Editing and Ego

A week ago, I was listening to the Freakonomics Radio Show on NPR and caught a segment where they interviewed Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago. The interview was all about why we are poor judges of ourselves. For example we might think we’re wearing a mind-blowing wardrobe, but no one else notices. Or, maybe a professor thinks they’ve given the most poignant lecture ever, only to put the class to sleep. The interview was actually a rebroadcast, so the transcript of the interview is available online here or you can listen to it here. It occurred to me that Epley’s research gives a lot of insight into both the dangers of self-editing and the care one needs to take when editing others.

In the interview, Dr. Epley makes the point that human beings aren’t especially good at knowing what others think of them. The root of this problem is egocentrism. Epley doesn’t use “egocentrism” in a negative context. Rather, he means that we’re the people most expert in ourselves. So, when we change our hairstyle, we know we’ve made a change and understand immediately why we did it. When we say something, we say it from the context of our life experiences. The problem for us as writers is that our readers may not know everything we know, or even understand it the same way we understand it. Readers simply haven’t lived a life with the same experiences we have.

This is actually why editors are so vital to writing. A good editor has a good understanding of the audience you’re trying to speak to and can tell you where you haven’t been clear, or where they won’t understand what you’re trying to say, or where you may imply something you don’t mean at all.

The challenge of editing oneself is that you come to your writing knowing yourself better than anyone else. You know exactly what you meant to say when you wrote it. One way to defeat this is to give yourself time. I’m currently editing The Pirates of Sufiro, which I first wrote twenty-five years ago. I have twenty-five more years of life experience and I don’t see everything the same way I did before, so it’s much easier for me to see places where people could misunderstand what I meant or where I had pictures in my mind I didn’t fully communicate on the page. Now, you may not want to wait twenty-five years to edit your manuscript. If you don’t have a publisher who is covering the costs of editing, and you can’t cover them yourself, you really need a beta reader or two. It’s best if they have somewhat different life experiences than you do and are willing to give you honest feedback.

This actually goes a long way to explaining why its dangerous for family to edit your work. We’re often told its because family will spare your feelings. Those people don’t have my family! However, what family do have are many of the same life experiences. What’s more, they hear you every day and have learned what you mean, even if you may not be clear to someone else. So, utilize your family with caution.

I see an important caution for professional editors in Dr. Epley’s remarks as well. Early in my editing career, I sometimes gave in to the temptation to rewrite a sentence or a paragraph. In this case I’m not talking about replacing a misspelled word or adding a punctuation mark. I’m talking about changing the sentence in an effort to make it more clear. I’ve known other editors who do this as well. The problem is that the editor is now silencing the author and overwriting the author with their words. An editor’s job is not to rewrite. Instead, it’s better for an editor to point out how something can be more effective, or perhaps how they understood a paragraph or a sentence to confirm that’s what the author meant. The editor’s job is to point out how a character did something that doesn’t feel true to that character and let the author fix it. Now, I have some authors I work with and we have developed a rapport. In that case, I may take a crack at rephrasing something, but I endeavor to point out that it’s a suggestion and that the author should feel free to change it or even revert the suggestion if I’ve added unintended words.

The bottom line is that we need editors because our egos sometimes get in the way of expressing ourselves as clearly as we could. However, editors need to beware not to let their egos take over the manuscript. Their job is to make sure the author is communicating clearly and effectively.

Visiting Marceline

My family’s story has been an important inspiration for my novels. My first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro, was a science fiction tale inspired by my mom’s family of Texas and New Mexico pioneers. Learning more about their history led me to write more directly about the wild west in my Clockwork Legion steampunk novels.

When people learn about my interest in genealogy, they often ask me if I’ve taken on of the many DNA tests that are currently on the market. While I think that would be interesting and it’s something I’d like to do, it’s a fairly low priority. Some of that is because of I know the limitations of DNA testing. For example, some genes are passed along patriarchal lines and others are only passed along matriarchal lines. What’s more, genetic markers are based on statistical samples. For example, 80% of Scottish people may show a given genetic marker while 70% of people from Africa may have another genetic marker. So these tests are based on statistical samples rather than absolute measurements. Most of all, DNA doesn’t tell me much, if anything, about the day-to-day lives of my ancestors, which is the stuff that makes good story fodder.

In my recent travels, I paid a visit to Marceline, Missouri. The town is probably most famous as the hometown of Walt Disney. However, I went to pay my respects to my great great grandfather, Paul Teter. I knew he was a veteran of the Civil War and I also knew he was Marceline’s first Justice of the Peace. He was also the father of my great grandmother Montana and her sister Arizona, who I wrote about two years ago. While in Marceline, I paid a visit to the Carnegie Library, which has a depository of newspaper articles and genealogy resources. It proved to be a real treasure trove.

The Carnegie Library’s collection is fabulous. They’ve indexed their newspaper collections, which makes searching them easy. I soon found stories about weddings my great great grandfather officiated over, often having the families over at his house. I learned about his career as a “police judge.” Today, most jurisdictions would refer to the position as a “magistrate judge.” I also found two items of note in the “City and Vicinity” column of the Marceline Mirror dated February 9, 1906. The third paragraph reports that “Mrs. Paul Teter fell and sustained a sprained ankle that disabled her for many days.” A sad bit of news indeed. Two paragraphs below that, we learn, “Elias Disney, of Chicago, is in the city with the expectation of locating on a farm near this place.” The farm is the one Walt Disney grew up on and where he lay under the family’s famous dreaming tree. A DNA test wouldn’t have given me that little connection and I never would have seen the town that is said to have inspired Main Street at the Disney parks.

While searching through the genealogy records at the Carnegie Library in Marceline, I also came across a memory shared by Arizona Teter’s son. He noted that Paul Teter owned a book and stationary store located on the street above. One of his most famous customers was young Walt Disney who would choose a book and sit reading in the window seat until the store closed. Arizona remembered that his favorite book was Robinson Crusoe. There’s something pretty amazing to learn that my great great grandparents contributed to Walt Disney’s love of adventure fiction. I don’t know quite where this research will lead me, but I’m sure it will inspire more stories in the future.

The Pointing Dance

This week, I have been engaged in an important, albeit tedious activity at the WIYN 3.5-meter telescope. I have been building pointing maps. Telescopes are large, bulky machines that have to point with extreme precision and track the almost literal clockwork motion of the sky. They are engineered carefully, but like any machine they are subject to wear and tear. What’s more, to keep getting the best science, telescopes have to be upgraded from time to time. This changes the telescope’s behavior with time.

The WIYN Telescope ready for a night of collecting pointing data

Because the Earth turns constantly, the sky overhead appears to move at a constant rate. To keep objects in the telescope’s field of view, the earliest telescopes were literally mounted to clocks that moved at the sky’s rate. To make these work, you have to imagine a line in the sky that’s a projection of the Earth’s equator. Then you have to tilt your tracking axis to be at the same angle as that imaginary line in the sky. Another way to think about it is that here at Kitt Peak National Observatory, we’re at 32 degrees north latitude, so you have to tilt your telescope 32 degrees up from the southern horizon to track the sky.

Now, if you look at the photo of the WIYN Telescope above, you’ll notice that it’s mounted flat to the floor and it’s not tipped to match our latitude. That’s because it’s expensive to engineer big heavy telescopes so they can be tipped up at an angle. So, the WIYN telescope actually has to track the sky in two axes: azimuth and elevation, kind of like a radar mount. To track the sky, we have to use computers to adjust the tracking rates constantly. The computers only know how fast to track in each axis if they know where we’re pointing in the sky. If there’s an error in pointing, there’s also an error in tracking.

When I tell people I’m a writer and an astronomer who operates telescopes, it’s often assumed that I have lots of free time on quiet nights at the telescope to write. That doesn’t happen on nights of pointing maps. Instead, it’s a busy night of pointing to a star, noting how far off it was from where we expected it and then moving on again. We do this for anywhere from 75 to 100 stars with a telescope like WIYN and the exercise takes about half the night.

The way pointing and tracking are interconnected also make me think of how I use outlines as a writer. With the telescope, we can imagine that I point to a star and correct the pointing at one spot, then let the telescope track. If the computer thinks the star will be a different point in an hour than it really will be, it will track toward that different point and it won’t follow the star. You need to know where the star really will be in an hour.

For me, an outline is like a little like a pointing map. It tells me where the plot is at point A and it tells me where I want to be once I reach point B. With the telescope, it better be pointed at the star at both points A and B. An outline is more flexible. It’s more like a guideline. I try to listen to my characters when I write my outlines and make sure that points A and B make sense for them. However, sometimes as I write, I find characters do things I didn’t quite imagine the first time. The beauty of an outline is I can change point B. The challenge is that when I do, I realize I may also have to change points C, D, and E as the plot progresses!

I’ve been having a lot of fun rewriting my novel, The Pirates of Sufiro for its 25th anniversary release. I actually wrote some of the original draft when the WIYN telescope was first being built in the 1990s. Rewriting the book is the ultimate case of writing to an outline, especially since I don’t want to change it so much that people can’t pick up older editions of the sequels and follow them. I’m expanding the story and letting my characters breathe more. I’m letting them guide me and asking if what they did entirely made sense for those characters. I’m taking them from point A to point B. Those points can’t really deviate, but I do allow myself to add points A.1, A.2, and A.3 to better explain how they moved from point A to point B.

You can read chapters from the previous edition and see how I’m following my version of a “pointing map” by following me Patreon. My site is at: http://www.patreon.com/davidleesummers

Practice Makes Perfect

I spent last week at Kitt Peak National Observatory assisting with the installation of the Dark Energy Spectrographic Instrument on the Mayall 4-meter Telescope. We spent a couple of months running the refurbished telescope through its paces on the sky with a simple commissioning camera and now it’s time to finish installing the complete instrument. As we get ready to install this complex array of 5000 robot-positioned fibers that feed ten spectrographs, I find myself thinking of the old saw “practice makes perfect.” Well, how exactly do you practice building and installing an instrument no one has built and installed before? As it turns out, there are ways to do this.

One of the major tasks this week has been “dummy” petal installation. The photo above shows a view of the 4-meter telescope from the top. We’re facing the primary mirror (which is covered with white covers that say “Danger: No Step”). In front of that, and right in front of the camera is the prime focus assembly. The 4-meter mirror focuses light into the prime focus assembly. In the old days, a camera sat there. Now there will be 5000-optical fibers aligned with objects on the sky by robot positioners. Those robot positioners are quite delicate and take up a lot of room, so a test petal has been created. The petals fit in the pie-shaped wedges you see in the photo. The dummy petal is the one with Swiss cheese, like holes. It’s carefully guided into position by the red mechanical assembly. Lasers are used to make sure the petal is positioned very carefully and put in at just the right place. Here’s what one of the real petals looks like.

The entire fiber petal sits in the silver box. The black structure on the right is the same size and shape as the Swiss cheese dummy petal. Behind that is a tightly packed array of delicate fibers. The real petal above will have to be placed precisely without breaking anything. So, in this case, we practice by creating a mockup to try out all the procedures and check that we know what we’re doing before we start installing all the really delicate, expensive instrumentation. There will be ten petals like the one in the photo above and light from their fibers will go down to ten spectrographs two floors below the telescope. We currently have six of those spectrographs installed in a clean room.

Currently, three of the spectrographs are in the lower layer of racks. Three are in the upper layer of racks. The spectrographs are where the real science happens. Light that comes down the fibers is spread apart into a literal rainbow and we can see the characteristic fingerprint of the chemical elements of the objects that each fiber in the spectrograph is pointed to.

The spectrographs and the petals remind us that practice makes perfect when you do things repeated times. We’re practicing with the dummy petal, but then we’ll install ten real petals. We’ve installed six spectrographs and we have four more to go. Each time we take another step forward, the easier the process becomes.

Of course, practice made perfect on our way to building these spectrographs in the first place. We built other, smaller fiber spectrographs and learned lessons from their construction. We’ve learned about robotics and we’ve learned lessons from other people who also work in the field by following their work.

Writing is much like this. You practice by doing. You might start with some short stories to get the hang of writing. Then you might try your hand at a novel chapter, then you’ll write another. All the while, you should keep reading to see what others are doing and have done. You’ll learn techniques as you try them out. You will likely encounter difficulties, but as you keep reading, you’ll be sensitive to those difficulties and you’ll see how others have solved them. This is just one of the ways that science has taught me to be a better writer and being a writer has taught me to be better at the science work I do.

You can learn more about my writing at http://www.davidleesummers.com

Guest Post: Gender Swapping Characters

Today, I’d like to welcome author Deby Fredericks to my blog. I’ve had the honor of editing her novels The Grimhold Wolf and Seven Exalted Orders. I enjoy her writing and she has a new book out called The Tower in the Mist. In it, she presents a group of non-traditional warriors. Presenting characters in non-traditional gender roles is something I have done as well, and I thought it would be interesting to hear Deby’s take on this subject. Without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Deby.


When I began writing The Tower in the Mist, I did not plan to include a group of Amazonian warrior-women. A woman mage had been captured by warriors who served an evil wizard. But the more I worked on that setting, in the Land of Skaythe, the more I realized that the minions of an evil wizard were also going to be evil. And what will a group of evil men do after capturing a female prisoner?

I did not like where this was leading me.

As an author, each one of us has to choose what “content” we include. How much bloodshed, how much moralizing, whatever. We all balance what our audience is looking for against what we are comfortable writing. Every story is personal to its author. No one can tell us that we “have to” put in anything we don’t want to.

Personally, I did not want to put myself into the mind of a woman being raped as violently as these evil warriors would do. But even more than that, I believe that we as a society have a real problem with violence against women. A big part of the problem is how media, including literary arts, seem so okay with that violence. For most writers, the rape of a woman prisoner would be no big deal. It shows how bad those guys are, and anyway, the audience loves sex. Even the most disgusting, ugly sex there is. Writers “have to” give them what they want.

No. We don’t. Call me squeamish if you want. The Tower in the Mist is still my story. Go get your sick thrill on someone else’s pages.

ANYWAY! I didn’t like where my story was going. As the author, I can change whatever I need to, in order for the rape not to happen. What I did was to swap everyone’s gender. Instead of a woman captured by men, a man was captured by women.

Immediately, the characters sprang to life. Skaythe is a land of dark sorcery, where might makes right and mages rule because of their mystic power. The prisoner, Keilos, had dedicated himself to non-violence. He was defying every expectation of masculine behavior. That’s much more interesting than rape. Meanwhile, the warriors, who had been very cardboard characters, became this group of misfits who were just trying to survive an evil system that used them as cannon-fodder. Their leader, Zathi, was a tough warrior who had fought many battles, both physical and political, to regain control over her own life. Again, much more interesting than it had been before.

I would not advocate that every author should swap the genders of their characters. I didn’t do it to make people laugh, or solely to make a political point. The swap was what my story needed to become amazing. And it worked! The Tower in the Mist is a much richer and more poignant tale because of it.


The Tower in the Mist

Zathi’s job is to capture renegade mages, but Keilos isn’t like any other mage she’s dealt with. Her drive to bring him in only leads them deeper into a cursed forest. Together, warrior and mage will face deadly beasts and grapple with decisions that compromise every principle. Until they stumble upon a place of ancient, forgotten magic. Zathi must choose — allow Keilos to claim it, or kill him once and for all.

Pre-order Links

Kindle format: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07QL476BJ

Other formats: https://books2read.com/u/3nK1Mo


Deby Fredericks has been a writer all her life, but thought of it as just a fun hobby until the late 1990s. She made her first sale, a children’s poem, in 2000. 

Fredericks has six fantasy novels out through two small presses. The latest is The Grimhold Wolf, released by Sky Warrior in 2015. Her children’s stories and poems have appeared in magazines such as Boys’ Life, Babybug, Ladybug, and a few anthologies. In the past, she served as Regional Advisor for the Inland Northwest Region of the Society of  Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, International  (SCBWI).

Owl Riders in the Sky

While driving up to Kitt Peak National Observatory late on Saturday night, Johnny Cash’s rendition of the great Stan Jones song, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” cycled on my mp3 player. To my mind, the song is a great example of a weird western expressed in music. It tells the story of an old cowhand who rides out on a dark and dusty day and encounters the devil’s own herd being chased by a phantom cowboys.

As I listened, I found myself substituting some images from my own Clockwork Legion novels. In fact, the title of the fourth novel in the series, Owl Riders, is kind of an homage to the spooky feelings evoked by the “Ghost Riders.” Different cultures in the southwest often see the appearance of owls as bad omens. As portrayed in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me Ultima, owls are sometimes seen as the familiars of witches. In my novel, the owls themselves are ornithopters, which are craft that fly by flapping their wings. The owl riders of the title are the pilots of these craft. It struck me that with a few tweaks, the song goes from being more of a horror-flavored weird western to more of a science fictional weird western or even a steampunk song.

I don’t feel I can share the full song as I envisioned it since that would include some verbatim lyrics from the original. While it’s part of a discussion of the song and could arguably be “fair use,” quoting complete lines would be a substantial part of the song itself, like quoting an entire chapter from a novel. It’s not my intention to cut into sales of the song. In fact, if you don’t already own a copy of the song, I strongly recommend buying a legal download or a CD of one of the many fine versions. What’s more the lyrics are easily available on the web. Still, I thought it would be fun to describe the song in my revised version and share a few of the altered lyrics.

In the original song, a cowpoke rides out on a stormy day. In my version one of the owl riders is named Billy McCarty and I imagine that he’s a version of Billy the Kid who was diverted off the path to become the infamous outlaw and becomes a hero instead. I could imagine that the cowpoke in my version is one of Billy’s associates who takes shelter to get some rest. He looks up in the sky, “When all at once a parliament of steel-eyed owls he saw.”

As they travel through the clouds, he gets a good look: “Exhaust pipes breathing fire and their talons made of steel. Their beaks were black and shiny and their hot wake he could feel.” Our cowhand shudders as he hears his old friend Billy shout out, “owl riders in the sky!”

Billy’s old friend then sees the determined looks on the riders’ faces. Unlike the original song, these are not desperate men who never hope to reach the end of their quest. These are men and women on the quest for justice. It’s possible it will never end, but the next bad guy they catch makes the world just a little better. It’s at this point that Billy turns to his old companion and warns him to change his ways, otherwise the owl riders will come or him next.

Songs rarely tell a whole story. Like poems, they just present a moment in time or an image. This will go in my mental file as an image that might be part of a story. It may not be used directly, but might inspire something down the road. I hope you’ve enjoyed this peak into how I get my ideas. If you want to learn more about the owl riders and how they came to be, read the novel Owl Riders. You can read the first chapter and find places to buy the novel at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_riders.html.

Lasers on Telescopes

For me, the phrase “lasers on telescopes” brings to mind super villains capturing top secret astronomical facilities in order to execute a nefarious plan. I think of Mr. Freeze capturing Gotham Observatory to build a giant freeze ray in the movie Batman and Robin. Perhaps a funnier and better example is Chairface Chippendale using a laser in a telescope to deface the moon with his name in the TV series The Tick.

Laser measuring tool (on yellow arm between black mirror covers) over the Mayall primary mirror.

In fact, lasers are used on telescopes. Perhaps the best known real-world examples are telescopes that use laser guide stars. This is a technique where astronomers fire a laser mounted on the telescope into the sky. The laser light is scattered by the atmosphere, but optics in the telescope correct that light back into the proper size beam and also correct the stars seen at the same time. We had a system like that at the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak run by CalTech. There was also a system like that at the 3.5-meter telescope at New Mexico’s Apache Point Observatory.

Now, these lasers are not ones that are likely to be co-opted for nefarious purposes by super villains. Lasers used for guide stars just aren’t that powerful. That said, they can’t be used with impunity. The artificial guide star laser at Kitt Peak was visible in the ultraviolet band and would interfere with optical telescopes also observing in that band. What’s more, I’ve been told Apache Point Observatory had to clear laser firings with the Air Force, who had a base nearby. The observatory’s laser wasn’t likely to shoot down planes, but we could imagine tragic results if a pilot happened to fly through a laser’s line of sight only to be blinded.

This past week, while working at the Mayall 4-meter telescope, we were also using a laser. In this case, it wasn’t fired at the sky, but the laser was mounted on the telescope’s mirror cell and fired at different surfaces on the telescope to get precise measurements. Now that the refit for DESI is nearing completion, the engineers need to make sure everything went back together as it was designed. They need to make sure all the new parts are placed in just the right place. If not, this is the time to make adjustments. Measurements of telescopes are important because they help to assure that astronomers can focus the telescope properly. Precise measurements are also critical to determine the proper weight distribution of the telescope, which in turn helps it track the sky precisely.

As it turns out, I also spent part of this past week working on an adaptive optics system a little like those laser systems I mentioned. However, the WIYN Tip-Tilt Module doesn’t actually use a laser. Instead, it takes precision measurements of an actual star and uses optics within the instrument to bring that star as close as possible to a precise point. I’ve seen it used to deliver incredible image quality with stars only 0.3 arcsecs across. To put that in perspective, star images with WIYN are typically more like 0.8 arcsec across. The size difference is the result of atmospheric blurring.

This all echoes something I’ve been saying in the past few blog posts. If something isn’t quite right, there are ways to fix it, even when its a multi-million dollar scientific project. By comparison, books are much easier to fix. It’s why beta readers and editors are so important to the writing process. They help us see places where we didn’t express ourselves clearly, made something work in an artificial way, or simply used the wrong word. It’s part of why reviews are so important. Reviews help customers, but they also help writers because they tell them what worked and didn’t work.

Over the years, reviews helped me refine my craft until I could write books like Owl Riders and Firebrandt’s Legacy. And yes, reviews are helping me shape the 25th anniversary edition of The Pirates of Sufiro, which I’m working on right now. I hope you’ll join me on a journey to one of the worlds I’ve created and, if you do, please leave a review to let me and others know what you thought. The titles in this paragraph are links where you can get more information about the books.