Thursday, March 23, 2017

Talking Through Time Travel

If you are a sci-fi or fantasy fan, you are probably familiar with time travel and all its inherent and potential problems. You could change history dramatically. You could run into yourself. You could end up in all sorts of strange and paradoxical situations that could have profound effects on the future or the past. In short, it's fraught with all sorts of dangerous things.

One thing that fiction does not address as an issue with time travel is the ability to communicate in a different time. Okay, Star Trek solves that wee problem with Universal Translators that magically make everyone able to understand each other. But what if there were no Universal Translators and you ended up, say back in Shakespearean England. (late 16th and early 17th century) Could you understand people? Could they understand you?

Well, there's good news and bad news. It is unlikely that the general population spoke like the characters in Shakespeare's plays all the time. Shakespeare wrote to entertain. The dialogue in his plays had to a) keep the audience engaged; and b) be easy for the players to memorize. He wrote in iambic pentameter, the rhythm of which made it easier for the actors to learn the lines. Because of the specificity of the structure, he often had to manipulate the language to make it work. Some words were made up and other were adapted to fit the verse. The result was eloquent, but, in today's world, difficult to understand language.

William Shakespeare Apr. 23, 1564 to Apr. 23, 1616.

Ninty-five percent of the words that Shakespeare used are the still in use today, but some of those same words have altered significantly in meaning over the years. It was a time of great linguistic change and so dear William had the luxury of being able to employ creative license in his work. On the whole, though, his dialogue was representative of the way people really spoke in Elizabethan England.

So, with a bit of concentration, you could probably manage to get through to people to convey your needs as well as  understand directions to the nearest pub.

Now let's go back a bit further in time. The following is an example of The Lord's Prayer from different eras

Here is an example of Old English (c. 1000)

Fæder ure þuþe eart on heofonum 
si þin nama gehalgod tobecume þin rice gewurþe þin willa on eorðan swa swa on heofonum 
urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us to dæg 
and forgyf us ure gyltas swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum 
and ne gelæd þu us on costnunge ac alys us of yfele soþlice.

Move up to Middle English (c. 1384) and most people can sort it out.

Oure fadir þat art in heuenes halwid be þi name; 
þi reume or kyngdom come to be. Be þi wille don in herþe as it is dounin heuene
yeue to us today oure eche dayes bred. 
And foryeue to us oure dettis þat is oure synnys as we foryeuen to oure dettouris þat is to men þat han synned in us. 
And lede us not into temptacion but delyuere us from euyl.

By 1611, it becomes essentially modern English.

Our father which art in heauen, hallowed be thy name. 
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in heauen
Giue us this day our daily bread. 
And forgiue us our debts as we forgiue our debters. 
And lead us not into temptation, but deliuer us from euill. Amen.

The above is from the History of English page at

(Notice the u's being used in place of v's even in the "modern" English version?)

I highlighted the words heaven and evil in each example for your consideration and amusement. Pretty strange, isn't it? And no matter how you say it, you are probably pronouncing many of the words incorrectly. Inflection, pronounciation, accent... each of these would add another layer of difficulty to communication efforts. 

If you were to land in King Arthur's court, you'd essentially be unable to communicate at all. (Not even a Connecticut Yankee from the late 19th would be able to manage very well, in spite of Mr. Twain's imaginative assertion to the contrary.) If you think that English is complicated now, imagine what it would have been like back then.

Here's a link to a short YouTube video that you may find both entertaining and enlightening:

How Far Back in Time Could You Go and Still Understand English? 

Going forward in time would be no different. Languages are getting combined throughout the world. English words are creeping into other languages like a virus. Spanglish is a real word meaning a combination of Spanish and English that is spoken by a growing number of people (particularly in the USA).

Another trend that is influencing our language is text emoji pictograms that allow people to communicate without words at all. While acronyms (scuba), blends (smog) and clipped forms (bus from omnibus) have been contributing new words to English for a long time, this trend is picking up with the texting revolution that has added things like BRB to both the spoken and written communication forums.

(I h8 that!)

With the rapidity of the changes that are taking place, you likely wouldn't have to go forward in time very far to notice a big difference. 

The thing to keep in mind is that, even now, regional dialects exert immense differences within the English language. A West Coast Canadian and an East Coast Canadian can have trouble understanding each other. The English dialects that are spoken in India are hardly recognizable to an American as being the same language - and yet they are. The fact is that English is both one and many languages at the same time. And all of it/them is/are changing. By the time Star Trek is more reality than fiction, those Universal Translators are going to be a necessity!

'Tis Not 'Til

So I was thumbing through The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation and I came across this interesting little tidbit:

Serious writers avoid the word 'til as an alternative to until. The correct word is till, which is many centuries older than until. 

Have I been doing it wrong for, like, ever?

The English language is in a constant state of evolution. New words are being added all the time and uses fall into and out of favour. Think about groovy from the sixties. It was a common and accepted colloquialism for a short time before being replaced with rad, cool, awesome, sweet, etc. as new generations of (particularly) youth adopted their own expressions. Try as I might to resurrect groovy to its proper place (IMO) as a spectacular way to express appreciation, awesome continues to assert itself. Though, to be frank, it is wearing thin and is being usurped by other bits of vernacular that, I fear, I am somewhat long in the tooth to either grasp or exercise with any plausible propriety. I suspect that, as the generation gap widens ever further, I will soon be relegated to smiling and nodding and saying, "That's nice."

But I digress...

My research into this bold-faced assertion that 'til is incorrect led me to The Grammar Grater, a podcast by Luke Taylor, featured on  MPRNews. In episode #72, Luke answers a listener's question on this very topic - paraphrased here: Is 'til an actual and acceptable alternative to until?

The short answer is no.

This photo has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic of this blog.
But finding a photo that represents until, till & 'til proved to be impossible,
so I am presenting this one as an example of a homograph.
This is (also) a till.
The word until did not appear in the English language until the Middle English period (1066 to the mid-1500s). It is a contraction of two Scandinavian syllables - un and till - that meant the same thing. My theory is that someone unfamiliar with the Scandinavian uses of these short syllables was confused by the redundancy and so smashed them together and injected them into his or her native English as a single word. Weirdly, till had already been around for a long time - since before the 9th century - and was a regular part of Old English. That it derived from Scandinavian in the first place appears to have been lost on the Middle English speakers that opted to adopt until into the lexicon.

As for 'til, it appears to have appeared within the last century as an attempt to contract until under the erroneous assumption that till is more recent than until and is meant to be the contraction. Just as one would not spell don't without the apostrophe, how could one contract until without an apostrophe? And where did that extra l come from? This is the problem with English; the etymology gets lost and all hell breaks loose!

So 'til crept in, an uninvited guest with bad manners that has tracked mud throughout the halls of linguistic wonder. While it does appear in the Oxford English Dictionary and is defined as meaning until, it is not generally accepted by experts as a proper alternative for until. Strictly speaking, till or until are both correct and 'til is not. Still, 'til gets some grudging acknowledgment as long as the apostrophe is in place.  However, if you are a "serious" writer, you will avoid it.

And as a serious editor, I will suggest that it be replaced with till or until until further notice!

(Straus, J (2014). The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation: An easy-to-use Guide with Clear Rules, Real-World Examples, and Reproducible Quizzes (p. 40) Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA)

A Good Story Has Ended

Back in the day, when I was the Library Director at the Houston Public Library, it fell on me to facilitate the book club. To be honest, most of the titles that were chosen were not to my taste at all. But every now and then I would be introduced to an author and a story that were nothing short of amazing. One such incidence led me to Richard Wagamese's Ragged Company, the story of a group of homeless people who win the lottery.

I was enthralled!

The story possessed that wonderful mixture of humour and sorrow in thought-provoking prose that touched a tender part of me. Any story that can make me cry or laugh out loud, that can draw me in and make me care about the characters, is likely to find its way onto my book shelf as a permanent part of my precious collection. I rarely buy fiction to keep, but Ragged Company holds a special place in my heart and on my shelf.

I knew nothing about the author. Richard Wagamese was a name printed on the cover of the book and nothing more. I knew nothing of his heritage or his life; I only knew that he wrote a damn good story and I wanted more.

His name came up in library circles and I soon learned that he was Canadian and lived in Kamloops, BC. I was never successful in getting him to visit HPL to do a reading and I never met him in person, but he continued to be a part of my life through his books. In my heart he was a friend, a soul who helped me see different perspectives and who taught me, through his example, what forgiveness really means.

On March 10, 2017 Richard Wagamese died at his home in Kamploops. He was 61 years old. I do not know the circumstances of his death. I do know that upon hearing of his demise, I felt deep sadness over the loss. What I have to hold onto, though, are his stories. I have not read all of his books, but knowing they are still there and that I can still connect to his beautiful mind any time gives me comfort. We can still be friends.

Richard Wagamese lived an interesting life. As a child he was taken from his parents and put into the foster system. His life there was not a happy one and he ran away many times, looking, I suppose, for something to fill the emptiness he must have been experiencing. From the time he was taken from his family as a toddler, 21 years passed before he saw them again. It was a long journey to healing as he traversed the dark halls of alcohol abuse and homelessness and learned how to come to terms with all that had happened to him. Richard Wagamese found his salvation in the written word. A journalist, a novelist and a teller of stories, Richard Wagamese was Story.

The world has shifted a little for me now. It is different without this incredible man's spirit to bring more stories to life. Perhaps the stories he did write are enough. Perhaps he had told all the stories he came here to tell. For sure, the stories he left us with are treasures to be kept. And I will keep them in the vault of my heart.

Rest in Power! You are missed. 

You can find his books here: Richard Wagamese. 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Magic Words

I believe in magic.

There! I've said it. You now know my deepest, darkest secret.

I was raised on Fairy Tales. Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin... they are but a small part of the large collection of magical stories that I loved as a child and still love today. Not only are they about magic, they are magical and magically infused with wonder and awe.

I remember learning how to read. I remember struggling to memorize the different sounds the different letters represent and how they combined to make words. I remember being in awe when the letters and sounds were magically transformed by their arrangement. Like magic incantations, subtle changes in inflection changed the sounds and the meanings. Consider o-u-g-h...

Rough (ruf). Plough (plow). Through (throo). Though (thoh). Hiccough (hik-uhp). Cough (kof). Thought (thawt).

The same arrangement of four letters, combined with different supporting letters and a slight re-shaping of the mouth creates a vast array of new ideas. It's magic!

Whether you are hearing the sounds or seeing the symbols (letters) that represent the sounds, more magic happens in your brain where they are interpreted into words and given meaning. But wait! There is even more magic to come...

The words can then invoke feelings and once feelings have been attached to them, those words become part of your actual physiology. They become part of you! Just like the nutrients in the food you eat are absorbed by your physical body, so do the words your hear and read get absorbed and cause chemical reactions, which is all emotions are.

On their own, most words are benign. Their magic is contained in the way they are combined and the way they are delivered. Words of  praise spoken with genuine admiration invoke good feelings. Words of anger, hate, fear or criticism invoke unpleasant feelings. Your words have incredible power; they can heal and they can harm.

Language is my favourite kind of magic. It is my most celebrated and most respected kind of magic, for it defines us, shapes us, influences us, scares us, uplifts us, challenges us, inspires us and creates our stories.

I realize that some people will read this and think: Pfft! There's nothing magical about language. It depends on what your definition of magic is. I define magic as anything that is inexpiable; anything that contains mystery. While we can explain certain aspects of language, written and oral, how it developed, why humans have the capacity for language at all and how the brain actually works are all still mysteries. We may take it for granted, but language is an incredible force. And it's not a matter of whether the force is with you or not - it is! - it's how you wield it and how you appreciate it that counts.

I am an editor because I believe in the magic of language and the power it has to do wonderful things such as convey ideas, teach, entertain and inspire. I'm not the Grand Wizard of the writing process; I'm more the Support Wizard, making sure that the magic that is intended is the magic that is produced.

I have no idea what I'm going to talk about next week. It's a mystery!

Friday, March 10, 2017

Death By One-star Ratings

So in this supplemental blog post, I am sharing a poem I wrote about an Indie author who learns a valuable lesson. 

This is a work of fiction! It is neither biographical nor autobiographical. Though I'm almost positive that there are some out there who will be able to relate. If you're old enough to remember the Beverly Hillbillies, the poem does seem to have taken on a rhythm similar to the show's theme song. This was completely unintentional, I assure you. And I apologize if this creates an earworm. 

Come listen to a story ‘bout a book I wrote.
Listen very closely and please take notes.
I spent two years writing night and day.
My boyfriend left me and my dog ran away,
(Obsessed I was; consumed)

But I kept on writing to fulfill my dream
To be a published author was in sight it seemed.
As I poured out my heart through the words on the screen
I knew I would be famous; Mom & Dad would be so pleased.
(Obsessed and delusional)

When the day finally came and my book was done,
I ran it through a spell check and I figured I had won.
I sent it to a publisher and waited for the call.
What I got was a rejection and I shouted, “Dang it all!”
(This wasn’t going to be easy)

A friend of mine suggested that I publish it myself.
That sounded better than putting it on the shelf.
I found a place on the good old Internet
That would print my book and I knew that I was set.
(Print on demand – POD)

I entered all my info and I paid the highest fee
To get the bells and whistles that they had promised me.
I opened up the file and I clicked right on Upload
And my story was converted to html code.
(Geek speak for hypertext markup language)

I followed the directions and I marketed my book.
Told everyone I knew to, “Come and take a look!”
My friends all smiled and wished me great success,
But little did I know that my book was quite a mess.
(Dangling participles, split infinitives)

I thought is was perfect, at the very least okay.
I thought spellcheck had made the errors go away.
While it caught a few things, it left many more behind
And to the rest my heart and sole were blind.
(All those exclamation marks!)

Sales started coming and people bought my book.
I’d crafted a description that was a mighty hook.
Then the ratings started coming and sales they took a dive
And right there on Amazon my dream up and died.
(Death by one-star ratings)

If only I had gotten an editor to help
I wouldn’t be pulling my hair out of my scalp.
I might have a best seller instead of just this blog
And I’d be watching Netflix with my boyfriend and my dog.
(Chillin’ and watchin’)

So if you write a story don’t overlook this step.
An editor will keep it from becoming dreck.
It’s worth the extra money to ensure your readers’ praise
And keep your dream from burning up in an awful blaze.

Y’all keep writin', ya hear?

My Process

I think I first became an editor back in high school. Friends would ask me to read over their reports, essays and story assignments and tell them what I thought. As I read some of these missives, I was often shocked at the number of spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes that I found. Keep in mind this was in the 70's and there were no computers or word processors with the spell check feature. We did our homework on paper. In pen. Mistakes were permanent, unless we wanted to re-write the assignments. Personally, I went through reams of paper aiming to hand in flawless work. Some of my friends... Well, not so much.

It drove me crazy sometimes. I would read this stuff knowing that there was no way it would get a passing grade. The content wasn't bad, but our teachers tended to grade us on our technical prowess. Mistakes mattered. And softie that I sometimes am, I would offer to re-write my friends' assignments so they could copy them out and hand them in with - at least - fewer mistakes. The hardest part of all this for me was maintaining my friends voice and not making it sound like I wrote it. I had to keep a few errors in tact so that we wouldn't get in trouble. Mostly so I wouldn't get in trouble, to be honest.

This painful acceptance of the quality of work some people produced taught me a valuable skill that, at the time, I was completely unaware of. I learned to honour the voice of the author and, like it or not, refrain from making major changes that reflected my style.

I also learned diplomacy. I knew how difficult is was to hear negative feedback on my own work; I had to learn how to express criticism in the most positive way. The trick, I discovered, was to get my friends to read their work out loud. With great relief they often stumbled on the same things that I noticed and wanted to see changed and that gave me an opening to make suggestions. Guiding my peers toward better writing was satisfying. I felt like I was helping in a good and positive way.

I didn't get much in the way of thanks for this. In fact, it became something some people took for granted and when I refused because I had my own homework to do, I experienced a range of reactions from resigned acquiescence to guilt to, upon occasion, intimidation. (Teenagers can be brutal!) Years later, though, when I realized the value in the skills I developed, the guilt and intimidation lost most of their grip.

Now, when a manuscript comes my way, I like to spend some time talking to the author. I like to get a feel for the personality behind the work I'm about to edit. It helps me get an idea of the style I'm about to meet in the writing and having an idea of what to expect makes it easier to adapt to that style as I do my work. When changes are needed, I am more likely to make suggestions that will reflect the author's voice and form.

Often, the personality of the author is not the same as the personality of the writer. By that I mean that it is not uncommon for gentle, soft-spoken people to write aggressively or for boisterous and flamboyant people to write passively. Not always, but often enough to prepare me for it. I can also gauge how much "feedback" I can give without inciting drama. Can I be blunt? Do I have to soften everything I say? There is a good deal of psychology involved in the editing game.

After the deal has been struck and the  manuscript becomes illuminated by my computer screen, I set to work. I begin with a slow read-though. I familiarize myself with the voice and style of the author and look for errors. This portion takes time. I work at 6 to 8 pages per hour at this stage. I'm absorbing a lot of information as well as finding and fixing mistakes and making suggestions. I am compiling my style sheet to ensure consistency throughout the manuscript. I am stopping frequently to consult my style guides to be sure that grammar rules are not being abused or misused. I re-read many portions out loud to hear the syntax and listen to the punctuation. (Yes! You use punctuation in speech. These funny little marks that are strewn throughout writing are the equivalent to emotional expression in speech.) I  make notes. I jot down questions for the author. The process is detailed and requires concentration. The first read-through of a 350-page manuscript will take approximately 50 hours. Compared to the eight to ten hours it takes me to read a 400-page completed novel, this step is not about entertainment or even enjoyment. In fact, I read to edit much differently than I read to be entertained.

During this process I arrange for a few meetings with the author to go over any questions I might have so I can incorporate any new information into the editing work. Once the first read-through is complete, the manuscript is returned to the author who then reviews my edits. It is up to the author to accept or reject any changes I make to the work. It belongs to the author and the author has the final say.

Usually, I get the manuscript back for a second read-through after the author has made revisions. This time, being familiar with the content, I read about ten pages per hour. I'm now looking to see that the changes are consistent and continue to make sense. If the author has made any major revisions, I have to slow down a bit, but generally the second read-through is much faster. At this stage I am also making sure that photos/tables and captions are matched and destined for the appropriate place within the text. I make sure that table of contents corresponds to the manuscript and that chapters are in the proper order. Front and back matter is reviewed and cleaned up if necessary. Again, there are a few meetings with the author.

If a third read-through is requested, I am happy to oblige for an extra fee. But this is usually quite quick and doesn't involve as much detailed scrutiny as the first two read-throughs do. Some authors will make several revisions and expect each one to be reviewed and edited, but my standard contract is for two read-throughs.

I'm often asked how authors can make the editing process easier for themselves and the editor. My best advice is to read your work out loud. It slows you down and reduces the mind's habit of making assumptions or anticipating what "should" come next and seeing that instead of what is actually written.  Fresh eyes will catch more mistakes than eyes that are familiar with what is intended. When you read silently, your brain is an extraordinary editor and can fix mistakes without allowing them to even register. Not all mistakes, of course, but more than you might imagine.

So that's my process. That's how I go about editing a manuscript. I work cooperatively with the author (and publisher if one is involved, but that's another blog for another day).

What? No pictures?
Join me next week. I'll be sure to include some. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Is the Devil Really in the Details?

Writing is hard work. For many writers it is an obsession, an all-consuming need. The words bubble up from the depths of the imagination and require an outlet. There is no such thing as being done. Writers have to write.

The process of arranging the words in a cohesive story, be it fictional or a progressive report of facts or opinions, does not always leave room for attention to details. The ideas need to flow. Stopping to consider correct spelling, the proper placement of commas and colons for verb agreements interrupts the flow. It's better to let the flow flow and leave the details to the devil.

Enter the Editor.

After weeks - months? years? - of writing, the story has become an extension of the author. If stories had DNA, it would match the person who gave birth to it. Stories are part of us. Just like a child, they are conceived, gestated and birthed through long hours of labour. To hand them over to someone who is going to put them under a microscope with the sole purpose of looking for and identifying flaws is one of the most difficult things a writer does. About the only thing worse than the agony of dissection at the hands of an editor, is a rejection letter from a publisher. Or so some writers believe.

Today, however, publishers are not strictly necessary. Anyone can publish a book. Be it print or digital, or both, publishing is no longer dependent on finding the right publisher in the right mood at the right time. Self-publishing is a thing. A great big, real thing! And more and more wanna-be authors are circumventing the traditional publishing houses altogether and going straight to being published authors by doing it all themselves. From cover design to marketing, writers are taking control of their work. Indie authors are a force to be reckoned with!

There are a lot of details in the process of turning a manuscript into a book. Writing is but the tip of the iceberg. There is the formatting (which has about a million steps of its own), the cover design, the copyright registration, obtaining an ISBN, depository submission, marketing, securing a platform to publish through... the steps are seemingly endless. Often the first step to be sacrificed is the editing portion of the process. Why spend money on an editor who is just going to tell you what is wrong with your masterpiece? Why put yourself through the emotional trauma? You know you're a great writer and your story is destined to be on the NY Times Best Seller list for, like, years! And besides, you did a dozen spell checks.

Well, spell checks aside, an editor is your story's best friend. An editor is not out to hack and slash your beautiful writing to pieces. That's not what they do. They genuinely care about your book and want the very best for it. And you.

Successful authors know the value of having their work edited. They understand that the words they write flow from the deepest parts of their being and between that core and the computer screen the ideas can - and do - get muddled. What flows from their hearts through their bodies and into the keyboard makes perfect sense to them. It is flawless and reads perfectly. What actually shows up on the pages of their word processors isn't necessarily the perfection that is in their minds. Words get mixed up. Punctuation shows up randomly. A simple rearrangement of ideas gets confused. All in the name of releasing the story. It's not bad writing. It's not flawed technique. It's merely a matter of the human mind and fingers not working in tandem from time to time. The phone rang. A visitor stopped by. The baby woke up from her nap earlier than expected. The dog needed to go out for a pee. Life happened. Think of the editor as a fresh pair of eyes; the eyes that remove the 'Life' from all your hard work and make you look even better than you already think you are.

If your ego is likely to be bruised, let it be bruised by a single editor rather than a host of readers. An editor will be far more gentle than a frustrated reader who has paid good money for your book only to discover that it is riddled with errors, as inadvertent as they may be. Remember that readers are going to rate and review your book. One bad rating or review is all that it takes to cause sales to plummet. And even if you revise it, new readers seeing an old rating are going to take a pass. There are many, many more authors out there to choose from. Why waste time and money on an author that publishes less than his or her best?

Far from being the devil, editors can help keep your hard work from being stuck in purgatory.

Next week I'll share my editing process. Join me as I polish my halo and reveal how things work in my little corner of the editing world.