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the art of no

Captain, my Captain!

I’ve looked through the archives, and while you’ve answered similar-ish questions, this one hasn’t come up before, so I’m hoping you can help! I (she/her) work as a freelance editor and am in a fairly privileged position––I have enough clients that I can afford to be somewhat choosy; I’m white and cisgender, so while I certainly object to racist content, it doesn’t actually trigger me when I come across it in the works I’m editing.

However, I’ve been running into more and more works with racist content from new clients, whether stereotyped characters, cultural appropriation, or micro-aggressions in their prose (and I’m *sure* I’m missing problems content-wise). Often times, it’s content that’s hard for me to screen for before taking the job–there’s no easy search for racism in a manuscript, unfortunately–and furthermore, I also know with my relative privilege, I’m better-placed to give feedback that these authors may at least listen to.

What I’m struggling with is these sorts of clients are taking up more and more of my time and mental energy and space. I know I need to find a better way of “screening” clients and balancing the ones who slip through the cracks with the ones I actually enjoy working with, but in the meantime, do you have any script suggestions for telling people that their writing is terribly racist? Alternatively, any scripts for “breaking up” with clients whose works are too terrible for me to work with them in good conscious? (All my contracts have break-up clauses, so that’s not a concern––it’s the giving the criticism part I need help with!)

I don’t want to condone these authors’ works, but I don’t want to be mired down in fixing unfixable content either (especially if the author isn’t inclined to listen regardless!). Since it’s a client-freelancer relationship, I feel the boundaries are different–we can work with each other at will and there’s no HR to report to–so I’m at a loss. Any help would be much appreciated!

– No, Your Book isn’t Misunderstood; It’s Racist

Hi there Not Misunderstood:

DIRECTNESS IS KINDNESS.

Here is my suggestion which I think will cover both “Honest Feedback For Clients” and “Fix This Right Now Or We Have To Break Up” bases. I am writing a blanket script that can be adapted, please use what is useful to you however this works best with your existing process for contracting for edits, ok?

FYI, here are my goals for the proposed script:

  • Directness is kindness. These people NEED to hear this feedback from someone, today you’re the “someone.” They hired you to help them make their book the best it can be, it can’t be the best it can be until this gets fixed, sugarcoating it or avoiding it is unhelpful.
  • Be specific about the nature and scope of the problem to the extent you can. You don’t have to include every detail, find a few particularly telling ones.
  • Make it clear that you cannot work on the project until/unless substantive changes are made. “Can’t you just clean up the text like I hired you to do?” Nope!
  • Strongly disinvite the person from arguing with you about the nature of the feedback – They can fix it or don’t, you’re not touching this again until they do.
  • Direct them somewhere that might actually solve the problem.
  • For now, grant them the fig leaf of “I’m sure this is unintentional, and confidentially between you & an editor is the right time to fix these problems!” which hopefully they will take as the giant gift that it is. For the record, I do not think most or all of the people who write and say racist stuff are doing it unintentionally, but when you are trying to persuade someone to do better, it might help them rise to the occasion if you don’t immediately shame or punish them. If they double-down, argue, counter with abuse of you or try to invoke that One Black Friend Every Racist Definitely Has But Never Actually Listens To, strip that white fragility fig leaf right off and add them to your “Nope, Never Again” list.

And here’s the recommended script, which I imagine delivering as soon as you’ve completed your initial read-through. Write your prospective/new client an email that spells out your feedback about the content, including the problematic content, and the next steps for editing the book, like so:

“Dear [Author],

I’ve completed my initial read of [Your Book] and I want to share my initial feedback and outline next steps for the editing process if we’re going to continue working together.

While some elements of the draft are very strong [mention one or two], I’ve identified some content that needs serious revision before I can commit to another round of edits.

Unfortunately, there are some examples of [common stereotypes][cultural appropriation][outdated language][misuse of dialect][racist, transphobic, homophobic, sexist, ableist tropes or attitudes, and go ahead and use these words, no ‘racially charged’ euphemisms][for fuck’s sake stop redeeming slaveholders and Nazis through the power of luuuuuuurrrrrrveeee] throughout the draft, for example:

[List out some of what you found and briefly spell out what is wrong with it, i.e. “Spirit Animal” is a term that is sacred to specific indigenous religious traditions, a white woman of Swedish descent from Minnesota categorically does not have a spirit animal.]

[OPTIONAL – I’ve tried to flag and highlight problematic passages in the text as I found them], which you can see in the attached draft which I am returning to you. I did not make edits in these passages since changes on this scale would constitute a rewrite of the material, and the issues go deep enough that in my opinion some authorial re-imagining and revision that falls outside my scope is the right fix].

Additionally, while I know enough to spot some potential problems, I am not the right kind of editor to get this where it needs to be, so I must bow out of working on this project further until substantial revisions are made. Many authors choose to work with sensitivity readers for just this reason, if you’re interested I can link you to a few resources.*

I know this was probably not the feedback you were hoping to hear, but I hope you will take this to heart: This has potential to be a wonderful book, you’ve got such strong [worldbuilding][characterization][sense of place][addictive plot][idk think of something you can sincerely compliment and throw it out there!] that I think it is well worth investing some more time in making sure that it finds the widest possible audience and doing due diligence to make sure it is not unintentionally causing harm and making you come across as [racist, homophobic, etc. etc.].

I wish you well with making the necessary changes and I hope you’ll get back in touch when you have a revised draft. [If you don’t actually want this, don’t worry, this is like promising to be friends the second after a breakup, time will tell].

Best wishes,

[Your Sign-off]

Attachments: 1) A document with your draft with my initial highlights and comments. [OPTIONAL, obviously] 2) My invoice for X hours for work completed so far, due [DATE]”[YES, GET PAID FOR WHAT YOU DID SO FAR]

Hopefully that does the trick. People are either going to get it or they won’t, and you’ll know VERY QUICKLY which kind you are dealing with. A person who can sit with feedback like this, realize it is A GIFT meant to HELP them avoid harmful (and reputation-destroying MISTAKES) is someone you can possibly work with in the future.

*Some places you might direct authors:

Edited To Add: You mentioned looking for a new process for screening projects as they come in. I detailed one I used to use for writing screenplay coverage here that might be adaptable. I think you absolutely should spell out, in advance, some stages of how you work and lay out expectations, and one stage can absolutely be something like:

“The right author-editor collaboration requires trust and a large investment of time and energy, so part of my process is making sure that we will be the right fit. For new clients, I do an initial read where I give some initial reactions to story, characters, setting and suggest some starting points for the next round of revisions [spell exactly out what this involves, possibly incl. a basic template & time-frame]. Since this process reflects X hours of work, I charge a non-refundable fee of $$$ [this can be pretty nominal , and it’s also ok to base it on length of submission, so you’re not agreeing to read a freaking dictionary out of hand], payable at the time you submit your manuscript. Should we sign a contract for ongoing editing services, this fee is applied toward the first X hours.”

When you’re first hanging out a shingle, you want lots of clients, right? But when you’re established, you want the right clients, and it’s possible that charging a fee will also encourage people to polish their work as much as possible before investing the $.

A kind reader suggested the following additional language: “Content that reinforces racist stereotypes and oppression may be returned unedited and may be reconsidered for acceptance after significant revisions are made, entirely at the discretion of the editor” that you could include on your website and in your materials.

No comments today I have 10,000 things to do/write/do/write. Hope this helps!

 

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve met somebody lovely and we’re getting married in the summer. (My pronouns: she/her, my fiancee’s: they/them) I’m thrilled to celebrate with all my family and friends…except one person.

My uncle has mainlined Fox News for longer than I’ve been alive and has selected me, his queer, liberal niece, as a prime audience for his rants. He’s also an aggressive alcoholic who has sent me crude conservative memes on Facebook.

If it were just me involved, I’d probably invite him and assign somebody to make sure he couldn’t make trouble (or have too many drinks). But I’m marrying a Latinx immigrant, exactly the sort of person he spent my entire childhood ranting about. Our wedding is going to be catered by a taco truck. I don’t want him to say something horrible to my fiancee’s family.

I can’t invite him. My father is lecturing me on forgiveness. My mother is brokenhearted and fears this will cause a rift in the family which can never be repaired. My uncle is a proud man and will quite probably never forgive me. But the whole point of a wedding is that I’m starting my own family – and I refuse to have our first day as family marred by somebody who hates the very idea of my future in-laws.

I’m not always a forgiving person but I think this is a very reasonable boundary. Am I wrong? Is there compromise to be had? And how do I stand it throughout the months until the wedding, fighting this invitation fight over and over again with everyone my mother recruits to talk to me about it?

-Wish We’d Eloped

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Hello Captain,

Two years ago, a friend paid me to critique her novel because I studied writing and know the publishing industry. I agreed to read three drafts of the work. We did not sign a formal contract.

Then I got the manuscript, and it’s terrible on all levels, from prose to plot. I’ve tried addressing the issues tactfully. I’ve suggested good examples in her genre to emulate. She is unwilling to analyze WHAT makes stories good and apply those lessons. From unrelated conversations I know she doesn’t respect people who think about why they like what they like (i.e. my partner). “They take the fun out of things.” She also thinks “time invested=value to others” regardless of the quality of her efforts.

To date, I have read 1.5 drafts and given one in-person, intensive critique session. I have (unprofessionally) delayed talking with her about the work because I suspected (correctly) that even saying, “I’m sorry, but I’m not finding improvements or good technique,” would upset her. I’ve been there, and I know how much it hurts. However, she tunes out anything she doesn’t want to hear.

In my professional opinion, the manuscript is unpublishable and her attitude/ego will not lead to success.

When I finally was direct, like I would be with a non-friend client, she became upset because in her words, I don’t “like” the work. I’ve explained that it’s not about “liking,” but whether or not the work communicates effectively (It doesn’t). I’ve asked what her ideal outcome is, and how she wants me to handle feedback I think she won’t like. When I did, accused me of not taking the project “seriously,” again, because I don’t “like” it.

I realize that delaying so long has eroded my credibility/professionalism, but I feel like we’re at an impasse. I’ve told her I care and want her to succeed, but I can’t help her do that if I can’t be honest.

At this point, I think the best I can do is offer her a partial refund for the incomplete work, with the latest marked-up manuscript and an apology for the delay, then walk away. I don’t know that our friendship will survive. I’m not sure if I want it to.

How should I resolve this, Captain?

Sincerely,
Never Crossing the Streams Again

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Hello Captain Awkward –

Please forgive me if you’ve done this one before. I’ve looked into the archives and I haven’t found one specifically about this.

Basically I (she/her pronouns) have been unemployed for a year. No matter what I do, I have only had three interviews in that time despite going to three job fairs. Now I am staying with a friend in a different city from my husband to see if I can find a job there/see if we can move there. It is scary. I’m not sleeping well and I keep feeling a nagging doubt in my stomach but I move on.

There is only one problem. I feel like I can’t hear my own voice and make my own plans because of the advice of others. My mother in law thinks I should be a home health nurse/carer. My mom believes I should try to find a forever job. My husband believes I should pick a job that I can see myself staying in for five years. My best friend thinks I should find a job right away. It is nuts! Everybody has their own opinions and they bombard me with them all the time.

What happened to talking about the weather or asking me about the books I’m reading? Seems all anybody can ask me about lately is whether I have a job and have I tried X,Y,Z? I would ultimately like to have some time, while I’m in a different city, to figure this out on my own. To find my own plan and my own way.

I guess what I’m asking is a) how do I stop the good advice from turning into a non-stop barrage of “have you considered ________” and b) how do I listen to what I want?

Thank you for considering this or even just reading it. Writing this has already helped a bit.

Sincerely,

Jobless Wonder

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Dear Captain,

This won’t be the most dire question you receive today, but I’m writing in the hope that you can help me with scripts, advice, and encouragement as I convince my wonderful family that the sky won’t fall if I’m unavailable to them for an hour or so each day.

In a lot of ways, I’m very lucky. Privileged, in fact. I have a husband (he/him) I love, two teenagers (a she and a him) that I also love, and a menagerie of adorable animals who are oh so lovable. I have a full-time job. I also have a book contract! I’m writing about something I’m passionate about, and I’m really enjoying the research, the writing, and the editing as I try on new ideas, write things down, and then edit obsessively to get things just right.

However, whenever I shut myself into my messy little home office to get some work done, all hell breaks loose.

Things will be going along swimmingly at home, and then I’ll say those fatal words: “I’m writing now. Please don’t come in unless there’s blood, fire, or vomit on the floor.” The door closes, I fire up my computer, and then:

Daughter: Can I go to Friend’s house?
Me: Ask your dad.
Daughter: He’s meditating.
Son: Mom, can you come here? It’s important! (Spoiler: It’s never important.)
Daughter: I told Friend2 we could drive her to Friend1’s house.
Husband: A SPORTSBALL PLAYER YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF WAS TRADED TO A TEAM YOU DON’T FOLLOW!
Me: I thought you were meditating?
Son: Mom! The dog’s doing something adorable! Come see!
Daughter (via DM): Mom whats for dinner?
Me (via DM): I thought you were going to Friend1’s house
Daughter (via DM): No, she and Friends 2-5 are coming here.
Daughter (via DM): Dad couldn’t drive me so I said they could all come here
Son: Mom! What’s for dinner?
(Enter two cats. One of them takes up residence on my lap; the other, on my keyboard.)
Husband: THAT GUY WE SAW IN THAT THING BACK IN 1997 IS ON SVU!
Editor (via DM): So how’s the book going?
Me: Jesus, take the wheel.

Captain, I have tried it all. I’ve tried closing the door (the doors in my house don’t lock, alas). I’ve tried putting signs on the door. I’ve tried responding with a vague “Mmm-hmmm,” I’ve tried yelling (“WHERE’S THE FIRE?”), I’ve tried talking at dinner about my need for JUST ONE LOUSY HOUR OF SOLITUDE. And I love my family, but if the only time I’m able to get work done is at 8 a.m. Saturday when everyone else is asleep (the rest of my family is apparently part-vampire because no one goes to bed before midnight), I’ll never meet my deadline.

So, from one creative type with a family including floofy animals to another: How do I stake out and claim the time I need to do this thing that I really, really want (and, not for nothing, am contractually obligated) to do?

Many thanks,
The Crowd in the Room of My Own (she/her)

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Dear Captain,

A bit over 3 years ago, I (she/her) went out with a guy (he/him) I met through an online dating site. We had some drinks, slept together, and then I basically ghosted him – ignored a couple of texts, then moved out of the country, changed my number, and never thought about him again. I’m not proud of ignoring his follow-up messages and wish I’d handled the situation differently – but at the same time, our date was very casual, I made it clear that I was not looking for a relationship, and he knew I was moving out of town the next week.

Flash forward to today, when I hit “accept” on a request from an account that’s been trying to message me on a social messaging site – usually I only accept requests from friends, but I decided to see what this was about. What I got was a trove of messages from this guy, dated from last year through last week, ranging from your garden variety emojis to several super intense declarations like “the thing I regret most in life is not spending more time with you.” UM.

Captain, if I had seen the first of these messages I would have sent a “Thanks but not interested, wish you well!” But I’m feeling completely overwhelmed by this backlog (for the record, the tone of all his messages is flattering / wistful / a little deferential – not pissed off or threatening). I know I behaved somewhat badly towards him – I wish I’d been more kind and direct when we went out, or when he later tried to contact me. Back then I was a pretty inconsiderate casual dater, and since then I’ve been really trying to treat people more carefully, and default to Using My Words. But does this level of, what – oblivious persistence? – on his part (again: it has been three + years) make that no longer my responsibility? Has this become the kind of thing where I *should* cut and run? I’d appreciate some help thinking through who’s owed what here, and when someone else’s weirdness means I don’t have to own up to my own.

– More Than Moved On

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Hail Captain! (And Awkwardeers)

I come to you with a question regarding boundaries and the ways to professionally enforce them. Some background: I’m a law student of a certain age (mid-30s) and a custodian to 2 cats (a black and a gray). Meaning that no matter what I wear, I’ve got some visible cat hair on all my outfits. After being a cat mom for 10 years, I’ve come to terms with it. Because honestly, my entire life (furniture, clothes, cars, to my casebooks) has some cat hair on it. And before anyone asks, yes I do try to curb the worst of it, but my cats are prodigious shedders. I can spend the minuscule bit of energy not devoted to school driving myself nuts about it, or I can just let it go and enjoy the fact my kiddos love me and want to be with me.

However, for my 22 year old cohort-mate, this is a way of life she can’t abide. This young lady feels extremely free to reach out and being removing cat hair from my person whenever she’s within arm’s reach. She does it in class, when I’m sitting beside her. She does it in casual conversation, when other people are present. I can only surmise she’s a “motherly” type, who thinks she’s helping. Or she’s got a thing about stray hairs that just makes her nuts. But Captain, as an introvert and adult woman, I don’t like it when someone who’s not the list of approved “touch me whenever you like” people touches me.

Captain, I’ve told her repeatedly to stop, that I don’t care if there’s cat hair, that I like it just fine, that maybe I want to take my babies with me all day! Her response is “It bothers me” as if that’s a valid excuse for breaching the sacred three foot bubble. Apparently she comes from a house of sisters, where this behavior is normal. Whereas I and my brothers outgrew the phase of just manhandling each other ten years ago. I want her to stop; I’ve told her to stop, but apparently what I want doesn’t much matter.

Captain, part of this program is hearing repeatedly that our professional community is very small, that we’re establishing our professional reputations, and that our behavior is being monitored. So making a scene isn’t an option I can take. I need some thoughts, or even a script on how to make a “professionally appropriate scene” to get this young woman to keep her hands to herself!

Any insights you can suggest would be appreciated,

Covered in Cat-hair

(she/her pronouns for both parties)

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