All the world’s a staging

Those who read even the mundane posts about my actual non-writing life may remember that the last time we listed a house, it went south. I think it finally closed about the time it hit McMurdo Sound.

If you remember that, you may remember all the lessons I codified that I’d learned about this, which I swore not to repeat. Now I’m learning about a thing never before mentioned to me: staging.

In real estate, staging = ‘pretending you don’t actually live like normal people with normal belongings.’ All right, very well. I can avoid trashing the joint for a little while, though I think my beautiful wife would give a feminine harrumph about that. That’s fine, dear. Since my wife is not with me in this house, at least there’ll be no one to blame but myself.

What staging evidently means, in to-do list terms, is:

  • Getting the mover to move most of your crap out of the place. If the staging person says it’ll help the place sell, or if you can’t get by without it for even a day, it stays. Otherwise, it goes into storage. This really isn’t such a bad thing, if one considers it, because it means that at final loadout time, most of it happens from a storage facility into their van, and much of the remainder is the stuff the stager ordered left in place.
  • A complete grounds and interior cleaning. While I can do some of that, the entire job to stagers’ satisfaction is beyond my abilities. Part of that is because I have my wife’s dog, who considers it a form of family participation to destroy landscaping. If I fill the hole in, Fabius thinks it’s a cool game, and digs it back up. When I pick up his gifts, his dog mind says Wow! This is my favorite thing! I better get to dumpin’! Charming.
  • If there’s anything I plan to sell before we move, and that I know is unsuitable for staging, better get cracking.
  • Arranging any minor repairs or touch-ups the stager requires.
  • Taking no offense when the stager goes though the house like a squad of fashion freaks, more or less informing me that I have the taste of an unschooled yak.
  • Getting rid of the pets. (No, of course they won’t be abandoned. Alex, my white-eyed conure pal, and Fabius will head to the new place where Deb will be. But they can’t be here for staging, lest it disgust the buyer. Getting Fabius gone will also enable me to make meaningful repairs to those dog depredations he would otherwise keep depredating.)

Sounds like a hell, doesn’t it? “Hi. This, that, and basically all this crap must go. What savages even bought this? Oh. My. God. When was this grouted, ancient Philistia? And I hope you can get by with one bathroom for a while, carefully cleaned after each use. Yes, I suppose you may shower, provided you fog the place with straight chlorine gas and fungicide afterward. Jeez. Couldn’t you arrange to do it with a garden hose in the yard? Goddamn, look what you eat! How do you not die immediately of some horrible disease?”

Nah. This is great. This is what I wanted: a listing agent with a plan of action, with minions who will tell me what to do or have done, so that I can get rid of this joint coveted property and sod head off to civilization Portland. And yes, we will interview the likely agent at her office, and yes, we will make clear to her what we will consider a successful transaction. And yes, we have even had the discussion, tactfully, about what happens if we need to rescind the listing. I don’t want to make the whole plan. I want the person to make the plan who is paid to make the plan, and to give me clear and sensible direction.

I am told, by people I trust, that selling a house is staging and pricing. The seller has power to affect both. Ask too much per square foot relative to comparables, and it will not appear as a good value, and you’re hoping someone will fall in love with it and overpay. Refuse to present it as an appealing property, and once-excited buyers will find excuses not to want it. We must price it with realism in mind, and stage it with a mighty staging. When it goes on the market, it may be easiest for me to just get the hell out of here for a week.

We tried it the wrong way before, and must accept the fault for engaging (without competition) a terrible listing agent who didn’t offer much of a plan or guidance. Let’s see how the right way works. It’s a nice house, great natural privacy, easy to maintain, convenient to schools (too convenient, at least from my standpoint), low crime area, pretty kitchen, only two owners and one of those for but a year and a half, and more. It doesn’t suck. I want this place in contract with a serious buyer in two days, and I don’t think it works to go half the distance with a plan. Either do it as guided, or forfeit part of the benefit from the immense sum paid out to get it done. In the service of that, I have a tough hide.

I must plan to take a perverse pleasure in being told about the wretchedness of my taste. I can’t really argue. I am a bizarre creature: my work productivity is immune to decor. If my office were a solitary confinement cell at Walla Walla, provided it contained the things I need and I could get out when the job/day was done, I could still function. At times I must remind myself to look away from the monitor: to look outside at the sky, at my wife’s beautiful and loving art on the walls, at the wall of historical, literary and linguistic references behind me, at the globe mobile on which I bonk my head every time I lean over the machine, at the flashing light that informs me I’m already almost out of yellow toner, at Alex, at something besides a computer. If I have zero decorative taste, it is because most of my working life is spent ignoring decorations. Are you using too many adverbs? I care. Is my wall bare cinderblock with rusty metal protrusions from the original forms? I only care if I may scrape my arm open on the metal, as I did in my basement not long ago. The only question in my decorative mind is the balance between wall space for my wife’s art, and bookshelves. The rest, I simply do not care.

We will bring it. We will do as told, get done what we must get done, spend a few hundred on what I cannot do myself. There’s an art to being a good client, and most people do not grasp this in my country. In the United States, most people repeat the adage that the customer is always right. It’s false. The customer isn’t always right, and if s/he thinks s/he is, s/he is a great fool. The customer is right as often as the vendor can arrange for him or her to be without giving away the store.

With that in mind, we must be a good client to our listing agent, and to her staging folks. Because there’s a dynamic that happens, and I know it from my own work. Once a client trusts me, that client believes me when I tell him or her that s/he may at any time contact me for guidance. We work together. I am a knowledge worker, just as a real estate agent is. All I have to sell is the fruit of my grasp of an art. I have had clients I could not help because they were unprepared to receive my help. I have clients who take me at my word and consult me when they are stuck. When my client trusts me, I kick into my very best mode, and I go to lengths most editors would not go. The client who trusts me gets my very best, and at the very best rate.

We will soon see, won’t we, if I have learned?

The E-Tranquility Catechism

I find this mantra to work for me like the Desiderata for some, or Psalm 23 for others, especially with my morning coffee.

The E-Tranquility Catechism

  • I can get through an entire day without letting a person I’ve never met make me angry.
  • I do not have to respond to every stupid thing people say.
  • No one is entitled to demand an answer of me.
  • I may stay out of any discussion, even if it covers a subject about which I feel passionate.
  • Some of my friends keep idiots around. It does not matter why; it only matters whether I let the idiots affect me.
  • Most people do not write with care, so most people do not read with care. If someone responds to a thing I did not say, I am free to write simply “please read it again before you respond.” If the person does not, I am free to cease wasting time on him or her.
  • A good person can be irrational on a given issue. If I do not accept the bait to trigger that irrationality, life will go on, the sun will rise tomorrow morning, and someone else will probably trigger it.
  • Likewise, a good person may be a hothead. Another’s tendency to overreact does not obligate me to overreact. It is a discussion, not an attempted robbery.
  • There will be people who, for reasons I do not understand, find it stimulating to begin gratuitous and ill-informed debates with me. I am not required to indulge them.
  • Social media are not a scavenger hunt, where failure to ‘like’ everything possible could give offense. Anyone who weeps openly because a post did not get ‘liked’ needs to wait for the advent of FaceBubbleWrapBook, not whine to me, for I am not obligated.
  • If I find myself losing composure, I will step away and watch some old Beverly Hillbillies, and try to emulate Jed rather than Granny.
  • Before I engage, I will consider age. If an elder writes something absolutely clueless, I will bear in mind how many of his or her peers don’t even have the guts to participate, and I will show respect through silence. If an elder wants my opinion on clues or lack thereof, s/he knows perfectly well how to ask me for it.
  • If a child is obviously whining for attention, unless it is my child, I will let someone else be dragged into the vortex.
  • I will recognize that some adults are emotionally children at times.
  • If someone is suffering political incontinence, I will not gawk or stare or laugh. This is not Walmart. I will look politely away and go somewhere else, to spare their dignity while they soil themselves.
  • I need not be irritated by fetishism. Whether the fetish be cats, dogs, kids, camels, lame self-reassurances, trigger issue posts, preaching, anti-preaching, or any other personal quirk that baffles me, I may choose not to let it affect me.
  • If the forum has a blocking feature, I should feel no compunction about using it. However, I should realize that each time I use it represents on some level an admission of failure.
  • I will stay out of anything that is assuming the shape of a pear.
  • If while composing a reply, a vile profanity plays on my mental dictaphone, I will recognize that that now is not a good time to reply at all.
  • Above all, I will recognize trolls and trolling for what they are.

How writing can warp your perspective on life

It is so. It can. Take that from someone who spends a lot of time in the locker room with authors, and hears what they say when the public is not listening.

The locker room analogy isn’t accidental. Please consider this: being an author is much like being a professional or collegiate athlete. For the author, hours, days, months, years go into a public performance: a book, which will tend to cause people to read and react.

The read might take a few hours to a few days of the reader’s time, then she’s on to the next book. If the reader feels compelled to comment, she does. She might be knowledgeable; she might not. She might be fair; she might not. She might have understood what the author was trying to do; she might not have. But she did the equivalent of buying her ticket. She gets a seat in the stadium, from which she can watch the game. As long as she doesn’t make death threats or throw bottles or urinate in the aisle, she can react as she wishes. She can yell “you’re a bum!” She can stomp her feet, clap, gush approval, boo her lungs out. She can sit there and eat her nachos in silence. Fairness, kindness, patience are all choices she can make or not, without penalty. She’s the reader, the audience, the customer.

So imagine the author as a college football tailback. In order to perform for a total of thirty minutes before the public, 12-14 times in a year, she worked nearly every day for nine months. She lifted weights until she sagged in exhaustion. She ran sprints, miles, agility drills. Her coach tried to teach her techniques, and she tried to learn them. Some she resisted, some she embraced, and some she didn’t understand worth a damn. She studied thick playbooks with pages of diagrams that looked like a drunk, amnesiac tic tac toe game covered in cold cooked spaghetti. She watched endless hours of game film, with a high concentration on her own past errors. If she invested four hours per day for nine months, we might guess that she strained, sweated, grunted, cursed, wept, self-criticized, self-pushed, self-doubted, for something like a thousand hours of her life. That was in addition to the basics of normal life, for which she was also responsible. Whether she felt like it or not, she had to keep at it. And that’s just the summary of the off-season; in season, it might be more. This enabled her to compete with others (who did everything she did) for the right to compete against others (most of whom worked just as hard, some harder) for, at most, thirty minutes 12-14 times a year, with an audience of thousands or millions.

If she gets hit by three Neanderthals and fumbles inside her own 20-yardline, that one bit of her life might be all that millions of people remember of her thirty minutes of performance that day, into which a thousand hours of preparation poured. And if she makes one great, prescient cut and juke that busts loose a seventy-yard run, that will be the snapshot of her life the audience will retain.

And if, when booed or insufficiently applauded, she feels the urge to stand before the public and yell: “You goddamn idiots! You don’t even know what play we had on! I didn’t call that play! I had only an instant to react! The linebacker made a superhuman effort! On top of it, I was still a little rung up from the defensive tackles that landed on me forty seconds ago! Someone else blew an assignment! You don’t even know what the hell’s going on out here, or what it took me to be here and perform for you! All of y’all can go to hell!” can we blame her?

We can and we will, unfair though it is to her. Not for having the feelings, but for doing the one thing capable of making her situation worse. The performer has no say in the composition of the public, and that’s one reason not everyone is cut out to perform. The public is also the customer. The customer isn’t always right; for the most part, the customer is wrong. Unfortunately, the customer nearly always gets away with being wrong, and it’s bad form to come out and prove her wrong.

Welcome to the author’s world: a place where the best way to make a bad situation worse is to speak your mind.

Case in point: Ayelet (free pronunciation help: ah-YELL-ett) Waldman. She is a successful novelist, and this isn’t her first controversy, but it’s a lulu. If you want to read the short version with examples, go here. We should realize that this isn’t “why doesn’t anyone buy my book.” This is “how could my already successful book be left off this very select, prestigious list?” Going back to the athlete analogy, this isn’t “why am I still stuck covering kickoffs and playing target on the scout team.” This is “how can I not be first team All-Conference?”

And in that situation, Waldman did the one thing that could creatively make an unsatisfactory situation worse for herself. She took to the media to call out the people who make up the All-Novelist team for not making her a first-team pick. This isn’t going to get her what she wants. Once she did that, even the knowledgeable minority–those who were prone to factor in the thousand hours of suffering and stress that created her book–shook their heads. Tsk, tsk. Shouldn’t have done it, Ms. Waldman. And that’s those who know. The vast majority, who do not, react even less to her advantage.

Because when an author has a public tantrum, it ceases to be about her work, and becomes about the tantrum.

That’s why you never do that. Never respond to a negative review. Especially never throw a hissy fit because you are left off a high-profile list. Keep that locker-room talk in the locker room, where those around you understand. Kick a locker. Throw your gear. If you must, avoid the media. But don’t lose it in public.

The public will crucify you and desecrate your corpse. And then they will be disrespectful, and you’ll become a meme, like Laurell K. Hamilton’s infamous Dear Negative Reader blog post.

Powell’s

Powell’s is a bookstore in Portland, Oregon.

This is a bit like saying that the Smithsonian Institution is a museum in Washington, District of Columbia: factually correct, but grossly understating the case.

I am aware that the readership will now divide into two categories: those who have seen it, and can verify that I’m not exaggerating in the least, and those who have not. Some of the latter may suspect that I am embellishing. If so, it is accidental. I am making a conscientious effort to stick to the facts.

For everyone who thinks that dead tree publishing is just dead, period, I offer you Powell’s. And not just because it’s a huge bookstore with multiple locations, but because it’s doing well in the Amazon and Kindle era. With smart, helpful employees. Of course, it does help the employees that most are working in what they consider paradise. Many of the customers arrive in wonderful, even spiritual frames of mind, as if entering a library, and are in a mood to treat the staff as temple caretakers, so it’s a good place to work retail.

The physical facts: the main Powell’s location in downtown Portland is about a five-minute walk from where the high-speed rail lets you off, past numerous exotic food trucks (I tried Georgian), to a three-story building that takes up an entire city block. It sells books, used and new, and very little else. I would estimate the shelves at ten feet high, all wood. Newcomers do well to accept a free map of the color-coded sections. It has clean bathrooms, wide aisles, places to sit down and rest a bit, and a rare book room. While you will find at Powell’s a copy of any current and popular book you seek, the hidden beauty is what you find that you did not know existed. It is a marvelous place for subject readers, especially if books on the subject tend to stay out of print once sales fade.

Take travel essays. I read a lot of travel essays. I’m not so much the Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theroux type; more the Tim Cahill, Tim Severin, Tony Perrottet, and Tony Horwitz type. (What is it about those two first names that seems to indicate a book I will like?) It combines a true adventure story with cultural and geographic learning. When I go to Barnes, and I still do, the Travel Essays section occupies one segment (roughly 4′ wide) of shelves about six feet high, and stuff I’ve already read or do not plan to read dominates it. Everything by Frances Mayes about Tuscany. Everything by everyone else about the glories of Tuscany. More about Tuscany. Anthologies themed on a region or gender. Titles designed to make the author out to be a badass, which he really isn’t. Titles meant to sound cute, but which would sound cute only to the sort of person who would never read a travel essay. Plenty of ways to learn that Paris is a major city with eight figures of population and lots of dog waste. Never a shortage of Bill Bryson’s prissiness. Still more about Tuscany.

Travel essays at Powell’s? About four or five segments of shelves ten feet high. Everything Barnes had, plus more: old hardbacks about people who did Brazil in the 1930s, or south Asia in the 1920s, and more. Might find Pico Ayer or Shiva Naipaul; Sven Hedin, Freya Stark. Best of all, you might find someone whose book has been out of print since before your birth, or who wrote about someplace besides Tuscany or Paris. And unlike Barnes, Powell’s isn’t likely to mistake Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic for a Civil War history book due to the title, or his Midnight Rising for a travel book due to the author’s past body of work. Powell’s employees might actually open the book and use their brains. And once you get them home, Powell’s price tags peel off without leaving a mess.

Powell’s has two major satellite locations, plus a few minor ones. I have been to the Beaverton satellite, and it’s about the size of a Costco. If one uses the costco (symbol [c], perhaps) as a measuring unit for gigantic stores, I would estimate the downtown Powell’s as a 3[c] store. If the Hawthorne location is anything like the Beaverton cavern, you could spend a day there alone. And that’s good for me, because downtowns are not normally places I like to be. All that urban vibrancy, rapid pulse, people-watching quirkiness that you find right at the heart of the action? Lost on me. I lived in Seattle for sixteen years. When I worked downtown, I went downtown in the morning and escaped in the evening. If I went at any other time, it was because I had a girlfriend or guests who liked downtowns. I probably took less than eight solo non-commute trips downtown in sixteen years, and I believe I overdid it.

While I will never tire of loving up on Powell’s, in this day and age one may reasonably ask: how do they stay in business? I think I have it figured out. If you find business icky, you can skip this para. You will not find a lot of deeply discounted used books at Powell’s. This is not Half Price Books, or Hastings, or Amazon sellers who put it out there for $0.01 plus $3.99 shipping. I do not know how cheaply they buy, but they do not have mega-low prices. Powell’s seems to assume that if you want the book, $8 or $12 won’t bother you. Their continued existence says that they’re onto something; it’s not just about ‘give me the best price even if my experience sucks,’ in spite of the conventional wisdom of airlines, Walmart, and so on. Powell’s also has unionized employees, and while the company handled the unionization better than many, there have been conflicts and layoffs. I don’t know what the pay and benefits are like, but I suspect they are not lavish. Part of the answer, therefore, to the business survival question is that staffing costs remain in check. Powell’s evidently was/is no sweatshop, but at least at one point, there were enough issues for employees to organize a union in spite of all social trends to the contrary.

That said, I would bet it’s a happier workplace than Barnes & Noble. While I’m not wishing any bookstores gone, even Hastings, former and current B&N employees I have spoken with fall into two categories:

1) Those who said it was a job full of callous management indifference, low pay, scrambled hours, inordinate pressure to sell memberships, and poor advancement opportunities.

2) Um…haven’t heard anyone tell me s/he liked working there. The employee discount, yes, but not the job.

If you read–and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t–Powell’s is the most important stop on your trip to Portland.

It was enough to get me to desire to be in a downtown.

Turning the Windows Security phone scam into amusement

Everyone has his or her way of dealing with obvious phone scams. Some just don’t answer the phone unless caller ID checks out. Some pick up the phone and politely say they are not interested. Some pick it up, curse and hang up. There are many attitudes one may take: karma will get them, it’s not worth one’s time, be nice to everyone–even scum deserve peace and love, meanness only hurts you, and so on.

I’m not here to judge those attitudes, but I do not share them. I don’t really believe in karma, and in any event, I believe that I can be the agent of negative feedback for bad behavior. It’s not worth my time if it makes my day worse, but if I walk away feeling I did a good thing, it may be well worth while. I do not believe that criminals deserve courtesy. Life has taught me that criminals need to have an unpleasant and unproductive experience. Now and then, life summons me to be the agent of that experience.

Phone scam callers are criminals who prey upon the most vulnerable people they can find: the very elderly, the fearful, the ignorant, and so on. I can’t tell anyone how to view that, but I view it as so contemptible that the question is not “should I annoy them?” but “if I ditch the chance to annoy them, what kind of passive enabler am I?” I will take action against them in the same way that, if I saw someone breaking into your house, I would not just walk past and say “not my problem.”

The Windows Security phone scam goes like this. An out-of-area number shows up on caller ID, sometimes looking like a US number, sometimes ‘private caller,’ sometimes a strange number beginning with a V. No matter how you answer the phone, the script begins: a very heavily south-central Asian accent, perhaps Indian or Pakistani but could be from elsewhere, identifies himself by an English name and says he is calling from Windows Security about your Windows Computer. Note that upper case is used advisedly, because he will repeat both terms often. He explains that they have identified a problem, which may be a virus, a scam, or some other malady that your system is propagating.

Of course, he wants you to go to your machine and navigate to a website, where he can rob you blind.

Since this is an enemy operating under deceitful premises, undeserving of fundamental kindness or empathy, we should do our intel analysis on him (and it is always a he). We may assume:

  • He will not understand heavy regional accents or slang. This means that you control the degree to which he has any idea what you’re talking about.
  • Likewise, he probably cannot tell a US accent from a Canadian or Australian accent. I speak French, but I can’t tell you if the speaker is from Marseilles, Brittany, Haiti, or Saint John. In Spanish, I can tell a Spaniard from a Mexican, but not a Mexican from a Guatemalan.
  • He is using a phone connection that, due to distance, means that sound is not simultaneously bidirectional. This means that if you talk over him, he gets only scattered words.
  • His goal is to talk you to the website, and as long as he imagines that possible, he will try. This means that if he hears enough promising words, he will stay on the line for a while.
  • He has stock answers for a few standard questions: “what is my IP,” “where is your office,” and so on. Lies, but meant to sound plausible. This means that the normal challenge questions are pointless.
  • He will seek to remain in control of the conversation, just like a car salesman. Thus, when he cannot control it, this will frustrate him.
  • He is used to dealing with the computer illiterate and confused, because those are his prey. The dumber you sound, the juicier a target you seem to be.
  • He is very far away and has no idea whether you even own a computer. The odds that he can retaliate against you are remote. Thus, it’s not like telling your local legislator to perform a disgusting and illegal sex act, which might just inspire him to find a creative way to get back at you.
  • The only thing he knows about you is that you are an American. He assumes that you are therefore stupid and gullible. This should offend you, even if in an alarming number of cases (who do not read the blog), that’s not far-fetched. His opening stance insults your intellect, so in addition to being a criminal, he’s offensive and bigoted.
  • While he is on the phone with you, he is not bilking Mrs. Edna Miller of Wheatena, KS out of her Social Security money, nor rewarding Mr. Olaf Nielson of Ice Lake, ND for his brave Korean War service by ripping off his VA money. Your donation of time is bread cast upon the waters, a random act of protection for someone you will never meet. Time is finite. And if enough people donate a bit of it, the scam may become unprofitable.

So how can you ruin his call and waste some of his time? Oh, there are so many delightful ways. I derived many of them from my own experience as a computer shaman, remembering the most irritating clients I had, and found others online. I recommend you vary them, always remembering the things you may not legally do: threaten violence, impersonate the secret police, and so on. Mix and match, and find the method(s) that work(s) best for you:

  • Remove ‘yes’ and ‘no’ from your vocabulary, merging them into an indefinite grunt that sounds like ‘hunh.’
  • Affect the most outrageous accent you can pull off. Go full Clampett. Do a terrible Cockney. Pretend you’re Borat or Cheech Marin or Pee-wee Herman. Test out your New Jersey or Boston phonetics. See how much hip-hop slang you know. The Anglophone world is delightfully diverse.
  • Talk over him, in short sentences. He will get only scattered words due to the connection.
  • Find a random device in your vicinity, and pretend that it’s a computer, and have him talk you through what he wants done. He doesn’t need to know it’s your microwave.
  • Use very big words and accent the wrong syllables. That will make it hard for him to understand you. He is a foreign speaker, and accented syllables are very important to comprehension. Even if he knows the word, recognizing it over the phone when mispronounced will be a challenge.
  • Tell him you are using a version of Windows that is obsolete or never existed. Windows 3 is a good call for obsolete. Windows Works Home Edition would be a good fictitious version.
  • Affect an inability to differentiate Windows, an operating system, from Microsoft. Or from Excel, a spreadsheet application.
  • Mix up your technical terms, using ones you have heard but do not know precisely what they mean (for most people, that is most technical terms, like ‘download’ and ‘login’). Just throw them in. He knows what they mean, probably, and will either make wrong assumptions, or will get bogged down explaining things to you, which of course you will misunderstand. Tell him you bought a rootkit online. Affect not to grasp the difference between Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer, and oscillate back and forth.
  • Invent words you know do not exist. Ask him how to disable the contrapulation software. On your finger drive.
  • Let him actually guide you in the direction of the website, but keep ‘mistyping’ it. Make him repeat it back many times. Careful, though, about slipping in .org rather than .com, for example, because they may have the scam set up at similar-looking domains. Pretend not to understand. Tell him it says ‘404 not found.’
  • Tell him you went to the website and that it’s porn. Give medically graphic details. If you need help, go to some actual porn and just describe it. Express that you find it immoral.
  • Mispronounce, commingle, and butcher product names. If your computer is an Acer, pronounce it like ‘occur.’ Tell him you bought a Hewlett-Packer-Dell with Microsoft and Adobe Internet.
  • If you have two phones, put your husband or wife on the other line ‘to help figure this out.’ Revel in your spouse’s creativity.
  • Repeat back his instructions in ways that suggest you did not understand what he wanted. He can’t see what you see, remember.
  • Talk to your cat now and then. Let the caller sort it out. If you don’t have a cat, for purposes of this call, I herewith gift you an imaginary cat named Boris, who is swuch a wittwe snwookums. If you need more cats to pull it off, add to taste.
  • Start a friendly line of inquiry into his accent, telling him it’s charming, and ask where he came from. Take an absurd guess, like Finland or Japan. Ask how his day is going. Tell him he must be very proud to be helping clean up all those virus spam malwares.
  • Let your mind and your topics wander. Our society likes brief bullet points, sound bites, getting to the point. We are conditioned not to bloviate, interrupt, or say irrelevant things. Suspend this conditioning. Technical people especially hate wasted words.
  • Invent a grandson or nephew who is your main technical advisor. (Your scammer is probably very sexist and would not believe it if you cited a granddaughter or niece. Likewise, if your voice is identifiably female, he will probably make foolish assumptions about your intellect that can work to your advantage.) Extol the kid’s computer virtues relative to yours, the Second Coming of Spock. Frequently cite spurious, irrelevant, or stupid technical advice as coming from the whiz kid.
  • Work in obscure terms that only a very fluent (and somewhat perv) English speaker would know refer to kinky sex toys. See if he tries to use them in sentences responding to you while he tries to figure out what the hell you mean.
  • If you can, record the whole conversation and share it for comic value.
  • Go beyond everything I have suggested, and invent your own ways. Please share them with me in comments, so I can learn and grow with you.

Alternatively, you could just go to an online dictionary of profanities, but the trouble there is you don’t know his native language, so that will usually fall flat. Although when you score a hit, the resulting loss of composure can be most entertaining.

Why I don’t take Paypal

Not long ago, I had an editorial project in which the client pretty much needed to pay by credit card. Mostly because I figured it was something I’d have to make possible from a business standpoint sooner or later, I made a commitment to signing up with Paypal to accept credit cards.

Before I’d ever billed anyone through Paypal, I came to dislike them. I had some concerns about the information they required and the steps they took to set up the account, and after a couple of dismissive phone conversations with representatives, I already doubted this relationship was going to work. However, it was a way to accept credit cards, and I had agreed to do that, so I had to hold my nose and prepare for it. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad; maybe I was through the annoying part.

Months passed, I did the work, great client relationship. Coachable author, great story, happy times. When I completed the edit, the time came to get paid. I created the invoice in the approved fashion, and my client paid promptly. The resulting fee, deducted from my proceeds, came to $50. While I had known it would be about that, I mention it to make the point: at this juncture, they are a paid service provider, and I’m paying the bill, and the question here is: what value do I get for my $50?

Paypal advised me that I could not have the money yet, but that the ‘approval’ should take 24 hours or less. It took so near to 24 hours that one suspects there was no actual process, just hanging onto the money for a day’s float. All right, fine; then I checked in, and found that I had to affirm that I’d provided the services. Oh, brother…but I did. (If I had not, does one suppose there would be a client payment waiting?) And now I am told that my funds will be available in twenty-one days.

This is what my $50 bought. It also bought a rather unhappy client, which I cannot afford. I didn’t ask about all the details, but the client said: “The thing made us practically sign away our firstborn to make that payment.” That’s not the way I treat my clients, nor am I at all happy that it was done by an agency I paid $50 to act on my behalf. I just hired service my client did not appreciate, and it reflects on me, and while I may not have dictated the behavior, the responsibility is still mine. I chose and paid the service provider.

So if you’re thinking of signing up to take Paypal, it looks like what you can expect is for your client to get a runaround, and if all goes perfectly, you can have your money twenty-two days from date of actual payment. While Paypal gets to hold onto your money for all that time, you pay them not quite 3% of your proceeds for all this great service. Just because that’s pretty much the standard Visa fee does not make this a good deal. It’s only a good deal if everyone gets great service.

To me, this wasn’t worth $50. This is the last time I am doing this, because neither I nor my client is happy.

Why don’t I just tack on a fee and keep taking Paypal? Now that would be even worse client service. “Hi. My payment provider is going to annoy you. And just to make your day even brighter, you have to pay the fee they charge.” That is exactly the screw-the-customer mentality I’ve been cursing for years in corporate America, and where the matter is left up to me to decide, I refuse to perpetuate it.

Therefore, once I get this money safely away from Paypal, I will close that account. While it would add convenience for some clients for me to accept credit card payments, the associated aggravation–including where I either choose to screw the client or get screwed myself–is not worth it for any of us.

The stock response from the is “if you don’t like their policy, don’t use the service.” Not to worry. And no, when I cancel it, I am not going to tell them why. At least, not for free.

If they want to know why, the fee is $60. And they may have their answer in twenty-one days. And I will not accept payment via Paypal.

PS: the saga continues. To their somewhat credit, I got a notice that my money would be released sooner. When I got home, I attempted it and discovered that, unless I also give them my SSN and link the account to a credit card, I can only withdraw $500 per month.

Cold day in hell before I give them one more bit of sensitive information. This is hostage-taking.

I should have all my money by March. Isn’t this just marvelous?

PPS: called to see if closing the account outright would get me paid in full. The rep seemed able to lift the $500 limit at that point. Imagine that. Suddenly I am able to ask to have all the money in my account. I have minimal faith that I will actually see it there.

The difficulties inherent in ‘semi-autobiographical’ writing work

I’d say that the majority of mss that come my way are semi-autobiographical fiction. I do not think that the authors realize the issues involved. The words ‘based on’ are the first signal. The second signal is when I get an hedgy answer to “is it fiction or non-fiction?”

Why is it such a frequent choice? Some of the following reasons may apply:

  • They want to write their own stories, or something akin to them, but with added fictitious events. Which raises the question: why add fiction, if the real story is interesting enough? The answer is that most of our real lives are more interesting to us, and to our loved ones, than to people who don’t know us (the paying customers).
  • It’s easier to use characters, places, situations and events they know; creating them is harder. Perhaps they were told ‘write what you know,’ and misunderstood what that meant.
  • They have a point they want to make, but do not want to do it in non-fiction, for whatever reason: privacy, liability, etc. That’s probably the most understandable reason, but it might be preferable to present it as non-fiction with some locations and participants changed.

Compare two sentences, and let me know which is easier to support:

  1. Everyone has a story, and if it feels good to write it, s/he should do so.
  2. Everyone’s story is equally marketable and fascinating to the audience, which is everyone.

Put less gently, we have a tremendous species tendency toward believing that our life stories are marketably interesting. And, perhaps, they are–to that small minority who are collectors of life stories. The other 314 million Americans need something beyond ‘but it’s my story.’ Absent that extra something, your audience was just pared down over 99%.

Long as people don’t mind that, they should continue the way they’re doing. But know: the first major storytelling divide is that between fiction and non-fiction. There is no true ‘semi-fiction.’ One asserts that the story is true, or does not.

In fiction, no one is asserting truth. The characters may be modified. The plot can change. Not only can we lie, it’s our job to lie in the most engrossing way possible. The reader accepts this, sets her bullshit detector on ‘plausible under the postulated circumstances,’ and takes a trip to a land of fancy.

In non-fiction, we invent nothing, unless we so specify and have a credible reason. What happened, happened. If we want to use pseudonyms, we indicate that we have done so. If we must reconstruct and approximate dialogue, not being ourselves eidetic, we admit this. We may leave out events as long as the choice does not slant the story away from fact, but we cannot make any up. There are no characters to create, simply participants to describe. The ending is as it occurred. We defy anyone to sue, for we assert that this is how it happened. The reader’s bullshit detector is set on ‘even a whiff will make me doubt every word.’

So what’s the matter? If it’s semi-autobiographical, why can’t we just label it fiction-with-winking? In fact, we must call it fiction. It is fiction. As the umpire said: they ain’t no close calls; they is either this or that. And from an editing standpoint, it’s fiction with a ball and chain attached. As editor, the shackle goes on my leg.

  • What if the events are very personal to the author? S/he may veto changes to the events, even if they make bad fiction, because they may be the reason s/he sat down to write.
  • What if it would make a better story for this character to do something unadmirable? Sorry, that’s his or her daughter: “No way would my daughter do that!” In fact, in fiction, it isn’t his or her daughter. It’s a fictional character in an untrue story, and for good story development, we have to be able to make her do whatever we want.
  • What if the author reaches very personal events where s/he very obviously breaks the fourth wall, and is clearly venting from the soul? How do I tell the author that this is unsuitable narrative and needs to be removed? “But I hurt BAD! I need to say this!” What will happen when I advise the author that this is amateurish and a turnoff, and that we are forgetting the ‘fiction’ part?
  • How am I going to tell the author anything about his or her protag? If adverse, that will come as a personal insult. It shouldn’t, in fiction; it’s okay to size up any character any way we want. But with semi-autobiographical, the little boundaries stymie such frank editorial assessments.
  • If we need the story spiced up, how’s an editor supposed to tell that to the semi-autobiographer? “‘Your’ life isn’t that exciting. Could we arrange for ‘you’ to empty a pistol into ‘someone?'” What kind of response will that likely elicit?

It is not that semi-autobiographical storytelling is an automatic nyet. It is not that it cannot be good. It is not that I don’t ever want to see or read or edit any again. I understand the motivations.

I also understand that I can’t talk anyone out of it. You’ve already written it, or already plan to write it. Thus, please take it with a smile and simple realism when I acknowledge that you will therefore ignore any suggestion from me that you change this course. If a person wants to write something, and has his or her mind made up about what it will be, the person will tune out everything but encouragement and approval. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I simply mention that I anticipate it, based upon experience, and that this is why I get so much semi-autobiographical fiction, and why my view of it begins with a certain skepticism about the prospects.

On to the helpful part. If a non-fiction presentation is unpalatable to you, and you want to write semi-autobiographical fiction anyway, but without the blinders that say “everyone wants to pay to read everyone’s story and that includes mine,” what ought you to do?

  • Classify it as fiction, without qualifiers, and resolve that no character or event is more sacred than the goal of quality storytelling.
  • Depersonalize the ‘you’ in the story, and ‘your’ loved ones, enough that we can speak of them as professionals, editor and author, without you taking offense. If I can tell you that your protagonist needs serious counseling, or belongs behind bars, and that won’t hurt your feelings, you have succeeded.
  • Do as much outright character invention as you can. This is fiction, so you may do this, and are encouraged to do it well. ‘Write what you know’ refers to regions, professions, hobbies, languages, and other esoterica where you can ring authentic without effort. It doesn’t mean to limit yourself to people whose actions you can predict because you know them. But show the reader that you can invent compelling characters, and show the editor that we may alter them if we can think of a better way.

Do those things, conscientiously, and you maximize our ability to turn your brainchild into something you can be proud to have authored.

Blogging freelance writing and life in general.

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