Category Archives: Book reviews

In memoriam: Jim Bouton, 1939-2019

Word comes to me of the passing of one of my life’s most inspirational figures: James Alan Bouton.

Jim was a professional baseball pitcher, inventor, author, and motivational speaker. He enjoyed brief but eye-opening success with the Yankees in the mid-sixties–won two games in a World Series, for example–until his arm began to give out. Reinventing himself as a knuckleball pitcher in his first comeback, he caught on with the inaugural Seattle Pilots in 1969. The Pilots traded him to Houston during the second half of the season. He was mostly effective in relief for both teams, but not enough to guarantee staying.

Few of his teammates realized that, during 1969, Jim was writing a book. Unlike most baseball books, this one would tell the whole truth. Ball Four, perhaps the most important baseball memoir ever authored, would forever polarize Jim Bouton’s world. His detractors would accuse him of revealing material shared in private, embarrassing baseball, ingratitude toward the game, and other unwelcome deeds. His supporters, including me since my teen years, would laud him for writing a very interesting book; telling the honest truth about the lives of professional ballplayers; refusing to conform to the establishment (and baseball’s establishment has long been full of Stuffy McStuffshirts); and countering the dumb jock stereotype.

Neither side is entirely right or wrong, but there can be no doubt of my position. I’ve never imagined Jim Bouton as a perfect man, nor does he present himself as such in Ball Four or his subsequent books. For me, a bullied intellectual trapped in a horrible situation with nearly no person or institution to take my side, Jim’s book gave me heart. It may be one of the reasons I didn’t go all the way around the bend.

In 1990, while unemployed, I took the time to find a mailing address for Jim Bouton. I felt he needed to know how much I appreciated his work, and I told him what it had meant to me. I didn’t expect a response. Three months later, a UPS driver delivered me a small parcel: a copy of the 1990 re-release of Ball Four. I opened it to see the inscription: “For Jonathan. Smoke ’em inside. Jim Bouton 8/90.”

You may imagine what that meant. Later, with the rise of e-mail, I would have a couple of exchanges with him. I would learn that my letter had made it into a special file where he kept those that meant most to him, letters he would take out and read again on bad days or for inspiration. I learned that as much as Jim Bouton mattered to me, it turned out that in a small way, I also mattered to him.

Jim made a second baseball comeback in the mid-1970s, ultimately reaching the Atlanta Braves. He didn’t stay, but he did reach his goal, and in the process had a number of adventures including a turn with the Portland Mavericks. Let’s give you a sample of Jim’s writing style, and let him tell it:

“The Mavericks were the dirty dozen of baseball, a collection of players nobody else wanted, owned by actor Bing Russell. The team motto could have been “Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched pitchers yearning to breathe free.” In a league stocked with high-priced bonus babies, Maverick players made only $300 per month and had to double as the ground crew. Revenge being a strong motivator, the Mavs had the best team in the league.”

I so wish the Mavs still existed.

Jim Bouton meant more to me than a distant inspirational figure in another way, in that I also made two baseball comebacks. The first occurred when I was 29, having not played since my high school catching and outfielding days ended at 17. Six years later, including five with the Seattle Giants (PSMSBL; just to be clear, I always had to pay to play; I was never paid to play), my achilles tendon parted as I took a step toward the dugout at the end of an inning. We moved from Seattle to eastern Washington. The walking cast came off. I followed the instructions. And then I learned of a local MABL league that was offering tryouts. Even lousy catchers always get drafted, and I turned out. An expansion team picked me up, but the next year that group would morph into the Tri-City Rattlers. I would play there until I was 44, when a brief juke to avoid a fastball to the knee tore my cartilage and induced me to hang ’em up.

For that second comeback, I switched from my old number standby of 9 to 56, Jim’s number all through his big league days. It always made me proud when anyone would ask about it. I even worked hard enough on my own knuckleball to get two pitching tries, one a start. I’m pretty sure our manager knew we were going to get clobbered and felt that our usual pitchers were in serious need of rest, but I still went five innings. I’d watched people try to bunt the knuckleball from behind the plate, but never from the mound. Most amusing.

One may well see reasons I always felt close to Jim Bouton. Later in his life, he added to his authorial body of work with a fictional story about a bribed umpire, then the non-fictional story of his efforts to save an aging historic ballpark. His website advertised his services as a motivational speaker, and he was in demand at Old-Timers’ and commemorative events. I fell in with the Facebook group Ball Four Freaks, a hilarious place where it is always customary to respond with lines from the book. A new member shows up? That’s part of the heckling. “Hiya, blondie, how’s your old tomato?” “That sure is an ugly baby you got there.” “Okay, all you guys, act horny.” Everyone who loves the book gets it immediately. We don’t get many phonies. One fun aspect is that Jim’s son, Michael, will stop by now and then and can answer a question or two.

Jim Bouton did much in life, most of it after his best playing days. He kept playing semi-pro, then amateur baseball until his seventies, when he helped start up an old-time flannel league. To the end, he was as accessible as he could be to those of us whose lives he had affected. He wrote a number of great books, all themed around baseball. He has now stepped off the mound for the last time.

He will be remembered after many of his contemporary athletes have faded from the public mind.

As for me, my eyes very rarely even begin to water in grief. They water easily when I am moved by action or achievement of valor, but rarely in grief. It is not that I do not mourn; it’s that I mourn in introspective silence. This time, they watered.

Books by Jim Bouton:

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

Foul Ball: My Life and Hard Times Trying to Save an Old Ballpark

Strike Zone (with Eliot Asinof)

I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally

I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad (edited/anthology)

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New release: Out of Their Depth, by M.R. Cook

This new fantasy novel is now available in print and e-book. I was developmental and substantive editor.

I had known Mike very long ago, but we had not been in touch for most of our adult lives. We reconnected through a mutual friend from those old days who had also sought writing guidance. They had been part of a long-running fantasy role-playing game (akin to D&D) and were both writing stories based upon their gaming adventures.

Before you judge, know this: the unfolding of any RPG campaign is in essence a story writing itself. It always begins with characters in conflict; always with external forces, and sometimes with each other. Some of it is slapstick, for it is a proven impossibility to form any RPG gaming group without at least including one total gonzo. I was in one group where a player played a necromancer (magician who communicates with and animates the dead). His day job? Funeral director.

There are, of course, IP issues with using mutually generated creative content in a for-profit book. Mike has handled it the way I would do were I to write one: by sharing royalties through written agreements. Just in case you were also thinking of writing stories about your RPG campaign, yes, that is a valid method. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is essential legal protection. Don’t accept “Oh, I don’t mind, just go ahead.” Explain to them that fair is fair and you appreciate their contribution. One can also explain that this will give them a reason to promote the book, if one desires.

Out of Their Depth began life as a novella and evolved into a ms about double the basic novel length. That’s not to say that it is too long; my assessment is that the original story was too much to contain within novella or basic novel length constraints. Its evolution involved great strides in character development, for a typical RPG adventure story can have several protagonists depending on how the author chooses to emphasize and POV them. Mike has gone with a method in which I’d estimate 40% of the book is from the main character’s perspective, but his four comrades divided up the remainder of the time. He has done so very effectively.

As a writer, Mike’s greatest natural talent is descriptive verbiage. Where I didn’t persuade him to dial it back–thus, where I felt it paid its way–this talent goes on full display in the novel. His wartime experiences add a grittiness and realism to scenes and discussion of combat. One talent–or more correctly, one acquired knowledge set that adds great flavor–is Mike’s plentiful vocabulary of now-obsolete medieval terms. I am not, shall we say, accustomed to having to look up many English words unless I’m reading something very technical. (One of my sidelines is technical editing. That doesn’t appear on my credit list for multiple reasons, beginning with NDAs.) By the time the novella morphed into a novel, I’d headed for the dictionary a dozen times. I now can define terms like ‘culet,’ ‘oculus,’ ‘assart,’ and many more.

Since a temple is very prominent in the novel, I wonder how Mike managed to avoid the term ‘narthex.’ He may take that as a challenge. It’s the front sort of reception area of a Lutheran church, as I should know, having been marched to Lutheran churches at parental insistence until I finally realized that I was an exhibit rather than a youngster, and if I exhibited embarrassing behavior, I would no longer be subjected to attendance.

Another aspect Mike has handled well is gender. Most novice writers do not portray the opposite gender well. Though many try, it’s not an easy thing. I hammer on it especially with male clients, because in case they do not know this, they had better learn it: women tend to do more reading than men, and most will readily notice non-credible or derogatory female portrayals. They’re perfectly fine with a variety of female roles, attitudes, and ethical levels, but they will groan and tire when faced with characters and reactions that ring false. On the upside, when women like what they see, they vote for it with loyal pocketbooks. If a male fiction writer wants to succeed, he needs to learn to see and paint the world through her eyes. The story contains several strong yet diverse women, all with important roles to play; in fact, the toughest fighter in the protagonist’s party is a scarred, well-armored (no chainmail bikinis here), blocky ex-sergeant who provides most of their combat leadership. I feel confident that readers will conclude that Mike gets it on gender.

In fact, Mike Cook might be one of the most coachable writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work. Ever want to know how I size up a client’s potential? About half of it is by coachability. The other half is by the quality of questions asked. Mike was always a bright, articulate guy, and he hasn’t wasted the past three decades. A good client challenges me with great questions. Mike wanted to understand the logic behind my guidance, and where I did not volunteer it (I normally try), he sought it point blank.

This is very healthy, because I ought to have reasons for everything I advise, and it’s well within a client’s rights to want to understand the reasoning. An editor who cannot stand to be challenged in this way does not plan to teach. An editor who does not plan to teach is more or less hoarding knowledge. I do not believe knowledge workers benefit from hoarding knowledge. If your work is to share your knowledge, then its generous sharing will not only give good value but also signals that you aren’t in danger of running short on knowledges.

(Side note: early in my editing days, I had a client named Shannon D. Jackson who asked the best questions. Even better than Mike’s, because any time questions came up, she would ask me: “What questions should I be asking?” When asked that, it opens the floodgates for me to volunteer everything useful I can think of. She ended up with an outstanding parenting book.)

Mike placed quality and reader experience above all. He engaged artists. He hired a proofreader whose results proved very disappointing; so disappointing that I took the unprecedented step of doing it myself. I can’t ever take money to proofread my own edited work, but I can volunteer to do it simply to assure that justice is done. If there are still any typos, this time I am to blame. Even at the end, he was addressing potential loose ends in the storyline. The overall result of the process is a satisfying story by an author with great writing ability, a refreshing sense for physics and realism, and who progressed as much during the project as anyone I’ve known.

Writing as M.R. Cook, Mike has applied himself with as much diligence as any author with whom I have worked.

So, after a great deal of effort and time invested, it is with pleasure I announce his first novel.

Excellent books you may not even know exist

Other day, I was sitting out with a cigar and a book about how to avoid speeding tickets. It was insightful and well worth the re-read. It occurred to me that I had read a number of such books, profited from what I’d learned, yet never shared these hidden gems with you all.

That’s no way to treat all the nice people who take the time to read my blog.

What these all have in common: they all conveyed to me some form of important understanding, be it practical, geopolitical, financial, historical, whatever. After reading them, I felt more like a motorboat and less like an inner tube on the choppy waters of life.

Eagan, James: A Speeder’s Guide to Avoiding Tickets. It’s not that I habitually speed, because I do not. It’s that if by chance the police are thinking about stopping me, I hope they won’t, and if they do, I hope they won’t give me a ticket. Some of the technological tips may be dated, but I doubt that the insights into police mentality and habits are obsolete. This twenty-year veteran of the New York State Police got his most helpful possible endorsement when some police-connected official condemned the book. If the police do not want you to read it, obviously, it’s the first thing you should be reading.

Poundstone, William: Big Secrets. Poundstone, an investigative reporter and student of the human mind, dug into many subjects such as Freemasonry initiations, Colonel Sanders’s recipe, and all those supposed backward messages in records. (For those, he rented a studio and split the tracks, playing them both forward and backward.) It is a bit dated, but very interesting and mostly remains relevant. There are two sequels, with no decline in interest level or quality.

Kelly, Jason: The 3% Signal. Most of you who invest are still either picking your own stocks or paying expensive professionals (to underperform more often than not) through conventional mutual funds. The evidence is in, and it says most of you are doing this wrong. Kelly is a very interesting fellow, a Colorado Buff English major who lives in Japan and writes a financial newsletter. Not only does he write well, his market insight is spot on and his investing plan is so simple that even a self-declared financial boob could probably handle it. I’ve been using it for three years and it has made me feel much better about my investing methods.

Anderson, Kurt: How to Back up a Trailer…and 101 Other Things Every Real Guy Should Know. Anderson is that guy we all need to know. He’s like my father, who could have taught me all this stuff had I shown the slightest bit of interest, had I not been practicing the development method of “ignore adulthood and hope it will never arrive.” Unlike many who are gifted in the area of life’s physics, Anderson can write and never comes off as a horse’s ass about it all. The irony, of course, is that the people who should rush out to buy this book are majority female. Girls and women aren’t taught enough of this in life, especially growing up in cities (whereas your average farm girl could have written this book), and capability equals independence. Anderson’s book is their liberator.

Cahill, Tim: A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg. A world in which Bill Bryson sells more books than Tim Cahill is a world with lousy taste, a world that lets people with vested financial interests tell it what to like. The travel genre has many subsets, and one of my favorites is adventure travel. Cahill, a Sconnie now living in Montana, has a laconic descriptive method that knows how to let the humor speak for itself. Unlike some travel writers, he also seems like a man who could safely go back to most of his adventuresome haunts. One of the nicest things my bro John ever did was give me a copy of this book, which opened the way to the other seven-odd Cahill travel books.

Loewen, James W.: Sundown Towns. Prof. Loewen’s name is better known for his studies of mendacious monuments, but I consider this his most important work because it answers a question about how African Americans came to be concentrated in cities. It explains the difference between Southern and Northern post-Civil War racisms. As someone who used to live in a former sundown town (Kennewick, WA, which has never come to terms with this racist past and has instead chosen to avoid the conversation as the eyewitnesses die off), this book supplied a crucial lack in my understanding of American history. If we are ever to repair this ongoing rent in the national fabric, we must arrive at that understanding.

Horwitz, Tony: Baghdad Without a Map. It’s hard to pick a favorite book with authors who always do it right. In cases like these, I choose the one that first drew me in. Horwitz may be best known for Confederates in the Attic, his study of Civil War re-enactor culture, but a Jew traveling all over the greater Middle Eastern region shows me serious chutzpah. Like Cahill, Horwitz knows how to let the reader find the humor. All his books are good, including his historical take on John Brown’s Harper’s Ferry seizure, Midnight Rising. I find him an exception to the rule that journalists should be kicked in the groin if they start making moves toward writing history books. (“But I checked three sources! I can write it!”)

Perkins, John: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. When you look at a globe, you may not see the strings by which the United States manipulates the world. Perkins explains how we weave them, how we reeve them, and how we yank them to make less fortunate countries do our bidding. If you’ve ever watched a documentary about how drug dealers work hard to develop new addicts because addicts are customers and can be controlled through their addictions, this book will show you how effective (if heartless) that business model can be on a larger scale.

Eskeldson, Mark: What Car Dealers Don’t Want You to Know. The fine art of screwing the auto-purchasing public is an evolutionary game, so books will tend to become dated. So is this one, but much of its content is still relevant. The essential lesson is that the process of buying a car is a three-card monte game with the dealer making a cameo. An updated version for the Internet buying era would be especially helpful, but no matter the timeframe, the fundamental mentality does not change; when it proclaims itself kinder, honest, and forthright, that is when it is the sleaziest. Car dealers hate when you are not forthright with them because deceit is supposed to be their playground. Definitely a good guide to how they think.

Sullivan, Bob: Stop Getting Ripped Off. I’d like to give a copy to every young person graduating from high school. Thanks to the time value of money combined with ignorance and naïveté, the first twenty years of independence are when the mistakes are likeliest to be costly when all is calculated with eyes wide open. One must learn to be one’s own advocate, and that advocacy must evolve, because what worked for your mom and stepdad may no longer be feasible for you. While the title is a bit misleading, at least in the body of the book Sullivan admits that there are areas where you are going to be ripped off and cannot stop the process. My view: at least if you know what the ripoff is and who does it, you’ll know who to hate.

Molloy, John T.: Molloy’s Live for Success. Okay, so you want to get ahead in the office/corporate world, but you don’t have the right connections, the right personality, the right clothes, the right vibe. You keep wondering why lazy, stupid assholes get promoted and you do not, in spite of your competent diligence. This resentment builds on itself, because you are an honest hard worker who tries hard to get along with others and go the extra mile, thus worsening the gap between you and success. That resentment hits close to my home, because the dawning of reality shortened my naïve, selectively brilliant, industrious father’s life. It would have shortened mine too, except that I decided I didn’t want that type of career. But if I had–if I’d been willing to subordinate my basic identity to a perfectly manufactured persona that kissed the right butts, appeared at the right places, and otherwise gave off the vibe of being a club member–at least I would have had the right textbook. I read it in my early twenties and it helped me to decide that I wasn’t the type to reach the executive suite. It helped me to understand the warm, affectionate, grandfatherly smile of the Sears executive whom I am certain vetoed their hire of me (a great kindness, now that I understand the world better). But if you are that type, the only things that have changed are the technologies and clothes. Even if you are not, if you work for a hierarchy, reading this will help you understand how that hierarchy got where it is (and why, at the rate you’re going, you aren’t getting a slot in it unless you are already slotted by genetics and upbringing to join it). Molloy is much better known for his Dress for Success books, but this is the book that will enumerate the rest of the entry fee.

Happy reading.

New release: Blue Ice, White Powder, by Jack Moscrop

This free travel story, in which the author summits Mont Blanc with his friends, is a recent release. I was developmental editor.

Jack, an English adventurer with a personality that radiates goodwill, came my way via Shawn Inmon. Shawn is one of the rising stars in self-published fiction, a field in which the reader has to kiss a lot of toads. (Believe me, because I’m the guy who gets the job of test-smooching.) Shawn seems to meet a significant number of people who are like him in that they have sincere desires to improve their writing work, and I’m honored when he suggests me as someone who could help them.

It was especially great seeing Jack walk through the shop doors because I’m a travel writing enthusiast. Not that I have to enjoy the subject matter to do my job, of course, but it’s nice when I do. Jack had me work on a couple of shorter pieces, and upon evaluating the first one I dropped a large bomb: I wanted him to change the verb tense of his presentation. In many cases, such a dramatic recommendation results in an answer like: “Or I could change editors, in hope of finding one who will tell me more what I want to hear.” Not Jack. Presented with the reasoning, he buckled down and did as I suggested. Now his voice was clear, and we could get somewhere.

What Jack didn’t and doesn’t need is help with describing the natural world. Early on it became obvious: he was the hands-down champion of descriptive language. Not even most well-known travel authors do it as well. All right, Mr. Editor, what do you do now? I asked myself. How do you give guidance to improve a talent that well exceeds your own? That’s why I like my work. It has the potential to present me with situations that will require me to elevate my own game if I hope to be relevant. I could not assist my client much in shaping his best weapon, but I could help him decide when and how to wield it.

I came to understand that Jack had expected a harsher experience from editing, because at one point in the first story he in essence asked if I’d pulled any punches. This is the sort of question to which one has at least some grounds to take umbrage, but I don’t believe that one should. Especially in the early stages of the relationship: if what the author gets is not the pummeling he or she expected, what is there but for him or her to ask the question? I answered in the firm negative. In the first place, I explained, this would be a gross dereliction of my duty, my profession’s equivalent of treason. Jack is a British accountant in real life, so it was easy to supply the stigmatic analogue to embezzlement. In the second, I’d just told him to do a complete recast of his first story before I could even render an opinion. Didn’t “go rewrite the entire thing before I can even begin to help” convey sufficient pain?

My reassurances pierced the fog of uncertainty, but it’s a useful thing to know about editing. Some writers are not expecting much in the way of kind words from us, and may not know how to take them. While I’m prepared to be waspish where I think it will help, I’m not here to crush someone’s soul. I’m here to help someone improve. In some cases, that is best done with wry humor, such as: “Now may we all rejoice. Your characters have learned the secret of teleportation.” The moral is to do it for effect, for camaraderie, for a desire to help–but don’t do it just to be mean, nor to look all properly grumpily editorial. ‘Needless jerk’ does not qualify as a professional philosophy. Just because the world has a stereotype of editors as the bean counters of literary products doesn’t mean that we must prove this true. Some doctors are like Charles Emerson Winchester, some are like Hawkeye Pierce, and some are like B.J. Hunnicutt–all of which M*A*S*H characters only resembled the medical stereotype to some degree. Yet on the show they were all superb doctors. Thus with editing: one keeps one’s eyes on the prize. If one believes that the author’s initial paragraph guarantees that the story will fail, one must so state. If one believes that the author has just written a loathsome sentence, one does not need the word ‘loathsome’; one might use one’s own writing talent to say, “This sentence simply must be rethought afresh, and this time lacking in flaws X and Y.”

In any case, Jack now believes that I’ll throw a tomato when he needs it, and that’s all to the good, because he also believes any praise he receives.

One great challenge facing the author of any narrative, fiction or non, is the decision of descriptive depth. How much detail does the reader want and need? Not everything needs exhaustive detail, or is worth the investment of crafting prose that conveys subtle shadings from rose to periwinkle or magenta. A primary character needs enough defining detail that the reader may fill in the rest of the picture. The traveled landscape needs enough that the reader camera can imagine a place on the trail where something of note occurred. A special sight, one the reader’s mind would not concoct, needs the kind of description that is in Jack’s power when he takes off the governors and lets rip.

In the case of Blue Ice, my first look focused on the areas where there wasn’t enough detail. This is why it’s hard: the author remembers the scene as it was, the story as it occurred. Now he or she must reconstruct it for someone who begins with no visual, no sense of dimensions, nothing. How does one place one’s mind back into the mindset of knowing nothing, then filling in the features as the author mentions them? It is very easy to underdescribe, to forget what the reader does not know. It is another pitfall to overdescribe, to take away all mystery and reach the Plane of Pointless Blather. That’s where I come in, because I’m also a reader. If I can’t figure out what the author means, I go back and re-read it. If I still cannot, I suspect the reader also could not, and I note that for my client. Often it helps to note the picture that my mind did paint, which may be erroneous, but that mails the missing piece that my client needs to supply.

The second look focused a bit more more on details of people, and there was some need to re-stitch some of the seams of continuity that now became apparent, but Jack had brought the tale a long way. I knew this was going to be good, and we moved toward publication. We still didn’t agree on the title, but if the reception continues to be good, this may not have been a detractor. Outcomes speak for themselves, of course. About the biggest thing I had to get out of him was a full-on description of what it looked like at a breathtakingly climactic spot in the narrative where, for some reason, he had chosen that spot to keep his marvelous descriptive facilities in the psychological camera case. After a polite version of “What the hell were you thinking? Of course they want to see this!”, he remedied it exactly as one hopes when one tells a real artist: “No limits. No guidelines. Create. Let’s see what you can do without restrictions. Own this.” Oh, he did–and he makes it look easy.

If you like adventure travel, I am confident you will wish to keep an eye on Jack’s work. Bill Bryson doesn’t even come close; Jack’s unpretentious humility and signal good nature leave Bryson choking on clouds of powder snow. It’s a different style from Tim Cahill’s or Tim Severin’s, thus fresh and interesting for its own sake.

This one is free, and can be had in numerous formats. Enjoy, for I think it quite likely you’ll say: I would have paid real money for this.

It’s time to start telling them the brutal truth

In the past, this blog has described the steady incoming stream of Amazon review requests. Most are easy to dismiss with a reason that is not the only reason, but is a truthful reason:

  • “I don’t review e-books.”
  • “It’s outside my area of interest.”
  • “I cannot spare the time to devote to such a large volume.”

I’m just being gentle.

I’m not helping them by doing so.

Truth: every time, if I thought the book would be interesting, I’d take a review copy and read and review it. Further truth: my work involves reading a great deal of horrible writing and being nice to its authors, and when I am not being paid real money, I have less mental energy to dance around the truth of “this writing is no good.” I have to save more detailed and tactful replies for paying clients. They are entitled to tactful constructive critique in detail, and review-seekers are not.

So we’re getting to:

  • “The review would very likely be negative, which I’m sure was not your objective.”
  • “You have interesting subject matter, but I cannot get past the choppy writing.”
  • “The writing does not reflect competent editing and proofreading services. These are not optional.”
  • “If the Amazon Look Inside feature is at all reflective of the published work, the typesetting is borderline unreadable.”
  • “The writing does not even reach the fundamental baseline for adequacy in print, sorry to say.”

Or, in some odd cases:

  • “I am not sure what about my body of work caused you to think a children’s book would interest me, but it does not.”
  • “This is the second time you have contacted me to volunteer my time as your marketer. When you receive no reply to your first inquiry, a second is probably going to get you the type of attention you would not want. No, thank you; and let that please be the end of this, all right?”

Do I enjoy this? No. Do I wish people didn’t publish crappy writing? With all my heart. Is it my duty to tell them so? No, but if it will avert further solicitations, that’s all right with me. Do I get a kick out of disappointing writers? If I did, I would not be in the business of helping them succeed.

We’re just going to have to lay it out there.

New Release: Life is Short, by Shawn Inmon

This short story anthology is now available. I was substantive editor.

If I counted correctly, four of the stories have appeared in previous fiction anthologies, some of which were for charitable projects. Shawn would never tell you openly about this particular part, but nothing’s stopping me: for the charitable projects, he tried to pay me, but obviously I was having none of it. No big deal, right? Right…except that here’s the kind of honest guy he is. When he decided to republish them in a for-profit anthology, he turned around and tried to pay me for them after the fact. When I smiled and thanked him for the intent, but declined, he offered to take me to a Mariners game and host me at his and Dawn’s place. I figured I could accept that, so I said all right. We had a fantastic time at the game and on the drives there and back. Anyway, if you’ve noticed how much effort Shawn makes to put forth quality reading in an attractive presentation, do know that he treats his vendors with the same conscientious courtesy and fairness with which he treats his readership. No wonder his pre-publication people, like me, work extra hard to help his work to shine (not that it needs much help).

The good news is that at least 2/3 to 3/4 of the stories in this compilation are new material. The variety is appealing. Some of it is dark and even a bit paranormal. Some is autobiographical, telling stories from his youth. As you might expect, many touch upon familiar Inmonian themes: 1970s and 1960s nostalgia, music, etc. He experiments with the unreliable narrator, and in my opinion succeeds in this mode. The overall outcome is anything but predictable, with fresh styles and approaches as well as fresh plots and varying lengths. This might mean that few people will enjoy every one, but also makes it likely that no one will find it predictable from one story to the next.

So far it is only out in Kindle, but if you keep an eye on it, I suspect it will come out in dead tree.

Fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek

Everyone has read about its impact, how it would not die, how it created a movement. True. As an eleven-year-old knuckling down to six years of protracted cruelty, I can point to Star Trek as one of the things that got me through it all. I was not the only one. I have seen a friend of color say: “Until Star Trek, I didn’t realize that the future included black people.”

Yes. Did Star Trek mean more than the Beatles? No, the Beatles are not some sacred cow that automatically surpasses every other phenomenon. They were culturally important, but lastingly more than Star Trek? I am not thinking so. Of course, I like Star Trek and do not like the Beatles, so I admit a basic bias.

BBC America is showing a bunch of old Star Treks, and I am DVRing them and will rewatch them all again. Well and good. I will see more redshirts destroyed than an overpaid college coach trying to avoid a 5-7 record in his third year of program recovery. However, the show spawned a less savory product, and I’m not referring to / fiction. (95% of you do not know what that means. ‘Slash’ referred originally to ‘K/S,’ as in ‘Kirk/Spock,’ the notion that the two of them were in a gay relationship and often expressed in fanfic (fan-authored fiction). Now you see why I think this outshines the beatified Beatles? Scoff if you wish, but gay America living through the 1970s and 1980s does not.)

After the original series’ three seasons ended, and fans refused to let the show die, there came a less savory product: paperback novels, and many of them were awful. Loopy story ideas. Inept writing. Lazy naming. So many moments of “Oh, no. Seriously? You did not just name the security team after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first line? And you got away with this?”

No, no individual callouts. Remember, I go to some SF conventions. I could end up having drinks with someone in whose withers I left banderillas, and who would now like an explanation. “J.K. Kelley. From where do I remember that name? Ah, yes, it’s associated with the knout scars on my back from your blog comments about my writing. Well, I was 25 then. Are you the same writer today that you were at 25, Mr. Kelley?”

Here’s a secret. Want to know what made me think I could be a good editor? I looked at what was being published by New York. Then I looked at what was coming out of the smaller houses. Then I looked at the indie publishing movement. In few cases did I see books that I could not much have improved in the editing process. In many cases I saw decent book concepts botched or clumsily executed. I knew that I could help those who wanted help badly enough, and could afford the help.

Since I have a library, I must maintain it. I have learned that one of the best ways to winnow out the chaff is to look at books and be able to say: You know what? I knew you were a lousy book even before I became a professional writer or editor. I need the space you occupy. You will be donated. And thus, book by book, I have done so. I am ruthless. Is the book a piece of crap? Will neither I nor my wife ever again wish to read it? Then it does not need to take up space. I refuse to be a book hoarder.

So what I am doing is to re-read all the hundred-odd Star Trek books, most purchased cheaply from used bookstores on the Ave (referring to University Way NE in Seattle, the beating heart of the University of Washington’s U-District). And while I may re-finish those whose storylines I can now respect, if they suck, I am going to get rid of them. Stupid plot? Gone. Author can’t write (the case in 75% of those books)? Gone. Authorial laziness or fetishism? Let’s not eat a whole egg to confirm that it’s rotten. It’s time to de-dross this library–or at least, in the case of some of my trashy westerns, accept the dross with a full understanding of its drossage.

This will take a while, but I expect to thin this collection out to the minority of books worth revisiting. And it’s time.