Category Archives: Book reviews

Compilation release: The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver

Some of you have probably read my posts about the six-part serial release of this story on Kindle. The plan all along was to assemble the pieces into a novel-length story, and this has now been done.

If you’ve been following Shawn’s work–and his sales suggest that you and others might well be–you may remember his Second Chance short story series, later stitched together into a book. This time, he decided to plan it that way, which is not to say that he planned it to any great degree. Quirk of my character: there are some words I so deeply loathe. There are so many, in fact, that I don’t tell people about them, because I know that most people consider it the height of amusement and wit to torment one ever after with the disliked word. Here are a couple of in-crowd writing slang terms I don’t mind saying how much I hate: “plotter” and “pantser.” A plotter is someone who plans the whole book out in advance, like Dean Koontz (his plots feel like a college basketball tournament bracket). A pantser is someone who writes “from the seat of his or her pants,” in other words, just improvises. Both terms reek of writers’ workshop banter and writing-oriented message boards, about which I will say no more for the moment. The terms say: “We’re cool, we’re writers, this is the club lingo.”

I’ve never been a joiner.

Shawn considers himself more of an improvisational and spontaneous writer (and yeah, I like that term better than the slang) than I do. I see his style as right down the middle. He begins with an overall concept of story arcs to realize, but comes up with most plot twists and major events as he goes along. Doing this in serial form is interesting to edit, because it’s all developmental. That’s how our process went. Shawn would tell me what he figured to write for the upcoming installment. I would:

  • Notify him when a plot choice was about to limit too many future options.
  • Remind him when his time travel/supernatural aspects were getting too loopy, or too convenient, or too distracting.
  • Offer solutions or alternatives to unworkable stuff.

In short, I would throw myself on any necessary grenades (to borrow his rather colorful description from the acknowledgements) to make sure their shrapnel didn’t shred his story. Then we would debate. Most of the time, I would win the debate because I very rarely defend an editing position with shield and body, and only when I feel it’s crucial. If you’ve always imagined an editorial relationship that involves repeated shoutfests, all I can say is that I don’t have those. I am not emotionally suited to regular squabbling, and I don’t stake out a position just to get a ‘win.’ My style is more collaborative and cooperative. If I tell Shawn something doesn’t work, I have just signed on to help him devise a better alternative. And while Shawn loves to tell the world about the scorpion stings he finds in the margin comments, he does not emphasize the fact that the comments also contain compliments. When the author goes yard, I believe s/he should know it, and I don’t hold back.

This series had plenty of those moments, as well as those where I dug trenches, constructed gun emplacements, prepared to rake the beaten zones with interlocking fields of fire, and pre-registered artillery targets. If I did a lot of that, I think it would devalue the concept of defending a fervent recommendation. They can’t all be fervent, or there is no fervency.

One area that did not affect me as much, but that did affect a great many readers, was the theme of animal cruelty. A number of Shawn’s loyal readers wrote to him (or in one case, to me) to ask for a spoiler on one particular outcome. If the outcome went a certain way, they wanted to know, so that they could stop reading. I am like that with movies, but never books. In fact, I am so affected by movies that I mostly just do not watch them. For the record, if you buy and read the book, and you reach a point where you believe that you cannot continue without knowing the outcome of one particular situation, take my word that the worst does not happen. It is safe for you to go on.

In the end, I believe Shawn has created a work that reads better than nearly anything you’ll find on an endcap, or “bestseller” aisle. Want to have fun? Next time someone calls a book a “bestseller,” ask what the supporting sales figures were. There won’t be any. “Bestseller” is not a status conferred by quantity sold. It is a status confidently predicted by the purchase of prominent product presentation at retail. The cart goes squarely before the horse. In my view, it is always moral and ethical to mock such shenanigans. If anyone calls you on this, send him or her to me.

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How really, really, really not to get your book reviewed

Lately I’ve had a rash of review requests that seem to emanate from a website about African American books. The fact that the books have AA themes is neutral to me; for me, the key question of interest is the genre and quality of writing. If it’s high-quality travel writing, for example, whether it is AA-themed or not means nothing; I will want to read it. If it’s religious YA, likewise, whether it has an AA theme or not means nothing to me: I wouldn’t have a reason to read it.

Most of the applicants are receptive to my typical reply. I explain that I’m not sure how the website got hold of my email, but that it was not my doing, and that I’m more concerned with genre and quality than with ethnic composition. And that I do very few book reviews nowadays, and that the applicant’s book as described doesn’t fall within my areas of interest. Nevertheless, best of success with your literary endeavors. Most authors respond with respectful thanks.

Two weeks back, I got duplicate mass-mailed emails from one Paula Wynne, asking if I were still interested in reviewing AA books, and proposing that I go edit my profile. I replied in my usual way, did not hear back, and figured that was the end of the matter.

It was not. Four days ago I received another mass mailing from Ms. Wynne, complaining that I had not opened her recent emails (I’m interested in how she would deduce that), and asking if I wished to remain on her contact list. I was again directed to update my “reviewer profile,” or offered an unsubscribe link.

Here’s my theory on unsubscribe links: I can validly be asked to use them only if I initiated a subscription in the first place. Thus, if someone else added me, I’m not jumping through hoops. I will simply tell them in the clear: yes, unsubscribe me. That is not what they expect. I don’t care. So in response to this email titled “Do you still want to hear from me?” I answered: “Won’t be necessary, thanks.” I figure that’s clear enough. For Ms. Wynne, doesn’t seem it was. She responded by saying that I had sent her an email with no text, and what did I want to do?

This had gone quite far enough. Figuring things needed spelling out and repeating, I said:

“I wrote something on the email; please look below “Do you still want to hear from me?” in the quoted emails.

In short: I never requested to be subscribed to this list, it appears my name got there due to an entry on a website that I did not myself initiate, and therefore I most definitely do desire to be unsubscribed from a situation that in no way reflected my will. I responded to your original email to explain the situation and did not receive a reply (normal when one has inadvertently disturbed a person), so when it was obvious I was still on the list, assumed that this was one of those lists that ignored common civility. I’m heartened to see that this may not be the case.

In any case, let me reiterate that I wish to be removed from this involuntarily ‘subscribed’ list.”

Of course, rather than offer a fairly dumb reply, it would have been better to simply unsubscribe me in silence. Instead, I got:

“Thank you Kelly, you won’t be contacted again.”

How’s that? Addressing me by last name, like we’re boys on a junior high school bus, and misspelling it into the bargain? If she was out to piss me off, I guess she can count coup.

Lesson for self-published writers is:

if you send mass review-soliciting emails based on some source website, and;

if you are politely told “not interested, thanks, but good luck,” and;

if you can’t take that as guidance and just go away, and;

if you then must have it spelled out for you, as if you were a child, then:

whatever you do, do not turn around and address this person whose time you have wasted, who could get irritated enough to give you publicity you would not desire, in a way that will convey your contempt rather than your respect.

Really, seriously, for true, no joke, don’t do anything that stupid while promoting your books.

All about Messing With Telemarketers

It’s not just a fun hobby; it’s now a website, whose author has written a great book. Much of the insight presented here emanates from my interpretations of Haven Riney’s methods, for which I extend him his due full credit.

Where Riney’s mind and mine meet is where most disagree with us both, to wit:

  • Problem: telemarketers waste our time and annoy us.
  • Most people: just hang up on them, not worth your time.
  • Riney and I: torment them and waste their time in creative ways that amuse us.

I can’t speak for Riney, but the way my mind works is that we make the world a better place every time we make bad behavior less profitable. I also believe we should find ways to enjoy making bad behavior unprofitable.

Riney draws a valid distinction between telemarketers (who intend to deliver a legitimate, if stupid and/or useless, product or service) and scammers, whose work is to steal. I agree with his recommendation, that one show telemarketers a little more mercy than scammers. In my view, the scammers are fair game for everything including a scam of one’s own. There is plenty of e-mail scamming going on, as all of us who know and love 419eater.com are aware, but Riney covers only phone scams. The most common one at this writing is the fake IRS collector. Among others, in the book Riney reacts to many iterations of the Windows Security scam. I’ve had lots of those.

Riney, it seems, is a born actor and improv comic. His dialogues with telemarketers and scammers are genius. He nearly always knows how to run with any reaction he might encounter. I hope his book sells quajillions of copies, makes him rich, and inspires so many people to take up telemarketer-tormenting and scammer-tormenting that both become unfeasible economically, horrible work, and die out. (This will unfortunately destroy the economy of Boise, which is the Unaccented English Call Center Capital of the world these days. Can’t be helped.) I doubt Riney’s skill can be taught.

For some of us, it’s harder. I’m not very good at handling surprise lines of inquiry off the cuff. I need a plan, some prompts, a little preparation. I don’t think I’m the only one. So what I’m going to do is glean from Riney some tips that will enable others, who might also need a little advance prep, to screw with these people. I’ll add my own inspirations, in case they help.

One of Riney’s best methods, which won’t work for me, is to react as if one were a given film character. It helps if one can pick a suitable film character for the line of inquiry. For example, Riney responded to a health insurance query by pretending to be Steve Austin, the character on the 1970s show The Six Million Dollar Man. He presented as Star Wars characters. I think it’s a great idea if you watch much pop culture (I don’t) because you can adopt a persona and react as that person would. If it’s someone that few foreigners would probably suss out, better still. In my case, I’d have to think of a few in advance so that I could react on the fly.

Another method is to adopt a made-up, bizarre persona. Riney did several of these, usually with names that would read very comically. A given persona might desire to re-enact the battle of Gettysburg with rodents as the actors, or claim to be in the process of actually holding up a convenience store during the call. I’m not able to do this at all without time to process, but some people can.

One that occurred to me: why not claim to be an animal of one’s choice and knowledge? “My name is Mr. Ursus. I like honey and salmon.” Then give the sorts of responses that would be reasonable for a bear.

Other methods used or inspired by Riney:

  • Adopting a very odd manner of speech, such as like a Star Trek computer voice or somesuch.
  • One of my inspirations would be to do a very heavy foreign accent, such that it was difficult for a foreign speaker to understand. Even a very heavy domestic accent: if you’ve always wanted to see how your drawl sounded, that’d be your chance.
  • Random quotes would work, if you were encyclopedic and quick enough. Riney is; I’m not.
  • One of my favorites with the Windows Security scam is to pick a random non-computer device, such as my microwave or toaster, and pretend that I think it’s a computer. That gets them very frustrated. “It doesn’t have the key you are talking about. It has this sliding thing alongside.”
  • Claiming to be occupied doing something fairly gross while talking. The funniest one in Riney’s book was the one about getting a rectal piercing. You could claim to be eating live mice if you thought that would rattle them.

Just as people advise writers to write what they know, the common thread here is to act out what you know. If you know your cat’s personality well enough, act it out. If you’re a huge fan of Tatiana Maslany (and you should be), pick one of the Orphan Black clone characters (I vote for Helena). If a cow could speak in response to a telemarketer or scammer, what would that cow say? You could pretend to be your Prius, your conure, your schnauzer. I think the key is the ability to imagine a different perspective and play pretend.

Many telemarketers are so wrapped up in the script that they don’t use any active listening at all, as Riney’s results illustrate. In many cases, he even answered the phone with “messingwithtelemarketers.com,” yet people just rolled through their scripts. Riney got so many calls from the same scam artists that he got to know a few of them, even had candid conversations with them about how the scam worked. One of the more interesting revelations is that scammers use the MagicJack device to fake phone numbers, but that they themselves get hacked by other thieves, and it bothers the scammers a lot.

I have no patience for the argument that there is anything wrong with being unkind to them. When you are in a bad business, people will be unkind to you. That’s because it’s a bad business that deserves unkindness. Suffering goes with its territory.

If you question whether it’s worth your time, which is a valid question, consider this. While you’re wasting this person’s time (by donating some of yours), you aren’t wasting yours. While he’s talking to you, he’s not available to run game on Mrs. Edna Miller of Wausau, WI, who is a little confused nowadays and is thus vulnerable to such tactics. If every telemarketing or scam call resulted in wasted telemarketing or scammer time, the world would be a better place. None of us can stop it singlehandedly, but if we all pitched in a little time, we’d have a little fun while helping the vulnerable.

I feel energized. I think my next scam caller will hear that I am Sarah Palin, or Johnny Manziel, or Octomom, or Ban Ki-Moon, or a grackle.

The Strange Second Life of Thomas Weaver, Bowl 6 and final

This, now out in Kindle, completes the serial novel Shawn began some time back. I was developmental editor.

Some time ago, Shawn proposed the saga of a middle-aged loser who commits suicide in his early fifties and awakens in his fifteen-year-old body, over thirty-five years back in time. Writers often bomb at time shifting and travel, because it keeps creating thorny issues that most authors gloss over or mishandle. When Shawn brought the idea up to me, I hammered on that point. If he must do it, and couldn’t be dissuaded, very well; but he should know that I wasn’t going to sit quietly and accept crummy shortcuts without vocal objections. He expressed an interest in my vocal objections, then got to work.

We had our first big disagreement during Bowl 2, if memory serves. I should put this in perspective: by a disagreement, I don’t mean we had harsh words, hard feelings, or anything negatively affecting the relationship. Rather: Shawn wanted to do what he wanted to do, I told him it was a very unwise idea, he explained his reasoning, and we ultimately worked out a plot solution that didn’t give either of us heartburn. During Bowl 6 the last, we had another round of these, both of which centered around the nature and timing of the rebirth of souls in his universe. Shawn was leaning toward actions and solutions that he felt would be more emotionally satisfying to the reader. I was arguing the side of situational ‘physics,’ used in the loosest possible sense given that all of this time travel stuff–and angels, for that matter–go against all our known conventional physics. By physics in this context, I mean what a thinking person could logically infer given the altered assumptions in play. I guess it’s fair to say I prevailed, though not in some overwhelming way, because when I object to a plot choice, it doesn’t very often mean that I am insisting on a specific alternative. It means I feel strongly that we need something other than what the author is proposing. If that’s how I feel, I must participate in helping the client perfect a solution that will pacify me.

I also did a thing the reader has no way to notice, but that I think will affect Shawn’s writing going forward. As I see my job, to the extent my client wants to grow, I always have some duty to teach. Difficulty: I am a very linear thinker who tends to dial in on a given mode and stick to it. This can result in very disciplined, consistent work, but it can be fundamentally uncreative since it may disregard for too long signs that the chosen mode is unsuitable for the best outcome. In this context, it means that when I am reviewing, I am not editing. At all. I salt the ms with little margin comments, always in lower case to distinguish them, so that I make sure to fix certain things when the real editing begins: “nts ghastly phrasing” “sp” “nts punct” “tcfkao”* and so on. (‘nts’ = ‘note to self’.) I don’t want or expect the client to fix these, though if s/he chooses to, what am I going to do, complain? I am better at review and commentary and teaching when I’m not being the punctuation mechanic.

Here, Shawn had a section that was well isolated from the rest, about a third of the way into the story. For those who end up reading it, it’s the very significant discussion Thomas has with Anne. The original was full of overtell, enough that it would be more like rewriting than editing. I don’t mind doing that, but it’s hard for an author to learn from tracked changes. So, this once, I did the editing early and asked Shawn to go over it with great care, and in each case put his takeaway lesson in comments. Afterward, I found it very hard to get back into the I-will-read-and-comment-without-changes mode, and I probably did some minor edits without thinking about it. No harm done, just one of the situations we encounter, germane to a piece on how the sausage is made.

The end result is something that keeps taking on the tough questions even as it rides into the sunset. I think readers will love it.

 

* The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford. I’m in full earnest about my rejection of Oxford’s moral authority over the English language after they sighed and said that ‘literally’ can mean ‘metaphorically.’ It can’t, they’re wrong, that decision was moneychanging in my temple, and I will drive them from it with scourges. However, the comma situation still remains, and we need a reference term for it. Ideally it would be a reference term that aims a banderilla at Oxford’s overhyped withers in every feasible instance. Therefore, “tcfkao.”

Reviews need to be more than one sentence long

I don’t give a lot of advice on book marketing, and what I give is not much use. Like most writers, I’m bad at and hate marketing. It’s the number one weakness for authors. They want me to provide them with Golden Secrets, and the best I have are nickel-brass confidentialities. But here’s one from solid ground:

Our industry has a device called a “puff.” All those gushy comments on the book’s back cover? Those are puffs. One hand washes the other. Do you really think the authors read each other’s books? Don’t count on it happening often. It’s just how the game is played. When you see a book covered in puffs, either a lot of people would like to do that author a solid, or the publisher is large enough to hit up lots of authors for puffs. You can’t take most of them seriously. The best dust jacket puffs are brief, baroque in their gush levels, and inspecific. Specifics are hard when one doesn’t read the book.

Puffs also appear in book reviewing. Smart authors understand that they need a good initial body of reviews to help with sales, and first-timers don’t have very many contacts, so their friends and family pitch in. Some are guileless enough to use an account with the same family name as the author. A one-sentence gushy five-star review right after publication? The review is by Edna Smith, of Taylor Smith Newby’s dystopian eco-terror tale First They Came for the Vegans…? That’s a puff review. A certain amount of these are helpful, but reviews that carry water with potential buyers are more than one sentence long.

So: all those friends, family members, and so on that you buttonhole for early reviews? Do see if you can get some of them to write a full para, and give some specifics. A one-sentence review is borderline garbage, and too high a concentration of these stands out like a neon sign. Especially when the only couple of people who wrote in any depth did not like the book as well. The one-liners aren’t fooling anyone. Did those people read the book? Doesn’t matter, because they have so little to say about it. “I loved it couldn’t put it down Jill Authorness is a great writer” actually conveys to me a negative message: illiterates evidently love the book. I’m more interested in the views of people capable of articulating thoughts. Any “review” that looks very much as if the author wrote it from a sock puppet account looks the worst.

Not suggesting you have people write five-para dissertations, just that they maybe try to stretch it to a para that says something substantive. And as soon as possible, for the love of God, get some real reviews from people who are not so obviously giving you puffs. The sooner those puffs are overshadowed, the better for you.

New Release: The Energy Shift, by Ritu Rao

This self-help book is now available for sale, e-book and paperback formats. I was substantive editor.

Ritu came to me as a referral from client and friend Shawn Inmon, of Feels Like the First Time and Rock ‘n Roll Heaven fame. During our initial discussions, she mentioned that she’d already published one book. With a previously published author, my job changes. If the first book succeeded, then part of my job is not to screw up a good thing; we must preserve the aspects that made the author a success. Whether I agree with the earlier work’s editorial decisions is beside the point. No one hires me to reduce a book’s success.

Well, Ritu seemed blissfully unaware that she’d kicked large-scale ass with her first release, at least by comparison to most new releases. It had twenty-three reviews, most of them persuasive and articulate, exactly the kind that help sell a book. I read all of them, and they said great things along the lines of: At first I imagined it was going to be another fluffy self-help book full of the same stuff, but it was practical, realistic, smart, and has helped me a lot. Those are the kind of reviews authors crave. People read those reviews and buy the book.

I could tell Ritu would be coachable because she could already write. I can almost count on a thing, in my line of work: those who need my help most are most likely to refuse it. The worse the writer, the more appalling s/he will find the sample edit. “I liked my own version better, sorry” and “I need to find an editor who believes in my work” are the standard kiss-offs, and I’m okay with them. I only want to work with clients who want to work with me to improve their books. If the potential client is so bad s/he doesn’t realize how bad s/he is, and is unwilling to learn that, then I truly am not the right match. Ritu wasn’t one of those who needed to go back to remedial writing class. I could see areas for improvement, but her style was articulate, friendly, and unpretentious. We agreed to work together, and I got cracking.

Authing, as I call it, is the meeting point between storytelling (or whatever is at hand; exposition, guidance, memoirism) and writing. The first is the message; the second is how well one conveys it. I already knew that Ritu’s message made a good impression on readers, so I would focus on refining its delivery. In the ideal scenario, readers would like this book a little better, but most would not be able to say exactly why. That was the sweet spot.

I’m like the umpire. When you can’t tell I was there, and everything went well, I just smile and know I was on my game.

As I was editing, Ritu was in the process of selling her dental practice. Just as I finished, she went on a silent meditation retreat, so that delayed her digging into the edited ms. She came back with good questions, showing every sign that some of my feedback sank in. I like it when clients ask for my reasoning behind a change, because that’s a chance to teach. The end result, I think, you will like very much. Ritu is exactly as her writing style suggests: friendly, unpretentious, practical. I know that her approach to things works well, because I have used variants of it in my own life. Anyone expecting the typical cryptic, mystic self-help book tone is in for refreshment, because Ritu’s viewpoint reflects firm grounding in real experience. This book could help you get off the dime and improve your life.

More Serial: The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver, Bowl 5, by Shawn Inmon

This installment, part five of six planned, is now available in e-format. I was developmental editor.

Shawn is proving to me that the serial form can be an effective way to release a novel and get paid along the way. It enforces a certain discipline, this form, in that each installment has to pay its way. One cannot decide that Bowl Four, for example, will be the dull downtime bowl. If one were to do that, Bowl Five and Bowl Six would be gutshot. This dynamic demands that the author continue to hold interest, and it comes with risk for him: if he doesn’t stick all his landings, the rest of the planned installments will lose significant portions of readership and sales.

As this bowl came my direction, the overall story was building toward some decisions. Some I expected to like, others not so much, but #5 out of 6 has an additional duty: it’s throwing setup for the closer. It has to prepare the reader for a conclusion many months in coming, and that reader deserves a very good one, because s/he has probably showed fidelity and faith in reading this far. One thing I like about Shawn is that he understands there is a limit to how much one should tease or troll one’s reader, because the reader is his friend. S/he is the reason he has a job; s/he deserves respect and affection; s/he may be teased, but must be able to take on faith the ultimate promise of literary satiation. More simply, Shawn likes and appreciates his reader, s/he knows it, and that’s partly why he sells so much writing. When they figure an author for a phony, he’s finished.

In this particular case, Shawn wrestled the issue of voice uniqueness. Simply put, when his characters have offended other characters and are apologizing, in first drafts there can be an almost predictable sequence to the sorries. I had to rake him over the coals about this, getting my message through: not everyone apologizes the way Shawn does. Some people half-ass it. Some left-hand it. Some can’t choke it out. Few make detailed confessions of fault, full of intensifiers and validations. Perhaps they should, but they do not.

The reason Shawn keeps getting better as a writer is that I can say something to him like: “*sigh* Okay, this is way too much Shawniness. Time to begin the de-Shawnification of this segment,” and he won’t wet himself. Trust me, if you said suchlike to most writers, there would be a new chill in the air; some would fire you on the spot as someone who “doesn’t believe in my work.” Shawn isn’t most writers. He won’t “fight for his words” (he has no opponent; I can’t force him to accept any change). He won’t take offense. He won’t bawl and threaten to quit writing. He’ll look over what I did, keep it if he finds it better than what he had, and learn from it. If he doesn’t understand what I thought was wrong, we’ll discuss it. And next time, he’ll probably write better.

The result has been a serial novel that has improved over the course of its execution. Not bad for a concept to which my initial reaction was: “Oh, for God’s sake, not another fucking time travel story.” (It’s not that I hate all time travel. It’s that I hate lazy time travel, and since we do not know of any practical means to travel in time, there is work to be done in postulating how and why, and some writers consider work to be very icky.) I’m getting very picky about anything paranormal or fantasy, not because I don’t like the genres (look, I edited a parenting book, and I never wanted to be a parent myself), but because most people are leaping onto the bandwagon and doing them wrong. And there’s a problem: the worse the writer, the less receptive s/he will be to growth. It has become predictive and tiresome. If the people who most needed help, truly wanted it, that would be great, but the people who most need help wish to be told they do not need help. I’m not their guy.

If you enjoy a good story by someone who isn’t afraid to break stuff, and who is committed to not letting you down, Shawn’s your guy.