Tag Archives: fiction editor

Trying to take my own advice

One supposes one’s clients are going to enjoy this.

The general public does not realize it, but I work on many uncredited projects. If you reviewed my credit list, you’d think I don’t work very often. While there are slow times, I’d guess there are as many items absent from the list as present. Most of the time it’s by my choice.

Wait, why wouldn’t I want credit? The most common reason is that the author rejected too much input or seemed likely to do so. It might amaze the world how many people will seek out competent guidance, then go right ahead and do it their (ill-advised) way.  It happens in other ways, such as the author asks me not to and doesn’t offer me a print credit. Or the book content queases me out, though not quite enough to refuse the project entirely.

In this case, a valued colleague got in contact with me. Her favorite uncle, a genial but near-deaf nonagenarian, had written a novel and wanted to see it in print while he was still with us. It was obvious to me that my colleague loved and appreciated this old gentleman and wanted to make him happy. Problem: The novel was not publishable in its then-current state. Another problem: Her bailiwick was exclusively non-fiction. She felt unqualified to handle the necessary rewriting.

Two other editors had provided evaluatory reads–finding all the same problems she had–but weren’t willing to undertake a rewrite. Would I be interested? Well, I said, I’d at least be willing to look it over and say either yes I could, or no I couldn’t.  The novel is set around 1970-73, and concerns gay cowboys in northern Wyoming.  For someone who is neither a cowboy nor gay, I was rather a good match for the project. I’ve at least been to northern Wyoming, lived rather near to it in that timeframe (northern Colorado), have an aunt and uncle who went to college at Laramie, and have ranching roots in the Kansas Flint Hills. I can’t rope a calf, and it’s been a very long time since I rode a horse. But I know the difference in meaning between cows and cattle, have bucked some hay, have felt a truck begin to slide on an icy road, and have been snowed on in Wyoming on the first of June.

Very few editors answer to anything like the above description. Perhaps most importantly, I understand why people live in places like Sheridan. I get the sort of amused pride they take in the hardships their state can inflict on daily life, and how they view the world around them. If I had to do any research, I wouldn’t quite come off as a dude (kids, this was once the term for an effete wannabe Westerner, and still is to a degree in some places). My aunt and uncle, now running the family ranch in Kansas, would have helpful knowledge on more than one level. There’s someone in a club I attend who is from Green River. I was at least alive and in a nearby region circa the book’s era. And if I had to start phoning people in Wyoming who didn’t know me, and try to obtain information from them, at least I’d be unlikely to alienate them.

My colleague was right. The ms was a mess. It happened in a world events vacuum; it head-hopped; there were time jumps of months at a time; those subjects the au did not understand (for example, the world of women beyond cooking), he skimmed; names were common to the point of character confusion. The au was present in the story (most amateur authors just have to insert themselves). The sex scenes were, well, not very sexy. Dialogue was not natural. Every voice was the same. The au had done most things wrong.

However. While I had not known this colleague for all that long, we had experienced immediate rapport based upon our revulsion for some of the more speech-policing aspects of editors’ forums. You might imagine that she was overjoyed at the possibility of getting a substantive editor/rewriter who had at least some idea of the story subject matter and region, and the resources to learn more. Did I know a brand inspector’s job? No, but I could see why they’d be necessary. Stuff like that. It also moved me that she cared enough about her uncle to want to do this for him.

Normally the minimal likelihood the book’s revenues would  recoup my fees (since the au would certainly not market it) would be an early discussion. This relates to the first question I ask most prospective clients, because I have an ethical duty not to take money based on mistaken premises. If an author doesn’t have a marketing plan, it’s a vanity project; while I’m glad to work on vanity projects, me being the experienced industry person the client has a right to expect the benefits of that experience. If one were a safari guide, and someone was about to leave their stuff in a situation where bonobos would surely swipe it, one would not be free to say to oneself “maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t” and blow it off. The experienced, hired professional is there to foresee what the client does not realize, and to offer proactive advice.

Here that was irrelevant. In the first place, the client had his own primary advisor, one at least as competent as me, and didn’t look to me for guidance of that sort. In fact, he and I would never have contact (his interest in online interaction being limited, and his hearing not conducive to the phone). In the second, the client was not stupid. He understood his own motives and they weren’t commercial; they were bucket-list related. He just wanted to see his book in print.

Well, I thought, if he wanted to spend this much money on a trip to Egypt to see the Pyramids while he could, no one would discourage that. If his dream is to see his name on a book, and he can afford to, why shouldn’t he?

My colleague had very reasonable expectations. We agreed that making the book a home run was not practical due to the storyline’s basic weakness, and wouldn’t make sense. We were going for “much improved” and I saw ways in which that would be possible. She was pleased that I signed onto the project, but there was one slight drawback. The client told her he would just put back anything taken out that he wanted back in, and that dropped my non-credit red flag. I don’t urgently need credits, but I do need credited outcomes to reflect competent editorial guidance. I have had situations in which I completed full rewrites, following which the author went back and (to be blunt) re-butchered some parts. It is always the client’s right, but that makes me look subpar, and in such cases I reserve the right not to be credited. This would be an Alan Smithee.

The only surprising aspect of the work is a luxury I haven’t had since my freelance writing days: my very own editor. In most professional situations, I do not have another editor to backstop me. While it’s true that this is substantive editing (a mode in which a proof-ready ms is the expected result and nothing’s off the table), it verges on rewriting. More than verges in many places.

So here I must practice everything I spend so much time preaching. What must I require of myself?

  • Don’t keep doubling back to fix things and self-edit. Just do the job, move forward, get the work done.
  • Feel relief that I’m not the only experienced set of eyes on this.
  • Place my faith in those other eyes, which have more experience than I do with copy editing (if not with fiction editing).
  • Realize that I will make major mistakes I’ll need to repair, and be at peace with imperfection. If I let perfect be the enemy of good, I will get neither.
  • Remember that if it’s not good enough, I have an editor to tell me.
  • Have the guts to send the ms to the editor rather than self-editing forever.
  • Be the kind of writer I would wish as a client.
  • Fricking learn something about how my clients feel, and take that knowledge with me.

We’re working on all that.

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The state of the editing world

Remember when The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro Bodine decided that buying a metal hat, loading up a trench coat with tools, adding some goofy gizmos to the family truck, and claiming to be a “double-naught” made him a master spy?

Reading editors’ groups, I often think of Jethro. If I said on editors’ groups even a fourth of what I am about to say, I would be ejected. On the spot.

Stereotype: The editing world is full of red-pen-wielding grammar fascists who could play in professional word game leagues. They know their stuff.

Truth: You should hope for the stereotype. It exists. It’s also full of unqualified hopefuls who first christened themselves  editors, then ran to ask a bunch of editors what an editor did and how to do it.

It’s unclear to me how we got here. I suspect part of it is the general decline in written English mirroring our quietly engineered decline in education (nice dumb little worker drones supposed to just do as they’re told, never question authority). The decent English is still necessary, but fewer and fewer people can provide it. Those who feel they can do so thus consider it marketable, and they’re not always wrong. (They soon learn that most people who want correct English do not want to pay a fair price to have it fixed.) The student loan insanity surely contributes; people graduate from hoary Stuffshirt College with English degrees and owing the full cost of a small house. If they have liberal arts degrees, they reckon, that qualifies them. And in the cases of a few individuals, perhaps it comes close to doing so.

What is clear to me: Many people who anoint themselves editors lack even an understanding of what editors do. Most are available on the eEditor-flavor-of-the-month.com hiring sites. Before you go on one of those sites that promises to hook you up with an “editor,” please do bear in mind these observed realities.

For example: On editors’ forums, large numbers of new posters introduce themselves to their new colleagues something like this: “Hi! I’ve decided to be an editor! Will you tell me where I can learn grammar?”

The correct answer is “No.” In the first place, a comprehensive understanding of the language is the foundation for starting a career in editing. The cart does not go before the horse. Such an understanding normally takes decades of quality reading combined with some targeted education. If you have to ask that, you won’t qualify in the foreseeable future. A degree or certificate helps, but it does not make up for a couple of decades spent reading.

Or: “Hi! I want to be an editor but do not know how to market my services!”

Good luck, because very few of the people reading your post have any idea about marketing themselves. Marketing is the stumbling block for almost everyone in the literary world, and few overcome that. Also, not to be too blunt about it, but you do realize you are asking people for the real secrets of how to cut into their own work flow? That takes serious brass.

Or: “Hi! I have an English degree so I am now an editor!”

Really. Okay. I have a history degree. Am I now a museum curator?

Or: “Hi! I’ve been agonizing for 72 hours solid and just cannot decide whether this should have a hyphen, en dash, or em dash! Help!”

No. In case no one has told you this, it is your job to make those decisions. It’s a goddamn punctuation mark, not an invasion of the Asian landmass. Decide. Do something intelligent. Are you saying you cannot do something intelligent?

Or: “Hi! For the last 56 hours solid, I have been poring over my Chicago Manual of Style 8.110 and cannot decide whether or not to capitalize ‘Scienceology.’ Please give me a ruling!”

No. In the first place, this is only a serious question if your project requires strict adherence to CMS. If that is the case, then don’t go to the replay booth. Check in with MADD: Make A Damn Decision. You are engaged and paid to make those decisions. If you lack the guts to make decisions, you can’t edit. At some point, the quarterback has to throw a pass, the ref has to whistle the play dead, etc.

In the second place–if the style manual is just your personal Scripture–I have terrible news for you. In such cases, style guides are for guidance. They are not issued from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. Again, when uncertain, do something intelligent. If you do not know how to do something intelligent, how can a reader trust you with his or her work?

At this point in the composition, I felt that the natural question was: Why does this bother me so much?

In part, I guess, because I have known people who were underserved by self-described “editors” they found off hiring sites. One has a hard time imagining these as the same people who asked in messed-up English where they could learn grammar, but perhaps there’s overlap. I also don’t like that it also trivializes and commoditizes what we do. People figure they can sign up for a couple of professional associations for credibility appearances, sign onto a hiring site, offer to “put an edit” on people’s work, and boom–new career! Some of those people will actually just run spellcheck and grammar check, accept all the changes, and put their hands out for money. I have seen the outcome of this. Others will torture themselves for ten hours because Chicago hasn’t told them precisely how to format this usage or that abbreviation.

To channel Jed Clampett, them stone tablets must be might’ heavy to tote around the office.

Everyone starts somewhere. For me it began with about forty years of voracious, broad-spectrum reading. I became aware of the various style books and accepted their potential as resources. Liberal arts degree surely helped, especially the literature classes; I still have the inch-thick stack of typed papers from those days (and I cringe any time I read them). As for editorial demeanor and priorities, I learned from some outstanding people, all of whom I am pretty sure read voraciously since early childhood. Could a specialized certificate or degree have substituted for experience watching the pros? Not quite–but I’ll admit it would better me on some level, if not enough to spend that money obtaining the paper.

So what is the state of the editing world? It contains a great many competent people, some specializing in this or that: tech editing, non-fiction only, or one of the standard editing modes such as developmental editing. It also includes a great many unqualified posers. Many are desperate from a financial standpoint, and will take any editing job for any compensation at all.

It’s the Wild West with red pens and tired tropes.

How to pick out an editor

Since you probably do not follow editors’ forums, I’ll spill: There are a great many people who first decided they wanted to be editors, then set forth to learn the English language.

For the record, that is not the proper order.

A high degree of English proficiency in at least one dialect is the baseline expectation for an editor, which means having been a voracious reader for at least a couple of decades. If one has to go on editorial forums and ask about punctuation because one’s chosen style guide doesn’t dictate one’s every action,  one evidently doesn’t know enough about the language to make those decisions oneself. That’s like a military platoon leader who doesn’t know basic small unit tactics outside a field manual, and is afraid to improvise under fire lest s/he break a rule.

Writers take harm by hiring a less than competent editor, or by hiring the wrong editor. I’m not the right editor for everyone or every situation; no one is.

How would I go about it, putting myself in the writer’s chair?

I would learn what editors do. An amazing percentage of writers do not understand that there are different editing modes with different objectives and requirements. In nearly every case, my first job is to explain my job to the prospective client. They come in thinking “editing is when you fix all the things and crush my soul, duh.”

I would be clear and realistic about my goals for my project. If it was meant to make money, I would develop some marketing strategy beyond “hope to get discovered without doing any actual work.” I would take a guess at the type of editing that might best help me with my goals. I would prepare to be told otherwise, but I’d at least give it some thought.

I would ignore all the gig-economy.com sites where people can just list themselves and be hired directly. I would talk to other writers, ask about their experiences. I would eavesdrop on the Facebook groups for editors. I would observe the state of the art, all the people who need a committee meeting and an emotional support group to know where to put a comma, who treat the interpretation of a Chicago Manual of Style passage like rabbinic scholars treat Talmudic passages. I would look for the people who answer the questions, and how they answer them. I would pick out a few that seemed knowledgeable, intelligent, and successful enough to share their knowledge.

Then I’d get in touch, one at a time, but at first I’d let the editor direct the process. This would not be me abrogating my right to decide; rather, it would be meant to show that I wasn’t a control freak, and to observe the editor’s screening method. I would want to decide whether I liked that method, whether I found it helpful and promising.  I would not profess to know anything about editing, though I would at least have done some basic homework. I would wait to see how well the editor guided me to a wise course of action and cooperation that would take into account my concerns and goals, about which I would expect to have been asked.

I’d keep doing this until I found someone that completed a good team, that I could afford, and above all was a knowledge sharer rather than a knowledge hoarder. This distinction is of paramount importance. Successful and skilled people tend to signify their success and skill by sharing knowledge in a generous fashion. They are never afraid they will run out of wisdom because they know how much they know. They are concerned not with being paid for every tidbit, but with giving the maximum value and support for any form of payment.

It’s expensive enough. You might as well get someone good–and that’s how I’d go about it.

Making the Sausage

For some, editing might seem like literary witchcraft. Someone seems to wave a wand and it all sounds better, even if one cannot say why. I recently drafted a social medium post, looked at it, scowled, edited it, then realized that it offered two clear examples of common mistakes that most people don’t catch.  I walked through the process, and this is what came out.

Take the comment:

“I’m picturing Tony Suprano waddling out there to get his paper in his robe, feet turned out so far he could be in ballet, telling them to GTFO of there.”

I misspelled Tony’s last name. For most people, that’s where the review would stop, because that corrects the obvious mistake. But there are two hiccups, weaknesses that harm the clarity. Do you see them?

The first is phrase order. Think about the way I wrote the first part, specifically the prepositional phrases. My phrase order makes it sound as though Tony expends special effort just to make sure he is wearing his robe (as opposed to some other clothing, or none at all) when he goes out to get the Newark Daily Wiseguy. That’s not the main point, which is that he’s going out and happens to see someone who needs telling off. If there is a descriptor we can toss, it’s the one about the robe–but it’s not a bad descriptor.  It does help paint the scene and suggest timing. There’s no reason to regret it, but we could move it around:

“I’m picturing Tony Soprano waddling out there in his robe to get his paper, feet turned out so far he could be in ballet, telling them to GTFO of there.”

One could consider instead saying “a robed Tony Soprano,” but that creates some issues of its own. It over-elevates the robe’s importance, making it sound like he’s going out in judicial or ceremonial robes or somesuch, rather than in the normally assumed bathrobe. Thus, the phrase shift above. While that reads better by placing the robe phrase in a better spot, a couple of questions remain. One is murkier.

Since I said he was waddling, is it really necessary to talk about how James Gandolfini was able to turn his feet at angles well past 45°? No, but the actor’s gait was amazing to watch, especially going down his steep driveway in some hilly Newark burb. That one’s 51/49, perhaps, good arguments made for inclusion and omission.

Less acceptable are the two instances of “there.” Even with different prepositions, this is an example of the sort of overuse we see with misbegotten expressions like “off of” (please never say this). We haven’t been told the target of Tony’s vulgar admonishment, nor what they are rooting around in (let’s say it’s his recycling). Yet the choice is straightforward. If we remove the first “there” and just leave “out,” we do no harm to the meaning while improving the word count and concision. Without the second instance, in “of there,” we would lose meaning. While I don’t have Tony say what it is out of which they are to GTF, “of there” at least implies it’s something other than just standing on his property without his assent. They could be in a bush, looking in his mailbox, or indeed going through his recycling. One “there” statement must go, and it can only be the first. We get:

“I’m picturing Tony Soprano waddling out in his robe to get his paper, feet turned out so far he could be in ballet, telling them to GTFO of there.”

This is how we do this. We look at what is said and implied, toss spurious words, rearrange phrases. For me, the phrase order is the more pernicious writing issue, because my thoughts don’t always come out in the right order when writing. It’s easy to see why it happens to most people.

Just injured enough to be impaired just enough

If my back, my eyes, and my hands work, I have the capacity to do my work. If one of those doesn’t work right, that’s a big problem.

About a week ago, I was attempting to assemble a new set of hot tub steps. This was necessary because my wife has hip trouble and was finding it difficult to get in and out. I often feel powerless when it comes to Deb’s medical situations, so when life serves me up one that I can somewhat help with, it’s bad to be in my way.

This pretty sturdy and grotesquely expensive step set was difficult to find, but I did so and hauled it home. Reading the directions, which as usual were designed for two different models and which failed of course to answer some basic questions (such as why these two pieces out of these eight have special indentations about which the instructions indicate positively nothing), I gathered up tools. A regular claw hammer, hitting naked, would damage the plastic. I couldn’t find my rubber mallet, so I decided to hold a small piece of 2×4 in the proper places when banging things together.

Things were going very well, but some of the plastic pieces needed serious force in order to hammer home. That I could supply; what I forgot to supply was intellect, which would have said that using about an 8″ piece of 2×4 was dangerous. It could, for example, put my thumb too near the hammer’s trajectory–especially when striking with the flat, which made some sense when hitting a piece of wood and trying to distribute the impact area.

Then struck Darwin. I belted the wood a mighty blow, and in so doing, hit my left thumbtip with the claw side of the hammer. This action cut clear through the nail, creating a separation of about 1/8″ between the halves, and as I would soon learn, inflicted a comminuted (“broke up in pieces”) fracture of my left thumbtip.

This hurt and was rather messy, especially when it coughed up a blood clot the side of a small caterpillar. (Yes, I realize that we just reached peak ick.) D helped me wash it off and bandage it up, calling upon her old EMT skillset. I then finished building the steps, being more careful this time. When I began to feel a different sort of pain, I accepted D’s entreaties to go to urgent care.

Either I got a very new nurse, or a very sensitive one, because the sight of the thumb grossed her out. I had not known it was possible to gross out a nurse with less than a keg or so of bodily fluids or wastes; they’ve seen more disgusting things in the last week than most of us will see in a decade. After a couple of hours of being x-rayed, cleaned, splinted, and bandaged, we were ready to go back home. The pain meds were the weak kind, but that was all right, because I normally won’t take opiates if I can possibly find relief any other way. I get what they are trying to avoid, and I have no illusions that I am somehow immune.

That leaves me trying to write blog posts, conduct email correspondence, and otherwise do my work with a heavily splinted and sometimes sore left thumb.

You know, one of the best ways to appreciate a body part is to lose most of its use.

Showering? Great, with my left hand bagged and out of commission. Where I can reach with my right hand or a brush, I can scrub; feels like twice the effort. Typing? Splint keeps bumping the space bar in mid-word. Carrying grocery bags? Whatever my left hand can hold with just the fingers around a handle, it can haul. Putting on seatbelt? Careful; ram that thumbtip into anything and it’s not fun. Adjusting wing mirror on driver’s side after some parking lot donkey pushed it flat against the door? Not easy. Putting groceries on belt for cashier? One piece at a time, sorry, folks. Getting book and mouthpiece off nightstand? Roll all the way over because you only have one hand that really grasps anything heavier than paper. Anything you have to pinch/grasp with both hands, I have to adapt to handle–if I can.

The hidden issue is that thumbtip. Stick your hand out at random to turn off your lamp? Don’t bump the thumb against the lamp, or you’ll know what you did. Rooting around for something? Not with that hand, not twice. It had never occurred to me how I was so used to just shoving my hand into cabinets and drawers and such.

I don’t recommend doing this to yourself. However, it did get me thinking about high school. We had a teacher, Mr. W, who had lost an arm in some form of accident. He taught social studies and photography, coached track, and advised the yearbook. (He was the one who caught me trying to slip in the caption “Bored members…” under a photo of the school board.) He could type well and in general showed minimal impairment, a status at which I did not properly marvel back in t he late 1970s.

Mr. W, I grant it’s a little late and that you’re fifteen years deceased, but what you could do was badass. I don’t have it half as tough and I’m fumbling around here like a clod.

New re-release: Frenchy’s Whore, by Verne E. Brewer II

This tale of the Vietnam War has quite a history. I provided general editing input and line editing. Note well: the Amazon blurb is copied from my original review, thus dating back nine years. It does not reflect current impressions of the book. I believe this is destined to be fixed.

I came to know Verne some nine years ago when we were playing Castle Age, a Facebook game. He was friends with a friend. Somehow–I don’t recall exactly how–I came to learn that he had published a book based upon his experiences in Vietnam with the 173d Airborne Brigade.

Since I like stories based in authentic experience, I decided to give Verne a boost. At that time, I still had enough review weight on Amazon that I could make a difference; plus, not only did the Vietnam vets receive shameful mistreatment, but my father-in-law had been one of those vets, and I felt like it would do his memory respect to give another old jumper (them, not me, just to be clear) a boost. I ordered the book, read it, and wrote an honest review. The story was excellent, textured, with significant descriptive talent on display and that authentic feel that you can only get by being there.

Problem: It did not reflect the benefits of competent editing. This was painful. I decided mentally to give the storytelling five stars, weighted for the descriptive talent that a capable editor would have brought out, but two for the actual prose. Net, four–maybe a 3.6, but there are no fractional stars. Normally I’ll just put down a book where it’s hard to get through the writing, but I had decided to see this through and tell the truth. My review did so.

I never heard much from Verne about it at the time, and I wasn’t sure how he felt about my review, but I felt good that I’d given his book a little bump. Most people arguably wouldn’t be as affected by editing and proofreading problems as a professional editor would be. Better to have a great story with writing problems than an eloquently written yawnfest. Writing problems are repairable; well-written dullness can only be de-dulled by adding better story characteristics.

I was still in touch with Verne here and there over the years, so I was pretty sure I hadn’t pissed him off. In 2020, he got in touch to tell me a story that astonished me.

Turns out that Verne’s reaction to my review was a combination of delight with my observations and disappointment with his publisher, which had committed to provide him with some editing and proofreading support. He told me of sitting through book signings feeling embarrassed, but he saw my review as having seen through to the essence of the book, and over the years he had felt good about that. Flaws aside, the book had remained in some demand over the years, copies still selling for a significant premium on the secondary market. Now, Verne told me, he had reacquired the rights and he wanted me to help him make a new release of Frenchy’s Whore the book it always should have been.

Careful what you write in reviews, right? Someone might say: ‘Okay. I agree with everything you said. You’re on. Let’s see what you’ve got, and let’s see this book reach that potential you talked about.’

That sounded like an enjoyable assignment, though. It’s not every day you hear something about stuff you wrote nine years back. Verne wanted to make a few minor storyline corrections, extend the tale a bit longer, and then we’d be ready for a line edit. Our first hurdle was that he didn’t have an electronic copy, just a box of the remaining copies from his former publisher. This forced me to confront a question I hadn’t dealt with: How does one scan a printed book back to an electronic format? While a capable transcriber could retype the whole thing, surely there had to be a more time- and cost-efficient way. I dug around and found a service that would do it for a basic amount of $14 plus six cents a page. While I had no idea how it would go, I asked Verne if he would be willing to risk about $20-25 plus a sacrificed print copy on a chance to jump straight to electronic copy. Boy howdy he would.

While the scanned version had the expected issues, we could work with it. We discussed the prognosis and Verne decided to get moving with some rewriting and recharacterization. That process hit a few bumps, such as when Verne got hurt pretty badly in a motorcycle accident, and times when the material was difficult for him to face. I can relate to this through my own trauma experiences, which I rarely discuss here but do understand how they can play back old mental tapes. There was nothing for it but to be patient with my client’s process and life situations, which is something editors must always be ready to do. If we are not, then when we have our own life situations, we can’t expect any understanding at all.

The line editing process faced some hiccups, such as material shifts (requiring changes in introduction points, for example, with careful scrutiny) and integration of new information that gave clarity to the story. I ended up over budget, which is uncommon but can happen in spite of my best efforts. A client has the right to make late changes, of course, and I need to accommodate them.

Late in the project, it occurred to me that I could offer a contribution. My own PTSD, while not arising from anything like the Vietnam experience, has been part of my life since my teens. It had always helped me to empathize with the impact of PTSD on veterans and others, even before I understood that this was what we had in common. I offered Verne a piece for the book’s front matter regarding why Vietnam matters, and he accepted. I hope it will help readers gain increased context. Context is everything.

The biggest dilemma came with names: real names, pseudonyms, and incomplete conversions of either. Verne had the advantage of actually having known all these people; I did not. Thus, was this guy really this guy, or is this another instance of that guy? On the third pass, this drove me absolutely nuts, frustrated, furious, and excruciating. Part of that was because I wasn’t charging for it, because I was fixing my own bad judgment. At the very outset, I should have asked for a complete table of real names, pseudonyms, and jobs. While my intent had been not to make this harder on Verne than I could help–these were real people and painful memories–it was a false economy.

After about twenty hours of uncompensated floundering work, I finally put my foot down. I told Verne I needed a complete list of all the real names, any fake names, and which he intended to be used. While I tried to be non-confrontational, realizing that my anger should be taken out on myself for having not required this at the start, I was prepared to insist. When he sent me the name list and told me it was so freaking confusing, that was the first time I’d smiled about this since I’d stopped work to await the list. If it confused the author who actually knew the real people, I was hardly losing it to be so confused myself. It confirmed for me that I’d finally done exactly the correct thing.

Took me long enough.

Besides the fact that his rewriting had shown a lot of growth, Verne’s goodwill, coachability, and gratitude stood out throughout the project. He always treated me like a valued colleague, considered my guidance, and appreciated me as though I were somehow doing him a big favor (rather than planning to be paid for services rendered). In fact, I was honored my words had impacted and encouraged him so much, and more honored to be asked to participate.

This time, I feel confident that Verne’s story retains all of the original’s texture but with more consistency and polish. I believe you will agree.

Editing Your Work: Things You Don’t See In Your Own Writing — BookBaby Blog

[J here. The logical question would be whether this is also true of editors who write, and the answer is a qualified yes. I expect an editor to do better in some of these areas, but in others, we too have our blind spots.]
 

By BookBaby author Andre Calilhanna It’s easier to find flaws in someone else’s work than it is in your own. There’s a lot you can do to minimize errors and make your writing shine, but another set of eyes on your work is always a good idea. We’ve posted plenty of advice about the editing…

Editing Your Work: Things You Don’t See In Your Own Writing — BookBaby Blog

The tyranny of the style book

Do you really believe there are editors who run around agonizing about commas, stressing over where to put the hyphen, and otherwise driving themselves to drink over tiny fussy little minutiae?

If you look hard enough, you can find places where they ask for help with those questions. (“Should this have a hyphen? Augh! I’ve been near self-harm for hours over this! Or is it self harm, since it’s a compound noun! I can’t even contemplate suicide correctly!”) Many are novices who decided to be editors and then to learn the English language (that’s not the correct order in which we do this), but some others are professional copy editors. And very often the question will quote The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Style Book, or some other reference, asking for a ruling.

What’s wrong with this? Sometimes nothing. Sometimes one works in a guide-constrained environment where one of the editor’s primary duties is to conform a document to this or that style, including an internal style guide. In those cases, I understand the agonizing up to a point. One good example would be academic writing, where style fascism is the norm.

But at some point, even in those cases, there come guide-governed situations where the guide does not deliver a clear answer. Then what?

Then use your best judgment based on years of experience, familiarity with the style guide’s intent, and your own damn common sense, that’s what. Those are why you do what you do, and are in the position you are in.

What shocks me more: strict editing to a style guide, and agonizing over some point of punctuation order, when it’s not a requirement. I am serious. The editor views the CMS, or some other style reference, as a holy book whose first version came down graven on stone tablets.

It will eventually fail them anyway, because our language is too diverse for perfect coverage, even by such a voluminous reference as the Chicago Manual. But they are missing the point.

The point is that an editor has years of broad expertise with the English language. It can involve one dialect or many, but it probably began before kindergarten and involved reading hundreds of thousands of pages in varying styles of superb English before the age of twelve. Under normal circumstances, which is to say writing that does not require style guide conformity as a baseline expectation, the point of being an editor is not to worry oneself to death over whether one is in proper and full compliance with a style guide.

The point is to know the language well enough, to consult the various guides where they can be helpful, and to have enough guts and brainpower to make judgments that will make the book the best it can be for the target audience.

That is what we are here to do. Our work is to do all the things to the manuscript content that will help it be its best. What if the narrator doesn’t use upper case? Those who live in style guide tyranny might simply get busy with the Shift key. I might, too–but only after I’d reviewed the ms and satisfied myself that all lower case didn’t work well in this context. If the author’s style and syntax work well to communicate with his or her audience, I’m not likely to change those aspects. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are the defaults, but they are not inviolable. There are times to break every rule in service of the greater good.

You aren’t supposed to cross a doubled solid yellow line when driving, at least in the US. That’s usually because that would take you into the oncoming lane in a dangerous situation (such as passing on a curve or while cresting a hill), which could produce a serious kinetic energy problem. It’s a good rule. Most of the time most people should comply. But what if an accident is imminent, and the only way to prevent it is to cross that line? What if there is a serious emergency meriting the risk? I’d rather get a ticket for illegal passing (and there are police stupid enough to give such a ticket, trust me; I once received an even stupider one) than be cut out of the wreckage by the jaws of life. Or have my remains cut out at leisure once they attend to everyone they can still save.

Style guides aren’t law books, and they are not crutches for indecision. If the work requires style guide conformity, all right; but if an uncovered situation arises, that’s why an editor has experience and judgment. It’s time to use them. That’s why not everyone can do this. If one needs to explain a decision to the client, that’s what margin comments are for.

One has to know the rules well enough to judge when to ignore them.

There’s a great part in one of W.E.B. Griffin’s books, the ones before his son started performing some unspecified percentage of the work, doing proportionate damage. Griffin was a military/police/intelligence fiction author of some note. While he had his weaknesses, the strengths were great enough to outweigh those failings. In this situation, the US Army is getting ready to invade Cuba after we bungled the Bay of Pigs. It is necessary to move an armored division by rail from somewhere inland to New Orleans, so it can be loaded for the voyage. There is a fascinating discussion of the logistical headaches involved in entraining about 450 tanks plus all their supporting people and equipment, the sort of detail into which Griffin always knew when it was time to deep-dive. In the end, it comes down to an engineer company that is already loaded, and a colonel tasked with getting things moving. The colonel has an idea how the engineer company can help get the division’s vehicles loaded on rail cars that are showing up with mixed consists. He wants to use their forklifts and other hoisting equipment.

The company commander is the POV character, and he is respectfully dismissive. He figures that the colonel probably considers himself the first person ever to think of using forklifts to load tanks. The captain thus states that it’s against regulations, and worse yet, that it would likely result in the equipment’s eventual destruction due to exceeding safety parameters, which, sir, as the colonel can surely see, exist to prevent such disasters. And therefore, with respect, sir, he can’t do it.

The colonel asks the obvious question, paraphrased from my memory: “Captain, has it ever occurred to you that your goddamn intact drag lines would look pretty silly sitting on a Cuban beach if the division’s tanks were still hung up in Texas waiting for proper train consists?”

When I see a style guide used like a crutch or a bible in situations where there is no specific rule that it must govern, I feel like I’m watching someone who would end up on the beach in Cuba with functional rock crushers, forklifts, and other construction equipment, having not brought the armored fighting vehicles that might make the invasion succeed. I laugh every time at this picture. “Mi comandante, the norteamericanos have landed on the beach!” “With what?” “Señor, they appear to be construction engineers. They have brought a road grader, some forklift trucks, and a backhoe.” “That is all? No tanks?” “None, mi comandante.” “Teniente, if you have been drinking rum on duty, your next assignment will involve cutting sugar cane–and you will not be supervising the process.”

Use your judgment. If you are afraid to use your judgment, overcome this unbecoming fear. Your client depends upon your judgment. If it was just about a damn style guide, the client could read that herself. You’re here to make decisions in her best interests.

Make them. Have and share good reasons for them. Be ready to have them questioned.

Being questioned is not time to wallow in imposter syndrome. Being questioned is time to show off the experience and consideration you invested. Explain your thought process. Show your client the level of effort you expend for what she pays. You should be proud of it.

The clients who write best tend to be the most questioning. They are the clients who drive you to become better.

BattleBots: S10 E4 — BattleBots Update

[J here. This time, for something completely different, I give you Draco’s take on a recent episode of Battlebots. While an editor can guide and teach many writing skills, some writers just have a voice that entertains. I’m a fan.]

[BattleBots: S10 E4 is available via streaming on Discovery+.] Welcome back to BattleBots Update. Took a quick break because I have the freedom to do so on account of being the only moron chasing pavement now that the season is over and I’m late. I’m also basically begging you to rewatch things you’ve probably long…

BattleBots: S10 E4 — BattleBots Update

How Ebay eats your vendor’s lunch

Okay, it doesn’t have much to do with editing. It does have to do with buying stuff someone has already edited, because it’s nice to learn about hidden costs. In the past, I have posted about the myth/dodge of free shipping. There is no such thing, of course; the only question is whether it’s buried in the item cost (and will therefore be charged to you for multiple items) or made visible (and therefore can be combined for multiple items).

Want to know what Ebay costs your seller? All right. Let’s imagine selling a book, since I both sell and love books. Fees have gone up recently, for no better reason than Ebay’s basic greed. The basic fees are:

  • $0.35 (listing fee; usually avoided as sellers get some fee-free listings each month, and pays to list the item for roughly thirty days)
  • $0.30 (basic selling fee)
  • 14.55% final value fee; that is, of the final selling price plus any sales tax plus shipping charges (rate varies by category; books are high).

So, here we go. Assume you sold a book with 5% sales tax (which Ebay collects and remits as required; as seller, you learn of it but don’t have to mess with it). You sold it for $6.97 and charged $3.87 for media mail shipping. Begin then with $10.84:

Add 5% for the sales tax; it’s now $11.38, of which $7.32 reflects the item and $4.06 the shipping (this distinction will come into play later). Of course, you will not receive that tax money; we just had to do this for an accurate dissection, so begin by deducting $0.54 for the sales tax. Deduct $0.65 for the listing fee and basic selling fee. Then multiply $11.38 by the final value fee, 14.55%, to get $1.66. Ebay charged me $2.31 in fees on $10.84 in sales revenue.

We have to pay to ship it, naturally. While the media mail rate in Notice 123 (postal rates) says that’ll be $2.89, most shippers use a reseller (often Ebay itself). I use one called PirateShip. It doesn’t drop my rate below the $2.89, so I assume they get a very thin discount and just charge me the Notice 123 rate. Maybe other shippers get it a little cheaper; don’t know. Most shippers try to cheat and use media mail for non-qualifying stuff; I don’t.

We also have to pack it. This is a normal paperback book and can fit in a standard plastic bubble mailer, but I had better put it in a zip-lock bag in case someone spills their coffee or beer on it after someone else stabs a hole in the packing. The bag and mailer cost me $0.24, and only because I buy the mailers in bulk. I also calculate that the label sticker costs $0.04, so supplies total $0.28.

I walk away with $5.36: $10.84, minus $0.65 for listing and basic selling fees, $1.66 for final value fees, $2.89 for shipping and $0.28 for shipping supplies. Not so bad? Not so great. Ebay ate over 20% of my gross. Ah, but looking back, did you observe the disparity between my freight charges and the actual postage? Caught me! Or not. I charged $3.87 for freight. Shipping cost me $2.89; supplies $0.28 on the cheap; Ebay stuck me for 14.55% of $4.06 (remember, they tacked on sales tax, calculated my fee, then remitted the tax–they so suck), so that’s $0.59 of the final value fees related to shipping. My math gives me a net profit on shipping of $0.11. And that’s only by attributing the listing fee and basic selling fee purely to the basic item, not the shipping. Start prorating those, and shipping just became a money-loser.

If the five minutes it takes me to pack the book and buy the postage aren’t worth eleven goddamn cents, then I must really, really suck at both. Hope I didn’t pay more than $5.25 for the book, or I sold at a loss.

You may think it’s incredibly petty to worry about all these “small costs.” No, no, no, no. That’s what everyone who collects those fees hopes you will do. All fees and all costs matter, down to the least one. I am not sure whether my packing tape adds up to a penny per parcel, but I probably should be considering that. The path to unprofitable business is paved with little bits of disregarded cost evidence. Believe me, the people to whom you pay those costs do not disregard their resulting revenues. Try it sometime. “Dear Ebay. Since your final value fees on my shipping are not even enough to buy a can of Coke from a machine, how about you just not charge me them?” Write and let me know what they say.

But what if the customer buys two books? Of course, if I were playing the free shipping shell game, I’d start making good money. Can’t combine shipping if it’s free, right? Such a deal! Ya. The more you buy with “free shipping,” the more you’re screwed. But since I don’t play that crappy little game, in most cases I can combine shipping provided it all qualifies to ship in the same way. Two books with nothing else meet that qualification.

Many buyers think they can both ride for the same price, but that’s not very common. With two small books, it’ll usually be the next pound up, so let’s say it’s just under two pounds. $3.45 according to Notice 123. It’ll also require a slightly larger mailer. So I might charge $4.57, which will put me about in the same place (just covering costs). Instead of paying $7.74, the buyer pays over $3 less. And some of them still think they’re getting hosed.

Not only that, some will even complain: “Dont know why ur not givin free shiping ur charges r a ripoff i no there not chargin u that much 2 ship my cozin works at the postal office”. Or think they are making me a fantastic offer: “Throw in free shipping and you’ve got a deal.”

Now you see why people sell the book for $0.99 (far as I’m aware, lowest price allowed) and jack the shipping way up. That’s the other form of shell game. And it’s true there are ways to trim little costs. Basic selling comes with 250 no-listing-fee listings per month; so as long as you do not get too big, you can avoid those. Ebay probably offers small savings on postage and supplies, and just as all costs are valid, so are all savings.

Anyway, you also now understand what’s really going on when you buy a book from someone. Whether it’s fair or not…you be the judge.