Category Archives: Editing/writing life

About doing this stuff for a living.

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.

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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.

Pediatric editing

I don’t do it.

I do not do it to be a honey;

I do not do it for any money.

I do not do it, Sam I am.

Anyone who finds me tiresome has an easy way to make me turn and run: ask me to offer feedback on a kid’s writing. I call this ‘pediatric editing.’ I won’t do it.

Does that not sound like the most heartless thing on the planet? What, Mr. Editor, you won’t help my child? What kind of monster are you? Jesus, man, just fuck you.

In fact, when I refuse, I am being very kind. When asked to perform pediatric editing, here are my choices in order from least to most abhorrent:

  1. Lie. Like a thief. Like a Turkish hand-tied rug. Like an affluenza teen, actor on the job, or professional spy. Lie and tell the kid that his or her writing, story, etc. are very good, whether they are or not. Downside: deceitful, creates false optimism, makes me hate myself and my work, with the people who asked not far behind. Upside: keeps me from potentially destroying a child’s literary ambitions; the self-hatred will pass.
  2. Refuse. Just say no. Decline to read, edit, or review the minor’s work. Downside: well, I dislike them for asking and at least it’s now mutual; I look like the horrible evil snob. Upside: I don’t have to impale a child’s literary ambitions; they’ll never ask me for that again; my integrity is intact (not that they cared about that).
  3. Do it. Carry through, providing honest critique and corrections. And since I am not a schoolteacher and am not qualified to stand in for one, and am used to working with adults, there’s an excellent chance of soul immolation simply due to the frankness of the feedback. “This literary device is childish.” “Your protagonist is dull and lifeless.” “You need elementary grammar instruction.” Downside: the self-hatred will never end; I will deserve that self-hatred because I’m supposed to be the adult and thus know when I’m out of my depth; the kid will either be crushed, or if it’s that rare kid who can handle the feedback, will come back with a rewrite looking for more. Upside: I wasn’t the snooty editor too good to help precious Kortneigh refine her elfy/vampy/wolfy urban para YA novella; Kortneigh’s parents will never speak to me again, though, so that’s a mixed benefit. There is no point doing something to satisfy people if you know it will mortify them.

I generally have a low opinion of lying, and I have an even lower opinion of hurting kids, so I go with 2). I ain’t doing it.

Ma and Pa Kortneigh have no business risking her dreams by asking me to comment on her work. It is unkind to her and to me. They should direct the question to a pediatric editing specialist: a qualified English teacher, who will probably be delighted to coach a precocious kid and who is used to pediatric writing.

That doesn’t mean I can’t help Kortneigh, though. She and her parents need to ask me the right question. That is not “Will you please review and comment on her story?” That is: “What advice would you give Kortneigh to improve her writing?”

“Why, Ma Kortneigh, I’m delighted you asked. I will be glad to help.

“First off, young lady, kudos to you for wanting to express yourself. My advice is simple yet complex: write and read.

“Write–write a lot, and write for critique. I am not qualified to give you critique because I’m not a teacher. Is there a student writing group at your school? If not, I’ll bet your English teacher would be willing to mentor you. To grow, you must have critique, and you may have to give some to get some. You will learn a lot that way.

“Read. Read good things. If you like garbage–my guilty pleasure happens to be violent westerns–no reason you can’t read it as well, but look for and note the reasons why it is garbage. Do read good work in the area in which you want to write. Do you want to tighten your writing? Read C.J. Cherryh, and you’ll learn what tight writing can be. How to craft dialogue? W.E.B. Griffin’s earlier work, though your parents should be advised of adult themes. Want to watch straight-up mastery on display? Winston Churchill. How to craft unforgettable characters and moments? Frank Herbert. I will offer you reading recommendations on any aspect of the craft.

“And when you get good, be kind.

“Best of success.”

 

What happened to your favorite author (or his/her kid)

If you follow enough authors long enough, some of them will turn to garbage.

Repetition. Gaping plot seams with stitches bursting.

Story twists that wring the neck of what was once great about the franchise.

Bad editing. No editing. Bad proofreading. No proofreading.

How could someone capable of such greatness now turn out this steaming garbage?

Very many people ask that question; few receive answers. In few cases will they ever learn which answers apply. In most cases, it will be one or more of the following:

Profitable Franchise Syndrome. Through careful promotion and at least some display of some form of talent at some point, a select few authors become cash cows. Any book with Cash Cow’s name on the cover is guaranteed X number of copies sold which will produce a profit of $ZZZ,000 at the minimum. Once an author reaches PFS, many publishers no longer give a damn what s/he writes. If the author also no longer gives a damn, there are no barriers to the publication of wretchedness. For obvious reasons, such a publisher will never sick a sharp-penned editor on said author, to tell the author what s/he needs to hear. No one will risk causing a bad case of mastitis in the cash cow, least of all the cow him/herself.

Writing is hard and ideaing is sometimes harder. Some writers loathe above all (even above “will you please read my ms?”) the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” When writers run out of original ideas, they recycle, or steal, or meander without aim. When writers get sick of sewing together mismatched plot points, correcting inconsistencies, and otherwise trying to reduce eventual scarring on the patient, they stop bothering. Why bother, when people will buy it anyway? The priority is not to write a great book this year. The priority is to get a damn book written this year, keep the milk flowing, keep the name on endcaps.

Dotage. Sometimes this combines with PFS. The Grand Old Author has written one more book, after years of not writing. How come these are so often like watching a former home run king hit .189 a year after he turns forty? Because the author is often, at this point, well washed up, and probably either wanted or needed money.

Freelancers. When PFS is reached, the writing may not even be that of the ‘author.’ I have seen books in which it was sadly clear that each chapter had been done by a different ‘lancer and no one had checked the stitching, resulting in a couple of dozen rehashes of the same background material as each ‘lancer felt obligated to make sure the reader knew the pertinent backstory. The author did not bother to remove these redundancies. This is how little they care.

Delusions of inherited writing talent. Just because Mom could write does not mean #2 Son can write. Just because Dad could write really, really does not mean #1 Son can write. This, however, may not stop the grown child of the Famous Author, because said grown child may be a career screwup who sees in Famous Author’s inherited glory and name One Last Chance For An Easy Living. By that time, Ma or Pa may be too old to care. He or she may feel that dues have been paid, and that if this will keep the kid out of debt hell, that is their business. And it is–except for the money that honest readers will waste on dishonest, substandard effort. That is their bad business.

Psychological rabbit holes. In fiction writing, and in particular with first-person fiction that is semi-autobiographical, at times the author reaches a Nietzschean moment. Remember his famous quote? “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Life has taught me that Nietzsche knew what he was talking about, and writing life has countersunk all the screw holes for that lesson. Imagine you’ve got a major inner bugaboo (for example, sexual bondage and domination), and that it’s always been complicated for you. That balance of desire and aversion, the tension between two points, can be a productive wellspring for fiction ideas. It can also become the abyss into which you gaze too long, taking you to a place from which you can not easily come back. Your writing may reflect that, and it may get away from what your readers liked best about your work. Most anyone can take a mental illness (or some lesser condition/neurosis/syndrome/disorder/dysfunction/bugaboo) and use it to write a book. To do so without making the condition much worse, and without having the condition consume the franchise alive–that’s the tough part.

Fetishism. Closely related to the above, of course, and with some overlap, but not the same. One good example was a writer of Westerns with an obvious girlfight fetish. Rare was the book of his in which a pair of women didn’t mix it up. Do I even need to mention that blouses never survived a single battle? Okay, so let’s consider this. Suppose that’s your fetish, and while it does not consume you, you write enough of it to develop an audience–and business is good. Then you decide, okay, I’ve done my time on the pole and I can now de-emphasize my little kink. And sales fall off; reviews scowl. Your audience doesn’t like you so well when it doesn’t get its accustomed dose of the fetish. Tired of writing about breasts flopping loose in a fracas? You are stuck, because that’s the audience you attracted and that’s your brand. You may or may not be able to redefine your brand. You may just end up churning ’em out, supplying the expected unrestrained dairy tackle, because making house payments beats missing house payments, and writing what you know is easier than seeking new horizons.

There may be other reasons (opinions welcomed), but those are some of what I’ve seen. Your favorite author is like a car. It may run for a long time, it may be the best one you ever had, but one day you won’t be able to get parts for it. You may keep it as a classic, a project, but it won’t be your daily drive. You’ll get something you can rely on. By the time your heirs get the old one, they’ll wonder why you kept it so long past its prime.

The book chiropractor

Lately the title has described me. I come across a book with a spinal injury, and I give it care.

The descriptor feels somewhat odd thanks to my real-life experiences with chiropractic, neither of which inspire me to try it again. The first guy felt everyone should go to the chiropractor for everything, as the first point of medical contact. He was very entrepreneurial. The second guy was pulling a flim-flam on the insurance company; he also was very entrepreneurial. I know there are people who swear by chiropractic, and I am happy for them, but I probably will not be joining them soon. Feels too MLM.

What does make me happy is that I’ve figured out how to fix most broken paperback spines. It requires book tape, care, book glue, patience, waxed paper, a cutter that will make a very straight cut, q-tips, care, and great patience.

Why you should not…

Why you should not just use packing tape: because it will more easily crinkle, will age badly, will be completely unforgiving if you happen to begin sticking it down wrong, and because it’s not as thick. If you are serious about doing this, go to Vernon and get the right stuff.

Why you should not just use rubber cement, or Elmer’s, or some other glue you have laying around: because none of those will combine the properties found in book glue, and everything will work worse. If you use some other glue, and it screws things up, remember that I told you that would occur. Get it from Vernon.

Why you should not just use scissors: because the line must be absolutely straight, and you cannot reliably do that with scissors.

Getting going

There are two very common types of paperback spinal breaks. In the first, you can see the gap between portions of the pageblock (that’s the pages; the part you read). In the second, the gap is so wide you can get a clear look at the inside of the spine (which is probably badly creased and may be coming apart. Sometimes pieces of the pageblock are fully detached, or just individual sheets.

Before you start, cut off several 1″ wide strips of waxed paper. You will be wanting these and won’t want to mess with cutting them in mid-job.

The first order of business is to shore up the spine’s exterior. This must be done: to hold the thing together while you fix the pageblock connections, to confine any glue that could otherwise leak through, and because you would be having to do it anyway, so might as well do it first. A line of book tape down the spine, properly slicked down, will at least give you a bit of support.

The potentially messy part

Next, turn to the worst break in the pageblock. If there are several, go for the most hideous ones starting from back. Gently spread the block apart; for the milder sort of break, a line of glue along the middle third is probably enough. For the bad ones, be more generous. If there are several adjacent pages with breaks, start with the bottom one. Then take a q-tip, supporting the book with the other hand, and run it along the break to distribute the glue and push it into the break.

Don’t be too sloppy. It is almost inevitable that you’ll leave residual lines of glue above the q-tip on both sides of the break; take another and clean that off as best you can. You can’t get all of it off, but it is very important to remove all possible glue that is not down in the break; that is where you’re going to put the waxed paper. Your theoretical perfect glue line is way down in the break, just obscures its edges, shows little shine on the paper and no lines above where you ran the q-tip, and doesn’t leak out either end.

Why so fussy? Isn’t this waxed paper? Doesn’t waxed paper come right off? I’ve experimented and made the mistakes. It’s not true that book glue won’t stick at all to waxed paper; it is true that waxed paper can very carefully, very slowly be detached from small amounts of book glue. Do it too soon or too fast and the paper will tear, leaving tabs of it deep down in the crack where you’ll have to tweezer them out. You just fixed that crack; therefore, shoving a metal object into it, which will partly separate it again, runs counter to your entire intention. What is more, if you think about it, you’ve just cut the waxed paper. You’re shoving the unwaxed cut edge into the middle of the glue; the edge is the part to which the glue can take hold. And there’s no way around it, as there is no reasonable way to re-wax the cut edge. The glue will attach to its fibers and you will have to ease the paper loose or end up with a lot of remainder.

Would clingwrap work better for this? I think it’d be a pain to keep straight. I can barely even get a bowl of guac covered with that stuff. Foil would most surely tear at exactly the wrong times, as it always does.  I suppose if money were no object, one could use gallon ziplock bags without opening them, pushing them in bottoms first. I would certainly test them beforehand, lest it turn out they form a real bond with the glue that waxed paper does not. Book glue looks like Elmer’s but dries to a rubbery solid.

Anyway, with all that well in mind, and with excess glue mopped up, take a strip of waxed paper and slide it gently into the break almost as far as it will go. If there is a loosened page at the break, work it back into proper position. Close the book, which should now look as if some oddball decided that waxed paper would make a wonderful bookmark.

If there are more breaks, continue to fix them this way from bottom to top. How you decide which side is which, that’s up to you; what is important is that you don’t jump around the pageblock, but start from the lowest side and work to the highest (if the front cover was up, that would be from back to front). That way you will not need to disturb the breaks you have already glued.

Patience

When done, set the book someplace where nothing will mess it up, put a paperweight on it, and leave it.

If you let the glue dry at least three days, the waxed paper will be fairly easy to work loose. Open gently to the spot with the fixed break, and use a plastic tool like the back of a picnic knife to move back and forth along the inside, separating the waxed paper from the pageblock on both sides. When you sense that any further pushing on the plastic knife will begin to undo your repairs, stop and begin to ease the waxed paper out starting from one end. Be kind, and pull it upward where possible (almost directly away from the spine, slightly angled). Try not to let any pieces get detached, but it often happens near the middle.

Repeat all this for the next break you fixed.

Examine the book now as if you hadn’t fixed anything. Anything that still needs fixing, repeat the fixing steps and three days of subsequent waiting.

I told you it took patience.

Achieving dominance over book repair space and time

When you’ve fixed them all, though, the best description of the feeling is that one has resurrected a book. It was doomed, on its way to fall to tragic pieces. Now it can be read, enjoyed, studied, laughed at, scowled at, disagreed with, and passed on to other readers. And as you keep at this, you will get defter at all of it.

It may fall apart someday, but that isn’t going to be today or next year.

The pure joy of repairing books

That I love books is probably no great surprise. Who else took a 15′ x 20′ room of his house and made the whole thing into a library? Three aisles…’the stacks.’

There is a continuum of thought about book care. At one extreme is the “they’re made to be read, not worried about or nannied” viewpoint. My mother is a good example of this. With any paperback book, her first act was (I presume still is) to break the spine–and I don’t mean halfway. I mean in such a way that the book would begin to fall into halves if it received any sustained use. At the other extreme is the hardcore preservationist viewpoint, which laments every scrape, every crease, and every corner. This viewpoint will die in a ditch defending the spine.

If you assign these views to 1 and 10 on a scale, respectively, I’m about an 8.5. The question of usability vs. perfection touches many aspects of our lives; the best example I could offer would be computer security. At the 1 extreme would be complete flexibility and usability, at the risk of security and support nudity. (If everyone gets to use whatever they want, however they want, IT support is problematic. And if no one ever makes you change your password, or even makes you use a password, you’ll get hacked.) At the 10 extreme would be security so tight it would defend the system from any risk of being useful. (If you had to change your password every hour, for example, and your browser refused to let any script run without approval from some security guru.) As in most endeavors, neither extreme is a good idea. Thus with books.

So, yes; I take very good care of books, the best care I can arrange. As I read, by habit, I will press a paperback book into a shape that from directly above me would look like a {, using my fingers to support the spine. That first crease in the cover bothers me, and you can imagine how I feel if I spill beer on the book (such as that time I anointed my copy of Joyce’s Dubliners while sitting on the can in a B&B bathroom in Ballymote, Sligo). Since I like to fix things almost as much as I hate waste, for many years I have done my best with scotch tape.

Those days are over. Thanks to my wife, I now have equipment that gives me dominance over more amateurish book repair souls. For Christmas, she got me a wonderful device called the C-27 Taping System Applicator. I keep wanting to call it the C-27 Space Modulator in the Looney Tunes Martian voice.

This thing is badass.

“What’s the big deal,” you ask? “Why the hell can’t you just put some quality packing tape on it yourself?”

The problem with that is getting the tape lined up, especially while fussing with a handheld dispenser. With tape on paper, you don’t get a second chance. What is not obvious from the picture is that this C-27 thing has several key moving parts. For starters, the tape sits but is not spindled, and those black guides you see are movable (see the grooves in the metal roller). This allows one to use multiple tape widths, move the tape left or right. In the picture, the end of the tape shows the tartan pattern, but that white thing just right of it is a sliding cutter. The long table with the deep groove down the middle hinges at the front of the device, so you can lay the book on it, press down at the tape end of the table, and rest one end of your book at a level below the tape cutter. Pull out the tape to the correct length, line it up to your satisfaction, and stick it down going back toward the roll. Your hands don’t have to hold the tape or manipulate a handheld cutting device. Slick down the tape all the way to just before the cutter, run the cutter across (only takes one hand, leaving you a hand to hold the book in place), free the book from the table, and slick down that last end of the tape. The stainless steel bars on either side of the table swing outward to support larger books. Here is a short video of it in very simple operation.

As you can see from the legs, one could bolt it to a desk. One could drive two screws into a desk designed to anchor it, leaving the other side free to move it at need. My favorite move is to first run a strip of tape down the spine, then turn the book 90° and run a single strip all the way along the top cover edge–slick down the first side with the spine toward the roll, pull out far enough for enough tape to finish the second side, take joy in the way this thing lets me line the tape up so perfectly, slick it down, cut it off, trim any excess.

The other part of the secret is book repair tape, which looks like clear packing tape but is somewhat elastic; enough that one has to be careful not to stretch it out of shape, but that it molds and tightens and adjusts and forgives. It also lasts much longer than scotch tape or packing tape. She also got me a supply pack including book glue, a bodacious plastic tape-slicking device that looks like a Jethro version of the 3-4 plastic picnic knives I break every time I eat at Chipotle, and sheets of vinyl wings and corners designed to fix frayed spines and torn edge/corner problems. Bubble I can’t slick out? I make a tiny stab with an exacto knife at one end of the bubble, and slick the tape toward it. Bubble? What bubble? Add in a set of bitchin’ sharp scissors I already had–great for trimming excess so that no one will ever know that I stuck the tape down 1/16″ off line–and I’m loaded now. No book in this house is safe from being assessed, repaired, and protected.

Since a lot of my books were in lamentable shape and some would be problematic to replace (do you have a handy source for big thick Bantam-Megiddo English-Hebrew and Hebrew-English dictionary two-volume sets, each the size of a hefty Bible? Didn’t think so), this brings me enormous joy. Those that were deteriorating will deteriorate no further. Those that are venerable but have been preserved by gentle, affectionate use will receive reinforcement. And I won’t have to look at a book and think, crap, what a shame that’s falling apart, but I don’t see what I can do about it.

Yes, they are meant to be read. And thanks to an effort that brings me fundamental joy, they will be readable for my lifetime, and well into someone else’s.