Distracted by Grammar

“Wait. Did you really say that?”

My dad is on the other end of the line.  I’m complaining to him about someone I don’t know well and what I consider to be their very rude behavior toward me.  He stops me in the middle of my story about our brief exchange, and I’m worried he’s found some flaw in my side, that he thinks I’ve been rude.

I’ll admit I was skirting the edges of rudeness during that short dialogue.  I found this person’s behavior to be intolerably gauche and wanted to respond by pulling what I’ve decided to term a “Southern Lady”.  In my brain, Southern Ladies have this remarkable ability to stay calm in the face of rudeness and to remind people of their impropriety by being the very picture of decorum themselves.  To a Southern Lady, “bless her heart” is an insult.  That was the goal: to be as insulting as possible by acting as generous as possible.  This is a difficult task.

“Did you really say that?” he asks.

“What?  That ‘I wouldn’t worry?'”  Was that wrong?  Was that rude?  Did I err in my attempts at Southern Lady scolding?

“No.  ‘His not going.’  Did you really say, “I wouldn’t worry about his not going?”

“Of course I did, dad.  I work as an editor.”

“Even so,” my dad replies, “that deserves praise.  I’m glad you use the right grammar.”


Confessions of a Red Pen: I work too quickly


It’s almost 9am and I’m procrastinating.  I’ve set for myself this new rule: Work between 9am and noon.  For those of you who are not writers, who get up in the morning and go to work, you’re probably wondering why I’m such a lazy jerk, but I know for a fact that some of you are reading blogs on the company dime, that you’re surfing Facebook and scouring Reddit.  So, how much work do you actually do every day?

At this point in writing, I have gotten distracted by the Four Hour Workweek and Tim Ferriss’ blog.  In case anyone is not aware, the Four Hour Workweek advocates outsourcing as much as humanly possible, thus leaving your time free of annoying tasks and you more productive.  As a writer and editor, I have mixed feelings about outsourcing.  Every day on Elance, I see hundreds of job postings that are exactly that: jobs posted by individuals who want work done, but not necessarily done the best it could be.  All of the jobs for 200 word articles paid at $1 each, but offering as many article topics as you can handle, all of these are aimed at the outsourced.  They are aimed at the same sort of people who can actually make a living by mining for gold on World of Warcraft for twelve hours a day.  Cost of living must be very low for someone who will do a job for $1.

On the other hand, the Four Hour Workweek is also advocating simply stripping out the useless.  When I say I plan to work for three hours per day, what I mean is that I plan to do only work-related tasks (preferably writing) for three hours, straight.  Today, I’m counting this blog, which is cheating, but it is also writing.  Either I need to make stricter rules for myself or live with the fact that I will always find ways around them.  Doing only useful tasks is more difficult than it sounds, and the results, as Tim Ferriss suggests, can be staggering.

Personally, I feel prepared for this task by the fact that I work too quickly, anyway.

Working quickly counts as one of those things that I can use as my best and worst quality in job interviews.  It’s the best because if my boss comes over and says, “You know, we should think about creating a new system for boosting morale,” I will, by the end of the day, have established a team, written three pages on teamwork from this book I read at lunch, and posted a notice of some sort of morale-boosting game in the break room.  I’m not kidding.  This is a real-life story.  But it’s also bad because sometimes simply getting things done overshadows my perfectionism.  I’ll leave out major steps.  In high school math classes, I always finished tests first, but would always miss points because I simply forgot that I was supposed to add instead of subtract, etc.  Clearly, this working quickly thing works against the personality traits that make me a good editor.

Giving myself a three hour window of time in which to complete all my work does a couple of things.  First of all, it gives me a deadline, which keeps me from procrastinating until 10pm, when things are past due.  Secondly, it allows me to rush through my projects and still have time left in the day to, you know, edit.

At times, I worry that I work too quickly.  I worry that I’m not charging enough money because I am so good and so fast, or that I am charging too much because I clearly don’t take pride in what I do.  I worry that someone will ask me to “look at this”, and 20 minutes later, I’ve rewritten 8 pages, clearing up grammar mistakes and rewording whole paragraphs for the sake of “flow”.  I worry what my clients think of that.

What I have to remind myself in times of doubt is that I am simply well-suited to the life of a freelancer.  I can do the jobs that others cannot (or find too tedious and time-consuming), and I can do them quickly.  When people are willing to pay for this service, I can also make money at it.  And for those people who are looking to outsource certain parts of their life (the writing of their website, or their blog, the editing of their manuscript), I am there to do it incredibly quickly.

Speaking of which, it’s 9:35am.  I should start that 5-page project I promised someone today.

NaNo and the Red Pen

November is a month of extremes in my life.  On the one hand, I absolutely love Fall in Maryland.  When people ask me how I could possibly have moved from California and actually stayed in Maryland, I refer to Fall.  My dad mentioned to me yesterday that the vineyards are all changing color in Sonoma Valley.  This is a glorious sight: rows upon rows of deep red grape vines pin stripe the rolling hills.  In spring, it is the opposite. The vines are green and the ground between them bursts to life with yellow mustard flowers.  These are beautiful sights.  However, they are also the only real indication of change in seasons that Northern California sees.  In Maryland, the diversity of color and the incredible changes in weather mark every change in season with a bright flag.  Now, it is Fall.

November is also the month when facial hair is the most encouraged among men, which I get behind.  November is my birthday month.  And there’s Thanksgiving.  Grocery stores are still selling winter squash, and inevitably, I still have a half dozen in my pantry to last me through winter.  So November is good.

It is also difficult.  As I’m sure is true for everyone, work speeds up for me in the Fall.  Summer vacations are officially over and everything under the sun needs to be done before the lull of the holidays sets in.  I need my book finished by Christmas.  The site is content ready and needs to be running by New Year’s.  There is a lot of work to do.  And, this year, I’ve decided to participate in NaNo, again.  I’m already shaking my head at myself.

For those who don’t know, NaNo is short for National Novel Writing Month.  The idea began in 1999 in San Francisco, when a group of friends decided to challenge themselves to write an entire (short) novel in the span of 30 days.  Now, the movement has grown to hundreds of thousands of participants around the world.  There is a website, where novelists can track their word count throughout the month, and connect with other foolish souls who have put their entire life on hold in order to crank out 50,000 words in 30 days.

I’ve participated in NaNo before, but have not ever cracked the 50,000 word mark.  Nor have I finished the novels I’ve started.  I do not know if this year will be different in that regard.  However, I do know who it will change from previous years.  This year, the Red Pen has a plan.

Step one: Put down the Red Pen

National Novel Writing Month is an exercise in pain, futility, horror, and also, the simple dedication to writing.  The goal is to produce something, anything.  The goal is not to publish that thing, or even to make sure that thing is publish-ready.  A lot of editing is required for the production of a novel, but editing has absolutely no place in NaNo.  There is no time for it.  And, quite frankly, there is no point is avidly editing something that doesn’t actually exist.

Step two: Don’t pick up the Red Pen

Editing is what I do.  It is most of my business.  Even when I am ghostwriting (which is another large portion of my business), I have to edit my own work before I can send it to clients.  My ability to edit is what keeps me alive in this game, and it will get me exactly nowhere in NaNo.

I have always been the type to edit as I go.  It keeps me moving, by letting me recall what I’ve already said and what I need to say next.  It keeps me from getting fatigued by the process of writing and satisfied in my ability to actually say what I’d like to say.  And none of this is useful to my endeavor in NaNo.

Step three: Take my own advice

Often, when helping clients, I am involved in the process as much as I am in simply providing an end product.  Invariably, I am asking questions, encouraging, and offering advice as much as I am marking things up.  Blogging clients often need encouragement to write regularly.  Clearly, so do I.  What I tell clients in this situation is always to stay ahead of the game.  If you want to publish weekly, make sure you crank out a couple of workable blogs at once.  Even if they are not both in publishable condition, you are ahead of the game just slightly, and this will help on days and weeks when you can’t muster the creative energy.

In order to crank out 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to write close to 1,700 words per day.  I can end up writing many thousands of words in a day for different jobs, but this is not the same thing as consistently, daily, writing that much on a single piece.  You don’t get to put it down and work on something else.  I mean, you do, but then you aren’t moving your word count forward.  It’s harder than it seems.  And it doesn’t seem easy.

The only way to survive is to consistently, whenever possible, write more than that 1,700 daily benchmark.  There will be days I cannot write.  Because I am lazy.  On those days, I need to have the words in the bank to avoid feeling defeated by my own ineptitude.

Step four: Have a plan

I really need a plan.  This is step four because, quite frankly, I’m an editor.  I do really well taking trash that other people have written and turning it into polished silver.  My trademark phrase at the moment is “What you were trying to say is–”.  It’s a nasty habit, as it crops up in conversations with everyone.  A great friend of mine is a very talented artist and I found myself editing a half-finished painting of hers a few weeks ago.  The only thing that saves me, socially, is that sometimes I am right.

My point is that planning out a story-line is not what I do best.  I am better at reworking story-lines.  I am better and reorganizing flow, changing wording, that sort of stuff.

So, for me, definitely, I need to find a plan.

Pushy and Possessive: Fear and loathing at the RV show

I have never worked in sales, and I know nothing about RVs.

I do know what it’s like to work long hours on my feet.  I worked at a grocery store for a few years.  I used to say my job was running around and lifting heavy things, but my body is not used to that anymore.  I get seven hours of sleep, regularly, now; I don’t remember which shoes are good for standing.

I also spent a lot of time interacting with people at the grocery store.  We were “known for our customer service”.  So my plan is to not really “sell” any RVs, so much as I will “customer service” people an RV.  That seems workable.  Also, the only reason I’m here is because I didn’t have any freelance work for the weekend, so if I fail to sell anything, I’m not going to cry about it.  I’m here with my boyfriend, who knows ever so slightly more about RVs than I do, having started working this particular sales job a month ago.  I am here to spend a long weekend with him, and to pretend I can sell RVs. I can do anything for four days.

Only crazy people use jobs as a vacation.  This won’t be the first (or the last) time I will deem myself crazy by my own criteria.

It is late summer in Northern Maryland.  The days are still long, but the weather is changeable.  The heat and humidity of summer do not fade slowly into autumn, but rather butt heads with the cooler nights and the breezes, forcing days of heavy rain and undulating, unpredictable skies.  I have learned to watch the weather patterns and to make predictions about many things tangential to weather, like grocery sales, and traffic, and the coming winter.  I know nothing about this area as it relates to RVs, however.  There is good camping to the south and the east, but in my brain, Maryland is close enough to DC to be either too rich for mobile campers, or too poor.

Day one begins with a meeting.  In fact, all of the days begin with meetings.  We began days at the grocery store with meetings, too.  I would try to make them fun, because arriving to work at 4am is not fun, but whenever people interact with workers at this grocery store, they describe us as “fun”, so at the 7:50am meetings, I would try to be fun.  Sometimes I would forget to be fun because there were still six pallets of frozen to work, three people had called out, and they had left the back room a mess the night before.  On those days, fun turned into bitingly sarcastic and I would make jokes about lighting people’s families on fire, which was maybe not fun.  I don’t get the sense that the sales managers for the RV show are trying to have fun, but they don’t have to because they are telling us about the money they will be handing out.  It doesn’t really matter how much standing you have to do, cash prizes are fun.  We did not have cash prizes at the grocery store.

Get people’s contact information; get money.  Get an offer; get money.  Get two sales; get money.  I do not expect to make any money when I sit down, but by the end of the meeting, I am ready to sell and ready to get my cash.

The weekend is frenetic, and yet, still manages to be boring much of the time.  Everyone’s moods are as changeable as the weather, which literally goes from dense heat, to rain, to cool and lovely over the four days we are there.  I ask as many questions of other salespeople as the potential buyers do of me.  For the most part, everyone is nice.  They point me in a direction; they give me tips; they talk for a long time about the best way to approach people.  Usually, they tell me to be some version of pushy.  They are pushy that I should be pushy.

“Why are they here if they aren’t looking to buy?” one salesman asks me.  He suggests I badger people to sit down at the tent and to buy an RV.  He seems to believe that shaming customers about going to an RV show without the intention of buying will change their mind about buying.  This is his job.  Maybe he knows something I do not.

Many of the salesmen are pushy in many ways.  Not just with customers and not just in telling me how to sell things.  They are pushy with each other, pushy in normal conversation.  They live in a sort of overdrive, exceptionally excited about the potential sales, exceptionally focused with their customers, and exceptionally bored or frustrated when they don’t have a customer to follow.

When Allen doesn’t have a customer to attach to, he will find another salesperson to bully into conversation.  Allen is a talker in mid-life.  He stands too close and laughs at his own jokes, always just slightly inappropriate for the crowd.  I wonder if he is making similarly misogynistic jokes to the couples looking at RVs and whether there is any chance they take it better than I do.  Allen talks fast and doesn’t notice when you aren’t participating in the conversation.  He laughs to fill the void where your laughter should be, and continues on.  By day two, I have learned to steer clear, to throw another coworker into Allen’s line of fire.  I would rather wander the aisles of parked trailers, slowly plodding and being rejected by busy families who are “just looking” than get sucked into a one-sided conversation with Allen.  My inability to strikethrough his speeches frustrates me to the point of rudeness.  I am more reliant on my red pen than I had realized.

I have never been so tired.  I barely make it through dinner, threatening to pass out at the table, urging my boyfriend to leave quickly because, while I have agreed to drive the half-mile back to the hotel, the rate at which I am verging on sleep is rushing to beat out the rate at which he is getting drunk.  Soon, my sobriety will not be enough to designate me driver.  That night I dream of sales and stress, of the grocery store, and more stress.  When I awake, every part of me is sore.  The mattress is too new and my knees hurt, I think, from the minute dome of the mattress and my need to sleep on my stomach.  The pillows are too thick.  My shoulders hurt.

Yesterday’s activities have made me hyper aware of my muscles.  I am unused to standing, walking on cement.  My body craves rest and a deep tissue massage.  I question my vacation decisions.  Until I get my money.  I have gotten contact information, and that means money.  A sales manager calls my name at morning meeting and announces to the crowd my cash earnings, “Six leads and five emails. Twenty-two dollars!”  The salespeople behind me applaud, as they do when each dollar amount is given.  They are applauding the money, not the person.  I have made one sale, which earns me no large cash bonus, but the promise of a commission, which I admit I do not understand.  Twenty-two dollars is officially more than I would have made this weekend, otherwise.

Day two is bright and sunny.  We are all expectant.  Having tasted our own good luck on opening day, we have high hopes of eager customers, but they do not come.  The bright sun becomes oppressive and we are oppressed.  Salesmen become sluggish, aimlessly wandering empty aisles, chugging 12oz plastic bottles of water only to sweat it out minutes later.  There is no breeze within the confines of the recently erected mobile village, and inside the RVs, the only places to sit, the only places out of the sun, are still more confined, hotter, more oppressive.  There are no customers to “customer service” and I am glad this is not my real job.  I force my attention toward the other salespeople, hoping that the writer in me can leave the show satisfied, even if the budding saleswoman does not.

I ask questions, pretending I am an undercover reporter.  I am HST.  I have forgotten my drugs.  Sweat seeps from my pores and my company polo shirt sticks to my back and to my underarms uncomfortably.  I contemplate leaving.  When I do not leave, I contemplate the Stanford Prison Experiment.  I wonder how far I will go down the sales rabbit hole, now that I am here and have been named.

The bickering starts in the pressurized heat of the second day.  Jerry has made a lot of sales, a sort of absurdly large number compared to the average and there are many opinions about it.  Doyle whispers to me that Jerry is stealing sales, that those people belong to someone else.  Pushy and possessive.  If you are talking to someone, they are yours.  If you hand out a card, give them your name, they are yours.  Don’t talk to someone else’s customer, ever.  If you know they have been claimed, and you talk to them, you will be accused of stealing.  Doyle and Eric whisper themselves to a frenzy when they see Jerry sitting down with yet another claimed customer.  They chain smoke as the evening winds down and we close up the trailers.  Doyle makes plans with a bottle of moonshine and mutters about the karma that will come back around to Jerry.

I have made my own misstep in ownership.  My first sale is to a couple who have apparently been shopping around causing distress for over a year.  Mr. and Mrs. Samson are in their 70’s and know exactly what they want.  They have done enough research that they have moved past the point of convincing themselves to buy and have come all the way back around to unsure again.  Mrs. Samson wants to pay wholesale.  She says she has found a wholesaler in Indiana who will sell her the trailer she wants for two thirds our asking price.  We are not a wholesaler.  If she wants to drive to Indiana there is nothing stopping her.  I am not a pushy saleswoman.  I tell her we cannot meet the price in Indiana, but we can save her a drive.  I am indifferent to the idea of her buying an RV today.  I say I am indifferent, but I am not quite.

She wants to sit down, but doesn’t want to buy.  I don’t mind wasting time because I don’t know what I’m doing, anyway.  I would be unlikely to make another sale during this time.  The Samsons tell me they’ve spent the last year and a half running circles around Eric, but that they want to work with me.  I’m not sure if disloyal customers make me a thief in this system.  I tell my sales manager.  I find Eric.  He calls the couple a bunch of ass holes and says he’d tell them not to waste is fucking time.  I ask if he wants to talk to them and he says he has bigger fish to fry in Motor Homes.

Neither of us think the Samsons are buying.  We both know I’m wasting my time.  But when I make the sale, the chittering is about me.  I don’t like it, and try to mend things with Eric, and also to defend myself.  The grocery store was catty and sniping and I was glad to be out of it.  With this, my first sale, I am no longer the girlfriend of; I am a threat.  I must establish dominance.  I must retreat into soft laughter to put the others at ease.  I will strike when their guard is down.

Eric and I make up when, at the end of the day, we both work ourselves into a heated rage at Steve, who has stolen clients from each of us.  “Is that your little girl?” Doyle asks, coyly, pointing to a family speaking to Steve.  It is.  I claimed that family an hour ago.  Everyone knew I was looking for a little girl in pigtails, that she was mine.

“There you are,” I say to the husband, while Steve climbs out of a trailer.  This is the salesman’s coded phrase meaning back the fuck off my customer.  I smile.  “I found the information you were looking for, and a few new models that are coming out in the Spring if you want to take a look.”  I am reasserting my right to this family.  They are mine.  They talked to me first.  I have learned these tactics quickly, picked up the rules of the game and the key phrases to employ.  But Steve ignores my use of the magic words, he ignores me.  He speaks only to the customers, looks only at the customers.

I know nothing about sales, but I will not be pushed aside by this man.  The heat is too much.  I am getting too involved.  Am I prisoner or guard?  I hate Steve and talk about the ethics of the situation all the way back to the hotel.  Waiting for the elevator with my boyfriend, I am still complaining.  The doors ding and open; Steve walks out.  He is a thief and I hate him.

I am sunburnt and exhausted.  The soles of my feet are so sore I worry for the continued health of my plantar fascia.  My mind wanders to the barbaric practice of caning the soles of the feet and the lasting damage it can inflict.  What lasting damage is being inflicted upon me?I dream again of stress.  The grocery store, being yelled at, falling, loose teeth, fighting assailants.  I wake up in tears, wondering what I’ve done with my life, how I have ended up here, in this hotel room, wondering if I can accept the failure I have signed up for this weekend, the constant rejection and dismissal.  We go to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and Munchkins® and we are late for morning meeting.

On day three, the weather goes from oppressive heat to ceaseless rain, and I am wearing the wrong shoes.  Jerry’s sales have kept up, and people do not applaud him when he collects his cash.  More whispers.  Eric begins to doubt himself, sees his upcoming dry spell stretching before him, though none of us can, and he fights the premonition with melancholy and rage.  He will make no more sales at the show.  The rain brings Eric’s gloom, but as the weather settles on the final day, so will he.  I glare at Steve and keep an eye out for yesterday’s stolen customers.

Alice and Doyle have given up.  Alice smokes behind the destination trailer in the back and tells me about her girlfriend.  They are fighting.  She hasn’t slept.  Doyle is sleeping only after full quarts of moonshine.  He counts the number of questions he answers and laments his sales number, which is zero.  Eric gets into a screaming match with Alice over something not quite related to the show and they are both too distracted to sell.

I’ve learned to ask how many sales, learned to compare myself to others in categories they know, to quietly, but consistently bring up my largest sale, to ask others if they’ve reached their goal, knowing it will force them to say no.  I pick out customers who are really in the market.  I know nothing about RVs but I tell the customers stories.  “Do you have any trips planned for the fall?” I ask, hoping to plant in their mind the vision of their next vacation in this very unit.  “Your grandkids will have much more space in this come Halloween,” I say.  Am I pushier, now?  Am I one of them?  I find myself adopting a slight drawl.  I stalk the customers who smell like buyers, clip conversations short when people don’t even know their towing capacity.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, scheduled to last 14 days, was eded abruptly after only 6, when the lead researcher’s girlfriend informed him that the entire thing was immoral.  Everyone had taken to their roles too well.  The “guards” had too quickly resorted to psychological torture. The “prisoners” had written letters home using their inmate numbers in place of their names.  At the end of day four, I am smoking a cigarette, and basking in glory.  My sales numbers are strong, and my wallet is full of this strangely-won cash.  Doyle has made no sales, and leaves abruptly in a cloud of cigarette smoke.  Zimbardo, the man responsible for the Stanford Prison Experiment, maintains that none of the participants experienced any lasting psychological damage from those six days in the basement of the Stanford psych building.  He kept track of them.  They say they learned a lot about themselves.


Why and Why Not


In college, I shared a house with a friend who loved to cook but had no patience for it.  She would read for hours, but couldn’t wait for a pot of water to boil before putting the pasta into it.  Baking was a nightmare for her because she couldn’t imagine performing every single step, in order.

I am terrible at following instructions, but for different reasons.  I like creaming butter, I will wait for the dough to double in size.  I have even learned patience enough to let cool completely.  I don’t feel impatient while cooking.  My inability follows from the idea that I could probably do it better.  Hubris.  Or that certain things, like setting timers, are unnecessary.  Hubris.

My recipe edits, and my hubris, often manifest as ingredient substitution.  Maybe I’ll add more spices, or a particular (superior) cheese.  At times I am far to lazy to go to the store for an ingredient I don’t have, and will alter a dish in remarkable ways to accommodate what is available.  There is also hubris in addition.  This recipe will be better with ginger.  Another needs wild mushrooms and sage.

The order of things is sometimes important and sometimes not.  Sifting flour comes from a time when flour had more impurities in it, like pebbles.  Sifting together, however, avoids a mouth-full  of salt, or baking soda.*  Boiling water will not work the same way as almost boiling water.

My friend in college wanted to keep the ingredients but throw out the instructions, piling everything together into one pan, or mixing it all at the same time.  I, on the other hand, keep far more instructions than ingredients.  Cooking was odd in that house.

Butter can do a lot of things.  I think butter is fascinating.  People I know tend to ignore butter-specific instructions because it’s hard to imagine that butter is not butter.  Whether fresh out of the refrigerator or left on the counter for a few hours, butter must still be butter, right?  The truth about butter is much more complicated.

Melted butter will make your chocolate chip cookies flatten in the oven.  Anything but rock-hard butter cut into flour will make your pie crust greasy.  Creamed butter will help your cupcakes not to fall.  Making croissants from scratch is more about spending time waiting for butter to cool than about rolling it out and folding it up.  Butter instructions should always be followed.

Maybe I just ask “why” too much.  I’m trying to understand why I can’t seem to follow instructions.  Yesterday, I made a difficult recipe, an apple-stuffed challah bread.**  I was meticulous (for me).  I even set timers.  But even here, with a recipe that I believed needed to be followed due to its complexity, I couldn’t leave it alone.  When I noticed I was out of canola oil, I melted butter.  I started off measuring flour, but lost track of my quarter cups somewhere and just eyeballed it.  I added cinnamon and cardamom.  I used two types of honey.  I can’t leave well enough alone.

“Why” is also “why not.”

There is a reason to whip egg whites to soft peaks and then fold them into the rest of the batter.  It changes everything.  Waffles have never tasted so good.  Baking soda and baking powder serve completely different purposes.  And butter.  We’ve talked about butter.  But if I can’t come up with a good reason, I will substitute half of the ingredients in a recipe.

For a few years, my mother and I would host Christmas parties and invite everyone we knew.  People would come from LA and from Portland, Oregon.  Her work colleagues and friends from graduate school and ex husband; my friends from pre-school play groups and high school and college.  The open floor-plan kitchen-living room of that small town house would be packed for hours, people standing in front of the door with glasses of wine, greeting the next guests, strangers to them.  And every year, we would make a croquembouche.

My mother and I acted like the croquembouche was the reason everyone was there. We would drink wine and make introductions while planning the perfect time for assembly.

Yet my mother is like me.  Or I am pushy and she lets me get away with it.  We never followed the recipe perfectly, and when, one year, we went through two whole batches of choux pastry and threw the resulting puffs away, we forgot to write it down, and were doomed to the same fate the following year.***

The first year, the sugar wouldn’t caramelize.  Winters in northern California are wet, an impossible climate for candied sugar.  The next year, we baked the choux a day ahead, leaving the kitchen less moist.  Once, we created a champagne custard for the filling, without a recipe.  I am at a loss as to how to recreate it.  One year, flustered and a little tipsy, and because I didn’t know why not, I added a little water to my hot syrup and was fascinated to watch it all turn back into granulated sugar.  Once, the sugar was perfect and I pulled it off the end of the spoon in long, golden strands to make a cloud of crunchy candy around the pile of pastries.

Every year, I leave some of the pastries in the oven too long because I refuse to set a timer.  Every year I worry about the candy.  Every year I wonder how I can improve.

There is hubris at the heart of this, and also an incredible amount of self-doubt.  Holding both in hand, I am able to say, “I can do this better” at every stage.  When it is a recipe I have not yet tried and when it is a dish I have created and loved, I am not yet satisfied.

* I once learned from a television chef that whisking dry ingredients together is just as good as sifting.  I never sift.
** The recipe for the apple-stuffed challah is by Tori Avey, and I highly recommend it.  I also recommend using 1/2 cup tupelo honey, and 1/4 cup buckwheat honey.  Buckwheat honey looks like molasses and tastes almost as dark.  The butter substitution worked out fine.
*** I did eventually write it down.  The best recipe I’ve found for the choux pastry comes from Martha Stuart.  Her full recipe, however, uses pastry cream for the filling, and I prefer custard, because I’m decadent that way.  And because I can’t leave well enough alone.

Structure Decisions

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My books have outgrown their shelves. On some shelves, books are stacked two-deep. Without space to put each in her place, they are disorganized, jumbled. I have done my best to keep the Poetry together; the History and Religious texts and Short Stories each have their place, in a way. But Super Sad True Love Story is lain across the tops of The Brothers Karamazov and Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature sits next to The Hitchhiker’s Guide

In odd places, I’ve succeeded. Both copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (one annotated) occupy the same shelf. My small collection of three books by Gregory Maguire are all together. But next to that is the first book of the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, and then Saramago’s Blindness, and The Odyssey

The editor in me does not like this kind of disorganization. The person who gets tripped up by the odd missing period in a published work, the strange misspelling of a name, becomes stalled whenever presented with the mess that is my current library. But the editor in me is also one of the stalling factors. I’m better at asking questions than answering them, sometimes. Better at finding solutions than picking just one. 

At my previous house (two-three dozen books ago, and with a few more shelves) my library was neat and tidy. Art Reference, Science, Literature, Children’s Books, History (subdivided into Religious, Classical, and Chinese) each had its own place. Each book was arranged Alphabetically by author. But that’s such a simplistic narrative. Sometimes, isn’t it more fun to tell a story in a different way?

My friends will attest to the fact that when I have a big story to tell, the story of a breakup or quitting a job, that I’ll ask them how they’d like to hear it. Do you want the story the way I learned it, or do you want the one with more interesting irony from the beginning? Do you want the quick and dirty, or the sad and poetic? I feel the same way about any story. There are so many ways to tell it. So many feelings to evoke in the telling. Structure itself can do a great deal. 

So now, when I look at my bookshelves, I’m deciding on the structure. This jumbled mess is annoying, but strangely, I’ve learned the placement of things. I can still find the books I want when a friend comes calling, asking for something new to read. And I can’t decide what kind of story I want to tell with my library. The Dewey Decimal story is maybe too obvious. 

I’ve thought about doing the research that would allow me to put my entire collection into chronological order by first publication. I’ve thought about trying to put each into a context. Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity could find its home next to the original. All of the weird spin-offs of Pride and Prejudice could live together, flowing seamlessly into books about zombies. Or I could take a tip from Hi Fidelity and try to arrange my books in the order of my own life. My children’s books at the beginning, Reed’s curriculum in the center, and at the other end, the children’s books I’ve accumulated for a different reason. 

I can never decide. The frustration of disharmony is wearing on me, but I can’t start ripping books off shelves without a plan. So there they sit: Vonnegut, Nabokov, Wilde, Picoult, Lawrence, and Vidal, all crammed together, waiting for me to come to some conclusion about form and structure at last. 

Red Pen Q&A: Editor or Co-Director?

I had a great conversation in the comments the other day. A friend of mine has a big project he’s been working on for years. He’s built a world with hundreds of characters interacting over multiple generations, and he asked me to expand on my previous post about expectations for a Red Pen. The question that sparked it all is below.

When hiring an editor, how much “homework” is it reasonable to demand, or request, they complete before beginning to make red marks? … Is it realistic to give a prospective editor [a] huge a stack of prep work, or should I just suck it up and expect the constant back-and-forth Q n’ A and hope one or both of us doesn’t collapse in frustration? At that level of involvement, does the role even qualify as Editorial anymore, or is that more Co-creator territory?

This is such an interesting question. Currently, I spend a good deal of time employed as a ghostwriter and a content editor, both of which mean my hands are getting very dirty in someone else’s work. I find myself wondering sometimes if I’m doing too much or overstepping my bounds. It’s a difficult line to walk.

My quick answer to him was another question: What do you want? This question serves as a reminder. Firstly, the reminder is that you need to do your homework before you hire a Red Pen and decide what it is you’re looking for. But secondly, it’s a reminder that you have the ability to ask for exactly what you need, making whatever stipulations are necessary. The longer answer is, well, longer. 

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Red Pen Reviews: Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Empathy Exams’


I am writing my review of The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, before I’ve finished reading it. I don’t think I’ve ever written a review from the point of view of an editor, but that seems like an interesting way to get at what, exactly, it is that I do. The Empathy Exams might not be the place to start, though, because I love everything so far.

The editor’s brain does a weird thing, even when reading for pleasure. I have a tendency to read to myself as though I’m reading out loud (which means slowly), and do read out loud most nights. I should have been born into a nice English family in the late eighteenth century, when reading aloud was an adult pastime. Reading in this manner is the best way to discern any errors in a piece of written work. That was a fact taught to me in middle school. It is much harder to skip over mistakes when you’re hearing them as opposed to when you’re reading in your head.

Reading aloud gets simple errors, like a forgotten comma that will change the meaning of the sentence. It reminds you that you’ve written the same word twice in a single paragraph (“aloud” for instance). Some words are easily repeatable, others stand out in a strange way when repeated and make the author seem lazy. (Does the above paragraph seem lazy? I used “out loud” in several places, and removed the word entirely at least once in the editing.)

Reading aloud also lets you hear the author. The best writers are good speakers. It is the same mechanism, but transcribed. And just as every person you know has a certain inflection that gives them away, or a cadence, or a tendency toward long or short sentences, each author has similar markers. This is voice.

I love Leslie Jamison’s voice. It is familiar. It is precise, but also fluid. I could tell by her voice that Jamison is about my age. I am not surprised that she grew up on the west coast. So her voice draws me in, and I am not disappointed to stick around.

Jamison makes writing appear easy. That is a feat. As with anything that requires skill (dancing, singing, astrophysics), a master at work in her field seems at rest while working. I know that this book of essays took considerable time and a great deal of dedication. I can tell by the lack of errors. But it doesn’t feel overworked. It doesn’t wander off without bringing you back. It doesn’t feel like sentences were simply added because she liked them, or words were replaced in order to sound more intelligent. The Empathy Exams reads like it woke up like that (to misquote Beyoncé).

Having nothing to complain about when reading for pleasure is an odd sensation. A number of other books I’m reading right now have areas for improvement, though I still enjoy them. Finding flawless prose is not a requirement for my enjoying a book, but man is it fun when it happens.

Now You’ve Done It: What to expect (and demand) of your Red Pen


I have a professional incentive for pushing you toward hiring an editor, but I am not the only person suggesting it.  Other smart people also think you need an editor, someone else to read your writing.  But not yet.  Just because you need an editor, doesn’t mean you’re ready for one.  Before you go searching for an editor on Elance or Craigslist, you need to prepare your work and yourself.  You also need to know what exactly you should expect to get from the editing process, and what you should demand.


Before you buy:

Once you’ve decided you need an editor, you must prepare.  Here is what you will need to do before you find a Red Pen.

  • Know your audience.  Your editor will need to know what hat to wear, and more than that, you will need to find an editor who can wear that hat. If you are writing a blog, understand that baby boomers do not read blogs. A blog for baby boomers has no audience. If you are writing a Young Adult novel, you’ll need someone familiar with that genre to help you decide if your content or diction is interesting for the age range.
  • Know your elevator pitch.  When you write an essay in school, or you are penning your PhD dissertation, this is called a thesis. It is your purpose in writing. Whether you are writing a blog, or a novel, or an article of journalism, you need a purpose. I’m writing a blog because I’m a professional writer and editor and no one is going to take a writer seriously who doesn’t write. It is my resume, which means every post needs to be written with my business in mind, even if I stroll off into never never land and write about my childhood. In the end, I am writing to showcase my talents.
  • Know the difference between Developmental, Line, and Copy editing.  This comes down to buying the right product. If you would like help rearranging the content of your e-book on dog breeding, you need to know what to ask for. “Editing help” doesn’t cut it. The point is not what the different types of edits are, but your knowing what those differences are. You are much more likely to love what you get from your Red Pen when she knows what to give you.
  • Let go.  This is the last, but also the most important thing you need to do before you hire an editor. You are hiring a Red Pen. You might not be hiring the likes of me, but you are literally hiring someone to tell you what you did wrong. Whether you want simple grammar edits (that’s copy, friends), or to make sure the story makes sense as a whole (and that’s development), you are not hiring someone to tell you it’s perfect. You have to be ready for that.

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Hire a Red Pen: Why you should suck it up and get an editor

Photo credit: caprisco from morguefile.com

Writing wants to be read.  Even when we write for ourselves, we write to an audience (we simply have the luxury in that case, of knowing the mind of our audience perfectly).  But on the off-chance you’re actually writing to someone else, to a larger audience, writing for publication or persuasion, you need an editor.  Here’s why.

You don’t know what you wrote.

Before I knew you could take classes in writing, I took classes in art.  I drew still lives and portraits and spent hours figuring out hands.  In my junior year of high school my teacher tapped me on the shoulder while I sat before a 4-foot canvas covered in surrealist angst and said, “Kendra, what are you painting?”  It’s a woman, I said.  Her long neck is arched painfully and her arm is coming through her breast to choke herself.  “I see.  Well, the class thinks it looks more like a penis.”

Writing rarely comes with its own explanation.  It is already its own explanation.  You cannot stand in a gallery next to your own painting, forever explaining what you were trying to do.  The written word is the same.  Whether you write a blog, or novels, or random pieces of fan-fiction, you will not get a chance to speak with each reader and make sure that what you were trying to write was actually what you wrote.  An editor allows you to see what you’ve written from a few paces back.  You know what you want to write, but your editor will tell you what actually made it to the page.

You left some things out.

Not every story needs to be tied up neatly at the end.  Not every question raised needs answering.  If you’re a writer (or a reader) of six word stories or 100 word stories or any sort of flash fiction, you’ll understand.  One six word story (often attributed to Hemingway, though likely not his), illustrates this point perfectly:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Some things are allowed to just be.

But not everything.  A second reader will be able to tell you what doesn’t make sense, and that is an incredibly powerful tool.  When you know that your reader is confused, you can decide exactly how confused you’d like her to be.  All your decisions as a writer become more conscious because you know the outcome.

Your first draft is a failure.

You might be a great writer, but you still need an editor because you’re not perfect.  No first draft is perfect.  No one is perfect.  Neither is your red pen.  But you can’t improve without feedback, and your goal, no matter what you’re writing about or who you’re writing to, must be improvement.

Programmers talk a lot about the benefits of failure.  Embracing failure is embracing progress.  You step away from your project and allow it to be criticized so that it can be improved, so that you can improve.  Artists are encouraged to spend hours and days and years perfecting the simple things.  Draw me a circle.  Sketch this figure.  Musicians, too, practice scales.  Every craft requires practice, failure, critique, and improvement.  One step removed from that cycle sacrifices progress.

Readers allow you to improve your writing.  The benefit of a Red Pen is that she also has practice reading and helping writers to improve.