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 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.

New release: Second Chance Summer, by Shawn Inmon

This novella, now on sale at Amazon in Kindle format, is the third in a love story series that began with Second Chance Christmas, then Second Chance Valentine’s. I was substantive editor.

For this story, as I saw it, Shawn was at a decision point with the series. Okay, they’re together; now what do they do together? Do you break them apart and bring them back? Do we expand from love into mystery, action, drama? Shawn introduced a pair of captivating new characters in SCV; where to take them?

We did this one a little differently. Substantive editing has an inherent balance: where is the crossing point between editing the writer’s work and imposing one’s own solutions? As a general rule, I don’t believe that I should insert too much of my own identity into any book I edit. The ideal result is that it sounds like the author, but better. However, that takes more time in a couple of ways. It requires more cautious treatment, but it also means that major plot issues are referred back to the writer for resolution. It’s not that I couldn’t solve them; it’s that I would prefer to defer to the writer’s vision.

We had two issues this time, their combination heavily impacting the schedule. Both were tied to a planned release of July 4. Shawn only got the ms to me about two weeks prior to release date, which would require us to step on the gas. However, he was also dealing with some family health issues serious enough to monopolize anyone’s mindshare and emotional strength. When an author can’t focus, it is likely to impair the work product. Not only would it be difficult for him to handle me coming back with a sheaf of questions, his ability to process them was at issue. And there wasn’t time to wait out the personal matters, which presented me with the question of how to suggest we handle this. Hard part about being an editor: it isn’t acceptable to answer ‘hell, I don’t know’ about a question that concerns achieving a good book. What did they hire an editor for in the first place, if not to supply those answers?

I thought about it, wrote to Shawn, and said: ‘Why don’t we do it this way: I’ll just take the governors off and see it to completion, answering any questions myself by implementing what I think is a smart solution. No comments, no teaching, no feedback, no questions for you–just do it. If I don’t know what to do, I’ll do something I believe is intelligent.’ Shawn liked the idea, so the result was what you see in the published book. Which is my way of saying that if you feel it slipped up in any way, it’s more on me than usual.

That made clear, I’m confident that SCS has the most interesting story concept of the three books in the series to date. I like Shawn’s developing skill at satire, and his readiness to break some eggs in the literary kitchen. When you see an author daring to do that, you cannot predict what’s coming next, and it makes his future work more appealing. Shawn Inmon is on the rise as a storyteller.

About the only problem with it is that in his Author’s Notes, Shawn has once again given me excessive credit. But he’s that kind of a man, and that generous spirit comes out in his storytelling as well as his marketing. Shawn has learned what some authors never will: better to focus on writing something worth pirating, than to worry so much about piracy that the thing turns out not worth pirating.

Painful lessons, which cost me a grotesque sum to learn, about selling a home

It’s bad enough to undertake a major project, and then learn–too late to remedy matters–that you did it all wrong. If you didn’t take away any lessons from the experience, it was all for nothing. But if you learned anything, why not share?

Okay. Time for the after-action report.

My wife and I recently sold a home in Kennewick, Washington. We got far less for it than we had expected. It was a painful, miserable experience I wouldn’t recommend to anyone I liked. We did a lot of things wrong, assumed things that weren’t correct, avoided remedies we could have obtained. This was a hot mess, costly and painful. Was it all our fault? No–but blaming others for one’s own bad decisions is a losing game. I include bad trust decisions in that.

Mistake #1: selling a vacant home.

Why it’s a mistake: you will still have to pay the utilities and all the other maintenance costs. Buyers will like it less, so it will be harder to sell, and you will get less money for it when you do. Once they figure out that they won’t get caught, kids will vandalize it. The police won’t protect it, as protection is a non-revenue activity, and they are too busy raising money through traffic tickets. It will cost double to insure it, the insurance will be less comprehensive, and if you think you can get away with just not telling the insurance company it’s vacant, you’d better rethink that misguided notion. You must pay to have it mowed, watered, weeded. It will be an open cash hemorrhage seeping arterial money all year round (guess how we gained perspective on that).

Better: either stay in it until it goes into contract, hire a home caretaker service, or even let your nephew live there rent-free. Work out whatever you must in order to make sure it isn’t vacant, so that someone at least mows the lawn, notices sprinkler damage, spots pipe leaks, flushes the toilets, and runs the water. That way, if a contractor turns off your heat in winter, and doesn’t turn it back on again, someone will notice, and that someone probably will not be a buyer’s real estate agent.

Mistake #2: selling a home from out of town.

Why it’s a mistake: because you are out of sight to a listing realtor, you are out of mind, and unless it’s a huge property with a massive commission, you may be irrelevant to his world. The closing process will be more cumbersome due to the distance. You will have to pay someone else to perform minor repairs that would be within your capacity if you were present. And if you decide to spruce something up to improve the appeal, you will not be there to supervise the contractors’ work. Since you are out of mind to your realtor, he will not check on their work. That’s their cue to do a shabby job, leave a mess, overcharge you, and when you find out, try to blame someone else. They won’t even understand how you could object to that. It’s just what is done.

Oh, and if you have to Fed Ex the closing documents, do check the tracking number on the tag vs. the register slip that you get at a Fed Ex Office with a tracking number on it. Otherwise, for example, you may see to your horror the next day that your closing documents evidently went to Fort Worth, Texas rather than Kennewick, Washington. You will be relieved when the title company informs you that they actually got the right documents, but I don’t recommend those fifteen minutes of tachycardia to anyone. This would not have happened if we had not tried to sell a home from out of town.

Better: don’t leave town until you’ve got the proceeds. That way, none of the above is a problem.

Obviously, the combination of selling a vacant home from out of town is worse than the sum of those two miserable parts. Brilliant, weren’t we?

Mistake #3: hoping to sell it without having to repaint the crazy cat lady wall colors and replace the scuzzy-looking carpet.

Why it’s a mistake: because people are stupid. People take one look at the weird colors, or grungy carpet, and their impression of the property is formed. They don’t say: $3000 and that’s fixed. I’ll offer that much less. I figured this out watching those idiotic house hunter shows, in which someone takes one step inside, doesn’t like the carpet or the paint job, and forms a negative impression. The buyer doesn’t care that you already priced in that $3000–she will price it in again.

Better: spruce it up yourself before you list it. If you can do it yourself, great; you won’t have to deal with contractors. But if you can’t do it yourself, you can at least keep an eye on the contractors, and they will grudgingly do it right because otherwise, you can prove that they did not.

Mistake #4: believing assurances that a realtor will keep an eye on your property, even if he claims to have a relative who does that.

Why it’s a mistake: because the realtor won’t. That’s just something they say to make you feel better, because you can’t verify it. And if you actually fall for it, the realtor now knows that you are a moron: someone too dumb to know the difference between truth and fiction, good service and bad. An easy mark, an unquestioning client, a supreme fool. There is now no need for the realtor to pay your listing any attention whatsoever; if it sells itself, wonderful, if not, it’ll sit there and fall apart. Not his problem.

Better: make your own arrangements to see that the property remains in good condition. Keep living there, or get someone else to do so. Rely on your agent for nothing related to the matter.

Mistake #5: listing it too high at start. While I believe that a lot of people do this, hoping someone will fall in love with it, people’s love levels are limited by a sense of good value.

Why it’s a mistake: because your best chance to sell it is probably when it just hits the market, and everyone is interested in showing it (and it’s not stale on the market). If it’s too spendy at that time, you miss that timeframe and can never get it back.

Better: spruce it up, list it reasonably at the outset, and hope for the sale to come from that early attention.

Mistake #6: choosing a listing agent because he was the protégé of one you knew and respected.

Why it’s a mistake: because it’s quite possible for a terrible agent to make a pretty fair living off a retired agent’s old customer base. You can’t assume that the standards were passed down. And just because someone is a good buyer’s agent does not mean he will be a good listing agent.

Better: interview at least three agents. Do so at the property. If possible, choose your candidates by referrals, but have them over. Ask them what they would list it for. Ask them how they would market it. Ask them point blank if there is anything about the property that would make it a low priority for them to sell, and do so in such a way as to invite candor without recrimination. You don’t want an agent who, deep down, doesn’t even want the listing.

Mistake #7: adhering to a listing agreement with a failed agent.

Why it’s a mistake: because you can often act to rescind a listing agreement prior to its expiration. Never continue to deal with an agent who is not bothering, or whom you have come to despise, or whom you suspect has deceived you. In what universe should a lousy agent collect a big commission after an extended period of frustration, during which you hated him a little more every day of your life?

Better: read the agreement carefully, call his managing broker, and ask to rescind the agreement. The typical requirement is that if you re-list it, you list it with another agent within the same regional association. The main purpose of listing agreements is to make sure that you don’t cut the agent out–that if a sale results from his marketing, that he is not deprived of his fair compensation. Expect a stipulation that you either remove the property from the market for an unacceptable length of time, or re-list it so that someone else gets paid. I’m not here to help anyone screw an agent who did a good job, but it is stupid, stupid, stupid to pay an agent who did a lousy job. And turn a deaf ear to the managing broker’s entreaties to choose a different agent from that firm; that’s a terrible idea. The spurned agent will fill the new one’s ears with venom about you. For this deal, at least, you and that firm are done.

Mistake #8: renewing a listing agreement with a failed agent while/because the home is in contract.

Why it’s a mistake: wait, if he has it sold, is it really a failure? Perhaps, if you aren’t happy with the deal and were desperate, and didn’t just rescind the agreement. But the deal may fall through, especially because a failed agent may not properly qualify a buyer or represent your interests in proper fashion. Note that this doesn’t mean you should attempt to evade paying the commission due; if it resulted from a failed agent’s marketing, and you had a valid agreement, that’s his sale. You’d best make your peace with it, because to do otherwise would likely be actionable. It would also make you a failed seller.

Better: want to make sure an agent strives to complete the deal? If the agreement is expiring while the home is in contract, and you hate the agent, don’t renew the agreement. Then he knows that he either gets this one done or loses it. You don’t owe him an explanation. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. You don’t have to renew it. If the deal completes, you have to pay him. If it does not, you’re looking for a better agent.

Mistake #9: choosing to list with a ‘top producer.’

Why it’s a mistake: because a top producer is by no means necessarily the most competent agent. He could just be milking someone else’s old book of business. He will have less time to devote to your property. He doesn’t have to care. We were warned against this by competent guidance, and failed to heed the guidance, which is stupid in capital letters. Oh, and if you think that talking to the managing broker will solve anything, think again. Top producers bring in the most money. Your satisfaction is less important than the firm’s revenue stream. Sorry. He brings in piles of money, and the price is a few PR casualties. He was making an omelet, and you were just one of the broken eggs. If you imagine that the managing broker would discipline a top producer just because you told a tale of outrage, you are Linus, the manager is Lucy, and your innocence is the football.

Should it be this way? No, but ‘should’ is useless. Many impotent wails in history have included the word ‘should.’ What ‘should be’ has no bearing. What a noun is or is not, can or cannot, will or will not, does or does not, is reality. In reality, in the world of sales, high producers are like star athletes at SEC schools: the rules and law are different for them. Don’t be surprised if the MB tries to take over the conversation and tell you why you are wrong, why the agent is fantastic, and why you’re just a whiny-butt. My advice: interrupt him the minute that starts. Tell him that you were treated abominably, and that if he wants to hear how, you’re willing to tell him, but if he’s just here to invalidate your experience, the conversation can end.

Better: ask your candidates how much business they do. Go to the finalist’s office. If the I Love Me wall includes a dozen Top Producer awards, forget it. You want someone who does a fair amount of business, but not so much that yours won’t matter. And you want someone who has something to fear from a managing broker.

Mistake #10: dropping the price because your agent is useless and you’re desperate.

Why it’s a mistake: because if your agent sucks, you should be rescinding the listing agreement instead, or not renewing it. The reason to drop the price is because you have decided that your price is above market and that no one will pay you that much for it, not in desperation because you think it’s your only way to influence the situation. I’d rather not say precisely why, but if you do that, you will walk away with lasting resentment and a feeling of having been cheated, when deep down you will realize that it was your own inexperience that caused you to cheat yourself.

Better: obviously, sack your agent and find one who isn’t useless. Have no soul nor remorse.

Mistake #11: assuming that once you are in contract, everyone will do what they’re supposed to.

Why it’s a mistake: because people are, pardon me, fuckups. Even when it’s counter to their interests. Buyers dawdle with loan documentation. Lenders piddle about assembling it, then demand more on short notice. Agents dawdle informing you of everything. Buyers decide they want to modify the contract even after everyone has signed, and expect you to swallow the modifications without demur. Title companies tell you one thing, then do another. Inspectors miss glaring things, yet come up with stupid things, and buyers want them dealt with. Drywall contractors cut into water pipes by mistake. Yard maintenance people and nephews break sprinkler heads. Neighborhood kids break windows. No one just does it right. People are fuckups.

Better: expect a steady stream of unforced errors, egregious blunders, sloppy omissions, lazy functionaries, arrogant demands, and deceptive statements. Odds are good that if you perform precisely as the contract requires and good business practice would suggest, you’ll be all alone on your little island of virtue, waving across the water to fleets of ships of fools. Be pleasantly surprised by the one or two people in the transaction who seem to take their duties seriously.

Mistake #12: reading this and deciding that there aren’t any good people in real estate and mortgages. Not one we made, but one to warn you about.

Why it would be a mistake: because, how do you think I learned all this, and figured out what we ought to have done? From one of the good ones, albeit not one in a position to participate in this transaction due to geography, who gave generously of time and wisdom without any expectation of compensation, and volunteered to do more if asked.

Better: take this away from this post. It’s not that there are not good ones. I have proof that there are. It is that you must learn to identify the good and the bad, and be ready to jettison the bad and work with the good.

Because everything useful you have learned here was influenced by the good. And the good deserve to be paid. This costs too much to pay the bad.

New Weird Al soon…and Gangnam Style parodies

News has come that on July 15, Weird Al Yankovic will release a new album: Mandatory Fun. Going by the cover, I deduce that the title track will be a North Korean-themed parody of South Korean rapper Psy’s Gangnam Style.

Gods, I hope so. The video should be classic. No matter what, though, any new Al is a must-buy for me.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to distract myself from real estate headaches and associated frustrations through work. In addition to editing a manuscript, this is a good time to become a Gangnam Style parody aggregator. Because looks can be deceiving.

First, of course, the original. It went viral to a level ensuring that, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve heard of it. My own take: the cultural influence of hip-hop goes far beyond conventional US stereotypes, and this is some of the best evidence for that. It isn’t all gangsters, family dysfunction, and violence. That’s just one very visible (and media-emphasized) manifestation of hip-hop culture. And yeah, it does touch on race. I grew up listening to Irish folk and country music, both of which glorify a whole lot of dysfunction and violence. That’s even more true if you consider alcohol a drug, which I am not sure how anyone cannot. To dismiss rap (the music of hip-hop culture) as One More Reason The Country Is Going To Hell is narrow-minded and media-buffaloed.

Some time back, a band of creative central Kansas brothers came up with Farmer Style. It had me laughing from start to finish, the more so because I’m from Kansas. I know their world. And don’t be taken in by shortsighted Cletus stereotypes enhanced by the gentle drawl I myself grew up with. If I had to guess, one probably got his degree in agronomy, one in animal husbandry with a minor in veterinary medicine, and one in business administration. I’d bet that the sister will end up in accounting or dairy science. These are educated people; they live where they live, and do what they do, because they like it. Kind of like my aunt (bachelor’s in zoology, doctorate in psychology) and uncle (bachelor’s in civil engineering) managing the family ranch. They have the help of my cousins, one who works in IT, another with a master’s in speech pathology.

Then my Australian mate Paul turned me on to Battler Style, a parody by two Sydney DJs. If one didn’t know they were broadcasting professionals, one might have imagined them a couple of exaggerated-accent yahoos just like those they’re having fun with. While I’m laughing (as the DJs themselves cannot help throughout the video), I’m noting that it’s both good music and highlights a real aspect of Australian culture: a mix of mockery and pride. In Australia, a ‘battler’ is a member of the working semi-poor, getting by in some way or another. You might not see many of them at the Sydney Opera House, but they too are Australia.

At that point, I got to digging around on my own. Gunman Style is an Asian-themed parody of Western movie themes. A Westerner myself, I understand the white hat/black hat mentality they’re laughing at. This too is good music, an elongated variant of the original done by guys with squirt guns. It takes smarts and talent to produce stuff like this, in much the same way as Snoop Dogg is such a savvy and instinctual businessman.

I found this, a video-only parody of the original by a Navy/Marine Corps medical outfit in Afghanistan. Even though it doesn’t include parody lyrics–probably because they would have gotten in trouble–just the visuals are funny as hell. Somewhere in Afghanistan, there was an officer staff that understood a valuable thing: you don’t have to be a raging jackass in order to lead. Things like this keep morale alive in places where the reality varies from uncomfortable to awful. The best part is the one outside the Sani-Cans, finishing with one guy in the head.

Then there’s a Korean parody in English making fun of Kim Jong Un, and very effectively. Even if what it refers to is a humanitarian tragedy, I for one couldn’t help but laugh. Just the right mix of cheesiness and truth.

This one, making fun of Mitt Romney, busted me up. I like the fact that the lyricist stayed completely off his religion, which many people did not. It’s a little dated (though it might not end up being so), but watching the people dance with croquet mallets, it’d be hard not to laugh. And after doing that, here’s one that made fun of both parties for the 2012 election, but made more fun of the incumbent.

You can probably find more if you dig around YouTube, but I think this’ll do. If you know of any more great ones, feel free to drop a link into a comment.

Never go full Ramsay

Tonight I was watching an old rerun of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. In the main, the show is appalling. Its premise: legendary Scottish chef Ramsay drops in on a sinking-ship restaurant, his mission to save both restaurant and family fortunes from collapse. I’ve long wondered why I keep watching this predictable dross.

The show consists of the same thing every time, with petty variations. Gordon meets and greets the admiring, thankful restauranteurs, then orders some menu items. Without exception, he hates the chow. This is crahp! It looks loike it came out of a die-pah! This was freozen! It’s ehovacooked! It’s raw! I want to vomit immejatly! What a mess! Gordon is a candid guy. The producers have to bleep him a lot.

The proprietors hurry to defend their dishes. The food is good. I won’t back down on that from anyone. All our customers love this. If you don’t like it, I’m sorry, but this is a customer favorite. We have the best food in town. You’re just a jerk. Gordon comments that he has his work cut out for him, and begins to get to the bottom of things.

Whether it’s incompetent management, lazy kitchen staff, T.rex portions, walk-ins that look like Syrian prison isolators, old grumps who have lost their passion, decor worthy of Rhonda’s deteriorating Doo Drop Inn on US 195, whatever, Gordon ferrets out the fail. He cleans up the Augean kitchen and its biology projects, redecorates the entire joint (time for a team cry), comes up with a menu even these cretins can execute, and re-opens the NEW Rhonda’s Ristorante Italiano (or whatever).

On opening night, of course, it all starts well, then The Problem reverts to his or her old habits. It’s all coming apart. Men curse and quit, women yell and cry; everyone says ‘screw it’ and goes out back for a smoke. Gordon saves the day, gets them back on track, and we’re about out of time. He hopes they stay the course, and that they don’t go back to just buying and microwaving all that freozen crahp.

Some nights, by this time, I’m still awake in my recliner. But tonight I figured out why I bother.

It’s like my job.

No, I am not the Gordon Ramsay of book midwifery, though if I see the butt emerging first, I think I do a creditable job of making sure the literary fetus lives to experience infancy. Just yesterday, a young writer asked me face to face whether I was a good editor. I told the truth. “I’ve got a lot of experience, but I know better editors. I wouldn’t edit my own book; no way. But I could probably help you make yours better.” That admitted, I look at a lot of writing, and I think I’m a fair judge of talent and its application level. Most of it has serious flaws. Most of its authors do not want to hear that. Some sniff, toss their hair, and move on to someone who will give them a gentler edit and a more affirming answer. Others take my words to heart, roll up their sleeves, and decide to repair the deficiencies. Okay, how do I turn it so the head comes out first? I didn’t realize that was the butt.

As I’ve said in the past, there is a bizarre, direct mathematical relationship between talent and receptiveness to input. The writers who need the most help, reject it all. I fight for my words! I think my way is much better; toodle-oo! Those with the most promise drink critique in and let it run down their chins, eyes slavering and wild. They are positively greedy for growth. And I’d better have a good explanation for what I’m advising, because if they smell pasture, they know I’m no use to them.

Their greed for growth is the most invigorating thing that can happen to my workday. This is the best greed they could have. It is what will make me go back over the entire ms again, just to make sure I didn’t miss either a bad verb tense or an opportunity to guide. All they are told is that it’s taking me longer; more precisely, I am applying what I gathered 2/3 through the ms to the earlier parts, where I know the same conditions exist but I didn’t then apprehend them. Why is your edit so consistent? Because I did most of it twice, dear client.

That’s why I know how Gordon feels. If he gets someone keen to improve and learn, he’ll go to the wall with him or her, challenge, educate, reinforce. However, his reality as pictured on the show is a crusade to penetrate self-delusion. And that’s the tough part for me. A lot of people can’t write, don’t want to hear that, and I have to figure out how to say so with some modicum of compassion. I already know it won’t lead to compensated work, because no matter how compassionately I say “This is fundamentally flawed and will be challenging to repair,” that’s not the droids they want. At that point, my goal is simpler: convey truth without sinking a barb. That way, at least, I will not gain a reputation as Crusher of Dreams.

Some editors don’t bother. They have watched too much Simon Cowell, or they are old enough not to care what anyone thinks. Dilemma: if you’re an editor, you assert that you are a judge of literary talent, which presumes owning some of that in your own right. If you can’t let someone down easily in words, where was that literary talent? Was it just too much trouble to dust off? Was there much to begin with?

I will admit, though, that at times I wish I could just go Full Ramsay.

One mustn’t.

Forbid yourself to write worse

90% of the aspiring writers I know could cure over half their problems just by forbidding themselves a number of bad habits. Most are willing to cut back on them, but unwilling to go so far as categorical discontinuance. That’s unfortunate, because the discontinuance is a free, self-directed writing class.

By and large, I don’t like writing games. That’s my term for challenges where you have to write without this or that, or must include words beginning with such-and-such a letter, some other cutesy stuff. This, however, is not a game. This is a creative way to develop habits that look good in a printed book.

Here’s the logic. Most bad writing habits represent mechanisms which have value when used with restraint. Only when they become easy outs are they problems; it’s easier to just follow the bad habit than to write well without it. Okay. Suppose you deny yourself the easy out. You can’t use them at all. Now you confront the dilemma: how else can I convey what I need to say? Without the easy cheat, you must recast sentences. You must ask whether you even needed the cheat. You retrain yourself to tell it with your words, straight and clean.

  • Adverbs. Try writing without a single one.
  • ALL CAPS. Write without a single instance.
  • Ellipses. Not even one.
  • Bold, italics, underlining. Try with none.
  • Semicolons. What if you couldn’t use any?
  • Exclamation points. Huh? “Forbidding myself those is preposterous!” Not so much as you imagine.
  • Passive voice. Forbid its use.
  • Sentences that begin with ‘But’ or ‘And.’ This one will vault your writing skyward.
  • Em dashes. Try without them, even in the case of sudden interruption of dialogue or thought.
  • Parenthesized comments. None.
  • Making the excuse to yourself, “That’s just my style.” Answer yourself: “Then my style is wrong. I must improve it.” If there is one sentence that obstructs a writer’s growth like a block of granite, it is that fatal sniff: “Well, that’s just my style.” It’s a statement that tells me my services as editor will be of little use. If I drive my car on the wrong side of the road whenever it’s convenient for me, “that’s just my driving style” is not a good answer for the police. If I curse in job interviews, “that’s just my style of interaction” is not going to win over an employer. If your style is wrong, fix it.
  • “S/he felt.” What if you forbade yourself to tell the reader feelings? What would you do? You’d learn to show them, not tell. More show is better. More tell is worse.
  • Anything else cheesy. Don’t allow it.

Sound like I’m telling you to strive to be boring? No. Remember, this is not how the finished product will be. This is self-disciplined training.

If you forbid yourself to cheat, then sit down to write, you leave yourself no alternative but to re-examine your mode of expression. You will discover that each mechanism, everything you have been told represents bad writing, does have its niche. And because you did everything possible not to use it, it will be handy for when no other usage will convey the meaning. The desired end habit is to resist using them except when all the alternatives are worse, or even grotesque. Bad habits are always guilty until proven innocent, unnecessary until proven necessary.

If you’ve recast the whole sentence or para a few times, and could find no other non-crappy way, you may need one of those mechanisms. Passive voice, italicized emphasis, ellipses, adverbs and all: they are parts of writing for reasons. They are like drinks of whiskey or dishes of ice cream. Now and then, nothing else satisfies–but you probably shouldn’t have one every few hours of the waking day.

My given list of bad habits is not exhaustive. Some people write like Hemingway, with para-long sentences strung together with ‘ands,’ yet without commas, and figure that if Hemingway did it, it must be okay. Some people are addicted to single dashes set off with spaces. Whatever you are doing, that does not resemble top-shelf writing, is probably your bad habit. I know my own. If you don’t know your own, you know little of yourself as a writer. That’s sad.

Try it. If your desire to improve is sincere, you will soon see.

You’ve got fermented fish!

Wouldn’t that have been a nice, amusing option for AOL’s mail announcement?

A long time ago, when I was in my fifth year of college and taking three languages at once, I had a part-time job delivering mail in Mercer Hall at the University of Washington. Mercer was part of what was called the South Campus complex of Terry, Lander and Mercer Halls. Mercer was smallest, housing perhaps four hundred residents. It was a quiet dorm with two separate wings, and had a high population of rather laid-back Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. In 2011, UW demolished it to make room for a larger dorm (scroll down, look for a short brick building).

The South Campus central mailroom was in Terry Hall (also now demolished), which also provided front desk services to all three dorms, so that’s where the mail landed. The gal who did the Terry mail had a great gig, and the Lander mail was also pretty good–you could get from Terry to Lander without being rained on, and there was only one mailroom to service. The worst job of the three was the Mercer mail. When the Lander job opened up, I asked to transfer, but the supervisor refused. Mercer had long been a source of acrimonious complaints about the mail and its bearer; my arrival had ended them, and he didn’t want to risk the complaints coming back. I learned an important lesson about management: they don’t care about rewarding you. Management does what is expedient for management, and if that means rewarding good work by keeping you in a worse position, that’s fine with management. This is why ‘loyalty to the employer’ means nothing unless personally earned by a given manager.

Doing mail in Mercer required sorting it by wing, carrying 1-3 plastic bins of mail about half a block through the rain, then delivering one batch while either a) closing oneself in a stuffy little mailroom, or b) leaving the top of the Dutch door open, enabling students to ask one to just hand them their mail, and having to tell them no. (Many thought it was asking too much to expect them to use their keys to unlock their own boxes, and felt I should just hand it to them.) Repeat for the other wing. Trudge back to Terry in rain.

Handing them the mail was an issue, because the management impressed upon us that we’d better obey the rules. Specifically, the rules of the almighty U.S. Postal Service, which gets to be a business when it wants to market itself, but a government agency when it wants its rules enforced. In particular, we were advised, we had better deliver every scrap of the voluminous junk mail that often burdened me with two extra bins of nothing but crap, lest we face hefty fines and potential imprisonment. I believed them, and I almost never just handed anyone their mail.

Thus, I delivered everything. For parcels, I left package slips. I checked the mailroom shelves, and if residents did not pick up their parcels, I made out reminder package slips. I didn’t know how to send anything back, nor if we could, and in any case I was more than a little intimidated by the warnings. As long as I kept attempting conscientious delivery, I wouldn’t be in trouble. No one expected me to be responsible for people’s refusal to pick up their care packages.

One autumn day, I believe, a padded hard-cardboard mailer arrived from a town I recognized as being on the Warm Springs Reservation in central Oregon. I filled out the package slip and delivered it. For days, then weeks, the package was still there every time I checked the shelves, and I continued to prepare and deliver appropriate package slips. After six weeks, a brown and reeking fluid began to seep out of the parcel. At that point, I was pretty sure it was smoked fish of some sort, and that it was now well past the lutefisk state. I didn’t ask the boss what to do because I didn’t want to risk being accused of unwillingness to deliver the package, or of obstructing the mail. Seems stupid at this remove, but that was a good gig to have, and I was young. I didn’t want to lose it, or even to risk it. It was easier to just keep filling out the package slips, and for three months, I did so.

I also picked up some work substituting in at the Terry desk, and one fine day a young lady showed up with a package slip: she of the many notices. At last! I saw no point in mentioning anything about the past package slips. I retrieved the mailer, its leakage having dried up to a disgusting brown stain on the underside. She signed the slip, accepted her parcel, and began to open it as she headed for the elevator bank.

The expression on her face when she opened it was not one of pleasure. Seems she released and inhaled the full confined force of the goodness. I tried not to be heard or seen laughing, but it didn’t last long. She soon tossed the wretched mess into the handy trash can by the elevators.

The moral of the story is to check your mail now and then. What if someone sent you smoked fish?


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