Recent read: Irreverent Insider Guide: Portland, Oregon, by Steven McCall

Until Fred Armisen moved to the Pearl District and made a show about the place, the national consciousness didn’t much register Portland, and by extension Oregon. Maybe as Seattle/Washington’s younger sister, the one without a football or baseball team. If the nation heard about Oregon, it was in context of legalizing something that would be allowed in Alabama only under the fixed bayonets of an army of occupation, and even then, they’d fight a guerrilla war against it.

Well, for better or worse, now they know. Or so they might think.

They could always buy a travel guide, of course. But one should know that some big-name travel guides are assembled to target the itches visitors seek to scratch, often by ‘lancers who don’t know the place that well. Travel guides must also cover a very broad spectrum, requiring some fishing around to find what you want.

You aren’t going to read a 400-page book for a weeklong visit to Portland, are you? Well, you might. But what if a 48-pager could cover the most important parts from a native’s level of knowledge? You might get the 400-pager, but you’ll read the 48-pager.

I know Steve McCall, which is why I can vouch for this book. Steve lived half a century in Portland. His travel writing at Epinions was some of the funniest stuff there. He’s a wine connoisseur who will enjoy your rednecky cheese bread. He knows what’s overrated, what’s pretentious, and what’s excellent. The only reason he’s not a professional tour guide in Portland is because he has other priorities at the moment, but there would be none better. It only takes him forty-eight pages to address the hipster/granola/lumberjack/pothead/etc. stereotypes, tell you where it’s worth your money to eat, suggest places worth exploring, and double your fun in his hometown. For less than the price of a decent coffee in Portland, in less than one hour, and with wit.

There is something so very Portland about that.

In everything I do, I try like hell to find a high density of information. I follow the home inspector around the property, taking notes. If I can’t find out CenturyLink’s catchment area in Portland, I finally cheat and call a guy in marketing whose number I’m not supposed to have or call, briefly explain that I cheated, ask my question, thank him, and get out of his hair. I like Rick Steves because his travel guides really get to the point. They say more in a para than some guides say in a page.

The same is true of Irreverent Insider Guide: Portland, Oregon, only more so.

Real estate protip: identify stupidity early, and back away

Deb and I are in the process of looking for a hovel, hut, or well-appointed army tent in the Portland area. Those cost $250K and up.

San Franciscans can laugh all they want, because I’m laughing at the idea that anyone anywhere thinks any dwelling is worth $750K unless one is so rich one doesn’t care what houses cost, or is an investor. So there.

We made an offer on a house in a Portland suburb, and we saw what we should have realized was a combination of listing agent stupidity/apathy and seller loopiness. The way this works is that the seller either accepts the offer or counters with another. In this case, the seller came back with a weird counter offering two options: raise the price and get a credit at closing, or accept our price but refuse to perform repairs. Well, you don’t want the seller to do the repairs anyway. Better to just negotiate a price reduction and hire the repairs done right than have the seller pick the lowest bid that will satisfy the obligation. However, the counter was too weird, so we rejected it and just reiterated our original offer. They accepted, and quickly.

We should have seen that goofy counter as the first serious trouble sign, and not gotten too hyped up. That’s the message of this blog post.

Then the fun began. First, our highly capable agent began to worm details out of her inept counterpart. The gist: she wasn’t paying her clients much attention, her clients were cash-poor with the wife pregnant and them needing a new place, and the seller fancied himself a Master of Home Repair/Improvement Space and Time. We hired the necessary inspections and awaited the results.

Sadly, the seller had neglected the roof for years. Portland is a very wet climate where all conscientious homeowners must look very carefully at roofs, the weather side of houses, and drainage. The seller had done a remarkably poor job caulking the weather siding, had permitted a lot of moss to grow on the roof, and was unaware (or did not disclose) that he had water and rodent turds in his crawl space. There were other issues, with added potential for mistakes on his part that might be behind walls or bathtubs or sinks he had installed without benefit of professional guidance.

After estimating that it would cost us $12K to bring the property up to basic standards of good weather resistance, we sent the seller two offers: either fix a list of problems himself, or give us $6K off the price and we’d handle the repairs on our own. Lenders won’t lend on worn-out roofs, so we were sure he would just sign the one with the discount. If he wasn’t very careful (or if his agent was a moron), the evil word ‘roof’ would become part of his necessary disclosures should he choose to sell. We sent selected inspection pages to show the problems.

Incredibly, he put into writing that he rejected both our offers (thus making the one with ‘roof’ part of the record, because he acknowledged that one’s existence) and reiterated his price. His agent over-revealed, complaining that he had so little equity he couldn’t lower his proceeds. (However, he did have a very nice boat in his garage, and had wanted a long closing date, because he and his wife had a big vacation planned.)

I cyberstalked him a bit and found out that he worked in accounts payable. Accounts defaultable is more like it.

The more I thought about it, the worse I felt about the place. Who knew what troubles lurked? I had visions of having to pay tens of thousands to rip off an entire mold-filled house side. Plus, he was being a general pill. He had under-disclosed the condition (a polite way to say that he lied), and was now being an ass when caught in his under-disclosure. Deb and I talked it over and decided to trigger the inspection contingency. Back to the search.

Fortunately, the guy will get his just rewards. Now he must disclose the conditions. If he refuses, his agent will dump him. If she doesn’t, she could be in major trouble. In any case, he has to hope for a sucker to come along, a sucker of such magnitude that said sucker will box him/herself into accepting a home with enormous potential downside. He needs a first-time home buyer represented by a lamentable agent. And even then, when the roof is inspected, he’ll have to either fork out himself or convince a buyer to do that–before closing. In the end, if he’s that strapped, he’ll have to keep the house, because he evidently can’t afford to fix it and won’t compensate a buyer for doing so.

And that’s hoping that after the sale, no one happens to send his buyer a copy of the previous inspection report, proving that the seller knew of the problems and failed to disclose.

I really, really don’t like dishonesty in business transactions. Maneuvering is fine; negotiating is expected; compromise is necessary. Lying is punishable.

A fallen ‘Lancer: Richard N. Côté, 1945-2015

Today I learned of the sudden passing of a good friend and fellow traveler in the writing world: Dick Côté. Evidently he fell on some steep steps at his home office, hit his head, and suffered major brain trauma. When brain death was determined, those close to him let him pass in peace, as he would have wished.

I first came to know Dick through my Amazon reviews, perhaps ten years ago, perhaps longer. I believe he sent me a review solicitation, and I accepted. I found him a highly competent social historian, and continued to review his books out of my interest in the subjects. We became friends, and I can remember many of what I fondly called Chardonnay conversations. He was a tremendous source of knowledge about writing and publishing, and I listened more than I talked. He always called me “my fine young friend,” which I found bemusing up to my early fifties.

Dick had an interesting life. A Connecticutian of French descent, by the time I knew him, he was living in South Carolina. His views were not largely mainstream in Charleston, but Dick was the sort of man who looks past such differences and inspires others to do the same. We have too few of his kind today. After college, he served in the Air Force in Vietnam, a role that troubled him all his days. He was a freelance writer who ghosted a great many books during the days when one could make better money doing that. The most notable might be Safe House, the autobiography of defector Edward Lee Howard. He flew to Moscow and spent several weeks mining Howard’s memories, then set forth to turn those plus Howard’s notes into a credible book. He later learned that it had all been a setup (unsuccessful) to lure Howard back to US custody. Dick was forgetful, so he retold me the story during nearly every phone call, which is why I remember it so well.

His last really major book project nearly broke him: In Search of Gentle Death. This was his social history of the global right-to-die movement, spurred in part by friends of his who were active in it, and in part by his memories of his mother’s unpleasant passing due to ALS. It was a first-class job of writing and research, and an absolute money sink from day one. I had the privilege of serving as proofreader, which was exhausting, invigorating, and fun. That’s how it was when one rode with Dick, those three adjectives. A man of perpetual good humor, no matter what the hour of the day, he always advised me to take the rest of the day off. A passionate hard worker, I know he understood the comedy inherent in that good wish.

Dick was a fairly outspoken atheist, so he did not believe that he is still with us in any spiritual form. (Think about the oddity of those verb tenses.) I, however, am not an atheist. I know this: I have lost a good friend, a fundamentally decent and caring fellow, and a source of wisdom about our line of work. I also know that if Dick was wrong, and is in fact eating crow watching us from an afterlife, he’s laughing at himself. He is also, in that case, breathing an enormous sigh of relief that he never had to face the question of how to end incurable earthly suffering, nor were his loved ones confronted with Schiavoian agony.

He has a Wikipedia page under “Richard N. Côté.” I am not sure the accents will work with a link, and I admit that I am not exactly in the frame of mind to twiddle with technical details. You can find it easily enough.

Dick, my fine old friend, take the rest of the day off.

No one who refuses to read this book should ask me for book marketing tips any more

The book in question is the autobiography of Bill Veeck, Veeck as in Wreck.

Clients ask me for marketing tips all the time. Of course, a cynic might think: “If he were that good at marketing, he’d probably be writing and pushing his own books.” Most authors hate marketing and think it’s icky; they just want to write, publish, and let their work rise on its merits. Well, it is icky. It’s like picking up after your dog icky. However, if you do not pick up after your dog, your back yard is not a fun place.

Other than how to approach Amazon reviewers, there is not a lot of useful stuff I can tell people about marketing books. The cynic above? S/he is quite correct about me.

The author who refuses to embrace marketing, and who insists that it’s a commercial rather than a vanity book, should be writing fantasy. That’s because that stance is indicative of a very active and fertile imagination, an ability to suspend disbelief in the face of obvious evidence. This should enable him or her to come up with some amazing alternate realities.

I believe that all projects should begin with a fundamental mindset. Winston Churchill knew it. His six-volume WWII memoirs, which are some of my favorite reading, began with a Moral of the Work:

“In war: resolution. In defeat: defiance. In victory: magnanimity. In peace: goodwill.”

One may debate the moral, its applicability to the telling of history, or whether Churchill lived up to it in life. He did establish a mindset, and one supposes it guided him. Thus it is with writing, or the marketing of writing. If the mindset toward marketing is that it’s icky, I see a high probability that the result will reflect the mindset. That means the author doesn’t sell very many books, and perhaps even takes a net loss after all the initial expenses are considered.

So; mindset before all. And that’s why authors seeking marketing tips must read Veeck’s book.

  • It is about growing up around and operating baseball teams.
  • It is about breaking attendance records, even with lousy teams.
  • It is about one’s approach to the public.
  • It is about just enough chicanery.
  • It is about an unconventional mentality.
  • It is about marketing without fear, shame, or guilt.
  • It is about how to treat those with whom one works.
  • It is about having fun, and plenty of laughter, while practicing all of the above.

If authors let some healthy portion of Veeck’s rollicking, fun-loving, generous, brass-balled, loyalty-building, establishment-defying, disability-defying, fiscally savvy, opportunistic mindset sink into their marketing approach, there is further point in discussing strategies. They will have a mindset, a guiding attitude, and will thus be able to carry out those strategies without feeling like they are picking up dog turds.

If they decline to read it, or read it and decide that marketing is still icky and they just want to write, I will be delighted to serve as their editor and will not bother them any more about reading Veeck’s book. However, they should know that I’ve already given them my best marketing advice, from my limited storehouse of same, and that I may not have much else of use to tell them about how to get people to buy books.


*I can’t finish a discussion of a book written with Ed Linn without a shoutout to his efforts as co-author. I have read several sports books written ‘with Ed Linn.’ Mr. Linn has passed on in recent years, but he happens to be one of my best examples of voice. All of Veeck’s books with Mr. Linn sound consistently Veecky. Others, with other autobiographists, sound like those persons. When I edit multiple POV first person fiction, I remind myself that those voices must, must, must differ, must match to the developed characters, and must further the speaker’s development.

New release: Second Chance Love, by Shawn Inmon

This novel, originally released as five serial short stories, is now available in a compilation volume. At various points, I was substantive and/or developmental editor.

If you never had a look at any of the individual stories, and you like romance, you’re in for something good. Shawn likes romance and isn’t afraid to present it with a gender-balanced point of view. He also isn’t afraid to bust stuff up. I had not known, until this series developed, just how willing he was to knock a storyline onto its side with a major event. This is someone who could and would kill off a major character. I love that.

I’d always figured Shawn would eventually compile the parts into a whole, and it made sense, because Shawn did a good job of developing interesting characters throughout the work. Layers kept coming away as familiar characters gained more nuance. Even the arch-villain, in the end, was revealed in part as a pitiable figure.

If you bought some of the stories and didn’t get around to others, Shawn often runs deals. At this writing, it’s $1 for Kindle. For 244 pages, that’s a lot of reading for your buck.

Vegemite on pizza

Most Americans not of Commonwealth origin rarely utter this sentence: “Damn, I have way too much Vegemite and Marmite laying around. I had better figure out a good way to eat some of it.”

About half the time, my daily meal is a frozen pizza. I buy whatever’s cheapest that isn’t too lousy, which means no more of Albertson’s house brand. A big shout-out, though, to Albertson’s for getting rid of the self-checkout and hiring actual new employees for new express lanes.

Then I doctor it up.

My typical doctoring involves adding smoked oysters or anchovies, extra pepperoni, a lot of grated cheese, and lately a sprinkling of feta. The culinary challenge with doctoring frozen pizza is to avoid putting on so much cheese that the heat can’t penetrate through the top. Since I eat pizza with a fork (and no, I don’t care if that’s a party foul, communistic, or the moral equivalent of a terror attack on Naples), the whole thing is going on a very large plate. Lately I’ve taken to sprinkling some of the grated cheese on the plate, drizzling it with a little olive oil (because you should always think of heart health), and slipping it into the microwave long enough to melt. Also, since I keep the house at 64º F during the winter, that means the plate doesn’t suck all the heat out of the pizza when it comes out.

So how was I going to get Vegemite onto the pizza? It’s not that easy. Vegemite is thick stuff with the consistency of creamy peanut butter, very salty with an odd odor (but not a revolting one, like cooked broccoli). It goes best with cheese and bread, or in ramen noodles. It is easy to overdo, which creates an overly salty effect. Also, one doesn’t want a food contamination situation, so one must find a solid part of the pizza from which no pieces will come loose and stick to the knife. I finally settled upon smearing it on the pepperoni slices, which were frozen solid to the pizza. By not getting too aggressive with it, I was able to avoid touching the pepperoni with the knife, and I laid a smear of Vegemite on each pepperoni piece. Including the extra ones I added to cover voids where the Il Cipo pizza manufacturer neglected to put a pepperoni.

The flavor surprised me. Vegemite doesn’t melt at 400º F for eighteen minutes (Marmite melts with a quick shot in the microwave). It may get milder. Whatever the reason, the saltiness wasn’t overwhelming. A delicious flavor to combine with the cheese, pepperoni and crust. If you put it on cheese pizza, the salty taste would probably be more in evidence, but that again would raise the question of where to put it. Highly recommended.

I’m told that a pizza chain did a stuffed crust with Vegemite in the cheese roll around the edge for Australia Day. Sounds good to me. However, I am not holding my breath waiting for the chain to test market that in the United States.

Why didn’t you notice that before?

Not that I’ve ever been asked the question, but some clients may have thought it. Picture this:

You, welcomed reader, bring me your literary pride and joy for developmental editing. I examine it, see fairly early on that it has major issues to address, load it down with comments explaining those issues, and send it back to you with the recommendation that you fix them. I explain that it will cost a lot less, and be more reflective of your creativity, if you take a stab at fixing them. I had you at ‘cost a lot less,’ so you then demonstrate to me what a superb and coachable client you are by addressing them. In most cases, you ‘get it.’ Beaming, you ship me the modified ms. I edit it this time, and I include a bunch of comments about stuff I didn’t point out in the first pass (but dealt with this time). And perhaps here you wonder: how’d he miss that stuff the first time?

Let’s use an analogy to a flipper house. The carpet needs replacement. The color scheme chosen was Crazy Cat Lady Provincial. The rose bushes are out of control. The crushed rock isn’t strangling the weeds. The hot water heater has a failing thermostat, there isn’t enough insulation, and some imbecile fixed numerous nail and molly bolt holes in the wall without bothering to sand the filler. The bathroom fan is about to chuck a bearing, and so on. Oh, and no one raked leaves last year, so half the yard is dead. Except for plenty of thistles, dandelions, and morning glories.

If we’re going to turn that house into the cozy, attractive property that it could become, we are going to begin by taking care of the big stuff so that it no longer obscures the small stuff. We restrain the roses and discover that the squirrels planted a walnut sapling at their base. We pull off the baseboards and find evidence that something in the wall has leaked. We rip up the carpet and find that the previous imbecile covered up battered but beautiful hardwood. We pull out the range and learn that someone had a chronic problem with stuff boiling over and running down the sides, rotting out the subfloor.

While we are doing all that, we are not really seeing the smaller but important stuff, because the big stuff obscures it. It’s not that we are incompetent; it’s that we will notice the miniature burro in the room only when the elephant has been herded out of it.

That’s how it is, editing books. Fix the big stuff so that the small stuff can stand out, then fix that, and you have a good book. Because you don’t retexture drywall that you know you will be replacing anyway.

Blogging freelance writing and life in general.


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