One afternoon on our recent Penguins & Patagonia Adventure, we walked through the glamorous Buenos Aires neighborhood of Recoleta, an area with an abundance of beautiful boutiques and shops. Bookstore geeks that we are, we couldn’t resist stopping into this beautiful antique bookstore.
There’s something so appealing about old books, and this store is no exception; it even has a wonderful old-book smell, like that of a vast library. The store offers myriad old and rare books, all in Spanish, most of them about Argentina, with a great many about Patagonia.
It’s a nice place to browse, but for security reasons you have to be buzzed in, and because the books are so old and some are so fragile, it’s a better place to look than to touch. But that was just as much fun for us.
The Antique Book Shop also has maps and illustrated books; we visited twice, enchanted by a nearly 100-year-old map of Chubut Province, a copy of which was also hanging in the living room at Rincon Chico. The map was made in 1928 and outlines the parcels of land that makes up the Peninsula Valdes. Because the peninsula is all privately owned, the map has the family names of all the landowners, the vast majority of whom pass down the land from generation to generation.
If you’re in interested in the history of Argentina — from literary to geopolitical to natural history — this bookstore is a must-stop on your visit to Buenos Aires. The store owner and employees are very helpful and speak both Spanish and English.
On the afternoon we arrived at the gorgeous Estancia Rincón Chico on Península Valdés, it was pouring rain, windy, and cold.
So, we decided to have our author talks and book signing that afternoon, with the timing just perfect for cocktail hour.
It was beyond wonderful to talk about My Last Continent with readers who were seeing firsthand parts of what inspired the novel: volunteering at Punta Tombo, learning so much from experienced penguin researchers, being out in the middle of nowhere with no human sounds other than the wind and the braying of the penguins. I read a few excerpts from the book — one scene set in Punta Tombo, which we’d visited the day before, and one scene set in Antarctica, where half of our group would be headed in a few more days.
And John‘s novel The Tourist Trail was even more fun to talk about, as it’s just been released in a new edition, with the sequel on its way into the world in February of 2019. Also, in The Tourist Trail, Punta Tombo features even more prominently than in My Last Continent, so readers got an even better idea of the colony from reading his novel. John read an excerpt from the book that actually retraced our own steps from the day before.
We enjoyed a fantastic Argentine Malbec as we chatted about the novels and signed books…
…and we had so much fun we forgot all about the wind and rain.
I was saddened to read that “the father of Pinyin” died this weekend in Beijing (though he did live to be 111 years old). While until now I never knew very much about the man himself — who daringly criticized the Chinese government, wrote dozens of books, and was exiled during the Cultural Revolution — I was very familiar with (and grateful for) Pinyin when I began learning Chinese.
Pinyin, a romanized version of the Chinese language — which allows non-native speakers a much, much easier way to learn the language — was adopted by China in 1958, replacing the former Wade-Giles system. (Wade-Giles had been conceived by two British diplomats, and its pronunciation guide was very different and far less accurate — for example, the Wade-Giles word for Beijing is the far-less-accurate Peking.) And, as Zhou’s New York Times obituary notes:
Since then, Pinyin (the name can be translated as “spelled sounds”) has vastly increased literacy throughout the country; eased the classroom agonies of foreigners studying Chinese; afforded the blind a way to read the language in Braille; and, in a development Mr. Zhou could scarcely have foreseen, facilitated the rapid entry of Chinese on computer keyboards and cellphones.
I began to learn Chinese in the early 1990s, before moving to Asia to teach English as a second language. I began in the States with an introductory university class in which we were required to memorize characters, which was insanely difficult. In addition to that, our Chinese teacher was Taiwanese, which meant he used traditional characters as opposed to simplified characters (adopted in mainland China to increase literacy). Here is the word for beautiful in simplified Chinese:
And here is the same word in traditional Chinese:
Notice how many more strokes are required in the traditional version. Also note: There is no way for a native English speaker to tell, just by looking at either character, how to pronounce the word. This is where Pinyin comes in. If it weren’t for Pinyin — that is, if I’d had to go by Wade-Giles’ pronunciations — no one I spoke with in Taipei would’ve been able to understand a word of what I said (and it was hard enough as it was; Mandarin Chinese also has four tones for every character, and getting those wrong is all too easy for a foreigner).
Once in Taiwan, I realized I had to focus on spoken Mandarin rather than the written language — most important to survival was learning how to talk. I did have to learn a great many traditional characters, however — this was necessary for everything from eating (in places with written menus, though I ate mostly from food carts) to banking (all transactions on ATMs were in Chinese characters) to finding my way around the country (all of the road signs and bus signs were also in traditional characters).
The language was so different that I learned to “forget English,” as my Chinese tutor taught me; the only way I could grasp the language was to approach it not by translating things in my head but by thinking in Chinese. And this was fascinating…the Chinese language is beautiful, complex, and vast, and when you start to think in Chinese, it’s easier to learn the language, as each character is built from a combination of ideas. To use a simple example, here is the simplified character for the word America:
And here is the traditional character:
It is pronounced Mĕi guó, which is translated as “beautiful country” — as you can see, the first part of the character (美, mei) is from the character above, for beauty.
When I returned from Asia after two years, I was so used to thinking in another, very different, language that I found it hard to put English sentences together; I often spoke in simple sentences, as if I were translating my thoughts from Chinese back into English. It took a long time to sound like a normal native English speaker again.
I reflect on all this as my first book, Forgetting English, is released in its third edition. The title story, while fictional, has many moments — including the one with my Chinese tutor — inspired by my time in Asia.
It’s been especially enlightening to reflect on the extraordinary life of Zhou Youguang; as you’ll read in his obituary, he was so much more than the father of Pinyin. Sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution, he remained an open critic of Chinese communism. His many accomplishments include overseeing the translation of the Encyclopedia Britannica into Chinese, and he wrote more than 40 books (some of them banned in China), at least 10 of them published after he turned 100 — truly inspiring.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit the iconic Readings bookstore in the Carlton neighborhood of Melbourne on the night of a book launch.
I found Australia to be a magnificent country for book lovers; each city I visited has so many bookstores and each neighborhood at least one, if not several. Readings is an independent bookstore chain that has seven stores in Melbourne — and it clearly has a large and loyal following.
The launch, for Anna Snoekstra’s thriller Only Daughter, was festive and celebratory; the store was filled with standing-room-only friends, fans, and readers.
While I was there, I not only enjoyed the author discussion and a glass of wine, but I signed a few copies of My Last Continent as well.
The staff is friendly, welcoming, and knowledgeable, and this is a store (and neighborhood) I look forward to revisiting next time I’m in Melbourne.
I was absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to go to Australia to promote My Last Continent … it was a whirlwind trip of work and play, with plenty of both. (And with Admiral Byrd along, I’m thinking he needs his own credit card to earn some airline miles.)
We began in Adelaide, where I did an interview with Cath Kenneally of Arts Breakfast on Radio Adelaide the morning after arriving in the country. You can listen to the interview here (I was a teeny bit jet-lagged; it took me a couple of seconds to realize we were on the air…).
Post-interview was a great day for wandering around town. Adelaide is a beautiful city, a university town with two gorgeous museums near the University of Adelaide. We saw this bust of Antarctica explorer Sir Douglas Mawson, as well as an exhibit about his adventures in the South Australian Museum.
The next day, John and I taught a marketing workshop at the SA Writers Centre, an all-day affair with writers from myriad genres. Adelaide has a great many pubs and restaurants, so that was a perfect way to end the day.
Onward to Melbourne, where John, Admiral Byrd, and I spent several days enjoying the city, signing books, and meeting fabulous people, including my wonderful publishing team at Text Publishing and the lovely and talented writers Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist.
Graeme’s new novel, The Best of Adam Sharp, has just launched in Australia, and Anne’s second psychological thriller, Dangerous to Know, was released earlier this year. Anne and Graeme are currently writing a novel together: Left Right, a romantic comedy set on the Camino de Santiago, is forthcoming from Text Publishing in 2017.
The festival was nonstop busy for most of us writers, but it was wonderful to get to meet and talk with so many at various events, as well as in the green room, which featured a fabulous spread of books. (My luggage was significantly heavier on the way home.)
After three events onsite at the magnificent State Library of Queensland, my last event in Brisbane was BWF in the ‘Burbs, a conversation about My Last Continent at the Garden City Library about twenty minutes outside the city.
It was the perfect place to soft-launch Among Animals 2, and best of all we got to meet Sascha, AA2 contributor and university professor, who read from her haunting story “Roo,” which appears in the anthology. Learn more about Among Animals 2here at Ashland Creek Press.
And of course, the trip wasn’t all work … John and I got a chance to explore a bit of all four cities and loved them all, for their wildlife, botanical gardens, museums, and incredible beauty. We also ate twice our weight in delicious vegan food (not to mention Australian wines and beer). I’m already looking forward our return …
The first two weeks of the My Last Continent book tour have been incredible — it was such fun to visit Boston, New York, Portland, and Seattle, as well as to celebrate here in Ashland.
As many of you know, my travel companion is Admiral Byrd (those of you who have read My Last Continent will know why he’s so named), and he’s the one who’s been photobombing all my book tour photos. The most frequent comment I get when people see Admiral Byrd in person is, “I thought he was so much bigger.” In fact, he’s a tiny little thing, given to me by a dear friend just before My Last Continent was published. It seemed so fitting that he should join me on the tour.
I’m heading to Southern California soon for another month of events (check them out here!), and in the meantime, here are a few scenes from the past couple of weeks. Join me on Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter to follow Admiral Byrd’s (and my) adventures as the tour continues!
New York included visits to my brilliant agent and the amazing team at Scribner before a reading at Shakespeare & Co. that evening…
The Ashland event at Bloomsbury Books was so festive, with an overflowing crowd of more than 60 friends and readers…
Powell’s City of Books was especially fun as the crowd included a group of young writers whose energy and great questions made it a lively evening. (And if you’d like a signed copy of My Last Continent, you can order it here!)
I’m so excited for my hometown book event in Ashland tonight at 7 p.m. at the lovely Bloomsbury Books.
It’s great fun to see My Last Continent in such good company here at the store … and with the temperatures reaching for 90+ degrees today, I’m looking forward to an evening of ice and penguins and all things Antarctic!
Check out my Facebook page today for a #FacebookFirstReads live event, during which I’ll read from My Last Continent and chat about a scene from the book (at the location in Boston in which it is set).
As a writer who is passionate about the environment (and often impatient about the lack of progress when it comes to tackling climate change), I know all too well how challenging it is to write about environmental issues without sacrificing story. And Ann Pancake is one of those authors who does it brilliantly, not only by creating unforgettable characters but by evoking a sense of place so beautifully that readers will come away wanting to protect it as much as her characters do.
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.