An American Editor

September 26, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part III)

by Alison Parker

Have you ever heard about the inverted pyramid?

I have. You write your news stories with the important facts up front, and because news copy has to fit around the ads, you can easily slash and burn from the bottom. It’s hardly pretty, but you might meet deadline because copy of that sort is easy to cut. Sadly, you still won’t win any prizes. “All the news that fits we print.”

You lose the all-important ending, the big bang. And after the first two or three paragraphs, it’s just the facts, ma’am — if that. Every discussion of proper news writing focuses on the “lede.” Suck the poor basters in with a boffo beginning. (I want to be fair. For a generally positive take on the pyramid, see “Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid” by Chip Scanlon [Poynter, June 20, 2003].)

That boffo beginning isn’t a bad idea for starters, but what happens when your story trails off? Yes, you need drama. And you won’t have drama without conflict. You probably know the basics: woman versus woman (or man, of course), woman versus her environment, woman versus herself. Et cetera. I just read an interesting book on the subject, James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012).

Bell writes suspense novels as his day job, and his take on conflict is consequently skewed just a bit toward action. And why not? We all like fight scenes, don’t we? Most of you are too young to have seen Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton tussling in the hayloft when Petruchio (Burton) is trying to get the better of “Kate” (Taylor) in The Taming of the Shrew (Columbia Pictures, 1967). It’s a classic, and no clear winner emerges at the end of either Shakespeare’s play or Franco Zeffirelli’s film. (For an overview of critical response to the play, see Barbara Hodgdon’s introduction to the Arden edition, 3rd series. For a lighter take, see the high school movie based on the play, 10 Things I Hate about You [Touchstone Pictures, 1999].)

But violence between romantic leads doesn’t make everyone happy. And in Kate Walker’s 12-point Guide to Writing Romance, for example, we’re told that conflict doesn’t necessarily mean duking it out in any way, physically or verbally. By this calculation, the impossible situations that keep two “soul mates” apart drive the suspense. Even when readers know that a happy ending will come — if they bought a book in a reliable category (or series) romance and are smart enough to avoid cliff-hangers — the difficult logistics of overcoming the odds and the obstacles will keep the pages turning.

Still, the rape romances of the 1980s (see Janice A. Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature [2nd ed., 1991]) are mirrored in the bondage fun and games selling nowadays.

I prefer verbal fireworks to fisticuffs or handcuffs — at least in a romance. My bookshelves are doubtless nothing like yours — we all know different things and we all feel different things — but for my taste, I can think of no scene more dramatic than the one in Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal. “You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way than as it spared me the concern that I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner” (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen, Ch. 34).

He had assumed that she’d say yes. After all, no one richer would offer for her, and with her lack of fortune and social standing, she had little choice but to get married as soon as possible. Good guess but bad judgment on Darcy’s part.

It takes Darcy a little while to figure out Elizabeth’s virtues in full. She’s not like the generally more submissive heroines in other Austen books, but those heroines aren’t playing off prickly, insulting men. Still, Austen’s favorite protagonist (yes, Elizabeth) isn’t at all like the “kick-ass” heroines of books such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

Times change and tastes change. When published library lists gave a seal of approval to children’s books (see, e.g., the discussion in Beverly Lyon Clark’s Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Literature in America, 21–22; see also 29ff), The Secret Garden didn’t make the cut in the early days. But it’s now the Frances Hodgson Burnett book taught in courses on children’s literature. The heroine, Mary, starts out as a little shrew, and she never quite gets over that failing. She is most effective when she rails at her even brattier cousin, Colin, who has been terrorizing the servants at Misselthwaite Manor almost since he was born.

It was not until afterward that Mary realized that the thing had been funny as well as dreadful — that it was funny that all the grown-up people were so frightened that they came to a little girl just because they guessed she was almost as bad as Colin himself.

She flew along the corridor and the nearer she got to the screams the higher her temper mounted. She felt quite wicked by the time she reached the door. She slapped it open with her hand and ran across the room to the four-posted bed.

“You stop!” she almost shouted. “You stop! I hate you! Everybody hates you! I wish everybody would run out of the house and let you scream yourself to death! You will scream yourself to death in a minute, and I wish you would!” A nice sympathetic child could neither have thought nor said such things, but it just happened that the shock of hearing them was the best possible thing for this hysterical boy whom no one had ever dared to restrain or contradict.

He had been lying on his face beating his pillow with his hands and he actually almost jumped around, he turned so quickly at the sound of the furious little voice. His face looked dreadful, white and red and swollen, and he was gasping and choking; but savage little Mary did not care an atom.

“If you scream another scream,” she said, “I’ll scream too — and I can scream louder than you can and I’ll frighten you, I’ll frighten you!”

Mary’s outburst, I should tell you, comes late in the book, after the secret rose garden and a number of good people have almost redeemed her. Oops. Some scholars believe that Mary’s continuing unfemininity might explain why the spoiled little boy, Colin, suddenly walks off with the story. Are post-Victorian heroines allowed to be persistently imperfect and still command pride of place? Phyllis Bixler, in her 1996 study The Secret Garden: Nature’s Magic, delves into the problem of class and gender, and Peter Hunt gives a nice overview of scholarly reaction to the ending in the introduction to his 2011 Oxford World Classics edition of The Secret Garden. Short answers to the heroine’s demotion: Some critics believe that Mary’s shrewishness is being punished, and at least one thinks that Burnett is working out her own “ambivalence about sex roles.”

Devotees of traditional heroines can’t be as worried about A Little Princess, which doesn’t operate in the same way. Though Sara was far from perfect in the original magazine serial, she’s a constant nurturer of the oppressed when Burnett turns the novella into a novel. Still, there’s conflict. Because the reputedly hot and oppressive climate of India was thought to be particularly dangerous to females (note the scene in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in which the climate in Calcutta is treated as a killer), Sara’s father thinks he has to leave her at a cold boarding school in London. The similarly cold headmistress hates sweet little Sara almost from the start, as do some of her envious classmates. But because Sara was brought up by a loving father, and because of his example and her vibrant imagination, which helps her understand other people’s feelings and sufferings, she cares about the oppressed even before she becomes one of them. “If Sara had been a boy and lived a few centuries ago,” her father used to say, “she would have gone about the country with her sword drawn, rescuing and defending everyone in distress. She always wants to fight when she sees people in trouble.”

But when she’s called upon to defend Lottie, an annoying toddler who has lost her mother and whines about it incessantly, Sara’s real fight is with herself. Because she’s trying to emulate the restrained behavior she considers proper for princesses, she resists her impulses toward physical violence.

Lottie cuddled up to her with a consoled sniff.

“Come and sit in the window-seat with me,” Sara went on, “and I’ll whisper a story to you.”

“Will you?” whimpered Lottie. “Will you — tell me — about the diamond mines?”

“The diamond mines?” broke out Lavinia. “Nasty, little spoiled thing, I should like to SLAP her!”

Sara got up quickly on her feet. It must be remembered that she had been very deeply absorbed in the book about the Bastille, and she had had to recall several things rapidly when she realized that she must go and take care of her adopted child. She was not an angel, and she was not fond of Lavinia.

“Well,” she said, with some fire, “I should like to slap YOU — but I don’t want to slap you!” restraining herself. “At least I both want to slap you — and I should LIKE to slap you — but I WON’T slap you. We are not little gutter children. We are both old enough to know better.”

Here was Lavinia’s opportunity.

“Ah, yes, your royal highness,” she said. “We are princesses, I believe. At least one of us is. The school ought to be very fashionable now Miss Minchin has a princess for a pupil.”

Sara started toward her. She looked as if she were going to box her ears. Perhaps she was. Her trick of pretending things was the joy of her life. She never spoke of it to girls she was not fond of. Her new “pretend” about being a princess was very near to her heart, and she was shy and sensitive about it. She had meant it to be rather a secret, and here was Lavinia deriding it before nearly all the school. She felt the blood rush up into her face and tingle in her ears. She only just saved herself. If you were a princess, you did not fly into rages. Her hand dropped, and she stood quite still a moment. When she spoke it was in a quiet, steady voice; she held her head up, and everybody listened to her.

“It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess so that I can try and behave like one.”

After Miss Minchin tells young Sara that her father is dead, that she’s penniless, and that being kicked upstairs into a bare and unheated attic and turned into a drudge is a kindness, our little princess only rarely displays her less princesslike feelings. Rage and abject grief don’t figure into her fantasies. When she finally breaks down in tears under the cold, the hunger, and the loneliness, one of her young friends, Ermengarde, is absolutely gobsmacked at the melting of “the unconquerable Sara.” In the original story, I should note, Sara tormented poor Ermengarde with nightmare-making stories of the Bastille. In the remake, Sara uses those stories as a form of comfort, not passive aggression. She’s fierce but motherly.

Even when there’s no apparent conflict, there’s a big opening for conflict. You just have to be clever about working it in to your story. Or about complaining to the author (mildly, of course) when the novel you’re editing just doesn’t trip your trigger.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

August 15, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part II)

by Alison Parker

Aristotle was obsessed with aha! moments. Metaphor, he tells us in his Rhetoric, is superior to simile because simile goes on too long and detracts from the drama. Perhaps like adverbs in dialogue tags in modern fiction? No, the old philosopher didn’t say that. But he did say that metaphor can light up the synapses. “Oh!” the listener or reader will say to himself. “This is that!” See, for example, Aristotle’s Rhetoric 3.10.

And the recognition or revelation scene in drama — the anagnorisis — satisfies Aristotle even more. Here we come to the point in the plot at which a character or characters recognize their or someone else’s true identity or motives, or even the nature of their situation. Eyes are opened, either for good or for bad. And everything changes after these revelations.

The classic example in Aristotle’s Poetics is Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos/Rex (Tyrant is a better title word than King historically, because Oedipus isn’t considered a king in lawful succession from father to firstborn son until the end of the play). In this pioneering whodunit (except that the audience knows who did it, though not how it will be discovered in this play or what will happen afterward), the protagonist plays sleuth to find out who killed the former king of Thebes, the first husband of Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta. Oops.

Other great examples include Othello — don’t forget that Iago’s wife has her light bulb moment, if you’ll forgive the anachronism, just before her husband stabs her and shuts her up in Othello’s presence. And check out the plot of the Hildebrandslied, when father and son meet in battle.

Recognition scenes in ancient comedy are often more mechanical, relying on tokens like rings or necklaces. See, for example, Terence’s Hecyra (“The Mother-in-Law”). While her new husband is out of town for some months, a young woman starts shunning her mother-in-law, and when the husband returns, he finds his wife in childbirth. The baby can’t possibly be his! Things look dire for a while. But a ring that the hero stole from a girl he raped during a drunken spree reveals that his wife was his victim and the child is his. Everyone is happy.

Aristotle considered tragedy superior to epic and more philosophical than history. (The novel is a later literary development.) But Homer’s Odyssey has a bang-up set of recognition scenes when Odysseus returns to Ithaca after twenty years: Odysseus’s poor dog! The scar! The bed! Aristotle thinks of this epic as appealing to a lower audience, and the best drama of Sophocles to a higher one, but to heck with Aristotle. When drama is properly injected into narrative, the synapses still fire up. And I’d suggest that this goes for all genres, fiction and nonfiction alike.

Granted, with A Little Princess we find ourselves in fairy tale territory. But Frances Hodgson Burnett has set up her revised Cinderella plot to make almost perfect sense within the parameters of fantasy and romance. Every incident follows by probability or necessity from the scene before.

In Sara Crewe, the precursor to A Little Princess, Burnett gives the reader an impressive recognition scene. After the monkey belonging to the ailing gentleman next door escapes over the roof, Sara catches the monkey and returns it. She meets the gentleman, Mr. Carrisford, and — whoa! — after he asks her an idle question to which he already knows the answer (“You live next door?”) and then follows it up, he discovers that she’s the daughter of his dear departed business partner. We will soon learn that Mr. Carrisford has been searching for Sara for years, eaten up by guilt for the way he seemed to have defrauded her father when an investment looked bad. Quite the surprise to the reader, especially because the gentleman had been mentioned only once before at any length in the short story, and Burnett has to use most of the rest of the tale to tell the reader the backstory, almost all in basic narrative.

When Burnett revisits the story in her novel, she doesn’t go for a cheap surprise ending. We’ve already come to know Mr. Carrisford, the supposedly false friend, and heard his anguish over the disastrous fallout from investment in diamond mines. And we know how assiduously he has tried to find the little girl. His lawyer has been searching for her in France and in Russia, from which he has just returned with disappointing news.

We have also seen Mr. Carrisford take an interest in the poor little girl next door, as does his manservant, and her brutal attic room becomes a fairy tale of delights because the gentleman wants to make at least one little girl happy, and suddenly Sara is warm and full fed because of his “romantic” actions. Instead of surprise and fireworks, we have suspense that leads up to the anagnorisis.

And when Sara enters his room, she says something particular that offers the man a clue of her identity.

“Your monkey ran away again,” she said, in her pretty voice. “He came to my garret window last night, and I took him in because it was so cold. I would have brought him back if it had not been so late. I knew you were ill and might not like to be disturbed.”

The Indian gentleman’s hollow eyes dwelt on her with curious interest.

“That was very thoughtful of you,” he said.

Sara looked toward Ram Dass, who stood near the door.

“Shall I give him to the Lascar?” she asked.

“How do you know he is a Lascar?” said the Indian gentleman, smiling a little.

“Oh, I know Lascars,” Sara said, handing over the reluctant monkey. “I was born in India.”

The Indian gentleman sat upright so suddenly, and with such a change of expression, that she was for a moment quite startled.

“You were born in India,” he exclaimed, “were you? Come here.” And he held out his hand.

The word Lascar is a little less than apt here. Burnett earlier defines it as meaning a sort of manservant, probably to simplify matters for her children’s audience, but she had to know a lot more about Lascars from growing up in a port city with a Lascar problem. The OED defines the word as an East Indian seaman or an inferior infantryman, and Merriam-Webster adds army servant. But outside of dictionaries, the word is sometimes used in a more ethnic sense. We’ll address this difficulty in a later essay on the expanded role of servants in A Little Princess. But Sara’s unexpected use of the word here is what triggers the aha! moment.

And Burnett doesn’t leave us with a simple and single recognition scene. In the chapter “It Is the Child!” Mr. Carrisford slumps back in his chair because of the weight of the recognition. Is he dying?

Sara, led out of the library, now thinks of the Indian gentleman as the “wicked friend” whose actions killed her father! But when she learns the whole story, and particularly the fact that the man on the other side of the row-house wall from the cold, hard school for girls was the one who supplied her with her fairy tale room — out of the goodness of his heart and because he was worried about her! — she rushes back into his house and we have a lovely reconciliation. The lawyer, Mr. Carmichael, and one who has become an important character in Burnett’s revision, and with his large, happy family a symbol of all Sara wants, lets her back in:

She went and stood before his [Mr. Carrisford’s] chair, with her hands clasped together against her breast.

“You sent the things to me,” she said, in a joyful emotional little voice, “the beautiful, beautiful things? YOU sent them!”

“Yes, poor, dear child, I did,” he answered her. He was weak and broken with long illness and trouble, but he looked at her with the look she remembered in her father’s eyes — that look of loving her and wanting to take her in his arms. It made her kneel down by him, just as she used to kneel by her father when they were the dearest friends and lovers in the world.

“Then it is you who are my friend,” she said; “it is you who are my friend!” And she dropped her face on his thin hand and kissed it again and again.

“The man will be himself again in three weeks,” Mr. Carmichael said aside to his wife. “Look at his face already.”

A lawyer with a heart. Now that’s a fairy tale!🙂

And it gets better in the novel with the humiliation of the evil schoolmistress in a secondary recognition scene. In the original story, the drama here is nonexistent. Miss Minchin learns of Sara’s change in fortune in this fashion: “First, Mr. Carmichael came and had an interview with Miss Minchin.” We learn much later, in a one-sentence flashback in the pluperfect, that Miss Minchin had tried unsuccessfully to win Sara back.

It was rather a painful experience for Miss Minchin to watch her ex-pupil’s fortunes, as she had the daily opportunity to do, and to feel that she had made a serious mistake, from a business point of view. She had even tried to retrieve it by suggesting that Sara’s education should be continued under her care, and had gone to the length of making an appeal to the child herself.

The novel tightens and intensifies the scene, now set right after our little princess becomes fast friends with Mr. Carrisford. Miss Minchin, driven by anger, comes over to confront her annoying and too-smart drudge. The schoolmistress starts by threatening the girl with severe punishment, and ends up being reprimanded herself in various ways by the lawyer, by Mr. Carrisford, and even by Sara.

Things will go from bad to worse for Miss Minchin. Her sister, the timid Miss Amelia, falls apart and still ends up cowing her older sister. The following tertiary recognition drama isn’t in the original story:

“She saw through us both. She saw that you were a hard-hearted, worldly woman, and that I was a weak fool, and that we were both of us vulgar and mean enough to grovel on our knees for her money, and behave ill to her because it was taken from her — though she behaved herself like a little princess even when she was a beggar. She did — she did — like a little princess!” And her hysterics got the better of the poor woman, and she began to laugh and cry both at once, and rock herself backward and forward.

“And now you’ve lost her,” she cried wildly; “and some other school will get her and her money; and if she were like any other child she’d tell how she’s been treated, and all our pupils would be taken away and we should be ruined. And it serves us right; but it serves you right more than it does me, for you are a hard woman, Maria Minchin, you’re a hard, selfish, worldly woman!”

You’ll read in the dénouement a string of dramatic delights not offered by the original story. Books are remembered principally for their climaxes and their endings — at least with a well-handled climax. And recognition scenes serve as the most memorable way to move a book toward its end. But the author needs a good conflict to keep the reader from closing the book early, and we’ll discuss that in the next essay.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

August 3, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part I)

by Alison Parker

Most people in fiction editing have trotted out the line “Show; don’t tell.” But how often does that line by itself make authors or editors improve in their craft?

I’m not denying that the line is great in theory. There’s a lot of great theory out there — start with Aristotle’s Poetics. Heck, if you deal with fiction, you have doubtless amassed quite a number of practical books on plot, character, emotion, description, and so on. I certainly have, but when I try to read these books, my eyes usually glaze over. The ideas might be practical, but they’re too often neither engaging nor inspiring. And that’s a big “fail.” It is important for authors and editors to understand how to create excitement in a reader, and how to make a reader want to continue to the end, whether the end is the end of the single book or the end of a twelve-book series. And it’s important to make authors and editors see and feel the principles and not just think them.

How to Teach Fiction?

If I ever found myself in front of a creative writing class, I’d use the old high school English teachers’ method of “compare and contrast” and make the students look at one of my favorite children’s books: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was once considered a leading light in realist fiction for adults and whose book The Secret Garden is still frequently taught in children’s literature classes. What should make that exercise interesting is that the book, which was published in 1905, started out as a magazine novella in 1888. And the original grew immeasurably over those intervening years. It’s not easy to find published books or stories that change so radically, and for the better, in less than two decades.

Major Changes: Character and Drama

You’ll find two major differences between the novella — Sara Crewe, or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School — and the novel that it became seventeen years later. First, the heroine is much more sympathetic in the later telling. Second, and more important, the book has incorporated a lot more drama in the course of its expansion. Why? The author was asked to turn the initial story into a play, which began its run a couple of years before she expanded her story into a novel. In the three-act play (for a description, see Roderick McGillis’s A Little Princess: Gender and Empire, 5–7), new characters are added, principally little girls as friends and foils, and the rat that Sara tames in her dingy attic makes its debut. And scholars have pointed out that writing it helped Burnett to change the bare-bones tale of Sara’s growth and salvation into something much more gripping.

In the 1888 story, the heroine is a spoiled little princess, so to speak, with all the advantages of youth and wealth. In fewer than a thousand words, we read mainly dry narrative about her privileged childhood and her obscenely rich and doting but feckless father, Captain Crewe, who takes her reluctantly to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in London because the climate in India can be brutal and Sara’s mother died long ago. Not many years later, he dies destitute, seemingly betrayed by his best friend. And so his beloved daughter is left to the mercy of the schoolmistress, who shows her no mercy once the money is gone. Those thousand words that open the original story run to less than a sixteenth of the whole. Only two times in the beginning narrative does anyone say anything, and those quotes can’t be called dialogue as no one responds.

When Burnett rewrote her tale, the beginning of the original story expanded to a third of the novel. And the space isn’t wasted. Though much of it is still expository, and with an omniscient narrator to boot, the narrator throws herself into the action.

The Princess Learns Politeness

Let’s consider the study of French, an important subject for all young ladies who wished to snare respectable husbands. In the novella, we hear almost nothing about the subject until the evil Miss Minchin says that Sara will soon be earning her keep by teaching the language to the youngest pupils. The newly impoverished princess is pissed off:

“I can speak French better than you, now,” said Sara; “I always spoke it with my papa in India.” Which was not at all polite, but was painfully true; because Miss Minchin could not speak French at all, and, indeed, was not in the least a clever person.

That’s not nice, and in the revision, we see the information dramatized in the second chapter, “A French Lesson.” We’re now in Sara’s first day of school, and the other students are fascinated as the show pupil, the little girl dressed up in absurd clothes by her indulgent father and whom Miss Minchin intends to trot around as proof that this seminary is higher class than it is, comes into the schoolroom and is seated in the place of honor. Lavinia, who once had that honor (and who had no name in the novella), is angry, of course, and that will play out later. But for now, the rigid schoolmistress makes unfortunate assumptions about Sara, and when Sara tries to say something, she’s shut off and forced to read an elementary French grammar. She doesn’t want to be nasty to Miss Minchin. But when the language teacher arrives, Sara speaks to him in fluent French in a desperate attempt to explain that she doesn’t have what Miss Minchin claimed was a childish prejudice against the language. Other pupils titter, and Miss Minchin, who had been afraid that everyone would learn about her inability to speak French, now starts to despise her prize pupil. And when Sara no longer appears to be a prize — Miss Minchin views everyone in terms of money — the schoolmistress’s anger increases the drama, and the conflict between her and her former show pupil keeps growing.

From Greed to Giving

Another striking difference in scene styling and in the heroine’s nature shows up in the character of Ermengarde. In the 1888 story, when Sara meets the overweight and introverted Ermengarde, our heroine thinks of the girl with contempt — until she sees the nice books that Ermengarde had received from her brilliant but pushy father.

There was also a fat, dull pupil, whose name was Ermengarde St. John, who was one of her resources. Ermengarde had an intellectual father, who, in his despairing desire to encourage his daughter, constantly sent her valuable and interesting books, which were a continual source of grief to her. Sara had once actually found her crying over a big package of them.

“What is the matter with you?” she asked her, perhaps rather disdainfully.

And it is just possible she would not have spoken to her, if she had not seen the books.

But in the novel, Sara is outraged at the bullying that Ermengarde has been subjected to, and the heroine takes the poor girl under her wings. The third chapter of the book is named “Ermengarde,” and Sara is all sweetness and sympathy to her unfortunate classmate, who can’t pronounce French to save her life.

When lessons were over and the pupils gathered together in groups to talk, Sara looked for Miss St. John, and finding her bundled rather disconsolately in a window-seat, she walked over to her and spoke. She only said the kind of thing little girls always say to each other by way of beginning an acquaintance, but there was something friendly about Sara, and people always felt it.

“What is your name?” she said.

To explain Miss St. John’s amazement one must recall that a new pupil is, for a short time, a somewhat uncertain thing; and of this new pupil the entire school had talked the night before until it fell asleep quite exhausted by excitement and contradictory stories. A new pupil with a carriage and a pony and a maid, and a voyage from India to discuss, was not an ordinary acquaintance.

“My name’s Ermengarde St. John,” she answered.

“Mine is Sara Crewe,” said Sara. “Yours is very pretty. It sounds like a story book.”

“Do you like it?” fluttered Ermengarde. “I—I like yours.”

The original story has excellent moments — without them, it wouldn’t have been published in the first place — but it doesn’t give us a suspenseful buildup to Sara’s second reversal of fortune, which the novel slices and dices up, and juices for all it’s worth. Instead, the novella puts this essential part of the plot, like the beginning, into narrative, not drama.

Although the “princess” story in its original form remains fascinating, rather on the order of tales someone just rattles off — “… and then she … and then she …” — it doesn’t engage your heart and your brain in the way the play-influenced revision and expansion does.

In this essay, I’ve focused mainly on the way Burnett increased the drama within scenes and helped turn a magazine story into what is considered a children’s classic. Next time we’ll treat something more important to the book’s reputation, effective plotting. After that, we’ll get back to the problem of character, both in Burnett’s works and further afield.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

July 25, 2016

On Today’s Bookshelf XXVI

The time since my last On Today’s Bookshelf post (On Today’s Bookshelf XXV) has resulted in some interesting acquisitions for my library as a perusal of the lists below will show.

Interestingly, I have bought (and received) in the current month alone 15 hardcovers and 29 ebooks. Although I bought some of the ebooks at Barnes & Noble, most I bought at Smashwords, which is having its annual July Summer/Winter Sale. If you are an ebook reader, now is the time to head to Smashwords; the sale ends July 31.

The hardcovers I bought in July and list here are the ones I have received. In looking at my records, it appears that I have more on order that are supposed to be delivered by July’s end. Here is the list of July hardcovers received:

Nonfiction –

  • Frederick the Great: King of Prussia by Tim Blanning
  • The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andres Resendez
  • Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler by Stefan Ihrig
  • The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore
  • New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America by Wendy Warren
  • In Reckless Hands: Skinner V. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics by Victoria F. Nourse
  • The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia by Ruth C. Engs
  • The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History by Andrew G. Bostom
  • The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings

Fiction –

  • Summer Dragon: First Book of the Evertide by Todd Lockwood (Signed Book)
  • Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
  • Age of Myth: Book One of The Legends of the First Empire by Michael J. Sullivan
  • Flag in Exile 20th Anniversary Special Limited Edition by David Weber
  • Fellside by M.L. Carey (Signed Book)
  • Wolf’s Empire: Gladiator by Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan (Signed Book)

I also bought some fiction ebooks. The following is a partial list of the fiction ebooks I bought this month:

  • The Collars of Phaleran by Ashely Abbiss
  • Ice Station X by V. Bertolaccini
  • Ravens in the Sky by Will Bly
  • Children of the Trident by B. Albert Brier
  • The Ascension Trilogy by David S. Croxford
  • The Key by Brian Fisher
  • Philippa Barnes Mysteries Books 1-3 by Trish McCormack
  • The Blue Folio by Matt McMahon
  • The One Hundred by K. Weikel
  • The Safanarion Order Books 1-3 by Ken Lozito
  • Ties That Bind by Carolyn Arnold
  • Forgotten Ages (The Complete Saga) by Lindsay Buroker

Unfortunately for me, those books are not all of the books I have acquired since the last edition of On Today’s Bookshelf. Below is a list of some of the hardcovers and ebooks that I have added to my to-be-read pile since that post:

Nonfiction –

  • The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha
  • At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell
  • Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen
  • The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History by Tonio Andrade
  • Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion by Susan Jacoby
  • Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard
  • The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home by Joyce Goldstein (I also bought copies for gifts)
  • A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness: The Origins and Rise of Anti-Semitism in America by Frederic Cople Jaher
  • The Jews and the Nation: Revolution, Emancipation, State Formation, and the Liberal Paradigm in America and France by Frederic Cople Jaher
  • Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire by Peter H. Wilson
  • Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt
  • Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
  • The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolution Invention by Alexander Monro
  • Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf

Fiction –

  • Light in a Dark House by Jan Costin Wagner
  • Burned, Pierced, and Scarred (3 novels) by Thomas Enger
  • Where Monsters Dwell by Jorgen Brekke
  • The Photograph by Beverly Lewis
  • Upon a Dark Night by Peter Lovesey
  • Cold Shoulder (Lorraine Page Series #1) by Lynda LaPlante
  • Crossbones Yard by Kate Rhodes
  • Power in the Blood by Michael Lister
  • The Serial Killer’s Wife by Robert Smartwood
  • Two Strangers by Beryl Matthews
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

I mentioned retirement in my last essay (see Thinking About Retirement). Part of my thinking of retirement is looking at the TBR pile and wondering how many years it will take me to read all of the books I currently have in the TBR pile, the ones that I have preordered and will be coming, and the ones I do not currently know about but that I will buy in the coming months. I keep promising myself that I will stop buying books, but buying books is the bane of my editorial existence.

I guess I will never stop buying books, regardless of whether it is likely that I will be able to read them in my remaining years, until the time arrives when I can no longer read. Are you a book buyer? Have you cut back? Do you have plans to stop buying books?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 11, 2016

Worth Reading: Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer” by Christopher Jencks (The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2016, pp. 15-17) is a review of the book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Jencks is the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard and author of Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass and The Homeless.

I found the essay both interesting and disturbing. It illustrates the problem of political social thinking since the 1990s. If you combine that thinking with how politicians today, especially Republican politicians, want to reduce social welfare programs, you can see how the thinking is to shift from a “War on Poverty” to a “War on Those in Poverty.”

Regardless of how you view social welfare programs, this essay is worth reading. It provides a different way to look at how social welfare policy has evolved since the 1970s. I know I hadn’t looked at social welfare programs from quite the same perspective — not even when I was a social worker.

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer
by Christopher Jencks

After reading the essay, I have added Edin and Shaefer’s book to my To-Buy list.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

May 25, 2016

On Today’s Bookshelf XXV

In the time since my last On Today’s Bookshelf post (On Today’s Bookshelf XXIV) has resulted in some interesting acquisitions for my library. Here is a list of some of the hardcovers and ebooks that I have acquired and added to my to-be-read pile since the last On Today’s Bookshelf post:

Nonfiction –

  • The Silk Roads: A New History of the World by Peter Frankopan
  • Classical Philosophy: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 1  by Peter Adamson
  • Philosophy in the Hellenistic and Roman Worlds: A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Volume 2  by Peter Adamson
  • The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism by Ross King
  • Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King
  • Top Nazi: SS General Karl Wolff by Jochen von Lang
  • The Last Jews in Berlin by Leonard Gross
  • Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science by Alice Dreger
  • The Spanish Armada by Robert Hutchinson
  • Such Good Girls: The Journey of the Holocaust’s Hidden Child Survivors by R.D. Rosen
  • American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans by Eve LaPlante
  • The Trigger: Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War by Tim Butcher
  • Devil’s Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt
  • The Floor of Heaven: A True Tale of the Last Frontier and the Yukon Gold Rush by Howard Blum
  • Rothstein: The Life, Times, and Murder of the Criminal Genius Who Fixed the 1919 World Series by David Pietrusza
  • Childhood at Court, 1819-1914 by John van der Kiste
  • Lady Katherine Knollys: The Unacknowledged Daughter of King Henry VIII by Sarah-Beth Watkins
  • Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin
  • The Girl Who Loved Camellias: The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis by Julie Kavanagh
  • The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels
  • The Origin of Satan by Elaine Pagels
  • Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels
  • The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China by Samuel Hawley

Fiction –

  • Calamity by Brandon Sanderson
  • The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson (signed edition)
  • The First Order by Jeff Abbott
  • Magic Breaks, Magic Binds, and Magic Shifts (3 books) by Ilona Andrews
  • Mutineer, Deserter, and Defiant (3 books) by Mike Shepherd
  • The Forest at the Edge of the World, Soldier at the Door, The Mansions of Idumea, and The Falcon in the Barn (Books 1-4 in the Forest at the Edge series) by Trish Mercer
  • City of Light: An Outcast Novel by Keri Arthur
  • The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett
  • The Case Against William by Mark Gimenez
  • Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo
  • Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold (signed limited edition)
  • The Fatal Flame by Lyndsay Faye
  • Imperial Woman: The Story of the Last Empress of China by Pearl S. Buck

As you are reading this, I am on vacation with my son and one of the places we are stopping is Daedalus Books in Columbia , Maryland. I have bought a lot of books from Daedalus online, and thought I’d like to see their retail store and perhaps add to my collection — especially children’s books, which I am hesitant to buy without having first read the book myself or being familiar with the author.

I recently read something that I plan to discuss in a later essay, but thought I would share now. In discussing John Gillingham’s new book, The EU: An Obituary, the reviewer wrote: “His thesis might be more persuasive if his book were not littered with errors.…” (“The Economist,” May 14, 2016, p. 76). It is just a reminder of the value of a good, professional editor.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 20, 2016

On Language: Garner’s Modern English Usage 4th Edition

Bryan Garner has published a new edition of his American English-focused usage, grammar, and style guide, Garner’s Modern English Usage Fourth Edition. I received my copy two days ago. It follows the same format as the third edition but is approximately 200 pages longer.

I find it interesting that he calls it the “Fourth Edition” when the third edition was titled Garner’s Modern American Usage, and the first and second editions had titles that differed from any previous or subsequent edition. I’d be interested in Garner’s explanation.

I have on preorder Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. I was unable to preview it, so I am hoping it is significantly more than what appears in The Chicago Manual of Style 16th Edition. It is due to be published on April 5.

Regardless, if you edit documents in American English, Garner is considered the leading authority on questions of grammar, usage, and style. The new Garner’s Modern English Usage Fourth Edition is a must-have reference for questions regarding American English.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

March 14, 2016

On Today’s Bookshelf XXIV

Books are not only my working life, they are my relaxation life, too. The beauty of books is that they can increase your knowledge as well as transport you to places and times of interest. For me that means my acquisition of new (to me) titles to read never ends. Here is a list of some of the hardcovers and ebooks that I have acquired and added to my to-be-read pile (other books can be found in earlier On Today’s Bookshelf posts):

Nonfiction –

  • Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius by Sylvia Nasar
  • Shooting Victoria: Madness, Mayhem, and the Modernisation of the Monarchy by Paul Thomas Murphy
  • George Washington’s Surprise Attack: A New Look at the Battle That Decided the Fate of America by Phillip Thomas Tucker
  • Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World by Evan Thomas
  • Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family — A Test of Will and Faith in World War I by Louisa Thomas
  • The Churchills in Love and War by Mary S. Lovell
  • A Merciless Place: The Fate of Britain’s Convicts After the American Revolution by Emma Christopher
  • The Holocaust Encyclopedia edited by Walter Laqueur & Judith Taylor Baumel
  • Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century by Geoffrey Parker
  • Army of Evil: A History of the SS by Adrian Weale
  • Born to Battle: Grant and Forrest—Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga: The Campaigns that Doomed the Confederacy  by Jack Hurst
  • The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the African Slave Trade by Alastair Hazell
  • Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud by Shaun Considine
  • The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789 by Joseph J. Ellis
  • The Plot to Seize the White House: The Shocking True Story of the Conspiracy to Overthrow FDR by Jules Archer
  • Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America by Annie Jacobson
  • The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal by David E. Hoffman
  • A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare by Diana Preston
  • The Mystery of Olga Chekhova by Antony Beevor
  • Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva by Rosemary Sullivan

Fiction –

  • You’re Next by Greg Hurwitz
  • The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman
  • The Man From Berlin by Luke McCallin
  • Life for a Life by T. Frank Muir
  • The Great Betrayal by Pamela Oldfield
  • Traitor’s Blood by Michael Arnold
  • The New Neighbor: A Novel by Leah Stewart
  • The Dead Will Tell by Linda Castillo
  • The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  • The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds by Scott Westerfield (2 books)
  • The Just City by Jo Walton

What are you reading? Are there new acquisitions that you would recommend to colleagues? Is there a newly found author who excites you?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

December 9, 2015

On Today’s Bookshelf (XXIII)

It’s the holiday season again and time to be thinking about gifts for family, friends, even clients. What could be a better or more appropriate gift from an editor than a book?

I have three books in particular to recommend: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski; SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard; and The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff. As I write this essay, I have completed The Fellowship and am nearly done with the other two.

From reading The Fellowship, I finally discovered why Lewis and Tolkien (especially) were such great fantasy writers, something I will never be. The change in education, especially what is taught at the university level, from their school days to mine is dramatic. They were literate in Greek and Latin and well grounded in mythology, especially Norse mythology, and religion. The strengths, weaknesses, and meandering paths that the lives of Lewis, Tolkien, Barfield, and Williams took are fascinating.

SPQR (which stands for “The Senate and People of Rome”) is a well-presented, fascinating look at one of the foundations of Western civilization — ancient Rome. I thought I had a pretty good grasp of that history for a nonhistorian, but I was constantly surprised at what Mary Beard had to teach me and at how off-track my education of 50 years ago in this area was. If you want to understand and learn about one of the foundational pillars of Western civilization without being hampered by dense annotated academic writing, then SPQR is the place to start. (If you prefer a broader world view in survey style, then the best bet would be The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer, which can be followed by her books, The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade and The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople. All three of Bauer’s books are excellent.)

Americans are fascinated by the Salem witch trials. The story has been told many different ways — in novels, histories, plays — and I have read several variations on the theme. I originally didn’t think there was room for yet another telling, but I was wrong. Schiff’s The Witches is one of the best nonfiction histories I have read on the invasion of Puritan Salem by the Devil through his witch emissaries. The Witches is a well-crafted story of this American moment.

Aside from those three recommendations, my acquisition of new titles to read never ends. Here is a list of some of the hardcovers and ebooks that I am reading or acquired and added to my to-be-read pile since the last On Today’s Bookshelf essay:

Nonfiction –

  • Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling
  • Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors by James D. Hornfischer
  • The Story of England by Michael Wood
  • Caligula: A Biography by Aloys Winterling
  • The Adventure of English: The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg
  • Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter
  • Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
  • Christina, Queen of Sweden: The Restless Life of a European Eccentric by Veronica Buckley
  • The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
  • Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad by Brian A. Catlos
  • The Return of George Washington: 1783-1789 by Edward J, Larson
  • For Fear of an Elective King: George Washington and the Presidential Title Controversy of 1789 by Kathleen Bartoloni-Tuazon
  • Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion by Harold Holzer
  • It’s Been Said Before: A Guide to the Use and Abuse of Cliches by Orin Hargraves
  • The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama (volume 1 of 2)
  • Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy by Francis Fukuyama (volume 2 of 2)
  • Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David by Lawrence Wright
  • The Reign of Arthur: From History to Legend by Christopher Gidlow
  • Wall Street and the Rise of Hitler by Antony Sutton
  • The Killing Compartments: The Mentality of Mass Murder by Abram de Swaan
  • Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed
  • Nothing Like It in the World: The Men Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad 1863-1869 by Stephen E. Ambrose
  • The British Execution: 1500-1964 by Stephen Banks
  • The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass
  • Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62 by Frank Dikötter
  • Ada’s Algorithm: How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched the Digital Age by James Essinger
  • A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy Greenberg
  • Young Romantics: The Shelleys, Byron, and Other Tangled Lives by Daisy Hay

Fiction –

  • The Lincoln Myth by Steve Berry
  • Archive 17 by Sam Eastland
  • The Creation of Eve by Lynn Cullen
  • Pines, Wayward, and The Last Town by Blake Crouch (3 books)
  • The Book of the Maidservant by Rebecca Barnhouse
  • The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin
  • Island Madness by Tim Binding
  • Black Fly Season and By the Time You Read This by Giles Blunt
  • The Hidden Man by David Ellis
  • Hell’s Foundations Quiver and The Sword of the South by David Weber
  • A Call to Arms by David Weber, Timothy Zahn, and  Thomas Pope

For those of you who have young children or grandchildren, there are three educational toys I recommend for gift giving or for having around the house: Kids First Amusement Park Engineer Kit, Kids First Automobile Engineer Kit, and Kids First Aircraft Engineer Kit. These are designed for ages 3+ years (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in the toys or the toys’ manufacturer.)

We bought these kits to have as projects for us and our granddaughters to do together when they visit. Each kit comes with a storybook. As you read the story to the child, the child is presented with instructions to build, for example, an airplane, to help the children in the story get to their next destination, where they will need to build yet another airplane (or automobile or amusement ride).

The Aircraft and Automobile kits each build 10 models; the Amusement Park kit builds 20 models. These are great teaching toys. And, because storage is important, each comes in a plastic storage container.

For additional book suggestions, take another look at past On Today’s Bookshelf essays.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

November 4, 2015

Worth Celebrating: Carolyn Haley

Congratulations to our Thinking Fiction essayist, Carolyn Haley, for winning second place in the Contemporary Novel category in the International Digital Awards (IDA) contest sponsored by Oklahoma Romance Writers of America for her novel Into the Sunrise. For those interested, the book is available at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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