Never assume that you know how to write women from a diverse point of view just because you are one. There are some things we write because we learned them from our parents, see them on TV, or soak them up from the cultural background noise.
- Not all women are in need of rescuing. I don’t think I need to explain this one.
- Be true to your characters, but avoid perpetuating a double standard if you can. The double standard of a heroine who has never had sex with anyone but the hero and a hero who has run around with other women but “was true to her in his heart” is at least as old as The Iliad. The idea that men who have sex are hot studs but women who have sex are sluts is as current as last Friday down in the local bar. Sometimes, your characters don’t give you much of a choice–you have to tell the story they give you to tell. But if they give you a choice in the matter, try to avoid these kinds of double standards.
- Men can be nurses and women can be computer geeks. I used to work in a hospital . . . as a computer geek. Trust me on this one. *g*
- “Woman” is not an adjective. When we refer to women in certain professions, we may have been taught to specify that it’s “a lady doctor” or “a woman mechanic.” But to pick on my previous example, we would never say “a man nurse”–it would always be “a male nurse.” “Female” is the adjective you want, but if you can indicate the sex of a character in a different way, that’s even better.
- Don’t refer to women by their first names and men by their last names. Since it still happens in real life, it happens in fiction. Having worked in healthcare, I’ve discovered that a male doctor is always “Dr. Something,” but a female doctor often has to fight to be addressed by that medical degree she’s earned, rather than her first name. In a completely different work environment, my husband reports that he’s listened to someone he works with introduce all the women in his department by first name, and all the men by full name.
Why does it matter? Because without ever meaning to, it perpetuates a stereotype of women not being professional–or not being full-fledged people, depending on how you come at it. Unless you have a darn good reason in the context of your story, please don’t do this.
- Don’t belittle women. Again, unless it’s a character who requires belittling in the context of the story. But the “your ex-girl friend is a whore” and “any other woman in the story is a threat to the heroine” tropes are still far too common, and any time you can find a way to avoid them, you’re doing a good thing from the art imitates life/life imitates art point of view.
- Sometimes, love does not conquer all. Even when you’re writing romances, where there must be a happily ever after for your main characters, keep this in mind whenever one of your characters wants to say, “If it’s really love, you should do X, Y, or Z.” If it’s in character, you may not be able to avoid it, but if you can avoid it please do.
If you think that this is hardline feminist nonsense, I offer two examples. The first is a woman I met in a Greyhound station fifteen years ago, who still loved the man who had left bruises under both her eyes, so clear that I could count the individual knuckle prints. That was what it took to convince her to get on a bus and leave him. The second is a relative of mine who spent ten years of her life in codependent relationships that looked perfectly normal from the outside, quietly making herself into someone I didn’t know because it was who her partners expected her to be.
If you ever wanted to change the world through your writing, please don’t teach people that “love conquers all.” Especially if you write romances, which are aimed at a female audience (which sometimes lends them to their daughters were younger sisters). You’ll show us love conquering through your writing, and that will do a much better job than any aphorism ever could. 🙂
To be continued . . .
[ Part One: Race ]
Once again, oopsies in the area of sexual orientation are often a case of accidentally carrying over stereotypes from the world around us into our writing. I like to think that no one sets out to be offensive, but there are certain things that don’t necessarily occur to us if we haven’t run up against them personally.
- No token/magical gay men. For that matter, let’s go further and extend this to queer characters in general, regardless of sex or specific orientation . . . but it seems to come up most for gay man. This one follows the same rules as the token/magical character of color. Just don’t do it.
- Avoid stereotypes. Not every queer man flames. Not every queer woman cut her hair short and chops wood in her spare time. An acquaintance of mine complains that women find out he’s gay and immediately ask him for fashion advice. He points to his close and says “How the hell would I know?”
- Sex is more than just penetration. Sounds easy when I put it like that, but at some level, most of us are conditioned to believe that sex is about a man and a woman, and sooner or later, the man is sticking something into the woman. Whether you’re writing queer main characters or simply including them as part of the cast of your story, don’t imply that somebody has to stick something into somebody else for it to really “count” as sex. Mouths, hands, and toys are still sex.
If you don’t believe me, ask yourself if it would still be “cheating” if your partner did that with someone else. For most people, that puts it in an entirely different light.
- Nobody has to angst over it and nobody has to be on top. Once again, it doesn’t matter if it’s main characters or minor characters, having somebody ask “Who’s on top?” is cringe-worthy every time. Likewise, just because you’re writing a queer character doesn’t mean that character has to have a coming-out crisis during the course of your story.
- Avoid offensive slang. This one sounds easy, but if you don’t have much exposure to the queer community yourself, certain things may not even occur to you. Once again, your editor will try to help you out. If you’re not sure if a slang term is considered offensive, Google it. “[Term] slang offensive” will usually get you some general consensus-type answers. Also, you want to be aware of context. “Gay” may not be considered an offensive term, but saying “That’s so gay” is.
And as always, there is the exception to the rule. If you’re writing dialogue for a character who would speak in offensive slang terms, you should absolutely use that language to be true to the character’s voice. But be aware that you’re probably branding that character as either ignorant or a bigot, and be sure it’s right for the character.
- Not being heterosexual does not automatically mean homosexual. “Queer” may be considered to encompass a whole range of things, including bisexuality, asexuality, being non-gender-conforming, and others.
Anyone who’s heard a sound bite about the last U.S. census results knows that the makeup of the United States is changing. It kind of goes without saying that that extends to fiction readership in the US as well, and yet we don’t always think about that when we’re in the middle of writing an exciting story. It’s awkward to talk about–most or all of us like to think of ourselves as writing without any kind of bias–but the truth is, people tend to assume that everybody else is “just like me” at a very fundamental level. We’re programmed that way as a species.
The question is how to appeal to a diverse readership . . . and do it without inserting foot into mouth. *g* With that in mind, I’d like to talk about both some of the things I notice and point out when I’m editing, and some points to remember when you’re designing a story and its characters in the first place.
This blog post ended up being much longer than anyone wants to read in one sitting, so I’ll be posting it one section at a time over the next couple of weeks.
Race is one of the touchier subjects to tangle with–even the word is daunting and makes some of us feel like we’re doing something wrong. But as someone who scans as white, I’ve been assured by both writers and readers who don’t that it’s the right word and it needs addressing. Here are a number of points to remember for dealing with race in your writing. Some of them look obvious or easy and some of them really don’t, but I ask you to stop and consider each one and whether it applies to what you write. The most difficult part of addressing race in fiction isn’t what you’ve put into a story–it’s what you haven’t put into it.
- Does the cast of your story consist entirely of white people? If you’re writing about a small town in the middle of North Dakota, this might be perfectly reasonable, because that’s what you’re likely to find in a small town in the middle of North Dakota. Think about your setting, and if you wouldn’t expect the population there to consist entirely of white people, double check your characters–both major and minor–to make sure you’ve included the people of color you’d expect to find in your setting.
- Watch out for blue eyes. By which I really mean watch out for stereotypes of beauty, in all their varied forms. Once upon a time, the Stepford Wife stereotype of beauty was white, with blond hair and blue eyes. Lately, I’ve seen a rash of white with black hair and blue eyes or brown hair and blue eyes. White with red hair and green eyes is also popular.
Your hero and heroine don’t have to have blue eyes, and they don’t have to be white. As a matter of fact, the one thing I consistently heard from publishers and acquiring editors of both erotic romance and general fiction at EPICon last year was a cry for more non-white protagonists.
- Avoid the token/magical character of color. In particular, stereotypes you want to avoid are the hero’s/heroine’s tag-along best friend, the single non-white character sacrificing himself for the white main characters, and the folksy person of color stepping into your protagonists’ lives with wisdom and/or magic to make them better people.
- Don’t describe people as food. I’ve complained to fellow writers that this is a lose-lose situation, and no one has disagreed, but it’s something we have to pay attention to anyway. In the US, we have this baseline assumption that if a person (fictional or not) does not have their skin color described, that person is white. In an attempt to avoid this, writers are tempted say “he was black”/”she was Asian.” Not only does that clunk, when you think about it, it’s rude. We don’t read a whole lot of character descriptions in fiction beginning “she was white.”
In an effort to avoid this, you want to actually describe skin colors, hair colors, or other features that tell us about the character without specifically using a “race word.” And here’s where the food comes in. It can be very offensive to describe a character in terms of food: chocolate-brown skin, skin the color of a pumpkin latte, almond-shaped eyes, coffee-colored hair . . . you get the idea. I’ve heard a lot of different explanations as to why, and I don’t want to make this post any longer than it’s already shaping up to be. To give you something quick to remember, just consider that reducing a human being to a snack is patronizing.
But wait, you may be thinking, how can I describe a skin tone, then? My skin is kind of peach, her skin is the color of new cream. Most skin shades found in the human race are some kind of brown tone, and most of the browns in the Crayola box are named after some kind of food. Heck, most of the colors in the Crayola box are named after either food or flowers.
Yeah, that’s why I described it as a lose-lose situation. You end up using a lot of “pale, ruddy, pallor dusted with freckles, light brown, medium brown, dark brown” descriptions. A friend of mine complains that she has no word to describe the shape of her own eyes, because historically Americans have referred to them as “almond-shaped,” but they really don’t look anything like almonds at all.
The best you can do on this one is try. Your editor will try to help you out if you missed a spot. It’s not perfect, but we have to start somewhere.
To be continued . . .
Thank you is a two-way street. Perhaps you feel in the mood to thank your editor this holiday season for the effort and time devoted to your novel. Here are some ways and links that might work. These gifts go both ways and work for editors as well as writers. You don’t have to spend large amounts of money. The special note of thanks you write on the card goes a long way. Whatever your budget, your editor will appreciate being remembered.
1. The post office is in dire straits. Mail a paper card with your signature and a stamp and help save an American institution.
2. Your editor does not automatically receive a copy (print or digital) of your completed book. Send her an autographed copy.
3. Gift cards to buy books or office supplies are a great gift for the editor who never has time to run out to the store for paper and ink.
4. Electronic greeting cards are ok. Search for a special one.
5. Editors read a lot. Anything book related such as mini book lights and book marks are welcome gifts. How about a journal or a planner?
6. A gift certificate to your mutual publishing house would be welcome.
7. Magazine subscriptions cost a lot of money these days. Perhaps you can afford a year of a writing magazine for your editor.
8. Editors are normally overwhelmed by the amount of filing required to keep track of just one book. USB flash drives come in a variety of prices and storage amounts.
9. Starbucks rules the world. A coffee gift card will be sucked up in a month by your editor.
10. With food intolerances and allergies on the rise, send gift cards for large chain restaurants if you want to send a food care package. You might be surprised by the number of people who can NOT eat chocolate, peanuts, dairy, wheat, or corn.
If you have any good ideas for editor/writer gifts, chime in!
Smooches (and sweet holidays,)
Editorial Etiquette by JB
Read it backwards.
A couple of years ago I tripped over this trick to editing. I was looking for a detail I wasn’t sure was the same as a previous reference and found an error I had missed I don’t know how many times. I thought how in the world did I miss that? I read more backward, going a paragraph at a time and found some more. Since then I’ve seen many others recommend the same method. Why? The main reason is no matter how many times you’ve read it from front to back, you’re still going to get into the story. Things like a misplaced comma, missing quotation marks, and awkward sentences either go unseen or, in the writer’s mind, make perfect sense. I’ve also found that I catch continuity mistakes that way, though I don’t know why. Personally, I hate going backwards. It’s time consuming, making me read at a slower rate. I do make myself do it at least once and always find something I missed while reading from the beginning. Reading backward increases your ability to concentrate on the words and punctuation, not the story.
Another very simply way to increase your ability to catch punctuation mistakes is to zoom in to about 150%. Commas and periods are so much more visible at that size. To keep your eyes from jumping ahead to the next sentence using a ruler helps some people as well. With a curser, I’ve found anyway, my eyes run ahead of it, not keeping my concentration on a specific line at a time.
Last tip for the day, pay attention to Word’s underlining, green and red. Keep in mind, Word has a limited dictionary, especially with compound words. Many combined words will register as misspelled. To see if you’re right, if they should be combined, hyphenated, or written as two words, a good source is http://dictionary.reference.com/ For those who write historical, it also provides an origin to be certain you aren’t using a word that wasn’t used in the time period you have your characters in. As to the green lines, if you don’t understand what word is telling you is wrong with the sentence, play with it, switching the phrases around, adding a comma at the end of a phrase, or make sure it isn’t something as simple as a verb ending in ing instead of ed. When the green line disappears, even if you don’t understand why, it’ll be correct. 😉
“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
Writing fiction is an interesting challenge, because it means you’re doing two things at once: you’re writing, and you’re telling a story. As a writer, you care about getting the right words on the page, but as a storyteller . . . sometimes it’s all about getting the story down on the page before that really hot argument your hero and heroine are having gets away from you (or you miss your deadline). In a perfect world, you’d get the story down on paper and then read through the entire manuscript again, punching up the dull bits, reading aloud for stilted language, and generally making sure you said what you meant to say.
Meanwhile, back in the real world world, here are a few suggestions for making sure you’ve used the right words, and not just similar words.
1) Watch out for weasel words: words that fill space without having much meaning on their own. Once you’ve written that story, consider using your word processor to do a search through your manuscript for them, and any place you see one, see if you can reword your sentence to be more descriptive. Every author has particular words they have trouble with, but here’s a list to get you started: some, lots, thing, anything, something, stuff, basically, kind of, got, interesting, very, really, still.
2) When in doubt, read aloud. I know that if you’re submitting 50,000-100,000 words of novel, you’re not going to read the whole thing aloud from beginning to end. It would be too time-consuming. But whenever possible, at least read your dialogue aloud. Narration can also be stilted and awkward, but narration is more forgiving than dialogue is.
3) Love your thesaurus, but know that it isn’t perfect. When you’re trying to make your writing more interesting or avoid an overused word or phrase, look it up in a thesaurus or search for synonyms online. Once you’ve chosen one, take one extra step: look it up in the dictionary and read the actual definition. Make darn sure that you don’t refer to a big, strapping, alpha male hero as having a “demure” smile because you didn’t want to use “shy,” not when demure is generally only used for women.
Your hero will thank you. And so will your editor. 😉
cross-posted at The Editor’s Pen
“Getting on the same page with your editor”
Just like the characters in a romance novel, the way a relationship begins will often determine how it ends. If the couple starts off on the wrong foot, chances are they will end up teetering on the edge of making it work for the long term. The same is true of the editor/writer relationship. It’s important to find out as much as possible in the beginning about the new “significant other” in your writing life, because the path to a fond and lasting relationship can easily go sour fast when one partner or other discovers some distasteful habits that threaten the enduring nature of the agreement. And it is an agreement. The editor/writer relationship is based not only on the official written contract involved in most published writing, but it depends a great deal on the expectations of each party. And not having a clear understanding of the expectations at the get-go can sometimes mean rocky times down the road.
One of the best ways to understand something or someone better is to ask questions. Granted, not all editors want to be barraged with a slew questions from a new writer they’ve been assigned to and here’s the reason. Nothing in the writing business is absolute. The letters may be black and white, but that’s the only guarantee any of us get for something to meet our expectations. The copy will turn out in black and white. Beyond that, circumstances may color everything else involved. That’s why an editor can’t actually pin themselves down on everything. Things change for editors, writers, and publishers and a certain amount of flexibility has to be part of the relationship. But there are some ground rules that most editors and writers will agree are part of the deal. But try to ask questions at the beginning of an editorial relationship to help matters go smoothly.
1.Regardless of how many editors a writer has worked with in the past, a new editor is a new beginning. Regardless of how many writers an editor has worked with, there is always something new to learn from a first-time assignment.
2.Editors do not have to work seven days a week. Editors may work seven days a week if they wish but they are not required to do so. Writers are free to work seven days a week but don’t expect an editor to answer emails or calls on Saturdays and Sundays.
3.Editing is more than “Comma clean-up in line 47.” Just like the writing, editing is time consuming because it takes thought. Give an editor sufficient time to think before chewing on their email accounts every couple of hours day after day. Let writers have enough time to make revisions.
4.Editors have more than a single manuscript in play. Yes, they are seeing someone on the side besides you, but it comes with the territory. Give an editor the freedom to “work around.” Writers are therefore free to “write around” too.
5.Writers are tender souls who need TLC at certain times. This applies to editors as well.
We’re exposed to it during every televised sports event: the omnipresent sportscaster relating the every moment of the action we can see plainly onscreen, plus, at times, a little more—exactly what he or she thinks about a player, team, coach or just some random thought going through his or her mind. While this works out just fine for television, in writing it can cause the reader some headaches depending on the chosen POV.
Imagine being enthralled in a great scene and suddenly it’s interrupted by what the narrator actually thinks of it. An omnipotent narrator is the last entity a reader wants to hear from, after all this individual is not supposed to have an opinion; its sole purpose is to describe the scene and the character’s feelings about it. A lively narrator is one thing, one that begins to speak like one of the characters can breed confusion because the reader can mistake it as part of the actual narration. Such commentary can take a reader out of the story and enough of it can make a reader give up on the entire book if they are subjected to an invisible, opinionated voice. One major exception to this is first person.
If you’re the kind of writer that really likes to put yourself in the story, comments and all, then first person is the POV for you. Here you can air your thoughts without them being mistaken as some disembodied being with a bone to pick. There are still general limits to this use, however. First, it has to be kept in context; if the main character is supposed to be a kind, benevolent person his or her inner voice cannot take a turn down crazy lane if he or she is not having a mental breakdown or some other change for the worst (or better). And in line with the first limitation, commentary can be kept in check by writing in a voice you can stand—this means not writing in that benevolent voice is you’d prefer your character have a violent streak. Also, if this Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde play is part of your character then make sure your readers know it.
Finally, consistency is important to any narrator POV you decide to go with. The easiest way to cut down on unnecessary commentary is to know the voice you want your narrator to speak in. It sounds simple, yes, but you have to admit there have been situations when you’ve wished you had written in one POV and not another. When it all boils down, if you’ve gone through so much work putting a story together and praying for it to sell, why give someone a reason to wish they hadn’t bought it?
This post courtesy of Keisa Burrell – Secret Cravings Publishing Editor and Proofreader
“Avoid passive verbs” is one of those caveats every writer has heard many times, in just about every “how to write” book, article, and lesson plan on Earth. It’s about as common as “show, don’t tell.” Yet many people remain confused about what this actually means.
A passive verb means that some version of “TO BE” has been appended to the sentence’s main verb. Such as
- The grass was mowed.
- The coffee is brewed.
To make the first two active, you have to change the subject:
- Joe mowed the grass.
- Julia brews the coffee.
“Grass” and “coffee” are now the objects. In the first sentences, they were in the nominative case–in other words, they functioned as the subjects. There’s nothing technically wrong with any of these, as long as the writer knows why he or she has chosen a particular subject. For example, maybe it doesn’t matter who did the mowing or the brewing.
Check out these sentences:
- That night, Inspector Eejit was murdered.
- That night, an unknown criminal murdered Inspector Eejit.
Only the first is passive, and there is nothing wrong with that sentence…or with the second one either, depending on context. Contrary to some people’s beliefs, a passive sentence is not grammatically incorrect. It simply shifts the focus of the sentence from the SUBJECT to the OBJECT–from the DOER to the DONE-TO, so to speak. Notice that the first sentence makes us visualize Eejit, and the second makes us visualize the criminal (in a shadowed silhouette, perhaps, since we don’t know the identity–that’s the point).
Sometimes passives are awkward:
- The vase was looked at.
Sometimes they’re used to obscure the doer’s identity on purpose:
- Mistakes have been made.
Either can be strengthened by a simple reversal of subject and object and dropping the “was” (generally a good idea anyway):
- A hundred experts looked at the vase. No one could determine its value.
- The company CEO made mistakes. Hopefully, the new consultant can repair the damage.
In fiction, passives are discouraged because they slow down the action. Yet they are not incorrect, and sometimes, if used sparingly and carefully, they work fine. The trick is to be able to identify them and understand that the reader’s attention will shift according to what the subject of the sentence is.
The Internet is both a blessing and curse. If you’ve spent any amount of time “surfing the net,” you understand the inherent complications when it comes to looking for something (there’s so much to choose from it is overwhelming,) and the rules of communication we’re accustomed to are slightly skewed. Email, blogs, and websites have given writers the opportunity to connect with other writers and readers worldwide. But having a conversation online isn’t the same as having a face-to-face dialogue.
What are the accepted terms of Internet discussions, and what is the best advice for staying in touch when the Internet confines and defines a relationship? Some people think “www” stands for “wild, wild, west” and anything goes. However, when it comes to dealing with your editor at a publishing institution, there are some particular guidelines that will help everyone involved stay engaged, in the know, and stressed less. Of course, every online relationship eventually creates its own particular set of acceptable terms for behavior, but these ideas are a safe place to begin. The key word is RESPECT.
REVIEW-before you hit submit, read over what you’ve written and be sure it’s as correct as you want it to be.
EDIT-to edit is to improve. As you review your email, blog, or web content, make sure you don’t sound like a pirate the morning after pillage.
SORRY- when someone writes, “I’m sorry this email is so long,” I think, “Why didn’t you read over what you wrote and delete what made it so long?” Don’t be sorry, be sure what you’ve written is meaningful.
PROFESSIONAL-this is also known as being “politically correct.” Professionals don’t use many adverbs or adjectives in correspondence. Stick to the facts necessary to the correspondence. Avoid words like “really”, “terribly”, and “awfully” because they indicate emotions. This is a business relationship. Keep communications professionally correct by keeping the emotions to yourself.
COURTEOUS-it’s a welcome and advisable habit to be considerate and courteous of whomever the email or blog is directed. Standard salutations such as “Hi” and “Greetings” are a friendly way to begin an email and tell the receiver what kind of mood the email contains. In general, be kind. Always include a greeting and a closing no matter how brief or simple.
TIMELY-Beth Walker, publisher for Secret Cravings Publishing has this to say about the timeliness of staying in touch with your editor:
“My thought on the matter is if you haven’t received a response from an email you’ve sent whether it be to the author, Ariana, me or another editor, in a couple of days, I’d say email again and tell them to please response with at least an ‘I got it.’ I try to respond to every email I receive with that.
If it gets to the point you’ve emailed a couple of times and received no response at all, then email Ariana or me. I know there have been a few authors that do not respond to the editors at all and will only respond to my emails. I also know there have been one or two that don’t respond at all, even to me and we’re dealing with them as best we can.
To me, it’s rude to not acknowledge the receipt of an email. Unfortunately, we can’t make them email you back. I’ve sent reminders and all I can ask of you all is to put a note in your email to please send you an email saying you got it. I know for our email being yahoo, they tend to lose emails and I say that in my email.”
Lastly, give the person on the receiving end of the missive a minimum of 24 hours to respond. If you don’t get at least a “got it” within that time period, send a quick and friendly check in to see if the message was actually received. And always make a correspondence plan in writing with your editor. Ask up front, “How long should I wait before I check with you about the status of the manuscript?” Most editors have a turnaround time in mind for projects and will give you an idea of what’s acceptable as far as contacting them. Remember they are almost always working on several manuscripts at a time.
Do you have any online correspondence advice to share?