editing

When you’re a writer looking for an editor, and you really don’t have much cash to throw around, it can be hard to know where to invest your money. As vital as editing is to the publication process, it is a big outlay for authors, whether they’re self-publishing or hoping to be taken under the wing of a traditional publishing house.

Let’s imagine that you’ve been saving like mad, not smoking, not drinking, giving the takeaways a hard pass, and now you have round about $500-$800 to invest in the business of launching your novel into the wild. How do you get the best out of your money?

If you’re laughing at the idea of having as much as $300 saved, let alone the range casually referred to above, then scroll down to ‘Join the Borg’ and read from there. I’m covering a range of options.

 

“Pay Peanuts, Get Monkeys” (PPGM)

 

Yep, this section is about the cost of professional editing.

I think most of us have heard the phrase before in one context or another. The gist is that a very low service cost is a warning sign of an inept operator with low-quality goods and limited expertise. In many areas of life, it’s a sage warning: if something is being offered suspiciously cheap, you’d be wise to ask some searching questions about how this retail price is even possible.

However, PPGM is also a phrase often used by relatively pricey operators to dismiss the quality or expertise of an operator who happens to have a more competitive pricing schedule. It’s all too often a tool applied by the experienced to disparage those who are new to the editing game, so take this phrase with a pinch of salt. There are a number of reasons why an editor isn’t charging as much as you’d expect:

  • They might be very good but also very new. It’s common for people with a specialist skill set to charge a lower price until they have sufficient clients to benefit from word-of-mouth advertising. Essentially, the low price is to thank you for your leap of faith. It’s not necessarily a sign that they have no idea what they’re doing.
  • They have no idea how much their time is worth. Their pricing is a sign of ludicrous modesty, not ineptitude.
  • they offer a model with a much longer turnaround than is typical for a lower price (so that they can overlap jobs without compromising attention and quality to individual projects)
  • they’re using their life-long writing and reading experience to supplement their income, and therefore might not have spent the many, many hours required to research what their competition is charging and position themselves accordingly.

Where might you begin your search for an editor? Here are some options:

  • Reedsy.com for premium services; all these editors have experience in a traditional publishing house, or they are former best-selling authors. They have proven experience as successful editors, and if you have any problems with working with one of the subscribed editors, you can contact Reedsy for arbitration support. The downside is that their pricing (about $1,000+ for 60k words or more) may make your wallet weep.
  • Recommendations from friends/acquaintances through Facebook groups or other social media platforms; this is a good bet as you can ask your friends what they got for their money, what the editor was like to work with, and so on. You might never have seen that editor’s name anywhere, ever, but that can be a sign that the editor has enough word-of-mouth business to make spending on advertising unnecessary.
  • Check out the group resources and files if you belong to online writing clubs. ERWA has a list of artists, editors and format experts, for example: https://www.erotica-readers.com/author-services/
  • Writers and Artists’ Yearbook: lots of editors pay to advertise their services
  • Fiverr
  • Google ‘editing services’

Don’t dismiss anyone on a casual PPGM basis; for example, there are some very good editors on Fiverr who are finding their way into the market, who don’t happen to have publishing house experience under their belt, or who are doing this part-time having given a lot of voluntary time to editing to successful effect.

Image result for keep an open mind

Found some likely candidates? Right. I’m going to go through this process like it’s a fishing expedition.

Stage 1: throwing out the hook

  • Some editors feature a fixed pricing schedule on their websites, but most simply invite you to contact them for details. Because this can slow down the go-compare process quite considerably, it’s useful to have a template email for enquiries, telling them:
  • The novel length, and length of first chapter
  • What kind of edit you’re hoping for (overview critique—developmental edit—or copy-editing, or both)
  • The written language of the novel (UK/Aus/Canadian/US), and whether it’s your first language. This is more important than it sounds; you don’t want someone Anglicising your American punctuation, and vice versa. I feel particular sympathy for Canadian writers, who must get mangled from every direction other than from fellow Canadian editors.
  • What time scale you’re hoping to work on. If you’re not in a hurry, then it’s worth mentioning that you’d be interested in hearing about any arrangements that can be met where you’re happy to wait longer than the average for the return of your MS in return for a lower cost. Just as a heads-up, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect a full edit back in less than seven weeks on a long turnaround basis. Brace yourself for a nine- or twelve-week offer if you want your costs to come down considerably.

 

Stage Two: landing

Create a spreadsheet of what each editor says they will charge for editing the manuscript. Also look at non-financial elements such as how they came across on email or messenger. There may be a couple of people you just click with. Once you’ve selected a likely fore-runner, it is reasonable to ask for a sample of their editing, using your first chapter (and this is why the length information is important; don’t expect them to edit a first chapter over 3k for free. That could be up to ten hours of their time, free, while they’re working on incumbent contracts).

 

Stage Three: Serving or Gutting

It could well be that you’re a good financial fit and you hire the editor. But…

What if you really like how the editor works, but their prices for a full edit, however reasonable, still makes you sob? If you like what they’ve done for you in the sample, then here are some other options to negotiate:

  • ask them to quote for content-editing on your first three chapters, and apply those lessons to the rest of your manuscript
  • ask them to quote for a developmental overview of the novel, commenting on characterisation, pacing and flow, structure, clarity, psychological consistency and any recurring errors. That should come in at a price in the lower hundreds, rather than mid-to-upper, and you could learn enough from the overview to tighten your novel, and then have it beta-read and proofed.

 

Join the Borg

Yep, this section is about hive minds and crowd-sourcing your feedback. Writing groups, both live and online, can be worth their weight in gold. You can use Reddit, Facebook, Literotica, Dirty Discourse and a number of social platforms to get a readership going, and to get feedback on your work as it proceeds. ERWA has its own critiquing workshop, Storytime, for this exact purpose.

You’ll get a range of opinions, and it’s useful to know where a lot of feedback overlaps. For example, your dialogue might impress several people, but your opening scene doesn’t appear to have the strong hook that you hoped for. It’s all grist to the mill, as they say, and acquiring a sort of consensus on your strong and weak points can help you see your writing with fresh eyes.

ERWA’s Storytime is one of the friendliest and most constructive places to share your work. However, to get the best out of a hive-mind scenario, here are some gentle caveats:

  1. Hive minds tend to be a great source of feedback for short stories and novellas, but don’t be disheartened if people don’t want to follow an entire novel this way. It is difficult to keep track of one chapter a week purely because of the longevity and the distraction of life between instalments. However, you can get feedback on particular scenes that have been bugging you. Getting group opinions on first chapters can also be wonderful for assessing the power of your opening hook.
  2. You would need to invest the time to provide the level and manner of critiquing you’d like to receive yourself. Virtuous circles help everyone (and you might acquire some out-of-group alpha and beta readers along the way)
  3. Think about what kind of feedback you want, and spend those extra few minutes in a foreword explaining any useful background to the material you’re offering to share, and what sort of critiquing you would appreciate. It is fine to say that you’re not looking for grammar or spelling guidance at this stage, for example.
  4. Despite claiming to be writers in full command of language, some people still have very little in the way of bedside manner, and seem to enjoy injecting all their life stresses into being abrupt on the internet. Do not let this derail you.
  5. You do not have to take all the advice given to you. You’re seeking some positive reinforcement and getting a majority vote on tricky sections; you’re not trying to write a story by committee. Thank people for their time and the point they’ve raised that will help you, and then use what’s useful for you.

 

Close-up and personal

You can use alpha and beta readers to get feedback on the delivery and shape of your novel. Alpha readers are involved throughout composition, giving feedback on a section-/chapter-by-chapter basis. It’s rather like having a free editor who only operates on a developmental-editing basis, but who will apply that level of oversight as your story unfolds.

A beta reader will give you an overview of the whole once completed. There are some paid betas out there (and they will cost considerably less than an editor), but seek them out based on the recommendation of people you trust, and find out in advance how quickly they’ve responded to others. To get the best out of a beta-reader, prepare a list of questions which will answer all and any concerns that you have. Don’t be shy about asking them to tell you about the good bits, too. It’s important to know what to do more of, as well as what needs repairing or adjusting.

 

All by myself…

Okay, there’s just you. You’ve been burned by toxic feedback in the past, and you have very, very little money indeed. In which case, your priority should be to focus on your story skills, not on your technical writing skills.

With the very little money you do have, borrow books on writing techniques, shaping your novel (within your genre) and which address the structure of your story as a whole. Use this resource for countless borrowings on books about dialogue, characterisation and plot movement.

There are hundreds of websites devoted to grammar rules, and you can get that advice for free, or through your local library or bargain basement books.

Work on your other skills (formatting, covers, blurb-writing, synopsis-writing) in the background to your creative work, and you might be able to arrange a peer swap to have the final product of your work proof-read in fair exchange for some assistance of your own.

So, that’s a fairly full range of options for getting an extra set of eyes on your work from the capacity to shell out cash (and what to look for), to how to make the best of your very, very tiny pennies. I hope you find it helpful.

Orphans

by | May 29, 2018 | 3 comments

By Jean Roberta

[Note: please excuse me for missing my regular day to post, May 26. I hope this late post doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s.]

Have you written a story, a poem, a play, or some experimental hybrid that doesn’t fit any call-for-submissions or journal guidelines that you know of? Welcome to the club.

The divisions between erotica and other genres seem thinner now than ever before. Romance novels can be drenched with erotic tension and even include explicit sex scenes, although an unspoken rule in the “romances” of the past was that the wedding had to appear on the last page, and sex couldn’t take place before then. Speculative fiction (fantasy, science fiction, slipstream, steampunk, horror, etc.) can include sex that doesn’t have to obey the laws of the natural world we know. Suspense narratives, including murder mysteries, can include erotic tension as part of the suspense: Will the central characters solve the mystery and/or take their flirtatious partnership to the next level?

While the definitions of genres, per se, seem fairly fluid, every editor or editorial team has guidelines: lots of sex and magic, but no horror. Realistic character development and sex, but no magic. Elaborate world-building, including sexual traditions that would seem exotic to most readers, but no info-dumps. Horror required, but with minimal bloodshed. Violence okay, but no explicit sex.

And there are usually minimum and maximum word-limits which indirectly define the categories that will be considered. An erotic story of under 3,000 words can include one fairly detailed sex scene, but usually no more than one. A story of at least 10,000 words is pushing into novella territory, and therefore it needs at least two complex characters interacting in a plot which is about something besides– or apart from– sex.

It’s very easy to follow a plot-bunny down its rabbit-hole and write something that might appeal to certain readers, but which doesn’t completely fit the guidelines for a collection, website, or journal.

I still have a few orphan stories on my hard-drive which were rejected by the first editors to whom they were sent, usually for very logical reasons.

I know my weaknesses. The editor of a sci-fi anthology said she loved my story, but it didn’t include any technological revelations. (No surprise there. I’ve never had a very firm grasp of either modern technology or the nineteenth-century steam-driven type. I couldn’t explain to a visitor from another planet how I am able to transmit these words through a machine to people living far away from me. My version of the “sci” in “sci-fi” more closely resembles magic. )

Early versions of some of my stories resemble the feet of Cinderella’s stepsisters in the non-Disney version of the story in which they cut off their toes or their heels to fit into the glass slipper, then leave a trail of blood behind them. In a few cases, I’ve been able to prune a potential novel down to under 6,000, 5,000 or even 4,000 words. This usually requires leaving out something that needed to be left in: a character’s motivations or emotional responses, or the juicy details of a sex scene. Improving the story usually requires reattaching the toes or heels (or the heart, lungs, and brain, which is easier to do with stories than with human bodies), even if that means the story will no longer fit into a certain market.

Languishing in my “documents” are three different versions of an erotic lesbian story in which I experimented with viewpoint. The two central characters are so different (but complementary, I hope) that I didn’t simply want to describe one through the eyes of the other, so the story is divided into alternating sections told by the two narrators. This tends to interrupt the plot in much the way a supposedly true story is interrupted when someone offers a different version of events.

(“We met when you were still a barista at the coffee-shop.”

“No, honey, we didn’t really meet then. I first noticed you when we were in the same class at university.”

“You were so innocent. You weren’t a lesbian, and you weren’t into BDSM.”

“I didn’t have much experience, but I knew what I wanted.”

“You were so uptight because of the way you were raised.”

“Excuse me. My parents gave me everything they didn’t have, and they always encouraged me to think for myself.”)

Will any version of my story ever see the light of day? That remains to be seen. I like both the characters, and the way they resolve their differences. I think the sex is hot. I can also see why the divided viewpoint might prevent a reader (or an editor) from smoothly following the rising tension to a satisfying conclusion.

As usual for me, I probably need to expand the story into something longer, in which different sections or chapters wouldn’t look like unnecessary interruptions.

Occasionally, a story will be posted in the “Storytime” list in the Erotic Readers and Writers Association which includes great lines, great characters, great sex, and sometimes a fascinating plot, but something about the whole piece doesn’t gel. In some cases, character motivations look unclear or unconvincing to several of the readers who offer critiques, and in some cases, sex seems to be inserted into a plot without enough preparation. (The usefulness of lube in real life seems relevant here.)

Self-publishing offers a solution to the problem of where to place writing that doesn’t fit neatly into existing categories, and the Excessica site provides a marvelous combination of writer independence with technical support. However, I’m not willing to post a story for public consumption before it seems ripe enough.

I’d like to encourage all the writers reading this not to abandon your orphan pieces. Some of them probably have good bones. Leaving a first draft for awhile before coming back to it can enable you to see what it needs.

Think of it this way: there is no real failure. Some projects are thrown away, when they could have been recycled, and some just haven’t found the right home yet. Some are never finished, for various reasons. You had a reason for writing the first draft, and it might be calling you to come back to it.

I received a plaintive cry for editing help from our esteemed ERWA Editor in Chief, Sam Thorne, the other day.

Hello oh wonderful soul of lasting genius1

I wondered if you knew how to search for words that were all caps and change them to lower-case italics, using the find-replace function.

(1 That, my friends, is how you suck up)

The problem for an editor is pretty clear: we are editing a manuscript that over-uses CAPS for exclamations, which is poor form, and seek to re-cast the emphasis with … well, emphasis. Specifically, lower-case italics.

For example:

“For the hundredth time,” cried Tom, “I’M NOT FUCKING SHOUTING!”

Would become:

“For the hundredth time,” cried Tom, “I’m not fucking shouting!”

How hard could it be, right? Well, here’s the thing—I’ve spent more time than is healthy mucking about with features in Microsoft Word, and I’m no stranger to the finer points of the Find-Replace dialogue box—but changing case in Word? Man, that’s a tough one.

With the benefit of a mis-spent youth recording and tweaking Office macros, I knew this problem was bog-simple to solve in a Visual Basic macro. To that end, I wrote Sam a quickie macro and flung it off back to the mother country, but then just yesterday while I was scrying for blog ideas, it came to me—maybe it CAN be done with Find-Replace. Well, part of it, anyway. Read on; you’ll see.

Like any good overly-complicated solution, while it’s ugly to look at, it comprises some individual techniques that are really quite beautiful—ones I will definitely keep in my arsenal for solving other problems—and I thought it might be instructive to share the joy.

If you’re the impatient sort, skip to the bottom and watch the video demo. 

Disclaimer: I’m using Microsoft Office 2016. Your version may look different.

 

Changing Case in Microsoft Word

You might have noticed an inauspicious Aa button in the Home ribbon of Word. It contains a little pull-down menu for changing the case of text.

Problem solved? Not quite; Sam’s manuscript contains LOTS of shouting in LOTS of different places. Highlighting every instance and clicking lowercase is the labour-intensive process she’s trying to avoid.

Clearly, we can’t convert the entire document to lowercase. That Sentence case looks interesting, though. What if we convert the entire document to sentence case? Unfortunately, it only seems to apply changes if the first word of a sentence needs correction, otherwise it changes nothing. Here’s some sample I text I played with:

Original:

What the HELL, Microsoft Word? This is NOT how I imagined my Saturday.

Lowercase:

what the hell, microsoft word? this is not how i imagined my saturday.

Sentence case:

What the HELL, Microsoft Word? This is NOT how I imagined my Saturday.

Lowercase, then Sentence case:

What the hell, microsoft word? This is not how i imagined my saturday.

 

That last one was close, but it ruined the proper nouns like Microsoft Word, and Saturday.

Trying to manipulate the entire manuscript isn’t going to work. We need a way to focus only on those uppercase words.

We can do this manually by holding down Ctrl and highlighting all the words we want to manipulate.

Gives us:

And since those converted words are still highlighted, we can convert them to italic in a single click.

It’s not a solution, as such, but it’s progress. Now, if only there was a way to select/highlight all the uppercase words.

 

Finding Patterns with Wildcards and Advanced Find

How do you find stuff in Word? Do you hit Ctrl-F? Or do you use the magnifying-glass Find command on the Home ribbon?

BZZZT! Novice—or as gamers would say—You filthy CASUAL!!!

Find will pop up the Navigation window in the left sidebar, which is fine if you’re looking for some very specific text, but it’s not exactly feature-rich. When you’re seriously editing, this is like bringing a knife to a gun-fight, aspirin to a crack-den, edible underwear to a dinner party…

You get the idea.

When you want to find something tricky, like for instance something in all upper or lower case, you’re going to need something a bit more capable.

Enter the Find-Replace dialogue.

You can get there from the Find sidebar by clicking Advanced Find off the pull-down menu.

You can also get there with Ctrl-H, but that pops up to the Replace tab of the dialogue by default. Let’s take a closer look at that Advanced Find tab.

 

Doesn’t look too advanced, does it? Well, no—not until we click the More>> button.

 

There are a lot of fun-sounding features here, but the one we’ll be using is Use wildcards. I’ll leave the rest to your curiosity.

If you’ve heard of wildcards before, you might be thinking of the asterisk, meaning “match any sequence of characters”. For example, a search for the wildcard SLEEP* will find SLEEPY, SLEEPER, SLEEPLESSNESS, and even SLEEP.

The Advanced Find wildcard does indeed support the asterisk wildcard, but it does much, much more—way too many to mention here. Since I’m only interested in finding words in all-caps, I’m only going to explain two of the wildcards (or, as they’re known technically, Regular Expressions):

  • [xy] – Matches a single character in the range from x to y in alphanumeric order. Eg. [A-Z] matches a single uppercase character.
  • {n,} – Matches the previous Regular Expression n or more times.

In this way, the Wildcard search:

[A-Z]{2,}

will find any string of two or more capital letters. Let’s try it out.

Nice. Notice how it doesn’t match the single caps character “I”?

This isn’t perfect—it won’t capture some edge cases where a single character is orphaned by punctuation (e.g. I’M, F.B.I., O’CONNOR, TOM’S, ISN’T). This is easily fixed with a more complex expression, but I won’t go into a detailed description. Suffice to say it handles embedded punctuation.

<[A-Z][!a-z]@>

It seems like we’re almost done. Now all the all-caps are highlighted, surely we just his up that Aa button and convert them to lowercase, right?

Wrong. Although we managed to highlight them, they are not selected as far as Word is concerned. If we try hitting Aa, we’ll just change the case of whatever words we had selected prior to the Advanced Find.

What about Advanced Replace? I hear you ask. It’s no help either. We can do a lot with Replace—apply fonts, highlighting, paragraph spacing, even styles, but we can’t convert to lowercase.

It seems like we’ve hit a dead-end. We need a way to progress from finding the all-caps words to selecting them in order to then convert the case and italics.

 

Select All using Styles

Fortunately, there is a tricky work-around—there is one way to bulk-select all text of a particular type by using Styles. Try this: pick out a Style that you have examples of in your document, and right-click it in the Style Selector in the ribbon.

See that Select All option? Click it.

Word will select all examples of that Style in the document. Once selected, you can make all kinds of bulk changes, like formatting, deleting, changing style, and of course, changing case.

If only we had a way to apply a special style to those all-caps words we found.

Hopefully you’ve connected the dots by now. “But what about the Replace function?” you ask. “Can we use it to find the caps, apply a style, and then use Select-All to snaffle them all up and convert to lowercase?”

You betcha! And here it comes.

 

Find Text and Apply a Style

Using the Find-Replace dialog again:

  • Ctrl-H to open Replace dialogue.
  • Find what: <[A-Z][!a-z]@> (finds all-caps words of two or more characters)
  • Replace with: (leave blank—open the Format->Style button and choose a Style you have not used elsewhere in the document, such as “Strong”)

  • Hit Replace All

Obviously, we’re only halfway there. The caps words are still caps; they’re bold as well, of course, because we chose the “strong” style, which is a bolded style. We could equally have made our own custom style that didn’t change the font style, but the bolded text makes it easier to see that it worked, so I like it.

Now, to convert to lowercase:

  • Right-click the Strong style and Select All

  • Use the Aa button to convert to lowercase, or even better, Sentence case.

  • Optionally use the Italic button to convert to italics (this is what Sam wanted instead of caps to emphasise the shouting).

Fantastic! We’re done.

Or are we? The words are lowercase now, but they’re still bolded. That’s because they still have the Strong style applied. We have one last step to complete.

 

Stripping a Text Style

If we click on one of those bolded words, we’ll see the Strong style highlighted in the ribbon.

 

Whereas if we click on the paragraph as a whole, it will still have the default style of the paragraph (usually “Normal”).

Microsoft Word calls these Text Styles and Paragraph Styles respectively. The Paragraph Style defines the font, size, colour, etc for the entire paragraph, but it can be overridden for selected sections of text using a Text Style.

We can strip the Text Style, returning the converted words to the paragraph style.

  • Right-click the Strong style and Select All Instances to highlight all your converted text.
  • Pull down the Styles toolbox using the small arrow in the corner of the Style selector in the Home ribbon. Make sure the Strong style is highlighted.

  • Open the Style Inspector dialogue by clicking the middle of the three buttons at the bottom of the Styles toolbox (the one with a magnifying glass).

This dialogue shows the Paragraph Style and the Text Style of the selected text.

  • Now click the eraser button next to the Strong style name in the third box. It will return the highlighted text to the default Paragraph Style, removing the bold highlight from the text.
  • Note that if you had added italics above, this will appear in the fourth box, but will be conveniently preserved by the removal of the Text Style.

 

Summary

That’s it! You’re done. All your uppercase words are now lowercase (or Sentence case, if that’s what you clicked). Those steps again:

  • Use Advanced find to identify all CAPS words (Wildcard find: <[A-Z][!a-z]@>)
  • Use Replace to apply a style not used elsewhere in the document (eg. Strong)
  • Highlight all examples of the Strong style using the Style selector
  • Convert to Sentence Case
  • Optionally convert to italics
  • Strip the Text Style using the Style Investigator

More of a visual person? That’s okay, here’s a video demonstration.

Happy editing.

Want to discover an author’s most cherished fantasies?

Edit a collection of his or her erotic stories.

At this point, I’ve edited books featuring the erotica of seven different authors: C. Sanchez-Garcia, Amanda Earl, Bob Buckley, Teresa Wymore, Remittance Girl, M. Christian, and Daddy X. And I can tell you (if you were to ask), quite specifically, what turns each of them on. There are few activities as intimate as working with an author to sharpen the emotional focus and heighten the erotic intensity of his or her tales.

Of course, in editing a multi-author erotic anthology (which I’ve also done a few times) you’re also exposed to the contributors’ erotic visions. However, a single story might not tell you much about what personally pushes an author’s buttons. The best erotic authors, indeed, learn to mask their own kinks and preferences to some extent, in order to avoid being too repetitive. For instance, I like to push myself to create stories that do not include any BDSM content, both to prove I can and so my readers don’t get bored.

Still, I have a reputation for writing a lot of D/s, because that’s one of areas of sexuality that I find most arousing myself. A reader was recently astonished by my Asian Adventures series, which (so far) does not include any sort of power exchange. “For all the scary BDSM all over your author pages,” she wrote, “I had no idea you had such sweet lipstick in you!”

When you’re confronted with 50-60K of an author’s work, the patterns become obvious. Of course I’m not going to embarrass my former collaborators by telling you what they like, from an erotic perspective. You’ll have to buy their books, if you are curious. Even so, you might not appreciate the common themes or activities as much as I did, serving as their editor. This is because an editor reads each story many times, in many versions. Furthermore, as an editor I got to see the author’s reactions to my suggested modifications, which tells me a lot about what is and is not important to him or her.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my authors’ heads. I’ve waded through their imaginary sexual worlds, tweaking a clause here, clarifying a construction there, all the while watching their characters deal with love and lust. Sometimes I feel as though an author and I have actually been lovers. That’s not true of any of the individuals above, but it could be without too much of a stretch. I have to confess I have had erotic dreams about some of them. My unconscious reacts to the intimacy of the editor-author relationship, even if I consciously distance myself.

It’s funny, because my authors’ fantasies don’t always align with my own. Nevertheless, the close interactions involved in editing give me enough insight that I can vicariously appreciate the erotic charge in their stories, despite the fact that the themes or stimuli don’t push my personal buttons.

I wonder whether all editors experience this sense of intimate connection with their authors. Perhaps my experience has been closer and more intense because I too write erotic fiction. Or maybe it’s because I’m editing stories about sex. Perhaps editors of non-sexual genres remain more distanced from their clients.

Somehow I doubt it, though. We authors expose ourselves through our fiction, regardless of genre. We reveal what makes us tick. And editors need to get up close and personal with those revelations in order to do a good job.

by Jean Roberta

Who is the handsome stranger, really? (Anyone who has watched Game of Thrones understands the importance of identity, or birth-status, especially if it has been deliberately disguised.) Why does the tough young woman on a barren planet in the latest series of Star Wars movies have an impressive amount of The Force? Could she be descended from any of the major characters from a generation before?

Mystery, suspense, and ambiguity are the stuff of fiction. Depending on the genre, certain important questions hang over a narrative from the first scene: who are they (or he or she), really? Who committed the murder, and why? Who stole the treasure? Who will fuck whom? How will they do it? Will the seasoned Dom(me) seduce the relatively inexperienced but curious hottie?

Unfortunately, ambiguity and uncertainty are not fashionable these days, at least among editors. When I get editorial advice about a story that has been accepted, but won’t be published until it has been revised to the satisfaction of the editor/publisher, the advice falls into predictable patterns. “You’ve used ‘seems’ three times in this story. It makes your narrator sound weak. Replace it with ‘is.’ Instead of saying ‘She looked worried,’ say ‘She was worried.’”

At some point, I am tempted to declare myself a devout agnostic: someone who doesn’t know whether there is a God or not (or what form that being might take), because there simply isn’t enough proof. I’m also not willing to assume that everyone who has an addiction or a pattern of unfortunate sexual relationships was sexually abused as a child, though some adults definitely were. Even in the real world, I think it’s important to say “I don’t know” if I don’t, and not to clutch at reckless beliefs to make myself sound knowledgeable, or assertive, or confident.

The omniscient third-person viewpoint in literature is artificial. Writing from that lofty perspective, a writer can function as a puppeteer who knows all the characters, inside and out, and can state with confidence that “She was worried,” or “She turned him down because the pleasure she got from manipulating men was like a drug to her.” A seemingly omniscient author can invent characters from other genders or communities that readers from those communities can’t recognize as real. At least the omniscient narrator doesn’t sound weak.

I prefer to write from a viewpoint that feels more natural, which is usually first-person or limited third-person (in which the narrator can only get inside one character’s head or psyche). If the viewpoint character is a servant-girl, she doesn’t have access to the long-term plans of her employers, since they are unlikely to share them with her. If the viewpoint character is a foot-soldier, he can’t know in advance who will win the battle, or even why the general gave an apparently irrational, suicidal order. (For a real-life example of this read “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.) Viewpoint characters can observe what they see and speculate on what it means, but appearances are often deceiving.

I like the words “seems,” “appears,” and “looks.” (In one case, when an editor asked me to change the word “seemed,” I changed it to “appeared.”) I also enjoy showing that a narrator’s assumptions are unjustified. In one case, an editor vaguely advised me to “be careful” when writing fiction that might be interpreted as racist. The narrator of my story was modelled on the kind of garden-variety local racists I’ve known all my life, and she learns in due course that her assumption about who is most likely to be a thief and a liar is completely wrong. An author’s world-view is more likely to be embedded in a plot than in the words of an untrustworthy narrator.

I’ll probably continue to write about the way things look or seem, regardless of how many editors advise me to eliminate “weak,” speculative words from my vocabulary. In some plots, the whole truth is revealed in ways that it rarely is in life. In other plots, truth remains elusive. Maybe the butler committed the murder, but maybe he was framed. A second investigation might be required, and this might involve a sequel, or a series of novels. And the ultimate conclusion might not be completely conclusive.

In the real world, our questions aren’t always answered. Even the questions that seemed so pressing in our youth tend to change as we age. Part of the reason why adulthood is often more satisfying than adolescence is because we’re more likely to find a Significant Other and a compatible group of friends once we’ve moved beyond the limited milieu of parents, siblings, and high school. Another reason why independent adulthood often comes as a relief is that we’re less likely to spend sleepless nights wondering if certain other people like us or not. Suspense, ambiguity, and doubt in a Young Adult novel are bound to be different from those qualities in a mystery, a fantasy epic, a dystopian tale of the coming Apocalypse, or an erotic story (or an erotic thread in any of those other genres).

If you, as a writer, have ever used the offensive word “seems,” rest assured that you’ll get no complaints from me. Narratives about what seems—as distinct from what is known beyond a doubt– were popular in the past, and they still are. And the need for speculative language in unclear situations is one thing I consider as solid as a rock.

Of course, rocks change and erode over time, just like beliefs and writing styles that seem permanent. To stay upright, we all need to resist being too rigid.

I returned from Necon this past Sunday. Necon is the Northeastern Writers Conference which is for horror writers but what I learned applies to any writer. The conference was held in a conference center in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.

I was on one panel: Heroes Like Me: The Importance of Representation in Genre. There is more of a problem with representations of women in horror fiction and films than in romance or erotica. I’m happy to see that strong female characters who aren’t doormats or shrinking violets are much more popular in romance and erotic fiction now than they have been in the past. Women in these stories know what they want and they go after it. Sometimes, especially in the billionaire genre of romance, the heroine is inexperienced and rather naïve, but I’ve noticed she comes into her own as the story progresses. The hero often learns quite a bit from her. Hero and heroine are on equal footing in many of the stories.

Other panels included Guest of Honor interviews, Collections, and Editing. I was especially interested in the editing panel since I enjoy writing for anthologies. Some of the panelists were editing anthologies I had submitted to. I managed to snag some fine guests for my podcast Into The Abyss With Elizabeth Black. I took July off and I’ll start up shows again in August.

The best part about Necon was the same thing I liked about the Stanley Hotel Writers Retreat – socializing. Everyone was friendly and on equal turf. The casual atmosphere was very relaxing. I didn’t have to pay $50 or more to talk to an author and have him or her sign a book. There was a pre-Necon party I attended at one guest’s house. I saw old friends and made new ones. The BBQ ribs and chicken were delicious and I even had stuffed clams. You can’t live in New England and not eat stuffed clams. There were gatherings in the outdoor courtyard every evening with saugies, which are hot dogs well known in Rhode Island. They’re longer than most hog dogs and they have casings. They were delicious on the grill. I mingled and chatted which isn’t easy for me since I tend to be on the shy side. I talked to other writers about what they were working on. I did not ask the editors of the anthology I submitted to when submitters would hear back. That would have been in bad form. I know the rejections and acceptances will come soon enough. The networking opportunities were very good.

I liked Necon and I will attend again next year, money permitting. I do highly recommend writers attend conferences and conventions when they can. Some good ones are Viable Paradise, Clarion, Readercon, Arisia, and the RWA convention. Some of these cons include agents and publishers. The opportunity to pitch yourself is more than welcome.

K D Grace

I love editing. Always have. I know many writers don’t share the love, but I think editing is one of the sexiest parts of the writing process. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that, for me, if the editing process doesn’t feel like good sex, then I’m not doing it right.

Take it off!

Since I’m not precious with my words, one of the first, and probably easiest parts, of editing is taking it off. What I mean by that is stripping my WIP, undressing it, getting rid of unnecessary paragraphs, sentences, phrases, even whole chapters — anything superfluous or repetitive. I need to be sure I don’t repeat what’s already been said or what doesn’t need to be said. I need to trust my readers’ intelligence. They’ll get it the first time. Readers are as anxious as I am to get on with it, to get to the good stuff. That means I need to pop the story’s cherry and move on to the main act. So my first editing goal is to undress my work, get it down to the story beneath, to what really matters, what will turn my readers on. My job, at this point, is to expose that story and then let it seduce me. If it can’t seduce me, then it’s not very likely to seduce my readers.

Tweak, Touch and Play

Once I can see what’s underneath, what’s really there, then I can begin tweaking, touching-up and playing. This is the time-consuming part. This is the point at which every single word matters. I learned how important each word is by writing shorter stories. When you have only 2K, every word has to matter – even more so with something as precise and boiled-down as poetry. Writers of novels – myself included sometimes forget this because we have a whole novel’s worth of words to play with. This is the point at which I remind myself that I’m making love to the story, and I want my readers to be seduced by what I’ve written. Every word is an erogenous zone. Every phrase can be stimulated and heightened and engorged until it literally bursts with meaning, with intrigue, with seduction for the reader.

Beware of Distractions  

I don’t want phones ringing or knocks on the door from the mailman when I’m having sex or when I’m editing. I don’t want anything that will pull me out of the moment. I especially don’t want anything that will pull my readers out of my story. That includes distracting words, actions that are out of character or excessive use of words and phrases. (My inner goddess definitely frowns on that sort of thing.) That also includes replacement words. I’m far less likely to be pulled out of the story by multiple uses of breast, and tits than I am by globes, orbs, mounds, hillocks. Fingers, fingers, fingers, please! Digits are for numbers and for anatomy lessons. If I can’t find a word that won’t distract the reader from the seduction, then I’ll try to rephrase.

Exploration

While exploration is a part of the tweak, touch, and play process, it’s also the place where I discover hidden meanings, hidden tidbits, sometimes whole bits of story that need to be teased and written or rewritten and brought into focus. I can’t count the number of times I’ve discovered depth in my characters, secrets, quirks, emotions I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t made the effort to make love to my story during the editing process. Exploration is searching out the little moles, the scars, the sensitive spots that turn the story – and the reader — on.

Bring it to Climax

All of this effort is heading for the big climax, the pay-off — the story version of the Big O. While that’s true, the story is also about the journey, making it last, sustaining the pleasure and building it. The biggest part of editing, for me, is making sure that the journey, the tweak and touch and play are so gripping to readers that they’ll want it to last just a little longer, just a few more pages. I don’t know about you, but on a great read, I find myself slowing down near the end because I don’t want it to end. I want to make it last, even as I can’t wait for the pay-off. I need to have that experience while editing my own work or how can I ever expect the reader to have it? I need to feel that journey to the very end, right down to the blaze and fireworks of the climax. After it’s over, when I’m basking in the afterglow, I need to feel slightly bereft as the experience lingers in my mind, hopefully, long after the fact.

If I feel that way at the end of the editing process, then I’m confident I’ve done my job as a writer, and it’s now time to lean back on the pillow, have the imaginary cigarette and ask my readers, ‘was it good for you?’

Pronouns vs Names

by | Aug 11, 2016 | 3 comments


By Mikey Rakes

When to use pronouns and when to use names can be tricky in any fiction writing, but with same-sex stories, editing can become critical. This is one of my pet peeves and something I also struggle with as a writer of male on male erotic thrillers. Sometimes I have to put myself in the reader’s seat to understand where the confusion can come from and sometimes I’m surprised how even accomplished writers can fall into some pronouns pitfalls.

Many writers have an all-encompassing view of their world and who is moving around in that special space. On occasion, we forget the reader can’t see the big picture. Editing is something we’d all like to have someone else do, but as writers it is our responsibility to make the manuscript the best possible product before we send to our editors. Unless you’re writing and publishing, of course, in which case: it’s all you, baby!

A prime example of a bit of a mix up came from a book I just finished reading, where the author started the paragraph with Character #1 doing something and in mid-paragraph changed to the ‘he’ pronoun, but although confusing, the ‘he’ was clearly Character #2.

Sex scenes are tricky, too. He came. He jacked him off. He felt sooo good inside of him. Which him? Him one or Him two? Or how about this one: ‘She exploded all over her fingers.’ Is this a masturbation scene? There was a Heather and a Sarah at the beginning of the paragraph, so who exploded on whose fingers? This type of ambiguity has a tendency to confuse the reader and pull them from the scene you worked so hard to write.

Poor pronoun placement can kill a sex scene. I hear all of you right now: but we can’t be using their names ALL THE TIME! No, you can’t, but you can use them more freely than usual when writing same sex stories. It’s important your readers know who is whom seamlessly, so they aren’t having to think about it. How you construct your sentences and paragraphs can help tremendously. If you start out a paragraph where Randy is nuzzling Jonas’s cock, don’t jump to Jonas enjoying it without establishing Jonas’s experience in a new paragraph.

Randy nestled his nose into Jonas’s wiry pubic hair and inhaled deeply. He loved the musky scent of his man after practice, just after wetting down in the shower, but right before any soap hits his luscious skin. Those moments on his knees, the water rushing over his head, and his lover’s cock caressing his cheek are what Randy tucks away into his memories locker. In his mind, he knew this affair wasn’t destined to last. He’d savor what he could and be happy in the moment.

Here we are clearly in Randy’s focus. But what if we took the same paragraph and added a little bit:

Randy nestled his nose into Jonas’s wiry pubic hair and inhaled deeply. He loved the musky scent of his man after practice, just after wetting down in the shower, but right before any soap hits his luscious skin. Those moments on his knees, the water rushing over his head, and his lover’s cock caressing his cheek are what Randy tucks away into his memories locker. In his mind, he knew this affair wasn’t destined to last.  He’d savor what he could and be happy in the moment. He slipped his dick inside his mouth.

The last line sounds a little funky, eh? We know it’s Randy. Or we think we know it’s Randy, but are we sure? We have to deduce that Randy slipped Jonas’s cock inside his (Randy’s) mouth. But what if our next sentence is: Jonas sucked him hard. Now how do we feel about it? About the pronouns? The names? Are we sure we know what is happening? Are they now in a sixty-nine?

It may seem that I’m making this out to be something odd, but I’ve read many stories that are far worse in terms of pronoun usage and keeping the characters straight. Look at the paragraph as it stands now, before editing:

Randy nestled his nose into Jonas’s wiry pubic hair and inhaled deeply. He loved the musky scent of his man after practice, just after wetting down in the shower, but right before any soap hits his luscious skin. Those moments on his knees, the water rushing over his head, and his lover’s cock caressing his cheek are what Randy tucks away into his memories locker. In his mind, he knew this affair wasn’t destined to last. He’d savor what he could and be happy in the moment. He slipped his dick inside his mouth. Jonas sucked him hard. He rocked deep into his throat, almost triggering his gag reflex before pulling back out. He was in heaven.

See how easily the scene can get out of control? In the writer’s mind it’s clear, but on the page? Yeah, not so much. So how do we clear it up? Edit. Edit. Edit. One edit isn’t enough, but we all get sick of reading the same thing over and over. So, take it in chunks. Break up your editing into small, easily manageable segments, such as just the sex scenes (I like doing the fun stuff first). Just remember, sex scenes aren’t the only place where your pronouns can get muddled.

Also, remember that it’s okay to use the character’s names. Just don’t overuse them. Take a look at the revised paragraph.

Randy nestled his nose into Jonas wiry pubic hair and inhaled deeply. He loved the musky scent of his man after practice, just after wetting down in the shower, but right before any soap hit his luscious skin. Those moments on his knees, as the water rushed over his head, and his lover’s cock caressed his cheek were the memories Randy tucked away every time they were together. In his mind, he knew their affair wasn’t destined to last. He’d savor what he could and be happy in the moment. Calloused fingers grazed his chin and Randy looked up into his lover’s lazy gaze. The lust in those heavy lidded eyes made Randy understand what Jonas wanted. Randy wanted it too. So he allowed Jonas to tilt his jaw open and slide his dick inside. The taste of Jonas in his mouth was heaven. Randy sucked him hard and Jonas’s hips jerked, rocking him deep into Randy’s throat. Jonas almost triggered Randy’s gag reflex before he pulled out to glide his cockhead along his tongue. God, I love being on my knees for Jonas. For Randy, being used was a part of the turn on, and from the sounds coming from Jonas’s throat, he enjoyed using him.

We didn’t give up on using the pronouns, but attempted to place the names in such a way as to keep the picture clear. Deep first person thoughts can be useful as means to keep things straight as well. Used sparingly, they can be quite effective for conveying strong emotion.

If you read your work out loud, or have a program that reads it for you, it can be helpful in determining what sounds best to your reader’s ear. I don’t know about other folks, but I see and hear the words of the books I’m reading in my head. Sort of like watching a movie with subtitles: if the subtitles are messed up, it throws the experience all outta whack for me.

When you begin writing, focus on simply getting the story on the page, and worry about the mechanics later. Remember, however, that you don’t want your reader pulling back at a crucial moment. Sex scenes are more than a way to titillate the reader. They must help to move the story along and expand the reader’s knowledge of the characters involved. Sex scenes enable the reader to understand your characters and grasp their normality. We all realize when we first fall in love the reality is…we fuck like bunnies. Sex is a part of life. In the case of same sex couplings, in our writing, we must be hyper-aware of the use of pronouns. Help the reader understand what he/she is doing to him/her, and your readers will love you for the extra effort they may never realize you’ve made. Make it seamless, baby.

What To Take In

by | Oct 15, 2015 | 7 comments

The second time I thought about giving up writing, I was 16 years old. I had been thinking of myself as a writer for half my life, ever since the third grade, when I was in my first writing workshop. I carried that sense of self long after I left the writer’s workshop program in my elementary school. Until I took a summer writing workshop.

My fiction writing style at 16 was spare, short vignettes that packed a punch and were mostly dialogue. It may not surprise you that they were mostly about sex. Openly, clearly, about teenage girls having sex outside of romantic relationships. Often casual sex, with strangers, or in the context of connections that were purely sexual. They were not erotica, and they didn’t describe sex in detail, they just referred to casual sex as if it were a regular part of teenage life, and depicted the ways that sexual dynamics worked.

Of course, they made adults uncomfortable. In particular, they made my fiction writing teacher in that summer workshop uncomfortable. I can still see his face, when we met about the first story I turned in. It was about 3 pages double spaced, almost completely dialogue, depicting the negotiation of a sex date over the phone between a teenage girl and an older teenage boy. Any description was focused on illuminating the ambivalence of the girl during the negotiation.

My teacher very earnestly asked me to expand the story. He said that when reading it, he didn’t understand the choices that the characters were making, and wanted the story to show more of what was going on inside their heads. It sounds like a reasonable critique, doesn’t it? A request for deeper characterization, more illumination of the internal, those are all good things, right?

I spent the next 6 weeks rewriting that story for him, adding more and more and more. It never was enough. (How could it be?) By the end of that summer writing program, I had a draft of the story that was twenty pages long, and felt like I was a horrible writer. Those twenty pages, that he said were in the right direction but still hadn’t gotten there, didn’t feel like my writing. In my own judgment (what I had left of it after trying to internalize his for weeks), I couldn’t see how they were better than my original draft. The additions felt like they’d ruined the story, over-explained everything to death.

I was lucky enough to have relationships with writers, and later that summer, gathered my courage to show both versions of this story to a brilliant short story writer who was a good friend of my mother’s. She saw what was going on, almost immediately. She helped me to see that there is a power in not explaining things. It does something important. It can be a hugely valuable component to your story.

She helped me to understand that my teacher had been wrong. There was nothing deeply wrong with my original story (though of course it could use a bit of polishing and tightening, as most do). In fact, she thought it was actually pretty damn good, and the spareness of it was one of the beautiful things about it. What had been wrong, this whole time, was that the story made him uncomfortable.

The problem he had with my story wasn’t about the need for more characterization, or for deepening the reader’s insight into the context of this moment of negotiation. The problem was with the content of the story. In the late 80s perhaps in particular, it was scary to contemplate a teenage girl writing stories about teenagers having
purely sexual relationships and casual sex with strangers, where love wasn’t in the picture. The content of the story freaked him out. But when he offered editing feedback, it came in this seemingly reasonable request: to explain.

Recently, I’ve had a lot more editing feedback than usual, from a range of sources. I’ve taken a couple writing workshops this year, gotten beta reader feedback on a short story collection and a novel in progress, and gone through an editing process for a collection that came out this month. There have been a number of moments when I’ve recalled this early experience. Because to receive editing feedback is to consider: What do I take in? What do I use?

One of my red flags in editing feedback is a request for more information, for explanation. While that summer writing workshop was my first experience with this sort of feedback, it was not the last. And I’ve found that often that request says more about the reader and their discomfort with the text, than it does about the actual text in question.

Let me give you some context. My queer kink erotica and erotic romance stories often center trans and genderqueer characters. They often center trauma survivors claiming their desire. My work is deeply influenced by my long history as a fat activist and frequently centers fat characters. My more recent work has been focused on centering disabled and sick characters. Moreover, my work is written specifically for queer kinky readers who are trans, genderqueer, fat, disabled, sick, and/or survivors.

These are insider stories, focused on bringing folks that are often marginalized, to the center of the story, as character, as framework, and as intended audience. Insider stories don’t often explain themselves, not about the basic everyday parts of life. Because they are written for folks who know those sorts of things already.

Reading insider stories can be deeply uncomfortable, if you are not on the inside. You don’t understand some of what is going on. The language being used by both characters and author may be unfamiliar or seem to have meanings that you don’t know. Folks like you may be perceived or discussed in ways that feel judgmental or incorrect. It may be difficult to picture the people or what they are doing, to see the places in your mind, or hear the voices. You don’t understand why the characters are making the choices they are making, their choices or thoughts or feelings don’t seem to make sense.

All of this difficulty parsing the story may be really disconcerting, especially if you are used to reading stories that center folks like you. It’s hard work, to read the stories, and you might assume that reading fiction shouldn’t feel like work, so therefore the writer must be doing something wrong. Accepting that you (and your knowledge, cultural context and framework) are not at the intended center of a story can be a pretty intense experience, especially if it is unfamiliar. The discomfort that it brings can often lead to a deep desire for more information, more explanation, more language that explains this to you, and centers your reading experience so that you understand.

In short, sometimes when we read insider stories, we want to change them so that we are the intended audience, because it’s too uncomfortable not to be.

Nisi Shawl is well known for her brilliant work on writing the Other, writing about folks that are different from you or different from the dominant paradigm. (That’s how she defines the Other, in the book she co-wrote, Writing the Other.) When we read insider stories, and we are not on the inside, but are used to being on the inside, we
are often reading the Other. In Shawl’s essay on reviewing the Other, she says:

“Reading the Other is rewarding work. Yet it is work. A lack of engagement, a push into unknown
territories that encounters no resistance, is most likely a clue not that something is missing, but that something is being missed.”  (emphasis added)

That’s why it’s important to consider what you are taking in, in terms of feedback like this. Because the feedback may be more a sign that a reader has missed something important in your work, than a sign that something is missing from your story.

When I receive feedback requesting more details, more explanation, these are some of the questions I consider:

  • Where is this request coming from? Is this person part of my intended
    audience?
  • Are the areas in which they are asking for more explanation or details
    ones where a character is different from them, or related to the character’s
    experiences of marginalization or oppression?
  • Do they seem to be asking me to explain everyday common experiences in
    great detail?
  • Does it seem like the feedback is trying to shift the audience of the
    story?

Let me give you a specific example. One of my
stories
has a group BDSM scene where a superfat femme trans guy bottom is tied to a sling that is rated for his size and a bunch of disabled fat tops of varying genders and sizes on mobility scooters are circling him, poking him with their canes. One of the pieces of editing feedback I received about the story was that a particular reader could not picture this moment in the scene, and wanted more description, more explanation. The reader wanted me to help them see the action more clearly, because they could not picture how the people would look as they were moving.

On its face, that feedback might be quite useful. The scene might not be drawn as clearly as it needed to be, the characters might not be described as clearly as they needed to be. Certainly group scenes are a challenge, and it’s completely possible that things get lost.

But. Here’s the thing. I have been part of queer fat activist community for over two decades. When you hang out with and date disabled fat folks, you often see mobility scooters, likely more than one in a group. Imagining how a group of fat folks move on scooters is not a challenge for me, because I’ve seen it, many times. This story is an insider story, for fat activist queers, particularly for disabled fat activist queers. It intentionally does not make a big deal about how people move on scooters, because it’s a regular part of life for the intended audience.

It makes sense that it might be hard to picture, if you didn’t have that experience. And this reader did not, wasn’t coming from an insider experience in their read of the story. I would think differently if they had been, because they would be part of the intended audience. Instead, after careful consideration, I concluded that this particular reader was treating these characters as Other, and likely attempting to re-center the audience of the story to folks like them.

One way to spot this is within the questions themselves. Outsider questions often hone in on aspects of difference and make them more Other, so that they require explanation. They sound like:

  • “Can you explain what that looks like?”
  • “I don’t get why anyone would do that. You need to show us why she made that choice, because it doesn’t make sense,”
  • “How does x work exactly? The story doesn’t make it clear.”

Or sometimes they will speak from an expert place about an experience that they don’t know personally, telling you how Other a detail of the story is, or how it is factually wrong, like

  • “I mean, I’m familiar with x, but I don’t think your readers will be, so you might want to explain that a little more,”
  • “I can’t imagine that x group would ever do y. My friends who belong to x group are always careful not to do that.”

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m saying that all feedback asking for more detail or for clarification should be dismissed. That kind of feedback can be incredibly useful. I just urge you to consider where the feedback is coming from, and not to automatically take it in. Especially when you are writing insider stories.

Insider requests for more details about that moment in my story could sound something like:

  • “I tried to picture me and my friends circling him on our scooters, and I was confused as to why there wasn’t a logjam, or how they cleared enough space in the dungeon that folks didn’t cross their path. Could you maybe give that more context, or maybe add a fumbling moment to make it more realistic?”
  • “I wanted to get more of a visual sense from the bottom’s perspective of what they looked like as they passed. I know there were a lot of them, and he was mesmerized by the sound of the scooters, but I imagine he might also be entranced by a look in someone’s eye, or the way someone’s hair moved. I think those moments of desire from the bottom are super important when you are writing disabled tops. Could you add a few more details like that?”

These questions are quite different, and very much worth considering.

Part of the litmus test for including more details could be: What would those details add to the story,
and for whom? What would leaving out those details add to the story, and for whom?
And, then to follow up those answers by considering: What do I care about here? What is my project? Who am I writing this for?

Sorting Out

by | Sep 26, 2015 | 2 comments

by Jean Roberta

This weekend, I have several big jobs to do, and I’m fairly sure I won’t finish them all. Unfortunately, none of them involves writing fiction.

1) I need to make a dent in my To Be Read list of books for review. The book that is most accessible to me physically is a hardcover anthology of fabulous (in every sense) lesbian sci-fi, just out from Lethe Press. In due course, I’ll post my review somewhere on-line, with a link on Facebook.

2) I really need to finish writing a first draft of my proposal for a book project for the university where I teach, so I can get time off to work on it. This book, which already has a publisher, will be about censorship, broadly speaking, not only the official kind imposed by governments but the mob-rule kind imposed by organizations which supposedly rebel against governments. The publisher wants me to focus on eyewitness events, for which I was present or involved. Egad. I have a mass of material that needs to be summarized in a logical way.

3) I need to start reading the pile of student essays that were handed in to me on Friday. The essays are on the short stories I’m teaching in a first-semester English class. The student efforts I’ve seen so far are not completely garbled, or incoherent, but they need work. It’s my job to explain how they could be improved, not because I want students to say exactly what I want them to say, but because I want them to express themselves as clearly as possible.

4) Later today, an expert in decluttering (who runs a business doing this) will arrive to help me tackle the basement of my house, which reminds me of a jungle or a war zone full of landmines. Ms. Declutter is a friend of my stepson, and she has been polite about the mess so far. I’m afraid we’ll probably have to take everything out of the basement to make sure we can find and destroy all the black mould. (I killed a large patch of it with bleach last week, and was lectured by my whole family for doing this without a mask or gloves.)

Looking at this intimidating to-do list, I see what all these tasks require: discrimination or judgment. Writing anything, fiction or non-fiction, requires the same skills that enable a person to create order in a house. What’s important needs to be identified and put in an appropriate place. What’s less important needs to be used to support or enhance the important stuff. What is not needed has to be discarded without mercy. No “maybe I can fix it and use it later.” If it’s taking up too much space, it has to go.

Reading an amazing collection of sci-fi stories, most by veteran writers, and then reading the writing of undergraduates in a mandatory English class, is a study in contrasts. Good writers demonstrate by example what works and what doesn’t work.

To show what I mean, here is the opening scene of “Eldritch Brown Houses” by Claire Humphrey in Daughters of Frankenstein (Lethe Press):

“This is Salem at its oldest and spookiest: cold fog off the ocean, daylight dimming early, gables and gombrels looming at odd angles. I’m gazing out from the upstairs window of the Corwin place, from beside a case of age-yellowed cloth dolls. The streets are empty except for the tail-lights of a single car, receding.”

Don’t you want to read the rest of this story? All the details in this paragraph, from the physical atmosphere to the vintage architecture to the aged dolls to the one modern car that is going away, combine to create a unified effect.

By contrast, a typical student essay reads somewhat like this:

“I am going to write about a story called “The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman which is in a big book for my English class. This story was written in the 18th century.
[Note: students often confuse the 1800s, or nineteenth century, with the one before. It’s all in the past, and who cares about the difference?]
This story has a first-person viewpoint. It is about a woman who is depressed because she just had a baby. Her husband is a doctor named John. They go to stay in a house in the country for the summer. Some people think the house is haunted, but I don’t think so.”

Do you want to read the rest of this essay? Please, for me? I didn’t think so. Note the scatter-gun effect. What does the viewpoint, the character’s depression or the husband have to do with ghosts, or the illusion of ghosts?

In my comments on the student assignment, I will have to be more articulate than the student. I will have to explain that all the information in the opening paragraph can be used in some way, but it all needs to support the student writer’s thesis, that this story is NOT about ghosts. The widespread perception of contemporary readers (from the time of first publication) that the story IS about ghosts – or even demonic possession — needs to be debunked.

When dealing with a mass of material, in the form of notes, ideas, or physical objects, I need to apply my own advice to myself. What effect am I aiming for? What could be added, and what needs to be pulled out? If I have good material, how should it be arranged for best results?

It’s easier said than done, but just naming the challenge ahead is a good first step.

Other writing instructors before me have pointed out that half the job of writing is editing. Many writers before me have found this part to be the “work” of writing (as distinct from the “play”), but it can’t be avoided, and it can be as much a journey of discovery as the typing of a first sentence.

To those involved in a parallel process of shaping a work of creative writing, I say: Don’t give up! Be equally ruthless with irrelevant details and with the black mould of writer’s block. You are not alone.

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica

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