Get the details right

In drawing class this week, we were working with a model—my first time in years doing so—and I was sketching away, delighted at how shading here and here was turning a collection of lines into a face, trying to capture the right angle of her lips, when my teacher strolled by and pointed out that the shape of her head was wrong. Mentally I said aarrrrgghhh, because of course he was right.

Drawing, says my teacher, is 80 percent looking and 20 percent drawing. In other words, taking the time to really see all the details and contours of your subject, whether your subject is a bowl of fruit or a person, instead of immediately throwing your pencil (or charcoal) at the page.

I have been thinking about details since people on Twitter this week have had complaints about others getting their names wrong. This has happened to me my entire life. Not until college did any teacher ever pronounce my name correctly on the first try. When I email people for work-related reasons—even though my name is right there in the email signature—I frequently get replies addressed to Marlena, Marianna, Marlene, or this recent gem through LinkedIn: Marlins. Nope, can’t explain that one either.

I figured out the truth a few years back, while helping read out the names of student scholarship winners at a New Jersey Press Association luncheon. The woman I was alternating with was mangling every other name, and as I watched her I realized: She wasn’t really reading the names. She was glancing at them and then reading what she thought the name should be, without paying close enough attention to confirm it. And I think this is what most people do with names. They glance at it way too quickly, type something totally wrong, and get on with their day.

That sort of carelessness as a reporter, incidentally, earns you a giant warning sign on any newsroom copy desk. Because if you can’t be bothered to get the source’s name right, what else did you get wrong? Those were the reporters whose work I fact-checked even more thoroughly.

Attention to detail is everything, in art and in writing. Take a breath, stand back: Did you get everything right? Is there anything you need to change? Look again. That’s my job as a writer. It’s my job to help others with as an editor. It’s my job as a (wannabe) artist. Make sure you’re saying what you actually meant to say.

As for that drawing, I don’t know if I can fix it. But the model is coming back next week, so I’ve got another chance to try.

Please buy a newspaper

I’d like you to do something for me next week. It’s simple. It’s cheap. It could help save democracy.

Buy a newspaper.

Doesn’t matter which one. Local weekly? The Times or the Post? Whatever you like. But you have to buy it. Reading one online for free doesn’t count. Buy an actual paper. Enjoy the crinkling sensation in your hands.

Because here’s the thing. Newspapers are still the best way to stay informed—actually informed, with deeply researched information, as opposed to random people’s opinions with a fact or two maybe thrown in. Farhad Manjoo puts it more eloquently than I can in this column (though I disagree on a couple points: The ink isn’t messy, and something you can fold up and shove in a bag is way easier than a screen you have to constantly protect and keep charged. Newspapers are battery-free).

Am I biased? Of course I’m biased. I spent 20 years in newsrooms. Which also means I spent 20 years watching, firsthand, exactly how much stress and opposition and frustration reporters, photojournalists, editors, and graphic designers will trudge through to put a paper together every single night. My colleagues in North Jersey covered 9/11. One of my co-workers in Miami was thrown in jail overnight while covering a protest, because she was mistaken for a protester. A former co-worker, just last night, was in a New Jersey mall with his family when shots were fired; he got his family to safety and then reported from the scene. That’s what it means to be a journalist. That’s why I trust journalists.

There is absolutely no reason to expect anyone to do this sort of work for free. But that’s the expectation you have when you only read news online, for free.

I worry very much about journalists losing their jobs and newspapers shutting down. I worry about what a lack of clear, well-researched information could do to the country.

So please: It’s my birthday next week. Help me celebrate by buying a newspaper. Maybe you’ll like it enough to buy it again.

Feeling grateful

It’s been a continuously busy few months, moving from project to project without pause, a run fueled by caffeine and occasionally chocolate. Things have started to slow down now, just in time for holiday shopping and parties and extra baking and road trips, so that works out pretty well.

As I gear up for wall-to-wall holiday merrymaking, I’m taking a moment to express gratitude. I appreciate the authors who trust me with their words, the editors who depend on me for content, and the people who are willing to share their stories with me for print. I appreciate that I can do the things I love for a living, and still have time to help out at school holiday boutiques and on class trips. And I appreciate my critique group and my writer friends who are helping me on my journey. I hope I’m as helpful to them as they are to me.

Merry everything, and may we all find time to read this month.

Sharing creativity

My kids know I carry tiny purse-sized notebooks around to scribble out my rough drafts. (Moleskines are perfect—they’re the right size and they have built-in bookmarks and elastic closures—though WritersBlok notebooks are nice too.) This means they also know my works-in-progress are available if they get bored in a restaurant, waiting for their entree. Then they’re happy to provide feedback: “I like this. You should publish it.” “I read this part. Didn’t you finish it yet?” “WHAT. Why did you change it? I liked it before!”

Most recently—and yep, at a restaurant—my daughter flipped through the notebook to find a picture book idea I’d never finished. Because sometimes you start working through an idea, only to discover it isn’t working on the page as well as it did in your head. At that point you can 1. start over or 2. ditch it and focus your energies elsewhere, and that particular idea had been ditched. My daughter disagreed with my conclusion. In fact, she thought she knew how to end it, and could she write the ending? I said sure.

So she borrowed my pen and wrote the rest of the story. She got exactly the idea I’d been going for, too. And now I have written proof that she thinks highly enough of my work to want to be part of it.

Of course, she’s already appointed herself editor of all my work and has offered to illustrate it. So she’s a little ambitious.

The other day, I needed to bring my son with me to the coffee shop; he had his magazine and a muffin, I had a scone and revising to do. Once he realized what I was working on, he craned his head to see my screen. Then he moved to my other side to read my notes before I’d even gotten them typed in. Then when I was done, he asked to read something else. At which point I ceded control of my laptop and let him read my novel till it was time to go.

Sharing my work with them has been one of the best things about writing kidlit, not just because they like reading it but because they’re pretty creative in their own right. Both of them create their own comics. Both of them make art, everything from paper sculpture to pottery. It’s such a pleasure to see them expressing themselves. And maybe, possibly, they’re encouraged by watching me.

I don’t know where this creative path is going to land us, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Keep going

I’ve been collecting rejection letters on my manuscript, and it’s frustrating.

I spent most of last week on the phone with the school about my special-needs son’s behaviors. Also frustrating.

The news is, of course, a Dumpster fire.

But I will keep going regardless. On trying to find a home for my story, on helping my son, on being a good citizen, on standing up for what’s right.

It is totally fine to take a break, to stomp around the house, to burrow into a pile of comics and ignore reality for a while (OK, your coping skills may differ from mine). But then you get up and you keep going. You keep trying to do better. You keep working toward your goal. You take the frustration and the rejection and you become stronger because of it, and you keep going. Because you have to, and because it’s the right thing to do.

And that’s what I’m going to do.

My best to all, and may we all achieve our goals.

Working big to small

Between two book editing projects, a few smaller editing projects, my usual newspaper gig, and a case study, August was unexpectedly busy. But here I am, and I’m looking forward to more busy-ness in September (as well as a break from all the heat advisories).

In the meantime, I’ve been revising a few stories of my own as well as working on the next story, and beginning research for the story after that. And I keep relying on advice from my drawing teacher.

Nope, I am not a professional artist. I have just enough talent to know how much more I would need to be a professional artist. But I love art in all its forms, from gallery paintings to comics, and I take art classes for fun. My teacher for the past few sessions is an excellent artist, helpful in all aspects of technique, and there are a few things he says regularly. One is that you have to study an object pretty thoroughly before you can draw it, instead of just glancing at it and rushing your pencil into action. Another is that you need to work “big to small”—that is, sketch in the big shapes first, figure out where all pieces are in relation to each other, then start to add in the details.

Turns out his advice works pretty well for writing, too. Even pantsers—and I am definitely a pantser—have to know a few basics before they start writing in earnest. Be a reporter: Know the who, what, when, where, why, and how. In other words, study before you draw.

And work out the character arcs, plot, beginning, and ending before you stress about the color of the curtains in the living room, or whether you’re using the right word to describe the sound of your protagonist’s voice in one scene. Sketch in the most important things first, and swing back later for the details. Work big to small.

I didn’t expect to get good writing advice from art class, but I’m calling it an extra-credit lesson, and will use it to the fullest.

Happy reading and writing this month.

The editor’s eye

Editors read differently from readers and writers. We’re scanning for tone and consistency, for factual accuracy, for fully realized character arcs. But we also read differently from each other.

Some editors are excellent at spotting spelling mistakes and clunky sentences, but read right over “and and” or other repeated words. Or they’re not well versed in older phrases and don’t know it’s “with bated breath,” not “baited.” (Seen it happen.) Or they don’t remember which prefixes are hyphenated and which ones aren’t, and need to perpetually check the dictionary and/or stylebook to be sure. (OK, that one’s me.)

We all have particular misuses and grammatical sins and problems, from big-picture issues to the smallest commas, that we’re best able to spot and fix. And because we all see different things, we can complement each other. This is why having multiple editors on an article or manuscript is the best-case scenario. Every new set of eyes is another chance to make the writing the best it can possibly be, whether that means a developmental editor plus a copy editor, a copy editor plus a proofreader, or multiple copy editors. We tend to work alone, but we do work best as part of a team.

******

I’m sure you’ve heard about the newsroom shooting in Maryland. I worked in newsrooms for 20 years; journalists are my colleagues. While at work, I used to morbidly wonder what I would do and where I would hide if a shooter burst in, and I’m horrified that this secret fear has become reality for the victims and their families.

Please support local journalists. We need them, more than ever. #buyanewspaper