Hatchet Jobs

The Omnivore is a website that rounds up reviews, bringing readers a cross section of critical opinion. Currently, they are running a Shortlist of nominations for 2013’s best “hatchet job.”

Last year, Adam Mars-Jones won for his review of By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham.


As the Manifesto on the website states: “[The Hatchet Job of the Year 1012 award] rewarded honesty, wit and good writing. It condemned mediocrity, sycophancy and lazy adjectives. It put the reader first.” Furthermore, it wasn’t just about being snarky and clever: “But this is not just about wielding the axe. Our guiding philosophy is compassionate criticism.”

And so, on the site, they list the contenders for this year’s Hatch Job. Among the contenders, a review about a biography of Hitler, a book by Martin Amis, a sequel to Treasure Island, and a “poetic novel” about mankind. Each of the reviews on the shortlist is scathingly honest, and even if you don’t agree with the reviewer, you have to admire the conviction within the review.

But I write about this because the reviews are excellent guidelines for writers: What Not to Do!

Read the reviews and see the concerns of the reviewers. How has each book failed? What traps might you best avoid? For example, Allan Massie reviews The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine. Here is an excellent criticism:

“Nevertheless some of the writing is very bad. Example: ‘He watched Rysiek’s brown lips move deliberately in his carefully trimmed beard, as if his mouth knew how handsome it was.’ You might be pleased for a moment to have written that sentence. Then you would read it again, and strike it out. Raine left it in.”

That’s called “slaying your darlings.” I’ve written about that before. When you edit your work, as you must once the first draft is complete, you should seek out those “darlings” you created, those lines that sing of your great creativity. If they sing to you, then they’ll stand out in the novel, and not in a positive way. They will likely intrude on the reader’s experience of story. For that reason, you must annihilate them. Never should the author intrude on the story.

Then there is this criticism from Craig Brown’s review of the Odd Couple by Richard Bradford:

“IMAGINE that we had all trooped into Skyfall to find it a mish-mash of all the old James Bond movies, with a couple of freshly shot scenes, and the producers had just trusted we wouldn’t spot it.”

It’s true that every story has been told, but that’s no excuse for lazy or sloppy writing. Tell the story anew. Don’t simply rehash what has come before and hope that the reader won’t notice.

Richard Evans is harsh about Hitler: A Short Biography by A. N. Wilson:

“It would take more space than is available here to list all the mistakes in the book. Most obvious are the simple factual errors. The ‘Aryan race’ in Nazi ideology was not ‘the Eurasian race’; it did not include ‘Slavs’, ‘Latins’ or ‘Celts’. … Wilson purveys many hoary myths long since discredited by historical research.”

When you are writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, do in-depth research. Don’t assume ignorance on the part of your readers. I once had a writer decline to work with me because I told her that “historical fiction” did not mean that she could change the names of historical figures “just because.” If you’re going to write about the  54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, you must name the commanding officer Colonel Robert Shaw. He is a well-known figure from history. You can’t change the known facts. If you want a different officer, you can certainly invent him, but you can’t change the commander. She was rather indignant with me and wrote, “Ann, perhaps you don’t understand, this is historical FICTION and I can do anything I want.” I sincerely believe she simply hadn’t done her research, and didn’t want to take the trouble to do so. Needless to say, we parted ways.

I suggest you read these “hatchet job” reviews now and take notes. Further, I suggest that you make it a habit to read reviews on a regular basis, to see both the good and the bad in writing, and to gauge what readers want in their books these days.

The Darnedest Things

I learn the darnedest things in my job.

I’m currently proofing a college textbook on Biology. Fascinating stuff. Next comes a textbook on Mathematics. I don’t typically edit or proof textbooks; my line is more academic books…books published by professors on their expertise (diplomacy, literature, psychology, philosophy, religion, DIY Indonesia, music of the Fifties and Sixties, etc.).

Every book is filled with new facts and insights for me. That’s why I love my job. The biology book immediately grabbed my attention, with its discussion of Gregor Mendel’s work with genetic inheritance, and an indepth discussion of the workings of mitochondria. Another fun fact was about desert ants and how they navigate back to the nest after wandering for hours and many kilometers in the searing heat.

Experiments showed that the ants don’t use landmarks to navigate, but they do use the relative position of the sun. Plus, they count steps.

The pedometer hypothesis suggests that the ants always know how far they are from the nest because they track the number of steps they have taken and their stride length. The idea is that they can make a beeline back to the burrow because they integrate information on the angles they have travelled and the distance they have gone—based on step number and stride length. It doesn’t matter that they have wandered off on tangents on the trip away from home, because they can calculate a direct-line return.

To test this innate ability, scientists created three test cases: the legs of one group of ants were shortened by cutting off the lower segments; the legs of the control group were left as-is, and the legs of the last group were lengthened with the use of  prosthetic “stilts.”

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All of the ants were then released into a 10-meter-long channel and allowed to wander. When it came time to return to the burrow, the control group returned with no problem. But, the group whose legs had been shortened stopped short by about 5 meters before looking for the nest opening, and the group on stilt legs passed the opening by 5 meters. Over time, some were able to recalculate and find their way unerringly to the nest, while almost 50% never made the adjustment. Fascinating!

Okay, so now I place that information in my mental lockbox, and keep it safe for use in my writing at some point in the future. Which brings me to my point: even if you aren’t force-fed new knowledge as I am on a daily basis, as a writer you should make it your task to read outside of your knowledge base. Do the random Wiki reads, or pick up a book of facts and peruse its contents regularly. You never know what you’re going to find that will feed your imagination and give greater depth to your writing.

(For starters, if you’ve never read the short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” by Carl Stephenson start there.)

“Ode to the Editor” Shared

Finally, in “Ode to the Editor,” someone finally understands what editors actually do, and how we love doing what we do.

Read this to see what I’m talking about. Chuck Wendig is an author who “gets” why an editor is sometimes necessary, and always helpful, even when they “tear apart” an author’s work.

“There she sits, alone. For hours. Maybe days. Pulling pages apart. Seeing what she has. Shining a light into dark corners. Finding sense. Fixing errors. Bringing sanity back to madness, chaos back to order, context back to content. Her red pen dances bloodily upon the page.” Yep, that’s me.

“She goes to him. She shows him what she’s done. He hates her — at first. He froths and kicks and spits, a beast poorly corralled, distraught at what he sees — the ruination of my art, the muddying of my vision, poopy handprints on what was once a clean white wall. But soon he sees. He sees how things make sense.”

“What she brings to the story is hidden behind every page. Lost in the space between sentences. Her repairs are invisible — the mechanisms of her craft hidden behind authorial drywall. Ever unknown to readers.”

I weep. “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” “I am not an animal! I am a human being!”

Thank you, Chuck Wendig. I salute you, as well!

Brave New Words Coming Soon

According to National Geographic magazine, there might soon be some words added to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, languages are living entities and should change over time. It appears that the time has arrived, again.

According to NatGeo, “Wide, long use is key….Fresh words or meanings are added to a database and their usage is tracked for up to ten years. If [the word] ‘cankle,’ for instance, pops up often enough [in books, magazines, newspapers, and various online sources], it may be one of the 4,000 words–out of 6,000 considered–that make the cut each year. Then it will be here to stay.”

Among the words being considered are:

beer jacket: the supposed insulating effect created by being drunk

cankle: thick ankle

earworm: a catchy tune that gets stuck in your head

face palm: an expression of exasperation or disbelief (palm goes to face)

guy liner: eyeliner for men

wibble: the trembling of the lower lip just shy from actual crying

xenolexica: a state of grave confusion when faced with unusual words

As a wordsmith, I particularly enjoy the last one! As a writer who tries to stay current, I realize that I need to keep tabs on today’s living language. It’s getting harder and harder, as new technology forces new words into our living lexicon. But I try to stay relevant. And now, I shall dip.


How many synonyms are there for the word “upheaval”? Let’s see. Off the top of my head, I know: upset, unrest, mayhem, catalyst, disorder, chaos. Then there are:  disruption, disturbance, trouble, confusion, turmoil, pandemonium, cataclysm, shakeup, debacle, revolution, change, and craziness.

The last one suits me best now, as our lives are upheaved during this time of change, as we move from San Diego to DC and then on to Brazil. This is a shakeup of epic proportions, already incorporating a sense of unrest, disorder, and pandemonium. Not quite a debacle, because I think we have things slightly under control, but with any further disruption or disturbance, I’m sure chaos will ensue.

Meanwhile, I will not be writing on this post for a week or so, as I have to unplug and box my life.

Until then, I’ll try to avoid the confusion that comes with upheaval, and walk placidly among the change.


Copyediting Style Sheets

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of using style sheets if you are an editor. I created style sheets for myself before I even knew they were commonplace for editors. There is simply no other way to keep track of proper spellings, names, punctuation decisions, and other items that require consistency when you are editing. Before a manuscript is sent for final proofing, most publishers will require a style sheet. You might as well be the one to create it.

For my work, I use a two-level style sheet, one with formatting, punctuation, and spelling decisions in the top portion, and with an alphabetical list of words in the bottom portion. The alphabetical list allows me to quickly find and verify the spelling of any unusual or foreign words or proper names I find in the manuscript.

In the top portion, I write whether I’m editing for UK or US English (depends on the publisher), decisions about whether and when to spell out numbers (use words for one through ten, for example, and numerals for 11 and up), whether or not to use serial commas, how to cite sources in text and bibliography, punctuation (such as how to form an ellipse), and other items that must be consistent throughout the document.

With respect to names, I suggest that, even if you think the name is easily recognized, you write down the spelling, since authors sometimes change spellings in midstream. And always verify names against the bibliography, if one is included. (If there is a discrepancy, check Google to verify the author’s name.)  I alphabetize by first name, last name (i.e., Richard Johanson) rather than by reverse order (i.e., Johanson, Richard), as you’d find the name in the Index.

Speaking of indexes, the style sheet is also an aid when you are creating an index, since you already have many of the topics and names listed. Using the style sheet, you can search for terms in the manuscript and record the page numbers (in a PDF file, prior to print).

Of course, initially, keeping a style sheet as you edit adds time to your endeavor, but in the long run, it saves time, so you don’t have to keep flipping back through the pages to verify how something is spelled. This is especially helpful with history books or books about foreign topics, where names are vital.

I strongly recommend that you create a style sheet for yourself and your client when you are editing a manuscript. Most publishers require one, and it’s a nice little bonus to give to your clients before they ask for it. Once you get the hang of using them, you’ll wonder how you ever did without them.

‘Alphas’ on SyFy: Am I An Alpha?

The SyFy channel is offering a new series this summer, “Alphas,” which is about run-of-the-mill humans who each have one extraordinary trait, the Alpha trait, which sets them apart from the rest of mankind. (David Strathairn, a favorite of mine, is one of the leads.) One character is able to sense what events transpired in a room by “reading” objects, pulling from the objects the scent of sight and sound of what has transpired. Another is able to manipulate the thoughts of others, enticing them to act as she desires, whether encouraging a Highway Patrol Officer to eat the ticket he had written for her, or convincing a truculent hotel clerk to give her forbidden guest information. My favorite is the Alpha who can see certain non-visible waves, such as cell phone transmissions or the Internet. I love the fact that he can scroll through the waves, searching the air as though he had a computer touchscreen in front of him.

So, this got me to thinking. Say I were an Alpha, what special powers would I have? I don’t have stupendously accurate hand-eye coordination. It’s good, excellent, in fact, but there’s nothing Alpha about it. I have a will of iron and can often convince others to do my bidding. But, again, nothing extraordinary, so no Alpha trait there. I’m attuned to the emotions of others, and can read a mood or environment well, but an inanimate object remains inanimate in my hands, unless I chuck it across the room. No sensory feedback, so no Alpha trait.

But, wait. I have this innate ability to proofread, and have had since I was a child. I’m forever finding errors in signage, books, menus, and newspaper articles, wherever the written word exists. If there is an error, chances are I will find it. This seems to be an inherited skill, passed along to me by both parents. (I wonder whether all Alpha traits are inherited?) When I take editing tests, as I must do for every new publisher client who wishes to hire me, I feel I’ve failed if I find 98% of the errors, though my potential clients are thrilled. That 2% niggles at me, driving me to improve the next time. Okay, so maybe there’s no Alpha trait there, given a 2% error rate, but that’s my best guess as to any latent Alpha ability I possess.

Not sexy, I know. How would they even use me on the series? Alpha Editor! Maybe I could compare a recently delivered hijacker note to previously known hijacker notes and see a pattern for identification, but I don’t really see myself saving the free world with that talent.

And so, I remain unknown, flying under the radar of the DOD (Department of Defense), righting wrongs in my own little world, but unsung and unchallenged on the world stage. Still, I am content. I am Alpha on my own stage. The Master Editor of all I survey. (David Strathairn, I’m here if you need me.)