Advice for the Lit-Lorn

lit-lorn-strait

Are you a writer? Do you have a writing question, conundrum, dispute, dilemma, quandary or pickle?

Geist offers free professional advice to writers of fiction, non-fiction and everything in between, straight from Mary Schendlinger (Senior Editor of Geist for 25 years) and Geist editorial staff.

Send your question to advice@geist.com. We will reply to all answerable questions, whether or not we post them here. Browse the Q&A below, or search by subject


May 24, 2017
R-e-s-p-e-c-t
Dear Geist, 

As an emerging poet and short story writer, I am interested in establishing publishing credentials. To do that, I need to be able to separate out “prestige publications” (a term you used in one of your responses published on January 11, 2017) from publications that are not well regarded. Through conversations with other writers and by personal research I’ve been able to identify top literary journals such as Malahat Review in Canada and Poetry in the United States. I’ve also been able to establish that publication in any vehicle without a credible, objective vetting process is as likely to be negatively regarded as to be considered an achievement. It is the huge grey area in between these extremes that is the problem. 

The online service Duotrope lists and provides data on over 5,000 literary publications. I use it regularly to identify magazines likely to be interested in poems and stories that I am writing. In response to Duotrope’s publicizing of themes, I’ve been able to place several poems. In one case I was elated when the magazine that accepted one of them was named the top Canadian poetry magazine for that year. In another case I was chagrined when an American magazine quickly accepted five of my poems with apparently little deliberation about their worthiness. 

What is your advice on how to approach this problem of building a credible publishing record and avoiding the ridicule of being featured in a publication of questionable repute? 

—Roy Adams, Hamilton ON 


Dear Roy, 

All publication credits help to establish you as a serious, dedicated writer. As you have found, among writers in any given group or place, certain book and periodical publishers are considered more prestigious than others; but these vary from community to community, and they are not the only arbiters of good or successful writing. The writer who makes an effort to become familiar with the market, and to work with editors, is the writer who will be taken seriously by writers and publishers. Your presence in a range of periodicals helps to establish you as a writer who is building a large and varied audience, and who will be writing steadily for a good long time. 

Our reference to “prestige publications” was part of our advice for a writer, “Alarmed,” who wondered about the protocols of pointing out editorial errors to a publisher. “Alarmed” considered it a prestigious publishing credit and did not want to be seen as a nuisance. 

You might try browsing the membership of Magazines Canada, Canada’s professional magazine publishing association—not just the literary mags, but any periodical that might respond to the subject and tone of your poetry or fiction. Dues-paying members of any such association are very likely to adhere to industry standards and generally to be respectable. And you already know the value of anecdotal information to be had by staying in touch with your colleagues, in writers’ groups or more informal settings. 

Now, about that fast-responding American magazine. . . Sometimes an editor opens an envelope and starts reading, and has the Yes Feeling immediately, and is authorized to snap up the goods without consulting other staff. And some editors believe that poetry shouldn’t be tampered with, so decisions to accept, or not, are swift and simple. In other words, a quick response is not necessarily an indication of carelessness.It is always a good idea, though, to look at any periodical to which you are thinking of submitting work, even a few pages of a recent issue online, to ensure that you feel it is right for your writing. 

—The Editors 

May 17, 2017
In amongst the midst
Dear Geist, 

What is the difference between in and among? On May 9, 2017, journalists outside the White House in Washington, DC, were awaiting an official statement on the firing of FBI Director James Comey. The Washington Post reported that Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, appeared to be hiding in the bushes, briefing staff members. A short time after publishing the story, the Post ran a correction saying that Spicer was never “in the bushes”; he was “among bushes.” Say what? Even my trusty dictionary isn’t helping me on this one. 

—Cameron H, Lethbridge AB 


Dear Cameron, 

It’s a head-scratcher, isn’t it? 

The better-known caution about among, and its buddies amid and amongst, is to be clear when to use one of them and when to use between. For example, you choose between two things but among three things. (Not always, this being English, but that’s another subject.) 

In is one of the most nimble words English speakers have: we’ll see you in an hour, we engage in conversation, we live in Canada, we rub it in, we’re in trouble, we’re in with the in-crowd, and so on and on. Yet one could argue that in many of those diverse in functions there is a connotation of immersion, which White House staff adjacent to shrubbery, at night, with media people nearby, would probably rather avoid. Among, on the other hand, feels more formal and stately, suggesting pleasant, voluntary mingling—without touching, and certainly without hiding. 

—The Editors 

May 10, 2017
Presentability
Dear Geist, 

Should I hire an editor before submitting my novel manuscript to an agent or a publisher? I can’t afford a big overhaul but I assume it will get a more serious reading if it is polished up. 

—Writing Fool, Toronto ON 


Dear Writing, 

Right you are—some editors are quite put off by small errors in spelling, diction, punctuation, etc., so if the small stuff isn’t your forte, get the manuscript copy-edited. As for the “big overhaul,” if you’re happy with the manuscript, we recommend you don’t seek a structural edit at this juncture, even if you can afford it. A publisher or agent who reads the manuscript might enthusiastically recommend a big edit that differs from the one you just paid hundreds of dollars for, and that would be a shame. (For a bit more on this, see the Geist Advice to the Lit-Lorn post Art and audience.) But if you are not happy with the existing shape and trajectory of the novel, and you have gone as far as you can with revisions, you might hire an editor to read it and submit a reader’s report incorporating concrete suggestions. 

—The Editors 

May 3, 2017
Writing real people
Dear Geist, 

When writing a short non-fiction story about someone, is it a bad idea to use the person’s real name? Also, if the person the story is about happens to read it and identifies himself/herself in the story, would that be enough evidence to sue the writer? 

—J. Norris, Port Moody, BC 


Dear J, 

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject. 

Writing and publishing (including posting online) about real people can raise both ethical and legal questions. 

Ethical questions can arise when someone is hurt or angry by the way a writer portrays them in the writing. As a non-fiction writer, you always take that risk. Even if the person knows you are writing about them, and even if no legal challenge arises, feelings can be hurt, friendships can be compromised, and so on. 

Legal questions may arise if someone you write about in an identifiable way believes that you have harmed their reputation. 

In our experience, ethical and legal complaints against writers are statistically rare. But when you write non-fiction (or even fiction), there is no way to safeguard yourself 100% against any ethical or legal complaint. Do take a look at the Advice for the Lit-Lorn posts Truth and consequences and Respectful recounting, where we list ways of handling real-life material that may help you in avoiding ethical or legal trouble. 

—The Editors 

April 26, 2017
Inflamed
Dear Geist,

Why do we have two words, almost identical, that mean “easily set on fire”? I’m talking about flammable and inflammable. Even dictionary writers seem embarrassed about this weird situation.

—Cathy Glazdar, St. John, NB


Dear Cathy,

The trouble is the in- prefix, which is added to some words to make them mean “not”: sensitive/insensitive, capable/incapable and so on. English borrowed this in- from Latin; but it also borrowed another Latin in- that fortifies some words rather than negating them, such as indoctrinate and inflammable. Somewhere around the turn of the twentieth century, American insurance companies got worried enough about the confusion between flammable and inflammable—on tags attached to baby blankets, for instance—that they pressed manufacturers to use only flammable, whose meaning was unambiguous. Other English-speaking countries have followed suit, but both terms are still in wide use. We recommend flammable, or the more recent non-flammable. Why play with fire, eh?

—The Editors

April 20, 2017
Let it rest
Dear Geist,

How important is it to set aside a completed draft, and for how long?

Recently I finished the first draft of a memoir. It took about a year and eight months, and I’ve spent minimal time looking back on it during the process. As one might imagine, I’m incredibly anxious to read it (at which point I’ll note typos/issues, but really just intend to get a feeling for the work as a whole). Following that, I intend to comprehensively edit it. I remain energized and excited about the project. Should I take a break before reading it? If so, why? And for how long? Or should I take a break prior to my major edit?

—Erin, Kelowna, BC

Dear Erin,

First, congratulations on finishing the draft! No mean feat, as any writer will attest.

Our advice is to set the completed draft aside for at least two weeks and preferably for two months. In her wonderful essay “That Crafty Feeling,” the writer Zadie Smith put it this way: Step away from the vehicle. In fact we encourage you to follow this routine with each completed draft.

Why two weeks? Because that’s about how long it takes for a piece of writing to leave one’s head (or perhaps it’s the other way around!). Your objective is to revisit the manuscript as impartially as you can: only in a somewhat removed state, when the excitement of writing the memoir is no longer coursing through your veins, will your inner writer be willing to consider questions and notes offered by the inner editor.

Why two months? Because if you let it wait longer, you may be a different person, who wants to write a different book. (Though that experience can be gratifying too, according to writers we know who have waited or had to wait months or years.)

We applaud you for your plan on revisiting the draft when the time comes: read it right through to get an overall sense of voice, tone, authority, emotional impact, etc., then go back and scrutinize passages that need attention. That is exactly how a good editor would proceed.

A note for all readers of this post: “That Crafty Feeling” and other highly recommended smart pieces by Zadie Smith are in her book Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.

—The Editors 


April 5, 2017
Flash momentum
Dear Geist, 

Can you recommend a really fast, really easy way to stay connected to the writing life when you just can’t carve out even an hour? My friend and I both have toddlers, jobs, partners and aging parents, and we are both writing novels. We’re good at cheering each other on, but for one or both, sometimes days or even weeks go by without writing a word and then it takes forever to reconnect. Help! 

—Padma, New York NY 


Dear Padma, 

Your situation is familiar to many a Geist reader/writer! One of the fastest, easiest ways to keep the writing energy going when you are needed elsewhere is a practice we call “flash momentum.” Sometime during each day—any time of day—write a sentence that has to do with your novel-in-progress: a description of something your main character is wearing (whether or not they wear it in the story), a note about the plot that’s been bugging you, a question for a minor character, that sort of thing. This sentence won’t go into the novel, but it’s about the novel. Keep the focus on your story and characters, not on what you’re doing or how you’re feeling. Write the sentence anywhere, any time, on a scrap of paper or in a notebook. Throw it away if you want. Or hang on to the notes and mine them for character, plot, etc., later on, when you’re back in the writing zone. But do it every day. Hang in there! 

—The Editors 

March 29, 2017
To market
Dear Geist, 

What marketing tasks should a writer take on (or not), other than a social media presence, as you say in your post Marketeers? A friend of mine just had a book published, so I called an old school buddy who works at CBC Radio to get an interview for her, and the marketing people at her publisher’s were really cheesed off about it. 

—Mitchell Scarat, Ottawa ON 


Dear Mitchell, 

Marketing covers just about every activity having to do with sales of a book (to stores, libraries, individuals, universities, etc.) and promotion of that book (advertising, media attention, author appearances at festivals, other public readings, etc.). The marketing strategy for each book is worked out early in the process by the publisher, editor, designer, sales people, publicity people, rights people—everyone whose work will figure in the book’s success. The heart of the strategy is a clear, consistent message to a well-defined audience, carried out by all of the above-mentioned workers on a timeline that makes the most of industry rhythms. All publishers encourage authors (and authors’ friends—good on you!) to be as active as they can in marketing, provided you work in sync with the marketing managers. If the publisher’s publicity workers had contacted CBC around the time you did (highly likely), eventually the two separate approaches would come to the attention of producers, who are quite careful to vary the focus when any book, event, etc., is covered in more than one show. The last thing your friend needs is for busy producers simply to say no because this publisher/author seem not to be talking to each other, and not to know the protocols. So yes—be a friend to literature, but work from the centre, not the edge. 

—The Editors

March 21, 2017
That doggone comma
Dear Geist, 

Now that the lack of a serial comma (a.k.a. Oxford comma, Harvard comma, third comma) in a state law has famously caused an appeals court in Maine, USA, to rule against a large company—potentially leading to a multimillion-dollar large settlement—do you stand by your policy of omitting that comma? 

—Judy in Port Moody (BC) (seriously) 


Dear Judy, 

Oh, yes. We edit for brevity and concision in language and in punctuation, and we have house preferences for usage. Within those guidelines we edit for clarity and readability, making exceptions as needed, as do good editors all over the world. The fly in the ointment in the Maine case was not the comma itself, but the construction in which it did not appear: 

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment [no comma] or distribution of: 

(1) Agricultural produce; 
(2) Meat and fish products; and 
(3) Perishable foods. 

If the house preference of those who wrote up the law was to omit the serial comma, a careful reading would have indicated that a comma was needed in that particular spot, to avoid the ambiguity that led to the court’s decision.

Sometimes it goes the other way. For example: “Those attending included the solicitor, Ms. O’Riley, and Mr. Singh.” Is the solicitor Ms. O’Riley? If not, the meaning would be clearer if the serial comma were omitted here, even if the house style preferred it in general. And one could argue that the best solution for both this example and the one in the Maine lawbooks is to reword the whole sentence. 

Good writing and editing have to do with internal clarity and consistency, not slavish adherence to “rules.” 

—The Editors

March 6, 2017
Coming or going, continued
Dear Geist,

The question [Which is correct: “Ted asked me to come over” or “Ted asked me to go over”? February 1, 2017] isn’t just about direction of movement, it’s about indirect dialogue. In direct dialogue, everything is written verbatim:

          “Ted phoned last Thursday. ‘Can you come over to my place tomorrow?’ he said. 
          ‘Mom will be there.’”

But in indirect voice, elements that are relative to the speaker get changed. It’s a fairly broad principle, going beyond simple grammar:

           “Ted phoned last Thursday and asked me to go over to his place the next day [or 
           Friday] to meet his mother.—Robert Dawson, Halifax NS


Dear Robert,
Many thanks for these enriching additions. More evidence that when it comes to questions on language, there are no simple answers!
—The Editors

March 1, 2017
Just how creative?
Dear Geist, 

I’m wondering what your thoughts are about the role of facts in an essay, both historically and currently, and how much truth matters in an essay. A recent piece (article? essay?) in The Atlantic critiquing a writer’s (John D’Agata) take on the essay form has a lot of writers in the States talking, so I would love to hear the Canadian perspective on these issues. Here is a related piece critiquing D’Agata's positions on art and the essay. 

As a caveat, this email is true. I have not made any of this up. 

—Aaron Gilbreath, Portland OR 


Dear Aaron, 

Thanks to the very nature of writing, we can expect a long life for the thorny question of how creative a writer can be in a work of creative non-fiction before it is no longer non-fiction. As you point out, John D’Agata and others argue that there are good writerly reasons to stretch, embellish, change and otherwise tweak the literal facts. We can all agree that to write a great essay, or even to tell a decent story at the dinner table, a writer must shape the source material. A real-life story or anecdote is a meaningless bore when reported exactly as it happened, so the writer or speaker selects telling details, omits irrelevant bits, shuffles the elements and/or exaggerates here and there, to enhance suspense and impact. 

At Geist we check facts as thoroughly as we can, even in works of fiction and poetry. Publishers are responsible for the public record, a serious business considering that all writing posted online—true and spurious—proliferates instantly in a gazillion databases. And we’re keen to protect the credibility of our magazine and our writers. We don’t have a fixed list of acceptable and unacceptable deviations from the bare facts; we work with writers and manuscripts one by one to sort out apparent inaccuracies. As well as the shaping tweaks mentioned above, a writer may change a name or detail to protect someone vulnerable, or to ward off legal problems. If these edits don’t compromise the central concerns of the work, and if no deceit takes place, we are all right with them. 

Some years ago John D’Agata wrote a magazine article/essay about a Las Vegas teenager’s death by suicide, and the larger implications of it. He pushed hard on the facts in his piece—too hard for the fact checker, Jim Fingal, who found seven errors of fact just in the first sentence. D’Agata declared that he had made those changes deliberately—for effect, and for the music of his sentences. In his view these revisions enhanced the piece, and were akin to the omissions, conflations, re-orderings and other adjustments routinely made in creative non-fiction. Fingal disagreed, arguing that shaping material is qualitatively different than introducing factual errors for aesthetic reasons. 

We agree with Fingal. We aren’t convinced that D’Agata’s article would have lost its shimmer if he had kept the actual “eight heart attacks” instead of writing “four heart attacks,” or if he had revised “the moon only showing half of itself” in response to Fingal’s note that the moon was a fingernail that night, or if he had left out “parts of [the young man’s body] had been found a day later, sixty feet away,” which was uncorroborated, and which D’Agata said had “probably” come from someone who was “drunk or stoned or both,” but which he wanted to keep for ambience. 

Our checkpoint is the unspoken agreement that a publisher makes with readers. They know that non-fiction writers arrange their material, but when inaccuracies come to light, the agreement is disrupted and the writer and/or publisher become untrustworthy. When a writer has good reasons to make such changes, it’s more ethical to go with “non-fiction novel,” “based on a true story” or similar wording. 

A note to readers of this post: We recommend the articles in Aaron’s links above, and the book The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal (Norton, 2012), a rigorous, heated, sometimes nasty, always interesting exchange. And take a look at Respectful Recounting and Truth and Consequences, two related Advice for the Lit-Lorn posts. 

—The Editors

February 21, 2017
Marketeers
Dear Geist, 

Who is responsible for marketing a book? As you wrote in your reply to Miranda, a self-publisher, it’s up to her to create and maintain a social media presence because she is the publisher. I have a publisher, and yet the marketing manager pretty much ordered me to set up Facebook and Twitter accounts and post a few times a week, as well as doing the usual media and bookstore events. Isn’t marketing the publisher’s lookout? 

—Just Want To Write, Calgary AB 


Dear Just, 

Marketing is indeed the publisher’s responsibility. That’s why they got you going on social media. The objective is to launch strong promotion in the book’s first season, to get the ball rolling until word-of-mouth kicks in to support long-term sales momentum. Book fans want to see and hear from writers, so writers are expected to show up for interviews, readings, signings and so on. When we got the World Wide Web, especially social media, we also got a vast network of book readers who now had the technology to handle their own word-of-mouth and author relations, thank you very much. Marketing experts at publishing companies are still the ones who identify audiences and design the overall marketing plan, and that plan still includes author appearances—such as the writer’s consistent online availability to readers. Marketing staff can give pointers on effective social media presence, but only the author can carry it out. 

—The Editors

February 14, 2017
Getting the Picture
Dear Geist,

I’ve written a book for young children and I hope to illustrate it as well. But I hear through the grapevine that it might compromise my submission to send illustrations to a publisher along with the written manuscript. True?

—Cheng M, Toronto


Dear Cheng,

Probably not. Most children’s publishers prefer to engage professional illustrators with whom they have a working relationship, mainly because of the complex needs of picture books: age of intended readers; competing books in the marketplace; international rights potential; appeal to parents, teachers, librarians and other grownups (the people who buy these books); and so on. But a publisher who is keen on your story is more likely to negotiate these matters with you than to reject your proposal.

The Editors


February 7, 2017
Pluralistics
Dear Geist, 

What is the plural of McDonald’s? Everything I try looks wrong, and online search results are far from unanimous. 

—Camille, Cyberspace 


Dear Camille, 

There are places where even editors fear to tread. . . To avoid monstrosities such as “McDonald’ses,” the plural of McDonald’s is simply McDonald’s. It isn’t strictly to grammatical code, but in context it is clear, and readability is what matters. If possible, though, try rewording the passage. 

The Editors

February 1, 2017
Coming or going
Dear Geist, 

Please settle my bet with a friend. Which is correct: “Ted asked me to come over” or “Ted asked me to go over”? There’s ten bucks riding on your answer. 

—Janine, Prince George BC 


Dear Janine, 

“Go” is technically correct. It’s all about direction of movement. Ted would ask you to come (move toward him), and you would go (move away from where you are). In casual conversation, though, either sentence would be understood. How about the two of you take that ten bucks and go out for coffee? 

—The Editors

January 25, 2017
Down side
Dear Geist,

Am I going about writing the wrong way or am I just perverse? For years I was filled with great story ideas and dreamed of serious time to write, but I had a young family to support. Then miraculously I got an arts council grant to finish my collection. I got my wish to work all day every day on the stories. And I’m miserable! I don’t like most of what I write and I stare into space and feel lazy and guilty. Any advice?

—D.R.W., Winnipeg MB


Dear D.R.W.,

Many a writer wonders how the work of writing came to enjoy the reputation of a glamorous joyride. Fulfilling, yes. Fun, sometimes. Also lots and lots of second-guessing and self-criticism, plain boredom, days of fevered writing followed by dismay at the useless results, or days of not writing at all and who knows why, a week writing and rewriting one sentence and watching it get worse and knowing you have to keep throwing down terrible versions to get the good one. And so on.

Over time, you’ll accept these conditions as part of the process. In a radio interview some years ago, the host asked Alice Munro whether it ever gets any easier or faster. She said it didn’t, but that she did have a memory of being able to resolve the questions and doubts, which kept her going.

In short, D.R.W., to us it sounds like you’re really writing. Good art grows out of discomfort, not contentment. If you were sailing through the work with no moments of frustration, chagrin, panic, gloom or attacks of impostor syndrome, we’d be giving you a different answer.

The best antidote to the down side of writing is to hang around with other writers. Join a writers’ association, start a writing group (your public library may have some ideas for you), go to literary readings and festivals. Hang out, and hang in!

—The Editors

January 18, 2017
Give and let gift
Dear Geist, 

Okay, language is always changing, but shouldn’t we resist some terms that creep into use? Not just language that insults whole categories of people, but also fuzzy and fancy words that insult the language itself. Take gift—please. Why has the perfectly good noun gift been twisted into use as a verb, replacing the perfectly good verb give? It’s unnecessary and it requires more words: “They gifted us with strawberry jam” vs. the simple, direct “They gave us strawberry jam.” Grrr! 

—Constance, Coquitlam BC 


Dear Constance, 

We agree that new terms and uses of language should be questioned hard, and we love spirited debates on the subject. We also recommend gracious acceptance of changes that stick, even those we don’t like. (No one is forcing us to fold them into our own lexicons.) But we must tell you that gift as a verb has been in use in English since the 1500s. That usage went quiet for a good long time, sticking around only in terms like “gifted artist.” More recently the verb regift has appeared and caught on. Perhaps that’s how we became gifted with a fresh round of gift as a verb. 

—The Editors

January 11, 2017
Editing fail
Dear Geist,

What should a writer do when a magazine editor makes editorial errors? I got a short story accepted by a well-known literary mag, and they sent me a document with editorial suggestions tracked into the text, for me to approve. The editor missed a couple of typos that I noticed on rereading—my bad, okay. But the “edited” story also had five new errors: two misspelled words, a punctuation mistake, one wrong verb tense and an erroneous “correction” of a street name. Should I withdraw the story, or ask what happened, or just shut up and correct the mistakes, or . . .?

—Alarmed, Swift Current SK 


Dear Alarmed,

Approach the editor as you would want to be approached: ask about the errors politely but directly. Perhaps the draft is a proposed reshaping of the story, for which they’re seeking your approval before spending time on a detail edit, and someone forgot to say so in the cover letter. Or maybe the wrong version of the tracked text was accidentally emailed to you, or a trainee did the edit and it slipped through without getting checked by a supervisor. And maybe the editor simply (shudder) blew it. If you don’t get an immediate apology and coherent explanation, you can certainly withdraw the story. Or you can ask to proof the typeset copy on finished composed pages before the magazine goes to press—a bit risky, but maybe preferable if it’s a prestige publication. Let us know what happens!

—The Editors

January 4, 2017
Following replacement
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct: “replaced by” or “replaced with”? 

—Alexei, Cyberspace



Dear Alexei, 

Either “by” or “with” is fine unless the ambiguity gremlins sneak in. For instance, “the old fridge was replaced by a new one” is technically correct but it can suggest that the new fridge staged a coup, whereas “the old fridge was replaced with a new one” is clear. “The landlord replaced the old fridge with a new one” is even clearer, because it is a good declarative sentence in which someone does something. You’ve probably been told that sentences in the passive voice are to be used sparingly: this is another cautionary example. 

— The Editors

December 14, 2016
This, that, both
Dear Geist, 

Doesn’t the word oversight, which has two opposite meanings, cause misunderstandings? You’d think someone would come up with a replacement word. 

—Gloria, Chicago IL



Dear Gloria, 

Quite right—oversight can mean the act of watching over something, or the failure to notice something. It is one of many contronyms, or autoantonyms: words with contradictory meanings. Others include strike (to hit, or to fail to hit), bolt (to fasten something or to take off) and presently (at this time, or soon). As with so many words in English, and other languages, contronyms evolve gradually, and speakers and writers pick up the meaning from the context. Would people latch on to a great new word if we had one? Maybe, but we cannot know—language has a life of its own. 

—The Editors

December 8, 2016
Simple and/or scholarly
Dear Geist, 

How can academic writers apply your advice to keep prose simple and direct? Many of us work with very narrow specializations that have their own terms and syntax. To simplify this language or define terms along the way would make many a thesis and dissertation longer and even harder to comprehend. 

—Sentence Spinner, Port Alberni BC

Dear Spinner, 

The answer depends on your intended audience. If you’re preparing the paper to augment the body of work of other specialists and to get your degree, go ahead and use exclusive language. But if your years of research and writing may be of interest to more readers, why not write with them in mind? Your definitions of abstruse words and explanations of esoteric processes will become an integral part of the writing and will make your work accessible to interested non-specialists — a much larger audience. In fact, for the last twenty years or so, academic and scholarly presses have sought more publications aimed at lay audiences, to reach more readers and to bolster income. In our view, this opening-out of important new discoveries and understandings is good for everyone. 

—The Editors

November 30, 2016
Word hoards
Dear Geist,

Can you recommend a good dictionary and thesaurus? I am starting some writing courses at Queen’s University in January and it is advised that we have both.

—Maria L, Courtice ON



Dear Maria,

We recommend any of these Canadian dictionaries: Oxford Canadian Dictionary, Nelson Gage Canadian Paperback Dictionary, Collins Canadian Dictionary, Collins Gage Canadian Paperback Dictionary.

For a thesaurus, try Canadian Oxford Paperback Thesaurus or the handy Collins Canadian English Dictionary & Thesaurus. We’re also fond of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus and other American thesauruses (the Canadian spin is less crucial in a thesaurus than in a dictionary).

For any reference, it’s a good idea to try several before settling down with one. They’re all a bit different, and the choice is subjective. The house dictionary for Geist, for instance, is the Oxford Canadian. It has clear definitions, and it dovetails nicely with other Oxford reference books we use. And we have worked with Katherine Barber, the editor-in-chief and a kindred spirit, on identifying regional Canadian terms. But other dictionaries have equally sterling qualities.

As part of your browsing, try some free online dictionaries and thesauruses: Merriam-Webster, Free Dictionary/Thesaurus and Oxford Dictionary/Thesaurus are a few of many good ones.

—The Editors

November 23, 2016
Winners' circle
Dear Geist,

Are book publishers as smart as your Advice to the Lit-Lorn column implies all the time? Paul Beatty's Booker-winning satirical novel, The Sellout, was turned down by eighteen publishers before finding a home! I bet they’re all kicking themselves now.

—Johnny, Charlottetown PEI 



Dear Johnny,

Some publishers may have regrets, but most don’t, even if they agree that The Sellout is a good read, an important work and a deserving winner. Marketability is an important criterion in accepting any manuscript for publication, but the book has to be compatible with the publisher’s overall vision and marketing channels. The formula for success is a publishing team that is excited about a book, confident about the potential audience and connected to marketing networks that will reach that audience. All publishers have stories about the one that got away (some quite gripping!), but few of them would make a different decision.

—The Editors

November 16, 2016
Fictionality
Dear Geist,

Are the words fictional and fictitious interchangeable? If so, why do we need both?

—Cleia, Cyberspace



Dear Cleia,

Both words are adjectives having to do with fiction. Fictional means having the characteristics of fiction: “Harry Potter is a fictional hero.” Fictitious means fictional, but with a negative connotation, suggesting deceit: “The candidate bragged about his fictitious wealth.” And now, allow us to throw a spanner into the works by adding another word: fictive, which refers to the ability to create fiction: “Anna is a writer of great fictive talent.”

Language is alive; words and phrases are always evolving with use. Some go dormant for a while, some rise and fall in a heartbeat, some become interchangeable with other words, some disappear forever. At any moment we could theoretically do without lots of words, but it would be hard to get agreement on it from all English speakers.

—The Editors

November 10, 2016
Workshop, or not
Dear Geist,

Is the creative writing workshop a good way to learn to write? It seems to be The Way all over the world, but I have mixed feelings.

—Pondering, Gander NL



Dear Pondering,

First we’ll clarify that by “workshop” we mean the ongoing activity of group members—classmates or other peers—reading and critiquing each other’s writing. (A workshop can also be an instructional session or series of sessions led by an expert.)

The upsides: You get honest responses from lay readers who tend to be your typical potential audience. You also have access to a supportive cohort, which for many writers becomes an ongoing reference group of friends and colleagues. If you are enrolled in an academic program, you may develop professional relationships with successful working writers—always helpful in getting a foothold on the business side, as well as mentorship. A writing program also gives you months or years during which your sole or principal occupation is writing, and you are surrounded by people who get what you do and value it.

The downsides: Your work is critiqued by peers rather than seasoned editors or teachers. Because you are critiquing their work as well, you can end up spending more time reading and commenting on others’ work than writing, rewriting, experimenting and reading every day to support your own writing. And you may need to work to a schedule that does not block out time for the ultra-important rest period between finishing a draft and showing it to others.

Many fine writers have earned their wings in workshops, and many others have excelled without going near one. With or without a workshop, all writers except confirmed loners will fare better with some writerly friends and/or colleagues in the constellation.

—The Editors

November 2, 2016
Facing flak
Dear Geist,

Is it flak or flack? I looked it up in two dictionaries and they disagree. Why?

—Sandra Caprese, Dauphin MB


Dear Sandra,

Both words come from flak, a condensed version of a German word for fragments of artillery shells used in anti-aircraft guns, which cause the shells to explode. Flak came to mean annoying criticism. Flack, whose origin is unknown (though there are some interesting theories), refers to a publicist or press agent. The two spellings have been used for each other so often that most dictionaries list both spellings for each word. The meanings are still separate in usage, though, so some dictionaries follow suit. Dictionaries tell us how language is used rather than what is “correct,” so there are bound to be some differences between them. What a great excuse to spend a lot of time with dictionaries!

—The Editors

October 27, 2016
Helping or hounding
Dear Geist,

Am I paranoid, or is my agent trying to hurry me up on my second book? She’s smart and hard-working, and she took a chance on my first novel, which earned out the advance. All good, but now, two years later, she is asking me about my new novel-in-progress—kindly but often. Email, phone, lunch. . . Any insights?

—Fariji M, Kelowna BC


Dear Fariji,

Your agent is looking out for your interests and hers, both of which depend on solid sales of your books and subsidiary rights. She absolutely does not want you to cut corners on your book, but she does want to maintain sales momentum, which will bring both of you more rewards with less effort and which is harder after a silence of years. So yes, when she checks in with you she is monitoring your progress and subtly or directly asking you how she can ease the way.

—The Editors

October 19, 2016
Adjective queue
Dear Geist,

When there’s more than one adjective before a noun, does it matter what order they’re in? Someone just told me it does matter, but I’ve been writing for ten years and I never heard of it.

—Anthea, Cyberspace


Dear Anthea,

It does matter. But unless the adjective-order imperative goes viral, as it has a couple of times in the last year or so, most experienced English speakers/writers get it right by instinct. We don’t often hear someone say “I just adopted a grey fuzzy adorable kitten,” or “The red big old house on the corner is up for sale.” Most authorities recommend some version of the following order, shown here with examples in parentheses:

determiner (your)
opinion/value (threadbare)
size (little)
shape (round)
age (ancient)
colour (fuchsia)
origin (Canadian)
material (lace)
purpose/qualifier (“hiking,” as in “hiking boots”)

There are exceptions, of course: “the big bad wolf,” for instance, and any phrase that sounds right. And we’ll take this opportunity to remind you and all writers that when it comes to adjectives and adverbs, less is more.

—The Editors

October 12, 2016
Nothing for granted
Dear Geist,

Have you got any tips for a first-timer applying for an arts council writing grant?

—Kendrich, Halifax NS



Dear Kendrich,

Start by reading the application itself, all of it, and any guidelines offered by the hosting arts council. Also any tips they offer, such as this document posted by the Canada Council for the Arts. 

Then imagine your application in a stack of hundreds of others, being read by a peer assessment committee—an expert in the literary community but also a librarian, a filmmaker, an art gallery curator, a music teacher, or similar mix—people who read and who value writing but who don’t necessarily live and breathe writing. They soon find that most of the applications have “artistic merit,” a major criterion for arts funding, but there isn’t nearly enough money to support them all. What’s a committee member to do? Weed out any application that is less than excellent: it has typos and grammatical errors, or the budget figures don’t add up, or the project description is so vague or esoteric as to be opaque, or the applicant typed everything in 8-point condensed font rather than being succinct, and so on. 

If you have any questions about the application or the process, phone or meet with the officer overseeing the grant. Arts officers are knowledgeable, helpful, interested people who expect to talk to applicants and offer guidance. They don’t make decisions, by the way; they keep the peer assessment committee informed on policy and process, and they keep the discussion on track. If your application doesn’t succeed, you can phone the officer and politely ask for any further comments from the committee, to guide you in the next round. 

It’s darn hard work preparing an arts funding application, to present yourself and your embryonic work to people you’ve never met, to do it persuasively and to do it in agonizingly few words. But even if you aren’t chosen the first time, the process of preparing the application will strengthen your project, and your writing. 

—The Editors

October 4, 2016
The steamy bits
Dear Geist,

Do you have any advice on writing sex scenes? This is assuming that they're necessary to the story and they further the plot. I could gloss over them in a “fade to black” kind of way, but that feels like a cop-out—if two characters arrive at the zoo, and in the next scene they are leaving the zoo saying, “Boy, I sure had fun at the zoo,” that would seem ridiculous. With that being said, the idea of my family, friends and colleagues reading an extremely detailed erotic scene I've written is beyond embarrassing, and probably unnecessary. Is there a good way to do this in straightforward, plain-talking narrative? Any do’s and don’ts? 

—Roswell, Cyberspace


Dear Roswell, 

Right you are—like any scene, a sex scene has to help drive the story, revealing information about character and pushing the plot along. It can’t just hang around as a receptacle for exposition or backstory, or be thrown in for effect. A scene also needs to feel inevitable, so set up the erotic tension well ahead—with content, not just hot-for-each-other. Then, when it (ahem) comes, a strong sex scene organically shows the characters in their most private, vulnerable moments—a natural setting for complications, revelations, resolutions, etc., to arise. 

Some tips: Write the scene from your heart, and don’t turn down the heat to avoid offending anyone—someone will be offended no matter what. Keep the characters’ talk and action consistent with who they are, and don’t shift the point of view unless you’re doing it all through the story. Include lots of sensory detail, leaving out the filters (“I saw,” “she felt,” etc.). The best scenes are vivid but not lurid, and free of cliché. Rather than reporting every single word, sigh, move and sensation, leave some for the reader to fill in. Use your imagination, but if you’re writing about “specialty” sex, know your ground. As with real lovemaking, take your time and let the emotional suspense build to the clinch. And if you’re including more than one sex scene, make sure they’re all a bit different. 

Meanwhile, read as many sex scenes as you can, and note what makes them great—timing, sensory details, dialogue, etc.—or not. Primary fieldwork is optional. 

—The Editors

September 27, 2016
Do and don't, plural
Dear Geist, 

How do you punctuate “dos and donts”? I’m going to include a little do-and-don’t section in a blog post I’m writing, with the plurals, but everyone seems to punctuate them differently. 

—Paperback blogger, 100 Mile House BC


Dear Paperback, 

You can find authoritative backup for any punctuation, as long as you retain the apostrophe in “don’t.” We like “do’s and don’ts,” for readability—in our view, “dos” can be read as DOS (the operating system). The Canadian Oxford Dictionary prefers “dos” for the plural, but accepts “do’s.” Some language wranglers just can’t bring themselves to hyphenate the plural (do’s), although it’s routine in other uses, including grades (“He got all A’s”) and such phrases as “mind your p’s and q’s.” 

—The Editors

September 21, 2016
Meddling with poetry
Dear Geist,

Should a poet put up with a poem being edited? Presumably the author weighs every word in a poem, perhaps more so than in any other genre. It seems to me that an editor who accepts a poem, then treats it as raw material to tinker with, should have rejected that poem in favour of one that pleased her better. To me, it's like the organizer of an art exhibition taking up a brush and daubing at a painting by one of the artists whose work is on display. Recently I had to get very assertive with an editor who wanted to futz around with my wording. When I offered to withdraw the poem, she let my wording stay. As an experienced writer who has had a lot of poetry published, I felt within my rights to insist, but I probably won’t get published in that magazine again. Your opinion?

—Ruth, Cyberspace


Dear Ruth,

In trade publishing, writing and editing styles vary so much that it would be impossible to set out rules. The time-honoured protocol in North America (and elsewhere) is that any editorial suggestion is cricket, and so is any negotiation, as long as the process is thoughtful and respectful.

Can a publisher choose not to work with you again if you object to proposed edits? Yes. Is that common? Not in our experience. Editorial work is a conversation, and we thrive on conversation. It’s quite usual for an editor to accept a piece of writing that in her view needs revision, and to offer notes to that effect. It’s also usual for a writer to object to suggestions or to propose other solutions. You and your editor might have had an easier time of it had she contacted you ahead of acceptance and talked about her thoughts on strengthening the poem, but again, editing styles vary and schedules are demanding. For a bit more on this matter, see our post Editorial pushback.

One more thing, for the record: as many a prose writer (including you, perhaps!) can confirm, choice of words, arrangement of words, inclusion or exclusion of words is an excruciating business in any form.

— The Editors

September 13, 2016
Proof and reproof
Dear Geist,

Is it my imagination, or has the proofreading of books gone downhill in the last ten years?

—Greg Koan, Cyberspace 


Dear Greg,

Probably. We don’t have any proof, but we do know that book and periodical publishers have an increasingly tougher time making ends meet, and more resources have therefore shifted from editorial to marketing. Publishers and writers tend to be OK with this trade-off. An example: for the first couple of years of Geist, our business envelopes (remember envelopes?) bore a return address of “Vancvouver, B.C.,” but everyone knew what we meant, and we’d ordered 500 of them, and we chose to invest a bit more in a subscription drive than to order typo-free stationery. It would be grand to have the wherewithal to iron out every last flub in a publication, wouldn’t it? Then again, if we demanded perfection, no book or issue of Geist would ever be published, so . . .

—The Editors

September 7, 2016
Net work
Dear Geist,

Where does a Boomer start in marketing her self-published books via the internet? I have been writing and producing non-fiction books since the 1970s, and marketing them through “traditional channels”—direct mail, hand-selling, radio and print publicity, presentations at conferences and events, and so on. I know the action has moved to social media and other online doings. I’m willing to learn, but where/how do I go about it?

—Miranda, Grand Forks BC


Dear Miranda,

The principles are the same: identify the intended audience, get in touch, stay in touch. For many years book publishers did the promo: publicity tours, bookstore displays, events, ads, etc. But as book marketing moved online, that top-down marketing gave way to peer marketing: readers “talking” to each other about books, and writers talking directly to readers (which has always, always been the best way to sell a book).

As a writer you will want to establish and maintain an online presence as a vehicle for ongoing conversation with your audience, colleagues, et al. Start with an active website—by “active” we mean regular updates and other new stuff—as your central info depot and hub. That will anchor some combination of LinkedIn page, Facebook page, Tumblr blog, YouTube feed and/or others, depending on what you’re offering and where your potential audience hangs out online. And a Twitter account to fire out updates and blandishments enticing browsers to visit and stay in touch. This structure will accommodate any changing trends in social media.

The Web is chock-full of advice on how to write heads, subheads, posts, etc., to attract readers, and how to use “share” mechanisms (in both directions) for maximum reach. Look for the most recent posts—the accepted wisdom changes with experience and technology.

You don’t need to set up this grand edifice all at once. Start with a good basic website and one or two appropriate social media channels that you can update without spending your life on it, and build gradually from there. At any point, to help you get a handle on it all, sign up for a workshop on social media for authors, offered by a writing or publishing program, writers’ organization or other reputable self-publishing or writing-specific host. Meanwhile, browse through the social media venues mentioned above, and any others recommended by your web-savvy pals. Where do they spend time online, and why? And how do they (and you) find out about groovy books online?

—The Editors

August 31, 2016
Sahara, or not
Dear Geist, 

What’s wrong with writing “Sahara Desert”? I used to get desert and dessert mixed up all the time, so I was super careful to get it right in a story I wrote for my summer creative writing course. I checked and double-checked, and did it right. My teacher marked me down anyway! I asked him why, and he said what he always says: “Do the research, figure it out.” I can’t! Can you? 

—Kerry J., Prince Albert SK


Dear Kerry, 

Sahara means desert in Arabic, so technically “Sahara Desert” is redundant. This is a fine point, and such an obscure one that no English language usage guide we know of frowns on the use of the familiar “Sahara Desert.” Our hunch is that you went to dictionaries to sort it out. When the dictionary is quiet on a subject, try a usage guide. We suggest you start with the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, and browse through its neighbours on the library shelf. 

—The Editors

August 25, 2016
Protracted writing
Dear Geist, 

I am a grade nine, philosophizing logophile trapped in a frustrating predicament. My problem is that I take too much time writing my English assignments. While my peers take two ninety-minute English classes to finish their essays, I would take that plus a few half-hour lunches and about three hours at home to complete the assignment. Very recently, my English final exam, which included an essay, exhorted me to reach out to you as it superlatively encapsulated my seemingly labyrinthine mare’s nest. The time limit on the five-paragraph essay was two hours, and literally everyone, except me, finished on time. And if it helps, the essay question was something very close to, if not exactly, “To what extent are our personal identities affected by outside sources?” At the two-hour mark, when I was supposed to finish, I was finishing my second paragraph still. While my friends gawked at me outside the windows of the gymnasium as if I were a desolate reptile imprisoned in a zoo, my English teacher discontentedly took me to a classroom to finish my essay. After an hour and ten minutes of guilt and perturbation, I had to write my math exam and had to hand in my essay despite having finished only three and a half paragraphs out of five. The essay was marked 86%. My teacher mentioned that what I had written was so excellent that I got an A, but because it was incomplete it was a low A. Both my teacher and I believe that I am a perfectionist in English. Not to rodomontade, but most if not all the assignments that I can work on at home for hours and hours, despite a schedule laden with extracurricular activities, earn high A’s. My English class average is 100%, and almost all my assignments this term (poems, essays, reports, comprehension, etc.) have been done in ludicrously protracted working durations. Please help me, because I know if I don't fix this, it could be detrimental to my dreams. As an aficionado of the omnitemporal art of literature, who aspires to reach great heights in this area via investigative journalism, criminal investigation, psychology, book-writing, etc. (all professions that will obviously have stringent time frames and require academic adeptness), I resolved to reach out to you for advice. (P.S. This email took me two hours to write!) 

—Ravdeep Arora, Chilliwack BC



Dear Ravdeep, 

It is a pleasure to hear from a young person who cares so much about the power of language that he will write and rewrite for hours, give up sleep, sacrifice marks and endure unwanted attention from fellow students. As you have discovered, though, this method isn’t always practical. If you want to go on to post-secondary academic or journalism pursuits, you’ll need to streamline your process to complete tasks in harmony with the work environment. 

Either way, part of writing (and any satisfying work) is struggling with daunting obstacles and overcoming them, but this aspect is enjoyable only if it doesn’t take over. Also, it is important to take pleasure and pride in your work as its own reward, not just for the praise and high marks that it may bring. 

Our concrete suggestion for you is to try writing in a simpler, more straightforward style. Lean, economical writing is always in fashion and always well received by readers. Like all writing, it’s harder than it looks, but a session with a more streamlined style will give you new insights into your process. A good exercise is to write a short piece about something you did or saw (start with 100 words), and write it using the words and sentences you would use in saying it out loud to a friend over lunch. 

We also encourage you to read everything you can about what makes strong, effective writing, and to talk with other writers or readers about it. Here are a few readings to get you going. (Some refer to fiction writing, but the principles apply to non-fiction too.) 

A compilation of advice to writers, published in the Guardian in 2010, Part 1 and Part 2. 

A Geist Writer’s Toolbox post, Narrative: Six principles and some examples. 

Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, a book by Jacques Barzun. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but very good on the elegance of clean, simple, lucid writing. 

Good luck! 

—The Editors

August 15, 2016
Fickle hyphen
Dear Geist, 

Why is lieutenant-governor spelled with a hyphen and governor general without a hyphen? 

—Marius, Moncton NB


Dear Marius, 

We have no idea. 

—The Editors

August 9, 2016
Notes to a poem
Dear Geist, 

When submitting a poem to a contest or a journal, is it usual to include explanatory notes at the end, such as the source of a quoted sentence, or the fact that permission has been granted to quote, or the definition of a little-known foreign word in italics, or a historical note that clarifies an allusion? Or would that kind of information not be necessary until or unless the poem has been shortlisted or accepted for publication? 

—Meg, Kingston ON


Dear Meg, 

Like any piece of writing, a poem should work on its own, without explanation. But when a poem quotes, refers to, answers or is inspired by another written work, it is customary to add a short line under the author/title lines, before the first line of the poem, usually in italics. For examples, see “Vanderhoof Girls” by Gillian Wigmore (Geist 100) and “Walking in Snow” by Susan Telfer (Geist 95). 

Permission to use quoted material, however, is a helpful bit of information for a publisher. If the contest submission format includes a cover letter, mention the permission there. Otherwise, add a brief note about permission at the end of the poem, clearly separate from the text, in square brackets. 

—The Editors

August 2, 2016
Why because
Dear Geist, 

Are more and more people saying “the reason is because…,” or have I just begun to notice how irritating it is? I’m no language expert but this expression is screamingly redundant, and now I see or hear it every day. What do you think? 

—Antonia, Cyberspace


Dear Antonia, 

Yes, it’s redundant: “the reason is” has the same meaning as “because.” It’s more concise and more salubrious grammatically to say or write “the reason is that …” or, depending on the sentence, simply “because.” Technically the same goes for a related phrase, “the reason why,” but that one is so well established that it’s become idiomatic and therefore acceptable. 

—The Editors

July 27, 2016
Fair use/dealing
Dear Geist, 

As a fifty-year songwriter and a newly published author of a memoir framed by my own song lyrics, but occasionally using snippets of other writers’ songs, I was surprised that your reply to Heather B., in the Lit-Lorn post Song in Print, did not mention “fair use.” While I’m aware that the definition of fair use is somewhat amorphous, it could be of use to this author. 

—Jesse McRae, Bellingham WA


Dear Jesse, 

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject. 

Fair use is a US legal doctrine that permits the use of certain copyright material without securing permission from the copyright holder. The most familiar such use is to quote a very short bit of text, such as lyrics. 

In Canada we don’t have fair use; we have “fair dealing,” an exception to copyright infringement that is not defined or quantified in the legislation. It is a defence rather than a provision, so writers, publishers, teachers, librarians and other quoters take their chances when they use quoted material without permission. Among other things, fair dealing has to do with use that does not involve reproducing a substantial part of the work. But the Copyright Act does not define “substantial” or specify percentages, so the burden of proof is on the quoter. As we pointed out in another Lit-Lorn query on the subject, Quotability, “l yrics are a good example of short being substantial. Even a couple of lines can constitute a large portion of a song, and permission fees for lyrics can be real eyebrow-raisers.” 

In short, it’s up to each writer and publisher whether to include quoted lyrics or any other text without permission. But we do feel duty-bound to point out that they are taking a chance by doing so. 

Thanks for your perspective on this thorny issue. 

—The Editors

July 22, 2016
Turning the key
Dear Geist, 

I've been sending out stories to publishers for years but usually don't even get a brush-off. Just silence. Either I'm a terrible writer or my stuff is somehow missing the current trends in what is demanded by editors. I don't select my topics, they select me, so I cannot fall in line with any pre-set notion of what the content should be. Is my case hopeless, or, not? Be honest. I can take the truth because I'm a fool. (Didn't Nietzsche say we have art so we don't die of truth?)

—Bill, lit-lorn in Vancouver


Dear Bill, 

Your non-connection with a publisher to date likely has much more to do with the state of writing and publishing than the quality of your work or your approaches to editors. With good reason, writers speak of “breaking in,” although there is no secret code to crack. Even regular contributors to a magazine don’t get all their ideas and manuscripts accepted automatically. Like other magazines, Geist works hard to define what we want by setting out our tastes, our mandate, our range and our history; but these can only be described, not quantified. The same goes for the excitement we feel when we see something that works for us. 

As for publishers’ silence, that’s not personal either. No one in the business feels good about the endless wait times for responses to manuscripts, a product of shrinking resources for publishers combined with better access to writing and submitting by many more writers. If publishers had an objective, consistent yes-or-no formula for what we want, we’d tell writers first. 

In short, blind luck plays a pivotal role in the writer-publisher connection, and the plain fact of critical mass slows down the process. We can only encourage writers to keep writing and keep submitting. For a bit more on this subject, check out our posts No Thanks, No Details and Making the Connection. 

—The Editors

July 11, 2016
No thanks, no details
Dear Geist, 

Two questions. First, I am writing a memoir and starting to look for an agent or a publisher, and a lot of them want the author to send a full manuscript. I have a significant amount of writing but I haven't put it together as a book. How do I find a publisher or agent if I don't have the experience of creating a manuscript? Second, a press recently rejected my book proposal because it wasn’t a good fit, but they didn't say why, which was more disappointing than the rejection. I read multiple books by that press before submitting, and in my letter I mentioned reasons why my proposal suited them. Besides researching what a press has already published, how can I know if they would be right for me? 

—Rebecca, Ottawa ON


Dear Rebecca, 

An agent or publisher needs a thorough but succinct book proposal, consistent with the other books and authors they represent, including a writing sample or a full manuscript. As you have found in doing your homework (good for you!), some publishers and agents want to see the whole thing, especially from a first-time book author, because that’s the only way to tell whether you can sustain a narrative (or argument, or whatever shape the work takes) through a book-length work. Many a piece of writing is full of energy and promise at the start, then loses steam through the middle and end. With the wide variety of published memoirs available now, it is riskier to publish new ones (except by celebrities), and it takes months to get even a stellar manuscript ready for production and marketing. So publishers are choosing carefully. 

Your instinct is right: when you work with a publisher or agent, you learn a lot about structure, tone, audience and more. Until a generation ago many publishers put in months or years collaborating with a writer to develop a book idea. That still happens, but publishers are looking for more evolved, less labour-intensive projects, and agents do more and more of the developmental editing. A new writer is expected to complete a good full draft, unless the book idea is so fresh and timely that an agent or publisher sees sales potential that justifies some groundwork. 

As for the common “Not for us” response, first we congratulate you for studying publishers’ and agents’ booklists to establish compatibility with your work. Beyond that, there’s no secret—and no error on your part. You cannot know what the publisher will respond to. Even agents get turned down, and they know more than the rest of us ever will. That’s because the decision-making process is not mechanical: publishers describe their selection criteria as best they can, and the rest is a matter of love at first sight, or not. “We just didn’t click with it” is an honest response, and if that is what they say, you don’t want them anyway. You want someone who is excited about your work. 

—The Editors

July 5, 2016
Song in print
Dear Geist,

I am working on a historical novel. At the beginning of one chapter, a character sings the song "Happy Days Are Here Again" (copyright 1929). I quote a few lines from the song in this scene. Is it my responsibility to obtain permission to quote these song lyrics prior to submitting my full manuscript for publication, or is this something the publisher would do? If it would indeed be my responsibility, how would I would secure permission to quote these lyrics?

—Heather B., Toronto


Dear Heather,

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject.

Normally it is the writer’s lookout to secure permissions and to pay all fees. If a publisher has indicated interest in the manuscript, or you plan to submit it to a press you have worked with before, you might check with them; otherwise, it’s up to you. You might start by checking on whether the song has gone into the public domain and is therefore available for free, without permission (though it is still a courtesy to credit the source). If not, find out who can negotiate rights by searching online for the sheet music, on which a copyright notice usually appears; or search the databases of performance rights societies in the country of origin, such as ASCAP, BMI, SESAC for the US, and SOCAN for Canada. These groups don’t always manage print permissions, but they have a lot of info on who owns what. For a bit more on this question, see the recent Advice to the Lit-Lorn post Quotability. And for some good, clear reading on these and related matters, see the excellent Canadian Copyright Law, 4th ed., by Lesley Ellen Harris (Wiley Canada, 2014).

—The Editors

June 28, 2016
Diving correctly
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct: “He dove into the water,” or “He dived into the water”? I am finding some differences of opinion. 

—Vivian, Brampton ON


Dear Vivian, 

The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary give the nod to both. The dictionary prefers dived but not feverishly. Garner’s Modern American Usage also prefers dived, and adds this tag: “dove for dived as a past tense: Stage 4,” meaning dove is widely used but still “opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.” The edition we have dates from 2009, and dove has been in use for two centuries, so perhaps by now dove has reached Stage 5: “universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).” 

—The Editors

June 23, 2016
Day job
Dear Geist,

I am a shiny new MFA who dreams of writing fiction full-time as my main occupation, but meanwhile I need to get a regular job for food and rent. Some of my writing friends say it’s better to get any kind of writing job—ads, tweets, sponsored posts, help screens—to keep my writing muscles limber. Other people say I should do something completely different during the day so I don’t pollute my writer brain by composing crap. Want to weigh in?

—Hardback writer, Grande Prairie AB


Dear Hardback,

You won’t know which type works for you and your writing life until you try them, so go ahead. Any situation can be serendipitous; for example, a lowly-seeming job where your co-workers turn out to be artists and writers like you. Also, marketing copy is not necessarily crap. The jacket copy for your published novel, for example, will be gold. To write for marketing is to compose text with a tight rhetorical focus—a useful skill for any writer. And by the way, we recommend that you install another criterion in applying for day jobs: number of hours per week you must spend to earn a living wage.

—The Editors

June 13, 2016
When to write
Dear Geist,

Studies show that early morning is the best time to write, but I am not—repeat, not—a morning person. Any advice?

—Wister Lee, Toronto ON


Dear Wister,

Our advice is to write whenever you can. Yes, research shows that in the early morning most people have more will power and creative force, and less analytical energy—ideal conditions for forging ahead on one’s writing without being ambushed by impostor syndrome. But research (and experience) have also shown that some of our best ideas and solutions come when we aren’t trying. So we’ll just say that the most consistent results come from regular, tenacious writing, at any time you can make that happen.

—The Editors

June 6, 2016
Cover story
Dear Geist,

Help! My first novel is in production, and I hate hate hate the publisher’s cover image. She’s great, and I like her and don’t want to spoil that, but nor do I want to cry myself to sleep every night. And my contract says she has ultimate authority on “details of publication.” What should I do?

—Shocked, Saskatoon SK


Dear Shocked,

Phone your publisher and calmly, politely, firmly tell her how you feel. Try to give concrete reasons for your aversion to the image. For instance: the proposed cover implies “potboiler” but the writing is moody and atmospheric; or the cover emphasizes the younger brother, who is a minor character. A good publishing team works hard to sharpen the impact of a book’s title and cover, especially a first book, in order to grab maximum attention in the marketplace—something your publisher knows more about than you do. But the presentation shouldn’t be misleading, and the publisher wants a good relationship with you, and she knows the book will be more successful if you love it. Most publishers are fine with some back-and-forth, especially when an author’s objections are cogent and offered in a spirit of collaboration.

—The Editors

May 30, 2016
Thanks, I think
Dear Geist,

I received a comment from my writing instructor that read "You are a beautiful writer." I contend it does not mean the same thing as “You write beautifully.” Not to nitpick a compliment but I feel the arrangement of words in that sentence says something very different to what the instructor apparently meant to say. Your opinion?

Linda Collari, Roots from Quebec


Dear Linda,

Technically you’re right: to place the adjective beautiful just before the noun writer is to describe the writer, rather than the writing. But principles of grammar and syntax are more useful as guides than as rules. Language as we actually speak and write it is rich, diverse and always changing, and we use it in different ways depending on the context. The sentence “You are a beautiful writer” in a teacher’s note to you is clear, comprehensible and appropriate to the situation. You wouldn’t write that sentence, but you can understand it (and bask in its warmth!).

—The Editors

May 25, 2016
Question on query
Dear Geist, 

When querying a publisher or agent, how does a writer include all the necessary data and still keep it short? 

I’m beginning the query process for my recently completed travel memoir. Fellow non-fiction writers with published books under their belts have suggested I query publishing houses directly. 

Standard advice almost always includes the exhortation to keep query letters short, just one page if possible. However, most advice also says a good letter should contain: a brief description of the book; word count and genre; reasons for approaching a specific publisher (such as similar books in their catalogue); a bio and publication credits; some indication that the author is market savvy and will be a good promoter of the book. Some agents and publishers even ask that the querying author include names of recently published or forthcoming books that would likely be competition, and some thoughts on how the author’s work would stand out from these. 

How does a writer fit all of this, and contact info too, on just one page? 

–Puzzled, Montreal QC


Dear Puzzled, 

Indeed, your note to us describes a great query letter to send to publishers, agents or both. Many writers have said that this diabolical boiling-down task is harder than writing a book, but it’s worth the anguish. Not only will it tell the publisher (or agent) about your book in a very short time, but also it shows that you understand the book business, your audience and where your work fits in the marketplace. And a bonus: the act of writing a good query will give you a clearer idea of what you’re up to. For examples of queries that have worked, search Successful Queries (or Query Letters). Meanwhile, here is an economical query, compiled for instruction purposes, that covers the bases: 

Dear Mr. Madore, 

Would you like to take a look at my 71,000-word memoir, “Three Days in the Everglades”? I think it’s right up your alley. 

It is the story of a weekend camping trip I took alone, in 2013, in the Florida Everglades. That weekend turned me—a sensible, somewhat skeptical 32-year-old woman—into a person who believes in magic. 

I had camped in the Everglades many times, alone and with my colleagues in International Nature Watch, but not for about eight years. During that time a lot of restoration work had been done in the area, desperately needed after 150 years of attempts to drain and otherwise control a million acres of natural wetland. As I headed for one of my old favourite secluded spots, far from the official campground, I marvelled at the changes—lush grasses, sparkling marshes, abundant birds and frogs. On Friday night I slept under the stars. On Saturday I explored the wonders of the Glades, randomly following rough trails and occasionally encountering other visitors. On Sunday morning, as I prepared to head home, I realized that I had no idea where I was. The terrain had changed so much that I just couldn’t remember which twisty trails went where. My small compass was no use because I didn’t know which way was out, and there was no reception for my mobile phone. I shouted for help a few times and got no answer. I knew this place and its history –so wild that the Seminoles, who retreated here in the 19th century, were the only Native American group that was never conquered. Finally I sat down and burst into tears. And then here came a cat, a scraggly old ginger house cat, who stopped a few feet away. Then a tatty part-Siamese from another direction, then a calico with half a tail, then two others. At first I thought it was a hallucinatory product of confusion, fear, and the 10 years I have worked as a veterinary technician. But then I realized they were Everglades cats, feral ex-pets released into the wild. These cats then began skulking through the bush, all doing their own thing, but all in one direction. I followed—what did I have to lose? Long (and great) story short, those cats led me right out of the deep Glades to a well-travelled gravel road. In my work with vets I have seen a lot of astonishing animal behaviour, but nothing like that. 

The book is a sort of Wild meets The Cat Came Back, an unexpected adventure in a lush, beautiful, mysterious wetland, by turns harrowing and funny, with a touch of the supernatural. The Everglades itself becomes an unforgettable character in the story, with its “river of grass” hovering over porous limestone, its mangrove forests and cypress swamps, and its indigenous alligators, frogs, turtles, birds, and other wildlife cohabiting with chaotic invasive species. “Three Days in the Everglades” is truly a satisfying page-turner for fans of your recent titles Harsh Marsh, River Light, and Way Off the Grid

Please see a brief biographical summary enclosed. I look forward to hearing from you! 

Jena LaNeige 

Email: xxxxx Phone: xxxxx Facebook: xxxxx Twitter: xxxxx Tumblr: xxxxx 

This query does everything it’s supposed to: 

Salutation: Greets an appropriate person, with a name; not “Acquiring Editor” or other title. 

Paragraph 1: Shows length, genre and working title. 

Para 2: Delivers relevant info on the writer, also quick summary of basic setting, plot and arc of story. 

Para 3: Fleshes out story and details of suspense and resolution. (Note: Spoilers required for people you are selling the book to. They have to assess the full shape of the work, including the ending.) Establishes author’s unique qualifications to tell the story: her decade of work with animals, and her knowledge of and passion for the mystical setting. Supplies a specific marketing channel: International Nature Watch and like-minded groups, with which author clearly has strong connections. Gives a good sense of the author’s writing voice. 

Para 4: Expands writer’s credibility as a lay expert on the Everglades and her habit of choosing interesting details. Shows that writer has chosen this publisher because of compatible and successful titles recently published. Gives two marketing handles: comparable/competing titles to show position in market, and potential audience – people who bought three similar books. 

Para 5: Directs publisher to a more detailed author biography. She has included her most relevant experience in the context of describing the book; if the publisher wants to know more, it is available – on one side of one page (or digital equivalent), condensed and in point form for quick scanning. 

Signoff: Includes all contact and social media data for easy reply. Also shows that the writer has a “platform”; i.e., a public presence, important for marketing. (The biog page should have all of this contact data too, in an obvious spot whether on paper or screen.) 

—The Editors


May 19, 2016
Agent, or not?
Dear Geist, 

Do I need an agent to get my first book published? Only three of my colleagues got publishing deals without an agent, and those were with very small presses. 

—Hui, Yarmouth NS


Dear Hui, 

Indeed, publishers are acquiring more books through agents. About 80 percent of titles signed up by the five largest companies are brought in by agents, and smaller independent houses that rarely worked with agents are doing so now. Some companies do not consider unsolicited manuscripts—works that arrive without introduction by an agent or other connection—because the work of reading them is not cost-effective. Agents have their fingers on the pulse of book-buying: the trends, the competition, the deals being made and the international market, as well as the particular interests and sales channels of each publisher, and they present ideas and manuscripts accordingly. 

To sell your book to a larger company you do need an agent or some other connection—a friend on the staff, for instance, or a good-selling author of theirs who recommends your work. But more than three-quarters of Canadian writers don’t have agents. There are lots of fine publishers in Canada and elsewhere who work directly with authors, and there is something to be said for being a larger fish in a smaller pond. Many writers report more editorial and marketing attention in an independent house, especially a local one; and titles produced by smaller companies tend to stay in print longer. 

—The Editors 

May 11, 2016
The write time
Dear Geist, 

How do real writers get serious time to write? The good news is I am working on my novel with big energy and excitement, no writer’s block in sight. The not-so-good news is that I need at least a couple of hours to get anything good, and with kids, day job and all the rest, carving out those chunks of writing time is a constant struggle. Any tips? 

—Peggy D, Timmins ON


Dear Peggy, 

Many experienced writers and other mentors recommend a routine, a regular time during which you write, no matter what. That may be one 24-hour period each week, or two hours on Monday and Wednesday mornings before dawn. It may be a few short sessions per week, blocked out every Sunday night when you set other activities for the coming days. The writing time is then spoken for, and if you honour it, you and your immediates will get trained to respect it. You may have to shave the time from something else: television, social events, high-standard housework. You might arrange a regular playdate trade with another writer who has youngsters. Between writing times, tone your writing muscles by jotting down notes and thoughts in a journal or notebook, at home, on transit and at the office. Freewrite at lunch and coffee breaks, or first thing on waking. Hang around with writers and other cultural workers whenever you can. 

And by the way, you are a real writer. 

—The Editors

May 4, 2016
Preposition fascination
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct: “I am fascinated by fireworks” or “I am fascinated with fireworks”? 

—Kate, Vancouver BC


Dear Kate, 

This interesting detail has not united the expert language-watchers. In fact, most English usage guides are silent on the subject, probably because it is perfectly fine to use either by or with. The occasional self-proclaimed authority delves into the fine points of connotation: “fascinated by” referring to the bewitching of the fascinatee, and “fascinated with” referring to an ongoing conscious obsession, more like a dance. These gradations are—well, fascinating to ponder, but feel free to use the preposition that feels natural. 

—The Editors

April 26, 2016
Sending, or not
Dear Geist, 

I’m getting panic attacks because I haven’t sent out very many submissions to magazines and agents. Everyone else in my Creative Writing MFA cohort have been submitting manuscripts for months, and some have had their writing accepted for publication or representation. I’m a slow worker and I’ll be lucky to even finish my thesis (a long-form creative non-fiction piece) on time, never mind sending stuff out. But I don’t want to be left in the dust, so maybe it’s better to submit work and delay completion of the thesis...? Help! 

—Tina, Cyberspace


Dear Tina, 

It’s true that you need to submit writing in order to get it published. But there’s not much to be gained by scrambling for publication before you and the material are ready. Writing engages your intuition, your memory, your dreams, your subconscious apparatus. Selling your writing requires you to leave your work and regard it from a distance, to imagine what makes it attractive to someone else and to persuade that someone to buy it. This is a bracing and enriching exercise for any writer, but only when you have taken the work as far as you can. 

One caution: Like other artwork, writing is never done, in the sense that one can always find more revising and tweaking to do. As the old joke goes, the publisher’s job is to make the writer stop writing. So be honest with yourself about when you are writing to your limit, and when you are wanking. 

—The Editors

April 19, 2016
Water marks
Dear Geist, 

What’s with fresh water (fresh-water, freshwater) and salt water (salt-water, saltwater)? Can’t the educators and publishers and dictionary writers get together on spelling and punctuation? As a marine biology student I have to deal with this issue every single day and no relief in sight. 

—Audra Bradye, Hamilton ON


Dear Audra, 

Salt water (two words) is a noun naming the water. Saltwater and salt-water are adjectives meaning consisting of, relating to or living in salt water—saltwater mammals, saltwater pond, saltwater taffy, etc.—and both are correct. Your university should have a style guide that lists preferences. Meanwhile, as you’ve noticed, all three forms are used for both the noun and the adjective, sometimes within the same document—a practice that can be inelegant and distracting, but seldom introduces ambiguity. Some book publishers’ style guides specify using saltwater for all uses, a sensible, economical solution. 

—The Editors

April 12, 2016
Editorial pushback
Dear Geist, 

How much can I object to my editor’s changes before I get a reputation for being a jerk? I think I should speak up when a rewording she’s made doesn’t feel right to me, but this is my first book and my writer friends are saying I shouldn’t get a rep as a high-maintenance author so early in my career. 

—Chad, St. John’s NL


Dear Chad, 

A competent editor has good reasons for suggesting all changes, large and small, and can articulate those reasons. She expects you to ask about some points, and she’ll tell you how she thinks her suggestions strengthen your work. She also knows how to listen and learn: the editorial process is a negotiation, not a duel. And it is very much in the editor’s and publisher’s interest for you to feel proud of your book. The editor (whether employee or freelancer) also has practical limits, such as an agreement with the publisher as to how much paid time she’s got to propose edits and work them out with the writer. Therefore, if the editorial exchange is becoming tedious or expensive, your editor will bring it up with you. If she doesn’t, and you are uncertain about the high-maintenance factor or any aspect of your work together, tell her. She will respond directly and diplomatically. 

—The Editors

April 6, 2016
Repeatability
Dear Geist, 

Are the words repetitious and repetitive interchangeable? The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines repetitious as “characterized by repetition, esp. when unnecessary or tiresome.” The next word is repetitive, which is defined as “= repetitious.” Why do we have two words that are so similar and mean exactly the same thing? 

—Just Wondering, Dawson Creek BC


Dear Wondering, 

Language being what it is, the answer depends on which guide you consult—and maybe what country you live in. Yes, Canadian Oxford says they are interchangeable, and does not mention the non-tiresome uses of repetitive, such as repetitive strain injury. The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage makes no mention of either word. Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) says that the two words are “undergoing differentiation”: repetitive referring to “repeating,” and repetitious to “repeating in an annoying way.” Fowler’s Modern English Usage (UK; rev. 3rd edition, 1998) says much the same thing and reminds us that in the late 1800s, there were four—count ’em, four! —similar words in use: repetitive and repetitious, and also repetitional and repetitionary. Yikes! 

—The Editors

March 30, 2016
Horn-tooting
Dear Geist,

I have begun to approach agents with my book proposal. How much minor activity should I include on my CV? One of my writing teachers says I should leave out penny-ante stuff like hosting a radio show about books in my tiny obscure hometown, and leading a local writers’ group, because it shows low ambition. But if I leave that out, I won’t have much left. What do you think?

—Alan, Cyberspace



Dear Alan,

We disagree with your teacher. The two activities you mention show that you’re serious about your work and your writing community. Agents and publishers are interested in a writer’s ability and willingness to work hard at writing and to connect with colleagues and readers. Even in your short note to us, we see a committed writer with a sense of professionalism. It’s a good idea to keep your CV concise, though. If you have oodles of such examples, you might trim them to a good representative recent sample, just as you would with a list of big-shot activities.

—The Editors

March 24, 2016
Running on
Dear Geist,

The writing in Geist is known to be of a high calibre even though it contains an awful lot of run-on sentences. Is that because it’s okay to bend the rules in literary writing?

—Monty Rose, Waterville NB


Dear Monty,

It is okay to bend the rules in most kinds of writing, depending on the rules and the writing. But we have a feeling you are asking about long sentences, not run-on sentences. A long sentence is grammatically correct and, well, long. Here’s one from Stephen Osborne’s dispatch “Insurgency” (Geist 96):

Her words seem (even today) surprisingly bloody-minded: “Here is your knife!” she says; “’Twill drink the life-blood of a soldier host. Go; rise and strike, no matter what the cost,” but otherwise, rather typically of its time, Victorian in both tone and diction (“I thought ’twas sheathed for aye”)—and yet although its subject matter can seem in 2015 to be exotic or even corny, the image of the Noble Savage so often found in Romantic poetry is here inverted or erased.
A run-on sentence is two sentences run together as one. An example: I spilled coffee on the customer, my boss got mad and fired me. The two should be connected with a conjunction (a joining word such as and or but) or with appropriate punctuation (such as a semicolon). And sometimes a run-on sentence is perfectly fine, especially if its components are short: I came, I saw, I conquered.

—The Editors

March 16, 2016
Writing before writing
Dear Geist,

What exactly is pre-writing and how much writing time should I devote to it? My writers’ group spent most of our last meeting talking about pre-writing. That was the first time I heard of it but I was too shy to say so.

—Antonio, Winnipeg MB



Dear Antonio,

Pre-writing comprises the early stages of writing: research, brainstorming / clustering / mind-mapping, freewriting, jotting down of random thoughts, conjuring with the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, why?), sketching, storyboarding, wandering around in your jammies thinking, and so on. In our view, pre-writing is a misnomer—these activities are not separate processes but essential stages of writing. You may employ them again, often, during the physical writing down of sentences, and vice versa. For oodles of great pre-writing suggestions, search the Web. But don’t get stuck in pre-writing. It will get you moving and focus you, but you’ll still have to string those words and sentences together.

—The Editors

March 9, 2016
Funnies by any other name
Dear Geist,

I’m writing and drawing a book, a true story, and I don’t know what to call it. Comic book? Graphic novel? It’s about my cousin who was buried in the rubble for three days after the Haiti earthquake of 2010 and miraculously survived. I thought “graphic novel,” but it’s not a novel. Or “comic book,” but even though it has some humorous bits, it’s not a funny story. Help!

—Scribbler, Lethbridge AB



Dear Scribbler,

In Japan it’s manga, in Korea it’s manhwa, in continental Europe it’s bande déssinée (“drawn strips”), and so on. But North America and Britain are still wrestling with the umbrella terminology. Perhaps that’s because the form has developed more recently here; or because comics, which evokes newspaper funny pages or cheap 48-page superhero episodes in racks, is deemed too pedestrian for more high-toned works; or because comics implies “comical”—not accurate, as you say, for books like Maus, Persepolis or Clyde Fans. Interesting suggestions over the years include graphic album, drawn book, comic-strip novel, visual novel and picture novella. But graphic novel, which appeared in the 1970s, is the term that has stuck in the book business, even though some graphic novels aren’t novels and some prominent people in the biz think that label is too big for its pants. Art Spiegelman likes the word comix, which honours the older term without limiting it. Some writers and publishers have begun to add “graphic” to established writing genres and forms: graphic non-fiction, graphic memoir, graphic biography, graphic journalism.

In short, Scribbler, if you call your project a graphic novel, graphic memoir or graphic non-fiction, most people will get the drift. When it comes time to publish it, your agent and/or publisher will work with you on what to call it.

—The Editors

March 3, 2016
Saying bad
Dear Geist, 

Which is right, “I feel badly” or “I feel bad”? 

—Layla, Truro NS 


Dear Layla, 

It’s not unusual to hear people say “I feel badly,” perhaps because it sounds more correct, but “I feel bad” is grammatically right. Feel is a linking verb, a verb that describes the subject (“I,” in this sentence). It indicates a state of being rather than an action, and therefore it calls for an adjective (bad) rather than an adverb (badly). Other linking verbs include seem, become, sound and appear. And now, two complications. First, spoken English has produced adjectives that sound like adverbs, such as poorly, as in “She is feeling poorly,” which is also right. Second, in real life no one is likely to misinterpret the statement “I feel badly.” 

—The Editors

February 24, 2016
Dis or un?
Dear Geist, 

On an essay I wrote about public reaction to a hit-and-run accident, my Sociology prof changed “disinterested passerby” to “uninterested passerby.” I like the prof, but this is one of those things of putting in their own wording because it sounds better to them. I don’t think I should get marks off for that. How can I bring it up without getting on her bad side? 

—Jonah, Winnipeg MB 


Dear Jonah, 

According to most usage reference guides, an “uninterested” passerby doesn’t care about what happened; a “disinterested” passerby is unbiased. Sounds like uninterested is what you meant in the essay. That said, language changes over time. In some modern dictionaries, the two words are interchangeable, and disinterested can also mean “no longer interested.” Just to wrinkle it up even more, a couple of hundred years ago, uninterested meant “impartial.” So go ahead and raise it with your prof. But do your research first, and be kind to her—she obviously loves the fine nuances of our goofy language. For a bit more on this, see the Lit-Lorn item “Le mot juste.” 

—The Editors

February 17, 2016
Poetry to go
Dear Geist, 

I am a writer (and photographer) currently working as a freelance journalist for a small weekly newspaper. I am interested in submitting some poems that I’ve written over the last five years. I have never published any poetry. Is it best to submit to a contest? If so, can I make multiple submissions of the same poems to several contests, or are multiple submissions to publications a better way to start? Can I send submissions under a pseudonym? Also, I hope to get some of my journalism published farther afield than my local newspaper. Can you suggest where I can go for info on how to proceed? Your advice is appreciated. I live in a remote area where networking can only go so far in locating good publishing outlets. 

—Seventh Line Studio, Manitoulin Island ON


Dear Seventh Line, 

Submitting poems: Both ways to publication—winning/placing in a contest, and being accepted by a reputable periodical — are good for you and your writing. The contest route is likely to bring your work more publicity and financial reward, but only if you win or place. Your odds of getting published are also slightly better with a contest submission, depending on the volume of contest entries. That’s because of the downside—most contest hosts charge a fee for each submission. 

Multiple submissions: Each publisher has its own policy on multiple submissions. Please see the Lit-Lorn item “Simultaneous submissions” for more information. As for submitting to more than one contest, check the guidelines for each one. Most contests require submissions to be previously unpublished, so a double win could seem wonderful but prove tricky! 

Pseudonym: It is fine to submit your work under a pseudonym. When a publisher accepts it for publication, via contest or the conventional process, give them your real name. (They may try to persuade you to publish under your legal name; if so, hear them out, but the decision is yours.) 

Markets for journalism: All periodicals that publish journalism are potential markets for yours. Do some research to find publications whose content seems compatible with your work (subjects, tone, point of view, etc.). Check submission guidelines to see whether they prefer to see a query or a finished draft, and to make sure they welcome freelance submissions and pay for them. Please see the Lit-Lorn item “Making the connection” for more on the search for magazine markets. You are probably familiar with newspaperscanada.ca, a similar resource. Then give it a whirl! 

—The Editors

February 10, 2016
Respectful recounting
Dear Geist, 

I have written a short story about a client (I help people deal with their hoarding issues). How do I tell the story of his living space and his attachment to his piles of stuff, and respect his privacy at the same time? How much do I need to change about the experience of working with him? 

—Coby, Ottawa ON 


Dear Coby, 

First, a disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject. 

For you, there may be legal privacy concerns as well as ethical ones. Therapists, lawyers, medical personnel and other professionals have standards and protocols that may forbid them to write about clients, even in fiction and even if characters’ identities are concealed. W e encourage you to research this question first. 

 To do your best to ensure that no one will recognize this man by reading your story, you will change some combination of his name, age, personality, appearance, background, health/medical situation and treatments, neighbourhood (or city), friends and family, details of his dwelling, the items he saves, his methods of gathering and saving things, and so on. If your process in working with him is distinctive, you may want to alter some of those details too. For a bit more on writing about real people, we suggest you also take a look at a related Geist Lit-Lorn item, “Truth and Consequences.” 

 Then be ready for any response. It is not unusual for a reader to accuse a writer of exposing someone—even if that someone is not the person who inspired the character. 

—The Editors

February 4, 2016
Comparing pairing
Dear Geist,

Is it better English to write “compared to” or “compared with”?

—Daiyu, Fredericton NB



Dear Daiyu,

The short answer is that usage guides prefer “compare to” when items or aspects are being compared mainly for similarities, and “compare with” when being considered for both similarities and differences. When differences are the focus, guides prefer “contrast.” For a longer answer, look up compare in any edition of Fowler’s Modern Usage for some surprising finer points, such as the preposition to use when compare is a transitive verb.

—The Editors

January 28, 2016
All the while
Dear Geist,

What is the difference, if any, between “a while” and “awhile”? They are both about a very short period of time, right? I’m in the drafting phase of an essay so I probably shouldn’t get stuck on this kind of thing. But it’s bugging me.

—Distracted, Thunder Bay ON


Dear Distracted,

A while is a noun, as in “She gazed at the painting for a while.” Awhile is an adverb, as in “She paused awhile to gaze at the painting.” A while is a short time; awhile is for a short time. To make it even murkier, sometimes either one works, as in “She decided to wait awhile (a while).” By the way, in our view it’s OK to spend time pinpointing the meaning of a word once in a while, even during drafting. The more precise the words, the stronger your writing. In our view, browsing dictionaries and usage guides is one of the more benign displacement activities.

—The Editors

January 20, 2016
Making the connection
Dear Geist,

I've been submitting my short fiction to a number of Canadian publications. I know that with the exception of Mavis Gallant, nobody gets their stories published first try, but I am wondering if I am sending my work to the wrong magazines, as it were. The stuff that comes out of my pen are ghost stories, the fantastical, mystery. Are there any particular Canadian or US magazines that might be more interested in my writing style than our more obvious literary journals? Or is it just a case that my fiction isn't good enough yet? I've been writing short stories for a number of years now, and better than I ever thought possible—in no small part courtesy of the writers' guild I'm in, whose critiques are tough but fair. Do any publications come to mind?

Hugh Laidlaw, Selkirk MB


Dear Hugh,

The search for the right publisher(s) can be very frustrating indeed. Magazine editors’ process is often opaque—we do our best to describe succinctly what we want, but publishing decisions are actually made on the basis of years’ worth of experience and a constellation of needs.

Criteria for offering publication start with the compatibility of the work with the purpose, style and tone of the magazine; genre and subject (e.g., ghost stories) are secondary. Other considerations are the focus of a particular issue; the potential visual impact of the work and its presentability in all appropriate formats (print, tablet, newsletter, website and/or social media). These criteria converge in the all-important positive “gut reaction,” a response that is hard to describe and may seem subjective, but that arises from a seasoned knowledge of the magazine’s mission and audience. As for “not good enough,” a smart editor reads each submission as a draft; if the draft meets the criteria above and would benefit from further work, he or she will work with the writer to develop it.

On this basis, a typical issue of Geist comprises writing and artwork that we commissioned or suggested; excerpts of works-in-progress that we have heard about; work recommended by a colleague, regular contributor or board or staff member; and work we saw at a gallery or on a website, as well as writing or artwork that has arrived in the post. This is true even for issues of Geist that are planned for months in advance.

The good news is that new writers and artists are the lifeblood of trade publishing—all trade publishing. Almost every issue of Geist contains the work of a writer or artist getting into print for the first time, and whom we are meeting for the first time; the same is true for most other periodicals.

So, three bits of advice to writers who haven’t yet made the publishing connection. (Hugh, it seems to us you have got hold of at least the first two, but we’re listing them here for the whole Lit-Lorn readership.)

1. Read the publications you send your work to, and send it to those that are publishing work compatible with yours. Be willing to start with a very small print or online magazine if it has the right tone and is well presented.

2. Hang out with other writers, in writing groups, in school, at writers’ association meetings, at literary readings and festivals and so on. This is your best source for anecdotal information and tips, as well as professional support.

3. Try your literary work on publications that do not identify primarily as literary. If your writing is interesting to a certain audience—readers focussed on a particular place, subject, hobby, line of work, problem or other preoccupation—an editor might just jump on it. You can research reputable periodicals across Canada by visiting the Magazines Canada store (select Categories or Region).

—The Editors

January 13, 2016
Deep dialogue
Dear Geist,

Many moons ago, as a boy, I became accustomed to a format for written work that I'll describe like this: Tabs were at 0 to .5; maybe .7 (or .8) and 1. Regular text began a paragraph at .5, then 0 in subsequent lines. Dialogue began in a new paragraph at 1, and subsequent lines at .7 (or .8). Basically dialogue is indented further than narration. Simple Q: Do you see this anymore, anywhere (if you ever did)? I like it for clarity, but it obviously uses more space on the page. Should I submit a manuscript using this format, or use just two tabs as seems to be common now?

—WriterBear, Bracebridge ON


Dear WriterBear,

We aren’t familiar with the format you describe, but we have seen other specialized formats that have survived the transition from typewriter to personal computer. Certainly when you are writing, you should work in any medium and format that is comfortable for you. To format work for submission, though, it is best to check the online contributor guidelines of the periodical(s) you want to approach. There you will find the publisher’s preferred format for paper submissions (12-point type, double-spaced, for example)—if they have a preference, and if they accept paper submissions at all. If no such information appears, go with the default convention: 11- or 12-point clear, readable type, 1.5- to double-spaced on standard 8.5x11” paper, with 1” margin at the top and .75” margin at sides and foot of page. If your story is accepted for publication, you can always suggest that it be presented in the format you like.

—The Editors

December 16, 2015
Simultaneous submissions
Dear Geist,

I submitted a short story to a magazine four months ago and have not yet heard from them. Their writers’ guidelines say that they do not read simultaneous submissions, meaning they don’t want me to submit the story elsewhere while they are considering it. This has happened to me twice before, with the same story. Do I really have to wait half a year every time I submit my story to another magazine?

—Wearing Thin, Etobicoke ON


Dear Wearing,

Short answer: no. If you do sell it somewhere else, though, it is courteous to fling out an email to any other mags who have your story and politely withdraw it from consideration. (That’ll teach ’em!)

—The Editors

December 9, 2015
Using stative verbs
Dear Geist,

A writer in my workshop group said that my verbs in this sentence are weak: “We were sinking into the mud and the group behind us were watching and getting out their mobile phones.” Everyone in my group nodded so I did too, but I don’t know what they meant.

—Stumped, Edmonton AB


Dear Stumped,

The “ing” words are not the sharpest arrows in your writer’s quiver. “Were sinking” describes a state or a situation, whereas “sank” delivers an action. When you go back and change the other stative verbs, as they are called – “The group behind us watched and got out their mobile phones” – you’ll spot other ballast.

—The Editors

December 2, 2015
Dialogue sans quotations
Dear Geist,

Is it okay to write dialogue without using quotation marks?

—Just Wondering, Nelson BC


Dear Wondering,

Yes. Some writers use a dash to indicate a person starting to talk, some start a new paragraph, some run dialogue right into the text. It just has to be crystal clear who is speaking. In more formal writing, though, such as reports and school essays, go with quotation marks.

—The Editors

November 18, 2015
Art and audience
Dear Geist,

My agent showed my memoir around and got a rise out of two small, reputable independent publishers I’d be glad to work with. Great, right? Except that one company wanted a slightly different focus in the memoir, and the other recommended that I recast the story as fiction. I’m sure both ideas are smart, but. . . Help!

—Aimee, Westmount QC


Dear Aimee,

Much as we’d all like to think that publishers sign up books for their great writing, there are other criteria. One of them is whether the publisher can sell enough copies of the book to realize a good return on everyone’s investment (including yours). They know what is available for sale, what has sold well and what is selling well now. Based on that knowledge of the book-buying audience, as well as their marketing strengths and an author’s intention and style, they offer big-picture editorial advice that they believe will bring in the highest sales. Publishers have different experiences and different books and authors, which is reflected in their different advice. Your agent will tell you this and more, and may offer an opinion; but the decision on how or whether to tamper with the original shape is yours.

—The Editors

November 10, 2015
The Geist comma
Dear Geist, 

I’m surprised that a publisher so careful about grammar, usage, tone, voice, etc., doesn’t know enough to use the serial comma (a.k.a. third comma, Oxford comma, Harvard comma). What gives? 

—Leo, Cyberspace


Dear Leo, 

At Geist, less is more. The serial comma is in vogue with many prominent publications, but it is a preference, not a law. In a sentence where a serial comma would prevent misreading, we would insert one, just as any good editor would tweak any “rule” for the sake of readability. We are always surprised by the intense heat generated on this question among rank beginners, seasoned professionals and many in between. But hey, if the New Yorker can put an umlaut over the second o in cooperative, and set book titles in quotation marks, we can go without the third comma. 

—The Editors

November 4, 2015
Adverbiality
Dear Geist, 

In the sentence “Unfortunately, it began to rain,” what part of speech is unfortunately? 

—Minou, Vancouver


Dear Minou, 

It’s a conjunctive adverb: adverb because it modifies the clause “it began to rain,” and conjunctive because it connects independent clauses (in your example, the previous sentence and “it began to rain”). While we’re on the subject, we should add that unfortunately, however, meanwhile, furthermore, hence and other conjunctive adverbs are usually employed to smooth out transition between sentences, but your prose will be stronger if you write organic transitions and use the CAs sparingly. Also, if you live in Vancouver, it would be a good idea to get used to the rain. 

—The Editors

October 29, 2015
Grammar go-to
Dear Geist, 

What are your five favourite references for English grammar? 

—Tanis, Corner Brook NL 


Dear Tanis, 

For most aspects of English grammar—that is, the way we describe the form and structure of spoken and written language—there is no official authority or set of rules. Yup, it’s true, regardless of what your grade 5 teacher told you. Standards and conventions have evolved (and go on evolving) so that we can understand each other, but they vary depending on context. So we’re glad you asked for five references and not just one! 

The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., or latest ed.) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). Or online edition. 

The Copyeditor’s Handbook (3rd ed., or latest ed.), Amy Einsohn (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2011). 

Writing English: The Canadian Handbook, William E. Messenger, et al. (Don Mills ON: Oxford University Press, 2011 [or latest edition]). 

Understanding English Grammar (9th ed., or latest ed.), Martha Kolln and Robert Funk (New York: Pearson Education Inc., 2012). 

Collins Cobuild English Grammar (3rd ed., or latest ed.) (Glasgow/NY: Collins, 2011). 

Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming [Parsing] Sentences, Kitty Burns Florey (Orlando FL: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006). 

Okay, that’s six. The last one is to prove that grammar is fun. 

If you speak and/or write English, you already have an intuitive grasp of the structure of the spoken and/or written language; with print and online grammar references you can look under the hood and see how these familiar parts and processes fit together. The references above are comprehensive. You can get a fine introduction from any short basic grammar book written for children or new English speakers. (Deeper delving will take you to the land of shifting adverbials, uncountable nouns, free morphemes, metadiscourse. . .) 

One more thing—a note of caution from the authors of Understanding English Grammar: “Error-free writing is not necessarily effective writing.” 

—The Editors

October 14, 2015
Inner critic
Dear Geist, 

Advice to writers always includes strategies for shutting down the critic within. I am a pretty good critic, having spent years editing books. Now I’m writing, and I am reluctant to shut down those instincts and skills. Any tips? 

—Nabih, Halifax NS


Dear Nabih, 

The inner critic doesn’t need to be shut down, just distracted or upstaged while the writer is working. Journal writing, freewriting, mind-mapping and other activities that arouse your intuitive, subconscious side will invigorate the writer. When it’s time to revise, the critic will be invaluable. 

—The Editors

October 7, 2015
Empathy integrity
Dear Geist, 

Which is correct for the adjective form of empathy: empathic, or empathetic? Dictionaries differ on this. 

—Just Wondering, Montreal QC


Dear Wondering, 

Both are correct. Empathetic is more common; empathic is an older form but perfectly good. Dictionaries present words as they are spoken and written, rather than setting out “rules.” Because language changes constantly, lexicographers have to make a lot of judgment calls, so dictionaries differ. 

—The Editors

September 30, 2015
Margin of error
Dear Geist, 

I plan to submit a suite of poems to a literary journal that would be a prestigious publishing credit, but I have spotted typos in three recent issues. Does poor proofreading reflect badly on a writer? 

—Mandy, Regina SK


Dear Mandy, 

No. The publisher is almost always blamed for editorial errors, and that’s as it should be. We’re guessing that the magazine in question is prestigious because of its priorities: choice and presentation of material, and promotion of writers’ work. 

—The Editors

September 23, 2015
Laconic lit
Dear Geist, 

What is the difference between flash fiction and postcard stories? 

—Barbara, Overleaf Books, Victoria BC


Dear Barbara, 

Here are seven of the many terms for very short stories, in descending order of recent search results: flash fiction (19,700,000 results), micro-fiction, nano-fiction, postcard fiction, short short stories, sudden fiction and immediate fiction (9,280 results). All have champions who differ on story length or who equivocate. The writer/editor James Thomas, responsible for about 10 books of very short fiction, once defined flash fiction as a story that would fit on two facing pages of a digest-sized magazine (font size unspecified). 

Other forms do prescribe length: drabble (100 words), dribble (50 words), hint fiction (25 words), twitterature (140 characters), six-word stories, six-word memoirs, three-minute fiction and more. 

The Geist Literal Literary Postcard Contest takes the “postcard story”—so named because it fits on a postcard—two steps further by inviting poetry and non-fiction as well as fiction, hence “literary,” and by requiring that the piece be inspired by a postcard image, hence “literal.” 

One more thing: writers of very short anything should note that terms like “flash fiction” and “sudden fiction” refer to the speed of reading it, not writing it. As Pascal wrote, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” 

—The Editors

September 16, 2015
Fine details
Dear Geist, 

I keep getting contradictory advice on how much detail to include in my stories. One teacher says “Less is more,” and another says, “God is in the details.” 

—Head Spinning, Prince George BC


Dear H.S., 

They’re both right. Concise language gives your prose energy, and sensory information gives it resonance. The key is to stick to the telling details—the details that matter. Ask yourself: 

Does the passage conjure up a vivid image in very few words? Alissa Rossi writes, in Geist 89: “Same face Uncle, Mother—blank eyes, straight mouth. They run on the energy of cornered rodents.” 

Does the passage contain only details that keep the story moving? Umar Saeed writes, in Geist 91: “And the relentless eyes: gaping, squinting, penetrating, shying away, looking you up and down…” 

Does the passage contain any details that do not drive or thicken the story, such as a few stowaway expository details that aren’t pulling their weight? 

—The Editors

September 9, 2015
Distance formula
Dear Geist, 

Recently the editors of a magazine gave me feedback on a piece of fiction I had submitted. They said my characters were “too distant from each other,” and therefore “too distant from the reader.” The distance was intentional, to portray how distant couples can become. I wrote it in first person, from the female’s perspective, not in third person because I felt it would take away the angst this woman feels. Is there a way to make distance work in a piece of fiction under 1,000 words? Or is this entirely one editor’s subjective opinion? 

—Luke, Abbotsford BC
Dear Luke, 

Yes, you can make anything work in 1,000 words—if you want to. And yes, you have one professional editorial opinion. It’s the editors’ job to select, revise and present material that is right for their audience, and they have given you interesting information about why your current draft wasn’t consistent with their mandate. It’s your job to decide whether this advice is right for you, for this piece of writing. If the advice strikes any chord at all, you might experiment with revisions and see what happens. (For ideas, read short-short stories by writers you admire, studying how they achieved a sense of distance and/or intimacy.) If the advice seems off-base, you might submit your current draft to other publications. If you have a trusted writing colleague or group, you might confer with them. Either way, it’s a compliment to your writing that the editors sent an individual response to your work, rather than a simple form rejection. 

—The Editors

September 1, 2015
Truth and consequences
Dear Geist, 

I am writing essays on my not-so-innocent children and their behaviours and consequences that, now that they are older, are quite amusing (though I can’t believe I survived them!). My question is this: if I were to publish the essays or combine them in a book-length work of creative non-fiction, how would I protect their reputations? I do want someone to hire them eventually, and marry them. Among others, the essay titled “The Prepositions of Pot” may compromise some future opportunities. Should I write under another name and change their names as well? Is this hard to keep “undercover”? 

—Heather, Thedford ON


Dear Heather, 

You raise one of the big questions: how do we write candidly and honestly, and also responsibly, about people we care about? 

Leaving aside legal questions (mainly libel) and focusing on the ethical, your choices are: 

1. To use your real name and your children’s real names. In the words of the writer Janet Malcolm, “ Art is theft, art is armed robbery, art is not pleasing your mother.” 

2. T o monkey with the facts. You can write under a pseudonym and make up names for your subjects, and/or change or omit details that you think may identify and compromise them. The chance you take, as you point out, is that all of you may be outed (and possibly taken to task for massaging the truth) – especially if you promote the book. 

3. To change anything you want and publish the stories as fiction. This will make things clear, though there will be questions about who or what “inspired” the work. 

4. To publish/post no writings about your children. 

A note: In our experience, when someone makes trouble about a piece of writing, it is almost always something other than what the writer prepared for. 

And a piece of advice: If you do go ahead with the stories, don’t show any text to your children ahead of time. You can talk to them generally about your project and ask questions like a New Yorker fact checker, but no vetting. 

—The Editors

August 26, 2015
Memoir moxie
Dear Geist,

I recently started writing my first book, a memoir, but I am unsure how to write something so long. I have a good idea of what I want to include and focus on, but when I think about how to sustain a story over the course of two hundred pages or so, I become intimidated and confused. Do you have any advice on how to make writing a long project more manageable? 

—Rebecca, Ottawa ON


Dear Rebecca, 

At the heart of all the inspiring writing we’ve seen on how to write a memoir is this: start small, and do not plan. Write short scenes and anecdotes — little stories, in other words — not in chronological order but as they come to you, and make notes of other things that come to mind in the process. Try to write a bit every day, at about the same time. When you have a good stack, lay them out and observe any themes, patterns, surprises, etc., and work from there. Let the material tell you what you’re writing and what matters, rather than trying to force your actual writings into the structure you had in mind before you began. 

And now, three very useful books on the subject: 

Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001) 

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird (Anchor, 1995) 

William Zinsser, Writing About Your Life (Da Capo Press, 2005) 

—The Editors

August 19, 2015
Banned bywords
Dear Geist, 

Is the phrase good grief trademarked? Can I use it as the title of a poetry manuscript without securing permission? 

—Anna, Edmonton AB


Dear Anna, 

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject. 

A copyright is your right to the exclusive use of your artistic creation. A trademark is your right to the exclusive use of a word, image, design, etc., associated with your product or service. Generally you cannot copyright or trademark book titles, but there are exceptions. For more on trademarks in Canada, go here. To search trademarks, go here. 

—The Editors

August 12, 2015
Quotability
Dear Geist, 

My question is about epigraphs. If I want to include one (or several) at the beginning of my short story collection, do I need to get permission before I submit to a publisher, or does the publisher secure permissions? I want to use a few lines of a song lyric, and a couple lines from published stories. 

—Quoter, Lakefield ON


Dear Quoter, 

Disclaimer: We are not lawyers and this answer is not legal advice. It is a summary of our knowledge and experience on the subject. 

Responsibility: The author-publisher book contract spells out responsibility for permissions. In most standard book contracts we have seen, the author is to clear all permissions, including payment of fees, on delivery of the full manuscript. It’s a contract, though, so this matter is negotiable. 

Written excerpts: If the epigraph is a short passage that makes up a tiny percentage of a longer written work and can therefore be deemed “fair dealing,” you may not have to secure permission. Be aware that “fair dealing” in Canadian law is a defence, not a provision; it is deliberately not quantified in legislation because decisions are made according to the details of each case. Either way, for each quoted bit, credit the author and title of the work. 

Song lyrics: Lyrics are a good example of short being substantial. Even a couple of lines can constitute a large portion of a song, and permission fees for lyrics can be real eyebrow-raisers for people in the print publishing biz. You would certainly need official permission for them. 

For some good, clear reading on these and related matters, see the excellent Canadian Copyright Law, 4th ed., by Lesley Ellen Harris (Wiley Canada, 2014). 

—The Editors

August 6, 2015
Stickling Point
Dear Geist,

I always speak up in my online writing workshop when someone talks about “flushing out” a scene or a character. It’s fleshing out, people! But they keep doing it and now they’re getting nasty. Everyone respects Geist (our instructor gets us free digital copies via the Geist in the Classroom program), so please give me the Geist thumbs-up on flesh/flush. I need some backup. 

—Happy Stickler, Victoria


Dear Happy, 

Technically you’re right. To flesh out is to add substance – flesh to bone, for example. To flush out is to clean something out with water or to force something out into the open. But is your campaign worth alienating your writing community? Choose your battles. 

—The Editors 

July 30, 2015
Antagonistas
Dear Geist,

My agent says I need a strong antagonist in my novel. I disagree. I’m writing experimental fiction. The whole point is to push boundaries and jolt readers out of their old tired expectations but he doesn’t seem to get it. Any advice on how to bring him into the 21st century? 

—Farah, Lloydminster AB


Dear Farah, 

Your agent is already in this century and he does get experimental writing – he signed you up. He also knows that readers like a good story, and the beating heart of a good story is a conflict about something important. Typically a protagonist wants or needs something, and an antagonist gets in the way, or is perceived to get in the way. The conflict can be implied and you can be wildly unconventional in telling the story – structure, character, plot, language, voice – but you do need a struggle. For example, see “Advice” by Julie Paul, Geist 88. 

—The Editors

July 23, 2015
Workshop worth
Dear Geist,

Can workshops really make my writing better? 

—Eugene, Summerside PEI


Dear Eugene, 

Geist is biased on this question: we sponsor writing workshops every year. That’s because we find that writing is indeed strengthened by workshops that offer specific, practical advice – tips, techniques and ways of working that feed good writing habits. That material, along with informal access to a knowledgeable instructor and a room full of smart, supportive peers, can only be good. 

—The Editors

July 16, 2015
The THE
Dear Geist,

Once and for all, is it The Globe and Mail, as it says on the newspaper itself, or is it the Globe and Mail, i.e., “the” not part of the actual title?

—Bev, Truro NS


Dear Bev,

How we wish we could make any writing or editing statement once and for all! But no. Both styles are correct, so a writer or publisher chooses one and uses it consistently. At Geist, we go with “the Globe and Mail.” It is perfectly readable, and it allows us to treat all periodical titles equally, whether or not the “The” is officially part of the title.

—The Editors

July 9, 2015
Allowable cut
Dear Geist,

A good mag (that pays writers!) is interested in my interview with Rob, a teenager who has patented three new miniature rose varieties. I’ve already edited the transcript but the mag editor wants me to cut out a third of the text by “streamlining” Rob’s words. Is that ethical?

—Just Wondering, Cyberspace


Dear Wondering,

Yes, and it is expected. Unless Rob is a great orator, he doesn’t want his spoken words to be written down verbatim. Word for word, on paper, even our intelligent talk looks illiterate and is hard to read. Your objective is to represent Rob and his story accurately. So trim excess verbiage (“um,” “you know,” “sort of,” “like”) and stitch things together clearly and logically, in words and phrases that he would use, presenting a written version of the interview that is as clear, concise and fair as possible.

The Editors

July 2, 2015
Le mot juste
Dear Geist,

My writing TA took marks off my essay because I wrote “convince” instead of “persuade.” I looked up the words and they mean the same thing. He said no they don’t and told me to keep looking. Help!

—Newbie, North Vancouver BC


Dear Newbie,

Your TA is technically wrong, but we want to shake his hand for caring about it! To convince is to talk someone into thinking something—changing their mind (their conviction). To persuade is to talk someone into doing something. It’s a fine point, one of many that make the language so precise, expressive and versatile, but so fine that over time, English speakers have used the two words interchangeably so often that they are officially nearly synonymous. You are a writer and you care about subtleties like these, so why not go ahead and honour the difference? 

The Editors

June 25, 2015
Post vs. publish
Dear Geist,

In submission guidelines, magazine publishers say that they only consider unpublished manuscripts. If I post a short story on my blog, does that make it a published story?

—Jo, Toronto ON


Dear Jo,

Technically, yes. To post work online is to publish it if it is available to the public. (If it goes on a web page accessible only to teachers and students in a course, for example, a magazine editor would not consider it published.) But if your blog has modest traffic, you might submit the story to a magazine anyway, and mention this very limited publication in your cover letter. 

The Editors

June 18, 2015
Pirate-proofing
Dear Geist,

Is there some way for me to post a 9-panel comic on my Tumblr blog so that no one can steal it?

—Lila, Markham ON


Dear Lila,

In a word, no. Anything available online or in hard copy can be taken. Some takers ask permission, others do not. You can search for stolen images online with software (TinEye, PicScout, Digimarc and others). If you believe your copyright has been violated, it's up to you to take any legal action. 

The Editors

June 12, 2015
Who's who
Dear Geist,

Three people who read a draft of my novel said they had some trouble keeping track of the characters. Should I make a chart or a list of characters in the book, à la Leo Tolstoy or Elena Ferrante?

—Epic Wannabe, Nanaimo BC


Dear Epic,

The dramatis personae is a tried-and-true device. Before you deploy it, though, ask yourself sternly why you are thinking of it. Do all of your characters matter to the story? Does each one come clear instantly, in every appearance, through what he/she says and does? Are the characters’ trajectories woven together in a compelling, seemingly inevitable way? You want your list of characters to be a reference, not a truss.

—The Editors

June 04, 2015
Borrowed words
Dear Geist,

Why are we supposed to put schadenfreude in italics, but not billet-doux?

—Wondering, Cyberspace


Dear Wondering,

Words in languages other than English are usually italicized, unless they are proper names or quoted text. Over time, when such a term is absorbed into general usage, it sheds the italics. If you aren’t sure (and no one is, year to year, except the lexicographers), check the dictionary. If the term isn’t listed there, go with italics. 

The Editors

May 28, 2015
Good and great
Dear Geist,

Are the really good writers born, or made?

—MFA Dropout, Vancouver


Dear Dropout,

By the time a writer is good, it is hard to tell. Some writers find it easier to write than others, but they aren’t always better. And some writers are so good they seem to occupy another plane. Jack Kerouac proposed that there are good writers, who are made, and geniuses—those who produce truly original work—who are born. Then again, the literary community is far from agreed on who the geniuses are.

The Editors

May 20, 2015
Who says

Dear Geist,

I am writing a historical novel with the third-person omniscient point of view. I switch to first person as the voice of the protagonist, for an intimate glimpse of a past traumatic event and later ruinous thoughts. I don't want to use quotation marks, since it is not dialogue and would be confusing. One reader said it was confusing anyway.

—Harry, Merville BC
 
Dear Harry,

You might change the type style for the protagonist’s voice (italics, or a different font), or change the format (indent the text, set it off from the main text with subtle design devices such as lines or tiny graphics). If a designer is working on the book, he/she will have ideas for you. Either way, when the protagonist’s voice first appears, the reader needs to be told (directly or indirectly) who is speaking. And the voices of both narrators must be distinctive enough in tone, syntax and choice of words that the reader can tell them apart. 

—Editors

May 14, 2015
Start to commence

Dear Geist,

I have been reading fiction since I was young, and I like to write. However, my writing so far consists of only emails. I might like to write a novel one day, but first I want to learn to write something quicker and shorter, such as articles about personal experience, how-to articles or a combination. How should I get going? Where can I learn to write a good article or personal essay? 

—Keith Chen, BC
 
Dear Keith,

Your writing instincts are good – you are a reader, and you know that you should start small. So you might write something short – say 250 words. For fiction, try a short story, perhaps about a strange person or an intriguing news photo. For personal essay, write a 250-word account of something that happened to you as a child. You may get ideas and/or connect with other writers by checking out books and websites about writing: A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, Brain Pickings, Figment and many more. Three things to do at all stages of your writing life: 1) read everything, especially writing that you admire; 2) keep a journal; 3) hang around with other writers – join or start a writers’ group, enroll in a course, go to conferences and public readings, etc.  

—Editors

May 7, 2015
Write rights

Dear Geist,

How do I register a copyright for my manuscript, a collection of personal essays?

—Dana, Charlottetown PEI

Dear Dana,

Your original work is automatically copyright when it is written down, produced, performed, broadcast or otherwise expressed, if you are a resident of Canada or any copyright treaty country. If you want to register a copyright formally, you can do so with the Copyright Office, part of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office. More on registration and conditions of copyright here.

Editors

April 16, 2015
Advice clash

Dear Geist,

In my fiction writing workshop, one person said I should write a lot more about the dad character. Another person said that the dad character is superfluous and I should delete him. Both of these writers are very astute. Help!

—Dave, Red Deer AB


Dear Dave,

Your responsibility as a writer is to receive all input as information, then resolve it in the writing or ignore it. Conflicting information is particularly interesting – sounds like that dad figure has a lot more heat than you realized! But don’t get derailed by advice, conflicting or otherwise. In the words of Neil Gaiman, “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”  

Editors

April 16, 2015
Post haste

Dear Geist,

I have been writing and rewriting a creative non-fiction story for about a year. How do I know when the story is ready to send out?

—Teetering, Gimli MB


Dear Teetering,

When you have gone as far as you can with the story (substantially, that is; not that sad little place where you change “find” to “discover” and back again), it’s time to ask someone else to read it and comment on it. That may be a trusted colleague or editor or teacher, or it may be a publisher you don’t know.

Editors

April 16, 2015
Right on time

Dear Geist,

Which is correct, 4:00, four o’clock or 1600 h?

—Floria, Windsor ON


Dear Floria, 

All are correct, depending on the context and preferred style of the publisher. If you don’t know the preferences, be consistent within the work. Most style guides agree that an exact moment (4:06) should be expressed in numerals. 

Editors

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