We've all been there. You're about halfway through the first draft of your current novel. Or maybe you've even finished the rough draft and you're sitting down to revise and you're just... a little lost. You're not sure what to tackle first and you're not even sure who your characters really are.
Maybe this isn't as much of an issue for the Plotters out there, but for us Plantser/Pantser set, it can be a little more challenging when trying to tame an unruly first draft or whip a second draft into shape.
Here is one tried and true strategy that I've leaned on in the past, and has helped tremendously in rekindling inspiration, or just better understanding who I've created on the page.
What are character sheets?
Character sheets aren't a new concept, and many folks might even sketch these out before they ever put a metaphorical or literal pen to page. But again, for those of us who start with a vague outline, but then tend to wander wherever the creative winds blow, this can be a handy tool for steering back onto a smoother course.
This particular exercise is best to do AFTER you've already completed one draft, or perhaps if -- like me -- you're stuck about three-quarters of the way through a first draft and have had a bit of hiatus from the work and are now struggling to reconnect with characters who suddenly don't seem so crystal clear anymore.
It's a simple series of basic questions, derived from the writing craft book What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. I love the concept of writers knowing more about their characters than they perhaps need to know. Is all of this information necessary for the book? Likely, not at all. Is it important for authors to know it? Maybe. And even if it isn't essential information, it's allowing you to play with your imagination and approach your creative work in a different way, to view your characters through a different lens. Experimenting with your characters and learning more about them simply cannot be a bad thing.
Here's the basic character sheet that I would suggest writers work up for each one of their important/named characters.
The Basic Questions: Who Are You?
1. Character Name:
2. Character Nickname(s):
4. Sexual Preference:
8. Social Status and Money:
9. Relationship/Marital Status:
10. Family, Ethnicity:
11. Diction, accent, etc.:
13. Places (home, office, car, etc.):
15. Recreation, hobbies:
19. Sexual History:
25. Character Flaws:
26. Character Strengths:
28. Taste in books, music, etc.:
29. Journal entries:
31. Food Preference:
Of course -- you'll probably have more to add to this list! After all, you know your characters best and you know what specific plot points might generate more of these biographical questions.
So, you know a bit more about who your characters are -- and now to answer the big question: What do they want? Not knowing the answers to the following questions is very likely why you're stuck where you are. Discovering what each one of your individual characters really wants to achieve in this exciting new world you've created, can help you whip plot bunnies into shape or spackle over plot holes or maybe shift your book in an entirely new direction.
The Tough Questions: What do you want?
I would argue, that knowing what your characters want is the single most important aspect of writing a book. Not only do you need to know WHAT they want, but WHY they want it. And, of course, is that the thing they really need? A character can want more than one thing of course, and often the thing they want is layered.
For instance -- my current work in progress (WIP) Astrid vs. the Asteroid has a first person narrator -- Astrid Moore -- who truly wants people to believe in the visions and predictions she makes about the future. But the underlying theme is that of acceptance. She truly wants acceptance from her parents and her peers for what she perceives as her differences. And a tertiary want is to find a home and family where she can feel safe.
She wants to protect the world, but she also wants to find a place to feel protected. It's OK for your character to want more than one thing, and in this example, I've attached those wants to PLOT A and PLOT B. Astrid wants to save the world by sharing her visions of the asteroid (PLOT A), but she wants to save herself within her circle of family and friends by being BELIEVED (PLOT B). Layers! Writers and readers love 'em.
I like to answer these two series of questions together in a single character sheet, because not only do I get a stronger sense of who the character is, but combined with their true motivations in the story -- a fully formed person begins to emerge on the page. This is especially exciting if they were being unruly in a current draft. This is an individual with their own hopes, dreams, and beliefs and they WANT something. This truly helps with "side characters" with whom you might be struggling to understand their role in the story.
In Metal Heart, in my first few drafts I wasn't really sure who Rabbit Santiago was and what he really wanted for himself -- aside from a budding relationship with the main character, Eleni Garza. Until I sat down with his character sheet. Every single character in your story WANTS something, and often times that is different from what your main character wants. That's where exciting conflict comes in! That's where story and plot and character interactions really get interesting.
Now, get out there and flesh out your lovely, amazing, unique, and engaging characters. And then see what happens.
FIRST STEP: OWN YOUR MISTAKE
Not every writer or author is forged with the basics of the English language. We all grow up learning the rigors of grammar, but sometimes, our training falls to the wayside. We read books, we write, we talk, we listen to the patterns of normal human speech, we read more books, and we pick up bad habits along the way. I sure did.
But it turns out, at least when it comes to book publishing, mechanics and grammar still matter. Quite a lot. If you want to sell a manuscript or become a pro copyeditor, the best way to achieve either objective is to get back to the basics.
Sentence structure is one of those key basics. And one of my most common sentence structure errors was the dreaded comma splice. At some point along the way I picked up this nasty habit. In my writing brain, the one rushing to get all the words down on paper, it just sounds right. It sounds better and makes the most sense coming from my fingertips. But what sounds correct in our heads, isn't always what reads well on the page. So I'm here to confess to my comma splicing ways and help everyone else guilty of comma splicing to learn the error of their ways before it's too late. Just kidding. It's never too late to learn something new or re-learn something old.
SECOND STEP: RECOGNIZE AND REPAIR
A comma splice is the result of a writer using a comma to connect two independent clauses. A clause is a group of words that includes a subject and a finite verb, and an independent clause is a clause that can stand as a complete sentence. This means comma splicing is piecing together two separate sentences using only a comma. It's not the end of the world, but it is bad grammar.
Even with all that description a nasty habit can be hard to recognize at first. It needs to be seen for what it is.
EXAMPLE: This is a comma splice, it can be hard to recognize if you aren't looking for it.
Now, how does something like this get fixed? As with most writing faux pas, there are usually several solutions to revise.
THIRD STEP: RESOURCES
In the hot heat of writing, especially in the rush to meet a deadline, it can still be challenging to find those pesky comma splices hiding among the shining pearls of those otherwise perfectly formed sentences. And maybe, like with me, those are the grammatical issues you are most blind to -- the sort of natural error that your editorial or revising eye just glazes right over.
Luckily, there are resources to help hone that editorial eye. There are the obvious ones like The Copyeditor's Handbook and The Chicago Manual of Style to relearn all those pesky sentence structure rules and refine them.
Once the studying is complete, then it's time to move on to testing. There are several online quizzes that satisfy the requirements, but the best of the bunch were created by:
Other options include online and digital grammar checkers like:
Being guilty of using comma splices doesn't make you a bad writer. But knowing how to recognize and revise them, especially before an editor gets ahold of a manuscript and points them out anyway, will definitely make you a better writer.
This was written for and originally appeared on the Ooligan Press blog.
As a springboard from a previous blog post on writing "show AND tell," I'm in the midst of the arduous process of surgically editing the language in the Iron Curtain manuscript. Yes, I'm to the point where the major plot elements are locked in, and now I'm cleaning up and refining all the over-used phrases and terms to make the words sing off the page in order to evoke emotion and empathy in the reader. Gotta paint those mind pictures!
This the part where more of my "telling" becomes "showing." Nearly every writer has this stage of the process where they're taking a serious stock of the language level issues in their own writing and figuring out how to make it better. Or maybe that's just me? Whatever the case, do your thing, writers!
Find Your Weaknesses
By far, the biggest issues for me are touch-related sensory elements. I spend way too much time on lingering glances and hands/fingers DOING THINGS. But I didn't initially know that. It's a leftover from taking two terms of screenwriting and TV scriptwriting. There's a lot more "stage direction" involved in that writing style and once mired in it, the bad habits were hard to shake when it came to novel writing. It took some poking, prodding, and carefully analysis of words/terms in my manuscripts before I realized just what my biggest crutches were.
You've got to spend time with your manuscript. I suggest printing out a paper copy, busting out a red pen and highlighting, underlining, or circling words that you know are "weak" or that you see popping up over and over again. It also might help to "listen" to your manuscript read by someone else or out loud to yourself or with the aid of technology. The cringe phrases will start to pile up. Right them down, make a note or a list, and vow to return for another pass.
How To 'Fix' Filler Words
Once you know what your filler words are, you then have to spend some time figuring out how to fix them. I started with honing in on repeated words/phrases and using the "search/find" function in my word processor to spit back a tally, and then I'd determine what seemed like a more appropriate number (let's shoot for 50 instead of 100). After that, it was just a matter of clicking through each use, analyzing it in the context, and creating better phrasing.
And once you start to see the tally decrease, knowing that you're swapping in more creative descriptions and phrasing in their stead, it gives you a better overall feeling about the manuscript itself. You've got solid plot and characterization and setting and pacing and structure... and now you have THE WORDS to match the beautiful, amazing, wonderful story you've put your heart and soul into crafting.
I'll also often look at the "spread" of the words too. Readers are INCREDIBLY SENSITIVE to overused words, terms, and phrases and they'll become especially attuned to them if they're used close together. You absolutely MUST mind your gaps. Unless there are reasonable/extenuating circumstances, try to separate at least two or three pages between each instance and see how that feels.
So, what phrases and terms should you be on the lookout for when you're getting down to the third or fourth revision pass on your manuscript and you're ready to put on the spit-polish?
Common Words To Lose
Everyone has their different and unique writing quirks, so my specific language edit lists tend to be longer and filled with more of my usual suspects (eye, heart, hand, mouth, face, lip, smile -- I love you guys!). I told you. Stage direction is my weakness and my first love and it takes an actual effort and labor of love to reel it back in.
I was surprised, as a writer with nearly four decades of experience under my belt, to learn during my MA program, mostly through discussion and reading that creative writing programs are often peddling some BAD writing advice to their students. And this same bad writing advice is repeatedly offered as legitimate critique in all writing mediums.
You know you've heard it before. The infamous and chronically over-rated: Show, don't tell.
So, what do people mean when they say this? And why is it important for writers to understand this concept?
What it means to "show" the reader.
Showing a reader a scene, often means investing the reader in the five senses (sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell) that the protagonist is using to experience a scene. It's inspiring and appealing to the reader to invest the same level of emotion and sensation in the imagined experience as the protagonist. It engages a readers empathy muscles. This is an important feature of writing, to be sure. Many scenes are often heightened by just sprinkling in a few sensory details and descriptions.
For Example: Jane edged her toe across the threshold leading into her new seventh grade homeroom, but hesitated to enter. The drab colors of the room and the sterility of the desks made her stomach clench as bile climbed her throat. She swallowed back the acid on her tongue with a sense of dread. She missed the bright colors of Mrs. DeSouza's classroom, paneled with rainbows and motivational posters. This room lacked any kind of sparkle or personality. It seemed almost designed, with it's traffic jam of desks and chairs, to trip someone up. How long before she made a spectacle of herself?
It wouldn't be long now. She was certain everyone around her could smell the acrid sweat clinging to her shirt. She tugged on the straps of her backpack and chewed the soft inside of her cheek in contemplation. What if she tripped on her way to her desk? What if she accidentally brushed too close to someone's papers and they scattered everywhere? She only had one chance to make a first impression here and there were so many opportunities to mess this up. The school bell rang on the wall near her head, startling her out of her reverie. Here we go, she thought. It's now or never. Consequences be damned.
By touching lightly on many sensory details and diving closely into the mindset of the protagonist, the writer has fully activated the empathy engine in the reader. "Showing" boosts empathy, and that's one of the more common ways that a reader begins to full immerse themselves in the world a writer has created.
What it means to "tell" the reader.
That's when an author is imparting information, usually crucial and important data that the reader needs to know in order to understand the context of the scene, or properly parse out what's happening on the page. It often sits at one level of remove from the reader, as it relays important details, but doesn't allow the reader to fully invest themselves in a scene.
For Example: Jane walked into her seventh grade classroom. It was the first day at a new school and she was nervous. She missed the comforting sights of her colorful elementary school classroom. She felt sick to her stomach and was sweating profusely underneath her jacket. She paused at the door, worried she might trip or crash into someone on the way to her desk and embarrass herself in front of everyone. She heard the sound of the school bell ringing, and realized she couldn't wait any longer to enter. She had to take her seat.
The reader is still accessing all the most important and crucial details of the scene, but we feel somewhat removed from the situation. We can't fully invest ourselves in the character. We can sympathize with her plight (many folks have been nervous on their first day at a new school), but we're not yet fully walking in her shoes. Telling is writing shorthand, and it does work on some level. It's crucial to use this tool to relay data that is not critical for readers to "experience." It's often the way that writers move the story along to get to the next scene or chapter or bit of critical dialogue.
What does it mean to "show AND tell" then?
When writers receive feedback about their work, claiming that they were "telling" instead of "showing" that often makes them feel inadequate or that somehow, "telling" is to be avoided at all costs. All "show" all the time, right?
No. Not at all. All writers should be doing some combination of the two. Showing AND telling, in order to give the reader the fully immersive experience that they so desire.
The combination of these two is most easily noted in journalism feature writing. Journalists will start out a feature story, hooking the readers in, by "showing" them a scene. When a journalist interviews a celebrity at their sprawling mansion -- they might describe the sights, the sounds, the feel, and the smells of the estate. Or in a sports article, they might "set the scene" by describing the pitcher on the mound, about to throw the most important ball of their life (the sting of sweat in their eyes, the smell of freshly cut grass, the gritty taste of dust in their mouth, the glare of the spotlights, etc). But then, in the next few paragraphs, they bust into the "telling" aspect of the story. They give you the facts and data, the logistics you need to understand WHY this scene is so important and crucial.
The bias against "telling" is similar to the constant derision of exposition. The reader NEEDS exposition in order to understand the plot and narrative. Do they need all of it at once in a large chunk at the beginning of the book, or at the end? Nope. Exposition works best when it's sprinkled in and woven throughout the text, usually in a way that compels the reader to keep turning the page because they just NEED to know what happens.
Does the reader need to be CONSTANTLY experiencing all five senses at once and accessing all information only via being "shown" rather than told. Also, no. You can "over show" just as easily as you can jam excessive amounts of exposition or scenic description or bantering dialogue into your writing.
Think of "show AND tell" in the same way that good writers know to vary sentence length and structure. Readers crave variety. We like short sentences juxtaposed against long ones. We like over-description to set a crucial scene paired with description that provides just enough detail to move us on to something more important.
"Showing" and "exposition" are often the worst enemies of another major element at play in writing (especially books): pacing. Books rely on pacing to keep readers engaged. Sure, we love a good flashback and a strong immersion experience (especially in an action scene fraught with peril), but we also need time to cool down. "Showing AND telling" is a way to respect the reader, and serve the pace of a story, without bogging it down in needless details or immersion that feels good, but goes nowhere.
How do you "show" when you've already "told?"
The best part about writing is that you can always fix it and make it better. To boost your writing (or even to add to particular scenes where you really want to punch things up), you should review your crucial scenes for the use of the five senses. It's really THAT simple. And of course, the sixth sense is not to be overlooked either. Characters in your book SHOULD have an awareness of themselves. Being allowed into a character's internal world, where they are reacting in thought to the scene is also a crucial element of showing. Characters have things to say when big stuff is happening to them.
Writing Exercise: If you're getting the constant feedback that you're "telling" more than "showing" then grab your favorite scene and inject sensory detail. Add all five senses (plus a bonus sixth sense) to the scene, just for funsies. Too much? Scale it back. Not enough? Get internal with your characters.
How do you "tell" instead of "show?"
The biggest indicator that you're over-relying on telling is by doing a simple search for the following terms: is, was, are, were, have, had. For example: Jane was nervous. She was sweating profusely. She had to take her seat. The more you can eliminate those terms in your writing and pepper in colorful verbs instead, the more enjoyable it will be to read. It will evoke more emotion in the reader. Those terms are functional, to be sure. But they are also lifeless and dead to a reader on the page, a simple means to get from one part of the sentence to the next.
Another important note: "Telling" can also over-use key sensory words in an attempt to seem more like "showing."
Writing Exercise: If you're still worried about an over-reliance on "telling" you can also do a search across your whole book for terms like "is, was, are, were, have, had" and tally up the results. While you're there, also search for terms like "feel, see, hear, taste, smell" and see if you can rewrite sentences without those sensory indicator words, while still evoking the sensation and immersion.
It's the difference between: The taste of bile was on her tongue vs. acidy bile lurched onto her tongue.
And in conclusion...
The thing is, neither sentence is inherently wrong, and both get the reader to where they're going. And, depending on the importance of the character or that moment to the scene (context!), you might choose to "tell" rather than "show." The point is, most books function with an interplay between those two styles. Pick any book off the shelf and I can guarantee you that no writer is "showing" you 100% of the time.
And you probably wouldn't enjoy a book written in that style of prose either. Or maybe you would? If so, enjoy!
"Show, don't tell" is just lazy critique/review short hand that actually means a lot more than just the simple phrase, but reviewers/critique partners are often ill-equipped to provide writers with the tools needed to improve. "Just show me don't tell me" is feedback that is often SO DAMAGING to writers because it's nonspecific. Those leveling it often don't really understand what elements are at play and how to help the writer improve. They just know, something is missing and they want "more." The good news is, writers CAN improve their writing if someone is willing to, you know... be more specific and empathetic in explaining their reasoning behind deploying that statement.
The more you hone in on shedding some of your tendency to "tell," the easier it becomes to "show." Or, to add the "showing" parts in the revision. You'd be surprised at how many first drafts feature more "telling" than "showing." It turns out, a lot of us go back and add the good stuff in later. But you should never, never discount the need to "tell" in a story just because someone once gave you this lazy piece of feedback.
Hey Everyone! Another Ooligan Press book baby is entering the world!
Please join me at the Laurel Everywhere launch party on Nov. 10 at 6:30pm via Zoom. Along with the editorial team, I'll be interviewed by author Erin Moynihan about the behind-the-scenes book making process.
You can pre-order a copy of the book or register online for the event at: https://linktr.ee/ooliganpress
About the Book: Fifteen-year-old Laurel Summers couldn't tell you the last words she spoke to her mother and siblings if her life depended on it. But she will never forget the image of her mother's mangled green car on the freeway, shattering the boring world Laurel had been so desperate to escape. Now she can't stop seeing the ghosts of her family members, which haunt her with memories of how life used to be back when her biggest problem was the kiss she shared with her best friend Hanna.
After the accident, Laurel and her dad are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. Her dad is struggling with his grief and depression, unable to cope with the loss of his family. He seeks a way out of his pain, leaving Laurel behind while he struggles to cope with his own mental illness. She is desperate to find a way to hold everything together again and help her father come to terms with the loss so he can come back to her.
Laurel tries to make sense of her pain with the help of her grandparents, her two best friends, and some random strangers. As she struggles to understand who she is without her family, she must come to terms with the items on her List of Things Not to Talk About, learn to trust her dad again, and on -- on top of it all -- keep her heart open to love in the wake of her immense loss, eventually learning that it's OK to not be OK.
Hope to see you there!
Dialogue can make or break a story. Dialogue can infuse excitement and intrigue into your novel or it can fall dull and lifeless onto the page. It's so crucial to storytelling and characterization and world-building and it's such a tricky balance to have it achieve all three at once.
Ten Quick Tips for Editing and Improving Dialogue
Of course there are many more that just ten things to talk about, but this will be hopefully be a helpful springboard to managing those mistakes that nearly every writer runs into when it comes to capturing authentic, but compelling dialogue for our readers.
There's always the debate of how much dialogue is TOO MUCH dialogue, and I would say that really depends on two things: the writer and the reader. Some writers are always going to include more dialogue because that's their writing style. They like to have their characters interact often on the page. Some readers are more engaged by dialogue than by descriptive prose. I have a sibling whose eyes glaze over when they encounter too much landscape description, so they'll skim sections until they hit a patch of dialogue and pick up from there.
The onus is on the writer to determine where their strength lies, and just how much dialogue is too much.
I'm a victim of over-dialoguing (I LOVE TO HAVE MY CHARACTERS TALK TO ONE ANOTHER) and so my editing and revision process for my own writing is usually to go through and cull out huge chunks of dialogue. I weed through the thorns to find the beautiful sparkling roses within, and cobble together the best dialogue for the most engaging and natural sounding interactions.
My relationship with dialogue has really changed over the years I've spent writing and revising. I originally was opting for more "natural" sounding dialogue which included pauses and filler words and stammering, but it's just quite cumbersome to read, to speak aloud, and just doesn't work as well on the page as it does on the screen. So I've revised my attitude towards dialogue (but not the frequency of use) and I find it much more exciting for me to write and for others to read.
Stay tuned for the next blog post on the exciting perils of dialogue punctuation! ;)
So it’s not a developmental edit?
No. It’s not. While developmental editing does look at language as a function of the entire manuscript, its primary focus is on larger structural functions of the story like timeline, pacing, character development, and authenticity. Developmental editing is taking a macroscopic look at the book, while line editing is applying a mesoscopic (middle or intermediate) lens to the content.
And it’s not a copyedit?
Nope again. Copyediting is the final microscopic lens of editing. Copyedits correct errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, fact-checking, word usage, and style. A copyedit wants consistency, and it seeks to eliminate glaring language errors that will distract readers and pull them out of the story.
What might a line edit look like?
There might be some elements of both developmental editing and copyediting involved in a line edit, especially because the goal of this type of edit is to upgrade the language for clarity. A reader will not achieve that blissful feeling of sinking into your text if it has glaring inconsistencies. So along the way, line editors will likely address any or all of the following elements:
Why is it important to know the difference?
You might be looking to hire a freelance editor for a manuscript, and they’ll likely be versed in a wide variety of editorial services. You need to know the right one to select for your manuscript and how to most effectively communicate your desires. Of course, any freelance editor worth their salt is going to help you select the right service from the get-go, but arming yourself with knowledge even before approaching a contract is highly suggested.
Or, if this is your first time stepping into the publishing world with a manuscript, folks are going to be using these terms to inform you of the next steps in their process. And once any type of editing is done, it’s up to the author to incorporate, apply, or revise. Some edits are much more time-consuming than others, and line editing falls into that middle territory. You’ll need to parse through all the individual edits, but it’s not nearly as complicated as a developmental edit. On the other hand, you likely won’t just be clicking “accept all” for all the spelling and punctuation errors to be magically fixed. You’ll want to investigate each line edit, and it might even require some work on your end.
The ultimate goal of a line edit is not only to elevate the manuscript, but also to improve the craft of the writer. A writer cannot address their tics if they can’t see them. They won’t know about the potential power of certain words or phrases until someone looks at their writing and points these things out. All editing seeks to improve a manuscript, but line editing in particular has the ability to have a long-lasting effect on writers themselves.
This was written for and originally appeared on the Ooligan Press blog on May 11, 2020.
Since I'm graduating from Portland State University this weekend with an MA in Book Publishing during a time of social revolution, I wanted to share with everyone my final research paper (not a thesis, but close enough) that was based around understanding the role authenticity readers play in the editorial process and how to best incorporate them into Ooligan Press. The role of an authenticity reader (re: sensitivity reader, targeted beta reader) is often controversial for many reasons, but I want to underscore the reason that I believe their work is so crucial: they augment authenticity within manuscripts and reduce the perpetuation of harmful negative stereotypes that directly impact marginalized communities.
I do not believe that authenticity readers are THE solution to the inequality in book publishing, nor do I believe they are a band aid solution. I believe they are a tool that both authors and editors should incorporate into their processes as a crowd-sourcing method of fact checking, especially fictional content. If authors are writing outside of their own lived experiences, they need to do their research. They need to do A LOT of research. If editors are acquiring "diverse" books that are not Own Voices, they need to do their due diligence and ensure that these manuscripts are not actively harmful to depicted communities.
In both cases, writers and editors need to ask themselves if the writer is the best person to tell that story. Writers need to be critically examining whether they are occupying space in the industry that could otherwise be allocated to a BIPOC or a member of the LGBTQ+ community or someone with that lived experience. It is a moral question and it is one that we should absolutely be asking ourselves every time we sit down to write.
This doesn't mean you have to stop yourself from writing. But it does mean you need to be highly aware of the optics and the privilege of trying to get that work published. You can write whatever you want. But the publishing industry is a cultural medium and representation in the industry matters. It always has. Own Voices is another tool to clear out space for marginalized voices in the publishing community, a more powerful and effective tool than authenticity reading.
In my opinion - the controversy around this aspect of the editorial process is manufactured. Authenticity readers are not cultural gatekeepers because acquisitions editors and publishing houses and marketing departments already do that work. The perceived threat lies solely in the idea that marginalized communities might actually get A VOICE in the process and that it might be corrective to white, cis-hetero authors who dominate the market share of the industry.
The threat is a perceived one and it exposes another ugly layer to the truths that have been unveiled over the last few weeks as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained national and global prominence. White supremacy is systemic and authenticity readers and BIPOC editors and writers threaten the power of that system.
But the use of authenticity readers is not just about Black representation. It's about representation as a whole and the goal is to provide another system of fact-checking for accuracy in depiction, especially in the current framework where we have a dearth of editors of color actually employed in the industry, and a wealth of dominant paradigm writers seeking to incorporate greater diversity into their manuscripts.
Authenticity readers have been utilized at publishing houses and by authors for a decade or more, but their role is arguably growing more controversial. Why is that? Authenticity readers have influence over manuscripts, but they aren’t editors. So what is their ultimate role in the editorial process? Through interviews with authors and editors, as well as a survey of 72 publishing professionals, and an ethnographic case study at Ooligan Press, this research paper seeks to determine where in the editorial process sensitivity/authenticity readers should be involved and how authenticity readers influence the overall editorial process.
The result of the collected data is that manuscripts featuring communities that are not part of the authors lived experience should undergo authenticity reads in order to more accurately depict those cultures or communities. The reads should happen before or during the developmental edit. Both authors and editors should take part in employing authenticity readers, and it is suggested that multiple authenticity reads take place. Authenticity reading is not prescriptive, and individual authenticity readers are not wholly representative of their communities. Authenticity readers should not censor a manuscript, nor should they be used to shield it from criticism. Their role is purely to vet a manuscript for inaccurate or stereotypical portrayals.
The data compiled in this research was used as the basis for moving forward with formalizing the authenticity reading process for Ooligan Press and developing a database of PSU students and alumni to serve as volunteer readers for future acquisitions.
I knew I wasn't ready. I knew it wasn't the right time. I'd JUST finished up the long road to completing my MA Book Publishing thesis and the accompanying oral exam last Friday and was staring down the barrel of an agent first 5 pages evaluation on Saturday morning that I'd signed up for MONTHS ago during happier times with stars in my eyes and more hope for the world.
I knew it wasn't going to go anywhere. I could tell the night before. I could tell when I woke up that morning and felt my guts already twisted up in knots.
I was not mentally, emotionally, or spiritually in the right place to go forward with this manuscript evaluation but I'd already paid $50 so I gamely put on a blazer and red lipstick and posed myself in front of a virtual bookcase in the middle of my untidy living room for 14 minutes of feedback that was akin to drinking poison.
The strangest part is that I smiled and laughed and repeated the phrase "that's fair" to this agent over and over again without the slightest indication that they were cutting me deep with their words. I've never had this extra power of looking at my own face while my poor little artist heart was being broken and the impact of staring into my own eyes during an agent evaluation was profound.
When I finally shut the lid of my laptop and immediately set to the task of deep cleaning the bathroom, I replayed those moments over and over again and the biggest noise in my head, besides the cranky whirring of the bathroom fan, was "I paid for this shit?" And I wasn't talking about the toilet.
I am wrapping up 18 months of deep diving into the publishing industry (ostensibly now, a master) and I just need to remind my fellow writers of something...
Agents need us. Publishers need us. Editors need us. The entire publishing industry needs writers to submit their work. They truly do. Without writers, there is no content to push. There are no agents. No editors. No publishing industry.
And it goes beyond that.
Agents and publishers aren't just acquiring our content. They're acquiring our networks. They're looking at our social media presence and backgrounds and pondering just how many people are in our contact lists. They don't just need our work. They need our personhood, our authority to tell and sell this story. And, if you look at the writing conference industry of which I am a willing participant, it looks like they also need our money.
Writers dump SO MUCH MONEY into their craft, into writing communities and workshops and MFA programs across the world and into the publishing industry. And yet somehow, SOMEHOW, there's this constant background chatter that WE are wasting other people's time. That other people's time in this industry is almost always inherently more valuable than ours and we should be paying for the privilege of their time.
Because there are so many writers out there and any one of them could fill our shoes and, and, and...OK, let them. They gotta do what they gotta do. Everyone does.
But for me, especially right now when so many things have been thrust into stark relief, I have to look myself in the eyes. I am forced by circumstance to stare in a digital mirror and be accountable to myself for what choices I make and what things I perpetuate in the publishing industry by participating in them.
I am done paying agents for their counsel.
In fact, the bigger reveal is that I knew I was done paying agents before I even had that fateful meeting. I knew I was done earlier last week, when I registered for a writing conference and had no desire or motivation or interest in signing up for an agent evaluation.
There are others ways I need to spend my time that will boost my craft AND grow my contact list AND allow me to create content. The possibilities are almost dizzying. And if I look myself in the eyes while doing any one of those things, I don't think I'll wince inwardly and feel the need to tell myself, "you deserve better."
Not at all.
Technically, it's a "final research paper" but part of my Book Publishing masters program is to complete a research paper VERY similar to a thesis, that entails doing some kind of data collection. I've chosen to do both surveying and interviewing to collect data on how writers and editors employ authenticity readers and how they help shape the editorial process. So far I've received a couple dozen responses, but my goal is to get at least 100 survey responses before April 24, 2020.
The survey link is here: https://forms.gle/JNtTJgxsa9jkg9eU7
The big question: How do authenticity readers impact the editorial process of a manuscript?
If you’re an author, editor, publisher or authenticity reader in the book publishing industry please consider taking this survey to help gather data for a graduate thesis in the Portland State University Book Publishing program.
The paper is seeking to understand the ways in which authenticity readers are employed in the editorial process, by whom they are most commonly employed within the industry, and how their inclusion helps shape the overall editorial process of a manuscript.
Personal information in the survey will be kept confidential. Interested parties can also indicate if they’d like to participate in a short interview with some expanded and more detailed questions, along with completing a consent form.
This survey will close on Friday April 24th, 2020. All survey participants who include their emails will be entered into a random drawing for a $10 Powell's e-Gift Card.
Please share this survey with your networks in the book publishing industry and help spread the word.
Melinda Jasmine Crouchley, YA science fiction author and professional editor.