Writing Advice

‘It Feels Like a Derangement’: Menopause, Depression, & Me

30 August 2018
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From The New York Review of Books:

Menopause: the ceasing of menstruation or the period in a woman’s life (typically between forty-five and fifty-five).

I stare stupidly at it. It’s nothing much to look at. It’s only a small pile of clothing: the shorts and tank top that I wear in bed, which I have thrown onto the floor before getting into the shower. I stare stupidly at the clump because I can’t pick it up. It’s astonishing I managed to shower, because I know already that this is a bad day, one when I feel assaulted by my hormones, which I picture as small pilots in those huge Star Wars armored beasts that turn me this way and that, implacable. On this morning, I wake up with fear in my stomach—fear of nothing—and I know it will be a bad day.

For a while, I thought I could predict these days. I have had practice. This is my second menopause: the first was chemically induced seven years ago to treat my endometriosis, a condition that has riddled my insides with adhesions of endometrial tissue, and stuck my organs together. The adhesions are exacerbated by estrogen; the drug switched it off. (The same drug can block other hormones and is also used to treat pedophilia and prostate cancer.) I hated that menopause; it was a crash off a cliff into sudden insomnia and depression and a complete eradication of sexual desire. “The symptoms will last six months,” said the male ob-gyn, with a voice he thought was kind but that sounded only casual. They lasted far longer. The nurse giving me the first injection said, “He keeps prescribing this stuff, but women hate it.”

This menopause is the natural one. I’m two years in. It doesn’t feel natural. It feels like a derangement. With each menopause, I have chosen to take hormone replacement therapy (HRT). The first time because I wanted my sleep back. This time because I spent a year researching menopause for a magazine article, and because I have weighed the risks and judged them acceptable, and because I know what happened last time, when I was broken. The two occasions when I asked for HRT are the only two on which I have cried in a doctor’s office.

Every Wednesday and Saturday, I take two 100mg transdermal patches of estradiol (a form of estrogen). I fix them to my abdomen, swapping sides each time. They never fall off, though I go running for hours at a time and sweat. This is the maximum dose of estrogen, and it took about a year for me to understand I needed this amount, a year of peeling skin, sore tendons, poor sleep, awful sadness, inexplicable weeping, and various other “symptoms” of menopause that you can find listed if you look beyond the hot flashes and insomnia. (I don’t know why Americans say “flash” instead of “flush”; I prefer the British-English word, less fleeting than a flash, a better fit for that rise in temperature, violently sudden and overwhelming, that makes you feel as if you had never been cool or would be again.) Estrogen is more powerful and more wide-ranging than is assumed, and its removal or diminishment brings effects ludicrously understated by “the change.”

. . . .

I can’t pick up the clothes. I can’t explain the granite of that “can’t” to anyone else, the way it feels impossible to beat. Look at me looking at the pile and you will think, Just pick it up. For fuck’s sake. But I don’t. I look at it, and the thought of accomplishing anything makes my fear and despair grow. Every thought brings on another and that prospect is frightening. All those thoughts. I write that down and I feel stupid and maudlin and dramatic. A privileged freelance writer who does not have a full-time job that requires her presence in an office and can be indulgent of what the medical profession calls “low moods.” In fact, plenty of menopausal women leave their jobs, endure wrecked relationships, suffer, and cope. Or don’t. But I don’t feel maudlin and dramatic in the bathroom, or on any other of a hundred occasions over the past two years. I feel terrified. I have no reason to feel fear. But my body acts as though I do: the blood rushing from my gut to my limbs in case I need to flee, leaving the fluttering emptiness that is called “butterflies,” though that is too pretty a description.

Still, I set off on my bicycle to my writing studio. I hope I can overcome the day. I always hope, and I am always wrong. A few hours later, I find myself cowering in my workspace, a studio I rent in a complex of artists’ studios, scared to go downstairs to the kitchen because I can’t bear to talk to anyone I might find there. I have done nothing of use all day. Every now and then, I stop doing nothing and put my head in my hands because it feels safe and comfortable, like a refuge. I look underneath my desk and think I might sit there. There is no logic to this except that it is out of sight of the door and no one will find me.

Even so, when the phone rings I answer it. I shouldn’t, but I am hopeful that I can manage it and mask it, and I haven’t spoken to my mother for a few days and would like to. It goes well for a few minutes, because I’m not doing the talking. Then she asks me whether I want to accompany her to a posh dinner, several weeks hence. She doesn’t understand when I ask to be given some time to think about it. “Why can’t you decide now?” I say it’s one of the bad days, but I know this is a mixed message: If it’s that bad, how am I talking on the phone and sounding all right? Because I am a duck: talking serenely above, churning below, the weight on my chest, the catch in my throat, the inexplicable distress. I try to explain but I’m also trying hard not to weep, and so I explain it badly.

. . . .

It takes a while but finally I set off. I know where I’m going. I have learned. On days like this, there are only two places to be. One is in my darkened bedroom with my cat lying next to me. On days like this, she takes care to lie closer to me than usual because she knows and because she loves me. Maybe my darkness has a smell.

The other place to be is in unconsciousness.

. . . .

I sometimes call these bridge days, after a footbridge near my studio that goes at a great height over the busy A64 road. On days like this, that bridge is a danger for me. I am not suicidal, but I have always had the urge to jump. This is a thing with a name. HPP: high places phenomenon. The French call it “l’appel du vide.” So very Sartre of them: the call of emptiness. The A64 is the opposite of emptiness, but still, it is a danger. Today I don’t have the filter that we must all have to function: the one that stops us stepping into traffic or fearing the cars or buses that can kill us at any time. The one that mutes the call of the HPP.

I avoid the bridge. I cycle home, trying not to rage at drivers who cut me off and ignore me. I have no room for rage along with everything else. Thoughts that would normally flow now snag. Every observation immediately triggers a negative thread, a spiral, and a worsening. On a good day, I can pass a child and a mother and think, How nice. Nothing more. Fleeting. Unimportant. On a bad day, I see the same and think of my own infertility, how I have surely disappointed my mother by not giving her grandchildren; how it is all too late, and what have I done with my life, and my book will be a failure and today is lost and I can’t afford to lose the time. It goes on and on. Snagging thoughts that drag me down, that are relentless.

Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books

PG claims no expertise on this subject, but has family members, female and male, who have had severe mental illness and knows the illnesses are real and can be disabling.

It took him some time to fully understand that our perceptions of the world can be strongly affected, even changed by the tiny, complex and transitory biochemical reactions that constantly occur between our brain cells. If some of those cells fail to operate properly and the chains of chemical interactions become disrupted, an individual can have her/his most fundamental thoughts disrupted, sometimes in substantial ways.


Dictionary Editors Say This Is the Most Misused Word in the English Language

29 August 2018

From MSN:

A traffic jam when you’re already late.

A free ride when you’ve already paid.

The fact that the King James Bible is the most shoplifted book in the United States.

One of these three things is an example of irony—the reversal of what is expected or intended. The other two (no offense to Alanis Morissette) are not. The difference between them may be one of the most rage-inducing linguistic misunderstandings you’re likely to read about on the Internet or hear about from the determined grammar nerds in your life. ‘Ironic’ does not, technically, mean ‘unfortunate,’ ‘interesting,’ or ‘coincidental,’ despite these terms often being used interchangeably. And that frequent misuse has not escaped linguists; according to the editors at Dictionary.com, ‘We submit that ironic might be the most abused word in the English language.’

That’s a tough claim to prove, but it’s clear that confusion over the definition of irony is persistent, and decades old. ‘Irony’ makes Harvard linguist Steven Pinker’s list of the 58 most commonly misused words in English, and ranks in the top 1 percent of all word lookups on Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary. Even Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald got it wrong, some say, when he claimed in 1939, ‘It is an ironic thought that the last picture job I took yielded me five thousand dollars five hundred and cost over four thousand in medical attention.” That’s not ironic.

. . . .

There’s Socratic irony (an ancient rhetorical move), and dramatic irony (an ancient theatrical move), but the definition of irony we care about—and the kind that’s most bitterly debated—is situational irony. Situational irony occurs when, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, ‘a state of affairs or an event… seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often wryly amusing as a result.’

. . . .

The trick, according to purists, is the deliberately contrary part—for a situation to be ironic, it must be the opposite of what is expected, not merely an amusing coincidence. A traffic jam when you’re already late may be an undesirable coincidence, but it is not the opposite outcome one would expect when leaving for work late (especially if that person lives in a major city).

Link to the rest at MSN and thanks to Felix for the tip.

The OP reminded PG of a lovely quote:

The main business of a lawyer is to take the romance, the mystery, the irony, the ambiguity out of everything he touches.

~ Antonin Scalia

Should you trust a computer to grade your child’s writing on Common Core tests?

25 August 2018

From The Washington Post:

Education activists are increasingly becoming concerned about the computer grading of written portions of new Common Core tests. Can a computer really grade written work as well as a human being?

. . . .

On April 5, 2016, the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, Parents Across America, Network for Public Education, FairTest and many state and local parent groups sent a letter to the Education Commissioners in the states using the federally funded Common Core tests known as PARCC and SBAC, asking about the scoring of these exams.

We asked them the following questions:

  • What percentage of the ELA exams in our state are being scored by machines this year, and how many of these exams will then be re-scored by a human being?
  • What happens if the machine score varies significantly from the score given by the human being?
  • Will parents have the opportunity to learn whether their children’s ELA exam was scored by a human being or a machine?
  • Will you provide the “proof of concept” or efficacy studies promised months ago by Pearson in the case of PARCC, and AIR in the case of SBAC, and cited in the contracts as attesting to the validity and reliability of the machine-scoring method being used?
  • Will you provide any independent research that provides evidence of the reliability of this method, and preferably studies published in peer-reviewed journals?
  • Our concerns had been prompted by seeing the standard contracts that Pearson and AIR had signed with states. The standard PARCC contractindicates that this year, Pearson would score two-thirds of the students’ writing responses by computers, with only 10 percent of these rechecked by a human being.  In 2017, the contract said, all of PARCC writing samples were to be scored by machine with only 10 percent rechecked by hand.

. . . .

On another Pearson page, linked to from the FAQ, called “Scoring the PARCC Test,” the informational sheet goes on at great length about the training and experience levels of the individuals selected for scoring these exams (which is itself quite debatable) without even mentioning the possibility of computer scoring. In fact, we can find nowhere on the PARCC website in any page that a parent would be likely to visit that makes it clear that machine-scoring will be used for the majority of students’ writing on these exams.

. . . .

According to Les Perelman, retired director of  a  writing program at MIT and an expert on computer scoring, the PARCC/Pearson study is particularly suspect because its principal authors were the lead developers for the ETS and Pearson scoring programs. Perelman said:  “It is a case of the foxes guarding the hen house.  The people conducting the study have a powerful financial interest in showing that computers can grade papers.”

. . . .

“Like previous studies, the report neglects to give the most crucial statistics: when there is a discrepancy between the machine and the human reader, when the essay is adjudicated, what percentage of instances is the machine right? What percentage of instances is the human right? What percentage of instances are both wrong? …  If the human is correct, most of the time, the machine does not really increase accuracy as claimed.”

. . . .

Moreover, the AIR executive summary admits that “optimal gaming strategies” raised the score of otherwise low-scoring responses a significant amount. The study then concludes because that one computer scoring program was not fooled by the most basic of gaming strategies, repeating parts of the essay over again, computers can be made immune from gaming.  The Pearson study doesn’t mention gaming at all.

Indeed, research shows it is easy to game by writing nonsensical long essays with abstruse vocabulary. See for example, this gibberish-filled  prose that received the highest score by the GRE computer scoring program. The essay was composed by the BABEL generator – an automatic writing machine that generates gobbled-gook, invented by Les Perelman and colleagues.

. . . .

In a Boston Globe opinion piece , Perelman describes how he tested another automated scoring system, IntelliMetric, that similarly was unable to distinguish coherent prose from nonsense, and awarded high scores to essays containing the following phrases:

“According to professor of theory of knowledge Leon Trotsky, privacy is the most fundamental report of humankind. Radiation on advocates to an orator transmits gamma rays of parsimony to implode.’’

Unable to analyze meaning, narrative, or argument, computer scoring instead relies on length, grammar, and arcane vocabulary to do assess prose. Perelman asked Pearson if he could test its computer scoring program, but was denied access. Perelman concluded:

If PARCC does not insist that Pearson allow researchers access to its robo-grader and release all raw numerical data on the scoring, then Massachusetts should withdraw from the consortium. No pharmaceutical company is allowed to conduct medical tests in secret or deny legitimate investigators access. The FDA and independent investigators are always involved. Indeed, even toasters have more oversight than high stakes educational tests.

A paper dated March 2013 from the Educational Testing Service (one of the SBAC sub-contractors) concluded:

Current automated essay-scoring systems cannot directly assess some of the more cognitively demanding aspects of writing proficiency, such as audience awareness, argumentation, critical thinking, and creativity…A related weakness of automated scoring is that these systems could potentially be manipulated by test takers seeking an unfair advantage. Examinees may, for example, use complicated words, use formulaic but logically incoherent language, or artificially increase the length of the essay to try and improve their scores.

The inability of machine scoring to distinguish between nonsense and coherence may lead to a debasement of instruction, with teachers and test prep companies engaged in training students on how to game the system by writing verbose and pretentious prose that will receive high scores from the machines.  In sum, machine scoring will encourage students to become poor writers and communicators.

Link to the rest at The Washington Post

PG suggests that Pearson has a powerful incentive to use computer systems to generate test scores. Human graders are expensive, slow, difficult to manage and, most importantly, a drag on profits.

PG also suggests that school systems that will be graded and classified based on their students’ test scores will be powerfully incented to spend class time instructing students about how to write for the standardized tests.

Using the buzzword, “artificial intelligence” is certainly a lovely way to sell machine grading. However, PG also suggests that Pearson is far from a magnet for smart people working in artificial intelligence.

Essentially, Pearson is a big publishing company with more than a few similarities to the large New York trade publishing companies. Companies which are on the forefront of artificial intelligence include Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Intel, Baidu and Tencent.

Tech people have become very wealthy working for Google, Amazon, etc., etc. Nobody knows a tech person who has become wealthy working for Pearson (or Simon & Schuster, Hachette, HarperCollins, etc.). In short, these large publishers don’t have the brainpower for cutting-edge AI research and probably don’t have the brainpower to discern between quality AI and junk.

Human graders have their own drawbacks (young attorneys barely out of law school themselves used to be observed on San Francisco cable cars grading written essays on the California bar exams), but there is no technological fog obscuring their reliability the way there is with “artificial intelligence.”

Sensitivity Readers! What Are They Good For? (A Lot.)

11 August 2018

From Publishers Weekly:

I woke up early one morning, my wife lying in bed next to me, already awake. She has often has bad insomnia, so I asked how long she’d been up.

“All night,” she said. “I haven’t slept at all.”

“That sucks,” I said. “You want some breakfast?”

It was a simple interaction, but recently I’ve been thinking how ridiculous it would’ve been if I’d said, “I was here next to you all night. If you were really awake, I’d have noticed.” Or, “I’ve never experienced insomnia. I don’t think it’s real.”

And, yet, that’s how many of us respond when people of color tell us about their experiences with racism. This nonsense has been on full display in the publishing industry recently thanks to the ongoing debate regarding the role of sensitivity readers in modern publishing.

For the uninitiated, sensitivity readers are people from marginalized backgrounds who vet manuscripts to ensure that their representation of underrepresented groups is both accurate and respectful. Unfortunately, these readers, who should be universally celebrated and appreciated, have instead been at the heart of a heated argument that’s been spotlighted by everyone from the New York Times to Katie Couric.

The heart of the controversy? Many white writers cry censorship whenever a sensitivity reader advocates for thoughtful and accurate representation.

. . . .

As a straight white male who’s spent the past four years writing a queer love story, I’ve used nearly a dozen sensitivity readers so far, and I will no doubt use several more once my agent and I go on submission. The verdict? Sensitivity readers are hands down the best thing to ever happen to my manuscript.

. . . .

Sensitivity readers are helping me learn to be more intentional with my privilege. By paying marginalized creators for a sensitivity read, I help finance their own creative projects. These sensitivity readers also inspired me to think critically about putting my money where my mouth is and supporting wonderful organizations like We Need Diverse Books.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly

PG is quite intentional with his privilege and is inclined to assert that privilege by avoiding books that require sensitivity readers.

His next nonfiction book (he’s enjoying a science fiction series at the moment) is going to be Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I by John Ellis.

According to the West Coast Review of Books, Mr. Ellis “describes graphically the disgusting, revolting conditions of hunger, infestation, disease, and above all, fatigue that were endured”.

There’s no word about whether Mr. Ellis became more or less intentional with his privilege during the writing of any of his books, but PG doubts any sensitivity readers were involved.

After Eye-Deep in Hell, PG is intentionally considering another Ellis book, The Social History of the Machine GunWho could possibly resist a title like that?

Perhaps PG needs to start a John Ellis book club to encourage more diverse books.

Incidentally, while searching for a bit more background on the John Ellis discussed above, PG came across another fascinating John Ellis.

The second John Ellis (4 October 1874 – 20 September 1932) “was a British executioner for 23 years, from 1901 to 1924. His other occupations were as a Rochdale hairdresser and newsagent.”

“At the age of 22 he applied to the Home Office to become an executioner and was invited to attend training at Newgate Prison. He first participated in an execution in Newcastle in December 1901, as assistant to William Billington. Ellis served as Chief Executioner from 1907 and was involved in a total of 203 executions.

Among the executions he performed were those of Hawley Harvey Crippen (known as Dr. Crippen) in 1910, Frederick Seddon in 1912, Sir Roger Casement in 1916, Herbert Rowse Armstrong in 1922, and of Edith Thompson in 1923. He took the responsibility of his position very seriously and hoped to “despatch” the condemned person with as little fuss and pain to the individual concerned as possible.

. . . .

 His relations to his fellow executioners were strained. Henry Pierrepoint was struck off the list of executioners following a complaint by Ellis. Pierrepoint, arriving at Chelmsford prison slightly intoxicated on 13 July 1910, had started a row, and would have beaten up Ellis had not warders intervened. Pierrepoint’s brother, Thomas, also an executioner, is reported to have said about John Ellis that “it was impossible to work with him”.”

Once again, PG is unsure about how intentional Executioner John was with his privilege, but he did write a book, Diary of a Hangman: Britain’s executioner for 23 years.

A reviewer of Diary of a Hangman has the following to say:

All in all it was a fairly interesting read and was quite a bit better than Pierrepoint: A Family of Executioners: The Story of Britain’s Infamous Hangmen which I read recently. The book details Ellis’s career as a hangman but it does not do so in a straightforward chronological fashion. Rather, it jumps back and forth in time and deals with various episodes in Ellis’s life in a somewhat rambling fashion. In the foreword we are told that this is because the book was actually a record of Ellis’s verbal reminiscences and, although the text is never haphazard or confusing, a more chronological approach would have been better.

Leisure sickness: why you should not relax on holiday

7 August 2018

From The Times of London

My suitcase is on the bed, I’ve printed the boarding passes and even remembered the travel plug. I may be burdened by a year’s aggregate of fatigue and stress, but that’s OK, I am finally heading off on my summer holiday. It’s really not the moment to spot a report that says, badly handled, my two weeks in Greece might be the death of me.

According to a study by Liverpool University, if you’re middle-aged, and even if you’re reasonably active day to day, a “holiday” doing nothing may be ill-advised. The study conducted by Dan Cuthbertson, an honorary consultant at the university’s Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease, examined the effects of two weeks’ relaxation on 45 healthy men and women with previously good metabolic health. They had all been used to walking an average 10,000 steps a day or more, but for the study were asked to limit their steps to less than 2,000 a day and to sit for up to three and a half hours a day longer than usual.

Overall, while younger participants recovered reasonably quickly, the inactivity in older people led to a slowing of their metabolism. Also, blood sugar and “bad” cholesterol levels increased while insulin sensitivity decreased. These are contributory factors to type 2 diabetes. What’s more, muscle mass diminished and fat deposits increased, especially around the abdomen, a contributory factor to heart disease.

“The public health message is certainly not ‘don’t go on holiday’,” says Cuthbertson. “But it’s that, especially for the older demographic, as you get older there is a constellation of physiological reasons that make it harder to win your health and fitness back.”

. . . .

“No one’s saying holiday has to become a boot camp,” says Cuthbertson. “In fact exercise should feel good physically and mentally. Go for a daily swim and see if you can add a couple of lengths each day.” The doctor, who is no slouch himself — he has run 20 marathons and 200 half-marathons — follows his own orders. “On holiday in Scotland recently I did a park run, which is a really good public health initiative.”

Inactivity on holiday is not the only holiday health pitfall. Scientists and researchers now believe that the sudden decompression that holidaymakers go through when they switch from work to holiday mode can play havoc with their wellbeing. Ever got your keys to the villa, opened the shutters and admired the pool only to retire to bed feeling ill? You may have succumbed to a phenomenon that Ad Vingerhoets, a professor of clinical psychology from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, has called “leisure sickness”. Its symptoms include headache, insomnia, depression and anxiety, or flu-like symptoms.

. . . .

“The statistics suggest it’s growing,” she says. “Highly stressed people or workaholics tend to suffer holiday burn-out most. They’re at optimum stress completing tasks before the holiday and then they may suffer an immune-system crash. But the surprising thing is the group we call ‘inactives’ who enjoy a lot of unconditional leisure time on a day-to-day basis, they suffer leisure sickness too. Too much freedom is not good.”

Link to the rest at The Times of London

At this point in his life, PG has a number of grandchildren who are often involved in the vacations he and Mrs. PG take from time to time. The grandchildren are the perfect antidote to the problems of too much inactivity and relaxation during vacation. Casa PG and its many keyboards are sometimes a welcome respite from vacations.

Here is approximately 3 seconds from a recent visit from PG offspring.

You might not be too impressed by this young man’s diving skills, but it does qualify as a new yardstick for activity. PG will call it an Offspring Activity Event (OAE).

Onlookers are anything but relaxed. For one thing, it is desirable for this type of OAE to end with the offspring coming back to the surface of the water. Generally, one or more adult vacationers are observing to make certain this happens within a reasonable period of time.

PG purposely chose a record of one of the simpler OAE’s during a vacation. If you modify this OAE slightly to have it end with Offspring 1 landing on Offspring 2 who is already in the pool, you’ll be looking at a multi-OAE situation which will helpfully prevent adults from remaining completely relaxed to the detriment of their health per the OP.

A bit of simple math demonstrates why visits with Offspring are not appropriately grouped with problems triggered by too much inactivity and relaxation. We will set aside multi-OAE to simplify calculations.

If you start with your basic 3-second OAE, you’ll see this turns into 1,200 OAE’s per hour. Now, each OAE is not a disaster, but nearby adults tend to subconsciously monitor nearby OAE’s as a fundamental part of their disaster preparedness regime. You don’t want an OAE involving a screwdriver and a younger sibling’s eye to catch you napping.

Taking the 1,200 OAE’s per hour further, indisputable mathematics says there will be 28,800 OAE’s per day and 201,600 events per week.

Now, persnickety doubters might claim that sleeping children do not generate 1,200 OAE’s per hour. This may be true in a strict sense, but that takes us into the realm of OAE severity ratings.

Without getting into complex equations, we will simply observe that Offspring Activity Events that occur in the middle of the night tend to be more severe than daylight OAE’s. Offspring Vomiting in bed at 1:00 AM will certainly protect adults from experiencing too much vacation relaxation more than subconscious observation of Offspring Activity during the day at a swimming pool.

The mathematics underlying the science of Offspring Activity Events becomes exponentially more complex if you assume there is more than one Offspring engaging in activities simultaneously. Five Offspring will generate over one million OAE’s during a week with a huge increase in multi-intersectional OAE events.

And, of course, for a small number of adults, conscientious OAE monitoring of more than one Offspring at a time is the best protection because it reduces any possibility of relaxation during a vacation to a bare minimum.

This discussion will not delve into the increased burden of Offspring Justice Determinations layered on top of basic OAE observational and management tasks when one Offspring’s OAE improperly interferes with another Offspring’s peaceful exercise of OAE autonomy resulting in a multi-OAE morass. Simply identifying each individual OAE in such a situation is difficult enough without tossing severity calculations into the mix.

Suffice to say, multi-OAE situations are probably the best defense against leisure sickness while on vacation.


No, you probably don’t have a book in you

28 July 2018

From The Outline:

Has anyone ever said you should write a book? Maybe extraordinary things have happened to you, and they say you should write a memoir. Or you have an extremely vivid imagination, and they say you should write a novel. Maybe your kids are endlessly entertained at bedtime, and they say you should write a children’s book. Perhaps you just know how everything should be and imagine your essay collection will set the world straight.

Everyone has a book in them, right?

I hate to break it to you but everyone does not, in fact, have a book in them.

. . . .

I am a literary agent. It is my full-time job to find new books and help them get published. When people talk about “having a book in them,” or when people tell others they should write a book (which is basically my nightmare), what they really mean is I bet someone, but probably not me because I already heard it, would pay money to hear this story. When people say “you should write a book,” they aren’t thinking of a physical thing, with a cover, that a human person edited, copyedited, designed, marketed, sold, shipped, and stocked on a shelf. Those well-meaning and supportive people rarely know how a story becomes printed words on a page. Here’s what they don’t know, and what most beginner writers might not realize, either.

Every story is not a book.

. . . .

A book may also be things that happened or that we wished happened, embellished for interest, but it’s also so much more. It’s a story told artfully on the page, tailored to the reader. A book has a beginning, middle, and an end that keeps the reader invested for the five, six, ten hours it can take to read a book, because if it gets boring in the middle, most people stop reading. A book, when published by a traditional publisher to be sold in stores, has a defined market, a reader in mind, and that reader is one who usually buys books, not just some hypothetical person the publisher hopes to catch off the street.

You can tell a story to anyone who’s willing to listen. But writing a book that people will pay money for or take a trip to the library to read, requires an awareness few storytellers have. It is not performance, not a one-person show. It’s a relationship with the reader, who’s often got one foot out the door.

. . . .

Remember writing papers in school? Remember trying to eke out 1,000 words or three pages or whatever seemingly arbitrary number a teacher set? Remember making the font bigger and the margins wider? You can’t do that to a book. I ‘m often sent stories that are way too long or too short for the publishing industry, and that makes them bad candidates for books. The average novel, for adults or children, is at least 50,000 words. That’s 50 three-page papers. Shorter books are not cheaper for the publisher to make, for many reasons too boring to get into here, and no, it’s not just cheaper to do ebooks, either. (No, really, it’s not.) If you’re an epic writer and think breaking up your 500,000-word fantasy series into five books is the key, you’re wrong there, too. A publisher doesn’t really want book two until they see how book number one is selling. And if your story doesn’t wrap up until book five, then you’re going to have nothing but disappointed readers. Writing — just getting the words on the page — is hard, period. Writing artfully so that someone enjoys what you’re writing is even harder.

Publishing is a retail industry, not a meritocracy.

Writing is an art form, books are art, but they exist in a system that relies on readers to exchange money for goods. That money pays a publisher’s rent and electric bill, and the salaries of the often hundreds if not thousands of people they employ to make the books readers buy. And if a book doesn’t make money, it’s very hard to pay those salaries. Publishers take a financial risk on a book, because no one knows how a book is going to sell until it’s on shelves, and very successful authors (your JK Rowlings and James Pattersons) help pay the bills for the less successful books. Publishers certainly publish books they know are not going to make a lot (or any) money, and they do this for the sake of art or history or prestige, or a dozen other reasons. But they can’t do it that often. So, you may have an amazing story, but if there isn’t sufficient evidence that readers will flock to it, you’re not likely to be published. No one deserves to be published just because they completed a book. It’s not “if you write it, they will come.”

Link to the rest at The Outline

Or you could write a book, click on the KDP Publish button and let JK and James pay all those salaries and bills on their own.

And never have to deal with a literary agent. Or pay anyone but yourself.

How to Skillfully Use Subplots in Your Novel

23 July 2018

From Diana Kimpton via Jane Friedman’s blog:

Subplots help pace your story and keep the tension rising. Unfortunately, the name “subplots” wrongly suggests they are somehow inferior or substandard. It also gives the impression that they are something separate from the main plot—a second story running under the first one and completely disconnected from it. Sometimes I find subplots exactly like that in novels I read—usually the ones that aren’t very good. When the authors realize there’s not enough going on, they stick in a completely irrelevant subplot, about a lost cat or a child’s birthday, that gets in the way of the main story and slows the action.

I prefer to think of story strands rather than subplots as that better explains how they work. The main storyline is your central strand carrying the reader forward toward the final conclusion of the book. Other story strands (or subplots) intertwine with the main one, building it up from a single strand into a fascinating, deeply textured plot that will hold your readers’ interest. If you’ve ever plaited hair, you’ll know that different strands become the top one as you work, and writing an interwoven plot is just like that. Although you have the main storyline running through the whole novel, other story strands will be more important at various stages of the book, and some of the twists and turns in the plot come when you move from one strand to another or when two strands collide. The story strands work together to carry the reader toward the end of the book and some, but not necessarily all, will be resolved at or around the same time as the resolution of the main storyline. Others will be resolved during the progress of the story, but this needs to be done with care or, going back to our hair analogy, you’ll end up with an untidy plait with lots of straggly bits sticking out the sides.

. . . .

In my young adult novel, There Must Be Horses, one story strand is about the way Sasha’s troubled background has left her unable to trust other people, and another strand is about a horse whose troubled background has made him unable to trust humans. As these mirrored strands weave together, the girl and the horse heal each other and solve each other’s problems.

Link to the rest at Jane Friedman

The Loneliness of Long-Distance Writing

20 July 2018

From The Literary Hub:

“You are alone out there,” my college track coach said, pointing to the farmland that stretched to the horizon. Years later, I know his words also describe writing a book.

We were stretching on the hot track, and would soon head out on the country roads for a long-distance route. Coach Taylor didn’t want us talking during our runs. He said it slowed us down. Track is a team sport on paper, but in reality, running is an individual struggle. You against the rest of the field. You against yourself. You against time.

I liked running in the heat. Growing up, I never followed my parents’ advice to run early or late in the day—I loved afternoon runs in open fields, under the wide sun. The heat warmed me up, and it also wore me out, but it was a comfortable type of exhaustion. I was a middle-distance runner, a sprinter who wasn’t fast enough for the 100 or 200, a little slow for the 400, and without enough wind for the 1600. But the 800 was just right for me. There was a symmetry to it, a distinct first and second act.

Coach Taylor sold me on the idea that you have to train further than you race. I began running ten miles past the Amish selling rugs and pies, past old homes that were an arm’s length from the road, past tired cows and lazy pigs. Running is an acquired taste, but at some point I tricked myself into enjoying it. I fell in love with the silent drift of long-distance. I liked to be out there, hot and tired, and alone.

. . . .

You are alone out there, I think, a few miles into a run in the woods, with everything on my mind. Lately I’ve been thinking about my book manuscript, and I suspect other writers who run do the same. I once wrote an essay for The Atlantic about why writers run. It’s not surprising that this convergence is well-trod: writing and running are methodical, habitual actions. Rachel Toor, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, thinks the connection has to do with discipline: “You know some days will be harder than others, and on some you won’t hit your mark and will want to quit. But you don’t. You force yourself into a practice, the practice becomes habit and simply part of your identity.”

Later in her essay, she refines her connection between writing and running: “the state of vulnerability they leave you in. Both require bravery, audacity, a belief in one’s abilities, and a willingness to live the clichés: to put in one the line, to dig deep, to go for it. You have to believe in the ‘it,’ and have to believe, too, that you are worthy.”

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

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