Monday, July 30, 2007

Galley slave

I'm covering for one of the nonfiction reviews editors* this week, and it's striking to see the different ways that various nonfiction publishers do galleys. University presses and cookbook publishers make beautiful galleys, often full of color photos (which must be pretty pricy, but is extremely useful for reviewers). Self-help galleys, on the other hand, are quite likely to be manuscript pages that some intern got spiral-bound at Kinko's. If you're really lucky, they have completely blank cardboard covers.

* I hasten to note that all of our reviews are, in fact, nonfiction.

Fiction galleys run the gamut. Every house has its own style. For example, Random House helpfully stamps the imprint all over the cover like a wallpaper pattern. Less helpfully, they put a gritty B&W image of the cover on the flyleaf page, where they also put the jacket copy. This is very frustrating. I need to look at the jacket copy and cover image much more often than I need to figure out which imprint the book is under. Golden Gryphon goes one better: the covers of their galleys are entirely blank--even the spines--except for the GG logo and a number that I assume is the book's catalog number. If all the covers were identical, I would just chalk it up to having too low a budget to design and print individual ones. Given that they put a different number on each book, however, they could at least also put the author's name and the book title on the front cover and the spine.

Really, though, the best galleys are the ones that are essentially indistinguishable from the finished product except by the words "ADVANCE READING COPY" across the front (while I appreciate the compliment from galleys that call me an "advanced reader", they also make me cringe a little) and the edition and promo information on the back. Despite the brouhaha a while ago where it was suggested that sending spiffy galleys is tantamount to bribing reviewers, my preferences in this area have nothing to do with whether I want to keep the galley. It's simply easier to give an accurate review with a galley that gives you a reading experience as close as possible to the purchaser's reading experience, and it's easier to do good fact-checking if the author's name and the title are on the front and spine and the biblio data and jacket copy are on the back. For that matter, it's easier to find the book in the piles and piles and piles of books that cover every available surface in our office. We stack our books spine-out, like most people. If the spine of a galley is blank or shows nothing but the edges of manuscript pages, that makes it less memorable, and in turn less likely to be pulled out of the stack and assigned to a reviewer. I would think that publishers would want to make our job easier, not harder.

Look at any one of our reviews in the magazine or on the website and at the top you will see something that looks like this:

Title Title Title
Author Name, trans. from the language by Translator Name. Publisher/Imprint (, $XX.XX (XXXp) ISBN 978-XXXXXXXXXX

At the end of the review, you might see:

64 color and 100 b&w photos. Author tour. (Oct.)

Publishers who include all that information on the galley cover have my undying gratitude. That won't affect whether the book gets a good review, of course, but it does make it more likely that the biblio text on our review will be accurate, which is very, very important to us and to publishers. (The worst sin that I can commit, as an editor, is failing to correct an erroneous ISBN.)

At the very least, galleys in book form are really a must. I've seen "galleys" that were rubber-banded manuscripts. We like our reviewers and we want to stay on good terms with them; we're not going to send them piles of paper unless we really have to review the book for some reason, and if we do, the reviewer will approach the book with a feeling of dread and irritation even before the first word is read. I assume that's not how publishers want their books to be approached, so I have no idea why they do this. I think it reflects very poorly on the publisher, and thereby on the book. Why not send a galley that encourages the reviewer to approach it with joyful anticipation? That's not bribery; it's just good sense.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

As you are we

Tagline spotted on an NBC article:

"A Maryland couple goes the extra mile looking for their lost dog."

This awkward sentence is, of course, all the fault of "couple" and its chameleon-like ability to shift from being singular to plural in the space of five words. "A Maryland couple go the extra mile" sounds a little odd in American English (though in UK English I think it would be perfectly fine; they tend more towards treating words like "couple" and "team" and "group" as plural). "A Maryland couple... looking for its lost dog" sounds considerably odder. It's hard to rewrite the sentence to omit the word "couple", since we don't have a good synonym for this context and even poor synonyms like "pair" have the same issue. For a news site tagline spot, there's certainly an issue of word count, too.

My off-the-cuff solution would be to leave "goes" as it stands and replace "their" with "a". That makes the couple's motivation slightly ambiguous, but it can generally be assumed that they wouldn't go the extra mile for a dog they didn't have some sort of significant attachment to. In fact, the actual headline doesn't state outright that the dog is theirs, so this level of ambiguity is clearly okay with whomever is writing headlines and taglines.

I would also personally be okay with changing "goes" to "go" and leaving "their" intact, but I'm betting AP style (on which many newspaper and news site styles are based) would shoot that down. Note that the headline begins "Couple Hires Detective"; couple-as-singular is the rule here, so "their" is the one that has to go.

The actual content of the article is beyond the scope of this discussion, and a good thing too. Some people have more dollars than sense.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A red-letter day

Dear reviewers:

Big words only make you sound smarter if you use them correctly.

When giving a page number citation, please make sure it is the right page number.

Please keep your wordcount within 10% of the limits provided with the assignment.

Thank you,

Dear authors:

No, seriously, big words only make you sound smarter if you use them correctly.

When running a character name search/replace, make it case sensitive and select "whole word only". Otherwise you end up with interesting new words like "Kateegory" and "munSteveity", which somewhat disrupts the flow of your narrative.

Please make your character and place names pronounceable. It would be nice if they had similar linguistic origins, too. Do not, however, fill your dialogue with alien jargon in italics, no matter how great the temptation.

Thank you,

Dear publishers:

Please send galleys in reusable and/or recyclable packaging. A sturdy paper envelope is fine, really. Your book is not made of glass; there is no need to pack it in bubble wrap.

Comparing your author to three famous dead authors in the same breath, or rather, in the same breathless sentence, is good for a laugh but not much else. The only reason we read the promo copy is to make sure the reviewer isn't cribbing from it. We certainly don't count on it to be accurate about the spelling of the protagonist's name, much less the quality of the writing.

Putting my name on the envelope does nothing but annoy me, since then I have to carry the books to the book room myself rather than having the nice fellow who delivers our mail do it for me. Address it to "F&SF Editor" like our publication guidelines tell you.

Thank you,

Dear fellow editors:

Thank you for making loud, hilarious phone calls during working hours. They provide welcome relief from the frustrations detailed above.

I'm really proud of all of us for how rarely we flail our arms and swear at some of the terrible books we get.

If anyone has a bottle of good whiskey hidden in a filing cabinet someplace, please let me know.

Thank you,
Third cubicle on the left

Very good, class.

Today's lesson is on the en-dash. The en-dash is the same length as a lowercase 'n', longer than a hyphen and shorter than an em-dash. It is used to hyphenate multi-word phrases.

"non-meringue fetishists" (hyphen) refers to fetishists whose fetish is not meringues.

"non–meringue fetishists" (en-dash) refers to people who are not meringue fetishists.

This is, sadly, a real-world example (not a real–world example), albeit with the fetishized noun changed to protect the writer. I will be editing it out altogether, as I feel one should do with most en-dash phrases, but figured I'd make an object lesson of it first.

The en-dash is also, more commonly and less egregiously, used inclusively between numbers, time periods, monetary amounts, etc. "The gallery is open Mon–Fri, 2–7 p.m., March–October. Admission is $15-20 sliding scale. For more information, see catalog pages 17–22."

These are the only uses that CMS14 allows, but other authorities use it to replace the word "to" in sports scores ("The Yankees beat the Red Sox 78–2"*) and other relationships ("Paris–London trip", "mother–daughter talk") as well as to connect any pair of proper nouns where both modify a following noun but do not modify each other ("McCain–Feingold bill"). I find all of that far too complicated, so I stick with the Chicago rules.

* I acknowledge that this example may be slightly gratuitous, but I couldn't resist.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Forgotten but not gone

Safely arrived in Boston.

I read Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts on the trip up. I'm always fascinated by the writing of writers' children. Even had I not known he was Stephen King's son, I would know at least one of his parents was a writer. His work just has that vibe about it, a blend of youthful rawness and decades of training that you only get when you start learning very, very young. It's something I try to erase from my own writing but don't really mind in others', as long as there's sufficient talent to balance out the overabundance of knowledge. Hill has talent and to spare.

Someone clearly told him "Start strong, end long", which he did, and it more or less worked. The first two stories, "Best New Horror" and "20th Century Ghosts", actually knocked the wind out of me. It's been a long time since writing left me breathless that way. Then there were a bunch of other stories, which failed to have quite the same impact, and then the final novella, "Voluntary Committal", which reminded me a great deal of Jeffrey Ford's "Botch Town", not least because 20th Century Ghosts (hereafter 20CG) tugs on many of the same heartstrings as The Empire of Ice Cream. Ford has a broader range and takes more chances; he's a fantasist who explores every nook and cranny of what that means, while Hill is a horror writer who takes occasional weekend trips to other genres. I was surprised to note a few stories in 20CG that had no fantastical component to them at all. I thought the ones that did were more successful, but Hill clearly has room to spread his wings in many different directions if he wants to. I don't get the sense that he wants to, just yet. That's the other thing that writers' children tend to have: a sense of the arc of a writer's career, an arc that often itself resembles a three-act story. Hill knows he's on the first few pages of his own arc, and he's content to be there, establishing context for himself. I hope he has as much time as he thinks he does. It will be interesting to see what his writing is like, decades down the road.

The title of 20CG is taken from a story about ghosts at the movies--Hill just loves the punning titles, sometimes to excess, as with "Pop Art", which is about an inflatable kid named Arthur who quite literally fears getting popped--but it's a highly apt description of the collection's overall vibe. I've been thinking a lot lately about the role of the naïf in fiction, especially speculative fiction, where the naïf most often is the child or stranger to whom the world is explained, a vehicle for delivering exposition to the reader without it seeming quite so much like exposition. Hill loves the naïf with a passion, and it has nothing to do with exposition at all. If slipstream is fiction that makes you feel unsettled and off-balance as the world tilts under your feet, this is anti-slipstream, where the tilting of the world underfoot is insufficient to disrupt the inner worlds of one supremely confident character after another. The narrators and main characters (who often have names like John and Jack, cipher names that also deliberately give the sense of the author's own name in a very thin disguise) are children and near-children: autists, idiots savant, grown men who live in their parents' basements. They are certain about the way the world is. They need no explanations from others. This is just as much a 20th Century feeling as slipstream's uncertainty is, the ghost of the 1950s when everyone's certainty about what went where and who was who masked tremendous unsettlement, dissatisfaction, and memories of wartime pain and atrocity and loss.

When characters in these stories do terrible things--a teenager throwing a brick off an overpass and causing a possibly fatal car accident, a mother abandoning her husband as she flees with their child--Hill repeatedly describes them being set aside and deliberately forgotten. The teenager builds a mental wall of bricks all too like the one he threw, locking away memories like his own personal casks of Amontillado. The mother suggests a fun new game called Amnesia, where they'll pretend the child's father never existed at all. The naïf must stay naïve; the world must not be allowed to tilt. It's a supremely successful formula and it works over and over and over again, because this sort of willful blindness is exactly what lets people do terrible things and survive terrible happenings in the real world. There is no need to suspend disbelief. We see it all around and within ourselves, every day. Hill adds a layer of complexity by making the terrible things uncertain (did anyone really die in that car accident? is the abandoned father really in danger or is the mother just delusional?), so that the happenings that must be forgotten or shut away are not even solidly real when faced head-on. Sometimes that makes the deliberate amnesia easier; other times, it's harder, especially when the veil is ripped away only for the character to realize that the time when any of the questions could have been answered is past.

The non-fantastical pieces don't really seem to fit with the rest, even the ones that have genre-ish settings. "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is about a romance on the set of Dawn of the Dead, but it's still a romance, and the blue makeup and fake blood are almost certainly just blue makeup and fake blood. "Abraham's Boys" plays a little faster and looser with the genre line: it refuses to answer the question of whether Abraham Van Helsing legitimately hunted vampires or was just a lunatic, and also has enough creepiness and gore to put it firmly in the horror camp even without any supernatural elements. "The Widow's Breakfast" is so non-genre that the little creepy twists sit oddly on it, like clothes that don't quite fit. If this were a music CD rather than a book, I'd reorder it so that those pieces came first or perhaps went off into their own little mini-album. Having them interspersed among the more powerful, kick-in-the-gut fantasies like "The Cape" (about which I will say nothing except that it should be read without preconceptions for the best effect) rings a bit of uncertainty, as though Hill worries that the reader will be overwhelmed. Personally, I'd rather be overwhelmed. I don't want to get up and stretch my legs between acts; like one of the true movie aficionados in "20th Century Ghosts", I want to have the lights stay low, to be kept in my seat for longer than I'm entirely comfortable with, to stand up and stagger out only when I'm absolutely sure it's over.