Tammy wrote in to ask, "When an editor at a newspaper or magazine hands you a topic and tells you to write a story, where do you begin?" The is closely related to Dave’s question: "When writing a book, where do you begin to find your information?’
The easiest way, of course, is to simply make them up. Specifically, create a name and a bunch of quotes. Make sure the name sounds vaguely academic ("V. Pennington Longbottom" works better than "Dan Smith.") Stick in some phony facts, making sure to use "actual" numbers (saying "9482 people believe Hillary Clinton is really Ted Kennedy in a wig" is much more believable than saying "nearly ten thousand people believe…") If anyone questions your sources, immediately attack them as heretics.
Another thing that works well is to generalize: "EVERYBODY KNOWS that literary agents are more trustworthy than publishers." The goal is to try and make people who disagree feel stupid.
In a pinch, citing Bible verses also helps. For example, you can say, "As the prophet Fiorello says in Formica 2:2, ‘Only the good die young.’" (Note to Biblicists: You can also simply misquote a verse, like the people in CBA who use "Publish Glad Tidings" on their stationery, as though it were a reference to publishing books in 21st Century America. That sort of establishes a link between you and God in the minds of the readers. Trust me on this.)
In addition you can make your quotes close, even if they aren’t exactly correct. Or even germane. I once read a review of one of the 762 anti-DaVinci Code books that appeared on religious bookstore shelves in recent years, and the reviewer used these words: "As Jesus is claimed to have said, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ If only his modern-day disciples would follow his advice." Ha! Yeah, it’s a cute line. The only problem is
I’m just back from the giant Christian book show (formerly the "Christian Booksellers Association," now the "International Christian Retailers Show"). It was light on books this year, and heavy on Christian Crud (from my point of view). It was also light on people and sales, apparently, so they say big changes are due.
A few years ago, the people who run the show decided to stick all the publishers in the same section, so that it was easy to see who the actual book publishers were and what they were selling. That notion is now out the window, as publishers on the convention floor were dispersed so much it sometimes appeared as though I was at a gift show instead of a convention whose main profits are derived from the printed word. You had to hunt to find actual books this year, buried amidst the ties, jewelry, art, choir robes, and footwear (more on that in a moment).
Word is the publishers are sick of this trend, and are planning to stage their own book show next year — which will be interesting, but may not be successful. If you’re running a small Christian gift shop, do you pay to attend two conventions? Probably not, so you have to decide if you’ll go see books, or keep visiting the old standard convention where you’re sure to run into longtime friends as well as be able to actually handle the clothing and art (since it’s harder to see those on a computer screen). You figure the book reps will still come calling, and the catalogs will still show up in the mail. A tough call.
On top of that, CBA has announced the death of their mid-winter show, which was called "CBA Expo" (also known as "The Frozen Wasteland," since it attracted almost no one but made up for it by offering attendees such fun-filled attractions as "The Frigid, Ice-covered
I happen to be a huge fan of critique groups, and have participated in several until I moved or they wised up and threw me out. The experience has taught me a few principles for getting the most out of the group. My ten laws for critique groups:
1. Ask yourself why you want a group. What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got some way to evaluate the benefits to your writing later. Some people basically want to hang out with writers — more or less the same reason they attend writing conferences. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find a group that meets your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of professional writers to take a careful look at their material. If that’s what you’re after (and, being a reader of this blog, which is aimed more or less at writers, I figure that’s the majority of people reading this little missive), you’re going to need to put a lot more thought into your group.
2. The value of a critique group is based almost entirely on the membership. So look for people who are at your level or maybe just a bit better than you (if your ego can take it), and talk to them about the group. People need to know what the commitment will be (a weekly or maybe twice-a-month meeting that lasts a couple hours), what the expectations are (that members will actually read the other member’s writings before coming to a meeting), and what the benefit is to them ("You will hear advice for improving your writing").
3. Invite people to participate. Don’t put an announcement in the local newspaper or an invitation in the church bulletin. You’ll get the hangers-on, the wannabes, and, very possibly, members of my family.
Back from soggy Scotland (just missed the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport by a few hours) and hoping to get caught up. Jennifer wrote to ask, "As an agent and a reader, are there writing errors that drive you crazy?"
Yes! Of course! Here’s one! Novelists who use exclamation points as though the period key didn’t work! I hate this! Really!!!
Here’s "another" one: The "author" who feels a "need" to put emphasized words in "quotes," since they apparently think it makes them look more "official." This is particularly tiresome when a "funny" author decides to put his "punchlines" in quotations. (Does anybody remember the episode of Friends where Joey kept putting "finger quotes" around certain "words," even though he didn’t understand how to do it?) Here’s an "idea" — cut the quotation marks in your "epic."
And a third (related) item: People who use an open parenthesis but no close parenthesis. (For example, this kind.
Fourth is the serial comma. Drives me crazy. The rule for using commas is that there should be ONE LESS COMMA THAN THE ITEMS IN YOUR LIST. So if you list five things, you’d use four commas. An example: "Farnsworth visited Scotland, Wales, England, Ireland, and Djibouti." Note that there are five countries and four commas — one less than the list. Writers often drop the last comma, in an apparent attempt to make "Ireland and Djibouti" one country. (Similar to Trinidad and Tobaggo, if you’re into geography jokes.) Makes no sense at all.
Fifth is the adverbial ending "ly," which some authors insert regularly in an attemptly to sound scholarly. Note that this paragraph doesn’t start with the word "fifthly." From a strict editorial perspective, "fifth" is an adverb. To add "ly" to the end is to adverbialize an adverb. Why write "firstly" when it is clearer to write "first"? (Besides, if it’s a long list, can you really defend "thirteenthly"?)