Monthly Archives: May 2012

On Editing

I spent last weekend at BayCon, the annual Science Fiction convention in Santa Clara, CA. Though I get on well enough with most people, I’m not terribly social around strangers; consequently, I tend to skirt the edge of conventions, hanging out with the few people I know and only going to those panels that really interest me. So beyond the two panels and the workshop I participated in, I enjoyed two pleasant dinners in the company of friends, checked out the Dealers’ Room and Art Show, and—this will make most SF con-goers think me barking mad—enjoyed the hotel’s lavishly-appointed Fitness Room not once, but twice.

I had the fortune to be on a great panel titled, ‘Editors, Agents and other Endangered Species.’ As the name suggests, the panel was about the bloody revolution in the publishing industry catalyzed by new technology in general and Amazon in particular. The core issue on most of the panelists’ minds was that of plummeting quality and standards in a field where the gatekeepers (Agents, Editors) and filtering systems (Copy Editors, Proofreaders) are swiftly being swept aside in the flood of self-publishing. (See also my April 1st post on this subject).

The one thing everyone on the panel and several audience members all agreed on is that authors, even professionals, must be edited. And as award-nominated Editor Marty Halpern pointed out to the audience, although in some instances a single editor may perform each aspect of the process, editing is by no means a simple, unitary operation, but something that operates (with some overlap) at three distinct levels, viz:

  • Developmental Editing (aka substantive, comprehensive, or structural editing) concerns itself with the overall organization and coherence of the work, from macro structural and story issues such as plot and character arcs, chapter and scene organization, logic and factual accuracy, etc., all the way to paragraph and even line edits. This is traditionally the province of the editor at the publishing house, though many agents like to involve themselves in this process prior to sending the manuscript out in order to give it the best possible chance in the market.
  • Copy Editing is the process by which issues of grammar and syntax, style, usage, etc., get flagged; this mid-level operation can be quite subjective in places and ideally requires give and take on behalf of both the author and their editor at the publishing house. Copy Editors may be in-house or freelance.
  • Proofreading, which once used to be a separate profession and process, is more often today carried out—if at all—by the Copy Editor; this step focuses strictly on the micro level of the text, addressing word usage issues (e.g., which/that, who/whom/ effect/affect), verb tense, grammar, capitalization, typos, punctuation, numeral usage (i.e., forty-five/45) etc.

Reading the above, it should quickly become obvious that the process of editing a manuscript  involves a very substantial amount of work and some very diverse skill sets. A good Developmental Editor, for example, must not only possess a strong understanding of story and the narrative process, but also a peculiarly well-informed and widely-read mind, essential if factual blunders are to be avoided; these people are awesome at trivia games. A Copy Editor, if they are worth their hire, should have a rock-solid grasp of the language and its rules, as well as a writer’s sensitivity to style. And a Proofreader, in addition to being a spelling ace, needs the rare ability and attention to detail to read at a slow, methodical enough pace to screen each individual word and its component letters, which is by no means the way most of us read. (It’s especially important to understand that nobody, nobody, can efficiently proofread their own writing, except perhaps by the brain-melting expedient of working through the text backwards, one word at a time).

And we haven’t even talked about formatting yet, the requirements of which vary substantially for print and digital publication.

To conclude, then, good writing is not enough—not nearly enough. For the self-published author to rise above the sea of Indie ordure out there at Amazon or Smashwords, it’s absolutely vital that their work be in some way edited. The process isn’t prohibitively expensive, but it’s not cheap, either;  a very rough ballpark figure—don’t hold me to it—for a freelance do-it-all Editor would probably start around a cent or 1.5 cents a word, which works out to $800 – $1,200 for an 80k-word novel (expect to pay substantially more in the case of a particularly rough ms., or where a good deal of developmental editing is required). Money well spent? You bet: good editing will literally make or break your book!

If you can afford and do decide to hire an Editor (and it is a tax write-off for an author), my advice would be to first of all do your research and identify at least three possible candidates. Don’t be shy of asking whom they’ve edited, and even of following up with those authors and finding out what their experience with the Editor was; the Editor may well (I would!) ask to see a representative sample of the ms. before quoting you a rate. And do be very, very suspicious of anyone whose rate is more than maybe 25% below the others—you usually get what you pay for in life (or, as we say in England, “you pay nuts, you get monkeys”).

Finally, if you can’t afford a professional Editor, at the very least ask your writing group or other, experienced writer friends to help you with these tasks, and offer to do the same for them. The more effort you put into every stage of the essential editing process, the better your finished work will be, and the likelier to get noticed and receive that all-important word-of-mouth that is, ultimately, what really sells books.

And, yeah, I’d bet money that this very blog post suffers from some issues a good Editor would smooth out.

Like my semi-arbitrary decision to capitalize the word, ‘Editor’.

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On Plotting

I’ve always found plotting very difficult. After several years of writing, I finally realized why: it’s because I didn’t know my characters.

Plot doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Plot is what happens when a character with a goal runs into opposition. The resulting conflict gives birth to plot.

I’m mostly what my author friend Janice Hardy (‘The Pain Merchants’ trilogy) calls a pantser—that is, I write mostly by the seat of my pants rather than by careful advance plotting and outlining. In the past that’s gotten me into an awful lot of trouble, with stories ending up irrevocably beached like ships on sandbars. I’d read books on Plot but they never made sense to me—they seemed mechanistic, dead, formulaic, with all those silly graphs showing the story’s various complications and crises rising in a series of arcs to the Supreme Black Moment at the story’s climax. I railed against these. Dammit, Jim, I’m an artist, not a mathematician!

After a while, I started not exactly outlining but making sure I knew both the endpoint of my story and at least a couple of waypoints. Like fences along a racetrack, these would at least keep me going in the right direction to the finish line, wouldn’t they? The strategy was partly successful: I’d reach the end, yeah, but the story took a lot of manipulation and heavy-handed steering, and it showed. “It feels like it’s on rails,” a critiquer once told me about a story I’d worked particularly hard to keep on track.

After some long while of my puzzled and patient colleagues in Written in Blood talking to me about character, the penny started to drop. I’d had, over a few years, a couple of stories published that worked very well. Flashes in the pan? No: in both of these, I understood the protagonist and their goals very well.

It’s amazing to me how slow and stupid even smart people—I consider myself one—can be sometimes… the puzzle wasn’t together yet, but I was starting to find how some of the pieces fit in.

What I think finally made all the pieces click into place was reading (and rereading, and re-rereading) Stephen King’s excellent little book, ‘On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft’, in which he confesses that he doesn’t plot and doesn’t believe in plotting. This was a revelation to me, because I really didn’t either. I was vindicated! And yet, King’s stories were full of plotting, of complications and reversals, of ever-rising series of crises from start to finish. But no, he insisted his stories were based on situations and that he relied heavily on intuition. His process, he swore, was to “put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free.” The key words here were character and predicament.

Another writer I immensely respect, C.J. Cherryh, has a particularly luminous sentence on plotting in her blog. She says, “I think of it not as anything like a sequence of events, but as a webwork of tension-lines between characters and sets of characters. You pull one—and one yank moves several characters. It’s not events. It’s tensions.”

In my current novel-in-progress (working title: ‘Sutherland’s Rules’) I tried to put these ideas into practice. I thought long and hard about my principal characters, wrote little bios for them, made up backstory; most important of all, I worked hard at understanding their conscious and subconscious goals and motivations, hopes and fears, and the relationships between the protagonists; I did the same for the antagonists. With this done, I built not an outline but a very loose plot exoskeleton, as it were, roughly based on the typical Campbellian Hero’s Journey-type structure. And then I turned everyone loose.

To my amazement, what resulted was a complex and very tightly-plotted story as the protagonists, opposed by their antagonists and forced to work within some tight real-world parameters (windows of opportunity, seasonal factors, physical limits of mass and velocity that bear on their scheme), used all their ingenuity and resources to achieve their goals. By taking the time to breathe real life into my characters, they came alive and worked to achieve their ends without any manipulation or heavy-handed effort on my part. The result is something close to a Swiss watch, far more tightly plotted than anything I could have envisioned, and without ever resorting to what King calls, ‘the noisy jackhammer of plot’: I’d put my characters into a predicament and watched them work themselves free, chronicling their progress as they went.

When I sent the first draft out to my trusty and stalwart beta readers they confirmed what I’d thought—I’d broken into fresh territory and mostly achieved my goals; there was even some excitement. Oh, there were a few issues, but—and this confirmed my new understanding—these were mostly to do with a couple of characters whom I’d not understood fully enough, and neglected to develop as thoroughly as my two chief protagonists. So in the rewrite, which I’m currently in the middle of, I’m putting the same effort into fleshing out and thoroughly knowing these other characters, confident that this will lead them to act as real, fully-empowered people; the result, I’m quite confident, will be to transform and elevate those parts of the story which aren’t working so well. Beyond that are a few simple environment and situation factors that require tweaking.

So, in the end, there really is no such thing as plot as a cause or driver: plot is simply the result of character and will in motion.


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Subterranean Euro Blues

I was never a fan of Europe.

More specifically, I was never enthusiastic about the EU, the idealistically-driven political and economic integration of the many different nations and peoples that make up the European continent. The architects of the EU, elder statesmen who’d lived through the horrors of two world wars in the span of a generation and a bit, sold it as not only an economic solution to the problems of  cross-border trading and tourism (I remember when a trip from London to Northern Italy meant changing currencies at least twice,) but as a permanent solution to nationalism and an end to conflict between the nations of Europe. Like all idealists, they discounted human nature.

My own skepticism stemmed mostly from aesthetic rather than practical reasons. When the UK decimalized its currency in 1971, I  was dismayed. Our ancient, eccentric, and uniquely complex system of pounds, shillings and pence (a pound was made up of twenty shillings of twelve pence each; half-crowns were two shillings and sixpence; threepenny pieces were thick and octagonal; and then there was the professional unit of currency used by lawyers and doctors, who billed in guineas, a guinea being one pound and one shilling) had overnight been reduced to a thing of appalling simplicity, with pennies becoming the equivalent of cents and everything else, tradition, history and all, swept away as though it had never existed. Furthermore, although only in my late teens, I knew that much else that I valued would be lost: the individuality of nations, and the distinct character of each people.

Anyone who’s watched D.A. Pennebaker’s amazing documentary of the 1965 Bob Dylan tour of the UK, ‘Don’t Look Back’ will realize that England was like another universe in those days, with attitudes, habits and traditions radically different from those of mainland Europe. The same was true to a lesser extent of European nations—their peoples, customs, and architecture were fabulously distinct. Young as I was, I knew two things: first, that I didn’t want the nasty, vanilla homogeneity that a unified Europe would bring; and secondly, that it wasn’t going to work.

Just a dozen or fifteen years ago, as the reality of the Soviet Union’s demise had begun to sink in, a good many loopy people on the far Right had begun to worry about the sinister New World Order they saw emerging, in which the UN—dominated by the Antichrist and his demonic minions—would bring all nations together and plunge humanity into some kind of Socialist slave hell. I laughed in the face of more than one of these nutcases, pointing out that people everywhere were trying to secede and demanding independence, provinces shearing off from their parent states like ripe fruit from the tree.

People in the real world cleave—for good or ill—to tradition and sovereignty in a way that delusional idealists across the spectrum can’t possibly fathom. Whatever carrots the technocrats used to sway the electorates of the EU’s many nations to join (labour mobility, farm subsidies, economic integration, the creation of a world-class trading bloc, etc.), would never be enough to cement such disparate peoples into a single nation-state. As NYT columnist Thomas Friedman recently pointed out, Greeks are not Germans, and (fortunately) never will be.

So where does this leave us?

Well, for one, Greece will almost certainly default. Although whatever course it takes now is dangerous for its battered people, I believe it will ultimately default because all it has left, after the humiliation and suffering of the past year or so, is to reclaim some measure of sovereignty and self-determination. In the same way as lack of control and predictability are the circumstances which cause the greatest stress to primates, so it is with nations; and while a return to the drachma will likely precipitate a run on the banks and possibly a period of hyperinflation, the Greek people will have regained a measure of pride and a sense of being in charge of their own destiny. I wish them every success and a speedy recovery.

As to the rest of us, I’d say we’re in deep shit. A Greek default may well precipitate further defaults (Portugal certainly, Spain maybe, Italy… ugh), and just possibly the total collapse of the Euro. Although the masters of Europe have had some time preparing for such a disaster and have shored up their financial levees, their continued failure—like all politicians in all democracies, I’m sad to say—to do more than the absolute minimum required guarantees catastrophe. Who the winners will be in the ensuing flood of fear and uncertainty is impossible to predict. One thing is certain: speculators will do well, ordinary working people will get screwed, and politicians will continue to live in a fantasy-land all their own.


Filed under Material World


A writer I know on Facebook a day or two ago asked their ‘friends’ (a once-clear term which now requires qualifying apostrophes) what they did when they weren’t writing. Several people replied that they watched television. A little self-consciously, I answered that I enjoy cooking; that I read, often a good deal. I pore over my collection of maps and atlases sometimes, armchair-traveling the world; I love Google Street View, especially using it to visit Mexico where people throng the streets and stately plazas, and every house sings with colour. I frequently take walks, and go to the gym usually four times a week. I play the guitar. And in the last couple of months, when not busy with CAD work, my day job, I’ve been spending a lot of time working in the garden.

The back yard of our 1950s suburban rental has a large, red-brick patio mounded and warped by the roots of a couple of large trees. It gets a good deal of shade, welcome on the scorching days of the East Bay summer, and is a delightful place to enjoy a meal alone or with friends  in the evenings as the day cools.

Both Linda and I have a put a lot of work into the yard. It was a barren, squalid place when we moved in three years ago, with broken beds of bare, tired earth surrounding the weed-infested brick. We moved yards of earth at first, and Linda built low decorative walls with the round river rocks that were strewn everywhere. She uncovered a brick path at one end of the garden that had been buried, probably for many years. I restored the beds, removing the most rotten planks and shoring up with new ones, turning the heavy, black clay and digging in hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of soil amendment.

The first thing to go in was a kitchen garden for fresh herbs; after that came flower bulbs, mostly cheery daffodils and showy gladiolus. We drilled holes in the bottom of an old concrete pond basin and turned it into a pansy preserve. I moved a sad, unproductive rose bush from where some idiot had planted it in the shady driveway to a sun-drenched corner of one of the beds, and added three new rose bushes to keep it company. We planted more bulbs, iris and tulip, and shade flowers on one of the more sheltered beds, and added some petunias and snapdragon. The geraniums thrive, the hydrangea is picky and difficult. I’m learning all of this on the fly, and experienced gardeners will doubtless laugh, but it makes me very happy. And Linda has fresh cut flowers every day.

So I don’t get television when there’s so much else that’s pleasurable in life. We have one, but it’s not connected to anything other than a DVD and VHS player. We watch the odd film or British period drama in the evening sometimes, and that’s it. I’d no more have cable in the house than walk into a roomful of people with Ebola. It’s a matter of psychic peace and hygiene (not to mention physiological health, since watching TV induces something very close to a vegetative state, while reading requires active engagement and keeps the mind limber; plus the pictures are so much better). How people can stand to have the thing burbling away all the time, I can’t begin to comprehend; and the notion of having a TV in the bedroom fills us both with loathing.

Here are some more pictures of our garden.


Filed under Material World

On Tolerance and Civility

There’s an appallingly common mindset which presumes that if someone holds this view, then they must hold that also. So if you drive a truck or work for the FBI, you’re probably a right-wing Christian fundamentalist; if you make a living as a teacher or writer, why, you must lean hard to the left.

This is, of course, bullshit.

That’s not to say that the above don’t occur, and may even be common: but to pigeonhole everyone is both preposterous and simplistic. Real life isn’t like that; hell, even fiction—at least the better sort of fiction—isn’t like that. The best villains, like the hero, are nuanced and complex.

Yet we’re encouraged to think in binaries and cleave to polar opposites. Stereotyping people who hold views contrary to our own makes it so much easier to dislike and ridicule them. That makes us and our gang feel good. Unfortunately, it’s a slippery slope, and what begins as simple disrespect and derision can end up in the dehumanization of others that leads, in its most extreme form, to genocides. Hitler and the Jews, anyone? Mao and the Chinese intelligentsia? Serbs and Muslims? Hutsi and Tutus?

I was brought up in a Jewish/Italian partisan family right after WWII, which might explain why anything that smells of conformity, lockstep thinking, brainwashing—from the far Right’s white supremacy to the far Left’s political correctness, from rabid, angry atheism to sinister, apocalyptic cultism and Scientology—makes me see red. I’m fine with anyone believing whatever they want to believe in religion or politics, but I despise intolerance, incivility, and character assassination. I’ll stand up for anyone who is attacked for sincere and honestly-held beliefs, even when I don’t agree with them. Where I draw the line is when they seek to impose their will and belief system on me.

There’s a real simple rule here, and it’s do as you would be done by. Maybe it’s time to start thinking for ourselves and start seeing people as individuals rather than as clones, well-meaning individuals who love their families and think they’re doing right rather than mean fools who are out to get us. Like the famous Christmas incidents in the trenches of WWI, maybe we’ll discover that the guys in the enemy uniform are just like us.

Ah, we say, but they started it! Well, maybe they did. Or maybe we watch too much TV or listen to too much talk radio, left or right, and—like those old folks who see the world only through the media and live in fear of everything—have  cut ourselves off from reality.

My personal beliefs are highly heterodox. I follow no party or school of thought. Accordingly, I’ve always had friendships across the political and religious spectrum (that seems unusual in the US, but is not uncommon elsewhere). We can have raging and wide-ranging discussions and arguments yet still remain good friends; sometimes, we learn from one another. At the least, we respect one another and know each other for good people.

I tend to the atheist side of agnostic, but in my 23 years here, two of my closest friends have been Christian fundamentalists, and these are two of the finest people I’ve ever met. Because we respect one another, we can agree to disagree, even though I think they’re deluded and they worry I’ll burn in hell. We laugh. We build on commonalties rather than differences. We enjoy the friendship and like being respectfully challenged now and then by someone who respects us. These are seeds that spread.

If one proceeds on the premise that even those who disagree with us mean well, there’s no need for enmity… but it’s so much easier to demonize people we disagree with than to deal with them, and isn’t that what the media and our environment wants us to do?

Look in the mirror. Whom do you demonize and ridicule?


Filed under Material World