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As with any industry, buzzwords emerge in publishing also every few years.

From what I’ve observed, one of the buzzwords currently making the rounds in publishing is: topical.

“Writers! Make sure you write the best story possible. A story that comes from your heart. A story that grabs you by the throat, because that’s what will grab the reader by the throat, too.

“Only, make sure your story is topical.

Got it!

But, wait…what exactly does that word mean?

Merriam Webster defines topical as:

referring to the topics of the day or place: of local or temporary interest

// topical references

// a topical novel

(Ha! Looks like the dictionary has caught on to the trend, too. ;))

Write a topical story. Okay, it’s not bad advice as advice goes.

But therein also lies the catch: the word topical in its very essence means “temporary” or “local.” (Let’s focus on the latter for now.)

Which means, what is topical to the US might not be topical to the rest of the world and vice versa.

And, even more alarming, what is desperately topical for a minority/marginalized group of people might not be topical for the majority. Does that mean their stories shouldn’t be told? NO!

No writer—all said and done—sets out to write a book that’s non-topical. When she sets pen to paper, she has a point to make. A story to tell. Why? Because it is topical for her. But does that mean that same topic will grip you, me, and every reader the same way? Most likely not!

Why?

Because we’re all humans with different (subjective) tastes, lifestyles, perspectives, and opinions. So, what is topical to me might not be topical to you. Heck, what is topical to me today might not be topical even to me tomorrow!

So, it boils down to this: “topical” is a label. Another gate. A gate that keeps many writers and stories outside.

(Similarly, whenever I hear in publishing circles the call for more “diverse” books, I cringe. Because while that call is advocating for a much-needed change of mindset, it’s still shining a light on diversity as “other.” As though it’s a trend, a buzzword that needs to be championed. But that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother set of posts.)

I understand why labeling even exists (in publishing): publishing is one of those singular industries that are equal parts business and art. Yep. Not a very harmonic partnership, but it is what it is. So, every story that gets published should be stellar in terms of its features as art, BUT it should also be a lucrative venture for the company that is (in the simplest of terms) printing copies of the book and releasing them into the market.

This places publishing in a rather precarious position. I know. Trust me, I know.

Which is also why I understand it isn’t practical to expect the gates (and the walls that hold them) to crumble overnight. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing.

Nothing’s stopping us from resolving to take one step—even if a small one—to widen those gates.

The onus is on the publishing industry: let writers write what is topical to them; create an atmosphere where there is no fear of writers being ignored or rejected for telling stunning stories from their hearts. From their lived experiences. From their status quo. Let the readers decide whether those stories are topical without someone else making those decisions for them.

You, my dear reader, don’t get off easily either. You have a duty here, too. You need to be right there, alongside the publishers, to shove those gates wide open. For every three books you read about people who look/think/behave like you, pick up at least one book that is about people whom you’ve never met, about people who have a lifestyle that’s different from yours, and especially about people who don’t look anything like you.

Let’s—all of us—do better!

Only then we might see a positive change: the definition of what is “topical,” in terms of the books we want to read, beginning to turn on its head.

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Originally posted on October 20, 2010

Pictograph. Bar Graph. Line Graph. Epigraph. If you’re thinking this is going to be a lesson in math, rest assured — it’s not!  :-)

Even though there is a concept of ‘epigraph’ in math, today I’m using this word very much in the context of writing.

Merriam Webster online defines an epigraph as:

            A quotation set at the beginning of a literary work or one of its divisions to suggest its theme.

Epigraphs are quotations, or phrases or poems, you find in some books at the beginning of each chapter. They are usually related to the theme of either that chapter or that of the whole book. They can be extracted from any number of sources: excerpts from a well-known book, folk sayings, or quotes of famous personalities, to name a few.

(I’m not sure why whoever coined this term couldn’t make up a more writerly-sounding word for it. You know what I mean?)

Here’s one excerpt topping chapter six of the book Rueful Death from Susan Albert Wittig’s China Bayles Mystery series. China is an ex-criminal lawyer, who has hung up her coat in favor of retiring to a small town in Texas where she owns and runs a small herb store and a tea shop. On the side, she keeps habitually happening upon dead bodies and solving the mysteries surrounding them, thus getting the necessary fix for her analytical side.

If gun-flints are wiped with rue and vervain, the shot must surely reach the intended victim, regardless of the shooter’s aim.

                            — C.M.Skinner

                             Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees, Fruits, and Plants

On my part, as a reader, such quotations make way for delicious meanderings such as:

— Does the verb rue (which is known to have been first used in the 12th century) as in to regret have its origin in the herb of the same name?

— Were the qualities of various herbs as legendary in the East as they were in the West?

And, whenever I come across any tidbit about the different medicinal plants, I begin to crave the latest book of the series. Isn’t that one of the better and innovative ways to make a series more memorable?

Another good example for an epigraph is from chapter ten of the fascinating O Jerusalem by Laurie King. (It is one of the books from her series: Novels of suspense featuring Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. If you enjoy reading Sir Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, then this series is a must for you.)

              The human body floats without exertion on the surface, and can be submerged only with difficulty; but swimming is unpleasant, as the feet have too great a tendency to rise to the surface.

                            BAEDEKER’s Palestine and Syria,

                                                             1912 Edition

Before you shudder, the passage above is merely talking about taking a dip in the Dead Sea (or Salt Sea), which the heroine, Mary Russell, proceeds to do in the chapter crowned by the words above.

Doesn’t the phrase — delivered in a most earnest and no-nonsense manner — make you want to get your hands immediately on that edition of Baedeker’s travel guide?

Another excerpt from Laurie King’s ‘O Jerusalem’

Epigraphs, for me, are:

  • A (fun) way to get readers to think about what may or may not happen in the chapter they’re about to read.
  • One means to bring out the subplot(s), obscured by the main plot line, a reader may not stumble upon otherwise.
  • An inkling of the playfulness of the author.
  • Tiny windows into the thought-process of the author and how he/she views the book in question. How a reader perceives a book is not always similar to how the author has envisioned it. Epigraphs help close the distance between the two.

Have you run into any good epigraphs you’d like to share?

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