Class Starting in January: Online Writing Group

For those interested in online writing classes: Starting later this month, I’m teaching the Online Writing Group for the Writer’s Studio, part of the University of Chicago’s Graham School. As the course description says:

You will generate and revise your creative work (up to 4,000 words of prose or eight pages of poetry at a time) alongside a supportive, dedicated cohort of writers. Regardless of location and schedule, this group can help you find motivation, inspiration, and creative breakthroughs.

This course is a great option for writers who are looking for peer feedback and the ultimate in flexibility. There are three workshop deadlines over the course of eight weeks, but other than that, it’s entirely up to you how much you commit to doing the readings or dip in and out of the various discussion boards.

You can register for the course here. And if January–March isn’t a good window for you but you’re still interested in the course, check back again in a couple of months—I’ll be teaching the April–June session as well.

Book Tour Alert: Zach Vertin, A Rope from the Sky

To those based in the Chicago area: My client Zach Vertin, a former diplomat in the Obama administration, has his first book—A Rope from the Sky: The Making and Unmaking of the World’s Newest State, about South Sudan—coming out this month in the US (it's already out in the UK). Zach will be doing a conversation and signing at Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park on Jan. 27, at 3 p.m.; his “interlocutor,” as Seminary so charmingly puts it, is Stephen Franklin, a former correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

If you or anyone you know is interested in Sudan, African/U.S. politics, and the art of diplomacy, please share this and save the date.

You can find more info on the event here. And if you’re in a city other than Chicago, Zach may be coming your way too—you can find his tour schedule here.

My Review of 'Insurrecto' in the NYT

I was thrilled to be asked by my old employer, the New York Times Book Review, to review the latest novel by Gina Apostol, Insurrecto. My dad’s side of the family hails from the Philippines, and many of Apostol’s preoccupations—about politics and colonialism, language and voice, truth in narrative, and split (or doubled) identities—are also my own.

For craft-minded readers: Apostol does some crazy-brilliant things with structure, voice, and point of view, all of which she touches on in this interview she gave to the Los Angeles Review of Books, which came out the day after my review was published. A snippet:

To read the novel, you have to locate the gaze — which can shift without much warning. It seems to be the soldier’s voice at first, for instance, then it’s really the gaze of the socialite photographer upon him, but actually there is that hint of everything being seen really through the eye of some script-maker, et cetera, et cetera.

My constraint was that I knew every gaze was mediated, usually by an actual piece of media. But I knew my reader would not be fully aware. It was fun to write! That was part of the novel’s structure — a kind of game with free indirect discourse (a technical matter I was working on), to which I added the destabilizing spin of moviemaking.

In the interview she also comments interestingly (and movingly) on humor and grief, the comedy in tragedy, the relationship between historical and personal trauma. In the review I’d wanted to write more on the undercurrent of grief running through Insurrecto, but I ran out of space. So I was glad to see Apostol expand on it here.

Client's Essay in Mothers Always Write

I couldn’t be more excited for my client and student Anne Glaser, who recently celebrated her first published essay, in Mothers Always Write. Anne writes of a difficult period in which her teenage son seemed to be spiraling into … she wasn’t sure what. And of the adventure that taught him a new perspective—and a new appreciation for his mother.

Anne invites us into some of her darkest moments, with self-scrutiny and candor:

Sometimes I would wake up my husband to vent. Scott listened patiently and encouraged me to go back to sleep. He’d recite things the therapist told us, that Max was growing too old to control, that he needed to learn from his mistakes, that this stage would pass. But night’s darkness disagreed, telling me a different story.

I resented Scott’s ability to intellectualize our problem, his faith in the therapist’s advice. I resented that he could sleep.

Sometimes I gave in to my fear, doing exactly what the therapist told me not to do, which was to frantically text Max, searching for reassurance that he wasn’t doing drugs or hanging out with the “bad” friends. I’d lie in bed waiting for a message to light up my screen, a cellular beacon of confirmation that Max was fine, and I could sleep.

Sometimes Max would respond to the texts, but soon he stopped.

“No one else’s mother texts them at 11:00 p.m.,” he’d spit at me. “Justin thinks you’re insane.”

Justin was the friend who had access to the drugs.

I was insane.

And she ends with a twist that I imagine will bring a tear to many a mother’s eye. Congratulations, Anne!

Sarah Berns and Smokejumping on Nieman Storyboard

My client Sarah Berns wrote a great piece—so great that Nieman Storyboard came calling! If you want a behind-the-scenes look at the writing and revision process—the time, effort, and agonizing that goes into getting it right—check it out.

And for those who aren’t already familiar with it, Nieman Storyboard is a terrific resource for writers (and editors) of narrative nonfiction. It highlights new and notable work (like Sarah’s essay); looks back at, and breaks down, classics of the form (I’ve written a couple of pieces for them in this vein); publishes craft tips and interviews with writers; and has a newsletter—so you can get all this delivered to your inbox.

Client's Essay in Outside Online

Earlier this year, Sarah Berns, who’d never published a word, came to me with a draft of an essay and the hope that someday, the world would get to read her story. So I’m thrilled to report that after months of brainstorming, revising, and fine-tuning—i.e., after Sarah poured heart and soul into this piece—her essay was picked up by Outside and published this week: Finding Home in the West—by Smokejumping.

It’s the incredible true story of a young adventure-seeker who thrusts herself into the path of danger—and into a world populated mostly by men—and learns life-changing lessons about toughness, about survival, about who she is and where she belongs. 

I couldn’t be prouder of this first-time author. Congratulations, Sarah!

A Rope from the Sky — Out in the U.K.


Congratulations to my client Zach Vertin, whose first book, A Rope from the Sky: The Making and Unmaking of the World’s Newest State—a history of South Sudan—came out in the United Kingdom this week. (U.S. pub date: Jan. 1, 2019.) Some early praise:

“The still-unfolding tragedy of South Sudan is too little understood and too little known, even among foreign policy experts. Zach Vertin is a rare exception. He has spent his life not just explaining how the promise of this young nation, for which so many sacrificed, was broken so badly, but helping end the bloodshed for a people who have seen far too much of it. An important read.” —John Kerry, 68th U.S. Secretary of State

“This book is a political roller coaster from Africa to the White House and back. Zach Vertin guides us through a war zone like no other. Vivid characters―the accidental president, the charismatic rebel, the deal maker, the Congressman―tell a tale of American idealism and misadventure abroad.” —Bart Gellman, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Cheers, friend!

New Class: Revising the Short Essay

To writers in the Chicago area: In September, I'll be teaching "Revising the Short Essay," a new class at the Writer's Studio. Description:

This workshop is for writers of personal, narrative, or literary essays working on pieces of approximately 3,000 words or fewer. Reading fellow students’ work and examples by masters of the form, we will examine the balance of scene, exposition, and rumination. In revision, we will practice structural and line editing, with a focus on beginnings and endings, voice, pacing, transitions, and the art of cutting to length. And we will discuss strategies for publishing your polished work. Students should be prepared to submit a draft to the instructor a week before the first class meeting.

If you've been toiling away at writing essays on your own, this course will be a great opportunity to get feedback and draw inspiration from a group of dedicated writers. You can sign up here.


The Suffragents: Happy Pub Day!

Brooke Kroeger was one of the first clients I worked with after going freelance a couple of years ago, and I’m thrilled to say that today is the day her excellent history—The Suffragents: How Women Used Men to Get the Vote—goes on sale.


Kirkus calls the book “an urgent, interesting history of women’s suffrage”:

Among the pleasures of Kroeger’s carefully developed storyline is the view of how important political figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson came around to accepting the idea that women deserved the vote, an evolution helped along by arguments by the suffrage movement’s male allies until the righteousness of the cause could no longer be ignored. A vigorous, readable revisitation of the events of a century and more ago but with plenty of subtle lessons … for modern-day civil rights activists.

And I particularly love the blurb from James McBride:

The book reveals the careful, never-before-told story of how women … planned their own liberation, directing the prominent power brokers in America into action. With smooth efficiency and the touch of a novelist, Brooke Kroeger shows how the suffragist movement, engineered by women from top to bottom, cleverly stitched in the involvement of men from all walks of professional and political life, directed by women who used neither gun nor blade to direct the men, but the weapons of intelligence, cleverness, and when necessary, subterfuge. 

Thomas Ricks and the ‘Offstage Act of Editing’

This essay from the Atlantic is the sort of piece I often file away, figuring I’ll pull it out for some future class on writing and revision, or share it with an author who needs a bit of encouragement: the right words, at the right time, about a familiar-sounding situation.

Thomas Ricks, a New York Times columnist and best-selling author, describes the distress* that ensued when he submitted his most recent book to his longtime editor, Scott Moyers, who responded with … displeasure.

“Two weeks after I sent him the manuscript, I received a most unhappy e-mail back from him,” Ricks writes. “It was not that he disliked it. It was that he fucking hated it.”

Of course the editor didn’t put it quite so indelicately, but such was the sentiment as Ricks inferred it.

Ricks writes of being devastated, but also confused. Yet rather than recoiling from that confusion, he did what every good writer does—or at least what every good writer who trusts his editor does—and instead went toward it. He read and reread, asked blunt questions of himself and of his book. And then he got his hands dirty:

Scott had persuaded me that my blueprint was off, so I disassembled the whole thing. I stacked my lumber, bricks, window frames, glass, and cement. And then, after a couple more weeks of taking notes on how to do it differently, writing signposts on my new blueprint, I set to reconstruction.

The willingness to deconstruct and reconstruct is key. Ricks doesn’t tear down the whole thing and start from scratch. His strong foundation (all that research and accumulated knowledge) remains. But he recognizes that for the book to fly, and to fly off shelves, it needs a whole other shape and feel—something he could see only after his editor’s strong critique.

Some readers have criticized Ricks’s essay as a straight-up piece of marketing. But as an editor, I must say, I appreciate his candid portrayal of the revision process, as well as his public praise for an editor he dearly respects. He concludes:

Most art has a public face—music is played, paintings are displayed, plays are enacted, movies are filmed and often watched by groups. Books tend to be more private, from one person’s act of writing to another’s act of reading. Most mysterious of all is the hidden middle stage, the offstage act of editing. Yet sometimes it can make all the difference.

*The Atlantic’s subhed claims that “hijinks” ensued after Moyerss first reply, but something closer to “distress or “handwringing” (or “self-flagellation”) would be more like it.

Shooting Ghosts: The Early Reviews Are In

I'm happy to report that the first reviews of Shooting Ghosts, by my clients Finbarr O'Reilly and T.J. Brennan, are in, and they're pretty darned great.

A starred review in Publisher's Weekly:

"In this well-written account of dealing with war trauma, a still-taboo subject for many in the military, Brennan and O’Reilly, a retired Marine Corps sergeant and a battle-hardened photojournalist, respectively, confront the manner in which they were consumed by the hell of warfare and saved by the power of words and pictures. ... Brennan and O’Reilly strip away any misplaced notions of glamour, bravery, and stoicism to craft an affecting memoir of a deep friendship."

And an admiring one from Kirkus:

"In this poignant memoir penned in alternating points of view by two very different participants in America’s war in Afghanistan, the authors achieve a shared sense of emotional and physical trauma. ... The authors effectively reveal how they moved beyond the 'fog of war.' ... A courageous breaking of the code of silence to seek mental health for veterans and the war-scarred."

Pub date: August 22!

Teaching in May: On Revising Well

To Chicagoland writers: On Wednesday afternoons in May, I'll be teaching a course at the Writer's Studio, all about revision—one of my favorite things! A brief description:

Only through revision do we see what we have written. In this craft workshop for writers of fiction and nonfiction, we will explore techniques for reading closely and heightening the impact of your prose. Exercises and readings on structure, word choice, ambiguity, punctuation, the art of trimming, and other topics will help you refine the tone, clarity, and rhythm of your work.

During class, students will learn by doing, editing individually and collectively. Readings will include tip sheets, before-and-after examples from published authors, and gleefully pedantic essays on usage and other matters. If you'd like to sign up, please visit this link, click "On Revising Well," and register online.

Client News: Zebras and Fairy Tales

I love celebrating my authors’ work! Two recent projects I’m particularly proud of:

1. Jennifer Brandel and Mara Zepeda are back with a galvanizing essay on startup culture—the ways in which the current model of financing startups and measuring their success is broken, and their vision for how to fix it.

“Developing alternative business models to the startup status quo has become a central moral challenge of our time,” they argue, citing “unicorn” companies’ penchant for disruption over cultivation.

“When VC firms prize time on site over truth, a lucky few may profit, but civil society suffers. When shareholder return trumps collective well-being, democracy itself is threatened.”

Their alternative to the unicorn? The zebra—a strong dose of reality to combat the magical thinking that too often rules Silicon Valley. (Go, read, it’ll all make sense.)

2. Steve Wiley has received a bunch of great reviews for his self-published debut novel, The Fairytale Chicago of Francesca Finnegan.

IndieReader: “A deeply imaginative and wondrous fairytale for adults who are still young at heart.”

Publishers Weekly: “The talented author takes admirable risks with this enchanting tale of magic, self-exploration, and growing up by remembering one’s youth.”

And there are more. Plus, Steve is donating half the book's proceeds to Chicago Public Schools. Gold star for him.

'The Subversive Copy Editor' Returns

Back in 2009, when my byline still matched my maiden name, I wrote a brief review of The Subversive Copy Editor, by Carol Fisher Saller, for the NYT’s old book blog, Paper Cuts (RIP). Now, Saller is back with a revised, slightly thicker edition that includes updated references, a couple of additional chapters, and an expansion of the chapter geared toward writers—should they be wise enough to pick up the book for themselves.

The writers’ chapter offers some excellent tips for self-editing, such as these on things writers often miss:

Throat-clearing. Writer Richard Peck claims that when he finishes a novel, he throws out the first chapter without reading it and writes it anew. He reasons that when we begin a work, we’re rarely certain of where it will end. Revisiting the beginning after the end has emerged makes sense. This time it will be easier to eliminate unneeded windup verbiage.

Personal tics. Most writers have a few pet words or phrases: decidedly, or by no means, or incredibly, or most important.* Ditto for favorite sentence constructions: “Not only X but Y” is popular. Once you identify your own foibles, they become more difficult to ignore.

* For the record, my biggest tic is the overuse of just—followed by an overreliance on em dashes. (See?)

I was immediately charmed by this book the first time I read it and continue to recommend it to anyone who asks, What are some good books on editing? Full disclosure: Since moving to Chicago I have had the pleasure of meeting Saller in the flesh. (Can you imagine? It’s like groupie : David Bowie :: copy editor : Carol Fisher Saller.) But even had I not met her, I’d still be pushing The Subversive Copy Editor on all the editors I know. What I said about the book last time remains true:

Course Announcement: Editing Your Work

To all the Chicago-area writers: Three weeks from today, I begin teaching a four-week course called Editing Your Work, through the Writer’s Studio at the University of Chicago Graham School. In the class, we will examine strategies by which writers may read their own work with fresh eyes; discuss the different levels of editing; look at “before and after” examples from published writers; and practice applying various techniques of revision to our work.

And now a brief tangent from the Department of Coincidence:

I was going through my course materials from last year and made an amusing discovery. For one session, I had students read a short essay called “The Joys of Trimming” (because oh, how I love trimming!). I hadn’t remembered this, but the essay was written by the novelist Pamela Erens—whose latest book, Eleven Hours, I happened to review for the NYT Book Review earlier this month.

The Erens essay will probably be on the reading list again, so if you check it out now, you’ll be a step ahead. To register for my class, or any other Writer’s Studio courses, please visit this page and click on “search courses.”

'I Hate Adverbs'

Cue the violins! In the latest issue of New York magazine, Christian Lorentzen offers a clever, thoroughly cranky rant on a matter of craft that bedevils many a writer. "I hate adverbs," he declares, and goes on to enumerate the reasons. Among them:

Anything an adverb does can almost always be done more elegantly by the adverbial deployment of the other parts of speech. Almost always more elegantly: in most cases with more elegance.

See what he's doing there? (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) Also:

An excess of adverbs in prose signals a general lack of vividness in verbs and adjectives. You might have to say someone ran swiftly or walked slowly, but you’d never have to qualify galloping or lumbering. The adverbs easiest to hate are the so-called sentence adverbs — also known as conjunctive adverbs. Writers who lean on the crutches of “moreover,” “accordingly,” “consequently,” and “likewise” are declaring a lack of confidence in the sequence of their own logic or a lack of faith in their readers’ ability to follow it. Deploying “indeed” is tantamount to saying, “I’ve just had a thought and, indeed, I’ve just had another.” Next time you come across the word “meanwhile,” ask yourself when else all this could have been happening. What is the adverbial phrase “of course” but a smug duo dropped in to congratulate writer and reader for already agreeing with each other. “Nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and the atrocious “however” are symptoms of an anxiety over a proliferation of the word “but.” But you can never have too many helpings of “but,” and sound thinking will make hay of contradictions.

I give some version of this feedback to clients and writing students all the time. (We'll cover adverbs in the class I'm teaching in June-July, in fact.) Lorentzen rightly notes that adverbs cannot, should not, be banned from the language. Moderation is key. As is intention. In adverbs ... as in life?