Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

29 April 2009

A desert luxury: date palms

In March, I blogged about the many ways the resource-poor Sumerians used reeds. Date palms (Phoenix dactylifera), too, were put to many uses.

•Dates were eaten as food. Fresh dates are a good source of vitamin C, and dried dates are high in fiber. Both are high in iron and other minerals as well as in sugar and calories—a bad feature today, when most Westerners are overweight, but a good feature at a time when people worked hard and needed high-energy foods. Because dates can be dried and preserved, they could be a source of food in the blistering heat of the Mesopotamian summer when little grew.

•Dates were given as offerings to the gods.

•Date trees gave shade, a rare luxury in the desert.

•Date trees were appreciated for their beauty, also rare in the stark desert.

•Palm wood was used for construction.

•Palm wood could be used as fuel.

•The fronds could be woven into baskets and mats and made into rope and brushes.

•Dates could be traded to other countries for basic necessities Mesopotamia lacked, such as copper, tin, wood, and stone.

•Dried dates made travel through the desert easier because they were a light but calorie-dense food that didn’t spoil in hot weather.

24 April 2009

Word play: double-duty prefixes

Some seemingly unrelated words that share prefixes actually are linked in some way. See whether you can guess the connection. (Answers are below the picture.)

  1. Astragalo-, astragal- means both dice and the ball of the ankle joint (clue at right).
  2. Lauro-, laur- means both lauric acid and the laurel tree.
  3. Angio-, angi- means both seedcase and blood vessel.
  4. Luteo-, lute- means both yellowish or orange-yellow and corpus luteum (a mass of endocrine cells that forms in an ovary after it releases an egg).
  5. Phello- means both cork and bark.
  6. Pinni-, pinn- means both wing and fin.
  7. Chromo-, chrom- means both color and chromium.
  8. Tera- means both a monster and a trillion.
  9. Osmo-, osm- means both a smell and the metal osmium.
  10. Bromo-, brom- means both stench and the element bromine.

(the mountains of California near the San Andreas fault)

  1. astragalo-astragal-: The first dice were made from bones in the ankle joint.
  2. lauro-, laur-: Lauric acid is found in the berries of the European laurel.
  3. angio-, angi-: Seedcases and blood vessels both are vessels; one carries seeds; the other, blood.
  4. luteo-, lute-: The corpus luteum is yellow.
  5. phello-: Cork is the outer bark of the cork oak tree.
  6. pinni-, pinn-: Both wings and fins are modified arms in which the fingers are no longer separated.
  7. chromo-, chrom-: Compounds of the metal chromium have very beautiful colors.
  8. tera-: A trillion is a monstrously large number.
  9. osmo-, osm-: Osmium is smelly.
  10. bromo-, brom-: Bromine has a bad smell.

15 April 2009

Critiquing, pre-Clarion

At the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop I’m attending this summer, each participant will critique seventeen story manuscripts each of the six weeks. We should all be experts in critiquing by the end.

It seems a fun exercise to blog now about critiquing and then do it again after Clarion, when my ideas may be quite different. (Farrah Rochon and Rae Ann Parker helped refine the ideas below.)

How to set up a critique group

The most practical group is four to five people who meet regularly at scheduled intervals. Manuscripts should be passed out before the meeting so that people have time to read, ponder, and comment thoughtfully.

A larger group can work, particularly if it sometimes breaks down into subgroups; the members then get the benefits of both a large group and a small group. A group smaller than four has one big advantage: more time devoted at each meeting to each person’s work.

Reading manuscripts aloud at a meeting wastes time, and comments made off the cuff afterward are less valuable than ones made after reading the manuscript at home.

It’s useful for critique group members to differ in talents, skills, and backgrounds. It’s also helpful if members have some familiarity with the genres the others write in.

The group benefits if it devises guidelines that specify how often to meet, what happens at meetings, how many pages a person can submit per meeting, how often a person must submit pages, and other procedural matters.

How to be critiqued

•You are not your manuscript. A flaw in your story does not diminish you as a person. Accept criticism as a gift that may help your story or book get published.

•You are not on trial. Don’t mentally prepare a defense as people point out problems. Instead, listen carefully to make sure you understand what each person is saying.

•Wait until a person finishes her critique before responding.

•Thank each person for her comments.

•Take it seriously if everyone has a problem with the same section. That section or a previous one needs at minimum a tweak. If only one of five people has a problem, that’s still 20% of readers. Don’t dismiss the comment without taking another look.

•Sleep overnight before deciding what to do with the critiques you receive. Your subconscious will separate the wheat from the chaff, and your temper will cool so that you can evaluate the critiques calmly.

•Consider each comment independently of who made it. Beginner writers can make useful comments, and experienced writers can be way off base.

•Remember that just because your critique group has discovered a problem doesn’t mean they’ve discovered the solution. Use suggested fixes as springboards for coming up with better ideas.

•Update your manuscript after each critique session while the number of changes is manageable. If you save critiques until after the book is done, making changes will be a monumental task.

How to critique

•Write all your comments, corrections, and suggestions down, either on the manuscript or on a separate paper. Otherwise, the writer is likely to forget some.

•Make time to read each manuscript twice.

•Remember that you can be both honest and kind.

•Write clearly and firmly with large letters in colored ink or pencil. It's frustrating and annoying for the writer to have to scan each page slowly searching for tiny, faint pencil marks.

•It’s both nice and encouraging to point out things the writer did well. (I wish I remembered to do so more often.)

•Don’t pick apart every sentence and quibble about every word choice. The writer is entitled to develop her own style at her own pace.

•Tailor your comments to the level of the writer. Focus on basics with beginners instead of overwhelming them with advanced concepts they’re not ready to use yet.

•Set jealousy aside. Each critique group member’s successes are also your own. If someone surpasses you in writing quality or becomes published, then she becomes even more valuable to you as a critique group member.

•In critique group, comment only on important matters. Don’t waste group time pointing out spelling mistakes, grammar errors, minor POV problems, minor inconsistencies, and other piddling problems you’ve marked on the manuscript.

•Direct criticisms at the manuscript, not the writer, and keep comments unemotional. For example, say, “Page 14, line 6, confused me,” rather than “You really screwed up on page 14. You don’t make any sense at all.”

•If you can make an intelligent suggestion for fixing a problem, take the time to do so.

•Remember that your opinion is just that, an opinion. It’s the writer’s choice whether to agree with it and whether to take your suggestions.

How you critique and receive critiques

Agree with my guidelines? Disagree? Have other comments to add? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

09 April 2009

Writing lessons from my father

My father was a sports writer for the Dayton Daily News before I was born, but those experiences were not the ones that helped me when I became a freelance writer and editor twenty years ago. Rather, his decades as an insurance salesman and the lessons he taught me about running a business made my nonfiction career easier to build and more successful.

Here are some of his business principles. Although he followed them to be an upright person, in the long run they helped his insurance career . . . and later my writing career.

Be honest with companies and customers. My father sold his customers the policies he thought they needed, not the policies on which he would make the most money. He never backdated a policy to cheat Nationwide into paying a claim on something that happened before he wrote the policy. For a writer, honesty means letting a client know when a project is going to be late, not making up quotes or facts, not stealing words or ideas, helping clients understand when the project they want to hire you for is half-baked and helping them refine the idea, and telling someone who wants to hire you that you’re not the right person instead of taking the job and botching it.

Deliver what you promise. Nothing destroys trust faster than to have your word mean nothing. Over the years, I’ve seen nonfiction writers lose clients forever by routinely turning in work that was late, incomplete, not what was agreed, or way too long or too short.

Help others on their career path. My father helped new agents learn the ropes. Similarly, nonfiction writers can recommend other writers for a job when they are too busy to take it or are not as well qualified for it. Fiction writers can act as mentors, can take part in critique groups and brainstorming groups, and post writing advice on their blogs or Websites. All writers can buy their friends’ books.

Be loyal. When my father bought a new car, he bought it from one of his customers, even if he could get it cheaper somewhere else. Similarly, when my aunt became a best-selling author, she still used the same agent who took her on when she was an unknown. (I know that’s not the right path for every author, but some writers do seem to view getting a “trophy agent” as part of being successful.)

Create good will with freebies. My father never charged to notarize documents, and he sent out a calendar every year to his clients. Similarly, a nonfiction writer can do rewrites for free, throw in a sidebar for free, or pass along press releases or news heard at a conference to an editor. Fiction writers can, and often do, give away pens and other promo items and run contests with free books as prizes.

As you might guess, my father kept his customers for years and got many new customers by referral. The same occurred in my nonfiction career when I followed his example.

In addition, these principles help a writer build a “brand” with editors, agents, and publishers as a person of integrity who is reliable and pleasant to work with.