Sometime before 2016 I reached a point of fed-up-ness with The Walking Dead I decided to write my own zombie story for NaNoWriMo of that year. I wish I could remember the exact moment, but when I reviewed the TWD seasons, there were simply too many times I reached that point to accurately pin point a specific year, and I wasn’t using the NaNoWriMo site at the time.
Needless to say, I have been working on my zombie novella for five or more years. It used to be just a hair beneath 50k words. Then I edited it ruthlessly to a smidge under 40k words.
Around this time, #ownvoices was becoming popular and I took a long hard look at my story which stars an Iranian woman, a Jewish woman, two Black siblings, and a white woman who is the main character’s antagonist.
As a reminder, I am white.
I struggled for several years on whether or not I should tell this story or if I should edit everyone to be more or less ambiguous. People who know me might remember various self imposed deadlines to self publish the novella, only for each of them to pass by without it seeing the light of day.
I chose these characters for a reason. I had just gotten to know my brother’s girlfriend (now wife) when I first drafted the story, and she immigrated to the United States from Iran when she was young. She helped me with the Farsi that appears in the novella. I wanted a Jewish character because I was tired of Christianity saturating everything. It was also important to have two Black characters simply because the genre historically can be very antiblack, even though one of the earliest zombie films makes this precise point (Night of the Living Dead).
When crafting these characters, I did as much research as I could. I listened to bloggers share how their experiences are portrayed. Researched the no-nos. But I wanted to do more than avoid the easy pitfalls.
I extended this level of care to all the characters, but for my Jewish character, I specifically wanted her to be recognizable as Jewish without explicitly calling her Jewish in the text. The reason I did this is because I didn’t want to have an “easy out.” I didn’t want to fall in the trap of the main character observing her friend’s Jewishness and leaving it at that.
I was hesitant to do a sensitivity reading because I knew that a sensitivity editor can provide only their perspective, and I didn’t want to fall into the pitfall of looking at one sensitivity edit as the source of truth. My ideal scenario would have been multiple sensitivity edits for the various characters. Though my financial circumstance is more secure now than it was when I started this novella, I knew that to get the amount of perspective I needed for my novella would cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.
Eventually, I decided removing these characters’ identities for my own comfort was not the right course of action for me (I know there are some people who will disagree with me, and I’m okay with that). I would rather make a mistake trying than stay in a safe zone that would inevitably perpetuate a focus on whiteness, which was one of the things that had frustrated me about TWD in the first place. I decided I would go for a sensitivity edit.
I researched sensitivity readers. I wanted to procure an editor from an established company of some sort as opposed to finding someone on a social media site like twitter. My main reason is that I wanted to be protected if something went wrong.
I stumbled across Salt & Sage Books. My initial inquiry email was answered quickly, and even when I delayed a full month or so in my response, they were kind and welcoming, picking up as if I hadn’t nearly ghosted them (which hadn’t been my intention, but what is time in the middle of a pandemic). They guided me through the beginning process, I chose an editor who had listed “Jewish” as one of their top areas of expertise, and I waited excitedly for my sensitivity read to come back.
When it did, the sensitivity editor told me there was no Jewish content in my story, spent the majority of the time discussing the lesbian romance, and provided very constructive feedback regarding the depth and believability of the characters.
Worse, the character the editor had interpreted as Jewish wasn’t supposed to be the Jewish character in the novella.
I was shocked. Numb to my core. I hadn’t actually read the novella again before I sent it out and my entire brain was trying to remember what I HAD written. Surely, I had put Jewish content in there–hadn’t I done all that research?
I dived back into novella and found multiple specific examples that countered the conclusions the sensitivity editor had drawn. These were facts contained in one or two sentences throughout the novel, and would not have been subject to interpretation.
I wasn’t sure what to do. I knew that writers who couldn’t work with editors got around since the circles are small, and I didn’t want that to happen, especially since I’m still trying to get my foot in the door. Originally my shock had been about my inability to write, but after I had gone through my novella, I began to wonder if my novella had not been read carefully by the editor I had chosen.
I decided to write Salt & Sage books with my feedback. I spent about three days drafting the email. Had a friend look it over to make sure I didn’t sound unreasonable.
I clicked “send” and I waited.
Salt & Sage responded back in several business days and ultimately agreed with me that I had not received a sensitivity read that met their QA levels. Their tone was validating, and when my original email raised questions regarding their QA processes, they assured me they did have one but they would need my permission to proceed. They offered me several methods of resolution, which included a partial refund or a chance to try again. I opted to try again, and they helped me find a second Sensitivity Reader, whom I asked to verify if their Jewish knowledge would match the Jewish character in my story. They assured me again this second read would be free of charge.
The level of effort on their part to make this right really struck me. When I said I didn’t feel comfortable choosing another reader who listed Jewishness in their list of expertise, and asked them to decide who would be best based on the Jewish elements in my story, they did take that effort on themselves. The amount of effort I, as a customer, had to take in rectifying the experience was as minimal as sending additional sample pages and a clarification on what I needed.
I’m very happy to say that when I received the results of the second sensitivity read, it was exactly the feedback I was looking for. The first read was about two pages long, with a minimal paragraph devoted to the lack of Jewish aspects in my story. The second read was about six pages long, each page devoted to the Jewish content in my story with feedback on what I did right, and feedback on where I was edging a little close to some negative stereotypes. I also got some line edits back on my actual manuscript! Exciting!
If you are looking for a place to find a sensitivity reader, I do recommend Salt & Sage. I need to do a sensitivity read for the remaining characters in my novel, and I’ll be going to them as long as they have an editor who matches my needs.
My main takeaway in this experience? Ask clarifying questions. Make sure the editor you choose (even if it’s not with Salt & Sage) has the knowledge to match your character. I had assumed any editor that listed “Jewish” in their areas of expertise would recognize the Jewish aspects of my story, simply because I, as a Gentile, had done the research, and surely any Jewish content would be recognizable from that alone. Don’t make that assumption. I believe my key issue was I did not specify I needed an editor with some experience in practicing Judaism, and that points to my own ignorance, and why I needed the sensitivity read in the first place.
My day job entails customer service. I know that no company will get it right 100% of the time. Expecting that will set people up for failure. Was I disappointed that my first sensitivity read was such a bad experience? Of course. But I deal with bad first experiences every day, and I wanted to give Salt & Sage a chance to make it right. I’m so glad I did because they went above and beyond to do so — and that says more about a company than when things go right.
Review of my experience written with permission from Salt & Sage.