Category Archives: Editing/writing life

About doing this stuff for a living.

Socks for Japan

Jason Kelly, a fellow author (financial writing, with the advantage of a liberal arts background) lives in Japan.  He is close enough to the earthquake/tsunami disaster to have felt both, and to be able to triage aid, but far enough that he is not himself a disaster victim (except for one hell of a scare).  We’ve corresponded a bit, enough that I think of him as a kindred spirit. His command of the language is superb, enough that most freelance editors might have difficulty providing him with useful feedback. That’s rare nowadays.

Living in Japan, of course, it’s quite logical for Jason to call upon the resources of his U.S. (Colorado) upbringing to help his nation of residence.  His solution:  socks, a simple comfort item and so important for cleanliness.  Japan might be the world’s most passionate country with regard to cleanliness.  If Jason thinks sending the Japanese socks will improve their comfort and spirits, I’m going to do it.

If you want to follow suit, please follow the instructions on Socks for Japan.  His reasoning makes great sense to me.  Every time there’s a major world disaster, Japan whips out its checkbook.  The world knows Japan for many good things; Japan has been a staunch ally of the United States my whole life.  The point of Jason’s plan is that we’ll do more good if we send comfort items along with notes of caring, rather than just donating money.  Socks one may buy; a kind, honest note isn’t for sale in any store.

Sounds to me like little enough to ask.  I hope you’ll join me in supporting Jason’s project.

Comedy

Had a little bit of fun today.  Everyone on Facepalm seems to be catching a Trojan (and I’m not talking the Tommy kind) that causes them to spam their friends with a supposed link saying “SICK!  I can’t believe Miley Cyrus [or whoever] let someone videotape her doing this!”  If you’re fool enough to click, you’re the next contestant on The Trojan Is Right–come on down.

I can’t see something too many times without wanting to parody it, so I hunted Youtube for something a lot grosser than whatever was being attributed to Ms. Cyrus:  Rosie O’Donnell singing the Maude theme song to Bea Arthur.  Posted the link, along with:  “SICK!  I can’t believe Bea Arthur let someone videotape her doing this!”

And it’s true.  If I went on Rosie O’Donnell’s show, I sure wouldn’t let them film it.  That would destroy plausible deniability.  You don’t admit something of that magnitude, even if CBS News has you on film dead to rights.  It’s always ‘alleged.’

Joke of the day

This was back before the USSR gave way to the Russian Federation.  Every year, the Soviets had a massive military parade past Red Square.  The Politburo stood and watched as tanks, armored cars, armored personnel carriers, soldiers, missile platforms, and so on rolled past, displaying Soviet might.

One year, an important US public figure was visiting Moscow at that time.  It was normal and customary for the Soviets to honor him by inviting him to stand with the Politburo and watch the parade.  Of course, he was assigned a KGB colonel fluent in English as a handler and escort.  They got along quite well.

So on the appointed day, the American stood with his Soviet hosts to watch the armaments flow by.  T-80 main battle tanks, BMP-2 armored personnel carriers.  Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers.  ZSU mobile flak guns, and surface-to-air missiles on trucks.  SCUDs on bigger vehicles.  Paratroopers in blue berets; marines in striped shirts.  At the tail end of the parade, oddly, were a few thousand civilians in nondescript Eastern bloc business dress, if one may call it that.  They didn’t march in formation, but sort of milled along.  A good percentage were female.

The American turned to his handler.  “Bogdan Ivanovich, I understand the function of the tanks.  I understand the tracks, the artillery, the missiles.  I understand the paratroopers and the marines.  But please tell me, if isn’t a state secret:  who are those people at the end, and what is their role in the military?”

The colonel drew himself up with that pride and dignity only a Russian can display when speaking of Russia.  “Those?” he replied, a bit intimidatingly.  “Those are middle managers of Soviet economy.  You have no idea damage they could cause you!”

Researching on the phone

One perk you get as a ‘lancer is that when you are researching a subject, not only can you pick up the phone and call people, many will talk to you. I’ve learned the hard way not to bother leaving a message. By the time I hear back, for the most part, I’ve already turned in my work and can no longer benefit from the conversation.

Why would they talk to me? Most are curious to know what I’m working on, with an eye toward how it will portray their museum/city/project/company. I have to be fairly vague for contractual reasons, but I can at least explain why I’m bothering them. If a real person answers, most are helpful, especially historical society/museum curators. They like this. Someone wants to know the things they know! (I can relate, having a mind full of information people rarely want to know.)

Of course, if the matter you’re researching is controversial, expect a full spin cycle and attempt to rinse away anything sordid. I had that with a major toy company, back when I was trying to learn more about the debate over who invented a very popular toy. They handed me over to their PR flacks, who did their job: try to kill me with helpful kindness, sending me numerous PDFs relating the official history–which is good to know, but is by no means the last word. I give them credit, though, because their job is to get me to write the party line, and if they make my life difficult, they know it will perk up my nostrils. They hope to make it easy for me so that I’ll just use their source material.

Unfortunately for some, I’m not the sort of ‘lancer who takes the easy path. A major MLM company got a taste of that. The firm (one I loathe enough that I had to discipline myself to careful objectivity) claims two prominent founders, but reports all over the place refer to a third and very obscure co-founder. Even allowing for the Internet copycat factor, it was suspicious enough to wonder: was there really a third co-founder, and if so, what became of this person? Dispute? Bought out? Dead? I called the company, whose flacks asked some older fellow who has evidently been around since the reign of Tiberius. They flatly denied this third founder. Then I asked (by e-mail, now) the question that ticked them off: “Sir, if that’s accurate, then people are spreading false information far and wide about the company’s origin. You haven’t even asked me where I heard about it. Aren’t you at least concerned about rooting out such possible misinformation?” I never heard from them again. I interpreted that to mean that I’d lit up their ‘hostile’ display indicator and would get nothing further from them on the subject.

That set me to shoveling twice as hard. Unfortunately, I didn’t turn up anything useful, so the most I could do with the third individual was to mention the name and stress that it was an unsubstantiated rumor. What that meant, of course, was that it went into print. Did I learn the reality behind the rumor (if any)? No. Is it possible someone with more time on his or hands than me might see this in the book, and dig long and hard enough to penetrate the wall of corporate sanitization surrounding the subject? It wouldn’t break my heart…

I do know this. As an editor, people ask me often about copyright matters, legal liabilities, and so on. I tell them the same thing every time: I do not know. I’m not a lawyer. Ask one. Pay them. That, or do what I did above, which is not to mention their name.

Working while sick

It’s one of the hardest parts of freelancing.  Suppose you feel like hell.  Are you going to do your work? Well, let’s put it this way.  If you have a tight deadline, if you are conscious and can function, yeah, you’re going to do your work.  Now, the editors I work with are generally very understanding and kind folks, but it isn’t that way everywhere.  Plus, understanding and kindness would surely wear thin if you played the card all the time, or even often.

So the bottom line is that yeah, I’m going to do my work.  I have a number of entries that must be rewritten by Wednesday, and a timeliness track record to protect.  What is more, it must be up to the standards my editors expect from me.  Never mind that I’m not physically or mentally up to the standards I expect from myself; an editor reviewing my ms will see only whether it’s okay or not okay.

This is one of the hardest things to convey to prospective writers.  There is a writing mentality that I call the “Oh, for a muse…” perspective.  It savors la vie litteraire, a world of bons mots and clever epigrams.  It yearns to sprinkle random French terms with deep savoir faire.  It imagines an ivory tower of eloquence, insight and not having to explain what ‘onomatopoeia’ means.  It is pensive people in berets sipping sophisticated coffees in proper coffee shops, as opposed to realtors sipping extra large super-skinny caramel lattes with four shots of mandarin syrup.  It hankers after a sense of intellectual superiority, the mojo of being able to say “I’m a writer” and have people coo over you.

Well, I’m a writer, and what it means right now is gluing myself to my machine and getting my work hammered out fueled by Ricolas, coffee, tea, a pizza most would consider toxic waste.  The upsides are that I don’t have to talk (I barely can; I sound like Darth Vader) or socialize (always a battle for me to begin with).  But I do have to write.  I don’t get to plead ‘writer’s block,’ a concept in which I don’t fundamentally believe anyway.  If I write, I will get paid and preserve my rep for producing (thus probably getting to write more later).  If I don’t, I won’t.

It’s as simple as that.

Writing: my hardest day

I’ll tell you a story of my most difficult writing day.  I’ve never told anyone every detail, nor have I experienced the like as an editor–only as a freelance writer.  Maybe doing so will help me, and maybe it’ll interest you.

About four years back, I was working on Armchair Reader: World War II.  It was at once challenging and invigorating:  about thirty articles in forty days, with respectable research.  For some I had to blaze through three books.  As fate had it, my topic listing hewed to two general concentrations:  conspiracy theory/controversy topics (Rudolf Hess, the Rosenbergs) and atrocity-related subjects.

Now, I am not easily shocked.  I can be disgusted, or angered, but not shocked.  A side effect of the research I did for the articles on this book was the cumulative impact of the images one sees in the course of intensive research.  Had you asked me in advance, I’d have worried I would become desensitized.  I was pulling 12-14 hours days seven days a week during the holidays, I was anxious to please my editors…you might say I was pretty strung out.

It happened about 7 PM one December evening.  I was digging for details on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (“Juden Haben Waffen!”, pp. 151-53), specifically wrestling with the unending debate over the degree to which the Armia Krajowa (Polish Home Army) assisted the Jewish fighters in the Ghetto.  To this day, that one gets ugly, and my best assessment is that both sides have fair points.  I suspect the AK gets less credit than it deserves for the help it did give; I also suspect that there were many in Poland who didn’t really see Polish Jews as Poles, or even as people.

As I read through yet another account of the way Nazi soldiers laughed at the ‘paratroopers’ (Jews leaping from burning buildings to their deaths), I came across a photo I would wipe from my mind if I could.  I hope you never locate it, and I’ve at least forgotten where I did.  Bear in mind, I had seen many very sorrowful images this day already.  The photo was of three captured ghetto fighters under the submachineguns of the SS.  All almost surely died within the hour, or were shipped somewhere to die.  One was a young woman or teenage girl, nude, attempting to cover up but at the same time standing in a certain degree of proud defiance.

I flipped the page in haste, but I couldn’t unsee it.  As I kept on with my work, I felt a growing sense of a deep melancholy I’ve only experienced twice.  Once was at Andersonville, Georgia (Civil War POW camp), as I washed my hands in Providence Spring.  The other was at the Famine Graveyard in Skibbereen, Cork, Ireland.  About half an hour later, my research ground to a meandering halt in a mire of melancholia.  It came to me that I was nearing emotional collapse.  Professionally and personally, I didn’t have time for an emotional collapse.  And I realized:  I must finish this article tonight, while I yet can.  However I do it, I mustn’t go to sleep until it’s fully drafted and I’ve resolved my questions.  Tomorrow it will be too late, and I will fail in this assignment, almost surely damaging my future prospects.

While it’s not the ideal way to get through pain, there’s a reason people sometimes decide to have a drink.  I went to the liquor cabinet and got something; don’t remember what.  I drank some of it (not sure how much), sipping steadily through the evening.  I don’t remember when I turned in or how hammered I was, but I did get the research and draft done sometime after midnight.  What I edited the next day was surprisingly all right considering the circumstances, and I moved on to the next topic, something far tamer.

Unfortunately, to this day I still see the image too clearly.  Am I proud of the way I dealt with it? Yes and no.  Yes, that I did my job anyway.  No, that I wasn’t strong enough to do so without ethyl assistance.  But either way, I am reminded by it of a quote and a song.  The quote is Kurt Vonnegut’s from Slaughterhouse Five:  “So it goes.”  The song is Voodoo (Godsmack), and I can’t tell you exactly why this Goth tune associates with the experience in my mind.  Just that it does.

© J.K. Kelley, 2011

Why ‘lancers fail

There’s a lot of work out there for freelance writers.  While my editors don’t slather me with details about my competition, I’ve divined some reasons why people who think they could do it, really can’t:

1) Some just do not have the writing chops.  Editors can edit but they don’t want to have to clean up all your work.  You must be able to write in the way they want.

2) Some don’t comprehend deadlines.  You have to have your work in by the deadline.  No one cares why if you fail.  Business is business.  Do your work on time.  Do not have crises.  Do it anyway.

3) Some can’t deal with being edited.  Sorry, but you will be, and it’s probably for the best.  Sometimes not; I have had ‘fact checkers’ insert errors into my work.  But as Kurtis Blow teaches us, ‘that’s the breaks.’

4) Some do sloppy research.  Editors don’t want ugly surprises.  If you don’t have the research skills, and especially if you rely on Wikipedia or other fragile sourcing, they will get letters.  Back it up.

5) Some bitch.  It’s that simple.  Just don’t bitch.  People prefer to assign work to people who want it.  Be a pro, cheerfully confident and eager for assignments.  If you don’t like to write, you picked the wrong line of work.  Plus, if you always produce, eventually your editors will do what is easiest for them.  “Let’s see.  I could try and send this to Joe and Susan, and deal with their excuses and crap.  Or I could send this to my trusty Julian, who never fails, is eager for the work and obviously likes it.  What is to my best advantage?”

The distilled essence of ‘lancing is simple.  Be the easiest option.  If you are not the easiest and most attractive option for editors, you are doing it wrong.  You should adjust your attitude and habits as necessary until you are the preferred writer.  Be easy to deal with, be professional, be reliable.  You think it’s overrated? I ended up writing about 70% of a whole book just because I was the only one who could cut the mustard, and kept yelling for more work.  I did pretty well that year, owed a lot of taxes.  Keep on message:  “Or you could just assign it all to me, and just have it done and off your plate.”  Say so often enough, and you’ll get your wish.  And if you produce, it’ll come back to help you.  Because thereafter, when you say “I can,” they’ll believe you.

(11/11/2020 update: I find that this applies to many fields of endeavor. On time, capable, and uncomplaining is a good overall look. It went over well with acquisitions editors and it goes over well at the 7-11, or in an engineering office, or teaching geometry.)

Tell me if I’m doing it wrong.

There are a zillion gadgets, widgets, doodads, and so on here.  I don’t know which of them people care about.  Therefore, I’m open to suggestions.  What do you like blogs to include/allow/etc.?

(11/11/2020 update: How nonsensical was this? I did not think about context. How was my reader to understand what I meant by all these gadgets, etc.? It said nothing about editing, writing, or even my life. Kind of fitting, and amusing in hindsight, that the only comment was mine–and that I not only never sought to turn off moderation for comments, now I wouldn’t dream of going without it. The first comment by a given reader requires approval. After that, not. I’ve seen a couple over the last decade that I disapproved, but it’s very rare.)

Radcon 5C

This past weekend I spent at RadCon, the Tri-Cities’ (WA) science fiction convention.

Registration was more abominable than last year, if that’s even possible. (You cannot imagine. Should it take three hours of waiting in line? I think the line began around Bonner’s Ferry.) Dealers either not given enough room or charged too much–there were as many hotel room dealers as there were in the dealer room. If you didn’t wend your way down Wing 2, you missed the Bizarro Fiction folks (google Shatnerquake and just laugh your head off) and a bunch more stuff, such as the Cocaine energy drink people. I was tempted to buy one just to support a beverage that has a disclaimer that says “if you really imagine this contains actual cocaine, you are a moron.” I never tire of packaging that ridicules idiots–we have so many in my country, many of whom escape their just desserts.

Sharon was her usual lovely, charming self, brought a con newbie with her (friend Lovell, from HS) and did for him what she once did for me (general askari/native guide function). I think this was probably the con at which I transitioned from intermediate to veteran, becoming essentially self-sufficient and no longer an albatross around Sharon’s neck, all thanks be unto her for many companionships and kindnesses. Much socialization with C.J. Cherryh and Jane Fancher, each a marvel in her own way. Received emphatic and safe advice from C.J. on matters literary.  If I don’t follow said advice, coming from such a source, I’m too stupid to succeed (this blog is a direct step in that direction, since I’d hate to be too stupid to succeed).

You know, you really experience these cons differently with repetition. It develops a certain intimacy and warmth that grows over the years. I begin to think that if you’re going to do a given con, you need to become a regular–do it annually or don’t do it. You see people you talked to briefly last year, and this year they invite you to join them for dinner, and pretty soon you are invited to a cider pressing in Idaho in summer/fall. You shoot the breeze with some Rasta-type kids out front, or sort of commiserate with the security dude who is out for a smoke. Flirt with the obviously gay-as-the-1890s waiters; better service (as Sharon can attest, I have almost zero shame, not that shame is in heavy supply at SF cons).

One message comes through to me about the literary industry:  the New York dead tree model is hosed. It is less relevant each year. Simple math:  even a prominent author might keep one dollar in ten of the paperback revenues. Through e-publishing, she will keep 100%. Put another way: not only does one e-book sale equal ten paperback sales, one makes the e-book sale with complete creative control and no Manhattan corporate crap. I posed the question to more than one author: “at what point will we fully transition from the dream being ‘picked up by New York’ to, New York calls us and we say, ‘sorry, but you really have nothing to offer me but lousy margins, so no, thanks, I do not want to sign with Random House'”? In the estimation of many, we are nearly there. When one of your sales equals ten of theirs…that is big. That’s an exponent.

(11/11/2020: I review this content nearly a decade later, and kind of get a warm fuzzy because I turned out to be correct. It has driven the demand for editing services. It has also driven an explosion in “anyone can become a writer” thinking, which is great, except that most people who have limited writing skills don’t learn this until they send it to an editor. The second body blow is that, since they have limited writing skills, the editing will cost a lot more than they imagined.)

In short, Radcon was a great time for many reasons, despite its Tri-Cityness (perennial inefficiency being as much a part of the local culture as basic courtesy and goodwill). I pre-registered again, so that tells you something. Biggest drag: learning that the local newsies caught me on camera. It tells you how relaxed I was: I wasn’t even on the alert for one of my most hated situations, as I learned in a text from my wife advising me I was on TV whether I wanted it or not. When someone with a startle reflex and loathing for the news media as profound as mine managed to get filmed by the media on the sly, that someone really had his guard down.

Mic check

Let’s see if this thing is on.  *tap* *tap* *screeeeeee*.

11/11/2020 update: it is so strange to reckon that this was the blog’s first post, nearly a decade after I write these words. It says nothing about editing, being an editor, or even my non-work life. This is all I had to say?

Ah, well, stet. (This is editing-speak for “don’t change it,” short for “let stand as set.” I think “set” used to refer to typesetting, as in real pieces of metal. It’s what we scrawl on the document when we rethink an editing decision.)