Looking for Beta Readers

What’s a “beta reader”?

Writers need feedback of many kinds. Professional editors, of course, are essential. But another very important kind of feedback comes from “beta readers.” A beta reader is a person who’s willing to read a manuscript and offer suggestions and feedback from the perspective of an average or non-professional reader. Usually, the manuscript will have had a developmental critique by a professional editor, and will have been revised based on that critique before the beta reader receives it.

Like beta testers in software development, the beta reader looks for issues in the manuscript that distract or detract from the pleasure of the read. Glitches in the plot, inconsistencies in the narrative, confusing passages, breaks in the smooth emotional arc of the characters’ development: These are the issues the beta reader will comment on.

Beta readers generally volunteer and aren’t paid, as professional editors are, but they offer a enormously valuable service to the writer: providing the perspective of the reader, who after all is the key arbiter of any book’s success.

 

 

What do beta readers look for?

Here are some of the questions that a beta reader might be asked to consider, borrowed from Black Rose Writing, my publisher’s, blog:

  • Did the story hold your interest from the very beginning? If not, why not?
  • Did you get oriented fairly quickly at the beginning as to whose story it is, and where and when it’s taking place? If not, why not?
  • Could you relate to the main character? Did you feel his/her pain or excitement?
  • Did the setting interest you, and did the descriptions seem vivid and real to you?
  • Was there a point at which you felt the story started to lag or that you became less than excited finding out what was going to happen next? Where, exactly?
  • Were there any parts that confused you? Or even frustrated or annoyed you? Which parts, and why?
  • Did you notice any discrepancies or inconsistencies in time sequences, places, character details, or other details?
  • Were the characters believable? Are there any characters you think could be made more interesting or more likable?
  • Did you get confused about who was who among the characters? Were there too many characters to keep track of? Too few? Were any of the names of characters too similar?
  • Did the dialogue keep your interest and sound natural to you? If not, whose dialogue did you think sounded artificial or not like that person would speak?

I am currently revising my fourth novel, titled A Patriot’s Campaign, following the critique by my developmental editor, Lorna Lynch. Patriot is the fourth book in the Monastery Valley series. In the coming fall, I’ll be asking folks to volunteer to be my beta readers. Usually, I look for five experienced readers, and this book will get the same treatment.

The manuscript, when it’s ready, goes to the beta readers electronically, as a PDF document.  There is no hard and fast deadline for the feedback to come back–beta readers are generous volunteers, after all!–but the normal turnaround time is a couple of months. When the book–incorporating the beta readers’ suggestions–is finally published, each beta reader will receive a complementary copy.

I worried about that word, complementary–should it be complimentary? So I looked it up, and am no surer now than before! (This could start a heated discussion in a pub.) The book-gift could be complEmentary, as in “completing” the beta reading transaction; or it could be complImentary, as in praising the reader for a job well done.

Sigh.

If you’d be interested in being a beta reader for Patriot, please feel welcome to comment on this post and let me know, and I will get back to you.

 

Garbage–physical and spiritual–in Michael Hartnett’s “Generation Dementia”

Author Michael Hartnett’s Generation Dementia is an engaging, bittersweet, and ultimately affirming story about the garbage—physical and spiritual—that we produce in our lives.

Hartnett has given us the opposite of garbage: A gem of a story, finely cut and beautifully polished. But it’s a story about trash, or really, about lost kids—Generation Dementia—high school seniors whose lives are adrift toward emptiness and who must find some way to connect to each other and themselves. They do this in a wildly improbable way: By signing up to collect their town’s garbage every morning before school. It’s called Operation Pick-up Kids, devised by a crusty school psychologist on the verge of retirement who hopes somehow—though he doubts it’ll happen—to save as many kids as he can.

The narrator-protagonist is Hash O’Connell, newly orphaned and heading for a collapse after the death of his mother, whom he calls “the Joan.” Hash, depressed and an occasional hallucinator, signs up for Operation Pick-up Kids and slowly seeks answers to his desperate questions. For much of the book, Hash not only empties garbage pails into the truck, he also carefully selects odd pieces of trash to keep and he slowly becomes a hoarder. One of the first pieces he collects is a set of old floppy disks, one of which is labeled “the Answer,” from a deceased Pulitzer prize winning journalist who was somehow connected to “the Joan” before she died. The book follows Hash’s probing into the mysterious “answer,” which leads him deep into the secrets in his family and in his town.

Hash—we never learn how he came by that remarkable name—is a rich and fully drawn character. Michael Hartnett’s story and his writing reminded me of Michael Chabon or the early John Irving: deep emotion without a touch of sentimentality, strong plotting full of surprises and twists, and well crafted and memorable characters with wonderful evocative names. Louie Sacco, Hash’s partner on the truck, Lee Lee, a girl genius who plays violin on the truck, Grandpa Artie, Mayor Heine, Eva (who, despite chain-smoking and guzzling coffee constantly, begins to help Hash begin the long journey back to life), Big Bill Hannah, Rev. Alexander Burr (as in “under the saddle”?), Selena Omaha, the mysterious Mavellas, and of course Pulaski, the school psychologist. All these characters are vivid and true to life, and Hartnett keeps their unique voices pitch-perfect throughout.

Garbage, of course, is not only the literal stuff Hash and the kids must deal with, it’s also a profound metaphor for both the kind of society we seem to want (the town is named “Frick”) and the psychological and interpersonal mess that our dependence on smart phones and screens and our absorption in reality TV are creating. In a remarkable scene early in the book, Hash finds that he is forgetting all the passwords, locker combinations, phone numbers, ID numbers, and personal information about himself—all the information that binds him to others and to his world. He ends up standing at his locker, obsessively and futilely spinning the knob, seeking the combination for hours, and missing all his classes. It’s a heartbreaking moment— but one deftly lightened by Hartnett’s humor. When Pulaski writes an order for Hash to apply for Operation Pick-up Kids, Hash observes that he looked like a physician writing prescriptions, and thinks, “I’d rather he was handing out passwords.” Hash, despite his pain and alienation, is one of the keenest observers and genuinely funny characters I know. Remember Holden Caulfield? Hash has Holden’s edgy wit and his own broken heart.

You can read Generation Dementia simply for its enormously entertaining story, or for its engaging writing, sparkling images and similes, and wonderful characters. You can read it as a commentary on how trash is perhaps the most enduring and connecting thing human beings produce, or as a keen psychosocial exploration of the alienation and despair afflicting so many who are coming of age in a world full of garbage. But at whatever level you read it, I promise you this: The twist in the last two lines of the book will knock your socks off.

 

 

 

Michael Hartnett’s “Fools in the Magic Kingdom”

Michael Hartnett’s Fools in the Magic Kingdom is a timely, complex, and entertaining novel, capturing both the bold outlines and the more subtle nuances of the contemporary anti-immigrant trend with a combination of biting social commentary and laugh-out-loud satire.

The story is set in the Magic Kingdom—Disney World in Florida—which is a perfect metaphor for the “American Dream”: A rosy illusory world built on a hidden underworld of racism and corporate manipulation. The bones of the story involve a crowd of “Dreamers,” the young Hispanics brought to the U.S.A. illegally when they were young children, who gather in Disney World on April Fools’ Day. They are enjoying the portrayal of the country in which they so much want to remain. Opposing them are various hate groups who want to “take back our World” (meaning both Disney World and the wider American society) from the Dreamers (and immigrants in general).

Hartnett deftly weaves together multiple story lines—I count at least seven! Without spoiling anything, I note that each of the seven could carry the weight of its own novel:

  1. A group of intellectuals tries to embarrass the Disney corporation by acts of humorous subversion of Disney’s perfect world;
  2. Groups of “patriotic” haters try to “take back our World” by violently attacking the Dreamers in the Magic Kingdom;
  3. The chief security officer of Disney World struggles to protect the Dreamers and to disrupt the plans of both the intellectuals in story #1 and the hate groups in #2;
  4. An aging actress manipulates a narcissistic movie director through a day in the Magic Kingdom laced with consumption—of toys, souvenirs, food, and alcohol—in order to reignite her career;
  5. Girl (from story #1) meets boy (from story #2), they fall for one another, until a tragedy strikes (perpetrated by a guy from stories #1 and #2);
  6. An elderly do-gooder (from story #1) falls for an elderly racist (from story #2, but also story #5), and both are changed in the process;
  7. The big corporation (Disney World itself) cons and manipulates everyone to line its own coffers.

 

Disney World might in fact be the main character in the book. It both helps and thwarts all the other characters as they pursue their goals. It offers the illusion of satisfaction to all, while relentlessly parting everyone from their money. A single illustration: On the positive side, the park provides Tucker, its chief security officer, a large, nimble, and effective security team who can take control of a disturbance almost instantly and nearly invisibly. But at the same time, the park’s vast size and enormous variety of rides, features, restaurants, and shops makes Tucker’s job almost impossible—there’s no way for him to know where the bad guys are and what they’re up to.

One of the most intriguing features of Fools in the Magic Kingdomis Hartnett’s almost gleeful violation of some of fiction’s cardinal norms. For instance, there is no single plot, as I already noted. Instead, Mike mashes stories and genres exuberantly. Is this a detective story? Yup. Is this a social satire? Yup. A critique of the current social and political situation in America? Yup. A coming of age story? Yup. A romance? Yup. Its all of them, and more. The mash-ups are strikingly like Disney World: They promise (and deliver) something for everybody.

Another way Mike breaches fictional conventions lies in his agility in switching points of view (POV), often within the same scene, even (at times) within the same paragraph. Yet, he’s so smooth a “head-jumper” that I never lost the thread or became confused. As an ardent “one POV per scene” kind of writer, I took guilty pleasure each time I “heard” the interior thinking of both Character A and Character B in the same moment. Mike pulled off his crimes as smoothly as Disney World makes the illusory “real.” His novel reminded me: No rule is too sacred to break—and if you want to break rules, do it with gusto!

I am left with deep admiration for this book. The intricacy of the plot(s), the dimensionality of the characters (every “good” character had some darker flaws, every “bad guy” had surprising virtues), the skillful—and wholly unexpected—way the multiple stories became one story at the end, the extensive descriptions of Disney World rides and hidden spaces, and the evidence that the author has done extensive research into all facets of the Magic Kingdom (did you know there are “hidden Mickey’s” scattered throughout the park?)—all tell me I was in the hands of a master story-teller. Mike Hartnett is an author after Walt Disney’s own heart.

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing, Part 3

Editing the Manuscript (and a mistake in my last post)

 

 

In my last post, I talked about drafting the manuscript and my typical process of going through multiple drafts. When I feel it’s ready, the next step is to send it to my editor, Lorna Lynch. Lorna has edited all three novels in the “Monastery Valley” series, always profoundly improving them. (Last week I made a mistake in describing my process: I actually don’t send the book to my “beta” or trusted readers until after it gets its first round of editing, because these folks are doing me a favor and I want the manuscript to be in as good shape as it can be out of respect for them. Not sure what I was thinking!)

The developmental edit

When the manuscript is ready, I ask Lorna to do two rounds of editing: The first round is a “developmental edit” (also called a “structural” or a “content edit”). In a developmental edit, Lorna dissects and evaluates the structure of the book:

  • the consistency of the plot and character development;
  • whether the necessary structural components are all present and whether they fall more or less where they should;
  • whether the pacing and emotional tone of each scene carries the story forward and is faithful to the overall story arc itself;
  • and how well the story accomplishes its goals.

She always sends back the manuscript full of notes and comments, along with a lengthy document providing a separate critique of the story, characters, plot, and overall structure.

As you can imagine, this leads me to yet another revision, sometimes two. For instance, for my latest novel, The Bishop Burned the Lady, (you can preorder it now at a 10% discount from the publisher–click on the title and enter promo code PREORDER2018.) , I worked through the manuscript with Lorna’s separate critique first, because it tends to be more “global,” dealing with the overall structure and arc of the story. Then I went through the marked-up manuscript and dealt with each individual change she recommended.

No one expects an author to accept every one of her editor’s suggestions, but Lorna’s have always been reasonable and clearly aimed at strengthening the story and the writing. I seldom, heck, almost never, decide to ignore her recommendations.

The Copy Edit

The second round of editing also has various names: “Copy edit” or “line edit” are most common. This is the classic edit wherein your pages come back all marked with red ink. Lorna, as most editors do now, uses Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” tool. The copy editor, rather than the big-picture focus on the arc and structure of the story and the development of the characters, focuses on individual paragraphs, sentences, words, grammar, style, usage. Not to say she may not notice something bigger that either she missed in the developmental edit or that I inadvertently messed up in my revisions after it. She even does a bit of proofreading—a third level of editing that focuses on typos, misspellings, and such gremlins that happen no matter how often the manuscript is revised or how many people searched proofread it.

I find that my revisions after the copy edit take quite a while. At this point, I’m not merely revising to address the copy edit, but I’m starting to polish the prose. That may be the wrong word choice—my prose is not meant to be “polished.” I aim for a style that is spare, consonant with life and society in a small mountain town. But while I’m working through the copy edit, I’m always on the lookout for a better verb, and more pungent image, a stronger noun.

The Proofread

Proofreading is the final edit. It usually happens just before sending the manuscript to the publisher, and more formally after publisher converts the manuscript into an electronic “proof.” (In the old days of paper manuscripts, the proof was called a “galley.”) Now, they come as PDF files, and the task is to check every letter of every word for accuracy. Some proofreaders, to prevent themselves from reading the story and possibly missing errors, start with the last sentence and work backwards, sentence by sentence. I can’t do that. Instead, I hire a proofreader.

I’ve worked with two proofreaders, each of them both marvelous and meticulous—Kim Cheeley and Lorna. I met Kim, in fact, after she borrowed a copy of Climbing the Coliseum from her local library—and promptly proofread it, marked up all its typos and misspellings (she found 51, this after I had proofed the galleys twice!), and sent me the library’s copy. (She bought them another.)Since she found numerous typos, misspellings, and errors, I vowed always to have a proofreading done by a professional.

When all is done, and the proof is approved, a release date is set by the publisher. My publisher, Black Rose Writing, set April 12 as the release date for The Bishop Burned the Lady. Watch this space or my Facebook page for news about activities around the release! You’ll be glad you did!

From Drafting to Editing to Polishing to Publishing, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about how I develop ideas for my novels. It’s not a particularly sexy method, and many authors do much the same thing. This time, let me tell you what happens to prepare the early drafts—and there are quite a few—to step out in public. Typically, I write between four and six drafts before taking the next step. I worked through seven–count ’em, seven–“first drafts” of The Bishop Burned the Lady before I felt it was ready for the next step: trusted readers.

The first draft is just that, a rough draft (very rough!). I let it sit for a couple of weeks (unless I’m really in love with it, in which case like any love, I can’t bear to stay away). Draft 2 is structural—do the inciting incident, the four plot points, the three twists, the climax all fall more or less where they should? Is the build of the story–the logic of each scene following those before it and preparing for those to come–sound and compelling? Draft 3, assuming I’m satisfied with the structural integrity and logic of the story arc, focuses on pace and timing. Does the story move well? Are there slow spots or passages during which my mind wanders from the story? Does the tension build appropriately through every scene (in some fashion)—including the scenes designed to offer some relief?

Draft 4 focuses on language and style: Are the verbs robust and the nouns able to carry the weight of the job they are doing? Are the style and language well suited to the scene? By “well suited” I mean, do they carry forward the scene’s purpose and do the words themselves reflect the dominant mood of the scene? For instance, if the scene’s purpose is to show a character facing a crucial decision on which much depends, are the words tension-loaded, heavy with implication?

Once I am satisfied (well, I’m never really satisfied), I turn to my trusted readers, also called “beta readers.” My wife, Michele, is the first one. She marks up the manuscript with her well-tuned teacher’s pencil, showing me breaks in the logic or word repetitions, confusing sentences or passages, inconsistencies either of plot or character, grammar goofs, and all sorts of other errors. So now I’m back to draft 5 or 6.

When that’s ready, I call on my other trusted readers, four or five folks who graciously read as, well, readers. They don’t offer editorial advice, but they do offer their insights into the story or the characters, criticism about passages that don’t work for them or don’t fit the flow of the story, suggestions for improving it, and overall challenges targeting how to make the manuscript stronger. Their feedback is always helpful, very often nuanced, and frequently wise. I wait until I have heard from everyone, then compile their feedback into a single document organized according to the structure of the book. Emphasizing the changes that more than one beta reader suggest, I use that document to work my way through the manuscript again, draft 6 or 7.

Finally, it is ready for editing. I’ll write about that next week.

Is Fiction Fake News?

Writing fiction, as I do now, has allowed me to experience first hand a curious paradox: Fictitious stories are simultaneously both untrue and true. They are news of a kind, but “fake” news (to borrow an odious phrase). We’ve always known this, of course. A delightful Goodreads page of quotes about fiction confirms this. For example, Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”  Or this from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.”

Contrast this paradox—that the lie of fiction can discover the deeper truth of reality—with the Trumpian and Fox-News-ian blather about “fake news.” Crying “fake news” about whatever one doesn’t like to know is a lie intended to obscure the truth. In the lie of fiction, on the other hand, I try to create a world, people, events, reactions that utterly imaginary, yet truer, perhaps, than many actual, historical places, people, events, and reactions.

And readers are the judges: They know when a place or a person or something that happens rings false, even in fantasy fiction. Readers love J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin in part because their worlds are so palpably real, their characters so emotionally authentic.

And in reading successful fiction, by agreeing to accept the author’s lie, astute readers can have the life-affirming experience of opening to a deeper, broader, sharper truth—the truth of what it means to be human. Hiding the truth behind the whine of “fake news” steals from all of us the dignity of our human capacity to judge for ourselves what is true or false.

J.S. Bach, Stephen King, And Creating Suspense

At readings or book club gatherings, I’m often asked some variation on the question, “When you’re working on a book, how do you ____?” Sometimes it’s “. . . come up with your ideas?” Sometimes, it’s “. . . develop your characters?” One of the most interesting questions is, “How do you create suspense?”

The usual answer is, of course, to hint at some trouble that’s going to happen to an important character, but don’t give enough information that the reader can figure out what it’s going to be. This advice is useful to a point, but for me, at least, it’s easier said than done. When I’m writing, I know what’s going to happen, and I can get far too confident that I’ve nicely concealed it from the reader. But like Freudian slips of the tongue, unconscious slips-of-information find their way into the writing, sometimes in the form of hints that go too far, at other times not-so-subtle clues that I hadn’t meant to divulge till later.

This is why an evaluation and critique by a good editor is so important. Even before I send a manuscript off to my editor, Lorna Lynch, my wife Michele will have often read a passage and said, “You’re making it too obvious. I’ve figured it out already!” (Back to the manuscript for another re-write!)

I follow a number of writers’ craft websites, where experienced writers offer advice on the multitude of “how to do its” that comprise the writing craft. This morning I came across a fascinating video by an editor, Dave King, in which he discusses how to generate strong suspense in a novel. What’s fascinating, though, is that as he explains his points, he illustrates them by playing a segment of the monumental Fantasia and Fugue in A-Minor, by J.S. Bach.

Being an organist myself—well, having studied pipe organ for about eight years in my teens and early twenties—this music is one of my most beloved pieces by my all-time most cherished composer for pipe organ. So, it was doubly exciting to hear Dave King play the segment he played, and also to see how skillfully he used it to illustrate what Stephen King (no relation to Dave) does to create suspense in his books.

Like to hear the music and what Dave King tells us about creating suspense? It’s at the Writer Unboxed website. I promise you’ll enjoy it, and you’ll learn (or re-learn) something about good writing!

Okay, my ten-minute timer just went off, so I’m off, too. See you next week.

“Small Everyday Acts of Kindness”

(I’m still experimenting with writing these posts in ten minutes or fewer. I’d love to hear from you about what you think of them!)

Gandalf, the great wizard in Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, was asked why he’d chosen a Hobbit, Frodo Baggins, to go up against Sauron, the evil lord who threatened the existence of goodness itself. Gandalf answered, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Frodo Baggins? I am afraid. He is small, but he gives me courage.”

In our world, it seems to be the case that many people think differently. I listen, particularly, to certain of our politicians, whom I can only conclude must be terrified, to judge from their relentless rhetoric of war and their chest-thumping cruelty. It is as if by threatening, by promising death and destruction, by blithely ripping families apart and condemning a generation to poverty, these men—and they are always men—think they can have their way with whomever they wish. Can they?

I doubt it. We wanted to have our way in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and now North Korea in 2017. After 16 years, we are still in Afghanistan, after 14 we’re still in Iraq, and we’re not getting our way. We wanted to have our way in 1950 in Korea as well, and we are still there, still bellowing in frustrated fury at its leaders.

“Small everyday deeds,” said Gandalf, “keep the darkness at bay.” He was too wise to think that anything could make the darkness vanish and give victory to the light. The best we can hope for, he suggests, is to hold off the darkness, and whatever small everyday deeds of kindness and compassion that you and I can perform will do so.

But what small everyday deed can I do that will keep North Korea or ISIS or any threat at bay? I think that’s not the right question: On the world stage, nothing you or I, as individuals, do will stop the Saurons of our time, nothing, that is, except to vote carefully and to pressure our representatives in government to do the same, and keep pushing for the best. A better question is: What small act can I perform today that will improve my life, my family, my community, the world around me?

The Ring of Power has been handed to each of us, as it was to Frodo, and each of us must find our own particular small everyday act to perform, faithfully, in order to play our small role in the great deeds of our time.

Well, my ten minutes are up. I’ll see you next week!

Writing for Ten Minutes

A writer I know, Dwayne P., has a deep desire to write fiction, but such a busy life that he has not found the time. Recently, he was telling our writers’ group about this and what he had realized: He could write for ten minutes each day. Simple. Clear. Doable. “I may not be able to write a novel or even a short story very quickly,” he mused. “But I can write for ten minutes each day, and soon enough, there’ll be a book.” He read three of his ten-minute fictions to us: Lovely, concise stories a few paragraphs long. Any one of the three could be expanded into a full piece of fiction.

One of my many shortcomings as a writer is that I have started this blog and promised a new post every couple of weeks, but I haven’t kept that promise faithfully. For some periods, I post regularly. But then spaces of time pass when I don’t. Often, it’s because I’m absorbed in my current work-in-progress, and don’t make time for the blog. Other times, it’s that I feel at a loss for a meaningful subject to write about. This strikes me as odd—dozens of topics related to Psyche, Spirit, Story interest me. So why do I dry up when pondering a blog post? I suspect the answer is that it takes too long to do justice to those ideas—or so I thought, until Dwayne changed my mind with his simple idea: Write for ten minutes.

If I take ten minutes out of each writing day, I’d be able to create five or more blog posts each week. And writing for ten minutes is a cinch. Take this post: So far, I’ve been writing for nine minutes and seventeen seconds.

So here’s my experiment: Like Dwayne, I am going to write for ten minutes each day on a topic related to this blog. I’ll post once a week. Next week, I’ll post about a problem I was having with a scene in my work-in-progress and how I solved it (I already wrote the post, in ten minutes and four seconds!).

And I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to send me your comments about how this experiment works for you. Ten minutes. See you next week.

 

Newspeak at Work

What is Doublespeak?

As a writer – of fiction, outside of this blog – I’m always intrigued by imaginative uses of words to communicate, and appalled by equally imaginative uses of words to distort and prevent authentic communication. My sense of intrigue (in both its meanings) has been piqued by the verbal performances of members of the administration, who find curious words to convey their “alternative facts,” that is, their untruths. This, of course, has a venerable history, and not only in politics; but it is the political use of “doublespeak” that I want to talk about here.

Doublespeak, also called “double talk,” happens when one changes or somehow distorts words to make something unpleasant or offensive sound positive. 

The word was given to us by George Orwell in his prescient novel, 1984, which has seen a remarkable surge in sales since the election to the U.S. presidency of one of the world’s masters of doublespeak, Donald J. Trump. You may have heard (incessantly) about him.

Orwell’s novel, if you’re not familiar with it, is a chilling description of life under a dictatorship that controls – and watches, literally – every aspect of human life. One cannot even use the toilet without being watched by the ubiquitous telescreeens. (On an ironic twist of that meme, we now carry our own telescreens – which, as Orwell predicted, can track us everywhere.) As a key feature of the intellectual and moral devaluation of human discourse, the government practices – and insists the “citizens” practice – doublespeak, based on the ability to think (and therefore to say) something, while knowing full well it is utterly false. In order to soften the dissonance, the technique involves using euphemisms and word-distortions.

“Doublespeak” Flows from “Newspeak”

In 1984, Orwell describes how the government of Oceania (the fictional dictatorship) invents a new language whose primary character is to “rid itself of unnecessary words.” For instance, since the word “good” implies the absence of “bad,” there is no need for the word bad. Since the word “peace” implies the absence of war, there is no need for the word war. Instead, prefixes suffice: “Ungood” and “unpeace” cover “bad” and “war.”

The point is that words the government wishes to hide for any reason can be simply be put out of use. The concepts they express will soon follow suit and wither away. Take the case of “collateral damage.” How often do we hear this euphemism for the murder of innocent civilians? This reminds me of something I was taught in college about the Confucian emperors’ practice, when ascending to the throne, of issuing a new dictionary. The goal was to ensure that everyone could use the right meaning for words. The key difference with Orwellian Newspeak, though, is that the aim of the Confucians was to facilitate clear communication across a vast, polyglot empire, whereas the aim of the Oceania government was, to the contrary, to ensure an absence of genuine communication among the citizens. By doing so, the government aimed to control their minds. “Through his creation and explanation of Newspeak, Orwell warns the reader that a government that creates the language and mandates how it is used can control the minds of its citizens.”

Examples of Doublespeak

We already live in an era of vast doublespeak. The website “Your Dictionary,” from which I got my definition of doublespeak above, gives a list of 30 examples we all use in our everyday lives. Have you ever said “John passed” instead of “John died”? Put your dog “to sleep” instead of “euthanized” him? Protested “capital punishment” instead of “state-murder”?

It’s no surprise that many examples of doublespeak come from our government, and always reflect some action or decision that will harm someone. “Pre-emptive strikes” (as opposed to “unprovoked attacks”) have become commonplace. “Ethnic cleansing” is more sanitary than “genocide.”

On the domestic political front, we have seen in recent months a significant uptick in doublespeak . We now talk about “making health care affordable” (Paul Ryan) rather than “taking away people’s health care insurance.” The decision to defund Planned Parenthood (for instance) is spoken of as “protecting the unborn” rather than as “depriving poor women of health care.”

And of course, there is the blanket, one-size-fits-all response to re-phrasing those in the direction of more honesty. Saying that defunding Planned Parenthood, for instance, is “depriving poor women of health care” is attacked from the conservatives as being “failed liberal cant,” despite the fact that it is a much more accurate—and honest—phrase than “protecting the unborn.” (My source here is FactCheck.org.)

On the military side, we hear the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), which are presumed to be different in kind from “conventional weapons.” But is “the mother of all bombs” that was dropped on an almost-vacant area in Afganistan last week really different in kind from a chemical weapons attack? Sure, the “Mother” (is the word meant to lull us into feeling secure—“Mom’s on the watch”?) only killed (reports vary) 36 or 94 ISIS soldiers. But the bomb was dropped in a nearly deserted corner of Afghanistan; drop the Mother-of-all-bombs on a city and count the bodies.

Doublespeak Is Doublespeak, No Matter Who Says It

No one disputes that ours is a dangerous world, a precarious time. The man who controls our nuclear codes ordered, from his dining table, an airstrike against a Syrian airbase because photos of dead babies made him emotional. Meanwhile, North Korea has succeeded in provoking the Trump team into escalating the tension on the Korean peninsula—at a moment when there is no viable government in the south.

Vice-President Mike Pence went to Seoul, South Korea, and offered stern words to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. At the end of his statement—filled with innuendo and, yes, doublespeak—we heard this: “There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over.”

Strategic patience?

Mr. Vice-president, did you mean “peace”?

And were you telling us, with the “era of strategic patience” now over, that we are entering a period of war?

Why Not Speak Straight?

“The idea behind Newspeak is that, as language must become less expressive, the mind is more easily controlled.” I find it hard to imagine hoards of citizens carrying signs and marching in the streets against “the end of strategic patience” (that is, war with North Korea).

I cannot imagine the people of the United States rising in anger at Trumpist efforts to “protect the unborn” (that is, to defund women’s health care).

I cannot see my fellow citizens standing shoulder to shoulder in rainy spring weather to protest “tax cuts for the middle class” that in fact actually are for the wealthy, such as Donald Trump, and that – for many working class and single parents –  would result in a tax increase.

What I can envision, though, is citizens learning to see through the doublespeak. Even with telescreens glued to our noses, most Americans have a healthy dose of skepticism about politicians. Sure, the base of the Republican party has acted foolishly, deluded by the doublespeak, but the base’s bedrock remains common sense. They know that drought is drought, even if the president declaims, “There is no drought” in California, it’s just “them shoving the water into the sea.” Many of the people living in the Great Plains have family memories of the Dust Bowl, and they recognize that dust-bowl conditions in California’s central valley are dust-bowl conditions. No amount of doublespeak can change what people know in their bones.

And most of us know that “the end of an era of strategic peace” means a promise of war.