All posts by jkkblog

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

Current read: _Union Now with Britain_, Clarence Streit, 1941

One way to study history is through the writings of the times, including those writings that faded quickly from public notice. An old used bookstore is a wonderful source for these, and I found this one at an antique mall. I gather it’s at least a bit rare.

Streit was an interesting guy. From Montana, he had a passion for democracy as a concept. Might sound a little odd, since until recently the US hasn’t exactly had a large contingent of open fascists, but it’ll begin to make sense later in this post. After serving in WWI and observing the way the League of Nations floundered (usually attributed to us snubbing it), he developed strong feelings about the forward progress of human government. The start of World War II brought those views into urgent focus, and Streit wrote this book in an effort to awaken his countrypeople to a Federal Union of the primarily Anglophone countries: the US, UK, Canada, Union of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.

Context is everything, and let’s establish it for this book. It was early 1941. Germany had absorbed Austria and half of Czechoslovakia (the remaining half becoming a puppet state). It had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France (puppeting part of it, occupying the rest outright). Of all those, Norway had taken longest. The USSR and Nazi Germany seemed allied, or at least friendly. Nazi warplanes were bombing the UK on a regular basis, and Kriegsmarine submarines threatened to strangle British connections to the Empire’s resources. Italian forces contended with a British Imperial force in Libya. The US was not at war, but had become something of a non-belligerent ally. Japan occupied a substantial chunk of China and was going to have to find petroleum somewhere, or else.

Dark times indeed.

Streit felt he had the solution, which was to escalate the US system up one level. Just as the thirteen original US states had more or less put aside their plentiful quarrels to form a Federal government, Streit felt that a Federal Union of mankind could begin by associating the Anglophone countries as member “states” of a greater whole. If the Germans took Britain and got the Royal Navy, he reasoned, the danger to the rest of the free world would move from severe to mortal. But if all these countries united with the pledge of never quitting until all were free and at peace, Hitler would either have to exit the war or face the mobilizing industrial might of the United States. Membership could then be offered to other non-Anglophone states, including those occupied by the Nazis, with the pledge of “we won’t quit until you’re free.”

Having advocated this solution for years well before the war broke out in Europe, Streit had thought through most of the issues and ramifications. Some he more or less glossed over as “to be dealt with later: A majority of the population governed by these states, perhaps, were not masters in their own houses; he did not propose to end apartheid and the British Raj immediately, and the colonialist chauvinism of the times is present in his outlook. He acknowledges that black Americans were not even nearly on an equal basis with whites, but doesn’t address changing that situation. He felt it quite possible that Hitler would back down rather than face such a Union (not an alliance, which Streit deprecated as temporary and fragile) alone. Japan’s intent was not known at the time, but I think he doubted Japan would square off with a united UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. And if it came to blows, the Union would combine the best of all its sciences, locations, and populations to create a military juggernaut Japan could never overcome.

Was it viable? Perhaps, if one could get people to put aside all their comparatively minor conflicts and some major ones. With Britain standing to benefit most immediately from Union, I think Streit figured that a union with Britain looked attractive to our friendly former colonial overlords, and that the rest of the Empire would follow. He might have been right. In France’s darkest hour, Churchill offered them a political union, but the French rejected it. Churchill was still Prime Minister. Might he have advocated this, in order to assure the survival of the United Kingdom?

That telegraphs the basis of my own doubt: my cynicism about people’s willingness to put aside relatively small matters for the greater good. Every time I go to the grocery store and see a maskhole wearing it below his or her nose, or crowding me in the checkout line, I am reminded just how many people simply do not care about others. I felt that way before the pandemic and I feel more so now. Are some peoples better about it than the ones among whom I must buy food? Perhaps; perhaps not so much. I resist the tendency to imagine that people really differ at heart. Take former Yugoslavia, where not only have the former member peoples broken the country into a half dozen pieces–inflicting enormous damage and death upon each other before the matters became settled–but none of the underlying resentments and angers are gone. In fact, all have obtained new chapters of resentment and grudge. And all could join in shouting me down about it, that I misunderstand how their own people’s grudges are all legitimate and those of all the others so much noise, that I know nothing of their region and the Horrible Things Done Centuries Ago that remain unavenged. Maybe I don’t, but I do know they weren’t killing each other under Tito, and when he left, killing started. I think less killing tends to be a good thing. Prove me wrong.

The most essential key to understanding Streit’s perspective is remembering what had not happened when he wrote the book.

  • Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Singapore.
  • Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were at war.
  • The public had not the faintest idea of the potential in nuclear weapons.
  • No nation had delivered the Nazi military any meaningful defeat.

A year after its publication, three of four of those ceased to be true. That’s how fast things were moving. No wonder Streit felt such urgency.

With outdated books, hindsight is an easy temptation; we have touched on some of it. Streit’s adoration of the US system as the perfect fundamental basis for Federal Union reads chauvinistic. Dismissing nearly 400 million Indians as unready to govern themselves was not calculated to please them, and glossed over the legitimate grievances of an aggregation of peoples who had done just fine until they became a “crown jewel” in someone else’s empire. We know that the war situation was about to change, and that Britain would survive the Blitz, but Streit did not. If one seeks to pick him apart, he’s no longer around to defend his proposal; he passed in 1986.

In any case, it’s worth the read not only for Streit’s take on the political and geopolitical study of it all, but for the view it provides of the way the world looked through one Montana son’s eyes in early 1941.

Scumbag studies: Reichsleiter Martin Bormann

Hardly anyone in Germany knew his name, but everyone near the top feared, respected, and/or hated him in varying mixtures. He was Hitler’s secretary, head of the Nazi Party chancellery, and so much the political tapeworm that he has become a slang term in my own world.

Of middle-class stock, Bormann served in the German military during the last days of World War I without seeing action. In the 1920s he joined the paramilitary Freikorps, then the Nazi Party. His work ethic and organizational skills had few equals, but Bormann did not attain a position of importance until the Nazi takeover in 1933. He became chief of staff to Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, a muddled man whose disinterest and disorientation cried out for a functional assistant. It interests me because I have seen this phenomenon over and over: a weak or distracted leader gets that one employee or volunteer who makes all the troubles go away, and comes to depend on that person in all things.

Of course, Hess flew to the United Kingdom in 1941 in a controversial attempt to make peace. (Let’s here and now dismiss the conspiracy theories about him dying in captivity and replaced by a double. In the first place, the supposed double would have had to fool not only the senior Nazis locked up with Hess in Spandau, but Hess’s own wife and son. I think not. In the second, who a) happens to be a dead ringer for the odd-looking Hess, and b) signs on to spend his life in jail? That’s a nope.) With Hess’s departure, Bormann became the head of the Party Chancellery–the effective head of the Nazi Party’s day-to-day workings.

People rarely think about this, but Germany had several competing organizations running its affairs. While the National Socialist German Workers’ Party had no rival parties, its organization was not exactly synonymous with the government. Neither was the SS in its varying branches and functions. To get a good sense of how Nazi Germany worked, one should understand that Adolf Hitler always had his subordinates and their organizations competing with one another. Bormann’s power emanated from the fact that he was one of the only people who had daily personal contact with Hitler. This meant that a word from him had the power to bind and to loose. A tenacious, ruthless political infighter, he naturally used this power to strengthen his own authority, reward those who cooperated, and marginalize or destroy those who did not.

He was certainly complicit in the Holocaust because he was complicit in just about every action by the Nazi-led German state from 1933 to 1945. The most loyal of Nazis, he was expecting to retain some form of power even as he sought to escape the Soviet Union’s Berlin encirclement.

What kind of a person was Bormann? To some degree he was a living German caricature, the sort that a bad parody writer (and a committed Germanophobe) might devise. He was at your throat or at your feet, sullen in defeat and unbearable in victory, to borrow phrases from writers past. A tireless worker loyal to the chain of command–there being only one link above him–his meticulous ability to organize and maneuver could move mountains. An obsequious toady to Hitler and a bellowing tyrant to his staff, he loved his wife but made a habit of cheating on her. Bull-necked, squat, thick around the middle, and unpromising in appearance, his only serious limiter was the lack of any public speaking ability.

While there are always those seeking answers in conspiracy, in this case there isn’t much room for a reasonable person to believe that Martin Bormann survived World War II. He died on May 2, 1945, six days before the Third Reich surrendered to the Allies, probably from poison to avoid imminent capture. Forensics (1973) and eventually DNA testing (1998) leave no room for doubt.

In addition to his legacy of complicity in one of the most evil regimes of the modern day, Martin Bormann left me the perfect term for the political infighter, the tapeworm in the body politic, the ass-kisser who slithers into a position of great power. I saw Bormanns (Bormenn?) in most offices I worked in, and have seen them in several of my wife’s past employments. I have seen female and male Bormanns, ugly and attractive, thick and thin, smart and dumb (but with powerful animal cunning).

Any time there is a leader who punishes those who tell him or her what s/he needs but does not wish to hear, a Bormann scents opportunity and enters the body politic through the contaminated nourishment of zealous volunteerism and fawning humility. Once established, everything that passes through the body politic must pass the Bormann. After s/he destroys enough challengers, the rest learn not to provoke the tapeworm whose choice to bite in just the right spot can be fatal to a career.

Bormanns thrive in non-profits and for-profits alike, in government and business, even in social clubs.

If you can remember any Bormanns from your own experience, feel free to tell stories about them.

If you’re such a great editor, why don’t you write your own books?

We get this one a lot. There are many possible answers, and for some, multiple answers might apply.

  • The editor doesn’t want to. It can be as simple as that.
  • The editor realizes that there is more money in editing than in writing.
  • The editor knows that marketing is the difference between success and failure, and doesn’t like marketing. Or doesn’t mind it, but can’t or won’t do it well.
  • The editor has done so, either under a pen name or perhaps an unpublished work.
  • The editor takes more satisfaction in helping and guiding and teaching other people than in creating his or her own projects.
  • The editor doesn’t want the public engagement that could come with a reasonably successful book, at least not for the pittance s/he would likely earn from it.
  • The editor never got comfortable with the traditional publishing model (writer begs and begs, house condescends to accept the bulk of the revenue).
  • The editor isn’t neurotic enough to be a writer. (Okay, I’m sort of kidding. Sort of.)
  • Editing and writing require different skill sets and not everyone has both.
  • The editor hasn’t got anything original to share.
  • The editor is too busy helping others to focus on his/her own book.
  • A similar situation exists in many disciplines. Not everyone who can refinish furniture can build it. Not everyone who can repair a car can design and build a car.

Some of those apply to me to varying degrees. I’d bet some apply to most editors.

Shopping cart semi-abandonment

In recent months I have learned of a cruel, mean, horrible activity, never-to-be-done by right-thinking, community-minded folk. These persons have realized that if they load up an online shopping cart, then abandon it, they will be part of statistics over which the whole online vending world is weeping and gnashing its teeth.

Evidently the #1 cause of cart abandonment is that people on some level decide they don’t like the deal, so they bag out. Second commonest cause is they don’t want to have to set up an account. If you read down the list, though, nowhere on that list is the most devastating (and of course naturally discouraged with every fiber of my being) form of abandonment: wrathful, targeted semi-abandonment.

How’s that work? The awful, corporation-hating big meanies who do this terrible thing, who obviously don’t return their shopping carts and always flick their cigarette butts on the ground after smoking them only eight feet away from a window (in Washington, 25′), use a browser that will remember its past sessions. They do not close the shopping session tab before closing the browser, so when it wakes up the next day, the cart is still full. That full cart is still affecting the vendor’s inventory and sales, which is just dastardly. It’s the fundamental equivalent of going to the grocery store, filling your cart, and walking out without it–except that a) the online stuff won’t spoil, and b) with no existing login or password, the online vendor has no way to identify the culprit and punish him or her. It’s cruel and unusual, on a par with cat juggling and overdone steak.

That of course is bad enough, but at some point I believe most online merchants could get past that by dumping the abandoned cart themselves if it had no changes for some time. What if there were daily changes? That would be the most detrimental. Someone piles up, say, $300K of crap in the cart, then on a daily basis adds a votive candle or a $5 bar of soap or somesuch? Never checks out? Awful, I tell you. If someone does that, the cart never dumps, and keeps getting bigger. It could be very harmful to inventory control and their rightful profits. And worst of all, they have no real way to address it. It’s their worst nightmare.

I could never encourage anyone to be so unkind to an online vendor who means only to make honest profit by being truthful with consumers and treating employees well, while adhering to the corporate vision of ramping up actionable items and solutioning problems to create maximum shareholder value. And branding. Much branding. More branding than a cattle pen in springtime.

Remember: wealthy people’s increased wealth depends upon you never being mean to them, no matter how their companies treat you, the public, the land, the economy, and kittens.

Pandemic vehicle registration in the eco-paradise that is Oregon

So here we are in Oregon, where littering carries a maximum fine of $6250 (assuming there are no associated costs like hazmat disposal or kombucha abatement), driving 100 mph carries a minimum fine of $1000, your cans recycle for $0.10 deposit per can, everything else carries a fee or a fine of some sort, there is no sales tax, it’s only safe for Specially Trained Fueling Technicians to pump your gas (except in rural counties after hours, where suddenly their years of training and expertise are not so needed), and all rules are strictly enforced with no loopholes. And if you think you found a loophole, you will soon learn that there is a rule that loopholes cannot exist in Oregon, and that the fine for thinking you found one is $20 (you can pay online).

In the Portland area, most vehicles are subject to an emissions test. Even hybrids. I normally do this every two years by going to the Department of Environmental Quality station in Hillsboro, waiting 10-20 minutes, having them mess with my ride for about two minutes, paying about $212 plus $25 for the privilege of them certifying that our eco-loving hybrid miraculously passes the emissions test, and being handed my new registration with stickers. I do in the expected ways with these items, and my vehicle is registered in good standing.

Unfortunately, thanks to the Covfefe-19 pandemic, the DEQ stations were locked down for three months. Wouldn’t you know it? A renewal notice arrived during the lockdown. The registration for my wife’s car, the hybrid, expired in the first week of July. DEQ stations only reopened on July 1. We were advised by the DMV that during that time, the police probably would not issue citations for expired tabs until some point when they might start. That sounded to me like a trap, so I made plans not to take this as a promise of extending the “maybe we won’t cite you” period into July.

Of course, once the stations opened again (some still have not, which made the situation oh, so much better), they were about as swamped as you might expect. The DEQ maintains a camera that posts shots of the lines on its website, but only out to the little booth where one checks in. A long street leads up to that booth. In the past, when I picked bad times to renew, I had about a twenty-minute wait just to reach the booth. Here in the ecological paradise of the Beaver State, the normal post-booth wait is about half an hour.

I checked the cameras several times over a few days. It seemed there were no good times of day, with fully jammed lanes after the booth. It never occurred to our precious DEQ to put a camera on the street up to that booth, of course. Oh, and we were warned that there was construction in the area, with flagpeople and closed lanes. Fantastic timing and coordination for maximum pain!

After giving the eco-constipation (econstipation?) about a week to clear, it became evident that the station might remain backed up for weeks or months. Whatever suck I would have to endure in order to assure that our hybrid vehicle complied with Oregon’s strict environmental controls so that I could pay Oregon’s exorbitant registration fees, I was slated to endure. Every day of delay meant a strong likelihood of being stopped by very aggressive local deputies and police. In an area where authorities set up stings just to nail people for not stopping at unmarked crosswalks to let Aunt Adna cross, the thinking person does not one single thing that could give the police probable cause for a stop. Here, and especially in Beaverton, motorists are The Hunted. My wife was once stopped and cited for having her license plate frame slightly obscure her license tabs. Gods only know how much jail time she might have gotten had she committed a truly meaningful violation.

I girded up my loins, which was its own problem. One thing that the DMV’s Founding Fathers & Mothers do not seem to have considered is that older people risk serious urinary distress by being stuck in an inescapable line for two hours. It’s bad enough for men, who have easier options than women. I set out for the DEQ even so, fully prepared to bail on them at the first sign of an eterna-line. On the first trip, I saw cows before I realized I’d taken the wrong road northward. Just as well; bladder full. Normally that would not be so stressful, but bear in mind also that there are few public restrooms now, and that I wouldn’t call most of them safe. All the way back home, check map, visit restroom, back on the road. This time, just in case, I brought an empty plastic beverage bottle with a screw-top. (I had it figured that if I had to use this for emergency relief efforts, I could shield the area from view and no one would be the wiser.) One hour consumed.

After another half hour’s northward driving–passing in sight of daunting lane closures certain to cause delays along the main arterial–I managed to drive to the correct location. Past the flagpeople. Follow the DEQ detour signs. In case anyone was too stupid to observe those, there were two masked persons waving DEQ signs and pointing where to turn.

I’m glad I pay money so that even morons can be told where to turn in order to pay their registration and emissions fees.

So I turned up that street, compliant with the moron-helpers, hoping for a distant glimpse of the Booth Beyond Which There Remains Half An Hour Of Dicking Around Waiting. I saw the end of the line, with a little ridge ahead and no idea how far past it the booth might be. Offhand, it looked like the back of the line was somewhere near Olympia, WA. Faced with the choice of having to commit to the line and hope, or get the hell out of there, I consulted my bladder. It said: “Do it and perish.” With calm aplomb, I turned in to a vacant parking lot where I could exit the other way. I would have to try using something called “DEQtoo.”

The eco-paradise has gone a little ways in the Idaho direction (in Boise, there are emissions vans at nearly every gas station) by farming testing out to local auto-related businesses. I had distrusted this possibility enough to first attempt all the previous bullshit, but having made said attempt and met with futility, I would now have to attempt this new form of bullshit. (Not bullshit, you say? Oh, really? Since when is a six-year-old hybrid car with less than 80,000 miles on it going to flop the emissions test? My thirty-year-old pickup truck passes the emissions test with flying colors, but at least testing it is justified for strict eco-protection and eco-harmony (and to produce eco-money). If the eco-paradise really were concerned about ecology rather than money, and wanted to serve the public, they’d just state that hybrids under a certain age and below a certain mileage were automatically considered to pass the emissions test this year, thanks to Covfefe-19-related headaches.

Oh, no, but then they wouldn’t get to enforce this almost universally pointless test on vehicles certain to pass it, and thus would forgo all those $25 fees? Okay; I realize Oregon never, ever, ever met a fee it could live without. Then charge me the damn fee already, make me swear to the mileage, and state that at least for this year in this situation due to eterna-lines at the DEQ, all qualifying hybrids are considered to have passed. Then take my $212 to register the car, send me my tabs to stick on my license plates, issue my renewed registration, and let me forget that you exist for two more years.

We couldn’t have that, could we? No. Entirely too easy.

Under DEQtoo, a for-profit auto-related enterprise (a Jiffy Lube, for example) does the test, charges you whatever they charge you, and sends the results to Salem. What, you were told Oregon is Deeply Socialist? Odd socialism, this, farming out the means of production to private companies. Off I went to Jiffy Lube, where no one was wearing any masks or bothering with any form of social distancing. I love how the enforcement mechanisms in Oregon are so strict for everything except a Governor’s order pursuant to a serious pandemic public safety hazard, in which case it’s optional and people can just do whatever. Oregon is more prepared to enforce a tiny obstruction of part of a license plate than it is to keep a dangerous disease from spreading.

The process at Jiffy, presuming one doesn’t get Covfefe-19, isn’t too complex. You pull your car in, they scan it and collect all your information, they run the test, you pay them $20 for doing the test and sending the information to the DMV so that the DMV can now charge you the $25. (You didn’t really think that the DEQtoo fee replaced the emissions test fee, did you? If you imagined this, clearly you have never lived in Oregon.)

This took about twenty minutes. The kid handed me a piece of paper telling me what to do next in order to check on my test and complete registration online. He scrawled “WWW.DEQTOO.COM” in magic marker, to let me know where I should navigate online.

Of course, he didn’t even know the correct URL. It was http://www.deqtoo.org. While this did not daunt me terribly, it was just one more simple disservice they offered with a smile. Once I navigated to the correct website, I enjoyed the miracle of online renewal. First, of course, I had to pay DEQ to issue me a certificate of having passed their emissions test. I had to give them a bunch of information they already had. Having purchased this certificate, I was eligible to renew. I had to give them a bunch more information they already had plus some they didn’t. After about half an hour of dildoing around with these websites, I finally paid all the necessary fees, printed the necessary forms, and was told they would mail my tabs the next business day.

And that’s just how we roll nowadays here in Oregon.

The little cheats popular with novice writers, and what they tell me as a reader

When asked to review someone’s writing, one of the first things I notice is whether the writer uses cheats. I define a cheat as one of the cheap, cheesy tricks so loved by writers who haven’t matured into a competent style.

My usual guidance is that all cheats have legitimate uses, places, and functions; that they are all part of the written language for valid reasons; and that their overuse looks amateurish and childish. I encourage my clients to think of cheats as “chips,” as in playing an expendable and finite supply of “I get to bend the rule” moments. (“Get out of jail free cards,” while more recognizable, is also more ponderous. Brief terms are better.)

Novices tend to use these cheats in ways that show low writing continence. Some even double down on them: “Well, that’s just my style.” That’s my signal that it’s time for the ice bath: “I’m sorry to hear that, because it means your style is very flawed, and that you’re embracing bad rather than striving toward good.” If that’s their stance, though, I already know they aren’t going to hire me, so at least my conscience is clear that I told them the truth without flinching. I only overcame these bad habits because people told me that truth. Who knows the mistakes better than someone who once made them all, all the time?

It’s true. I did. If this is CA (Cheats Anonymous), I qualify to lead the meeting. My name is John, and I am a Cheataholic. I’ve been clean and sober for about ten years. Welcome.

By saving these chips for the moments when nothing else works as well, they’re available when needed. Here are most of the ones that trip my trigger, what they tell me about the writer, and where their use may make good sense.

Ellipses (…; note that this is the plural, and that a singular use is an ellipsis): in narrative, tells me the author has not yet learned the value of the declarative sentence augmented by more common punctuation. One in a sentence is always questionable; more than one is a head-shaker. When they’re okay: with judicious use in dialogue, for when one finds it very convenient to place an important but short pause in speech. It’s also good for getting rid of the dialogue tag when speech trails off, although you’d be amazed how many writers give us both. “I saw it coming, and then, well…” she trailed off. No, no, no. If you use it in dialogue, at least get the full benefit. We can see that she trailed off, thanks to your ellipsis.

I cannot resist mentioning that editorial forums love passionate, brain-eroding debate over stuff like whether an ellipsis should use spaces, no spaces, or the Unicode character that combines three dots into one symbol. I never join in, because if I were to speak my mind, they would boot me out. I’d say: “So let’s decide on whether to speed up up the computer by pouring water in it, pouring sand into it, or oiling it with ten-thirty.” I think some editorial forum participants believe that fierce arguments over stupid things signify editorial acumen. I think these flaps are the mark of someone who has a forest and trees problem, and who has confused pedantry with effectiveness. But if I tell them that, they’ll all unite in agreement that I am not of their tribe. It is not to my benefit for them to realize that, so I shut up.

Except here, of course, since they can’t kick me off my own blog.

Em dashes (—): my own besetting weakness, my own worst habitual cheat, my own “that was so much easier than writing” bad habit. I’m terrible and I own it. I want to use them all the time, such as bracketing this clause, and I know it’s wrong. The overuse tells me that the writer suffers from the same inclination to cheat as do I, but finds it too troublesome to continue the struggle. The em dash’s uses are hard to define, but one might ask oneself whether a comma, semicolon, or colon could replace one. If it could, it probably should. When they’re okay: sparingly in narrative. In dialogue, good for demonstrating speech cadence when that cadence helps convey tone, and for interrupted speech. And again, you’d be amazed how often the dialogue tag makes a redundant curtain call: “Now wait just a minute, you—” “Shut the hell up!” Smith interrupted. The punctuation made the interruption clear. Why use the dialogue tag to belt the reader in the face with it? Do you think the reader is too stupid to determine this?

Exclamation points (!): in narrative, tells me that the writer is (or wants to sound like) a dramatic teenager. My usual reaction: “Oh, good lord. Such hot garbage.” There might be occasional moments for exclamation points in narrative, notably in self-help books with informal tones. They are fine in dialogue provided the author uses them continently and does not add a redundant dialogue tag. “Goddamnit, I said you’re not going and that’s that!” she insisted. Barf, retch, gag. Even in dialogue one should restrict ! usage, unless all the dialogue is between people who yell and fight all the time.

Italics (like these): in narrative, when used for emphasis, they indicate to me that the narrator thinks word choices are hard and painful, and it would be so much easier to just tell the emphasis rather than word the selection so that the reader grasps it. If you infer that I think they should be very rare in narrative, I guess my gelatinous sarcasm was effective. When they’re okay: in dialogue, used rarely, to indicate a profound emphasis on a word or a few by the speaker. Just watch for the doubly redundant tag: “I said don’t do that!” she ordered. Now we’ve got the italics, the exclamation mark, and the redundant tag. (Notice that I did not italicize ‘and.’ This was because I think you are intelligent enough to supply your own emphasis based on my word choices.)

When I see something like this, I begin to wonder if the author was having an emotional day and got overwhelmed. Where they are very helpful: for internal monologue (Not on my watch, thought Sally. I’ll shoot him.), for foreign terms generally on first use, for first use and leading to special definition of English terms taking on a particular contextual meaning, and a few other cases mostly related to non-fiction (as in this article, to draw the reader’s eye to an important shift in focus).

Bold (like so): nearly always tells me the writer has no idea what the hell s/he is doing. Bold has its moments outside headers and titles, but they are quite rare. Just no. It’s everything that is wrong with italics and exclamation points, but more egregious.

I used them for the titles here because I didn’t feel like doing the messing around that it would take to use underlining, which I would have preferred. WordPress’s formatting panel easily serves up bold, italic, list tools, color, a limited symbol list, and strikethrough, but not underlining. I don’t expect an explanation from them any time soon.

Adverbs (most end in -ly): tend to represent overtell or word choice sloth. That’s another issue that tells me the author found it so much easier than striving to select the correct verb. Note that not all -ly words are adverbs, nor do all adverbs end in -ly; an adverb modifies a verb. At their worst in dialogue tags: “Hands up!” she said menacingly, chambering a round. (In case the utter wrongnado of that does not register with you, the deft addition of the chambered round indicates the menace would be the default attitude and tone; only if that were unintended, and if that non-intent were essential to the scene, would one want a modifier. ‘Timidly,’ perhaps? Sure, if you want to say that she’s about to fall apart. But what if you just replaced the exclamation point with a comma, subbing for a period? Just the incongruity of a missing exclamation point would say a lot, would it not?) What about a better verb? That’s the essence of banishing adverbs.

If one can come up with a better verb that pays its freight, especially outside of dialogue tags, one is doing as a good writer should. If one can’t, and the modified meaning cannot be inferred, that’s why we have adverbs.

All these are my chips. They all have their moments, every single one (even boldface), some more often than others. In the main, most writers should try hard to limit or eliminate these. Then, when they are most needed and nothing else works quite so efficiently, there’ll be a chip available to play.

Take it from a recovering addict.

lighting a financial candle rather than cursing the financial darkness

Now and then, I have to give credit to a complete idiot.

Dirty laundry: I sometimes have trouble coming up with good topics to maintain a twice-monthly blog posting schedule. In this case, a friend’s friend said something so blithering that I had to contradict. Not harshly, of course. You never know when it’s someone’s wonderful Aunt Edna who, while dumber than a bag of wet nickels, has devoted her whole life to helping her nephew and about two hundred other kids from broken homes. I’d rather not find out the hard way. But the facts, at least, needed a saying.

This brought me to the realization that I have a substantial financial reading list, if I would but share it, to help people self-educate. Self-education is good. Why take my word for this stuff? Better to read people who know more about it than I do. And another of my beliefs is the old saying about lighting candles and cursing darkness. If I don’t feel good, I try to make myself do things that will make me feel more positive.

Before I go into the reading list, I ought to disclose my basic investing outlook and methods. I am not a fan of corporate America. I begin with the presumption that it is impossible to find a publicly traded American company not operated by criminals, at least as I define the term. The harder a company puts on the PR to tell me how wonderful it is, the more I assume the reality is opposite.

I am more an income investor than a growth investor. I don’t like CEO promises and predictions; my basic outlook is “Fuck you; pay up.” I like income because they can’t take it back. I own very few separate issue stocks. I go mostly for index ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and closed-end bond funds (CEFs). I can wring 2-5% payouts from the bond index ETFs, 12-15% from the CEFs (with capital loss potential), and results from the stock ETFs vary but are more volatile than most of the market (this works to my advantage). My primary objective, naturally, is to make money. The secondary objective, which leads to the primary but has to come first, is to keep emotion out of my investing.

It follows, therefore, that I don’t much believe in ethical investing. If you want to get all ethical, buy Satan Inc.’s stock (DEVL), donate the dividends to their enemies, and vote against all management’s recommendations. That is the action on your part that they fear most–but don’t confuse it with investing for gain.

I do believe that financial innumeracy is one of the leading causes of youth poverty in this country. The schools and parents didn’t teach them. The young made the naive assumption that opportunities would be the same for them as they were for their parents, a myth their parents knew was bullshit, but did not puncture. The parents should have.

With that, I offer you a list of excellent reads about money management, investing behaviors, strategies, and suchlike. I hope it will help you beat the rigged game that is our market, even if your method doesn’t even involve buying any stocks.

  • Financially Stupid People Are Everywhere; Don’t Be One of Them, by Jason Kelly. You’ll be seeing his name a couple more times, for good reason: Jason combines a very readable style with an iconoclastic, no-bullshit approach. We’re friends, but I was a fan of his writing years before we became personally acquainted. If adulting classes existed, this could be the textbook. If you’re in your twenties and you have debt and/or no savings, start here. It’s the icewater bath you need.
  • Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl, and Why You Should, Too, by Louann Lofton. It turns out that women have investing tendencies that work to their advantage, and Lofton has taken time to observe and quantify these. It’s an excellent read, and likely to promote confidence on the part of women navigating what has historically been a male-dominated industry. Bottom line: if you’re beating their numbers, it doesn’t matter whether you do it through newsletter picks, tarot, Sacred Vagina Meditations, research, or free association. It means you’re better.
  • The Motley Fool Investment Guide, by David & Tom Gardner. While I’m out of the business of researching and picking separate issue securities (that would include common stocks), others might not be. Either way, this is a fun read full of helpful education.
  • Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), by William Poundstone. Poundstone is the guy you have never read that you should be reading: author of the Secrets books, who then turned to studies of human psychology. Distilled essence: marketers use our instincts to lead us to decisions that work to their advantage and against ours. Understanding this is worth your while.
  • The 3% Signal: The Investing Technique that will Change Your Life, by Jason Kelly. Jason publishes The Kelly Letter, an outstanding investment newsletter. He used to pick stocks. He stopped, and his life got better. This book tells what he does now, and how anyone with an investment account can do the same. Five stars without a moment’s hesitation.
  • Your Money & Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich, by Jason Zweig. Another good entry in the field of investing and money psychology. I don’t believe you can go too far wrong applying critical thinking to an understanding of how our minds work.
  • The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing, by Jason Kelly. There is some overlap here between more recent versions of this book and The 3% Signal. That said, if you want to go stock hunting, I’d take this book in addition to the Gardners’ treatise.

Because I feel in a sharing mode, I’m going to make a number of statements that I wish more people could absorb:

  • Any stock index report that goes by points rather than percentage change just makes you dumber.
  • Any person reporting a stock index result that reports points rather than percentage is either too uneducated to know how dumb this is, or is deliberately using the big number to draw attention.
  • Conventional open-end mutual funds are usually a bad deal. They’re great investments for 1975, if you’re currently living then.
  • About 90-95% of investors should just buy and accumulate index ETFs (exchange-traded funds).
  • Financial media suck. You get stupider every time you watch or read them.
  • Bonds don’t automatically mean you get your money back. Bond funds especially don’t mean this.
  • If investing a very small amount, you can afford to shoot high. Only when you pile up a big heap o’ money do you have to think about holding onto it.
  • Emotion is your investing enemy.
  • You don’t know who you are as an investor until you see a crash. Who you are is what you do during and after that crash. A fern could make money in a bull market.
  • The Dow is worse than useless; it is distortive. Any time someone cites it as meaningful, my opinion of that person’s investing savvy drops.
  • It follows, from the above and previous commentary, that any time anyone says “Dow drops 300 [or whatever number],” without including the percentage change, I conclude that the individual doesn’t understand the markets at all. I may heart them big time, but they said a dumb thing.
  • Most people throw away about half their lifetime returns just by playing with themselves all through their twenties, only getting serious come their thirties.
  • If you buy an investment you don’t understand, you do a stupid thing.
  • Any time someone starts by saying “If you had bought XX back in X month, year Y,” this person is sharing irrelevancy. Why? Because you didn’t. You wouldn’t. Next time, you won’t either. If only that defensive end had gotten to the passer on that third down play in the first quarter, the whole game would have been different–but he did not.
  • Always buy the stocks my wife says to buy. Unless, of course, I helped pick them, in which case they’ll tank.
  • The choice of a traditional vs. Roth IRA comes down to the tax benefit. If you don’t make enough money to need the writeoff, the Roth is probably more advantageous. However, the Roth means trusting the government to honor a promise years in the future. I never have. Your call.
  • Rich traders get to cheat in ways you and I do not.
  • For IPOs, if they’re worth getting into, you probably aren’t getting in unless you’re with a big full-commission brokerage. That’s one advantage for full-commission brokers, set against an ocean of disadvantages.

field trip

In school, did you like field trips? I always did. I’d do anything to get the hell out of the classroom.

Today the blog is going on a field trip to Kit ‘N Kabookle, the online home of fellow traveler/colleague Mary DeSantis. She has been posting visiting editorial tips for some months now, one per week, and I’m up to bat.

For my topic, I decided to talk about choosing an editing mode beginning from the writer’s viewpoint: in plain English, what exactly is a given writer seeking from an editing professional? “I need an edit” is very inspecific. It’s like saying “I need a car repair” without talking about what’s wrong.

I always think it’s nice to know the name of what one wants, myself.

Mary’s site has plentiful information resources. She was pleasant and professional in arranging and scheduling this, and I thank her for her kind e-hospitality.

A blueprint for becoming a well-paid, respected fiction author

No, really.

You might not like some parts of it, but it would work. It would also, if I were a participant, make me less money–just in case one is tempted to imagine that this is a purely self-promotional notion.

It also involves marketing. Yes, marketing is icky and you hate it. I get it. It is also what separates the moneymaking writer, even if mediocre, from the impoverished writer even if superb. You either embrace marketing and decide to do it, or you pay to work rather than being paid to work.

If you’re still interested, you at least asked, “What marketing would that be?” That’s a start.

First: learn to write and tell a story. Do this by writing a short story, say 5K words, and hiring a competent editor for at least one developmental edit. Might need more than one. The logic here is that if you hire the right person, you basically get an intensive writing class. You would also get that if you wrote novellas or novels, the difference being that this will achieve it cheaper and faster. You will overcome all the tyro mistakes: stop using italics as substitutes for good writing, learn differences between dialogue and narrative, get over your adverbs and ellipses and em dashes.

Once your short story doesn’t suck, publish it on Amazon as a free giveaway. Yes. Free. No, I am not joking, and no, I am not nuts. If you can’t make it free, charge the minimum, which I think is $0.99. The idea here is to build up a following. Your first five short stories should be free. Keep writing them. Continue to engage editing support as needed, but your editor will cost you far less because s/he will have less mechanical stuff to do and will have moved you on to more advanced thinking as you shape your storytelling abilities.

You want reviews and people interested in more from you. You are building up your promotional base while making sure that you don’t charge people much for your earlier, less polished efforts. You are getting reviews, one hopes, feedback as to what readers like and dislike. You can compare public opinion to your editor’s impressions, ask for guidance relative to them. That’s part of what we do, evaluate review comments for validity or bogusness (bogosity?).

After you’ve got five up there that you are willing to make free as often as possible, start charging $0.99 for those going forward. Your base will take chances on you, because most people do not recognize $0.99 as actual money. It’s about the price of their coke with fast food. They will gladly pay that for a lunch read by an author they know they like. Word will spread. You will start to earn. You might not yet be breaking even, but neither will you just be pouring money down a sinkhole.

What you are doing here is creating a pool of passive income and marketing that keeps working for you after you have already paid for it, like rent-free billboards with your name on them. By using short stories, you are doing this as cheaply as possible. Editing and proofreading cost less. They do add up over the course of about twenty-five short stories, but each is a spend-once-benefit-longtime cost. If you think you are pretty badass, you can always try releasing a story without editing guidance and see how it’s received.

Yeah. I just told you it was okay to try skipping hiring an editor. If you have started to believe that you are special, and you want to test your theory, just try it without one and see how the reviews are. Do I think you should do this? Fundamentally, no; but if you are starting to ask yourself whether you want to keep spending that money, this is the only way you will obtain an answer you can believe. If it doesn’t seem to matter, then at least you’ll make informed choices. If it gets lousy reviews and people wonder what the hell went wrong with you, then you’ll have a metric for what good the editor was doing you.

Once you’ve got a couple dozen shorts out there that people can use for discoverability, come up with a novella. Maybe it’s based upon situations and characters that the readers liked; by now you have ample feedback on that. Have a developmental edit on the novella, because the issues facing longer work differ from shorter work, and you now need to learn these. It will be far, far less expensive than if you’d just busted out a debut novel and had to go back and forth three times while your editor taught you to get rid of passive voice and write decent dialogue.

If you stall out, and think that you have “writer’s block,” you’re incorrect because there is no such thing. If you are tired of writing, tell yourself the truth. If you just need a break, tell yourself the truth. If you can’t figure out what to write, tell yourself the truth. Deep down, you either do or do not want to keep doing this. If you don’t want to, stop; it was worth a try. If you want to continue, write something, anything, every day. Write naughty limericks, journal, send letters to the newspaper editor, do a blog, even write about how old this is getting. Doesn’t matter. People who want to and have the time and means to write are writing; people who do not want to write are not. Right now I want to write this blog post. Never, ever externalize your desire to write and assign it to the completely invented, non-recognized, self-sabotaging syndrome/disorder/dysfunction that goes by W.B.

So don’t give your novella away free, but don’t make it too spendy. Most of your readers, being readers, can do a little thumbnail math. If it’s 35K, and you charge a buck for short stories averaging about 5K, and you hit them up for $4.99 for it, that won’t seem unfair. Its audience will overlap with that of your short stories, but not completely; you may want to have occasional giveaway weekends if Amazon will let you. Depends how it’s doing. The idea is to leverage your past following to break into a different market segment.

If you want to do full-length novels, make a similar step up from novellas as you did from stort stories.

While you are doing all of this, build a marketing plan. Yes. The first conversation I have with most prospective clients goes this way:

“So. Is it a vanity book or a commercial book?”

“Oh, it’s definitely commercial. Absolutely. It is many adverbs commercial.”

“Great. What’s your marketing plan?”

“What do you mean, ‘marketing plan’?”

“That’s what makes it commercial. A ms without a marketing plan is a vanity project–and that’s not a putdown. Vanity projects are just fine and I am happy to help with them. I run off half my prospective customers just by being honest with them about how this world really works. I would rather do that than take money under deceptive pretenses. You can surely find someone desperate enough to resort to deceptive flattery, but that’s not me. So: you don’t have a marketing plan, and right now it’s a vanity project. But if you develop a marketing plan, you will have a method in mind to get your money back and then some. Either way, that’s my first guidance to you: examine your goals and be honest with yourself about them.”

Any whom that approach sends fleeing for an editor who “believes in my work” or otherwise makes them feel warm and fuzzy, did the right thing. If they aren’t comfortable with blunt honesty even when it acts against its own financial interests, they aren’t the clients I want. If I’m going to make less money out of principle, I damn sure want to like my work and feel good about my clients.

At any rate, if you spent that year or two developing and executing and refining a marketing plan, you should have significant residual income coming in from the shorts. With a little luck, some of them will have broken even or better, and their income streams might help you fund editing, covers, etc. for future work.

Now and then it might make sense for you to put out a new short story even if you’ve mostly gone to longer works. Might even make it a new freebie, depending on your marketing plan. There is even the outside, bizarre, fantastic possibility you might have made your peace with marketing by now, even if it is the same sort of peace you have made with your toothbrush: “I either do this, or I have really bad dental days.” Believe me, that’s about as far as I have gotten with it.

So. Easy? No. Workable? More than ever before. Requires time and money? Yes, somewhat, but if I could imagine a quicker and cheaper method, I would be recommending that.

Project Hamilton

This isn’t about editing or writing.

This is Project Hamilton.

This is about current US society and economics. It may apply to others in other societies, but I am speaking to the only one I know and in which I participate.

This is me summoning the haves. If you’re doing rather well, I’ve got a suggestion for you.

Because of the disease, which it seems highly likely will soon enter its second phase and do multiple times more harm, there are two economic categories: the haves and the have-nots. The haves either have plenty of money or are still earning enough to live and save a little. Most of them are currently spending less money than they usually do, so they have some extra. The have-nots are chronically underemployed, working at risk, or deprived of all income. Few of them asked for those situations.

The reason the haves can still buy groceries and live through this in relative comfort is in large part because some of the have-nots go to work. The have-even-lesses can’t even do that. My answer is Project Hamilton.

The concept is simple. You probably don’t shop locally as often as you did before. When you do, kick in an extra $10. If buying groceries, give the extra bill to the checker, and ask her please to hang onto it until someone comes along who is obviously in serious distress, then contribute it to that person’s payment. If you are going to get takeout or drive-through from a restaurant, add $10 in tip. The drive-through people never get anything normally; the takeout people are probably waitstaff who normally rely on tips. Wherever you go, give them an extra ten bucks. If you need to, do like at the grocery store and have them share it with a person in need.

At some point the nail salons and barbers will reopen, and you can take it for gospel they are all financially blasted (and sick of driving Uber or Grubhub). First couple times you go back, tack on an extra $10 above your normal gratuity, to help them catch up and rebuild.

If you cannot afford this, I’m not asking it of you.

If you can, I am. Share. Show people that you value them. Sustain this through the recovery. Right now the economic reality is that the dollars aren’t turning over. It is in your power to turn over some more dollars, which will help people have work and make money and stay somewhat afloat. It will also give people heart, which has its own value.

We have become a dystopian society, but this initiative has nothing to do with nationalism or politics. This has to do with whether we choose to share, or not to share. This has to do with how we each define ourselves. Are we really this dystopia, or are we better than that? Talk is cheap (including blog posts). What you do is who you are.

I have made my choice. Yours is up to you.

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Addendum: in the early response to this post, shared in a number of places, I have seen many method variations on its basic theme. All of those variations are great. Better still, many people were already doing them before I got around to this post.

I salute all of you who participate in any way, whether you were already doing so or have now just begun. Any generous way one chooses to do this is a correct way.