Tag Archives: fiction editor

Editorial Maverick: introduction

Would people want to read about editing? If it means reading lamentations about agonizing for eight hours trying to figure out where Chicago says to put the comma, I’m guessing not. But I work differently from many editors.

For example, unless the assignment directly involves a style manual, I regard Chicago and AP as suggestion books rather than bibles. It’s that simple. To many editors, that would be heresy. Here is the logic: The list of purposes for the English language is varied, vast, and inexhaustible. The purpose of writing is to communicate information to a given audience. Does a former gang leader write in all lower case? Besides utterly defying the style guides, won’t that limit the audience? It might, but the question I would ask is not whether the sacred style guidelines had been profaned. I would ask whether this method was effective in reaching the desired audience, and why.

You cannot imagine the crickets I have heard in this career when I have asked the basic question: “Who’s the intended audience?”

Take the aforementioned gangster book. I would ask the client why he (I refer here to an actual book I once read for pleasure, not an actual client) felt this style would best reach his audience–which, by the way, was exactly who? We’d talk about that. I’d hear out his case, consider it. If I disagreed, I’d explain why. We’d have a conversation. I’m the editor who might be receptive to subversive style methods if they were effective, so I’d have an open mind.

In such a case, it usually comes down to whether the major style variation is lazy or deliberate. If lazy, the short version is “I think my shitty is as good as others’ polished.” It has no aforethought, just “I don’t want to grow.” But if it’s deliberate, it’s written that way not because their basic ceiling is shitty, but because that reaches out to the intended audience in ways I might never understand if I’m not part of the target market. I have to be open to that.

That’s part of what makes me the Editorial Maverick, I guess.

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Do English spelling and grammar even matter any more?

Does that seem like a strange question coming from an editor? It shouldn’t–nor should one leap to conclusions regarding the answer.

I submit that the answer is a qualified yes. It has to be qualified due to these observable realities:

  • Not all communication is formal and professional. If we’re texting or PMing on FacePalm, do we really need to stress over mistakes? Not sure about your phone, but on mine it’s enough of a pain in the ass just texting understandably. There are many contexts in which I care about upper case, avoiding loose spaces, and so on. This one tends not to be such a context.
  • Language does evolve, however powerfully language conservatives rage against ‘deterioration.’ That there has been deterioration I think few can deny, but at any given point in time language differs from previous points of time, and its future will differ in turn. Look at the styles of 1800s and 1700s writing and you can see how it happened. There is never a time at which the orthodoxy is static, meaning that “perfectly correct” is a moving target.
  • As if that weren’t enough, many other countries have their own versions of English. There are more English speakers in India than in the United States. Australian and New Zealand English have marked differences, and I don’t recommend going there to try telling them they’re doing it wrong. Same for South Africa. Irish English and British English also differ from ours, with the added fillip that “The King’s English” is supposedly the mother tongue. Canadian English is akin to US English but with noteworthy British influence. If we’re going to talk about “correct English,” whose correct English do we mean? That of the largest numeric grouping, which would be Indian English?
  • Writers can be very effective yet be doing it “wrong.” When I get a ms that is written in some bizarre-looking form of English, I ask myself whether it’s effective. Some time back I did a line edit on a vanity book about of an elderly Alabama gentleman’s country music career. It sounded like what it was: a book written by a rural Alabamian nonagenarian. To edit it into some semblance of English perfection would have meant destroying the author’s basic tone. As it was, parts were a little repetitive and sometimes unclear, but his tone was familiar and regionally correct. His audience would understand every word of it, even find it warm and comforting; what was more, who would want to excise the author from his own autobiography? It’d have been lunacy.
  • At the opposite pole, I read a book by an L.A. gangster who converted to some variation of Islam and reformed. as i recall, it did not use upper case. It sounded like it was written by a moderately educated gangster. It was raw, real, personal, and effective. If he’d come to me as an editor, I doubt I would have tried to regularize his language. The way he wrote made it feel like the reader was getting to look at an otherwise inaccessible world. That I couldn’t think of a compelling benefit that would make it worth losing that feeling testified to the effectiveness of his style.

Qualifiers noted, I have indeed seen the quality of US English education and composition decline over my lifetime (don’t blame me). That gives it something in common with the rest of education during my adult life. With a dead battery, most people now are without their arithmetic. I was watching a frightful display of ignorance on Big Brother where someone thought London was in Paris, or Paris was in London. Most every day I read at least one adult female person refer to herself as “a women.” People not only don’t learn physics and geometry; they don’t even learn to adult. (There’s a verbing you might expect me to hate and reject. Nah; that word arose in reply to a genuine need, right around the time it became de-stigmatized to live with your parents once you grew up.)

All the more reason, some might say, to give no willing ground in the erosion of language standards. I understand the outlook on an emotional level. From a practical standpoint it feels like a King Canute activity. I’d rather fight for the differences that make differences, such as the abuse of “literally” to mean “figuratively.” We need that word. Without it we have no way to clarify whether a statement is hyperbolic or, well, literal.

In the end, my editorial outlook is that everything comes down to judgment and context. Does it work? If it does, any change requires a compelling case. If however its language causes it to fail, we need to rethink and adapt. There is no editorial Scripture, just some textbooks and style guides; they should be consulted but not worshipped or thumped at anyone. In the end we must apply our best understanding.

If it were as easy as just pointing to the arcana of the Chicago Manual and interpreting its holy words, this job would require far less experience and discernment. (I might start terming that crowd the “Chicago judiciary.”)

How I would go looking for an editor…

…that is, of course, assuming I didn’t have a bunch of contacts (or they all retired or died or told me to go away, etc.). If I didn’t know any, but did know what else I know, how would I do this?

I’d cheat is what I’d do.

But first, I’d quantify my project and what I wanted to happen. I’d decide whether it was a vanity or commercial project. If it was a commercial project, I’d have a marketing plan. I’d also decide how much I could afford to spend on editing. And I’d be realistic with what I could afford. A substantive edit on a full ms could run me into the $3000 range or more, whereas a short story would be rather less. A developmental edit would probably also cost less, but still likely to be four figures for a normal-length fiction ms.

Once I knew where I was at with means and goals, I’d go on FacePalm and join a writers’ group. The reason I would not join a writers’ group is that many of the participants are sure they know (nearly everything, but in particular…) exactly what editors do, and  few are fully informed. I don’t fault them for that; I don’t exactly know all that ER nurses do, for example, and I don’t need to become one in order to be grateful for one if I break a wrist late at night or can’t stop ralphing. But there is a a lot of stridency in writers’ groups, and much of what you would read would imply that editors are dream-slaying parasites who move your commas and tell you that you suck. If you spent much time there, you’d come away with such a bad attitude you’d have trouble finding a competent editor who would put up with you. That would leave the desperate ones. Do you want a desperate one? Check it out for yourself if that’s what works for you, but if it were me, I’d let the angstfest proceed without seeping into my mentality. Everyone has to own their own angst.

Now it’s time to cheat. This is not honest. I’d search for the term ‘editor’ on FacePalm and narrow my search to groups, and I’d start joining and observing. If there were public groups I’d observe those; if not, well, I’d have to find my way in. I would not introduce myself with a noob hello post. If the group said it was for editors only, I’d see how strict their vetting process was (usually there isn’t much of one, just answer a few questions). If I had to flex reality a bit to do that–such as liberally interpret questions about what kind of editing I supposedly did–I would probably do that. Whatever it took to worm my way in.

They’ll kill me for this, but it’s a lot better than the writers’ groups. Plus, when you see some of the people in editors’ groups claiming to be editors, posting heartfelt pleas asking people to tell them where to put a goddamn comma (because evidently it’s asking too much for them to just make a decision based on informed understanding and good sense), you’ll realize this:

Anyone can anoint oneself an editor. Anyone. While that might not make them the real thing, there’s no bar to clear.

This is how you locate and experience the large mass of people who don’t know what they’re doing. This is how you see the people you want to avoid. They’re making anguished pleas to “edi-buddies” to help them figure out some petty points of style precision rather than make a damn decision and live with it. You don’t need a degree or a certificate to be an editor, but you do need to know the language well enough to tell other people what’s correct, and to adapt it where necessary to the conventions of a style guide’s letter and intent. You also need to know the conventions well enough to know when to bend them, why you would want to do that, and so on. That’s the basic requirement. As a writer in English, surely you want an editor who isn’t still learning English?

At some point, you’ll learn enough about editors and editing to have some sense of the kind of person you’d like to work with. Identify one of those and search out their professional presentation (blog, webpage, Facepalm page, etc.). Cyber-stalk the hell out of them; see what they are about. If possible, see what sort of work they have done. If you feel that they can help you, get in touch.

Keep doing that until you find someone who is available, fits your budget, and feels like a good partner in the process. The reality of a good writer/editor relationship is that it’s not Lofty Expert bossing around Rank Noob. It’s partner helping partner: brainstorming, discussing, communicating. It’s always okay to ask an editor their rationale for a decision or recommendation. Good ones should be pumped to show off their depth, excited to see clients succeed and grow, and confident enough to be very sharing with knowledge. We are knowledge workers. We should not hoard knowledge; that smacks of a fear that we’re going to run out of it. We should demonstrate its depth and breadth by sharing it generously and thus giving best value.

If you’ve had bad editor relationships, don’t open the discussion with the next candidate by telling all your horror stories. Know what I think when someone does that? I think I am not much interested in the job, because I am not much interested in being the next chapter in the Litany of Editorial Sorrows. What I’m hearing is someone saying: “I am a pain in the ass who doesn’t take their share of responsibility for what goes wrong, and you are being considered as the next casualty of my asspainery.” If you had a contractor come out to bid, and you spent the whole time telling them how much all your past contractors sucked, how competitive a bid you reckon you’re going to get? You might not even get one at all. If you do, you’ll be paying what a lawyer friend of mine calls the “asshole tax.”

You might notice that I didn’t send you to Fiverr, Sixerr, Sevenerr, FourHundredSixty-Twoerr, or some other site where those who purport to be editors often sign up to obtain work. In the first place, that’s doing it in the wrong order. If you have seen editors in groups and learned what we really do, and you simply do not feel drawn to or impressed by any of the people in the groups, then perhaps you’re willing to resort to one of the hire sites. If it were me, I’d keep looking harder in the groups. Surely there’s got to be someone who sounds good to work with. In fact, since I belong to them, I know most have some great editors because I’ve watched what they say to their colleagues.

I’m not saying there aren’t good people on hiring sites. I know of great editors with presences there. I’m saying that it is very hard to tell them one from another without seeing them interact; that any clod can create an appealing EightyTwoerr profile; and that in fact you can get a lot of cheap ‘services’ there because there is a subset of the editing world that is as desperate to edit as most novice writers are to be published. Why are they that desperate? The question could have many answers, though “massive student loans for a degree in Comparative Literature at venerable Piltdown College and really hate working at McDonald’s” is not a terribly rare one. The salient point is that hire sites will probably be die rolls and you might or might not get good value. They are the equivalent of hiring some struggling guy named Ernie off LostCatsDoor to rewire your house. There’s the off chance Ernie can do that as well as a journeyman electrician. There’s a much greater chance that if Ernie could do that, he’d be a journeyman electrician, and he is not.

By finding someone by the way they communicate with their peers, you can find people who are not desperate. That’s because they are established and capable. They will rarely be cheap, but they will offer you far better value for your dollar. That’s what I’d want if it were me. The hell with what the investment costs me; what does it pay me? What’s the benefit? Size up the benefit and see if it’s worth what you pay for it. Oh, and let’s say your target is wonderful but can’t fit you in for six months. In that case, ask them for a recommendation. That would be a much better start than wandering onto Forty-Ninerr and picking people like throwing darts at a board.

If you were hoping this would tell you how to get top-grade services for desperation prices, I am glad to have shattered that hope because it is not realistic, and gives me a chance to share an essential lesson. That’s one thing we do: get paid to give the truth with the bark on. While it is not automatically true that you get what you pay for, it is nearly always true that when you establish a very low willing-to-pay price, you also establish a very low ceiling on the likely benefit you can gain. Anyone who offers to “edit” your full-length fiction ms for $300 is probably just going to run spellcheck and grammar check, then send it back and put their hand out to be paid.

Hell, you could have done that. And should have.

 

Lords of Chaos, a tabletop RPG by Randy Hayes

This time-tested fantasy RPG has come to market in e-form and hardcover. I was developmental editor.

Randy is a friend of nearly forty years going back to our college days. He’s an interesting guy. Many people talk about doing things; Randy goes out and does things. He wanted to be a successful financial advisor, and he became one. He wanted to play in a rock band, and he does. He wanted to learn SCA-style medieval combat, and he has done so. He wanted to be an officer in the Army, and he was.

He also wanted to play a fantasy role-playing game that was as realistic as one can be and still have profound supernatural mechanics. One always needs that qualifier for the obvious reason that “realistic” doesn’t normally imply magical fireballs and summoning ogres. For our purposes, realistic means that the physical movement and combat are plausible. Randy had done enough SCA fighting to see the fundamental problems with physical combat as presented in most RPGs and movies. And yes, there is a school of thought that says: “Hell with realism, it’s fantasy, I want to do epic things.” And to that I think Randy might say: ‘To each their own. But over the years my players have done quite a few epic things. Not every system is for everyone, and I get that.’

When we got back in touch in life after a long stretch of doing our own things, Randy showed an interest in building his writing skills. He wasn’t bad, but he could improve, and we worked on his fiction writing techniques. Some of the fiction involved stories from his RPG gaming world, tales played out by his merry band of tabletop players. That was fine, and Randy made rapid strides. While all of his group had made contributions and suggested refinements, two seemed most involved: Mike Cook, one of our old cronies from UW, and Keith Slawson. Keith was not well, but wanted with all his heart to assist with the layout and graphics. Here’s the kind of friend Randy is: He could have just punted and gone seeking those services elsewhere, but so long as a chance existed that Keith might be able to offer them when the rulebook was ready, Randy kept that hope alive for him. I had the pleasure of brief correspondence with Keith  before his passing in late 2020. Randy, of course, visited him to the very end.

As for Mike, he aspired to publish fiction based on the LoC world, and the same drive that once put colonel’s eagles on his shoulders was in refined evidence with his work. This resulted in Out of their Depth, an excellent hard fantasy novel I had the pleasure of midwifing. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a client improve as fast as Mike did, and his medieval vocabulary taught me some new words along the way.

It was a process. This might sound odd, but rulebook editing is technical editing. I do some tech editing here and there, and even though Randy’s project was a game guide, the mentality is similar. While humor and style matter, the heart of the project is how it organizes and presents information. I have done a lot of RPGing in my life, but have never played a moment of LoC, so in some ways I was the perfect guinea pig. Randy was very receptive to rules modifications and procedural clarifications. He laughed over my developmental editing style, which is to explain a problem, make a couple of sample corrections, then let the client hunt up and fix the rest. It would be sort of drill sergeanty on my part, except that I’m not raising my voice or pointing someone’s genetic shortcomings in an attempt to motivate them to do a proper about-face.

For Randy, the hardest part was something many authors experience on long-term projects: One cannot forget what one knows, nor easily put oneself in the place of not knowing. Let us imagine a fight scene in a novel. The author has worked on the novel off and on for twenty years. She has complete mental video memory of how the fight “happened.” She knows how she pictures her characters, how they maneuvered, what their voices sounded like. Her reader has none of the above, and knows only what he learns from her portrayal. Does it matter that the room has a table in the middle? Maybe; probably; depends. It’s probably an obstacle in the fight, in which case at least enough description is wanted to help the reader picture the scene. Does it matter that it’s oak or walnut? Probably not right then. Her challenge is to keep the readercam steady, furnish enough description that her reader can follow the action, and avoid overdescription. It’s difficult to strike the balance between too much description and not enough.

This also applies to such areas as RPG rules. Randy has developed the rules for so long he can hardly remember what it is like not knowing them, so my ignorance was a help. If an experienced RPGer with reasonable comprehension skills couldn’t figure out how something worked, this raised valid questions whether something had been left out, described ambiguously, and so on. We changed quite a bit of the basic terminology because I thought some of it created confusion, and added a Game Concepts section in the front so that players had a quick reference for the terms one must understand in order to play the system. Randy came up with a genius way to present descriptions of the character skills: He created a ne’er-do-well elf named Potlatch, assigned him one point in each skill, and had him walk through a (somewhat contrived but not entirely implausible) story in short installments that involved one skill at a time. It’s hilarious, especially with Randy’s wry style of infantryman humor. As with anything Randy cares about–which means most of what he spends his time on–he took the time to do a really good job.

Another example is how the game handles the common low-value loot that characters tend to accumulate in the course of adventuring (vanquished foes’ weapons, load-bearing equipment, doodads that don’t do anything special). Randy doesn’t think the game should be Lords of Bookkeeping. Therefore, the rule is that players are assumed to gather up and sell whatever useful when possible. In turn, players do not have to keep track of and replenish consumable supplies of arrows, bolts, rations, and so forth. The selling process is presumed to sustain the common consumables; anything special or valuable is not considered common, of course, and gets valued separately. What a fantastic idea, right? One abstraction kills off two annoyances that few players would miss.

One notable aspect of the game is the lack of character classes. A player may define their character as whatever, but the game doesn’t bless or curse that choice. If you’ve always felt shackled by class restrictions, this is the open road.

This rulebook process took maybe three years. It came into final form, with areas of confusion ironed out and graphics added. Things happened. A pandemic came and sort of went. We pimped it at two Orycons and got some minor interest. Keith passed. Mike published his book while giving important input. Artists flaked. Artists delivered. Now here we are.

Randy has a bunch of online playing aids that supplement the book. If you’ve been looking for an RPG system that is designed for plausible melee and missile combat, one well refined through decades of play and experimentation, this could be just what you’ve long been looking for.

Later addendum: I have received my copy and it’s a beauty. Great layout, professional artwork, solid production. If you’re like me, and want to pick up the physical book and read relevant sections, you will appreciate this.

 

Current re-read: Yankee Hobo in the Orient, by John Patric

The first time I read this book, my (purchased well used) copy was a gift I soon intended to pass along. Kind of blazed through. This time, with a copy I plan to keep, I’m giving it better attention.

John Patric was an interesting guy. A die-hard libertarian and frequent traveler, he said the things one was not supposed to say. The travels in the book happened late in the Great Depression, but he updated it after World War II. We thus have someone writing about a Japan that was already embroiled in land warfare, but had not yet become involved in the general global war; he has impressions of his travel, but also perspectives on a Japan under occupation following the incineration of many of its cities (two with nuclear weapons). He was also a Pacific Northwest homie, born in Snohomish, WA and making his residence down near Florence, Oregon (southward along the coast).

What’s great about Patric is the sophistication and general fairness of his outlook toward Japan and its people. He compares costs of living in terms that avoid the common oversimplifications of relative value. His goal was to paint a candid picture of Japanese society and attitudes without quivering in fear that someone might brand him Not A Good Murrican. Even though Pearl Harbor was about the most fortunate way in which our entry into war could have come about–and yes, it’s true; they destroyed two fairly obsolete battleships and bottomed three more, while whiffing on the carriers that would have been grave losses, and came to be the most important ships in the war–his times were those in which Japan was made out The Ultimate Demon by our customary wartime fanaticism. Saying anything remotely positive about Japan was about as popular as the word “retarded” is today. Patric didn’t care.

Patric observed a Japan in which people lived with great frugality, where fancy lodgings and things were mainly for tourists who would not tolerate the sorts of accommodations and travel most Japanese chose. Insofar as possible, he avoided the spendier options in favor of local custom.  He understood that tourist industries are designed to insulate the traveler from the truth while thinning his or her bankroll. I suspect Paul Theroux is a fan.

The result is a travel essay that did not follow the beaten paths, that saw Japan’s natural strengths and weaknesses, and that was able to apply hindsight to earlier observations. My copy was printed in 1945, when the future of Japan was uncertain from a Western standpoint.  If the book has a weakness, it might be his libertarian political ranting; Patric indulged himself in this way with as few f-bombs given as about any other subject he explored. Given that we now can see that libertarian economics ultimately lead to monopolies and corporate fascism, I find that part a bit naive given that Patric was a bright enough guy to have worked that through to its logical outcome.

Recommended for sophisticated readers who, like me, love old school travel writing.

Recent read: The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker

A tech editing client–an engineer who can write for real–said such good things about this book that I bought and read it. This vindicated his praise.

One might view the editing world as a stylistic continuum. Let us define the extreme left as accepting of nearly any stylistic oddness or grammatical perversity. The extreme right lives and dies by style manuals (AP, APA, Chicago, etc.), grammar guides, and archaic meanings. The extreme left is so fluid it has hardly any rules; the extreme right not only has them, but will follow them right off a cliff. (No direct political analogy is intended, though I won’t say none could reasonably be made.)

If you visit editors’ forums, most of the loudest voices are found on the moderate to far right. Agonized posts abound: “Hey, edi-buddies, I’m dying here. I have a sentence in which I can’t figure out where to put commas. It’s four in the morning and I’ve been mutilating my soul in an effort to solve the problem. Help!” I never bother pointing out the obvious, because no one is so strident as a far-right editor catching another editor in some tiny deviation from the strict orthodoxy of the First Church of Style Manual Orthodoxy. I can’t gain anything from fighting with them, and I don’t enjoy the debate nor do I care what they say. I just let them do their thing somewhere I am not.

What would the far left do? Not much. All the client must tell them is “that’s just my style,” and they’ll roll over. Book without upper case? Well, if that’s just your style… Book written in text-speak? Wouldn’t want to invalidate youth opinions. Street-speak? Dissent would be…racist! And so on, usually in the direction of rolling over and letting this or that demographic define its own language.

And what’s wrong with that? some might ask. Nothing, provided that demographic is the writer’s only audience, and therefore that it doesn’t give a damn about being intelligible or comfortable to anyone else. “Hi. I write like garbage but I require you to read and respect my material” is not a reasonable proposition. The reader always has the right to stop reading. Making demands of the reader rarely works. She just closes the book or browser window, flips a bird if she’s feeling annoyed, and does something else.

I find myself on the moderate left wing of this continuum, a little to Pinker’s right. He and I agree that “literally” must not be used as “figuratively,” for example. We need a word that means, well, the literal rather than metaphorical meaning of an expression. If you were literally floored, you were on the ground. If your head literally exploded or someone literally ripped your heart out, you weren’t alive to describe it. He’s a little more tolerant of beginning a sentence with a preposition, and he’s willing to see “to comprise” wander afield from its standard translation as “to consist of,” which I am not. Those are tiny shadings of degree.

My governing principle is not complicated: Editorial judgments depend on context. Should we use fewer adverbs? Generally yes, when feasible. Is there a place for strange styles? I don’t know until you show it to me in context and we see whether it works. Should a book about inner-city gangs be written in gangland style? If it works well, perhaps, so let’s see it and determine whether it works. If not, maybe the fix can preserve much of its flavor.

Here’s what to like about Pinker. As a student and educator in the field of psycholinguistics, he’s deep in the ways our minds use language. When there’s a hitch in a sentence, I can usually say what needs to be done, but I can’t always articulate why. Pinker explains that and many other nuances of the English language. It’s not a grammar guide, but it does examine many aspects of language in light of the divide between Prescriptivists (the language standards’ right wing) and Descriptivists (the left wing). He isn’t intimidated by the Red Pen of Disapproval.

The language’s right wing seems to want the language frozen in time. To that group, for example, “ain’t” could never be a legitimate word. Whatever is considered correct today is treated as if it were correct for the millennium or so in which something like the English language has existed in discernibly different form from its Germanic extended family. Pinker demonstrates that language evolves whether editorial stuffed shirts like it or not, and that the Bemoaning of the Decline in Writing Standards has been with us for a very long time. Every generation does it. Put another way, the stuffed shirts of 1822 and 1922 would scowl at what the stuffed shirts of 2022 consider acceptable.

Every generation’s has the conceit of having lived in Big Important Times. Whatever it learned in childhood was The Right Way, with every later generation being selfish, lazy slobs with no respect. To this day most people sixty and over insist on two spaces after a period (and if they paid attention, the exclamation point and colon). Why? Because Mrs. Nitpickingham taught them two spaces in their typing class, and damn it, that makes it correct for all time and eternity. Never mind that Mrs. Nitpickingham (my own was a dotty but pleasant elderly lady who troweled on eyeshadow like iridescent purple bat wings extending from her eyelids) never used an electric typewriter and passed away before the advent of the IBM PC; she could not have envisioned self-publishing. Text-speak? Let’s be glad for her that she never saw it develop; same for my elderly high school English teacher, who looked like Groucho Marx and sounded a bit like Andy Rooney if he’d smoked all his life. In the meantime, every client over sixty argues with me about two spaces vs. one. I explain why the restriction no longer makes sense nor is the standard. Tough, most say, that’s what Mrs. Nitpickingham taught me and that’s what’s correct. It is the hill they choose to die on. It’s the wrong one.

It could be worse. My wife sometimes leaves three spaces, and she’s an excellent typist. I sometimes think she’s just messing with me.

If you want to see someone make a good case for the steady evolution of language and usage–someone doing so not because he doesn’t know the rules and won’t learn them, but because he knows them well enough to know when to bend or break them–Steven Pinker is your guy.

A new sample critique service

Some writers might want editorial input on style/flow/syntax/etc., but not at the cost of submitting a full ms for a developmental edit. A more manageable length would be a very economical way to improve one’s writing, and a good introduction to the editorial relationship.

For a flat fee of $50, I will deep dive on any writing sample up to 1500 words (an industry-standard six pages). This is longer than the customary sample edit provided upon request, and would give the writer enough space to develop a basic short story. In addition to my own detailed commentary, I will focus on any specific concerns you might present. Fiction and non-fiction are both fine.

The result will get you the frank truth that those first readers closest to you might hesitate to present, from a practiced eye with long writing and editing experience. Eighteen and over, please; I stay within my limitations, and I do not have pedagogic training. Younger writers should seek out a teacher who works with young people’s writing on a daily basis and knows how to serve age-appropriate feedback. While I reserve the right to decline to work on material I consider objectionable, in practice that’s rare.

To begin, get in touch by going to the To hire me page and scrolling down to the contact section at the bottom. I look forward to working with you.

Current read: How I F*cking Did It, by Jen Mann

When I bought this book, it was with an eye toward Mann’s comedy. I find her hilarious. How can anyone resist someone whose pseudonyms for her husband and children are Ebeneezer, Adolpha, and Gomer? She is (in)famous for her love of the word “fuck,” as you might gather from her title. If there is one core truth about Jen Mann, it’s that she is consistently herself and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of that. The fact that she has an enormous mom following suggests to me that she often says what others think and feel.

This, however, is the story of how she became a high-earning author. That’s why I am recommending it as a read for aspiring writers. She is quite candid about how her career got a jet-assisted takeoff with a viral blog post, but one might well remember that having the blog made that possible. She discusses the varying methods of promotion she has tried (or wishes she had in hindsight), her experiences with agents and publishers, and becoming comfortable with the public. My own takeaway was a confirmation that I might never attain anywhere near her level of comfort, but that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t pay attention. It just means I’m not real outgoing that way, not nearly as much as I ought to be.

As I’ve said before in this platform, my typical first question to a prospective client can be offputting: Is it a vanity or a commercial project? Oh, definitely commercial, they usually reply, as if a vanity project were something less worthy. I then ask them about the marketing plan, and I get silence. The difference between a vanity project and a commercial project is that the latter has a marketing plan and the former needs none. Why be so blunt at the start? Because only a truly commercial project is likely to recoup my fees for the client, and as the industry pro it is my duty to know such things and proactively guide the prospective client. It would be dishonesty by silence to let someone imagine they were going to make Big Money if I knew at the outset that was improbable.

That’s why I recommend this book. I haven’t even tried to interact with an agent or a publisher in recent years. That world evolves. Mann’s experiences are modern and relevant to the marketing of literary property as it occurs today, including the question of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. She discusses how she got her name out there, how she moved past her comfort zones, and in short, how she got past all the boundaries that my marketing adviser keeps encouraging me to surmount. She knows better than I do, and I’m listening.

A small bit of descriptive writing guidance

My current read is a series by an author with a significant body of work. For me some of his presentation flaws are less important than the overall storyline, which I like. I bookmarked a spot that I could sanitize into a useful example of what not to do, and what to do instead.

Rarely do I approve of constructions such as “he felt.” When possible we should always be showing rather than telling. What is worse: telling when we are already showing, thus creating redundancy as well as awkwardness. (One could even make the case that it insults the reader’s intellect. [“Put it back!” she sobbed. She felt sad. ] Well, duh; that’s usually why people sob. Does the au think readers are too stupid to infer that?)

Dialogue tags are often key to avoiding the need for overt description of sentiment. While the conventional wisdom is that everyone said or asked, more descriptive tags have their moments. Actions described alongside them can also make extra telling unnecessary–and that’s what we want. The context is maritime, age of sail and scurvy. Here’s a sample:

===

As usual, Montoya chose to be pessimistic. “And the sick ones?”

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped. He was becoming irritated by the Spaniard’s bad moods.

===

What’s wrong with this? A few things. First–looking last–is ‘he was becoming irritated.’ Better to say that he found the Spaniard’s moods irritating. We might safely assume that they are bad, since good moods are unlikely to irritate, and it happens Montoya’s attitude is well established in the story. But we won’t need to edit it, because it’s not coming with us. More important here is the inept/excess description. We don’t need to say that Montoya is usually pessimistic, because if that is true, this is already well established. One could then say:

===

“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

===

What did we lose? Nothing. Especially in light of what will remain of the next part, which should end after ‘snapped.’ This can work because Montoya’s attitude problem is a long-known reality to the reader, and the dialogue tag ‘snapped’ conveys all the irritation the reader needs. So we get:

===

“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped.

===

Quicker, cleaner, no longer redundant, and allows the previous storyline and tone to carry the mail. We got rid of one full sentence and most of another. We drop from 42 words to 28–a one-third reduction.

This is why editors tend to shorten mss rather than lengthen them. Even seasoned authors tend to over-describe, and novices tend toward it all the more. And that’s okay, provided they have and heed competent editorial guidance. One can tell when this did not occur, and it can make a great story read average, or an average story read badly.

Pre-suffering

As my youth catches up with me, invoicing me for my poor decisions, I encounter the tendency to start dreading this or that now rather than wait.

While I might perhaps be avoiding long lines, I have to fight that. It would not do myself any favors.

I think some of us are more keenly affected by surprise than others. At the dentist, I ask her to let me know when we are a quarter of the way through, halfway, three-quarters, and nearly done. (I have a marvelously compassionate dentist.) If I’m having a medical exam, I must rassle my mind away from predicting all the possible batches of very bad news. Telling me my A1C needs to come down thus seems bearable, given that I was preparing to hear they were concerned about some mass in my abdomen.

Earlier this month my wife and I celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of her acceptance of my marriage proposal. We might be the only couple out there who celebrate such a day, but that’s all right with us. The fact that we’re having one, and that the only thing that will prevent a twenty-sixth is if one of us has something sudden happen to him or her, speaks for itself. Celebrate a day, again and again for a quarter century, and one communicates that one remains grateful for it.

Something sudden is the problem. If not restrained, my mind is sort of like a cat. Now and then it will wander off into someplace that doesn’t help anyone, and this would become paranoia if not handled in a sane fashion. For me, that means refraining from pre-suffering. It’s one thing to grieve ahead of time for a friend lost to pancreatic cancer–something I recently did–because it’s not paranoid to imagine that the friend will not survive it. Few do. It’s another thing to take that ball, run with it, and start thinking about a day in the future when one or one’s spouse might be given news of such a deadly affliction. And then to start processing grief on some level.

That’s pre-suffering, and it helps no one. It also carries with it a terrible pessimism, and this also must be battled. Imagine I were to find myself a sudden widower. If I’d worried myself half to death about that possibility for two decades, would the pre-suffering and all the time it had ruined do one bit of good to help me once the real thing was present and undeniable? I don’t think so. We have no idea how we will react to close loss, regardless of what we imagine. If I were eighty-five and received a diagnosis of dementia, would I grieve less if I’d screwed around for the last twenty-five years fearing dementia? Bet most people would not.

In essence, pre-suffering is an investment in an emotional stock that looks on the surface to be a huge bargain but in fact is going to zero. It is the Thornburg Mortgage of mental attitudes. (Let’s not talk about why that analogy rings so true for me.)