My wish for the new year, 2023: Love art, love artists

Individuals have given too much away on the Internet for free for the simple love of exchanging knowledge and art, while big companies have been completely unashamed about demanding that absolutely everything pay for itself.

This leaves users/consumers – PEOPLE as individuals – all too eager to get content for free when we can.

When people put free fiction and art and knowledge up online for free – because we love each other and want to share it as widely as possible, for the sheer pleasure of connection and growth – we resist contributing to politely-voiced requests for tips because we have so little money ourselves, and everything from the big companies that dominate knowledge, entertainment, and art, COSTS. Sucks us dry and reaches into every crevice of our lives on the off chance that it can be sold.

We have to rebalance that. Somehow, we just have to.

Obviously, proper regulation would make a HUGE difference. Govenments have to step in and break up big businesses and litigate what can and cannot be sold. Companies have got around the EU demand that permission must be given to sell data by making the dialogs to give permission as obnoxious as possible. That should be prosecuted too. The law exists because people, as a whole, DO NOT WANT their information sold and used without their ability to control it. Just as artists and writers do not want their content scraped from the web.

We need to vote for people who are prepared to radically shake up the system and not make small steps on the false belief that we will only break ground with centrists if the left-leaning-parties ask quietly or lurch ever more rightward.

We need the broad, proud, socialist steps that so many countries – even the US and UK – made after WW2 that caused such huge growth.

But we also can’t count on that.

If I have one wish for the new year it is that everyone, in their personal capacity, to the extent that they’re able, support creators.

If you can afford to (and by God, some of us can) BUY books and art and tip people who write good articles and posts. And if you’re addicted to free fanfic (that’s OK, I am too) seek out those ko-fis and paypal.mes and GoFundMes etc, which those creators whose work you devour certainly have. Give them something as a thank you for what you’ve gained, even if you can’t buy their art.

If you can’t afford to: promote. Spread. Sing about the people whose work you love.

If they have non-free works you can’t pay for, shout about them too. Say, ‘Hey, this person wrote 300,000 words of fic that kept me alive when I was struggling and I ADORE them and I’m willing to bet this other thing they wrote that costs money is astonishing – please check it out!’

Make 2023 the year we love art and artists, writing and writers, crafts and crafters.

Make the radical choice to be AWARE of what makes you happy and share it. Promote it. Be the marketing individuals can’t do for themselves. Sincere, word-of-mouth-celebration of things you love.

I’m willing to be stepping back and really appreciating the things that make you happy will lift you up and make you more aware of your own joys, large and small, too.

The value of art

Painting: Yes, it hurt when I fell
I’m talking about art today, so I’m using my own work for colour.

I saw a series of gifs the other day from an interview with Kevin Conroy, who died on November 30. Conroy was the voice of Batman, in Batman: The Animated Series, and he was recounting his experience of meeting a fan at a convention.

The fan wept and embraced him, and he did his best to reassure her. But she was aware of how strange it must seem. She said: ‘You don’t understand what you did for me,’ and she explained.

She’d grown up in an impoverished area, and every kid she’d known had died or ended up in jail or on drugs. Her parents had worked hard and couldn’t watch her after school, but when her school mates had been outside, getting into trouble, she had been at home watching Batman. It gave her a safe space in which to learn and grow

That time with a guardian-like figure who seemed to genuinely care saved her life. And she was meeting her saviour.

It is such a wonderful thing to have done for someone else. And yet, as Conroy reflected, we so rarely get a chance to know of the deep impact our art can have on others.

I am so very glad he got to know.

It made me reflect on the value of art, and how easy it is for us to not know how important even small and rough works of art can be to others.

I thought about a piece of GCSE art that was displayed in my school’s assembly room. All GCSE art was displayed there for a week after it had been submitted, and I always LOVED that part of the year. Those works of art made my heart soar in a way I’ve rarely felt in adult life.

I remember one tiny work very clearly. Most GCSE students (myself included) take the opportunity to produce art on giant canvases – or at my school, pieces of wood. We see what ‘the greats’ do in galleries and think that bigger is better; although many of us lack the skill to fill that space. Not this artist, though.

It was small – smaller than A4. A painting with a frame cut from lino. The image continued out, carved into the frame. We’d all had a go at making prints out of lino in Art, so I shouldn’t have been surprising that someone used it, but this was pure genius. To make a print with lino – fine. But actually seeing beauty in the form – making the lino itself a work of art – that was another level. And then they had used that to extend the work of art beyond the painting and into a 3D form – sheer brilliance!

The painting itself also caught my attention. It was a little fantasy landscape. Villages stood, implausibly, on top of great spikes of rock that rose up from a green valley. I knew enough at 13 or 14 to suspect that physics would not support this and it would be a very impractical place for a village, but I didn’t care. I was transfixed. Even now I feel my own inadequacy when it comes to describing this with words.

I wish I could recall the artist’s name or that of the painting, but it’s gone. I wish I could have spoken to that artist, to tell them how looking at their tiny work, in a room full of gigantic pieces, had made me feel. Perhaps they already understood the power of art. Perhaps the lino frame was a metaphor for how art can empower the fantastic to escape its frame and impact the real world.

At the time, all I could do was vainly wish I could talk to them and ask them what it meant. What else they might have imagined in the world they showed me through the lino frame.

They may not even think of that piece at all anymore. Maybe they threw it out. My art teacher threw out one of my paintings before I could rescue it. I was horrified. I still am, to be honest, but I now realise that was common. Part of the reason they let us create those gigantic pieces was because often they were not collected, and those works would be painted over with white emulsion, ready for next year’s students.

It’s something I struggle to get my head around. I never throw out old art or old writing. And yet I never wondered if any of my GCSE artwork had moved anyone the way that small piece moved me. Which is strange, given how I poured myself into it with complete and unabashed confidence. I was a different person at 16.

This was one of my first times with oil paints. The complete lack of face is, uh, deliberate.

We often hope to create a Great Work that moves others the way we have been moved ourselves. I think that’s fair to say. I suspect most of us do not think our current project to be that work.

If you did anything creative at school, would you ever imagine that a stranger might still think about your project twenty-five years later? That they still regard it as one of the most powerful pieces of art they’ve ever seen, even though they are beginning to forget the details? That whenever they’re reminded of it, their heart still soars?

I doubt that unknown artist imagines such a thing about their piece. They may have affection for it, but I’m sure they can see childish flaws in it the same way I see the flaws in my own old schoolwork.

The point is that art does not have to be recognised as a Great Work to have value. To make someone’s heart soar. To save someone’s life.

There are books I’ve read and TV I’ve watched that saved my life too. I escaped into Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series as a teenager, and Menolly’s story of success and escaping through her music helped me hang on through my own experience of bullying. Those books are not without flaws, but they made my heart soar and made me believe there was a way out. That life could get better.

When I first got sick with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but had no diagnosis, I ran into trouble at work. My anxiety about the situation was so bad my heart never stopped racing. At that time, my escape was Fringe. I watched it for hours and hours, and when Peter Bishop was taking care of his father, it felt like, finally, someone was taking care of me.

Fringe is a great show, but it’s not without it’s flaws. The first season is uneven, and I found the last season unwatchable. It doesn’t matter. Those middle three seasons still saved me.

I could go on a long time about the invaluable impact on my life of imperfect art, but I fear I’d just be entertaining myself. Instead I want to spend a few minutes thinking about a comic that’s often passed around among creatives.

Original comic, by stuffman

The comic, in its original iteration, has only two panels. Both show a person looking at two cakes. One cake has tiers and lots of detailed icing work. The other has only two layers and sloppy frosting. The first panel is captioned ‘The Artist’ and the figure in it looks glum because their cake isn’t as good as the other cake. The second panel is captioned ‘The Audience’ and shows an excited person saying Holy shit! Two cakes!’

This comic is well-liked for good reason. It shows that even if your work isn’t perfect, it can still delight someone. But I think (in this version anyway) it misses some of what’s disappointing for an artist when they compare their work to someone more skilled.

Because I think we’re all secretly hoping to produce that Great Work that really moves someone. And one of the two cakes is visibly better than the other, at least by some standards. An audience that just wants something sugary will be pleased, but will they really be moved? Which cake will they remember 25 years later? Which cake could save a life and inspire someone to become a baker themselves? Which cake will make them feel like there is love and beauty in a hopeless world?

I may be stretching this metaphor, but that’s sort of the point.

The ‘Holy shit! two cakes!’ response suggests that the audience has no deep appreciation of, or response to, either cake. So a creator can easily look at the comic and secretly think to themselves, ‘Yes, this is an important message for others. But MY problem is that I want my audience to get more from my work than that. Maybe it is foolish of me, but I do want to move someone and to satisfy more than a momentary craving for sugar.’

What the comic – and discourse generally – fails to celebrate, is that our imperfect works can also save lives. Offer comfort and escapism. Encapsulate beautiful, moving, and original ideas. Make someone’s heart soar.

Kevin Conroy was surprised by his fan’s reaction to what was, for him, just a job. You can never know the impact your work has on others. Or when you created the right thing for someone else to find at just the right time.

It does not have to be your best work. Not because the audience doesn’t care about the content, but because imperfect works can still be of incredible, priceless value.

At the moment, it feels like the work of creators has never been so undervalued.

Even for Great Works that have an estimated value in the millions, that value seems utterly divorced from their ability to move their audience. They are trading cards for the super rich. A Van Gogh painting does have value, but does it have really so very much more value than the work of millions of artists around the world who cannot earn a living?

This Van Gogh self-portrait is in the public domain. Nice.

Let us all remember, Van Gogh’s work was not valued that way in his lifetime. How is it a recognition of greatness to overvalue a work of someone who will never profit from it, and undervalue the work of a living artist who needs to heat their home this winter?

In the last month, creative industries have been under attack like never before. It’s been part of a steady, longterm devaluation of art by those with a vested interest in framing art as ‘unproductive’. (Often the same people who can afford to own Van Goghs.)

But if that were the case, why would so much money have been poured into creating AIs like DALL-E 2, which automate art creation?

I’m not actually against artistic AIs as such. I think some of the works that have been produced that way are haunting and beautiful. I also think there could be skill in selecting which works to train an AI with and the teaching methods employed. In this sense, developers can be artists. Moreover, as a philosopher of mind, I have long been fascinated by AI – what it tells us about our how we think and what it could do for us in the future.

What’s alarming is the reports that both art and writing AIs have been trained using databases for which the owners of the AI did not have any rights. Art not in the public domain, not licenced for commercial use. Art to which the companies that created the AI did not have any right.

Most notably, DeviantArt – one of the oldest and larget art archives on the web – launched an AI art tool called DreamUp. As part of the announcement, they noted that DreamUp was based on Stable Diffusion, which scraped the web for art to create its database, and many have reported that it’s likely to have used artworks on DeviantArt itself. DeviantArt paired their launch with an announcement of a way for users to opt their work out of being used in the future, but the opt out system was impractical for artists and relied on developers voluntarily respecting the marker that the opt out added to the code for works.

Even artists who had been pro AI art before reacted to this with horror.

Then, this week, evidence was found that Open AI, which is a writing AI, may have been trained on Archive of Our Own – the largest and most well-known fanfiction archive. That’s not currently been confirmed, to my knowledge, but the evidence is striking. For example, this prompt:

Steve had to admit that he had some reservations about how the New Century handled the social balance between alphas and omegas.

This one’s public domain, too. From Pixabay.

creates a story in which Steve is roommates with someone called Tony, with pretty detailed reference to omegaverse dynamics. Steve (Captain America) and Tony (Iron Man) form one of the most popular ships in the Marvel fandom. Being roommates (Oh my GOD they were roommates!) is an extremely well-loved fanfic scenario for setting up romance. And if you don’t know what omegaverse is, don’t click that link if unless you’re prepared for it to awaken something in you. Suffice it to say it’s a set of very specific, usually erotic, highly kinky tropes that arose from fandom and is unlikely to be referenced outside of recent erotic romance stories.

This is especially concerning as fanfic writers produce their work entirely for free. As fanfic usually uses copyrighted characters, its legal defence lies in the fact that the writers do not seek to profit from their work in any way. Archive of Our Own has no adverts and is a charity. But a for-profit AI does not and should not have the same protections. Stealing from work offered for free is immoral, but if the AI produces works that involve copyrighted characters, that seems open to legal challenge by intellectual property (IP) owners. Especially as it’s clear that the works produced are likely to involve situations that the IP owners would not approve for their characters.

There’s a risk that large, litigeous companies (such as Disney), that have been turning a blind eye to fanfiction (because no one profits from it) target fanfic writers again if AI writers use fanfic to endanger their IP. While the last 15 years have seen a swing towards fanfiction being generally accepted, many still remember attempts by the likes of Anne Rice and Lucasfilm to suppress fanfiction – especially erotic fanfiction.

And beyond these specific troubling developments, there’s the more general concern that the recognised value of art is disappearing as AI seeks to replace it. AI art is already being used in posters and on book covers by companies and individuals who do not want to pay artists. Many now worry: could the future see AI making all our art and telling all our stories?

My thoughts on this: in the near future? No. Not all of it. The stories in particular are not good enough. But some of the art is very good. And AI could easily replace a lot of formulaic writing, such as clickbait articles.

In the abstract, this shouldn’t have to be a bad thing. Automation should make all our lives better. If AI could take over the kind of work that’s often uninteresting and uninspiring and generate profit more easily, in a just world, that extra profit would go back into society to enable more funding for arts and humanities. Artists and writers who have made a living churning out low-value work to uninspiring briefs could be freed up to make the art and novels that would really fill our lives with purpose and meaning.

But this is not a just world. We have seen that automation has not been used to make the lives of the people whose labour it has replaced better. Instead, the people at the top of the pile, who are furthest away from production (let alone creativity) earn ever more, and the people are the bottom of the pile can no longer earn a living wage – let alone pursue a career in something they enjoy.

Don’t despair yet, though. Just as artists have apparently used big company’s like Disney to take down T-shirt bots that steal their designs by tricking them into stealing Disney’s IP, it may be that Open AI scraping from AO3 will be its undoing. The Organization for Transformative Works (of which AO3 is just one project) also has its own legal team, which has been defending fanworks from the outset. They have been alerted to the matter.

Similarly, there’s already a lawsuit against Github’s Copilot for stealing code that was shared for free and using it for profit. Which is to say: AIs that are using databases they have no right to are probably going to land themselves in hot water, and there is reason to hope that some kind of sensible regulation will result.

Moreover… I don’t know. I’m not especially interested in reading stories written by a robot. Unless that robot has reached true artificial intelligence, and has ideas of its own, in which case, it’s not a robot anymore. But that is a very long way off. Part of what I get out of reading is a sense of connection and recognition from other human beings.

Stephen King has called writing a kind of telepathy. It’s one thought transmitted from one person to another. I cry at some books not simply because I imagine something painful, but because reading those books makes me feel seen. I see a pain I recognise on the page and I know that somewhere out there is another person who understood.

Reading lets me know I’m not alone. It can’t do that if it wasn’t created by a person. If it was made instead by something that knows nothing at all in itself.

And I think the same is true of art. For artistic work that isn’t meant to make you feel anything particularly profound or interesting… yes. AI might take over that. The artistic equivalent of clickbait. It’s not great. Because society is injust, it will hurt the livelihoods of artists. But it won’t end art.

You might get a few gallery displays out of AI art, but it will be a novelty. A curiosity. I very much doubt any of us will still be thinking of a work created by AI twenty-five years later.

A mindless robot isn’t going to save many lives. It’s not going to make people feel less alone. It’s never going to make anyone wonder what it was thinking when it made the piece (not if it is mindless, and the audience knows enough about AI to know that this kind of AI is extremely simplistic and could not possibly think).

Your works matter. Even your student works and your fanfics and the little things you did and only shared on social media and got a handful of likes. Because art can stay with the viewer for decades after, even if they never spoke to the artist.

Art – creativity – has a value that is dismissed because it is hard to squeeze capital from. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s so valuable it can make someone weep in a stranger’s arms. It can make you stay up all night reading. Fill hours of anxiety with love. Provide hope that humanity can be better than it often is. It helps us hang on when we feel like there’s nothing else to live for, and it helps us dream of everything wonderful that life could be.

Art can do all that, without ever being perfect.

We should pay creatives more, because their work is already so very valuable, to all of us.

Speaking of which, if you got something out of these thoughts, you can always buy me a ko-fi…

First, second, and third person: choose your style

I’ve been intrigued by two recent trends. One is an increase in stories written in the second person. The other is the discussion of whether it’s OK to write in the first person. Both of these surprised me, and I thought it would be useful to explore what these devices do for readers, and how to use them.

When I was an editor I read an awful lot of novels in an awful lot of styles. There is wondrous variety in fiction. In general, I take the position that all rules can be bent or broken, but to do so well, you need to understand the reason for the rule in the first place.

Third-person limited is a generally accepted norm for fiction writing. Over the past three decades, first-person perspective has become more accepted. Second-person perspective is relatively rare. None of these is inherently good or bad as a writing style, but it’s worth thinking about why you choose the perspective you do.

Here’s my perspective on the first, second, and third person.

Back to basics

Stories are acounts of events, delivered by one person to an audience of one or more people. Sometimes the audience is the same person as the narrator, but usually there’s at least one other person you’re talking to. Nowadays, a lot of our stories are written down, or performed by actors in TV or film. There are a lot of different ways to deliver a story. But the oldest kind of story is oral.

One person telling a story to another, with their voice*.

Our written traditions of storytelling still owe a lot to oral traditions. There are differences. For example, oral story telling relies on tropes – like repetition, meter, and verse structure – to help the person telling the story remember it. That’s why Shakespeare is written in iambic pentameter  – not because he’s trying to be poncy, but because before the printing press it was very laborious to write down stories to deseminate them, so most stories were written in verse. Shakespeare was following that tradition. Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) and The Blazing World (1666) are some of the earliest examples of long-form prose fiction. The printing press had spread across Europe about a century earlier (the first European printing press being invented in 1440), causing an explosion of literary innovation, but it still took a while before people started the think that long-form stories didn’t have to be written in verse.

Those restrictions of form really only existed to help people memorise very long stories that could be passed from storyteller to storyteller across distance and time. Even older forms of storytelling didn’t require it. Things like recounting an event that happened to you (“I says to him, I says…”), things that happened in the past (“You know that old standing stone, out in the field, well, that’s there because…”), spooky stories told round the campfire, (“There was this couple driving down a dark country road, and they heard this news report on the radio…”). So many different, every day kinds of story.

When I choose whether to write in the first or third person, I think about it in terms of those ancient, oral forms of storytelling. And I think that, consciously or unconsciously, that’s how most readers understand those forms, too.

First person

When you choose to tell a story in the first person, you tell the story as though it happened to you, the narrator. Whether the narrator is presented as the same person as the author depends on the external framing of the story.

If you frame your story as an autobiography, you present the story as something that literally happened to you. The narrator and the author are presented as the same person (even though sometimes that might not be entirely true – you may have hired a ghost writer). Sometimes, fiction writers also frame the narrator as the author, even though the story is clearly not autobiographical. For example, Lemony Snicket is both the narrator and a character in A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Lemony is presented to readers (framed) as the author. But Lemony Snicket is clearly not a real person and the unfortunate events clearly didn’t actually happen. Daniel Handler made up both Lemony and the events.

Comedians also sometimes frame stories as autobiographical when they’re not, because the joke seems funnier if it happened to them.

But usually, in the realm of fiction, if you choose to tell a story in the first person, you frame it so that it’s clearly about someone else. The narrator and the author are not the same person. This is a bit of a departure from the oral tradition. While an oral storyteller might make themselves the same as the narrator in telling a story, if it’s clearly fiction, they’ll do so at a bit of a remove. “I’m telling this to you as my grandmother told it to me, and her grandmother told it to her. When my great-great-great-great grandmother was a very small girl, as you are now…” Or they do it with a bit of a wink or a nod, in the manner of the comedian, indicating that this event may not be quite as true as it’s presented as being.

This is because, when you present something in the first person, you automatically imply to your readers that it’s closer to the truth, to reality. This can be a great way to make a story more compelling and more immediate. The reader feels closer to the action because the narrator presents themselves as closer to the action. To the turth. To the idea that this really happened.

There used to be more hesitency about telling stories in the first person. A thought that if one did so, one had to get the framing right. To tell a story in the first person in which the narrator died was a big no-no, unless you managed to frame it in such a way that the character didn’t have to write “And then I died.” Because how could they have written it if they died?

This is because the reader is still tacitly imagining another human being physically telling them a story. A thing they can’t do if they’re dead.

Stories that found a way to do this were lauded as especially clever. The first story we read for my English Literature A-level was a first-person story in which the narrator died. It was told as a series of diary entries by a scientist who was experimenting on animals to make them super-intelligent. At the end, the entries abruptly cut off. “What happened?” our teacher asked us. “The animals killed him,” I answered. Because the storyteller had woven in enough information, through the diary entries, for us to work the ending out. A neat trick, if you can pull it off.

In the decades since then (bah, I’m getting old), both writers and readers have loosened up a bit.

I think that’s partly to do with the huge success of authors like Robin Hobb, who has masterfully written nine books in the first person perspective of Fitzchivalry Fareseer. As well as several others in the first person from the perspective of other people. And even in Hobb’s works, the tightness of the framing has loosened. In the original Farseer trilogy, Hobb is very specific in her framing, using Fitz’s obsessive writing about his own life as a device, and his abuse of a specific drug to explain the depth of detail in his memory. By the final trilogy, although Fitz’s continued writing about his own life remains a motif – a habit he passes on to his daughter, that we might have her perspective too – it isn’t entirely clear how we, as readers, have access to all that is written. Without giving too much away… I have questions.

Perhaps I attribute too much to Hobb, as I value her work so specifically, but it seems to me that as writers like her showed it was possible to write the first person well. As a result, many more writers have adopted the habit without any attempt to provide a frame that explains it. We have moved a little further away from the camp fire and the oral tradition.

The third person

The third person has long been more common when writing fiction. This is for obvious reasons. Many tales in the oral tradition were about myths and legends – larger than life characters and events that could not possibly have been witnessed by the storyteller themselves.

It also offers the valuable opportunity to present events that could not all have been seen by the same person. Or multiple perspectives on the same event.

A skilled writer, like Hobb, can introduce a second character who also writes from the first person. But if everyone calls themselves ‘I’, it can leave the reader wondering who is who. Again, I think that without some framing that explains it (as when Bee takes up her father’s habit of extensive journaling) the reader is still tacitly imagining a single person telling them the story – the narrator – as they would have been in the oral tradition. A single story teller can easily tell the story of many different people, but only if they don’t claim that each of those people was themself.

So, most stories are still written in the third person.

Intriguingly, we have seen a shift away from the oral tradition here, too. It did not used to be a very great issue to write in the third-person omniscient. That is to say: to write in the third person, but from whoever’s perspective you like, whenever you need to.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is written in the third person omniscient, along with many other great works from the twentieth century. It can be a great tool for irony to say with full confidence what one character thinks is going on, and then immediately undermine it by revealing another character knows the complete opposite is happening.

Yet most writers today will tell you that third-person omniscient is terrible, lazy writing, that’s confusing for readers – even if half an hour ago they were praising a work you know was written in third-person omniscient.

What’s going on?

Changing fashion, for the most part. But it’s not entirely without reason. Writing is not and should not be treated as a monolith. That wondrous variation I mentioned before still exists. But there are trends. Some of them are caused by editors and agents who want concrete, categorisable things they know how to market. Some are less artificial. What I see is a general trend, across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, towards realism and naturalism in most forms of media, and a drawing closer to immediacy and the emotions of characters.

I don’t mean that our stories have become less fantastical. Quite the reverse, as CGI has improved, our ability to present the unreal as though it were real has increased, and endless CGI superhero movies have been the result.

Rather, with the advent of film, and especially television, our ability to present stories has become increasingly immersive. The proscenium arch of the theatre remains a significant metaphor in how we describe and think of storytelling. It’s still a big deal that Deadpool frequently breaks ‘the fourth wall’. Nevertheless, I watch most film and TV on my laptop. I take TV with me from room to room. All the stories of the world live inside my phone, which I can hold a few inches from my face, in bed.

You can see in early film that actors perform as though they’re still on stage, and how that shifts across the twentieth century as directors, cinematographers, actors, and set designers all start figuring out new ways to interact with the audience, bringing not only the actions, but the emotions, closer. Dialog can actually be whispered, not merely stage whispered. In 2011 we get Lie to Me, a whole show premised on the idea that you can read the truth in microexpressions – imagine trying to perform Lie to Me on a stage. It wouldn’t work.

So, we’re telling different stories now, as well as telling them in different ways.

When people praise Game of Thrones for its realism in a fantasy setting (I know, we’re in a new phase of critique for GoT now, but it was a big deal at the time) it was a very shallow response to point to the existence of dragons. We were talking about how up-close-and-personal we got with the emotions, as well as the in-depth consideration of politics and the horror of war.

The omniscient narrator is often felt to be slightly more detached. If we use omniscient narration for humour and irony, that’s a form of detachment, too. The deeper I am into the emotions of one character, the more jarring it is to switch to the perspective of another without warning. That’s why so many people advise to stick to third-person limited perspective. Not because third-person omniscient is inherently wrong.

And the more I see advice become prescriptive about this, the more I want to resist. People are starting to say that if you’re going to change perspectively in third-person limited, you have to do that in separate chapters. That you have to have a specific number of point-of-view (POV) characters and distinguish your POV characters from other types of characters.

If you want to do that, that’s fine. It does work for George R R Martin. But the idea that you must do this is utter nonsense. Stephen King hops minds as he pleases, with no more than a scene break, and it works exceedingly well.

I’ve also seen it argued that how you approach the thrid person should be determined by the genre you write in. I resist that too. Third person omnipotent may work particularly well for irony, but that doesn’t mean it should only be used for humour. I know that Hitchhiker’s Guide is a funny book, but it’s also science fiction, and I’ve cried at parts of that series. When I read it, it does pull on my feels. I very much do inhabit the character of Arthur Dent. I read the story, it just so happens that it’s often very funny too.

Play with genre. Play with style. Mix them up. Rigid rules stifle creativity, and honestly they just make me sad. It is worth understanding why people tend to do one thing over another, but that absolutely does not mean that only that one thing will work.

Second person

“But Ro, why are you talking about the second person last? Why wasn’t this second?”

Yeah, well, I’m gonna be up front and say that I do not like this one. And I think it is because I tacitly think of storytelling in terms of that oral tradition.

A person telling a story in the first person is presenting it as their story.

A person telling a story in the third person is telling a story about something that happened to other people.

A person telling a story in the second person is an accusation.

“You went to the standing stones, performed the ritual, and released the Ancient One, didn’t you?”

No, I fucking did not. Wow.

And yet, very recently – just the past few years – I’ve seen people telling stories in the second person more and more. It seriously confused me.

I first noticed it in fanfiction. Specifically, Detroit: Become Human (DBH) fanfiction. And that made me wonder if it’s because of the first-person persective of the game. You play three different characters (androids) and decide what to do in various situations. Were people in the fandom more likely to think of the player as a character, taking actions, because there was one person effectively puppeteering three people? And did that make them more likely to literally insert themselves, the reader, as a character, instead of doing the old-fashioned thing of writing a self-insert original character?

But I’ve seen it pop up elsewhere, too. More self-published stories are being written in the second person. I’m not really seeing it in tranditional publishing yet, but I wonder if it may spread.

Is my visceral negative reaction to second-person storytelling how some people feel about first-person storytelling?

Another author recently mentioned that when he reads a story in the first person, he feels like he’s being told the story is about him. This was a real eye-opener for me, as it doesn’t fit into my paradigm of tacitly thinking of stories in the oral tradition, as of a narrator telling a story to you. For him, a story in the first person behaves exactly as a story in the second person does for me.

This is not the criticism of first-person storytelling that I’m used to hearing. Not the objection I was raised with and slowly learnt to unpick as I saw just how well and how powerful first-person storytelling can be.

But perhaps, as writers use framing less and less to explain how a story came to be told in the first person, younger readers approach stories without thinking about how they relate to a story’s narrator. Maybe the shift away from explicit framing of first-person stories could also explain why the question of whether first person stories are OK is coming up again, when it seemed to me that we’d adjusted to simply considering them another storytelling device.

I’ve also noticed an increase in interactive storytelling over the past few years. Some authors have successfully built a platform on Twitter through telling stories where readers decide the next story via Twitter poll. In fanfic, and platforms like DeviantArt, I’ve also increasingly seen Choose Your Own-style stories, where an author posts a chapter, and asks commenters to choose from a list of options about what will happen next.

Computer role-playing games (like DBH and Dragon Age) also increasingly allow players to create very different stories and outcomes in the game based on the choices they make, not simply whether they succeed or fail in combat.

Perhaps the rise in second-person storytelling is linked to a rise in interactive storytelling, in which readers do see themselves more as part of the story.

Perhaps the paradigm is shifting, and there is no longer just one storyteller anymore.

For myself, I still cannot bring myself to read stories in the second person. But that doesn’t mean people are wrong to tell stories that way.

I would encourage writers to think – when they choose first, second, or third person perspective – about why they want to write that way. The answer can be, “It just feels right to me and I like it,” – any story should first and foremost satisfy you the writer. But if you want other people to read your story, it does help to think about how they are likely to read it.

At the moment, most people are most likely to get on with a story told in the third-person limited. You’re more likely to get pushback on a first-person story if there’s no framing that explains why it’s told in the first person, but that’s still a lot rarer than it used to be. In general, second person stories are going to be a very hard sell. A lot of people are going to read that as being told that they themselves feel a certain way when they don’t.

That doesn’t mean don’t write it, it just means… think about your audience.

*Of course, there have also always been other ways to tell stories so as to be accessible to people who can’t hear or speak. Oral traditions predate writing, but one must assume that people have always been telling each other things with their hands and other kinds of body language. I focus on oral tradition as the most influential, and as something we have a record of.

I sold a story!

My story, ‘The Village of the Cats’, has been accepted for publication in Alternative Apocalypses, an anthology to be published by B Cubed Press. It’s going to be launched at World Con!

I’m really excited! It’s been a long time since I had anything new in print, and I’ll admit, it was getting me down. The combination of PhD + illness meant that the momentum I started building around 2008-12 just kind of… stopped. In all aspects of my writing, really. But earlier this year I decided to get serious about my submissions again. I bit the bullet and signed up to Duotrope and I sent all the stories I still believe in out on submission, and I kept sending them out when they came back.

Duotrope, for those unfamilliar, is a service that offers listings and a sophisticated search engine to writers that helps them find markets relevant to the genre and pay level they want to publish at. You can also use it to track your submissions and their listings contain detailed information about response rates, acceptance rates, and sometimes interviews with the publishers about what they’re looking for. The catch is that you have to pay a nominal monthly fee.

I’m a firm believer in Yog’s Law: that money flows towards the author. I never wanted to pay that fee. Especially when a professional pay rate is only $0.08 per word, and very few markets pay that rate. The most I have ever received for my work is still the £25 Amazon voucher I got for the first story I ever sold: a piece of flash fiction that was recorded as a podcast by Radio Ryedale. Flash fiction is usually paid by flat fee rather than by word, and £25 is very good compensation compared to the $10 that I most often see offered in the market. You can see why, in this market, it’s important that the writer – the person who produces the content that makes the publication possible – shouldn’t have to spend any money before they are accepted.

I’ve been a loyal user of for years. Like, since the 1990s. If you click through that link, you’ll see that the website has not changed since the 1990s, and yet it has won multiple awards. That’s for a very good reason. Ralan is always up to date, and offers comprehensive listings for pro, semi-pro, pay, token, anthologies, books, flash fiction, and contests. It covers science fiction, fantasy, horror, and humour markets. It says which markets are open, what genres they accept, what they pay, what word lengths they accept, how quickly you’re likely to get a response, and how you can submit. It’s a free service and all in all it’s pretty good.

But I hadn’t had any success for a few years, and something had to change. Some of my best stories are for very niche audiences and I needed to widen my scope. So I gave Duotrope a go. There is a free trial – so it’s worth checking out just to see the extent of services on offer.

I wouldn’t have found this market without Duotrope. It also gave me the very useful perspective that most of the markets I had been submitting to had a 99% rejection rate, so the fact that I was even getting positive and personal rejections was a good sign.

According to B Cubed Press’s Facebook group, they had over 900 submissions for the anthology, which means they only accepted 3%. My story was in that 3%.

And I think it’s a really good fit. Long time readers will know that I’m a fan of apocalyptic fiction, but I tend to get frustrated with a lot of the popular tropes. I don’t think the majority of people will default to violent, tribe-based behaviour if the trappings of modern civilisation were to be destroyed. The implications for human nature in such tropes are very negative, philosophically troubling, and frankly out-dated. Humans are fundamentally co-operative, social creatures. And I don’t think enough attention is given to the ‘softer’ skills that would be needed in a post-apocalypse environment, especially farming and textile creation. The ‘Village of the Cats’ very much reflects this perspective, and it is an Alternative Apocalypse. I’m so glad it’s found a home in an anthology that’s all about offering a fresh take on one of my favourite genres.

And I’m currently planning to be at World Con, so I’ll get to be there for the launch!

Stay tuned for more details as we move towards publication.

Bad Representation vs No Representation

Guest Post by Jessica Meats [trigger warning for discussion of eating disorders].

Jessica Meats

Jessica Meats

Representation is an important subject when thinking about books and writing. It’s something I’m trying to do better at in my own books and something I try to encourage through buying books which represent diversity. One particular type of representation is close to my heart and that’s representation of mental health issues, particularly eating disorders. There are some great books out there about eating disorders, but it’s very rare to find a book that includes these issues without it being the whole focus of the plot.

I thought I’d found one recently. I was reading a young adult novel about a group of teenagers caught up in a war and the protagonist showed definite signs of an eating disorder. The words ‘eating disorder’ or ‘anorexia’ were never used explicitly, but the protagonist showed definite anorexic behaviours. She severely restricted what she ate, she felt physically incapable of eating certain types of food, she had a strong desire to be thin to a point where other characters thought she looked unhealthy. It was even mentioned that she’d been in therapy around her refusal to eat.

Normally, I would be thrilled to find a book like this. A serious issue is there, but it’s in the background; the plot and the characters are focused on other things. It’s important that people who struggle with these issues find mirrors for themselves in fiction. However, then came the problem. The character got better. Just like that. At a point about halfway through the book, the character had a moment of revelation in which she realised she was starving and after that point, she was perfectly fine. For the rest of the book, there wasn’t a single sign of the eating issues which had been a significant part of her character up to that point.

This is dangerous.

This is a bad representation of eating disorders and it can send a very dangerous message to readers. It can reinforce the message to non-sufferers that an eating disorder is a choice, that it’s just teenagers being silly and they should just get over it and start eating again. There are people out there who think anorexia is just an extreme diet, or that eating disorders are a fad. Those people, reading this book, will get confirmation of their beliefs.

Worse than that, it gives the same message to the people who suffer eating disorders. Eating disorders are a form of mental illness. They’re an illness the affects people physically and psychologically. And they’re a disease with a long and slow recovery period. Sometimes, people spend years trying to recover from an eating disorder. Sometimes, people spend the rest of their lives fighting patterns of behaviour that were part of the disorder. Sometimes, recovery seems to be going well and there’s a moment of relapse. All of that can come with a dose of guilt.

It’s really easy for an eating disorder sufferer to blame themselves, particularly when they have bad days during recovery. In the recovery period, they know that there’s a problem that they’re trying to fix, they know the behaviour that’s problematic, but it’s not always that simple. And when they have a bad day or a setback, on the road to recovery, then the guilt sets in. “I should know better.” “I should do better.” “I should be better.”

Showing someone in that difficult place a representation like the example in this book is dangerous. It’s telling people that all you have to do is recognise the problem and then it’s easy. If you’re struggling with getting better, then it must be because you’re weak or stupid or…

It tells people that eating disorders, “Are all in your head,” and that, “You should just snap out of it.” Sufferers hear enough of that already, from the world around them and from their own sense of guilt. They don’t need to hear it from books as well.

Showing someone that eating disorders can be magically fixed in an instant is an insult to the people who’ve spent years trying to stay in recovery, and it’s hurtful to the people currently struggling with them.

So while representation of these issues in fiction is vitally important, be careful how you do it. If you’re a writer and you want to include a character with an eating disorder, or depression, or some other mental illness, don’t have a magical, perfect recovery in there. Treat these issues with care, because bad representation can be more harmful than no representation.

Between Yesterdays, by Jessica MeatsJessica Meats is a science fiction author of both Young Adult and Adult novels and novellas, including, Child of the Hive, Omega Rising, Traitor in the Tower, and Shadows of Tomorrow. Between Yesterdays is her latest book and is the sequel to Shadows of Tomorrow: “When a young woman arrives, claiming to be sent from the future to help them, the Defenders must determine if this is just another trap.

I’m always impressed by the diversity and by the range of female characters in Jess’s works. She is a writer who thinks seriously about how to handle these issues in her works, as well as providing good stories and original science fiction.

Jess is also giving away diverse books every month in 2016 via her tumblr jessicameats

2015 – that was a year that happened, didn’t it?

Me in 2015

I wasn’t going to write one of these. 2015 is… exhausting to think about.

I was so poor, and depressed, and ill at the start of the year. A week into January I had to ask for your help to pay my rent and my bills. I was flat broke and had exhausted all other avenues. It’s a humiliating and panic-stricken situation to be in. I am so very grateful to the strangers and friends who kept me afloat in that period. I quite literally would not have made it without you. In the end I raised £1,460 via Go Fund Me, and about £60 via my tip jar (that last may have been smaller, but was immediately accessible funds badly needed at the time!).

Thanks to you I kept a roof over my head and I was able to finish my PhD.

The PhD

Which I did. I submitted at the end of May and was examined at my viva on 26 August, where I passed with no corrections. I was completely floored. Having spent the previous year largely bedridden due to illness (and the two years before that ill enough that I often went immediately to bed after work), I spent the final months of my PhD frantically writing up in my supervisor’s office. He didn’t get to see a full draft before I submitted. I was convinced I’d have major corrections – another chapter to write at least! – but I didn’t.

I had typos.

And they decided to accept the thesis with them anyway.

It’s… a bit hard to deal with. I had no reason to think it would go so well. A lot of people had told me I couldn’t do it over the years, and that my depression and illness were symptoms of me trying to do something I wasn’t cut out for. I knew I was ill because of the poor diet I had adopted because I had no money and was depressed, and that I was depressed because of long-standing issues combined with the fact that so many people had no faith in me to do my PhD, which was the most important thing in my life. And now a few people have made comments along the lines of ‘You see, you had nothing to worry about!’ … I can’t sweep it under the carpet that easily. I can’t just set aside how difficult it has been.

Being happy about finishing my PhD is… complex.

I am looking forward to graduating, though.

Today I told a salesperson that my title was ‘Dr’. That was nice.

A New Mattress

I was ordering a new mattress when I did that. I can afford a new mattress now. That’s nice, too.

My current mattress is the one I bought at the start of my PhD when I moved in to share a house with my friend Fred. It was the first unfurnished place I had ever lived in. It seems a lifetime agio.

It was never a particularly good mattress, and it ceased to be anything but deathly uncomfortable years ago. I got a couple more years of life out of it with a mattress topper, but even that has been struggling for a while.

Imagine being bedridden on a broken mattress and too poor to replace it because you are too ill to work. It’s not fun.

I’ve been temping full time since June, and now I can afford a new mattress. It’s good.


Full-time income is really good.

Not working in the evenings and weekends is really good.

I have played a lot of Dragon Age. Which is really good.

Temping isn’t really good for me, though. I work with nice people and they don’t mind if I have blue hair, but I only get half an hour for lunch and is in an Enquiry Centre. I answer phones all day every day. I find phones very stressful. I have a very good phone manner, but phones are not good for me.

I need a job in something I’m actually trained for, but I can’t get an academic job without publishing, and I needed a break from all that, and I’m so tired when I get home from work that all I do is play Dragon Age.

And instead of losing weight after the PhD was over, I’ve continued to gain weight. Because work is stressful and there’s a food table at work and when I’m stressed I eat from the food table. Also, I have continued to be ill, so even though I have been exercising, I have not been exercising enough. Yeah.

Nine Worlds

I had my least ill Nine Worlds ever, which was nice. And I also gave my first paper on their academic track, which seemed to go down well. And I was on a panel about geekdom in academia. I enjoyed both a lot!

I also had an updated Daenerys costume, and I got to take part in Knightmare Live – childhooddream fulfilled!

For various other reasons I have a lot of anxiety right now about the thought of going back. I hope I will overcome them. Nine Worlds has been a real bright spot in some very dark times, and I would like to feel that way about it again.


Although I have done less editing overall this year than previously, it’s still formed a fair chunk of my income and was vital in seeing me through those last few months of my PhD. I’ve also expanded my client base of authors and come to enjoy working directly with people who know what they want.

My sincere thanks to all my clients for being wonderful and a joy to work with this year.


It’s not been a great year with regards to writing for me.

I had one story published – ‘The Runaway King’ in Fox Spirit Book‘s Missing Monarchs anthology. I got to second round with pro magazines more times than I ever have before, but nothing was actually accepted.

I’ve barely progressed at all with my novels.

Some of that is deliberate. I put a hold on more or less everything in order to finish the PhD, but I had intended to return to writing when I was finally free. I haven’t.

I have mostly just played Dragon Age.

Some of that is much needed rest. Some of that is still me not being particularly healthy. Some of it is the FEAR.

I need to get over it.

I’m 32 and my life has been on hold for the last nine years whilst I finished the PhD. I can’t bimble along waiting until I’m Ready to become a Writer anymore.


I want to have a full first draft of one of my novels before I’m 33. That’s six and a half months. It’s not impossible, but I need to get serious about it if I’m to manage to do that alongside a full time job.

I want to lose at least a stone in weight. I need to lose three or four stone, but I’ll settle for one. My clothes don’t fit and my health is suffering. This can’t go on.

I want to be earning more money this time next year than I am now. I’ve never earnt as much as I do now, but it’s temp work. There is no job security and I don’t get paid if I’m ill. I also have a lot of debts to pay off. Things are better now, but they’re still tight. I want to get out of this situation of limping by and owing lots of people money. I need a proper job.

That might be an admin job or a job in publishing or an academic job – those each come with varying levels of difficulty, but at some point I need to stop just coasting and take control of my life.

So. There’s three resolutions. I know a lot of people don’t believe in resolutions, but they have sometimes worked for me in the past. I want 2016 to be the year that everything changes for the better. A lot happened in 2015, much of it for the good, but there was too much hardship for me to really look back on it with any fondness.

Thanks to my wonderful friends who have been with me through it all. You’re very special people, and I’m inadequate in expressing quite how much your support has meant to me.

Thanks also to the friends, family, and strangers who kept me afloat this year.

And now I think I need to move on from thinking about 2015. I want to look forward, instead.

But, I mean…

[Cross-posted from my Tumblr, In Search of the Happiness Max.]

Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay, A Room of One’s Own, which I come back to again and again when I see in myself and others the struggle to engage in intellectual pursuits whilst beset by poverty and the impossibility of peace and quiet and the room to fully develop complex thoughts, starts with an unusual word:


But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own?

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

It is an essay that starts with a conjunction. It is an essay that starts with an interruption. It embodies how opressers (especially white men) constantly seek to cut the less privileged off before they get started. She has only given the title of her lecture and already her interlocutor has cut in to object. Wants to argue that she hasn’t understood the question. Devalues her right to speak. To have been invited to talk on women and fiction in the first place.

After all, she is only a woman who writes fiction. What could she have to say? How could her thought about the room possibly be something she could explain to be relevant. The connection is not immediately obvious (before she has explained it) so it could not possibly contain a ‘nugget of truth’.

And at the same time as embodying her interlocutor’s aggression and silencing, it is also her word, the word with which she begins her essay.

It expresses how women are constantly battling to find a voice. To force a wedge into conversation from which we have been excluded.

The combination reminds me of a man I once knew who became incredibly angry with me, because he perceived that I was always interrupting him. Which was not true. What would happen would be that I would start a sentence, he would interrupt me before I had completed my thought, and then when I sought to complete my thought – or (very frequently) correct the assumption he had made about what I had been trying to say (he almost unfailingly assumed I was trying to say something very simplistic, something he could easily debunk) – he would become furious that I had been so rude as to interrupt him.

I was both interrupted before I could fairly get started, and having to interupt to find a way back into the conversation.

Because men don’t make room for women to talk in the pauses between their sentences.

I watched this same man constantly allow other men to talk over him. He would begin a sentence and then stop when another man started talking. He would attempt to interject in another man’s talk and acquiesce entirely unruffled when the other man pressed on to complete his thought.

My problem was twofold: a) I listen when other people want to join a conversation and allow them to speak, to voice counterpoints; and b) he would not permit me to complete a thought the way he would another man.

And thus it is for women to attempt to speak and voice our thoughts and get them out whole. So too, I think, with other people who are oppressed, in the presence of those with privilege over them. Although, it is a complex thing. A gay white man may still talk over a woman; a disabled white man may find himself ignored completely, and so on. Privilege and oppression are not a single axis.

People who have been marginalised are perceived as being at the edges of conversations. Always butting in. Even when they sit at the very centre of the issue. Even when they have been asked to talk on that issue.

And what intrigues me is the language we see evolving, especially in places where the less privileged feel more free to talk and to experiment with language.

I find it with my own writing. I take a conversational tone on my blog, and somehow that winds up with me starting a lot of my posts with ‘So,’. There’s no need for it. In formal writing this would be a faux pas. Drop the filler word and just make your statement. Not ‘So, there was this thing I was watching the other day’; rather: ‘I was watching x’.

But that filler word is important in the speech of marginalised people. It’s how we get our foot in the door. It’s very rare that we simply be allowed to speak, just because we want to. ‘So’, ‘But’, ‘And’, ‘I mean’, these are ways of us interjecting without immediately launching into the thought no one wants to hear. The thought we need a breath to formulate when people aren’t talking over us. These ways of beginning are often labelled as ‘weak’. But Virginia knew the truth.

These aren’t things that weaken our language. These are tools we use to crowbar our way into getting heard.

And it’s not just my idiosyncrasy. Tumblr, renowned (or notorious, depending on one’s perspective) for social justice, is full of people beginning posts with ‘I mean’, ‘OK, but’ and ‘But what if’ – as though they were entering an existing conversation, rather than starting a post fresh. And where in a conversation with an oppressor such terms can make you feel weak, on Tumblr they are lighthearted, freeing.

I do think they reflect the patterns of talk of people who are used to joining conversations in an underconfident way, but they are not taken as underconfident in that context. They are taken as reflective of the fact that on Tumblr we are in conversation. Not a literal back and forth (the platform is uniquely poorly set up for that, as a form of social media) but an evolving exchange of ideas between people who are not being interupted. You say as much or as little as you want in your post, and people engage, for the most part, by reblogging or liking that post – by spreading your thoughts, rather than interrupting or smothering them.

It’s also part of the linguistic signalling that identifies Tumblr users as part of a group. Dispite the fact that it is an unusually diverse group. That’s how we talk, here. It goes along with the linguistic ticks of using no punctuation or capitalisation to suggest a certain tone. And it’s done in the presence of people who rejoice in language and provide fascinating analyses of the evolving syntax with which we are engaging.

If I start a post with ‘I mean’ on Tumblr, I know I’m not likely to be judged for it, because everyone there knows what I’m doing. They speak the lingo. They are already listening. They are a part of my conversation and they have decided to let me talk.

It’s a powerful thing. Turning the brokenness of being constantly interrupted into strength and community.

OMG! OMG! OMG! OMG! Missing Monarchs is out today and I am in it!

Cover art for Missing Monarchs

Cover art for Missing Monarchs

I’m so excited! Missing Monarchs is finally here! And inside it is my story, ‘The Runaway King’!

Missing Monarchs is a Fox Pocket Anthology – flash fiction on a single theme collected for your pocket-book delectation. My story is a sweet little tale of love and abdication.

Other amazing authors in this anthology include Lou Morgan, of Blood and Feathers fame; Jo Thomas (aka Journeymouse); Chloe Yates; Geri Clark Hellery and more!

You can buy this as a Kindle ebook, or as a paperback. (An ePub will be forthcoming from Spacewitch.)

Full contents below:

Graham Wynd – Headless in Bury

Emma Teichmann – In Absentia

Lou Morgan – Oliver Cromwell’s Other Head

Jonathan Ward – The Collector

Victoria Hooper – The Lost Queen

Ro Smith – The Runaway King

Geraldine Clark Hellery – The Blooding

Rahne Sinclair – Monarch of the Glen

Michael Pack – Paths in the Forest

Jo Thomas – the Lost Kingdom

Christian D’Amico – Matriarch

Paul Starkey – Checkmate

Chloe Yates – Tits up in Wonderland

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! I’m excited – you should buy it!

Proofread Along with Rhube #1

A screenshot of a proof read document, with track changes and comments

How one might proofread my Teenage Wasteland text.

This is the first in a series of articles I’m going to be doing, providing a proofreader’s perspective on spelling, grammar, and manuscript preparation. The purpose will not be to lecture, but to inform and to help. I want to provide the answers I wish someone had given to me in school. Lots of us grew up under a teaching philosophy that held that we should pick up a lot of the niceties of spelling and grammar by osmosis. And the problem with that is that a) we didn’t, really; b) a lot of what we picked up was conflicting; and c) a lot of what we picked up has changed since we picked it up. All of which can lead to a lot of uncertainty and mistakes and anxiety.

I plan to do a bunch of short articles on common misunderstandings, problems, and puzzles from the perspective of someone who proofreads and copy-edits both fiction and academic writing for a living. And I’m going to start with a bit of demystifying of the ‘rules’ and what exactly it is that proofreaders and copy-editors do. My hope is that this will make your approach to writing ‘correctly’ a less anxious process.

But first, a bit about me, and why you should listen to anything I say in the first place.

About Rhube and her Profreaderly Pedigree

I’ve been a writer all my life and actively engaged with writing critique groups since I first came to university, thirteen years ago. This has made me both good at picking stuff up and sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of different writing styles, and a lot of different opinions about the ‘correct’ way to write. Prior to that, at A Level, I had been taken to task because the content of my essays was good, but my writing style was rubbish. My sentences were a paragraph long, my paragraphs could last a page, and I didn’t really understand about the purpose of introductions or conclusions. It was hurting my grades, so I sought help, something I think a lot of intelligent students don’t do. There’s a culture of believing that if you’re good enough, you’ll pick it up on your own, and whilst you can get part of the way there on your own, a little direction and a willingness to admit you might be wrong really helps.

Learning to write well was a process. A process that was informed by the twice-weekly Creative Writing Group I attended, feedback from essays, and self-reflection. Some of the stuff I ‘figured out’ along the way I have since learnt was wrong, but somewhere between being taken to task for my hopelessly confused grammar and style at A Level, and beginning my Masters, I became someone who routinely received feedback on how much easier to read my writing was than other students. Most attributed this to my undergrad having been a joint honours with English Literature. Which was, of course, complete bollocks.

There’s an odd assumption that being good at reading and analysing other people’s work necessarily involves being good at writing yourself. I think it goes back to the myth of learning-by-osmosis. Alas, just because you read a lot and understand a lot of what’s going on in fiction, doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand how to write. I learnt to write by going to critique groups a lot, writing a lot, revising a lot, critiquing other people, and looking things up when I wasn’t sure. But whatever the reason, people noticed that I wrote well, and when I started my PhD, in 2006, a lecturer friend of mine suggested my name to a friend of a friend of his as an English language proofreader for the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy, and I had my foot in the door.

After proofreading for EuJAP for a year, I was offered work on the journal edited by my department, Mind, which is published by Oxford University Press (OUP). I started proofreading reviews and occasional articles, and eventually I was offered copy-editing work, too. Of all the things that have taught me about the nuts and bolts of writing, my work for Mind has probably been the most significant. OUP is exacting, and our editor is meticulous. I’m very grateful to him, both for his extensive style sheets, and for his personal guidance. I learnt to look things up, to check and double-check; I learnt that many of the rules I had learnt were either wrong, or simply not Mind style. And whilst I learnt to be exacting about house style, I also learnt to respect authorial style.

Meanwhile, I had kept up with my own fiction writing and had come to know Lee Harris, senior editor at Angry Robot (AR), via the writing group I joined after the university one I had attended for years died a death. Lee knew of my work for Mind, and in December 2012 he asked if I’d like to do some work for Angry Robot. I applied and was accepted and completed proofreading my first novel in January 2013. A year later I have begun to support myself solely based off my proofreading and copy-editing work.

What I’ve Learnt Along the Way

I’ve learnt a lot. The biggest thing I have learnt is that there is no one truth about grammar, style, or even spelling. It’s not just national differences, like the US/UK spelling variations; the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries differ on some of their spellings. There are different conventions dependent on house style and even different mediums within the same house. An article may have different requirements to a review. Authorial styles vary, and how much leeway you give to an author varies dependent on house style, too.

This doesn’t mean that there are no rules, and it doesn’t mean that anything goes. It does mean that if you and your friend disagree about whether it should be ‘learnt’ or ‘learned’, there is no objectively right answer. Some consider ‘learnt’, ‘dreamt’, ‘smelt’ etc. to be somewhat old fashioned, but it’s not obsolete, it’s still permissible. I like it, so I use it. If I submitted work to one publisher, they might let me go with that; if I submitted it to another, they might change ‘learnt’ to ‘learned’. The important point is that no one is going to turn down your work simply because you used a different spelling convention to the house style. That’s what they employ people like me for: to make your writing fit their style.

You should, of course, read any guidelines provided by the publisher you want to submit to. But those guidelines are highly unlikely to get down to the nitty-gritty of spelling conventions. They might have a blanket statement to the effect of ‘We use UK spellings’, but that’s rare. Two of the publishers I have worked for have respected authorial choice concerning US/UK/Canadian etc. spellings. OUP, unsurprisingly, insists on using the spellings as indicated in the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. But even there, no article is rejected for using US spellings; we just change all the spellings by force at the copy-editing stage.

Of course, you want to look professional. If you chop and change between different spelling and grammar conventions enough, your writing will look sloppy, and that might affect the acceptance of your piece. The key is to be consistent. Use the Oxford (serial) comma, or don’t. Spell it ‘learnt’ or ‘learned’, and stick to your choice. It’ll make you look more professional, and it’ll be easier on your proofreader – if she has to make changes, then it’s easier for her to change all of x-spellings to y-spellings, as opposed to keeping track of your varied options and making a call about which you use more.

Not everything is just a convention. Well, all spelling and grammar are just conventions in the strictest sense, but some things are widely agreed to be wrong in professional writing. It is ‘a lot’, and not ‘alot’. When in doubt, look it up. There are some good texts you can buy that have status and reliability. My two favourites are:

Fowler’s Modern English Usage, first edited by H W Fowler, third edition edited by R W Burchfield

New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, edited and compiled by R M Ritter

These things get updated periodically, so make sure you have the most recent edition.

There’s also a wealth of advice online (like this series – hi!) but a lot of it is people asserting or debating their personal favourites or ‘feelings’, so be careful. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips are a great, reliable, and clear resource.

So that’s the main lesson to take away from this, our inaugural  session: don’t worry too much, just be consistent and, when in doubt, look it up!


Index to other Proofread Along with Rhube pages.

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Teenage Wasteland 2: The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate Continues!

So, people seemed to enjoy reading my horrifically bad early writings, last week. Favourites including my unique spelling of the word accent ‘exuent’ and Sir Richard’s horse, Belinda. For kicks and giggles, and so you can find out what happens to Belinda, I have decided to put the rest of the story up, too. Not all at once – 3,000 words is a lot to read in one sitting, especially when it’s complete rubbish. But over the next few weeks you will get the rest of the story, and be in a position to judge just how legendary Catherine of Gawthwate was.

Incidentally, there was some speculation that ‘exuent’ was the product of inaccurate spell-checker suggested word selection. Not so! As you will see as the tale continues, there is plenty more in the way of creative spelling that very clearly has not been through a spell-checker. I was writing this on a very old computer, with a very old version of Word Perfect. I don’t remember if there was a spell-checker (it’s entirely possible that there was) but if so, I may well not have realised it. I remember that all the menu options were accessible via function keys and then a series of other letters once you had the menu open. If there was a spell-checker it may have been several years before I found it.

If you didn’t read the first part, get yourself over here and catch-up!

Part two:

After this, between the fighting, there was a most romantic courtship which lasted 5 months, then they were married. Catherine wore a most beautiful wedding dress, encrusted with jet, diamonds and rubies, it was made of pure silk and the vale of the most beautiful lace.

See, most girls supposedly spend a lot of time thinking about their ideal wedding dress. I actually hadn’t. I mean, I knew I wanted it to be a princess dress, and obviously I wanted one of those very badly, but when I came to write this scene I realised I didn’t really know much about wedding dresses or what would make for a good description of one. My answer? BLING, apparently. I guess the jet was to make it stand out from all the other dresses encrusted with diamonds and rubies. I was so alternative.

The 8th most expensive wedding dress in the worldI asked the Internet if it had any photos of a wedding dress with jet, diamonds, and rubies on it, and the Internet’s respnse was something to the effect of ‘What? No! Nobody has ever worn a dress like that!’ I was kind of avaricious as a child, so I imagine I was pretty much thinking that the more expensive the better, hence all the bling. Catherine was probably wearing the fantasy equivalent of this (above), only with more jet. This dress is supposedly the 8th most expensive wedding dress in the world, worth 999,999 Yuan, or around £101,000, with 9,999 karats (about two kilograms) worth of jewels on it. It’s hideous, isn’t it?

The dress isn’t the only wonderful thing in this paragraph, though. It continues:

As she walked down the aisle she looked at her lover and thought of the first night they met and tear of happiness sprang to her eyes for this was the happiest moment of her life. Richard felt just the same as he remembered the romantic cements he’d made and the music of her voice as it answered.

Got to admire the single, beautiful tear of joy that recalls that really classy bit of flirtation I wrote at the feast in honour of Sir Richard’s trustworthy looks. Richard made some really romantic cements, that night.

The vicar cleared his throat ” Dearly beloved we are gathered hear today to witness the marriage of Lady Catherine Anne Heckles to Sir Richard Anthony Charles…” and so on and so on until ” Oh me oh my would you help me young lady I can never read the last bit, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.”

” It says, you may now kiss the bri…” Catherine got no farther for Richard knew what it said and gave most beautiful kiss.

The priest from The Princess Bride

‘Deawy bewoved…’

You have to understand that I thought I was very witty. See how I’m trying to smooth over the fact that haven’t a clue what people say at weddings by having the vicar be a bumbling fool. I totally wasn’t copying The Princess Bride. No. It can’t be that that was probably the only wedding I’d seen on film. Also, comedy is a great way to segway into a beautiful kiss. TruFax!

11 months passed to which were most blissful and then a baby boy was born, they named him Calith.

Wow. That was fast. 11 months is totally a reasonable amount of time for baby-making, though. And Calith is totally a name.

“Oh look at him Richard, he has your eyes and nose… we must have him christened as soon as possible.” Catherine said. (She was so exited with the new born child.)

Christening is the best way to express your excitement.

So it was that, as had been requested, the child was brought to be christened two days later.

I guess you hop to when Lady-Queen Catherine wants you to christen her child. No bedrest for Catherine – get that child prepped for God!

As the vicar searched through his book for the correct ceremony Calith began to cry, this wrinkly old man he had be placed before had not noticed him and his mother was out of view, so as Catherine soothed him she urged the vicar to be quick.

The vicar cleared his throat “Now, what did you say the Child’s name was, Caylith? No, no, no, no, it’s … Calith, isn’t it? Good.” And so it went

on quite well considering the vicar was way past the age of normal retirement.

Yup, bumbling vicar is comedy gold. I should do stand-up. Incidentally, I have no idea how you pronounce ‘Calith’ if you don’t say it so as to sound identical to ‘Caylith’. Also: creative line breaks for all! (this may actually be a formatting error from transferring Word Perfect files to Word, but pfft!)

“I do declare,” said the vicar “that this child shall be the answer to your dreams. He shall defeat Lord Colotus!!!”

All vicars are prophets in Gawthwate. The font doubles as a scrying bowl.

As the years went by Calith became a strong boy and a quick learner, but all the time Sir Ganathry grew to dislike the child, and despise his father.

Did you forget about Sir Ganathry? He was a named character, you should have been paying attention. Anyway, despite Calith’s obvious chosen-one good qualities, Ganathry really doesn’t like him. And he despises his father. Remember right at the beginning, with all that headshaking? That was set-up, that was. He never trusted Sir Richard. Because of reasons.

” Ganathry! Come hither at once! Hath thow no ears?” Catherine was furious. ” What right hath you to disobey my orders? I told you to stay with Calith. Why did you leave him with maid Jane? “

‘Maid Jane’ is totally a term of address in this world. It’s coming back to me now. I’m pretty sure this was a deliberate bit of world-building. FEEL the colour it adds.

” I had important business to attend to … lady Catherine.” Ganathry stammered in ripply.

Is Ganthry a face-hugger? Pretty sure that’s the only way to stammer in Ripley. Oh, wait, I get it, reply – he stammers in reply

” What business could be more important than Calith? ” She posed. ” Well? Anyway, I asked thee hither to inform you that due to this afternoon’s behaviour you are to be relieved of from nannying my son.This is Mary, she is the new nanny. You may now continue with other duties.”

What the hell was he doing nannying Calith in the first place? No wonder he was annoyed. Sir Ganathry is a knight, they are not known for their nannying services. They’re known for hitting things. Sometimes stabbing things. Why have you left your kid to this man’s care to bring up? Why didn’t you go with Mary in the first place?

Mary was 20, single, and she loved children. She instantly Knew how to deal with this fussy 9 year old child.

I’m not sure why we need to know that Mary is single. Is this plot relevant? I’m worried that this might be plot relevant. Are we meant to be shipping her with someone? If so, I’m not really sure who…

” Hello, I’m Mary … and you must be Calith. ” Mary said.

” Yes. But where’s Ganthry, he’s supposed looking after me? ” Calith was confused.

” He’s been relieved of thee and thee’s now in my care. Come I hear thee’s a good rider, I know not how to ride. Might thow teach me? ” Her voice was joyous and rang like a bell.

Well, she’s just a young Mary Poppins, isn’t she? I suppose this isn’t a bad way to deal with a fussy child – get him showing you something he’s good at.

” This is my horse Lightning, a-and this is Belinda. You can use her, she’s old and gentle, perfect for beginners.” Calith was liking his new nanny better and better every second, she didn’t shout at him, or boss him about, nor had he been left alone in the corner.

And so their friendship began.

Belinda’s here! I didn’t forget about her, but time has passed, and now she is old and gentle. And check out that dialogue – didn’t need to tell you that Calith was stammering in ripply, did I? A totally more subtle way to show his youth and nervousness. And Mary is clearly a much more suitable nanny than Ganathry, she hasn’t left him alone in a corner or anything! All it takes is a little kindness, Ganathry!

Early next morning Jane flung open the curtains and declared the beauty of the day and said that with such fine weather he should already be up. Unfortunately when she opened the curtains the light nearly blinded Calith.
” Jane!!” He said annoyed. ( As he had been left with her so often he called her Jane instead of Maid, or Maid Jane.)

Aren’t there any other maids in the castle? Also, if he’s left alone with Jane so much anyway, why couldn’t she be his nanny?

” Yes Master Calith? ” She asked.

” You nearly blinded me ? ” He said. ” And tiss far to early anyway.”

” I, but ‘ow could I let thee miss a morn like this? And anyway thee wanted to see the dawn chorus. ” She said gaily ” Sh. Listen.”

If you ever woke really early and heard the dawn chorus you would know just how they felt, it’s magic to hear all the birds singing together, it makes you feel like a great weight has been lifted off your shoulders, and you know that you’ll remember it for the rest of your life.

They sat their, just listening for a full hour, then it gradually died away. The two stood there for a while, speechless, then shook them selves and Jane said ” If ‘eared it once or a thousand times still get’s one in the
heart.” She sighed ” One ‘a natures wonder … oh Master Calith don’t thee forget breakfast is at 8 bells.” She then went off humming gaily to her self.

Guess who had recently woken up early to hear the dawn chorus? I actually have a distinct memory of writing this bit. I thought it was so rad. That’s writing from experience, my friends! And it’s completely plot relevant! No, it is not.

That day and for the year that followed Calith learnt all the skills he was going to need in battle – sword fighting, lances, archery and that
sort of thing – he learned fast and even became better than his teacher. By the age of 14 he became his fathers page and sometimes (though none new) sneaked his way into battle.

Another nice bit of ‘I have no idea what training in any of these things would involve, so I’m just going to say that it happened and move on!’ Also, Calith really must be a fast learner. Inside of a year he’s become better than his teacher in sword fighting, lances, archery (well, he gets that from Catherine) and ‘that sort of thing’. That’s umm, well. Well done, Calith. You terrifying superman. And he’s sneaking into battles – I’m sure that’s going to end well.

Tune in next week for more of The Legend of Calith Catherine of Gawthwate!