On Saturday evening, after dozens of rereads, corrections, edits, corrections, and rereads, I finally set the manuscript of My Brother, Romeo off to the formatter.
This morning, I realized that I need to make another change.
I wrote the original version of this story as fan fiction fifteen years ago, in 2006. Senses and sensibilities were different then. I’d already posted a few stories on a now-defunct fansite whose readers were almost exclusively women, many of whose philosophies and belief systems skewed toward the traditional. The story was set in the 1860s on a ranch in Nevada, where one might also expect traditional beliefs to predominate.
All of which explains why a particular bit of dialogue in the original version not only came naturally, but caused no fuss. In the scene, the narrator comes home after a frustrating attempt to cast the production of Romeo and Juliet. As he recounts all the inappropriate contenders for the role of Juliet, he mentions that a man in town wanted the role because in Shakespeare’s day, all the roles were played by men. One brother responds, “I always wondered about him,” to which the other says, “You and me both.”
On its face, this brief exchange is as innocuous as they come. Certainly, it is consistent with the characters of the original show, most of which was written and produced in the 1960s. Readers of the original version loved this bit of dialogue, seeing it as humorous and nothing else.
This morning, though, it occurred to me that these two lines carry an unintended flavor—one I don’t like. Granted, my story is set on a ranch in central California in 1962, and the lines are still consistent with the kind of comments people like my characters might have made without thinking. But the story is going to be read by modern audiences, and that needs to be borne in mind.
Since I’ve been guilty of overthinking things at least once or twice in my life, I debated contacting a friend for a quick sensitivity read to determine whether I was seeing ghosts. In the next minute, I realized that if I’m concerned enough to ask for the sensitivity read, there’s probably something there that needs to be addressed.
So I’ve worked out alternate dialogue that I plan to substitute when the manuscript comes back for finalizing. In my opinion, the new lines work better than the original. They’re equally humorous, plus they shift the focus away from the tone I find troubling. Win-win.
Some people will think it ridiculous that I would even consider this change. For them, the fact that the lines are consistent with the characters and the setting is defense enough against any who might object. Many would likely not even notice anything unusual, much less find it offensive. Still others might rail against the idea of my “sanitizing” my work to make it “politically correct.” (Side note: “political correctness” is actually code for “think about how this makes someone else feel, and try to craft a phrase that isn’t hurtful to them.”)
For me, the decision to edit this dialogue comes down to a couple of basic points. One is that this story is meant to be lighthearted and fun; anything that is going to jolt a reader out of that mood needs to be reconsidered. Another is that fixing this tiny segment doesn’t detract in any way from the story. I’m not making the characters less authentic—I’m changing the landing point of the humor.
I’ve been writing long enough to know that no work will every please every reader. I’ve seen stories where the author is bending over so far to please a particular demographic or send a message to the reader that the rest of the story doesn’t ring true or is sanctimonious and annoying. A sentiment famously attributed to a number of Hollywood producers is that filmmakers are supposed to tell stories–if you want to send a message, use Western Union. (For those not old enough to understand this reference: for many years, Western Union was the company people used to send telegrams.)
In the end, the writer needs to be honest in telling the story, which includes being honest about how characters speak, think, and behave—but which doesn’t mean that there are no holds barred. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might have been accurate for its time in certain aspects, such as how the characters referred to Black people (although the book has been controversial ever since its publication in 1884), but it’s enormously unlikely that the book would be published today with the same language even if it were presented as historical fiction.
Assuming that an author has written a story to be read, a reasonable maxim to follow is that if a line is going to yank the reader out of the story’s world for any reason, from inaccuracy to offensiveness, chances are that’s a line that needs to be edited. At the very least, the author needs to take a long, hard look at the line and consider carefully whether—or why—it should remain in its original form and what possible effect it will have on the story if it is kept, modified, or even deleted.
Probably none of my stories are perfect in this regard. A few have been designed to make readers uncomfortable enough to begin a discussion or at least consider a different point of view. Most are meant simply to entertain. My characters may speak or act in ways that readers don’t care for, as with my mother’s objection whenever a character curses. The line between an honest telling and a troublesome one can be murky, and it’s one every author needs to find for themselves.
The world is not the same as when I wrote the original version of My Brother, Romeo fifteen years ago. Dialogues have become commonplace that were barely alluded to back then. Diversity and inclusion are more prevalent in both modern fiction and daily life. Simply put, many authors have learned that even though we have the best of intentions, our words may have caused someone to feel hurt, passed over, or unseen. We’re trying now to do better.
That’s why I chose to make this edit: I’m trying to do better.