Category Archives: Editing/writing life

About doing this stuff for a living.

Why not ask the client?

This blog has become somewhat my repository for frustrations with my own profession. This is where I can say what I was thinking when I read the actual question, yet without getting me kicked off the group or making a professional enemy.

Today’s frustration is the inability to ask the client questions.

If you went where I go–to editorial forums where (the public presumes) we all gather to reload our red pens and drink ourselves blind over semicolons–you’d wonder how some folks manage. Here is one of the most common hivemind questions: “My client did X and Y. I think it sucks. How can I tell him so without hurting his feelings?”

In the first place, as a professional editor, you should be a capable enough writer to frame any criticism in a way that doesn’t hurt too much. If you cannot write well enough to do that, or are too lazy or cruel to do so, don’t be surprised at negative results because you aren’t going to be very persuasive. That said, the client also has a duty not to personalize what should not be personalized. You just have to give her a way around personalization, and hope she takes it. Doing your job means telling the truth, but it will be better received if you are skilled enough to do so without being a big meany.

In the second, if it doesn’t make any sense to you, why are you on here weeping openly about it and agonizing what to do? ASK YOUR CLIENT WHAT SHE WAS TRYING TO ACCOMPLISH WITH THIS CHOICE. There are loads of space between “Your protagonist is such a jerk, I hate him” and “Your protagonist’s flaws will be alienating to some segments of the potential audience; what was your reason for presenting him that way?” The first method stings. The second assumes the characterization was a deliberate device, and asks the writer to share the Master Plan. Of course, there probably is not a master plan, and the author probably doesn’t realize that the character’s so awful, but is unlikely to take the question personally.

Ask the client. Why do editors not think of this simple option? How is one to present oneself as an authority on communication if one can’t figure out how to send an email and politely say “What’s with writing the whole book in italics?” or “What’s the theory behind the informal [read: lousy] grammar in narration?”

It just is not that hard to ask the client. What does one think is the downside? In which universe do writers not like to talk about their books?

Not the one I live in.

Why it’s hard to volunteer help to beginning writers

One of my desultory ongoing marketing activities is to sort of participate on a couple of forums in which budding writers seek help, support, guidance, literary circle jerks, and sometimes editing services. I don’t post often; I’m not good at being an emotional support animal, and most of the questions just make me shake my head.

Here’s the problem: most of them can’t yet write correct English. While I do not look down on them for that as people, the idea of attempting to publish material in incorrect or broken English is dubious. Here’s the compounding problem: most of the people proposing to help them don’t even realize that the querents can’t write correct English, because they don’t know either (including plenty of self-proclaimed “editors”).

At some point, it seems, not only did garbage English become the norm, but it became the norm for literary aspirants and those who propose to guide them. The notion that all writers should at least write in reasonably educated English seems passé–and few now even seem to know the difference.

Are some of them not native speakers? Surely many are not. Okay, fine; then write in a language in which you are at least fluent, if not perfect. I speak Spanish, not fluently; I wouldn’t dream of trying to write a book in the language. I’d be an embarrassment.

Do some of them plan to hire editors to clean up the messes? I hope so…but from what I see, most aren’t willing to pay what a competent editor would ask. Many probably couldn’t afford it. It comes down to the question: will the writing receive remedy before publication? I would say the answer is a hard no.

Could I help them? I certainly could…but not for the effective $5/hour they can pay a fellow semi-literate who claims to be an editor. If editing just means fixing all the things, why pay any more than Wal-editing rates? And since the writer does not know the difference, that self-proclaimed editor doesn’t have to be any good. S/he just has to be better than his or her client. This is a low bar to clear. I see some responses that I am not sure even clear that bar.

I have some examples for you. Over a period of months, I collected the following (nearly verbatim, lightly edited to sampleize without making the English better or worse) writer/”editor” questions and “editor” answers:

===

How many words should a chapter comprise of?

How can I make my new book a best seller.

Hi Guys a relative newbie to the editing world, I was just wondering do people advertise their prices on their website at all? [Yes. This person was asking an editing group in this manner.]

Is there any good blogging sits out there. Were I can make a little bit of money and just have fun writing about random stuff.

I’m a line and copy editor. I offer free edit for the first [x] words, contained in your manuscript. It will help you get a feel of how I work. [In response to a request for editing services.]

What good for a book cover please

Tips on how to write stories?

I’m experiencing panic attack right now! And the reason is one of my friend told me not to post any of your sad feelings now.

I am writing a historical novel. I want to add artificial characters and plot within it to beautify the story. Can I ? pls suggest.

How do you guys prevent eye strain from your computer when writing?

Do you believe that Writing is inherited skill (by birth) ? Or anyone can become writer ? What are the traits of a writer ?

How do you guys think I can become famous by writing.

Is it a good idea to publish a book when you have no money?

what is the shortest length acceptable for a chapter? the longest?

why we Cannot protagonist be evil ?what is reason behind this. Can main character be the antagonist ?

What makes a plot unique?

How many books have to read if one wanna to become a writer

I want to create a female character but I’m a male any advice?

Please my people, help me with the best means to market my book or with a good marketer. Please contact us for supply or to market the book with us or in fact any means of selling the book.

===

I’m not putting these here to look down on anyone. Believe that, if for no other reason than that I don’t need to and can’t gain from doing so. I’m putting them here so that those who have been appalled by the current state of self-published English writing can peek into the kitchen and even into the restaurant supplier’s processing plant. It’s not you. It’s them. It has gotten bad.

And if many of the editors (when an editor was even involved) are barely better than their clients, how could the whole thing avoid being a leaky mess?

This is also intended as encouragement to those of you who write. If you can assemble complete English sentences with the correct prepositions, and use them to make intelligent statements and ask intelligent questions, congratulations. You are probably in the 85th percentile of aspiring writers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take it from a recovering addict.

field trip

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great. What’s your marketing plan?”

“What do you mean, ‘marketing plan’?”

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

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

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

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

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

An interview with time travel fiction author Shawn Inmon

Today I have an interview with Shawn Inmon, one of a very small percentage of authors who earn a living at this, and one of what might be a smaller percentage of fiction authors who handle time travel well. With his most recent release now out, he was able to spare us some time to answer a few questions about this dark art.

JK: So, Shawn, first please tell us how you got into writing in the first place.

SI: I won a writing contest when I was fifteen years old and was named one of Washington’s Most Promising Young Writers. I was sure fame, fortune, and Pulitzers were right behind that.

As it turned out, I didn’t actually publish my first book for forty-seven more years.

That first book was a memoir–an easy entry for many a first time writer. In my case, life had handed me a pretty terrific story–falling in love as a teenager, having that romance forcibly ended and rekindling it thirty years later.

It made for a can’t-miss kind of story that was easy to write. The hardest part, as Bob Seger memorably said, was “What to leave in, what to leave out.”

And it was one hell of a tale. What inspired you to transition from non-fiction to fiction?

I honestly thought that first book might be it for me. Then, when it surprised me and started to sell well, I decided there might be a career there after all. However, I only had one love story to write about, so I knew I needed to segue into making up stories. That proved to be the right move. Fiction is limitless, whereas if I tried to continue to mine my own life for stories, that could wear thin pretty quickly.

Yeah, and any life would eventually run dry. Not much interest in The Rock I Tripped over When I Was Three. Who was your greatest fiction influence, and how/why?

I think I’m probably more influenced by Ray Bradbury than anyone else. I loved his natural style of storytelling. It never felt like he was trying too hard, but rather that he just sat down at his typewriter every day and magic flowed from his fingertips. I’m sure he worked and sweated as much as any of us, but it never showed.

Also, he was so workmanlike. I suppose that could be insulting to an “artiste,” but that doesn’t include me. I’ve always tried to bring my lunch pail every day and just get my words down.

Plus, I think Ray Bradbury was a good human being and I so often agreed with the themes he put forth in his books.

When I was a teen, Robert Heinlein was my guy. He swung his opinions like a weapon of war. I was attracted to that when I was younger. As I’ve gotten older myself, I find myself returning to Bradbury much more often than I do Heinlein. All these years later, I’m envious of what he accomplished so consistently and with such apparent ease.

So did you seek to emulate those strengths when you took to fiction writing, beyond the very obvious one that the lunchpail approach is one that gets the job done?

No, I can’t say that I did. I never consciously emulate anyone, though I’m sure all the reading I did seeped into my pores through osmosis. I’m more likely to take an idea from a book I read–a trope, or a situation–and file it away for future use. I have dozens of situations stored in my brain and hope that my subconscious will hand me the right one at the right moment.

For instance, in my most recent book, my protagonist met an antagonist. The antagonist took an instant dislike to our hero. That was the extent of my plan for that character. Then, they got thrown in together and grudgingly grew to respect each other and of course ultimately became like brothers. That’s a situation I had loved in a previous book that fell into place here. My situation ended up looking nothing like the source material (which is a good thing!) but grew from it.

My overall favorite author is Stephen King, and although I never attempt to emulate him, I know his habits have worked their way into my writing. I so admire his ability to connect me to a character in just a few words. Unlike some readers, I love his little side trips off the main plot. The difference is, his side trips are often ten thousand words. I try to limit mine to just a few hundred!

How long have you been writing time travel stories?

I started my first time travel book in 2015. I initially published it as six separate episodes, then bundled it all together into a single book in July of 2016. That was intended to be a standalone novel. About halfway through writing it, my first reader said, “This is going to be a great series!” I had no plans for a series, but that planted the seed.

When I finished that first book, Lord help me, I added a single line at the very end: “Coming Soon, The Redemption of Michael Hollister.” I had no idea what that story was or what it looked like, but I suddenly had a series.

I published the twelfth book in that series last September. I’m taking a little break from it at the moment, but I am planning to write the thirteenth book in October of this year. Essentially, that series–The Middle Falls Time Travel Series–took up all of my creative life for about three years.

And it has been an enormous success, with compelling characters in conflict–the essence of good fiction. What drew you to the genre?

To me, it’s just so much fun. There are so many ways you can go about it.

The first book I ever started (and never finished) was a time travel book. I just didn’t know enough about how to structure a story yet.

Time travel lets us visit different eras, which is fun. I remember reading Jack Finney’s Time and Again and feeling like I had actually been in New York before the turn of the twentieth century. When Stephen King wrote 11/22/63, my favorite part of the book wasn’t about Kennedy, but just what life was like in America in the late 1950s.

Then, there’s the fish out of water element. What happens when we take modern man (or woman–I’ve written three books with a female protag) and drop them into a completely foreign time zone? Whenever I start reading someone else’s time travel novel or start writing one of my own, I am still in awe at the possibilities.

What were some early struggles or issues you had to confront about time travel fiction?

So many! To me, it’s so easy to go astray writing time travel. So many hidden traps that we can fall into.

I remember when I first told you I wanted to write a time travel novel, you told me what you often didn’t like about the genre–that events continue to play out the same, over and over. Whereas, we know that in reality, just because a person does or says something in one version of reality, there’s no guarantee they would do or say the same in another go-round.

I took that to heart. So, when my characters wake up back at an early point in their life, things are initially–the first few minutes or hours–very similar. The farther they move away from that reset point, the more things change, though.

That can be used for dramatic effect, of course. What if a character is counting on something to happen because it did happen in their first life, but does not happen in their second, because they’ve done things differently and changed the world.

Of course, there’s the whole issue with “What if I traveled back and killed my father before he conceived me?” Blech. I have avoided those issues by creating a multiverse in my series. Each time a character is “restarted” at an earlier point in their life, it creates a new dimension, so there can’t be any conflicts like that. Essentially, I took the coward’s way out.

In my new series, I am using a portal for time travel, a la The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. That also does away with that kind of conundrum. Someday, I suppose I should write the more prevalent type of time travel–get in a machine, or step through a wormhole, or something along those lines.

What would you say has been the single biggest struggle or issue?

For me, it’s been how to keep a series fresh over twelve books. My series are all standalone novels, so there isn’t one overarching plot line. That means I have to essentially reinvent the wheel every book.

The central conceit–someone dies with unfinished business on their soul and wakes up at an earlier point to set it right–is unchanged from book to book. My challenge has been, ‘How can I write stories that adhere to that conceit, without getting repetitive?’ I’ve done so by mixing up sub-genres within the main time travel genre.

For instance, the first book centers on stopping a serial killer from killing. It’s a cat and mouse game. The second book, which features the antagonist from the first book as the main character is simply a redemptive arc for him, if such a thing is possible.

Meanwhile, the third book focused on a romance–how many lives would you live to get back to the one you love? The tenth book was a murder mystery combined with time travel, which is definitely an aid in solving a murder. With the twelfth book, I set a special challenge: create a main character on the autism spectrum, then give him only thirty days to live, and require him to change.

With that twelfth book, I found that all my ideas were riffs on books I’d already written. That’s when I took a break to write the portal fiction trilogy. Now that I have, a great idea for a thirteenth book has arrived: What if someone doesn’t want redemption? I’m looking forward to writing that one.

I think quite a few people will be looking forward to reading it. Happily, you are prolific. Would you call time travel its own genre, or a subgenre of others (such as SF, fantasy, romance, etc.)?

I suppose it’s a sub-genre, although it could be located under either Science Fiction (if it is science based time travel) or Fantasy (if it is portal fiction). To be completely honest, although I call my Middle Falls books Sci Fi, they’re really not. There isn’t a bit of science in any of them. They would more accurately be labeled as Metaphysical Time Travel, or even Reincarnation, but Amazon doesn’t have categories for that.

The truth is, I just write the stories I want, then figure out how to market them later.

Who else is excellent at writing time travel, and what makes that author’s work excellent?

Probably my all-time favorite time travel novel is Replay by Ken Grimwood. Sadly, he passed away shortly after it was published, so the follow up he was working on was never published. Word is that his estate has been looking for someone to finish the book, but so far, no one has come knocking on my door.

In contemporary fiction, my friend Nathan Van Coops does an excellent series called In Times Like These. His books are filled with humor, adventure, and he does a great job at making the reader feels like he’s there.

That’s what I feel great time travel writers do: they bring you into a time with just a few short stabs of details. Some writers will do a bunch of research and then beat you over the head with it. Clever writers slip those details in as part of the story, instead of long info dumps. I love those writers.

There’s a big difference between storytelling and showing off, and plenty of writers seem not to realize that, I think.

Speaking of which: You’ve surely seen a lot of bad time travel writing. Not going to ask you to name names, but what are some of the tells that signal a badly done time travel story?

Thank you for not asking me to throw other writers under the bus!

The first sign to me is what I just mentioned–the info dump. If I start a book and the writer spends the first three pages setting the scene, I’m outta there. Too many books waiting on my Kindle.

With my new book, I have my hero discover the mysterious door in his basement in the first few thousand words. By the second chapter, he’s being dive-bombed by pterodactyl-like creatures. If it’s an adventure story, let’s have an adventure.

Of course, plot holes are easier to create in time travel than just about any other genre. I’m more forgiving of those, though, as I might slip into that pothole myself from time to time.

More than anything, though, I think the sign of a bad time travel book is when it’s more of a situation, rather than a story. I can throw a guy two thousand years into the past, but if I don’t do something interesting with him once I get there, it’s all for naught. All the elements of a good story–tension, conflict, goals and goals blocked–need to be just as present in a time travel book as anywhere else. So often, I find a writer will create a cool scenario, then not have any real idea what to do with it from there.

We all know that reviews can be ignorant, cruel, or quite frequently both. What’s the most unjustified type of review comment you see on time travel books?

I never mind bad reviews, really. If you go to Thomas Weaver on Amazon, the Top Review lists all the reasons people shouldn’t buy my book. (The book has 300 reviews, but that one stays at the top!) The thing is, I love having it there. The things she complains about (although she exaggerates somewhat) are things that other people will look at and say, “Hey, that’s for me!”

Occasionally, a reviewer will say something that flat out isn’t true – an element of the book that just isn’t there – but I feel like I’ve just got to move more copies of the book, which will result in more reviews, which will drown out the white noise of those few negative reviews.

I came to grips with the idea that not everyone is going to love what I write, no matter how hard I try. That was pretty freeing. Now, when those bad reviews crop up, they don’t hold any sting. The other thing is, if I’m just getting positive reviews, that probably means I haven’t done a great job of reaching a wide enough audience.

Initially, I try to swim where the water is warm and get the book to my readers that I know are prone to like it. Eventually, though, I’ve gotta toss it out there where there be sharks.

Which is a good outlook. But can you give an example, without singling anyone out, of a type of review comment you have seen often on a time travel book (yours or someone else’s) and thought, “That’s just ignorant.”? For example, when I see the snippy “obviously she should fire her editor,” that’s one of my own triggers. It says to me: “This reviewer doesn’t know how books are assembled.” Any category of comments like that, with respect to time travel?

Overall, I find that people confuse editing and proofreading. I think that’s because editing is mostly invisible. If an editor saved me from wandering down the wrong path, it just never shows up in a book. However, if a stray typo survives, that’s noticeable to anyone.

I think the kindest thing I can say is that there are different levels of readers out there. Many readers just want to skim along the surface and if they don’t pay attention and bump their noses against something because they weren’t paying attention, they may complain loudly about it.

I occasionally hear from readers who have put a lot of time into thinking about the concepts and themes of my books. Every writer loves that, of course, and I’ve had some enlightening conversations with people that helped me see things I didn’t even know I had put in the books.

Speaking of reviews, I have written an entire book because of a fairly negative review. It was on the third book in my series and the reviewer complained that my protag was too single-minded in the pursuit of his goal. I wasn’t put off by that comment, because that was a feature, not a bug, of the book. I wanted him to be single-minded to the exclusion of all else.

However, that review set my mind off on another path and I eventually wrote the fifth book in the series as an answer to it. Essentially saying, ‘Okay, you want a non-tunnel vision character? Here she is!’ I mentioned that in my Author’s Note for the book and the reviewer eventually got in touch with me. (He must have liked the series well enough to read at least two more books.) We had a good laugh over it.

Talk about abiding by the lemons and lemonade parable. I no longer need to ask you the question about “where do you get your ideas?” Because we know how authors love that one.

Ha! They do come from the oddest places!

The tenth book in the series came from listening to a sportscaster one morning. He said, “So picture this–eighteen year old kid is suddenly given fame and millions of dollars. You can imagine what happens next.” He was right–I could. It turned out to be a pretty good story, I think.

Of course the first book in the series drew from my own life. One of my cousins killed his older brother in a car accident, and I used that as the inciting incident in that first book. The serial killer came from my imagination, though. If I know any serial killers, I’m not aware of it.

And we’re going to keep it that way.

Since I’m close to the SF community, I talk to plentiful writers about time travel story concepts. What guidance would you offer a fiction writer new to time travel?

I guess to look beyond the setting to the story.

It’s always about the characters and the story. Do we care about them? If we don’t care about the characters, we sure don’t care about the book. We need someone to root for and maybe root against.

I just finished Blake Crouch’s Incursion. What an intricately plotted story! I felt my mind bending into a pretzel trying to keep up. It was exciting and full of twists. And yet, I forgot about it right after I finished it, because, for whatever reason, the characters didn’t resonate with me.

There’s a tendency I need to fight against, as well, and that’s creating “too” characters. Characters that are “too” good. Too competent, “too” whatever. I constantly try to remember yin/yang, and that there is a little of each in the other.

Yep. I see that all the time, the character where the author pounded me in the face with “this is the bad guy/gal.” Okay, I get it, now stop belting me with that.

You’ve got a new book out, one that looks to begin a new series. Can you please supply a purchase link, and tell us how your past work has influenced this new release?

Here’s the new book: A Door Into Time.

This book is essentially opposite of The Middle Falls series. That series is all about contemplation, introspection, redemption. This one throws a modern Special Forces member into essentially a prehistoric world, strips him of all his weapons, and challenges him to survive.

My favorite books as a young teen were John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Mysterious Island. The problem is, those books were written 100+ years ago, so they are stilted in style and delivery by today’s standards. This book attempts to update that sub-genre of throwing a normal guy into an impossible situation.

I had such a great time writing it, and I hope that shows in the final product.

I am sure it will. Shawn, thanks so much for taking time out of your post-release schedule to answer these questions in such detail. Best of continued success in your work.

Thanks, J.K.!

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Please see the numerous links in the interview body for more about Shawn and his work. Others:

Shawn’s Facebook page

Shawn’s Goodreads page

Shawn’s page on Audible (most of his books are also available as audiobooks; he’s way ahead of the world on that)

Domaining

Is it not strange how we get into ruts where we fail to step back and look at what is possible?

I own a .22 rifle that brought about such a situation. On top of it is an enormous (for the rifle in question) scope. I never had lens covers for the scope and at one point in life, I’m embarrassed to say, just put some packing tape over the end. The objective end, that is. Since it was kept upright and dust settles vertically, I didn’t think I needed one for the eyepiece.

(There followed the expected variety of catcalls, mocks, scoffs, and disses. All well deserved.)

It only took me thirty years of the Internet, and however many years of online shopping, to realize I could easily just go out and buy a couple of the damn things. I could remove the fossilized tape stickum with a goo remover and some gentle swabbing. In the meantime, all this time, I tolerated a pain in the butt and fundamentally incorrect handling just because I never stepped back to look at the possibilities. I didn’t see a reasonable solution in 1990, therefore I had put it out of mind–even though I have embraced much of the modern technological world in most aspects of my life.

Thus with domain names. Let us pause, first, to laugh a little at this term that has entrenched an extra meaning into our English vocabulary. Any time I type “my domain,” I feel like I’m cosplaying Tarzan. When you come here, please practice social distancing and everyone pick his or her own tree limb; are we good? But yeah, that’s the term we use for this business of website naming. When I registered jkkelley.org, I needed something that fit and was brief, but also took account of the multiple things I do. These days, I mostly get hired to edit. Thus, jkkelleyeditor.org.

It only took nine years of blogness for it to occur to me that maybe, just maybe, it was possible to add a second domain without hosing the first one. I never stepped back to pause and consider.

If you have bookmarks, no need to change anything. I have no plans ever to get rid of the old one.

the hardest literary bias to overcome

In fact, it’s so hard there is no way to overcome it. We can mitigate it, ease it, look past it, but this fact is inescapable:

Every evening, except in polar latitudes, the sun goes down. It gets dark, and most of us can’t see as well. Our instincts tell us to fear greater danger at that time. Every morning, the sun rises, and we can easily see. We feel safer.

From this fundamental fact of our existence has sprung the entire light vs. darkness motif, leading us to equate the light with good and the dark with evil. It’s not fair, because our skin color varies. There is zero reason that the color of a person’s flesh should carry any connotation of beneficence or malevolence, safety or danger.

I believe that this reality has poisoned racial relations and feelings for humanity in many ways we either do not see, or see but would rather pretend we do not. How many times have we heard the phrase “in darkest Africa?” To me, Africa seems pretty sunny. Its jungles are probably dark, but so are our Northwestern pine and fir forests. No. That’s a reference to skin color, no matter how hard anyone may try to deny it, and somehow it is still considered tolerable–even though it equates to the dangerous unknown full of wild things and hazards.

Since our orientation relative to the sun is not likely to shift any time soon, we are stuck with this situation. We aren’t going to have a sudden species shift toward perfect night vision, and our bodies of literature are not going to undergo a massive rewrite. We can only change what we do from here. What can we do?

Writers can help. Now, hear me well: I’m not buying into the notion that we must use immediate social nuclear retaliation against every tiny vestige of any historic social injustice. If your writing happens to mention some reference to the fact that it truly is easier for most of us to see during the daytime, it won’t mean that you belong in the linen closet. You don’t have to turn around and republish every word you ever wrote, scrubbed of every light/dark reference, lest you be kicked out of the nice tent. That would be idiotic. The fact that people do just that all the time without thinking any of it through, always seeking .999999 fine ideological purity and damning to hell anyone who falls short, doesn’t make it sane.

You can’t change our geo/astrophysics, but you can seek other ways to present good and evil in writing. That’s all. Just, when you run across a case where you’re thinking of describing evil as darkness and good as the light, be writer enough to think of a more considerate way to put it. It’s a good thing to do, and that should be enough motivation for a good person to try.

Is it hard? Sometimes; but you wanted to be a writer, didn’t you? Always thought it would be so cool? Great! Welcome to doing the thing for real. If it were easy, even more people would do it. Don’t give yourself an excuse; write better.

If you need extra motivation, imagine what it would be like if the way you looked, and for all your life would look no matter what you did about it, matched a standard metaphor for evil. If you need further motivation, remember that people who spend money on literary property come in many hues, might notice things you might not, and often have a refined sense for when someone is (or is not) showing a little sensitivity to others. Between motivation for good deeds, and motivation to make money, that should cover a large percentage of those who auth.

Let’s make the world of writing a little more inclusive. Not because someone’s on our asses about it, but because we can see that it would be worthwhile.

YA annoys me–as do many euphemisms

No, not because it exists. I’m fine that it exists. There is great writing for the 12-18 audience, which is what my research specifies as the “Young Adult” genre.

The problem is that they are not. The 18-year-olds–those are adults. Since they are the youngest possible adults, they are definitely young adults. Good with that. Those aged 12-17, however, are not adults. Why did we end up with this misnomer?

I do not know, but I do know that it smells to me like euphemism. My experience with euphemism is that it is what we use when we don’t have the guts to tell the truth, or when those described are unreceptive to (or would feel harmed by) the truth. Not all of it is misguided. I definitely don’t want an anti-tact crusade. But I do want an anti-bullshit crusade, and the tendency to euphemism has more or less taken us to a place where we call many things what they, in fact, are not.

They are not adults, except those who are eighteen. They are teenage children. Calling them adults is foolish and reeks of an unwillingness to remind them that for all the information overload in their worlds, they aren’t yet adults. It’s like we’re afraid to offend them. Calling a child a child or a teenager a teenager is not “disrespecting.” It’s speaking the truth. When we older folks were seventeen, we were teenage children, and that wasn’t shameful; it was reality. Don’t worry; the kids will get over it. Soon enough they will be young adults, and will merit that descriptor.

I will live by the same principles when I am the one described. One euphemism that begins to touch my own life is “senior citizen” or ‘honored citizen’ (that’s how some restaurants put it on the menu’s discount section). I’ve decided to be a good-hearted elder as my time arrives, should it actually arrive, so I won’t go around snapping at young people who euphemize this elder, old man, or elderly person as a “senior citizen.” Neither, though, will I adopt or embrace it. If others are unwilling to stare age in the terminological face in spite of the arthritic evidence they feel each morning, I’m not going to be the enabler by propagating this term. What if they aren’t citizens? Not every elderly person in the US is a US national, but every elderly person in the US is an elderly person, elder, or even old person.

Why can’t we think these terms through before we adopt them?

Yeah. I will be an old person. Given my family history and some of the remarkably poor care I have taken of myself, as the time approaches and if I am spared, I will consider myself very fortunate to become an old person. If I live long enough to touch many more lives and make many more differences, I will consider my elderly years a success. Even if I do end up pissing off a bunch of my fellow old people by refusing to join in the collective self-euphemizing. They’ll just have to get over it.

If there are any euphemism you despise with a special despication, please mention them in the comments. Extra points awarded for a colorful vent well justified by reason and dictionary fidelity.