I’m rewriting Flaming Sword; it won’t change a great deal but there are some things in there that need updating and clarifying. Any changes will then percolate through to the other two books in the series. Self-publishing is great for that!
So I went to a literary services company on a personal recommendation for some paid-for mentoring. I was fully prepared for the red pen cutting through whole swathes of it, and steeling myself for some well-informed criticism.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the way the mentoring was done. First of all the expectation management was nonexistent. I had no idea when or whether I would hear from the person I was assigned, and a typical wait was ten days for an hour or so’s work. Then out of the blue I get an email saying can you talk this afternoon. The whole feeling is, well, I’ll fit you in when I’m not doing something more important.
She emailed some questions, all of which were answered well enough in the text. I answered them, but my answers were not acknowledged either by email or even in the conversation.
The second thing I wasn’t prepared for was being treated like a GCSE student. I had this fantasy that mentoring was about a person figuratively sitting beside you, listening to you, trying to understand what you’re trying to say and then giving feedback about how best to do it.
So I got a ‘plot structure 101’ and some suggestions of mixed value. Some were very good points; others, I’d say 80%, were a firm grasp of the wrong end of the stick. All useful, if only flagging up what needs clarifying. I learned more from what she didn’t say than from what she did. There was a whole pile of assumptions she brought to the book, which were simply wrong.
The underlying point of the book, the sense of being born spiritually disabled, was first ignored, then dismissed as ‘very sad’, and then finally answered in a brain dump that came in the time it took her to write it, with no salutation or signoff.
And I quote the first paragraph of a long stream of consciousness:
The only aspect of the central POV I find “uncomfortable” (or as I said “very sad”) is Paul’s apparent belief he’s inherently spiritually inferior due to his autism, rather than mystified and neglected by a world not set up to understand autism. I think the issue may be that Paul is relatively young, appears to have known about his autism for all of his adult life, and to live in a world that, despite the dystopian setting, recognises autism relatively easily. Therefore the idea that he is “spiritually disabled” comes across perhaps more as a fact about him as an autistic person than a feeling resulting from years of misunderstanding and exclusion. If I were reading this from an author who was not autistic I would be worried they were expressing a prejudiced view of autistic people – I mean, “spiritually disabled” is a very harsh thing to say about anyone!
She goes on to mention a couple of autistic students of hers who are doing fine, so the whole thesis is inconsistent and I need to change something about either his diagnosis or the society’s understanding of autism.
Now, I know that my own emotional reactions are non-standard, I need a reality check from my friends, and I try very hard to be honest with myself, but all roads seem to lead to my mind screaming YOU COULD HAVE ASKED ME! It was clear enough that she found it offensive, which would also explain the responses I’ve had from a couple of people who know me but not all that well. That was why I went to the agency in the first place.
So I got my answer, but in a way that reminds me of the square root of minus one.
First of all, it’s not about being inferior, or unworthy. Do we call a person inferior or unworthy if they’re born blind?
Secondly, yes it’s a fact about him, or at least a deeply personal question he is asking about himself. And it’s got a name: autism. It doesn’t follow that it applies to all autistics – see my blog Remark about Scoundrels.
And thirdly, it is not a harsh thing to say, unless you assume that by ‘spiritual’ I mean ‘moral’ or ‘ethical’. Even then, it’s, yes, very sad but it’s not a judgement. For me, ‘sin’ and ‘spirituality’ are technical terms, not judgements. Different things are obvious. But if she has autistic students, she should be aware of that.
So I’m putting in a disclaimer at the start of the second edition. There are two very important points, which I would have thought are obvious and what is really depressing is that I don’t think this person even wants to try to understand it so there is no way I can begin to explain it to her. She’d rather drown the book in blood than face this question.
The first point is: all autistics are different. This book is not a comment on all autistics. It is a comment on one particular autistic’s blind spot and the grief and bitterness it has caused him. The theme of the story is the way he gradually relinquishes the old bitterness and as the country comes back into the light, so does he.
The second point is: getting the autism assessment is a great help, it gives it a label, but it doesn’t make it go away, any more than a diagnosis of blindness restores your sight. It provides a framework to learn to manage it, but the question remains: is the disability, for this particular autistic person, a spiritual one?
I still don’t know the answer. The project was to come to terms with it.
Oh, as a postscript. I went back to the agency to try to tell them that I don’t feel this editor can help me any more. I got an email back three days later, saying sorry it didn’t work out, we can consider some other options. Eight days later I haven’t heard any more so I call him. He makes no attempt to understand my point (fair enough, he needs to support his staff) and agrees to take on the remaining 100 minutes himself. But it has to be out of office hours, he says, so he’ll look at it tonight. That was four weeks ago.
I’ve decided that if I can manage it, I shall stop holding my breath. He’s probably already forgotten.
By the way, when the second edition comes out, any of you kind people who have already bought the book and commented on it will receive, on request, a signed copy, on me, as thanks for your support. Watch this space.