Encounter with an editor

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.

Remark about scoundrels

I remember reading, years ago, that Samuel Johnson’s famous comment about patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel is not a definition of patriotism, it is a remark about scoundrels. I’ve been trying to search for it to find an attribution but couldn’t find it.

Anyway, I think the two main points of my Poor in Spirit trilogy are in a similar kind of vein, in the sense that they are very easily misunderstood. To say that my autistic protagonist thinks he might be spiritually disabled is not a definition of autism. It’s not even a remark about autism. It’s a lifelong puzzlement about spirituality.

Similarly, the discovery that ‘consciousness is sin’ is not a value judgement about consciousness, it’s a definition of sin. That needs a lot of unpacking, and results in the suggestion that, at least in the Eden story, God didn’t give us morality but rather punished us for it!

The Daodejing (aka Tao Te Ching) has a similar theme – cleverness and intelligence are repeatedly denounced as the root of all evil.

In our pristine state, we were not yet conscious. To return to this state, by meditation, prayer or whatever, is to renounce our consciousness.

It is with this predicament that my hyperverbal protagonist is struggling.

Show don’t tell

I’ve been reading quite a bit about writing lately, while I wait for my Christmas present, which is time with a professional editor. When writers write about writing it can very easily get luvvy and incestuous and publishers and authors seem to appear disproportionately often in fiction, from Love Actually to Fifty Shades to Misery to Dragon Tattoo. And writers love ‘show don’t tell’. They will go into long, detailed descriptions and then in their seminars they will discuss the difficulty of balancing their ‘art’ with what they are trying to say.

I’m told that if I want to be a writer I have to read a lot, because that’s how I’m going to learn my craft. Thing is, I read slowly, and frankly there aren’t that many books I’ve encountered lately that really grab me. I’ll start one and get bored quite quickly, and the most frequent reason is the long, detailed descriptions, whether it’s of a scene, the intricacies of a piece of machinery, or the minutiae of a piece of action. It seems to me that if it takes a lot longer to read something than to imagine it happening in real time, then you are losing me. Milton lost me very quickly, as did Proust. Sorry, guys. And in Paradise Lost I really did want to know what happens next. Latest one is Banks’s Culture books, though I’m persisting with him for the moment.

As a reader, I don’t want to admire the brushstrokes; I want to follow what’s being communicated. I’m (speaking personally here) not desperately keen on thrillers with lots of jeopardy, and at the other end of the scale I can do without long descriptions of sexual encounters, which is fine if I can skip them without missing the next twist in the story. I’d much rather have a few clues (obviously there have to be enough of them to give the imagination something to chew on) and fill in the gaps myself, than to find myself waiting for the picture to unfold before I can ‘see’ it. That’s like buffering when you’re watching a video. Why aren’t we allowed to put in back story? Is it a fashion thing? If keeping your reader interested is to withhold information and just drop hints about what they need to know, then I’m not in your genre.

Just enough is enough.

New publisher?

Thinking about looking at some kind of professional self-publishing helper, not going to mention any names right now but thinking about what kind of audience I want to tell them I’m aiming at.

Thing is, everyone who reads it seems to see a different book. I suppose it’s at least three different books.

For me, first and foremost it’s the autistic spiritual journey, from the original predicament outlined in the rant at the end of Chapter 3 of Flaming Sword, to his much more laid-back persona at the end of Water of Life. That is the basic project that led me to write the trilogy in the first place. True, Vian already knew he was a bit weird; for me, I only got the validation when I was six decades old.

Secondly there’s the utopian ideal of how to organise a society from scratch – and you can only do it when everyone is at rock bottom to start with – and while it might look very bleeding heart leftie it does make room for people to get rich if they want to. It’s a model I’ve never seen anywhere else and I’m slightly surprised no-one’s actually commented on it, except one friend who said in an email that they wished we had people like that running the country. I don’t yet know whether it’s actually too naive for words, or whether those who might think so have axes to grind.

The third obvious thread is the romance, like a kind of reverse Pride and Prejudice/Pretty Woman. He’s reasonably secure in his limited lifestyle under the Theocracy, she’s high-born but not at all sure of herself because of her own limitations that also translate into high-functioning autism, which is why Vian noticed her in the first place.

What kind of ‘audience’ or ‘genre’ all that translates to is something I have to ask an expert. And I’ve had bad experiences with experts in the past, so we’ll have to see. Like Vian, I’ve mellowed a lot since I began my spiritual search (turning down the sacristan job at my posh boarding school for instance, and being ridiculed by all the loving and giving spiritual groups, Quakers included, that I’ve tried to join over many years since then, coping, not always very well, with the idea that I’m actually born spiritually blind and then finally getting the assessment of Asperger’s Syndrome). I’d better not say a lot more about that because it might constitute a spoiler.

But I think that the kind of people who would enjoy the book would include those who are bothered by the ‘Hard Problem’ (and if you’re not bothered by it you don’t know what it is) and those that are probably to the left in political thinking. People who are interested in autism might look at it but it’s not the kind of autism that most people writing about it recognise. For a start, it’s hyperverbal. But that’s well explained in the book.

We’ll see.

Editing your own work

Proofreading and editing your own work is not easy. You read what you know you wrote. I’ve found small typos months later, having read the work over and over again.

But there are a few tricks you can try. Here are some of them:

  1. Keep the spelling and grammar checker on. It’s wrong often enough but it’s a simple matter to overrule it, just (in Word anyway) right click and select Ignore. It flags up spacing errors and occasionally makes suggestions that are an improvement. A word or name it doesn’t know I usually add to the dictionary. If you’re still not sure about its and it’s and all that sort of thing, ask someone who is completely clear about apostrophes, see point 4.
  2. Give it a few days, even weeks, before you go back to it. Get on with writing new chapters instead.
  3. Put it in a different format. I use Calibre to convert the book into Kindle MOBI format and upload it to my Kindle. When the words appear in a different place on the page, in a different font and on a different screen, typos you’ve missed can jump out at you.
  4. Show it to a friend. I’ve read at least two books that clearly hadn’t been shown to anyone before being published. Big mistake. A friend can point out plot inconsistencies, implausibilities and sheer naffness that you wouldn’t have seen yourself, as well as pointing out typos and awkward turns of phrase.
  5. Well this is really 4a. Choose your friend carefully. It’s your heart and soul you’re asking them to criticise. They need to be confident you won’t be upset. Which just means you need to know how well they know you, and vice versa. There are people I can’t take criticism from, and others I’m quite happy to listen to and take it on board. Like my protagonist, my scorn and contempt detector is on a hair trigger. This is where a professional editor you don’t know can be a problem. Like finding a therapist, you don’t know until you’ve already committed yourself, and I’ve had very bad luck with therapists.
  6. well, 4b. If there’s no one in your entire circle of acquaintance that you’re prepared to show it to, then you probably shouldn’t publish it at all.
  7. Live with the odd typo. I found one in a William Gibson novel.

In praise of self-publishing

13592821_1267634033267823_948898492290551321_nSelf-publishing has been an ideal medium for me, and I’m impressed and astonished at Amazon and CreateSpace and how they’ve made it possible to publish work for Kindle and for print.

I’m no fan of the idea of unfathomably huge global corporations who treat their workers badly and don’t pay their dues, but I do see automation as inevitable and Amazon’s self-publishing setup is truly amazing. Anyone can publish anything (within reason – I think they put it through AI to check it for terrorist manuals and other nasty stuff) and people can buy your book, printed on demand and out the door within hours or simply downloaded on Kindle. No need for a garage full of unsold dead trees, no need for mountains of rejection letters from publishers. The only downside is that it won’t appear piled high in Waterstones.

Of course no publisher means no professional input, and that’s going to show. Editing, even proofreading, your own work is always going to be hampered by the fact that you know what you meant to say and that’s what you read when you go back to it.

Thing is, in my own case I don’t want to ‘be a writer’. I do write, but I’m not a writer. I wrote my trilogy as a project to sort out things in my own mind. I didn’t write for an audience and I haven’t done very much to publicise it. I’m working on a spin-off, but there’s no hurry. I’m also working on a non-fiction book, about woodturning. For me, writing is more of a hobby than a profession, because words are something I can do. This lends itself perfectly to self-publishing, because it’s all being done automatically, it isn’t inconveniencing anyone and there’s no unnecessary printing.

I should point out that after costs, the royalties are pretty pitiful – I get 65p for each book sold. If I were to set a higher price I would get more, but I think seven quid is as much as I would pay for a paperback.

I’m told I should use the hashtag #PoweredByIndie because Amazon are celebrating how wonderful they are this month. So I’m an indie author. Well at my age I’m happy to take on new terminology, and indie means independent, in this case independent of professional editors. Not that I kept the manuscript to myself – feedback is essential. I’ve seen at least one self-published book that had clearly not been shown to anyone before it was published.

And Microsoft Word, that entity that writers love or hate, has been a good friend to me, even if it does get its it’s and its muddled up.

Latest feedback – refreshingly honest and eloquent. Can’t be bad.

Fifty Shades of rant

The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy doesn’t take up valuable space on my bookcase. That’s because I got the Kindle version, and I loved it. I read it twice, and then dipped into it again, and again. And (well, I’m weird) I did and still do skip through the sex scenes – just keep an eye on them to see how they’re going but they’re not the meat of the story.

It’s a retelling of every woman’s favourite romance – the ordinary, normal woman we can all relate to meets a damaged (but very rich) man who needs to be rescued. It’s Pride and Prejudice and Pretty Woman. I think that it’s had enough coverage for me to be not too worried about spoilers, but the meat of it is that there is nothing submissive about Ana Steele, (or Vivian Ward or Lizzy Bennet) and that is precisely why Grey (or Lewis or Darcy) falls for her. So when I see a journalist say that someone ‘makes Anastasia Steele look like Boadicea’ I know that he hasn’t read the book. More than one friend of mine has said that she won’t read it because ‘it’s about a submissive woman who meets a dominant man’. It’s not. It’s really uplifting precisely because she doesn’t have a submissive bone in her body.

I don’t know why I feel so strongly about that. Perhaps because I wrote a trilogy of my own, albeit very different on all sorts of levels, but when I’m talking to a friend who hasn’t read Fifty Shades (and who might turn out not to be a friend after all in the end) and she can’t let me finish my sentence when I’m trying to say that the point of the story is (interruption, interruption), I think dammit you really don’t know what I’m going to say, why do people always think they know what I’m going to say when they don’t … the point is that he falls in love for the first time ever! The first time ever in his life! He has never known love. Well, he has, but he hasn’t seen it. His adoptive family loves him, but he’s so far unable to wrap his head around that. So, up to now, he’s dealt with relationships according to the code that a predatory older woman had foisted on him when he was a teenager. That was what Ana Steele walked into. The meat of the story is how she dealt with that.

But if it weren’t for the publicity about the dom-sub business I doubt if the trilogy would have ever had the success that it did. No problem with that – anything that sells a book is great. But, like Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, don’t settle on an opinion until you’ve seen what it’s about.

Hermit crab

There’s mention of a hermit crab in WoL, in passing. It came from two things; the first was an encounter with a hermit crab in Plymouth Sound. It was a dull day above the surface but the water was relatively shallow – only a few metres – and there was plenty of light. There was a moment, one of those snapshots the brain remembers, of eye contact with a hermit crab. As you probably well know by now, Aspies don’t do eye contact very well, but a hermit crab is about as non-threatening as you can get. It looked at me, I looked at it, and it was a timeless moment. As if we were equals, I mean really equals, it and I, on its own ground. It wasn’t scuttling away, it was looking at me, this large thing with bubbles coming out of it every few seconds. Not like a staring contest. It was looking at me with what seemed to be detachment. I mean if it was afraid of me it would have either scuttled away or gone into its shell or something. Projection schmojection, but I will never forget it.

The second thing was a piece of footage from David Attenborough, showing a series of hermit crabs literally forming a line in order of shell size. The trigger is the arrival of a new shell on the beach, but they have to wait until everyone in the line has the right size shell to move into. When the biggest crab moves into the new shell, the others each move into the next one up.

Of such things are phrases in books made.

Proof copy has arrived!

WoL proofThe proof copy of Water of Life arrived today. If all goes well it will be available on my Amazon author page ‘within five days’.

And that’s the trilogy complete!

I’m really glad I did it and I think the whole process has really helped me to get my ideas in order. And I want to thank all my kind readers for staying with me this far. I very much hope you enjoy the final stage of the journey.

Water of Life ready to go!

WL coverI have finally finished Water of Life, the culmination of the Poor in Spirit series and the end of the story. Thanks to Steviant for finding the cover image, which is under a Creative Commons licence and continues the butterfly theme.

It’s going through the Amazon publishing process now, both on Kindle and in paperback, as before.

We’ve been given the date 11 July as the Kindle availability date, but experience suggests it will be downloadable well before then. The process is entirely automated; as far as we can see there are no humans involved in the process at all. Perhaps Vian could have thought more about that, but he’s really more preoccupied with the brain and the traditional Hard Problem. At any rate, he’s finally come to terms with his spiritual disability and that’s what matters.