Tag Archives: authors

Getting past insufferable

Writers and authors can be some of the coolest people you’d ever want to meet.

They can also be insufferable. And most of those who are, either don’t know it or don’t care.

I believe that it’s a phase some go through. I believe this because I remember going through it, and probably remained in that phase longer than most writers. If it’s a phase, it can be overcome.

What’s insufferable?

  • Nagging everyone in one’s orbit to read one’s work.
  • The above, while making clear that everyone without the will to refuse is expected to be Very Supportive (i.e. say nice things).
  • Beginning to view everyone in one’s world in terms of promotion of one’s work: there are those who embrace The True Faith, and those who hesitate (or refuse: basest heresy!) to read/buy/share/review/promote it. The latter are bypassed as of little consequence.
  • Posting protracted laments on writers’ groups about unsupportive friends/family, essentially asking to be given a bottle and caressed with encouragement.
  • Approaching prospective editors with a defensive and defiant stance, practically daring them to do their jobs.
  • Plunging into profound grief upon receipt of even constructive critical feedback.
  • Ignoring said feedback as unsupportive.

All right. Does any of that describe you?

If you are still reading, you might like to escape this spiral of insufferability and sorrow. That which stems from life traumas is beyond my power to amend. For those I recommend a qualified therapist with the training to deconstruct trauma and help you to cope. It has helped me.

The other part is in my department. I believe in the power of affirmation and repetition to change our outlooks. It doesn’t happen overnight, but neither does a book. Neither does much of anything on which we look back with pride in achievement. Tell yourself:

  1. No one is obligated to read my work.
  2. Refusal to read my work is not a judgment on me, much less a personal rejection.
  3. If I seek feedback, I will presume it constructive until proven otherwise.
  4. I will not seek feedback from anyone without committing to giving it careful consideration.
  5. If I seek feedback in a critique group, I will remember my own obligations and give at least as much good as I receive.
  6. No matter how invested I am in my book, no one else can be expected or required to feel the same. Anyone who does so anyway gives me a great gift.
  7. An editor’s solemn duty is to tell me the honest truth, even if painful. I have no right to demand that s/he violate that trust to spare my feelings.
  8. Some people will be cruel to me. I will distinguish gratuitous cruelty from that which contains useful guidance, even if given with the bark on. From the latter I will take the good and leave the bad. I will leave the former’s authors to own their pathologies.
  9. I will not reflect the painful sides of my writing experience onto anyone who doesn’t deserve it.
  10. If the problem stems in part from my sensitivity over horrible life experiences which I reflect in my writing, critique of their presentation is not meant to invalidate my experiences.

Ten commandments? No, because I’m not commanding anyone, nor have I the power to do so. Ten guidelines for becoming the kind of writer that editors love and friends don’t avoid?

I can live with that.

TWYHAE (That’s why you have an editor)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no such thing as writer’s block.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s why people have us.

Why didn’t you notice that before?

Not that I’ve ever been asked the question, but some clients may have thought it. Picture this:

You, welcomed reader, bring me your literary pride and joy for developmental editing. I examine it, see fairly early on that it has major issues to address, load it down with comments explaining those issues, and send it back to you with the recommendation that you fix them. I explain that it will cost a lot less, and be more reflective of your creativity, if you take a stab at fixing them. I had you at ‘cost a lot less,’ so you then demonstrate to me what a superb and coachable client you are by addressing them. In most cases, you ‘get it.’ Beaming, you ship me the modified ms. I edit it this time, and I include a bunch of comments about stuff I didn’t point out in the first pass (but dealt with this time). And perhaps here you wonder: how’d he miss that stuff the first time?

Let’s use an analogy to a flipper house. The carpet needs replacement. The color scheme chosen was Crazy Cat Lady Provincial. The rose bushes are out of control. The crushed rock isn’t strangling the weeds. The hot water heater has a failing thermostat, there isn’t enough insulation, and some imbecile fixed numerous nail and molly bolt holes in the wall without bothering to sand the filler. The bathroom fan is about to chuck a bearing, and so on. Oh, and no one raked leaves last year, so half the yard is dead. Except for plenty of thistles, dandelions, and morning glories.

If we’re going to turn that house into the cozy, attractive property that it could become, we are going to begin by taking care of the big stuff so that it no longer obscures the small stuff. We restrain the roses and discover that the squirrels planted a walnut sapling at their base. We pull off the baseboards and find evidence that something in the wall has leaked. We rip up the carpet and find that the previous imbecile covered up battered but beautiful hardwood. We pull out the range and learn that someone had a chronic problem with stuff boiling over and running down the sides, rotting out the subfloor.

While we are doing all that, we are not really seeing the smaller but important stuff, because the big stuff obscures it. It’s not that we are incompetent; it’s that we will notice the miniature burro in the room only when the elephant has been herded out of it.

That’s how it is, editing books. Fix the big stuff so that the small stuff can stand out, then fix that, and you have a good book. Because you don’t retexture drywall that you know you will be replacing anyway.

How writing can warp your perspective on life

It is so. It can. Take that from someone who spends a lot of time in the locker room with authors, and hears what they say when the public is not listening.

The locker room analogy isn’t accidental. Please consider this: being an author is much like being a professional or collegiate athlete. For the author, hours, days, months, years go into a public performance: a book, which will tend to cause people to read and react.

The read might take a few hours to a few days of the reader’s time, then she’s on to the next book. If the reader feels compelled to comment, she does. She might be knowledgeable; she might not. She might be fair; she might not. She might have understood what the author was trying to do; she might not have. But she did the equivalent of buying her ticket. She gets a seat in the stadium, from which she can watch the game. As long as she doesn’t make death threats or throw bottles or urinate in the aisle, she can react as she wishes. She can yell “you’re a bum!” She can stomp her feet, clap, gush approval, boo her lungs out. She can sit there and eat her nachos in silence. Fairness, kindness, patience are all choices she can make or not, without penalty. She’s the reader, the audience, the customer.

So imagine the author as a college football tailback. In order to perform for a total of thirty minutes before the public, 12-14 times in a year, she worked nearly every day for nine months. She lifted weights until she sagged in exhaustion. She ran sprints, miles, agility drills. Her coach tried to teach her techniques, and she tried to learn them. Some she resisted, some she embraced, and some she didn’t understand worth a damn. She studied thick playbooks with pages of diagrams that looked like a drunk, amnesiac tic tac toe game covered in cold cooked spaghetti. She watched endless hours of game film, with a high concentration on her own past errors. If she invested four hours per day for nine months, we might guess that she strained, sweated, grunted, cursed, wept, self-criticized, self-pushed, self-doubted, for something like a thousand hours of her life. That was in addition to the basics of normal life, for which she was also responsible. Whether she felt like it or not, she had to keep at it. And that’s just the summary of the off-season; in season, it might be more. This enabled her to compete with others (who did everything she did) for the right to compete against others (most of whom worked just as hard, some harder) for, at most, thirty minutes 12-14 times a year, with an audience of thousands or millions.

If she gets hit by three Neanderthals and fumbles inside her own 20-yardline, that one bit of her life might be all that millions of people remember of her thirty minutes of performance that day, into which a thousand hours of preparation poured. And if she makes one great, prescient cut and juke that busts loose a seventy-yard run, that will be the snapshot of her life the audience will retain.

And if, when booed or insufficiently applauded, she feels the urge to stand before the public and yell: “You goddamn idiots! You don’t even know what play we had on! I didn’t call that play! I had only an instant to react! The linebacker made a superhuman effort! On top of it, I was still a little rung up from the defensive tackles that landed on me forty seconds ago! Someone else blew an assignment! You don’t even know what the hell’s going on out here, or what it took me to be here and perform for you! All of y’all can go to hell!” can we blame her?

We can and we will, unfair though it is to her. Not for having the feelings, but for doing the one thing capable of making her situation worse. The performer has no say in the composition of the public, and that’s one reason not everyone is cut out to perform. The public is also the customer. The customer isn’t always right; for the most part, the customer is wrong. Unfortunately, the customer nearly always gets away with being wrong, and it’s bad form to come out and prove her wrong.

Welcome to the author’s world: a place where the best way to make a bad situation worse is to speak your mind.

Case in point: Ayelet (free pronunciation help: ah-YELL-ett) Waldman. She is a successful novelist, and this isn’t her first controversy, but it’s a lulu. If you want to read the short version with examples, go here. We should realize that this isn’t “why doesn’t anyone buy my book.” This is “how could my already successful book be left off this very select, prestigious list?” Going back to the athlete analogy, this isn’t “why am I still stuck covering kickoffs and playing target on the scout team.” This is “how can I not be first team All-Conference?”

And in that situation, Waldman did the one thing that could creatively make an unsatisfactory situation worse for herself. She took to the media to call out the people who make up the All-Novelist team for not making her a first-team pick. This isn’t going to get her what she wants. Once she did that, even the knowledgeable minority–those who were prone to factor in the thousand hours of suffering and stress that created her book–shook their heads. Tsk, tsk. Shouldn’t have done it, Ms. Waldman. And that’s those who know. The vast majority, who do not, react even less to her advantage.

Because when an author has a public tantrum, it ceases to be about her work, and becomes about the tantrum.

That’s why you never do that. Never respond to a negative review. Especially never throw a hissy fit because you are left off a high-profile list. Keep that locker-room talk in the locker room, where those around you understand. Kick a locker. Throw your gear. If you must, avoid the media. But don’t lose it in public.

The public will crucify you and desecrate your corpse. And then they will be disrespectful, and you’ll become a meme, like Laurell K. Hamilton’s infamous Dear Negative Reader blog post.

The cost of editing

Money gets everyone’s attention.

I can think of several reasons novice authors might not engage an editor, such as:

  • Fear of honest critique that risks being less than gushy
  • Heard horror stories that editors are demonspawn
  • Raw egotism; the illusion that no one is competent to edit their brilliance
  • Money; what we will cost is far more than what the author hoped to spend

There are different types of editing, requiring different levels of effort. Copy editing is less time-intensive than developmental or substantive editing, which can verge into rewriting and ghostwriting. The simple spotting and fixing of typos is proofreading, not editing. I believe that some editors base their charges on length, and some on an hourly rate, but in either case it comes down to a simple equation: bigger books cost more because they take much longer.

Non-fiction doesn’t take as long, because there is no questioning of plot connections, character development, and so on. The only overall question is what to leave in or remove. The bigger the fiction book, the more story issues the editor must keep straight in his or her mind. It can be an exhausting task, slowing the process by the constant need to refer back to previous material. But whatever the content: the longer you rambled on, the more this is going to set you back.

One misconception is that an editor can provide a reliable cost estimate based upon the first chapter or so. That is unrealistic, especially with fiction, because in order to provide a fair estimate, I at least must see the entire ms. If the entire ms does not yet exist, I can’t give an estimate. And if the author is planning on another large round of post-editing revisions, the author will be wasting his or her money on editing that involves actual changes to the ms, because if I’m asked to do it again, I will provide a new estimate for that service. And if the end result will not reflect my own best work, I will ask not to be acknowledged in the back matter. If your editor pulls an Alan Smithee of this sort, it should signal to you that you made a very bad decision at some point, kind of like when a doctor discharges you from the practice after repeated disregard for his or her advice.

In developmental or substantive editing of fiction, I often find that the ms is not quite ready for the red pen, but is ready for developmental feedback. I believe that serious plot problems are best repaired through the author’s own creativity. It is his or her book, the project of the author’s mind and inspiration, and not mine. I don’t belong in the spotlight and I don’t want to butt into it. If I was helpful, I enjoy a mention in the acknowledgements, provided my pen name is spelled correctly. That and the check are all I get or expect, and not until I have done my work.

Oh, it’s possible that I could invest all that effort reading and feedbacking, then have the author quit on me. Risks of the trade. The alternative would be a reading fee, which I find unpalatable. The road to scams is paved with reading fees. Unless someone asks for that up front–“How much would you charge to read this and comment only?”–I’m not doing it. What happens between first contact and the author’s agreement to engage me is marketing, and authors shouldn’t have to pay for other people’s marketing unless said authors ask to, eyes open.

A stunner (with me the last to know, as usual) on editors

It has come to my attention that I have a bizarre notion of my work. I am still processing this.

While I’ve done a fair bit of compensated writing and proofreading, my current main line of work is substantive editing. It works like this. The author finds me, by referral or however, and is evaluating editors. I ask to see the ms, and typically do a sample edit while assessing how ready the ms is for publication. Ideally, it should be sent to me when the author has no idea how to improve it further.

Some like the sample edit; some do not. There is an interesting correlation between writing ability and receptivity to input. The better the writing, the happier the author is to receive guidance. In most cases, when the book is just not very good, the author doesn’t like the sample edit. S/he prefers his/her prose as it is, and does not hire me. That’s fine. Every author should work with an editor who feels right, and no editor is right for everyone.

Often this means I send the author some guidance on improving the ms before I start editing. This is not because I don’t want to work. It is because I prefer the book to be the author’s, inasmuch as possible, in concepts and creativity. It’s not that I couldn’t fix it; it’s that I don’t want to take the book so far from its flagpole. It is also because I feel that my work is to guide authors, help them succeed, and that my effectiveness is measured by the quality of the end result.

That means that my author clients are welcome to contact me at any time, about current work or future work, for any reason. Want to resolve a plot dilemma? Let’s do this. Not sure if this voice works? Let’s see it and we’ll go from there. Can’t figure out Word’s change tracking? I’ll help if I can. Got a future story idea, want to run it by me? What’s on your mind?

As I see it, if I make myself a helpful resource for authors with a passion to bring their work to market, the money solves itself in due course. If I do not make myself that helpful resource, I don’t deserve any money, and it won’t matter. I thought this was the norm and majority and standard practice, because nothing else makes sense. Why be a brake mechanic when you can be an auto repairperson ready to address whatever comes your way?

I learn that it is not the norm or the majority. I learn, to my shock, that many freelance editors work like brake mechanics. Want it edited? Give me the specs. When I’m done, I’m done. Good luck.

I am not saying that this is not suitable at times. The public has little idea of the breadth of the editing profession. There are many different types of editing: copy, substantive and so on. I know editors who focus strictly on copy editing to spec, are great at their work, and offer a needed service. I’m talking about my own niche: the developmental and substantive editing that happens when an author (or a writer who would like to auth) comes to one for editing on a ms. I am talking about when a novice author shows up with his or her brainchild, needing all the guidance in the world and quite ready to absorb it, and an editor puts him or her on the clock for every discussion, or doesn’t step up to say: “If you want this to do well, you should address X and Y.” I am talking about a mentality that goes no further than: “Okay, I’ll edit it, you pay me, we done now.” I still have a hard time believing that any professionally trained editor (which, for the record, I ain’t) would do that. But I am told that many of those not professionally trained are doing just that, and that they do not see what’s wrong with it.

How can they think this will lead to success?

It’s not even fun. What could be fun or satisfying about being less helpful, or promoting less success by one’s client? How can one possibly gain? How can you benefit from putting up barriers to having your client contact you? What would you do, open a shop and then randomly lock the door during business hours? The client in front of you is the most important one you have right now.

No wonder this is so easy. A portion of the competition seems not to know its work.