Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Writer Wednesday: Others Smell Your Stink More Than You Do

You know the saying. "The one who smelt it dealt it." In my experience that is rarely true of a person's malodorous behind. And when applied to the world of writing, I boldly assert that it's never accurate.

When it comes to our writing, we can rarely appreciate the full extent to which our prose reeks. While it is certainly true that we need to be our own first editors (and the better you become at editing, the more exceptional your writing will be), we cannot rely on our own eyes and minds to be the sole arbiters of the strengths and weaknesses of our work.
So let us be clear and establish Law #1: Every manuscript we produce MUST be read and commented upon by someone other than the writer.
Having accepted this law, we then must seek out a person or persons to critique our work. I recall clearly that at my first writer's conference back in 2009, I heard ad nauseam of the need to be in a critique group. The sounds like sound advice given Law #1 and many newbie writers run around with their hair on fire seeking out the perfect critique group.

The truth is that finding a critique group can be difficult. Many are closed to accepting new members. Still others are not a good fit. Many writers have never been in a critique group, and their writing has not suffered for it (possibly due to the constraints of a critique group/partner that I'll point out below). 

If you are in a critique group and it works for you, great. But I urge writers also to consider getting an "outside" opinion. Pushing yourself to receive feedback from a completely unbiased and skilled freelance editor may help you kick your writing up a notch.

Time for another bold assertion. Your critique group partner(s) and beta reader(s) are only slightly more able to parse out the true extent of the rotten parts of your manuscript than you are.

Why? Because they are not disinterested. Anyone that is in a relationship with you will be unable to provide an unbiased opinion.

You're not going to accept my bold assertion without argument, are you? Good. You shouldn't. I submit two pieces of anecdotal evidence for you to consider.

First, people in a relationship with one another consistently hold back the whole truth in order to preserve the relationship. This is human nature. When you ask your partner, "Do these jeans make your butt look fat?" how many would say yes even if said jeans make your ass looks like a hippo's butt stuffed into denim? The answer is very few. Any partner that said your ass looks like a hippo's butt would be considered an asshole and thus be putting the relationship in danger (whether he/she knows that or not).

We lie to the ones we love and care about to preserve their feelings, especially when we value the relationship. I submit that this is an aspect of human nature that we cannot escape, even in a critique group.

Second, people abhor conflict. Especially women people. I know this because I worked as a divorce lawyer and mediator for nearly twenty years. Time and time again, I saw people (especially women people) in relationships that did not work for them; agreeing to terms that were not in their best interest; and otherwise doing and saying things that went against their own truth simply to avoid conflict. And we doubly especially want to avoid conflict with people who we are in a relationship with. Thus, it is highly likely that your critique partner will hold back on pointing out just how smelly your MS is in order to safeguard your feelings so that, 1) You won't hate them and thus continue to be their critique partner; 2)To avoid conflict with you; so 3)The preserve the quid pro quo relationship that you've established to trade critiques of each other's work.

Now if you're okay with getting feedback that points out perhaps 50% of the smelliness factor in your MS but holds back a bit in order to guard against bruising your ego or perhaps ending the quid pro quo, then disregard this post entirely.

BUT, if you have the sense that maybe at least some of what I'm saying is true, then I suggest you do the following with your current manuscript:


HIRE A FREELANCE CONTENT EDITOR.

Paid editors are not in a relationship with you. They are not your friends, family, co-workers, critique buddies or avid readers of your work. They are interested only in the words on the page (and being paid) not your vivacious personality or quid pro quo.

I have had critique buddies, beta readers and paid editors. Without question, even the worst paid content editor delved deeper into my MS and pointed out more funk than the best critique partner or beta reader. And good content editors have helped me elevate my writing to new levels with their laser sharp focus that doesn't let me get away with anything.

Another thing I should mention that is a factor here deals with paying people for work. If you rely on free advice (even if it's quid pro quo), the fact is that people are busy with things other than your manuscript. Your MS is of the highest priority to you but no one else. 

When you hire a paid editor, your MS becomes her priority for a time because it's her job. You got moved up the priority list for her, and you're top. That means that the paid editor has more energy, time and focus to devote to your MS.

As I said, I've hired quite a few freelancers over the years. Some have been very expensive and frankly not worth the money. Others have been very expensive and worth the money but, well, very expensive and thus not affordable to use over and over again for each new work.

But one company stands out and I'm going to give them an unsolicited plug here: Red Adept. I've used Red Adept three times now and each time I've been placed with a different content editor. All three have exceeded my expectations and I've always felt that the service was worth more than what I paid. How often does that happen in life?

I recently hired Red Adept for a content edit of my current manuscript, H.A.L.F. The content edit took about two weeks, and I received back nearly 2000 comments on my manuscript plus a 21 page, single-spaced letter with feedback. The editor pointed out things that I've done well and my strengths to build on. But she did not hold back in pointing out issues with plot, sub-plot, pacing and characters (as well as other issues).

I'll be honest. When I get the content editor's notes back, I often feel despair. After all, when I sent the MS I felt happy with it and thought it was nearly good to go. But when I get it back and see a comment in nearly every sentence? Well, it induces a desire for chocolate and wine (not necessarily in that order and hopefully both together).

But I let it sit for a day or two. When I go back to it, I realize that nearly everything the editor pointed out is something that I had already considered, but perhaps wasn't sure if it really needed changing. Or I was stuck in my old way of thinking about it and thus unable to see how to change it. The content editor's suggestions spark my creativity, and I'm off and running, my excitement for the story invigorated as I rework the problem areas.

To be clear, a content editor will NOT rewrite your manuscript for you. She will not take your pile of poo and rework it into a masterpiece. But she WILL point out the obvious and not-so-obvious flaws in your work and often make suggestions for how you can rid your manuscript of its stink and make it smell lovely.

Another Note: Do NOT hire a content editor to critique your first draft. That is a waste of your money and their time. DO work on the MS until you feel that you've gone as far as you can go. DO run it through Grammarly so that it's as free of typos, misspellings and grammar issues as you can make it so that your content editor can focus on the big picture. If you do this, you'll get more out of your content edit.

Finally, if you're not yet ready for a content editor but would like the assistance of a second pair of eyes, you may also consider a paid beta read. I provide affordable beta read services to writers (see my page about it here). This is NOT A CONTENT EDIT but it will be an unbiased read and critique of your MS.

Do you hire freelance content editor(s) for your work? If so and you can recommend them,  leave the name and website address in the comments for others to consider.

Next Wednesday: What to do with your content edit/paid beta read when you get it back.



Monday, September 29, 2014

Manic Monday: Colorado Students School the School Board on Democracy and Fight Back Against 'Big Brother'

1984 by George Orwell
One of my all-time favorite books is 1984 (Signet Classics)
by George Orwell. You like dystopian? Now that's dystopian! 1984 may not be a horror story per se, but to me it is may be the scariest story ever written.

Scary because it feels plausible. And scary because for a person such as myself who values the freedom of thought and speech above all else, there is nothing more frightening than losing both.

1984 was published in 1948 as the super powers entered the cold war. Orwell may have been reacting to the events in pre-war Germany and Italy or perhaps looking east toward Russia and China.

But a recent news article brought Orwell's dystopian masterpiece to mind. Have you heard about the brave students, educators and parents in Jefferson County, Colorado that are fighting back against an all right-wing school board?

Image via Associated Press
I found this story via the LA Times. Apparently the recently-elected school board decided that it did not like the AP History curriculum. Here is a quote from the board calling for instruction in which “theories should be distinguished from fact. Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights."

Okay, we'll stop it right there for a moment. Read the words of the school board closely. "Promote citizenship, patriotism ..." Sound familiar? Does it not sound like the "Ministry of Truth" from 1984, the organization responsible for propaganda and historical revision? After all, Winston Smith's job in 1984 was to rewrite past newspaper articles so that they always reflected the current party line. This is exactly what the Jefferson County school board is attempting to do.

The school board also said: "Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard for the law."

I suppose, then, that the board proposes that students not learn about the Civil Rights movement, Women's Suffrage movement, and other events in which citizens used their rights of Free Speech (yes, you know that thing guaranteed by the First Amendment, i.e. the law) to attempt to change to system and obtain freedom for all people, not just the white male people.

In fact, the board's plan to revise the history books was "drafted in response to a new set of history standards adopted by the College Board, which gives more attention to minorities, Native Americans and pre-Columbus early American history." (Source, Portland Press Herald.) (As an aside, the Herald also reports that the school board blames the student protest on "dissident teachers", a phrase which also sounds a lot like it came from a spin-doctor handbook. If someone points out the problems with your agenda or policy, then call them "dissident" or "crazy" to discredit them.)

There was a well-written opinion piece on the Huffington Post blog yesterday written by Joseph Palermo. Mr. Palermo, speaking about Gretchen Carlson and Ken Witt, said: "And I doubt if Carlson and Witt ever heard of George Orwell who wrote: 'Who controls the past controls the future. And who controls the present controls the past.'"

What Ms. Carlson or Mr. Witt know (or think) is probably irrelevant. They are mere pawns belching out the party line. You can be very sure that the right wing politicos behind this move in Colorado, even if they have never heard of George Orwell, absolutely know how to gain power through control of history. And make no mistake that their agenda is to control propaganda so that they can increase their own power.

That's what totalitarian regimes do. And that's what we're talking about here.

Totalitarian is a system of government with only one party (or leader) having complete control and power over the people.

And what is the antonym for totalitarian?

Democracy.

And what is the foundation of democracy?

Freedom of speech.

Unfortunately, the freedom of speech in our country mainly serves the purpose these days of delivering free porn to every smart phone, tablet and computer in America. As I write this, more people right now are viewing porn than are engaging in political debate. Many, many, many more people.

That's okay with the Koch brothers and their ilk. Because if you are sidetracked by porn and cat videos and such, then you're not paying attention to what they're doing to consolidate their power. "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

Kudos to the students, teachers and parents in Jefferson County who saw the move by their school board for what it is: an attempt to white wash history in furtherance of their own political agenda. Kudos for exercising their First Amendment rights. It takes courage to speak out against the actions of institutions and people in power. But now, perhaps more than ever, we all must be vigilant about our freedom and muster the courage we may not believe that we have to preserve our freedom. This is our right - and responsibility - in a free society. I for one feel a surge of hope today as I witness young people pushing back against what is most assuredly a threat to their freedom of thought.



Friday, September 26, 2014

Sci Fi Friday: 3 Cool Future Identification Technologies

There are certain technologies that are ubiquitous in future stories. Flying cars. Laser guns. And identification technology.
It's hard to imagine fingerprint dusting in the 22nd century. Instead, crime investigations may be "dusting" for DNA. And forget about a mere iris scanner to gain entry to that above top-secret lab. Instead you may have to pass the sniff test.
Good luck trying to fake someone else's scent.
Here are three super cool, super futuristic identification technologies that I read about recently on LiveScience and provide some cool inspiration for futuristic sci-fi stories:
1. BODY ODOR
dog noseYou read the correctly. Apparently, each person has a unique odor. That's an "of course" to dogs. Companies are working to catch up to dog tech by finding ways to identify our unique smell signature.
But don't worry about having a computer sniff you yet. Although researchers have attained a recognition rate of better than 85%, the technology is still in the research stages.
2. HEART BEATS
nymi-hero
While I can see the "sniff test" being used at border crossings and airports, this one seems more like the kind of thing we'll use every day. A Toronto company called Bionym is developing a bracelet called Nymi that uses your heartbeat for digital identification. Each of us has a unique pattern of electrical activity in our heart. Who knew? The bracelet reads ECG (electrocardiogram) waveforms to identify the wearer.
But here's where this one gets super spiffy. The Nymi bracelet can them communicate via Bluetooth to our devices. It seems that the possibilities there are endless. No need for a password or even a finger scan to log in to your computer. Just wear the bracelet and it could seamlessly connect the wearer to their devices. But why stop there? How about your car? A hotel room? Bank deposit box? 
And this one isn't just theoretical. You can order this device from Bionym now and it will ship next year.
3. VEINS
This one is even more strange than the others. And a bit creepy too. Apparently we not only have unique fingerprints, odors, and heartbeats, we also have unique vein patterns. This sounds like it's straight from a sci-fi movie, but it's actually a technology being branded as BiyoWallet (originally called PulseWallet). Imagine waving your palm over a machine that scans your veins. Once you've introduced yourself to the machine, the device would automatically deduct payment owed to the merchant from your account. Good-bye credit and debit cards. Sounds like one of the more promising technologies to prevent identity theft related to credit/debit card use.
Until some evil genius finds a way to counterfeit our veins! (Just wait - you know it will happen ;-)
Do you think we'll see widespread use of any of these technologies in the near future? Do you embrace these technologies? Or do they scare you? What one would you like to use the most?