If you don’t know what’s wrong with this picture (or rather, T-shirt) and you intend to write
—a literary masterpiece or a letter to Grandma—you need an editor.
Recent chatter about copyright infringement concerning music (see Spirit’s “Taurus” vs. Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams “Blurred Lines” vs. Marvin Gaye’s “Gotta Give it Up”) has reignited discussion of copyright issues in the literary world.
According to the Berne Convention (the international source for copyright law), your original manuscript is protected by copyright as soon as it is fixed in tangible form. That is, the moment your great American novel is written—on paper or your computer—you’re copyrighted. For how long, you ask? In the USA and much of Europe, it’s the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years.
But here’s the funny thing; book titles are not protected by U.S. copyright laws.
To qualify for such protection, a work needs to possess “a significant amount of original expression” and the courts have ruled that expressions as short as book titles do not qualify. (That’s why, when my book club pals had heard about a great book with the words “Ordinary Grace” in the title, we had to get more specific; there are almost 2,500 books to choose from!)
This doesn’t mean, however, that you can name your book Fifty Shades of Grey. Some titles qualify for trademark protection (series titles like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, etc.) if the books become successful enough to be considered recognizable brands. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs that identify the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguish them from others.
So, while it would so clever to title your new cookbook, The Hunger Games, you can’t. But if you name it, A Place at the Table, nothing’s stopping you, except for the fact that 6 other writers have already done so. (Our book club read the version by Susan Rebecca White, if you’re interested.) I’d recommend coming up with some other imaginative wording – it avoids confusion. What if your fans buy the wrong book? Why help someone else have a best seller?
By the way, our book club chose the Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Thumbs up.
Now comes the real work. Making every word count. Getting rid of the words that don’t.
Case in point: “began.” They began arguing. He began acting suspicious. I began to get irritated.
(The truth is, when I get irritated, I don’t begin to get irritated. I just am.)
Another word to think about deleting is the word think! If you’re writing a memoir and write “I think I was about five-years-old,” I suggest instead, “I was about five-years-old.” A small difference, but cleaner.
And just for fun, how about that word just? It’s a word that just isn’t needed. Search your manuscript – you might be surprised how often you’ve used it. Try deleting just a few of them; you probably won’t even miss them.
Enough of that. I mean it. “I wish that we could … whatever.” How about “I wish we could …”?
If you don’t miss it – if your story reads (just) as well without it, you will (begin to) write a much tighter, better story.
As I try to wrap my head around the loss of my friend and mentor, former publisher Carolyn Hayes Uber, and attempt to describe her influence, her persona, her life, I am struck by a remark I heard just today that helps put everything in perspective. And the fact that this remark mentions a common editing term (the dash), is serendipitous. Carolyn would be tickled.
In the documentary Into the Abyss, director Werner Herzog interviews Fred Allen, who explains his role in executions as the former captain of the Death House team at the Polunsky prison unit in Livingston, Texas. Allen is clearly conflicted (eventually resigning his post), as he sees the lives of inmates reduced to numbers: 1954 – 2011, for example. He realizes and explains, quite eloquently, that our lives are not reflected in a birthdate or date of passing, but the dash in between. (Granted, it’s really a hyphen, but I’m not here to edit today.) Mr. Allen then asks, How are you going to live your dash?
Which brings me back to Carolyn, who lived her dash with courage and strength and humor and love. So for Carolyn and my father and my “adopted” mother Patricia and other dear friends who are no longer here, I will live my dash, really live it… bravely, respectfully, happily. I hope you will, too.
As I’ve mentioned before, writers have a tendency to rely on favorite words and phrases … often without even knowing it. Maybe it’s considered part of your style or personality, but from an editor’s standpoint (who advocates for the reader), these “catch phrases” can become annoying and distracting.
Because I’m being objective and looking at a manuscript with fresh eyes, I can easily see the repeated words (and can make suggestions or revisions). I can search for how often the word or words have been used. But you can’t do this, because you don’t know what you’re looking for! It’s like looking up the correct spelling of a word in the dictionary … when you don’t know how to spell it.
But now there’s help. Word clouds. Thanks to an attendee at my recent writing workshop, I learned of an amazing tool to self-regulate your pet prose. There are many Word Cloud programs available, which take your text and visualize your repeated words. I found one, TagCrowd, which not only creates a very cool image of the words you use most frequently, but it can also tell you how many times you’ve used them.
I worried for a minute that I was shooting myself in the foot by revealing this trick of the trade, but then I realized, if I can help one memoirist from repeating “I remember when,” one mystery writer from abusing “He couldn’t help but notice,” or any number of storytellers from plastering “In fact,” “Of course,” “That being said,” it will be worth it. I’m sure I’ll still have plenty of work to do.
You’ve probably seen the sign for “jumbo shrimp” and laughed at the obvious incongruity, but have you paid attention to the oxymorons in stories you read … or stories you write?
I’ve been keeping a list as I run across these wacky word combos, and thought it was time to share. They are in random order, which, I hope you can see, is exactly my point. While they’re entertaining, I suggest NOT using them in your literary masterpieces.
For instance, if your bank robber is brandishing a dangerous weapon, I ask you (gently), is there such a thing as a weapon that is not dangerous? Your star-crossed lovers get an unexpected surprise; tell me, isn’t a surprise supposed to be unexpected? Wouldn’t an expected surprise defeat the purpose?
Mysteries and horror stories often have an uninvited guest (stomping about in the attic). Help me understand this; a guest is invited, yes? I think uninvited is an intruder!
Is your hero on an adventure or involved in a secret mission and finds him or herself in a tight squeeze? I wonder what other kind of squeeze there could be. Of course, your character could be clearly delusional. How about strangely delusional or clear and coherent… but not both, eh?
Should you be writing a cookbook or diet book, perhaps you can explain diet ice cream, Kosher ham (really?) and in the section on portion control … the bigger half. If you can, you are eligible for a free gift.
Imagine my surprise when one of the detectives on the new TV show Murder in the First (TNT) realizes that a suicide note is a fraud based on an unusual use of an apostrophe! Punctuation meets Prime Time!
Noticing that “shouldn’t’ve” (as in “I shouldn’t’ve killed that girl…”) in the supposed typed confession was—coincidentally—exactly the same as in a workplace email communique, the ace detective (as in A+ in English!) researches the statistical commonality of the double contraction … checking with UC Berkeley’s linguistics department (a nice plug for my own alma mater!) and voila! a killer is identified. (In case you’re interested, according to what the detective told the suspect, only 1 in 800,000 use this particular double apostrophe.)
Enough of DNA matches, fingerprint comparisons, text message threads, bloody footprint trails. This is true detective work. Which gives me an idea; rather than referring to myself as an editor, I think I will now consider myself a grammar gumshoe.