All posts by jkkblog

I'm a freelance editor and writer with a background in history and foreign languages.

How I would go looking for an editor…

…that is, of course, assuming I didn’t have a bunch of contacts (or they all retired or died or told me to go away, etc.). If I didn’t know any, but did know what else I know, how would I do this?

I’d cheat is what I’d do.

But first, I’d quantify my project and what I wanted to happen. I’d decide whether it was a vanity or commercial project. If it was a commercial project, I’d have a marketing plan. I’d also decide how much I could afford to spend on editing. And I’d be realistic with what I could afford. A substantive edit on a full ms could run me into the $3000 range or more, whereas a short story would be rather less. A developmental edit would probably also cost less, but still likely to be four figures for a normal-length fiction ms.

Once I knew where I was at with means and goals, I’d go on FacePalm and join a writers’ group. The reason I would not join a writers’ group is that many of the participants are sure they know (nearly everything, but in particular…) exactly what editors do, and  few are fully informed. I don’t fault them for that; I don’t exactly know all that ER nurses do, for example, and I don’t need to become one in order to be grateful for one if I break a wrist late at night or can’t stop ralphing. But there is a a lot of stridency in writers’ groups, and much of what you would read would imply that editors are dream-slaying parasites who move your commas and tell you that you suck. If you spent much time there, you’d come away with such a bad attitude you’d have trouble finding a competent editor who would put up with you. That would leave the desperate ones. Do you want a desperate one? Check it out for yourself if that’s what works for you, but if it were me, I’d let the angstfest proceed without seeping into my mentality. Everyone has to own their own angst.

Now it’s time to cheat. This is not honest. I’d search for the term ‘editor’ on FacePalm and narrow my search to groups, and I’d start joining and observing. If there were public groups I’d observe those; if not, well, I’d have to find my way in. I would not introduce myself with a noob hello post. If the group said it was for editors only, I’d see how strict their vetting process was (usually there isn’t much of one, just answer a few questions). If I had to flex reality a bit to do that–such as liberally interpret questions about what kind of editing I supposedly did–I would probably do that. Whatever it took to worm my way in.

They’ll kill me for this, but it’s a lot better than the writers’ groups. Plus, when you see some of the people in editors’ groups claiming to be editors, posting heartfelt pleas asking people to tell them where to put a goddamn comma (because evidently it’s asking too much for them to just make a decision based on informed understanding and good sense), you’ll realize this:

Anyone can anoint oneself an editor. Anyone. While that might not make them the real thing, there’s no bar to clear.

This is how you locate and experience the large mass of people who don’t know what they’re doing. This is how you see the people you want to avoid. They’re making anguished pleas to “edi-buddies” to help them figure out some petty points of style precision rather than make a damn decision and live with it. You don’t need a degree or a certificate to be an editor, but you do need to know the language well enough to tell other people what’s correct, and to adapt it where necessary to the conventions of a style guide’s letter and intent. You also need to know the conventions well enough to know when to bend them, why you would want to do that, and so on. That’s the basic requirement. As a writer in English, surely you want an editor who isn’t still learning English?

At some point, you’ll learn enough about editors and editing to have some sense of the kind of person you’d like to work with. Identify one of those and search out their professional presentation (blog, webpage, Facepalm page, etc.). Cyber-stalk the hell out of them; see what they are about. If possible, see what sort of work they have done. If you feel that they can help you, get in touch.

Keep doing that until you find someone who is available, fits your budget, and feels like a good partner in the process. The reality of a good writer/editor relationship is that it’s not Lofty Expert bossing around Rank Noob. It’s partner helping partner: brainstorming, discussing, communicating. It’s always okay to ask an editor their rationale for a decision or recommendation. Good ones should be pumped to show off their depth, excited to see clients succeed and grow, and confident enough to be very sharing with knowledge. We are knowledge workers. We should not hoard knowledge; that smacks of a fear that we’re going to run out of it. We should demonstrate its depth and breadth by sharing it generously and thus giving best value.

If you’ve had bad editor relationships, don’t open the discussion with the next candidate by telling all your horror stories. Know what I think when someone does that? I think I am not much interested in the job, because I am not much interested in being the next chapter in the Litany of Editorial Sorrows. What I’m hearing is someone saying: “I am a pain in the ass who doesn’t take their share of responsibility for what goes wrong, and you are being considered as the next casualty of my asspainery.” If you had a contractor come out to bid, and you spent the whole time telling them how much all your past contractors sucked, how competitive a bid you reckon you’re going to get? You might not even get one at all. If you do, you’ll be paying what a lawyer friend of mine calls the “asshole tax.”

You might notice that I didn’t send you to Fiverr, Sixerr, Sevenerr, FourHundredSixty-Twoerr, or some other site where those who purport to be editors often sign up to obtain work. In the first place, that’s doing it in the wrong order. If you have seen editors in groups and learned what we really do, and you simply do not feel drawn to or impressed by any of the people in the groups, then perhaps you’re willing to resort to one of the hire sites. If it were me, I’d keep looking harder in the groups. Surely there’s got to be someone who sounds good to work with. In fact, since I belong to them, I know most have some great editors because I’ve watched what they say to their colleagues.

I’m not saying there aren’t good people on hiring sites. I know of great editors with presences there. I’m saying that it is very hard to tell them one from another without seeing them interact; that any clod can create an appealing EightyTwoerr profile; and that in fact you can get a lot of cheap ‘services’ there because there is a subset of the editing world that is as desperate to edit as most novice writers are to be published. Why are they that desperate? The question could have many answers, though “massive student loans for a degree in Comparative Literature at venerable Piltdown College and really hate working at McDonald’s” is not a terribly rare one. The salient point is that hire sites will probably be die rolls and you might or might not get good value. They are the equivalent of hiring some struggling guy named Ernie off LostCatsDoor to rewire your house. There’s the off chance Ernie can do that as well as a journeyman electrician. There’s a much greater chance that if Ernie could do that, he’d be a journeyman electrician, and he is not.

By finding someone by the way they communicate with their peers, you can find people who are not desperate. That’s because they are established and capable. They will rarely be cheap, but they will offer you far better value for your dollar. That’s what I’d want if it were me. The hell with what the investment costs me; what does it pay me? What’s the benefit? Size up the benefit and see if it’s worth what you pay for it. Oh, and let’s say your target is wonderful but can’t fit you in for six months. In that case, ask them for a recommendation. That would be a much better start than wandering onto Forty-Ninerr and picking people like throwing darts at a board.

If you were hoping this would tell you how to get top-grade services for desperation prices, I am glad to have shattered that hope because it is not realistic, and gives me a chance to share an essential lesson. That’s one thing we do: get paid to give the truth with the bark on. While it is not automatically true that you get what you pay for, it is nearly always true that when you establish a very low willing-to-pay price, you also establish a very low ceiling on the likely benefit you can gain. Anyone who offers to “edit” your full-length fiction ms for $300 is probably just going to run spellcheck and grammar check, then send it back and put their hand out to be paid.

Hell, you could have done that. And should have.

 

1800s baseball trivia

Wasn’t long ago a friend gave me an extra copy of David Nemec’s The Great Encyclopedia of 19th Century Major League Baseball, a comprehensive attempt to complete the statistical and narrative history of the national sport’s early days. As I was reading along, it came to me that this would be a great source for a blog post on baseball trivia from that era. I got a stack of sticky notes and started tagging pages as I went.

Just to be quite clear and except where noted, all this information is mined from Mr. Nemec’s book, and I credit all of it to him. I recommend the source work to every hardcore old-time baseball enthusiast.

–In 1871, home plate was a 12″ stone square. Not until 1900 did it assume its modern five-side form, being 17″ wide.

–Batting averages did not mean quite what they mean today. In 1871, the National Association’s batting champ was Levi Meyerle with a .492 average. The fifth-placer, Steve King, only hit .396.

–Betting was a serious problem. In 1874, John Radcliff of the Philadelphia Pearls bet big ($350…in those days, half a year’s good wages for a cowboy) on the Chicago White Stockings. Against his own team. The rules said he was to be banned for life, but he was back in action in 1875.

–The 1876 Philadelphia Athletics’ pitchers struck out only 22 hitters. That’s low even for a 60-game season.

–In 1877, the Chicago White Stockings managed to hit exactly zero home runs. Those were small ball days.

–The first grandstand screen behind the plate was installed in Messer Park, home of the Providence Grays, in or before 1879. Until then, the best seats in the house were also among the most dangerous.

–One of the forgotten greats of baseball’s past was George Gore, a sharp-eyed contact hitter who averaged over one run per game from 1871 to 1892.

–It’s common–and almost always unfounded–for hecklers to accuse umpires of having money on games. It wasn’t always unfounded. In 1882 Dick Higham showed such obvious signs of being in the tank that he received a ban from baseball. What did he do then? Became a bookie.

–Some of the day’s nicknames would scandalize us today. In addition to a few players nicknamed “Nig,” and any Native American player liable to be nicknamed “Chief” (these details are outside the book’s sourcing and are generally common knowledge among old baseball buffs), any deaf player was tagged with “Dummy.” I believe that the first of these was “Dummy” Dundon, an 1883-84 Columbus Buckeye and alum of the Ohio School for the Deaf. He was the reason umpires developed hand signals for balls and strikes.

–In 1884, Hoss Radbourn won either 59 or 60 games depending on which source one embraces. I doubt anyone since then has even come close to that. (He lost only 12. In those days, pitchers didn’t get yanked on strict pitch counts.)

–Pete “The Gladiator” Browning won three batting titles and hit .341 for a twelve-year career in the 1880s and 1890s. One year he stole 103 bases. He is somehow not in the Hall of Fame.

–Before the mid-1880s, the conventional wisdom said that no lefty could become a great pitcher. By 1886 that outlook was fully discredited, with a number of left-handed pitchers posting excellent records. Between Warren Spahn, Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton, Carl Hubbell, Randy Johnson, and let’s not forget Sandy Koufax, the notion seems almost quaint today.

–Until 1887, teams sometimes used substitutes from the crowd. Often they didn’t even put on uniforms.

–The youngest player known to have ever played in a major league game is not Joe Nuxhall. In 1887, 14-year-old Fred Chapman started for Philadelphia against Cleveland. And won–by forfeit, not through his pitching. For unclear reasons, the umpire awarded the Athletics the forfeit after an argument about officiating.

–In an 1889 contest between St. Louis and Brooklyn,  when the umpire refused to call the game on account of darkness, the Browns refused to remain on the field and set candles around their dugout. After the game, the Brooklyn faithful bombarded the Browns players with beer steins on the way to their transportation.

–Also in 1889, unstable but brilliant pitcher John Clarkson of the Boston Beaneaters shot the statistical lights out. 49 wins, 620 innings pitched, 68 complete games, 284 strikeouts, a .721 winning percentage, a 2.73 ERA, and an on-base percentage of .305. All were league-leading marks.

–If they could see 1800s baseball, those accustomed to slick modern fielding might think they had gotten lost and wandered into a slapstick routine. Two players made 122 errors in a season (per baseball-reference.com, the 2021 Miami Marlins led both leagues in errors with exactly that number for the whole team’s entire season), and seventeen achieved the infamy of clearing 100 miscues in a season.

Imagine a team batting average of .349. Dress them in Phillies flannels, because that described the 1894 Philadelphians. The team leader hit .416.

Here’s a list of interesting nicknames I tagged as I went along:

  • Charles “Lady” Baldwin
  • George “Foghorn” Bradley
  • Edward “Cannonball” Crane
  • Hugh “One Arm” Daily
  • Lewis “Buttercup” Dickerson
  • Patrick “Cozy” Dolan
  • William “Cherokee” Fisher
  • Frank “Silver” Flint
  • Jim “Pud” Galvin
  • Welcome Gaston. Not a nickname!
  • George “Chummy” Gray
  • Frank “Noodles” Hahn
  • John “Egyptian” Healy
  • Charlie “Piano Legs” Hickman
  • William “Brickyard” Kennedy
  • Alphonse “Phoney” Martin
  • Samuel “Leech” Maskrey. Not exactly a nickname, but not exactly not; Leech was his middle name.
  • George “Doggie” Miller
  • Thomas “Toad” Ramsey
  • James “Icicle” Reeder
  • John “Count” Sensenderfer
  • Oliver “Patsy” Tebeau
  • Charles “Pussy” Tebeau
  • George “White Wings” Tebeau. What the hell was with the Tebeau tribe?
  • Ledell “Cannonball” Titcomb
  • William “Peekaboo” Veach
  • William “Chicken” Wolf

This book is a treasure haul of such information. Nemec has done a fantastic job.

Lords of Chaos, a tabletop RPG by Randy Hayes

This time-tested fantasy RPG has come to market in e-form and hardcover. I was developmental editor.

Randy is a friend of nearly forty years going back to our college days. He’s an interesting guy. Many people talk about doing things; Randy goes out and does things. He wanted to be a successful financial advisor, and he became one. He wanted to play in a rock band, and he does. He wanted to learn SCA-style medieval combat, and he has done so. He wanted to be an officer in the Army, and he was.

He also wanted to play a fantasy role-playing game that was as realistic as one can be and still have profound supernatural mechanics. One always needs that qualifier for the obvious reason that “realistic” doesn’t normally imply magical fireballs and summoning ogres. For our purposes, realistic means that the physical movement and combat are plausible. Randy had done enough SCA fighting to see the fundamental problems with physical combat as presented in most RPGs and movies. And yes, there is a school of thought that says: “Hell with realism, it’s fantasy, I want to do epic things.” And to that I think Randy might say: ‘To each their own. But over the years my players have done quite a few epic things. Not every system is for everyone, and I get that.’

When we got back in touch in life after a long stretch of doing our own things, Randy showed an interest in building his writing skills. He wasn’t bad, but he could improve, and we worked on his fiction writing techniques. Some of the fiction involved stories from his RPG gaming world, tales played out by his merry band of tabletop players. That was fine, and Randy made rapid strides. While all of his group had made contributions and suggested refinements, two seemed most involved: Mike Cook, one of our old cronies from UW, and Keith Slawson. Keith was not well, but wanted with all his heart to assist with the layout and graphics. Here’s the kind of friend Randy is: He could have just punted and gone seeking those services elsewhere, but so long as a chance existed that Keith might be able to offer them when the rulebook was ready, Randy kept that hope alive for him. I had the pleasure of brief correspondence with Keith  before his passing in late 2020. Randy, of course, visited him to the very end.

As for Mike, he aspired to publish fiction based on the LoC world, and the same drive that once put colonel’s eagles on his shoulders was in refined evidence with his work. This resulted in Out of their Depth, an excellent hard fantasy novel I had the pleasure of midwifing. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a client improve as fast as Mike did, and his medieval vocabulary taught me some new words along the way.

It was a process. This might sound odd, but rulebook editing is technical editing. I do some tech editing here and there, and even though Randy’s project was a game guide, the mentality is similar. While humor and style matter, the heart of the project is how it organizes and presents information. I have done a lot of RPGing in my life, but have never played a moment of LoC, so in some ways I was the perfect guinea pig. Randy was very receptive to rules modifications and procedural clarifications. He laughed over my developmental editing style, which is to explain a problem, make a couple of sample corrections, then let the client hunt up and fix the rest. It would be sort of drill sergeanty on my part, except that I’m not raising my voice or pointing someone’s genetic shortcomings in an attempt to motivate them to do a proper about-face.

For Randy, the hardest part was something many authors experience on long-term projects: One cannot forget what one knows, nor easily put oneself in the place of not knowing. Let us imagine a fight scene in a novel. The author has worked on the novel off and on for twenty years. She has complete mental video memory of how the fight “happened.” She knows how she pictures her characters, how they maneuvered, what their voices sounded like. Her reader has none of the above, and knows only what he learns from her portrayal. Does it matter that the room has a table in the middle? Maybe; probably; depends. It’s probably an obstacle in the fight, in which case at least enough description is wanted to help the reader picture the scene. Does it matter that it’s oak or walnut? Probably not right then. Her challenge is to keep the readercam steady, furnish enough description that her reader can follow the action, and avoid overdescription. It’s difficult to strike the balance between too much description and not enough.

This also applies to such areas as RPG rules. Randy has developed the rules for so long he can hardly remember what it is like not knowing them, so my ignorance was a help. If an experienced RPGer with reasonable comprehension skills couldn’t figure out how something worked, this raised valid questions whether something had been left out, described ambiguously, and so on. We changed quite a bit of the basic terminology because I thought some of it created confusion, and added a Game Concepts section in the front so that players had a quick reference for the terms one must understand in order to play the system. Randy came up with a genius way to present descriptions of the character skills: He created a ne’er-do-well elf named Potlatch, assigned him one point in each skill, and had him walk through a (somewhat contrived but not entirely implausible) story in short installments that involved one skill at a time. It’s hilarious, especially with Randy’s wry style of infantryman humor. As with anything Randy cares about–which means most of what he spends his time on–he took the time to do a really good job.

Another example is how the game handles the common low-value loot that characters tend to accumulate in the course of adventuring (vanquished foes’ weapons, load-bearing equipment, doodads that don’t do anything special). Randy doesn’t think the game should be Lords of Bookkeeping. Therefore, the rule is that players are assumed to gather up and sell whatever useful when possible. In turn, players do not have to keep track of and replenish consumable supplies of arrows, bolts, rations, and so forth. The selling process is presumed to sustain the common consumables; anything special or valuable is not considered common, of course, and gets valued separately. What a fantastic idea, right? One abstraction kills off two annoyances that few players would miss.

One notable aspect of the game is the lack of character classes. A player may define their character as whatever, but the game doesn’t bless or curse that choice. If you’ve always felt shackled by class restrictions, this is the open road.

This rulebook process took maybe three years. It came into final form, with areas of confusion ironed out and graphics added. Things happened. A pandemic came and sort of went. We pimped it at two Orycons and got some minor interest. Keith passed. Mike published his book while giving important input. Artists flaked. Artists delivered. Now here we are.

Randy has a bunch of online playing aids that supplement the book. If you’ve been looking for an RPG system that is designed for plausible melee and missile combat, one well refined through decades of play and experimentation, this could be just what you’ve long been looking for.

Later addendum: I have received my copy and it’s a beauty. Great layout, professional artwork, solid production. If you’re like me, and want to pick up the physical book and read relevant sections, you will appreciate this.

 

Scumbag studies: myths and realities of Nazi society and its war machine

Kind of the ultimate modern-day scumbag study, no?

When it comes to Nazi Germany, perception and reputation are a fog clouding reality. Here are some realities you might not know, with pro forma apologies for wandering a little afield here and there:

German industry wasn’t very efficient. As a practical reality, it couldn’t be. There were multiple reasons: slave labor, materials shortages, rushed designs that had to be tweaked, and perhaps most importantly…

German industry did not go onto a full war footing until mid-war. Oh, it got a great head start on the Allies, who began re-armament late in the pre-war picture. Doubt that? In 1939 Germany produced 247 tanks and self-propelled guns. That’s all. 1940? 1,643. Ah, but surely a sixfold increase is a big deal? In 1941 they made 3,790. 1942, 6,180; in 1943, 12,063. Another example? Sure. Combat aircraft: 1939, 8,295. 1944, 39,807. One wonders what might have happened had German industry geared up sooner to its full potential.

Germany wanted to take Gibraltar. Why couldn’t they, with Spain friendly enough to rank as a non-belligerent Axis supporter? Because Franco’s Spain, still bleeding from its internal Spanish Civil War wounds, had no intention of getting into the war unless/until victory was certain. At one point, Hitler went so far as to meet Franco along the Franco-Spanish border. Adolf reckoned that the Spanish dictator owed his victory to Germany and would be thankful. First, Franco made long professions of fraternity, gratitude, and sympathy. Then he began a long litany of the equipment Spain would need from German industry, punctuated with frequent expressions of Spanish poverty and suffering. He then pointed out that of course it would be a matter of national pride for Spanish troops to carry out any such assault (one suspects Franco doubted that Hitler would hand Gibraltar over if German troops were once allowed to occupy it). Adolf went home pissed off and frustrated, thinking dark thoughts about ingratitude.

Malta and El Alamein were indeed great sticking points for the Nazi war machine, but most people don’t realize why. Neither do most realize how much the free world owes to the people of Malta and the motley Commonwealth/Allied (British, Free French, Polish, South African, New Zealander, and Australian) forces defending Egypt. Had the Axis captured Malta–and with a determined effort, they might have done so–Allied movement through the Mediterranean would have become a problem, whereas Axis resupply of northern Africa would have become far easier. Everyone has heard of Afrika Korps supreme commander Erwin Rommel and his genius, but not everyone realizes that his biggest problem was running out of everything (fuel in particular). That’s partly because so much of it got sunk on the way across the drink. So imagine Malta were captured, and a renewed Axis force stormed into the Nile delta (fanning the flames of Arab resentment at Allied control, and running off the disliked colonial powers). The Allied position in the eastern Mediterranean would be compromised. The Soviet positions in the Caucasus could have been flanked, perhaps with Turkish entry on the Axis side. Axis forces could have reached the Middle Eastern oilfields. Doesn’t that sound pretty catastrophic? It could have been.

Germany had high hopes for the Irish Republic to remain neutral, but there might be a united Ireland today if Éamon de Valera had answered Churchill’s note. The Republic of Ireland remained neutral during the war, famously denying the UK aero-naval basing access that made Atlantic convoy protection far more difficult.  When the United States entered the Atlantic war, as a former First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill saw the strategic opportunity and sought to pounce. He sent Taoiseach de Valera a simple note: “Now is your chance. Now or never. A nation once again. Am very ready to meet you  at any time.” Dev didn’t answer. Did Churchill really mean that if the Irish joined the Allies immediately, the six Ulster counties of Northern Ireland would be handed over to the Republic? At least one British leader hastened to advise the envoy to Ireland, John Maffey, that Churchill’s intent was metaphorical rather than literal.

I don’t know what exactly would have happened, but one can hardly doubt that was Ireland’s strongest bargaining moment from a risk/reward standpoint. With Americans in the war to defend the Republic, it might have been bombed but it would not have been invaded; the unpalatable concept of British troops on the ground in the Republic would be avoided; it might have done great work against the U-boat menace without its own military firing a single shot; the Allies would have constructed updated facilities the Irish would inherit. All that, potentially, for letting people use some air and naval bases. I lean to the side that Churchill at least meant to dangle Northern Ireland as a negotiable possibility. He gets bad press nowadays, some of it deserved, but he was a visionary who dared to try things, and he knew the Irish well enough. “A nation once again” remains a very loaded phrase even today, and Churchill was not one for idle words. If Hitler had seen that note, he might well have ordered the Republic added to Northern Ireland as a bombing target.

Myths you might believe, and why you shouldn’t:

Pearl Harbor did the United States terrible harm. This one doesn’t relate directly to Germany, but it always needs repeating because its pervasive inaccuracy had a major impact on German warfare and plans. While the deaths and injuries can never be discounted, in the grand scheme of war one could argue that Pearl was a very lucky beginning from a US perspective. Of the weaponry it damaged, the part that would take years to repair or replace (battleships) was mainly obsolete. None of our carriers were present, and the Japanese use of their own carrier strikes told us much about the wave of the future. Then Hitler decided to throw into war against the US, bringing us into that conflict without putting us in the unpleasant position of having to leave the British and Soviets hanging. As painful a memory as Pearl is, it was about like shooting a sow grizzly in the butt with an arrow. The attack didn’t cripple American naval power, but did piss off an industrial powerhouse.

Germany always had the best tanks and planes. For one thing, early versions were often hurried into the field with serious problems; for another, the opposition often had better gear. The Soviet T-34 series might be the best example: a weapon that, for a time, Germany had no tank cannon that could penetrate at any range (and which could outrun every German tank of the war). While the Messerschmitt Bf-109 was a great early war fighter plane, it met its match in the RAF’s Spitfires. The later Focke-Wolf FW-190 more than met its match in the American P-51 Mustang. Ah, but surely the post-D-Day German tanks were far superior to the Sherman M4 series? They had lower profiles and better gunnery, but there are other factors to consider. First, during that time, Allied ground support aircraft had free rein to terrorize all German armor. Second, German crews were generally more experienced and better led, at least until the end of 1944, so they got more out of their vehicles. Third, German vehicles were more prone to trouble. Say this for the Sherman: for its flaws, it was a reliable tank. The engine tended to start and the gun tended to fire. I wouldn’t take it over a Panther–it was slower, higher profile, and earlier models were undergunned–but I’d take a running Sherman over a non-running Panther.

It was an issue even during the potential invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had better tanks than the Germans. Even with the captured Czechoslovak tank models, the French in turn had better (and more) tanks than Germany. In North Africa, Commonwealth/Allied armor was more than a match for the German models. It should have been unsurprising for the Wehrmacht to arrive on Soviet soil and find that Soviet tanks were also better. It must have been refreshing indeed to face the Americans–finally an opponent with inferior armor!

The Nazis were close to developing nuclear-armed missiles. German rocket science was very advanced, leading to the first primitive cruise missiles (V-1) and surface-to-surface missiles (V-2), as well as a rocket interceptor aircraft. Their nuclear science was far less so, partly because nuclear research was very expensive with no known certainty of ultimate success. The Nazi nuke cause certainly took harm from the large number of scientists who did not stay to work for Nazi ends (or would not have survived had they stayed).

The United States ultimately destroyed the German war machine. No, no, no. The Anglo-Americans, assisted by many allies, did great damage to the Luftwaffe–but they never put onto the Western Front anywhere near the ground numbers that the USSR did on the Eastern Front. In fact, the Germans had more divisions tied up watching occupied areas than they had facing the western Allies. The vast majority of the Nazi forces that were not deployed against partisan activity were occupied in a futile effort to hold back the Soviet avalanche. The main reason D-Day wasn’t thrown back into the Channel was that so much of the Wehrmacht was somewhere else, typically fighting Soviets. If you want to give the United States credit for something major that caused the Nazi war machine enormous damage, let it be the thousands of Studebaker trucks we sent to the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were still driving some of them in the Russian countryside. Every weapon and vehicle we and the British sent them probably saved Allied lives simply by shortening the war.

The Stuka was the deadliest ground support aircraft of the war. No; it was the deadliest of its early-war heyday. Later on, the Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik, US P-47 ground attack configuration, and the British Typhoon were among the more versatile and deadlier strike craft. By that time, the Stukas didn’t have the survivability to risk precious pilots and fuel in the teeth of Allied air dominance.

American strategic bombing devastated Germany’s ability to produce war materiel. This is one of those areas where there are two polarized sides, neither listening the other, and the truth is somewhere in between. First, of course, it wasn’t just American. The British had begun some strategic bombing very early in the war. They hosted much of the US campaign and joined in it with their own significant numbers. We see from the rise in German production over most of the war that it didn’t decline until the full occupation and collapse process began in early 1945. However, that doesn’t mean the campaign wasn’t a massive pain in Albert Speer’s ass. It conveyed to the people of Germany, who had once been promised by their leaders that they would never be bombed, that the end could not be in doubt and it would not be to their liking. It required the deployment of much of the German interceptor force on the home front, burning scarce avgas and taking grave losses. It certainly tied up resources, hampered transportation, and made Speer’s armaments ministries scramble. Did it devastate German war production? The evidence says not, though it didn’t make production easier. Did it wreck the civilian urban economy and chew up scarce resources, wearing down homefront morale? I think the case for that is strong. Might the war have taken longer without it? I don’t think it’s possible to say. In any case, the Soviet onslaught was about to render the whole thing moot.

The SS were an excellent fighting force. In reality they were mixed. Early in the war, and at first recruitment in most cases, they were brave and enthusiastic but somewhat inept.  Experience makes the difference, and the survivors would gain it. Some units were led by fanatics, and some committed atrocities–in some cases making that a higher priority than fighting the armed enemy. The history-glancing public often does not realize that only about a quarter of the Waffen-SS came from metropolitan Greater Germany. Another quarter or so were Volksdeutsche, hailing from the established German-speaking diaspora in territories Hitler conquered; their record was mixed. Another quarter-odd hailed from variably Germanic peoples of northern and western Europe, generally proving effective in combat, and the last quarter came from all over the southern and eastern territories: Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus, Yugoslavia, and so forth. This portion ranged from good to awful.

The U-Boats were the deadliest subs of the war. Well, not so much. Germany bet most of its strategic warfare resources on submarine warfare, and it had a strong tradition of sub seamanship. When the Allies couldn’t or wouldn’t protect their shipping properly, the U-Boats went to town–but even then, the torpedoes didn’t always work. Surviving U-Boat skippers, a rather small population greatly respected by our own naval community as worthy opponents, have described the frustration of dud torpedoes. Americans should understand this very well because our own early torpedoes also included a high percentage of duds. Evidently the art of torpedo design is a very sensitive one where most laypeople’s assumptions don’t hold true. Best fish of the war? Arguably the Japanese, who invested great effort in torpedo development.

If our precious History Channel wants to do some good, it can stop leaning into pawn shops and ancient extra-terrestrial theories, and start doing a better job of exploring what people think they know and do not.

Current re-read: Yankee Hobo in the Orient, by John Patric

The first time I read this book, my (purchased well used) copy was a gift I soon intended to pass along. Kind of blazed through. This time, with a copy I plan to keep, I’m giving it better attention.

John Patric was an interesting guy. A die-hard libertarian and frequent traveler, he said the things one was not supposed to say. The travels in the book happened late in the Great Depression, but he updated it after World War II. We thus have someone writing about a Japan that was already embroiled in land warfare, but had not yet become involved in the general global war; he has impressions of his travel, but also perspectives on a Japan under occupation following the incineration of many of its cities (two with nuclear weapons). He was also a Pacific Northwest homie, born in Snohomish, WA and making his residence down near Florence, Oregon (southward along the coast).

What’s great about Patric is the sophistication and general fairness of his outlook toward Japan and its people. He compares costs of living in terms that avoid the common oversimplifications of relative value. His goal was to paint a candid picture of Japanese society and attitudes without quivering in fear that someone might brand him Not A Good Murrican. Even though Pearl Harbor was about the most fortunate way in which our entry into war could have come about–and yes, it’s true; they destroyed two fairly obsolete battleships and bottomed three more, while whiffing on the carriers that would have been grave losses, and came to be the most important ships in the war–his times were those in which Japan was made out The Ultimate Demon by our customary wartime fanaticism. Saying anything remotely positive about Japan was about as popular as the word “retarded” is today. Patric didn’t care.

Patric observed a Japan in which people lived with great frugality, where fancy lodgings and things were mainly for tourists who would not tolerate the sorts of accommodations and travel most Japanese chose. Insofar as possible, he avoided the spendier options in favor of local custom.  He understood that tourist industries are designed to insulate the traveler from the truth while thinning his or her bankroll. I suspect Paul Theroux is a fan.

The result is a travel essay that did not follow the beaten paths, that saw Japan’s natural strengths and weaknesses, and that was able to apply hindsight to earlier observations. My copy was printed in 1945, when the future of Japan was uncertain from a Western standpoint.  If the book has a weakness, it might be his libertarian political ranting; Patric indulged himself in this way with as few f-bombs given as about any other subject he explored. Given that we now can see that libertarian economics ultimately lead to monopolies and corporate fascism, I find that part a bit naive given that Patric was a bright enough guy to have worked that through to its logical outcome.

Recommended for sophisticated readers who, like me, love old school travel writing.

Recent read: The Sense of Style, by Steven Pinker

A tech editing client–an engineer who can write for real–said such good things about this book that I bought and read it. This vindicated his praise.

One might view the editing world as a stylistic continuum. Let us define the extreme left as accepting of nearly any stylistic oddness or grammatical perversity. The extreme right lives and dies by style manuals (AP, APA, Chicago, etc.), grammar guides, and archaic meanings. The extreme left is so fluid it has hardly any rules; the extreme right not only has them, but will follow them right off a cliff. (No direct political analogy is intended, though I won’t say none could reasonably be made.)

If you visit editors’ forums, most of the loudest voices are found on the moderate to far right. Agonized posts abound: “Hey, edi-buddies, I’m dying here. I have a sentence in which I can’t figure out where to put commas. It’s four in the morning and I’ve been mutilating my soul in an effort to solve the problem. Help!” I never bother pointing out the obvious, because no one is so strident as a far-right editor catching another editor in some tiny deviation from the strict orthodoxy of the First Church of Style Manual Orthodoxy. I can’t gain anything from fighting with them, and I don’t enjoy the debate nor do I care what they say. I just let them do their thing somewhere I am not.

What would the far left do? Not much. All the client must tell them is “that’s just my style,” and they’ll roll over. Book without upper case? Well, if that’s just your style… Book written in text-speak? Wouldn’t want to invalidate youth opinions. Street-speak? Dissent would be…racist! And so on, usually in the direction of rolling over and letting this or that demographic define its own language.

And what’s wrong with that? some might ask. Nothing, provided that demographic is the writer’s only audience, and therefore that it doesn’t give a damn about being intelligible or comfortable to anyone else. “Hi. I write like garbage but I require you to read and respect my material” is not a reasonable proposition. The reader always has the right to stop reading. Making demands of the reader rarely works. She just closes the book or browser window, flips a bird if she’s feeling annoyed, and does something else.

I find myself on the moderate left wing of this continuum, a little to Pinker’s right. He and I agree that “literally” must not be used as “figuratively,” for example. We need a word that means, well, the literal rather than metaphorical meaning of an expression. If you were literally floored, you were on the ground. If your head literally exploded or someone literally ripped your heart out, you weren’t alive to describe it. He’s a little more tolerant of beginning a sentence with a preposition, and he’s willing to see “to comprise” wander afield from its standard translation as “to consist of,” which I am not. Those are tiny shadings of degree.

My governing principle is not complicated: Editorial judgments depend on context. Should we use fewer adverbs? Generally yes, when feasible. Is there a place for strange styles? I don’t know until you show it to me in context and we see whether it works. Should a book about inner-city gangs be written in gangland style? If it works well, perhaps, so let’s see it and determine whether it works. If not, maybe the fix can preserve much of its flavor.

Here’s what to like about Pinker. As a student and educator in the field of psycholinguistics, he’s deep in the ways our minds use language. When there’s a hitch in a sentence, I can usually say what needs to be done, but I can’t always articulate why. Pinker explains that and many other nuances of the English language. It’s not a grammar guide, but it does examine many aspects of language in light of the divide between Prescriptivists (the language standards’ right wing) and Descriptivists (the left wing). He isn’t intimidated by the Red Pen of Disapproval.

The language’s right wing seems to want the language frozen in time. To that group, for example, “ain’t” could never be a legitimate word. Whatever is considered correct today is treated as if it were correct for the millennium or so in which something like the English language has existed in discernibly different form from its Germanic extended family. Pinker demonstrates that language evolves whether editorial stuffed shirts like it or not, and that the Bemoaning of the Decline in Writing Standards has been with us for a very long time. Every generation does it. Put another way, the stuffed shirts of 1822 and 1922 would scowl at what the stuffed shirts of 2022 consider acceptable.

Every generation’s has the conceit of having lived in Big Important Times. Whatever it learned in childhood was The Right Way, with every later generation being selfish, lazy slobs with no respect. To this day most people sixty and over insist on two spaces after a period (and if they paid attention, the exclamation point and colon). Why? Because Mrs. Nitpickingham taught them two spaces in their typing class, and damn it, that makes it correct for all time and eternity. Never mind that Mrs. Nitpickingham (my own was a dotty but pleasant elderly lady who troweled on eyeshadow like iridescent purple bat wings extending from her eyelids) never used an electric typewriter and passed away before the advent of the IBM PC; she could not have envisioned self-publishing. Text-speak? Let’s be glad for her that she never saw it develop; same for my elderly high school English teacher, who looked like Groucho Marx and sounded a bit like Andy Rooney if he’d smoked all his life. In the meantime, every client over sixty argues with me about two spaces vs. one. I explain why the restriction no longer makes sense nor is the standard. Tough, most say, that’s what Mrs. Nitpickingham taught me and that’s what’s correct. It is the hill they choose to die on. It’s the wrong one.

It could be worse. My wife sometimes leaves three spaces, and she’s an excellent typist. I sometimes think she’s just messing with me.

If you want to see someone make a good case for the steady evolution of language and usage–someone doing so not because he doesn’t know the rules and won’t learn them, but because he knows them well enough to know when to bend or break them–Steven Pinker is your guy.

Scumbag studies: Generalkommissar Wilhelm Kube

It’s high time for another of these, for there are so very many scumbags yet to review. This one you might not have heard about. Wilhelm Kube was from Glogau in Silesia, and was an early adopter of Nazi philosophy. (Interesting bit: he attended college in Berlin on a Moses Mendelssohn Scholarship.) In 1933 he joined the SS as an Oberführer (senior colonel), and soon received promotion to Gruppenführer (major general).

An active Christian–what to make of his devotion, in light of his conduct, is up to the reader–Kube was also a corrupt intriguer. By 1935 he was a Gauleiter (regional Nazi party boss), and managed to get himself investigated by no less than Martin Bormann’s father-in-law on suspicion of adultery and corruption. Based upon his general character, it seems credible that he was guilty as all hell. Guilty or not, he was a bit dense. He retaliated for the resulting reprimand by sending an anonymous letter accusing Bormann of being part Jewish. Oops. The Gestapo discovered that Kube was the author, and he was canned from all positions. He also managed to get crosswise with Reinhard Heydrich, one of the most dangerous Nazi leaders. That got him booted from the SS.

By 1941, Kube was back to work in the Nazi machinery. Hitler planned to make him Nazi boss in Moscow, but the Soviet military did not cooperate. Instead he received  an appointment as Generalkommissar for Belarus (then referred to as Weissruthenien). Here he becomes very difficult to figure; he behaved as if he had a personality disorder. Weird as it sounds given his demonstrated anti-Semitism, he spoke out against massacres of Jews and non-Jews by the Einsatzgruppen (essentially, death battalions). He was loud enough to trigger an in-person ass-chewing from his old pal Heydrich, who flew out to Minsk for the task. And yet he participated in massacres, including one in which SS thugs threw a number of children into a sandy pit to die.

One theory, suggested by Christopher Ailsby, is that Kube was trying to take it easy on the populace with one hand while being mean enough with his other to make the Nazi leadership stay off his back, and that the goal here was to increase his own gain. I consider it possible. Kube does seem to have always been above all about Kube.

After Heydrich said whatever he said–and we may safely assume there were dire threats involved–Kube straightened up and flew wrong. By mid-July 1942, he was directing the atrocities that would earn him the title “Butcher of Belarus.” The Nazi occupation committed numerous well-documented atrocities on his watch, and for them he was therefore responsible. Despite his moments of semi-decency, he deserves his place in scumbag studies. Had he survived the war, it is impossible to imagine him ending any way but at the end of a rope.

Thankfully for history and decency, if he would not restrain himself the Soviet partisan movement was prepared to restrain Kube. A Belarusian woman, Yelena Mazanik, got a job as his maid. On September 21, 1943, Mazanik emplaced a time bomb under Kube’s bed. It detonated early in the morning of September 22, killing Kube and triggering a wave of reprisal murders. Also thankfully, Mazanik managed to escape and continue the war as a partisan. I drafted this during Women’s History Month, making it perfect time to honor her and her closest accomplices. Their names were Nadyezhda Troyan and Maria Osipova, and all three earned the highest honor the Soviet Union could bestow: the title of Heroine of the Soviet Union (in Russian, Geroniya Sovietskovo Soyuza). Mazanik passed away in 1996, Troyan in 2011, and Osipova in 1999.

A new sample critique service

Some writers might want editorial input on style/flow/syntax/etc., but not at the cost of submitting a full ms for a developmental edit. A more manageable length would be a very economical way to improve one’s writing, and a good introduction to the editorial relationship.

For a flat fee of $50, I will deep dive on any writing sample up to 1500 words (an industry-standard six pages). This is longer than the customary sample edit provided upon request, and would give the writer enough space to develop a basic short story. In addition to my own detailed commentary, I will focus on any specific concerns you might present. Fiction and non-fiction are both fine.

The result will get you the frank truth that those first readers closest to you might hesitate to present, from a practiced eye with long writing and editing experience. Eighteen and over, please; I stay within my limitations, and I do not have pedagogic training. Younger writers should seek out a teacher who works with young people’s writing on a daily basis and knows how to serve age-appropriate feedback. While I reserve the right to decline to work on material I consider objectionable, in practice that’s rare.

To begin, get in touch by going to the To hire me page and scrolling down to the contact section at the bottom. I look forward to working with you.

Current read: How I F*cking Did It, by Jen Mann

When I bought this book, it was with an eye toward Mann’s comedy. I find her hilarious. How can anyone resist someone whose pseudonyms for her husband and children are Ebeneezer, Adolpha, and Gomer? She is (in)famous for her love of the word “fuck,” as you might gather from her title. If there is one core truth about Jen Mann, it’s that she is consistently herself and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of that. The fact that she has an enormous mom following suggests to me that she often says what others think and feel.

This, however, is the story of how she became a high-earning author. That’s why I am recommending it as a read for aspiring writers. She is quite candid about how her career got a jet-assisted takeoff with a viral blog post, but one might well remember that having the blog made that possible. She discusses the varying methods of promotion she has tried (or wishes she had in hindsight), her experiences with agents and publishers, and becoming comfortable with the public. My own takeaway was a confirmation that I might never attain anywhere near her level of comfort, but that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t pay attention. It just means I’m not real outgoing that way, not nearly as much as I ought to be.

As I’ve said before in this platform, my typical first question to a prospective client can be offputting: Is it a vanity or a commercial project? Oh, definitely commercial, they usually reply, as if a vanity project were something less worthy. I then ask them about the marketing plan, and I get silence. The difference between a vanity project and a commercial project is that the latter has a marketing plan and the former needs none. Why be so blunt at the start? Because only a truly commercial project is likely to recoup my fees for the client, and as the industry pro it is my duty to know such things and proactively guide the prospective client. It would be dishonesty by silence to let someone imagine they were going to make Big Money if I knew at the outset that was improbable.

That’s why I recommend this book. I haven’t even tried to interact with an agent or a publisher in recent years. That world evolves. Mann’s experiences are modern and relevant to the marketing of literary property as it occurs today, including the question of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. She discusses how she got her name out there, how she moved past her comfort zones, and in short, how she got past all the boundaries that my marketing adviser keeps encouraging me to surmount. She knows better than I do, and I’m listening.

A small bit of descriptive writing guidance

My current read is a series by an author with a significant body of work. For me some of his presentation flaws are less important than the overall storyline, which I like. I bookmarked a spot that I could sanitize into a useful example of what not to do, and what to do instead.

Rarely do I approve of constructions such as “he felt.” When possible we should always be showing rather than telling. What is worse: telling when we are already showing, thus creating redundancy as well as awkwardness. (One could even make the case that it insults the reader’s intellect. [“Put it back!” she sobbed. She felt sad. ] Well, duh; that’s usually why people sob. Does the au think readers are too stupid to infer that?)

Dialogue tags are often key to avoiding the need for overt description of sentiment. While the conventional wisdom is that everyone said or asked, more descriptive tags have their moments. Actions described alongside them can also make extra telling unnecessary–and that’s what we want. The context is maritime, age of sail and scurvy. Here’s a sample:

===

As usual, Montoya chose to be pessimistic. “And the sick ones?”

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped. He was becoming irritated by the Spaniard’s bad moods.

===

What’s wrong with this? A few things. First–looking last–is ‘he was becoming irritated.’ Better to say that he found the Spaniard’s moods irritating. We might safely assume that they are bad, since good moods are unlikely to irritate, and it happens Montoya’s attitude is well established in the story. But we won’t need to edit it, because it’s not coming with us. More important here is the inept/excess description. We don’t need to say that Montoya is usually pessimistic, because if that is true, this is already well established. One could then say:

===

“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

===

What did we lose? Nothing. Especially in light of what will remain of the next part, which should end after ‘snapped.’ This can work because Montoya’s attitude problem is a long-known reality to the reader, and the dialogue tag ‘snapped’ conveys all the irritation the reader needs. So we get:

===

“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped.

===

Quicker, cleaner, no longer redundant, and allows the previous storyline and tone to carry the mail. We got rid of one full sentence and most of another. We drop from 42 words to 28–a one-third reduction.

This is why editors tend to shorten mss rather than lengthen them. Even seasoned authors tend to over-describe, and novices tend toward it all the more. And that’s okay, provided they have and heed competent editorial guidance. One can tell when this did not occur, and it can make a great story read average, or an average story read badly.