Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Archive for October, 2012

We Now Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

I won’t be posting anything about the publishing world this week. I’ve spent the past forty-eight hours frantically trying to track the progress of Sandy while hoping and praying that everyone in the storm’s path stays safe. I find that writing a post about something banal and relatively unimportant would trivialize the plight of everyone trying to recover from the storm’s devastation. I do have to admit that I put out a special prayer for all the bookstores in harm’s way–something got to me when I thought about all those books in The Strand with water damage or with their pages ripped apart and blown into the wind.

I’ll be back next week with something more relevant.

All my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who has been affected–directly or indirectly–by the wrath of Sandy.

 

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A new meaning of “ownership”

I’m going to start off topic today and mention a post I made a few weeks back about the importance of public libraries, and I recently read a Publisher’s Weekly article that supports my claim with statistics: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/digital/content-and-e-books/article/54474-majority-of-young-readers-still-use-libraries.html. I’m not posting this to say, “Hah! Look! I was right!” Really my intention is to show with numbers that libraries continue to be a valuable resource and an important asset to communities. There are several books I’d like to read soon, and I don’t have the funds to buy them, so I’m looking forward to checking them out from my local public library. Hooray for libraries!

Moving on to the main topic of this post, which will be short and sweet today while I chill during my lunch break before the rest of my afternoon (read: 1.5 hour long class and a goodness-knows-how-long group project meeting followed by going home and writing 6+ pages for my thesis and then eking out some French homework before working out). I know many of my posts are pretty long, so I’ll spare you the long-winded idea explications.

As someone who uses an e-reader and has purchased a fair amount of e-books for my Kindle, I became pretty concerned when I read this article: http://www.zdnet.com/why-amazon-is-within-its-rights-to-remove-access-to-your-kindle-books-7000006385/. Most stores that offer online content for your e-reader have clear rights of ownership; you’re basically a renter of what you buy online and is subsequently stored digitally on the seller’s server. This move is (pardon my inappropriate language for a minute) a cover-your-ass tactic on the company’s part to avoid a lawsuit should they have a systems failure/crash and your e-content disappears. Without their disclaimers in their terms of use, you could technically sue them for loss of property if your content is lost or unavailable from a systems failure/error.

The author, Eileen Brown, brings up an excellent point of the end of the article: with content becoming increasingly digital, we need to re-evaluate our notions of ownership. When we buy an e-book, we don’t own the book in the same sense that we own a print book–Amazon or B&N or Apple or whoever has the absolute right to revoke your access to that content. You’re pretty much paying a one-time fee to lease or borrow the content, but it’s not yours. Fortunately, none of the books I’ve bought are particularly sentimental or important to me–I make sure to have the books that matter most to me in print where they’re pretty much protected, except from theft or fire, though I have no idea who would want to steal my measly book collection or set fire to my apartment.

Anything we buy online and that exists online isn’t really “ours.” We’re renting it, and like something rented, the right to rent can be revoked at any time, often without any reason. I’m not sure how long it’ll take me to get comfortable with being at the whim of large companies with stuff that I think is “mine.” “Ownership” is undergoing a radical definition change. Maybe Merriam-Webster’s will have to catch up and add an entry for online ownership. Hopefully the law will catch up with these changes to protect consumers, though I doubt with the current political gridlock that that will happen anytime soon. For now, I’m just going to enjoy what I’ve got and not worry about it; I already have a long list of things to worry about, some of which keep me up at night. There’s no room in my overcrowded head to heap this issue on the towering pile.

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Thought for the day: “Moderation in everything, in itself, is a kind of extreme.”

Finding Solace in Books

I’ll be a little bit confessional here, and I’ll try not to get too self-pitying or melodramatic. I was bullied as a kid. Socially awkward and a bit of a know-it-all, I didn’t really understand my peers, and they didn’t really understand me. Add in anxiety problems, insomnia, and severe depression, and you get a kid who has a really hard time fitting in. I got called ugly, weird, and a whole host of other words about nerdy, geeky kids who don’t really know how to relate or connect to kids of the same age. It didn’t help either that I was still growing into my features, and my growth spurts left me gawky and clumsy. I got along better with adults than I did with most of my classmates and struggled to make friends. I was often pretty lonely and found solace in books. I read the Harry Potter series incessantly and used the books as an escape and calming influence for my anxiety. Without sounding too pathetic, Harry, Ron, and Hermione were my friends when I felt friendless and alone. When I had episodes of anxiety or insomnia, I would read those books until I calmed down and/or began to finally feel tired. Today, I have small tattoos of the three stars that appear in the upper corners of each page on my shoulder blades as a reminder of how far I’ve come since those elementary school days.

In middle school, I got introduced to cyberbullying, and some of my classmates used instant messaging as a platform to tell me that I dressed badly, I needed to fix my eyebrows, and that I was weird with my obsession with reading, history, and school. I’d get online and half an hour later end up crying in my bedroom because of something some girl said to me. Fortunately, I got older, found a group of friends with whom I fit in pretty well, got some self-confidence, and left the days of being bullied behind me. Sometimes the memories still sting a little, but I lead a relatively happy, productive, normal, and successful life these days, and those memories feel distant and foreign.

I wasn’t alone, of course. Two girls I knew played tricks online: girl A would get girl B to talk badly about girl C online. Girl A would then copy and paste the conversation of what girl B said about girl C, and then girl A would send the conversation to girl C so she could see what girl B said about her. Insane? Yes. And with the advent of myspace and facebook, bullying online is public and 24/7. A family friend of mine who is in high school found out the unfortunate consequences of Facebook bullying. She broke up with her boyfriend over the phone before her mom drove her home from an after school activity. The ex-boyfriend posted a status immediately afterward about their breakup, unfairly accusing her of being mean and heartless. During the drive home, a bunch of friends started posting on the status, saying mean and rude things about my friend, and when she did get online an hour later, she was greeted with over a dozen comments about what a horrible, mean person she was.

Bullying is in the public spotlight now more than ever before after the Columbine shootings and teen suicides as a result of bullying. Various state legislatures have tried to pass legislation against bullying with mixed results, and the battle to fight bullying and its negative effects is raging on. Publishers have joined in the effort with books targeted to help both bullies and the bullied cope. 35% of teens turn to books to cope with bullying. This article (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/54458-a-call-to-action-bullying-and-books.html) outlines some of the actions publishers have taken to combat bullying.

As Shannon Maughan explains, many books and resources are available:

There are picture books and early readers featuring characters playing together peacefully and making each other feel welcome and included in a peer group. Nonfiction books for elementary-age students help identify different forms of bullying and spell out an action plan for kids who are dealing with the problem. Several middle-grade novels use humor in stories of kids coming to grips with being bullied (or perhaps being a perpetrator). And not surprisingly, the books for teens include powerful novels about suicide and other devastating fallout from bullying behavior, as well as titles designed to boost self-esteem or to offer hope for those enduring the pain of bullying. Additionally, there are some new guides for parents and educators on the topic. Authors and publishers alike have been inspired to work on projects with an anti-bullying theme and have increasingly developed effective ways to get the word out about their books. 

Check out the article to find examples of publishers like Random House and DK launching campaigns and publishing books to help fight bullying and its negative effects.

I want to highlight here how books serve as a resource for comfort and for education. Bullying has become a national epidemic with 13 million students bullied each year. Books are an escape as well as a tool. My parents, ever supportive and loving, bought books about how to help me to fit in and manage the bullying, and the books I read provided a much-needed escape and outlet for the panic attacks and depression. Books gave our family a way to handle the situation and move forward. Without books, I’m not sure how I would have gotten through some of the things that happened. I also was fortunate enough to discover the transformative power of the written word. In the fourth grade, at least when I was fourth grade, students had to learn how to write a two-page paper for the annual standardized. After I turned in my first practice paper, my teacher called me up to her desk, set down my paper, and smiled at me. She told me I had a gift, a special ability, something I should nurture and foster. She showed my papers to other teachers, pointing out my sensory detail and vocabulary. I began to write as an outlet for the difficult emotions I was experiencing, and writing gave me a chance to express everything that was in my head that I couldn’t get out otherwise. The transformative power of the written word had changed me.

I’m so glad that publishers are making a concerted effort to educate, inform, and help both bullies and the bullied. Knowledge is power, as clichéd as that saying is, and the more students, educators, and parents know about bullying and how to cope/handle, the better they will manage the consequences of bullying. Hopefully anyone affected by bullying will find comfort and safety in the written word.

After a Brief Hiatus

I’ve entered that part of the semester when everything comes crashing down or hits the fan, depending on the colloquialism you prefer. As this semester is my last at TCU, I’m finishing up a 120-page honors thesis that combines research and creative memoir narrative, and on top of that, I have a whole host of projects, papers, and assignments for my other courses. I’ve pretty much been treading water for the past couple weeks, and despite skimming through my PW Daily e-mails every morning, I haven’t really seen any articles or news that has piqued my interest enough to write an entire post on the topic. Plus, I’ve been avoiding the news to an extent lately, because I just can’t take anymore election coverage. My political views aside, I just can’t take anymore analysis of sound bites and nitpicking over semantics or yet another poll.

Instead, today I’m going to talk a little bit about careers with a BA of Writing or any liberal arts degree. I’ve heard over and over, “So what are you going to do with that?” when I mention that my major is Writing. There’s an underlying, snide tone, too, with the subtle hint of, “What an impractical major. Good luck finding a job once you get your degree.” When I started at TCU, I was an art history major. I planned on going to graduate school and eventually becoming a curator or opening my own gallery; I thought this path was practical. After my confusing, inexperienced professor’s confusing teaching led me to change my major to Writing, my then-boyfriend criticized my decision, claiming that I’d never go anywhere with writing, despite writing being my lifelong love and passion. His discouragement and negativity about my major was one of the reasons I left him not much later. And even though the general attitude about liberal arts majors is negative, I refuse to believe that majoring in the liberal arts dooms someone to a life of underemployment or unemployment.

Here’s the thing. I work as a writing associate at the second most selective university in Texas (I’m not bragging here, just pointing out that you have to have a fairly strong application to get in), and I read papers from undergraduate students across the curriculum, from nursing to business to communications to psychology to art history. After a couple semesters and input from my colleagues and professors, I can make a strong claim that a minority of students at TCU can actually write effectively, coherently, and persuasively. The skill of writing well is becoming rarer and rarer on college campuses. Although I do not have a strong theory as to why, the staff at the TCU writing center guesses that about twenty to forty percent of the students at TCU can write well. Let me be clear: I by no means intend to insult the students at TCU, who are on the whole bright, engaged, motivated students who excel in their chosen fields, just not in writing. I hear so often, “I’m so bad at writing; I just can’t do it,” when really the best way to get better at writing is to write. A lot. But how to improve your writing is besides the point.

This paucity of writing skill opens a lot of doors in the career world. Businesses need strong writers who can write technical documents such as white papers or press briefings or even instruction manuals, who can lay out and write a business or marketing plan, who can even write a simple business letter. People have trouble expressing themselves and articulating through the written word; those who have this skill are a commodity. Ada Limon, a poet who spoke at TCU, said she got her foot in the door when she was an assistant and her boss needed her to write a business letter because he couldn’t. Her performance on the letter helped her move up the ladder. So people who major in writing or English aren’t walking into the career world without any marketable skills; indeed, they possess an ability lacking in many college graduates–the ability to write and write well.

I have several career options open to me: trying to break into the publishing industry as a copyeditor or editorial assistant, copywriting or writing promotional materials, editing or writing for a business or firm, and so on. I know how to use language effectively and how to communicate via the written word. I’ve had practice in copyediting, workshopping creatively, tutoring students both online and in person, and managing acquisitions material. That’s a lot of different ways to evaluate writing and to generate content. I try to remain optimistic about my prospects despite the pessimistic reports about the growth of the economy. Somewhere out there is a place who needs my skills. I hope.

So far all you liberal arts majors out there, ignore the naysayers who claim your liberal arts degree is about as useful as a bent spoon. Being able to think critically, analyze and synthesis large amount of information, and write clearly are marketable skills that are absent in much of the business world. And anyway, unless you’re planning to go into academia or an advanced field, a graduate degree is pretty unnecessary, and a liberal arts degree is pretty much one size fits all when applying for a job. Market your writing skills, your thinking abilities, and your range of communication skills.

The value of a liberal arts degree is far more than knowing more than the average person about psychology, philosophy, or anthropology. Many CEOs were not business majors; they were liberal arts majors. Having a degree in business is great, but a liberal arts degree teaches you how to look at the world in a different way. This unique perspective gives a leg up on problem solving and looking at a situation in an original way. I’m currently working on a marketing project about a product we invent as a brand extension, and I’ve found that my training in writing has helped me to think creatively, write snappy and grabbing copy for advertising, and brainstorm. I would posit that problem-solving skills aren’t just in writing majors’ pockets; the whole liberal arts field provides opportunities to hone these abilities.

Hopefully next week I’ll be back with a post about publishing, but I wanted to make a case for the English and Writing majors out there who are looking at graduating within the next year and are planning to enter the job market. Having a liberal arts degree is not a one-way ticket to a life waiting tables, far from it. That degree is a weapon for penetrating the inscrutable, confusing career world with insight and acuity.

Banned Books Week!

Hi everyone and Happy Banned Books Week! This week is one of my favorite weeks of the year. Today is the first day of October, and here in Texas it feels a little bit like fall. Miracles! This year is the 30th anniversary of Banned Books Week, so we’re celebrating thirty years of the right to read. Books like To Kill A Mockingbird, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 are still under fire; people are still attempting to take these amazing, inspiring, wonderful books off bookshelves in schools and libraries. And it’s not just classics that are threatened–books like Speak and The Kite Runner are being challenged all over the country. Check out Simon & Schuster’s page to see some quotes from frequently challenged authors: http://pages.simonandschuster.com/bannedbooksweek

I hope everyone celebrates Banned Books Week by reading a banned book. What book will you read? I still find it incredible that some of the most wonderful books in the English/American literary canon suffer attempted censorship, so everyone should rejoice in our freedom to produce, write, publish, and read banned books. After all, a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone.

Even if some books aren’t outright banned, some are hoping to impose ratings on books, especially books for Young Adults. I read an article (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/9558797/Fifty-Shades-of-YA-Should-teen-books-have-ratings.html) by a young adult author, CJ Daugherty, who discussed the possibility of imposing a ratings system on YA books in the UK, but the discussion isn’t limited to our friends across the pond (http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/05/18/is-it-time-to-rate-young-adult-books-for-mature-content). When I first read these articles, I couldn’t express my outrage. I struggled to find the words to explain how indignant I felt. After all, movies have ratings systems–if you’re under seventeen, you can’t see an R-rated movie without an adult. However, I never snuck into an R-rated movie before my seventeenth birthday. When I did finally go to one after my seventeenth, the girl at the register didn’t even card me, but the thought of a young person hooked on reading having to show ID to buy a book rankled me.

I do agree that some YA adults aren’t appropriate for elementary-age children. If I had kids, I’d limit if they could read The Hunger Games series (a lot of violence) or the later books of the Harry Potter series (lots of adult themes and death), but I want to leave that choice up to individual parents rather than imposing an arbitrary system like the MPAA does on movies. CJ Daugherty is a fan of the system in the United States where publishers place a recommended age on the back covers of YA books, but some feel that this doesn’t go far enough.

Why should books be exempted from ratings while moviemakers are forced to edit down their movies to receive a lower rating than NC-17? An NC-17 rating effectively cancels a movie’s ability to turn a profit, so filmmakers cut out a lot of the juicier tidbits to avoid the ire of the MPAA, and I do not want to see books go the same way, where authors have to water down the content to avoid getting a bad rating. The ALA believes that a rating system that would require authors to edit out content is nothing short of censorship.

Plus, where would you draw the line for what is appropriate and inappropriate for which ages? Three curse words is inappropriate for twelve-year-olds, but five is acceptable for thirteen-year-olds? Making out is taboo for 5th graders, but second base is okay for 7th graders?

Sarah Coyne, a professor in Brigham Young University’s department of family life points out that many books, if adapted into movies, would quickly be rated R within just a few pages. She argues, “I don’t think anyone would argue that books like Harry Potter orTwilight didn’t have a big influence on adolescents. When you see a TV show like Gossip Girl, you get a hint of the [adult content], but I don’t think parents are aware of how much worse it is in the books.” But books are different from movies. Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Association, asserts that books provide a safe avenue for exploring more adult topics. “Books can be a safe way for young people to explore edgier, sensitive, or complicated topics, and they provide parents the opportunity to help their teens grow and understand these kinds of sensitive issues.”

Plus, books with too much edited out don’t truthfully depict what it’s like to be a teen. I led a fairly vanilla young adolescence, but I had friends whose activities, if displayed onscreen, would get an R-rating in a second. I think books should accurately portray what teens experience–their trials and tribulations, their triumphs, their heartbreak, their mistakes. I learned a lot about what it’s like to grow up and how to survive the perilous word of teenagerdom from reading books like Speak and Go Ask Alice. Without those books, I would have been more lost than I already was in a complicated world of teenage drama and emotions.

I fully support a parent’s right to closely monitor what his or her children read and to prohibit his or her own children from reading inappropriate material, but for goodness’ sake, let’s not create an organization that limits teens from reading a whole range of books. It’s hard enough to get teens to read today in general, so why on earth are we narrowing the field of what they can read? I cannot bear to one day see a young, avid reader who can’t buy The Perks of Being a Wallflower because they aren’t old enough to read it, according to a third-party organization.

Although I don’t want to fall into the trap of a slippery slope logical fallacy, I don’t there are too many steps between limiting what children can read and banning books altogether. Books challenge people, force them out of their comfort zone. Books are a door into another world we might have never experienced otherwise. And it’s brain exercise. Brain waves while watching a TV show or a movie are pretty stagnant, but while reading a book, brain activity is alive and on fire. Books spark creativity and imagination; books teach us about ourselves, whether the setting is the suburbs or a fantasy world. Let’s promote creative innovation rather than stifling expression.

 

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