Category Archives: Editing/writing life

About doing this stuff for a living.

New book: Fascinating Bible Facts

One fact of my work is that I can say virtually nothing about a project until it’s published.  Contractual confidentiality obligations.  However, once it’s published, I have some freedom, and in fact the publisher would like for me to talk it up.  So let me tell you a bit about its making.

First off, here’s the link:  Armchair Reader:  Fascinating Bible Facts.  It will be available in about a week; they’re taking pre-orders.

Those of you who know me well might be pretty surprised to imagine me working on such a book.  I’m Asatru (basically, old-time Germanic religion).  I do not deny anyone’s god or gods, but I’m not a Person of the Book (Christian, Jew or Muslim).  And when pushed, I can be rather strident about it.  There’s a reason there is a placard on my front door that says POSITIVELY NO SOLICITORS, NO MISSIONARIES.  I can get along great with nearly all people of any faith or no faith long as they respect mine.  But a Bible book? Me?

Well, in the first place…suppose you asked me:  “J.K., do you have more in common with atheists, agnostics, Jews or Christians?”  The answer would be that I have the least in common with atheists, since they are convinced there are no supreme beings of any kind.  Next agnostics, who don’t know.  Next Christians, who believe in a supreme being but who in many cases proselytize, an act alien to my thought.  Finally, Jews, with whom I have the most in common.  They are theists, like me, but they do not proselytize.  My point is that because I too am a theist, I’m not so ill-equipped to write about matters of faith.  Just happen to profess a very different faith, that’s all.

The way I get engaged for a project is, an editor contacts me and says, “We’re interested in having you do this.  What do you think?” I usually ask some questions and get a feel for it.  Sometimes it’s e-mail, sometimes a phone call.  Most editors, at some point, seem to like to talk on the phone at least once, just to get a sense of me.  (“Who is this guy, anyway?”) Since turning down work is not typical for me, I usually sign on.  Since it’s a buyer’s market, I really don’t have a strong negotiating position, so I don’t dicker about payment rates.  Some think that’s selling myself short, literally:  “Why not go out and get what you’re worth? You’ve done great for them!”  Answer:  perhaps I have–they keep hiring me.  And I might get more money.  But what then? “Well, we could engage J.K., but it’ll cost more, and we have plenty of others just as capable who cost less.  Sorry, J.K.”  And who could blame them?

So, when I got the approach for what would become AR:FBF, I was pretty straightforward.  “You do realize, I trust, that I’m not a member of any of the faiths represented in this book?”  I did point out however that I had a degree in ancient history (with specific focus on the early Roman Empire, which happens to coincide with the early Christian Era) and read some Hebrew, plus a bit of Latin and Greek.  They rejoined that, as a non-Person of the Book, I didn’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak.  Not being predisposed toward any of it, I might treat it with more balance.  I signed on.

It turned out to be both a very fun and edifying project.  I had three great editors to work with.  Whether I subscribe to John 3:16 is immaterial to my education; what is material is that the rise of Christianity is an important event in the history of western civilization, and I ought to have perspective on it.  I could not have researched this work without acquiring this.  In short, if you love ancient history, the Judeo-Christian scriptures are among your ancient sources.  You may, if they are not your religious scriptures (or perhaps if they are, or because they are; your call), evaluate their credibility with the same historiographical eye with which you’d examine Tacitus or Plutarch, and conclude what you will.  What you cannot do is dismiss them, even if you’re an atheist.  Not if you are worth a damn as an historian, you cannot.  Whether you believe the supernatural parts is no more material here than if you were studying Native American oral traditions, or even Scientology.

Having not yet received my complimentaries, I don’t know how much of what I wrote and was paid for was actually printed.  I’m pretty sure a lot of it was, and that I did a disproportionate share of the book, because in the Amazon blurb, most of the features they mention, just so happens I authored those particular manuscripts.  The basic process is that I’m either presented with topics, or invited to select from a list, or asked to suggest a list.  Sometimes all three happen.  The editors make some decisions (usually with some input from me, naturally) on length and subjects, and assign me the work.  I do it and turn it in.  The sooner I do that, the sooner I get a new assignment, so it is in my best interests to bust my butt and get all over that.

I am contractually obligated and expected, upon request, to rewrite or edit MS to the editors’ satisfaction.  Sometimes this is wanted, sometimes not.  But once I turn it in, I have very little influence over how the MS is used (if at all).  The publisher may use it in this book, or in a future book, in as many as they wish, with or without attribution to me (though they have historically been quite kind about that).  I have transferred the ownership rights, and in so doing, have warranted that they are rightfully mine to transfer (meaning, that it was my original work).  The publisher’s duty to me ends when I am paid.  That said, I’m very fortunate to write for PIL, because they’ve nearly always been kinder to me than the strict letter of the contract obligates.  They’ve been classy and professional and considerate, and I’m pleased that my name is in over a dozen of their books.  Good advice for ‘lancers:  try and be classy, professional and considerate to your editors.  If you are, you’ll probably be seeing them again.  People prefer to work with people who are easy to work with.

The whole process can take months to a year.  I know it’s going live when they contact me for a contributor bio.  That seems to be the publisher equivalent to a submarine skipper ordering the last man down the hatch to dog and secure it–when that happens, next step is to submerge.

Anyway, if you’re interested in some thoughtful takes on matters Biblical, the new book may be of interest.

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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…

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.  Maybe it’ll help me to do so, and if not, 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.