Let’s Talk about Unhinged… – MARISELA I. MITCHLEY

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I suppose that propriety demands certain things be left unsaid, and though it doesn’t come naturally, I try my best to bite my tongue. I’ve had to dislodge my foot from my own mouth more times than I can remember, but I think that as I get older, I am learning how to more deliberately walk the line between, “Oh shit,” and, “Pertinent.” I ardently hope that this “little” tangent falls under the latter heading.

 

First of all, I have known and been Kelly’s friend for just over 13 years now. I cannot say whether I was the first to read Unhinged, but I was lucky enough to know it in its original inception as a short story titled The Girl in the Angora Sweater. I think one of the reasons she feels comfortable sharing parts of her soul with me is because we share a lot of the same demons. I, too, know how easy it is to become lost in the seemingly infinite mental quagmire of self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-defeating thoughts. When I am stuck and can’t see the forest for the trees, she is there to keep me focused and on track. When all she sees for miles around are the hyper-critical sneers of others who seem to judge her as harshly as she judges herself, I step in to offer words of encouragement: “It’s mostly in your head; you’re making it worse than it is,” as well as the ever-helpful, “Fuck those people, you just keep doing your thing.”

 

So at this point, at the risk of saying too much—as I am wont to do—I must step in and address the literary elephant in the room.

 

I helped her edit Unhinged. I am not an editor by trade or training but I do enjoy writing, and when my dear friend needed help, I felt compelled to do my utmost to ensure the success of her first novel. Mind you—most of my help came in the form of encouragement and motherly orders to persevere. I read the original short story in its unfinished entirety, and snippets of the book here and there, but remember that this process unfolded over the course of years. I didn’t see anything like a completed manuscript until sometime in early 2016. Even then, I didn’t read the entire thing. I wanted to read, and hold, the actual physical copy.

 

As her publication date neared, though, she was so excited. She sent me the first five chapters as a teaser. I couldn’t bear to deflate her enthusiasm, so I started reading during the lulls at work. Eventually, as I got further into the story and found a few more errors than I was comfortable with, those lulls lengthened into breaks, and eventually full-blown work stoppage. As far as I knew, this manuscript was print-ready. I dared not say anything that might make her unnecessarily frantic so close to publication, especially if there was nothing to be done. However, I finally came across an error that, while small, I knew would incite the wrath of grammar-Nazis and casual weekend readers alike: “Rolling Stone’s.” I pointed it out to her and she was horrified, swearing not to have written it herself. So I flipped back through my emails and the documents folder on my laptop, looking for an earlier draft. Sure enough, the apostrophe had been added between the original version and this “print-ready” copy.

 

Up to this point, I had seen other smaller errors which I swore I couldn’t remember reading before, but I just chalked them up to human error and the fact that I am not Data (from Star Trek—come on guys). I now realized something was grievously amiss and, by some miracle of circumstance, learned that it was not too late to put a pause on printing. So she halted the entire thing and I rooted around in my life to make the time to read the rest of Part One.

 

The errors were many, but mostly small things; things a good editor should have caught, but might have been forgiven by a generous client. When I asked her about said editor, I got an earful. This person (who shall remain nameless and genderless for the sake of anonymity) was responsible for inserting the apostrophe into Rolling Stones as well as screwing up the text’s consistency (I cannot even attempt to count the number of times I saw the lower-case formatted “mom” or “dad” mixed in with the unjustifiably mismatched “Mom” or “Dad”—instances where the word(s) did NOT appear at the beginning of a sentence). Like I said, these errors were startlingly many, but forgivably small, and we combed through the entirety of Part One relatively quickly. Part Two, however, was a whole other animal.

 

At this point, we both realized that the editor contracted by her publishers had all but skimmed the second half of the book and given a completely unfounded thumbs-up to the print department. We were astounded, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, and aghast—ALL of those things. Sometimes all at once, others in quick succession. Formatting inconsistencies, continuity errors, oversights in punctuation and typography. You name it, we found it.

 

Now, I understand and fully agree with the sentiment that in the end, beginning, and throughout the process, it is first and foremost the writer’s responsibility to make sure the story makes sense, that all changes to previous drafts have been implemented throughout the ENTIRE manuscript, that the book’s geography and timeline make sense, etc. But on the other hand, when that same author has spent years looking at the same manuscript—going back and forth, keeping some changes and rejecting others, editing and re-editing for errors in typography, spelling, syntax, continuity, consistence, grammar, punctuation, and formatting—it is more than understandable for certain things to slip through the cracks. With a 100k+ word manuscript, even 1% of the entire work is still more than 1,000 errors—if we’re equating errors to word count, which is not really now it works.

 

So yes, it is ultimately Kelly’s job to ensure that her book is in ship shape before it goes to print. But if that were easy to do, editors wouldn’t exist, let alone receive a tidy little paycheck at the end of the day. Everyone needs help, even the masters of their craft, and EVERYONE improves as time passes. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. You create, you err, you identify, you fix. Then you move on and try to do better next time. So when we dove into the second part of Unhinged, expecting approximately the same amount and sort of errors as littered the first part, we were dumbstruck to discover that this half of the book had seemingly NOT BEEN TOUCHED by an editor, except for a few notes here and there where we found unjustifiable, unnecessary, absolutely perplexing, and seemingly token revisions. After a few days of reading, I felt—and still feel—very firmly that this editor gave the second part of the book no more than a cursory glance. I can only speculate as to this person’s reasons for such shoddy workmanship, but I won’t do that here because most of it is unfounded and fired by sheer bias and outrage.

 

But then, on top of the litany of mistakes this editor tacked onto her manuscript, Kelly’s publishers offered nothing in the way of actual reparations. Despite the contract she had signed, that THEY had offered, she was not made whole. Instead, she received some sort of half-hearted, half-assed, completely transparent apology in which one of the publishing partners offered to take a look at the manuscript for her, even though he admitted up-front that this was not his area of expertise. Now I’m sorry, but that’s just bullshit. You don’t open a business, advertise a professional service that you charge people money for, and then duck out of holding up your end of the deal when it becomes apparent that—because you did not thoroughly vet your subcontractor—your client’s livelihood has been all but T-boned. In fact, if you operate a small, nascent, independent business which cannot afford to make such mistakes, then you work double-time to a) make sure such expensive errors don’t get made in the first place, and b) fix all such errors so that your completely satisfied clients have no other thought but to rave about your company, which will hopefully increase business and profits. You don’t say, “I’m so sorry and I understand that it’s our fault, but we can’t make it right because we’re just getting started and that will cost more to fix than we can afford to spend. Maybe I could look at it for you even though I have however many other responsibilities associated with running my own business, along with however many OTHER clients who need my attention as much as you do.”

 

All of that is to say: Kelly did not get what her publishers promised her. The editor they hired to do the job phoned it in. No—scratch that; that editor cut a perfectly good cord connecting the mouthpiece to the actual mechanism and said, “Here, I upgraded it for you. Now you have a cordless phone.” Newsflash: That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

 

So I helped her. Out of necessity, we stretched the initial two week timeline into six, and at the end of the entire process, we were dazed and exhausted and sick to death of the manuscript. I don’t wonder that more than a few errors made it past us, and I’m so thankful that the first run won’t be the only run.

 

And that is the story behind the printing of Unhinged.

 

Now, I didn’t go off on a tangent just to complain, or to beg forgiveness for editing oversights, or to excuse those errors that made it through to print and ask the reader to try and get over it. I wrote this in an effort to inform you of the fairly bumpy and unplotted road we traversed in order to ready this book for public consumption. I wrote it because the thought finally occurred to me that perhaps some people might gain insight (of debatable value) from a behind-the-scenes look at our uphill struggle to edit the book.

 

Every reader is free to think what he or she will of the finished product; your criticisms and opinions are your own. And while they may hurt our egos, feelings, and sense of worth (especially if they are well-founded), even the negative criticisms are valuable and appreciated. In order to grow and improve, an artist must receive input—both good and bad. But in the end, even having taken such considerations into account, I still felt it necessary to tell our story. Let it color how you assess and judge the book or don’t take it into account at all. That is your choice as the reader and I leave it to you.

 

But I would be remiss if I did not at least mention the catalyst for this epic spiel. You will find it here, in the form of an Amazon review, the writer of which I trusted was more than capable of supporting his or her criticisms. This person’s words hurt a great deal because when I read them, I felt like I had let my friend down by overlooking such glaring errors—among many others. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was just off, so I finally decided to look into these errors again. As it turns out, “idler” is a form of the adjective “idle.” In fact, “idle” is only defined as an adjective or verb (not a noun), and “idler” is a strange word. It does stand out to me and I remember reading and being struck by it many times before. But I also distinctly remember giving it the “ok,” because it’s a correct use of the word. Just because something sounds strange to my own ears and is not commonly used does not make it incorrect, and I cannot in good conscience allow my personal preferences to color someone else’s voice. So I chose not to omit it during the editing process.

 

And as to the other error this reviewer chose to showcase—ending a sentence with a preposition—I adamantly maintain that such uses of the written and spoken word are justifiable and should not need to be defended in the first place. Personally, I do agree that if at all possible, one should avoid or severely limit such instances.

 

Once more, with feeling: I, personally, do not like to end my sentences with a preposition if I can avoid it. Of course, that assumes the fact that I am always conscious of writing with better grammar than I speak (which I am not, because I am fallible and I accept my mistakes, loathsome thought they may be).

 

BUT—language is a living, breathing thing; it changes and grows to suit the needs and demands who we who use it. If it didn’t, God only knows how we would communicate today. Through a series of grunts and signs and visual cues? There are some things I feel I will never be able to get behind, like officially adding widely used popular words like “manscape” and “YOLO” to the English dictionary. But on the other side of that argument, without incorporating new words and the novel use of old words, any language would be woefully unequipped to adequately express and articulate the ever-changing world or our lives within it (if you’ve ever “googled” anything, you’ll know what I mean). It was not so long ago (1954) that the “like” vs “as” debate entered the public arena in the form of a Winston cigarette ad. Who has the power to exercise absolute judgment on such matters? I, for instance, adamantly support my purposeful and deliberate decision to start certain sentences with “and,” “so,” “or,” or “but,” because in some cases, it just works.

 

Of course, some rules should be adhered to, because otherwise how could one ever hope to govern the eloquent and proper use of written language? And in the same vein, it would be all too easy to defend and completely dismiss poor writing with the individual, purposeful choice argument.

 

But I fail to understand how one can conclude with supreme certainty that an author has inexcusably assaulted the English language and committed an indeterminate number of grammatical sins when one refuses to accept or even entertain the idea of language as a fluid and changeful thing. Nor do I understand how one can draw such a broad conclusion without first securing an absolutely unassailable argument. This Amazon reviewer does not have such an argument.

 

Like I said before, what I feel matters most is that we tried. We didn’t just slap something together, throw a cover on it, and call it worthy of purchase and consumption. We tried the best we could and if errors are present, trust that they will be remedied in subsequent printings (insofar as they do not begin to re-write the book). And if you don’t like the story, or think the writing is sloppy, or have any number of other valid criticisms, that is your prerogative as the consumer. You may choose to read another of Kelly’s books or not. But regardless of your ultimate decision in the matter, I do hope that you don’t issue final judgment upon Kelly—or any author—because of how you felt about ONE of her books. Especially if that book happens to be her first.

 

In closing, please, PLEASE, allow me to emphasize: I don’t expect a free pass because language is adaptable and everyone has their own writing style. No one should simply excuse the style of the book or any aspect of it they dislike simply because the editing choices we made were deliberate, calculated, and suited to our own personal tastes. What I am saying is that these reviews matter, especially for new authors. If they didn’t, Amazon would not have recently shored up the rules they have in place to fight the fake ones.

 

So, in light of the fact that in an ideal world, reviews should exist to provide a necessarily biased but hopefully accurate assessment of a product’s usefulness, the purpose of this entire tirade is simply to implore you, the consumer, to review and communicate with discernment, honesty, and objectivity. To break it down to the barest of bones: I don’t personally like goat’s milk. But I will NOT, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, allow my opinion to color my four year old daughter’s impression of it before she has even tried it for herself. To offer any sort of negative input might affect her ultimate opinion; and in the very worst of scenarios, it could very well affect how she approaches all new foods for the rest of her life. I will tell her what I can to give her an idea of what it will be like, but I will try not shape her opinion before it even exists.

 

And finally, if you don’t take anything else away from this rant (which I genuinely hope was not a massive waste of your time), I hope you DO go away with this one sentiment: We’re human, y’all; sometimes we fuck up, and sometimes we fix it. People can and do change, often for the better. Everyone deserves a second chance (sometimes more) or the benefit of the doubt. Be kind, and be open-minded.

 

Peace out.

M. I. Mitchley.

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