The ability to publish independently is a boon for authors. It means we’re no longer restricted to traditional publishing avenues, and that any writer – provided they have adequate resources (an important caveat) – can take control of the distribution of their work. With this control, however, comes a fundamental requirement: providing readers with the best possible version of our writing.
Now, I’m sure you could name a few traditionally published books released in recent years that don’t meet this requirement, but those authors can (perhaps) shift blame to their editors and publishers for not catching their clichéd and/or hackneyed writing, and poor grammar etc. Independently published writers don’t have that luxury. Even if we give our work to a freelance editor, or seek a professional appraisal, ultimately we are responsible for what we put out into the public sphere. As such, diligence in the editing stage of a project is very important.
To my way of thinking, writers – at least those seeking publication – are not writing for themselves; they are writing for a reader. And any writer worth their artistic salt is looking to enhance the reader’s enjoyment by allowing them to fully immerse in the work. Poor editing disrupts the reader’s experience, making them less likely to take pleasure from their reading and less inclined to attempt new works by the same author. Assiduous editing, then, has a two-fold benefit: it makes the reader happy and, potentially, builds a fan base for the writer.
Until three weeks ago, Shroudeaters had been edited between eight and a dozen times. Nevertheless, I decided to go over the manuscript again before publication, and I’m glad I did for two reasons. Firstly, I discovered a number of minor errors: missing punctuation, incorrect spelling, and my all-time-can’t-break-the-habit mistake, forgetting to add ‘s’ or ‘ed’ to some words. Hopefully, I’ve caught these minor transgressions in this editing round.
The second editing issue was more significant, but before I explain what it was, I need to give some context. I’m a firm advocate of eliminating rape culture, and I believe writers – and other creatives – have a responsibility to avoid presenting narratives that normalise violence of any kind against women. By this, I don’t mean we shouldn’t tell stories that call out violence against women (or children, or minority groups etc.). We absolutely should tell these stories because bringing violence into the open helps to change the culture by exposing the perpetrators, encouraging discussion, and allowing victims to find support. What I don’t agree with are writers who use violence against women as a lazy mechanism to characterise, to establish/advance plot arcs, or to titillate.
There are numerous instances of this, but one I encountered recently is Westworld (if you haven’t seen the program, skip the rest of the paragraph). While the television series has many intriguing concepts, it relies heavily on the objectification and sexualised destruction of women for much of its character/plot development and tension. The first episode is a prime example: here the main female character is defined by her (sexual) virtue; she is sweet, demure, and clearly chaste. This, in turn, allows for the characterisation of the male characters as either honourable (the man who dies protecting her virtue) or evil (the man who defiles her virtue by raping the ‘innocent’ heroine). These constructions are so clichéd and serve only to perpetuate and normalise a mode of thinking that needs to be mothballed. There are a thousand ways to characterise and reveal attributes; making a character the victim/perpetrator of rape doesn’t need to be one of them.
With this in mind, imagine my surprise when I discovered during the latest round of editing for Shroudeaters that I had unintentionally written two rape scenes.
Violence is almost unavoidable in vampire fiction because there is usually a victim and the vampire is usually taking their blood/life by force. In some vampire fiction, this exchange may be consensual, but in Shroudeaters, in these two particular scenes, that wasn’t the case. My vampire was taking the blood of his female victims against their will, and while he tried to do this with compassion, it was clear he was engaged in an act of rape. What made this evident was the language I’d chosen, particularly relating to the female characters, to describe these encounters.
When I wrote these scenes, my intention was to create a sense of seduction and surrender – *sigh*, as Juliana would say – and I choose words that I, naively, believed reflected these actions and emotions. Coming back to the scenes, I was floored to see what I was actually portraying and how I was perpetuating the rape culture that I abhor. This, of course, placed me in a difficult position: how could I convey the scenes without normalising sexual violence?
In fairness to readers of Shroudeaters, I can’t actually answer that question (sorry!), which is okay because we’re talking about editing, rather than the specifics of plot. Suffice to say, I got to a place where I felt comfortable with the scenes. Now, if traditional publishing was the avenue for Shroudeaters, I’d hope the publisher or editor would draw my attention to my ethical faux pas. As a self-publishing author, however, the responsibility is mine, and I am grateful I took the time to look over and edit the manuscript one last time.
Of course, one last time is likely to be wishful thinking, depending on what happens with the copyright permissions I’m seeking— but that’s a conversation for another blog.