Category Archives: Editing/writing life

About doing this stuff for a living.

The state of the proofreading

Just when I thought it was at a nadir, it goes lower.

Much of what most people think of as editing is in fact proofreading. Proofreading checks for errors. It does not take very much extra effort for proofreading to become copy editing, but the latter has a greater purview.

My advice to clients is always to engage a proofreader, and that it cannot be me, even though proofreading is a special talent of mine. Then why won’t I do it? Because, in order to proofread to my own standards, I have to be seeing the ms for the first and only time. I refuse to take money to work to anything less than my best standards. Also, it’s much better for them to have a second set of eyes. Different eyes see different things.

If you want to see someone really, seriously, heavily piss me off, have them inveigle me into voluntarily proofreading their work for free “as a friend,” after which they make a blithe jaunt through the ms giving it a full rewrite and thus destroying all the value I gave away for free.

Anyone who has read a lot of self-published work has noticed that most writers don’t hire proofreaders. (Many don’t hire editors, either. Or they do, but ignore most of the guidance. Or they hire inept editors and accept the misguidance. But all that is another story.) The result is a poisoning of the self-pub well in the eyes of those who aren’t patient with errors that should have been caught before publication.

Happily for many self-pub authors, most readers don’t know that those are errors, thus they don’t care. The authors lose only the very literate minority, and if someone pays $5.99 for your Kindle edition, you don’t see whether that $5.99 came from a Ph.D in Comparative Literature or a Harlequin romance fanatic. Those two $5.99s have the same purchasing power.

So; proofreading either doesn’t get done, or gets done by their sister-in-law. She reads a lot of John Grisham, you know, so surely she can handle it.

Yeah.

What I never thought I’d see: a self-advertising, paid “proofreader” who simply ran grammar check and spellcheck. #congratsuproofed Now I have.

I’ll bet you have never stopped to wonder what would happen if people just proofread by running grammar check and spellcheck. Have you? What, you don’t spend your fun time ruminating on literary outcomes?

Oh. Okay. Point taken. But since you haven’t, let me explain what this would do. It would:

  • Introduce a number of mindless corrections to situations where the author knew the rule and chose that special moment to break it for valid reasons of flow, dramatic effect, whatever.
  • Destroy dialogue for characters that did not use perfect speech. Rules for dialogue and internal monologue differ from rules for narrative.
  • Enforce slavish obedience to conventions that might make no sense in context. The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford? Introduced or eradicated with mindless efficiency, depending on one’s conventions, without heed to the meaning it could inflect.
  • Miss a great many of the most pernicious typos, such as ‘thought’ for ‘though.’ So hard to catch, so common, so irritating. So expected to be caught in proofreading. So unpardonable a miss that a proofreader who misses them is not a proofreader.

Not only would it trash the ms, it would be a creative trashing job. While missing much of what one wishes a proofreader to catch, it would damage what one expects her not to damage.

Now I’ve seen it happen.

I got so pissed off that I volunteered to proofread the whole thing, free of charge–with the natural caveat that it would not be to my normal standards, and on a best-efforts basis. My client’s trust had been abused, infuriating me. I hate this, and it’s not the first time. I had one client who needed help with formatting and cover art. I sent her to someone who came fabulously recommended. That provider accepted the job, more or less blew my client off for months, then farmed it out to someone else who proved horribly inept. Infuriating, and more so in this case because it meant I led my client to a bad outcome. I will never regain respect for the provider who did that, but I know part of the problem was that I gave a secondhand referral to someone who had nothing to lose by alienating me. I’m embarrassed, still (years later), because I know that I screwed up. And since I’m hopeless at formatting and cover art, it was not in my power to take that bullet for my client.

Unlike some past cases, this client didn’t then launch into a full rewrite of the proofread ms. It was published with the corrections, a product we could be proud of. So at least we had that.

Nowadays I pass along names, but no recommendations, unless I know that the provider values my respect so highly that s/he wouldn’t dare blow things up. Definitely no more recommendations based on “another client used him/her and was happy.” Yeah, been there, and the trip sucked.

If you’re hiring a proofreader, insist on some evidence that s/he knows what s/he is doing. A bunch of glowing reviews on some editor/proofer search site does not constitute “evidence that s/he knows what s/he is doing.” I suggest asking for a sample proofing of a random few pages.

Anyone who refuses to do that, I think one may safely dismiss.

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TWYHAE (That’s why you have an editor)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Aspiring writer transforms into actual writer by authoring partial ms. This happens in fits and starts, with numerous backtracks to rethink, proofread, self-edit, and self-doubt. Eventually:

  • loses motivation
  • ascribes loss of motivation to mythical ailment called “writer’s block”
  • joins writers’ group in order to overcome mythical ailment
  • finds that entire group has also elected to blame loss of motivation on mythical ailment
  • realizes that no one in group has any solution for this
  • gets sick of attempting to critique screenplays, so-called “young adult” (kid) lit, and elfy/dwarfy/vampy/wolfy urban paranormal without collapsing in apathy
  • realizes also that writers’ group is mainly an emotional support group
  • fades away from writers’ group
  • lets ms sit for months or years
  • realizes one should one day return to ms
  • dreads returning to ms
  • castigates oneself for not completing ms
  • sits down and reads existing ms
  • overwhelmed with despair and futility, bawls
  • tries to think how to fix all the problems
  • bawls some more
  • says screw this and bakes cookies, or pounds nails, whatever s/he finds cathartic

Is this a hobby or avocation, or is this autoneurosis?

If one does not have an editor–and I mean a true advisor, sounding board, guide, and helper, rather than the glorified fascist proofreader that many writers imagine all editors to be–I can understand this. If you’re in it alone, you wander alone in the wilderness. If you find a way out, great; many do not.

If one does have an editor, the real deal, one has a solution to nearly ever failure point on that list: TWIHAE. One says to oneself: “That’s why I have an editor.” One either continues to create, confident that any problems will be resolved later with assistance, or one contacts said editor for help getting past the sticking point.

I’ve written a ms of my own; I’ve had my writing published. I understand compulsive self-editing that leaves the first third of the book rather refined and the last two-thirds fairly raw. I understand halting halfway through and saying to myself: “This is such crap. No way would anyone pay for this.” I understand trying writers’ groups. The only part I don’t understand, except from an academic standpoint, is writer’s block. I truly don’t understand lying to oneself. Sometimes one doesn’t want to write, or life means one can’t. There’s no such thing as writer’s block.

There is no such thing as writer’s block.

Everyone who has the time and physical means to write, does so. Everyone else doesn’t want to write that badly, or they would be doing it, even if it was to write a lament on how painful it is to have this writer’s block thing, and how convenient it is to have an imaginary condition to help avoid facing facts.

But that’s one reason why you have an editor: to give you another take on facts. The main reason is to allow you to create. To create, rather than backtrack over and over; get hung up on plot points; feel overwhelmed; rush back to rethink Chapter 1; have other crises that mean you don’t write.

If you have an editor, when you notice your first craterous plot hole, you give it some thought for the afternoon. If you still don’t solve it, you either contact your editor, or you drop a reminder comment in the margin and move on. That’s why you have an editor. If you have an editor, when you find yourself tempted to go back and smooth all your prose, you realize that someone else will help you with that and there is no point messing with it now; you say TWIHAE, and you move on. You return to creating. Your back is had.

And if you feel temptation to smoke the opium of blaming lack of motivation on a mythical ailment, seeking to take comfort in the community of futility, you have an editor to cut through all that self-defeating baloney.

Not that having an editor can help everyone past everything. Some people’s emotional and life issues overwhelm them. That isn’t writer’s block (because that’s non-existent), that’s life happening. All one needs to do is admit that one is overwhelmed by issues that impair one’s ability to focus and create. There are some people who can’t write because the potential trauma of feedback has them in paralysis, and who may have past issues to process. (An editor is not a suitable stand-in for a qualified professional therapist, for example.) And there are writers who grow so proud of their flaws, or who are so emotionally needy, that an editor will recognize them as setups to failure.

We can’t help everyone. And that’s okay, because one of the pervasive parrotings of our time is “everyone deserves…” followed by some benefit or fundamental. It’s one of those Bullshits One Is Not Supposed To Call Out As Bullshits. Not everyone deserves help with writing, and it makes no sense to think so. Not everyone is cut out for any given activity. I’m not cut out for parenting, acting, basketball, veganism, teaching special ed, renovating crawl spaces, or any number of other things at which I am or would be incompetent. Writing is no different. Heretical truth: some people shouldn’t. It’s worth trying, we try and fail at some things. Some we try, fail at, and return to later on in light of new wisdom. Writing isn’t an exception to the list of Stuff Not Everyone Can Do.

But if you can, and you find yourself continually sidetracked by self-doubt and self-editing and self-questioning, an editor can be your guide out of the wilderness.

That’s why people have us.

In memoriam: Jim Bouton, 1939-2019

Word comes to me of the passing of one of my life’s most inspirational figures: James Alan Bouton.

Jim was a professional baseball pitcher, inventor, author, and motivational speaker. He enjoyed brief but eye-opening success with the Yankees in the mid-sixties–won two games in a World Series, for example–until his arm began to give out. Reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher in his first comeback, he caught on with the inaugural Seattle Pilots in 1969. The Pilots traded him to Houston during the second half of the season. He was mostly effective in relief for both teams, but not enough to guarantee staying.

Few of his teammates realized that, during 1969, Jim was writing a book. Unlike most baseball books, this one would tell the whole truth. Ball Four, perhaps the most important baseball memoir ever authored, would forever polarize Jim Bouton’s world. His detractors would accuse him of revealing material shared in private, embarrassing baseball, ingratitude toward the game, and other unwelcome deeds. His supporters, including me since my teen years, would laud him for writing a very interesting book; telling the honest truth about the lives of professional ballplayers; refusing to conform to the establishment (and baseball’s establishment has long been full of Stuffy McStuffshirts); and countering the dumb jock stereotype.

Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but there can be no doubt of my position. I’ve never imagined Jim Bouton as a perfect man, nor does he present himself as such in Ball Four or his subsequent books. For me, a bullied intellectual trapped in a horrible situation with nearly no person or institution to take my side, Jim’s book gave me heart. It may be one of the reasons I didn’t go all the way around the bend.

In 1990, while unemployed, I took the time to find a mailing address for Jim Bouton. I felt he needed to know how much I appreciated his work, and I told him what it had meant to me. I didn’t expect a response. Three months later, a UPS driver delivered me a small parcel: a copy of the 1990 re-release of Ball Four. I opened it to see the inscription: “For Jonathan. Smoke ’em inside. Jim Bouton 8/90.”

You may imagine what that meant. Later, with the rise of e-mail, I would have a couple of exchanges with him. I would learn that my letter had made it into a special file where he kept those that meant most to him, letters he would take out and read again on bad days or for inspiration. I learned that as much as Jim Bouton mattered to me, it turned out that in a small way, I also mattered to him.

Jim made a second baseball comeback in the mid-1970s, ultimately reaching the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t stay, but he did reach his goal, and in the process had a number of adventures including a turn with the Portland Mavericks. Let’s give you a sample of Jim’s writing style, and let him tell it:

“The Mavericks were the dirty dozen of baseball, a collection of players nobody else wanted, owned by actor Bing Russell. The team motto could have been “Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched pitchers yearning to breathe free.” In a league stocked with high-priced bonus babies, Maverick players made only $300 per month and had to double as the ground crew. Revenge being a strong motivator, the Mavs had the best team in the league.”

I so wish the Mavs still existed.

Jim Bouton meant more to me than a distant inspirational figure in another way, in that I also made two baseball comebacks. The first occurred when I was 29, having not played since my high school catching and outfielding days ended at 17. Six years later, including five with the Seattle Giants (PSMSBL; just to be clear, I always had to pay to play; I was never paid to play), my achilles tendon parted as I took a step toward the dugout at the end of an inning. We moved from Seattle to eastern Washington. The walking cast came off. I followed the instructions. And then I learned of a local MABL league that was offering tryouts. Even lousy catchers always get drafted, and I turned out. An expansion team picked me up, but the next year that group would morph into the Tri-City Rattlers. I would play there until I was 44, when a brief juke to avoid a fastball to the knee tore my cartilage and induced me to hang ’em up.

For that second comeback, I switched from my old number standby of 9 to 56, Jim’s number all through his big league days. It always made me proud when anyone would ask about it. I even worked hard enough on my own knuckleball to get two pitching tries, one a start. I’m pretty sure our manager knew we were going to get clobbered and felt that our usual pitchers were in serious need of rest, but I still went five innings. I’d watched people try to bunt the knuckleball from behind the plate, but never from the mound. Most amusing.

One may well see reasons I always felt close to Jim Bouton. Later in his life, he added to his authorial body of work with a fictional story about a bribed umpire, then the non-fictional story of his efforts to save an aging historic ballpark. His website advertised his services as a motivational speaker, and he was in demand at Old-Timers’ and commemorative events. I fell in with the Facebook group Ball Four Freaks, a hilarious place where it is always customary to respond with lines from the book. A new member shows up? That’s part of the heckling. “Hiya, blondie, how’s your old tomato?” “That sure is an ugly baby you got there.” “Okay, all you guys, act horny.” Everyone who loves the book gets it immediately. We don’t get many phonies. One fun aspect is that Jim’s son, Michael, will stop by now and then and can answer a question or two.

Jim Bouton did much in life, most of it after his best playing days. He kept playing semi-pro, then amateur baseball until his seventies, when he helped start up an old-time flannel league. To the end, he was as accessible as he could be to those of us whose lives he had affected. He wrote a number of great books, all themed around baseball. He has now stepped off the mound for the last time.

He will be remembered after many of his contemporary athletes have faded from the public mind.

As for me, my eyes very rarely even begin to water in grief. They water easily when I am moved by action or achievement of valor, but rarely in grief. It is not that I do not mourn; it’s that I mourn in introspective silence. This time, they watered.

Books by Jim Bouton:

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark

Strike Zone (with Eliot Asinof)

I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally

I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad (edited/anthology)

New release: Out of Their Depth, by M.R. Cook

This new fantasy novel is now available in print and e-book. I was developmental and substantive editor.

I had known Mike very long ago, but we had not been in touch for most of our adult lives. We reconnected through a mutual friend from those old days who had also sought writing guidance. They had been part of a long-running fantasy role-playing game (akin to D&D) and were both writing stories based upon their gaming adventures.

Before you judge, know this: the unfolding of any RPG campaign is in essence a story writing itself. It always begins with characters in conflict; always with external forces, and sometimes with each other. Some of it is slapstick, for it is a proven impossibility to form any RPG gaming group without at least including one total gonzo. I was in one group where a player played a necromancer (magician who communicates with and animates the dead). His day job? Funeral director.

There are, of course, IP issues with using mutually generated creative content in a for-profit book. Mike has handled it the way I would do were I to write one: by sharing royalties through written agreements. Just in case you were also thinking of writing stories about your RPG campaign, yes, that is a valid method. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is essential legal protection. Don’t accept “Oh, I don’t mind, just go ahead.” Explain to them that fair is fair and you appreciate their contribution. One can also explain that this will give them a reason to promote the book, if one desires.

Out of Their Depth began life as a novella and evolved into a ms about double the basic novel length. That’s not to say that it is too long; my assessment is that the original story was too much to contain within novella or basic novel length constraints. Its evolution involved great strides in character development, for a typical RPG adventure story can have several protagonists depending on how the author chooses to emphasize and POV them. Mike has gone with a method in which I’d estimate 40% of the book is from the main character’s perspective, but his four comrades divided up the remainder of the time. He has done so very effectively.

As a writer, Mike’s greatest natural talent is descriptive verbiage. Where I didn’t persuade him to dial it back–thus, where I felt it paid its way–this talent goes on full display in the novel. His wartime experiences add a grittiness and realism to scenes and discussion of combat. One talent–or more correctly, one acquired knowledge set that adds great flavor–is Mike’s plentiful vocabulary of now-obsolete medieval terms. I am not, shall we say, accustomed to having to look up many English words unless I’m reading something very technical. (One of my sidelines is technical editing. That doesn’t appear on my credit list for multiple reasons, beginning with NDAs.) By the time the novella morphed into a novel, I’d headed for the dictionary a dozen times. I now can define terms like ‘culet,’ ‘oculus,’ ‘assart,’ and many more.

Since a temple is very prominent in the novel, I wonder how Mike managed to avoid the term ‘narthex.’ He may take that as a challenge. It’s the front sort of reception area of a Lutheran church, as I should know, having been marched to Lutheran churches at parental insistence until I finally realized that I was an exhibit rather than a youngster, and if I exhibited embarrassing behavior, I would no longer be subjected to attendance.

Another aspect Mike has handled well is gender. Most novice writers do not portray the opposite gender well. Though many try, it’s not an easy thing. I hammer on it especially with male clients, because in case they do not know this, they had better learn it: women tend to do more reading than men, and most will readily notice non-credible or derogatory female portrayals. They’re perfectly fine with a variety of female roles, attitudes, and ethical levels, but they will groan and tire when faced with characters and reactions that ring false. On the upside, when women like what they see, they vote for it with loyal pocketbooks. If a male fiction writer wants to succeed, he needs to learn to see and paint the world through her eyes. The story contains several strong yet diverse women, all with important roles to play; in fact, the toughest fighter in the protagonist’s party is a scarred, well-armored (no chainmail bikinis here), blocky ex-sergeant who provides most of their combat leadership. I feel confident that readers will conclude that Mike gets it on gender.

In fact, Mike Cook might be one of the most coachable writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. Ever want to know how I size up a client’s potential? About half of it is by coachability. The other half is by the quality of questions asked. Mike was always a bright, articulate guy, and he hasn’t wasted the past three decades. A good client challenges me with great questions. Mike wanted to understand the logic behind my guidance, and where I did not volunteer it (I normally try), he sought it point blank.

This is very healthy, because I ought to have reasons for everything I advise, and it’s well within a client’s rights to want to understand the reasoning. An editor who cannot stand to be challenged in this way does not plan to teach. An editor who does not plan to teach is more or less hoarding knowledge. I do not believe knowledge workers benefit from hoarding knowledge. If your work is to share your knowledge, then its generous sharing will not only give good value but also signals that you aren’t in danger of running short on knowledges.

(Side note: early in my editing days, I had a client named Shannon D. Jackson who asked the best questions. Even better than Mike’s, because any time questions came up, she would ask me: “What questions should I be asking?” When asked that, it opens the floodgates for me to volunteer everything useful I can think of. She ended up with an outstanding parenting book.)

Mike placed quality and reader experience above all. He engaged artists. He hired a proofreader whose results proved very disappointing; so disappointing that I took the unprecedented step of doing it myself. I can’t ever take money to proofread my own edited work, but I can volunteer to do it simply to assure that justice is done. If there are still any typos, this time I am to blame. Even at the end, he was addressing potential loose ends in the storyline. The overall result of the process is a satisfying story by an author with great writing ability, a refreshing sense for physics and realism, and who progressed as much during the project as anyone I’ve known.

Writing as M.R. Cook, Mike has applied himself with as much diligence as any author with whom I have worked.

So, after a great deal of effort and time invested, it is with pleasure I announce his first novel.

Writing women, and writing for women: an interview with Adrienne Dellwo

I have frequent conversations with clients about gender in writing. It is fair to say that I have to open some male writers’ eyes on the subject, which of course is twofold: presenting women as realistic and interesting characters, and presenting writing that will have above average appeal (thus, marketability) to women. In short: one disregards women, as an audience, to one’s own detriment.

Rather than tell you why all that was so, I thought I’d seek a more expert opinion. I first met Adrienne Dellwo serving on panels at a science fiction convention. We were fellow travelers in the freelancing field, but she has since expanded her creative horizons into fiction and cinema. She was gracious enough to agree to an interview, and she was as candid as I could have hoped. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed participating.

===

JK: Adrienne, could you go into a little detail about your literary career?

AD: I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I rarely finished even a short story, let alone a novel. Part of the problem was that I didn’t feel like I knew how the whole process was supposed to work.

I started going to conventions for the writing panels, and that really helped. Then, after a panel on World Building, I started thinking about what my world would look like, if I were to build one. A scene flashed through my head, and it became the opening scene to Through the Veil.

That was the first book I finished, and I eventually found a publisher for it. I now have three books out and just finished my fourth last night, actually. And I have two more that are partially written.

Congratulations. This helps the readership understand why I felt you would be the perfect subject for this interview. To some degree it is a sort of self-check. I wanted to write a blog post about writing women (as characters), and writing for women. Then I realized that my idea was stupid, and that it would be far more productive to ask an actual woman.

LOL! Thanks.

First, I want to be clear about generalization. I don’t think any rule, anywhere, applies to everyone in a given group. At most, we might reasonably say that a given generalization is more often true than not. And of course, like everyone else, you are not acquainted with the whole of the population, so you speak from your own circles and experiences. Do those sound like reasonable caveats with which to preface a discussion of the majority of the human population?

Yes, they do.

Great. Let’s start with me running past you some of my longstanding admonitions to clients. If you think any of them are incomplete or flawed, I’d like to know how they can be corrected. First admonition: on average, women are more likely than men to be readers, thus (knowing nothing about the content) the audience is likely to be majority female. Do you agree?

Based on studies and surveys I’ve seen, yes, I believe it’s true that women are more likely to be readers, so it makes sense that they’d consume most of the books, regardless of genre.

The goal there was to hammer home the urgency of the question; if they value their marketability and reviews, they had better reckon with that reality. Running off the majority of one’s audience strikes me as a terrible notion.

Absolutely!

Second admonition: most women have an easy time perceiving the difference between presenting sexist characters (which may be simple realism) and an obviously sexist author (which is a correctable flaw). True in your experience?

Oh, yeah. If most of the characters, the female ones in particular, are presented realistically and just one character is a jerk, that’s a lot different from the sexist representations of women that fill some books. Or, rather, that show up in the single token female character who’s surrounded by alpha males.

Would you say that the latter case is the more common? The only woman on the baseball team, or in the office, et cetera?

Definitely. In a ton of mainstream novels, the only developed female character is the protagonist’s love interest.

So we aren’t talking about just a quality problem. It’s as much a quantity problem.

Quantity, in my experience, might be the bigger problem. We’re so accustomed to it that it’s considered normal. Think of the Smurfs–a bunch of males, plus Smurfette. In the Air Bud movies, they’re all male puppies except for the single female. The male dogs have names that reflect their interests, while the female just gets a girlie name, as if she doesn’t get interests at all beyond being feminine. It’s her entire personality.

Then it continues on–how many developed female characters do we get in DaVinci Code, for example?

It’s been a long time since I read that. I don’t remember many.

That’s because there’s one. The love interest.

And it’s one thing if you’re in a male-dominant environment. You can’t slip women into the submarine in Hunt for Red October, for example. Historically, they just weren’t there. But in other settings, women are chronically under-represented.

If authors would include more female characters, we’d get more interesting ones because they’d need to give them actual personalities to distinguish one from the other. Instead, we get one representation, and she’s basically the same in book after book.

Of course, we have authors who write plenty of wonderful and varied women. I’m talking about a subset of mainstream male authors who tend to get a lot of popular attention and have big-budget movies made.

Can you paint me the picture of this fatigued representation? Just so that my clients and readership can know when they find themselves sliding into inadequate portrayal?

She’s tall, slender, beautiful, and smart. But not smarter than the protagonist, of course. She wears high heels and glasses (the glasses let you know she’s smart!) and pulls her hair back when she wants to be taken seriously, then takes it out of the bun or ponytail and gives it a dramatic shake when it’s time to be sexy. Because she has two modes–serious and sexy.

Most of the time, she’s too busy being serious to have any interest in a romantic relationship, and she may even be resistant to men because of a bad experience in her past (probably a boss or professor), but the protagonist is so manly and brilliant that she’s unable to resist.

So in essence, she is a prop? Like a fake sword or a glucose whiskey bottle?

Precisely. She’s there to give the man someone to bounce brilliant ideas off of, and to fall in love with him.

Another trope that’s layered onto this one is that she’s also a martial artist. That means she can fight well enough to stay alive until the man can save her, and she’s super in shape which makes her more sexually appealing.

Then the author says, “Hey, she’s smart and strong–I write strong female characters!” Um, no. You write fantasy-fulfillment props.

I have a client with an upcoming book where his adventurers, five in number, include one woman. But she’s the fighter and sergeant, and she doesn’t have any love interest. She spends a fair bit of time kicking ass, and speaking of which, her own is not exactly hourglassy. But she’s got enough heart to feel like her own person, not a prop. Sound promising?

It does. Putting a woman in a group with four men and not having her in love with any of them is practically revolutionary.

My client worked hard at this, and it showed.

One more admonition: the most telling cues to the author’s outlook are found when the author portrays women, and in particular interactions between men and women. Agree?

It’s definitely a big one. Something more interesting is interaction between female characters, though, because it’s surprisingly rare and all too often deals with jealousy or commiserating over a man.

In other words, they are not so much about the women, but male-centric. The connection/conflict would not exist without him.

Exactly.

In Through the Veil and its sequels, I have a spiritual order that’s all women. They’re not wives or mothers, their primary interest in life isn’t romance or domesticity. Taking them out of those roles is freeing for me because I can make them individuals on a level I’m not accustomed to seeing.

Because, having grown up with prop women who have no agenda of their own, I have to watch myself. It’s easy to write what you’ve seen and read a million times.

It’s why propaganda works.

So true! I hope younger authors will have an easier time avoiding these issues. In my experience, they’re far more aware of the problems entrenched in media, and therefore more able to avoid the ruts.

In the ’80s, none of us thought Breakfast Club or Revenge of the Nerds or Top Gun were problematic. When I watch ’80s movies with my kids, though, they’re outraged. So we’re getting better, as a society.

Reader by reader, author by author.

Yep. And generation by generation. When I paused The Breakfast Club to talk to my daughter about some of the issues, she told me what was wrong with it. She was all of 12 at the time. Kids are savvy these days, and that tells me that even if authors keep writing hollow women, they’ll stop being successful.

One suspects that certain parents have laid better groundwork than others. I know Joe [her husband], and I’m sure they get mutual message reinforcement on gender issues.

LOL! So true! My kids don’t get traditional gender roles at all. We both cook and clean and buy groceries and pay bills and fix things and create things. Because of my health issues, I stay home and Joe goes to work–but while I’m home, I’m writing medical articles and books and screenplays. On film sets, sometimes he directs, sometimes I direct. So yeah, my kids think any kind of artificial gender roles are just weird.

Where possible, I counsel my male clients to make sure that some of their first readers include women who can offer feedback, but that alone is unlikely to correct inherent biases and flaws. What would you suggest they do in order to write better women, and write better for women?

At conventions and in writing circles, you hear a lot about “writing strong female characters.” I think we need to stop focusing on that, because then we get into definitions of what strength is and what female means. That’s all problematic! Meanwhile, when you read male characters written by female authors, you don’t run into the same issues as with the reverse.

We need to go back to basics. We write good characters when we treat each one as an individual with their own goals, dreams, fears, etc. If you’re looking at a female character that way, rather than as just a love interest or sex object, you’re going to be fine.

The prop women we discussed earlier have one major trait in common–the male protagonist’s goal becomes her goal the moment they meet, whether she has any prior motivation to pursue it. It becomes her goal because he is her true goal, and she’ll mold herself into the proper shape to fit.

So if a man is having trouble creating a decent female character, I’d suggest an exercise–write a short story about that woman, earlier in her life, where she’s the protagonist and there’s not a love interest. Once you see her as a full human being, she’ll come across that way on the page. Or write the character as a male buddy and then change the pronouns.

And if you think, “But I’d have to change everything about the character to change the gender,” then you’ve found the real issue you need to work on.

Because too many of these female props-as-characters have too many qualities that are either a) female-specific, and/or b) centered around a male?

Exactly. And here’s the thing–when women write male characters, they write them the same way they write female characters! I think about his goals, his challenges, his insecurities, how he views the world based on not just gender, but environment, circumstance, culture, and up-bringing.

All of us are much more than gender, so when you start thinking about “how do I write a woman,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating a stereotypical woman rather than a realistic one.

Granted. At the same time, I think some of them mean well. They just don’t know what they’re doing, at least in my observed experience. My theory about that is that they have not spent enough time in life trying to see the world through her eyes.

That’s the crux of it–they haven’t examined her as a character in her own right. And I understand how confusing it must be for a lot of men. They put women in the story and get criticism for not creating believable women, so they heap on more “feminine” traits only to get more criticism. I get it, I really do. But it all boils down to the same thing–stop trying to write “a female character” and write fully realized characters who happen to be female. It’s one characteristic of many, not the defining characteristic.

I’ve sat in panels where authors try to define both strength and what it means to be a woman, and the only things that came out of it were stereotypes and generalizations. When you apply them to the whole of human experience, they fall short. I have a lot of traits that are considered traditionally masculine. I know plenty of men who have traits that are traditionally feminine. One of my children rejects gender constructs completely and considers themself neither male nor female.

Then you’ve got gender-fluid people and trans people–gender is a spectrum, not a fixed point. And the longer we go without fixed gender expectations in our society, the more we’ll see that manifested.

I suspect that, beginning with the current generation of children and after, we will see that reflected in how they write.

I’m seeing that already. There’s a great young author named Kaye Thornbrugh who refuses to write unhealthy relationships like you see in so many popular books targeted at girls and young women. I’m in a writing group with several recent college graduates, and they’re writing with an understanding of the gender spectrum that turns everything on its head.

Can you name a couple of male authors who do an excellent job portraying women and gender dynamics? What specifically do they do well?

A lot of people might be surprised by this answer, but I think Stephen King does an exceptionally good job of writing women. I’ve read a majority of his books, and I’ve never felt like a female character was a prop, or under-developed. The reason is that he’s good at developing all of his characters, regardless. He sees them all as full-fledged human beings, and they come across that way. Read Gerald’s Game or Rose Madder or Lisey’s Story to see examples of female protagonists done well. In It, he captures children perfectly. When you read Insomnia, you’re certain you understand what it’s like to be elderly. And it’s all because he doesn’t rest on stereotypes and generalizations. He understands people, period.

Backing up a little bit, there’s been a shift in the way female characters are discussed. At one of my first cons, I heard the criticism that a lot of “strong females” were just “men with boobs,” because they weren’t written any differently from men. Everyone knew it was problematic to define how women should be written, but no one questioned the criticism itself.

At my most recent convention, I saw that criticism questioned because the criticism itself uses a narrow lens of what it means to be female. Sure, you can make generalizations about how women tend to be more nurturing, or how female friendship is different from male friendship, but then you’ve got swaths of women who fall outside of that definition. I have a high school friend who joined the Marines, has never gotten married or had kids, and fits in better in traditionally masculine environments. She lifts weights, goes rock climbing, and jumps out of airplanes for fun. At the same time, she’s heterosexual, loves wearing ultra-feminine clothes when she’s not at work, and decorates her house with floral prints.

Heh. Try pigeonholing all that!

Right? You can’t!

And none of it is because she was abused or sexually assaulted, or because she grew up without a mother, or because she can’t have babies. That’s just who she is. She’s also pagan and has a degree in physics. Wouldn’t you rather read a book with her in it than with some cardboard cutout in high heels and glasses?

Definitely. She sounds intriguing.

We’re all drawn to things that are unusual and unexpected. So create weird women. Create the oddball who can’t be pigeonholed and doesn’t want to be.

Draw from the weirdness inside you and the weirdness in people around you. That’s what’s real.

A science fiction convention could supply enough relevant material for a lifetime of writing.

Hahaha! Without a doubt!

So, Stephen King. Any other men doing above average?

I have a good friend named Bracken MacLeod who’s an amazing author and writes great women. Check out his book called Mountain Home. (Stranded is also amazing but intentionally male-focused, as it’s about toxic masculinity and its impact on men.)

The shared superhero series I write for has a lot of great female characters. It’s the Just Cause universe, and it was started by Ian Thomas Healy. (I know that sounds self-serving, but I wouldn’t be writing for the series if I didn’t admire a lot about it.)

Fair enough. I would also like to note for the reader that it took you longer than anticipated to ponder on this. Do I interpret that fairly to say that the number of major, popular male writers doing a good job on gender is a bit bleak?

That’s fair. I’m browsing through my Kindle and finding a dearth of male authors, and the only big-name ones are Stephen King, his son Joe Hill, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R.R. Martin.

Martin is a controversial one in this area, with some people thinking he created a sexist world in order to show women (and other oppressed people) overcoming it, and other people thinking he himself is sexist. I’m having trouble remembering much about most of Rothfuss’ female characters. I’m not sure whether that’s his fault or mine. LOL

Let the record reflect that the interviewee, like most readers, has voted with her wallet. A thing for prospective and evolving authors to consider.

That is the final arbiter, isn’t it?

If not the final one, it is surely of importance even if it is not the primary determinant of quality.

Very true.

I should mention Erik Scott de Bie, as well. He’s got some great women in his books.

In young adult, Cory Doctorow.

Cory Doctorow I’ve heard of.

His books Little Brother and Homeland are the best YA I’ve read, and as a YA author, I’ve read a lot. They should be taught in every high school. Sorry to go off-topic, but he deals with themes of personal freedom and government over-reach in the name of safety, all with near-future technology and phenomenal character development. Great books.

I feel like I should mention female authors who provide great examples of female characters, as well. High on my list is Diana Rowland, who writes the Kara Gillian/Demon Summoner series as well as the White Trash Zombie series. Her women are tough and quirky and fully developed. I also like Lish McBride, A.G. Howard, and Jennifer Brozek.

And Mercedes M. Yardley. She’s brilliant.

Now I’d like to know who among the men is doing it wrong, and how they are blowing it. The more prominent the names, the greater the percentage of our readership that will relate.

I stopped reading Dan Brown and John Grisham a long time ago, largely because of their female characters. I can’t provide more examples because I don’t read a lot of mainstream fiction anymore, especially if it’s written by middle-aged, straight, cis white men. I feel like I’ve read it all before, over and over. (I should add that I don’t read romance or much “chick-lit” for the same reasons, even though a lot of that is written by women.)

Fair enough. I’d add W.E.B. Griffin to that list, even though it’s speaking critically of the recently deceased.

Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they were good writers.

You can find a ton of articles online with examples of how men have written women poorly. They’re often hilarious, while also sad. When they describe a woman being aware of how her breasts move, you know they’re so entrenched in the view of women as sex objects that they think we actually view ourselves that way.

My mind reels with comic examples of women busy living their lives, punctuated by internal monologue about breast movement.

Yeah. Can’t say I’ve ever experienced that in real life. I mean, what kind of bras are these women wearing? They shouldn’t be moving that much!

I’m told most women are wearing poorly fitting bras. Of course, I’m told that by people who are selling bras.

They do, but even those keep them from swinging around and rubbing against each other.

And the key point, of course, is the tendency for the whole thing to be about the breasts because that’s what the author identifies with femaleness. Or femininity. “Welcome to You Are Your Ta-tas!

Okay. Narrowing the focus for a moment to the portrayals of women, what would you say are the most prevalent flaws–the moments where nearly every female reader rolls her eyes? I say ‘female’ because the reader may well be under the age of eighteen. I understand that this may be slightly redundant, but I’m looking for identifiable trends.

When she cowers and waits for the man to save her. Or when she falls prey to obvious emotional manipulation.

The scene in Captain Marvel (spoiler alert!) when she looks down at her former commander and says, “I have nothing to prove to you,” is possibly the most empowering moment I’ve ever seen on screen. Because every girl and woman has been made to feel like she has to prove herself to a man.

Would it be fair to say that ‘proving oneself’ to the men is another of the prevalent flaws in men’s writing as well as on the screen?

It’s everywhere, in our society as well as our media. That’s why it’s believable when he throws down the weapons and challenges her hand-to-hand.

I didn’t see the movie, but I know that it inspired very polarized reactions. Some of them struck me as comically insecure.

It’s a great movie. One of the best of the MCU, for sure. And any man who has a problem with it should probably get professional help.

I sense that most of the men who feel threatened by the fact that there’s a movie about a superheroine, of which most women and girls seem to approve, aren’t too receptive to help.

What are some obvious early ‘tells’ that inform you there is bad gender writing ahead? The one that comes to my mind is the inability to distinguish girls from women, but you would surely notice more than I would.

I cringe when there’s an excessive emotional response to something because it signals that the author considers women to be over-emotional. If you want to create a character that is highly emotional, it needs motivation–just like anything else. Gender isn’t motivation enough.

I’m pretty selective about who I read, though, and probably 80 percent is by female authors. So I don’t come across it a lot these days.

Oh–something that hasn’t come up that’s important to mention: We need to stop using sexual assault as the default reason for a woman to have emotional or psychological problems. Yes, it’s prevalent in society, but it’s used too often as a convenient and easy explanation. Men get more varied backstories.

Same for domestic violence?

Yeah, domestic violence, too. Along the same lines is having lost a child or having an inability to conceive. Give us motivations that aren’t rooted in the fact that we’re female. Just like a character in a wheelchair may have something to be angry about other than being in a wheelchair, or a person of color might have a chip on their shoulder about something not related to race.

Or if you’re going to use those elements, don’t just make it a throw-away.

I think a similar interview could be done with a reader of color, with equally productive results.

Or a disabled person. Or a non-straight or non-cis person. It’s far too common for one trait to define a character’s entire personality and backstory.

You definitely never want to read Harry Turtledove. Not only are you your difference in Turtledove, but it comes up in every single scene.

Ugh! “Othering” needs to end. If someone can’t recognize the full human experience of someone who’s not exactly like them, they shouldn’t be writing. We all face limitations to understanding other people, but we need to do what we can to overcome them. I know that as a white person, I can’t fully understand what it’s like to be, for example, a brown person in America, but I can pay enough attention to know what issues people of color face, and I can view people of all types as complete people with complex lives and personalities and experiences that aren’t all tied to a small set of characteristics.

Okay, this goes back to characters like Captain Marvel, at the risk of ground already having been trodden. Please think of female protagonists you have encountered in fiction. Can you identify some whose appeal you consider very widespread among women, and tell us what makes them so appealing? One of my favorites is Ari Emory, out of C.J. Cherryh‘s Cyteen series.

It’s hard to deny the appeal of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. She’s capable, independent, brave, and analytical–all traits that are considered typically masculine. She’s also insecure and protective of the people she loves. You might think of that as her softer, more feminine side, but how many books and movies picture men protecting their families? (Die Hard and Taken come to mind.) And insecurity is universal, even though we see it portrayed in women and girls more frequently.

Because that’s how the authors view women and girls, one supposes.

Yep. And because we don’t want our alpha males to show weakness.

Kara Gillian, in Diana Rowland’s Demon Summoner series, is someone I think would appeal to a lot of women. (Those books should really be more popular!) She’s a homicide detective who summons demons on the side. She’s tough, snarky, and intriguing with a mysterious backstory.

What do you think of Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake?

I actually haven’t read her yet, but she’s on my list.

Patricia Briggs‘s Mercedes Thompson, for a localized example?

I’ve read a little of that series. I’ve heard Mercy criticized as an unbelievable female character because she’s too much of a loner and “women need at least one close confidant.” I don’t buy it–I think that’s too stereotypical a view of what a woman is, and that characteristic is believable in the character.

Mercy has a lot in common with the two heroines I’ve mentioned, and that series is wildly popular. Interesting, eh? Amazing what happens when you put a complex, non-stereotypical woman on the page.

Now I would like to look at your own writing experience. I can imagine it going the other way. Do you find it challenging to write male characters in your own fiction?

I don’t, and I don’t think many women do. How many articles have you seen calling out women for unrealistic portrayals of men?

I think the reason for that is complicated. For one, we’re inundated with the male viewpoint all the time, and a disproportionate number of characters we read or watch are males written by males. Second, there’s a pervasive myth in our society that women are mysterious and men will never understand them–so why should they try?

The book I just finished (Plague, which will be out in September) is my first long work with a male protagonist, but I have prominent male characters is all my fiction. I don’t find it hard to relate to that experience because I pay attention to people. I watch, I listen, I learn. I go beyond a small set of traits when imagining who people are.

As a screenwriter, I’ve never had an actor say, “This isn’t how a man would act.”

Here’s the thing about authors who write bad female characters–their men aren’t that much more interesting, either. They’re generally what the author wishes he could be, not honest reflections of the human experience. Readers who like those authors like to see male and female in terms of stereotypes and dated expectations, and they tend to get whiny when their expectations aren’t met.

Is there anything I should have asked you, but didn’t think to?

I don’t think so. We’ve covered a lot of ground.

Indeed. Anything you’d like to add?

I’ve worked it all in already. LOL

Thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts with the readership, Adrienne. Best of success to you in all your creative efforts!

My pleasure, and thank you!

What happens when you set up a Facebook page

On the wise guidance of a friend and marketing advisor, I set up a Facebook page for the editorial business. I had no idea what would occur; much did. I decided that the readership might find it interesting and entertaining.

In the process, I was required to give a street address. (Phone number was optional.) Despite choosing to keep that address private–I don’t have a physical location except for my home office–I had to go in again and make it private. Even now, I am not quite sure that FB will honor this.

It wanted a photo and a cover photo. That didn’t seem unreasonable.

FB then encouraged me to spam all my friends with requests to like the page. Having seen enough such spams in the past from friends promoting their own pages or those of their associates, I decided that my friends wouldn’t get mad at me about it. For the most part, I was right. One person whom I barely knew unfriended me, which was all right.

FB’s first attempts to sell me advertising came within an hour of creation. No joke. I suppose I may safely assume that this will be a regular occurrence.

FB tried to get me to make a post thanking all the new likers. I tried to do this three times; it never completed its process any of those times. I made my own post, which worked fine. Thanking everyone seemed very reasonable. It was pleasant to see the comments and even one recommendation, from Shawn Inmon, himself one of the most capable storytellers going–if you are not familiar with his fiction, by all means use that link. Some of his best work is non-fiction, but fiction is mainly what he does nowadays, and he does it well.

One thing I can’t seem to hide is FB’s posts encouraging me to send more spam, including to my friends. It seems not to know or care that I have already done just that. I do not think very many people would appreciate another spamming.

It tells me I have ten notifications and ten inbox posts. When I check the inbox, I have none. Notifications five, all of which already viewed and addressed, but I still have to tell the notifications that I consider myself notificated. As with normal notifications, I’ll go out on a limb here and suspect that FB doesn’t really take “okay I heard you” as the final answer.

It feels somewhat as if I have just set off the whole fireworks display at once, with notifications and such coming thick and fast. Besides the nervous feeling of not yet having full control over it all, most of it is positive. I’ll know more when the smoke clears away and I police up all the used sparklers, empty Roman candles, firecracker papers, and little mortar boxes.

Day two: page nagged me to list myself as part of the ‘team.’ I guess the idea was it would ‘build my brand.’ Being an old Kansas boy, I think of branding irons and the Rawhide theme. It also continued to rag on me to set up automated ads. These people really, really, really want some money. They want me to set up a group for the page (wonder why?). There’s a nag at the top to ‘add a button.’ Really? Button to do what? I’m afraid to push it lest it trigger a bunch of other crap. At the moment I have more than adequate FB crap to sort out.

This is a bit overwhelming. Do this, buy this, set this up, give us this, add this, blah, blah, blah. I don’t know about adding anything until I’m sure what it does. I guess this is the personality difference between reckless abandon and cautious advancement, and I’m more the latter based on all the goat rodeos in life I have seen ensue from those who just swallow and hang on. Plus, I’m obstinate. The more I feel pushed, the more I resist. The less I trust the originator (FB, insurance company, bank, car dealer), the more I resist. Here I feel pushed by a deeply distrusted source, so the default answer is No.

It is still carping at me to invite all my friends to Like the page. It seems amnesiac. I invited all my friends to Like the page as my first action after setting it up. (An amazing percentage did so. I heart you folks.) Is this all an exercise in laughing at algorithms? All, no; somewhat, yes. I’m a strange person. I reserve the right to take any indiscriminate mass broadcast as though the company CEO singled me out and said it personally. This means I hate a lot of corporations. This, I find, is my comfort zone. I am most creeped out when I find myself liking a corporation. Faceplant has little chance of ever creeping me out in that way.

Day three: more notifications and inbox red markers that, when investigated, mean nothing. Another nag to ‘boost’ my posts by buying advertising. I sense trends. It also admonished me to set up business hours, which isn’t illogical, though it is inapplicable in my case.

Day four: supposedly I have four ‘inbox’ items. I can’t believe any of these red markers. I am nagged to pressure my friends to like the page. There are some interesting statistics: I can see my total likes and follows; I can see the identities of the first but not the seconds. Right now they differ by one numerically (no, I don’t care who does which or what, except to thank all who did either; no one is obligated to like or follow a Facebook page).

It’s about time to check out page settings. I want people to have freedom to post. The default setting should always be liberty rather than restriction, after all; restriction is only for when complete liberty results in some problem. Going into settings, the first thing I find is that I have not Verified that this is my real business page. I can either scan and send them a document, or have them call me with a code. I have them call me with a code. I follow the process, but it does not work and I am told I am unverified. Okay, screw verification.

People can post without restriction, so that is good. Interesting: I can filter a given word, or engage a profanity filter. Multiple language posts are turned off; that’s no good. I have a higher than average likelihood, for an American, of someone actually posting in a foreign language, and I like it. Enabled! Except that it’s not. Or it is. It says it is not, but when I try to do fix it again, it won’t let me change it. These people are lousy at software. I’ll have to post something in a foreign language and see if it ralphs.

While I was doing that, we had another stupid ‘like’ nag. Bruce, one of my oldest friends (since I was about twelve), liked a photo. That caused FB to nag me to invite him to like the page. Cretins. Do they not suppose that he probably already does? Would Bruce love a nice little nag to do something he has surely already done? No, Bruce probably would not. Insight: if you obeyed every nag from FB, you’d hose down your business in short order. Friends will help you out, but not to the point of making their lives worse. I have one friend who has gone way overboard with this, and I definitely don’t want to be That Guy.

At the same time, many pages do nothing. I also don’t want to be That Other Guy. I should begin a procedure of attempting to post one funny, uplifting, or enjoyable thing per day. Just one. No one will unfollow me over one thing per day, one presumes, provided it is not political or negative. So I posted a music video.

Within a few hours, Zuckbook was asking $30 to ‘boost’ my post.

Day five: International Women’s Day, so I post a story. FB nags me to add a donation button. It obviously hasn’t been too early in this relationship for Zuckbook to start asking me for money, but I think five days in is too soon for me to launch a beg-a-thon. Nope.

Maybe I should describe the weird, somewhat clunky control panel one gets in order to check on the red boxes for Inbox and Notifications. I can’t tell why something would be in one and not the other, nor why. The Inbox has a nuclear symbol for automated messages (maybe it was programmed by someone laid off from Hanford), and purports to show you Messenger, comments, FB (why you would need an icon to take you to FB from FB is beyond me), and Instagram (not happening, I don’t own an Instagraph and can’t send any of them). The Notifications looks like a bigger version of the dropdown you get from the little icons at top right of FB. It’s where FB nags you to invite people to like your page, which same people you know already like it. They might like it a lot less if every interaction with it gets them a fresh trip to nag hell.

If you did everything this mechanism rags on you about, you would be broke shouting into a virtual void, because you would alienate even the people who like you independent of Zuckbook, and spend all your money buying ads from Zuck–seen by no one, because you would have driven away the audience.

Oh, and I have hit 200 likes. It nags me to create a post thanking people. My view: best way to thank them is not crap up their news feeds with stupid posts of that sort, and instead focus on posting something fun or educational or topical. For example, something for International Women’s Day. Another ad sales nag as well; this one offering me a free credit. What do you bet I wouldn’t have gotten one of those had I just plunged headlong and started buying ads? Sorry, but I don’t want to create more FB ads even if Zuck gives them to me free.

Day six: it’s time for the daily advertising sales nag! One senses that I had better get used to these. The clickable spots are positioned close to where one would normally hit X to close an unwanted dialog box. Surely this is accidental. Surely.

Day seven. Yesterday, I set my mail checker to mark anything from FB’s ad sales as spam. Since they show signs of planning to do this daily nag for an open-ended period, this will make them easier to ignore. That’s the best I can do, since the notion of getting them to cease sending this spam is problematic.

One thing I have found is that when I post a link to a blog post, and it gets shared, I get a spike in reads. I am grateful to those who do this. It’s the only way that the reach from such a page is likely to increase without drinking the FB ad cool-aid.

Day nine: now the page presents me with a banner called Page Education. It suggests that I learn ‘easy tactics’ to grow the page’s popularity, such as re-spamming my friends–all of whom already got one spam; those who didn’t ‘like’ as a result, no doubt, will be more persuaded to do so by bothering them further. They also suggest sharing it to my personal timeline. As if; one of the key objectives here was to decouple my public presentation from my private life. Another easy tactic: nag my friends to recommend my page. Yeah, because beggary is such a classy look.

Yeah, so forget those. I have a better idea: post actual content that people might enjoy.

Day ten: now it’s nagging me to set up automatic responses to new messages. As if I get such an avalanche of new PMs that I need an answering service. An automatic response is no response, and therefore only annoys; might use it when on vacation, or otherwise well away from the blog. Today must be response day because there’s also a nag to increase my response time. If I trim it down to fifteen minutes, I am told, I will get to wear a special badge. Let me guess: it’s the badge that says “I have no life except to respond to these messages.”

Naturally, there’s also a nag to get started with automated ads. Those are beginning to fade into the wallpaper for me.

Day eleven: since this was the day Facebook was borcked in most ways for most of the US daylight hours, as a side benefit, I didn’t get any nags. Either that or I am better every day at ignoring them. Now and then I’m going to repost some older posts from here. Naturally, for the much older ones, I will do some hasty editing so that I don’t have to post them with a bag over the profile picture.

I suppose it’s time to tie this up with a bow. The experience was chaotic, and felt designed to overwhelm–to inspire one to just say yes to some of the things, in order to still at least a few of the yammers. It doesn’t work on me because I have at least some technical background and have the attitude of a constipated badger when I feel pressured, but it probably works on enough people that it generates some advertising revenue.

On the positive side, there’s a moderately refined mechanism for private conversation engagement if someone PMs me. Some of the statistics are nice, even if they do turn out to be nag platforms: “This post is performing better than 75% of your other posts–Boost it for greater reach!”

At least it’ll offer a good place to post links for these.

What editors do

“I need someone to edit my manuscript.”

“Okay. What kind of edit do you think it needs?”

“AN EDIT! DUH! AN EDIT MEANS TO FIX ALL THE THINGS! SO I CAN [REJECT HALF OF THE FIXES AND] PUBLISH IT AND MAKE A BUNCH OF MONEY!”

And again I’ve come upon someone who wants something she has never taken the time to understand, and from the sound of it may have immunized herself against any danger of understanding.

Well, that’s all right. Nurses would be one example of a profession that deals with the same generalization based on lack of knowledge. “You mean a surgical nurse has different work than an ER nurse or a pediatric nurse? I thought it was all just nursing, you take care of them.” Like nursing, editing has different modes. Unlike nursing–which is more educationally specialized–a capable editor can operate in most or all of those different modes.

What distinguishes the editing modes? For the most part, it is the desired outcome.

“DUH! THAT’S WHAT I SAID! I WANT MY MANUSCRIPT FIXED [EXCEPT WHERE I PLAN TO FIGHT FOR MY WORDS]! HOW CAN THERE BE ANY OTHER DESIRED OUTCOME?”

Sure, Ralph. Whatever you say.

For the reader and writer who prefer to gain understanding than attempt to enforce their preconceived definitions upon a field they do not understand, here are some of the forms of editorial assistance:

The evaluatory read. Sometimes a writer admits that she cannot evaluate her own ms, and distrusts all the plaudits from “the girls at work,” mom, sisters-in-law, and everyone else who would never tell her the truth where it might hint at questioning her greatness. The reasonable outcome of the evaluatory read is a couple of paragraphs, perhaps a page, summarizing where the ms is at and what it needs to succeed.

That last is key. The client asks: so what do I do now? The question is fair, and we must answer or be wanting.

The developmental read. This can tell the writer where her manuscript is at with detailed pointers. It will not correct those flaws, just flag them and make suggestions. Wait, what good is it if it doesn’t JUST FIX ALL THE THINGS, DAMN IT? Try this on for size: editing can teach writers to be better writers. Try this as well: in the ideal world, ms problems would be solved by the author’s own creativity. Whose book is this, anyway?

So: if for instance a fictional character does not work, it’s the work of a developmental read to say as much, and to explain why, and to offer suggestions as to what might work. This input may inspire changes very unlike anything the editor would ever have offered. This is an excellent outcome if the author’s re-characterization resolves the problem.

But most importantly, the developmental read can get the writer the honest, educated critique she won’t get from her sister-in-law and mother and friends from work, all of whom tell her she is great. When she distrusts this chorus and wants an evaluation she can believe, she may ask for a developmental read. The desired outcome is honest, educated, constructive critique.

Not all constructive critique is gentle. If the client has a comma splice addiction, or is sloppy about clause order, there is nothing unconstructive about calling these out in rather icy terms. What would be unconstructive: failure to explain why these are problems, and to guide toward solutions.

The developmental edit. This is a developmental read, but with some selective fixes given for exemplary purposes. It should not seek to result in a publishable ms. It should serve as personalized, intensive teaching. It should get very specific about bad habits, plot holes, orphaned lines and scenes, and every other form of unwelcome practice. When I see a bad book’s author thanking an editor in the acknowledgements, my first guess is that said editor wasn’t asked for a developmental edit. Or if he was, he was ignored. If he was not, he should be ashamed of himself.

A developmental edit should have plentiful comments, not all of which should be critical. The author should learn what she does well. She should learn when the editor laughed, or smiled knowingly, or otherwise reacted. That’s what she wanted, to know what reactions she inspired. It is just as important to tell her her strengths as it is to propose fixes for her weaknesses, and anyone who doesn’t understand that should turn in his red pen collection.

The desired outcome is a deep, detailed critique, assessment, and list of suggestions for improvement–of the author’s writing, and specifically her ms.

The rewrite. Here is the north fenceline of the editing world, a shade south of ghostwriting. In ghostwriting, one would take (or extract) fragments and evidence, then create a ms. In rewriting, a ms already exists and for whatever reason the author prefers it rewritten in full. I consider it to remain within editing’s broadest purview because it begins with the client’s work, but it straddles the border.

Who would want a complete rewrite? The author who wants to publish, and has created a ms, but doesn’t have time or energy or wherewithal to complete it herself. Perhaps the author is deceased and her heirs discovered the ms. Perhaps life circumstances have clobbered her with too much to do. Perhaps she has admitted to herself that she can’t write well and doesn’t want to learn, but still thinks she has a publishable story.

Okay, that last would be rare. But reasons can arise. Mine not to reason why; mine to consider the job and decide whether I want it. The desired outcome is a publishable ms, ready for formatting–although one could argue that the best outcome would come from having another editor provide at least a line edit. The more the editor becomes the writer, the more he himself is in need of editing support. Just because his title is ‘editor’ doesn’t mean his every written word materializes into existence in a state of grammatical and contextual perfection. He of all people ought to know that he can and will make mistakes.

The substantive edit. In a sub edit, as I usually call it, the expected outcome is a publishable ms. It is possible that the end result might need a few last executive decisions from the author, but it should be ready for formatting and proofreading other than those.

A substantive editor has humbling freedom, for he has the right and duty to change anything. Ah, the Ogre Appears! No. That right and duty do not imply that the editor should wield this mandate in random, arrogant, incontinent, or sloppy fashion; it’s still the client’s book, not his. He should try to stay off her stage, let her take the bows, preserve as much of her style and authenticity as he can. But in the end, what he can’t do is let the end result be worse because he was unwilling to act. That would be dereliction of his core duty, and betrayal of his client, who trusted him with her project and has agreed to pay him to perfect it.

A writer who hires developmental editing and absorbs its lessons will often not need a sub edit, or if she does, it won’t take nearly as long. Just as the best dental professionals are those who guide patients toward lifestyle choices that would ultimately put dentistry out of business, the best developmental edit can enable a good writer to bypass the need for a substantive edit.

A line edit is the step below the substantive edit, and it does not question the fundamental content. It isn’t going to remove a chapter or write a character out. Think of these three words: tone, style, consistency. How does the narration sound? Are character voices consistent and distinguishable? Are there ripped seams showing where something was taken out but not all the effects were addressed? Is it clear? Do the wording choices make sense; should they be improved?

A copy edit, which is one step above basic proofreading, could be described as correcting the writer’s English. It will check for consistent spelling of names, consistency of detail, punctuation, and so on. My guess is that this is what most people not in the industry believe that all editors always do; that we are a sort of grammatical Stosstruppenkorps comprising crabby, bespectacled hall monitors who knew from earliest literacy that they would spend their lives nitpicking people’s English mistakes. And that they get together with others assigned to the same stormtrooper platoon to laugh at their friends’ typos. (“Can you believe this? She put two spaces after a colon!” “Baaahahaha! Hey, lady, 1945 called–they want their typing rules back!” “Did you give her a high colonic, baaahahaha!?” “No, but I think she will bear the wounds on her soul through several incarnations. It’s all good.”)

You get the idea. Ever read Catbert the Evil HR Director in the Dilbert cartoons? Purring at cruelties? I have learned that this is what many people think we do. It is to editing what patient sanitation assistance is to nursing. Is it true?

Not of me, and not most that I’ve known.

For one thing, there is no point nitpicking anyone’s English unless one is being paid to do so. Why work for free? For another, most of us want to help and teach, not slurp up the shattered souls left behind us. And for another, the world of editing is far more diverse than that. Most of us can handle any editing mode, but we need to know which mode that is and conform to it. If someone just wants me to fix her English, she might not want to pay me more to tell her that one of her novel’s characters is deeply offensive, or to start rewriting the ms. I call it “playing my position.” I don’t want to be called as an ineligible receiver downfield. And if we have platoons, I have yet to discover them. I don’t know of any editorial hangouts and I don’t go to writers’ forums.

Lastly, being hated is lousy for business.

So: for those seeking editing, it is well worth while to consider what sort of editing one needs. That’s also a good question to pose to the editor: what would best help this manuscript? A capable editor should give a responsive answer to the question, and be able to justify it in detail.

And when one reads a flawed book and is tempted to sniff, “She should fire her editor,” one should remember that said editor may have operated within a limited purview. Maybe the editor was eager to give the ms the treatment it most needed, and the author decided against that, requesting another mode instead. And even then, perhaps the author rejected much of the editorial input and modification.

There is no way to know. But it does help to know just how many different modes the presumed or theoretical editor had available. And that in the end, that choice was not entirely his.