Five ways editing is like weeding

Or, the superpowers of Stephenie Meyer’s editor

I came to The Twilight Saga at a time in my life when I desperately needed the literary equivalent of a security blanket. My mother-in-law, my role model, had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and we were visiting her for a week or so at her house in the Florida Keys. Family time often consisted of everyone sitting in the same room reading books, so I checked out Twilight from the library along with some more respectable volumes. Whatever those other titles were lay forgotten as I tore through the paranormal teen romance twice and then embarked on a multi-island search for a copy of New Moon. I also managed to read that twice before I had to return to the real world, where you can’t watch iguanas diving into the canal during breakfast and a sleepless supernatural suitor watching you slumber isn’t considered romance. I continued to collect and read all the books and saw the movies as they were released (some at midnight premieres with friends so rowdy we were actually shushed).

Some time after my initial fascination that in no way reflected the books’ quality, I found the spell had been broken. Two factors may have contributed to this development: 1) My mother-in-law passed away; and 2) I tried to read Midnight Sun. This was the version of Twilight written from Edward’s perspective, or at least it was going to be until 12 chapters were leaked on the internet. She abandoned the draft, telling Entertainment Weekly, “I do not feel alone with the manuscript. And I cannot write when I don’t feel alone.” She then published the draft on her website, raw and unedited. Meyer’s prose has never sparkled as much as her vampires, and plenty of editors have weighed in on its room for improvement. But Midnight Sun drives home how much Stephenie owes to her editor that the series was readable at all. I could only find her name in the acknowledgments of the third book (the first where Meyer deigns to acknowledge anyone at all), but I think Twihards owe a debt of gratitude to Rebecca Davis.

I debate whether Bella Swan deserves a place on my list. She certainly isn’t a warrior woman–the biggest battle in the books never even takes place. But I’m not sure she even qualifies as a strong female character. Besides turning into a vampire, her entire character arc consists of falling in love, having her heart broken, getting married and having a baby. Bella suffers from an acute lack of autonomy, especially as Edward steals parts from her truck to prevent her from going where she wants to. She’s supposed to be highly intelligent, but she forgets all about her education the moment she spots the sullen Cullen across the cafeteria.  And yet she’s been undeniably influential in the category of sci-fi/fantasy that appeals to women, so I’ll use her as an excuse to share some thoughts I had during an afternoon of yard work. And so, five things weeding and editing have in common:

  1. It’s detail oriented. There’s a whole manuscript, or a whole yard staring you in the face, but you’re only going to get through it one word at a time. Spending too much time thinking about the big picture will only make the task more daunting, without getting you any closer to the finish, so home in on the details instead.
  2. It’s the nigh-impossible pursuit of perfection. My personal philosophy is that editing is the delicate balance between the pursuit of perfection and the deadline. I also firmly believe that, no matter how many times you read a manuscript, or how many times you go over that flower bed, you’re always going to miss something. And yet everything you do (assuming you’re following the first rule of editing, to do no harm) pushes the finished product just a tiny bit closer.
  3. It’s a necessary part of the process. No one likes to be edited, just like no one likes pulling weeds. At a minimum, it’s uncomfortable to have someone point out your flaws. But you’ll never achieve your best work without allowing someone else, preferably a trained professional, to weigh in. With the trend of self-publishing, I fear we’re losing sight of this important step.
  4. It isn’t always black and white. Is that a weed or a plant? Is it an error or a stylistic choice? it may be both, from different people’s perspective. It’s always a good idea to know when to query a change instead of ripping something intentional from the landscape. On the other hand, you must also be decisive, lest you leave a yard full of queries that makes it look like you haven’t done your job at all.
  5. If you’re doing it right, it’s invisible. Editing isn’t the right profession for you if you crave the spotlight or constant recognition. No one notices how many weeds aren’t there; they focus on the pretty flowers. They might notice if you’ve left a bunch of divots in the mulch, but not in a good way. Preserving the author’s voice when editing is paramount. A well-edited work should always sound exactly like the person who wrote it–at his or her best. You may think you could have written it better yourself, but that wasn’t what you were hired to do, so resist the urge. You won’t get credit for it, anyway.
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Five ways editing is like weeding

Diplomatic Duds, a sartorial series set in space

According to Joss Whedon, “The main function of the human brain is storytelling. Memory is storytelling. If we all remembered everything, we’d be Rain Man and wouldn’t be socially happy. We learn to forget. We learn to distort. And from the very beginning we’re learning to tell a story about ourselves.” The importance of storytelling cannot be understated. Stories give us shared experiences, and it’s important that the experiences represented are diverse. It’s important for us to keep creating stories that push the boundaries of traditional tropes and patriarchal constructs.

With apologies to John Scalzi’s The Human Division, “Diplomatic Duds” will tell stories of humans’ attempts to pursue diplomacy with myriad alien races. In this universe, fashion isn’t a frivolous dalliance; it’s a crucial component of the diplomatic strategy to empathize with, show respect for and demonstrate a connection to other beings. In an episodic online format, a team of highly capable but complicated women will take futuristic fashion to the final frontier.

The web series will consist of 10 six-minute episodes for the first season. Funding will be crowdsourced through Kickstarter or Indiegogo, with most of the budget going toward costumes. In addition to a top-notch costume designer, the crew must include a videographer, editor and concept artist. The series will take place almost exclusively in the design studio, where costumes from other episodes can perform double duty as set decoration. Each episode will feature diplomats preparing for encounters with a different planet and alien race who never appear in person but are profiled by the human diplomat and depicted in images. The protagonists will alternate taking the lead in a dramatic sub-plot. The sub-plots will never be violent and seldom romantic, but they will bring the wider world(s) into the studio.

Additional behind-the-scenes videos will reveal the design and construction of each episode’s costume, potentially in a time-lapse format. The characters will express a preference for working with “antiques” so that some of the footage can be used in the series as well.

Diplomatic Duds, a sartorial series set in space

Pitch Perfect

Elevator Pitch #1

So, the problem we have is that all the shows about life in space focus so much on battling alien races. It’s all about military life and diplomacy. But what about everyone else living on that starship? There are plenty of other stories to be told. For instance, what do people wear in the future? What challenges are presented to the fashion designers who have to design for a crew that might be on an ice planet one week and a desert planet the next? What about the anatomical challenges of alien races? How do they prepare for intergalactic Fashion Week? I’m talking about a lighthearted comedy that follows the shenanigans of a space station couture fashion house.

Elevator Pitch #2

How is the Bechdel test the only way we judge a movie’s feminist credentials? Counting characters and conversations only accounts for quantity, not quality. Movies like Gravity slip by while Showgirls passes with flying colors. We need a better system. Mine has the same number of steps, but gives a slightly more nuanced evaluation.

  1. What’s the ratio of screen time for female and male characters?
  2. Who’s the main character? What is each female character’s relationship to the lead? Is she mother/sister/daughter/love interest? Or does she have a life of her own?
  3. Who makes the decisions? Does the female character do whatever the male says, or does she have a mind of her own?
Pitch Perfect

Redefining the strong female character

Too often, the strong female character is reductive. She’s as much of a stereotype as the 8-bit NPC with a pink pixel bow on her head. We can see her now: leather pants and heels sharp enough to use as a weapon in a pinch. Not that you’d ever see her without a weapon or two on hand. She wouldn’t dream of smiling; nor would she dream of covering her cleavage. She beats up on the boys and she’d beat you up, too, if you suggested she suffers from emotional attachments. Strong female characters, Carina Chocano points out, “are often just female characters with the gendered behavior taken out.”

Amy Rose Davis writes, “Warrior characters are necessary and empowering, but my concern is that we’re creating a whole new level of one-dimensional female characters that really aren’t any better than the one-dimensional virginal doormats of old fantasy.” The warrior woman has become a staple of sci-fi/fantasy, and you might call it progress. She’s not enough, though; we need female characters who have strength of character and not just physical strength. Davis describes strong characters as a person of either gender who:

  • “Makes choices in response to internal motivations.”
  • “Pursues different interests.”
  • “Uses a clear, distinct voice when compared to other characters in the story.”
  • “Drives the plot.”

These characters exist in the genre, and they should be celebrated. Kaylee Frye is only a secondary character on Firefly, but she represents each of these characteristics. Her primary motivation is her attraction to Simon Tam, but she’s often driven by one of her other diverse interests, from engineering to strawberries to the crewmates she loves like family. Her voice is the most distinctive among the ensemble, as she embraces Chinese phrases and slang like “shiny.” And her choices drive the plot as she recruits new passengers, works out creative solutions for criminal enterprises and reveals Simon’s sister River’s history with firearms even though it hurts her chances with the handsome young doctor.

On the other hand, an alternate definition of strong female characters is only a starting point. According to Sophia McDougall, we must transform the methods of storytelling entirely:

It won’t do to add maybe a touch more nuance but otherwise carry on more or less as normal. We need an entirely new approach to the problem, which means remembering that the problem is far more than just a tendency to show female characters as kind of drippy. We need get away from the idea that sexism in fiction can be tackled by reliance on depiction of a single personality type, that you just need to write one female character per story right and you’ve done enough.

Her model may seem like fantasy in itself, but at least one show is doing just that to great effect. In Orphan BlackTatiana Maslany portrays 10 multidimensional clones with such stunning nuance that you can immediately tell when one clone is impersonating one of her “sestras” before she even opens her mouth. Within a single set of DNA, the show demonstrates the widest variety of female experiences on modern television and consistently toys with our expectations of biological norms. Maslany plays a soccer mom, a con artist, a manicurist, a lesbian, a megalomaniac, a lunatic, a transgender male, a cop, a high school teacher and a German. With the exception of the German, who died before anyone found out anything else about her, each of those descriptions is far from complete. Jessica Roake argues that the show subverts the stereotype so thoroughly that it makes the men into stereotypes instead: “They are purposefully one-dimensional sketches denied the layers and complex motivations given to the female characters.”

Alyssa Rosenberg praises the new phenomenon in film and television she dubs the complicated woman. “The performances that were awarded Golden Globes this year are allowed to be remarkable because a heavy load has been removed from them,” she says. “In being liberated from the requirement to be paragons, these women get to be actual, lovable people. And because we can watch them struggle without being asked to dislike them, we can see the world around them more clearly, too.” Paragons are boring, whether she’s a warrior woman or an angel in the house.

The biggest problem with this discussion is that we place the onus on the character herself. Rather than demanding more from our female characters than strength, let us demand that her creators be strong writers of women and address the issue at its source.

Redefining the strong female character

iZombie: I could eat it up

For me, iZombie came out of nowhere. It was just a thing I’d heard almost nothing about that happened to be on TV when little else was. I hardly realized it was becoming my favorite new show until I noticed myself thinking about it days before it popped up on my DVR.

The premise bears a strong resemblance to Warm Bodies, an unexpectedly entertaining popcorn flick I spent an afternoon with for much the same reason as I first watched iZombie. I don’t often seek out zombies, even sentient ones who still have feelings–and not just the feelings they absorb from the brains they just consumed. Warm Bodies uses this setup for yet another Romeo and Juliet retelling that doesn’t pass part 3 of the Bechdel test. iZombie, on the other hand, makes its foray into paranormal crime-solving, a budding genre I’m more than happy to endorse. The first season just wrapped up spectacularly and a second season is assured, and to encourage you to watch it for yourself, I’ll limit myself to spoilers from the pilot.

izombie

Before an ill-advised boat party turned zombie outbreak, Liv Moore (see what they did there?) was one step away from a perfect, well-rounded life. The brunette Liv was an overachieving med student with a handsome, attentive fiance. “So, basically every day of your life is like the end of Sixteen Candles?” her rival and boat-party invitation-extender posits after Liv turns down the offer to show everyone she’s not “an overachieving pain in the ass.” Fiance Major encourage her to attend, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Liv wakes up in a body bag with her hair’s first platinum streak, and five months later she hasn’t slept since. She’s broken up with her fiance, traded med school for the medical examiner’s office, and she’s got the zombie metaphor down pat. Her mother, her best friend/roommate, her ex-fiance and her reluctant younger brother stage an intervention that happens to coincide with Halloween and the annual haunted house. (Yes, this is foreshadowing for Liv ending up in a zombie “costume.”) They’re concerned that she has PTSD after the boat party, rather than an appetite for brains. But stress isn’t her post-traumatic ailment, she narrates. “Post-traumatic ennui. Post-traumatic defeatism. Post-traumatic ‘what’s the point?'”

Fortunately, she’s in the middle of a pilot and her fortunes are about to improve. Her boss Ravi walks in on her cerebral snack, and he responds with a litany of questions and a series of medical tests rather than revulsion. He subsequently sets her up with a homicide detective and a psychic cover story, and she has a purpose for her second life and a premise for a weekly procedural dramedy.

Besides Warm Bodies, the show owes a lot to Pushing Daisies, in which a piemaker with a life-giving touch awakens murder victims in the morgue to help a private detective solve their cases. As much as I loved it (cruelly canceled after just two seasons), that show only featured the undead girl as the sidekick and love interest. Liv is the central character here, and she has all the elements of a fully realized woman, alive or undead. As a human, she juggled career and love without turning into an unlikable bitch. As a zombie, she realizes she can still put together a meaningful life and grapples with issues of family, romance and friendship. She also discovers her “dead alabaster badass” side, a red-eyed feeding frenzy she comes to call “full-on zombie mode.”

That’s only the beginning of what makes iZombie such a smart and refreshing viewing experience. It offers an overdose of girl power with room to spare. Rose McIver’s nuanced performance showcases each week’s batch of inherited traits and a wide range of experiences and neuroses, from high-school cheerleader to true PTSD. Unfortunately, the psycho-babble belongs on another blog.

iZombie: I could eat it up

The power of three waves

In the wake of a bad breakup my senior year of college, after a week of eating nothing but chips and salsa, I still wasn’t ready to face the dining hall with loud noises, human companionship and general revelry. So after my last class every day, I stopped by the snack bar, ordered a veggie sandwich on pumpernickel rye, and retreated to my roommate’s second-hand couch just in time for a rerun of Charmed. I watched it ironically, before hipsters co-opted the word. (Back then we were called emo.) The tradition lasted longer than my pining, and it foreshadowed my geeky awakening. Amidst a similary bad week in the life of Jenny Cliff, I flipped aimlessly through my Netflix queue and decided to find out Lo and behold, the power of three…while it didn’t set me free, it gave me enough energy to start a blog post that’s only mildly confessional.

Charmed began the year after Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the supernatural-girl-power similarities can’t be ignored. However, it also bears notable similarity to another show running at the same time, also from creator Aaron Spelling: 7th Heaven. Family values shape Charmed as much as magic, as the latter quite literally brings the sisters closer together in an old photograph.

charmed

The Halliwell sisters must simultaneously learn to navigate their new powers and their relationship as sisters living under the same roof–a roof recently inherited from their grandmother. Their powers are also inherited, passed down matrilinearly from an ancestor who was burned at the stake in Salem. Prue, the oldest, can move objects with her mind. She’s a career-driven, emotionally repressed woman who has little patience for the irresponsible youngest sister Phoebe, who sees visions of the past and future. Piper, the dutiful and domestic middle sister, tries to keep the peace and freezes time. Prue and Piper’s powers are linked to their emotions, anger and fear, respectively. Phoebe just flashes when it’s needed to move the story along. The so-called Charmed Ones are charged with protecting the innocent and fighting warlocks who want to steal their powers (among other monsters of the week), all while sharing a bathroom and searching for true love.

My guiding premise is that there are stories to tell about women in sci-fi/fantasy who haven’t completely given up their femininity in order to kick ass, but the Charmed sisters prove the old adage about too much of a good thing. In the first episode, Piper is engaged to a man who turns out to be a warlock lying in wait for the girls to find their power. Soon after, Prue reunites with her high school boyfriend, prompting a sisterly gossip session about her sleeping with him on their first date. As Prue’s relationship with the detective gets serious, Piper and Phoebe get jealous and cast a love spell–one of their first spells ever–to find men of their own. Prue can’t keep her man, though, because she can’t keep him happy while going about her secretly witchy ways. Then Piper and Phoebe begin a friendly(ish) rivalry over the handyman, who turns out to be their “whitelighter” or guardian angel and (spoiler alert) Piper’s husband. Piper tells Leo that Phoebe is a lesbian to get ahead in the game. The show seems to pay lip service to girl power while always offering a man to point the way or save the day.

Watching today, there’s something precious and naive about pre-9/11 television, as though the industry underwent a loss of innocence right alongside the American people. “Are your parents terrorists?” one casanova asks Phoebe. “‘Cause you da bomb!” As with many shows, including everyone’s favorite vampire slayer, Charmed got better with age (and with Rose McGowan replacing Shannen Doherty in season 4). The fact that it skews toward soap opera is a feature, not a bug. Sci-fi/fantasy often overlaps with action, horror and suspense genres, so why not a girly one? It’s unfair for me to judge it by the handful of episodes I could binge watch in a few afternoons, and it’s wrong for me to judge its moral compass because it doesn’t perfectly align with my own. The third wave is about larger acceptance of every woman’s experience. That said, the special effects leave a lot to be desired, even for the 90s.

The power of three waves

App: Stock Character Catalog

Stock characters occupy a valuable place in literature. They’re a form of shorthand, people you recognize immediately so you can pick up on their lives mid-story without a full biography beforehand. Learning to identify these tropes is valuable in becoming a more enlightened and critical consumer of literary works. Knowing the traditions a creator is drawing from helps to evaluate whether the author is reinforcing stereotypes, subverting tropes, or crafting well-rounded personae.

This app offers a full index of stock characters, from absent-minded professor to zombie. Users can search a full alphabetical list or browse a selection of common types with amusing visual representations. Each character page offers a definition along with examples of the type, to which users can add their own. The app will link to external sources for character descriptions to save space, but it will have pages for specific works that list the tropes in play for each cast of characters. Users can search for works that feature their chosen combination of stock characters. A partnership with Amazon or another company will allow users to find works streaming or available for purchase. Finally, users can test their trope trivia with matching quizzes for characters and definitions.

App: Stock Character Catalog