The state of the editing world

Remember when The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro Bodine decided that buying a metal hat, loading up a trench coat with tools, adding some goofy gizmos to the family truck, and claiming to be a “double-naught” made him a master spy?

Reading editors’ groups, I often think of Jethro. If I said on editors’ groups even a fourth of what I am about to say, I would be ejected. On the spot.

Stereotype: The editing world is full of red-pen-wielding grammar fascists who could play in professional word game leagues. They know their stuff.

Truth: You should hope for the stereotype. It exists. It’s also full of unqualified hopefuls who first christened themselves  editors, then ran to ask a bunch of editors what an editor did and how to do it.

It’s unclear to me how we got here. I suspect part of it is the general decline in written English mirroring our quietly engineered decline in education (nice dumb little worker drones supposed to just do as they’re told, never question authority). The decent English is still necessary, but fewer and fewer people can provide it. Those who feel they can do so thus consider it marketable, and they’re not always wrong. (They soon learn that most people who want correct English do not want to pay a fair price to have it fixed.) The student loan insanity surely contributes; people graduate from hoary Stuffshirt College with English degrees and owing the full cost of a small house. If they have liberal arts degrees, they reckon, that qualifies them. And in the cases of a few individuals, perhaps it comes close to doing so.

What is clear to me: Many people who anoint themselves editors lack even an understanding of what editors do. Most are available on the hiring sites. Before you go on one of those sites that promises to hook you up with an “editor,” please do bear in mind these observed realities.

For example: On editors’ forums, large numbers of new posters introduce themselves to their new colleagues something like this: “Hi! I’ve decided to be an editor! Will you tell me where I can learn grammar?”

The correct answer is “No.” In the first place, a comprehensive understanding of the language is the foundation for starting a career in editing. The cart does not go before the horse. Such an understanding normally takes decades of quality reading combined with some targeted education. If you have to ask that, you won’t qualify in the foreseeable future. A degree or certificate helps, but it does not make up for a couple of decades spent reading.

Or: “Hi! I want to be an editor but do not know how to market my services!”

Good luck, because very few of the people reading your post have any idea about marketing themselves. Marketing is the stumbling block for almost everyone in the literary world, and few overcome that. Also, not to be too blunt about it, but you do realize you are asking people for the real secrets of how to cut into their own work flow? That takes serious brass.

Or: “Hi! I have an English degree so I am now an editor!”

Really. Okay. I have a history degree. Am I now a museum curator?

Or: “Hi! I’ve been agonizing for 72 hours solid and just cannot decide whether this should have a hyphen, en dash, or em dash! Help!”

No. In case no one has told you this, it is your job to make those decisions. It’s a goddamn punctuation mark, not an invasion of the Asian landmass. Decide. Do something intelligent. Are you saying you cannot do something intelligent?

Or: “Hi! For the last 56 hours solid, I have been poring over my Chicago Manual of Style 8.110 and cannot decide whether or not to capitalize ‘Scienceology.’ Please give me a ruling!”

No. In the first place, this is only a serious question if your project requires strict adherence to CMS. If that is the case, then don’t go to the replay booth. Check in with MADD: Make A Damn Decision. You are engaged and paid to make those decisions. If you lack the guts to make decisions, you can’t edit. At some point, the quarterback has to throw a pass, the ref has to whistle the play dead, etc.

In the second place–if the style manual is just your personal Scripture–I have terrible news for you. In such cases, style guides are for guidance. They are not issued from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. Again, when uncertain, do something intelligent. If you do not know how to do something intelligent, how can a reader trust you with his or her work?

At this point in the composition, I felt that the natural question was: Why does this bother me so much?

In part, I guess, because I have known people who were underserved by self-described “editors” they found off hiring sites. One has a hard time imagining these as the same people who asked in messed-up English where they could learn grammar, but perhaps there’s overlap. I also don’t like that it also trivializes and commoditizes what we do. People figure they can sign up for a couple of professional associations for credibility appearances, sign onto a hiring site, offer to “put an edit” on people’s work, and boom–new career! Some of those people will actually just run spellcheck and grammar check, accept all the changes, and put their hands out for money. I have seen the outcome of this. Others will torture themselves for ten hours because Chicago hasn’t told them precisely how to format this usage or that abbreviation.

To channel Jed Clampett, them stone tablets must be might’ heavy to tote around the office.

Everyone starts somewhere. For me it began with about forty years of voracious, broad-spectrum reading. I became aware of the various style books and accepted their potential as resources. Liberal arts degree surely helped, especially the literature classes; I still have the inch-thick stack of typed papers from those days (and I cringe any time I read them). As for editorial demeanor and priorities, I learned from some outstanding people, all of whom I am pretty sure read voraciously since early childhood. Could a specialized certificate or degree have substituted for experience watching the pros? Not quite–but I’ll admit it would better me on some level, if not enough to spend that money obtaining the paper.

So what is the state of the editing world? It contains a great many competent people, some specializing in this or that: tech editing, non-fiction only, or one of the standard editing modes such as developmental editing. It also includes a great many unqualified posers. Many are desperate from a financial standpoint, and will take any editing job for any compensation at all.

It’s the Wild West with red pens and tired tropes.

Ways to make telemarketers have bad days

Been getting a lot of these recently on the cell phone (which is also the business phone). Not sure why, but they always present us with the same choice: just hang up, or waste a scammer’s time. Because I’m the sort of person who will hit at an adversary with whatever he’s got, even if it’s a blade of grass, I waste their time.

When we do this, we should be careful.

I will never be as good at this as Haven Riney, who literally wrote the book on messing with telemarketers (that’s the title), but I have picked up/developed a few good methods for those of us who aren’t as quick-thinking in the moment. Here are my own guidelines for doing this:

Always remember that you are bound by no strictures of courtesy, honesty, or other values you might uphold in real life. If they were honest, they would not telemarket; ergo, they’re thieves. It is not moral to reward thievery with kind politeness, much less with success in any form. In any form. Seriously. They are among the few people in your world who deserve not one bit of understanding. When they aren’t talking to you, most of them are scamming bewildered elders (this is stealing and fraud).

Those rare few who are in fact offering an actual real service are like people coming onto your property with a weapon, then claiming that the fact that it was not loaded means you should have treated them as friends. You can’t see whether it’s loaded, so to speak, so you owe no distinction between honest and criminal, nor any energy expended to try. They’re all adversaries if you don’t know them.

Yes, I know it’s the day before US Thanksgiving. They’re still the adversary, and they will still be the adversary when many of us are sitting down to dinner tomorrow. I am thankful for just enough native creative wickedness to give them what they deserve, and for the fundamental crassness to advocate it even at festive times.

While it could be fun and would certainly be moral to press the get-a-human number on the robocalls–objective being to seek out a human’s time to waste–I myself won’t go that far because it’s like giving them permission. They should never get any permission. If you think it’s a robocall and want to test, just go hoccccccch real loudly, as if you are about to expel a mucous. A robot won’t know how to interpret that (robots do not experience mucous). A person will ask whether you’re okay, or will hang up.

  • First rule: Never, never, never say “yes” to any question. There are scam artists who will take that one recorded word and use it to show some sort of proof of your agreement. When you answer that phone, that word isn’t in your vocabulary.
  • Second rule: First job is to suss out whether they have your real name (quite often if you are a homeowner), someone else’s, or have just called at random. If they have your real name and/or address, find out what it’s about just in case it’s actually a legitimate call. While it might annoy you for your auto repair shop to call and market to you, that’s not as evil as someone trying to sell you Inhumana Medicare Silver Senior Elder Suckup Advantage “that you deserve.” (You know, the sort of thing you get between watching segments of Crochet Wars on The Living Antiquity Channel, which promises to put money back in your Social Security and give you free continence products. That You Deserve. Whatever it is, You always Deserve It.)
  • Third rule: Try to avoid saying anything illegal. This article discourages any activity that violates US law. It’s not as if someone in Shaitanabad or Santa Sinvergüenza can exactly call the FBI and have you arrested–but be careful nonetheless. Bear in mind that buying or selling under false pretenses is against the law depending on how it’s done, while just talking to a caller under false pretenses is not.

Clearly, if it’s someone you do business with, you have better choices and should consider that. For example, you can tell them to stop, and they would be wise to heed you. But before you do that, make sure it’s not them trying to help you. It might be the nurse from your medical provider with a message from your doctor. I never advocate being an idiot.

Assuming it’s not a legit call: If they have your real name, deny it of course, remembering that how you answer anything could tend to confirm it by mistake. If they ask whether you still live at 101 Maple Street, the logical question is not “no”; it’s “which city is that even in?” Make up any name you want. Count von Crappenburg. Imelda Reina de los Zapatos. Alexei Alexeyevich Romanov. Joe Schwantz. Barron Maples. You have no idea where that address is, or even what state it’s in, but you live at x address. If you know it, pick the address of city hall, or the sheriff’s office, or your local mall. Tell them you’re homeless and living in a tent along I-5 atop Mount Rubbish. Claim to live in an army barracks, or an army tank for that matter. Claim to be flying an F-13 and about to shoot down some North Korean Dong missiles. To any question they ask, you tell anything but the truth. They have no right to ask such nosy questions anyway, so this is the proper way to reply.

Once you have worked out that it’s not real, and have assessed and blunted potential dangers, you are free to have some fun. The only rule is to drag the conversation out as long as possible (wasting their time) and making it as fruitless and annoying as possible. Everyone doing this should be made not to like it. This isn’t the grocery checker, who is earning an honest living and deserves your kind patience and courtesy when she is overwhelmed. This is not the guy at the McDonald’s window, underpaid and probably mistreated by his manager, who deserves your civility and decency. This is not the saintly nurse who stayed on the job through two years of pandemic and will not stop caring for people, even for donkeys who refused vaccination and then had the gall to expect care for their coronavirus. This is not the waitress at Denny’s, who should never be punished because the kitchen is stupid, and whose livelihood depends on you tipping her fairly based upon her service. This is not those good people. This is a bad person in a bad business. This is your chance to punish them. For example:

  • Affect an accent. Any accent. If it mimics their accent, that’s fine. That would be considered at least borderline bigoted if it were a decent person, but remember: it’s not a decent person. They choose to telemarket or join scam operations, mostly offshore, spoofing phone numbers so that you won’t know who it is. If they have an accent, there is nothing wrong with mocking it, whether it’s a Deep South drawl or a Pakistani lilt.
  • Come up with a name, since you are not going to admit to your real one. The more credible it is, the longer the call might go. Batman Supergirl might not get much traction. Cecilia Yobukovskaya might do better.
  • If you speak foreign languages, use them when you see fit. One sentence in English, one in Spanish. Be careful with Spanish, lest they say “Purdonnamay, senior, no hobblo esspaniel, uno momentito pourfuvor.” If they do that, and you speak a third language, when the Spanish speaker arrives you can switch to that. Imagine the conversation later: “You ignorant asshat. The name he gave you means “smoke pole” in Spanish and the language he was speaking was probably Italian. What, you think every foreign language is Spanish? Who even diapers you in the morning?”
  • Think of a backstory and flesh it out. Look back to an earlier phase of your life and answer as that person. Think of the craziest person you know and answer as them. The nephew who became a meth addict? This is the only good that will ever come of that human tragedy.
  • Consider speaking very slowly and not understanding half of what they say. Use enormous amounts of regional slang that no one in Hyderabad is likely to know. Talk about interests you don’t have. Tell them that you are an ethical vegan and that meat is murder and ask if their company abides by vegan principles. (If you in fact are an ethical vegan, ask them something else, so as not to tell them the truth in any way.) Ask them if their company is organic according to USC 14.285.828a. Since I just made that one up, they probably won’t understand it even if they’re American.
  • Tell them that you live by the Shania Laws of Appalachian Islam and that it’s time for your daily prayers. (Get a confederate to sing the Call to Prayer: “Y’all come pray now.”)
  • Go wild. Ask if they have Jesus. If so, ask whether they can help you find him and let him out. Ask if they have Satan (they do, whether they know it or not), and encourage them to let him into their hearts. Tell them you have ten million dollars in the credit union, and that the credit union is actually complaining because it takes up too much vault space. Ask if they like vaping.
  • Repeatedly interrupt the conversation by admonishing an imaginary child or dog. (“Timmy! Don’t do that or you’re going in the stew!”) Apologize in advance for your Tourette’s, and have periodic outbursts. Claim a very interesting occupation, such as cat herdswoman or fertilizer processor or bison yoga instructor or dromedary veterinary assistant. Say “kushkushkushkush” as if telling a camel to kneel. Be Jed Clampett. Be Elly May Clampett. Best of all, if you can pull it off, be Granny. Irene Ryan was one of the funniest comics I ever saw.
  • Ask the nuttiest possible questions about their product or service. Does their insurance cover Peyronie’s Syndrome? Scrotal lesions? Does it cover therapy for obsessive-apathetic disorder? Organ failure? Piles? Tiles? What about pudding therapy? Will their home refinance loan have an interest rate below 1%? They say that your “Windows Computer” is spreading a virus and they want you to go to a website; go to your microwave, pretend to have mistaken it for a computer, and attempt to follow their directions. Will their home warranty cover cases of Orson? “No, not arson. That’s illegal. Orson is different, obviously. It mostly affects houses with Welles, and can be quite costly to repair.”
  • Got a confederate in the house? Have her start screaming in the other room. Tell your child that right now it’s encouraged to go totally cattiewhompus. Got multiple people? Have them fake an argument in the Pentagon. “Fuck you, General! We are invading Guam only with Navy ships!” “They don’t do very well on land, Admiral.” “Dipshit, it’s an island! The Army can’t even get there unless they swim! This is our turf, so go dig a foxhole!” Got a cough? You do now! Sneezing fit? Let ’em rip in the middle of everything the caller says, then ask them to repeat it. Got a kid whose hobby is making flatulence noises with his armpit? Get him to do it as loudly as possible near the phone.

If you had fun, wasted their time, and gave them no truthful or useful information, you did well. If you felt a twinge, that’s normal; behaving with a complete lack of consideration is not natural for most of us. In such a case, remember:

  • No one forced these people to call you.
  • Nothing they are offering is legitimate.
  • Nearly all of them are giving false phone numbers.
  • Most aren’t even using their real names.
  • All of it is a fundamental insult to your intelligence.
  • While you’re wasting their time, they aren’t preying on someone’s grandma.
  • You are performing a community service, a random act of caring for others. It’s one of the few community services you can perform by being as cruel as possible.

Leave scars.

Current read: Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford

Provocative, eh? I have to admire the marketing value of such a title. That’s how you throw a bomb. Love the book or hate it, I don’t see too much of Texas being neutral about it. Then again, I’ve only been to Texas a couple of times, and it’s probably one of the two or three states where I would least fit in. I do care about US history, though, and if California history is US history, so is that of Texas.

The book first sets forth to tell the history preceding and including the Texas Revolt, based on what the authors consider the best evidence and historical analysis. They do not reach the conclusion that has long been taught in Texas schools. They contend that black, Native American, and Hispanic participation has been written out or diminished, or at the very least oversimplified. This fortified a Heroic Anglo Narrative to which the remaining bits of the old mission compound in San Antonio represent the ultimate shrine.

The next part of the book, about half, details the making of the legend. It’s been what, 185 years since Santa Anna finally had it with his Texian subjects (and illegal US aliens who refused to abide by Mexican law) and marched in to subdue them? If you guess that people have spent the entire time arguing over the story itself, if and how it should be preserved, and who has the say in its future, you can don your coonskin cap in celebration. The story of the story of the Alamo is almost as interesting as the story of the Alamo, and is as germane to US history. Given the key role in advocacy and preservation (and in some cases, turf warring and neglect) played by women’s groups, it is also women’s history. (Not all of women’s history is automatically admirable. Time and again, they’ve proven they deserve to be remembered for their successes and failures, just like men.)

I don’t think any objective, educated reader of history doubts that there are some unverifiable “facts” that most people believe about the Alamo because those people want to believe them. That is normal about most history; why not this one?  I do think that any such reader realizes that minority contributions to the story have been minimized or bent into strange shapes. The error would be in somehow imagining the Alamo story as unique in this regard because it has been told–insisted upon–with such strident passion. I deprecate the idea that the loudest voice must be considered the victor. The louder they yell, the more suspicious I get.

Put simply, incomplete or exaggerated history happens everywhere. We just pay more attention to this one because people make so much noise about it, almost defying the world to contradict them. Well, yeah. If I sit in my living room, where no one can hear me, and say something provocative based on false premises, I’m probably not getting much hate mail over it. If it put it on an airplane banner, that’s another story.

The greatest thing about the book is the writing itself. I used to love Molly Ivins’s style, affectionate toward her homeland even when critical of it, like when her employing newspaper folded and she commented that she’d never had a newspaper shot out from under her before. It was always fun and often funny. This book is a history, and the history of the making of a history, told in just such a relaxed style. I can almost hear a gentle drawl as I read it. I believe she would have loved it and its message.

I find the authors’ historical study credible. To me, the amount of pushback they have gotten tells me that the detractors have long known there were ugly realities about the story, did not want to explore those ugly realities, and would defend this old mission compound’s ruins as a key bastion in the culture wars. Put it this way: If the authors were full of shit, and everyone had good reason to believe that, no one would feel threatened–just annoyed. It’s like that political fringe nut who thinks the queen of England is a drug dealer. The suggestion is not credible enough for the monarchy, or its defenders, to take seriously.

This book was very much worth my time.

Current read: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen

I learned of this book from one of its primary subjects: Leonard Peltier himself. The full title continues: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s War on the American Indian Movement.

While I’m nearly always sympathetic to Native American causes, I don’t swallow  without question every cause put before me. I knew of Peltier, and of the killings on Pine Ridge, but few of the details. I’d generally assumed that justice had not been done, since Native Americans rarely get justice from the US legal system. This is especially so in states where anti-Indian bigotry is the social norm for whites. When the deck begins stacked against a group, I stop offering default faith in those who stack it. The burden of proof and honesty falls upon the stackers, and until they satisfy me, I assume that they will lie and cheat.

In this case, the legal system was the BIA-supported tribal police, the local law in South Dakota and other states, and the FBI. For me, that begins as oh-for-three in terms of fundamental trust.

A few years back, not much later in the year than this, I was sitting in the lobby waiting for an auto services company to put the studs on Deb’s car for the winter. At a nearby table sat a Native American man, older than me, wearing a shirt or jacket advocating freedom for Leonard Peltier. I nodded and complimented the shirt, a standard icebreaker for talking to strangers, and he invited me to sit down. While I do not remember our entire conversation, and definitely could not identify him now, we had a pleasant and informative talk. We talked about the dry sense of gallows humor often seen in Native-specific situations, such as when they seized Alcatraz on the grounds that its complete lack of resources and facilities made it the perfect Indian reservation. We spoke about Leonard, and the man expressed his firm conviction that Leonard Peltier had killed no one.

The killings in question occurred in 1976 on the Pine Ridge reservation, during a series of armed confrontations in which one Native and two FBI agents died. The latter were wounded in an exchange of gunfire, then executed. All police have visceral reactions to deaths of their own, which is understandable enough; the problem here is that there was and is no reliable proof of who killed the agents. Eventually four Native Americans were charged with the murders; three were indicted; two were acquitted. Having fled to Canada and been extradited, Peltier was the last to stand trial. One might reasonably suspect that, this being the last chance to make sure some Indian paid for the agents’ deaths, the government forces were taking no chances with a fair trial. In my opinion, based upon a review of the government witnesses’ credibility and much evidence suppression, no fair trial occurred.

It’s not that this proves Peltier innocent; it’s that it does not, to my satisfaction, prove his guilt. And if he were white, I do not believe he would have been indicted, much less convicted.

Leonard Peltier has been incarcerated ever since. He is 77, in poor health, and there is good reason to believe he is currently being denied medical care.

Until I studied the Rosenberg case some years back, I would have begun with more faith in (or at least, less distrust of) Federal agents’ and courts’ integrity. That case made it abundantly clear to me that when a case touches certain issues–a Red Scare, for example, or a Native American movement painted in public pronouncements with the potential for foreign subversion assistance–the government will cheat. In short, Julius was guilty enough (no real argument there), but Ethel’s indictment was flimsy. Julius had the option to plead out and inform on others to save his wife, whose indictment rested mainly on her brother’s suborned perjury, and the government expected him to accept. He maintained his innocence and refused to help the Federal agents bust others, so the government carried out its threat. The trial proceedings represent a craven failure of justice, with even defense counsel at great pains to distance themselves from any hint of being soft on the Red Menace. They shamed this country and its system of justice.

Based upon my conversation with my tablemate in the waiting lounge, I determined to look into the Peltier case. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m enough of a Kansas boy to have a good sense of bullshit when I smell it. My review satisfied me that Leonard had not received a fair trial, and that the case against him should have been rejected by jury nullification based upon the suppression of evidence and vindictive reactions to the agents’ deaths. I came to believe that this elderly man should have his conviction vacated; at the least, that he should receive executive clemency. I had thought that Il Douche might have pardoned him just to piss off the FBI, which he resented for not doing his bidding, but it did not happen. Biden won’t, unless it’s in the last days of his administration (by which time Leonard might no longer be with us). The Federal government has long memories, extensive files, and unchecked power. For half a century, a virtual secret police chief led the FBI, and the country got used to the idea that the Feds had dirt on everyone. I can see where that might intimidate even a sitting chief executive, though I don’t see where it absolves them.

Not so long ago, I was wondering what I could do that might mean something. Evidently Leonard is kept in solitary confinement, but can receive letters. If I were in solitary, I would want letters, so I wrote to him. My first mailing came back; the prison had rejected it for using an address label on the envelope. I repackaged it, handwrote my return address, and sent it again. (Those fuckers owe me a 55-cent stamp.) I did not expect to hear back, but I did, a handwritten two-page letter from Leonard himself. His writing and outlook were consistent with what I had come to know about him: a man perhaps willing to fight if provoked, otherwise peaceable, but who would never cease to struggle for Native rights. The tribes get bullied any time a corporation learns that it can make money by stealing their resources, or whenever they try to assert treaty rights.

Like Kathryn Janeway, I don’t like bullies. Many of my interactions with our judicial apparatus and its various arms have shown me that bully culture is at the heart of our national character, and that government’s tendency to bully represents the soul of the nation. It’s just what they do; what we do. It disgusts me, and I’ll call it what it is.

Leonard recommended I read this book, and I have. I find it persuasive, honest in its basic bias (I trust that more than I trust anyone calling him or herself objective), and well researched. Matthiessen hit some brick walls, but mostly on the governmental side. I believe that his Native sources were in the main truthful, with the caveat that they wouldn’t tell him anything that might get any of their own in trouble. I respect that. I wouldn’t either. Matthiessen eventually met someone, name not provided nor known to him, who accepted responsibility for the agents’ killings. The account reads credible, and the man was not Leonard Peltier.

The most telling aspect of the episode that led to Leonard’s show trial and railroading, to my mind, is the degree to which the American Indian Movement was portrayed as a domestic terror movement with backing from overseas Commies. If you believed the government, this might be the next Cuban- or Soviet-sponsored insurgency, and we should all be Very Afraid. In 1976, at 13 and very much indoctrinated in the toxic nationalism that has now consumed (and will ultimately ruin) my country, I might have bought that. Now I don’t. All my life, there have been demon words used to whip up hatred and fear against those we are ordered to rejected. I don’t take those orders well; I prefer to decide for myself who deserves those emotions of me. Native Americans insisting upon their rights, and resenting/resisting abrogation and violation of those rights, do not deserve my hostility. This country will never heal until we do them justice. I will not live to see it, but I hope later generations will. Maybe then we will cease to be Bully Nation.

I recommend Matthiessen’s book. I thank Leonard for recommending it to me.

How to pick out an editor

Since you probably do not follow editors’ forums, I’ll spill: There are a great many people who first decided they wanted to be editors, then set forth to learn the English language.

For the record, that is not the proper order.

A high degree of English proficiency in at least one dialect is the baseline expectation for an editor, which means having been a voracious reader for at least a couple of decades. If one has to go on editorial forums and ask about punctuation because one’s chosen style guide doesn’t dictate one’s every action,  one evidently doesn’t know enough about the language to make those decisions oneself. That’s like a military platoon leader who doesn’t know basic small unit tactics outside a field manual, and is afraid to improvise under fire lest s/he break a rule.

Writers take harm by hiring a less than competent editor, or by hiring the wrong editor. I’m not the right editor for everyone or every situation; no one is.

How would I go about it, putting myself in the writer’s chair?

I would learn what editors do. An amazing percentage of writers do not understand that there are different editing modes with different objectives and requirements. In nearly every case, my first job is to explain my job to the prospective client. They come in thinking “editing is when you fix all the things and crush my soul, duh.”

I would be clear and realistic about my goals for my project. If it was meant to make money, I would develop some marketing strategy beyond “hope to get discovered without doing any actual work.” I would take a guess at the type of editing that might best help me with my goals. I would prepare to be told otherwise, but I’d at least give it some thought.

I would ignore all the sites where people can just list themselves and be hired directly. I would talk to other writers, ask about their experiences. I would eavesdrop on the Facebook groups for editors. I would observe the state of the art, all the people who need a committee meeting and an emotional support group to know where to put a comma, who treat the interpretation of a Chicago Manual of Style passage like rabbinic scholars treat Talmudic passages. I would look for the people who answer the questions, and how they answer them. I would pick out a few that seemed knowledgeable, intelligent, and successful enough to share their knowledge.

Then I’d get in touch, one at a time, but at first I’d let the editor direct the process. This would not be me abrogating my right to decide; rather, it would be meant to show that I wasn’t a control freak, and to observe the editor’s screening method. I would want to decide whether I liked that method, whether I found it helpful and promising.  I would not profess to know anything about editing, though I would at least have done some basic homework. I would wait to see how well the editor guided me to a wise course of action and cooperation that would take into account my concerns and goals, about which I would expect to have been asked.

I’d keep doing this until I found someone that completed a good team, that I could afford, and above all was a knowledge sharer rather than a knowledge hoarder. This distinction is of paramount importance. Successful and skilled people tend to signify their success and skill by sharing knowledge in a generous fashion. They are never afraid they will run out of wisdom because they know how much they know. They are concerned not with being paid for every tidbit, but with giving the maximum value and support for any form of payment.

It’s expensive enough. You might as well get someone good–and that’s how I’d go about it.

Newly released: Uncle Grumpy’s Guide for the Perplexed: Volume I. Starting University, by Markham Shaw Pyle

A new release by an outstanding writer and friend.

Uncle Grumpy’s Guide for the Perplexed:Volume I. Starting University. The first in a new series … in which Uncle Grumpy—me: the historian, critic, publisher, and retired attorney Markham Shaw Pyle—explains the purpose of a university; its pitfalls; how not to let it turn into a mere trade school for you; what tools to pick up […]

Newly released…. — Markham Shaw Pyle, author & historian

Recent read: Ottoman Odyssey, by Alev Scott

The basic concept of this book was creative: After finding herself barred from Turkey, Scott (of English and Turkish parentage) decided to travel and write about the former Ottoman dominions. Most were lost to the former Sultanate just about a century ago, post-World War I.

After reading her first book, Turkish Awakening, another volume by Scott offered considerable appeal. The Erdogan government evidently wasn’t too thrilled with what she wrote. Turkey can be very sensitive about critics, enough that it has a law against “insulting Turkishness.” That includes, for example, referring to the Armenian genocide as genocidal. Formerly a somewhat authoritarian but determinedly secular republic, Turkey of late has shown significant drift toward theocracy. It once ruled much of the region, and that has left not only lingering grudges but lingering allegiances. Not everyone regrets the Turks’ absence.

D and I have been to Turkey, but only briefly. We liked what we saw, realizing our sample size was too limited for any generalization, and we liked the people we encountered. We felt safe and well treated. But that was over ten years back, and I am not sure we would return in the current climate. I’m not pointing a finger over the rise of theocratic hyper-nationalism; no American reasonably can. But I can also see why tourists were avoiding my country after 2016.

As Scott traveled about the former Ottoman lands (the Balkans, the Levant, Iraq, etc., she saw that Turkish support for local Islamic education and places of worship was on the rise. A century after its dismantlement, at least in the United States where historical understanding is atrocious, only history majors even know that “Ottoman” can mean anything other than a place to rest one’s feet.

All right. At its height, the Ottoman Empire included all the modern Balkan countries as far north as part of Hungary and some of Ukraine; the entire Black Sea coast; the Caucasus and Iraq; most of the Arabian peninsula; the north African coast from Egypt to Algeria. Its western boundaries somewhat curled around Italy. That’s big. This was a powerful, sophisticated, diverse imperium in which Muslims enjoyed preference (lower taxes, for example) but which, to be blunt, treated non-Muslims much better than western Europe treated non-Christians most of the time in most places. Jews, Greeks, Turks, Slavs, Arabs, Armenians, mostly lived and worked in amicable proximity. Western Europe took the Ottomans very seriously, especially when the Turks tried to expand into the Balkans.

Over the 1800s, the Ottoman grip grew flaccid, its member regions declaring independence or being seized by other powers. By 1900, the Ottoman Empire had a glass jaw. Siding with the Central Powers in World War I sealed its fate. When the outcome was settled, there was no more Ottoman Empire. Turks controlled only the area bounded by modern Turkey (minus Antakya, better known in the west as Antioch, which they reabsorbed in 1938-39). They had learned a thing about European wars, and they sat out the one immediately arriving. Not a single Turkish soldier died in World War II.

Postwar Turkey became a staunch NATO ally, in spite of periodic conflicts with fellow NATO member Greece, and to all external appearances was the farthest thing from seeking a new empire. Its troubles mainly involved a large Kurdish minority deeply resentful of its overlords. From the US standpoint, that’s long been the biggest problem for US support to the Kurds: such support would alienate Turkey, one of the most strategic positions in the world and a key US ally.

It has been, at least. Nowadays that alliance stands shaken and uncertain, with both sides thinking they never really knew one another. Maybe they didn’t.

If not, Scott’s book is a help in understanding the various undercurrents of that relationship. I look forward to more from her.

Making the Sausage

For some, editing might seem like literary witchcraft. Someone seems to wave a wand and it all sounds better, even if one cannot say why. I recently drafted a social medium post, looked at it, scowled, edited it, then realized that it offered two clear examples of common mistakes that most people don’t catch.  I walked through the process, and this is what came out.

Take the comment:

“I’m picturing Tony Suprano waddling out there to get his paper in his robe, feet turned out so far he could be in ballet, telling them to GTFO of there.”

I misspelled Tony’s last name. For most people, that’s where the review would stop, because that corrects the obvious mistake. But there are two hiccups, weaknesses that harm the clarity. Do you see them?

The first is phrase order. Think about the way I wrote the first part, specifically the prepositional phrases. My phrase order makes it sound as though Tony expends special effort just to make sure he is wearing his robe (as opposed to some other clothing, or none at all) when he goes out to get the Newark Daily Wiseguy. That’s not the main point, which is that he’s going out and happens to see someone who needs telling off. If there is a descriptor we can toss, it’s the one about the robe–but it’s not a bad descriptor.  It does help paint the scene and suggest timing. There’s no reason to regret it, but we could move it around:

“I’m picturing Tony Soprano waddling out there in his robe to get his paper, feet turned out so far he could be in ballet, telling them to GTFO of there.”

One could consider instead saying “a robed Tony Soprano,” but that creates some issues of its own. It over-elevates the robe’s importance, making it sound like he’s going out in judicial or ceremonial robes or somesuch, rather than in the normally assumed bathrobe. Thus, the phrase shift above. While that reads better by placing the robe phrase in a better spot, a couple of questions remain. One is murkier.

Since I said he was waddling, is it really necessary to talk about how James Gandolfini was able to turn his feet at angles well past 45°? No, but the actor’s gait was amazing to watch, especially going down his steep driveway in some hilly Newark burb. That one’s 51/49, perhaps, good arguments made for inclusion and omission.

Less acceptable are the two instances of “there.” Even with different prepositions, this is an example of the sort of overuse we see with misbegotten expressions like “off of” (please never say this). We haven’t been told the target of Tony’s vulgar admonishment, nor what they are rooting around in (let’s say it’s his recycling). Yet the choice is straightforward. If we remove the first “there” and just leave “out,” we do no harm to the meaning while improving the word count and concision. Without the second instance, in “of there,” we would lose meaning. While I don’t have Tony say what it is out of which they are to GTF, “of there” at least implies it’s something other than just standing on his property without his assent. They could be in a bush, looking in his mailbox, or indeed going through his recycling. One “there” statement must go, and it can only be the first. We get:

“I’m picturing Tony Soprano waddling out in his robe to get his paper, feet turned out so far he could be in ballet, telling them to GTFO of there.”

This is how we do this. We look at what is said and implied, toss spurious words, rearrange phrases. For me, the phrase order is the more pernicious writing issue, because my thoughts don’t always come out in the right order when writing. It’s easy to see why it happens to most people.

Just injured enough to be impaired just enough

If my back, my eyes, and my hands work, I have the capacity to do my work. If one of those doesn’t work right, that’s a big problem.

About a week ago, I was attempting to assemble a new set of hot tub steps. This was necessary because my wife has hip trouble and was finding it difficult to get in and out. I often feel powerless when it comes to Deb’s medical situations, so when life serves me up one that I can somewhat help with, it’s bad to be in my way.

This pretty sturdy and grotesquely expensive step set was difficult to find, but I did so and hauled it home. Reading the directions, which as usual were designed for two different models and which failed of course to answer some basic questions (such as why these two pieces out of these eight have special indentations about which the instructions indicate positively nothing), I gathered up tools. A regular claw hammer, hitting naked, would damage the plastic. I couldn’t find my rubber mallet, so I decided to hold a small piece of 2×4 in the proper places when banging things together.

Things were going very well, but some of the plastic pieces needed serious force in order to hammer home. That I could supply; what I forgot to supply was intellect, which would have said that using about an 8″ piece of 2×4 was dangerous. It could, for example, put my thumb too near the hammer’s trajectory–especially when striking with the flat, which made some sense when hitting a piece of wood and trying to distribute the impact area.

Then struck Darwin. I belted the wood a mighty blow, and in so doing, hit my left thumbtip with the claw side of the hammer. This action cut clear through the nail, creating a separation of about 1/8″ between the halves, and as I would soon learn, inflicted a comminuted (“broke up in pieces”) fracture of my left thumbtip.

This hurt and was rather messy, especially when it coughed up a blood clot the side of a small caterpillar. (Yes, I realize that we just reached peak ick.) D helped me wash it off and bandage it up, calling upon her old EMT skillset. I then finished building the steps, being more careful this time. When I began to feel a different sort of pain, I accepted D’s entreaties to go to urgent care.

Either I got a very new nurse, or a very sensitive one, because the sight of the thumb grossed her out. I had not known it was possible to gross out a nurse with less than a keg or so of bodily fluids or wastes; they’ve seen more disgusting things in the last week than most of us will see in a decade. After a couple of hours of being x-rayed, cleaned, splinted, and bandaged, we were ready to go back home. The pain meds were the weak kind, but that was all right, because I normally won’t take opiates if I can possibly find relief any other way. I get what they are trying to avoid, and I have no illusions that I am somehow immune.

That leaves me trying to write blog posts, conduct email correspondence, and otherwise do my work with a heavily splinted and sometimes sore left thumb.

You know, one of the best ways to appreciate a body part is to lose most of its use.

Showering? Great, with my left hand bagged and out of commission. Where I can reach with my right hand or a brush, I can scrub; feels like twice the effort. Typing? Splint keeps bumping the space bar in mid-word. Carrying grocery bags? Whatever my left hand can hold with just the fingers around a handle, it can haul. Putting on seatbelt? Careful; ram that thumbtip into anything and it’s not fun. Adjusting wing mirror on driver’s side after some parking lot donkey pushed it flat against the door? Not easy. Putting groceries on belt for cashier? One piece at a time, sorry, folks. Getting book and mouthpiece off nightstand? Roll all the way over because you only have one hand that really grasps anything heavier than paper. Anything you have to pinch/grasp with both hands, I have to adapt to handle–if I can.

The hidden issue is that thumbtip. Stick your hand out at random to turn off your lamp? Don’t bump the thumb against the lamp, or you’ll know what you did. Rooting around for something? Not with that hand, not twice. It had never occurred to me how I was so used to just shoving my hand into cabinets and drawers and such.

I don’t recommend doing this to yourself. However, it did get me thinking about high school. We had a teacher, Mr. W, who had lost an arm in some form of accident. He taught social studies and photography, coached track, and advised the yearbook. (He was the one who caught me trying to slip in the caption “Bored members…” under a photo of the school board.) He could type well and in general showed minimal impairment, a status at which I did not properly marvel back in t he late 1970s.

Mr. W, I grant it’s a little late and that you’re fifteen years deceased, but what you could do was badass. I don’t have it half as tough and I’m fumbling around here like a clod.

New re-release: Frenchy’s Whore, by Verne E. Brewer II

This tale of the Vietnam War has quite a history. I provided general editing input and line editing. Note well: the Amazon blurb is copied from my original review, thus dating back nine years. It does not reflect current impressions of the book. I believe this is destined to be fixed.

I came to know Verne some nine years ago when we were playing Castle Age, a Facebook game. He was friends with a friend. Somehow–I don’t recall exactly how–I came to learn that he had published a book based upon his experiences in Vietnam with the 173d Airborne Brigade.

Since I like stories based in authentic experience, I decided to give Verne a boost. At that time, I still had enough review weight on Amazon that I could make a difference; plus, not only did the Vietnam vets receive shameful mistreatment, but my father-in-law had been one of those vets, and I felt like it would do his memory respect to give another old jumper (them, not me, just to be clear) a boost. I ordered the book, read it, and wrote an honest review. The story was excellent, textured, with significant descriptive talent on display and that authentic feel that you can only get by being there.

Problem: It did not reflect the benefits of competent editing. This was painful. I decided mentally to give the storytelling five stars, weighted for the descriptive talent that a capable editor would have brought out, but two for the actual prose. Net, four–maybe a 3.6, but there are no fractional stars. Normally I’ll just put down a book where it’s hard to get through the writing, but I had decided to see this through and tell the truth. My review did so.

I never heard much from Verne about it at the time, and I wasn’t sure how he felt about my review, but I felt good that I’d given his book a little bump. Most people arguably wouldn’t be as affected by editing and proofreading problems as a professional editor would be. Better to have a great story with writing problems than an eloquently written yawnfest. Writing problems are repairable; well-written dullness can only be de-dulled by adding better story characteristics.

I was still in touch with Verne here and there over the years, so I was pretty sure I hadn’t pissed him off. In 2020, he got in touch to tell me a story that astonished me.

Turns out that Verne’s reaction to my review was a combination of delight with my observations and disappointment with his publisher, which had committed to provide him with some editing and proofreading support. He told me of sitting through book signings feeling embarrassed, but he saw my review as having seen through to the essence of the book, and over the years he had felt good about that. Flaws aside, the book had remained in some demand over the years, copies still selling for a significant premium on the secondary market. Now, Verne told me, he had reacquired the rights and he wanted me to help him make a new release of Frenchy’s Whore the book it always should have been.

Careful what you write in reviews, right? Someone might say: ‘Okay. I agree with everything you said. You’re on. Let’s see what you’ve got, and let’s see this book reach that potential you talked about.’

That sounded like an enjoyable assignment, though. It’s not every day you hear something about stuff you wrote nine years back. Verne wanted to make a few minor storyline corrections, extend the tale a bit longer, and then we’d be ready for a line edit. Our first hurdle was that he didn’t have an electronic copy, just a box of the remaining copies from his former publisher. This forced me to confront a question I hadn’t dealt with: How does one scan a printed book back to an electronic format? While a capable transcriber could retype the whole thing, surely there had to be a more time- and cost-efficient way. I dug around and found a service that would do it for a basic amount of $14 plus six cents a page. While I had no idea how it would go, I asked Verne if he would be willing to risk about $20-25 plus a sacrificed print copy on a chance to jump straight to electronic copy. Boy howdy he would.

While the scanned version had the expected issues, we could work with it. We discussed the prognosis and Verne decided to get moving with some rewriting and recharacterization. That process hit a few bumps, such as when Verne got hurt pretty badly in a motorcycle accident, and times when the material was difficult for him to face. I can relate to this through my own trauma experiences, which I rarely discuss here but do understand how they can play back old mental tapes. There was nothing for it but to be patient with my client’s process and life situations, which is something editors must always be ready to do. If we are not, then when we have our own life situations, we can’t expect any understanding at all.

The line editing process faced some hiccups, such as material shifts (requiring changes in introduction points, for example, with careful scrutiny) and integration of new information that gave clarity to the story. I ended up over budget, which is uncommon but can happen in spite of my best efforts. A client has the right to make late changes, of course, and I need to accommodate them.

Late in the project, it occurred to me that I could offer a contribution. My own PTSD, while not arising from anything like the Vietnam experience, has been part of my life since my teens. It had always helped me to empathize with the impact of PTSD on veterans and others, even before I understood that this was what we had in common. I offered Verne a piece for the book’s front matter regarding why Vietnam matters, and he accepted. I hope it will help readers gain increased context. Context is everything.

The biggest dilemma came with names: real names, pseudonyms, and incomplete conversions of either. Verne had the advantage of actually having known all these people; I did not. Thus, was this guy really this guy, or is this another instance of that guy? On the third pass, this drove me absolutely nuts, frustrated, furious, and excruciating. Part of that was because I wasn’t charging for it, because I was fixing my own bad judgment. At the very outset, I should have asked for a complete table of real names, pseudonyms, and jobs. While my intent had been not to make this harder on Verne than I could help–these were real people and painful memories–it was a false economy.

After about twenty hours of uncompensated floundering work, I finally put my foot down. I told Verne I needed a complete list of all the real names, any fake names, and which he intended to be used. While I tried to be non-confrontational, realizing that my anger should be taken out on myself for having not required this at the start, I was prepared to insist. When he sent me the name list and told me it was so freaking confusing, that was the first time I’d smiled about this since I’d stopped work to await the list. If it confused the author who actually knew the real people, I was hardly losing it to be so confused myself. It confirmed for me that I’d finally done exactly the correct thing.

Took me long enough.

Besides the fact that his rewriting had shown a lot of growth, Verne’s goodwill, coachability, and gratitude stood out throughout the project. He always treated me like a valued colleague, considered my guidance, and appreciated me as though I were somehow doing him a big favor (rather than planning to be paid for services rendered). In fact, I was honored my words had impacted and encouraged him so much, and more honored to be asked to participate.

This time, I feel confident that Verne’s story retains all of the original’s texture but with more consistency and polish. I believe you will agree.

Blogging freelance editing, writing, and life in general. You can also Like my Facebook page for more frequent updates: J.K. Kelley, Editor.