What’s the Big Idea?

falling-bookI was scratching my head yesterday at the astronomical number of new books on writing on the market today–most by people I’ve never heard of before with slim writing resumes and credentials.  If you take the time to examine enough of these, you quickly discover that they say nothing new; they all cover essentially the same ground and say the same yadda yadda. No big surprise there because the elements of a good story or work of non-fiction are universally acknowledged, as old as humankind and writing, and absolutely old hat to seasoned writers.

(Pulling off a masterpiece, actually writing one, nevertheless, never has been easy and never will be. I mean, I know how a bird flies.  It flaps its wings!  Does that mean I can fly? Uh, no. Not naturally, anyway.)

At any rate, these breathless books promising to turn the reader into not only a whiz-bang writer, but a bestselling one as well, owe their existence to the widespread naivete of the tsunami of wannabe authors, a creature of our time and the spawn of Amazon.  The books they pour over to acquire their writing skills do not contain stunning revelations, sure-fire gimmicks or heretofore closely guarded secrets on the “writing game.” Nope. And most are a rip.

But they are popping up all over the place because it seems everyone wants to be an “author” today, but few have  invested the time and energy necessary to master the craft of writing.  Sure, talent is important, but it’s not enough.  It takes time and effort, tons of reading and writing, re-writing, practice-practice-practice and revision. We’re talking years here, friend. And even then there are no guarantees.

Yes, but! you will say, what about all those instant bestselling ebooks by nobody writers?  What about them? Here today, gone tomorrow.  Do you remember what was on the bestseller lists ten years ago? I rest my case.

As both a writer and editor myself of many years, there are no truths I am more certain of than the “sweat factor” and the long learning curve that go into making a great writer.  Reading all the “how to” books on writing ever written does not a good writer make.

When I am introduced to someone for the first time, one of the most frequent questions I get, after my new friend has learned I’m a writer, is: “Wow.  Where do you get your ideas?” Now, you may think that sounds naive.  But it isn’t really.  All the great book ideas come from life, not from books about writing.  They come from watching and studying people, listening to them, wondering about them–and then asking yourself if so and so were in such and such a situation, what would this person do?

Voila: a believable plot is born, originating in character, and possibly resulting in an interesting book.


Having said all this, I will now nevertheless offer humbly a short list of writing tutorials (click-click) worth your time and their weight in gold.

Posted in writers, writing | Tagged , , , , | 9 Comments

“Omit needless words!”–William Strunk Jr.

elements of style

Patient blogging, book-loving followers, I have just finished editing a 385 page manuscript, and I am here to report that such a long editorial stint is corrosive to one’s own writing.

Many of you may be aware that I wear two bookish hats professionally: writer and editor.  Though related, they can be antithetical to each other if indulged in undiluted form for extended periods of time.

The best writing comes from a non-critical, spontaneous sense of play.  Revision and editing, on the other hand, require a slow, meticulous (grinding!) attention to detail in order to be effective and to improve a manuscript.

When the spirit is on an inspired writer, the writer can sometimes break the sound barrier, rent a tear in the universe, create a sonic boom, with the rapid fire flow of words.  Oh, what a feeling, eh?  We’ve all been there from time to time if we’ve been at the writing craft for a while. Writing under such muse-flogging conditions often produces some of one’s best work (although always subject to review and revision).

Any editor, however, that edited at the speed of light ought to be fired on the spot.  It can’t be done.

The title of this little lament of mine is taken from (you probably already guessed) The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, perhaps the most famous guide to writing of all time and the only “grammar” rule book (to my knowledge)  to have made the bestseller lists. If I had to distill the heart and soul of good editing, I would, like Strunk, utter the battle cry, “Omit needless words” (p.23).

Of the hundreds of reference works on editing and writing I own, this slim volume, barely one hundred pages, is by far the most valuable and the best single reference for my struggling clients.  It is also the least likely to squelch one’s imagination and the free flow of image and idea in the writing process.

At this point, I suppose I’ve given you my lame excuse for my absence here (work!) and given you a little lagniappe (a reminder of Strunk and White) to enhance your own writing and writing times.

I’ll give the master the last word in this and I won’t again stay away for so long. Happy reading and writing!

William Strunk’s words to the wise:

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all sentences short, or avoid all detail and treat subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.

Posted in editing, writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Something to Argue About! The Ten Greatest Novels of All Time?

I ran across this short video recently and thought bloggers here might find it worth pondering. It is a kind of hasty overview of these great works, a little daffy at points, but in aggregate, it is a selection worth considering. The list has actually inspired me to re-read Anna Karenina and a few of the other titles mentioned, great books I haven’t even thought about in some time.

What do you think? Do you agree with the uppity choices?  What would you add? :)

Posted in Literary Classics, Literary Lions, Literature | Tagged , , , , | 20 Comments

And the winner is . . . . !

I’m sure everyone has been on the edge of their seats dying to know who the lucky duck would be to win the free copy of Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools ebook that Open Road Media gave me to raffle (?) off to followers of this blog.

Well, the long wait is over at last! My four year old niece Susie picked with her pudgy little fingers the slip of paper with Lee Ann Howlett’s name on it, so the prize goes to Lee Ann!

You other two sweethearts who kindly participated in this lackadaisical raffle, please accept these two kisses from me blown through cyberspace to your dear supportive cheeks!  I wish I could give you copies too, but we were only allotted one, so that’s the way it is :(

Lee Ann, I hope you enjoy the novel. I think you said you read it once before long ago, but some things are even better the second time around.  I will email you the details for downloading the ebook momentarily.  Congratulations and happy reading!

Looking forward to getting back to things literary here and will shortly.  Until then, fellow book lovers–MJL

Posted in American Literature, American novels, Literature | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Win a Free ebook of Katherine Anne Porter’s SHIP OF FOOLS!

ship of foolsI have been approached by Renata Sweeney of Open Road Integrated Media with a promo offer on their new ebook of Katherine Anne Porter’s classic SHIP OF FOOLS, a great novel that was made into a great film.

I have one to give away and the best way I could think of to do this is to ask fellow bloggers who follow this site to indicate their interest by leaving a comment at the end of this post and either include their email address or watch this blog like a hawk for the announcement of the winner.

After a week or ten days have passed to give all those interested time to throw their name in the pot, I thought I would use the super-scientific high tech method of putting all the names in a hat and having  my four year old niece (one who could hardly be accused of favoritism as she is just learning to read herself) pull the lucky winner’s name out of the hat. How’s that for a fancy lottery app? Don’t laugh or you’ll be disqualified.

To refresh everyone’s memory about this fine book I am going to crib Amazon’s product description and provide a Wikipedia link.

(To tell the truth I’m terrified that 1) this will somehow get all screwed up or 2) Renata’s feelings will get hurt because no one is interested. But she assures me this is very simple, practically fool proof, and we can’t disappoint such a generous, kind and literary lady like Renata, can we? No!)

So leave a comment indicating your burning desire to re-read this stupendous novel on Open Road Integrated Media’s new ebook edition whether you want to or not. You can always give it away–and if you decide to do that think of me because I would love to read it again. There are so few great novelists these days that know how to tell a rip-roaring story and really engage the reader from the first page to the last.

From Amazon–


Katherine Anne Porter’s first and only novel is a masterful allegory of the passions and prejudices that sparked World War II

“August 1931. An ocean liner bound for Germany sets out from the Mexican port city of Veracruz. The ship’s first-class passengers include an idealistic young American painter and her lover; a Spanish dance troupe with a sideline in larceny; an elderly German couple and their fat, seasick bulldog; and a boisterous band of Cuban medical students.

“As the Vera journeys across the Atlantic, the incidents and intrigues of several dozen passengers and crew members come into razor-sharp focus. The result is a richly drawn portrait of the human condition in all its complexity and a mesmerizing snapshot of a world drifting toward disaster.

“Written over a span of twenty years and based on the diary Katherine Anne Porter kept during a similar ocean voyage, Ship of Fools was the bestselling novel of 1962 and the inspiration for an Academy Award–winning film starring Vivien Leigh. It is a masterpiece of American literature as captivating today as when it was first published more than a half century ago.

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Katherine Anne Porter, including rare photos from the University of Maryland Libraries.”

Katherine Anne Porter

Good Luck, readers!

Posted in American Literature | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Trials and Tribulations of the Writing Life

I have been watching with some resentment, not to say a gimlet eye, a book (one of three in a series) that I wrote in 2002 as “work for hire” (for a flat fee, no royalties) perform rather well on Amazon. The title is Garden Psalms and it has been out of print for some years. It is a full color beautifully illustrated “devotional” with a ribbon marker, and it did well in stores for Honor Books when it was published. But Honor has been bought and sold several times since then and I don’t know who has the publishing rights (or I’d try to buy them).

Currently it is selling on the used book market for as little as a penny to as much as $25 in some cases and has received rave reviews. This is an old “gifty” book, but very beautiful and comforting to read, which accounts for its continuing popularity.garden psalms

Every penny the re-sellers make from the book goes straight to their pockets.

My distress and frustration over this is just another instance of a writer doing what she has to do to make ends meet early in her career. No, I wasn’t offered any royalties, but it was a nice chunk of change when I needed it and I took the work gratefully. What galls me today is that I was a nobody when I wrote it, but since then have built a writing career and small reputation, and so now the re-sellers are capitalizing on it, for what it’s worth, and using my name with the book. Ironically, the original publishers did not want to use my name with it at all!

If there is a moral to this story, a lesson to be learned, it’s to avoid “work for hire agreements” like the plague. Always try to wheedle some small royalty out of the publisher in any agreement and guard your publishing rights like gold. Books have very long lives and you never know when there will be a resurgence in value in any given book.

My only recourse today would be to purchase the rights from the current rights holder, but he/she has disappeared and the book is still out of print!

Perhaps I shouldn’t be resentful of this, but my name is in headlights over it as author, making hay of the fact that since I wrote that particular book, I went on to write and publish several more, some very well reviewed.

That’s life, I guess, though I still will keep an eye out for the current rights holder to my “psalms” books written so long ago :) I’d love to reissue them in updated versions with new covers.

Posted in publishing, writing | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Where have I been? What have I been doing? Working!

Some of you may know that I run a professional editorial and writing business Margaret Langstaff Editorial.

Well, lately I’ve been swamped with book and poetry manuscripts to copy edit, been acting as a writing coach and turning out ghostwriting projects (books from scratch). Can’t complain; it helps pay the bills and I truly enjoy working with writers. They are my kind of people! But in the past several weeks my schedule has been tight what with getting all those mss. shining bright and ready for publication, and other activities, like blogging, have taken the back seat, pushed  aside for the time being.

between you and me   The title of this blog, as a matter of fact, has been borrowed from a book by Mary Norris, long time copy editor at the New Yorker. If you think this is a dull profession–and even if you don’t–I encourage you to pick up a copy of her witty, erudite chronicles of her years there editing all the big names that wend their way through the magazine. Yes, there are actually many laugh out loud moments when she has to deal with the ticklish sometimes prickly egos of those writers, and much behind the scenes New Yorker lore. Who would have thought a book on copy editing could be a gas? It is!

So for the time being I’m going to have to beg your patience as the editing and writing projects keep trickling in. It won’t always be this way for there is an ebb and flow to this work.

But while we’re on the subject, if you’ve got an editing or writing gig to assign be sure to think of me. Check out my website (see above, there’s a contact form on the website). It gives a complete overview of my services and charges– and the marvelous testimonials I’ve received from my previous clients say it all:)

Posted in editing, Literature, writing | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments