All posts by jkkblog

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

Series hypnosis

Not sure how common this is, but it has certainly happened to me. From the way reviews go, I doubt I am alone. Here’s how it goes, using a fictitious and somewhat composite example:

Let’s imagine a writer going by the pen name of Gertruda Lynn. (Real full name Geertruida Lynn Plutz; she thought that just using her first two names would be a truly unique, edgy pen name, something never done before.) Gertruda publishes a new young adult (as in, kids) urban paranormal (as in, elfy/vampy/wolfy/dragony) series called The Trials of Countess Flatula. Inspired by Twilight, Flatula’s twist is that she has gas. This throws a gritty, original wrench into the social dynamics of subsisting on the blood of the living. Of course, when you look like a fifteen-year-old girl but are 150 years of age and have the strength of a mountain gorilla, you only somewhat have to put up with cracks about your ‘problem.’ Her saving grace is her comical self-reflection, an odd mix of drama teen and maturity: “I wish I was dead! Oh, that’s right…” In her spare time, she volunteers for the Red Cross.

Flatula is a big seller, and soon thirtysomethings are cosplaying her at cons, with healthy assistance from heavy morning meals of hummus. Flatula merchandise (including her own branded hummus and a Beano knockoff) sells. Publishers have not quite hit a Rowling gusher, but it’s a Grisham gusher. The protag finds danger, adventure, love, and embarrassment. The stories begin to push the adult part of “young adult” as Flatula begins to experiment with her inner desires. Five books in, Flatula is a commercial force that feeds upon many debit card purchases.

And then Flatula’s tropes begin to repeat. Lynn’s fetishism becomes progressively obvious and irritating. Not only do the flaws in her writing not improve, she seems to double down on them as a flipped bird to critics. Reviews drop from the 4.5* to 4* to 3.5*, and the critical reviewers wonder what happened to their beloved series. They beg the author to come back. They hint that she is acting out all of her repressed pervs. Dark hints arise about farming-out to ‘lancers. This is less fun for Gertruda Lynn.

In fact, Lynn is out of ideas and sick of Flatula, but the cash cow is still giving buckets of money and she’s chained to the oars. Plus, deep down, a part of her is even sick of writing. This is not how she envisioned it, especially the publisher stuff. She feels she has fallen down some storyline rabbit holes she cannot escape; at the time they were like quick hits of plot cocaine, but she did not think through all the story doors they would slam shut, nor those that they would wedge and weld open. Her reviewers no longer shower her with universal adoration. ‘Lancers don’t seem like such a bad idea. She would like to start a new YA series, Count Dogulus (about a vampiric elven werewolf with a miniature transgender dragon), but she’s signed on for three more Flatula novels.

And Flatula’s carrying the mail. Seven books in, the stars have settled at 3*. Forty percent of the reviews fire salvo after salvo of quippy irritation: “Can’t Flatula take some Beano?” “Someone open Lynn’s windows, and quickly.” “Gertruda, why can’t you be what you once were to me? How can such a wonderful writer put out such garbage?” They sound as if Lynn stood them up on a date. Sixty percent still gush over the newest, Prepare to be Flatulated, which definitely departs PG for an R rating. The publisher does not give two damns about the reviews, because every Flatula book is a guaranteed endcap “bestseller”–a self-fulfilling distinction, being that they buy said endcap space.

Gertruda doesn’t even have to write, and increasingly, she does not. She prepares chapter outlines and story overviews, with supporting material, and lets the publisher hire ‘lancers. It’s a good gig, and the NDA assures that the ‘lancers keep their yaps shut. Reliable ‘lancers will receive return invitations. Flakes will not. Gertruda is now mostly the editor, and this is a problem, because she’s not competent to edit. She never once in her life had to tell a single paying client what was wrong with his/her writing. No editor has ever done so for her, so she’s never seen it done. (When the publisher bought her first book, it got minimal attention. When it became a cash cow, the publisher would do nothing to interrupt the continued lactation.)

In the meantime, Gertruda cannot forbear glancing at the increasingly nasty tone of reviews. At one point, she launches an angry blog post that becomes a trope. When she gets depressed, she reflects that at least she doesn’t have to work part-time at Michael’s any more. Flatula is still giving the money milk, even though the protag has become a tragic, ethically imprisoned figure whose dimensions have deteriorated rather than expanded.

Why do people keep buying this junk? Every day, dozens of new competing novels hit print. About one in ten should have been published, but we live in the era of self-publishing, where you can define yourself as a writer and make that definition appear true. The market does not, however, solemnize that perception; what it does is ratify the value of marketing. Good, bad, or atrocious, the writers who market will sell books. The self-published writers who do not market will sell few or none.

The publisher keeps endcapping Flatula, and she is a lock for X number of copies that will gross $Y and net $Z. The reviews change nothing. Lynn can keep writing (farming out/editing) Flatula forever if she wants, because that hard core will keep buying them and writing favorable reviews. And here is what’s crazy: Some of those reviewers sound educated, discerning, even bright. Why on earth? Shouldn’t the literary ourangoutangs be the last remaining members of the fan club?

 

Indeed, why? I call this phenomenon “series hypnosis.” Back in the olden days, schools had driver’s education classes. (Children, this is when schools actually made efforts to prepare you for life, rather than for stupid-ass standardized tests; if you don’t believe me, ask your grandparents.) Among other subjects such as the value of the turn signal, they taught us to watch for highway hypnosis. This was the dangerous tendency to just keep staring ahead over the miles, no longer alert to potential issues: speed trap setups, brake lights, people wanting to pass, deer, semis’ blind spots, and potholes. It happens when one cruises at a consistent speed for long periods of the time, which is dull. I still watch for it, because my instructor was right about it.

In series hypnosis, we get attached to something or somethings: specific characters, plotlines, authentic writing talent, whatever. We keep reading as this develops. New characters add some interest and twistiness. The edginess factor grows as the author steps up the shock value. This lulls us into a sort of multi-book hypnosis in which we are no longer judging the series by objective standards. “If this were the first Gertruda Lynn book I read, it would also be the last,” say some of the reviewers as they begin to awaken, as 4* subside 3*ward.

It’s not that the remaining discerning readers have somehow become morons. It’s that the series has become a habit, like chew or porn. The loyal readership has suspended its critical thinking. Those hypnotized by the series will just keep buying and approving. They have series hypnosis. It’s a form of literary nose-blindness.

I’m interested. How many series have you kept reading out of habit, well past their sell-by dates, until one day the accumulated dose of awful finally drove you away?

In my case, the answer is: more than I care to admit.

Getting past insufferable

Writers and authors can be some of the coolest people you’d ever want to meet.

They can also be insufferable. And most of those who are, either don’t know it or don’t care.

I believe that it’s a phase some go through. I believe this because I remember going through it, and probably remained in that phase longer than most writers. If it’s a phase, it can be overcome.

What’s insufferable?

  • Nagging everyone in one’s orbit to read one’s work.
  • The above, while making clear that everyone without the will to refuse is expected to be Very Supportive (i.e. say nice things).
  • Beginning to view everyone in one’s world in terms of promotion of one’s work: there are those who embrace The True Faith, and those who hesitate (or refuse: basest heresy!) to read/buy/share/review/promote it. The latter are bypassed as of little consequence.
  • Posting protracted laments on writers’ groups about unsupportive friends/family, essentially asking to be given a bottle and caressed with encouragement.
  • Approaching prospective editors with a defensive and defiant stance, practically daring them to do their jobs.
  • Plunging into profound grief upon receipt of even constructive critical feedback.
  • Ignoring said feedback as unsupportive.

All right. Does any of that describe you?

If you are still reading, you might like to escape this spiral of insufferability and sorrow. That which stems from life traumas is beyond my power to amend. For those I recommend a qualified therapist with the training to deconstruct trauma and help you to cope. It has helped me.

The other part is in my department. I believe in the power of affirmation and repetition to change our outlooks. It doesn’t happen overnight, but neither does a book. Neither does much of anything on which we look back with pride in achievement. Tell yourself:

  1. No one is obligated to read my work.
  2. Refusal to read my work is not a judgment on me, much less a personal rejection.
  3. If I seek feedback, I will presume it constructive until proven otherwise.
  4. I will not seek feedback from anyone without committing to giving it careful consideration.
  5. If I seek feedback in a critique group, I will remember my own obligations and give at least as much good as I receive.
  6. No matter how invested I am in my book, no one else can be expected or required to feel the same. Anyone who does so anyway gives me a great gift.
  7. An editor’s solemn duty is to tell me the honest truth, even if painful. I have no right to demand that s/he violate that trust to spare my feelings.
  8. Some people will be cruel to me. I will distinguish gratuitous cruelty from that which contains useful guidance, even if given with the bark on. From the latter I will take the good and leave the bad. I will leave the former’s authors to own their pathologies.
  9. I will not reflect the painful sides of my writing experience onto anyone who doesn’t deserve it.
  10. If the problem stems in part from my sensitivity over horrible life experiences which I reflect in my writing, critique of their presentation is not meant to invalidate my experiences.

Ten commandments? No, because I’m not commanding anyone, nor have I the power to do so. Ten guidelines for becoming the kind of writer that editors love and friends don’t avoid?

I can live with that.

Thrift vs. miserliness

What’s your craziest cheapskateness?

Lots of us are cheap, or thrifty, or abhor waste, or in some other way do our best to avoid discarding anything we or someone else could use. Some of us were raised by Depression kids, with a portion of that translating to us. Some people live in very frugal circumstances and can’t afford to waste any single solitary thing of value.

Some do this out of need; some out of fear; some because it’s fun. Few apply this to everything. Take time, for example. Time is a resource, arguably our most precious one. It could be used to accomplish something, even if that might be rest or play. How many people, having options, waste time on a regular basis? Of course, that depends on the definition of waste. In some circles, any energy or time not spent to further ultimate corporate profit is automatically considered wasteful, just as any education that does not directly lead to employability is considered useless. Some people think a server tip is wasted money because it is not technically obligatory.

And sometimes we have a savings instinct and we know it’s stupid. Maybe we just give in to it; maybe we fight it because we realize that’s going too far, even for ourselves.

What I’m going to ask you is two questions:

  1. What is a form of useful thrift you practice that you think few would resort to?
  2. What is a form of foolish or pointless thrift you either practice, or realize you should not and resist the tendency?

I’ll go first.

In order to avoid purchasing my own for things I sell online, I save a good percentage of the packing I receive. Not all, but a fair variety to accommodate varied needs.

Every time I find myself backspacing over single characters to retype a missing letter, rather than arrowing to the spot and just inserting it, I have this little wastefulness warning that goes off. It’s idiotic. Not only has a typed character zero intrinsic value, I backspace and retype because it’s faster and doesn’t require me to shift to the mouse or arrow pad. Even then my brain nags me that I am just throwing things away like a wasteful dunce.

Yet it doesn’t when I am editing, or when I am throwing away a whole sentence or paragraph I deem pointless. I can, without conscience, delete a whole article from this blog if I consider it past its prime. For heaven’s sake, I deleted or hid my entire personal Faceplant timeline. I deleted ten years of life story. It took over a year. I felt no sense of waste.

Please feel free to share yours. No judgment from me.

The state of the proofreading

Just when I thought it was at a nadir, it goes lower.

Much of what most people think of as editing is in fact proofreading. Proofreading checks for errors. It does not take very much extra effort for proofreading to become copy editing, but the latter has a greater purview.

My advice to clients is always to engage a proofreader, and that it cannot be me, even though proofreading is a special talent of mine. Then why won’t I do it? Because, in order to proofread to my own standards, I have to be seeing the ms for the first and only time. I refuse to take money to work to anything less than my best standards. Also, it’s much better for them to have a second set of eyes. Different eyes see different things.

If you want to see someone really, seriously, heavily piss me off, have them inveigle me into voluntarily proofreading their work for free “as a friend,” after which they make a blithe jaunt through the ms giving it a full rewrite and thus destroying all the value I gave away for free.

Anyone who has read a lot of self-published work has noticed that most writers don’t hire proofreaders. (Many don’t hire editors, either. Or they do, but ignore most of the guidance. Or they hire inept editors and accept the misguidance. But all that is another story.) The result is a poisoning of the self-pub well in the eyes of those who aren’t patient with errors that should have been caught before publication.

Happily for many self-pub authors, most readers don’t know that those are errors, thus they don’t care. The authors lose only the very literate minority, and if someone pays $5.99 for your Kindle edition, you don’t see whether that $5.99 came from a Ph.D in Comparative Literature or a Harlequin romance fanatic. Those two $5.99s have the same purchasing power.

So; proofreading either doesn’t get done, or gets done by their sister-in-law. She reads a lot of John Grisham, you know, so surely she can handle it.

Yeah.

What I never thought I’d see: a self-advertising, paid “proofreader” who simply ran grammar check and spellcheck. #congratsuproofed Now I have.

I’ll bet you have never stopped to wonder what would happen if people just proofread by running grammar check and spellcheck. Have you? What, you don’t spend your fun time ruminating on literary outcomes?

Oh. Okay. Point taken. But since you haven’t, let me explain what this would do. It would:

  • Introduce a number of mindless corrections to situations where the author knew the rule and chose that special moment to break it for valid reasons of flow, dramatic effect, whatever.
  • Destroy dialogue for characters that did not use perfect speech. Rules for dialogue and internal monologue differ from rules for narrative.
  • Enforce slavish obedience to conventions that might make no sense in context. The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford? Introduced or eradicated with mindless efficiency, depending on one’s conventions, without heed to the meaning it could inflect.
  • Miss a great many of the most pernicious typos, such as ‘thought’ for ‘though.’ So hard to catch, so common, so irritating. So expected to be caught in proofreading. So unpardonable a miss that a proofreader who misses them is not a proofreader.

Not only would it trash the ms, it would be a creative trashing job. While missing much of what one wishes a proofreader to catch, it would damage what one expects her not to damage.

Now I’ve seen it happen.

I got so pissed off that I volunteered to proofread the whole thing, free of charge–with the natural caveat that it would not be to my normal standards, and on a best-efforts basis. My client’s trust had been abused, infuriating me. I hate this, and it’s not the first time. I had one client who needed help with formatting and cover art. I sent her to someone who came fabulously recommended. That provider accepted the job, more or less blew my client off for months, then farmed it out to someone else who proved horribly inept. Infuriating, and more so in this case because it meant I led my client to a bad outcome. I will never regain respect for the provider who did that, but I know part of the problem was that I gave a secondhand referral to someone who had nothing to lose by alienating me. I’m embarrassed, still (years later), because I know that I screwed up. And since I’m hopeless at formatting and cover art, it was not in my power to take that bullet for my client.

Unlike some past cases, this client didn’t then launch into a full rewrite of the proofread ms. It was published with the corrections, a product we could be proud of. So at least we had that.

Nowadays I pass along names, but no recommendations, unless I know that the provider values my respect so highly that s/he wouldn’t dare blow things up. Definitely no more recommendations based on “another client used him/her and was happy.” Yeah, been there, and the trip sucked.

If you’re hiring a proofreader, insist on some evidence that s/he knows what s/he is doing. A bunch of glowing reviews on some editor/proofer search site does not constitute “evidence that s/he knows what s/he is doing.” I suggest asking for a sample proofing of a random few pages.

Anyone who refuses to do that, I think one may safely dismiss.

Omaha Steaks, telemarketing brass

Some time back, my wife and I decided to give Omaha Steaks a try. I’m from that part of the country, and what most Oregonians consider a decent steak simply could not be served back home. Plus, Deb loves Nebraska, entirely because some nice people took her and a friend in during a tornado alert near Doniphan back when she was in her teens. I’m partial to the place myself, as I find it one of the friendliest parts of the Great Plains. I’ll never forget the time the Huskies beat the Huskers in a football game in Lincoln, and their fans gave our guys a standing ovation. That’s what a young person might call epic class.

Go Big Red.

As for the steaks and such, we bought a combination pack of different stuff. Came in a styrofoam cooler. The product values ranged from superb (definitely would order more of the chicken fried steak) to no big deal (hamburger patties).

If they didn’t find ways to annoy us, we might well order again. But oh, the marketing.

It began with a notable addition to our junk mail burden. I’d estimate that they send me thick envelopes full of recyclable solicitations twice a month. That can be borne, but the telemarketing can not.

As much as I like Nebraska, don’t ever give this company your phone number. If they say they need it, just refuse. If they insist, and you really want the product, make one up. Do not give them a real telephone number. You will end up having to be abrupt with friendly people who are just doing their jobs, even if their job is a bad one and deserves some negative reaction. That doesn’t make it fun. Just do not give it.

The interesting thing about Omaha Steaks’s telemarketing is its cheerful, self-confident brass. Most telemarketers call with a certain amount of defensive script adherence, seeming to expect and attempt to deflect some verbal abuse. (“Sir, this is not telemarketing; it’s just a courtesy call to let you know about our specials…”) Not Omaha Steaks; they open the conversation as if this is perfectly normal, like your nice neighbors calling to share something like extra tomatoes from their garden, and that no one should classify this as an unwanted marketing call. I see the logic. It conveys: You wouldn’t want to be rude to such nice friendly folks, now, would you?

If they telemarket me after I tell them to stop, oh, yes, I would. Not happily, but get on my bad radar and it’s on for young and old.

The first time I just dismissed it, saying I didn’t want any. The rep seemed bewildered, as though he were returning my call, in which I had requested help with adding Omaha Steaks to my monthly budgeting.

(Okay, it’s true: when I ordered, I did not outright tell them never to telemarket me. Kind of like when people come over for dinner, I do not outright ask them to please not crap in the corners. This is because I presume that dinner guests are not animals, are either adults or supervised by adults, and do not need to be asked not to be barbarians.)

A couple of weeks later, they called again. The same tone the second time, but this time I was blunter: “Don’t ever telemarket me again.” In tones that conjured a puppy punished for no reason, he agreed. I sensed a lack of conviction, though, and was pretty sure that wasn’t the end of it.

This morning, I learned I’d been right. A peppy representative interrupted my morning by briefly asking how I was, and would I like to hear about their specials? She didn’t give me the chance to answer “yes” or “no” before launching in. Clearly courtesy is wasted here, so I butted in. “Well, you didn’t even wait to hear my answer. [Notice how often they do that?] But last time you did this, I told you not to telemarket me again.”

After a brief and pained pause, she tried to debate. “Sir, we’re not a telemarketing agency. You ordered with us before. We just–”

“No,” I said. “Even if you are not a telemarketing agency, what you are doing is telemarketing and I told you to stop it. This is the last time I will be polite about it at all. Don’t ever, ever, ever telemarket me again.”

She leaped on the seeming ambiguity in that sentence. “So do you mean you want to be only on the [monthly/quarterly/holiday…I can’t remember precisely] call list, or none at all?”

I laughed. “Ah, I see how it works. You mark people down for periodic telemarketing calls. The answer is none, never. Do not ever telemarket me again.”

She said they would not, and then signed off with the peppy well-wishes some phone representatives use to say “what a jerk you are.” I always find those amusing in their hypocrisy, but once the situation is as it is, I can’t fault that part even if I find it less than credible. What would I prefer, that she hang up on me? In any case, that was that.

For the moment.

I’m not betting that I’ve had my last telemarketing call from them, though.

Anyone else find themselves getting a steady flow of phone rings from friendly Midwesterners who act as though returning a call?

Obdud; or, The Story of Maeve the Dog

Many’s the time I have said that marriage is about learning to compromise and accept about 85% of what one wants–and to do so with authentic grace and satisfaction. If you sign on to the deal, but grump about it for the next decade, that’s not authentic grace and satisfaction. If, of course, the deal later hands you large rations of shit that you didn’t bargain for, but you bear up anyway, a certain amount of grumping is not unreasonable provided you don’t recriminate. It’s the difference between “We have the worst dog in the whole world” and “Thanks a lot for making it so we have the worst dog in the whole world”. The first is simply a judgment on the animal (in our case, justified); if true, it might be borne. The second blames the judgment on one’s spouse; whether true or false, it would open and jab at a painful bleeding wound in one’s spouse’s soul. People who do that crap don’t stay married long, nor happily.

Deb, who is a dog person, married me, who am dog-phobic. Not universally, not always, not every dog, not every situation; just mostly. This includes all unfamiliar dogs that bark at me, run at me, or otherwise inflict themselves on me when I am not bothering them. I often shorten it to say that I hate dogs, but that’s lacking in nuance. I should say that I dislike them, would rather never deal with any again, but that there are very few dogs I wish ill, and none that I wish mistreated. My respect for dogs’ abilities and varied talents is profound, and if they practiced them all far away from me, in full health and decent treatment, I would have no issues.

In our marital lifestyle compromise, dogs were what my labor representative wife would call a “mandatory subject of bargaining.” Until we bought a house, I staved off the question on grounds of lack of yard. When a yard came, I had to honor my side of the bargain. We got Fabius, a black Lab puppy. He lived thirteen years, the last of it apart from Deb due to our life circumstances (me holding the fort in Boise while Deb went ahead to get established in Portland, essentially glamping in a studio apartment that did not allow large dogs).

While I didn’t like Fabius (him being a dog, after all), I took care that he received humane treatment and, in his dotage, extra patience. His life had met a couple of my key criteria to earn some sense of respect, insofar as I can have that for a species for which I have no fundamental affinity. When he couldn’t easily process commands to which he once leaped with alacrity, I waited a bit and re-issued them. When his final days arrived, and it was clear he was suffering, I had him hospitalized and made comfortable until Deb could arrive to see him off. She loved that dog. I didn’t, but I owed him consideration and my wife good stewardship as well as respect for her feelings, and that’s as good as I’ll ever get concerning dogs.

As Fabius had aged, we obtained Leonidas the miniature Schnauzer. Fabius was obedient, cooperative, and when not attempting to coat me with nauseating salivas, a bearable klutz. Leo simply didn’t want to cooperate, and didn’t care how anyone felt about it. He was a canine Huck Finn and barn cat rolled into one small package of untrainability, insolence, and inconvenience. I liked Leo even less when he not only developed dogabetes, but due to Deb’s schedule I ended up with much of the duty to administer his dogulin shots. (Weird: his shots were the one and only soul-of-cooperation aspect of that dog’s life. Put another way, he was a complete jerk until you wanted to stab him in the neck with a needle; then he was fine.)

We could ill afford Leo’s illnesses, and we cut the budget in order to compensate. Not brutally, but he was a $200/month dog for the last year of his life, and that was $200 that didn’t get saved, or spent on something more fun (say, colonoscopies). To the very end, I maintained that Leo would have been much happier had he been able to manipulate his front paws such that he could raise a middle claw at us, thus making the physical gesture of his inner canine soul. But Leo’s last days came, and as with Fabius, I went along with Deb to see him off. (For some reason, both dogs had always considered me a reassuring presence. I wonder if they came to associate profanity with a protective figure. They had always run to me during fireworks.)

For the first time in nearly two decades, Leonidas’s passing rendered us (for me, blissfully) dogless. Deb knew that both dog situations had grossly exceeded our original understanding (“Okay, but it’s your dog, you deal with it”), extending me far beyond my comfort zones. Neither was her fault, nor the dogs’ fault; stuff had happened, dog stuff, life stuff. I knew that she understood my actions as motivated by a sense of duty and deep love for her; she’d said so, and she’s so rarely dead serious about emotions that her utterances in that area stay with me for decades. Deb hesitated to rush right out and seek a new dog. Part of it was a reward for me: she felt that I had earned a few blessedly dog-free months before the return of a semi-purgatorial status.

I milked it out as long as I could, and not just for selfish reasons. I wanted to consider dogs, undistracted (thus, currently uninfuriated with any) by them as I had not been for most of my middle age. My lousy relationship with Leo had done nothing to improve my life. I gave some thought to how, while remaining true to myself, I could have more influence over whatever dog Deb might bring home. Would Leonidas have behaved better had I invested a bit more time and energy in him? We’d never know, but here’s what I did know: two dogs we’d had, that were supposed to be my wife’s responsibility and problem, and I’d ended up as their caretaker, barf-cleaner-upper, one-time-late-night-ocean-of-barf-faller-into, and expensive-check-writer. Had I been unable by now to realize that this agreement would never hold in its original form, and that the future held more dogs I’d wind up looking after whether I liked it or not, I’d have been a hopeless boob.

It seemed time for a different approach. No, I would never, at heart, like dogs, want dogs, want to be around dogs, etc. Could I go so far as to at least let the thing be around me when Deb was gone, and accept its desire to pal around with me a bit? Up to a point. No, I would not embrace the dog as “our” dog. No, I would never tolerate dog salivas. Fabius had a tongue like a big wet raw steak, and could leave two acres of saliva on any surface he chose (including, one wretched time, my entire forearm). But would I recognize that on some level, I’d given Leo a reason to wish he could flip me off (unlike Deb, who doted on him, and received as much odious treatment as me)? Yeah. I believe in personal responsibility.

Decision made. If I wound up despising this one also, it wouldn’t be for lack of effort on my part.

When my approximately three-month dogcation came to an end, as it had to, I told Deb how I planned to do it differently this time. You can imagine her delight. Deb knows better than to push such things with me; she took her 85% and smiled. She is well aware that what was once a simple childhood dislike matured into an adult phobia and loathing partly due to smarmy and stupid things said by dog lovers, in part because of misbehaving dogs encouraged by dog owners, and sometimes both. She would do not one thing to push me in her idea of the wrong direction, and would change any practice I might reasonably ask of her.

We made a couple of trips to local humane societies, and we learned that Portland does not have a stray dog problem. Portland in fact imports strays from other states, and most of these land quickly on waiting lists. All those places euthanizing strays should study whatever Portland is doing. While we were there, a big ten-year-old German shepherd mix mourned at full volume for the people who had abandoned him. Before we finished our own adoption, even the mourning howler (too large for us; Portland is basically Tiny House Living) had found a new home.

I insisted that we prioritize chemistry and reactions over website pictures and descriptions. I wanted us to consider the dog who seemed to love Deb on sight, and to tolerate me at least. I also wanted a dog who looked like a correct dog, not an overgrown rat. Deb had a hard time grasping my appearance criteria, but I told her I’d know a correct dog when I saw it. Good enough. It had to be small; Deb is 58, and if young, this dog would likely see her to 70. Manageability mattered. No purebreds (hybrid health, please), none purchased from breeders, no puppies. We intended to adopt a rescued dog that needed a home.

Two visits to the nearest shelter were useless; they had only a couple of dogs. Maybe two dozen empty kennels, two dogs. I mean it when I say it’s hard to find dogs to adopt around here. Off we went to the Portland Humane Society, over in the Gothic wilds of northeast Portland near Ikea and the airport. It’s a beautiful facility that manages not to even smell like dog turds. One surveys the dogs, and may place a brief hold on a given dog for a nominal fee. If the dog already has a hold, and it expires, the next hold gets a phone call. Holds last for one or two days–better not fool around.

We met a tiny, dog-looking Cairn terrier mix called Mavis, a seven-pound yearling California import with a face resembling that of a baby monkey blessed with precocious facial hair growth. Mavis looked stressed, but was friendly. Excited, Deb paid the fee to get in her hold line. By the next day, if the people ahead of us didn’t pick up Mavis, our own clock would start.

There commenced about twenty-four hours of jitters, pins, needles, and anticipation as Deb could barely stand the wait. I assisted by reminding her that it was not a sure thing, and not to be too crushed if someone else got Mavis. Pointless on my part. When around noon the next day the society called to let Deb know we could come get her dog, for a moment there I thought my wife might go full puppy and piddle herself in excitement. Having promised, of course, I had to attend. Little Mavis would ride to her new home in my lap, resting on a towel I hoped would absorb all the bodily substances that an unfamiliar car ride might elicit (joyously, she emanated none; early gold star).

We bandied names. Leonidas and Fabius had received names from antiquity, and in their own ways had deserved them. The sexism of history means that there are fewer well-known historical women than men. Mavis did not really seem like a Cleopatra, Nefertiti, or Messalina. She didn’t really seem like much of anything except a seven-pound wiry-haired terrier mix, black and rusty brown, fairly chill. No ancient woman jumped out of my memory’s throng, very annoying to people with ‘history’ on their I Love Me walls.

Moving afield, I had an inspiration. I like Ireland and visiting Ireland; Deb loves Ireland and would move there next month if feasible. Maeve was an ancient Queen of Connaught, she who launched the Cattle Raid of Cooley (in Irish, Táin Bó Cúailnge), and I could think of far worse spirits with which to imbue this little dog. It sounded enough like Mavis, a pound name to which the creature hadn’t had time to grow attached. I advocated the Irish spelling of Meadhbh (also pronounced to rhyme with “pave”), but Deb rejected this cultural nod; I took my 85% and smiled. And thus was designated little Maeve.

Or Obdud. Longtime blog followers may remember that I’m not known for my embrace of modern telephone technology. I can text, after a laborious fashion and having zero fun while I do it. It was Deb’s first day away at work (Maeve’s second day in our place), and my doting wife was concerned about her new animal. She texted me to ask how it was going. My flip phone has a T9 Word function that offers some predictive text based upon the alpha/numeric keypad, though some words are futile and must be spelled out in the old style. Some of us won’t do that and simply expect our regular contacts to do some deciphering. “Fending” goes through as “demeio” and I expect poor Deb to figure that out by now. “Home” will always return “good” so if she gets a “Headed good” text, she knows to expect me. So I typed M A E V E (6 2 3 8 3). My little screen said: Obdud. You can see where it got those, of course: NMO ABC DEF TUV DEF. I said screw it and kept typing: Obdud is laying on her blanket by my office door.

My wife questioned this. I explained, again, the impact of T9. There’s no way I am going to spell out old-style a dog’s name, so at least in texted status reports, Obdud she is.

Maeve, sometimes called Obdud, is happy and feistier now that she’s away from a kennel full of other, noisy dogs she can smell but not touch. Deb is also happy and feistier.

As for me, well, we have a dog, and I’m trying. We’ll see how that goes. Right now it’s time to take my 85% and do as I agreed.

TWYHAE (That’s why you have an editor)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

Aspiring writer transforms into actual writer by authoring partial ms. This happens in fits and starts, with numerous backtracks to rethink, proofread, self-edit, and self-doubt. Eventually:

  • loses motivation
  • ascribes loss of motivation to mythical ailment called “writer’s block”
  • joins writers’ group in order to overcome mythical ailment
  • finds that entire group has also elected to blame loss of motivation on mythical ailment
  • realizes that no one in group has any solution for this
  • gets sick of attempting to critique screenplays, so-called “young adult” (kid) lit, and elfy/dwarfy/vampy/wolfy urban paranormal without collapsing in apathy
  • realizes also that writers’ group is mainly an emotional support group
  • fades away from writers’ group
  • lets ms sit for months or years
  • realizes one should one day return to ms
  • dreads returning to ms
  • castigates oneself for not completing ms
  • sits down and reads existing ms
  • overwhelmed with despair and futility, bawls
  • tries to think how to fix all the problems
  • bawls some more
  • says screw this and bakes cookies, or pounds nails, whatever s/he finds cathartic

Is this a hobby or avocation, or is this autoneurosis?

If one does not have an editor–and I mean a true advisor, sounding board, guide, and helper, rather than the glorified fascist proofreader that many writers imagine all editors to be–I can understand this. If you’re in it alone, you wander alone in the wilderness. If you find a way out, great; many do not.

If one does have an editor, the real deal, one has a solution to nearly ever failure point on that list: TWIHAE. One says to oneself: “That’s why I have an editor.” One either continues to create, confident that any problems will be resolved later with assistance, or one contacts said editor for help getting past the sticking point.

I’ve written a ms of my own; I’ve had my writing published. I understand compulsive self-editing that leaves the first third of the book rather refined and the last two-thirds fairly raw. I understand halting halfway through and saying to myself: “This is such crap. No way would anyone pay for this.” I understand trying writers’ groups. The only part I don’t understand, except from an academic standpoint, is writer’s block. I truly don’t understand lying to oneself. Sometimes one doesn’t want to write, or life means one can’t. There’s no such thing as writer’s block.

There is no such thing as writer’s block.

Everyone who has the time and physical means to write, does so. Everyone else doesn’t want to write that badly, or they would be doing it, even if it was to write a lament on how painful it is to have this writer’s block thing, and how convenient it is to have an imaginary condition to help avoid facing facts.

But that’s one reason why you have an editor: to give you another take on facts. The main reason is to allow you to create. To create, rather than backtrack over and over; get hung up on plot points; feel overwhelmed; rush back to rethink Chapter 1; have other crises that mean you don’t write.

If you have an editor, when you notice your first craterous plot hole, you give it some thought for the afternoon. If you still don’t solve it, you either contact your editor, or you drop a reminder comment in the margin and move on. That’s why you have an editor. If you have an editor, when you find yourself tempted to go back and smooth all your prose, you realize that someone else will help you with that and there is no point messing with it now; you say TWIHAE, and you move on. You return to creating. Your back is had.

And if you feel temptation to smoke the opium of blaming lack of motivation on a mythical ailment, seeking to take comfort in the community of futility, you have an editor to cut through all that self-defeating baloney.

Not that having an editor can help everyone past everything. Some people’s emotional and life issues overwhelm them. That isn’t writer’s block (because that’s non-existent), that’s life happening. All one needs to do is admit that one is overwhelmed by issues that impair one’s ability to focus and create. There are some people who can’t write because the potential trauma of feedback has them in paralysis, and who may have past issues to process. (An editor is not a suitable stand-in for a qualified professional therapist, for example.) And there are writers who grow so proud of their flaws, or who are so emotionally needy, that an editor will recognize them as setups to failure.

We can’t help everyone. And that’s okay, because one of the pervasive parrotings of our time is “everyone deserves…” followed by some benefit or fundamental. It’s one of those Bullshits One Is Not Supposed To Call Out As Bullshits. Not everyone deserves help with writing, and it makes no sense to think so. Not everyone is cut out for any given activity. I’m not cut out for parenting, acting, basketball, veganism, teaching special ed, renovating crawl spaces, or any number of other things at which I am or would be incompetent. Writing is no different. Heretical truth: some people shouldn’t. It’s worth trying, we try and fail at some things. Some we try, fail at, and return to later on in light of new wisdom. Writing isn’t an exception to the list of Stuff Not Everyone Can Do.

But if you can, and you find yourself continually sidetracked by self-doubt and self-editing and self-questioning, an editor can be your guide out of the wilderness.

That’s why people have us.