I have them: title, subtitle & cover

It’s official. Riverhead today sent me the jacket, ie cover, of my book. This is a big moment for a first-time author.

Alas, my editor pleaded with me not to share it with you yet. A big sales conference is about to happen and a catalogue is being made up, and apparently this sort of thing must be sprung upon certain people as a surprise.

But I will blast it out right here as soon as I get the green light.

In the meantime, you might be asking me whether I am happy with the result. I’m almost surprised to say Yes, even on the first go.

I admit that when I first opened the PDF file, I had whiplash. It was not at all what I had expected.

But then my focus groups went to work: wife, parents, agent, agent’s office colleagues….

And I had to agree with them. The cover — think of it as an aesthetic package of words and visuals — is:

  • simple (a prerequisite in my worldview),
  • bold (some people will love it, others will hate it, which is a good thing),
  • playful and tongue-in-cheek (which is important, because it’s an intellectual book, which might turn some readers off).

As my editor said when we discussed it (I made him expound on every single visual element), it comines “vibrant and subtle,” and is Riverhead’s way of saying “big idea.”

As I said to him in return: I was in charge of providing subtlety and nuance and texture between the covers; so I always knew I couldn’t be the one to deliver the direct, right-hook punch on the cover.


PS: Does anybody have any views on which WordPress themes are particularly elegant for book authors?

The making of corny subtitles

The Malcolm Gladwell Book Generator may not be uproariously funny, but after clicking through a few iterations I had to concede that it is at least moderately amusing.

The Generator is, of course, a spoof. You start with the cover of Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and then click on Generate New Bestseller. With each new cover, you realize how tritely manipulative the formula is.

Did I say “formula”? Oops. But yes, that’s essentially what it seems to be: the marketing department‘s (as opposed to the author’s) idea of a catchy title and subtitle. As the Generator puts it in one iteration (pictured above):

Subtitles: How Secondary Titles Inflate a Sense of Importance

Now, as it happens, I have been meditating on this subject in recent weeks because I am, right now, in the process of finalizing a title and subtitle for my own forthcoming book.

We seem to have decided on a title (which I will announce as soon as it is official), but we’re still bouncing subtitles back and forth.

Who is “we”?  Well, we includes me, of course, and my agent, and my editor at Riverhead, and the marketing and publicity departments at Penguin (which owns Riverhead), and possibly lots of other people. Lots of folks in lots of meetings, in other words. Meetings that I don’t get to sit in.

The result is quite interesting. Each “faction”, if I may call it that, seems to have a very different sense of linguistic aesthetics. Or possibly a different sense of strategic objective.

For the record, I am not slagging off the marketing folks — they’re bringing a vital perspective to this, and their suggestions have been good. But authors and marketers do appear to perceive the effects of word combinations in different ways.

So one might speculate, while browsing a book store, which side prevailed in which Title/Subtitle decision on display. There are fantastic titles and subtitles out there. And there are the others.


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The natural-length revolution in books

Short text, tablet edition

I”ve long been predicting that the main effect of the digital revolution on writing and reading has to do with word count. Put differently, it has to do with the length of texts.

Yesterday, I saw my vision starting to become reality.

But first let me explain why word count/length are so important to literary culture, and why length is at present often distorted.

As music went….

In this post, I’ve ruminated on the imperative of writing to the optimal word count — that is, writing neither too long nor too short.

To use the imperfect analogy of music: Beethoven shouldn’t have been forced to shorten his Fifth to the length of the Rolling Stones’s Brown Sugar, nor the Stones to lengthen Brown Sugar to equal the duration of the Fifth. Each work of art has to be true to itself, which means that each has its own optimal length.

For many years, that presented a packaging problem in music. It made no sense for an orchestra and an audience to gather for only a few minutes. And it made little sense to manufacture and sell vinyl discs that contained only a few minutes of music. So the emphasis was on longer forms of music, or on collections of short pieces — albums, not singles.

But as soon as music migrated from analog to digital media, that packaging distortion disappeared. So now music has been “liberated”. Each artist can compose at optimal length. (Where the medium is still analog, as in a live performance, there is still a preference for greater length.)

… so will text

Text has been far behind the curve. Yes, the digital media have already resuscitated ancient short-form traditions such as haikus, sonnets and aphorisms, in the form of Tweets and blogs. But the dominant medium for the written word is still the printed book. And analog books present the ultimate packaging problem.

Hence the pernicious and pervasive bias toward unnecessary length.

An adult book, especially non-fiction, that is as thin as a baby book looks stupid. No self-respecting publisher, and no author, would touch it. Hence publishers demand that authors pad their ideas to reach a minimum word count. A 30,000-word idea has to be packaged as an 80,000-word book.


  • delays the process of writing and publishing and
  • means that most readers only read a small part of most (non-fiction) books.

Bookshelves everywhere are groaning under the weight of unread words. What a waste.

Enter the Kindle Single

Digital books (on Kindles, iPads, iPhones etc.) will change all that. Suddenly, a “book” (shall we still call it that?) no longer looks stupid if it is short. As many Kindle readers have pointed out, one has no sense of length on a Kindle anyway.

And thus Amazon, shrewdly, has launched Kindle Singles, in direct allusion to the music analogy above. As music was liberated from length distortions, so text will be.

This really sank in yesterday when I got an email from Chris Anderson, the “curator” (a title I find a tad pompous) of TED. (That’s an upmarket conference that would like to be a social network. I’ve attended, hence I’m on the email list.) In it, Anderson announced that “TED Books” are now being sold as Kindle Singles. I just bought my first one.

TED Books, he writes, are

to Books as TED Talks are to lectures. They’re short, pithy, riveting. They’re designed to express a single big idea in a way that can be absorbed in a single sitting. A typical 18-minute TED Talk might be around 2000 words. A typical traditional book is at least 60,000 words. TED Books nicely fill the gap in between. They come in at 10,000-20,000 words. So they can be read and absorbed in an hour or two.

So there you have it: the length distortion has disappeared. More interesting is how Anderson talked about that distortion:

Many people are hungry to learn, but have limited time to read full-length books. TED Books offer an exciting new alternative. And it also will allow many brilliant thinkers who don’t have a spare year to author a full-length book (and another year to wait while that book gets published) to nonetheless get their ideas out in the world….

I highlighted that phrase because, as you may remember, I took about one year to write my book, and have been waiting almost two years now for the publication process to kick off in earnest. (It has indeed kicked off: publication is slated for the fall, and my publisher is suddenly very busy.)

My point is that this process, which all publishers today share, makes no sense to a logical alien visiting earth, or to anybody under thirty. This is why the publishing industry will (not might, but will) be disrupted.

As TED’s Anderson puts it,

the world of serious reading is undergoing a revolution. Suddenly it’s possible to carry around a whole library in your coat-pocket. Suddenly, books don’t have to be 200 or 300 pages long so that they feel substantial in printed form. Any length is possible. And that was the breakthrough for us. We’ve seen from TED Talks the power of giving speakers a time constraint. It’s been an amazing instance of “less is more”…

The humanity in a Joad and a Vega

Well, it’s time again for our (The Economist‘s) annual Christmas issue — a double issue (meaning that it is on news kiosks for two weeks instead of the usual one).

My piece in this one is called Migrant farm workers: Fields of Tears.

(The title of this post explains itself if you read the article.)

They even used one of the pictures I took with my dirty, sweaty, unsteady hand while picking grapes in August (I posted about it at the time). So, even though we don’t get bylines at The Economist, I did get a tiny picture credit in the bottom right! 🙂

The back story

In late October, I posted a cryptic and coy entry here, in which I talked about an exchange with one of my editors, after she told me that

The subject-matter is so emotionally strong that it will work better if the tone is flatter.

This was, in fact, the piece we were talking about and editing at the time. So now you can read it and judge for yourself if flattening the tone was the right decision.

Another point worth mentioning is that my first draft was, well, bad. The reason was one that you may find sympatico (during my research, we had a baby, so I had other things on my mind and took a shortcut, writing before I was ready). But a good editor owes it to the writer not to let those half-hearted pieces slip through.

So my editor called me on it. She has a beautifully frank manner, which sugarcoats nothing (and thus makes her praise, whenever it comes, uniquely credible).

Back I went, after my paternity leave, to finish the research (which was harder than it is for most of my pieces). And then I wrote what turned out to be the real piece.

During the frantic copy-editing in the final hours before the pages were printed, I thanked my editor for her intervention:

… you did me the honor of being frank, thus saving me from a bad piece and forcing me to turn it into a decent one. You’re the best editor I’ve ever had. It’s all about trust: the editor has to trust the potential of the writer (and demand that it be reached); and the writer has to trust the judgment and intention of the editor.

She replied with some touching personal comments, and then this summation, which tells you more about The Economist than you would ever understand simply by reading our magazine:

… I also think the genuinely nice atmosphere at the econ–in contrast to many other papers–is important here. People generally believe they’re working together, not against each other.

The smiley face in the margin

To my delight, after another long radio silence since Riverhead officially accepted my manuscript as finished, I just heard from my copy editor. I don’t yet know who that is, although I intend to find out.

I now have a fancy new Word file that contains the entire manuscript, with all the proper formatting. Our only remaining job now is to tidy up typos and such. We’re approaching the very end, in other words.

So it is wonderful, thrilling, relieving to find that this copy editor, whoever he or she is, is a language lover as I am.

Have a look at the little screen shot above.

Did you catch it?

Three friends (Paul Cezanne, Emile Zola and Baptistin Baille) were reading poetry and the classics

to each other.

Well, no, they couldn’t have been doing that. Since there were three of them, they were reading poetry and the classics

to one another.

That’s what I want in a copy editor. Whoever you are, you get that smiley face from me (“Author”) in the margin above. And once I find you, I’ll say Thank You properly.

If it’s emotional, flatten the tone

Here is a tip for writers. It is something I knew (“show, don’t tell”) and tried to observe in writing the piece I have just finished. But not enough, apparently.

My editor, one of the best there is in journalism, emailed me this:

I think the emotional pitch of the vocabulary needs to be turned down a little. The subject-matter is so emotionally strong that it will work better if the tone is flatter. It needs fewer words like “pain” and “vulnerable”. I feel the pain and sense the vulnerability more acutely if I’m allowed to discover them by myself.

I did as she said. The piece is much more powerful as a result. Lesson: let the details provide the color, and never interrupt the story they tell.

The worst opening phrase in writing

Indulge me, please, in a gripe about bad writing that I just want to put out there so that I can stop suffering from it.

It concerns the most important line, sentence and phrase in any text: the first one.

The opening is where you make contact with your reader. This is when you win or lose him, this is when every word (including the empty-noise words like the and a) matters most.

Here is an example of what appears to be an opening-line trend in “narrative non-fiction“:

On a clear and mild March day in 1993, the Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry spoke at a rally…

On a clear and mild March day? Well, thank god we got that in there. This story, surely, would have been entirely different if said Mr Terry had spoken on an overcast or scorching April day.

One cloudy afternoon last fall….

On a rainy Sunday morning last summer….

I see these phrases in the New Yorker, in The Atlantic, in The New York Times Magazine and every other place that fancies itself as doing “long-form” writing. (Not The Economist, in other words.)

It is the new

Once upon a time

The difference is that Once upon a time was honest about its purpose: Here starts a good story.

On a clear and mild March day, by contrast, is pretentious. It says: I will now give you color, because I’m such a good writer.

Until, within a few paragraphs, we are forced to discover that neither the clarity and mildness of the day nor its position on the calendar had the slightest friggin’ thing to do with anything at all. What a waste of words.

The trouble with writing, continued

Cunningham (Credit: David Shankbone)

I quite like what Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, had to say in The New York Times on Sunday about writing.

All writing is in effect translation, he opined, whether literally (as when a text is translated into a foreign language) or metaphorically, as when the writer attempts to translate his vision into actual words on a page. The vision is always perfect and large and elegant. The translation is necessarily just a shadow of the vision (like the shadows in Plato’s famous cave).

Writing as automatic frustration

This makes writing a gut-wrenching activity. As Cunningham says,

You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent, it’s brilliantly comic and howlingly tragic, it contains everything you know, and everything you can imagine, about human life on the planet earth. It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire. But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. It’s smaller than the book you’d hoped to write. It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire. It feels, in short, like a rather inept translation of a mythical great work…

A novel, any novel, if it’s any good, is not only a slightly disappointing translation of the novelist’s grandest intentions, it is also the most finished draft he could come up with before he collapsed from exhaustion….

The importance of authority (ie, voice)

With authority (Credit: Jenny Mealing)

Cunningham also gets into a topic I’ve called voice on this blog. He calls it

that most fundamental but elusive of all writerly qualities: authority. As writers we must, from our very opening sentence, speak with authority to our readers. It’s a little like waltzing with a new partner for the first time. Anyone who is able to waltz, or fox-trot, or tango, or perform any sort of dance that requires physical contact with a responsive partner, knows that there is a first moment, on the dance floor, when you assess, automatically, whether the new partner in question can dance at all — and if he or she can in fact dance, how well. You know almost instantly whether you have a novice on your hands, and that if you do, you’ll have to do a fair amount of work just to keep things moving. Authority is a rather mysterious quality, and it’s almost impossible to parse it for its components…

The relationship with readers

This is another topic I’ve pondered here before (most recently when I decided to “shrink” this blog). What exactly is the ideal, and the actual, relationship between a writer and his readers?

Young writers like to say (pretend?) that they are “writing for themselves”. Cunningham answers:

I tell them that I understand — that I go home every night, make an elaborate cake and eat it all by myself. By which I mean that cakes, and books, are meant to be presented to others. And further, that books (unlike cakes) are deep, elaborate interactions between writers and readers… I remind them, as well, that no one wants to read their stories. There are a lot of other stories out there, and … we, as readers, are busy. We have large and difficult lives. We have, variously, jobs to do, spouses and children to attend to, errands to run, friends to see; we need to keep up with current events; we have gophers in our gardens; we are taking extension courses in French or wine tasting or art appreciation; we are looking for evidence that our lovers are cheating on us; we are wondering why in the world we agreed to have 40 people over on Saturday night; we are worried about money and global warming; we are TiVo-ing five or six of our favorite TV shows. What the writer is saying, essentially, is this: Make room in all that for this. Stop what you’re doing and read this. It had better be apparent, from the opening line, that we’re offering readers something worth their while.

“Helen” and the closing tube doors

Quite a while ago, I told you about a mental habit I use to overcome writer’s block and return to my natural voice. I call it the “closing-tube-door-method“.

Cunningham seems to have a version of it, too. In his case, he pictures an actual reader he knows named Helen on the other side of (to use my method) the closing tube doors:

I began to think of myself as trying to write a book that would matter to Helen. And, I have to tell you, it changed my writing. … Writing a book for Helen, or for someone like Helen, is a manageable goal.

Phaedrus, again

And Cunningham seems to have rediscovered the fundamental flaw in the written word per sethe same flaw that Socrates first pointed out to Phaedrus.

One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book. We will all feel differently about a movie or a play or a painting or a song, but we have all undeniably seen or heard the same movie, play, painting or song. They are physical entities. … WRITING, however, does not exist without an active, consenting reader. Writing requires a different level of participation. Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper brings to them a different set of associations and images….

Socrates concluded that it was better to talk, and refused to write a single word. His student Plato decided to write anyway. So has every writer since, down to Cunningham and you and me.

Steinbeck, grapes, wrath, success, writing

I) Grapes

Here I was the other day in California’s San Joaquin Valley, with a crop buddy, after a day of picking grapes. It was 105 Fahrenheit (40 Celsius). I was drenched in toxic pesticides, which I was unable to avoid while picking.

What on earth was I doing there?

Well, it’s part of a little literary project, something longer-term. Can’t say much more yet.

We happened to be standing a few hundred yards away from the location of a Depression-era government camp for migrant farm workers which became the basis of John Steinbeck’s fictional Weedpatch Camp in his unforgettable novel The Grapes of Wrath. This was the camp that took in the Joad family and gave them brief respite from their harsh existence.

Was my location a coincidence? Not entirely. Nor was it entirely planned. (Sometimes, “accidents” help in the creative process.)

In any event, I took the occasion to re-read The Grapes of Wrath and also to read a bit about Steinbeck’s writing of it.

II) Writing

In 1963 Steinbeck said:

I wrote The Grapes of Wrath in one hundred days, but many years of preparation preceded it. I take a hell of a long time to get started. The actual writing is the last process.

This fits my own experience: The actual writing (sadly) is almost an afterthought, the easiest and most pleasant and shortest part of conception.

(But Steinbeck wrote longhand, of course. His 200,000-word manuscript took up 165 handwritten pages of a lined ledger book.)

Steinbeck apparently wrote fast, paying little or no attention to spelling, punctuation, or paragraphing. All that was cleaned up later. That, too, fits my experience.

III) Anger

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck also said something else:

When I wrote The Grapes of Wrath, I was filled . . . with certain angers . . . at people who were doing injustices to other people.

And six years later, he told a British interviewer:

Anger is a symbol of thought and evaluation and reaction: without it what have we got? . . . I think anger is the healthiest thing in the world.

I had to think about that for a minute. But then this also fit my experience as a writer. Anger is a great motivational spur. It focuses the mind and leads to energetic storytelling. And isn’t writing a wonderful channel for anger to be released? Way better than any alternative, methinks.

IV) Success

Also of obvious interest to me (given that I’m writing a book about success and failure being impostors) was what the mind-boggling success of The Grapes of Wrath did to Steinbeck.

Critics, agents, publishers — the whole world naturally wanted him, as one said,

to write The Grapes of Wrath over and over again.

(That reactive and retroactive instinct in publishing also strikes me as familiar.)

But Steinbeck refused, saying that

The process of writing a book is the process of outgrowing it… Disciplinary criticism comes too late. You aren’t going to write that one again anyway. When you start another—the horizons have receded and you are just as cold and frightened as you were with the first one.

In another interview, he said that

I have always wondered why no author has survived a best-seller. Now I know. The publicity and fan-fare are just as bad as they would be for a boxer. One gets self-conscious and that’s the end of one’s writing.

Here, of course, I have nothing to add (not having scored a best-selling success yet). But it does rhyme beautifully with what Amy Tan said on the same subject.

Below, by the way, you see my perspective as I was picking grapes: I was crouching below the vines, because the best bunches grow in the middle and underneath. (“Low-hanging” fruit are not necessarily “easily picked’ fruit, I discovered.) And that tractor constantly moves alongside you. Several times I almost had my feet run over, and it banged into my shins so often that I could barely walk at night.

Deliberate ambiguity in writing

Strategically ambiguous

One of my points in the previous post was that a good writer should have

control over his words, the way a good rider should be able to rein in his horse,

so that the words evoke the intended response only.

This led Jim M. to an insightful addendum:

So much has been written about how ambiguity distorts communication, it is easy to miss how ambiguity aids communication…. [M]anaging ambiguity is not merely a matter of its reduction, but its proper exploitation.

This is a great point, and in fact completes (rather than refutes) my thesis on writerly control over words.

To make the distinction clearer: The goal of writing is always to evoke a particular response. But:

  • sometimes this means making the words so precise as to leave no room for ambiguity. (The Second Amendment in the U.S. Constitution fails to do this, which is why I cited it in the previous post as an example of “bad writing”);
  • other times it means making the words intentionally ambiguous to leave the reader in a vacuum of meaning precisely circumscribed by the writer. The writer thus has the reader not at a point but in a space, because that is the intention.

The best example that I could think of off the top of my head comes from International Relations. The so-called Taiwan Relations Act, signed by Jimmy Carter in 1979 (but really the result of deliberate policy since Nixon’s visit to China), has been a diplomatic success precisely because it includes a deliberate ambiguity.

It is found in various passages but most notably in Section 3301(b). There it is written that “the policy of the United States” is

to consider any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means, including by boycotts or embargoes, a threat to the peace and security of the Western Pacific area and of grave concern to the United States…

Of great concern. Genius! Does that mean that if China were to attack Taiwan,

  1. America would defend Taiwan? Or that
  2. America would be “concerned” without defending Taiwan?

The point, of course, is that the writer had two audiences in mind: The mainland Chinese and the Chinese on Taiwan.

  • The mainland Chinese had to be able to interpret the phrase to mean that America would probably defend Taiwan, thus concluding that attacking the islands would be a really bad idea.

  • The Chinese on Taiwan had to be able to interpret the phrase to mean that American might not defend Taiwan, thus concluding that declaring formal independence (and thus provoking an attack) would be a really bad idea.

This deliberate ambiguity is one reason (I’m not saying it’s the only reason) why China’s cross-straits conflict has been one of the stablest hotspots in the world. Wouldst that all conflicts were like it.

To expand this concept of deliberate ambiguity to the other arts: The best analogy I can think of

  • in painting and sculpture is the so-called “negative space”, and
  • in music the pause.

So ambiguity definitely plays a role in good writing and art — as long as it produces the response the writer intended.

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