Friday, February 25, 2011

Oscar Speech Mad Libbing

With the president's State of the Union address out of the way, some of us speech junkies will be turning to this Sunday's Academy Award ceremony for our next fix of high-profile speechifying. Except in this case, it's more like watching a Dior-driven NASCAR race and waiting through the usual Oscar thank-a-thon for a rhetorical wreck to happen.

Last year, with new rules put in place to limit the length of the acceptance speeches, we had mildly elevated hopes that there would less droning and maybe just maybe a little more drama. We were all set to really, really like a star or two who would dare to say something thoughtful, inspiring -- or at least uncanned. Instead, for the most part we got the same gratitudinal laundry lists, just a little shorter and/or spoken somewhat faster. Not even one memorable word-drobe malfunction.

Is there any chance this year be any different? Well, the Washington Post sure doesn't think so. Suggesting that Sunday's speeches will be even more predictable than this year's one-sided Best Actor and Actress contests, the paper's Celebritology page offered readers a handy Speech Generator tool to help fill out the rote remarks we can expect from favorites Colin Firth ("Kings Speech") and Natalie Portman ("Black Swan").

Check out these Mad Libs for movie stars and let us know what you come up with -- we're guessing it will at least be more fun than the speeches we hear on Sunday.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Around the Word

Today we take a look at the speeches of the past and the queries of the future:
Once the secretary to famed Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen, Gloria Sitrin is something of an accidental political archaeologist: she's unearthed what appears to be the earliest surviving draft of President Kennedy's legendary Inaugural Address. "The draft allows us to see, in a new way, the evolution of the speech," writes Adam Frankel in The New Yorker.
Over the course of editing, Kennedy and Sorensen refocussed not only the content of the address, but also its phrasing, moving from what Frankle calls "the language of the campaign" to the diction of the oval office. And while many of the rhetorical stunners that went on to make history appear here--"Civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is subject to proof," for example--more interesting are the lines that failed to make the cut. "Risking while resisting a Walpurgis Night dance of hideous destruction and death," anyone?

During the pre-Internet dark ages, grammar questions were fielded by dictionaries, reference librarians, and The Elements of Style. And if those let you down? "Sure, there might be an expert with the answer somewhere, but how could you reach him or her?" muses lexicographer Erin McKean. Now, though, thanks to a proliferation of Q & A sites, experts (and "experts") are just a search term away.  In The Boston Globe, McKean breaks down the various options, from the "venerable" alt.usage.english to the buzzy new Do you use any of her picks? Where do you turn when you're in a punctuation pickle?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Around the Word

Today on the BloGG, we're looking at biased writers, Broadway writers, and writers with a "bajillion" things to say.

Is writing objectively possible? According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff, the answer is a resounding no--and it's not because writers aren't trying. Rather, he tells, it's because language itself is inherently biased. "If you study the way the brain processes language, every word is defined with respect to frames. You’re framing all the time.” Lakoff advocates that writers ditch the traditional standards of objectivity, balance, and "the center," and instead acknowledge--and investivate--how morality-laden terms work in public discourse. While his prescriptives are targeted specifically at journalists, his challenge extends to anyone writing thoughtful prose about policy. Take a look and let us know how Lakoff's views jibe with your process?

Some projects in trouble need a ghost. Others need a superhero. According to The New York Times, the production team behind the much-maligned Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is hoping to enlist writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa to rescue the troubled show. If anyone's qualified, it just might be Aguirre-Sacasa--in addition to being a playwright, he has written a number of Spider-Man stories for Marvel Comics. So far no agreement has been finalized. On his behalf, we turn to those of you who've book-doctored flailing manuscripts: any advice when signing onto a project in trouble?

With about a jillion of the craziest wordy-whatsits in his arsenal, Mark Peters writes about “The Joy of Indefinite Words.” From creative quantitative measures like “metric butt-load” to 1930s slang terms like “hoofenpoofer” and “doo-whanger,” Peters contends that these “vague yet strangely vivid words are virtuosic testimony to our endless creative potential.” Just be sure not to ask your publisher for a spillion-dollar advance on your bookamajig.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Introducing Gotham Bookwriters

Have you noticed how you can't seem to swing a dead tree these days without hitting someone who wants to write a book?

We sure have. Ever since we went into business three years ago, we have had a front-row seat to the growing democratization of the publishing world and the amazing new opportunities opening up for all kinds of would-be authors.

Ambitious CEOs who want to market their secret managerial sauce and enhance their image. Relationship experts who are sure they have the next He's Just Not That Into You in them. Ordinary people who feel a calling to share the extraordinary things they have done.

The people we hear from have a thousand different ideas and experiences. But when it comes to putting potential to paper, they all seem to have the same story--and it's a mystery.

How do I get started? What kind of writer is right for me? Where can I find an agent?

We know from fielding these kinds of questions on a daily basis just how intimidating and even impenetrable the publishing process can be. So we created a division within our company that is dedicated to making the task of crafting a book easy and accessible for the aspiring author in all of us.

We have spent the last year building a deep, diverse stable of more than 100 elite wordsmiths and refining our broad suite of services, so we can take clients from origination all the way to publication.

With all our ghosts in a row, today we are proud to announce the formal launch of GOTHAM BOOKWRITERS--a one-stop solution for anyone and everyone who needs help telling and selling their stories.

Whether you have a Times best seller in the making, or a personal journey worth relating, our group will help you get the most bang for your book. Among other things, we can:
  • Custom match specific writers with specific projects, based on experience and expertise
  • Bring in an outside editor to fine-tune a proposal and/or manuscript
  • Tap a book doctor to rescue a stalled manuscript from the slush pile
  • Copyedit materials to ensure they are letter-perfect before submission
  • Connect authors with agents who specialize in their book’s genre
  • Advise clients on the right publishing platform for their work
We can invite you to learn more about the latest addition to the Gotham family on our new Bookwriters page.

Our promise: If you can dream it, we can write it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Around the Word

Today on the BloGG, we're taking a look at bad speaking, easy writing, and the plight of the celebrity ghost:

What makes the worst speech ever? On, Fletcher Dean, director of executive speechwriting for Dow Chemical Co. outlines the anatomy of a flop, from (dull) start to (lackluster) finish. Take a look at his assessment and let us know: what do you think guarantees a disappointing discourse?

Gotham friend Josh Greenman pointed us to a new site designed to make sharing your drafts a little bit easier. With, you simply name your document, create a password for accessing it, and enter your text--text that can then be viewed and edited by anyone who knows the password. Because you can't track changes on the site, it seems better suited for casual sharing than it is for heavy editing. For your basic "hey-take-a-look-at-this," though, it's hard to beat's ultra-elegant aesthetic and user-friendly interface.

While Wikileaks may be anonymous, Julian Assange’s ghost is nameless no more: Andrew O’Hagan will be penning the Wikileaks founder’s memoir. In light of the news, The Guardian’s Robert McCrum muses on the pitfalls of celebrity ghosting, noting that “battles over the money pale into insignificance next to the titanic clash of egos involved in taking on another's voice and character.” A cynical—and amusing—view, to be sure, but is it an accurate one?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

To Write is Human, To Revise, Divine

"I believe that many people have the talent to write. But very few have the courage to rewrite. Even fewer have the courage to rewrite fail, and live to do the whole thing again," says The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, introducing the recent documentary, Bad Writing. According to the film's press materials, the doc follows poet and filmmaker Vernon Lott as he travels around the country chatting with literary luminaries--David Sedaris, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, and Claire Davis among them--about the trials and pitfalls own early works.

But don't take Vernon Lott's word for it: according to scholar Stephen Greenblatt, even Shakespeare made revisions. While biographers have long waxed poetic about the Bard's "unblotted" manuscripts, Greenblatt argues that Shakespeare's famously "easy" genius is in fact the product of "obsessive fiddling."

Friday, February 4, 2011

Around the Word

Today, we're offering up three takes on the state of letters in the digital age:

It’s an underdog story to give any self-publishing writer hope: MediaBistro reports that HarperCollins has just bought a supernatural teen romance novel from publishing house’s online writing community, While HarperCollins runs the site and promises that all manuscripts that make the community’s coveted “Top Picks” list will be read by a HarperCollins editor, first-time novelist Leigh Fallon’s The Carrier of the Mark is the first book to get picked up by the publisher via the site. Have you turned to social media to get your work noticed? We want your tales from the digital publishing trenches.

Last week, Obama delivered the annual State of the Union address. But while the president has the luxury of getting lofty, says Vital Speeches of the Day’s David Murray, “America’s mayors, in their annual state of the village speeches at local libraries, chambers of commerce and community centers, are compelled to keep it real—which makes their speeches a truer test of the state of the nation as it is, rather than as we hope it may someday be.” On VSOTD, Murray takes the national temperature by perusing “every state of the village address I could get my hands on,” and finds that, while mayors across the states are uniformly quick to “take credit where credit is due,” their visions for the future vary. Check out the results of his findings here.

Rupert Murdoch’s long-awaited iPad-specific newspaper, The Daily, launched this week, and the results are, well, mixed. The New Yorker’s Blake Eskin calls its current incarnation a “hybrid of the New York Post, the iTunes store, and elements of other iPad periodicals,” but points out that “even a digital newspaper needs time to hit its stride.” But according to Alex Alvarez at Mediaite, you don’t need to take Eskin’s word for it—even if you don’t have an iPad. That’s largely thanks to Andy Baio’s new tumblr, "The Daily: Indexed".

Even without Baio, the iPad-less masses can read The Daily’s content,since the publication does release free, web-based versions of their articles. It’s just that The Daily doesn’t index their content online, so unless you’ve got the Apple apparatus, it’s hard to find anything—without an iPad, in other words, you can’t peruse The Daily’s content. That’s where Baio’s project comes in: an online index of permalinks, which lets non-iPad users skim the virtual paper, clicking on links to articles of interest. And Baio points out the tumblr isn’t just for us technological retrogrades, since the current version of the iPad app makes it nearly impossible to search for past content. Since the legalities of Baio’s informal index are fuzzy (“Frankly, I’m also very curious about the legal implications,” he says), it’s unclear just how long "The Daily: Indexed" will stick around. “Enjoy it while you can!” advises Alvarez.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Meaning of the Memoir

What does a good memoir look like? Two writers weigh in on the place of personal writing in the age of the blog.

In the most recent New York Times Sunday Book Review, Neil Genzlinger offers some advice to would-be memoirists: namely, don’t do it. It used to be, he argues, that you had to “earn the right to draft a memoir,” either by “accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.” Now though, anyone who’s anyone—and a lot of people who aren’t—are penning their personal histories, “writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional.”

Drawn from his recent (and generally dissatisfied) readings of four new additions to the “absurdly bloated genre,” Genzlinger’s assembled a list of guidelines for aspiring autobiographers. Heather Havrilesky’s Disaster Preparedness inspires the advice that just because “you had parents and a childhood does not itself qualify you to write a memoir.” “No one wants to relive your misery,” is the lesson from Sean Manning’s The Things That Need Doing. The take-away from Allen Shawn’s recent autism memoir is that “if you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.”

The only “Do” on Genzlinger’s advisory list is gleaned from Johanna Adorjan’s An Exclusive Love: “consider making yourself the least important character,” as Adorjan did in this “spare, beautiful exploration” of her grandparents’ joint suicide. The book captures Adorjan’s own discovery process, so that its subjects “come slowly into focus for the author and reader simultaneously.” In Genzlinger’s estimation, that’s the key to a successful memoir. “If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir,” he suggests, “then don’t publish it.”

The most current issue of Guernica also takes on the ubiquitous genre, albeit with a gentler hand. Guest editor Deb Olin Unferth—whose own memoir came out this week—celebrates the form, calling for “no more insults hurled at the memoir.” Which isn’t to say she’s in favor of everyone who, as Genzlinger writes, “has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child.” Instead, she writes in praise of the “artistic energy surrounding the form.” The genre might be ripe for poorly-executed over-sharing, as Genzlinger complains, but it’s also, Unferth argues, prime for innovation and experimentation.

Classic “everything that’s every happened to me, retold in order” autobiographies, she explains, gave way to the tighter, more curated arcs of late-20th century writers. These in turn (Unferth cites Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club as examples of the subgenre) carved out space for what she calls “odd duck” memoirs--works that often play with the very notion of "truth" vs. "fiction." As evidence of the form's potential, Unferth offers up a selection of “innovative memoirs” by writers who put their own distinctive stamp on the genre. (Three of them are already up on the site, and three more will go live mid-month.)

So we turn to you: where does—and where should—the memoir fit into the current literary landscape? What do you look for when you dive into a personal narrative? And if you’ve penned your own memoirs (or ghosted someone else's), how did you go about turning life into art?