Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

2012 Reading challenge, book 8: Beginnings, Middles and Ends

Title: Beginnings, Middles and Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing Series)
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Writer’s Digest Books
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: Print

I first learned about Beginnings, Middles and Ends from from the same place where I get a lot of my writing advice: Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast. Considering the subject matter and the useful way this book structures its advice, I’m surprised it’s not recommended more by other writers. It fits nicely with the other books about the craft of writing that I’ve read this year – On Writing and Bird by Bird – although I’m sure more will be added to the pile as 2012 progresses.

Overview: Author Nancy Kress identifies three types of writers and their respective weaknesses: Those who have trouble writing beginnings, those who have trouble writing middles, and those who have trouble writing endings. The book is broken up into three  sections and analyzes the types of problems each writer faces during the process of crafting a story.

What I liked: I recognized myself throughout the book. In each section, when Kress described a problem that writers encounter in the process of working on a story, I thought “that’s me!” to myself over and over again .For each problem she provides a hypothetical plot that exemplifies it and suggests several solutions. She never categorically states that a solution “must” or “will” work – just that it has proven useful to others. In addition, she provides examples of existing published stories that have already overcome the same structural problems. On top of this, the book extensively discusses the different problems that short stories face in comparison to novels, and vice versa. I found her acknowledgement of the structural problems inherent to each format to be reassuring.

What I disliked: Almost nothing. I originally gave this book 4 stars out of 5, but I bumped it up to 5 when I realized that I couldn’t name any major problems with it. If anything, it’s overwhelming in its bounty of good writing advice. There’s only one thing I’d change about the book, and that’s a small passage at the end that contains an interview with the author. In the interview, Kress states that the best piece of writing advice she’d ever received was from Gene Wolfe, who told her to “have two different things go on a story and then at the end have the two things impact each other.” Since the book doesn’t go much into the intricacies of subplots, I think it would have been helpful to include this tidbit in the body of the book rather than in an extra at the end, but this is a small quibble at best.

The verdict: If you have the chance to buy Beginnings, Middles and Ends, take advantage of it. The book contains lots of solid, useful advice, dispensed in a clear, engaging manner; Nancy Kress is full of empathy for her readers, and it shows. The structure of the book is natural and intuitive, and the recommendations within it are exhaustive. This book is a keeper – I can certainly see myself referring to it as I progress with my own narrative writing.

Next up: On a Cold Road by Dave Bidini

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 3

Well, it’s been quite a while since my last discussion of Ryerson’s courses. However, with the new academic year on the horizon, it seems appropriate to finish off my series about Ryerson’s publishing courses. However, if you’re new, take a look at these posts first:

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 1

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 2


This course provided a useful parallel to the copy editing course that I took in 2009. It reinforced many of the concepts behind that course (attention to detail, rigorous adherence to the style guide, etc.), but it also tweaked them. For example, many of the marks used in proofreading have slightly different meanings than they do in copy editing. And while copy editing and proofreading both involve checking for typos and mistakes, both roles have duties that fall outside of the other’s purview.

The course included in-class exercises, tests, and large take-home projects. Funnily enough, although I proofread content before it’s published on the web every day, this course was not my most successful. In web content, you don’t have to worry (as much) about bad breaks, stacks, and rivers, because a lot of the time, how the text is displayed depends on the resolution of the computer you’re using, the browser, and window size.

Ultimately, I think this course was a worthwhile one to take, because the distinctions between copy editing and proofreading are small but crucial – it’s worth it for any editor to know and appreciate those differences.

The only problem with the course was that it was too short. Seven weeks is not nearly enough time to really grasp the essentials, especially since the course discussed proofreading both on paper and on screen using Adobe Acrobat. The compressed timeline  also meant having to do two big assignments in clumps rather than a larger number of smaller ones. Overall, the publishing program would well-served by making this a full course, and by interspersing smaller assignments throughout.

(Note: This course is only 7 weeks long, and is thus worth only a half-credit towards the Certificate. You need to take another 7-week course to make up the other half-credit. I took it in the autumn of 2010 on the Ryerson Campus. The instructor was Craig Saunders.)

Trade Books: Fiction

There are only two words I need to use to sell this course to prospective students: Greg Ioannou.

For those unfamiliar with the name, he was one of the first members of the Editors’ Association of Canada. He runs a publishing services company that has proved to be a training ground for future fiction editors. He’s part of a trivia league. Hell, he’s helped produce editions of Trivial Pursuit.

In short, this is a guy who knows what he’s doing, and is a big part of Canada’s editing community. And this is the only course he teaches at Ryerson – and he does it only once a year. So if you have the opportunity to register for it, do not let it pass by.

I should note that the course had a second instructor – Barbara Berson, a former in-house editor who has been profiled in the Globe and Mail. They took turns teaching the course, either alternating from week to week, or talking to the class together on the same night.

Anyways, the course itself involved reading short stories, figuring out their flaws, and discussing ways to improve them. And boy, the stories he selected for my class were doozies of the worst order: they contained impossible timelines, narrators who couldn’t get to the point to save their lives, underdeveloped themes, and erroneous geography (Pape and Eglinton do not intersect!).

The kicker is that all of these stories have been legitimately published in Canadian anthologies. This illustrated that (1) there are definitely bad stories out there that get published, and (2) these stories often get published because they fulfill some sort of quota by the publisher. One story met the identity-politics trifecta of being written by a female writer about Jewish lesbians, and the two women in question didn’t even show up in person until the last few pages.

This was another useful facet of the course: seeing the politics behind what gets published, and why. The impression that this class gave was that many anthologies blow their budget on getting a few stories by blockbuster authors, and then spread the rest of the money around by buying the most (ahem) cost-effective stories that fit the anthology’s theme. So in effect, one of the inadvertent lessons of the course was that publishing seems to be as full of horse-trading as any other industry.

Ultimately, I learned about how to apply a more discerning eye to fiction, taking into account such things as setting, plot, premise, characterization, tone, and point of view. Considering my subsequent involvement in reviewing short stories for one of the WCDR’s writing contests, the course was both timely and useful.

(Note: This course is only 7 weeks long, and is thus worth only a half-credit towards the Certificate. You need to take another 7-week course to make up the other half-credit. I took it in the autumn of 2010 on the Ryerson Campus.)

Introduction to Book Design

I’ve mentioned this course in passing both here and on my Twitter feed. Let me say up front that while it’s a very valuable course, it wasn’t what I expected. Part of this is due to the fact that being a good designer takes both a solid technical background and a discerning, intuitive eye towards proportion. Both of these are things I need to develop more fully.

However, part of it is also because that I assumed that the course would include progressive, step-by-step instructions on how to use Adobe InDesign. I was particularly looking forward to this – to getting help deciphering the innumerable icons and menus at my disposal.

However, this did not happen. This course’s approach to teaching InDesign is akin to that of pushing a kid into the deep end and letting them sink or swim alone. Only one lesson out of the 14 weeks was specifically devoted to teaching the students how to use InDesign, although several subsequent lessons involved working on book design projects using InDesign in class.

The insufficiency of that one single class was exacerbated by the fact that all of the computers in the classroom did not face the front of the room and the projector screen  – they were in fact perpendicular to the teacher’s screen, making it particularly difficult if you wanted to follow the teacher’s actions and reproduce them on your own computer. Even further, all of the computers in the computer lab ran on Windows, while the teacher used a Mac, meaning that the menus, commands, and keystrokes weren’t completely analogous. Seriously, the technical aspect of the course could have been a lot better.

So, one thing I learned from this class is that InDesign is hard. And it was made even harder for me because I felt that I didn’t have the time to learn useful shortcuts and tips (which, you know, more classes devoted to InDesign instruction could have fixed); I just used the brute force method of placing text boxes wherever I needed them to get the job done.

Aside from InDesign, we also learned about colour theory, typography, the CRAP (colour, repetition, alignment, and proximity) principle, and the history of book printing and design. We also went on a field trip to the Toronto Reference Library, toured their special collection, and got to see how archivists restore old papers and texts – that trip was definitely a highlight.

In short, if you have a well-developed aesthetic sense, this course will be worth your while. But don’t expect a comprehensive primer on InDesign, because you won’t get it.

(Note: I took this course on-campus during the winter of 2011. My instructor was Jaqcueline Hope Raynor.)

A review of the Ryerson publishing program – Part 1

I never got to throw a graduation cap into the air when I finished my BA at Trent. Ah well.I’m proud to say that I’ve just reached one of the goals I set for myself when I started out as an editor: I’ve graduated from Ryerson’s publishing program!

My last lecture in my last course – Intro to Book Design – finished the evening before, so I’ve had about a day to bask in the glory of being an official graduate of the publishing program.

In response to a blog post by my Book Design classmate Lisa-Marie that summarizes Ryerson’s publishing program, I’ve decided to record my own thoughts about each course. However, while her interests lie in marketing and publicity, mine lie in editing and production. They’re very different parts of the publishing machine, though obviously interconnected.

Because it’s late and I’m tired, I’ll just talk about the first half of my courses and continue the review in a second post later on this week. Without further ado:

Substantive Editing

Unlike most other publishing students, I took this class first even though it’s not an introductory course – when I registered, the Trade Overview course was full and this was the only one that still had spots available. While it provided a very good crash course in editing full-length manuscripts, the Ryerson journey would have been much smoother overall had I taken the Overview course first and this one second.

The best thing about this course in the long run was the textbook. If you can find a copy of Betsey Lerner’s Forest for the Trees, I beg you, do not let it escape your clutches. Writers will find it useful to understand editors. Editors will find it useful to understand writers. The book is win-win, really.

(Note: This course was taught online by Joy Gugeler. I took it during the summer of 2008.)

Publishing Overview: Trade

Although this is normally the introductory course for most publishing program students, this was the second one I took. This course was also required to complete the program (and still is), so I took it as soon as I was able to get it out of the way. It focused on the economics and psychology of the publishing industry – the nitty-gritty of how advances and royalties work, the way books are marketed, and how books can both conform to, and subvert, our expectations.

However, learning about the economics of publishing dampened my resolve to complete the program because the industry resembles nothing so much as tightrope-walking. Here are some statistics, courtesy of my instructor, Sam Hiyate, co-founder of The Rights Factory.

  • A book needs to sell only 5,000 copies to be considered a best-seller in Canada, a country of over 30 million people.
  • Out of every 100 books published in Canada:
    • 85 books will lose money for the publisher
    • 10 books will break even
    • 4 books will be moderate sellers
    • only 1 book will be a bestseller (and remember, this means only 5,000 copies sold)

The course taught me a lot, but I consider the most valuable lesson to be one I discovered on my own once statistics like these were made clear to me: publishing depends on a constant churn of under-paid labour (aka: internships).

I suppose that this is a topic that deserves its own post, but learning about the money behind the publishing industry (constant government grants and constant reliance on interns) subconsciously contributed to my decision to freelance instead of work in-house.

(Note: I took this course on campus during the winter of 2009.)

Copy Editing for Books, Journals, and Reports

In contrast to Lisa-Marie”s experience, I really enjoyed this course and, in hindsight, I consider it to be the key to understanding what I wanted to do, and why I wanted to do it.

The answer is so obvious now: I love words. I find it akin to pain when they are misused. I enjoy finding the patterns behind them, and this course helped me to understand those patterns more thoroughly.

Often, the day after each copy editing class, I would come to work and babble to my then-coworkers about grammar issues that I found exciting – things like the spellbinding importance of choosing “that” for restrictive clauses and  “which” for non-restrictive clauses, or the evil of misplacing your modifiers.

This course had more homework than most of the others, but I don’t regret it; I still keep the textbooks handy on my reference shelf at home.

In retrospect, this course was my favourite in the program. It taught me a lot of things, and not just about grammar. Most importantly, it helped me realize that there are viable career paths available to editors even if the economics behind the publishing industry look doubtful, because lots of other industries rely on well-written and well-formatted content.

I really can’t stress this enough: there is a lot more text available to edit outside of the traditional confines of the publishing industry. So even if I considered the economic foundation of the publishing industry to be tenuous (and with eBooks, this has become even more of an issue), this course made a strong argument for the relevancy of the entire program, because the skills taught in it can be applied across multiple industries.

(Note: My instructor for this course was Camilla Blakeley. I took this course on campus during the summer of 2009.)

Publishing Overview: Education

The main thing that I remember about this course is that I did a tremendous disservice to it by not organizing my notes regularly. To this day, those notes are sitting at the bottom of my bookshelf in a disheveled pile inside a soft orange binder. However, I did learn a number of things from this course about the creation and editing of textbooks, chief among them being that creating textbooks is a lot harder than it looks.

The Education course is required to pass the program. Unfair as this sounds, I took this course during the first half of my program so I could complete the requirement and focus my time and effort on the electives that really piqued my interest.

(Note: This course was taught by Tony Luengo and Cara Yarzab. I took this course on campus during the fall of 2009.)

Update: Check out part 2 of this series!

Further update: Check out part 3!

Montreal is GO

I’m happy to announce that most, if not all, of the groundwork has been laid for my trip to Montreal:

Booked a spot at the conference? Check.

Found accommodations at a hostel? Check.

Booked my VIA rail ticket? Check.

Made sure to request the time off from work well in advance of the dates involved? Check and check!

There are still a lot of other, smaller things that need to be done, like printing off new business cards and getting my confidence levels up before I go (not to mention finishing working on websites for two clients of mine), but I really do feel in control of this thing. Now I’m just waiting to find out of the EAC will issue an official package to attendants before it starts. Lord knows I’ve been looking forward to going since Christmas. Let’s just hope that I don’t incur any catastrophic, trip-cancelling injuries in the interim.

Language Post #4: “Ensure” versus “Insure” versus “Assure”

Certain words – no matter how hard editors or other language mavens may try – will always cause confusion because they are different from, but closely related to, words with similar meanings. Most of the time, this problem occurs in pairs: “comprise” versus “compose,” “imply” versus “infer“, and so on. But today, we’re going to tackle something a little different, and instead focus not on a pair, but on a trio of words that cause confusion: “assure,” “insure” and “ensure.” First off, the definitions, all provided by the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.

assure (verb)
1. To inform positively, as to remove doubt: assured us that the train would be on time.
2. To cause to feel sure: assured her of his devotion.
3. To give confidence to; reassure.
4. To make certain; ensure: “Nothing in history assures the success of our civilization” (Herbert J. Muller).
5. To make safe or secure.
6. Chiefly British To insure, as against loss.

ensure (verb)
To make sure or certain; insure: Our precautions ensured our safety. See Usage Note for assure (above).

insure (verb)
a. To provide or arrange insurance for: a company that insures homeowners and businesses.
b. To acquire or have insurance for: insured herself against losses; insured his car for theft.
2. To make sure, certain, or secure. See Usage Note for assure (above).

To buy or sell insurance.

On the surface, all three of these words have a similar concept at heart: that of safety, reinforcement, and protection. And why not? All three words are derived from the Latin word “securus,” meaning “safe” or “secure.” Furthermore, American Heritage 4 says that “assure” can be used interchangeably with the other two words, and even that “insure” can  be used interchangeably with “ensure.”

So what are the differences? They’re mainly ones of nuance. To me, the word “assure” evokes the idea of psychological security, as outlined in the first three definitions of “assure” that were listed above:

  • You can rest assured that Mighty Mouse will come to save the day
  • Laurie assured me that she had everything under control

As a side note, I find it interesting that the definition above states that “assure” and “reassure” mean the same thing, because then it seems that my dictionary is inconsistent. American Heritage 4 has this to say about “reassure”:

re·as·sure (verb)
tr.v. re·as·sured, re·as·sur·ing, re·as·sures
1. To restore confidence to.
2. To assure again.
3. To reinsure.

If we take these definitions at face value, “assure” means “to reassure,” which means “to assure again” – which means that “to assure” means “to assure again.” Maybe I’m reading everything wrong, but isn’t this rather tautological? Shouldn’t dictionaries try to guard against such things?

No matter – onwards we go!

If “assure” implies psychological security, then “insure” implies financial or economic security. Buying life insurance or home insurance means putting an economic safeguard in place if your house burns down, or if you die: your family gets some sort of financial compensation for bad things happening.

Finally, if “assure” relates to psychological security, and “insure” relates to financial security, what does “ensure” relate to? I feel pretty comfortable saying that “ensure” relates to most other tangible and intangible forms of security:

  • Please ensure that your seat belt is buckled during take-off and landing
  • Loretta, by agreeing to be my child’s babysitter, you ensure that my child will be safe while I’m at work
  • We must ensure that the important company report is delivered to Mr. Calhoun by Tuesday

So, there we have it. There are other websites you can visit to get a better handle on this particular issue; I highly recommend Grammar Girl if you’re looking for an explanation that is more compact.

Musings about the EAC

With only about a month and a half to go before the EAC conference, I still have to book my accommodations. I just can’t decide what hostel to stay in, or even if I should stay at a hostel at all. Research on where to stay has been inconclusive, but I really have to break away from the victim mentality that comes too easily from being a young woman visiting an unfamiliar city by herself.

Other than that, I found out about two nice EAC initiatives today: the Conference Buddy system and the mentoring program.

The mentoring program is exactly how it sounds: people with experience partner up with new editors and provide guidance on how to become a better editor. The pilot project has now finished, and now the program has been opened so that Toronto branch members can act as mentors or mentees. I’m still working on my application, but you get three guesses as to what I’m applying to be.

The mentor program is something that I’ve been expecting to become public for the last little while. However, I only found out today about the EAC’s “Conference Buddy” program. If you join, you’re matched up with a group of other “buddy” editors and are encouraged to chat and get to know each other before heading to Montreal. Then, at the conference, these people become your anchor group that you’re encouraged to keep in touch with during seminars, lunches, and other social events. Since this is my first conference, it seems like a wonderful way to meet new people and  break the ice. I’m really looking forward to it.

Modifiers: they only want to help!

A few days ago when I was browsing The Economist online (I know it sounds odd, bear with me!), an advertisement caught my attention:

Champagne only comes from Champagne.

It turns out that the ad promotes the proper labelling of wine so that only those wines coming from the Champagne region of France can be given the appellation “Champagne.” Fair enough. I can understand why they chose to phrase the ad in this way: it sounds mysterious, or at least somewhat cryptic, at first glance. Plus, it’s short. I’m sure that the copy writers behind this ad  calculated the word order and repetition for maximum impact. Whatever the intention of the ad gurus though, it got the portion of my brain that is hypersensitive to language going: “it only comes from Champagne in the sense that it’s grown there, in comparison to being fermented, aged, or imported from there?”

It appears to me that this ad, whether intentionally or not, has fallen victim to one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the English language: misplaced modifiers. In particular, the word “only” is a very thorny modifier capable of completely altering a sentence’s meaning when placed in front of the wrong word. My favourite example of this is one I culled from an old edition of Reader’s Digest when I was but a mere lass:

He told her that he loved her.

Now, take that sentence and see how the meaning changes when the word “only” is inserted into the text in varying locations.

  • Only he told her that he loved her.
  • He only told her that he loved her.
  • He told only her that he loved her.
  • He told her only that he loved her.
  • He told her that only he loved her.
  • He told her that he only loved her.
  • He told her that he loved only her.
  • He told her that he loved her only.

Obviously, all of these sentences are grammatically correct, but each sentence conveys an entirely different impression about the relationship between Him and Her. For example, let’s look at the two sentences where “only” precedes the word “he.” Although the “only he” word order is the same between the two sentences, the writer could be saying respectively that 1) both He and many others love Her, but that He was the only one brave enough to tell Her so, or 2) He the only one who loves Her, and no one else. How confusing if you happen to misread it!

Being sloppy with your modifiers can only lead to pain. Besides sounding odd by having such a distinctive word repeat itself so soon, the ad’s placement of “only” causes ambiguity: what if there are other things that happen to Champagne (the wine) when located in Champagne (the region)? Besides, what do they mean by Champagne “coming” from Champagne? Do they mean the growth and harvest of the vine? The pressing of the grape? The fermentation process? The bottling and corking process?

I can think of no way to rearrange this sentence without making it longer and uglier, so I applaud the writers behind this for keeping it short. But it still irks the hell out of me.

Update: I revised and republished this post on LinkedIn Pulse in 2015.

Little Seeds of Success

So, I have three lovely developments to report:

  1. As of today, I am officially a Student Member o f the Editor’s Association of Canada. While I have yet to fully investigate the resources they have available, it looks like they have a veritable bonanza of forums, postings, publications and seminars to take advantage of. Thanks go to Sharon Crawford, who originally suggested I join.
  2. A contact called to tell me about a speech-writing opportunity that might be available in the future. More details are pending, but I’m quite excited.
  3. I have received some feedback from the author of my first editing project. While she agreed with my decision to rearrange the order of paragraphs to highlight the topic of the article, her reaction to some of my other editing choices was less favourable. In particular, I reworded or deleted words and phrases that have important meanings in the context of the article’s topic, and she’d like me to reincorporate those words. Now, in fairness, I didn’t know some of the terms she was referring to were professionally relevant , or (as in one particular case) that they even existed.

This brings me to a new feature I’d like to introduce as I post more: Lessons Learned. As I make my way through this new industry, I realize that I’m going to need to learn and adapt to the needs of my clients.  So, as I finish projects, I’m going do to little post-mortems to figure out what I did well and what I need to remember next time.  It’ll be our own personal little cheat sheet.

So, what were today’s lessons?

  • Be aware of the cultural and professional context in which you are preparing a project. If there are specialized terms that you are not familiar with or words that you think don’t belong, bring them up with the author or project manager, and do the following:
    • Ask the person who has commissioned your work for style guides or references to help you understand the terms in question
    • Make sure to update your style sheet, if you’re using one

In any event, I think today’s been fairly successful. I’ll go over the EAC’s member area in more detail over the weekend, and prepare an application for that very tempting scholarship of theirs that is due on November 30th.