To Edit a Mockingbird

The controversy surrounding Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is really heating up, with fresh commentary appearing daily. These essays are becoming increasingly esoteric, tacking away from the more prosaic whodunit investigations to the deeper realms of literary criticism. And for you history buffs, there’s even a piece comparing Atticus Finch’s moral ambiguity to that of Big Jim Folsom, liberal governor of Alabama (who completed his second term just a year before the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird), and another equating Finch to historian Francis Butler Simkins (“an emancipated critic of the old order”). Everyone, it would seem, wants a piece of the action.

I’m an editor, and my interest is primarily technical. If Watchman is an amateurish draft of what ultimately evolved into Mockingbird (Tay Hohoff, Lee’s editor at J. P. Lippincott, recalled, “[Go Set a Watchman] was more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”), why offer it to the public in its embryonic form? Indeed, if Ms. Lee believed she had a solid companion piece to Mockingbird in Watchman, why had she forsaken it? Speculation abounds, but the evidence strongly suggests the author never had any intention of publishing the earlier manifestation of the classic; there is ample reason to believe the decision to go ahead with the project was merely the product of what one critic cynically calls “the Harper Lee industrial complex.”

I think the gravitational pull of this “lost” manuscript is its very existence. It’s something akin to the discovery of a demo tape recorded by a now-famous musician. Hearing the music in its seminal form provides the kind of intimate connection with the artist and his process that’s so coveted by diehard fans. Imagine stumbling upon a mislaid recording of the Beatles before the raw material was treated to George Martin’s sophisticated “editing” skills: fascinating, but of little intrinsic value. Yet even basement tapes can be turned into cash cows through shrewd marketing. Of course the publishers spin it as being the author’s call: “It was made clear to us that Harper Lee wanted it published as it was. We gave the book a very light copy edit,” the literary equivalent of a dusting off. Note the weasel words: “It was made clear to us”—not the declarative, “Harper Lee told us.” This is particularly troubling when you consider we’re talking about a frail octogenarian who is allegedly not entirely lucid.

Granted, a close reading of both volumes augmented by insights about the author’s relationship with her lawyer/sister, agent, and editor yields a glimpse of the internal workings of the old-school publishing process, and (one would hope) illuminates the need for a competent editor. But casting Go Set a Watchman out into the world to stand on its own without subjecting it to the gentle ministrations of a developmental editor is truly a shame. How important is the collaboration of a talented editor? Lee’s agent, Maurice Crain, stated unequivocally: “Most good books are ones that have been a long time maturing, with a lot of cutting and fitting and replanning done along the way. MOCKINGBIRD, for instance, was about the most replanned and rewritten book I ever had a hand in, and it turned out finally that all the labor on it was well justified, and if the Lippincott editors hadn’t been so fussy and painstaking we wouldn’t have had nearly so good a book.”

Including the rough draft in a thorough biographical treatment of Harper Lee’s life and work (along the lines of the University of California Press’ monumental project, The Autobiography of Mark Twain) would have been a better use of the material. As it is, Go Set a Watchman is a fluke, a literary curio. It probably won’t resonate with fans of Mockingbird (and will more likely distress them), though lit profs will dissect it, analyze it, and juxtapose it to its famous sibling for generations to come.

I am not convinced this long-forgotten manuscript is some hidden gem, and I’m not alone. Surely, there was a reason it was shelved in the first place.

What are your thoughts? Is Go Set a Watchman a worthy contribution to Harper Lee’s legacy, or will it tarnish her reputation? Is it “a remarkable literary event,” a “masterpiece,” as HarperCollins proclaims, or a half-baked, tentative attempt at a novel that should never have seen the light of day?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him: Aden[at]LittleFireEditorial[dot]com.

The Copyeditor’s Code

Proust MS

Marcel Proust, original ms. “Du côté de chez Swann,” public domain

The Copyediting blog recently posted a graphic based on editor Erin Brenner’s earlier article, “The Typographic Oath” (with a nod to Stan Carey for the borrowed title). The original piece was the final installment in a three-part series. The text, which is laid out on a background of weathered parchment, constitutes the copyeditor’s ten commandments. Brenner notes that she’s riffing on a couple of similar lists as well as feedback sparked by her series, and readily acknowledges that the collection is not complete (“It is a copyeditor’s set of commandments, after all,” she jibes).

Now I realize that her title is offered with tongue planted firmly in cheek; still, I’m a little uncomfortable calling these collective tenets an “oath.” As copyeditors, we’re all about le mot juste, and here’s how M-W 11 defines “oath”:

1 a (1) : a solemn usually formal calling upon God or a god to witness to the truth of what one says or to witness that one sincerely intends to do what one says (2) : a solemn attestation of the truth or inviolability of one’s words.

Pretty heavy stuff. I prefer the more secular term “code,” which according to Merriam-Webster is “a set of ideas or rules about how to behave”—as in an “ethical code” or the “Digital Warrior-Poet’s Code.” I view it as a kind of philosophical framework that informs my approach to the craft.

So with a tip of the editor’s visor to Ms. Brenner and a frank admission that none of the following is original by any means, I offer you the current manifestation of my Copyeditor’s Code.

  • Do no harm. The copyeditor’s Golden Rule. Minimize your footprint and like a conscientious camper, leave no trace (er, other than those messy Tracked Changes, that is). Apply textual triage first; only resort to major surgery where absolutely necessary to save the patient. You may find it helpful to chant this mantra: “It’s not my book, it’s not my book, it’s not my book…”
  • Seek clarity. This, my friends, is the storyteller’s Holy Grail.
  • Stet! Let it stand. The client wields the veto power and reserves the right to ignore your changes. This is his prerogative, so long as the check’s good. If seeing your lovely work undone causes you grief, see mantra above.
  • Be as a green twig, Grasshopper. Breathe. Stay flexible, nimble, and intellectually open. After all, there’s an outside chance that the client who stetted your well-intended edit just might be right.
  • Be an advocate and an ally. Assure your client that you are partners in the pursuit of excellence. The copyeditor bears the dual responsibility of being the reader’s advocate and the writer’s best friend.
  • Don’t condescend. This is a corollary to the point above. Always be professional and collegial. Treat your client as you would like to be treated: be respectful, be diplomatic, be empathetic. Never chivvy, deride, or browbeat. Do your best to instruct and inspire through the medium of editing. Share the love.
  • Collaborate with your client in the service of the reader. Don’t forget for a New York second that the most important member of the storytelling triumvirate is the reader. After all, where would we be without engaged and delighted readers? A truly great editor is a shapeshifter, capable of projecting himself into the psyche of the reader and kenning exactly what will effect that magical connection we so highly prize.
  • Don’t be a prescriptivist. Rule #1: There are no rules. There are only conventions, shibboleths, personal preferences, and pet peeves. Language is perpetually evolving, and you must strive to improve your understanding of the currently accepted guidelines regarding grammar, usage, and style. Study, rinse, repeat. Read good writing—lots of it. Then, with supreme confidence in your mastery of the conventions, acknowledge the universal truth that they are transitory and may be safely ignored to achieve the desired ends of clarity and consistency. Copyediting is a subjective craft; rather than being the pedantic determination of right or wrong, editing is often a choice between good, better, or best. This is the art of editing. This is what distinguishes great editors from good ones. When you can manage this feat without altering the author’s “voice,” you are serving your client well. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something. Yes, it is kinda Zen…
  • Think. Have a sensible, justifiable reason for every change you make—and verify, verify, verify!
  • Trust your editorial intuition. You’ve invested a great deal of blood, sweat, and tears in fine-tuning it, so listen to your inner editor. If something just doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t.
  • Fear not the large vocabulary. There is a time for concision, and a time for indulging in luxurious language (turn, turn, turn). Edit with your heart as well as your head. As a copyeditor, you must be vigilant and fight the Strunk & White curse. Don’t be afraid to allow a difficult word to remain unscathed—even if it has several syllables. Never disrespect your reader by underestimating her intellect. Elegant prose is an endangered species; be a conservationist of succulent verbiage.
  • Strive for efficiency. Time is money. Utilize every trick in the book to streamline your editorial process and workflow, but never let technology trump your education, experience, and common sense.
  • When in doubt, query. Never hesitate to seek clarification—diplomatically, of course.
  • The style sheet is your friend. Don’t depend upon memory, write it down. Aim for consistency. A good style sheet will save your sanity. Tedious? Yes. Indispensable? Absolutely.
  • Never promise “perfect.” As a mere mortal, you will never achieve perfection, and promising your client otherwise can only lead to dark places (see Muphry’s Law). Ernest Hemingway sagely counseled, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one becomes a master” (and Papa knew from dark places). Whether he was referring to writing or life matters not; they are one and the same.

Do you keep a list of editorial do’s and don’ts? Please share! What would you add or delete?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden[at]LittleFireEditorial[dot]com.

Can the University Press Be Saved From Itself?

Two_Arabs_Reading_in_a_Courtyard

Painting by Rudolf Ernst via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been following an online discussion about the relevance and sustainability of university presses (here and here) and whether or not there’s a future for publishers of “books that no one needs to use or wants to read.” Opinions expressed by those laboring within the UP community cite shrinking budgets, the corporatization of the academy, niche markets, and the disruptive onslaught of the Digital Revolution as the leading threats to the traditional UP publishing model. Charles Watkins, director of Purdue University Press, described a more nuanced problem and proffered a solution:

Many university presses, especially smaller ones, did not do themselves a service by attempting to fly beneath the radar at their institutions … . Focusing just on academic disciplines and not serving their university community was not a good strategy. If a university press is subsidized by its parent institution, it should expect to give something tangible back. That can range from explicity aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths to providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint.

Very diplomatic, but he’s still just dancing around the real issue. In a post at a copyeditors’ virtual water cooler, Tammy Ditmore (a professional editor with considerable academic press experience) pointed out the obvious: The king has no clothes!

What [Watkins] doesn’t mention is how the pressure on academics to publish monographs remains as high as ever. Tenure and promotion committees rarely acknowledge changing times, and many give little weight to anything other than scholarly mongraphs published by the top UPs. … So universities pressure their faculty to create books that no one will read, which puts pressure on libraries to buy books that no one will read, which puts pressure on universities to support UPs to create books that no one will read. It seems like a vicious and pointless cycle that very often does NOT contribute to informed dialogue, which is ostensibly the role of academic publishing.

It’s that old “publish or perish” rubric. In the pursuit of tenure, academic aspirants are required to crank out esoteric monographs that no one outside a small circle of specialists will ever consult. It is a rite of passage that those who came of age with Mr. Chips are loathe to surrender: Academics writing to impress other academics in an infinitesimal echo chamber, an exclusive club that disdains anything so unseemly as social media or publishing well-researched, interesting nonfiction aimed at the unwashed masses.

A Broader Mission

In our extended conversation, Ditmore elaborated,

In the nonacademic world, those niche markets get taken care of through self-publishing or tiny niche publishers or even through blogs and electronic discussion lists. Why do the specialized academic niches need to be subsidized so they can produce expensive, hardbound volumes that few people will want to buy? Especially when about three-quarters of  [the content of] those expensive, hardbound books is re-hashing all the prior research on an issue to prove the author has read everything else written on the topic, and one-quarter of the book attempts to advance an argument by one turn of the screw?

Why indeed. Times do change, and the university press must change with them. Publishing scholarly monographs has long been the university press’s raison d’être, but what happens when the dead-tree monograph becomes an anachronism—a quaint artifact of the pre-digital world? Just as it no longer makes sense for the doctoral curriculum to be focused solely on preparing PhD candidates for nonexistent tenure-track teaching positions, an overemphasis on the publication of pricey, small-run, hardbound doorstops is unrealistic and misguided.

Here’s a thought: Why not publish books people want to read?

I certainly won’t gainsay the importance of the monograph to the scholar’s professional development, but there’s no reason for it to be a physical volume, or the primary source of the university press’s income. Digital technologies render the publication and distribution of this kind of specialized research and analysis a relatively inexpensive process. Further, open-access, cross-platform publishing encourages scholarly collaboration and ensures that such data will be searchable. Both of these factors promise to boost usage, but even such expanded utility will not generate the revenue stream necessary to keep a university press afloat.

I agree with Watkins’s contention that UPs need to rethink their mandate, but he’s being entirely too timid. I would recommend broadening his parochial concept of “serving their university community … [through] aligning the publishing list with the institution’s disciplinary strengths [and] providing additional publishing services outside the press’s imprint” to a more expansive mission statement—something along the lines of “servicing an eager and receptive global market by producing books its constituents want to buy and read.”

The UP as Trade Publisher

There are more college-educated readers in the population today than ever before, so why not tap this huge potential market? Rather than being content with churning out yet another scholarly monograph on global economics (zzzzzz…), wouldn’t it be more fiscally responsible and creatively rewarding to have a book like Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (a New York Times bestseller) prominently featured on your university press’s website and Facebook page as well?

The university press should be a robust and functional organ in a multifaceted publishing ecosystem, not an insular, adamantine ward of the academy. Remember those hulking console stereos from the ’60s? Oh, they were adequate—if all you wanted to listen to was Mantovani. But as consumers became more sophisticated audiophiles, they replaced those beasts with component systems that enabled the user to mix and match complementary elements to achieve the sound that soothed their soul. The university press needs to adopt that kind of creative flexibility.

Commercially viable titles would help subsidize pure scholarship while building the professor-cum-author’s (and the press’s, and the university’s) cred. We need not throw the baby out with the bathwater—digital monographs (scholarly journals, too, for that matter) can peaceably coexist with stellar trade nonfiction in the university press’s catalog. Generating income to underwrite a sustainable business model that foots the bill for orthodox scholarship while entertaining and enlightening the public-at-large with worthy trade nonfiction sounds like a win-win proposition to me.

Turning Scholars Into Storytellers

But there’s a catch: Producing compelling nonfiction calls for authors who can write well, ably assisted by editors who know what they’re about. The first element in the equation is problematic; PhD programs are not designed to produce skillful communicators. That really needs to change, and I believe it will.

The unvarnished truth is that a PhD sheepskin is no longer a ticket to a cushy tenured faculty berth, so the nature of scholarly exposition must also evolve. An increasing number of universities are retooling their curricula to prepare doctoral candidates for alternative careers in the Real World, where strong communication skills are critical—and this applies to both the arts and the sciences.

And what about the other half of the equation? University presses should be hiring rather than firing editors. Without good editors, the quality of the books they produce will suffer. It’s as simple as that. If you don’t believe me, ask any bestselling author.

If they can’t justify the cost of keeping a full complement of top-flight editors on staff, university presses should cultivate a stable of qualified freelancers. And they shouldn’t cheap out—unpaid grad students, peer reviewers, beta readers, and crowdsourced editing just won’t do. Professional editing is simply a sound business investment. As Tom Wolfe reminded us in The Right Stuff, “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Demoting and digitizing the monograph, turning scholars into masterful storytellers, adding that professional editorial polish, and aggressively marketing the product to a general audience may not single-handedly rescue the university press from oblivion, but it sure can’t hurt.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Nothing But A Breeze

Jesse Winchester, "Nothing But a Breeze"One day I’ll be old gray grandpa
All the pretty girls will call me “sir,”
Now, where they’re asking me how things are
Soon they’ll ask me how things were
Well, I don’t mind being an old gray grandpa
If you’ll be my gray grandma
But I suggest we go have our milk and cookies
In the shade of the old paw-paw

~ Jesse Winchester

 

 

What’s that? You never heard of Jesse Winchester? Here’s what Bob Dylan had to say about him: “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.” Winchester’s songs bore a whimsical elegance and an occasional touch of melancholy; his tunes were admired and covered by a wide variety of artists, from the Everly Brothers to Elvis Costello (whom he actually brought to tears)—and his soothing southern drawl served him well as a solo artist and front man for Jesse Winchester and the Rhythm Aces (the group went on to become the Amazing Rhythm Aces). Winchester was a pioneer of what we now call “roots music,” an eclectic and distinctly American genre.

Jesse was a gentle soul, a man of peaceful convictions who opted to emigrate to Canada when he received his draft notice in 1967. Thankfully, he was allowed back into the U.S. in 1977 when President Carter offered amnesty to those who had evaded the draft during the Vietnam conflict. Winchester relocated permanently to Virginia in 2002.

Jesse Winchester contracted esophageal cancer in 2011 and thought he’d whipped it, but it came back to claim him. He  passed away at his home in my own humble burg of Charlottesville as peacefully as he had lived. I will miss him. I still remember reviewing his “Nothing But A Breeze” lp for Cash Box magazine back in ’77—I loved it. To this day, whenever I get a little stressed out, I listen to Jesse teasingly reminding me that “it ain’t nothing but a breeze” and I smile and feel better. Thanks for the memories, Jesse.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Creative Nonfiction: The True Story of a Lone Literary Genre that Rescued Academic Authors from Obscurity, Enlightened the Masses, and Saved the World.

Drieluik met allegorie op het kunstonderwijs, Willem Joseph Laquy, ca. 1770 - Rijksmuseum

Drieluik met allegorie op het kunstonderwijs, Willem Joseph Laquy, ca. 1770 (Rijksmuseum)

In the orthodox liberal arts community, tenure-track professors are expected to teach courses while burnishing their scholarly bona fides through research and publishing efforts—the familiar “publish or perish” model. The soporific tomes churned out under this rubric are often arcane, heavily footnoted monographs relegated to “assigned reading” status; no one expects them to be bestsellers and they aren’t. With the legitimacy of liberal arts curricula being challenged daily and university presses being warned that they’ll have to start turning a profit or else, it seems obvious that the self-serving approach of scholarship for its own sake must be reconsidered.

Ironically, academic publishing could be its own salvation.

Rather than accepting an outdated publishing model as a necessary evil, scholars are increasingly choosing to write for a broader audience—the general public. They are exploring the potentially lucrative realm of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction (a.k.a. literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of storytelling that presents actual events in a narrative style using techniques commonly applied to fiction writing (think: In Cold Blood, Angela’s Ashes, and A Midwife’s Tale). From an academic perspective, producing books that people actually enjoy reading yields a cascading torrent of positive outcomes: it helps educators build name recognition and strengthen their personal “brand” (and become better communicators in the process), brings prestige and a much-needed revenue stream to beleaguered university presses, and of course, makes knowledge more accessible to all, rather than rationing it out to the privileged few who can afford to shell out the inflated prices of textbooks and specialist journals. Further, successfully tapping the mainstream market makes a strong argument in favor of building and maintaining robust humanities and social sciences programs in our colleges and universities.

University press acquisition editors who once turned up their noses at such plebian literary efforts are beginning to see the potential of publishing titles that hold the promise of reaching a huge market (including digital versions for e-readers and tablets). The canny implementation of social media as an effective marketing tool also alters the calculus. Creative nonfiction is the fastest-growing literary market in mainstream publishing, having eclipsed literary fiction. Do I have your attention now?

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I must stress that for all these benefits to materialize, scholar-authors have to craft compelling stories that resonate with readers beyond the confines of the classroom, the peer-reviewed journal, and the professional conference.

In a New York Times op-ed, columnist Nicholas Kristof cited Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution, in explaining the institutional bias against popular nonfiction writing: “Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research,” McCants said. “This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who ‘waste their time’ writing for the masses will be penalized.”

Writing for a general audience

In recent years, a handful of academics have bucked the establishment with varying degrees of success. Stephen Ambrose began publishing this type of crossover history in the 1960s, but it wasn’t until his 1992 publication of Band of Brothers that he managed to crack the bestseller lists. John Keegan, a military historian of impeccable academic credentials also penned gritty profiles of war and warriors that found an appreciative audience in the public sphere; his Face of Battle is considered a classic of the genre. Fellow history professor Michael Howard annointed Keegan  “at once the most readable and the most original of living historians.”

Proving that creative nonfiction techniques can breathe new life into a crowded field of historiography, Allen Guelzo recently added Gettysburg: The Last Invasion to the sprawling list of over 6,000 extant titles on the subject. His study, which bagged an impressive array of awards, received glowing reviews: Military History Quarterly called it “a stylish, comprehensive, and entertaining narrative.”

Ultimately, it took someone from outside the academy—a mere journalist—to make academicians really sit up and take notice. Having convinced a small publishing house to take on her lean work of creative nonfiction, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, veteran science writer Dava Sobel finally let the genie out of the bottle.

Sobel recounted a dramatic human-interest tale in a terse but accessible journalistic style that would make Hemingway proud. Liberated from academic jargon and the intrusion of hundreds of footnotes and references, Longitude proved to be a breath of fresh air for readers interested in the history of science but unwilling to wade into a dry, academic doorstop.

Much to the chagrin (and utter indignation) of the scientific community, Sobel’s little book sold like hotcakes. In fact, the thin volume was snatched up by Penguin and later optioned for a four-part docudrama starring Jeremy Irons. Could a conventional historical monograph have made such a splash?

The ‘Sobel Effect’

The wild success of this unintimidating read drove academicians mad. One wrote a scathing journal article sarcastically titled, “The ‘Sobel Effect’: The amazing tale of how multitudes of popular writers pinched the best stories in the history of science and became rich and famous while historians languished in accustomed poverty and obscurity, and how this transformed the world. A reflection on a publishing phenomenon.” I’d provide a link, but of course the article was published in an exclusive subscription-only peer-reviewed professional journal of which I am not worthy. Just as “Remember the Alamo!” morphed from being a Mexican army taunt into a highly effective Anglo-republican battle cry, “The Sobel Effect” was soon being uttered by publishers to characterize a very desirable attribute indeed.

One academic science blog reflected, “It is not so much the scientists themselves as the science historians who object to this sort of writing. They are left wondering: why it is that they have spent their entire career in science and can barely sell one thousand copies of their book, while Sobel and company (who are mainly journalists and authors) can make the best seller list? Jealousy?”

Some academics dismiss such “simplistic” renderings of complex themes, arguing that serious scholarship cannot be presented to the lay public in a manner that does not compromise the underlying facts. Apparently, über-popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson didn’t get the memo.

Over the past decade, a number of historians have established themselves as superstars of the creative nonfiction medium—David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Civil War historian James McPherson, to name a few.

How to do it

In the wake of Dava Sobel’s enormous success, hopeful writers have struggled to replicate the phenomenon by attempting to reduce it to a formula (replete with impossibly long subtitles) with predictable results. There is no template for successfully mining this genre; it’s just so durned difficult to capture lightning in a bottle. Producing exceptional creative nonfiction calls for the scholar’s research chops and the narrative flair of the professional storyteller. Success requires a good deal of talent, deep subject knowledge, expository skill, and a crackerjack editor. In sum, it comes down to a good (true) story, well told.

Writing really meaty, commercially viable creative nonfiction has much in common with crafting a bestselling novel. Sadly, nonfiction writers—many of whom are recovering academics—are driving themselves to distraction trying to wrestle their thesis, dissertation, or pet research subject into an engaging narrative, because despite years of formal education, they were never taught to tell a good story.

Tips to get you started

When writing creative nonfiction, you must fight the urge to descend into “Great Man” hagiography, dumb-down the facts, or attempt to add color to the story when the stark reality is more compelling than the gilded lily could ever be.

Key traits of the creative nonfiction genre include

  • Appropriate POV—Exercise your creativity: the author can be an objective observer, a subjective witness, or even a participant in the action. Creative nonfiction is an ideal vehicle for memoir or relating the story of an “invisible” or disenfranchised person or group.
  • Narrative style—Creative nonfiction lends itself to clear, simple, descriptive language mercifully bereft of academic jargon and erudition. The prose serves the story, rather than being an impediment to it.
  • Character development, motivation, and pacing are key elements of creative nonfiction writing. This is where the storyteller’s art comes into play.
  • Flexibility of form—No need to follow a prescriptive structural model; rather, adapt form to content. Creative nonfiction can take the form of a book, essay, journal article, blog post, etc.
  • Above all, maintainenance of authenticity—History is subjective (read my post about this here), so it follows that creative nonfiction is equally a product of the storyteller’s interpretation of the “facts.” Your truth will always be more fascinating than fiction, so keep it real.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

 

David Byrne Predicts the End of the World

19th Nervous BreakdownIn a truly depresso screed in The Guardian, Renaissance man David Byrne laments the sad state of the music industry. If free or cheap digital streaming services are allowed to become our sole source of recorded music, as Byrne predicts, “the inevitable result would seem to be that the internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.”

Take that, Spotify!

David seems convinced that the music industry is being co-opted and monopolized by the insidious streaming delivery services, which in turn threaten artists’ livelihood, resulting in the total collapse of Western civilization. Perhaps he’s just in the grip of that dreaded Celtic melancholia, I don’t know.

In all seriousness, I can see where he’s coming from, and I share his concern and applaud his support of a vibrant, ethical musical scene—it’s good to see a successful artist paying it forward. But I think his highly charged rhetoric is a bit too strident. (For an alternate, but equally vehement, take on the Downfall of Music Thanks to Spotify, read veteran axeman Steve Lukather’s comments here.) As much as I respect David Byrne as an artist, I find it difficult to warm up to his apocalyptic vision of a future devoid of creativity.

Same As It Ever Was

His primary concern is that while record labels are raking in profits by licensing material to Spotify (a streaming music service), they are tossing mere crumbs to their artists. Byrne cites some truly horrific figures to prove his point: “Daft Punk’s song of the summer, ‘Get Lucky,’ reached 104,760,000 Spotify streams by the end of August: the two Daft Punk guys stand to make somewhere around $13,000 each. Not bad, but remember this is just one song from a lengthy recording that took a lot of time and money to develop. That won’t pay their bills if it’s their principal source of income. And what happens to the bands who don’t have massive international summer hits?”

I’ve been a working musician without a “massive international summer hit” (or as Little Feat put it: “I did my time in that rodeo, it’s been so long and I’ve got nothin’ to show”), so I feel qualified to respond. They’ll do what they’ve always done: carry on. They’ll keep humpin’ it (and if they’re smart, they won’t quit their day jobs). Maybe they’ll “make it,” maybe they won’t. Even commercially successful artists ride a wicked bell curve—and most ultimately find themselves playing the club circuit and county fairs to pay the rent.

Such is life. If you had wanted a six-figure income and matching retirement portfolio, you should have listened to your mother and become a doctor, lawyer, day trader, or computer programmer (preferably with a top-secret clearance). You chose to be an artist. The stereotype of the “starving artist” is firmly grounded in fact and it’s nothing new. As Byrne surely knows, it’s the “same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was… .”

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

SpotifyAs I see it, Byrne’s argument is based on a false premise. He believes Spotify (or some other streaming music service) will evolve into an Amazon-like behemoth and become the go-to source for music, thereby nullifying the sale of CDs and other forms of paid content (“streaming looks to be the future of music consumption”). His seemingly logical conclusion is dire: “In future, if artists have to rely almost exclusively on the income from these services, they’ll be out of work within a year.”

That’s a very big “if.” It’s the second time he’s trotted out this fatalistic prognosis (“That won’t pay their bills if it’s their principal source of income.” [emphasis mine]), and like the chorus in a song, he’ll hammer it home a couple more times before he’s through, just to be sure you got the message. But there’s a major flaw in his reasoning: clear-eyed, serious, working musicians don’t expect to make a decent living off of their airplay or CD sales alone—they gig to supplement their income, and yes, some even hold down jobs to bring home the bacon. In the Real World, you do what you’ve got to do.

Byrne’s projected omnipotence of Spotify is also questionable. Truth is, we just don’t know. The digital marketplace is an extremely volatile shape-shifting beast—today’s innovation is tomorrow’s fish wrap.

The World Keep On Turnin’

As I have said before (and will no doubt have cause to say again), we are currently engaged in the most profound cultural shift since Gutenberg gave us moveable type. Digital technology (the juju that powers the internet) is fundamentally altering the humanities—how we learn and communicate and tell our story—and that certainly includes music. As we’re now in the throes of the digital revolution, it is simply impossible to divine where this cultural metamorphosis will lead. But rest assured, in a decade’s time we’ll laugh at our crude conception of the digital possibilities back in 2013. As my friend David Diggs (musician/producer/arranger/A&R man and IT maven) quipped, “The Xerox machine was supposed to destroy the publishing industry. We all know that in reality it was the Kindle that did that.”

We needn’t fear the future; rather, we should embrace it and get involved in shaping it.

In the current climate, streaming services have supplanted radio as the primary means of showcasing new talent; they offer the kind of exposure that major label flacks could only dream about back in the day. It is now possible to tap social media to make a song go viral—or crowdsource a revolution to depose a tyrant. Pretty potent stuff. To his credit, Byrne allows that some aspiring artists and smaller indie labels view Spotify as a useful promotional tool, a way to get their music out to a broad—indeed, global—audience. That’s one helluva lot of PR for the money (i.e., free).

So remind me: How much revenue did artists accrue from radio play in the 1970s? How much did they receive in album royalties? For every Led Zeppelin, there were thousands of struggling unknown artists. Back in ’77, when Talking Heads released their first LP, very few bands could have survived on their royalties alone. And without supporting their releases with heavy touring schedules, there wouldn’t have been any royalties to worry about. Making a living playing music is a business. You need exposure to build a tribe.

So You Want To Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star

When vinyl was king, the record industry revolved around a sophisticated system of payola and favors (you scratch my back…). Your record label bought ad packages in the trades to insure that you got positive reviews and positioning on the charts (“with a bullet”). Then they used those metrics (and more money and favors) to strong-arm radio programmers into giving your single heavy rotation on their playlist to coincide with their marketing campaign. All of this was linked to carefully mapped-out tour dates to guarantee exposure to the right markets at the right time—it was an intricately choreographed ballet. I was working in the business end of the industry at the time and saw this firsthand.

Mick Ralphs & Me

Mick Ralphs (Bad Company) & Aden Nichols (editor-in-chief, Performance magazine), Dallas, ca. 1976

But that was the 20th-century analog business model. Today, aspiring artists can harness technology to produce high-quality digital recordings (and supporting videos) relatively inexpensively and market them via the internet—much as indie authors are learning to do.

If Spotify proves to be an unsustainable model (and I suspect it will), it won’t survive. As novel business models emerge and mature, wise musicians will align themselves with professionals to handle their management, booking, promo, and sales—folks who know how to navigate the new digital landscape. But again, we really can’t predict what the music industry will look like in a decade; we only know that it will be something we wouldn’t recognize today.

No matter what the biz evolves into, one thing is certain—there will always be a market for good music crafted by talented artists. But here’s the catch: If you’re doing your art to get rich or become famous, you will most likely fail. If, on the other hand, you’re doing it because you can’t help yourself, because you can’t even imagine not doing it, then what does it matter?

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Can History Be True?

“Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of facts.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Napoleon a Dit“What is history but a fable agreed upon?” This pithy maxim is generally credited to Napoleon Bonaparte, a man who had plenty of experience manipulating the historical record. Ironically, I have not been able to satisfactorily link this quotation directly to the Little Corporal—the earliest reference I can find is Ralph Waldo Emerson citing it in his famous essay, “History” (1837).

And therein lies the rub: This dubious attribution has been repeated often enough for nearly two centuries to gain credence (a Google search returned 1,140,000 hits). And as repetition leads to consensus, consensus rationalizes validation. All the more so in the Information Age, in which an anonymous “editor” can submit material to Wikipedia, which (universal warnings notwithstanding) has become the go-to reference for Everyman. So hearsay becomes fact by default. Never mind that even if such a declaration was traceable to its original source, its meaning is contingent upon its context.

History is a malleable commodity, indeed. So much for Ranke’s objective historicism!

History is more than a series of data points

Still, the thrust of this aphorism should not be dismissed out of hand. Despite the well-meaning efforts of cliometricians and practitioners of the new social history to infuse the study of the past with the scientific certitude of Big Data and sociological methodology, history obstinately refuses to be reduced to mathematical formulæ and statistical tabulations. “The operations of life, whether private or publick admit no such laws,” counseled Samuel Johnson. “The caprices of voluntary agents laugh at calculation.”

Historical evidence takes many forms: from intimate personal correspondence to authoritative institutional documents; from anecdotal tribal traditions to carefully collected and curated oral histories; from graphic images on hillsides, standing stones, cave walls, illuminated manuscripts, and websites to sound recordings on a variety of media; and of course, there are those three-dimensional artifacts… . Each with its own hidden agenda. Collectively this body of evidence is capable of yielding some understanding of the essence of an individual subject or group at a specific moment in time, but none of its component parts are value-neutral.

The relativist would say that every scrap of evidence collected by even the most fastidious historian, regardless of provenance, is subject to interpretation—the highly subjective filter of human agency. If that is so, history will always be more art than science, a unique species of literature, or as Emerson framed it, “There is properly no history; only biography.” Whatever your philosophy, it’s hard to argue with E. H. Carr’s commonsense pronouncement: “The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.” The writing of history is truly an interdisciplinary form of composition.

Putting the “human” in humanities

History is the record of an event or events instigated, experienced, related, and recorded by people. Some were lettered, others illiterate; some were eyewitnesses, others had their backs turned at the crucial moment; some were well-intentioned reporters, while others were just looking for a free beer. No social forces—be they economic, political, religious, technological, ideological, or military—can exist without the involvement of human beings; flesh and blood, gristle and bone. And the relationship is a symbiotic one: Real people, from serf to lord, are the fulcrum upon which these inanimate forces exert their powerful influence and vice-versa.

Commenting on the profound value of Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels, Thomas Carlyle reminded us, “the bygone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, controversies and abstractions of men. Not abstractions were they, not diagrams and theorems; but men, in buff or other coats and breeches, with colour in their cheeks, with passions in their stomach, and the idioms, features and vitalities of very men.” (I trust we can forgive Carlyle his quaint chauvinism—we are all a product of our times.)

But academic history is presumed to be nonfiction (even if it falls within the genre of creative, or narrative, nonfiction), so to maintain a sense of verisimiltude it must be predicated on thorough research and data collection in as many of the evidentiary fields as possible. Clio (whom Herbert Butterfield affectionately called “that old reprobate”) must be courted with deference and respect. Yet when the research phase is complete, these cumulative facts reveal nothing in and of themselves; the past is unconcerned with the present.

A historian must weigh every word, every fragmentary artifact, and paint a convincing portrait of her subject based on the subjective selection, arrangement, and interpretation of these data. Any randomly chosen group of impeccably credentialed, conscientious scholars can analyze an identical assemblage of primary data and produce wildly divergent readings of the same historical “truth.” None are necessarily right or wrong—they just reflect different points of view, as in Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The problem is articulately expessed by comedian Steven Wright when he deadpans, “How do you know if it’s bad jazz?”

This is not meant to be a deconstuctionist diatribe; rather, I am suggesting that as historians, we belong to an exclusive club. We are the progeny of the bards and the shanachie—keepers of the flame. We are the storytellers…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

The Elusive J.J. Cale

J.J. Cale - Dec. 5, 1938 – July 26, 2013

J.J. Cale – Dec. 5, 1938 – July 26, 2013

Last week we lost a true American original.

A rare talent who never sought fame (though he never shunned fortune), J.J. Cale was the pure manifestation of “laid back.” While on tour opening for Traffic, he reportedly told Shelter Records exec Denny Cordell, “Send me the money and let the younger guys have the fame.”

His rootsy blending of country and blues with a dash of rockabilly and a leavening of jazz yielded a new genre dubbed the “Tulsa Sound.” Of course he would never have taken credit for such a thing—he often said, “I’m just a songwriter and guitarist.” Yet Cale influenced and was hugely respected by many famous musicians, most notably Eric Clapton (“Lay Down Sally” is a virtual paean to Cale’s influence on Clapton’s evolving sound). When the iconic rock star was asked, “What living person do you most admire?” he responded without hesitation, “J.J. Cale.”

Cale was a master of understatement, indisputably proving that less is more. In a world rife with self-indulgent musical excess—overproduction, synthesizers, and digital sleight of hand—J.J. Cale penned and delivered tunes of bald-faced honesty, simplicity, and authenticity. All he really needed was a good axe, a Fender Champ, a few veteran session men, and a vintage Airstream—he was “Travelin’ Light.”

He was also a consummate craftsman; Cale always knew exactly what kind of groove he wanted a tune to have, and when he heard it, he quit messing with it. His recordings have a raw quality that sounds like they were cut in a single take—which is not far from the truth. Often, when a soloist would urge, “Let’s do that again, I can do better,” Cale would drawl, “No you can’t. That’s it, we’re done.” Spartan arrangements and his sleepy, breathy delivery drew you in and made you listen a bit more closely to his introspective story-songs. This was no accident, Cale was indeed a troubadour and he knew what he was about: “Let’s keep it simple so people can understand it.” Every word was carefully chosen, every note had its place. No fat, no fluff—just lean. How’d he do that?

While I was at the helm of Performance magazine (a trade pub for the touring talent industry), Cale was launching a rare tour in support of his definitive “Troubadour” album (featuring his anthem, “Cocaine,” which emerged as a signature hit for Clapton a year later). Since he was famous for being not famous, I opted to run a full-page head shot on the cover with the bold slug, “The Elusive J.J. Cale” (he would not have a photo of himself on the front cover of an album for another seven years).

But as luck would have it, his near-legendary anonymity was safe. The printers somehow managed to overlook stripping in the photo, so the cover was entirely blank save that not-so-revealing caption. Cale’s management thought we’d done it on purpose and approved! When I had the opportunity to explain what had actually happened to J.J., he cracked up. That suited him just fine, he said…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Typography: Best Practices

type catalogReadability is—or certainly should be—a major consideration for web designers, and readability is predicated on good typography. Even though content editors aren’t designers per se, they are often called upon to collaborate closely with designers and/or to critique websites for overall usability. In smaller operations, they may assume some or all of the layout tasks. So it’s a good idea for web editors to develop a working knowledge of basic web design and the role of typography in great design and readability/usability.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Smashing magazine conducted its first survey of web typography back in 2009. Advances in responsive design, evolving browsing habits, and the explosion of mobile devices with a plethora of form factors led the editors to revisit the project.

The updated survey was recently published as “Typographic Design Patterns and Current Practices (2013).” It’s detailed content is worthy of your consideration, but I’ll share some of the highlights to give you an idea of what they found:

  • Serif fonts have eclipsed sans serif families in popularity for headlines as well as body copy (though it’s apparently still considered acceptable to combine the two for emphasis or contrast between titles, subheads, body copy, sidebars, etc.).
  • The most commonly employed headline fonts are Georgia, Arial, and Chapparal Pro (but the majority of websites surveyed still incorporate lesser-known fonts to some extent).
  • The most common body copy fonts—no surprises here—are Georgia, Arial, and Helvetica (poor old Times Roman has been put out to pasture).
  • Headline font sizes typically range from 29 to 32 pixels.
  • Body copy font sizes flucuate between 14 and 16 pixels.
  • Characters per line average from 75 to 90 (though 55 to 75 is actually more optimal).
  • Body text is pretty universally set on a left alignment, hyphenation is verboten, and links are predictably underscored and/or highlighted with bold face or a bright or contrasting color (occasionally only on hover).

Content marketing editor Tom Mangan registers his frustration with the “roll yer own” approach to digital typography that yields control to the end-user: “What drives me crazy is that font usage is more of a suggestion than a command. Every browser displays it differently and [an] individual user can override my type choices.”

There was also a lacuna in the article: it doesn’t even mention the concept of negative space in relation to type. Mangan opines, “I would bet the true keys to legibility lie in character and line spacing—if you get that right, it should stay that way (pretty much) no matter which font the user is actually using.”

The judicious application of white space is near and dear to the hearts of all graphic designers, since text and negative space are really just opposite sides of the same coin—and both are graphic elements. I was taught to view white space as the yin to text’s yang; the two engage in a sort of graphic dance, each bringing out the best in the other. Marcella Drula-Johnston, head honcho of the Spectrum Creative design atelier in Fairfax, Virginia, wistfully intones, “White space seems almost neglected these days. Andi [her associate] and I have both noticed the lack of thought or intent regarding kerning or tracking in most contemporary design as well.”

But the lack of respect for good typography and the appropriate use of “text-free zones” predates the Internet. As a young in-house editor for Petersen Publishing (Motor Trend, Hot Rod, Guns & Ammo, and many other newsstand titans), I was sworn to embrace Pete Petersen’s dictum, “If God had wanted there to be white space, He wouldn’t have created type!”

Oh, dear…

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Technology & Culture Update 6/4/13

Mary Rose cutaway

Mary Rose Museum“Britain’s Pompeii”: Looking like the love child of an old sailing ship and a flying saucer, the Mary Rose Museum made its debut in Portsmouth last Friday. The unique facility houses an equally unique historical artifact: the hull of the ill-fated Mary Rose, flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet. The ship sunk under mysterious circumstances during an engagement with an invading French armada in The Solent in 1545.

maryrosedogA veritable Tudor time capsule, the Mary Rose offered up a wealth of amazingly well-preserved artifacts. The treasure trove comprises clothing, personal items, longbows and arrows, musical instruments (including the only extant example of a still shawm, a medieval ancestor of the oboe—you can listen to a sound clip here), the master carpenter’s and barber-surgeon’s sea chests (with a full complement of the tools of their trades)—even the skeleton of the ship’s dog (a whippet-terrier cross) and one of the rats he no doubt terrorized.

Remains of nearly half of the 400-man crew (all but 35 went down with the ship) were recovered, 97 of which were near-complete skeletons. Of these, seven were selected to serve as models for facial reconstruction, utilizing techniques employed by criminal forensic artists (view a fascinating video of the process here). Tentative occupational identifications were determined by location of the remains (see diagram above) and forensic analysis of the bones.

Wikipedia has a very thorough entry covering the ship itself as well as the recovery operations. Finally, you should take the time to watch this 45-minute documentary, “Ghosts of the Mary Rose”; it offers a new and highly plausible hypothesis for the ship’s untimely demise:

Rockin’ the cosmos: I recently profiled a fella who made music in outer space; this week I’ll introduce you to some folks who make music from space itself. Wanda Diaz-Merced is a grad student performing an internship at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She’s working on a project that uses a process called sonification to translate data drawn from X-rays emitted by the EX Hydrae star system into sound patterns. The researcher can manipulate pitch, volume, and rhythm to produce something akin to music.

One day a colleague, Gerhard Sonnert—who also happens to be a bass player—noticed that the sound patterns Diaz-Merced was generating were reminiscent of a common Afro-Cuban rhythm called a clave. Enlisting the aid of his cousin, Volkmar Studtrucker (a professional composer), the pair wrangled the cosmic waves into musical compositions in a variety of genres. They’ve even released an album: “X-Ray Hydra.” Now that’s what I call avant-garde!

Network mad as hell“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” Lynne Truss (of Eats, Shoot & Leaves fame) advocates a subversive “no tolerance” approach to punctuation errors in signage—she’s even depicted in her author’s portrait poised before an offending sign with marker in hand and a mischievous grin plastered across her mug. But balaclavas notwithstanding, one would hope Truss didn’t intend to encourage “grammar terrorists” like Leonard Burdek.

Borrowing a dash of indignation from Howard Beale in the movie Network, Burdek waltzed into the reception area of the State of Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission and declared that he had intended to blow up the sign outside because it was missing the letter ‘d’ in the word ‘and.’ To reinforce his point, he then sat a pressure cooker with wires hanging out of it on the counter.

Burdek claimed his home-brewed bomb misfired because there were so many grammatical errors in the online instructions he had trouble deciphering them. This decline in literacy should concern the organization responsible for certifying teachers, the mad bomber allegedly informed the shocked receptionist and her boss. He beat a hasty retreat when they dialed 911, but was soon arrested without incident (hey, he’s a grammar geek, not the Boston Marathon wingnuts). The “explosive device” was found to be fake and the whole affair a stunt to get attention and make a point. Kids, don’t try this at home.

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Hansen Writing Ball, ca. 1875

Technology + words = art! I’d like to wrap up by calling your attention to a wonderful photographic study of the evolution of the typewriter by Vincze Mi Klós. Beginning with the first patent for a “Machine for Transcribing Letters” in 1714, the portfolio continues on through the electronic Brother WP-1 in the mid-1980s. Would you believe that the first electric typewriter made its appearance in 1870? Steampunk aficionados, prepare to drool!

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.