By Bonnie RandallPart of The How They Do It Series JH: Wonderfully rich characters typically leads to a wonderfully rich novel. Bonnie Randall shares tips on how to reveal the depth and richness of your characters. A character is infinitely more than just who the author says they are. Like their living, breathing counterparts, fictional characters often…How to Write Rich Characterization: A Cheat-Sheet — Fiction University
This is when I typically generate a list of technology predictions for the coming year. The challenge this year isn’t coming up with predictions, it’s finding a moment of calm to share them when people are most likely to read. With a pandemic rolling along and the nation in political and economic crises to boot,…Bob’s 2021 Tech Predictions: What a Difference a Pandemic Makes — I, Cringely
Life has taught me that quite a few of those who have appointed themselves editors and proofreaders are competent to do neither. If you could see the number of posts in editors’ forums full of bad English, requests like “I want 2 become an editor can u point me to any sites where I can learn grammer?” you might despair. If you can see them, you despair daily.
All right. Let’s do something about it. Knowing what I know now, but assuming I were not actually an editor, how would I do it? Imagine I wanted to be a published author and sought editing help. Assume that no matter my proficiency with the language, I’m sensible enough to realize one set of eyes isn’t enough. I also realize that volunteer first readers might be reluctant to be blunt with me.
In addition to continuing to write every day, even if it were only fifty words, even if all I said was “writing sucks today because…” I would start with short stories. The goal would be to get them published sooner rather than later, firing up the income stream. I’d give away the first few for free, hoping to build a following. But before I published any, I’d be confronting the hiring of editing services. Thus:
It’s not smart to hire people when one doesn’t know what they do. Rather than be foolhardy, I would read up on the different editing modes, so that I didn’t sound completely clueless when time came to have the conversation. When I did that, I would probably conclude that I needed a developmental edit. Even if I weren’t sure, I would desire such an edit in order to see my blind spots. I might later evolve my writing to a point where I ceased to need these, but I’d be planning to wait for an editor to tell me that.
I would not go to any of the sites that purport to help one hire editing services from a pool. Know what I’d do? I’d get on one of the writers’ groups on Faceplant, like Writers Helping Writers or Writers Unite. While some of the requests from purported writers might quease me out, this would provide me two benefits. One, it would show me the truly wretched quality of English on display for most of the likely competition, thus making me feel much better about my own. Two, it would let me see which editors participated in attempts to help these poor lost souls. I’d watch how they conducted themselves. I’d grade them for honesty, knowledge, and helpfulness. I’d make a list of the top five and order it according to how much each provider appealed to me.
Then, one by one, I’d contact my top five. I would not contact several at once. I would not waste others’ time or try to get them all to compete with each other; this isn’t buying a new car. I’d look the first one up, contact her, and see what her process was like. I would not ask her about costs until the very end of the discussion. I’d ask her for a sample developmental edit, presuming she did those, on just one to two pages of short story. I’d be very up front that I was starting with short stories to improve my writing, build a name, and work into the process.
The quality of guidance in her sample dev edit would be an enormous factor. If it was cold, that would be all right provided it was intelligent and honest. I’d make sure that the sample included some passive voice, ellipses, italic emphasis, and some other bad habits, just so that I could get her take on them. I could live with her telling me it was complete garbage, provided she told me specifics about why. If I didn’t get a good vibe and feel from this process, I would thank her for her time and let her know I needed to keep searching for a better fit.
If I did get a good vibe, I’d do some innocent cyber research. I’d see what kind of reputation she had, look into her testimonials. If her website offered a list of her credits, I might buy one of those books just to see how her handiwork might have come out. If I decided she was The One, I would not send her an NDA to sign (the only one of those I ever signed was for a tech editing project that involved being privy to the hiring party’s clients’ confidential information). If she sent me a contract to sign, I’d read it and decide how I felt about its provisions. If she wanted money up front, I’d examine that and decide whether I was comfortable with it. Also, to be frank, if she charged by the hour I’d assume she was more likely to be capable than if she charged a flat fee. There’s complicated thinking behind that, and it’s by no means perfect or universal, but it is my considered observation and experience.
Once I hired her, I would carefully consider everything she said. At times I would challenge her in ways, especially by asking her to explain the reasoning. If she had a process, I would follow it, soaking up everything I could. I would pay her promptly when the time came. I would not try to piggyback free work. At the end of the first project, I would decide whether her participation had improved my skills and the project. If it had, I would seriously consider hiring her again.
JK here: I found this a good description of differing styles. As with editing, most people don’t know different modes exist. Enjoy.
Your goal, whether writing fiction or nonfiction, should be to paint word pictures vivid enough to engage the theater of your reader’s mind. Readers love to be educated and entertained, but they remember forever when they’re emotionally moved. So deciding which you’ll employ of the four main writing styles is crucial to leaving a powerful…4 Styles of Writing and How to Decide Which to Use — Jerry Jenkins | Proven Writing Tips
Now and then I sense that many observers think I have a pretty good gig: “You fix their grammar, duh, and get paid.” I grant that I’ve had worse jobs, and ones to which I was worse suited, but it has agonizing moments. (And I don’t just “fix their grammar.”) Take for instance:
A referral contact comes in: a rambling phone call leaving a several-minute message about her manuscript. It is evident that the caller is elderly and perhaps dealing with memory issues. Her name is Ada Miller. She conveys:
- The ms is an autobiography about Ada’s life, which has been about as interesting as most people’s (that is, not very much so).
- Ada was referred to me by my old friend Edna, who lives in the same senior complex. Edna is a wonderful lady who is always trying to do nice things for people, and I respect her very much.
- She has not quite finished it, but she would like a firm quotation. You know, just to get an idea of how much it will cost to clean up a few minor errors.
- Ada is on a fixed income, and in case I don’t get the hint, more or less indicates that this better not cost much and that I should offer a senior discount. After all, how hard can it be to fix a few typos? she asks with a chuckle.
I call Ada back, addressing her as Ms. Miller (old school Kansas boy, here), and attempt to discuss the ms. That is not feasible, unless I’m willing to talk over her and be branded rude. Ada rambles about her life, her story, her two cancer diagnoses, her children, her life, her story, how to find a publisher, her poverty, some other health problems, what a great buildup Edna gave me, and on. And on.
Ada is a lonely elderly lady hoping to make a little bit of extra money and get her story out there. She is a fundamentally nice, good person who thinks of others. However, she understands little about editing, the modern world of publishing, marketing to publishers, self-publishing, or any of that stuff. She expects me to educate her about all this, in between her soliloquies, and certainly does not expect to pay me for that time. (Not that I’ve ever charged for it, but I also reserve the right to limit it.)
When Ada does not like what she’s hearing from me, she argues with me in her genteel way. Each disagreement is grounds for her to deliver several minutes of reasons why she is correct.
Okay. You want to be an editor? Here’s your job. Decide:
- Plan on a massive amount of unpaid effort, wading through a ms loaded with problems, knowing Ada will reject probably half the edits, all in service of a project that will never make her one dime, for what will turn out to be an effective billing rate of about $5/hour. And that’s just for the editing time, which will be the most painful editing of your entire career. That’s not taking into account all of Ada’s loneliness emails and conversations.
- Find a way to reject this poor, nice, elderly potential client, who has no idea what she’s doing and isn’t willing to follow any guidance that she might not agree with. Challenge: do so without crushing her soul and sending her to Edna with many humphs about how unhelpful and rude you were to her.
Yeah, I have such an easy job.
At least, that’s how it looks and feels to me.
We used to take Portland Monthly, a print magazine of the titular subject matter and frequency. While it was very kombucha-Portlandy, with minimal relevance to us out in Burberton and especially to those of us who avoid downtown (and were doing so years before protests began), enough of its content had enough value that we enjoyed it. We’d learn about a few new places to eat, or local history, or something else fun. It was worth what we paid for it.
One fine day, my issue came with a flyer. It began by thanking us for our support of independent journalism and told us how wonderful we were. That’s when a thinking person begins to expect at least a four-joint bohica.* It then informed me that there would be a change to my subscription. In order to better meet subscribers’ needs, I’d now only get four mailed print issues per year. The rest would be available online. They urged me to give them my e-mail address, so that I would not miss an issue. There was nothing about a refund, either partial or full.
Now let’s examine this. Here’s my takeaway: “Hi. We heart you big time. However, we’re now quartering the amount of content we offer you under the terms of your original subscription. Why? Because fuck you, we think you are enough of an idiot to go along with getting 1/4 of what you paid for, and we really like cutting our costs.”
Canceling my subscription felt almost like a moral duty. I don’t want to read magazines on my computer or my flip phone (can’t anyway). If I had a more advanced phone, I wouldn’t want to read them on that either. However, they could have avoided this by offering me some form of refund, offering a subscription extension, just about anything–anything, that is, except what they did: “Because we think you’re an idiot, we will be giving you less content and no compensation; suck it.” They could even have begged: “We understand this is a major change in the terms for which you paid, and we hope you will consider that a small but valuable contribution to the cause of local journalism.”
It came down not to money (the $15-odd refund isn’t exactly enough to retire on), nor to questions about content and value. It came down to my recoiling from the tactic of first kissing subscribers’ asses, then insulting our intelligence.
They’re committing suicide. Deep down, these magazines don’t ever want to print another paper copy again, so they’re doing their best to drive away anyone who wants a physical magazine in their mailboxes.
Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who stands up and objects to the constant messaging trend: “In order to serve you better, we are cutting staff, reducing hours, eliminating services, raising prices, decreasing portions, and trimming options. We want you to believe this is for your benefit. We think you’re enough of an idiot to buy this.”
* Slang of military origin, an articulated acronym for “bend over, here it comes again.” We used to measure them by joints involved, with three for example meaning the finger, four meaning the whole hand, and six meaning up to the shoulder. Up to twelve was a double bohica, and after that one counted vertebrae for the dreaded super bohica.
This blog has become somewhat my repository for frustrations with my own profession. This is where I can say what I was thinking when I read the actual question, yet without getting me kicked off the group or making a professional enemy.
Today’s frustration is the inability to ask the client questions.
If you went where I go–to editorial forums where (the public presumes) we all gather to reload our red pens and drink ourselves blind over semicolons–you’d wonder how some folks manage. Here is one of the most common hivemind questions: “My client did X and Y. I think it sucks. How can I tell him so without hurting his feelings?”
In the first place, as a professional editor, you should be a capable enough writer to frame any criticism in a way that doesn’t hurt too much. If you cannot write well enough to do that, or are too lazy or cruel to do so, don’t be surprised at negative results because you aren’t going to be very persuasive. That said, the client also has a duty not to personalize what should not be personalized. You just have to give her a way around personalization, and hope she takes it. Doing your job means telling the truth, but it will be better received if you are skilled enough to do so without being a big meany.
In the second, if it doesn’t make any sense to you, why are you on here weeping openly about it and agonizing what to do? ASK YOUR CLIENT WHAT SHE WAS TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH WITH THIS CHOICE. There are loads of space between “Your protagonist is such a jerk, I hate him” and “Your protagonist’s flaws will be alienating to some segments of the potential audience; what was your reason for presenting him that way?” The first method stings. The second assumes the characterization was a deliberate device, and asks the writer to share the Master Plan. Of course, there probably is not a master plan, and the author probably doesn’t realize that the character’s so awful, but is unlikely to take the question personally.
Ask the client. Why do editors not think of this simple option? How is one to present oneself as an authority on communication if one can’t figure out how to send an email and politely say “What’s with writing the whole book in italics?” or “What’s the theory behind the informal [read: lousy] grammar in narration?”
It just is not that hard to ask the client. What does one think is the downside? In which universe do writers not like to talk about their books?
Not the one I live in.
One of my desultory ongoing marketing activities is to sort of participate on a couple of forums in which budding writers seek help, support, guidance, literary circle jerks, and sometimes editing services. I don’t post often; I’m not good at being an emotional support animal, and most of the questions just make me shake my head.
Here’s the problem: most of them can’t yet write correct English. While I do not look down on them for that as people, the idea of attempting to publish material in incorrect or broken English is dubious. Here’s the compounding problem: most of the people proposing to help them don’t even realize that the querents can’t write correct English, because they don’t know either (including plenty of self-proclaimed “editors”).
At some point, it seems, not only did garbage English become the norm, but it became the norm for literary aspirants and those who propose to guide them. The notion that all writers should at least write in reasonably educated English seems passé–and few now even seem to know the difference.
Are some of them not native speakers? Surely many are not. Okay, fine; then write in a language in which you are at least fluent, if not perfect. I speak Spanish, not fluently; I wouldn’t dream of trying to write a book in the language. I’d be an embarrassment.
Do some of them plan to hire editors to clean up the messes? I hope so…but from what I see, most aren’t willing to pay what a competent editor would ask. Many probably couldn’t afford it. It comes down to the question: will the writing receive remedy before publication? I would say the answer is a hard no.
Could I help them? I certainly could…but not for the effective $5/hour they can pay a fellow semi-literate who claims to be an editor. If editing just means fixing all the things, why pay any more than Wal-editing rates? And since the writer does not know the difference, that self-proclaimed editor doesn’t have to be any good. S/he just has to be better than his or her client. This is a low bar to clear. I see some responses that I am not sure even clear that bar.
I have some examples for you. Over a period of months, I collected the following (nearly verbatim, lightly edited to sampleize without making the English better or worse) writer/”editor” questions and “editor” answers:
How many words should a chapter comprise of?
How can I make my new book a best seller.
Hi Guys a relative newbie to the editing world, I was just wondering do people advertise their prices on their website at all? [Yes. This person was asking an editing group in this manner.]
Is there any good blogging sits out there. Were I can make a little bit of money and just have fun writing about random stuff.
I’m a line and copy editor. I offer free edit for the first [x] words, contained in your manuscript. It will help you get a feel of how I work. [In response to a request for editing services.]
What good for a book cover please
Tips on how to write stories?
I’m experiencing panic attack right now! And the reason is one of my friend told me not to post any of your sad feelings now.
I am writing a historical novel. I want to add artificial characters and plot within it to beautify the story. Can I ? pls suggest.
How do you guys prevent eye strain from your computer when writing?
Do you believe that Writing is inherited skill (by birth) ? Or anyone can become writer ? What are the traits of a writer ?
How do you guys think I can become famous by writing.
Is it a good idea to publish a book when you have no money?
what is the shortest length acceptable for a chapter? the longest?
why we Cannot protagonist be evil ?what is reason behind this. Can main character be the antagonist ?
What makes a plot unique?
How many books have to read if one wanna to become a writer
I want to create a female character but I’m a male any advice?
Please my people, help me with the best means to market my book or with a good marketer. Please contact us for supply or to market the book with us or in fact any means of selling the book.
I’m not putting these here to look down on anyone. Believe that, if for no other reason than that I don’t need to and can’t gain from doing so. I’m putting them here so that those who have been appalled by the current state of self-published English writing can peek into the kitchen and even into the restaurant supplier’s processing plant. It’s not you. It’s them. It has gotten bad.
And if many of the editors (when an editor was even involved) are barely better than their clients, how could the whole thing avoid being a leaky mess?
This is also intended as encouragement to those of you who write. If you can assemble complete English sentences with the correct prepositions, and use them to make intelligent statements and ask intelligent questions, congratulations. You are probably in the 85th percentile of aspiring writers.
We get this one a lot. There are many possible answers, and for some, multiple answers might apply.
- The editor doesn’t want to. It can be as simple as that.
- The editor realizes that there is more money in editing than in writing.
- The editor knows that marketing is the difference between success and failure, and doesn’t like marketing. Or doesn’t mind it, but can’t or won’t do it well.
- The editor has done so, either under a pen name or perhaps an unpublished work.
- The editor takes more satisfaction in helping and guiding and teaching other people than in creating his or her own projects.
- The editor doesn’t want the public engagement that could come with a reasonably successful book, at least not for the pittance s/he would likely earn from it.
- The editor never got comfortable with the traditional publishing model (writer begs and begs, house condescends to accept the bulk of the revenue).
- The editor isn’t neurotic enough to be a writer. (Okay, I’m sort of kidding. Sort of.)
- Editing and writing require different skill sets and not everyone has both.
- The editor hasn’t got anything original to share.
- The editor is too busy helping others to focus on his/her own book.
- A similar situation exists in many disciplines. Not everyone who can refinish furniture can build it. Not everyone who can repair a car can design and build a car.
Some of those apply to me to varying degrees. I’d bet some apply to most editors.
When asked to review someone’s writing, one of the first things I notice is whether the writer uses cheats. I define a cheat as one of the cheap, cheesy tricks so loved by writers who haven’t matured into a competent style.
My usual guidance is that all cheats have legitimate uses, places, and functions; that they are all part of the written language for valid reasons; and that their overuse looks amateurish and childish. I encourage my clients to think of cheats as “chips,” as in playing an expendable and finite supply of “I get to bend the rule” moments. (“Get out of jail free cards,” while more recognizable, is also more ponderous. Brief terms are better.)
Novices tend to use these cheats in ways that show low writing continence. Some even double down on them: “Well, that’s just my style.” That’s my signal that it’s time for the ice bath: “I’m sorry to hear that, because it means your style is very flawed, and that you’re embracing bad rather than striving toward good.” If that’s their stance, though, I already know they aren’t going to hire me, so at least my conscience is clear that I told them the truth without flinching. I only overcame these bad habits because people told me that truth. Who knows the mistakes better than someone who once made them all, all the time?
It’s true. I did. If this is CA (Cheats Anonymous), I qualify to lead the meeting. My name is John, and I am a Cheataholic. I’ve been clean and sober for about ten years. Welcome.
By saving these chips for the moments when nothing else works as well, they’re available when needed. Here are most of the ones that trip my trigger, what they tell me about the writer, and where their use may make good sense.
Ellipses (…; note that this is the plural, and that a singular use is an ellipsis): in narrative, tells me the author has not yet learned the value of the declarative sentence augmented by more common punctuation. One in a sentence is always questionable; more than one is a head-shaker. When they’re okay: with judicious use in dialogue, for when one finds it very convenient to place an important but short pause in speech. It’s also good for getting rid of the dialogue tag when speech trails off, although you’d be amazed how many writers give us both. “I saw it coming, and then, well…” she trailed off. No, no, no. If you use it in dialogue, at least get the full benefit. We can see that she trailed off, thanks to your ellipsis.
I cannot resist mentioning that editorial forums love passionate, brain-eroding debate over stuff like whether an ellipsis should use spaces, no spaces, or the Unicode character that combines three dots into one symbol. I never join in, because if I were to speak my mind, they would boot me out. I’d say: “So let’s decide on whether to speed up up the computer by pouring water in it, pouring sand into it, or oiling it with ten-thirty.” I think some editorial forum participants believe that fierce arguments over stupid things signify editorial acumen. I think these flaps are the mark of someone who has a forest and trees problem, and who has confused pedantry with effectiveness. But if I tell them that, they’ll all unite in agreement that I am not of their tribe. It is not to my benefit for them to realize that, so I shut up.
Except here, of course, since they can’t kick me off my own blog.
Em dashes (—): my own besetting weakness, my own worst habitual cheat, my own “that was so much easier than writing” bad habit. I’m terrible and I own it. I want to use them all the time, such as bracketing this clause, and I know it’s wrong. The overuse tells me that the writer suffers from the same inclination to cheat as do I, but finds it too troublesome to continue the struggle. The em dash’s uses are hard to define, but one might ask oneself whether a comma, semicolon, or colon could replace one. If it could, it probably should. When they’re okay: sparingly in narrative. In dialogue, good for demonstrating speech cadence when that cadence helps convey tone, and for interrupted speech. And again, you’d be amazed how often the dialogue tag makes a redundant curtain call: “Now wait just a minute, you—” “Shut the hell up!” Smith interrupted. The punctuation made the interruption clear. Why use the dialogue tag to belt the reader in the face with it? Do you think the reader is too stupid to determine this?
Exclamation points (!): in narrative, tells me that the writer is (or wants to sound like) a dramatic teenager. My usual reaction: “Oh, good lord. Such hot garbage.” There might be occasional moments for exclamation points in narrative, notably in self-help books with informal tones. They are fine in dialogue provided the author uses them continently and does not add a redundant dialogue tag. “Goddamnit, I said you’re not going and that’s that!” she insisted. Barf, retch, gag. Even in dialogue one should restrict ! usage, unless all the dialogue is between people who yell and fight all the time.
Italics (like these): in narrative, when used for emphasis, they indicate to me that the narrator thinks word choices are hard and painful, and it would be so much easier to just tell the emphasis rather than word the selection so that the reader grasps it. If you infer that I think they should be very rare in narrative, I guess my gelatinous sarcasm was effective. When they’re okay: in dialogue, used rarely, to indicate a profound emphasis on a word or a few by the speaker. Just watch for the doubly redundant tag: “I said don’t do that!” she ordered. Now we’ve got the italics, the exclamation mark, and the redundant tag. (Notice that I did not italicize ‘and.’ This was because I think you are intelligent enough to supply your own emphasis based on my word choices.)
When I see something like this, I begin to wonder if the author was having an emotional day and got overwhelmed. Where they are very helpful: for internal monologue (Not on my watch, thought Sally. I’ll shoot him.), for foreign terms generally on first use, for first use and leading to special definition of English terms taking on a particular contextual meaning, and a few other cases mostly related to non-fiction (as in this article, to draw the reader’s eye to an important shift in focus).
Bold (like so): nearly always tells me the writer has no idea what the hell s/he is doing. Bold has its moments outside headers and titles, but they are quite rare. Just no. It’s everything that is wrong with italics and exclamation points, but more egregious.
I used them for the titles here because I didn’t feel like doing the messing around that it would take to use underlining, which I would have preferred. WordPress’s formatting panel easily serves up bold, italic, list tools, color, a limited symbol list, and strikethrough, but not underlining. I don’t expect an explanation from them any time soon.
Adverbs (most end in -ly): tend to represent overtell or word choice sloth. That’s another issue that tells me the author found it so much easier than striving to select the correct verb. Note that not all -ly words are adverbs, nor do all adverbs end in -ly; an adverb modifies a verb. At their worst in dialogue tags: “Hands up!” she said menacingly, chambering a round. (In case the utter wrongnado of that does not register with you, the deft addition of the chambered round indicates the menace would be the default attitude and tone; only if that were unintended, and if that non-intent were essential to the scene, would one want a modifier. ‘Timidly,’ perhaps? Sure, if you want to say that she’s about to fall apart. But what if you just replaced the exclamation point with a comma, subbing for a period? Just the incongruity of a missing exclamation point would say a lot, would it not?) What about a better verb? That’s the essence of banishing adverbs.
If one can come up with a better verb that pays its freight, especially outside of dialogue tags, one is doing as a good writer should. If one can’t, and the modified meaning cannot be inferred, that’s why we have adverbs.
All these are my chips. They all have their moments, every single one (even boldface), some more often than others. In the main, most writers should try hard to limit or eliminate these. Then, when they are most needed and nothing else works quite so efficiently, there’ll be a chip available to play.
Take it from a recovering addict.