The yeti crab and other Antarctic discoveries

By Midge Raymond,

I loved this moment in Ann Patchett’s novel Run in which a young girl, upon learning that new species of fish are still being discovered, says, “I thought it was done.”

Among the many amazing things about our planet is that species are still being discovered. And this is part of what made immersing myself in all things Antarctic so much fun while writing My Last Continent. So much is still being discovered there.

I can relate to Patchett’s young character — “It unnerved her, the thought that things weren’t settled, that life itself hadn’t been completely pinned down to a corkboard and labeled” — but on the other hand, there’s also a comfort about it, the idea that our planet contains so much more than we know (and that perhaps, despite all that we humans are doing to it, it might be able to save itself from us in the end).

One of the fun things I discovered while doing revisions for My Last Continent was the yeti crab, which thrives in the hot thermal waters under Antarctica and was described for the first time by scientists when I was in this revision phase of my novel. The yeti crab wasn’t the only discovery: scientists also described a seven-pronged starfish and a mysterious pale octopus among a community of other previously undiscovered life forms on the ocean floor near Antarctica.

I decided to work this hairy new yeti crab into the novel (I couldn’t resist), and even though the book is published and the research is over, I love keeping track of what goes on in Antarctica (50-million-year-old fossilized sperm is yet another recent discovery, as well as the fact that penguins feast on jellyfish). Due to its inaccessibility, Antarctica is most travelers’ last continent, the final frontier. And yet when it comes to science, in many ways, it’s a brand-new world.

 



Cat Editors: Susan DeFreitas and Akira Kittysawa

By Midge Raymond,

Meet author Susan DeFreitas, who writes with her feline muse Akira Kittysawa.

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I’ve had many cat editors over the years, all of whom were kind enough to spare me the worst of their critiques. But perhaps I knew that, in order to get my first novel published, I was going to need a firmer editorial hand.

Enter Akira Kittysawa—a tiny, somewhat shy shelter cat who, within six months of being adopted, had grown into sturdy, assertive alpha feline who, despite having almost no voice, was adept at bending the two humans in the household to her will.

Named after the great movie director Akira Kurosawa, this cat pulled no punches on my novel. Unlike other cat editors, who would meow politely from the floor until invited to weigh in on the manuscript—and would graciously accept being ejected from the process when my editorial instincts ran counter to theirs—Akira (Kira for short) insisted on being intimately involved in the editing process every step of the way.

 

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Her feedback was integral to turning Hot Season from a collection of linked stories from my grad school days into a full-fledged novel, and her determination to remain firmly seated on my lap—no matter how awkward this made typing—really gave me so much insight into some of my own characters, many of whom are just bound and determined to do some really inadvisable things.

For instance, my character Katie? She’s a freshman in college who wants to be an activist, and she’s decided to blow up the construction equipment of a developer that’s set to destroy a local river.

Her roommate Jenna, in her second semester, is determined to do something just as dumb, though probably less dangerous, in cheating on her long-term boyfriend with the hot new guy at school (though she does have suspicions that this new guy might be an undercover agent).

And their third roommate, Rell, may be older and wiser in many ways, but she just can’t seem to keep from trying to keep these girls from doing these dumb things they want to do—which, you might argue, is pretty dumb in an of itself.

All of these characters aren’t trying to cause conflict—they’re just being who they are. Just like Kira isn’t trying to cause conflict when she gnaws on my computer cord (just like she wasn’t trying to cause conflict when she destroyed the last one). She’s just a person who really needs other people to pay attention to her. (Unless she’s never seen them before; in that case, they are completely and utterly terrifying.)

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My cat editor reminds me, at every turn, that people really can’t help being who they are—and the conflicts that result are, ultimately, what drive effective fiction.

She also reminds me that characters don’t really show us who they are until they are completely and utterly exasperated with each other.

Thanks, Kira!

 

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in The Utne Reader, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and a contributor at Litreactor.com. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as a collaborative editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.

 



Post-reading cocktails with Admiral Byrd, part 2

By Midge Raymond,

Though the book tour began in June, Admiral Byrd and I are still busy with events (and post-event festivities). We had an especially fun book-launch party in Ashland…

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…at the lovely Liquid Assets Wine Bar.

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Then it was on to Southern California for a few more weeks of events…

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..all over San Diego County.

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And then, onward to the Bay Area…

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…where post-Litquake festivities included mimosas and green tea.

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I’m looking forward to a few more events — including a reading at Sunriver Books & Music on October 22, Portland’s Wordstock literary festival, and Friday Words & Wine in Ashland. Click here for details!

 













How to be your own editor

By Midge Raymond,

I was recently editing a document online for which my client had already done a spell check, and just to be safe, I checked the spelling one more time (the automated way). According to the spell check, all was well — but later, as I read through the document, I discovered that neither of these spell checks had caught the word improeved.  (I actually looked it up, thinking perhaps I was missing something, but no: improeved is not a word. Not in the English language, anyway, according to Merriam-Webster’s.)

In the same document, I found the word particilarly — also not a word, also not caught by spell check.

Which brings me to Lesson #1: Do not rely on spell check.

Many of us writers rely on ourselves to edit our own work; after all, good editing is expensive. We may have friends, or a writing buddy or group, to read over our stories or novels — and while we hope that these folks can recognize that words like improeved and particilarly need fixing, they may not have the eagle eyes that experts have. And I’m guessing that most average readers may not know (or care) how to properly use a semi-colon, or what a serial comma is, or when The Chicago Manual of Style calls for an open compound versus a closed one. Not every writer can be an editor — but every writer who wants to be published will eventually put his or her work in front of an acquisitions editor, and part of making a good impression is having a cleanly edited manuscript.

So what is a writer to do? If you can afford to hire an editor, go for it. (There are a great many resources out there, too many to outline here — but visit your local community writing center if you have one, see this post for more on how to hire an editor, and check out this list of editing rates to be sure you pay a fair rate.)

There are a few shortcuts when it comes to self-editing — like spell check (which clearly isn’t entirely reliable) and this free software that apparently targets cliches and overused words — but this leads me to Lesson #2: Writers who hope to be in the game for the long term would be wise to learn how to be their own best editors (even though we all, at some point before publication, need a pro).

Below are a few tips for self-editing — not a comprehensive list, by any means, but a few things to keep in mind so that you can make your manuscript as polished it can be before sending it out, as well as avoid the errors most likely to irritate agents and acquisitions editors.

  • Put the writing aside for a bit. When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you’ll be better able to spot errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation, as well as clunky style issues.
  • Read widely when you’re not writing — and choose your material well. If you read professionally edited books and top newspapers and magazines, for the most part you’ll be getting good examples of what well-written, grammatically proper, and well-punctuated sentences should look like. If you read the work of prize-winning authors, you’ll be getting good examples of how to turn a phrase and how to construct a lovely sentence.
  • Read your work aloud. This is among the best ways to ferret out clunky sentences. If it sounds odd to your ears, there’s probably something going on grammatically or stylistically; rework and re-read until it sounds great out loud. Also, speaking the words helps you avoid some of the misspellings that spell check doesn’t catch: One writer I know submitted a piece to a critique group in which she’d used the word “pubic” instead of “public” (a mistake that was quite hilarious in the context of the story) — and while we’d all read the scene in question beforehand, not one of us noticed this typo until she read it aloud.
  • Read every word. Go through your piece sentence by sentence, word by word. This helps you check for misspellings that you might otherwise skim past, and it also helps you find missing words or repeated words. (I’m always amazed at how many of these show up in my own work…it’s embarrassing, really. But if you catch them all, no one else has to know.)
  • Ask a trusted reader to take a look. This isn’t exactly “self-editing,” but if you have someone who’s willing and able to read your work, ask. Even a casual reader might find a missing word or an odd spelling that is all to easy for you to miss because you’ve read the piece dozens of times.

And, finally, Lesson #3: Embrace grammar, style, and punctuation. Don’t make the mistake of being one of those writers who says, “I don’t need to know how to spell; that’s what editors are for.” These are the writers who very rarely make it to the point of having an editor because sloppy work doesn’t pass muster, especially in these days when getting published is more challenging than ever. So if there’s anything about grammar or punctuation that you don’t know, learn it. If you want to be a better stylist, study the authors you love and learn from them. As a writer your job is not only to tell the story and tell it well, but to hide all the strings (i.e., the grammar and punctuation and everything else that makes the story work on a mechanical level), so that readers can see only the story itself — or, better yet, disappear into the story altogether.