In Reply To: The Marilyn Meme - from Shameless Blog

Original Post.

It's easy, and indeed trivializing, to blame society for the claimed 'pitting women against eachother'. To be sure, there are plenty of cultural factors that reinforce competition between women, but men and women need no encouragement to compete to get a mate. As soon as one person is attractive to more than one other person (regardless of the gender of anyone) those who are attracted are in competition. This isn't just logic, it's zoology, and dumping all this gender politics on it just gives people an excuse to think of themselves as victims.

This kind of competition is an inevitable part of mammalian existence. To be human is to struggle against our mammalian baggage when it is harmful to ourselves and to others.

If there really was a war between all the men and all the women, then divide and rule would be an effective tactic and a meaningful accusation. But most people, regardless of their gender and gender preference, want to get with someone, for reasons of friendship, companionship, comfort and joy, of which physical relations are an (almost) inevitable part.

This said; the first image reinforces competitive behaviours by drawing comparisons. The second implies a comparison, however - it implies that if your thighs don't touch, you can't be as attractive as Marilyn.

All this said; if the two women in the first image were (unknown to me, and) competing for my interest, I literally wouldn't know where to put my head. Both are very fine examples of young women in excellent health (a sign of reproductive fitness), who take care over their appearance (a sign of good self-esteem), and whose posture is relaxed and confident (a sign they will be easy to get along with). They may be very different examples, but I if they were competing for me, I wouldn't base my response on what I observed from a photograph anyway.

A final point: Marilyn was adored by a lot more than thousands of men, but not for hear appearance. As Ms Cromarty observes, she was a very good actor; funny and quirky, and she didn't need to pout or flash her cleavage to compete on set with the boys. But most of all, she had air of vulnerability that made her seem accessible. Everyone is vulnerable; we form friendships, couples, families, to help us to feel more secure, to help us to support one another.

It has too often been an aim of feminism to toughen women up, to try to make you impervious, invulnerable, so that you won't be a victim of all the harmful influences of a male dominated culture. This attitude however, will not help you with all the problems that come from within, come from the fact of being a human mammal. Furthermore, it will make it harder for you to make friends, find a mate and raise children. The strongest alliances are between people who know their own, and eachother's, weaknesses. To form them we have to show our vulnerabilities.

Awareness of your own weaknesses, your own vulnerabilities, is therefore the best defence against the harmful influence of our culture. The woman who sees Marilyn and does not know how susceptible she is to her own desire to compete, will compare herself physically to Marilyn and find herself wanting. The woman who is aware of this susceptibility, however, will remind herself that Marilyn is Marilyn, and has Marilyn's unique reasons for being attractive, that go way beyond the way she looks; and she will remind herself that she has her own reasons for being attractive that also go way beyond the way she looks, that she doesn't need to be, any more than she can be, attractive to everyone. Just attractive to someone.


The Casablanca Paradox - Character Non-Development

I doubt very much that I need to give a plot summary of Casablanca.

The film marked me from very young; I remember watching it in my Dad's trailer*, so I must have been at some age between 11 and 15, and though that wasn't the first time I'd seen it, I remember that was the first time that I was struck by Rick's character, and the first time that I wondered at what point did he realize he wouldn't be on that plane?

I think he knew from the moment that Ilsa walked into the bar.

Like many plays and short stories, films with sensible running times (it clocks in at just over 100 minutes) have little room for character development. There's room for a little self-discovery, along with the usual light intrigue and overcoming of fairly understated odds, a few moments of humor, and a few moments of sentiment, but most of the character work is about revelation.

In Casablanca, the character revelation takes the usual two forms: characters discover things about themselves, and discover things about eachother. With one exception – and this is the paradox – Rick.

While he does make discoveries about other characters, of the five characters who turn out by the end to be anything more than cyphers, Rick is the only one who makes no discoveries about himself. Maybe, just maybe, he's changed since the Paris. Maybe he was changed by Paris, but I don't think so.

Even in Paris he was already an exile, an outsider. Ilsa says:

We said "no questions."

And Rick is happy to agree. Even in Paris he knows that she has some sad story in her past, and that what she needs from him is a man to love and a man to love her; it is a feature of Rick's battered honor that he is happy to oblige. You can imagine that for Ilsa he takes a break from casual womanizing, because he's capable of understanding what makes Ilsa different. As long as she needs him, she needs him to herself.

Inside a swank Paris cafe, Rick and Ilsa dance. They appear to be very much in love as the MUSIC plays.

I believe they are. Rick wouldn't think of spending time in the company of a woman like Ilsa without being in love with her.

And at the Gare de Lyon, Rick does get on the train. I can't really imagine that this is the first time he is unlucky in love.

Back in Casablanca, Annina's new husband is trying to win enough money at roulette to get passage to America, while Annina herself is agonizing over giving Capitaine Renault the only thing she can give him in order to get the documents they need, given that she is realistic about her husband's chances of winning it at Rick's tables.

He dryly observes:

Noone ever loved me that much.

After Rick intervenes to get them the money they need, Renault challenges him for 'interfering with his little romances' :

As I suspected, you're a rank sentimentalist

And Rick's retort is:

Put is down as a gesture to love.

Renault takes it with his habitual good nature. And he really is habitually good-natured with Rick. Renault  is corrupt, despicable and duplicitous, but he seems to have a soft spot for Rick, and while Rick is touchy or angsty with anyone else, he doesn't seem to get annoyed with Renault no matter what he does.

Ilsa discovers, with Rick's help, that she loves Victor and Victor loves her, and that it is better for both of them to stay together. She never had any more than a small doubt about it in any case. At one point she thought she would have to stay with Rick so that Victor could escape. But Ilsa never really understood Rick's honor even when she discovered it.

Victor is a cypher most of the time; a symbol of intellectual resistance. He can afford to be indulgent towards his wife, since he is so utterly intolerant of Nazi oppression.

Ugarte has been a 'cut price parasite' for while, and Rick thinks little of him, but Ugarte discovers something about himself even as he reveals it to Rick: he is capable of more than either of them imagined. It's a good thing Lorre was available, otherwise Ugarte is just a plot-vector, unwittingly ensuring the means for Victor and Ilsa's escape. But Lorre is a bigger actor than anyone else on set, and turns a cameo into a supporting role by compelling the watcher's attention. This makes Ugarte's development seem bigger than it is, but in doing so provides yet more contrast with the ever stable Rick.

Sam has no need for development. He is comfortable in his skin, and shows it, whereas Rick, who in truth is just as comfortable, does not show it. The pivotal scene, "you played it for her and you can play it for me" can be looked at in different ways, but my feeling is that Rick is able to dredge up such a strong memory from the past because the wound has healed. Listening to the song is nostalgia, sentimental but not painful.

It is therefore inevitable that the movie ends with the only relationship that really mattered, and the only one that is really anything new. When the film starts, Rick's story with Ilsa is already over. But when it ends, Louis (Renault) makes a discovery about himself, that the whole film has been building up to: he is also happy in his own skin, and admires Rick because Rick is the same. The way that Rick and Louis talk about eachother is affectionate and mildly self deprecating.

Rick, on Louis:

Oh, he's just like any other man, only more so.

Louis, on Rick:

… he's the kind of man that, well, if I were a woman and I …
(taps his chest)
… were not around, I should be in love with Rick. But what a fool am I talking to a beautiful woman about another man.

The fact that Rick does not change; that he knows that his romance with Ilsa, far from being doomed, is already over: all this leads to the conclusion of the film. Louis realizes that it is 'the start of a beautiful friendship'.

As character work goes, this is all fairly unusual for the genre. Central characters who remain unchanged from beginning to end (while changing those around them) is not usually allowed in romantic drama (though it is common in action and crime dramas). The male lead especially is usually required to face his weaknesses, show his emotions and discover that he loves the female lead, so that by the end they are both better people.

Maybe what makes Casablanca a great romance is that it is not about romance, but about respect, honor and (most of all) friendship. Sam is a good friend to Rick. Rick is a good friend to Ilsa (both in Paris and in Casablanca) and Rick and Louis become good friends.

Friendship is something that can be worked into all genres of literature, it is intensely human, and in my opinion more compelling than love or heroism or justice. And as Casablanca shows, there are different kinds of friendship, different degrees, different consequences. All stories can benefit from good friends and good friendship.

* For British and American readers, my Dad's trailer was what in the UK is called a "static caravan" and is, in the UK, used as a sort of holiday home on camps where there are activities, in this case waterskiiing and windsurfing. The static caravan has none of the disadvantages of camping and non of the advantages either.


What to Expect from an Editor #5: What not to Expect from an Editor

I think that these posts about editing should probably be taken as a view of my thoughts on editing as it evolves over time, so it is probably a good idea to ensure that you have read all of them (links top right).

I've been thinking about this one for a long time, and as I specialize more and more in story development and do less and less copy-editing, I think there are a couple of lines that I can draw fairly clearly on the subject of what you should not expect.

To get copy-editing out of the way: from a copy edit, you should not expect your manuscript to be error free, and conform perfectly to every style guide. But you should expect errors to be few and conformities to be maximized.

For a content edit, here are a few things that you shouldn't expect, after your edit has been completed:

1. All content editors agree that your manuscript needs no further editing.

The truth is, your editor might think that the manuscript needs further editing, but doesn't want to overwhelm you. A content editor is not just working with your manuscript. He is working with you. Even an experienced writer can still learn and improve, and working with an editor is a good way to stimulate this improvement. So an inexperienced writer might, not to put to fine a point on it, have a lot to learn. A responsible editor may well chuse not to draw attention to all the problems, because it can end up looking insurmountable. Actually this doesn't happen all that often, but it is worth being aware of it.

More often, different editors will have different preferences and priorities, and what you chuse to do to solve one problem might be considered a new problem by a new editor.

Editors' preferences might run to your turn-of-phrase or even vocabulary choices. Editors' might prioritize, narration, characterization, plotting differently. This is why I've already blogged on chusing the right editor for you. Complete your rewrite, your editor might tell you it's all good, you send it to another editor and he might tell you something completely different. Hence point number 2:

2. Your editor will tell you when your manuscript needs no further editing.

Content editing is expensive, time-consuming and its results are uncertain. Even though those who have tried a professional content editor generally want to do it again and again, it's worth looking for alternatives. Discussing your work in writer's groups is good, as is using a panel of beta-readers. I think that a content editor brings something else to the table, though, and that is a service tailored personally to you and your book.

Even so, only you can decide when your book is ready for publication. I think if you use an editor and are not satisfied with the draft you do afterwards, but the editor thinks it's good, it probably means the editor wasn't a good match to the book, or to you, or both.

3. Everyone who reads your book with think it is great, and
4. You will sell loads of books because your book is great

It may seem obvious that these two are false, but it is worth preparing yourself mentally for the reviews that say: "this book seriously needs editing!".

And indeed, mentally preparing yourself for not selling many books.

It's the subject of much curiosity and discussion, that the quality of a book doesn't seem to be much of a factor in its (initial) success. That seems to be largely luck. Once the book is established, the better books will continue to make good sales for longer, we hope.

Tangential to these two is what is, for me, the bottom line of what not to expect:

5. Your book will be great because your content editor is great.

If you have a great content editor, she will have done a great job at finding the problems and opportunities, documenting them, communicating them to you, and suggesting what you should do about it. However, she won't be the one rewriting you manuscript. That will be you. No matter how good your editor is, your book can only be as good as you can make it. I believe that if your editor is great, then you can make your book a whole lot better with the editor than alone, but it's still you the limiting factor.

I find I can be very open about this with my authors; most of you think you are worse than you are; all of you are trying to become better. I believe that working for authors who are humble but ambitious, keen to learn and hardworking, is what makes me become a better editor. Since I work with lots of authors, while most authors work with two or less editors, I reckon I get the better side of the deal, which is why I advise all writers to try more than one content editor: even if the one you have really suits you, you can learn a lot by working with someone else from time to time.

What I Liken't

This probably goes into a category in between weird words and English grammar contradictions, among the things that occasionally annoy me about English compared with the other languages I know. This post is all about negation: giving a sentence the opposite or negative meaning, preferably with a few small changes. Let's start with the Latin (it's good to start with the Latin).

Caesar aedificare copiis pontem facebat

"Caesar caused the troops to build a bridge"

But suppose he intended to do so, but at the last minute was prevented? The simple addition of non in the right place, and the sense is inverted:

Caesar aedificare copiis pontem non facebat

 "Caesar did not cause the troops to build a bridge"

(Part of the fun of Latin is that you can move the non and change the meaning:  Caesar aedificare copiis non pontem facebat — "Caesar caused the troops to build something, but not a bridge" !)

Same again in French:

Caesar fit construire un pont par les soldats

is negated;

Caesar ne fit pas construire un pont par les soldats

and indeed, a peculiarity of the literary register in French means that with the verbs faire and être, the pas can be omitted:

Caesar ne fit construire un pont par les soldats

In modern spoken French, the ne is often omitted in the present tense (though this will lose you marks in exams and sounds awful):

Caesar fait pas construire un pont par les soldats

Other romance languages are much the same, but, so is German (you just put nicht in the appropriate spot) and Russian (you do the same with не ('nye')).

English, on the other hand, just has to be different. So much so that I actively avoid using negative constructions in English, because with most verbs, NEGATION REQUIRES AN AUXILIARY:

 "Caesar did not cause the troops to build a bridge"

Instead of conjugating to cause, we put it back in the bare infinitive and conjugate the verb to do not!

The only verbs we negate in a reasonable way are to do, to have, to can* and to be. All the rest, we don't negate reasonably (see?).

In a few idioms, we have preserved the more sensible negation of recent but now archaic English:

She loves me, 
She loves me not.


Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country

Personally I think this construction more elegant and more pleasing to both eye and ear, and I would much like to see the same convention that gives us don't, can't and won't extended to other verbs (hence the title of this post). Perhaps in future posts I'll use that form. Unless I decide I liken't it after all.

* technically can has no infinitive in English, but in other, more sensible languages, it does, so linguists sometimes use "to can" as a convenience in discussions.


Freebies Published!

Cherise Kelley just told me that her book that I edited as a recent freebie is now live and available to purchase for your Kindle. I enjoyed reading this; outside of my usual choice of reading!

Cherise has an easy, flowing style that will draw you in whether you want it to or not. Allow yourself to be intrigued by the premise.



Got back on Tuesday from the UK where I attended a Showbiz Wedding (no, I really did. A friend I have known since we were 13 is a big comedy star in the UK). You may be aware that since I had no editing to do last week, I asked for submissions for free editing.

Several people responded, and by the time I had filled my stated quota of words, I had before me the work of four very different writers.

They will be relieved to hear that I will not be revealing anything of their work or my thoughts on their work here. That is between me and each of them.

However, I will say that I greatly enjoyed the experience. One of the main pleasures of working with new writers, and especially with indies, is the variety, not just in genre or technique, but broadness of imagination.

At the wedding in question I had the good fortune to bump into former Merton Professor of English (University of Oxford) John Carey (father of another old friend), who enthused about working with new writers and was curious about the new kind of publishing and to some extent new kind of literature that we are all creating.

These freebies have given me the opportunity to see work that I perhaps would not otherwise have seen, and statistically speaking, probably would not have read, and this has all further excited me about the development and the creative possibilities of this new, anarchic literature.

I italicized anarchic because for a great many people, anarchy has negative connotations. But taken in its purest form, anarchy is the imposition of order by each individual upon himself. It is where no order or government is imposed from outside. True, those of you who are writing in order to make your living from writing are, to some extent at least, guided by the desires of the reading public, but even you are making open choices as to which readers to please.

And I, who believe I have some knowledge about what a story ought to be, am trying to help authors to deal with problems and make improvements, rather than tell them what their novel ought to be. I am trying to ensure that my authors' work reaches and is understood by as many people as possible, rather than telling them that they must follow certain rules and styles in order not to be inherently wrong. 

In an anarchy, each person chooses his own rules in order to ensure that he, and those he wishes to help, can get what they need. As writers and editors, we can apply the rules of style and grammar because we know that is the best way to reach the most readers, NOT because we have been told that anything else is wrong. The results may be the same, but I suspect that they are not. The difference when applying rules as an informed choice is that the rules themselves become part of the creation and part of the art, a skeleton rather than a straitjacket.

I may be rambling a little. Experiences like this one contribute to my evolving philosophy of writing. They also lead me to conclude that I should do freebies more often. I shall, therefore, set aside a week in January. Submissions of up to 80k words will be accepted on a first come-first served basis (though priority will be given to first-timers).


Editor's Angst

I don't know if other editors get this, or if I'm just an anxious person. Before I have even started reading a fresh manuscript, I start worrying about how the author will receive my comments. Not even criticisms; I just worry that I might not be able to communicate my findings.

Worse than that, I worry that I might not even find anything to say. I'm sure that's hard to believe—others tell me that I always have something to say.

The biggest worry is that as a literary editor, I'm looking for something beyond errors and issues, holes and inconsistencies. I'm looking for opportunities and improvements. Supposing the book is already as good as it can be? Supposing the author already knows that?

So far, I haven't edited for someone who really knows how good they are. I've edited for really good writers, they just haven't been aware of it. I know, because I'm at that point myself with some areas of editing, that it is possible in writing to know exactly what you're doing – to be conscious of all your choices, techniques and devices.

I suppose one day I shall edit for such a writer, and I shall have to say to them: "um, you don't really need me, but I did read your book and think very hard about it, so, you have to pay the full fee anyway."

Really, that's what it comes down to: the better your writing, the less value you're going to get from a literary edit. And I want to give value. And also, I want to get paid.

This is in part why I like to be paid in instalments. From time to time I underestimate the amount of work that a text will be. When I do, I suck it in, and get on with it. Less often, though it does happen, I overestimate. In those cases, I can tell the author to knock a chunk off the final instalment or even forget it altogether.

Making sure that the value I give matches my fee is not just about professional or personal honesty. I see it as a socio-economic responsibility. Overcharging devalues.


The Creative Urge #1: Creativity

Living in the next village from me is an artist, Gérard Larguier. His work is quite collectable, but I know him because I've fixed his computer a few times.

Gérard's work is special and personal for me, since it helps me to think about what is, for me, the main problem with talking about stories, and with creative art in general.

memory fresco of Soulaines Dhuys
This is because Gérard does not invent, he relates. What he makes is undoubtedly art, but his graphic art is like a story. His technique is part collage, part sculpture, part painting, and it achieves the same sense of varying textures across a limited but continuous palate that you get from staring at the landscape here in rural north-east France. 

What makes it story-like is that Gérard shows the connexion between what he sees and what he depicts, by literally including what he sees in his works. He takes photographs, or uses images from books, magazines, newspapers, prints them, and then photocopies them, often moving the original across the platen to produce ramdomly distorted copies. These copies he then tears, carefully, until they include exactly the image or fragment of image that he wants.

The inset image is Gérard working on a fresco prepared for the village of Soulaines Dhuys. This is composed of photographs taken by Gérard himself, as well as archive photos, newspaper clippings and texts from the village archives. The fresco is 4-5 metres wide, and all across the top is a panorama of the horizon around the village, but a panorama as you might recall it from memory or picture it if someone described it to you; the dominant features of the landscape are repeated from a number of different angles. Within the image are views of village landmarks, again repeated both at different angles and in different times, and all is jumbled up like a memory, but organized like a memory; associative, repetitive, disproportionate.

All of Gérard's work is like this; it's language is of images recalled and repeated, broken down and reassembled. Many artists are influenced or inspired by other artists, but when Gérard is thus inspired or influenced, he shows it by including fragments of a distorted photocopy of the work that inspired him in his own work.

Gérard's choice of medium and technique reveals his creative process, reveals his inspiration, reveals (to some extent) his purpose. And because his works are large, detailed, intricate, full of repetition, their composition is like a rambling prose; series of small works like collections of thematically related short stories; medium scale one-offs that are like angry letters of protest, prose poems, eulogies, anecdotes.

Over the years that he has developed his technique, Gérard has developed a prodigious skill not only at composition—the artist's eye—but also at photocopying, tearing paper, matching paint colours to print colours so that all the images blend together—the artist's hands. 

We who write are perhaps dimly aware or starkly aware that we are regurgitating words, phrases, imagery, themes, anything up to entire characters and plots, that we have collected through our reading, our daily lives, discussions and conversations, visual media, the theatre, the cinema, the television.

But our culture gives us the impression that art is a matter of great creative ideas; originality; novelty. So we learn to think of our choice of words as being part of our skill, not of our creativity. I think this is a mistake, and one that arises from too great importance given to novelty and originality. I think that all artistic creation is re-expression. If we were perfectly original, we would be perfectly incomprehensible. Gérard's art works because it is an expression of the artist's culture; it isn't unique; it is perfected.

What Gérard does is what writers should do. Begin with a purpose: some idea to express. Select a means of communicating it through a medium that is as accessible as possible. Practice and perfect the means and the medium.

Great creativity is as much in the stroke of the brush or the pen, as it is in the choice of composition or the structure of the story. The writer's brush strokes are his choice of words, the composition of his phrases, the quality of his imagery, the matching of symbol and theme, the harmony of message and medium.

Great creativity is as much a skillfull re-telling of an old story as it is the creation of a new story.