Ending my one remaining newspaper dependency

Warning: wandering blog entry. Those looking for a carefully structured persuasion attempt, well, that’s why this doesn’t cost the reader any money.

A couple of days ago, I deleted the RSS feed that used to give me Adam Jude’s Washington Husky football coverage via the Seattle Times, Seattle’s surviving daily mainstream paper. My link had shifted to collecting some other aggregation of Times headlines, it needed fixing, and figuring out the new RSS bookmark was more effort than their coverage was worth.

Since I do not actually buy a newspaper, and since I do my level best to block ads, refuse cookies, nerf scripts, and otherwise sidestep every effort the news media make to eke some benefit from my freeloading, one might fairly level some accusations at me:

  • I’m a freeloader.
  • I am contributing to the death of the hometown newspaper concept.
  • I’m probably in violation of their terms of service.

Even if all of those are just, I don’t care. Because:

Newspapers seem to get the vast majority of their content from wire services anyway. Most of it is the same words one could read anywhere. At no time do I ask them to cover anything. They choose what to cover, and are quite immune to any desires or non-desires on my part. I don’t think that becoming a paying customer would change that much. My business just isn’t that big a deal for them to lose, if they were to gain it to start with.

The newspaper is a corporation of some sort, thus it must do or be something exceptional to qualify for any sympathy from me. In fact, Jude’s efforts at covering Husky football are a major step downward from his predecessor Bob Condotta, one of the hardest working sportswriters in the business. I’m not sure if this speaks more to Jude’s work ethic or to the paper’s spreading his available hours thinner, but I’m not required to care. I care about reading the news concerning Husky football, and the hometown paper is no longer the best source. It might not be the third best. It was once the very best, no contest. If Condotta were still covering the Dawgs, I wouldn’t be so hasty.

That’s a business decision by the paper. My choice is also a business decision: the coverage wasn’t worth paying for before, and now it’s not worth the effort to avoid paying for. If they don’t want people to make choices on how they read the material, the executives are welcome to take down the website. I certainly have no right to object. No one forces them at bayonet point to post anything.

My issue is that the expectation of empathy seems to go only one way: from everyone to the consumer. I hate that in society:

“Give to me/do for me/let me get away with/make allowances for me.”

“And in return, you will what?”

“Well…er…I’ll do the work I am paid to do.”

“Those are the key words: you get paid to do that. You are not owed more. If you want more compensation, that’s between you and your employer.”

It gets old, this business of people and institutions asking me to care about their problems without proposing to care about mine. “Give to me” is getting old. I like reciprocity. I care about my neighbors’ feelings because they care about mine. I care about letting people merge on the highway because I am often allowed to merge, and it feels like participation in a practice of cordial kindness. I care about my clients because I respect them, and because they pay me to offer them my very best. I’m not entitled to ask for extras from them. I quote a price, I am or will be paid, and that is all the compensation I have any right to request. Sure, it’s nice to get a complimentary signed copy of the finished book, but they aren’t obligated, and I have no right to guilt them about it. If it was that important to me, I should have negotiated it as part of my compensation. It’s nice to be print-credited, but the same logic applies. They aren’t under any obligation to do that unless we negotiate it. Of course, if I have done my work well, I won’t have to request it of them. That is purely on me, to leave them feeling warmly toward me and that they received better value than they anticipated. Good service leaves a client feeling expansive and generous-spirited. And it’s not up to the client to tell me how to do that. I’m presenting myself as the knowledge source. It’s up to me to figure out how to give the best service that is in my power.

I don’t have any evidence that the print news media see it that way, though I am sure there are exceptions.

I do not regard any lengthy, fine-print Terms of Service as morally binding. Want me to regard them as morally binding? Stop making them so long that no one will read them. Stop making the print so fine that they are burdensome to read. Start making them concise and straightforward. Stop sneaking really unpalatable clauses in around page four. Do it in 200 plain English words. Surely you have an editor around there someplace, what with being a newspaper and all.

I find it amazing that people have acquiesced to the statement ‘use of this site constitutes acceptance of these terms.’ It may hold up in court, because that works out well for lawyers (the more complex that legal matters are made, the more often the citizen requires a paid escort to navigate them), but since there’s no enforcement to speak of, I don’t care. If you don’t want me to look at it, don’t post it online. I won’t plagiarize you, of course, because that is against my own ethics, but neither will I just endorse that the site owner has the right to put up ten pages of legalese and consider me morally obligated to respect it. I don’t. If the site owner wants to put it behind a pay wall, fine. Then I have another business decision to make, just as they made theirs.

A good example is the New York Times. Most papers’ websites at least try to make you take cookies, or let all their scripts run. Some won’t work unless you take the cookies. The NYT, which seems to think it’s special, requires a login. Fine. Their prerogative. If I can circumvent that, I will. I’m sure their TOS prohibit that, somewhere deep in the duodenal section, and I am sure that I simply don’t care. If I can’t, that’s fine too. They aren’t that special to me.

Perhaps the biggest reason to give up on the hometown paper’s coverage of my alma mater, though, is that its coverage isn’t as good as what the amateurs are providing. All that cachet, all those resources, and still the amateurs are clobbering them. And I mean clobbering, too. The amateur coverage is prompter, more complete, more interesting, and at least as dependable. It has its homerist moments, but it has always been the consumer’s duty to read critically. Just because hardly anyone seems to bother doing so lately doesn’t relieve each of us of the duty.

What could the newspaper industry have done to avoid this decline? I don’t have the answer. They’re the media professionals, not me. But I can tell them that guilt trips and worsening coverage definitely aren’t the way to go. Is it too bad? Yeah, but it’s not as if this is bucking the trend. Our mainstream TV news is a sad joke. The main grownup world news source available to me is a channel out of Qatar, for gods’ sakes, or one out of the UK.

Of course, if I disable features, I can’t be annoyed with a site for not working as designed. So I’m not. But that’s not what happened here. The Times simply changed its RSS feeds, and it wasn’t worth the effort to fix them.

So I probably won’t be checking out the Times‘ Husky football coverage this season much. And that’s all right.

We’re strapping in for a rough season anyway, it seems. I have a feeling that reading some of the coverage will feel self-laceratory. But I’m a college football fan, and hope springs long-lived if not eternal, and I admit it: I can’t wait for the opening kickoff.

Passing knowledge on, Baja Canada, and eating a bag of Dick’s

Now and then I take an authentic business trip, defined as travel that can without question be construed as related to my work. I am allowed to enjoy them, though, and I did this one. On Friday I headed north from Portland toward the forests south and east of Tacoma to visit a couple of my favorite clients: Shawn Inmon and Heidi Ennis.

Heidi recently released her first book, a nuanced and well-researched Native American historical fiction tale set just before 1800. I liked everything about working with her. She is a homeschool mom with a background in education, and her daughter and son are outstanding young people. Walking past the Latin declensions on the whiteboard headed toward her kitchen, I can see why. I love history, and any time children are interested in history and reading, I become a teacher on the spot. We had lunch, then spent several pleasant hours in questions and answers. Had it been feasible, I’d gladly have stayed longer.

I spent most of the weekend with Shawn, who owes his success to a combination of work ethic and willingness to market. Marketing is a problem for authors (and not a few editors, ahem). To market well, you have to be ham enough to enjoy taking the stage, and you must not be embarrassed to stand up and announce an event or a giveaway or a new release. I would have a hard time doing that because I would find it mortifying to put myself out there that way in the assumption that anyone should care. Good marketers do it without the slightest embarrassment, and if Shawn thought that the best way to market his work was to base jump naked off Columbia Tower, he’d probably do it. (I may regret giving him that idea. Well, actually, he kind of prompted it himself, though not in quite that form.)

After a very pleasant dinner out with Shawn and Dawn, we spent the rest of the evening chez Inmon talking about his current projects and some issues we must overcome. In short, there are a couple of situations in the story that we can agree need to occur, but we cannot determine how to make them flow naturally. I’m a big opponent of ‘showing the strings;’ I consider contrivance to be a bad odor, and it emanates from so much self-published fiction. We are still working this through.

The next day, Dawn had a prior commitment, but Shawn had planned for he and I to attend a Mariners game at ‘The Safe.’ That’s a good name for a stadium with a big sliding roof that can close over the top of it, which I consider an engineering marvel. The Blue Jays were in town, so I knew to expect a veritable Hoserama. Yes, the Canadians outnumbered the USians, as they had the last time I’d seen a Jays@Mariners game. (It had been a while. I had watched it in the Kingdome, which was imploded quite some years back.) I hate the company who sponsors the Ms’ field, so I will not use their name, but The Safe is a very nice place to watch a game and I’d never been there. It felt a bit like a hockey game, with the playing of both national anthems (everyone stands up for both).

Our section of Baja Canada was just in the trajectory of sharp foul balls or bat fragments from a right-handed hitter, close enough to the first base line to discern facial expressions. Most of those in royal blue were drunk but not on their lips, and behaved very well. Props to the eh-team. As we were choking away the bottom of the ninth, I got some laughs by asking if we could pull our goalie.

Afterward, Shawn wanted to take me to lunch/early dinner. We’d originally planned to visit an old Cap Hill favorite, but to our general shock it was closed up tight. As an alternative, Shawn suggested we stop at Dick’s Drive-In. Dick’s is a Seattle staple of many years, well loved by many and with a reputation as a good place to work. Shawn told me about a homeless person whom he had once seen sitting on the sidewalk near the restaurant. “He had a sign that said HELP ME FILL MY MOUTH WITH DICK’S.”

“That’s great. Did you give him any money?”

“Definitely, I gave him a buck.”

“Good man. That deserves a buck at least.”

I hadn’t been to Dick’s in some time, and it was better than I’d remembered. After inspecting the bags to find out whose Dick’s belonged to whom, we sat down to eat in companionable festivity. A lot of people hang around Dick’s, some of whom are even there to have dinner. We spent the drive back southward working on plot issues. We have not yet solved them, but it was a good brainstorming session.

Normally, of course, the client would not be taking the vendor out to such an involved event, but this will tell you a lot about Shawn’s ethical standards. He has written some stories that went into charity anthologies. I edited them, but resisted his efforts to press payment upon me (duh). This arose out of him contacting me to notify me that he was planning to include those stories in some for-profit work, and that he therefore needed to pay me. I wasn’t interested in money, though I respected his punctilious honesty about the situation. He had already invited me to come up and visit, and attend a Mariners game with him, so he proposed to pay for my ticket. That worked out to a lot more than I’d have charged for the editing, but one can hardly say no to such a kind offer, and all senses of right action were thus satisfied all around.

I came home this morning very happy to see my wife again, but with the afterglow of a fine weekend’s business travel. Thanks to all my hosts for their warm welcomes. The best part of my work is the client relationships, and this weekend was a good example of why.

A step-by-step guide for unpacking and building a library packed up by Idaho movers

Here is the basic sequence:

  1. Build shelf.
  2. In honor of Ikea, sing Små grodorna. (This is a song Swedes sing in unison at Midsummer. Its basic message is that small frogs are enjoyable to watch. If you can understand why they feel so passionately about singing this song, you qualify for several Swedish government programs.)
  3. Fold up shelf box for recycling.
  4. Horse first book box into suitable position (always atop three other boxes; easier on sore back).
  5. Open box.
  6. Shelve books.
  7. Rip and ball tape.
  8. Flatten paper.
  9. Open box.
  10. Discover that family photos and keepsakes qualify as ‘books,’ to go by the semiliterate labeling scrawl.
  11. Curse moving company with inventive zeal.
  12. Rip and ball tape.
  13. Flatten paper.
  14. Open box.
  15. Shelve books.
  16. Find random items stuffed in between books, now well crushed.
  17. Throw away destroyed items.
  18. Curse movers, focusing on maladies and calamaties richly deserved.
  19. Rip and ball tape.
  20. Flatten paper.
  21. Open box.
  22. Discover that entire downstairs (five distinct rooms) was classified as ‘basement,’ that all non-practical items are lumped as ‘home decor,’ and that a baby blanket is evidently a ‘book.’
  23. Curse moving company.
  24. Criticize self for inadequacy and slight flagging of pure loathing reflected in cursing.
  25. Re-curse moving company correctly, paying special attention to mental and genetic shortcomings, thus bringing cursing up to code.
  26. Rip and ball tape.
  27. Flatten paper.
  28. Open box.
  29. Shelve books.
  30. Notice damaged book that wasn’t damaged before.
  31. Curse moving company, with emphasis on packers’ predilection for incest.
  32. Rip and ball tape.
  33. Flatten paper.
  34. Open box.
  35. Discover that ‘Gar Items’ is as specific as it gets if it was in the garage.
  36. Curse moving company, conforming to acceptable standards for profanity and insult levels.
  37. In back of mind, begin compiling highlights of curses for potential curse anthology.
  38. Marvel at sheer accumulated weight of books one Ikea bookshelf can handle.
  39. Hum Abba music, in recognition of sturdiness.
  40. Open box.
  41. [repeat cycle]

My own Alexandria

Most people who know me assume that my first outing in a new home, assuming I’m not low on gasoline, is to obtain a library card. Not so much. Oh, I eventually do, and I venerate libraries much as you might imagine, considering that the written word has been essential in my life since the aftermath of the Watts riots. (I was pushing age 2, and thus on the verge of learning to read. I do not remember learning to read; by my earliest awareness, reading was something I took for granted.)

My family helped this along. When I was about four, my Great-Great-Aunt Nell (whose little sister was my great-grandmother) gave us a full set of 1955 World Book encyclopedias. Before I went off to kindergarten, I had read them. I continued to do this through high school. The encyclopedia was my first library, if you will–a place where I could always go and find reading, an inexhaustible well of enjoyment.

Aunt Nell is nearly half a century gone now, her little niece who is my grandmother is ninety-five, and I often wonder if Aunt Nell had the faintest idea what her gift would do. Giving her credit for the wisdom of an educator who lived to be ancient, perhaps she knew precisely what she was doing. If Aunt Nell could or can see how it all played out, I believe she would be pleased.

In adulthood, surprising no one, I ended up with a lot of books. By age thirty-five, I needed about fifty linear feet of six-foot-high shelving in order to house most of them. My office was right outside the library, so when I went to work, I walked past the stacks. The library gave me reading material, emotional comfort, and a sense of home. I didn’t very often go to a local library simply because I liked mine better.

When it came time to move, and the library was dismantled, I had to leave for a few hours while the packers worked. And once it was gone, that was no longer home to me. If a residence has my wife and my books, it is fully home. If neither, it’s glorified camping. I made the mistake of sharing my honest feelings about that on Facebook, and was mocked for it by acquaintances, which taught me why you never ever share anything on Facebook when you are authentically vulnerable, especially if you know as many callous wiseasses as I do. On Facebook, always be ready in case someone says something mockingly scornful, because they’ll do it when you can least handle it, convinced of their towering wit and that there is never a time not to show it off. And they know beyond doubt that if you don’t think they’re funny right then, you should just get over it. It does not occur to them that you might instead just get over them.

Can you tell that I’m coming to care less and less about making people happy on Facepalm? Maybe the best way to deal with obnoxiousness that shows one no consideration is to stop showing it unreciprocated consideration, and just tell it what you really think.

Or maybe I am simply aging past the point of tiptoeing around people in life.

Three years and two states later, I again live with my wife, and can set up the library once again. My little Alexandria.

For a number of reasons, this time we abandoned the breezeblock-and-lumber method. In that situation, the shelves actually cost almost as much to move as the books, and that’s just stupid. Plus, my wife hated them. When your wife picks out a house with a space specifically in mind for your library, and embraces the concept, and you do not meet her halfway by designing the library in a way that will please her, you are an ungrateful and selfish sod. Setup could not begin until we got the floors done, so that delayed us six weeks, but now it’s under way.

This means seventeen Ikea bookshelves, interspersed with six knicknack shelves so that my wife can display doodads and small items. The room is what most people would use as a large den or game room, 15′ x 20′. It will have a big leather recliner plus a couple other comfortable chairs, the bare wall adorned with maps and my wife’s artwork, daisychained lamps to illuminate the aisles, and eventually French doors. (These are more my wife’s idea. If the doors are French, do they go on strike once a week, as ancient French custom specifies? Mes amis français, qu’est-ce qu’on pense ?)

Since most of the boxes of books are piled in the library, this means some creative thinking in terms of setup. One needs physical space for bookshelves, yet one cannot put up any more until one puts some books on shelves. I decided to just put whichever books wherever, on the logic that I can organize them at leisure later. My uncle, who is a civil engineer and spends a lot of his working life figuring out how to build structures that are sturdy yet aesthetic, is a bigger influence than he knows. The only shelves that should hold the larger hardcovers on are the bottom or the middle bracing shelves, which are the sturdiest, and in any case we do not want the shelves overly top-heavy.

Little felt pads go on the bottom of every shelf, to protect the hardwood (well, hardgrass) floor. When they’re all up, then will come cross-bracing across the top and bolting them together at the base; we live in a subduction zone. While I’m under no illusions about what a serious earthquake would do to the library, if a whole full shelf were able to fall directly over, that is much more dangerous than all the books simply being shaken off and cascading to the floor. No entombed electrical outlets; each one has a power strip with a long enough right-angle plug cord to set it on top of the shelves, since those will hide that outlet from view for what may be the remainder of my life. I’m hoping my uncle will one day come to visit me and examine what I’ve designed, and give it the Good Engineering Seal of Approval. I’m hoping my aunt, to whom Great-Great-Aunt Nell was a great-aunt, will take satisfaction in the way the library will honor Aunt Nell.

One improves rapidly at the fine art of assembling Ikea furniture. I like that they are more likely to give you too many small parts than too few.  We got an extra shelf per unit, which was a spendy addition to an already spendy process, but we are united in the belief that we should do this one right. So I horse some book boxes around, build a couple of shelves, unpack some book boxes that are in a spot where I need to put more shelves, repeat.

I don’t like taking or posting pictures here, and am not good at it, but when it’s done, I just might make an exception. That would be more interesting than posting pictures of a dinner, or a cat, or yet another salvo in the endless, unwinnable cultural Afghanistan that American society has become, atrocity and reprisal fought out on social media between people who could be friends if they could at least agree that someone who disagrees with your politics can still be a decent human being.

If we turn out to have too many books, we will just have to cull some down. By that time, I hope we’ll have a good idea where to donate them. Libraries will just sell them, mostly. I think instead we will advertise them as donations for low income families with children who adore reading.

I can imagine Aunt Nell doing that, too.

What your real estate seller may be thinking

In the end, business is done between people, however many barriers we place between ourselves. Since people have feelings and opinions, how we act toward each other can/might affect the transaction. A hobbyhorse of mine is the constant mantra about customer focus, customer service, “the customer is always right,” all that stuff. There is a fine art to being a good customer, and it doesn’t happen just by showing up. To their detriment and discredit, most people seem to expend no effort in that direction.

As an editor, I will reject a potential client who I deem is a problem. Intensely neurotic? Needs a therapist, not an editor. Control freak? Needs to find an editor willing to indulge that. Cannot write at all? Needs to find an editor interested in teaching remedial writing to someone likely to ignore the lessons. Cannot handle honesty? Needs to find a better liar than me. If I lie, I am not doing my work.

But isn’t the customer always right? Not when my name will be credited, she isn’t. The client has every right to disregard any of my advice. I have the right to ask not to be print-credited. I have done Alan Smithees, and I didn’t like doing so, but it’s better than having readers shake their heads at the ‘incompetent editing’ that they imagine was my doing.

In recent months, for the second time in life, I have gone through the process of selling a home. In both cases, the experience filled me with contempt for the buyer. That did not work to the buyer’s advantage, because I had wanted to share a lot of knowledge and kindness. In both cases, I chose not to volunteer that guidance, which could have saved each buyer thousands of dollars and dozens of hours of irritation. I chose not to volunteer it because I was pissed off.

As a real estate buyer, of course, you do not know much about the seller. You could be the world’s best buyer, and have cast your pearls before swine. That wouldn’t be so bad, because here is the basic logic: if you do things right, at the very least you do your own cause no harm, and at the very most, you may gain greatly. If you do not, you eliminate potential benefits. So let’s talk about how to be a good real estate buyer, seeing the transaction through the seller’s eyes.

So you’re shopping, and a place looks appealing. How long has it been on the market? The first three days are the hot period, in which there will be lots of activity unless it is badly priced or marketed. If those have elapsed, and it’s still available in a market with any level of activity, the seller is concerned. The seller must be ready for the property to be shown at any time, which can mean great disruption to normal life. (A seller finding ways to discourage showings is too stupid for a realtor or buyer to deal with.) Thus: if it’s been on the market a while, there’s a reason. If it’s a fundamentally slow market, such as a small town or depressed area, it could be no one is buying. If it’s a busy market, and it’s not selling, it is either too expensive, or there’s something else causing a problem. In any case, if it’s hot, if you want it, you must act. If it’s not, you have more leverage, but may not find out why it wasn’t selling until you go into contract. If it’s hot, the seller has the leverage, but the seller also wants the deal done and over with. If it’s not, the buyer has the leverage, but the seller may be a donkey or a fool. Having been that sort of a fool once in life, I cannot blame the buyer.

Negotiations: once this begins, the seller is in a difficult position. More offers might come in…or not. The house is still showing…and it may all be for nothing. If you require a very tight time window as a buyer, the seller may not be able to respond in time. In any case, you make an offer. If you cannot provide proof that you qualify financially, you are peeing into the wind. No amount of having your agent natter about how you are a young couple and excited, but need a discount because of youth poverty, is helpful to you. A sensible seller will look at that and suspect that your financing may fall through. So: if you want a property, offer what you would be willing to pay. The back-and-forth is excruciating to the seller, and may lead to a better offer making yours irrelevant. If the seller wants more than you will pay, fine; reject it as something you can’t afford. This is your first interaction with the seller, and s/he is taking note of how you behave. If you want it, behave like a serious buyer. If your seller doesn’t behave like a serious seller, well, now you know at least partly why it hasn’t sold.

In contract: okay, agreement has been reached, subject to whatever conditions. The power shifts to the buyer, who orders an inspection and completes the application for financing. Is this buyer a flake who will argue with the lender about documentation, or slack off providing it? What kind of home inspector will the buyer hire, and on what will he focus? The buyer can destroy the deal at any time simply by presenting unreasonable remediation conditions. The seller has removed the property from the market, which means that if this doesn’t work out, that magical first few days of listing can never return, and s/he will have to begin all over again. As buyer, do you prefer your seller relaxed and cooperative, or frightened and defensive? If you want him or her frightened and defensive, you can arrange that, but bear in mind that the seller has the power to cause you unlimited future headaches if s/he wishes. Do you really think the seller’s loathing of you works to your benefit? If so, well, have fun. If not, then do this: arrange the inspection as swiftly as you can. Through the agents, consult the seller about convenient times for inspection, and try not to throw your seller out of bed at an ungodly hour without need.

And get your financing act together, immediately. You can’t know how well the agents communicate, but at the very least, you can require your agent to notify the seller’s agent of every milestone. You don’t think your seller cares that you have just been told you have submitted all documentation to your lender in satisfactory form? Oh, s/he cares. That tells your seller you are not a flake. That means your seller is more confident about the deal. That means your seller has more to lose by not pleasing you. That means your seller will, unless stupid, do his or her best to make the deal go well for you both. Push comes to shove, your seller owns a file and knows where the pipes are, and if you make him or her angry enough, he or she might weaken one. (No, I did nothing of the kind. But I have known people who would.)

All right. The inspection has happened and the seller is nervous as to what you’ll ask for. Newsflash: inspections are not simply a means to an automatic discount. Inspections are a means to learn if the property has serious problems, which I would define as issues costing over 1% of the selling price to remedy. If the seller is sensible, s/he has already had it inspected, and has remedied all important issues. If not, no mercy on him or her, because it’s the seller’s job to deliver the property in good condition. So if your inspection disappoints you by not offering enough problems to milk another grand out of the seller–whom you have at a vulnerable point, and will remember and may resent leverage applied without good cause–consider that the best possible result, and think about waiving the contingency. You want the property. A qualified professional has just advised you that it is in great shape, with only petty issues. Either you doubt your inspector’s competency, or you are greatly reassured. If the former, why did you hire a fool? And who is the fool who does so? If the latter, now is a great time to make points with your seller by waiving the contingency, assuming you haven’t changed your mind about the deal. Once you do this, your seller sighs in relief, and has more incentive to please you.

Financing: your seller would like to know, the minute you know, that your financing is approved. S/he fears that somehow the deal may flounder because of your credit, or because you hired an incompetent financing source (commercial banks are the worst, credit unions are typically best). Your buyer’s agent works for you, but the seller pays her. You have every right to expect your communications and status reports to be sent to the seller. If your agent (or the listing agent) is lazy, you can advise her you will contact the seller directly. The seller’s email address is probably on the paperwork; push came to shove, you could simply drop by. What’s your agent going to do? Turn down her commission? Require your agent to forward your communications to the seller, and expect assurance that this has been done. Not long ago, I was a buyer in a deal where the seller was wonderful but somehow had used a dickish listing agent. We just went straight to the seller with updates. The seller was delighted, and our consideration motivated her to do us a great deal of good. Having seen the deal through her eyes, she wanted to see it through ours.

Walkthrough: it is normal for the buyer to have a final walkthrough, the stated purpose of which is to assure him/herself that the property remains in the condition presented to him or her. However, that is when you might start to see the payoff.  Your seller doesn’t have to meet you; he or she simply has to cooperate for the walkthrough. You would very much rather your seller was eager to meet you, and to share with you the most important information about the property. That’s your time to ask any question, learn about good vendors, foibles, best solutions to endemic issues. And if you annoyed your seller, s/he has no obligation to do a single thing except permit the walkthrough in absentia.

You think that doesn’t matter? Consider this. I had prepared a long document with a core dump of everything useful I knew about this home, which I will vacate within thirty-six hours [this was drafted as I was preparing to leave the home]. I went so far as to print .pdfs of documentation on appliances I had dug up, at great effort, for which our own seller provided us none. I was excited to answer any question the buyer might pose, and eager to offer her a personally guided tour. I can tell you right now that, within the first month, her dog will cost her several hundred dollars she could have avoided with my help. And even though I surrendered some very precious time with my wife in order to be present for the walkthrough, this buyer did two terribly foolish things. First, she showed up with an entourage of no less than six people. Herself, her fiancé, and her daughter–those I understood. The rest were just friends or relatives wanting to lookylou. It unsettled and annoyed me. What was more, they determined that they didn’t want much information from me. They were sure, I guess, that they knew all they needed to know.

Very well. I’ll just chill over here. In plastic-smile silence, volunteering nothing.

After they left, having allowed me to waste my time and having made the experience disappointing for me, I went to my computer and deleted the document. They wanted no information? Wish granted. I also made the decision that, for the short remaining time I was here, I was exempt from any obligation to clean the place up. So long as I delivered per the contract, that was all I need do. I considered tossing the spare filters for the air cleaner, but I didn’t. I thought about tossing the paint cans most relevant to the current situation, though I didn’t. I lost all interest in not leaving clutter in the garage, or sweeping. I would not mow again. The six spare keys? Pitched them. Lawn stuff I wasn’t taking? Couldn’t leave clutter laying around, now, could we? Obviously, I would not and did not harm the property, as I was obligated to deliver it in the proper condition, and I did just that…but no contract requires me to go the extra mile and make decisions in the buyer’s favor.

I wanted it to work otherwise, but for most of the process, as seller, I was over a barrel. And when it came down to it, the buyer managed to communicate to me that I didn’t matter. Appointments occurred with zero choice on my part as to timing. I offered some items for free; the buyer accepted those and then had the nerve to ask for others as well. Seen through my eyes, I had prepared gifts, and they either were spurned, or spurred requests for additional gifts.

Very well.

Ah, perhaps you think it’s always that way? Think again. The house we bought? The sellers chose us, the lowest offer, because they liked us based on how we presented ourselves. I realize it’s un-American, but not everyone is a greedy bastard; some people make decisions for reasons other than the monetary religion of the land. The sellers, unprompted, spent $1000 having an appliance inspected, repaired, and brought to good function. The sellers, when we waived the inspection contingency (less than 0.5% of the property value needing addressing), offered us any and all furniture in the house. They were most reassured by our steady informing them of milestones. When we held the whip hand, we did not use it, and they knew it, and they wanted to leave us the best possible outcome.

And they did. They were my wife’s tour guides on the walkthrough, had already told the neighbors great things about us, and left us a number of happy and kind surprises. We all felt great about the transaction. As buyers, we treated our sellers with courteous respect and consideration, and they repaid us handsomely. We had many chances to destroy that atmosphere; we just knew it was not in our best interests, beyond being just bad business conduct. Showing consideration for your seller is like being courteous to the cop who stopped you. You might not help your case, but you can be sure you did not harm it.

Houses cost six figures, most places. I think it is wise to improve one’s odds in every possible way when paying such a sum for any item. And as a wise man long ago taught me, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line except when dealing with people. The roundabout, wavy line is the one where you see the world through someone else’s eyes, and seek to make that person’s experience better where you can.

Your seller could still be a jerk immune to good behavior, or unable to believe it could mean a considerate buyer. Those are the risks one runs. But I would rather be a very considerate buyer, and at least create the option for an excellent outcome, then be inconsiderate–and never know what I cost myself until the contractor’s invoice arrives, long after the property has recorded.

A story veterinarian

I’m not much of a pet person, but I’ve read nearly all the James Herriot books. His memoirs provide tremendous insight into good business, good people skills, and good-heartedness. At long last, a suitable analogy for my work (if not always my bedside manner).

I’m a story veterinarian. My patients are stories. Their authors, thus owners, are my clients.

My patients are so familiar to their owners, many think of them as their own children. Said owners spend many hours of loving time with my patients, and become deeply attached to some of their quirks.

I got into this line of work because I truly do love writing, books, and the eloquent employ of the English language, just as the typical vet loves animals and life.

I love to see happy owners with healthy patients, or patients I can help them to heal.

It does not always seem as if I’m that positive and enthusiastic, because I see a lot of patients, and many of them are suffering, and I require a certain thickness of skin in order to get through my working day without absorbing so much suffering that I cannot cope.

It is very hard to tell the owner that s/he was the one who harmed the patient. One can see why the owner would become very defensive and angry. Few pet owners will cheerfully cop to outright neglect. It’s too hard to contemplate.

If the owner doesn’t like what I have to say, s/he is prone to find someone to tell him or her what s/he would rather hear. Poor editors can make great livings telling mediocre writers and storytellers that the story is great, that their writing is great, and that neither will need much change, thus it will be very inexpensive. A number of desperate English majors with private school-level student loan payments are using this method to supplement their incomes from Arby’s. I feel badly for them, but it’s unscrupulous. At the same time, that author would just keep looking until he or she got that answer, therefore someone might as well ‘earn’ the money and enable the publication of the mediocrity, since that publication was going to happen anyway.

Not every owner can handle/wrangle every type of patient I see. Just as a person of 70 with steel pins in a broken hip may have trouble controlling a young German shepherd, a person with poor attention span probably should not undertake an 800-page epic.

Some patients can be healed. Some are terminal. Some suffer from genetic defects. Some just need proper diet and exercise in order to thrive.

No need to apologize to me because the patient crapped and ralphed on the floor. The patient usually craps and/or ralphs on the floor. I am well equipped for that.

My work does not encompass all specialties, and excludes some. As your canine vet may not be able to doctor your pet python, I may be unqualified to edit your offbeat mixing of two disparate genres. All I can do is be honest about my limitations.

I cannot tell the owner what the bill or prognosis will be until I examine the patient in full. Anyone demanding a price or outcome without allowing me a full examination of the patient is being unrealistic.

Every owner comes to me fortified with the accolades of half a dozen fanboys/girls, usually close relatives and longtime friends, who have told him or her that the pet is the cutest and most wonderful thing ever.

There are messages that are very hard to give to an owner, and I won’t always be good at presenting them.

At times, I must tell my client that s/he is abusing or neglecting the patient, and this requires great care and tact. I can experience lapses in that area, especially when it’s obvious the owner needs a serious dose of reality.

A serious dose of reality is often needed, because in many cases, the greatest fiction of all is not the story itself, but the author’s belief that everything s/he does is excellent and marketable.

Not all patients can be saved, or made whole, and the hardest message is to tell someone so.

Serial is good for you: new release, The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver, Book 1

The first bowl of this serial is available today in Kindle format. I was substantive/developmental editor.

Shawn Inmon and I have as nearly ideal an editor/author relationship as one can imagine. My job is to tell him exactly what I think, without holding back. If what I think is that his idea is inadvisable, and he insists on going through with it anyway, my job is to help him make it the best possible story. His job is to conceive and write the story, ask for my help when he finds himself perplexed or stuck, and send me a check when I finish editing. We do our jobs.

When Shawn first told me he wanted to write a story that incorporated elements of time travel, I groaned hard and loud. With time travel, suspension of disbelief is very difficult. My viewpoint is that an author gets one, and only one, “because I say it works” explanation for something that has serious plausibility problems. For everything else, an underlying explanation must exist even if not articulated, and that underlying explanation needs not to be stupid. Many authors squander their BISIW excuse on something petty, then continue to use it in lieu of intelligent characterization and world shaping. When someone objects, they sniff that that’s just their creative process. The result may be a good story idea taken to levels that render it silly.

Time travel thus plays that card immediately, and the problem then is that from the moment a character goes back in time, an alternative sequence of events unfolds. If you want someone to avoid a problem in July, and send him back to April, by July the actual problem will no longer be the same as in the first version of history, proportionate to the character’s ripple effect. For example, an earthquake would still occur on schedule, because there is not much anyone can do to change them. However, its impact would change dramatically, because the time travel would change the actions of many people.

Folks don’t always get that, which is why you see sports fans complaining that the ref cost them the game in the last two minutes. They hate it when I say: “Actually, on the first series, a ref cost you the game–maybe.” They do not understand, and do not like this, as it challenges their victimhood in an emotional moment. With no memory of any actual event, I say with confidence: “Well, on third down, an offensive lineman was guilty of holding. [Since offensive linemen hold on every down except for the V-formation kneeldowns, this is automatically true.] The officials did not call the penalty, and the other team made a first down that should have become a third-and-long. The bottom line is that, had your team played better throughout, it probably would have won, and blaming the refs is a lame loser’s sour grapes.” I don’t much like to watch sporting events in groups, as you may imagine. But you see my point, I trust: change time, and you change events in an outward ripple. Some people miss out on car accidents, while new people die in them. Some people get phone calls that halt impulse buys, while new people do not, and take actions they could not have taken while on the phone (a decreasing set, of late). You can’t drop someone into a situation three months before a decisive event, then expect that the event unfolds on schedule, unless it is completely immune to human choices. A volcanic eruption, for example. Yes, a scheduled election would still take place, but not in the same way.

The need to explain all that is one reason I don’t look forward to time travel stories as an editor. It’s no fun telling someone that his or her brainchild doesn’t work. And while I can fix bad writing, I can’t always fix a bad story idea, nor do most clients want to pay me to do so. The logical rejoinder is to find “an editor who believes in my work.” I understand that, even though an editor who does not but is willing to help would serve that author better.

On top of that, Shawn wanted to rehash the Shawn-and-Dawn story again with him in it, going back in time to fix his mistakes. That story has been written twice, and has inspired another book that is somewhat derivative. It. Had. Been. Done. And. Done. And. Somewhat. Done. Again.

So. I talked Shawn out of the rehash, at least, then explained to him what the problems were with time travel, and he accepted that he was burning his one BISIW with his premise. The rest of his story, if it were to succeed, would have to pay its way on demonstrated good sense, originality, and merit. Shawn got cracking. At one point, he huddled with me to work though some storyline issues he found perplexing. I can usually suggest an alternate route that will work, which is the developmental part of the editing. Shawn had a bit of a slog with some recent projects, partly due to self-imposed deadlines and partly because he felt compelled to finish what he’d begun. Both are good habits, but they can mean one would ideally be doing something else. In addition, I have been after Shawn for many months to break out of his comfort zones with his fiction. Shawn loves music, youth romance, the small-town Northwest, and other familiar inclusions. I believe that it’s okay for authors to have pet themes–look how well it worked for John Irving–provided they don’t go so far as recycling the same basic storyline and characters.

Then Shawn got the idea to release it in serial format. Since the original ms had not been designed for serialization, this presented issues as to where the story should break. When Shawn first presented the idea to me, this installment ended with Thomas’s key decision; it was much shorter. My response to Shawn, paraphrased: “And that’s it? That’s all? If you are moving this to serial format, I don’t have a lot of experience with the concept, but I can tell you that if you break it there, you will not generate a ton of interest in the second installment. Your first installment must provide some form of conclusion, yet must hold out the promise of interesting things to come.” Shawn agreed, and moved the breakpoint forward. I think he picked a good spot given the flow of the tale. We may have several more discussions about breakpoints, because I believe that each installment needs to be rewarding on its own merit, and Shawn concurs.

Here, Shawn sets up shop in a different state than Washington. His protag is decidedly unsympathetic, but nuanced and very much unlike previous protags, and we see other characters taking on balance and nuance as well. He proves that he can begin a story without teen romance. What Shawn does best is get the esoteric details right, point up the silliness of pop culture, and time his epiphanies well. ‘Write what you know’ means not to just wing it, but to present backdrop and experience informed by real life experience or strong research. Shawn’s sales experience, real estate career, and the career path leading to those things give him a wealth of authenticity upon which to draw. You can always count on Shawn to take an aspect of pop culture and present it in just absurd enough fashion to bring a knowing smile. And when his characters should have realizations, they often do. Not always, not predictably. But often enough, and often not the one the reader would have anticipated.

I do not know how many installments will comprise this series, but I liked the first one very well. I suspect you will too.


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