Editing on Paper

When I started editing for a living, “editing on paper” was about as noteworthy as swimming in water — like what else was I going to edit on — parchment? calfskin?

Now most editing is done on a computer screen. Editing on paper is a novelty. Some editors I know won’t do it. Quite a few of those a generation younger than I, and those who started editing professionally in middle age, have never done it.

I still do it on request. In fact, I just started a paper copyedit for a trade publisher client. It’s a 700-page nonfiction baby, with a short bibliography, no endnotes, and a 65-page “essay on sources.” I’m adequately supplied with red pencils and Post-its, and I still know copyeditor’s and proofreader’s marks as well as I know the alphabet.

My work nook. It’s much more cluttered than it was when I took this picture.

My little workspace — a comfy recliner, a lapdesk with my laptop (her name is Kore) on it, flat surfaces on either side — no longer lends itself to editing on paper. To my left, for instance, is a short row of editorial essentials: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.; The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed. — the newer 17th edition is on the floor next to my chair); Words Into Type; and Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook.

Trouble is, the editorial essentials I use most often — which is to say “continually” — are online. My subscription to Merriam-Webster’s gives me access not only to the Collegiate but to the vastly larger Unabridged.

When I left my first staff editor job — in the publications office of the American Red Cross in Alexandria, Virginia — in (gasp) 1981, my colleagues gave me as a parting gift a copy of the Unabridged, formally Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. It’s far too unwieldy for regular use. It needs to sit on its own lectern, where you don’t have to wrestle it into your lap. This was indeed the setup in the Red Cross publications office: “Web 3” rested on its pedestal at one end of the editorial section and the venerable “Web 2” — Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition — sat at the other. We editors each had the current edition of the Collegiate (IIRC it was the 9th) in our cubicles.

Arbiters of style, in hardcopy

I also subscribe to the Oxford dictionaries, which include not only British English (BrE) and the U.S. variety (AmE), but several other languages as well (Spanish, French, German, Italian, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, and Portuguese). Oh yeah, and access to Hart’s Rules, a popular BrE style guide, among other useful tools.

The American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t require a subscription for its online edition, though I’d happily buy one if it did because I use it a lot, and about a year ago I finally broke down and subscribed to the online Chicago Manual of Style because they were offering a good deal when the 17th edition came out in print.

You can imagine how much space all these reference books would take up in hardcopy, and did I say that I live and work in a studio apartment? Not to forget the geographical, biographical, and bibliographical resources that I use for routine fact-checking. My style sheet for a just-completed job included six and a half single-spaced pages of personal names alone, every single one of them verified by me. In the pre-digital days, I would have required access to a research library to accomplish this, and it wouldn’t have been expected: a common publisher’s guideline for copyeditors runs something like “check facts as long as it doesn’t add appreciably to your billable time.”

The digital age has contributed to considerable mission creep on this one. Checking names, dates, and even quoted material doesn’t add appreciably to my billable time, so I do a lot more of it than I did in the old days. The big challenge is keeping it from adding appreciably to my non-billable time. From childhood I’ve been one of those people who goes to look something up in a dictionary or encyclopedia, falls down the research rabbit hole, and emerges an hour or two later having learned all sorts of neat stuff that may or may not include whatever I was looking up in the first place. The World Wide Web laughs at “billable time.”

Social media is, if anything, even worse. I belong to several editing-related groups on Facebook. This is where I go to find answers that aren’t in the dictionaries or style guides, like “Is this sense of ‘set off’ common in the U.S.?” Pretty soon, though, I’m responding to another editor’s query, or checking up on breaking news, or reading an interesting commentary that a friend recommended. Rabbit holes and looking-glasses everywhere!

Gizmo with beer can. I have been a T. E. Lawrence fan since I was about 9. My taste for beer is relatively recent.

So when I edit on paper, Kore the laptop sits on her lapdesk on the floor at my feet, usually with the lid closed. To wake her up every time I want to check a name or date would absolutely add appreciably to my billable time and wreck my concentration too. So I flag the things I want to look up on Post-it notes and do it all in batches.

For access to dictionaries, I use Gizmo, my little tablet. I guess I could use Gizmo for fact-checking too, but the small screen and the virtual keyboard are not my friends, so I don’t.

Logging words, names, and style decisions in my style sheet is likewise clunkier when I edit on paper. (Aside: If you aren’t on a first-name basis with style sheets, check out my 2014 blog post on the subject: “What’s a Style Sheet?” You may already be keeping one without calling it that. When it comes time to work with an editor, your editor will be seriously impressed if you give her/him a style sheet. Trust me on this. )

When I edit in Word, it’s easy to flip back and forth between manuscript and style sheet, and to copy and paste words and names from one to the other. When editing on paper, I start my style sheet on paper, then when Kore’s back on my lap for a look-up session I create a Word file for it, print it out, log new words and style choices on it as they come up, then add them to the Word file at the next opportunity. And repeat, repeat, repeat till the job is done.

Word processors make style sheet maintenance so much easier because they can alphabetize long lists in a second or two. (I’m not going to even try to explain the grid system many of us used in the old days.) But once you’ve edited electronically, the biggest drawback of going back to paper is the lack of CTRL+F (Command + F on a Mac): the Search function. Once upon a time, if, say, the spelling of a name seemed slightly “off”, I could often find the earlier spot where it was spelled differently, even if I hadn’t noted the page number in my style sheet. Thanks to CTRL+F this facility has largely, though not completely, atrophied. I can now confirm my hunches in seconds. If I want to change an earlier style choice (often about hyphenation or a variant spelling), I can easily revisit and revise all previous instances.

So when I edit on paper, the publisher’s production editor provides an electronic copy of the manuscript. I edit on paper, but I search in Word. The same goes for proofreading: I generally mark up the hardcopy, but I have the PDF on my laptop in case I need to search, which I will, multiple times, before the job is done.

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Back to Wolfie World

OK, I’m back — I think.

This morning I got back to Wolfie.

Postcard from Mary Likes Postcards. Check out her Etsy shop — lots of good stuff!

Word, which never lies (though it rarely tells the whole truth either), told me that I’d last opened the file on October 2. That sounds about right. That’s when I pushed it aside to focus on doing my bit for the Blue Wave while completing enough paid work to buy groceries, pay the rent, and rationalize the campaign contributions I was putting on my credit card.

Despite some high-profile disappointments, the Blue Wave was pretty spectacular. How spectacular wasn’t immediately obvious, but it was looking pretty good when I gave my “Post-Election Pep Talk” a couple days after the election.

In November I busted my butt to meet deadlines that wouldn’t have been so pressing if I’d done more work and less politicking in October. Now the deadlines are mostly met, accounts receivable are up, and the political outlook is brighter than it’s been in two years, so it’s all good. At the beginning of the month I swore off buying beer till I’d paid down my campaign-related credit card debt. I didn’t miss the beer as much as I thought I would; the campaign-related credit card debt is, if not quite liquidated, then well under control; so that’s pretty good too.

So this morning I finally got back to Wolfie. I didn’t do any writing — after two months away I had to get reacquainted first. I’m maybe two scenes away from finishing draft 3, which was a dangerous place to leave off. Drafts 1 and 2 didn’t go through to the end because until I was well into draft 3 I didn’t know how it was going to work out. Well, that’s not quite true: I had a good idea of how I hoped it would work out, but I didn’t know how my characters were going to get there.

Before I put Wolfie aside to devote more time and creative energy to politics, a promising path had appeared. Whenever I thought of getting back to it, a seductively sensible inner voice said, “Why bother? Your characters have figured it out, you know what’s going to happen, why waste your time writing it?”

Compounding that — well, with the country in desperate straits, how could I possibly justify spending hours upon hours upon hours on completing a novel that only a handful of people will ever read?

Word, which never lies, tells me I’ve so far spent 14,988 minutes on Wolfie since the file was created on March 20, 2017. That’s about 250 hours. Once again, however, Word isn’t telling the whole truth because I’ve been working on Wolfie for considerably longer than that. I started draft 3 on March 20, 2017. I could open the hibernating files for draft 1 and draft 2 and learn how many minutes I spent on each, but no, thanks anyway, I’d rather not.

So this morning I took a deep breath, opened draft3.doc, and jumped in about a hundred pages from the end. Within minutes I was back in Wolfie world, reading critically enough to be trimming words here and there but mostly remembering why for something like four years now I’ve been determined to do justice to these characters and their stories.

Last week on impulse I ordered not one, not two, but three new fountain pens. I already have too many fountain pens — like eleven. Fountain pens are for first-drafting. With Wolfie I’m deep in revise-and-rewrite mode, except when I’m brainstorming in longhand to get through a stuck place: then the fountain pens come out. But three new fountain pens? It’s almost as if the muses are sure that there’s another project coming after Wolfie and they want me to be ready.

Ink blot #1

Ink blot #2

Group(s) Work

Allison Williams’s post about organizing a writers group for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in which writers aim to complete the first draft of a novel in one month) has useful tips for starting writers groups in general. Note especially that in her NaNoWriMo group not everybody is working on a novel, but one guideline is “Set a big goal” — something you’ll have to stretch to complete in a month. Write on!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

We’re gonna write…ya wanna make something of it?

Remember that class where the teacher put people in groups and everyone shared a grade? How there was always that one person who slacked and drove everyone else crazy, and someone (possibly you) who worked double overtime to get the project done so you didn’t all fail?

Yeah, groups can really suck. Even writing groups, where we’re all there voluntarily…but so is That Writer. Plus the people who read too long, or ask for professional-level editorial feedback for free, or are all at wildly different levels.

But writing groups can also be great. November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), in which writers all over the world shoot for 50000 words, from scratch(ish). I was on the fence about whether to participate: I’m really more of a memoirist…it’s a big commitment…my mom’s coming to town and I want to take her…

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Why “Exact Match” Is Not Reasonable

Lately my writing has taken a backseat to political organizing. Well, OK, I am writing, but what I’m writing is mostly press releases, social media posts, and postcards to get out the Democratic vote.

Aside: If you’re in the U.S. and you’re looking for a good way to put your literary and/or artistic talents to good use, check out Postcards To Voters. There are currently some 25K volunteers writing GOTV (Get Out The Vote) postcards for Democratic candidates. For more info, here’s a blog post about why I’ve been writing postcards for almost a year now. PTV will continue way beyond next month’s elections, because there are always elections going on somewhere.

For sure I’m editing too, because editing pays the rent and buys the groceries, and rent needs to be paid and groceries bought.

But it hasn’t left much time, energy, or (maybe most important) focus for working on Wolfie (whose draft #3 is almost done) or blogging.

Mostly I’ve kept electoral politics out of Write Through It, but sometimes editing, writing, and politicking converge in a way that I can’t resist. So here goes.

As the 2018 midterm elections approach, Republican strategies to suppress the potentially Democratic vote have become, if not more ingenious, then at least more blatant. “Potentially Democratic” generally focuses on people of color and people of limited means.

Take Georgia, for example.  The stellar Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African American woman, is running for governor against Brian Kemp, a right-wing Republican whose campaign ads have pictured him in his pickup vowing to round up illegal immigrants. Kemp is currently Georgia’s secretary of state. In Georgia, as in most states, the secretary of state is the official in charge of all things electoral.

You see the potential problem here?

The problem is more than potential. The Associated Press recently reported that some 53,000 voter registrations had been put on a “pending” list. Why? In many cases, it was because the voter’s registration info did not exactly match the info on government records.

Say you write your name as Marie Smith-Rodriguez and the government records say you’re Marie Smith Rodriguez, sans hyphen. That’s not an exact match. You’re now on the “pending” list.

Say you write your address as 123 Main St. #4 and the government records have you at 123 Main St., No. 4. That’s not an exact match either. To the “pending” list with you.

It takes a sharp eye to catch discrepancies like these. As a longtime copyeditor and proofreader, I know this, and so do you as a writer who’s reviewed her own work or seen what a copyeditor caught that you missed completely.

Not to mention — “#4” and “No. 4” mean exactly the same thing to a reader familiar with English style. Only digital readers are likely to have trouble with it, as you know every time you commit a typo in a URL or a password.

“Exact match,” in other words, is a very, very high standard, and alone it’s not a good reason to challenge a voter’s registration.

Now it’s possible that the Georgia secretary of state’s office will manage to cross-check all these “pending” registrations before election day. (Early voting in Georgia started yesterday, October 15.) Given Georgia’s voter-suppression history, I wouldn’t bet good money on this. So a voter shows up to vote and her name isn’t on the regular rolls. Does she know that she can cast a provisional ballot, which will be kept separate from the regular ballots until her registration is verified? Maybe yes, but not unlikely no; it’s not unlikely she’ll leave without casting her vote.

So “exact match” is one of the many faces of voter suppression, and no one knows it better than proofreaders, copyeditors, and writers who’ve learned from experience that “exact match” is an unreasonably high standard for something as important as voting.

Mini-Interview with Leslie Pietrzyk

This caught my eye on Facebook because I’m intrigued by flash fiction and tempted to try it. A new member of my writers’ group writes it, and I’m finding it challenging as a reader — in very good ways.

tommydeanwriter

headshot, serious.jpgWhy do you write flash? What makes it different for you?

I don’t think of myself as a natural flash writer; I generally write novels and long short stories. I couldn’t write a poem if my life depended on it. But six-ish years ago, I started thinking about flash when I was working on THIS ANGEL ON MY CHEST, a book of stories that plays around with form. I challenged myself to write something short, to tell a complete and harrowing story in as few words as possible. (Here’s the result.) Now, I love the compression and the gut-punch of a successful piece of flash, that sense of illumination like a firework ripping through a dark sky. I like the power of what’s missing, of the ripples of what is suggested and implied and hidden. I explore the role of silence a lot in my fiction, whether real or…

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Decluttering

Any writer worth her salt has dozens of creative procrastination techniques in her repertoire. My favorites include dusting, vacuuming, and washing whatever dishes there are in the sink. Playing Spider solitaire is also right up there.

Procrastinator’s toolkit

Most writers worth their salt have at least some idea what they’re up to when, say, the blue-gray carpet suddenly seems so white with dog fur that it has to be vacuumed right now. The dog fur didn’t get there overnight, after all.

So when the towering pile of paper next to my work chair suddenly seemed too out of control to be borne, I was suspicious. I was closing in on the end of Wolfie, draft 3. I’d just completed a scene that had been giving me trouble, and I had no idea what happens next: exactly the sort of scenario that makes procrastination such a compelling option.

However . . .

I’d several times brushed past The Pile and knocked a cascade of papers to the floor. Papers that then had to be picked up and re-piled. Picking up papers delayed my getting back to work — perhaps this was a form of procrastination?

Aside: Writers know how sneaky Procrastination can be. Some of us have been known to use writing to avoid writing.

Aha! Down at the bottom of the pile I spied three yellow pads with plenty of blank sheets on them. When I don’t know what happens next in a work in progress, the surefire way to find out is to write in longhand, and to write in longhand blank paper is needed. Excavating The Pile wasn’t procrastination — surely it was a necessary step in the process?

Carefully I removed The Pile from table to floor, sat down next to it, and started sorting it into three piles: Keep, Put Somewhere Else, and Toss.

I didn’t keep an inventory of what I found there — that would be serious procrastination — but I did uncover folders, notebooks, and random papers related to three major projects, two ongoing and one completed last March, including the marked-up printout of Wolfie, draft 2, which I hadn’t referred to in months. Luckily there were no unpaid bills, jury summonses, or anything that had to be dealt with ASAP last June.

The Pile is now one third its former height. It does not cascade to the floor when I brush carelessly past it. Virtually everything in it is related to Wolfie. (The marked-up copy of draft 2 is now in the recycle pile.) Now I can get back to work . . .

. . . as soon as I blog about taming The Pile.

The Pile, reduced to a third of its former self. It used to tower over the books at left. See? There really are usable yellow pads at the bottom.

 

Subversive Cookbookery

A cookbook I’ve got a recipe in was reprinted last year.

To realize how improbable this statement is, you have to know that I am so not a cook. My mother wasn’t a cook. Neither of my grandmothers were cooks. Somehow I managed to get by on fast food; easy stuff like hamburgers, scrambled eggs, and canned soup; and the kindness of roommates until I moved to Martha’s Vineyard in 1985.

On Martha’s Vineyard there were (and are) no fast-food joints, I lived alone, and the disconnect between restaurant prices and my income made even takeout a non-option except on special occasions (or when someone else was paying). So I taught myself to cook stuff that I like to eat, in quantities such that I can reheat meal-size portions and call it fast food.

I am, however, and have been since the winter of 1975–76, a baker, primarily of bread. So my inclusion in The Bakery Men Don’t See maybe isn’t so surprising? Thing is, my inclusion has less to do with the excellence of my breads (which are pretty good) than with my luck at being, for once in my life, in the right place at the right time.

The time was March 1991; the place was on the fringes of Madison, Wisconsin, specifically WisCon 15, the feminist science fiction convention. I discovered WisCon, and f/sf cons in general while promoting my three women’s f/sf anthologies, which came out from Crossing Press in 1989 (Memories & Visions), 1990 (The Women Who Walk Through Fire), and 1991 (Tales of Magic Realism by Women: Dreams in a Minor Key). Pat Murphy and Pamela Sargent were the guests of honor at WisCon 15.

At the end of her GoH speech, Pat announced the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award.

And so I would like to announce the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award, to be presented annually to a fictional work that explores and expands the roles of women and men. We’re still in the planning stages, but we plan to appoint a panel of five judges and we plan to finance the award — and this is another stroke of genius on Karen’s [co-conspirator Karen Joy Fowler] part — through bake sakes. (If you want to volunteer to run a bake sale, talk to me after the speech.)

Now I know that people are going to say that science fiction has enough awards. I know people are going to say, “Pat, why do we need another award?” And all I can say is — if you ask me why we need this award, then you haven’t been listening.

My copy of the first edition, liberally grease-stained from 25+ years of use.

No sooner had Pat finished speaking than the James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award began to take shape, thanks to the astonishing creative energy of the WisCon crew. It was indeed financed by bake sales — and eventually also by uproariously funny auctions, T-shirt sales, two cookbooks, and other means. Within a few months The Bakery Men Don’t See had been compiled and published. (Its title riffs on Tiptree’s probably best-known story, “The Women Men Don’t See.”) It was even nominated for a Hugo!

The Tiptree Award survived and thrived. So did WisCon, which before long had moved into the Concourse in downtown Madison on Memorial Day weekend, which is where and when you will find it today. And so did feminist f/sf — the work being published these days is daunting in its quality and quantity, but if you’re looking for a place to start, you can’t do better than the winners and honor lists for previous Tiptree Awards.

The spiffy design and production values of the new edition of The Bakery Men Don’t See reflect this growth and vitality. It includes the original introductions by co-editors Diane Martin and Jeanne Gomoll (if you know WisCon, you’ll recognize both names) and the GoH speeches by Pamela Sargent and Pat Murphy. It all holds up well, and none of it feels as dated as one might wish.

I’m not about to retire my first edition, however. Its grease stains testify to how well-used it is, plus it contains the contributors’ signatures I collected, high-school-yearbook style, at WisCon 16 in 1992.

On the other hand — flipping through the pristine new edition, I keep noticing recipes I’ve never tried and had almost forgotten, and rereading the stories that go with them. My family has no culinary tradition worth writing about, but other contributors have wonderful stories to tell about where their recipes came from.

The Bakery Men Don’t See is available for $12 from Lulu.com, as is other cool Tiptree-related stuff. Bakery‘s equally wonderful sequel, Her Smoke Rose Up from Supper, covers — you guessed it — entrées and other kinds of food you’re likely to eat before dessert. Unless, of course, you observe one of the Tiptree Award’s mottos: “Life is uncertain — eat dessert first.” I’m in that one too. It’s available in its original edition for $10 from the Tiptree Award store.

Adventures in Copyright

As a longtime editor and writer I knew the basics about copyright:

  • I own the copyright in any original work that’s fixed in some tangible medium. IOW, if I print out copies of a novel chapter for my writers’ group, it’s copyrighted. I don’t have to put “© 2018 by Susanna J. Sturgis” on it. However . . .
  • If I want to defend my copyright against possible infringement, it needs to be registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • You can’t copyright an idea.

Then things got complicated. I was offered an honorarium to develop a script from 1854 . . . a folk opera, a concept left behind by one Jack Schimmelman when he died in 2015. This concept included some inspired ideas but few distinctive characters, no story, and no usable dialogue. It was a stretch for me: I’m basically a nonfiction writer with a minor in fiction, but I’ve also got some theater background, my three one-act plays have all been staged, and I’m good at dialogue. As a longtime editor, I’m also pretty good at recognizing the potential threads in a big pile of carded wool.

Aside: For some background on the work, see “Fundraiser for 1854,” written by me for another blog I manage.

I took the gig. I read and reread works about and written in the 1850s.  The project absorbed most of my writing energies through last fall and into the winter.

After a few writer friends read it and an informal read-through was held in April, I knew I had something. I cut some characters (it’s still got a big cast) and did some trimming. It was still a work in progress, but it was ready for further testing.

By then, however, my alarm bells were starting to ring. An advisory committee had been formed to produce something stageworthy from this concept. It was led by the principal in the one-man nonprofit that owned the copyright on the original concept — the person who hired me to develop the script. Its members had even less theater experience than I did.  It was seriously suggested that, since resources were lacking to produce the whole work in 2018, half of it be produced this year and half of it next. I suggested instead that a staged reading be held this year, to refine the script and create some buzz, and a full production in 2019. This suggestion was adopted.

The alarm bells, however, were ringing louder and louder. At fundraisers and in PR, the work was identified as 1854 . . . a folk opera, by Jack Schimmelman. My play wasn’t an opera — the original concept wasn’t either; at most it was a blueprint from which an opera could be developed — and Jack Schimmelman didn’t write it.

I could see the day coming when I might have to defend my rights in this script. In other words, I had to register the copyright. First, though, I had to find out what my rights were. I wanted to give Jack Schimmelman credit for his work, but I didn’t want him getting credit for mine.

I engaged an attorney who specializes in copyright, including theater and performing arts law. In a series of emails I explained the situation and he walked me through it. At the outset, he confirmed my belief that my script wasn’t a “work made for hire.” It wasn’t “a work prepared by an employee within the scope of his or her employment.” The fact that I’d been hired and paid to do it made it a commissioned work, but it fulfilled none of the conditions that might have made it work for hire. Even if it had, we had never “expressly agree[d] in a written instrument signed by [the parties] that the
work shall be considered a work made for hire.”

The next question was whether it was a “derivative work” —  one “based on or derived from one or more already existing works.” In many instances, this is obvious: a movie is based on a novel, a work is translated from one language into another, a drawing is made from a photograph, and so on. Since ideas can’t be copyrighted, my case was trickier. The lawyer suggested at first that my script might not be derivative at all. I went through Schimmelman’s concept again, page by page. I’d used none of his original text, but I had borrowed his basic structure and some of his characters, one in particular. I pointed this out to the lawyer. He agreed — and reminded me that  the copyright owner of a derivative work holds all the rights to her original contribution.

Apart from two passages from Frederick Douglass, which are in the public domain, that meant the entire script. I had emails and a payment record to show that I’d had permission to develop a script from the copyrighted concept. Earlier this month, I registered my script electronically with the U.S. Copyright Office, forked over $55, and uploaded the most current copy of the work.

So last night 1854 had an unstaged reading. It was planned before I knew what my rights were, so (other than singing in the chorus) I had no hand in it. The good news is that we had a good audience, the audience was enthusiastic, and at the end the co-director announced that I had written the script. The not-so-good news is that the cover of the program identified the work as “1854 . . . a folk opera,” by Jack Schimmelman, my credit as playwright was buried on the back cover, and my annotated notes about the characters were included in the program with no attribution whatsoever.

I am, in other words, very glad that I engaged a lawyer, ascertained my rights, and registered my copyright. Now 1854 cannot be produced or recorded without my permission, which I’ll be happy to give as long as the title of the work is 1854 (no more “folk opera”) and I’m identified as the playwright.

On Crossing Borders

I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan.

I’m in the U.S. — Massachusetts, to be exact — watching images and reading stories about adults detained, children taken from parents at the southern U.S. border. Their only crime, if they can be said to have committed one, is to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

A place so unpredictable and violent that undertaking a many-hundred-mile journey north with a two- or five- or ten-year-old in tow seemed the better bet.

I lucked out. I was born into a safe place and a safe time. The only real dangers I’ve faced in my life have been dangers I courted, by speaking out when I could have been silent or walking into possible difficulty with my eyes wide open. Yet I can imagine the desperate conditions that prompted these people to make this terrible journey, hoping — knowing — that whatever place they arrived at would have to be better than the home they had left.

I’m not even a mother, but still — I can imagine.

Not easily, mind you. The mind flinches from imagining, the way a finger recoils from a hot burner. But I can imagine.

This is why I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. You were born in a fine place at a fine time, but when you were ten years old things went horribly wrong. The place was Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. You turned ten in 1975, the year civil war broke out in Lebanon. Your life was changed forever. By the time you reached twenty, you wrote — much, much later — you “had seen more body bags than most people in the civilized world have seen garbage bags.”

I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I thought I knew about Lebanon’s civil war. I started college as an Arabic major. If I hadn’t changed course, I probably would have spent my junior year in Beirut, around 1971–72, several years before everything blew up.

What was it, three and a half years ago? You contacted me out of the blue. As an editor I’ve been contacted out of the blue quite a few times by hopeful writers, and in most cases I’ve had to say: Not so fast. This isn’t ready for prime time.

But your sample chapters were ready. They took me somewhere I’d never been, into the world and mind of a young man not yet twenty whose life had been turned upside down and who had risen to the challenge.

Travvy and I read the very first copy of Allen Sawan’s Terrorist University.

We took each other on, editor and writer, writer and editor, and on an accelerated deadline you produced Terrorist University. It’s one of the books I’m proudest of having worked on. But you kept going. You found a mainstream publisher, and out came Al Shabah, The Ghost, closely based on Terrorist University but tighter. I was thrilled to find that the work we’d done together was pretty much intact.

In the years since, we’ve become friends — friends who’ve never met in person but still friends. You live in Ontario now. You and your wife have raised your three children in peace. Each of them was born in the right place at the right time, and their world didn’t turn upside down when they were ten.

I joke that Canada should build a wall on its southern border, to keep out the USians who despair of their country and want to emigrate to someplace better. You joke that you will build a tunnel that my dog and I could escape through. I know for absolute certain that if we needed that tunnel, you of all people would be willing and able to build it.

Your kids, like me, have been lucky. They were born at the right place and time, in a Canada that let you in and let you stay. They’ll learn about your life the same way I did: from the stories you tell so well.

So I’m thinking of you, Allen Sawan. Of you and your children — I’ve never met them either, but one of these days I think I will. Of all you went through to make it possible for them to grow up more like I did and less like you did.

And I’m thinking of the children taken from their parents at the U.S. border. What stories will they have to tell, ten and twenty years from now? What lessons will they pass on to their children?

What stories will the parents tell? Of struggling against such odds to get this far, and then being treated like criminals by the richest country on earth?

I think of your story, Allen Sawan. It never goes away.

Should You Quit Writing?

Maybe it’s because I’m closing in on the end of draft 3 of the novel in progress and my mind is already working on draft 4, or because I never stop wondering if writing is worth all the time I spend on it, but this blog post from Brevity has an awful lot of wisdom and encouragement packed into not very many words. Like this: “It’s not the writers who question their abilities who are in trouble.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

I feel GOOD about my work!

A writer asked me:

Have you ever in your work as the Unkind Editor told someone they should quit writing? Which may be another way of asking if you believe there may be those without the necessary abilities to write, to be published, or to be successful as an author; someone with delusional thinking who needs an unkind, direct encounter with this difficult truth.

I’ve heard versions of this question from writers at all skill levels and career stages, but especially from beginning writers who don’t yet have much outside validation and may not know enough other writers to trade work, get honest feedback, and gain a sense of their own writing level.

I feel like I suck at writing, like I’m never going to get better.

All I have are rejections. Should I stop trying to get published?

Nobody I know wants to…

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