A Lesson Learned   Leave a comment

Gene Wolfe 1931 – 2019

As a writer, I’m not often troubled by the so-called impostor syndrome. I have enough confidence in what I do to move forward on the assumption that what I write will be worth a reader’s time and money. There are, however, practitioners of the art of storytelling who can leave me baffled by my own audacity. I read their work and find myself wondering what makes me think I’m in any way good enough to do this. (Mercifully, these spells always pass.)

One of those writers died on the day I started writing this piece (April 15, 2019). His name was Gene Wolfe.

Other greats in the science fiction world have passed in recent years, people whose work has entertained and inspired me, while also teaching me things through their work about how stories can be told. Like all science fiction fans, these losses sadden me, even as I reflect on their great legacies. But this loss comes closer to home. Gene Wolfe taught me something very important about storytelling, a thing that seems perfectly obvious when you hear it, but doesn’t always make itself plain while you work your way up the learning curve.

The lesson is this: there can be no deadwood in the story. Everything must contribute to the whole, whether it’s a detail in the world build, a major element of character development, or a twist in the plot. You don’t just drop things in and walk on, adding elements just because you think it will make the story trendier, for example. There needs to be a reason for it all, consistent with the internal logic of the story.

Obvious, right? It sounded so to me, but until Mr. Wolfe imparted that lesson, I’d never thought it through before. But it isn’t the soundness of that advice that makes his passing a source of personal sadness. It’s the memory of it. He told me this in person, using an element of one of my own stories by way of illustration.

This encounter took place at the World Fantasy Convention held in Tucson, AZ in 1991. The convention programming included a chance to have a completed short story critiqued by one of the published authors in attendance. I had a story ready to make the rounds, and delayed submission long enough to use it for that event. It was a pleasant November evening when all the participants gathered to see which pros we’d been matched with. As I recall, we were crowded into a hallway in the hotel, and one by one Big Names walked out of a room and called a lesser name forward. I was talking to a friend when someone said “Thomas Watson,” and turned to see none other than Gene Wolfe searching the assembled faces in the hallway. I made my presence known (I remember something simple, like saying “Here,” but my friend remembers me muttering “yikes” under my breath) and shook hands with him. We left the crowd behind and went out to sit at a table in the central courtyard of the hotel.

Many of the details from that conversation have faded from memory. I remember Mr. Wolfe being encouraging, but very honest. I still have the original version of the story. Today I can see that it needed a lot more work, but it was as good as I could make it, back then. There was no way I could recognize this in 1991, lacking as I was in essential feedback. The concept of beta readers was years in the future, and all the feedback I’d received for my fiction to that point had come from a small writing group (that had come to an end by then) and the rare personal response from editors as they rejected a manuscript. I was doing my best and hoping against hope that it would eventually be good enough.

That evening I received feedback in a big way. Mr. Wolfe found the story engaging but badly flawed. He enumerated the flaws and suggested new-to-me ways to look at storytelling that might help. He was direct in his criticism, but never let it become too personal. He didn’t come across as the seasoned professional talking to the wannabe; he did not talk down to me. It was a serious conversation between writers. Mr. Wolfe made it that by taking my desire to write seriously. Somewhere in that short conversation he brought up the concept that inspired this essay. Everything in a story should be in the story for a very good reason.

Beginning writers often leave deadwood scattered in their prose, anything from useless dialog that’s meant to be witty, to exposition that tells readers nothing they really need to know. In the years since, I’ve learned to recognize this, and such failings have made a number of books, for me, one-and-done for a given author. More to the point, I’ve been made more aware of the concept in my own fiction. Yes, it’s obvious, after you have it spelled out. Many things work that way. Anyone can swing an ax, but have someone show you the best way to hold and balance an ax and your chances of missing your foot go up significantly.

To illustrate the point, he asked a question about the story in hand. He asked why a particular character was an African-American.

At this point I need to commit a digression and offer spoiler warnings. First, the warnings. If you have a copy of my short story collection 179 Degrees From Now and have not yet read the story “Crossing the Pond,” be aware that I’m about to spoil it for you. Can’t be helped, so read on at your own risk.

Now, the digression, one that in our unsettled times is surely necessary to avoid readers turning away at this point. It has to do with Mr. Wolfe’s singling out that one character with his question. I was relating my experience to a group of fellow sci-fi fans and writers at a science fiction convention not long ago. I got as far as Mr. Wolfe’s question regarding the African-American character, and found myself handed a textbook example of “triggering.” A person in the group cut me off with a burst of outrage directed at the fact that the question had singled out the African-American character. “He shouldn’t have done that!” When I said there’d been a good reason for the question, I was told in no uncertain terms by a second person that there couldn’t be a good reason for singling out that character by his race, that it was wrong and racist. I repeated that there was indeed a good reason and that racism, to the best of my knowledge, had nothing to do with it, and was ready to explain why their shared assumption was off base. But the echo chamber around them was impenetrable by that time, and the explanation was never heard.

Listening to the world around you for the purpose of responding, instead of understanding, is a bad habit. Others have pointed this out before me. It clearly requires reiteration.

But perhaps you will reserve judgment and read on, spoilers or no. The question was asked in the context of all elements of the story serving a purpose, and adding up to a story that means something. In this particular tale (of which “Crossing the Pond” is a significantly rewritten version) the African-American character is a scholar who specializes in the life and times of Henry David Thoreau. The scholar is terminally ill and visiting Walden Pond one last time. Thoreau appears and asks the scholar if they have met before. (These elements were in the version of the story Mr. Wolfe read.) The answer is that they have not, and that Thoreau may be thinking of an ancestor of the scholar.

Mr. Wolfe knew enough of Thoreau’s story to know the man was an Abolitionist, and in fact was a “conductor” on the “Underground Railroad.” Somewhere in his writings, Thoreau mentions briefly encountering an African-American headed north. He gave the man some food and sent him on his way. It isn’t known whether or not this man was actually an escaped slave, or if he found his way to life as a free man. Reading of this encounter, my mind concocted a daydream that in the course of time became a short work of fantasy. Mr. Wolfe was looking to see if I’d been aware of these things while I wrote the tale. Had I chosen to make the character in question African-American because of this history and quietly woven this connection into the story? My answer of “yes” was what he hoped to hear; he was evidently pleased and favorably impressed, which certainly gave my confidence a much needed boost. The shade of Thoreau was there in the role of the Ferryman, helping yet another soul to a different sort of freedom. That very idea had been the germ of the original story. Mr. Wolfe picked out that character because the man’s fate and Thoreau’s history were the elements that gave the story its meaning. He wanted to hear me say I’d done this deliberately. The character’s race was important to the story, but was not in and of itself the reason the question of race was brought up.

I asked if I had failed to make the reason for the character’s race and Thoreau’s appearance obvious enough. He smiled and warned me against being too easy on readers, unless I wanted to deliberately insult their intelligence. I can honestly say reading Gene Wolfe has never insulted my intelligence, and those of you familiar with his work know exactly what I mean by that. To those who have not read this author, his fiction is frequently “no easy road,” to quote one of his own characters. I’ve endeavored to avoid belaboring the obvious in my own work ever since. Making sure each element of the story carries its weight is one way to accomplish this.

In every life there are moments that, when you look back on them, are revealed to be turning points. That all-too-brief conversation with one of the Grand Masters of the genre was one of mine, although it took the perspective of time passed to make this clear to me. Until that night, writing fiction had been a matter of shooting from the hip and hoping it sounded right. After that night I started looking at writing fiction as a controlled process. It was never again quite the act of unbridled spontaneity it had been, even if I never did start using outlines. I may still be writing by the seat of my pants, but these days I have a much better sense of direction. My conversation with Gene Wolfe made me think about how I do this thing I do, instead of just putting my head down and going for it. Once I started down that path, things were never the same again. I will always be grateful to him for that.

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The Process, Part Seven: The More Things Change   Leave a comment

One of the best bits of advice a writer can be given is that you need to finish the first draft. No matter what doubts you harbor regarding a story’s quality or eventual fate, you really have nothing on which to base decisions until that first draft is in your hands. Going back to the beginning to start again and fix things can be a trap, a neverending loop of increasing self-doubt. Following this advice is easier said than done, something I know all too well. But it’s essential.

I’ve become fond of the phrase “discovery writing” to describe that first journey to story’s end. (When you think about it, “discovery writing” applies whether you’re an outliner or write by the seat of your pants as I do.) No matter how clear your vision for the story was at the start, the reality of putting the words down in the right order will be an altogether different experience. Telling the tale will lead you to thoughts and ideas that could not emerge until you started thinking of things at that level of detail. That sometimes makes it a difficult trail to find and clear for readers to follow. Along the way you might very well become lost and confused. You’ll doubt the worth of what you’re doing. The machete you’re swinging through the underbrush will seem to have lost its edge.

Just keep going. Trust the story, trust yourself (the same thing, really) and finish the first draft no matter how rough and unsatisfying it might be. Stay the course, straight as you can, and finish it. The quality of the first draft does not matter, completing it does, because now you can do the revisions that make it work.

For me, the process of revision itself has two phases. The first is generated by my own perception of that first draft and its problems, some of which I noticed while writing it. My first drafts are usually sprinkled with notes to myself to address problems or to expand on ideas, among other things. I do this to avoid constantly going back and forth over the same material when I really need to be forging ahead. When I have a first draft completed I go back to the beginning and read through the entire work. Doing this immediately means I have the end of the tale firmly in mind, allowing me to judge whether or not the story begins the way it should. I often discover that the trailhead for this journey isn’t in the right place. Having finished the entire story, I have the knowledge I need to guide me to a solution to that problem. Having verified that the book or story starts in a way that will remain consistent with the internal logic of the tale all the way through, I continue to read through the whole thing. There will be rough spots and loose threads – this is when I find and fix them. There will be debris to clear from the path, often marked by the notes I left to myself, usually unnecessary exposition, sometimes a stray subplot that adds nothing to the tale. I sometimes need to “colorize” parts of the story, having forgotten to describe things in ways that will bring a passage or chapter fully to life. I tweak dialog, clarify character traits and motivations, make sense of plot devices so things don’t seem to spring into being without context – in short, changing anything that stands out in a less than positive way. I’m clearing the bumps and trip hazards of a rough-hewn trail. For me, this revision phase usually takes longer than the first draft to complete, and (again usually) is where I realize that whatever doubts I harbored during the discovery writing were either unfounded to begin with, or are amenable to changes that increase my confidence in the quality of the work.

This pass through the first draft is where I most enjoy this process. Most writers I know dread editing and revising a manuscript. For me, this is where I get to see the full potential of a project begin to show itself. It’s a uniquely satisfying feeling to find a flaw in the story, wrestle with the problem, and then sit back realizing you made it work. Discovery writing is the hard part. Revisions are where the fun begins.

Having completed that pass through the now not so rough draft, I seek the editorial input that will make possible the next phase of revisions. So far this has, for me, come entirely from a crew of willing and able beta readers. At some time in the future I do want to add a professional freelance editor to the loop. However it is done, once I have that input and have had time to consider it, I make one more pass through the manuscript. What I change at that point, and to what degree I change it, depends on the amount of consensus I see between beta readers. If more than half are troubled by the same thing, that will likely lead to a major revision. But I sometimes make a change because one person’s comment caused me to rethink something. This part of the revision process often takes longer than the previous clean-up. Some of the flaws found by beta readers (it never ceases to amaze me, the stuff I miss) are serious and require a lot of work to address.

The biggest challenge of them all, regarding revision of any story, long or short, is knowing when to quit. Perfection being unattainable in the real world, there comes a point when you need to say, “Enough!” and move on. It’s a tough call. When revisions consistently become minor tweaks, and when I can read the work aloud (a powerful proofreading tool, by the way) without stumbling over an awkward phrase, I’m done. Your mileage may vary.

At this point just one thing is left, and that’s proofreading. That’s done in-house with the assistance of my wife, who rarely misses a misplaced comma or hyphen, and who has a better than average understanding of this language I so gleefully abuse for my own purposes. With a little formatting, the proofread manuscript is then prepared for publishing and promotion. At this point my task as a writer, this time around, is essentially complete. Time for me to sharpen all the trail cutting tools and start writing the next book.

As for the book completed and released for sale to the general public, it is now part of an altogether different process, one of examination and assessment that is solely in the hands of readers. It’s not for me to determine the worth of a book I’ve written. I have a certain amount of confidence in my work, but whether or not I’ve succeeded or failed, that is for you to decide.

What Did I Know?   Leave a comment

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 1975

 

na·ive·té (noun)

  • lack of experience, wisdom, or judgment.

  • innocence or unsophistication.

In 1974 one of the featured selections of the old Science Fiction Book Club was a new novel by an author I was barely familiar with: Ursula K. LeGuin. A couple of years before, I’d read he award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness and enjoyed it, so when The Dispossessed appeared in the SFBC newsletter I decided to give it a try. I was in my senior year of high school, a standoffish nerd and misfit, with the majority of my life experience coming in the form of books I’d read. However, I was well-read for a kid my age, and had always cast a net wide enough to encompass history and current events, among other things, so it would never have occurred to me that this book would be a bit of a reach. I would not at the time have doubted my ability to grasp the underlying concepts of LeGuin’s latest (the first Hugo winner I ever read before it won the award). It was science fiction, after all. I would dig it.

When it came time to reread this Hugo winner, doubts emerged. I could recall very little of the book or what it was about. I usually do much better than that. That didn’t stop me from reading this classic of the genre, but I was not far into the novel before something became crystal clear. There was no way, in my teens, that I had even a clue regarding the basic themes of this book.

Those themes are big ones, if typical for LeGuin: anarchism, revolutionary societies, capitalism, socialism; male-female relationships; the freedom and burden of individuality. The Dispossessed takes these on through the story of one man’s naive assumptions about another culture, assumptions that are severely challenged when he visits that world and sees it in real life. At the same time, he is a living challenge to the assumptions made by the people he meets regarding his own world and culture, and how these shaped him. These matters provide the essential conflict in the story, as the character Shevek tries to be true to who and what he is, and the society he identifies with, while at the same time carrying forward research in physics that his own people see as being without real value. It’s why he’s left home, to complete that work. He is a man caught between the rock and the hard place when he must walk away from things he knows and believes in, and learn to live in an alien society that will allow him the freedom to make a major discovery – though for their own purposes. He is about to complete a theory that will change everything by allowing all the human worlds in LeGuin’s Hainish universe to communicate instantaneously regardless of the great gulfs of space between them. However, the grand cosmological puzzle Shevek hopes to solve seems a secondary concern to nearly all around him, as war and social upheaval shake the world to which he travels in the hope of completing the work.

Alternate chapters tell the story of Shevek coming of age on his collectivist home world of Anarres and his unsettling experiences in the capitalistic societies of the world named Urras, a planet that considers Anarres its moon. The story of personal conflict is clear enough – and the cultures and worlds LeGuin builds are exotic enough – that I surely enjoyed the book when I first read it. I certainly enjoyed the illusion of understanding it. Reading it again after 44 years, I was amazed and chagrined to realize much of the book never touched me at all. Big themes – anarchism, revolutionary societies, capitalism, and all the rest – and all of them passed under my notice, unable to really touch me in the naiveté of my adolescent years. All I was left with years later was the memory that, yes, I’d once upon a time read the words within this book. It would have been a superficial read at best.

This is not the first Hugo Award winner I’ve reread years after the fact for this weblog, and in each of those cases I was well aware of picking up things missed by my younger self. Life’s experiences accumulate and your perspective shifts; things are made clear that were muddy before or, worse, seemed clear but were not truly understood. But this is the first such book I’ve read that prompted me to look back across the years and realize that, in a sense, I hadn’t really read it at all in 1974. I read it for the first time, with full appreciation for the author’s work, this time around, more than four decades later.

Iacta Alea Est   6 comments

In a recent conversation, I said something to the effect of seeing much of my life in the rearview mirror. The friend with whom I had this conversation found this observation morbid and disturbing, and said so in no uncertain terms. A natural enough reaction for a member of a species acutely aware of its own mortality, a species that has built entire religions in denial of this simple and awesome fact. A reaction and a denial, and one that utterly missed my point.

I see nothing at all morbid about making such an assessment. At sixty-two years of age, and given the current average life expectancy of a healthy, non-smoking American male human being, it is simply the truth that more than half my time is now behind me. Barring miraculous medical advances that, being an average American, I wouldn’t be able to pay for in the first place, I need to be aware of that rear view. It isn’t morbid, it’s motivational. Now is not the time for relaxed complacency. Looking behind, looking ahead, and doing the math prompts me to get a move on. Time is not on my side, and there are things to do. There are stories to tell. More stories than I know how to count.

Writing is a time-consuming occupation, and when you count yourself among the independently published, you must add the time needed for various acts of self-promotion to the ticking clock ledger. It adds up fast. In the time since I first decided to give this a try – a decision made in late 2010 that I have not and never will regret – my chief limiting resource has been time. When I launched this enterprise I was unemployed and about all I did was write, sometimes three thousand or more words a day. That episode lasted fourteen months, and in the years since, I’ve balanced writing with a thirty-hour-a-week job. It seemed at first to be a good balance, and it did in fact work well, right up to the point that I released the last volume of War of the Second Iteration.

I’d waited on attempting meaningful self-promotion until completing that series, with the goal of launching such efforts with the entire project waiting there for readers to discover. It worked. Periodically making the first book – The Luck of Han’anga – available as a free download has driven sales of the subsequent volumes to a gratifying degree. But the time spent managing such promotions, minimal as they really are, does cut into writing time. To do more than my current promotional activities – and I truly need to do so – presents a quandary. If I’m doing that, I’m not stringing words together, and the timely release of new work (without of course compromising on quality) is as important as promoting previously released material. My attempts to find some sort of compromise allowing both activities to be done well has created only conflict and frustration. Existing books are selling, but sporadically and slowly. My promotional activities are a mere token. And the writing of my next book drags on and on…

Over the past year it became steadily more obvious that what I’m trying to do will never be accomplished under the current arrangement. The best it seemed I could hope for was to endure this state of affairs until I could retire in either 2021 or 2022, a truly depressing prospect.

It was decided to see if something could be done to close the gap. Numbers were crunched, financial strategies were altered and moved forward, and fingers were crossed. This past summer it was determined that we could, if we were careful, bridge the gap to my official retirement without relying on a regular paycheck on my part. The numbers were there, they were correct, and I held back. Having spent most of my adult life working to make sure I was working, letting go of that financial lifeline and taking even a relatively short leap of faith took more nerve than I expected. It was a solid month before I was at ease with the decision (as much as I’ll ever be), and longer before I took that deep breath and said the magic words… “I quit.”

It should be noted here that the decision was in no way an indictment of the job, much less the good people I worked for and with. Sure, there were conflicts, and there were a few people I just never could get on with. Show me a job where this is not true. My situation in total, however, was intolerable, and something had to give.

On October 31, 2018, I stopped staring into the future as if I stood with my toes over the edge of a cliff. I didn’t take a first step – I jumped. All or nothing. Time to be what I’ve always wanted to be, the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to be, no matter what diversions and distractions pulled me first one way and then another during my life. Time to turn from the mirror and face the road ahead. To be the writer, the teller of tales from this day forward.

Iacta alea est

5:30 Return – A Review   Leave a comment

One of the advantages of knowing other authors is having the chance to read really cool stuff before anyone else has the chance. And now and then I see something worth sharing. To that end – a review of 5:30 Return by William R. Herr.

“It is no easy road.” So says Severian, the narrator of Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, of the story he tells. Juan “the Monster” Romero, the voice of 5:30 Return by William R. Herr, could say the same of his tale, with sharper justification. Juan is a war veteran in a near-future America, suffering from an incurable infection that is literally devouring his face. Once addicted to a drug known on the street as “jack” – a substance that makes crack look like nothing more than a bad habit – Juan was rescued from the “pit” of addiction by a friend who is later found dead under suspicious circumstances. The story of his friend’s death rings false for Juan, and this is the story of his search for the truth. It’s a story of contradictions. Of a highly stratified society full of people who deliberately seek the darkness of a drug-fueled underworld that exists in the glare of a harsh desert sun. Of a man so damaged by the life he’s led that he should be nothing more than a wellspring of bitterness, and yet has the compassion to come to the aid of a child who is, in his way, as damaged as Juan. He sees the ugliness of the institutionalized dysfunctionality of this world and its drug of choice, and yet makes his living delivering thrill-seekers into, and out of, the world of depravity that is rooted in “jack.” Juan is a man powerfully motivated to find an answer, when he has every reason to simply give up. Deep contradictions do not make for an easy road, but they can fuel compelling fiction, and this dark tale of murder, revenge, and desire for redemption certainly qualifies as compelling. No easy road, but I highly recommend traveling it.

Posted May 28, 2018 by underdesertstars in Uncategorized

What Just Happened?   Leave a comment

Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Winner of the 1974 Hugo Award for Best Novel

Some might consider what follows to contain spoilers. If you have not yet read this book and believe you might do so someday, proceed at your own risk.

Science fiction has a seemingly endless fascination with a particular set of ideas, and perhaps foremost among them is the dream of encountering an intelligence not of this Earth. I can’t begin to count the number of such stories I’ve read over the years (many years, now) that I’ve been a fan of the genre. Whether it’s a first contact tale or we step right into a well-populated universe, the so-called aliens are there, story after story. The popularity of this trope seems to me to be a modern manifestation of an ancient desire to seek and discover the “other,” even if we might fear the consequences. We are, after all, the animal that invented gods.

Whether humanoid in form or not, these aliens are usually reflections of us, of humanity. Depending on the author and the nature of the story, the motives and behavior of these imagined beings may be more or less human in appearance, even when stretched and strained to be something unusual. It’s rare that the tale is told with aliens involved that are utterly incomprehensible, though these are the most interesting such tales of all.

One of these, the first of the sort I ever read, is Rendezvous with Rama, by the late, great Arthur C. Clarke. Here we have a tale of an alien encounter without the aliens. A great ship appears at the edge of the solar system, on a course that will take it around the Sun and sling it back into deep space. A mission is sent to intercept this gargantuan object and, if possible, enter and explore it. The crew succeeds in doing so, gaining access to a vast inverted world of wondrous sights and often dangerous mysteries. At first inert and filled with darkness, as the object they now call Rama approaches the sun its systems are activated. It lights up and comes alive. An inner sea thaws out and fills with apparently synthetic life forms. Creatures that may or may not be robots prowl the interior. The intrepid adventurers endure storms generated by the differential heating of the inside of the cylinder. They gather data, take pictures, and manage to escape Rama before it shuts down and speeds from the solar system. They leave the encounter with more questions than they had when they first approached Rama. And they never find an unambiguous sign of the builders of the artifact.

Aliens of some sort built the thing and sent it on its journey among the stars, that is clear. But who did this? Why did they do it? The artifact itself, while providing plenty of interesting experiences, reveals next to nothing about its origins, much less its purpose. The aliens behind it are not revealed, although hints are provided. We have an encounter with their automated emissary, and following the adventure of the encounter, are left scratching our heads.

The sketchy account of the story I’ve just provided might give you the impression that this isn’t a book worth reading. What’s the point, after all? There are several points to this book, including the adventure of exploring the unknown and the tale of those explorers and how they react to the artifact and interact with each other in the process. But the main idea here, to my mind, is to illustrate the possibility that what we find as we venture forth out there may simply be incomprehensible. Our motives may not be their motives, our ideas of purpose may not have common ground with theirs, and there are bound to be cases in which – should we ever meet anyone in the first place – this will be true. Rendezvous with Rama is such a tale, an adventure experienced by humanity that shows us plainly that we are not alone, while at the same time leaving us to wonder what it all means. An encounter that leaves us guessing. Science fiction has a tradition of asking the question “what if?” To my mind “What if we can’t figure them out?” is as legitimate a “what if” question as any. In this case it generates a science fiction adventure that deserved the award it received and its continued popularity so many years later.

Of course, the big questions left hanging at the end of Rendezvous with Rama are answered in the sequels that followed – or I assume, having not yet read any of them. While I need to get around to that someday, it is I believe a testament to the strength of this story and the wonders that unfold in it, that I’ve only ever been mildly curious about the sequels. Rendezvous with Rama works as is, and is as satisfying a read now as it was when I first picked it up more than forty years ago.

The Process, Part Six: Who Cares What Others Think?   Leave a comment

Part One: The Stuff Of Which Daydreams Are Made

Part Two: Blazing A Trail

Part Three: The Lay of the Land

Part Four: What a Bunch of Characters

Part Five: Devils In Those Details 

When people describe the life of an independent author, the concept of wearing all the hats (as in assuming multiple roles in what is essentially a small business venture) invariably arises. You’re not just the writer, you’re also the editor, producer (in the financial sense), promoter, mailroom clerk, administrative aide, graphic designer, etc., etc.

Okay, there’s one hat I listed that I don’t wear. I won’t wear it because I can’t. That’s the hat labeled “editor.”

There’s a curious school of thought in the indie community that has always baffled me, one stating quite firmly that an editor’s or beta reader’s input would only dilute or arbitrarily alter the writer’s “vision.” Those who turn their noses up at the mere thought of editorial input ask the seemingly lofty question of why they would want their work shaped by someone else. They are convinced that editorial feedback is the literary equivalent of a small dog pissing on things so they smell right from the dog’s point of view. Such statements, in my opinion, raise the red warning flag of “amateur” (in the  pejorative sense of that word) over writers who utter them. That there are many (fortunately not the majority) writers who think this way surely contributes to the perception that self-published fiction is substandard.

I believe this because, in my own experience, I’ve been handed numerous examples proving that I can’t edit my own work effectively. I’ll work over the first draft as carefully as I can and yet, when the beta readers go through the manuscript, they highlight things that I missed completely however diligent I may have been. And I’m pretty strict with myself, since as a courtesy at least I want the beta readers to have as little work to do as possible. I make the copy as clean as I can before sending it off. But no matter how often I go through the manuscript, beta readers always catch things. Sometimes they put their collective fingers on plot holes, inconsistencies, and ideas left underdeveloped that I should have caught, but didn’t. Typos and awkward sentence structure, along with larger matters just mentioned, will get past me until I read the editorial comments provided by beta readers. As I read them, I often slap myself on the forehead or commit the dreaded face-palm. How do I miss this stuff?

It gets past me because I’m too close to the story. The story is a part of me. In my mind I know what’s supposed to be there, what I intended. I’m so intimately connected to the ideas that became the story, and to the flow of words from my mind to the document file, that everything can feel right even though I’ve botched something. You’d think it would work the other way around, but for some reason it doesn’t. A sculptor, reviewing her work, will immediately see the flaw; a painter will see that the color isn’t quite what she had in mind. For a writer there is no physical product to examine, just page after page of words set down in the hope of making what the writer imagines come to life in the mind of a reader. The words began as ideas and emotions and, when I reread my own work, they immediately return to whatever form they had in my mind as the work was done. And so it just feels right, even when sometimes – actually, every time to some degree – what I’ve done with that arrangement of words doesn’t quite get the job done as well as I hoped.

I said that writers try to arrange words in a way that transmits what lives in their minds and duplicates it in the mind of the reader. The only way to be sure this has been accomplished is to have someone else read it and react to it before the “publish” button is pushed. From those reactions a stronger story will emerge. It’s that simple.

This isn’t to say that I simply revise the manuscript in accordance with beta reader input. To be sure I do so for technical matters. I sometimes grow over-fond of sentence structures starting with the word “And.” I’ve also been known to be over-generous with semi-colons and exclamation marks. I’m not even going to talk about hyphens. These things slip right past me, but a net of four or five beta readers will catch most, if not all, of them. When such are pointed out, I make the necessary changes. Matters to do with story and character development are a somewhat different matter. I never ignore any feedback, but I may not employ it directly. That a single reader waved a yellow card over something causes me to take a closer look, but as likely as not I’ll stick with my guns. If two readers are hung up by the same developmental aspect, I rethink what I’ve done, and sometimes make a revision. If three or more do so, that’s a red card – something just isn’t working, and a deeper sort of revision is required. I dread seeing a consensus regarding plot or characterization flaws, since this usually means a lot of work on my part, but responding honestly to that red card will always yield a stronger, more powerful story. Always.

From what I’ve heard from fellow authors, those who employ a professional freelance editor, the process is much the same. Many of these authors also run their work past a beta reader or two before sending it to an editor, a strategy that appeals to me. However it gets done, obtaining insight into your work through some form of editorial feedback is essential. Those who claim that doing so makes the work somehow less your own are simply wrong. That feedback provides the perspective an author needs to draw closer to the full potential of a work in progress. Writing, whether nonfiction or storytelling, is artful communication. If you aren’t willing to check yourself and verify that communication is taking place between your mind and the reader’s, you’re only talking to yourself. We all know what a bad habit that can be.

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