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Hi Captain,

Low-stakes question here.

I (she/her) have an old, dear friend (she/her) who has recently taken up a new art form. From my limited experience, it seems like she’s really good at it! But the subject matter hits on a relatively common phobia I have – let’s say she paints enormous, detailed portraits of spiders. Not offensive in any way, super cool for some people, but totally makes my skin crawl.

For now, I’ve muted her on social media and make some time every week when I’m feeling cozy and safe to scroll through and look for non-spider content. She’s an active poster about her art and her life and I like to catch up with the latter, plus she takes it pretty personally when her close friends don’t comment on heartfelt posts.

We live in different places so I haven’t had to see her art in person, but I’ll be visiting her city soon. How can I bow out of the personal exposition she’s offered while still making it clear that I love her and support her work? Likewise, should I say anything about my social media approach?

Sincerely,

Arachnophobic Friend

Hello and thanks for the question.

You sound like a wonderful, considerate friend who does a lot to cheer for and support your friend’s artwork, bravo!

I think it’s absolutely okay to disengage from art that scares you.

I think it’s okay to disengage from art you plain old don’t like, even if a friend made it.

Also, I think that you generally do not have to explain unfollows/filters that you use to make social media more pleasant and safe for you. It’s unlikely that your friend has even noticed your personal lack of response to SPIDER SPECTACULAR 2019, but if she has that’s the perfect opening for the conversation you need to have, not a reason to remove the safety net. Edited To Add: A Twitter friend suggests possibly asking artist to carefully tag all spider-related social posts so that you can easily filter the tag.

What if you told your friend something like, “Friend, you are so talented and I love your work, but [topic] freaks me out. I really want to see some of your pieces in person when I visit, but if you don’t want to have to peel me off the ceiling or split the difference between ‘aversion’ and ‘phobia’ in real time, I’d appreciate a) detailed warnings and b) being able to skip [topic]-related stuff. Can you work with me and curate all the non-[topic] pieces? I’d love to see those.”

This person likely knows what a great friend you are, how good you are at supporting and showing up for them, and that you wouldn’t bring this up if it weren’t serious, so it should be well-received. If you get a “Whoa, are you saying I shouldn’t make art about ____?” reaction, try “Oh no! You should make art about anything and everything you want to. It’s not you, it’s definitely the spiders, and how vividly you’ve rendered them is a testament both to your talent and my extremely specific terror, which you had no way of knowing about.” 

I hope it’s a good visit and you don’t have to put any spiders (etc.) in your eyes.

 

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.

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.

Edited To Add: I had initially mentioned directing the person to sensitivity readers but, as several kind people correctly pointed out, sensitivity readers don’t want to read racist books, they want to read really good books and catch unintentional small stuff that slipped through other edits at the very end. Here are some resources about sensitivity readers, the first piece is a good one about the ethical choice to pull a book that couldn’t be revised.

Additionally: 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!

 

Mozart & Salieri in Milos Forman's AMADEUS

What if Salieri had just kept making his own music and doing his Salieri thing?

Dear Captain and Crew,

I have a lighter question for you. What do you do when you are nearing the completion of your creative project, and it just feels weak? In my case, I have been working on my first novel on and off for just over a year. I am in the privileged position that I both have friends in the arts whose expertise and honest opinion I can rely on, and am able to afford a non-biased editor. With their support, this thing has been battered to hell and back, and I am now in a place where I can look at it and say that this is the story I originally set out to write. There are a few minor gaps still to plug, and then it needs polishing up, but, essentially, this is it. The problem is that, now that it actually exists, I’m less than enthusiastic about it.

I’ve done plenty of stuff over the years which I haven’t been happy with, but it has always been because I did it half-assedly and the end result didn’t match what I had in my head in the beginning. This thing, on the other hand, I’ve diligently ‘done right’, and it does match the feel of what I originally wanted to create. So why do I feel so meh about it? It’s making me really sad, especially because it was a story I really wanted to write for myself, the kind of thing I like to read but can’t find much of, rather than something I was potentially going to make money off of. My friends say finish it before passing final judgement, and I kind of want to, just to be able to say I’ve done it, but every time I sit down with it I just feel sad and awkward. I did take some time away from it, it didn’t help.

Thanks for any advice,

Amateur Writer

Dear Amateur Writer:

You have no idea how close to home this hits, and how much time I have spent thinking about this exact question as an artist who is not quite where she wants to be with her art form yet and as a teacher of artists.

And here is where I am with it, or where I am trying to be.

Your job is to do the work and then send it out.

That’s all.

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