Tag Archives: Michael LaRocca

Proofs and Three Parables by George Steiner

Michael LaRocca of MichaelEdits.com

The Wikipedia entry on proofreading includes four works of fiction in which one of the characters is a proofreader. The novella Proofs and Three Parables is one of them. The professore is one of the more memorable protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time. His skill as a proofreader is unrivaled. No mistake escapes him, however tiny, in the most trivial printing jobs. His eyesight has been damaged by years of exacting work, exacerbated by self-neglect, and he may be going blind.

Alas, this is a subplot.

The novella deals mainly with the fall of Communism. It’s the most readable thing I’ve seen on the topic, brief yet illuminating, simple without being simplistic, not as boring as I’m making it sound. The author is also passionately concerned with the tradition, culture, and fate of Judaism.

But I’d rather dwell on the professore’s character as a proofreader because, well, you do know what I do, right?

Now the burn seemed to smart behind his eyes.

Thirty years and more a master of his craft. The quickest, most accurate of proof-readers and correctors in the whole city, perhaps in the province. Working every night, and throughout the night. So that the legal records, deeds of sale, notifications of public finance, contracts, quotations on the bourse, would appear in the morning, flawless, exact to the decimal point. He had not rival in the arts of scruple. They gave him the smallest print to check, the longest columns of figures to justify, the interminable catalogues of lost and found to be auctioned for the post-office and public transport. His proof-readings of the bi-annual telephone directory, of electoral and census rolls, of municipal minutes, were legend. Printing works, the public record office, the courts of law vied for his labours.

But now the sensation of burning, just behind his eyes, felt sharper.

With an opening like that, the reader must read on. I know I did.

(For the record, I’ve only been editing for 28 years, and I use Word to zoom in on small fonts all the time. No phone books, but I’ve done some awesome work with sales catalogs.)

He hated litter. Waste paper struck him as the very waste of waste. At times, if the winds blew a piece towards his feet, he would pick it up, smooth it, read closely and make any correction needed. Then he would deposit it in the garbage receptacle, feeling obscurely rewarded and saddened. Any witness to this rite would have thought him deranged.

I’ve never done this, even though I do pick up litter. The professore is “a man whose obsessive scruple in respect of the minutiae of print, whose bristling distaste in the face of the approximate and the loosely mistaken, were magisterial and pedantic to a degree.” He’s also the kind of man I’d debate the Oxford comma with, but I fear I’d lose in the face of his stamina.

Since I mentioned Judaism, let me quote the professore.

Do you know what the Kabbala teaches? That the sum total of the evil and miseries of mankind arose when a lazy or incompetent scribe misheard, took down erroneously, a single letter, one single solitary letter, in Holy Writ. Every horror since has come on us through and because of that one erratum.

When his replacement replies that proofreading a hand-bill for an auction of used farm implements and manure sacks isn’t important enough to demand perfection, the professore disagrees.

It is just here that it matters more than ever before. To act otherwise is utter contempt. Contempt for those who cannot afford to look at a fine book, at quality paper or crafted type. Contempt for those who have a right under God, yes, under God, to have a flawless hand-bill, also for a sale of manure! It is just for those who live in rural holes, in slums, that we should do the best work. So that some spark of perfection will enter their wretched days. Can’t you understand, how much contempt there is in a false accent or a misplaced serif? As if you spat at another human being.

Technical editing since 1991. Business editing since 2006. MichaelEdits.com

© Michael LaRocca 2018



The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

Michael LaRocca of MichaelEdits.com

There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.

That’s from the introduction to The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. It’s also the focus of the book.

Lukeman presents examples of what not to do. If you see something in them that reminds you of something you’ve written, then you know what you need to fix.

I feel like adding that you should be grateful to have something written and fixable. The empty page is the worst.

Anybody who’s been in this business a while has seen thousands of manuscripts from all over the world. Remarkably, writers everywhere are doing the same things wrong. If you read tweets and blogs from most editors, you see a whole lot of snark about it. But Lukeman decided to group these mistakes into categories, set forth definite criteria for rejecting manuscripts, and write one of the most helpful books I’ve ever laid my hands on. Hence this review.

Lukeman also acknowledges something I’ve been saying for years. We don’t always need five pages. We might shoot down a manuscript within the first five paragraphs. Does that sound cruel? Well…




Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript — and believe me, they’ll look for any reason they can, down to the last letter.

I do this. By starting his introduction this way, he hooked me. Absolutely. I was reading to figure out why my work in progress wasn’t going so well. But once I found the answer, I didn’t put this book down. I enjoyed learning from all of it.

I could list his criteria, but that’d be kinda like stealing. Read the man’s book. I got mine at the library. If you can’t do that, Amazon comes to mind. So does my favorite, Better World Books.

People send me manuscripts, wanting me to evaluate them. I’ve told more than one author to go read The First Five Pages and then get back to me. Yeah, I’m turning work away, but that’s because some manuscripts require too much of it. Lukeman will teach you how to do that work yourself, if you’re willing to learn. If you’re a real author, you’ll enjoy learning. If not, that’s a valuable lesson too.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to return to my regularly scheduled snarking.

Technical editing since 1991. Business editing since 2006. MichaelEdits.com

© Michael LaRocca 2017

Finding Forrester

Michael LaRocca of MichaelEdits.com

The existence of a movie — any movie — about the topic of writing is surprising enough. But for it to actually be a good movie? Wow.

I taught Advanced English Writing in several universities in China from 2002 through 2006. Showing this movie became an integral part of those classes, because so many of its themes are identical to what I was trying to teach. I was happy to watch it over a dozen times with my students, and lecture about it in a style more Robin Williams than F. Murray Abraham.

But all these years later, will I still think it’s a good movie? Let’s find out.

We begin by meeting Jamal, the student who hides his intelligence in order to fit in. Fair enough.

Jamal is also a writer who hides his writing. Do they still exist?

Sean Connery is William Forrester, the reclusive genius of a writer.

Jamal is writing all the time. By hand. He’s constantly practicing his basketball. He’s constantly practicing his writing. That’s how a person gets to be the best he’s able to be at either pursuit. Or any pursuit. So if you’re not writing every day, listen to Sean Connery and Rob Brown. Write every day. You’re never going to write like Shakespeare or shoot hoops like Michael Jordan, but if you write every day, you’ll get better at it than you are now. Unused potential is worse than lack of potential, because the former is a choice.

Jamal and Forrester are both obsessed with reading. As writers must be. Jamal snoops in Forrester’s shelves both to learn about him and for suggestions. I already know you’re reading every day. Aren’t you? How many times have I said it? If you don’t enjoy reading, you can’t write something that somebody else enjoys reading.

Jamal: “You read all these?” 
Forrester: “No, I keep them to impress all my visitors.”

Amusing because Forrester’s an agoraphobe whose only visitor is the guy bringing his royalty checks and his groceries. (Wouldn’t you love to be an author living well on royalty checks for something you wrote 30 years ago?) But also a chance for me to riff on people who keep all the books they’ve ever read shelved at home. You know how much I love the written word. But Goodreads tells me that in the past three years alone I’ve read over 1000 books. Why would I keep them? I’m not going to read them all again. (Just the five-star books.) I do love a library, but I choose not to own one. I know where they are.

Jamal gets his writing notebooks back from “Window,” that strange old dude who we don’t know is Sean Connery because we haven’t seen his picture on every movie poster ever made. And what has this man of mystery added to the notebooks? Honest feedback. It’s not all kind. Not even close, actually. Brutally honest. That’s what we all need. And if we’re mature, it’s also what we want, because this helps us improve. Jamal’s first reaction was negative, but the next day, he’s knocking on the door. He says: “I was wondering if I could bring you more of my stuff.”




Finally, Jamal reads a book by Forrester. When Forrester gets the book back, he says, “Christ, you’ve dog-eared one of them. Show a little respect for the author.” I say screw the author. Have a little respect for the next reader. Don’t vandalize your books.

In the film, Forrester wrote one book. It won a Pulitzer. He reacted to a mix of critical praise and personal tragedy by not publishing another one. I don’t think you have to be an author to enjoy the pot shots he takes at critics.

Forrester: “I know what it is. The last thing I need is another person telling me what they think it is.”

I know the feeling.

Forrester: “Critics spend a day destroying what they couldn’t create in a lifetime.”

True.

Jamal: “What’s it feel like?” 
Forrester: “What?” 
Jamal: “Writing something the way you did.” 
Forrester: “Perhaps you’ll find out.”

I like that little exchange because, while I remember what it felt like to write at my very best, I’ll be damned if I can explain it to you. Write your own books and you’ll find out for yourself.

Jamal: “Did you ever read your own writing?” 
Forrester: “In public? Hell no. I barely read it in private.”

I used to say things like that all the time. But I did finally reread all fourteen of my published books last year. In private. Not bad, Michael. Not bad at all. Oh, and they’re better “inside proper covers and everything,” just like the author’s wife noted in the second Robert Galbraith novel. Don’t act like she’s weird for waiting.

[It’s eighteen books now. When the hell did I write this movie review?]




Forrester: “A lot of writers know the rules about writing, but they don’t know how to write.”

We know it’s true. But let me add that the writers who don’t even know the rules are screwed. You need not obey the rules. But you do need to know them. I break writing rules all the time, but never out of simple ignorance.

Clever dialogue about starting a sentence with a conjunction. Who knew such things were possible?

Forrester just sits at a manual typewriter and immediately starts writing. Jamal likes to think first. So do I. Hell, I’ve even used an outline once or twice. Also, I start with pen and paper or (more often) computer keyboard. Not a typewriter.

Forrester: “No thinking — that comes later. You must write your first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing is… to write, not to think!”

I’ve used freewriting in class and given it a spot in my textbook. It’s a good technique, and I’ve seen a lot of students surprise themselves with the results. But I’ve also never written anything publishable that way. Blogable, perhaps. I do agree with the heart/head thing, of course.

Using other authors for inspiration can be a complex issue. Plain old stealing is wrong, but even the most original thinkers seek inspiration. The movie finally moves its dramatic conflict into high gear by examining all that. It was probably a bit predictable the first time I watched it. It was certainly predictable the fifteenth or twentieth time I watched it. But it still works. It’s still powerful, moving, and five-star all the way.

Enjoy!

Technical editing since 1991. Business editing since 2006. MichaelEdits.com

© Michael LaRocca 2017