Spiking the ball

In my line of work, there are some unwritten rules of good behavior.

  • One must always do one’s best work within the parameters assigned.
  • One must not review books in which one has had a hand.
  • One must always remember that it’s the author’s book. It was the editor’s job to make the author look as good as possible, and s/he got paid to do so.
  • One must not go to review comment sections in any way that could remotely upstage or embarrass the author.
  • One must accept that invisibility is praise. It’s like officiating a sporting event: if your work is excellent, it goes unnoticed.

I don’t think I’ll be breaking the rules if I do a little endzone celebration here, because I did something I feel pretty good about.

As blog regulars know, the e-book Shadows by Terry Schott was published about a week ago. Terry’s genre is dystopian contemporary science fiction, and he has a significant following. He engaged my editing services on this newest book. Before I got to work, I took a look at the reviews of his previous works. They were mostly very positive, and the only nagging complaint was that a few reviewers remarked upon the ‘editing.’ We’ve been over the ways in which that can be a shortsighted review comment, but I did take note of them. Terry didn’t need me in order to get people to like his stories better. The best service I could offer him was to make the ‘editing’ remarks go away.

Sixteen reviews in, and it’s clear that his fans love the story.

Not a one, so far, mentions the editing. That means that not only did those reviewers have no issues with it that they cared to mention, none so far even noticed much of a change. And if there are potential purchasers on the fence, ones who would be put off by adverse commentary about editing, it may hearten them that the reviews make no such mention. They may attribute it to the author’s strides, or to some unknown factor.

I smile, invisibly, with fierce satisfaction.

Newly published: Shadows, by Terry Schott–and a free offer

This contemporary SF e-book has been published. I was copy editor.

Shawn Inmon, for whom I’ve done steady work over the past couple of years, was kind enough to refer Terry to me. Most of the referrals I receive involve unpublished authors, which was not Terry’s case. His current (and the subject) project was kicking off a new series, having concluded another after something like seven books.

When the author is previously published, that must inform editorial decisionmaking. Terry made clear that his previous editing experiences hadn’t been what he’d hoped for. It seemed illogical to propose to duplicate their undesired efforts. What I did was look up Terry’s body of work and find out what readers liked and didn’t like about it.

Most of his reviews were favorable. Those that were critical mostly blamed the ‘editing.’ When I read that, my ‘you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about’ hackles usually go up. There is no way to know if the editing is at fault, for close on a dozen reasons, and the comment in a review shows ignorance of the process. At the same time, take it however I might wish, I had to absorb the feedback in terms of its true meaning. ‘It needs an editor’ is reviewer-blurt for ‘I found errors and they shouldn’t be in a finished book.’

Damn right they shouldn’t. No argument. However, most people liked the books, which meant that Terry had something to lose. What if I talked him into making some significant changes to his approach, and the reviews came back tepid? Picture it: “I used to like these stories, but now, not so much. The writing has improved in terms of less errors, but the story isn’t as good, and that was what I cared about.” That, dear reader, is what goes under the hammer every time an established author engages a new literary witch doctor. It would be one thing if previous books had been met with a wave of launched javelins. These had not. I might be entirely capable of talking Terry out of pleasing his audience.

In my world, that is the rough equivalent of an arsonist firefighter.

No one hires me hoping to alienate his or her reader base.

So I proposed to Terry: how about I limit this to copy editing, so that we address the unhappy minority’s biggest complaint, without depriving your happy majority of what it loves? He liked the idea, and I got to work. The story is set in Ontario, although the Canadianness isn’t really emphasized. This was an orthography factor for my work, because Canadian English has subtle differences from US English. I am not sure Terry anticipated that I would know that, but after brief conference, we agreed to conform the ms to Canadian orthography.

The result is a modern game-related SF/thriller that comes into clarity much as does an image when one increases the resolution. At, say, 80 x 50, one would see a lot of squares. Bump it to 160 x 100, more detail; 320 x 200, still more, and so on until the plot and backdrop come into full focus. If that is your genre, you may very much enjoy the milieu Terry has created.

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There’s more than one new project out there in the genre. I’ve known Mike Lee Davis, aka Studio Dongo, since he was Sloucho back at Epinions. A good guy who was one of the best writers at the site, he’s also writing contemporary/conspiracy SF these days. He is currently promoting Vanishing in a Puff of Logic, a gaming story, whose Amazon blurb reads:

Vanishing in a Puff of Logic is the story of one neurotic gamer’s attempt to win at Nethack while tripping on shrooms.

On a slightly deeper level, the story is about that same gamer’s desire to triumph as a female elven wizard who is, literally, naked.

And on an even deeper level . . .

Let’s face it. There is no even deeper level.

If you get the impression that Mike’s pretty down-to-earth, capable of surprises, and has a sense of humor about his work and himself, you’re correct. His book is free today and tomorrow, August 11 and August 12, and if you check him out, I think you’ll like what you see.

Stuff most of you did not know about well-known historical events

This isn’t a debunking piece, but a tidbits piece. I combed my brain to think of small stuff that might make events more interesting.

The Nazi German battleship Bismarck was not only not the mightiest battleship of World War II, it was far from the heaviest-armed. The British had a couple of heavies that outgunned her a bit (HMS Rodney, HMS Nelson), and so did the US Navy even before the Iowa-class superbattleships went to war. Japan’s Yamato, which was on Bismarck‘s side, outgunned it handily. Bismarck, however, was itself a superbattleship in that it could take far more punishment than a typical WWII battlewagon, on a par with the Yamato (Japan built two; Musashi was the other) and Iowa classes. The major powers built only eight superbattleships during the war: four for the US, two for Germany, two for Japan (they laid down a third, but converted it to a heavy fleet carrier).

When the Royal Navy was hunting Bismarck in 1941 (and its sister ship Tirpitz, which never did much), the problem was that battleship guns of the day could beat on Bismarck all day without sinking it–which is about what happened. Of course, once the Royal Navy hammered her guns and propulsion out of action, Bismarck was doomed.

Why didn’t the B-25s that made up Doolittle’s 1942 Tokyo raid return to their carrier? For one thing, they could take off from a carrier but could not land on one, which made their mission a one-way run requiring balls of titanium. Dockside equipment had to winch the planes aboard at San Francisco. For another, their host–the carrier USS Hornet–had to get so close to Japan in order to launch the B-25s that its escorts sank a Japanese picket trawler whose job was to make sure no one got that close to Japan without some sort of warning. That was dangerous on a grand strategic level, because the USN could not afford to lose a single carrier. Thus, as soon as the last B-25 began to climb away, Hornet‘s task force was getting the hell out of there.

Despite their reputation, German WWII tanks were not all that superior to those of the Allies. France, Britain and the Soviet Union all had tanks that were all but impervious to their German adversaries of the time: the French Char B1 bis, the British Matilda II, and the Soviet KV-1 and T-34. By the time German armor met the US Army, the German tanks had better weaponry and range, which was good for the Germans, because they were a) outnumbered, b) prone in some cases to mechanical trouble, c) running out of fuel, and d) subject to death by rocket attack from the Army Air Force.

Why, then, the mystique surrounding the Panzers? For one thing, the Germans pioneered armor/close air support tactics and audacious mobile warfare leadership, which compensated for some deficiencies. (“No, I can’t blow up your tank. But Uncle Stuka can.”) For another, in the US, history is told mainly from a US perspective, and the short version there is that the early US Sherman and Lee tanks were in serious trouble against the German models they faced. Given that the German crews also had far more experience, to us, their performance seemed badass. To the British and Soviets, who had fought and beaten German armor, the latter seemed quite mortal (though deserving healthy respect).

To those unfamiliar with black powder weaponry, Revolutionary (1775-83), Napoleonic (1805-15) and US Civil War (1861-65) weaponry looks pretty similar: muzzle-loading muskets, right? The first two were indeed fought with similar weapons, mainly smoothbore muskets (which were unlikely to hurt anyone farther away than fifty yards). In the Civil War, both sides’ main weapon was the rifled musket, which could hurt someone two hundred yards away and more.

If you think about how armies closed to engage, the situation is explained. Napoleonic armies, when in range to take fire, were a long field goal away from engaging with cold steel. Civil War armies could bang away at the oncoming enemy starting two football fields away. This subtle but key modernization affected tactics throughout the war.

Why didn’t World War I planes break the trench deadlock with bombing? There were not enough aircraft, nor could they carry enough bombs to make a difference. Arguably the highest use of WWI warplanes was to gain aerial reconnaissance information–an art in its infancy–or deny the same to the enemy. Okay, why didn’t tanks break it? To a degree, they did, but the tanks were a) few, b) slower than a walking infantryman, and c) not very reliable. Fun fact: the British had ‘male’ and ‘female’ tanks. The female tank had a vulva surrounded with coiled wire, the better to attract the male tank to mount her, and wore a steel brassiere for comfort.

Okay, okay. The he-tank had a long gun, and the she-tank just had machine guns.

Did the British really march and fight in bright red rows in the Revolutionary War? When the terrain was suitable, yes–but that was a strength, not a weakness. If you leave it up to every individual soldier to fire, military science has learned, a minority have any potential to harm the enemy, and they shoot where they feel like. The European system incorporated this realization, and made sure that nearly everyone did everything at once, which meant that everyone shot, in the same direction, with said direction being chosen by a senior sergeant or officer (who was likely to know where the volley was most needed). In any case, a lot of the Revolution pitted colonial militia against Loyalist militia, where neither side had a significant tactical advantage.

Could the United States have won the Vietnam War? Let’s ask what it would have taken. War ends when one side gives up; thus it would have required the North Vietnamese, and their Viet Cong allies in the south, to give up. The Revolutionary War had something in common with Vietnam (which is why Ho Chi Minh, who was not a fool, took some time to study George Washington): like the colonials, the Communists could only lose if they decided they could fight no more. In Vietnam, the US, South Vietnamese, and their allies killed and wounded well over a million soldiers, guerrillas and civilians–at least one person in twenty. Would it have taken two in twenty? Five in twenty? That approaches the proportion of death that occurred shortly after the war under Pol Pot in Cambodia; would we really have wished to go down in history as a parallel to his kind? Even then, would the Viet Cong have given up?

What if the US-led forces had launched a conventional invasion of North Vietnam, even taken Hanoi? Would China have intervened, as it did in Korea when the UN got too close to its border? Would there have been a nuclear crisis? A fair answer, in my view: “Perhaps we could have…but would it have been worth the cost?” Too many hypotheticals complicate the answer, which is why people are still arguing about it.

Is there any chance at all that Hitler got away to South America? Nope. The NKVD sifted his bunker with all the thoroughness you’d expect of Stalin’s secret police, and went so far as to confirm Hitler’s dental work with his dentist. Stalin found it advantageous to raise doubt in the Allies about the issue after the war. Our best evidence is that most of what the NKVD dug up from the Führerbunker was quietly buried at a Soviet Air Force base at Magdeburg, East Germany, where it sat until the base’s 1970 handover to the East German Air Force. Before the handover, the KGB leadership ordered the remains exhumed, incinerated, crushed, and chucked into a river. There is no credible evidence to suggest that this account is false, nor any reason to doubt it, revealed as it was shortly after the collapse of the USSR.

In any case, even had Hitler escaped, it is unlikely he would have lived much longer. He was a mess by 1945, thanks to a combination of stress, deteriorating sanity, the effects of the 1944 assassination attempt, and quack drug prescriptions such as meth. Yes, meth.

How come the Japanese kicked the crap out of the Anglo-Dutch-Americans at first in WWII? The Dutch had little to fight with (though that little acquitted itself well). The Anglo-Americans were tactically and strategically surprised at the outset, and very much underestimated the Japanese on all levels. It took the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor (a strategic failure, in hindsight), occupying the Dutch East Indies with its oil wealth, and grabbing the Philippines (humiliating the Americans in Asian eyes, which was an idea with political currency in the time and region) for the Allies to learn that their Japanese adversary was brave, well-equipped, highly motivated, and committed to winning or dying.

Gods only know how it might have gone if the Japanese had imagined that dumb foreigners could break some of their naval codes, or if the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy had cooperated better. By the way, had the Anglo-Americans shown their erstwhile WWI ally Japan a little more respect, there might not have been a war at all. Of course, that would have meant letting Japan do as it wished in China, and what Japan wished to do was loot China’s resources and crush opposition without mercy. Considering that the West had done that in Africa and Asia without much remorse, the Japanese didn’t understand why they couldn’t join the colonial exploitation club.

World War II didn’t start on December 7, 1941. That’s just when the US made its entry official (we had been leaning to the Allies for over two years). It could be argued that it began on September 1, 1939, except that the Asian conflict at that point was Japan vs. China, with no direct connection to the European war. The Japanese full-dress invasion of China began July 7, 1937, when Japanese troops left Manchuria (which they had grabbed in 1931) to invade the rest of China. So you can argue that it began in 1941, or 1939, or 1937, or 1931 depending on perspective and your definition of a global war. Of course, go that far back, and you can argue that WWII was a resumption of WWI after a mismanaged intermission.

When it comes to the root cause of the Civil War, there aren’t many objective commentators. While the Confederacy talked big about ‘states’ rights,’ the primary right in question was to continue slavery, and to extend it into new states. If all new states became free states, Southern leaders could see that they would begin to lose sooner rather than later in both Congressional houses. And while the Union made plenty of noise about slavery, hardly anyone in the North would have willingly gone to war to eradicate human bondage. To the Union, the war was an insurrection to be suppressed, representing the transition from a loose association of self-governing states (the original vision, which the Confederacy more closely resembled) to a strong Federalized power.

For the United States’ first seventy-five years or so, the available money was inconsistent enough in value to bring to mind Bitcoins. We did not mint nearly enough coinage for commerce, so foreign silver circulated in large amounts that didn’t always match up to round-number $US conversions. Banknotes were just that, paper money issued by a bank, tending to decrease in value as the bill traveled farther from the issuing bank. And if the bank went bust (and before the FDIC, more banks did), so did its money.

You probably know that Columbus didn’t ‘discover America,’ because in the first place it was already fully discovered by the Native Americans who populated it, and in the second, there is unimpeachable evidence at least of previous Norse visits, and reasonable suspicion of others. It’s pretty simple: the American continental mass blocked all sea travel from the Arctic ice sheet to a point several hundred miles from Antarctica, which means if anyone traveled by sea and sailed in the right direction, and survived long enough, he would hit the Americas. Survival was the main problem, since ships could run short of fresh water on long voyages. Inability to determine longitude was the other. In 1492, a European sailing vessel knew exactly how far north or south it was, but not exactly how far east or west.

Okay, what did Columbus actually do? He first landed, we believe, in the Bahamas. We have no evidence he ever set foot on the future territory of the fifty United States (though he did in Puerto Rico, and at least spotted the Virgin Islands). He did land in America, but it was Central America, and only on his fourth voyage. He didn’t initiate the Transatlantic slave trade, but did enslave, rape and torture Natives. The idea of naming anything after him, especially a religious fraternal order or a celebratory day, is disgusting.

The golden age of piracy, as we see it in the Western world, didn’t really last very long; one might date it from 1650-1730 CE. It has a fair analogy to the gold rushes of the American West, in that very few actually practicing piracy got wealthy, but a lot of people got wealthy off piracy without ever turning pirate. Why? All that stolen swag was either money or goods. Pirates could spend the money with merchants. Merchants could buy the goods at criminally cheap prices and resell them for great profit. A very, very few pirates themselves retired wealthy. It’s also important to distinguish between privateers, who were legal pirates in a sense provided they preyed only upon certain powers’ shipping, and pirates, who had no legal sanction.

If a World War II country deserves to be remembered for a never-quit attitude, it’s Poland. The first Western country to have its territory subdued by warfare rather than diplomatic bullying, Poles showed up on land, sea and air for nearly every Allied campaign for the duration of the war. They also kept up an obstinate resistance on home soil in spite of one the most ruthless and protracted occupations of the war. A Polish destroyer helped chase the Bismarck to its fate. Poles fought in the snow at Narvik, flew in the Battle of Britain, defended the Maginot Line, fought the Afrika Korps in the Western Desert, stormed Monte Cassino when other highly regarded troops could not, and jumped in with three Allied airborne divisions in Operation Market-Garden.

The War of 1812 had elements of Revolutionary War Round 2, but like the Revolutionary War, was to some degree a sideshow of a greater conflict. In the Western world at that time, the central power struggle was France vs. Britain, the classic land power vs. the classic naval power. The colonies (later states) were never Britain’s biggest worry. That worry was the potential for the stars to align enabling France to invade Britain in force; whether due to a weather event that broke the Royal Navy’s screen, or some mistake by an admiral, this was necessarily uppermost in British strategic thought. As hard as it may be for us to accept, we just weren’t that important in the grand scheme of things–except, of course, to ourselves.

Hitler’s SS (Schutzstaffel) was not just an elite, brutal striking force (nor was all of it elite or brutal). It more resembled a megacorporation with a military arm, and that arm was not of universally high fighting ability, nor did all of it commit atrocities. The SS recruited over a dozen divisions that were not even of Germanic background, plus many smaller units; some fought well, while some were semi-useless or even mutinous. Some units (of various backgrounds) were guilty of systematic atrocities, while others have no documented record of war crimes.

In World War I, why didn’t they just blow up all that wire and trenching with artillery, and break the stalemate? They tried, and it did not work. WWI artillery of the day, assuming it struck precisely where it should, didn’t clear a usable path through barbed wire. It would have an impact on the trenches just by landing near them, but only direct hits had potential to clean out a small local section of trench defense, which could be reinforced quickly enough. The trench systems were several levels deep, with connecting trenching, so it wasn’t just a matter of getting lucky enough to take out one whole sector of the front.

World War II came home to the United States in more ways than just a few Japanese balloon incendiaries and crap-your-pants shelling from submarine deck guns. Very shortly after the US entered the war, German submarines entered a very productive period of sinking our tonnage. Our anti-submarine capability and tactics were awful at first, leading to many sinkings within sight of US shores. The government, not unreasonably, kept the magnitude of this from the public. The British and Canadians, with a vested interest in getting our warmaking means across the Atlantic, tried to recommend better tactics. Our pigheadedness cost thousands of American mariners’ lives.

The country that could have decided World War II in Europe: Turkey. Except for the pro forma war declaration near the end, the Turkish Republic remained neutral, with not a single Turkish soldier dying in combat. Let us imagine that Turkey had joined the Axis in early 1942: immediately the Soviet flank is turned in the Caucasus, the British flank is turned in the Near East with probable loss of Egypt, Germany and Italy grab the Caucasian oil fields–and most likely those in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula as well. The Suez closes to Allied shipping. A disaster of the first magnitude.

Or, let’s suppose Turkey joined the Allies at that same time. Right when he could least spare it, Hitler would have to scrape up a force to hold Bulgaria and Greece, and even if he brought enough muscle to drive the Turks from Thrace, he’d still have Istanbul to control and an angry Turkey bristling from the Asian side of the Sea of Marmara. The Soviet Caucasus front would acquire more depth; Turkish troops might tip the balance in North Africa, or at least free up the Commonwealth garrisons in Palestine, Syria and Iraq. Even granting that Turkey would not welcome Soviet troops on its soil except in the gravest extreme, there is no reasonable scenario that imagines the Axis conquering an Allied (mountainous, rugged, obstinately defended) Turkey while watching the French coastline, trying to conquer Egypt, keeping many subject populations suppressed, and fully engaged in the USSR. Turkish airbases would have made it very practical for the Allies to bomb the Ploesti oil facilities in Axis-aligned Romania. There are reasons Churchill had as a key geopolitical goal the persuasion of Turkish President İsmet İnönü to enter the war as an Ally, well beyond the urgency to keep him from entering the Axis.

The Roman Empire did and did not last a thousand years. Let’s sort this out once and for all. For its first 250 years, Rome was a kingdom, ruled for the last century of that monarchy by kings of Etruscan heritage. (Etruria is modern Tuscany, where you go in search of dolce vita and Chianti after reading too much Frances Mayes.) For its next 500 years, Rome had a republican form of government. It did not consolidate the rule of the Italian peninsula until the second half of this period, and did not begin to show imperial ambitions until the last 200 years, mostly as a result of wars to the knife with Carthage. In the Republic’s last century, when Rome had become master of most of the Mediterranean, civil war began to tear apart the fabric of republican government.

The question of when Rome transitioned from republic to empire is not so clear-cut as people usually make it out to be. Julius Caesar was never Emperor of Rome, though he seized as much power over the state as he could grasp. After his famed assassination, and some more civil war, Octavian (who became Augustus, the name by which history remembers him) was voted power much like Caesar’s, but still went through the republican motions. So did his son Tiberius, to a degree, though it began to be polite fiction in his day. That gets us from 45 BCE (Caesar’s primacy) to 37 CE, when Gaius (you know him as Caligula) ceased any pretense of republicanism–a span of eighty-two years.

The Empire began to crack into halves around 300 CE, and by 363 its division seemed irreparable. Within just a bit more than a century, the Western Empire found itself overrun by mostly Germanic peoples, but the Eastern Empire survived and became what we know as the Byzantine Empire, dominated more by Greek culture than Roman. The last Byzantine bastion, Byzantium itself, fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE. Whether it was still much of an empire in 1400 is a fair question, since Byzantium had been in decline for two centuries, but at least in that form, the Roman Empire did last for well over a millennium. At what point it ceased to deserve the label ‘Roman’ is as valid a question as when Byzantium deteriorated into a mere city-state with some hinterland. However, there is no valid doubt that Byzantium was the unbroken successor government to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Ancient Sparta’s military prowess was directed more inward than outward. The Spartan city-state depended upon helots–slaves–for its economic viability. Much like antebellum Virginia, a major slave revolt sent chills up and down spines. The Spartan army had the primary duty of making sure the helots didn’t rebel. Admire Sparta if you wish for its toughness, but do remember that its society was morally on a level with the harshest examples, even stereotypes, of plantation slavery in US history.

The fiction writing advice most people are too tactful to give you

If you always dreamed of writing fiction, okay. Great, I like fiction.

Then do not do some things, and do other things. I feel like going with the don’ts first.

Please, DO NOT:

–Keep tweaking it forever. At some point, your book needs to be done. It’s done when it’s ready for copy editing, then proofreading, then typesetting, then publication. If you get back the edited and proofread ms, and then go back to work on it, you undid its doneness. Tweak it for decades if you wish, but just don’t ever call it done until you can think of nothing more to do yourself that will improve it.

–Show people your work as you write it. “Because I just want to see if I’m on the right track.” No, you should not. I believe that you should create, and keep it to yourself, and start showing it around when you’re done. I believe that serializing the chapters to your friends will wear them down, whereupon they will eye-glaze and begin to avoid you.

–Worry too much about your grammar and punctuation problems as you create. Just know that you have them, that a competent editor will address them and teach you what you did wrong, and that you’ll improve. They are the least of your worries, because a great story told awkwardly can be fixed, while an insipid story told eloquently is just well-written insipidity.

–Mistake your self-editing for what a professional editor would do, because it is not. Of course you will modify, edit, change, fix, rip out, add to your own work. Excellent; improve it all you can. But understand that it’s different than what I, or someone like me, will do.

–Ask people like me for advice, then ignore it. The reason I’ve come to dislike the phrase “I want to pick your brain” is not because I’m unwilling to help. It’s because, quite often, the person asking plans to heed only those reactions that confirm his or her pre-existing notions and plans. You could get that from your personal cheerleaders. Pretty much all writers have them, and they serve valuable purposes, one of which is to tell you that all your ideas and plans and adverbs are excellent.

Seriously. Have a heart. If you are just looking for confirmation, and will ignore anything else, why go to an objective source? Just ask your personal cheerleaders, like your mom and your spouse and so on, who are guaranteed to endorse everything you need them to. “But that won’t mean anything!” Of course it won’t. But if it’s really all you seek, go where you will find it, without self-deception.

–Get needy. A needy author is irritating to those close to him or her. A needy author needs praise. He or she asks for critique and claims to want honesty, but deep down, wants only honest praise. People run like hell from needy authors, so this is bad for you. It’s one thing for me; I get paid to deal with writers’ emotions, at least to some degree, including neediness. (I mostly ignore it.) People who do not get paid to put up with neediness should not have to: friends, co-workers, family, corporations.

–Use your personal cheerleaders as your ‘first readers.’ Anyone who would never say to you “I’m sorry, I can’t even get through this; it’s terrible” is not objective enough to be classified as a first reader. Sure, your first readers mainly like your work, but if they’d never criticize a thing you did, they are no help to you, because their praise means nothing. My wife can be a first reader for me, because she is willing to say things like: “This makes no damn sense at all.” “I don’t get it. How was this Höss guy different from Hess?” She’s not a personal cheerleader. She likes my good writing, and doesn’t like my bad writing. She is the one who will intercept my worst tendencies.

–Use the term ‘beta readers.’ Beta is a term that applies to programming and electronics. To apply it to literature is to fart in church (or in a dignified museum of natural history, if you revere that instead). They are early readers, or first readers.

–Start out with something semi-autobiographical, a common shortcut. I see a great deal of this; it may account for over half the first-time fiction I see. It poses a number of problems:

  • We all think our lives have been very interesting. In reality, your life is mostly interesting and exciting to you and your mother. That’s one sale. You will need rather more. Okay, your spouse. Still only one sale, since  your spouse gets to read it on your computer.
  • Your editor will view your work as fiction, but you may reject worthwhile changes because your knowledge of the real persons will conflict. “No. I–I mean, he–would never say that.” The first time your editor refers to your protag as if he were just another character, it will likely impact you. And when your editor points out that what you have the main character doing is idiotic, you may take it personally.
  • You could find that you are too sensitive and defensive about the content, especially if the semi-autobiography covers traumatic events in your life. You may give them words that don’t make a good story. “But I have a right to say that! Those are my feelings! She hurt me bad! That’s why I wrote this! Damn it, I get the final say and I say it stays!” You’re too close to it. Negative reviews might sting you more than they should. You may tend to take any form of rejection too personally–as a rejection/invalidation of your personal story, rather than a fictional tale. That’s tough, because rejection is going to be part of the experience, and reviewers just don’t give a shit.
  • It isn’t as creative as original fiction. When you write semi-autobiographical fiction, you still haven’t really conceived a story. You’ve only lifted a real one and spiced it up. What if it succeeds, and you then have to come up with something new? You will not have proven to your own satisfaction that you can.

–Let that discourage you from incorporating aspects of life you know. It’s okay to write about a fictional molested child and draw upon your own experience of molestation, for example. Just give yourself some distance from the child: gender, background, personality, whatever, so that if someone criticizes the character, it’s not an invalidation of your personal experience. It’s fine to write your autobiography, even, though this is advice on fiction writing, thus only selectively germane.

–Accept Oxford’s lamentable ruling that ‘literally’ can now mean ‘very.’ No. No. No. We needed that word, one that helped us separate exaggeration from reality, and Oxford has surrendered to barbarism. In my eyes, the institution has forfeited its moral authority over the English language, used its prestige for evil. I need to retrain myself to refer to ‘the comma formerly known as Oxford.’

 

However, please DO:

–Read Stephen King’s On Writing. I am a non-fan of King’s fiction. In fact, I can’t get through a page and a half of it. Doesn’t matter. His level of success dictates that anything he has to say about the craft of fiction deserves attention and consideration. If you’re writing fiction and have not read this, now’s the time. If you read the whole thing, sniff “Sorry, that’s just not my creative process,” and disregard it all, never ask me for free advice on writing again, because I tried and you blew me off, which means my guidance can not benefit you.

–Answer this self-honestly: is it a vanity book or a commercial book? Unless you’re willing to develop a getting-published plan beyond ‘luck out with agents and New York,’ and a marketing plan beyond ‘wait for my genius to be discovered,’ it’s a vanity book. Just accept that and give yourself permission for it, if it’s the truth. Of course marketing is icky. So is diapering. Just think of marketing your work as changing your baby’s diapers, and that if you refuse to market your work, you leave it laying there in a soiled condition. Also, the soiling won’t stop just because you decide not to market it. It’ll just get deeper until you change the diaper or stop feeding the baby.

–Check out a writers’ group or two. It’s a great way to learn how not to handle yourself (that is not a typo), and you might even find one that you like.

Invest time and energy in grasping how the opposite sex tends to think, feel, and approach life. There are those who insist that gender identity is an artificial construct, a set of chains supplied by a small-minded society. While they might be right, in the meantime, you have readers who are of both genders, are comfortable with that identity, and know when characters don’t ring true.

I do not think this is more difficult for either gender, because it is my opinion that most people don’t exert an honest, compassionate effort to understand how and why the other side thinks. They may just fall back on stereotypes, comfortable perceptions with bases in reality but which cannot safely be assumed. If you’re a man, your female characters will not be credible until you learn to see the world through feminine eyes. If you’re a woman, you’ll have the same issue with male characters until you remedy it. There is no expectation that you change your own world view, but you will create and storytell better characters when you can extend yourself far enough to perceive opposite-sex actions as reasonable and rational given the acting character’s perspective.

–Read some writers’ message boards. They’ll show you all the self-assured, egotistical, bon mot-dropping pretension I hope you’ll choose to avoid. You might even meet some down-to-earth fellow travelers who are more interested in writing than in showing off wit, or talking about how cool it would be to write.

–Decide whether your approach will be plotted or situational, and go with it. In general, fiction is either planned out (Dean Koontz, I am convinced, uses a bracketing system like the Final Four) or flows like a good D&D game, with the story unfolding based upon how the characters would behave (King’s method). Either can work well, so it’s a matter of what best flows your creative process while avoiding the tar pit of contrivance.

–Write something daily. If your day sucked and you cannot bear to write, just do one sentence that introduces a misfortune for a character, then call it a day. Break her nail. Spill his coffee. Have him almost throw up while brushing his teeth, like I do each and every morning. Take it out on your imaginary people. If you cannot even manage that, write “Today sucked and I cannot bear to write.” Tomorrow, you can delete it and write something more pertinent. Thus, there is no excuse for not writing at least one sentence. Today, one day after drafting this, I had a day of infuriated non-writing frustration. I nearly went to this very spot and took my own advice. 90% of the time, when I sit down to do that, I come up with something more worthwhile.

–Your research. If you are putting fiction into a historical backdrop–what we might call Michenering–great, but research it well enough to give your milieu the ring of reality. Going to tell the story of a Roman legionary in Caesar’s army as it invested Vercingetorix at Alesia? (Someone do it. I want to read that.) Know the full story of the campaign and battle, the various Gallic tribes opposing Caesar, how legions were organized, how they camped, how legionaries were equipped, what sorts of men actually comprised Roman legions of the period, and how battle unfolded in the era. If you know all this, you will get the details right, and your writing will feel informed and authentic. (And I will buy that book.) “No way! I don’t want to read about all that! I just wanted to write about some Romans!” Then don’t. Not if you aren’t willing to do a little work. Go back and write what you do know.

–Be cheerful, unless your entire personality and motif involve Poeish, dystopian gloom. Laugh at yourself a little without cruel mockery. You ripped out a part that introduced a character, then realized later that you did this, orphaning later references? Laugh at how that would have looked to the reader, fix it, and move on. You wrote something that could have been a Damnyouautocorrect moment? Let yourself laugh. Take the process seriously, but not without light moments. It’s writing a story, not planning a lethal injection or having an intervention for a meth addict. Work out your humor muscles. “A mandrill of below average literacy would reject that sentence.” “That joke would silence a pack of hyenas.” “If I publish that paragraph, a reviewer will think I wrote the ms in old crayolas.” “Archaic construction much? I can see the review now: ‘Must surely have read better in the original Sumerian cuneiform.'”

–Overcome bad habits. Too many adverbs, too many ellipses, too many em dashes, too many italic emphases, too many exclamation points, too much tell and not enough show, all the new writer addictions. This is a work in progress, so get started. If all those are your style, then your style has room for improvement. Doing it wrong doesn’t make you a gutsy avant-garde rebel; it makes readers put down your book.

–Read the infamous Village Voice blog entry by Josh Olson titled ‘I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script.’ This is a concentrated summary of what first-time writers need to understand goes on in many literary professionals’ minds. It will help you understand why your author friend doesn’t want to read your ms. She can’t win; from the moment you bring it up, all her choices are unpleasant, and further infuriating her, she knows that she will come off as the ogre in a situation she did not instigate. It’s somewhat different than asking your friend the plumber to come over and look at your toilet tank on the weekend, because you aren’t asking the plumber to evaluate your months of work and perhaps tell you it’s a mess. Also, you will probably make the plumber lasagna or cookies or something, whereas you won’t do that (or anything else nice) for the literary professional. And if she does it and gives you helpful feedback, she opens herself to the possibility that you might rewrite it and expect her to look at it again. And again. It’s not as bad as asking her to read your child’s work and critique it–the ultimate lose/lose–but it’s close.

In case you were wondering, no, that article is not a neat summary of what goes on in my mind every time I’m asked. For one thing, I don’t read or edit screenplays. For another, I’m nicer (and it works to my detriment). But have I ever, at one time or another, had most of the thoughts he describes? Yeah. Honestly, I have. I think the worst time was when I went to interview to volunteer at my local library, and the guy made clear early on that the library had no use for me unless I wanted to baby-sit. But it wasn’t pointless for him, because his reason for inviting me in was so he could pitch me his autobiography. (“But it’ll be a really interesting story!” “Okay. Where’s your nonfiction book proposal?” “I don’t have one, but it’ll be a really interesting story!” “When you come up with one, let me know.” “Yeah, but it’ll be a really interesting story!”) Of course, his vision was that I should ghost it for a share of royalties. He saw absolutely nothing strange about what he’d done, nothing impositional. He heard the word ‘writer’ and his brain cramped up.

There are, of course, fictional forms to which some of this guidance may not apply. That’s okay. You decide.

And if this blog entry makes me sound like Sauron, please consider that I devoted three hours of my life to writing and finishing a bit of pro bono work meant mostly to help people I’ll never meet.

Is the relationship a jail or a resort?

My wife recently posted something about toxic relationships. Since she and I have both experienced those, we know a bit about why people don’t just leave them.

As I thought about the difference, I recognized that in broad terms, there are two ways to maintain a relationship. I think some people commingle the two. The paths are simple: one can either make it perilous, cumbersome, or guilt-fraught to leave, or one can give a partner incentives to stay because life is better.

In other terms, one can run a relationship as a jail, or as a resort. Some relationship jails are humane enough, just hard to escape from. Others are places of constant, brutal interrogation. I know people who, if their partner transgressed against them, would never leave the relationship–and not out of fear. “And miss the ability to punish him/her for years?”

If one manages one’s side of the relationship like a resort, giving him or her reasons to stay, one is a partner.

If one manages it like a jail, presenting mostly barriers to escape, one is a prison warden. And if the reason for confinement is to inflict suffering, one is also a terrorist.

Then again, the same could apply to much of life.

If a parent assures filial devotion through kindness, wisdom, support and gratitude for past sacrifice, that’s a parent.

If a parent commands filial devotion through browbeating, passive aggression, fear of disapproval, withdrawal of affection, and/or threat of disinheritance, that’s not a parent. That’s a jailer and and a terrorist.

If a supervisor retains employees through competitive pay, a positive environment, quality leadership and personal growth potential, the workplace is a resort.

If a supervisor keeps them through fear of starvation, gaslighting, constant dicking over, and changing expectations on the fly, the workplace is a jail. The supervisor isn’t a manager, but a terrorist.

If police spend most of their energy in the primary role of preventing harm to people who generally do the right thing, and helping them when they have problems, they are resort security.

If police are mostly occupied with reasons to catch right-doers in the occasional wrong, they are jailers. If the purpose is to intimidate, they are also terrorists. If the purpose is revenue, they are organized criminals. If the purpose is their personal gratification, they are sadists.

If a soldier points a weapon at your enemies, and blocks their path to reach you, s/he is your defender.

If a soldier points his or her weapon at you, to compel your obedience or submission, s/he is your jailer.

If government spends most of its energy figuring out ways to empower and help people, it is resort management, inspiring voluntary compliance for the common good.

If government spends most of its time inventing new reasons why people can’t go here, do this, have that, it’s a prison warden. If it does so mainly through bullying and fear, it engages in terrorism. Its minions who take pleasure in this are sadists.

Maybe if one spends a portion of one’s life in a virtual jail under intimidation and terror, it’s easier to accept that jail, intimidation, and terror are just normal life, the eternal state of humanity.

Maybe if we’re going to fight against terrorism, we should begin with our families, homes, workplaces, streets, and highways.

Life coming full circle

High school wasn’t my favorite experience, but at least it was a strong motivator to move on to better things. This is a story that I’m not sure has a point, just got me thinking, so I’m going to play a wandering thoughts chip tonight, relieving myself of the duty to say something meaningful. If that makes it boring, you can skip it, and even if I knew, I wouldn’t mind.

When you go to school in a town of less than a thousand, with a high school of 50-65 depending on the year (my class graduated only eleven), everything involving the school is big news. Everyone knows everyone–not just in the school, but in the whole town. If you’re from it, you’re related to a bunch of people, and if you are not, you’re always something of an outsider.

Sometime during my junior high years, probably eighth grade, a couple of high school kids broke into the school, vandalized the woodshop and stole a bunch of stuff. I don’t think it was ever proven, and in any case the law didn’t visit town short of a homicide attempt, so I doubt they ever paid a legal consequence. They did, however pay short- and long-term social consequences. Vandalizing and ripping off the school, in a town where one could just about quantify one’s personal share in the cost of a stolen router or broken window, was serious stuff. I think they were both sophomores, about two years ahead of me. My guess is that their parents ended up having to pay for at least some of the damage, because they must have confessed under some circumstances.

The older one, whom let’s call Donny, reportedly faced vigilante justice in the form of being forced to swallow a whole can of Copenhagen, which (also reportedly) didn’t stay down long. The younger, whom we might call Mack, I’m not sure faced any direct consequences. Before it was over, though, I think they would both rather have swallowed several cans of chew than what transpired.

The town was in a valley, at least half an hour from any shopping of even modest note. The 35 mph road down the valley had potential for danger if one were reckless or inattentive, with sharp curves and blind areas. Locals knew these and would pass without much hesitation, but if one got incautious, well, we’d lose one or two a year that way. There was one turn in particular where drivers were prone to overcorrect to the left. Within one year, we got word that Donny had done this. He’d been driving back from one of the shopping towns, probably going too fast, overcorrected, rolled, flipped and crashed top first on a sort of berm below the road. If he wasn’t dead when he hit, he probably never had a chance to extricate himself before the gas tank or line ruptured.

For a couple of years, every time I passed that spot, I could look down to that berm and see the burn mark where he had incinerated. He wasn’t much mourned, with memories of the vandalism still fresh in the civic mind.

Not many months later, we learned that Mack was involved in an accident, one rather more tragic. In our town, nobody bought Christmas trees. One went up in the hills and got one’s own. Mack and his father were driving back from a Christmas tree expedition, and I never learned the details, but since it happened on a company road that wasn’t normally cleared, I’m guessing that they hit a patch of ice at night. Their SUV somehow wrecked. Mack’s father did not survive. Mack did, paralyzed from the waist down.

For the first time, our school had to adapt itself to a disability. That meant wheelchair ramps at all the pertinent locations, but I don’t think anyone hassled Mack after that. The consensus was that he’d paid the dues, however involuntarily. I’m not sure if he graduated or not, or what he did with his life. I barely even thought about him for nearly forty years.

I do know that he died nine days ago, aged 53. No idea how he died. There is no obituary, just the death notice in the area paper from where we attended school, saying that a private celebration of his life will be held at some point.

I checked the mortuary posting tonight. Not a single condolence has been posted there. Right now, I’m thinking that said private celebration of life will not need a very big facility.

Checked his home area newspaper, which is in a different state than where we went to school. Not even a death notice, much less an obituary.

I don’t feel anything for him–it’s not like we were ever friends or even enemies–but damn. That’s cold. This is how it goes down when everyone’s relieved that someone finally moved on from life. Maybe that was the case. I can see where paralysis for life could embitter one, and make one less than pleasant to be around. I don’t know, but usually when someone gives a damn, there’s something.

This is where I’m supposed to say something profound that ties it all together, give the moral of the story, at least offer some deft closing, but that’s not coming. The only thing that keeps coming back to my mind is: now that’s a hell of a way for two kids to damage or destroy their futures before they were even old enough to skip registering for the draft. When I was in school two years behind them, they seemed so old, virtually adults. I look back now, and they seem so young, so clueless, just dumb kids in a crappy town getting into trouble.

A fairly typical shopping trip

Like most mild misanthropes who work for themselves in home offices, I don’t make excuses to go start my truck every day. When I need to be out and about, I try to fit in as many accumulated errands as I can. Today was such a day. After I finished the first editing pass on a ms (that’s literary insider snob-speak for ‘manuscript’), I girded up my loins to face the surface friendliness and automotive overpopulation of the Boise metropolitan area.

Why don’t I just use public transportation? Because the Boise public transportation system amounts to an old guy named Fred with a van, and only goes from this one spot to that one spot, and only makes two trips a day. Every time Fred suggests expanding the route, his employer changes his schedule, cuts his hours, and reminds him that in Idaho, short of tying him up and torturing him in a manner resulting in permanent disfigurement, legally his employer can do to him whatever that employer wants. Jobs more than 25¢ above Idaho’s Federal minimum wage are hard to come by, so Fred doesn’t make waves. His second and third jobs are worse, anyway.

When it gets over 90º F, my truck isn’t that much fun to drive. I’m too cheap to equip it with air conditioning, making it a high priority to avoid long stretches at a complete stop. The drag: the most convenient/typical area for my errands is Eagle Road, a.k.a. Idaho Highway 55. It’s one of those horrible non-highways that still has a highway speed limit, even though development has turned it into a congested arterial street. Everyone expects you to compete for pole position in the Boise 500 by speeding up to at least 50 mph, then braking back for yet another red light. Turning left from Eagle Road into a parking lot, or onto it from one, is for Boise novices. One plans Eagle Road in terms of right turns and side-street escape routes.

The first stop was to get my mail and deposit an insurance refund check. Other than the giant peanut bus in front of the grocery store (what, yours doesn’t have that? Heart. Eat. Out.), I was bored already and would rather just have said a bad word and gone home, but then I got the inspiration to stop into the juice bar next to my mail place. The fancy juice fad began about thirty years ago, far as I’m aware, and I had never tried any before. I’m told they are a major thing–people say things like “I didn’t juice for two days,” as if juicing were a verb, akin to pooping or bathing. There’s a clause in my life contract that says I must turn my nose up at all fads until they become passé, so by my calendar, I was right on schedule.

The juicery offered a dizzying selection of tutti-frutti slushies, plus wheatgrass juice. “Okay. My kidneys aren’t too great, so how about a slug of whatever you think is detoxey, with some wheatgrass juice.” The young lady explained that the normal method was to have the wheatgrass juice on the side as a shot. “Oh, like tequila,” I beamed, happy to leverage my core competencies in a synergistic paradigm. I stepped over to pay ($8.65, most of which was for the fruit slushie…good lord), then sat down to watch what they might do.

The young lady went to the back wall of the juice bar and took down a small lawn. It resembled what I had mowed earlier this morning, only smaller. She extracted a bunch of live grass from the little yard, put it in some sort of machine, and out flowed about a shot’s worth of something you’d expect to see seeping from Spock’s spear wound when the Cowabunga tribe of Beta Testis 2 took exception to Kirk horning up on the hot princess. She brought it to me with an orange slice. “So is this going to be like Fear Factor?” I asked. “Not quite. You’ll only make it worse if you fool around.” (Translation: “Don’t be a wuss.”) Thus admonished by advice of competent counsel, I picked up the shot cup and pounded Spock’s blood. It was not nearly as disgusting as I’d expected; it tasted like a lawn, but with a note of sweetness. She encouraged me to munch the orange slice. “Ma’am, if I do that, I will have a beard full of sticky OJ. This is probably not a problem you’ll ever have to confront.” She agreed that this was so. The fruit slushie was fine, though I wouldn’t say it was $8 fine. Two hours later, nothing bad has happened to me, so I guess we’ll see if it does any good. If I have Saturn V-level colonblow later, I’ll know who to thank.

Off to Dick’s Sporting Goods, where my mission was one of retribution: I sought the nastiest, most ear-piercing whistle I could find. Of late, I have endured daily scam callers claiming to be from ‘Microsoft Support.’ They explain that my computer has a virus, and I should go to a certain webpage so they can fix it for me. After trying answering in Hebrew or Irish, bellowing bad words, claiming not to own a computer, even accusing their ancestors of frankly revolting sex habits, I’ve decided that pure pain is the way to go. I got a cheap orange boat whistle for $3. When I got into the truck, I elected to test the thing in a closed space.

We won’t be doing that again. I’m surprised my windshield didn’t shatter. I will actually need to cover my ears when I cut loose with this bad boy. Go ahead, suckers, give me a call.

The grocery shopping was dull, except for smiling young lady bagging groceries at Rosauer’s, author of the wrong kind of suspense. For some reason, Rosauer’s has a great grocery store with the worst baggers in grocery history. Blueberries? Broken open and dumped out due to careless tossing in sideways. Big chip bags? Stuffed together so that one couldn’t possibly lift that bag by the handles. Gods only know what happens if you get anything at the deli–they’d probably put the hot stuff right next to your ice cream. Not planning to complain, just bag my own in the future.

The conventional wisdom says that you are supposed to complain to the manager about stuff like that. But really, why? Why get in trouble a poor, rather dense minimum wage serf who really has no reason to give a damn about my groceries or her job, thanks to Idaho’s general working conditions and wage situation, which are in the category of ‘Enslaved Inca Silver Miners’? “Well, so that the manager can fix it!” But why is that my job, why do I think that will happen, and why should I even care? This manager has presumably had months to supervise and observe, and has made not one dent in the situation. Furthermore, I’m the customer. I’m the one who pays. Why am I to provide a volunteer service to a for-profit enterprise? Manage your own people, lady. I’ll just deal with it on my own henceforth. And if it slows down the register, oh, gee, well, sorry about that. Smile, smile, smile.

Boring things done, tried something new only thirty years after it was introduced, set myself up to start punching back at slimy creatures, managed to control frustration and not embarrass minwage serf. Was not rear-ended while braking for yellow light, harassed by bored deputies. Flipped off Hobby Lobby twice.

Around these parts, we count that as a good outing.

Aging

Aging is when:

You finally start to figure out what is baloney, and what is real.

It’s too late in life for you to profit much from that.

You look around for people who can, who have more time.

You learn that most of them just aren’t ready to absorb it.

You understand, because at their age, you wouldn’t have absorbed it either. How else did this take you so long?

You either make peace with that, or not.

If you do, you at least aren’t alone.

When the reviews say “she should fire her editor”…

The short version is: the reviewer doesn’t know that. In fact, that reviewer knows little of the dynamics of editor/author relationships.

It’s common, though. An unpolished book sees print, either self-published or conventionally published. The reviewer finds fault, figures it’s the sort of fault a competent editor would have fixed, and leaps to one of two conclusions:

“She obviously didn’t have an editor.”

“Her editor was clearly a failure.”

Either is possible. The first is common enough, because competent editing is not inexpensive, and the big draw of self-publishing is that one gets to make all the decisions. Considering the sizes and fragilities of many first-time authors’ egos, given time, an author can talk herself into the delusion that editors are for mere mortals. In reality, she may have been terrified that an editor would puncture her bubble (carefully nurtured by family and close friends, who told her she was wonderful), giving her only two choices she can live with: give up in despair, or do the la-la-la-la fingers-in-ears thing. She has a third–to learn to better herself–but that’s the most difficult one for many.

But let’s cast reasonable doubt on the title statement’s implication. Taking that line in the review:

There might never have been an editor or proofreader, although I would concur with the review line in that case: that means she hired herself as both, and did an unacceptable job worthy of dismissal. The outcome might have been acceptable to her, but she’s not the reader. The reader makes the final decision, and authors and editors who forget that will suffer.

The ‘editing’ issues may be proofreading issues. Not that editors should ever let an error pass untouched, but editing and proofreading are not the same–and many reviewers don’t realize that.

The author might have hired only a proofreader, who is not a copy or substantive/developmental editor, and who stuck strictly to catching typos, punctuation, and egregiously bad grammar. The reviewer probably doesn’t know if that’s the case.

She might have hired only a copy editor, who is not a substantive/developmental editor. A copy editor doesn’t care if the story is stupid, as long as it’s well-written. The reviewer may not realize that being hired to tighten prose isn’t the same as being in at the birth.

She might have hired any of the above, then disregarded all the guidance. It happens rather often, yet the reviewer may assume in error that the editor actually had influence.

She might have been fundamentally incapable of decent writing, hired professionals to fix it, and then decided the book needed revision. If she never accepted the reality–that she must never, ever fix her own mistakes unedited–that would leave stretches of capable writing interspersed with inexplicably amateurish insertions. All the reviewer will see is that parts of the book appear dropped on their heads.

The reviewer may not grasp any of the nuances on the spectrum between proofreading and substantive or developmental editing. To the reviewer, it may all look like ‘editing,’ which is tantamount to equating a Jiffy Lube oil changer with an ASE certified master auto mechanic. My mechanic in Kennewick (Ralph Blair at Tri-City Battery, a great guy and an expert at auto repair), didn’t do my oil changes; one of the junior techs did. That was fine, because anyone under Ralph’s tutelage had better do a good job. The point is that they did different work. So do editors (of the various types) and proofreaders.

There is no guarantee that the reviewer even knows good writing from bad. Many should, as all reviewers are readers, often voracious ones; they should be exposed to enough good writing to know it from bad. That’s the theory. In the real world, I see many, many lousy books festooned with shimmering reviews. If reviewers are generally competent to judge bad writing, why are so many of them gushing about this junk? That alone should cast reasonable doubt upon any criticism one finds in a book review, at least absent proof of the reviewer’s fundamental competence.

Someone else may have bungled, and badly. I know of a social historian (emphasis on sports) by the name of Allen Barra, who now works for American Heritage and The Wall Street Journal. I like Barra because he is unafraid to stake out a position and support it, in addition to his fundamental writing and researching competence. Barra wrote a biography of Wyatt Earp some years back, and I bought a copy. What I saw mystified me. To my eyes, the book seemed to have been typeset and published in the early stages of author revision; there were swatches of text duplicated in more than one place, unfinished thoughts, orphaned paragraphs, and many other problems. This made no sense. I’d been planning to write a review, but before I did, I got in touch with Barra. I had an address for him from a very brief correspondence over something he wrote at Salon. In short: “What the hell happened, Allen?” Barra was quick to explain. His publisher had committed a spectacular error, publishing an early and incomplete version of the ms. Seriously. You may imagine his discomfiture. He asked if he could send me a copy of the correctly published version. At first I demurred, thinking it a bit much for an author to try to ‘make it right’ for every reader victimized by the stupidity of his publisher, but he made the telling point: “If you are going to write a review, I would rather it be of my best work.” Couldn’t argue with that. He sent it, I read it, and the review was what the proper version merited.

And yes: it could be that a bad writer hired a bad substantive editor, did everything he said, and published junk. I’m not saying that the title statement is always wrong. It is that it is often an uniformed statement issued by a person unqualified to judge, or unaware of the reality. It’s one thing for a reviewer to say: “The book is not well written,” or “The story has unacceptable holes,” or “I found the basic typos distracting.” Those judgments are as fair as the reader’s own discernment, and are all verdicts no author should wish to see in a review. But “She obviously either had no editor, or had an inept one” is generally unfair, because so many other factors may have been the reality–starting with most readers’ absence of understanding of how authors work with (or against) their various editing and proofreading colleagues.

Just please do bear it in mind the next time you get ready to peel the paint off a terrible book.

Hosing off after automobile shopping

It will take a high-pressure nozzle. After dealing with most of the auto sales outfits in my wife’s area, it may take that to denude us of the ick.

My wife’s work requires her to drive moderate distances on a regular basis, which means that when her vehicle ceases to feel reliable, she isn’t the only one uncomfortable with that. Call me a sexist pig to your heart’s content: I view it as my personal undelegateable husbandly duty to make sure that my wife has a safe, reliable vehicle. I’m still driving my 1990 Toyota pickup, and with luck, I may drive it for another twenty-four years. She goes through cars in six to eight years. When it’s time to go shopping, I do most of the research, because I have more time to do it.

I have a number of friends, however, who know many things I do not. One goes back with me to third grade: my man Russell Deason, a fellow veteran of Heritage Child Abuse Christian School in beautiful Fort Collins, Colorado. Among Russell’s virtues is a mean streak when it comes to those who prey upon others, and with his sales background, that’s terrible news for car dealerships.

Before I get on with the story, with Russell’s kind permission, I quote here most of the advice he gave me. I took as much of it as possible, and kept some of the remainder in the quiver in case I needed it. I would like to share it with the world.

RD: “Look and show interest early in the month but walk on all offers. Return the last week of the month when they are desperate to make sales and fulfill their quotas. Continue to string the salesman along all month with teaser contacts (usually less painful over the phone than in person). Beware of the “tie down” questions. Those are designed to get you to answer yes, nod your head and other affirmative actions which in theory make it psychologically easier for them to ask you for the purchase. Drive the salesman nuts by constantly answering those questions ambiguously or negatively. Create a very long objections list to each vehicle you are considering. Dig through every consumer report on each and compile every petty complaint. Salesmen are taught to “answer objections” in ways that allow them to turn the objection in a “tie down.” If you beat them at this game they will become frustrated, their egos get bruised and they get desperate to land your sale because they cannot stand to be beaten at their own game. Finally, beware the “manager.” This person is their most well trained “closer.” They are the party best at the “tie down” and high pressure tactics. Do everything possible to avoid that person until you are actually ready to make the deal. When you do reach that point, insist on changing the chair position in the office. They will seat you back to the door. Turn the chair sideways so you can see the door. This unnerves them as this is a key point in their tactics. Tell the actual salesman to either not stand behind you or leave the room. Make that statement an order. They use that tactic to create an uncomfortable environment. Insist on time alone in the room to read the contracts in their entirety and hold out the possibility you may ask your lawyer to review them before finalizing the purchase. These are all things I was taught in sales training. Use them to your advantage with my full blessing. Please make the salesmen squirm so I can hear about it afterward.”

And I did. Russell, I know this is the best way to thank you.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t practical for us to time it that well. We needed to get Deb a new car, my window of time to help her was July 4, and that was that. But we were well prepared for their psychological warfare, and when they cut loose with it, we made sure it backfired.

RD: “I very much like David’s [another helpful commenter, David Lee] idea of a list the salesman is not allowed to see. They will find that most unnerving. I agree it’s also a very good idea to withhold job, family, downpayment amount or any other personal info back until you are ready to negotiation in earnest. Simply tell them that information isn’t relevant until “you are ready to be closed.” They hate customers who know what the close is and know how to avoid it. Also tell them upfront that you “will tell them when you’re ready to be closed. Please don’t try before that time as I find it offensive and more likely to go to your competitor if you do.” The more you take control of the entire situation the better. Their entire sales system is predicated on isolating the customer, controlling the conversation and narrative, creating a conversation full of the “tie down” (yes it does work on most people), and in hyping the emotional interest you show. Be dryly analytical about your interest in the vehicles. They play on emotion. They prefer the customer who is impressed by horsepower, options, fancy colors and street presence. If you display nothing but a dry analysis which allows no room for emotional manipulation you’ll be better off.”

I steeled myself. I think the points on my ears actually become more pronounced.

RD: “One more thing … the salesman is trained to exhibit positive body language especially when using “tie down” statements. They will nod their heads affirmatively vigorously, touch the vehicle fondly, pat you on the back or any other thing they can think of to reaffirm their desire for you to respond positively. They are also taught to watch for your compliance. So be VERY conscious of this and any time they are nodding yes, nod no. Respond to every question designed to get an affirmative answer (even if you answer affirmatively) with a negative head shake or other action like turning your back on the vehicle or salesman, scrunched face or a fart for that matter. This also confuses the salesman because they aren’t getting their desired reaction.”

We did not really get into this part as much, since we made looking at vehicles the last step, and did so only at the dealership where we had already negotiated what I think was a reasonable price. However, it does apply to most people.

RD: “If you are mindful in person, and force yourself to be cold it’s a great advantage. Go in person only when you are already in a bad mood and have negativity on your mind. Do anything that will put you in that frame of mind before meeting them. It helps.”

That was easy. After a month of emailing with dealer sales representatives, being put on spam lists, having my questions ignored and getting answers to many questions I never asked, the hard part was not being cold. The hard part was not betraying any emotion at all, especially the dominant ones of a) quivering with revulsion, or b) visceral loathing that burned with a sickly greenish-yellow flame.

RD: “Another good help with the in-person contact is to be in a hurry. Tell the salesman you have fifteen minutes and nothing more. Carry a stopwatch or set your phone for one if necessary. Control the situation by announcing the time left every 5 minutes and every minute after the halfway point. This was a tactic actually taught to me in a seminar by a 5 star salesman who used it to put off car salesman when he made his own purchases. He announced upfront, “I’ve done all the research. I know what I want. I’m in a hurry I only have 15 minutes. After that I’ll go somewhere else if you don’t give me a satisfactory deal.” Salesman use fatigue as a tactic. They drag out the sale and the close to wear people down. Thus the “let me go ask my manager” gag done several times before the manager finally comes in to do the close. By then you’re worn down and already beaten down by tie-downs. Don’t give them any time. Always be in a hurry.”

We did this right, though it only factored in on our trade-in evaluation visits. And oh, how they hated it.

RD: “I keep thinking of things. A technique is taught to turn objections into tie downs. The classic example is a price objection. Salesmen are taught to say “so what you’re telling me is that if I could get you this car for x$ you would buy this car today?” They attempt to put the affirmation in your head. The correct response is ALWAYS to say no and to reiterate your objection saying “I was only seeking an answer to the specific question. It does not infer anything further than a desire for information.” This also flummoxes the salesman because they know then you are onto the technique being used.”

We didn’t even let them get that far. They tried.

RD: “They use the same for options or features … “so what you’re telling me is if I had this car in hot pink with power windows and a V6, you’d buy it today?” The kicker is always “buy it today.” It’s a form of psychological warfare. The best defense for this is the hurry. I’ve only got 15 minutes and I have a LONG list of objections and questions. I’m NOT prepared to buy today, I’m only info gathering. If the salesman decides to blow you off because you’re holding your ground then you have the impetus to later to call the sales manager and complain. In turn the sales manager will force the salesman to call you repeatedly to try to make amends. It can be quite an amusing scenario. Always try to appear nonplussed and even a little pissed off with their performance or offerings when leaving. Also, always ask to use the restroom and complain about it’s cleanliness. This usually results in the salesman cleaning the restroom or being forced to do so when he’s being interrogated by the SM about why his contact with you didn’t result in a sale that day. Using the restroom is a good diversionary tactic if you are feeling overwhelmed by tiedowns and other high pressure gimmicks and it gives you an open opportunity to criticize. Also complain any car you sit in or test drive isn’t very clean and doesn’t have that “new car smell” you love so much. Ask if it’s been on the lot a long time, or has been used as a loaner by the service department and if it has been smoked in. This makes them manic.”

We used the hurry very effectively. And when some of their managers follow up, they will not like what they will hear.

RD: “…their system was researched and designed by psychologists. One must be very diligent and aware. Even those like myself who are aware of all these techniques can fall prey to a skilled operator. The best advice is to be obstreperous, hurried and constantly shake one’s head no. The very act of shaking your head no helps to allay the psychological pressures being brought against you.”

And it’s true. If you don’t realize that the whole tactical goal of what they do is to cause you to purchase something whether you want it or not, you can get maneuvered. You can’t play any game well unless you know its rules.

So. With that, our story.

A month beforehand, I wrote to about eight Toyota dealerships in the Portland, Oregon area requesting quotations on specific new vehicles, plus trade-in estimates. In my mail program, I coded their names with an abbreviation for the dealership and a number representing the order in which they responded, so that I could hold tardiness against the tardy. Thus, there was James RMT0, Julian RTT6, and so on. The result informed me that I wasn’t going to like the process.

Some took days to get back to me, and a couple never did at all. Some had communal e-mails, so you never really knew who you were dealing with. Some sent quotes from addresses one could not reply to. Many were semi-literate. Two put me on spam lists, and one actually failed to take me off their list upon the first request. No matter; I got a price spread, a rough idea of trade-in values, and a feel for which dealerships were pushiest, which were stupidest, and so on. All, of course, wanted me to phone them. Not a chance. The vast majority of the responses I got were garbage, irrelevant to what I’d asked.

The trip to Portland approached, and with the necessary funds on accessible deposit, it was time for us all to get serious. I explained our timeframe and the models that interested us, requesting quotes on three models, a quote on an option, a rough trade-in estimate subject to examination, and their work schedule for the upcoming weekend. Four responses came in, of which three were close to fully responsive: let’s call them Theater, Royal Baby, Mr. Wilson, and Witch Trial. (Samira, the rep at Theater, was perfectly responsive–strong props for a businesslike reply. Mr. Wilson’s rep refused to give even a range for the trade-in based on our very liberal parameters, immediately marking that dealership as a trouble spot. Royal Baby’s rep only remembered late in the game, just as I was leaving for the airport, that he wouldn’t be there on July 4, and sent me a colleague’s name. I didn’t bother to record it or ask for him. Let’s call him Walmart.)

Since we were doing the initial visits on July 4, Witch Trial wasn’t open that day, and it was out of the running unless all the rest failed, in which case we’d have to resort to Plan B–going in without some numbers beforehand. Had we found that necessary, we’d have had occasion to use far more of Russell’s good advice. Even so, it was of great value. In retrospect, where we didn’t do it his way, it was because the method we had chosen insulated us from the need to worry about that.

Before I left, I printed out all the quotation e-mails, and organized all the prices into a spreadsheet. The biggest remaining variable was trade-in value. Normally we’d sell the car ourselves, but I didn’t want my wife having to mess with that. Also, frankly, there were a few things about it that could stand to be serviced, and I felt more comfortable putting it into the used auto sausage machine than dealing with an individual coming back to complain that the gas mileage was lower than usual (normal on older vehicles of this model), or that a couple of the indicator lights wouldn’t shut off.

Thus, my logic: go to the three available dealerships and simply obtain a firm trade-in value. Nothing else. And see how they reacted to ‘nothing else’ as a concept.

First, off to Theater, where we met with Samira. She did precisely as we asked: obtained a firm trade-in value, and otherwise did not hassle us. Bear in mind that we already had her pricing, and in order to know what her cars would cost us, we needed only a firm trade-in. We advised her that we were in a hurry, and within twenty minutes we had what we’d come for. Overall, her pricing was second best not considering the trade-in.

We haled south to Mr. Wilson, which was an astonishing experience. Since the individual we’d spoken with was not present, we figured we were starting fresh (albeit with some reality check quotes to consider). Mr. Wilson was a shark tank, with plastic smiles converging on us before we got inside the front door. We asked to obtain a firm trade-in value for our vehicle, and were routed to the ‘sales manager.’ He began to deliver an oration on the dealership’s virtues and methods. I interrupted him, explaining that we didn’t need to hear any of that right now. Amazingly, he attempted to insist: “No, you do need to hear this.” I stood my ground. “No. We are not here for that. We are not going to buy on this visit. If you would like to be considered, we have fifteen minutes for you to evaluate our trade-in.” A frustrated, resentful employee finally undertook this task. While he did that, in a move that creeped us both out, the dealership looked us up in some database, presumably from our previous purchase, asking about us living at an address that was now obsolete.

While we sat in the lounge chairs, we watched another customer being strung along by another salesman as he waited, and he was blissfully vocal: “Goddamnit, I’ve been here three hours. If you guys don’t get it together, I’m leaving!” We enjoyed commiserating with him about the general suckage of car dealerships. I’d just about decided that Mr. Wilson would be at the bottom of our totem pole anyway, because their prices had been least competitive to begin with. The trade-in was reasonable, but not enough to overcome the poor pricing and ick factor overall.

As I was walking around the outside trying to find Deb, yet another salesman accosted me–let’s call him Potato. He’d seen the Idaho tags and wanted to talk, so we talked about Idaho and other meaningless things while I tried to spot my wife. He then switched to asking questions about our purchase. I explained that we were there for a trade-in value only. He persisted, asking rapid-fire questions about what we wanted to buy, and demanded to know why we did not buy today. I politely changed the subject. “You haven’t answered my question!” Potato said, polymer grin masking frustration. I said something else irrelevant. “You’re not even going to answer my question?” he demanded. Yes, demanded–and incredulously. I spotted Deb, said we needed to get going, and walked away. My last memory of Potato was his voice complaining: “I’ve never been treated this way before!”

So, I guess, in his universe, I was required to submit to any and all forms of inquiry, and if I declined politely, I was just a jerk. Nice job, Mr. Wilson.

Next it was off to Royal Baby, where Walmart had offered the best prices and most promising trade-in range. However, Walmart wasn’t working, so I figured I was on my own. I didn’t think that mattered much; surely they would price competitively, and if it was the best deal, we’d seriously consider it. That began with getting a firm trade-in value, and they didn’t give us too much grief about that. Their offer was very respectable, and we retired to Taco Time to eat lunch and consult. Over lunch, we decided to go back to Royal Baby and take the next step. Little did we know how much we were about to learn about the retail auto sales business, and that if we’d thought Mr. Wilson was a bag of foreskins, we hadn’t seen anything yet.

We sat down with a young salesman whom let’s call Julio, and began to talk about what we wanted–we had pretty well chosen one of the three original possibilities. Immediately another salesman let’s call Insurance Beard, supposedly a sales manager, sat down with him. The desk was by the front window, so I promptly turned my chair to put my back against that window. I looked askance at him: “Do you also have a role in this transaction?” Insurance Beard said something vague, which I interpreted to mean: ‘This is Julio’s first day and he doesn’t know beer from urine.’ We explained what we wanted and asked for a quotation. Julio and Insurance Beard left and came back with the list price minus the trade-in–which was much lower than the earlier value given, $1000 lower, in fact.

I kid you not.

I explained that I was very, very surprised, and that I’d expected a competitive quote. I gather that this caused them to think of Walmart, whom I hadn’t mentioned (why should I?). That set off some sort of alarm in Insurance Beard’s mind. He went in the back and dug through some emails, then came out with a look of patient disapproval on his face. “Did you get some quotations from Walmart?” Yes, I had, I said, but I figured he wasn’t here, so I had to start over. Insurance Beard went back, then came out with a hardcase let’s call Elijah. Elijah remonstrated with us for not telling them about Walmart in the first place. He talked over me, and I could tell he was mad as hell. Elijah began to lecture me about how Internet sales and floor sales were totally separate things, that good floor guys sold maybe twelve cars a month, but good Internet guys sold forty.

(As an aside: think about the implications of that. That means that they get a ton of online inquiries, and that those people get much better prices. Salespeople are evaluated on the profit they earn for the firm. That tells you that if you walk into the lot cold, you are getting the very worst pricing. The only way to buy new cars for a decent price is to contact them online, where you can keep a boundary between yourself and the ick.)

Next, Elijah accused me of trying to pit the departments against each other. When I tried to explain that I had no idea how his sales department worked, and didn’t care, he kept talking over me. He finished by presenting Wal-Mart’s original offer plus a couple hundred in movement on the trade–a very good offer, and one we would have accepted if presented by a non-jerk. “This offer is good right now only. If you want to do business, fine. If not, it’s been nice meeting you,” he said, in a tone that contradicted his words.

I wasn’t going to be bullied; I said we’d have to reconsider. I reached to take the paper with the offer. “You don’t get to keep that. That’s my property!” he snarled. At that point, Deb had had enough. My beautiful bride stood up and walked out, instructing Elijah to fuck himself. Brimming with marital pride, I followed her, commenting to Julio (who seemed very disappointed) that I’d never dealt with such an asshole before in my life, and that I was sorry he had to work for someone like that. We’d been told by locals that Royal Baby was a dump, and now we know just how truly awful it was. As we drove away, we marveled at the sort of stupidity that had a sale and destroyed it with bad attitude.

We also now had to think on our next move. While we’d made people uncomfortable at two dealerships, about which I felt zero guilt, we didn’t yet have forward movement on a purchase. I’m a believer that better people should get the business. I’m also a believer that once one identifies the better people, when it comes down to the firm process of making a deal, being forthright can get you places. Thus, I got on the phone to Samira. I explained that we’d just come out of two other dealerships and that we wanted to scrub ourselves off with brillo. I told her we’d like to stop by, if she’d still be there, even though she was a bit higher than the lowest competition. How much? asked she. I do poorly talking or calculating on cell phones while riding in the passenger seat, so I guessed at a gap of $1800 including trade-in, making very clear that it was just a guess. I suggested that if she could meet us in the middle, that would work. She called me back in a few minutes and told me she could come down $500, so that we wouldn’t be surprised when we got there. We still decided to proceed.

When we came in, I did the math in front of Samira. I labeled one column Samira and one Jerk, then put down honest figures as they stood at the moment. That got a laugh out of her. My estimate had been wide of the mark: they were $1261 apart, not $1800. “Samira, half the difference is $630, discounting the buck. Meet me there, and we’ll have a deal.” She checked, and did, as I was pretty sure she would. It was too late to go to the bank for a cashier’s check, so we picked out the specific vehicle and arranged to handle the transaction the next day.

Could we have beaten her up a little more on price? Perhaps, but I gave consideration to Samira’s overall presentation. She was the only one who had done only what we requested and neither pushed for more nor asked unwanted questions. She had done the best job by far. In fact, she was the only one who had done an acceptable job.

How’d we do on pricing? Per KBB, the fair market price is $25,916 out the door. We paid, let’s see: about $23,500. Not bad. However, if we’d been able to time it better, we could have improved that. It surely would have improved in another month. Unfortunately, greater considerations impacted us. I think we didn’t do too badly.

We learned a lot, though, especially about the difference between pre-shopping online and just bombulating into the front door. Let’s distill what we learned:

  1. If you just walk in the front door, you are a sheep awaiting shearing.
  2. Advance research and price comparison are crucial.
  3. Expect a good percentage of the dealerships you contact online to ignore everything you asked them, and to ‘follow up’ with you or put you on spam lists.
  4. They really do hate when you keep control of the sale, which is primarily accomplished by refusing to let them put you into their patented sales process.
  5. If they don’t get their way, they get borderline loutish. They may believe they are entitled to demand answers of you.
  6. They expect to hold all the information cards, and for you to hold and play none. When you play one, that’s cheating. When they play one, that’s smart business.
  7. You can’t trust Yelp or other online site reviews of any business. There are ‘reputation management’ companies out there busily creating spurious reviews loaded with bologna. In fact, my experience is you should go the opposite direction. Any business with massive amounts of loving reviews, especially with the same ‘customer service manager’ graciously returning all the oral sex in the comments, has quite probably bought them to swamp glaring deficiencies or simply render negative reviews harder to find.
  8. If you get a variety of offers online, you can use the best one to beat up (that’s sales jargon for negotiating aggressively) the floor salespeople anywhere but the dealership that gave you the online quote. Just don’t go to that same dealership’s floor people, that’s all.
  9. Trade-ins can vary widely–our lowest and highest offers were $2900 and $4500. You should learn in advance what is the acceptable range.
  10. Trade-ins are a shell game, and a silly one. Who cares whether they knock $1000 off the price, or give you $1000 more for the trade? It’s all the same unless sales tax is involved (which in Oregon it is not).
  11. Even if you don’t plan to trade your car in, you can still have them evaluate it, and see how they respond to your insistence that they do no more than that, and ask you no further questions.

It’s still as slimy a business as it has ever been. It has not gotten better at all. The more the dealership brags about how ‘different’ it is than the others, the more you should guard your wallet. You are still dealing with a fundamentally deceptive, dishonest business, and as such, you do not owe it honesty or candor unless someone earns these of you. And after studying Russell’s advice–which fortified us greatly, and in gratitude for which we can’t wait to buy him a decent dinner if life ever brings him our direction–I suggest that when shopping for cars, you consider the words of Anton LaVey (the carny who became a Satanist to shock people, then decided he liked it). I think he cribbed it from an Eastern proverb:

Lie to a liar for lies are his coin;

Steal from a thief, ’tis easy you’ll find;

Trick a trickster and win the first time –

But beware of the man who has no axe to grind.

Never as true as when dealing with auto dealerships.

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