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Dear Captain –

I (she/her) am a middle-aged wife of a man (he/him). We’ve only been married three years (together 8) but it has turned out to be rather nothing like what I wanted marriage to be – and I was not unrealistic! He’s emotionally constipated and may also be more intellectually my inferior than he first seemed. He’s kind, not a monster, but he doesn’t manage stress well – at all – and I don’t manage money well. He’s sexually inexperienced compared to me, but he’s still interested whereas I am completely dead from the neck down. Right now hugging him is like hugging a pillow. I am so tired of managing his emotions, explaining things to him, taking the lead on any decision-making because he can’t manage it, quelling my frustrations, enduring his inept pawing, trying to explain my dissatisfactions and needs without somehow making him feel blamed, I’m exhausted. In addition, my work situation has gotten more isolated, difficult, and stressful. Plus there’s the news cycle grinding us all down slowly.

I believe strongly in the campsite rule of relationships, leave them better than you found them; I think if I vanished he’s in a better place: he’s in touch with his creative side, has a wide and non-toxic pool of friends who love him, and a homier home and healthier diet. However, I used to be creative and horny and enthusiastic and I did performances and made things and wrote things, I kept up with my projects and bills and friends, and now I just want to watch TV or maybe play World of Warcraft, though it’s too much bother most of the time. Definitely depressed! But, if he vanished, I would be worse than when he found me, but I’d feel free.

One day I had a dream, followed by another dream, which resulted in writing a 200,000 word book in three weeks. I didn’t want to do anything else, I was utterly engulfed in this project. He keeps asking what I am doing but I just can’t tell him, “Writing!” but he’s convinced I have to share every phase of any project like he does because he’s so insecure. Anyway, all I want to do is work on these books. I have control of that little universe on the page, and I don’t want to engage with him at all. He’s trying to be sweet but it’s too little too late. He’s always been terrible at communicating any kind of emotions besides stress. Any time he has stress he crawls up his own ass and neglects everyone around him, particularly me. I am exhausted beyond belief. We both have therapists, but it’s still too early to be experiencing results, and we definitely need couples therapy. A bitter part of my brain just knows he’s not asking her the right questions.

I am in despair and I just need to know how I can communicate “please fuck off” while I am working on this project, which is tantamount to an emotional affair (the first book involves me meeting and getting together with a famous person; the second is a meta response). I feel guilty not telling him, but I know he’ll take it personally and then those emotions he cannot express will be my problem too. I am his mother more than his wife and I don’t even know what a proper relationship looks like. But it ain’t this. If I knew it would be like five years from now, I would be gone. But I am hoping therapy/Wellbutrin will help.

I guess my question is: how do you tell the husband you are currently utterly burned out on that you are writing a story about being in love with someone else, and you’d much rather do that than talk to your husband? My book lover is not some Hemsworthian hunk but is the opposite of my husband in all the important ways, and a very nerdly sort of beau. My regular crush on him has definitely blossomed into something unhealthy, but I’m in no danger of acting out on it, so it’s more of an escape than a manifesto.

Sincerely,
Writing A Book With Dream Boyfriend

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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!

 

I wrote this to maybe read at last night’s (EPIC!) Story Club, but the name-draw for open mic slots did not go my way. Still, I didn’t want it to go to waste. So here, without ado (and without comments enabled , b/c it’s a performance piece, not a discussion piece) you go.

Notes From A Boner

They pop up from time to time on Facebook. Time-stamp 3 AM, from an old friend I used to mess around with in college. “Hey, what’s new? I was just thinking about you.”

I bet you were, buddy!

Sometimes they show up in the film class that I teach. I play a clip from Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, to show how color temperature isn’t just a technical thing and you can manipulate it to create mood. “What did you see? What do you think?,” I ask the students.

Every time I do this, a freshman boy says something like “She’s sooooo hot” or better yet, “She used to be so hot,” referring to Jennifer Lopez, who frankly kills it in this role. The girls and gay boys don’t say anything about The Clooney, and I quickly change the topic to “What did you think ABOUT THE LIGHTING” while delivering my best over-the glasses disapproving mom look. The one that says “It is I, Queen Femicunt¹, First of her Name, Khaleesi of the Bitchrealms and the Isles of No Funnington.” I want that boner to slink away and think about what it did. But its presence still lingers. Every clip I show, I now have to think about from the point of view of a taunting, persistent boner.“You’re teaching cinema, I see. Did you know that nearly everything ever created in this medium was designed to make ME happy on some level? Muahahahahaha!

Sometimes the notes from boners get delivered on the street, or on the eL. “Smile!” “You should smile more!” “Hey baby, where’s that smile?” and if I don’t smile, or I smile like this (using two middle fingers to hold up the corners of my mouth),“Bitch!” “Fat bitch” “Ugly bitch” Here I was, walking around, grocery shopping, registering to vote, minding my business. I didn’t know I was making the boners sad. Fortunately The Committee for Boner Rescue and Repair was on the case to educate me. I imagine their letterhead, with Notes from a Boner! Stamped! at the top, ready to deliver humbling memos to grateful citizens everywhere.

Sometimes I write back back to the boners. Like, when I tried to sell my bike on Craigslist, and a guy sent me a dick pic from hisrealname@wherehereallyworks.com. Not wanting that boner to go to waste, I shared it with humanresources@wherehereallyworks.com. Boners are spontaneous. They live in the moment. They don’t always think things through.

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Hi Captain!

My main question is: how do I keep going? I have 99 problems, I need to fix at least 95 of them but right now I can’t even seem to fix 1 so I am stuck. I’ve been actively job-hunting for over a year now. I know others have it worse, either through bad jobs or no jobs at all, but I just really need to move on. I can never get past the first interview though, if I’m lucky. I’ve even written to Ask a Manager (http://tinyurl.com/9fvsx3r and an update here: http://tinyurl.com/aavl7hb) but things have only gotten more frustrating and stupid at work. I’m in debt and trying to get out.

I moved back in with my parents last year to save money. I would like to get my own place again. Or get a job much closer to my parents’ house because the current commute is REALLY getting me down. I’ve been doing this commute for eight years now and, I can’t deal with it. It’s long, stressful, involves multiple modes of transportation, etc. I work for a university and theoretically, once you’re in their system, it’s fairly easy to job-hop. If I’ve applied for let’s say, 100 jobs in the past year, with my current employer, then I’ve gotten interviews for like, 8 of them. That’s not counting applications outside my current employer. I’m seriously wondering if I’ve been blacklisted but don’t know it (I’ve had three jobs with this employer and only one was an actual bad fit so my supervisor and I were both happy that I moved on). I feel like my life needs to undergo a serious change but I don’t know how. I’m turning 30 this summer and the thought that my life at near-40 will be the same as my life now…I can’t. Things could be so much worse but I’m sure it could all be better too.

I’ve had dreams of being a professional novelist all my life and I was a journalist for a while but let that go too but then I just feel like I squandered those freelance opportunities to stay with my current employer, because it was a full-time, steady paycheck, health benefits, etc. I’m trying to keep my head up but I just feel like something needs to give/change soon– an actual job offer, winning the lottery, a friend saying “Hey, I’m moving to the other side of the country and need a roommate/admin assistant?”, etc. I’m even wishing I would lose my job even though I know that wouldn’t help my current situation. In short, how do I just keep going? 

Letter writer, you are going through a really hard thing. It’s hard enough to answer the big questions of “Why am I here? And what do I have to contribute? And what will people pay for me to contribute so I can make a living?” without having to live at home and have a hellish commute. There are a bunch of baby steps and small incremental changes you could make to make your situation better, covered in this old post about clawing your way out of a depressing living situation and  in this post about how to keep moving forward when your brain hates you that I found today (good post!). I think a lot of people feel like you do right now and can relate to your situation. Some suggestions and questions for you below the jump.

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Dear Captain of the Awkward Army,

I have recently decided to do something about my lifelong dream to be a professional writer. I still have a non-creative-writing job that makes money (well, a paying internship, but close enough), but I am trying to spend more and more of my free time writing fiction, editing, and submitting stuff. I haven’t finished the book I started last year yet, but I’m probably 60% done, and in the last four months or so I’ve written six short stories, all of which I have submitted to at least one magazine.

Here is my problem: I’ve gotten ten rejections so far and no acceptances. I get that this is totally normal and most writers and creative people weather a nightmarish storm of “Your piece is not what we are looking for right now” for weeks or months or years before the “We would like to pay you to do this thing you like” Magical Skippy Unicorn shows up, but the fact is: I get a little more depressed and lose a little more confidence in my abilities with every form letter I receive.

Do you have any other advice besides “just keep writing”? That’s not really the problem for me; I write almost compulsively and really enjoy making up stories. The problem is finding the energy to keep trying to improve my work (through rigorous editing, seeking feedback, reading books about the craft of writing and so on) and keep submitting when it feels so pointless—I’m probably going to get rejected anyway, so why do the hard bits that I don’t like? I’ve been trying to get critique to figure out where I’m going wrong, but the online forums I have tried are really frustrating, I think my friends are pretty sick of reading things I wrote, and I’m currently working in a country where the main language is not English, so I’m not sure how successful I’m going to be in finding an English-speaking writers’ group.

Help?

Yours,

Not starving, and apparently not an artist either

Dear Not Starving:

Sorry to disappoint you. You can:

1) Keep writing and sending out your work.

2) Give up and do something else.

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I just watched this TED talk by Brene Brown (thanks to Between Those Things).



I’m a total geek for TED. The internet is amazing.  We live in amazing times.  I press a few buttons and books come to my house. I press a few more and I get to sit at the feet of brilliant people and hear about the neat stuff they are doing. I’m not big on New Year’s Resolutions because by March they become The List of Things I’m Currently Failing At  but it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to watch a TED talk every single day and write about it.  Shit, I started the wrong blog!

How does any of this relate to advice columns and screenwriting?

Two years ago I took an “Autobiography & Memoir” class with the great Chicago performance artist and teacher Brigid Murphy.  Here’s the class:  Brigid gives you writing prompts.  Using a paper journal and a pen, you scribble down a story from your past without editing or judgment.  You bring the story to class and read it out loud, and the group comments on the details and moments they found most compelling.  You write 10 or so of these pieces and then choose one to polish and adapt into a screenplay, a piece of fiction, or another piece of art.

What happens when I just wrote down what happened, without to be literary or to make myself look good, was magical.  Reading the stories aloud told me where to cut and where to elaborate.  It turns out there is a club for people who tell stories like this, and I started reading in public. I got in the habit of speaking truthfully about vulnerable topics and not feeling ashamed.  My life got better.  My art got better.

If you are any kind of artist, your embarrassment and pain and fear and weird gross obsessions and preoccupations and failures become the DNA of your work.   Joel hides Clementine in his shameMeg Murray defeats IT with love and with her faults.

In life, the courage to be vulnerable makes you go after what you want.  Try these on for size:

“I’ve been afraid to ask you out because I don’t want to ruin our friendship, but I really like you and would love to take you on a date. Would you be up for that?”

“You think you’re being helpful when you say those things to me, but really you’re just hurting my feelings, so I need you to stop.”

“I don’t really like being a management consultant.  I want to save up some money and then start my own business.”

“I can’t handle this all by myself and I need help.”

“Let’s have a kid.”

Scary, right?  It’s uncomfortable to put yourself out there.  What Brown discovered in her research and we all know from any awareness about our culture, when we are afraid to be vulnerable and uncomfortable, we numb ourselves.  We look for certainty.  We blame others.  We try to pretend that consequences don’t exist.  We grit our teeth and limp through another year.

Or, we take a risk.  It could fail spectacularly, but it could be kind of amazing.