Stranger in a Strange Lab

I have a secret to tell you. Are you ready?

Here we go: I am not qualified to be here. Not even a little.

Can you even believe that they’re letting me post to this blog?

My name is James and I’m a writer. I’m just beginning my second year in the Portland State University MFA Creative Writing program, and I thought it would be “fun” and “interesting” to take an Ooligan Publishing Lab class so that I could (completely self-servingly) learn a little more about what goes on inside that mysterious black box called “publishing.”

Here is some of what I have learned so far:

The work of publishing is incredibly aggregate. There are so many small parts, and every single detail of a book is scrutinized—from the size of the hole in the center of an O in a particular font, to the gradient in the shades of blue on the cover of the next book you’ll read.

It is very technical. Those shades of blue, did you know that they all have individual codes? And some of the people here even understand what the codes mean! And can name them! The color of the sky on a fresh summer day is a nice AED6F1, but the ocean after a storm is more of a 2874A6.

Publishing has a language all its own. Have you ever thought about taking a trip to Morocco? Ever imagined wandering through the markets of Marrakech, your ears taking in the exotic sounds of languages you can’t understand? Well that’s what it was like on my first day. I heard terms like, “collaterals,” “developmental edits,” and “slugs”. I recognized all the sounds and letters in the words being said, but I couldn’t even guess at their meanings.

Now though, let me tell you one other secret. Are you ready?

One of the most important things I’ve learned while inside this black box called “publishing” is that the people who live in here and do this work are are some of the most dedicated and welcoming people I’ve ever encountered. They are weirdly nice and enjoy what they do. They take the work seriously, but not so seriously that they’d ever think of rolling their eyes at you when you’ve burned out your brain on color codes and start asking questions like, “What is book?” or “How words?”

Being a writer, I’ve grown accustomed to the almost monastic life of a loner with nothing but a keyboard and coffee mug to keep me company. It never occurred to me that when a writer hands over a manuscript, the writer is handing it over to an entire community of people. An entire village will work on that manuscript—caring for it, nurturing it, and helping it grow. Each member of the village invests themselves in it in their own way (laboring to find the perfect shade of blue or an O that’s just the right size) and hopes the best sort of hopes for the book. The Ooligan Publishing Lab is just such a village and the natives seem to have accepted me, though I have yet to learn all of their ways.

I’m not yet qualified to be here, but they’re good teachers, these villagers: trusting, calm, and caring. Slowly I am learning their language and their secrets. Soon I will be one of them.

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