through one. The other sits on my dining table. If I get through the first one without puking, I’ll read the next one.

I soothed my conscience by labeling what I was doing research. I analyzed the socioeconomic group/personal needs of the books’ intended audiences by examining the content of their covers. The culture represented by the books on Rite Aide’s shelves was attracted to large pectoral muscles and flowers. Also the words “Menopause relief.”
I’d say their readers leaned toward women of a certain age––which could be almost any age.
I bought two books based on cover attractiveness and the best looking set of pects . . . No. That’s not true. My upcoming novel was dark and scary. I wanted a particular look. I selected volumes that might be models for what I wanted.  One book I purchased was Gothic, or goth, as it is known in urban centers among teenagers. The other book had zowie, powie colors that my eye couldn’t release.
The books had interesting rear cover copy in different styles. (Copy is the writing on the book’s front & rear cover that sells the book. It includes stuff about the author and book and can appear anywhere: on the author’s web site, on postcards, in the front or back of the book. Tattooed on the author’s forehead . . . Writing copy is an art, and expensive.)
The goth book turned out to be a vampire thriller.
What a hoot. I’ve never read a vampire book, even the original Dracula or the contemporary Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I am not interested in vampires, they remind me of those other blood sucking monsters, government entities that collect taxes. The subject is too scary. But this book had a certain, very badly written, charm. The author created a compelling alternative world, like many good authors do. But it was written so poorly . . .
The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy

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As a writer, I’ve done my time. I spent nine years in one writing group, a couple more in another. I’ve worked with several editors (they are not all sadistic monsters). Been to really big writer/author workshops. I’ve learned punctuation, and I even know how to diagram sentences. (I understand that they stopped teaching kids how to do that in school. That is really stupid. Diagramming sentences was one of the most useful things I learned in school, next to typing. Calculus never helped me at all.)

I’ve paid my dues: I’ve gotten vicious, humiliating rejection letters all the way down the scale to chummy and respectful rejection letters. I’ve had people try to scam me for big bucks, and scam me for big bucks.

I read this goth, vampire story and thought, “How the $@##! can she get away with it?” The bad English. The clichés. The convoluted sentences. How? How? She’s being published by a major, major publisher. I thought they wanted quality. Everything I’d learned in my writing groups flashed before my eyes.

So here’s this book, written by a New York Times Bestselling author and published by a major house, that defies all the rules.

How did that happen? I couldn’t stand reading it. “The swirling opacity of the mist that enveloped him as he tore his cloak from his beating breast”  (and pects) got to be too much. I pulled out a pen and edited the book as I read. Much better.

The most important maxim in the Chicago Manual of Style: “Remove unnecessary words.”

Pen in hand, I read/edited the book and had fun. It did display a quirky charm and wild, relentless imagination.

The text mentioned a web site. I explored it.

Holy macaroni! The thing was amazing. Every character had his or her (mostly his) own page. It was a huge site with a supermarket-sized collection of stuff to buy. Everything from mugs to T shirts to actual [Delete that actual, Sandy! Redundant. No––I included it for teaching purposes.]

You could get lost in the site’s chat room, guestbook, post your pictures, blog, forum, new books about to be created, and old books still available. For starters: Each page had more headers and stuff to explore.

I mean . . . [Writing tip: If you mean something, you don’t have to say that you mean it. Just say it.]

Okay, finding that site and that author hurt.

She’d written not just a lousy vampire series; she’d written many other romance series, too. Her books, pectorals, bad English and all, will have sold probably fifteen million copies by the time you read this. She receives truckloads of mail every day, has adoring fans panting for her words, image and news. She has a staff to help her. I expect she’s made some money with her writing.

And, she dresses up with goth clothing for her wildly popular book signings.

Okay. My books have not sold fifteen million copies, but they are written in proper English, except when I ignore convention, as writers are allowed to do these days.

What’s the problem?

I’ve got a great life, a dream life, but I didn’t get it by writing.

I want my writing to give me a bigger dream life. I want the perks of a successful author. I want the fan mail. Adoration. Staff. Money. I want all of that. Why? Because it looks like fun. Also, I’d like to be God.

I’ve been to the major uplifting, transformational seminars. I’ve meditated for thirty years. Why haven’t I sold fifteen million books? I’ve gone to school . . .

Where’s the justice?

Right there: I GOT IT! I HAD A HUGE TRANSFORMATIONAL EXPERIENCE THAT CHANGED ME FOREVER.

I read that the author in question had spent eight years trying to get a publisher to look at her work. Eight years. All you out there ready to quit––EIGHT YEARS. That’s even more suffering than Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, the Chicken Soup guys. They were rejected by hundreds of publishers before one bit. And they didn’t even have a vampire story. (Chicken Soup for the Vampire’s Soul? Chicken Soup for the Undead?)

The author of the book I’m talking about chose a topic with that interested LOTS of people. She hit that market right on. Her team skillfully marketed her work and she worked like crazy. I’ve written drafts for eight or nine novels. This gal has published twenty, thirty, who knows. She works, that one . . .

LITERATI, LISTEN UP:

We intellectuals get so impressed with ourselves. Our verbal riffs, our penetrating insights, our camaraderie and intellectual sparring. Our sense of superiority not only to non-writing humanity, but our own kind. It’s a minefield, being smart. And writing.

Here’s a story that pertains to this: Years ago, I worked for a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. At the BIZ School, they teach using the case study method, which means that rather than reading boring textbooks about decision sciences and accounting, students read case studies of REAL problems encountered by businesses.

One of the case studies at the Stanford GSB was about Mary Kay Cosmetics. You’ve heard of Mary Kay? One of the most successful women in business, ever. If a woman can make that much money, I’m positively inclined toward her from the get-go.

The women who wrote the case study weren’t. They filmed the process of writing that study. I’ve seen the film. It involved a major socio-economic clash. Mary Kay got where she was by creating exceptional products and knowing her market, and her sales force. She lived and looked the life that many of her followers wanted. Eye shadow, fake lashes, pink suits and all.

The team of female Harvard PhDs sent to investigate her company did not look like Mary Kay or her clients.

To say that they looked like linebackers was unfair. Usually, linebackers do more with their hair. The gals leaned in that direction, some might say. They went out to interview Mary Kay and check out her company like a team of vampires sans all the sexy bits. Mary greeted them politely in her flouncy pink International Headquarters. She blinked as she noticed “the Doctors” lack of make-up and their clothes.

That’s all I’ll say, except that they did not get her at all. I did.

Hey, baby, you’re the most successful woman in business ever? I want to learn about what you did. I want what you got. (Though if I ever was a Mary Kay representative and earned a car, I would not want a pink Cadillac. I’d like a pink Rolls Royce.)

We intellectuals do the same thing in the literary world: Dis the folk who are making it. Do the snotty-nose thing to them who got what we want. (And really want it, don’t we? Book signings where somebody shows up? Fans who are willing to look past our failings? And those of our books? Readers who like us so much that they copy our hairstyles?)

Or are we too snobby to even want that, preferring to live alone in our glorious superiority?

The year that Stephen King won a lifetime award from the National Book Award people, he chided them for their lack of recognition of popular writers. “You’re denigrating your own culture,” he said (or something like that).

The winner of the National Book Award that year had sold something like 2,500 copies of her magnificent work before she won the award. And how many millions has Stephen sold?

I’d still like that goth author to clean up her prose. But it may be the jiggles and wiggles and odd turns of phrase that her readers’ like. Maybe she knows her market better than me.

My husband suggested that I send my edited copy of her book to her. How rude. I wouldn’t do that. She might wave her royalty checks at me. Or her millions of fans might attack me . . . once it got dark and they could come out.

This research project has been a turning point for me. My writing will change as a result.

Ponder what’s here. How does it apply to you and your writing? Or your book promotion?

Let me know, huh? I’d like a thoughtful response from someone.

And to all those spammers who have been sending their nonsensical and revolting messages: Knock it off!

Or I’ll not just delete them––I’ll use my Supernatural Powers. Out will come my fangs . . . I’ll send my minions to smite you and carry you to the Dark World.

I will, really.

Sandy Nathan, winner of 13 national writing awards. And yes, I did really look like this once. 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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