Tag Archives: fiction editor

What is an Unreliable Narrator? — Jerry Jenkins | Proven Writing Tips

[J here. These are the sorts of questions that arise in the kitchen where the sausage is made. Want my opinion, most fiction authors start out writing exactly the way they want to write, without considering the constraints and impacts of that choice. I don’t have a problem with them writing the way they want to write, but I do have an issue when they don’t realize they aren’t making it work well.]

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You can use a variety of literary devices to add conflict and tension to narrative fiction. But few make readers work harder than the unreliable narrator, a device that, true to its name, allows the storyteller to take readers on a wild goose chase as they determine what’s true, what’s not, and why they feel…

What is an Unreliable Narrator? — Jerry Jenkins | Proven Writing Tips

The Young Farmer dogmatism

A couple of years back, I did developmental and line editing on a great fantasy novel. One of the book’s great strengths was the author’s enormous esoteric medievalist vocabulary. Put it this way: I might stand justly accused of many failings, but among them is not a small vocabulary. I respect any writer who can send me fumbling for a dictionary. This author did, perhaps a dozen times.

One of these terms was “gong farmer.” When I first saw it, I thought: Pretty sure one can’t grow gongs in a crop field, or a rice paddy, or orchard. I’d better look this up. This is what competent editors and proofreaders do; we look up that which we do not comprehend. I discovered that a gong farmer was someone who cleaned out latrine pits, hauling the goodness in a shit wagon, most probably to some form of soil enrichment purpose. I laughed, said “stet,” made another nod to my client’s vocabulary, and kept working.

Came time for proofreading, and my client hired a proofer who had plenty of good ratings. That would teach him not to trust the ratings. The proofreader was an abject moron (now you see why I am not naming names). I’m convinced she just ran grammar check and spell check, ‘congrats 2 me I proofed pls heres my pay pal.’ To my our shock, she had simply changed any esoteric terms or usages she didn’t understand. “Gong farmer” had become “young farmer,” from stem to stern.

Ya.

For me, this event memed the term. It came to define mindless editing and proofreading, that dogmatic attitude that finds itself unmoored from context. As I look far back into my own history in this regard, I have probably myself gone through such a phase and made similarly dogmatic, stupid edits. Maybe I owe some empathy for that, and maybe I feel some. But not much, because context always does matter.

The goal is to do all the things that lead to the best possible ms. And now, any time I find myself having a reflex reaction to a usage, I remind myself not to have a Young Farmer moment.

For Rent to Publishers: One Pistol with Bullet to Shoot Yourself in the Foot (or Why Good Editing Matters) — An American Editor

Jk here: I’m glad it’s not just my imagination that even the big and supposedly reputable houses are hiring people who end up not doing a decent job. Does evidence of lack of competent editorial impact harm a book’s prospects? I guess some of them think not.

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Richard H. Adin I never thought I would say “Gosh, I am glad I am retired,” but I am. Being retired has done many things for me, not least of which (aside from having the time to play with my granddaughters before their school and other diversions make me uninteresting and obsolete before my time) […]

For Rent to Publishers: One Pistol with Bullet to Shoot Yourself in the Foot (or Why Good Editing Matters) — An American Editor

Current read: Traveling with People I Want to Punch in the Throat, by Jen Mann

Travel is one of my favorite genres. That said, travel writers don’t often get me so amped that I start describing the book to the ‘Lancer’s faithful before I even finish it.

Jen Mann has aggregated a life of travel mishaps, awkwardnesses, and random events into a fantastic, well-written volume. Because part of my work is to help people improve and repair their English usage, I’m Selfy McSelfishton when it comes to my leisure reading time and material. I have rejected quite a few books covering content I was otherwise eager to read, simply because the Amazon ‘Look Inside’ demonstrated to me that the author’s writing was not bearable. Jen can write.

What’s more, she has the gift of letting the humor in the situation speak for herself. That holds true even when, as often is the case, the joke’s on her. Here’s one good example, from a para about trying to fit into a too-small robe. Jen is in Singapore, and has a Western woman’s body but has been issued an Asian women’s robe:

I took the robe and ducked into the stall. i shucked my clothes and grabbed the robe off the hanger, but as soon as I put my arms in, I knew there was going to be a problem. I managed to get my shoulders wedged into the robe, but I couldn’t close it completely over my ample bosom. It was like putting twenty pounds of dog food into a ten-pound bag.

Who has the guts to say that in a book? Jen Mann.

I want more, and I’ll have it. She has about half a dozen other books out, and I suspect I will end up with them all.

Judging a book by its . . . no, not just its cover — words / myth / ampers & virgule

For most of my life, the public was willing to trust experts—in whatever field—to render judgment on what was better or worse (an argument, a product quality, an artistic work). The zeitgeist has shifted, and now the cultural norm is to distrust experts and reject expertise as a basis for judgment. This applies to book…

Judging a book by its . . . no, not just its cover — words / myth / ampers & virgule

[J here: this I found an insightful guide to a subject dear to my heart. I believe quality in book manufacture and production matters, obviously, or I would not be part of the process. I do adore to see good quality production.]

What’s really tough in my field

Now and then I sense that many observers think I have a pretty good gig: “You fix their grammar, duh, and get paid.” I grant that I’ve had worse jobs, and ones to which I was worse suited, but it has agonizing moments. (And I don’t just “fix their grammar.”) Take for instance:

A referral contact comes in: a rambling phone call leaving a several-minute message about her manuscript. It is evident that the caller is elderly and perhaps dealing with memory issues. Her name is Ada Miller. She conveys:

  • The ms is an autobiography about Ada’s life, which has been about as interesting as most people’s (that is, not very much so).
  • Ada was referred to me by my old friend Edna, who lives in the same senior complex. Edna is a wonderful lady who is always trying to do nice things for people, and I respect her very much.
  • She has not quite finished it, but she would like a firm quotation. You know, just to get an idea of how much it will cost to clean up a few minor errors.
  • Ada is on a fixed income, and in case I don’t get the hint, more or less indicates that this better not cost much and that I should offer a senior discount. After all, how hard can it be to fix a few typos? she asks with a chuckle.

I call Ada back, addressing her as Ms. Miller (old school Kansas boy, here), and attempt to discuss the ms. That is not feasible, unless I’m willing to talk over her and be branded rude. Ada rambles about her life, her story, her two cancer diagnoses, her children, her life, her story, how to find a publisher, her poverty, some other health problems, what a great buildup Edna gave me, and on. And on.

Ada is a lonely elderly lady hoping to make a little bit of extra money and get her story out there. She is a fundamentally nice, good person who thinks of others. However, she understands little about editing, the modern world of publishing, marketing to publishers, self-publishing, or any of that stuff. She expects me to educate her about all this, in between her soliloquies, and certainly does not expect to pay me for that time. (Not that I’ve ever charged for it, but I also reserve the right to limit it.)

When Ada does not like what she’s hearing from me, she argues with me in her genteel way. Each disagreement is grounds for her to deliver several minutes of reasons why she is correct.

Okay. You want to be an editor? Here’s your job. Decide:

  1. Plan on a massive amount of unpaid effort, wading through a ms loaded with problems, knowing Ada will reject probably half the edits, all in service of a project that will never make her one dime, for what will turn out to be an effective billing rate of about $5/hour. And that’s just for the editing time, which will be the most painful editing of your entire career. That’s not taking into account all of Ada’s loneliness emails and conversations.
  2. Find a way to reject this poor, nice, elderly potential client, who has no idea what she’s doing and isn’t willing to follow any guidance that she might not agree with. Challenge: do so without crushing her soul and sending her to Edna with many humphs about how unhelpful and rude you were to her.

Yeah, I have such an easy job.

Print media aren’t being killed; they’re taking slow poison

At least, that’s how it looks and feels to me.

We used to take Portland Monthly, a print magazine of the titular subject matter and frequency. While it was very kombucha-Portlandy, with minimal relevance to us out in Burberton and especially to those of us who avoid downtown (and were doing so years before protests began), enough of its content had enough value that we enjoyed it. We’d learn about a few new places to eat, or local history, or something else fun. It was worth what we paid for it.

One fine day, my issue came with a flyer. It began by thanking us for our support of independent journalism and told us how wonderful we were. That’s when a thinking person begins to expect at least a four-joint bohica.* It then informed me that there would be a change to my subscription. In order to better meet subscribers’ needs, I’d now only get four mailed print issues per year. The rest would be available online. They urged me to give them my e-mail address, so that I would not miss an issue. There was nothing about a refund, either partial or full.

Now let’s examine this. Here’s my takeaway: “Hi. We heart you big time. However, we’re now quartering the amount of content we offer you under the terms of your original subscription. Why? Because fuck you, we think you are enough of an idiot to go along with getting 1/4 of what you paid for, and we really like cutting our costs.”

Canceling my subscription felt almost like a moral duty. I don’t want to read magazines on my computer or my flip phone (can’t anyway). If I had a more advanced phone, I wouldn’t want to read them on that either. However, they could have avoided this by offering me some form of refund, offering a subscription extension, just about anything–anything, that is, except what they did: “Because we think you’re an idiot, we will be giving you less content and no compensation; suck it.” They could even have begged: “We understand this is a major change in the terms for which you paid, and we hope you will consider that a small but valuable contribution to the cause of local journalism.”

It came down not to money (the $15-odd refund isn’t exactly enough to retire on), nor to questions about content and value. It came down to my recoiling from the tactic of first kissing subscribers’ asses, then insulting our intelligence.

They’re committing suicide. Deep down, these magazines don’t ever want to print another paper copy again, so they’re doing their best to drive away anyone who wants a physical magazine in their mailboxes.

It’s working.

Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who stands up and objects to the constant messaging trend: “In order to serve you better, we are cutting staff, reducing hours, eliminating services, raising prices, decreasing portions, and trimming options. We want you to believe this is for your benefit. We think you’re enough of an idiot to buy this.”

 

* Slang of military origin, an articulated acronym for “bend over, here it comes again.” We used to measure them by joints involved, with three for example meaning the finger, four meaning the whole hand, and six meaning up to the shoulder. Up to twelve was a double bohica, and after that one counted vertebrae for the dreaded super bohica.

Why not ask the client?

This blog has become somewhat my repository for frustrations with my own profession. This is where I can say what I was thinking when I read the actual question, yet without getting me kicked off the group or making a professional enemy.

Today’s frustration is the inability to ask the client questions.

If you went where I go–to editorial forums where (the public presumes) we all gather to reload our red pens and drink ourselves blind over semicolons–you’d wonder how some folks manage. Here is one of the most common hivemind questions: “My client did X and Y. I think it sucks. How can I tell him so without hurting his feelings?”

In the first place, as a professional editor, you should be a capable enough writer to frame any criticism in a way that doesn’t hurt too much. If you cannot write well enough to do that, or are too lazy or cruel to do so, don’t be surprised at negative results because you aren’t going to be very persuasive. That said, the client also has a duty not to personalize what should not be personalized. You just have to give her a way around personalization, and hope she takes it. Doing your job means telling the truth, but it will be better received if you are skilled enough to do so without being a big meany.

In the second, if it doesn’t make any sense to you, why are you on here weeping openly about it and agonizing what to do? ASK YOUR CLIENT WHAT SHE WAS TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH WITH THIS CHOICE. There are loads of space between “Your protagonist is such a jerk, I hate him” and “Your protagonist’s flaws will be alienating to some segments of the potential audience; what was your reason for presenting him that way?” The first method stings. The second assumes the characterization was a deliberate device, and asks the writer to share the Master Plan. Of course, there probably is not a master plan, and the author probably doesn’t realize that the character’s so awful, but is unlikely to take the question personally.

Ask the client. Why do editors not think of this simple option? How is one to present oneself as an authority on communication if one can’t figure out how to send an email and politely say “What’s with writing the whole book in italics?” or “What’s the theory behind the informal [read: lousy] grammar in narration?”

It just is not that hard to ask the client. What does one think is the downside? In which universe do writers not like to talk about their books?

Not the one I live in.

Why it’s hard to volunteer help to beginning writers

One of my desultory ongoing marketing activities is to sort of participate on a couple of forums in which budding writers seek help, support, guidance, literary circle jerks, and sometimes editing services. I don’t post often; I’m not good at being an emotional support animal, and most of the questions just make me shake my head.

Here’s the problem: most of them can’t yet write correct English. While I do not look down on them for that as people, the idea of attempting to publish material in incorrect or broken English is dubious. Here’s the compounding problem: most of the people proposing to help them don’t even realize that the querents can’t write correct English, because they don’t know either (including plenty of self-proclaimed “editors”).

At some point, it seems, not only did garbage English become the norm, but it became the norm for literary aspirants and those who propose to guide them. The notion that all writers should at least write in reasonably educated English seems passé–and few now even seem to know the difference.

Are some of them not native speakers? Surely many are not. Okay, fine; then write in a language in which you are at least fluent, if not perfect. I speak Spanish, not fluently; I wouldn’t dream of trying to write a book in the language. I’d be an embarrassment.

Do some of them plan to hire editors to clean up the messes? I hope so…but from what I see, most aren’t willing to pay what a competent editor would ask. Many probably couldn’t afford it. It comes down to the question: will the writing receive remedy before publication? I would say the answer is a hard no.

Could I help them? I certainly could…but not for the effective $5/hour they can pay a fellow semi-literate who claims to be an editor. If editing just means fixing all the things, why pay any more than Wal-editing rates? And since the writer does not know the difference, that self-proclaimed editor doesn’t have to be any good. S/he just has to be better than his or her client. This is a low bar to clear. I see some responses that I am not sure even clear that bar.

I have some examples for you. Over a period of months, I collected the following (nearly verbatim, lightly edited to sampleize without making the English better or worse) writer/”editor” questions and “editor” answers:

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How many words should a chapter comprise of?

How can I make my new book a best seller.

Hi Guys a relative newbie to the editing world, I was just wondering do people advertise their prices on their website at all? [Yes. This person was asking an editing group in this manner.]

Is there any good blogging sits out there. Were I can make a little bit of money and just have fun writing about random stuff.

I’m a line and copy editor. I offer free edit for the first [x] words, contained in your manuscript. It will help you get a feel of how I work. [In response to a request for editing services.]

What good for a book cover please

Tips on how to write stories?

I’m experiencing panic attack right now! And the reason is one of my friend told me not to post any of your sad feelings now.

I am writing a historical novel. I want to add artificial characters and plot within it to beautify the story. Can I ? pls suggest.

How do you guys prevent eye strain from your computer when writing?

Do you believe that Writing is inherited skill (by birth) ? Or anyone can become writer ? What are the traits of a writer ?

How do you guys think I can become famous by writing.

Is it a good idea to publish a book when you have no money?

what is the shortest length acceptable for a chapter? the longest?

why we Cannot protagonist be evil ?what is reason behind this. Can main character be the antagonist ?

What makes a plot unique?

How many books have to read if one wanna to become a writer

I want to create a female character but I’m a male any advice?

Please my people, help me with the best means to market my book or with a good marketer. Please contact us for supply or to market the book with us or in fact any means of selling the book.

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I’m not putting these here to look down on anyone. Believe that, if for no other reason than that I don’t need to and can’t gain from doing so. I’m putting them here so that those who have been appalled by the current state of self-published English writing can peek into the kitchen and even into the restaurant supplier’s processing plant. It’s not you. It’s them. It has gotten bad.

And if many of the editors (when an editor was even involved) are barely better than their clients, how could the whole thing avoid being a leaky mess?

This is also intended as encouragement to those of you who write. If you can assemble complete English sentences with the correct prepositions, and use them to make intelligent statements and ask intelligent questions, congratulations. You are probably in the 85th percentile of aspiring writers.

Current read: _Union Now with Britain_, Clarence Streit, 1941

One way to study history is through the writings of the times, including those writings that faded quickly from public notice. An old used bookstore is a wonderful source for these, and I found this one at an antique mall. I gather it’s at least a bit rare.

Streit was an interesting guy. From Montana, he had a passion for democracy as a concept. Might sound a little odd, since until recently the US hasn’t exactly had a large contingent of open fascists, but it’ll begin to make sense later in this post. After serving in WWI and observing the way the League of Nations floundered (usually attributed to us snubbing it), he developed strong feelings about the forward progress of human government. The start of World War II brought those views into urgent focus, and Streit wrote this book in an effort to awaken his countrypeople to a Federal Union of the primarily Anglophone countries: the US, UK, Canada, Union of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.

Context is everything, and let’s establish it for this book. It was early 1941. Germany had absorbed Austria and half of Czechoslovakia (the remaining half becoming a puppet state). It had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France (puppeting part of it, occupying the rest outright). Of all those, Norway had taken longest. The USSR and Nazi Germany seemed allied, or at least friendly. Nazi warplanes were bombing the UK on a regular basis, and Kriegsmarine submarines threatened to strangle British connections to the Empire’s resources. Italian forces contended with a British Imperial force in Libya. The US was not at war, but had become something of a non-belligerent ally. Japan occupied a substantial chunk of China and was going to have to find petroleum somewhere, or else.

Dark times indeed.

Streit felt he had the solution, which was to escalate the US system up one level. Just as the thirteen original US states had more or less put aside their plentiful quarrels to form a Federal government, Streit felt that a Federal Union of mankind could begin by associating the Anglophone countries as member “states” of a greater whole. If the Germans took Britain and got the Royal Navy, he reasoned, the danger to the rest of the free world would move from severe to mortal. But if all these countries united with the pledge of never quitting until all were free and at peace, Hitler would either have to exit the war or face the mobilizing industrial might of the United States. Membership could then be offered to other non-Anglophone states, including those occupied by the Nazis, with the pledge of “we won’t quit until you’re free.”

Having advocated this solution for years well before the war broke out in Europe, Streit had thought through most of the issues and ramifications. Some he more or less glossed over as “to be dealt with later: A majority of the population governed by these states, perhaps, were not masters in their own houses; he did not propose to end apartheid and the British Raj immediately, and the colonialist chauvinism of the times is present in his outlook. He acknowledges that black Americans were not even nearly on an equal basis with whites, but doesn’t address changing that situation. He felt it quite possible that Hitler would back down rather than face such a Union (not an alliance, which Streit deprecated as temporary and fragile) alone. Japan’s intent was not known at the time, but I think he doubted Japan would square off with a united UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. And if it came to blows, the Union would combine the best of all its sciences, locations, and populations to create a military juggernaut Japan could never overcome.

Was it viable? Perhaps, if one could get people to put aside all their comparatively minor conflicts and some major ones. With Britain standing to benefit most immediately from Union, I think Streit figured that a union with Britain looked attractive to our friendly former colonial overlords, and that the rest of the Empire would follow. He might have been right. In France’s darkest hour, Churchill offered them a political union, but the French rejected it. Churchill was still Prime Minister. Might he have advocated this, in order to assure the survival of the United Kingdom?

That telegraphs the basis of my own doubt: my cynicism about people’s willingness to put aside relatively small matters for the greater good. Every time I go to the grocery store and see a maskhole wearing it below his or her nose, or crowding me in the checkout line, I am reminded just how many people simply do not care about others. I felt that way before the pandemic and I feel more so now. Are some peoples better about it than the ones among whom I must buy food? Perhaps; perhaps not so much. I resist the tendency to imagine that people really differ at heart. Take former Yugoslavia, where not only have the former member peoples broken the country into a half dozen pieces–inflicting enormous damage and death upon each other before the matters became settled–but none of the underlying resentments and angers are gone. In fact, all have obtained new chapters of resentment and grudge. And all could join in shouting me down about it, that I misunderstand how their own people’s grudges are all legitimate and those of all the others so much noise, that I know nothing of their region and the Horrible Things Done Centuries Ago that remain unavenged. Maybe I don’t, but I do know they weren’t killing each other under Tito, and when he left, killing started. I think less killing tends to be a good thing. Prove me wrong.

The most essential key to understanding Streit’s perspective is remembering what had not happened when he wrote the book.

  • Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Singapore.
  • Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were at war.
  • The public had not the faintest idea of the potential in nuclear weapons.
  • No nation had delivered the Nazi military any meaningful defeat.

A year after its publication, three of four of those ceased to be true. That’s how fast things were moving. No wonder Streit felt such urgency.

With outdated books, hindsight is an easy temptation; we have touched on some of it. Streit’s adoration of the US system as the perfect fundamental basis for Federal Union reads chauvinistic. Dismissing nearly 400 million Indians as unready to govern themselves was not calculated to please them, and glossed over the legitimate grievances of an aggregation of peoples who had done just fine until they became a “crown jewel” in someone else’s empire. We know that the war situation was about to change, and that Britain would survive the Blitz, but Streit did not. If one seeks to pick him apart, he’s no longer around to defend his proposal; he passed in 1986.

In any case, it’s worth the read not only for Streit’s take on the political and geopolitical study of it all, but for the view it provides of the way the world looked through one Montana son’s eyes in early 1941.