As indicated in a previous post, the developmental work I do begins and ends in conversation.

Prospective authors schedule a 30-minute intake call on my calendar, and we talk about their project, timeline, and goals. During our call, I’m hoping to establish a connection, but I’m also hoping to determine fit.

If my skill set doesn’t fit an author’s needs—maybe an author seeks a straightforward proofread or requires a too-tight timeline—I will typically encourage a visit to the Editorial Freelancers Association job board.

Other times, however, the fit feels right, and our conversation becomes a lot more interesting.

In some ways, a developmental edit is more like an intense, ongoing conversation consisting of three intertwined dialogues: between the author and me, between the author and their manuscript, and between their manuscript and me. 

The conversation begins with an author articulating their extratextual focus, providing answers or ruminations to questions such as the following: What is your book’s message? Who wants or needs to hear it? Why does this audience want or need to hear it, and what will they gain from it? What do you want out of the book publication process (in terms of number of books sold, but also in terms of legacy)? How do you want to be introduced to others five years from now?

Once I understand these answers, we turn to the manuscript and extend the conversation.

Like other Minnesotans, I’m not as much out in the world these days. When I venture into public, it’s usually to run to the grocery store, where masks make idle chit-chat feel positively furtive.

Now, when I’m asked what it is I do, exactly, it’s not in casual conversation but when describing my services–their use and their potential value–to prospective clients. In these conversations, I’m typically describing developmental editing, my most popular service for writers and publishers.

A developmental editor is a big-picture editor who helps strengthen a manuscript’s focus and structure. Most developmental editors (or at least this one) offer hands-on substantive support, including reverse outlines, sample sentences and paragraphs, and quick-and-dirty lessons on grammar or syntax.

My developmental work is informed by a bifurcated sense of focus, in both textual and extratextual terms. Textual focus refers, of course, to the clarity and persistence of subject-specific investigation. For example, if I’m working with a self-help or how-to book, I’m assessing it for focus on a clear, replicable process.

Extratextual refers to something a bit different, but something that often proves crucial to the success of a final project: This is the triangulation of a writer’s message, audience, and goals.

Frequently, when a book lacks textual focus, the blurred lines are a consequence of a lack of extratextual lucidity. Accordingly, my developmental services frequently begin with a series of phone calls to discuss a writer’s sense of alignment among message, audience, and goal.

These conversations are a big help to me because I can capture a writer’s rhythm and cadence, which often invaluably informs my developmental work. They also set in motion the deeper, more intense, and ongoing conversation that constitutes a major part of the developmental edit.

What does it mean to work as though we live in the days of a better civilization? Although frequently attributed to Alasdair Gray (despite his disavowal), the line belongs to Gray’s contemporary, Canadian Dennis Lee.

In Civil Elegies, Lee writes:

And best of all is finding a place to be
in the early days of a better civilization
For we are a conquered nation: sea to sea we bartered
everything that counts, till we have
nothing to lose but our forebears’ will to lose.
But what good is that in a nation of
losers and quislings

Although Lee’s early work denounced Canada’s colonial complicity and earned him the Governor General’s award in 1972, he is better known for his children’s poetry. In fact, his poetry was a favorite of engineering professor Deb Chachra, who recently namechecked Lee in Metafoundry, her newsletter on the nexus of infrastructure, engineering, art, and individuals.

In Issue 73: Our Cyborg Collective Body, Ourselves, Chachra invokes the slow-burning apocalypse in William Gibson’s scifi novels (specifically, The Peripheral and Agency) to describe the current COVID crisis. She then cites Lee’s poetic injunction, calling on us to imagine a systemic, collective response.

What would it look like, after all, to build an infrastructure fit to serve a better civilization?

According to Paul Graham Raven, infrastructure is a “tool,” “an extension of baseline human abilities.” It’s a systematized technical augmentation–but with a biological input (us!).

In the context of COVID, we know our bodies have needs that manifest individually but must be met collectively: We become infectiously ill individuals, sometimes so ill we must be isolated from the collective to be cared for by the collective before returning to the collective. Needs like these are met (or not) through infrastructural responses, such as public health, also public education.

Yet, to build tools to meet the needs of a better civilization, we must not only identify needs that have not yet been met, but also determine those needs that have not yet been recognized as the collective’s responsibility.

In Sexuality for All Abilities, Katie Thune and I argue that there is an individual and a collective need for comprehensive sex education for young people in the special education classroom. While writing this book will not determine a better civilization, arguing for recognition of a collectively solvable problem may help hasten its arrival.

Way back in January of 2018, on my negligible commute, I tuned in to Minneapolis Public Radio for the local angle on NPR’s special series, “Abused and Betrayed.

The conversation was guided by Marianne Combs and focused on the silent epidemic of sexual abuse among people with intellectual disabilities. Combs was joined by NPR correspondent and special-series investigator Joseph Shapiro, sexuality educator Katie Thune, and attorney Patrick Noaker to discuss the Minnesotan context of this national problem and respond to listeners’ phone calls.

The guests’ words were incredibly powerful, but my driveway moment was attributable to the anguish expressed by the parents and caregivers who called in to discuss the abuse sustained by their loved ones with disabilities.

Particularly memorable–and devastating–was the voice of an elderly woman who talked about the exploitation of her adult son. She recounted a situation that occurred years ago, when a powerful man in the community approached her young adult son with a sexual proposition. Her son has a traumatic brain injury: He lives independently, but he has limited cognition and social awareness and can be easy to confuse. The powerful man preyed on this vulnerability, framing his proposition as an arrangement that would help powerful man “relieve stress” and “do his job better.” Her son ultimately agreed, believing his actions were necessary and that he would be paid for them.

A few years later, the man died. When her son learned of the man’s death, he explained to his mom that he would be inheriting money, and why. She was of course shocked and furious, but what followed was even worse: When her son didn’t receive his money, he couldn’t understand why and accused his mother and siblings of stealing it.

The mom’s voice, broken in suffering, compelled me to reach out to Katie Thune to ask about turning her educational curriculum, Sexuality for All Abilities, into a book. The result of our efforts, I am proud to say, is Sexuality for All Abilities: Teaching and Discussing Sexual Health in Special Education, released this week by Routledge, as part of its Eye on Education series.

We created this book to give educators and others the tools and confidence required to teach topics in comprehensive sex education in the context of special education. In it, we draw on the expertise of educators, the experience of teachers, the stories of parents and caregivers, and the words of people with disabilities to inform lessons on healthy relationships, public and private spaces and behaviors, consent, hygiene, and other important topics necessary to living an informed life.

The book is a useful resource in and out of the classroom, but it’s also a contribution to the better civilization we strive to build—a civilization in which we acknowledge a wide range of individuals with varying abilities, and in which we seek to supply the education necessary to live as fully, safely, and with as much autonomy and pleasure as possible.

During the Trump years, critics have often felt a professional obligation to criticize the administration’s use of rhetoric to foster cruelty and perpetuate a fantasy of violence. The fantasy is rooted in what literary critic Richard Slotkin called (50 years ago) the “American mythogenesis.” And it tells the story of American identity and strength as dependent on “regeneration through violence.” Today, Trump extends the fantasy through language, partly by coding administrative action as valiant, partly by soliciting sympathetic readers to ascend from the rank-and-file to heroism in the life-threatening context of American life.

On the one hand, it’s just words.

On the other, it’s not.

Trump recently contributed a tweet to the perpetuation of this fantasy in response to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 DACA ruling. The majority decision, penned by Bush appointee, John Roberts, called the federal administration’s decision to terminate DACA “arbitrary and capricious,” noting it failed to provide adequate information that “policy concerns outweigh[ed] reliance interests.” Dreamers were consequently granted  temporary reprieve.

Trump’s response:

The aggressive language casts the decision as murderous, and its violent imagery facilitates the Manichean worldview on which fascism depends. It’s us against them, Trump warns, by any means necessary. Here, fascism’s nationalists are redefined as warriors. Because they face political opposition, which in Trump’s language endangers their lives, they are not only freed from the rules governing shared reality, they are freed from sharing in the common sense of reality at all.

The fantasy of violence works by way of a superficial imitation of the flight-or-fight binary. When matters of political disagreement are defined as a threat to life, any retaliatory action is justified, no matter how distorted the perception of threat.

It’s possible that a fantasy rooted in violent American myth is the most effective way to communicate federal policy informed by white supremacy. But we must recognize its use as a weapon that damages our shared reality. It’s not “just words” when it perpetuates a warrior worldview: It’s actionable, fostering systemic division and the violence attendant to it.

How can such a “war” be won? It’s not entirely clear. But most of us already know that weapons of violence and “shotgun blasts into the face” do not solve complicated problems.

Building an author platform is an especially important task given the quarantine’s likely long-lasting impact. In the indeterminate new normal, “the digital first impression is…the only impression.”

Authors for whom a digital first impression feels uncomfortably distant can take refuge in the etymology of digital in “finger’s breadth” (and in the inherent ambiguity of every impression).

According to ZG Communications, a Canadian-based marketing agency, authors, publishers, marketers, booksellers, book buyers, and anyone associated with writing, making, selling, buying, and reading books must be especially agile in adopting (and adapting) digital-first branding strategies.

The American Booksellers Association (ABA) echoes the suggestion. In Action Items for Authors, ABA instructs authors to work with local booksellers to create virtual story time, livestream readings, conduct Skype- or Zoom-based conversations, or offer Twitter-based AMAs.

It isn’t clear how the pandemic and potential bookstore closures will redefine bookselling or buying. But the general, newly narrowed focus on establishing, maintaining, and building a digital presence will broadly impact the industry.

Publishers Weekly, for example, has responded to COVID closures with a virtual handselling campaign. The effort, designed to give booksellers an opportunity to introduce books published during the pandemic, works to replicate the bookstore customer’s happenstance purchases.

Its reach is necessarily limited and not yet tested, but the campaign nonetheless introduces new and old readers to books they might not have otherwise encountered. Consequently, it gestures to the intimacy available via digital strategies. For authors, in particular, such strategies can offer readers the realness of apparently unfiltered immediacy—sometimes by simply providing glimpses into authors’ private lives.

Adrienne Westenfeld, in Esquire, writes extensively to this point. By necessity, readers are now able to gain access to authors in a a variety of new ways, including via their bookshelves, living rooms, partners, kids, and pets. Readers in the pre-COVID normal were seldom invited to peek beyond the bookstore’s walls. 

While authors may have little control over the future of the industry, they can certainly use their platform to more intimately communicate with potential readers. Authors who build platforms featuring virtual events (or events that easily adapt to virtual venues), for example, will be better positioned to reach a variety of readers in the future, regardless of the future’s particulars.

This is true for unpublished authors or authors with a work in progress, as well. These authors can create digital-first platforms that deliver reader-responsive expertise through webinars, lecture-led discussions, Q&As, specialty training sessions, or anything else their audience might like to access.

Simply put, when a digital impression is the only impression, it’s the only impression that matters.

For first-time nonfiction authors, the passive pressure to “build” an “author platform”  shares some of the urgent-but-empty significance of corporate jargon. What does it mean? Is it really necessary?

Brooke Warner describes it at The Write Life as an “author’s visibility”; Agent Kate McKean describes it as “name recognition”; and Jane Friedman, publishing industry insider, describes it as the “ability to sell books because of who you are and who you can reach.”

An author platform houses the various inputs by which you define yourself as an author and express and communicate your message to potential readers. A platform is  a point of connection (usually several points of connection) between you and the readers who want to know more about you, your expertise, and your various projects. 

For most authors, an author platform is made up of a relevant handful of the following: a website, a Twitter profile, a Facebook page, a newsletter, and podcast appearances, speaking gigs, and writing–or writing adjacent–projects. 

Nonfiction writers should view an author platform as a helpful aid to securing publisher interest. The platform testifies to an author’s ability to produce work that resonates with readers. It also suggests the presence of readers ready to purchase the work. This is important because, as McKean argues, a platform “is there to sell books.” 

Despite this, nonfiction authors can and should begin to build their platform while in book development. You may feel ill-equipped to build a platform before your book is finished, or you may fear that sharing too much of your project will dilute its power. However, creating connections with interested audiences takes effort, and effort takes time. Your audience can provide essential insight into what work resonates and with which audience members. Further, the mere presence of an interested audience can prompt production.

The work of building an author platform may initially feel arduous, but it builds its own momentum. Overlook its jargon-adjacent phrasing, and consider it an instrumental part of the author process.

It’s Earth Day, which means Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, my book with Margaret Klein Salamon, is now available from New Society! But because we’re quarantined in a pandemic while radical pro-gun extremists bully nurses, doctors, and state governments to sacrifice the weak—as if that’s a meaningful solution to the precarious futures of important industries (like publishing)—it’s a muted celebration.

Earth Day was established in 1970 on the presumption that Americans deeply cared about the environmental damage wreaked by industrial development. Bipartisan, cross-generational, and cross-class supporters verified this belief, publicly recognizing our fundamental human reliance on a healthy environment for sustenance.

Although the recognition is often collapsed into a niche interest in  “environmentalism,” it’s an extension of fact: We can’t bear children, raise children, be children, grow into adults, or function as adults without the benefit of clean air, good food, and drinkable water. This is the requirement of every member of our species, whether or not we care about sustaining the planet beyond our mere survival.

Today, care—such a crucial requirement for change—feels like a scarce resource. Callous examples of leadership reinforce the sense of finitude: Trump’s pride in his antipathy seems to inspire those who enjoy participating in a rigid Darwinian contest where every resource is limited. In this game, sacrificing the weak is the only available strategy for defining the strong.

Then, of course, there are those who must attend to so many pressures from so many sides that care can only be parceled out on an as-needed basis. COVID-19 has simply made manifest this pressure: Who can care about anything else when a minimum of 45,000 Americans are dead and 22 million Americans are unemployed?

When care is considered finite—whether because it serves “the strong” or preserves “the weak”—it can only be utilized in extremity.

Yet care is not a limited resource. In Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, Margaret argues that our environment is essential to our practical and spiritual lives, and we must care enough about it to prioritize its preservation. It’s not just a logical decision; it’s also an emotional one. The book guides readers to welcome the pain contingent on caring, because, by welcoming the pain, we expand our capacity to care.

Margaret is a psychologist, and she knows from personal and professional experience that caring can hurt. In fact, to care is rooted in Germanic Old English to sorrow or to grieve. While our desire to avoid pain is natural, it is not possible. And because it limits our ability to feel and thus to empathize, it should not be desirable. Pain is a part of life, sometimes a very big part of life: When we learn not just to withstand that pain but to welcome it, we become truly strong because we become capable of infinite care. 

Spring is not a comfortable season in Minnesota. Yes, the snow melts, the wind gusts, and the rain pelts. But then, the snow rudely returns. The wind persists in gusting. The rain insists on pelting. While some days reach, gloriously, into the 50s, many others stall in the 30s, threatening the goodwill of exhausted citizens.

But if spring isn’t comfortable, it is comforting. When songbirds birds return to the shrubbery, loons to the city lakes, and sunshine to the horizon, it reminds us that coldness will warm, darkness will lighten, and green things will grow.

In my house, spring also signals the return of the most comforting of all childhood tales, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes. The story, written by Du Bose Heyward and illustrated by Marjorie Flack’s delicate, saturated pictures, wears its generational coziness on its title page. There, the “as told to Jenifer” invokes a beloved family tale handed down from father to daughter (and, according to Heyward’s biography, from mother to son).

Although Heyward may be better known for his 1925 novel Porgy, upon which the Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess, is based, he published The Country Bunny in 1939. It’s a story about Cottontail, a clever bunny “with a brown skin and a little cotton ball of a tail,” who wanted to be one of the five Easter Bunnies who brought eggs to children on Easter. 

But “the big white bunnies who lived in fine houses and the Jack Rabbits with long legs who can run so fast” laughed at her ambition. They laughed even harder when Cottontail, “much to her surprise,” found herself with a husband and 21 babies to take care of: “Only a country rabbit would go and have all those babies,” they said.

Alone, Cottontail put aside her Easter-Bunny dream and tended to her babies. As time passed, and her bunnies grew, she taught them to sweep, clean, cook, wash, sew, mend, sing, dance, garden, and create. When she heard that one of the Easter Bunnies had become too slow and that Old Grandfather would pick a new Easter Bunny to take his place, Cottontail decided to bring her children to the Palace of Easter Eggs to watch the festivities.

Now, Cottontail’s story is not only about the softly feminist fulfillment of a dream. It’s also, if I may, a story about letting go of a dream so as to return to it with a more experienced, more nuanced perspective. Cottontail becomes an Easter Bunny, but not because of a steadfast, single-minded commitment. She becomes an Easter Bunny because her experiences fostered the requisite Easter-Bunny qualities of wisdom, kindness, swiftness, cleverness, and heart.

The Country Bunny extends hope toward a future that valorizes not just heart but a “loving heart for children.” Cottontail’s bravery comes from her experience attending-to, making her a hero and thus temporary keeper of the little gold shoes.

The book, it must be said, is a bedtime investment—a concise Mo Willems it is not—but its story about a timely triumph of kindness and heart is a tonic amidst the cruelty of These Times, making every moment spent with it a true comfort.

Golden Shoes

This week, poet Dorianne Laux’s poem “For the Sake of Strangers” has repeatedly found its way to my inbox. And for good reason: It reminds us that we are tethered to one another, even when (especially when) we are isolated and alone:

***

No matter what the grief, its weight,

we are obliged to carry it.

We rise and gather momentum, the dull strength

that pushes us through

crowds.

And then the young boy gives me directions

so avidly. A woman holds the glass door open,

waiting patiently for my empty body to pass through.

All day it continues, each kindness

reaching toward another—a stranger

singing to no one as I pass on the path, trees

offering their blossoms, a child

who lifts his almond eyes and smiles.

Somehow they always find me, seem even to be waiting,

determined to keep me

from myself, from the thing that calls to me

as it must have once called to them—

this temptation to step off the edge

and fall weightless, away from the world.

***

In the context of a pandemic, the poem takes on the weight of melancholic nostalgia. Crowds are a distant memory. And who is this kind woman, blithely touching the handle of a communal door?

While we wait for the thronging masses with their careless touches to return, we find other ways to keep ourselves from ourselves, to stop ourselves from falling away from the world. Prestige (also trash) TV can help, as can Instagram baking tutorials, at-home yoga apps, and home-streaming movies.

But, of course, books offer the most direct route to sustained-but-restrained escape. Poetry like Andrea Cohen’s Nightshade or Steve Healey’s Safe Houses I Have Known dislocate language, asking us to attend to distilled moments in ways we can’t with Twitter. Short story collections, like Lauren Holmes’s Barbara the Slut or Bryan Washington’s Lot, expand Facebook’s promise to offer us an evocative peek inside discrete but connected lives. Easy-reading YA, like Amy Spalding’s We Used to Be Friends, extend us comfort through the familiar intensity of first loves and losses. And, of course, the classics and big books, like Middlemarch or Infinite Jest (god help us), open up an escape hatch onto worlds so comprehensive they can feel like a trap.

I have a two-foot stack of to-be-read books on my bedside table, but pandemic reading seems to call for something special. I’ve ordered Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s lauded first book in her recently completed Thomas-Cromwell trilogy, and My Brilliant Friend, the first book of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan quartet.

Starting a series can be as intimidating as starting a heralded classic or a formidably big book. In regular life, I don’t like feeling obligated to read on (and on) to find out what happens. But from my more narrow pandemic perspective, the promise of a future unfolding feels more like a (reading) exercise in hope.