Category Archives: Social comment

Why your Ebay vendor loathes Ebay

After writing about why Ebay vendors come to hate some of their customers, I realized that the vendors have many more reasons to hate Ebenezer (as I like to call it) than they ever could hate their customers. The customers, even some of the more annoying ones, represent revenue. Ebay represents only costs and pains: a sort of death of a thousand little inconveniences and surcharges, never improving for the vendor, always growing worse, and always masked in intellect-insulting peppy language about how great the change is.

Simple hint: the harder Ebenezer tries to convince the vendor that the change is for the vendor’s benefit, the more certain that vendor can be that the change works to the vendor’s detriment. That Ebenezer believes it can get people happy about actions that run counter to their own interests says a great deal about their low opinion of their vendors’ brainpower. It’s much like all the times other corporations send you something announcing: “We are again your best friends! To serve you better, we are raising costs, cutting support staff, adding extra pains to your ass, and removing any actual goodness you were getting from us! Aren’t you delighted?”

Just thrilled.

Here are some reasons your Ebay vendor might hate Ebenezer a little bit more every day. Note that this list is a snapshot in time. Next month, Ebenezer will have invented some fresh hells that we cannot yet quantify. We know only that it will be bad, and that it will come. But for now:

  • Ebenezer lets people win auctions, then blow off payment with no meaningful penalty. Yes. Ever want to ruin a vendor’s day? Start new account, win highly contested auction, don’t pay. The buyer is never forced to complete a purchase. Ebenezer thus effectively allows the buyer to act in the worst of faith. Their “Will Sell” subcategory should be titled “Might Sell, If The Buyer Actually Pays.”
  • Not only that; since Ebenezer won’t let you give negative feedback to a deadbeat or jerk buyer, your only feedback remedy is not to provide any feedback at all. There is no way to say “never give this purchase any feedback and clear it from my list.” It will sit therefore the full time allowed before your feedback option expires. And at the top of your dashboard, it will nag you that you still owe feedback for that one (and however many others).
  • Ebenezer now and then hands out enormous numbers of fee-free listings, then stops handing them out for a month at a time. You see, Ebenezer wants vendors to buy store subscriptions, which will guarantee them a certain number of fee-free listings. If a listing doesn’t sell, it goes into Unsold listings, where it will vanish in two months if not relisted sooner. Of course, while it’s not listed, it cannot sell. It’s playing financial chicken with you.
  • A recent Ebenezer fresh hell (“to help you sell more”) was changing all fixed price listings to “Good Till Canceled.” They now automatically renew each month (incurring a fresh listing fee), if not canceled first. If you have freebies, this relisting will chew those up; if you don’t have them and don’t want to incur the fees, you will have to end them all yourself before they would expire. No big deal if you have a new pile of freebies; very big deal if you have used up your monthly 50 and have 200 expiring. Oh, and the first time you attempt to end a batch of listings, half the time it makes you re-log in. You just checked one hundred boxes and hit End? Tough. Go check them all again and push the button again now that you’ve re-logged in. Thank you, Ebenezer, for “helping me to sell more” in this way. Don’t help me any more, okay?
  • Ebenezer provides no way to mass relist items at a specified time. To do them in mass, the only way is to send them live immediately. Problem with that? Yes, because sometimes you would like to stagger them in groups, schedule them for specific times. And you can. One. By. Fucking. One. Hope you don’t have two hundred to do! Oh, wait…I always do.
  • Ebenezer spazzes on your shipping location restrictions when you relist a GTC listing as auction, or an auction listing as GTC. In case you did not know, if the shipper doesn’t want to mess with shipping to certain types of addresses or countries, that is coded into a given listing (you could choose to ship this item abroad, for example, but not those). Except that once you change between listing types, you can no longer see this list of shipping exclusions. Is it still there? You will have to click on the link to go in and see. It usually is, but it’s a needless and annoying step.
  • Ebenezer has a very stupid volume discount function that was evidently so bad they commented it out for about a year while they tried to fix it. Now it might work as designed, but as designed, it’s dumb. The first discount percentage must apply to two of the same item. The second must apply to three. The fourth must apply to four or more. So there is no way to dispense with two and three, and offer a discount only for four or more. This is minimally useful and no one thought it through, which seem to be the primary qualifying traits for any new Ebenezer feature.
  • Ebenezer lets sellers pay an extra selling fee to promote listings. This is generally a good method for sellers, because there’s a fair chance people will discover your other stuff after viewing the promoted listing. However, since one is invited to name one’s ad percentage, in order to get premium placement one must offer a fee percentage that is sufficiently high to exceed the highest known past fees–typically 6-9%. If you want to screw Ebenezer, when you see a promoted listing and want to buy it, make a note of it and then log out, log in, and choose the search result for that item that does not indicate a promoted listing. You might have to dig through the vendor’s listings to achieve this. While it’s true the vendor will never know you did this for him/her, should a problem come up, the fact that you did so will get you all the favorable consideration you can find from him/her–plus, you have the fun of knowing you screwed Ebenezer.
  • Ebenezer’s descriptive field. Oh, gods, how I hate their descriptive field. What it really is: simple HTML that is normally hidden. There are codes present that you can not see unless you choose to show the HTML. So if you backspace to just the wrong spot, a bunch of formatting will disappear without being apparent. Copy and paste text from certain sources? No text at all will show, nor can be made to show. It looks WYSIWYG, but it isn’t. It sounds infuriating? Oh, it is. How it is. Did you accidentally, innocently use a # (octothorpe) in your listing, for example to begin a serial number or other identifier? The entire remainder of the text is hidden–and you have no idea why unless you happen to have some understanding of HTML, or you eventually come to notice that the octothorpe (no, that’s not a “hash tag”) is the problem child.
  • Ebenezer’s stores. A store subscription amounts to paying more money for a worse outcome in return for a certain number of guaranteed listings. (Their analysis and productivity tools don’t seem to do anyone any good.) How could it be worse? I’ll tell you. The standard freebie issue is fifty per month, either auction-style with Buy It Now or fixed-price Good Till Canceled. Buy the basic store for, what is it, $9/month? It says you get 100 free listings–and you do. Not 150; 100, so it’s just fifty extras. You find that out after you pony up for the first month. Oh, and your whole 100 now do not include Buy It Now on auction items, so those basic fifty are now worse than before! There’s Ebay, always looking out for you!
  • Ebenezer constantly tacks on new little fuckeries. In the time I have been doing this, I have seen them dink away at profit margins with little stuff like higher fees for books, can’t use freebies for this or that category, the previously mentioned store ripoff, and more. It’s always something.
  • Ebenezer purports to offer the vendor help with item listings by auto-filling from the Ebay catalogue. I wouldn’t let it. “Auto-fill” may create a listing full of bullshit. The smart vendor just refuses the help and describes it without intervention from Ebenezer, because you can take this to the bank: if the description contains one fiction, and the buyer points it out, the explanation of “It’s not my fault; Ebay’s catalogue was wrong” will cut zero ice. It’s the vendor’s obligation to describe the item accurately, and the less help from Ebenezer, the better.
  • Every little extra thing costs a little hit, the death of a thousand fees. Want to add a reserve price? Fee. Claim the item fits into more than one of Ebenezer’s remarkably inadequate categories? Fee. Larger photo in gallery? Fee. Every time you turn around, it seems, there’s a little fee. Don’t think they add up? Ebenezer does.
  • As a practical matter, it is impossible to sell on Ebenezer without a Paypal account. Paypal is horrible. It’s Ebenezer’s pet payment service, and if you don’t use it, I am reliably informed that you become a preferred fraud/scam target. It’s like a shotgun wedding to a horrible spouse.
  • Ebenezer has a terrible help system. Try to use the one that’s easy to find, on the right side of the screen? That doesn’t go to anything but a list of FAQs. You have to scroll all the way down, and when you do start digging, half the time the help you find answers only questions you did not have. Last month, I actually used Ebenezer’s help to find a semi-answer as to how to do something. Once the disbelief wore off, I felt like celebrating.
  • One of the many worthwhile concepts Ebenezer has botched is Customer Questions. If the customer chooses to Ask the Seller about an item, the seller gets a message. What’s wrong with that? Sometimes you cannot clear the stupid things. There is some metric that measures your response and clears the flag, but if that is missed or somehow fails to function, and the Mark as Answered doesn’t work, the question still shows in need of a response, glowing in all its irrelevancy.
  • Ebenezer wants you to buy postage from them. On the plus side, it’s cheaper than at USPS. Problem: you’d better know your postal regulations very well. I suppose it’s great if everything you sell complies with a certain form factor or two, but for variable stuff…well, there’s a good chance your shipments will get delivered postage due. In any case, my complaint isn’t that Ebenezer offers postage. My complaint is that their process does its very best to nag you into buying theirs. By itself, it would mean little. Taken as part of the whole, it’s just one of the ten thousand cuts. If I wanted to buy the postage from them, I would do it without being pushed.
  • Another Ebenezer pushiness, far more toxic, is always in the directions of new interfaces that make everything much harder. It’s much as if there’s some buyer-hating sadist constantly tinkering with the system. Now, I’m not automatically resistant to change. Some changes are all right. But the mantra of “change is good; embrace the change” is for morons. The growth of a malignant tumor is change: is it good? Change is morally and qualitatively neutral on its face. Whether it is good depends whether it helps more or hurts more. Ebenezer’s changes tend to be badly thought out by a PHB somewhere, and more often hurt than help.
  • When someone stiffs you on Ebenezer (and they will, and Ebenezer will do nothing useful about it), the amount due shows up for two full months even when you’ve reported it as uncollectible and gotten your fees back. Yes. Even when they couldn’t pay you if they wanted to, it shows you are owed the money.
  • Now and then, when you are going through and relisting a hundred or so items one by one (because Ebenezer won’t let you select a time to relist them all at once), you find that one of your listings is now missing its photos. Since Ebenezer requires photos, that one won’t go. Hope you kept copies!
  • Ebenezer interprets trade embargos literally and eternally. Got a Persian artifact from the Sassanid era (before Ayatollahs, Islam, or even the modern boundaries of Iran)? Can’t list that; it’s Iranian! They will take it down and send you a warning. Ever think of selling an aboriginal artifact from Cuba? Gods, don’t use that word, or down it will come–never mind that it has zero connection to trafficking with the modern Cuban state. It could have been in this country for generations before Castro; they don’t care. That’s what happens when you deal with simpleminded idiots.

If there were a less odious alternative, I’d definitely consider it.

 

Why your Ebay vendor loathes you

Our society goes on and on about the customer always being right, the customer being king/queen/quing/whatever. I have heard it all my life.

It was stupid to begin with and it has gotten stupider.

The customer is not always right, and never has been. The customer is right to the extent that we can arrange him or her to be without giving away the store or rewarding/encouraging horrible behavior. The customer is not king/queen/quing/padishah/nawab/sultan/etc., is not even nobility, and needs to get over him/her/it/theirself. After a couple years of selling stuff on Ebenezer, as well as some dumbass buying mistakes of my own, I think I’m ready to present a list of common errors that many buyers make.

Wait, who says it’s an error? Why should the buyer care, if the buyer is in fact royalty and always correct? Because the seller doesn’t have to sell to you and doesn’t have to give you special treatment. If you want special treatment, you need to eliminate the aspects of your behavior that cause the vendor to wish you plagues of flamethrowing cockroaches. Such as:

  • You can’t master the concept of the shopping cart and invoice request, so you just pay individually for five fixed-price items, but you still want shipping combined. And you think you should now get a discount. Why not? You’re the monarch! Dut-dudda-ding!
  • Closely connected: you win multiple auction items at once, pay immediately for each in sequence, then want your shipping combined. You don’t have the intellect or savvy to wait and request a combined invoice. Nice going, Exalted One.
  • You can’t understand (or don’t care) that Ebenezer charges your seller a fee, typically 10% of more, on both shipping and merchandise. You see on your parcel that stamps totaled $2.75 and you were charged $2.95 (of which the vendor actually got to keep $2.66)? Alert the BBB! Ripoff report! Lèse majesté!
  • You can’t understand that the materials your shipper uses were not free. What, you mean bubble mailers costs 20-30 cents? Not Your Majesty’s problem!
  • You bid up to the last minute, win, then dick around for two days before paying. Who cares about doing the businesslike thing and just paying up? You’ve got 48 damned hours, and you’re damn well going to use 47 of them! There’s important interest to be earned in two days on $3.95!
  • You not only don’t pay on time; before paying, you let elapse 90 of the 96 hours Ebenezer allows to redeem an unpaid item claim. Aren’t you cute? Ha-ha, you got four more days’ worth of interest on your $3.95! Baller! Your vendor truly hates you. Your vendor should block you. In fact, your vendor should have blocked you the instant after filing the unpaid item claim.
  • You don’t even pay after all six days have elapsed. You just decided screw it, you didn’t really want it. Unfortunately, Ebenezer won’t simply take the money out of your account and bill you for it, because Ebenezer does little to protect sellers. That’s why the sellers hate Ebenezer as much as they hate deadbeats.
  • You don’t pay at all for five days, then send a message explaining that you are doing this so you can buy more stuff and make a big combined payment to get some benefit from Praypal. Had you asked for such consideration beforehand, your vendor would probably have said “no problem.” But you didn’t. Why should Your Majesty care about the villains, knaves, oaves, and other help? Your Majesty’s time is accountable to no one, least of all the servant class. Hmph.
  • You make insulting offers. $100 or best offer? You throw out a $25 trial balloon. Why shouldn’t you? What’s the worst they can do, say “no”? That whole attitude–“It never hurts to ask, the worst they can say is ‘no'”–is part of what is wrong with business. It dignifies, even glorifies the insulting question, the lowball.
  • You fail to read the listing, then blame your vendor for what you should have learned and did not. If it says there are no returns, and you ask for a return, best be polite and unentitled. If the condition is clearly/accurately described, and you complain about it and want a refund, you are why your vendor hates doing this.
  • You think “free shipping” is a good thing, a benefit, obligatory for all vendors, and that those who don’t offer it are cheap, greedy bastards. You’re not only wrong, you are not doing too well in the numeracy department. Free shipping is a massive ripoff. If you buy just one item at a time, it’s a wash; the more business you do at once, the more screwed you are. Viewed another way, the better the customer, the worse a hosing is his/her/their/its reward. If that’s you, cut up your credit cards, because those scum beings saw you coming miles away.
  • You confuse feedback on the item’s suitability with feedback on the vendor’s service. Who cares if it’s not the vendor’s fault that the shaving razors didn’t last long enough? It’s not like you’re harming a real person’s business.
  • You don’t bother with the feedback racket, even when the vendor does everything right. Why should Your Holiness care? It’s a vendor: a peon, a peasant, a worm.

I’m not saying that the typical Ebenezer vendor is some sainted, courteous being. In fact, many do a truly suck job and deserve to be treated in all the above ways. I’ve even got a blacklist of vendors to make sure I never use again (since stupid Ebenezer won’t let buyers block a vendor). But I suspect I understand why some of them go bad, and I think some of it’s misvented frustration.

As an Ebenezer seller, you spend much avoidable time fighting with Ebenezer’s remarkably bad interface. I am convinced that Ebenezer has a Sucky Interface Creation Commission (SICC) that stays up late and works weekends just to find new ways to make the listing experience worse. They’re evil. They’re awful. They’re capricious. They’re downright stupid. If you’re a buyer and not a seller, count some blessings. It’s not right, sensible, or fair for a seller to take loathing of Ebenezer out on buyers–but I believe some do. Especially since there are enough truly deserving buyers to fan the flames.

And if you’re a buyer and not a seller, now you know some of the most irritating things some buyers do. Maybe you have done some of them. About half your vendors are so jaded they won’t give two damns how you treat them. They have experienced so much of the above listing irritation and customer abuse that they no longer care; they just churn it through. The other half, however, will go out of its way for you if it gets a little consideration.

  • I have successfully returned non-returnable merchandise. (They are so unused to the words “please; I made a mistake” that the phrase takes them aback.)
  • I have been given merchandise free of charge without asking for it. (In fact, it was offered and I tried to decline.)
  • I have been given discounts I didn’t request. (And all it took was a little empathy.)
  • I have had faulty merchandise replaced immediately. (Without being asked to send back the other.)

Those things don’t happen when you behave as an entitled schlong toward your vendor.

It’s partly your business world. It will, in part, take the shape you impose upon it. Think of yourself as sculpting.

If you sculpt it like a turd, well, that’s up to you.

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.

Omaha Steaks, telemarketing brass

Some time back, my wife and I decided to give Omaha Steaks a try. I’m from that part of the country, and what most Oregonians consider a decent steak simply could not be served back home. Plus, Deb loves Nebraska, entirely because some nice people took her and a friend in during a tornado alert near Doniphan back when she was in her teens. I’m partial to the place myself, as I find it one of the friendliest parts of the Great Plains. I’ll never forget the time the Huskies beat the Huskers in a football game in Lincoln, and their fans gave our guys a standing ovation. That’s what a young person might call epic class.

Go Big Red.

As for the steaks and such, we bought a combination pack of different stuff. Came in a styrofoam cooler. The product values ranged from superb (definitely would order more of the chicken fried steak) to no big deal (hamburger patties).

If they didn’t find ways to annoy us, we might well order again. But oh, the marketing.

It began with a notable addition to our junk mail burden. I’d estimate that they send me thick envelopes full of recyclable solicitations twice a month. That can be borne, but the telemarketing can not.

As much as I like Nebraska, don’t ever give this company your phone number. If they say they need it, just refuse. If they insist, and you really want the product, make one up. Do not give them a real telephone number. You will end up having to be abrupt with friendly people who are just doing their jobs, even if their job is a bad one and deserves some negative reaction. That doesn’t make it fun. Just do not give it.

The interesting thing about Omaha Steaks’s telemarketing is its cheerful, self-confident brass. Most telemarketers call with a certain amount of defensive script adherence, seeming to expect and attempt to deflect some verbal abuse. (“Sir, this is not telemarketing; it’s just a courtesy call to let you know about our specials…”) Not Omaha Steaks; they open the conversation as if this is perfectly normal, like your nice neighbors calling to share something like extra tomatoes from their garden, and that no one should classify this as an unwanted marketing call. I see the logic. It conveys: You wouldn’t want to be rude to such nice friendly folks, now, would you?

If they telemarket me after I tell them to stop, oh, yes, I would. Not happily, but get on my bad radar and it’s on for young and old.

The first time I just dismissed it, saying I didn’t want any. The rep seemed bewildered, as though he were returning my call, in which I had requested help with adding Omaha Steaks to my monthly budgeting.

(Okay, it’s true: when I ordered, I did not outright tell them never to telemarket me. Kind of like when people come over for dinner, I do not outright ask them to please not crap in the corners. This is because I presume that dinner guests are not animals, are either adults or supervised by adults, and do not need to be asked not to be barbarians.)

A couple of weeks later, they called again. The same tone the second time, but this time I was blunter: “Don’t ever telemarket me again.” In tones that conjured a puppy punished for no reason, he agreed. I sensed a lack of conviction, though, and was pretty sure that wasn’t the end of it.

This morning, I learned I’d been right. A peppy representative interrupted my morning by briefly asking how I was, and would I like to hear about their specials? She didn’t give me the chance to answer “yes” or “no” before launching in. Clearly courtesy is wasted here, so I butted in. “Well, you didn’t even wait to hear my answer. [Notice how often they do that?] But last time you did this, I told you not to telemarket me again.”

After a brief and pained pause, she tried to debate. “Sir, we’re not a telemarketing agency. You ordered with us before. We just–”

“No,” I said. “Even if you are not a telemarketing agency, what you are doing is telemarketing and I told you to stop it. This is the last time I will be polite about it at all. Don’t ever, ever, ever telemarket me again.”

She leaped on the seeming ambiguity in that sentence. “So do you mean you want to be only on the [monthly/quarterly/holiday…I can’t remember precisely] call list, or none at all?”

I laughed. “Ah, I see how it works. You mark people down for periodic telemarketing calls. The answer is none, never. Do not ever telemarket me again.”

She said they would not, and then signed off with the peppy well-wishes some phone representatives use to say “what a jerk you are.” I always find those amusing in their hypocrisy, but once the situation is as it is, I can’t fault that part even if I find it less than credible. What would I prefer, that she hang up on me? In any case, that was that.

For the moment.

I’m not betting that I’ve had my last telemarketing call from them, though.

Anyone else find themselves getting a steady flow of phone rings from friendly Midwesterners who act as though returning a call?

In memoriam: Jim Bouton, 1939-2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I so wish the Mavs still existed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books by Jim Bouton:

Ball Four: The Final Pitch

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

Strike Zone (with Eliot Asinof)

I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally

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

P3: Punishing porch pirates

By now most of you have heard of the new suburban crime: porch piracy. You order stuff from Blue Nile, or Yangtze, or Congo, or Amazon, wherever. In some cases, a postal worker delivers it; in others, a UPSS driver. In others, it’s an obvious meth-head. Either way, they may or may not ring the doorbell before they throw it into the exact spot that will keep you from opening your screen door to retrieve it.

And some amateur porch pirate, following the delivery vehicle around town, pulls up, leaps out, darts up to your porch, steals your parcel, runs back to his/her car, and drives off.

The police aren’t doing much about this. I understand. This doesn’t raise revenue, so it’s not important to them. However, the police will definitely prevent us from doing anything really decisive about this. For example, I’m pretty sure anyone who fills the porch pirate’s ass with 12-gauge rock salt will face much stiffer penalties than will the porch pirate. This falls into line with my view that the basic purpose of policing is to maintain social control while shielding bad people from real consequences. This view is controversial, and is rooted in my personal experiences. I don’t expect other people to agree with it.

But I bet even those who think I just wrote the most horrible thing still don’t themselves much like porch pirates.

Since we can’t really punish them (and this is me going on firm record as strongly advocating that we not really punish them in any illegal way), we’re going to have to get creative.

Do in such a way: wait until your next sizable parcel from a vendor who uses clear plastic packing tape and normal brown cardboard boxes. Turn it over (so that you do not damage the shipping label, which is usually right across the box closure), take a box cutter, and gently slit the tape holding the box bottom together. Take out whatever you ordered.

If you happen to make/receive regular trips to/from Somewhere Else whose resident also wants to punish porch pirates, you can gain added security. Get them to do the same with their boxes, and when you meet up, swap. The porch pirates aren’t going to stare intensely at the label or match it to the target address before they leave; the savviest might merely glance to make sure the label doesn’t show signs of the re-closure you plan to do. When they get home and start opening Santa’s haul, if the one containing the goodness has an address in Bug Tussle (and you do not actually live in Bug Tussle), they will think it was grossly misdelivered or something and open it anyway. They probably won’t remember where they got that one.

Okay, let’s get on with the fun.

Do you have cats? If you do, great! If you do not, you probably know someone who does. He or she probably talks about them more than you would like, but now comes your reward for enduring it with sainted patience. Pick the person you know that has the most cats, and ask if they have any heavily used litter box contents they could part with. Most people who own litter box contents are generous in spirit and will gladly part with clumps of cat-urine-caked litter and cat turds, especially in a good cause. There are people who hoard cats, but few who voluntarily hoard cat excretions–and that’s golden for your purposes.

You should also get some glitter, preferably a pound or two, and some powdered sugar. Another great tool for this purpose, to anoint what I will call the Goodness, is a Vietnamese anchovy sauce called nuoc-mam (nook-MOM). I put it on my Thai food. It’s very salty and smells very fishy. Do not ever, ever, ever, not even to your worst enemy, squirt this stuff into the heater vents of anyone’s vehicle.

If you grocery shop, you probably have a small collection of flimsy, crappy plastic bags, the absolute cheapest things the store could buy in bulk that stand half a chance of getting your groceries to your car. Now, because you care about climate change and the environment, you are going to do the ecologically friendly thing and repurpose two of the bags while disposing of them in an appropriate way. You are so green. Double the bags and fill them up with as much goodness as you can arrange: cat sanitation disappointments, powdered sugar, any condiments you may care to add, and glitter. Don’t tie up the top.

Now lay the bag on its side and reclose the box bottom around it, without spilling any of the goodness (for safety’s sake, do this outside, especially if you are butterfingered). Re-cover the bottom tape seams with fresh clear packing tape, taking care not to tilt the box. It may help to have an assistant, if you know anyone else who hates porch piracy. Do as good a job as you can at making the tape look professional.

Put it out on your porch and be patient. Sometimes porch pirates rush up and leave behind an empty box, to keep watchers from getting suspicious. Either way, as they walk away, they are almost guaranteed to spill the goodness. When they open it, with luck, it will spill all over their vehicle. Or, if they wait until they get home to open their haul, on the floor. Maybe on the dining room table.

Wherever they spill it will likely never be the same.

And the beauty of this is that you haven’t mailed anything illegal because you haven’t mailed anything to anyone. You put a box on your front porch, one that no one has the right to inspect or abscond with. One great mistake people make in life is answering nosy questions just to “be nice.” Why did you put it there? That’s none of anyone’s business, and they can go to hell for asking. Other people pile tons of stuff on their property and no one asks stupid questions about it, unless it’s the Homeowners’ Stasi.

You can put any legal substance you desire into a box that sits on your own property. Cat urine clumps are illegal to mail, but not to put into outdoor storage on private property in manageable quantities. You have deterred a porch pirate in the only useful way that is safe from the law: by leaving them something not terribly pleasant to steal.

Anyone seeking to report you for this, presumably for being a Big Meany to Poor Downtrodden Criminals, would also have to admit to having stolen the package. While the police would protect them from more direct retaliation by you, I’m pretty sure that if the porch pirates filed a complaint, the police would be laughing almost too hard to arrest them.

Since what they stole had low value, of course, it’s unlikely they would or will get in any trouble. But it is likely they’ll have a bad day and question their choice of careers.

If that’s all the compensation you can get, might as well get it.

A childhood tale: the weirdness of memory

Until I left high school and youth behind, the last happy years of my life were the early elementary school years in Hutchinson, Kansas. (McCandless Elementary School and East 14th Street, represent.) Now, Hutch was at that time known for three things: the Carey salt mines, the state fairgrounds, and either the world’s largest grain elevator or a fair contender for the title. My buddy Hoby’s dad worked at one, and he went to all the trouble to take my parachute-equipped G.I. Joe to the top and drop it off so it could float down to us.

Mr. White, you were a good soul.

One cool aspect of Hutch, for a lad excited about astronomy, was the planetarium. It was a small round building with a sort of domed ceiling, and one lay on the carpet to watch the ceiling projection show. Outside the building on clear nights, volunteers with telescopes would show us the Galilean moons and such. It was fun. I would eventually receive my own telescope, which would provide me many escapist hours in my later youth, and would finally in my fifties part with it. A school needed it more than did I.

About thirty years passed. I grew to adulthood, finished college, started to grow up for real, got jobs, got laid off, got engaged, broke off engagement, met future wife, moved in together. I decided to drive back home for a visit. I wanted to see family, reconnect with my childhood buddy Jeff and the elementary school teachers who had done me so much good, and most of all, have one last fully lucid visit with my ailing grandfather. The latter didn’t go so well, sadly, though it paid a dividend in that my relatives were angry on my behalf, with him, over the way he had spoken to me. I had no experience with that. I am still processing it.

But that happened after I met back up with Jeff. A great kid, he had grown into a great adult guy. We took our now-fairly-elderly teachers to dinner in Jeff’s family transport pod, and we had a wonderful time. They critiqued my penmanship with mock sternness. So odd it felt, these frail older ladies over whom I now towered, who had once held benign power over my joy or misery. It was so good to be able to let them know what good they had wrought.

The day after that dinner, Jeff took me to the Cosmosphere. The old planetarium, it seemed, had grown into a full-fledged aerospace museum. All right, sounds fine, let’s see what’s new there.

As an old Epinions crony of mine used to say, jeezum crow. In addition to the rocket standing outside, the SR-71 Blackbird on struts just inside the front door let me know that this was not my childhood planetarium, which seemingly had been dozed to make way for this huge modern museum. It had the Apollo 13, with burn pitting still visible. Soviet cosmonaut suits. A V-1. A Me-163 Komet engine. A restored V-2. It had more than you could imagine, including a brand new planetarium with reclining theater seats. Artifacts. Science exhibits.

Jeff suggested we see the rocketry demonstration, called Dr. Goddard’s Laboratory. It was in an insignificant little side room near the main entry hall. A young man used liquefied gases to demonstrate rocketry on a small scale. Kids wowed; we enjoyed. But while we enjoyed, I also had a very creepy, weird, ghostly feeling. I’m not very sensitive to that sort of thing. Something was strange, something I ought to know but could not place.

I looked about the room. It was round.

I looked at the ceiling. It was gently domed.

It was the old planetarium. It hadn’t been dozed. They had built the museum around it, and now used it for science demos.

I had been here, three decades before. I had lain on this carpet, or at least on whatever had covered this floor.

 

Some corner of the mind is eidetic, I think; the problem is that the mental library’s card cataloging and shelving system falls to hell. But it’s still in there, waiting to be jogged.

Campaigny McCampaignface

It is not well known that I have a little sideline selling stuff, on Ebay as well as on retail consignment. In the consignments, which I market in retail establishments, the worst thing that ever happens is that the retail venue hires a cretin who does not grasp that I need to get my tags back. Those enable me to see what sold, determine whether I am making reasonable profit, and (if need be) tell the IRS what I did sell. I can live with the occasional cretinous moment.

That frustration is nothing compared to Ebay, which I have taken to calling “Ebenezer.” Don’t most of us normally assume that major changes to policies and technology that are used by millions of people happen only after various committees and managers review them, think through the potential outcomes, and schedule implementation? Don’t we assume that, on some level, these people are smarter than most of us?

I don’t. I think it’s possible that they really aren’t too bright. My experience-based belief is that the technical changes at Ebenezer are directed by a pointy-haired boss who parlayed a gentleman’s C- at a low-rated business school into a six-figure income managing Ebenezer’s “vendor experience.” I don’t think this PHB answers to anyone, ever. I think he just gets whims in his head, sends his code monkeys* a memo, expects them to work 100-hour weeks implementing his directives, then starts to cook up another memo.

In the year I’ve been doing us, the list of Ebenezer’s f-bomberies is long and monthly. Every month, every single month, it’s some fresh hell. I can live with the fact that it’s always pitched as though it’s to our advantage, when in fact it’s the opposite, because I expect that of all corporations. The key phrase is “to serve you better, we are…” That’s b-speak for “because we can screw you, we are…” What are most irritating are the petty stupidities, and those are what convince me there is no oversight here, no management. I think it’s just some PHB with a Word memo template and a deficient intellect.

Here’s an example. When you sell stuff on Ebenezer for a fixed price, there are a couple of ways you can push it. You can set up to entertain offers, and you can set auto-accept or auto-reject amounts (or choose to listen to any offer at all, which I think is smarter, because you can then counter with something rational). You can also use promoted listings. In these, you agree to pay Ebenezer an extra fee if the item sells because they shoved it in someone’s face. This, in my experience, gets rid of more stuff than does considering offers.

Now, sometime in the past, the PHB determined that it would be nice if sellers could name and track promotional campaigns. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it? What’s to complain about? It even defaulted to creating a campaign named (in my case) something like “US Campaign [date]”. Sounded so official, so markety, so businessy. It made me want to ramp up my solutioning of problems, my verbing of nouns, and my total quality management to get to the client delight level. Okay, whatever. I accepted the default name, and thereafter that was the default campaign for promoted listings. About three months later on, it decided to start a new one for me, similar rubric. Okay, fine, don’t see how this is going to hurt me.

This meant that when I was relisting, say, a hundred items, I didn’t have to make a choice on that dropdown box unless I had some reason to assign a given promotion to a given campaign. Lacking such reason, I plowed through, accepting the default. Until one day the default changed without notice.

No longer was the default campaign an existing campaign. Now the default was to begin a new campaign. If I didn’t make a dropdown choice, every single item I chose to have promoted would be assigned its own new, special, unique campaign. I would eventually run up against some limit of total campaign listings.

Now, because a PHB (in my supposition, which I admit is based mostly on outcomes and plausible explanation based on having worked for a number of PHBs) told a code monkey to change something–or, perhaps, simply failed to review a code monkey’s work–all of a sudden there was an extra step necessary. Just one more step, where there wasn’t one before. I only created three new campaigns by mistake before I realized what was happening.

I also learned that I couldn’t just reassign existing listings to a given campaign, the better to clean up the mess. The choices were greyed out. I could delete a campaign, but that would remove the promotion from any listings currently live that were using that campaign. A feature that was nothing to me, transformed into an unannounced pain in the rectum: that’s Ebenezer and its vendor experience PHB.

So I got annoyed. When I get annoyed with a corporation, which is not infrequent, I find a creative way to mock it. Even if I am the only one who gets a laugh, that’s the candle I light rather than cursing the darkness. More accurately, I light it while cussing the darkness pretty hard; fair enough. But I do light it.

I needed a campaign name that would sort to the top of the list, that I would recognize, and that would reflect my opinion of the PHB and his (in my experience, men are more likely to be PHBs) vendor experience management.

Campaigny McCampaignface was born.

Now, at least, I get a laugh every time I relist an item and choose to have Ebenezer ram it in people’s faces promote it.

 

*I get the term “code monkey” from one of my cousins, who posted a video long ago to explain what his work was like. It is not meant to disparage those who write code, but to highlight how management uses those coders’ skill sets.

Writing women, and writing for women: an interview with Adrienne Dellwo

I have frequent conversations with clients about gender in writing. It is fair to say that I have to open some male writers’ eyes on the subject, which of course is twofold: presenting women as realistic and interesting characters, and presenting writing that will have above average appeal (thus, marketability) to women. In short: one disregards women, as an audience, to one’s own detriment.

Rather than tell you why all that was so, I thought I’d seek a more expert opinion. I first met Adrienne Dellwo serving on panels at a science fiction convention. We were fellow travelers in the freelancing field, but she has since expanded her creative horizons into fiction and cinema. She was gracious enough to agree to an interview, and she was as candid as I could have hoped. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed participating.

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JK: Adrienne, could you go into a little detail about your literary career?

AD: I’ve always wanted to write fiction, but I rarely finished even a short story, let alone a novel. Part of the problem was that I didn’t feel like I knew how the whole process was supposed to work.

I started going to conventions for the writing panels, and that really helped. Then, after a panel on World Building, I started thinking about what my world would look like, if I were to build one. A scene flashed through my head, and it became the opening scene to Through the Veil.

That was the first book I finished, and I eventually found a publisher for it. I now have three books out and just finished my fourth last night, actually. And I have two more that are partially written.

Congratulations. This helps the readership understand why I felt you would be the perfect subject for this interview. To some degree it is a sort of self-check. I wanted to write a blog post about writing women (as characters), and writing for women. Then I realized that my idea was stupid, and that it would be far more productive to ask an actual woman.

LOL! Thanks.

First, I want to be clear about generalization. I don’t think any rule, anywhere, applies to everyone in a given group. At most, we might reasonably say that a given generalization is more often true than not. And of course, like everyone else, you are not acquainted with the whole of the population, so you speak from your own circles and experiences. Do those sound like reasonable caveats with which to preface a discussion of the majority of the human population?

Yes, they do.

Great. Let’s start with me running past you some of my longstanding admonitions to clients. If you think any of them are incomplete or flawed, I’d like to know how they can be corrected. First admonition: on average, women are more likely than men to be readers, thus (knowing nothing about the content) the audience is likely to be majority female. Do you agree?

Based on studies and surveys I’ve seen, yes, I believe it’s true that women are more likely to be readers, so it makes sense that they’d consume most of the books, regardless of genre.

The goal there was to hammer home the urgency of the question; if they value their marketability and reviews, they had better reckon with that reality. Running off the majority of one’s audience strikes me as a terrible notion.

Absolutely!

Second admonition: most women have an easy time perceiving the difference between presenting sexist characters (which may be simple realism) and an obviously sexist author (which is a correctable flaw). True in your experience?

Oh, yeah. If most of the characters, the female ones in particular, are presented realistically and just one character is a jerk, that’s a lot different from the sexist representations of women that fill some books. Or, rather, that show up in the single token female character who’s surrounded by alpha males.

Would you say that the latter case is the more common? The only woman on the baseball team, or in the office, et cetera?

Definitely. In a ton of mainstream novels, the only developed female character is the protagonist’s love interest.

So we aren’t talking about just a quality problem. It’s as much a quantity problem.

Quantity, in my experience, might be the bigger problem. We’re so accustomed to it that it’s considered normal. Think of the Smurfs–a bunch of males, plus Smurfette. In the Air Bud movies, they’re all male puppies except for the single female. The male dogs have names that reflect their interests, while the female just gets a girlie name, as if she doesn’t get interests at all beyond being feminine. It’s her entire personality.

Then it continues on–how many developed female characters do we get in DaVinci Code, for example?

It’s been a long time since I read that. I don’t remember many.

That’s because there’s one. The love interest.

And it’s one thing if you’re in a male-dominant environment. You can’t slip women into the submarine in Hunt for Red October, for example. Historically, they just weren’t there. But in other settings, women are chronically under-represented.

If authors would include more female characters, we’d get more interesting ones because they’d need to give them actual personalities to distinguish one from the other. Instead, we get one representation, and she’s basically the same in book after book.

Of course, we have authors who write plenty of wonderful and varied women. I’m talking about a subset of mainstream male authors who tend to get a lot of popular attention and have big-budget movies made.

Can you paint me the picture of this fatigued representation? Just so that my clients and readership can know when they find themselves sliding into inadequate portrayal?

She’s tall, slender, beautiful, and smart. But not smarter than the protagonist, of course. She wears high heels and glasses (the glasses let you know she’s smart!) and pulls her hair back when she wants to be taken seriously, then takes it out of the bun or ponytail and gives it a dramatic shake when it’s time to be sexy. Because she has two modes–serious and sexy.

Most of the time, she’s too busy being serious to have any interest in a romantic relationship, and she may even be resistant to men because of a bad experience in her past (probably a boss or professor), but the protagonist is so manly and brilliant that she’s unable to resist.

So in essence, she is a prop? Like a fake sword or a glucose whiskey bottle?

Precisely. She’s there to give the man someone to bounce brilliant ideas off of, and to fall in love with him.

Another trope that’s layered onto this one is that she’s also a martial artist. That means she can fight well enough to stay alive until the man can save her, and she’s super in shape which makes her more sexually appealing.

Then the author says, “Hey, she’s smart and strong–I write strong female characters!” Um, no. You write fantasy-fulfillment props.

I have a client with an upcoming book where his adventurers, five in number, include one woman. But she’s the fighter and sergeant, and she doesn’t have any love interest. She spends a fair bit of time kicking ass, and speaking of which, her own is not exactly hourglassy. But she’s got enough heart to feel like her own person, not a prop. Sound promising?

It does. Putting a woman in a group with four men and not having her in love with any of them is practically revolutionary.

My client worked hard at this, and it showed.

One more admonition: the most telling cues to the author’s outlook are found when the author portrays women, and in particular interactions between men and women. Agree?

It’s definitely a big one. Something more interesting is interaction between female characters, though, because it’s surprisingly rare and all too often deals with jealousy or commiserating over a man.

In other words, they are not so much about the women, but male-centric. The connection/conflict would not exist without him.

Exactly.

In Through the Veil and its sequels, I have a spiritual order that’s all women. They’re not wives or mothers, their primary interest in life isn’t romance or domesticity. Taking them out of those roles is freeing for me because I can make them individuals on a level I’m not accustomed to seeing.

Because, having grown up with prop women who have no agenda of their own, I have to watch myself. It’s easy to write what you’ve seen and read a million times.

It’s why propaganda works.

So true! I hope younger authors will have an easier time avoiding these issues. In my experience, they’re far more aware of the problems entrenched in media, and therefore more able to avoid the ruts.

In the ’80s, none of us thought Breakfast Club or Revenge of the Nerds or Top Gun were problematic. When I watch ’80s movies with my kids, though, they’re outraged. So we’re getting better, as a society.

Reader by reader, author by author.

Yep. And generation by generation. When I paused The Breakfast Club to talk to my daughter about some of the issues, she told me what was wrong with it. She was all of 12 at the time. Kids are savvy these days, and that tells me that even if authors keep writing hollow women, they’ll stop being successful.

One suspects that certain parents have laid better groundwork than others. I know Joe [her husband], and I’m sure they get mutual message reinforcement on gender issues.

LOL! So true! My kids don’t get traditional gender roles at all. We both cook and clean and buy groceries and pay bills and fix things and create things. Because of my health issues, I stay home and Joe goes to work–but while I’m home, I’m writing medical articles and books and screenplays. On film sets, sometimes he directs, sometimes I direct. So yeah, my kids think any kind of artificial gender roles are just weird.

Where possible, I counsel my male clients to make sure that some of their first readers include women who can offer feedback, but that alone is unlikely to correct inherent biases and flaws. What would you suggest they do in order to write better women, and write better for women?

At conventions and in writing circles, you hear a lot about “writing strong female characters.” I think we need to stop focusing on that, because then we get into definitions of what strength is and what female means. That’s all problematic! Meanwhile, when you read male characters written by female authors, you don’t run into the same issues as with the reverse.

We need to go back to basics. We write good characters when we treat each one as an individual with their own goals, dreams, fears, etc. If you’re looking at a female character that way, rather than as just a love interest or sex object, you’re going to be fine.

The prop women we discussed earlier have one major trait in common–the male protagonist’s goal becomes her goal the moment they meet, whether she has any prior motivation to pursue it. It becomes her goal because he is her true goal, and she’ll mold herself into the proper shape to fit.

So if a man is having trouble creating a decent female character, I’d suggest an exercise–write a short story about that woman, earlier in her life, where she’s the protagonist and there’s not a love interest. Once you see her as a full human being, she’ll come across that way on the page. Or write the character as a male buddy and then change the pronouns.

And if you think, “But I’d have to change everything about the character to change the gender,” then you’ve found the real issue you need to work on.

Because too many of these female props-as-characters have too many qualities that are either a) female-specific, and/or b) centered around a male?

Exactly. And here’s the thing–when women write male characters, they write them the same way they write female characters! I think about his goals, his challenges, his insecurities, how he views the world based on not just gender, but environment, circumstance, culture, and up-bringing.

All of us are much more than gender, so when you start thinking about “how do I write a woman,” it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating a stereotypical woman rather than a realistic one.

Granted. At the same time, I think some of them mean well. They just don’t know what they’re doing, at least in my observed experience. My theory about that is that they have not spent enough time in life trying to see the world through her eyes.

That’s the crux of it–they haven’t examined her as a character in her own right. And I understand how confusing it must be for a lot of men. They put women in the story and get criticism for not creating believable women, so they heap on more “feminine” traits only to get more criticism. I get it, I really do. But it all boils down to the same thing–stop trying to write “a female character” and write fully realized characters who happen to be female. It’s one characteristic of many, not the defining characteristic.

I’ve sat in panels where authors try to define both strength and what it means to be a woman, and the only things that came out of it were stereotypes and generalizations. When you apply them to the whole of human experience, they fall short. I have a lot of traits that are considered traditionally masculine. I know plenty of men who have traits that are traditionally feminine. One of my children rejects gender constructs completely and considers themself neither male nor female.

Then you’ve got gender-fluid people and trans people–gender is a spectrum, not a fixed point. And the longer we go without fixed gender expectations in our society, the more we’ll see that manifested.

I suspect that, beginning with the current generation of children and after, we will see that reflected in how they write.

I’m seeing that already. There’s a great young author named Kaye Thornbrugh who refuses to write unhealthy relationships like you see in so many popular books targeted at girls and young women. I’m in a writing group with several recent college graduates, and they’re writing with an understanding of the gender spectrum that turns everything on its head.

Can you name a couple of male authors who do an excellent job portraying women and gender dynamics? What specifically do they do well?

A lot of people might be surprised by this answer, but I think Stephen King does an exceptionally good job of writing women. I’ve read a majority of his books, and I’ve never felt like a female character was a prop, or under-developed. The reason is that he’s good at developing all of his characters, regardless. He sees them all as full-fledged human beings, and they come across that way. Read Gerald’s Game or Rose Madder or Lisey’s Story to see examples of female protagonists done well. In It, he captures children perfectly. When you read Insomnia, you’re certain you understand what it’s like to be elderly. And it’s all because he doesn’t rest on stereotypes and generalizations. He understands people, period.

Backing up a little bit, there’s been a shift in the way female characters are discussed. At one of my first cons, I heard the criticism that a lot of “strong females” were just “men with boobs,” because they weren’t written any differently from men. Everyone knew it was problematic to define how women should be written, but no one questioned the criticism itself.

At my most recent convention, I saw that criticism questioned because the criticism itself uses a narrow lens of what it means to be female. Sure, you can make generalizations about how women tend to be more nurturing, or how female friendship is different from male friendship, but then you’ve got swaths of women who fall outside of that definition. I have a high school friend who joined the Marines, has never gotten married or had kids, and fits in better in traditionally masculine environments. She lifts weights, goes rock climbing, and jumps out of airplanes for fun. At the same time, she’s heterosexual, loves wearing ultra-feminine clothes when she’s not at work, and decorates her house with floral prints.

Heh. Try pigeonholing all that!

Right? You can’t!

And none of it is because she was abused or sexually assaulted, or because she grew up without a mother, or because she can’t have babies. That’s just who she is. She’s also pagan and has a degree in physics. Wouldn’t you rather read a book with her in it than with some cardboard cutout in high heels and glasses?

Definitely. She sounds intriguing.

We’re all drawn to things that are unusual and unexpected. So create weird women. Create the oddball who can’t be pigeonholed and doesn’t want to be.

Draw from the weirdness inside you and the weirdness in people around you. That’s what’s real.

A science fiction convention could supply enough relevant material for a lifetime of writing.

Hahaha! Without a doubt!

So, Stephen King. Any other men doing above average?

I have a good friend named Bracken MacLeod who’s an amazing author and writes great women. Check out his book called Mountain Home. (Stranded is also amazing but intentionally male-focused, as it’s about toxic masculinity and its impact on men.)

The shared superhero series I write for has a lot of great female characters. It’s the Just Cause universe, and it was started by Ian Thomas Healy. (I know that sounds self-serving, but I wouldn’t be writing for the series if I didn’t admire a lot about it.)

Fair enough. I would also like to note for the reader that it took you longer than anticipated to ponder on this. Do I interpret that fairly to say that the number of major, popular male writers doing a good job on gender is a bit bleak?

That’s fair. I’m browsing through my Kindle and finding a dearth of male authors, and the only big-name ones are Stephen King, his son Joe Hill, Patrick Rothfuss, and George R.R. Martin.

Martin is a controversial one in this area, with some people thinking he created a sexist world in order to show women (and other oppressed people) overcoming it, and other people thinking he himself is sexist. I’m having trouble remembering much about most of Rothfuss’ female characters. I’m not sure whether that’s his fault or mine. LOL

Let the record reflect that the interviewee, like most readers, has voted with her wallet. A thing for prospective and evolving authors to consider.

That is the final arbiter, isn’t it?

If not the final one, it is surely of importance even if it is not the primary determinant of quality.

Very true.

I should mention Erik Scott de Bie, as well. He’s got some great women in his books.

In young adult, Cory Doctorow.

Cory Doctorow I’ve heard of.

His books Little Brother and Homeland are the best YA I’ve read, and as a YA author, I’ve read a lot. They should be taught in every high school. Sorry to go off-topic, but he deals with themes of personal freedom and government over-reach in the name of safety, all with near-future technology and phenomenal character development. Great books.

I feel like I should mention female authors who provide great examples of female characters, as well. High on my list is Diana Rowland, who writes the Kara Gillian/Demon Summoner series as well as the White Trash Zombie series. Her women are tough and quirky and fully developed. I also like Lish McBride, A.G. Howard, and Jennifer Brozek.

And Mercedes M. Yardley. She’s brilliant.

Now I’d like to know who among the men is doing it wrong, and how they are blowing it. The more prominent the names, the greater the percentage of our readership that will relate.

I stopped reading Dan Brown and John Grisham a long time ago, largely because of their female characters. I can’t provide more examples because I don’t read a lot of mainstream fiction anymore, especially if it’s written by middle-aged, straight, cis white men. I feel like I’ve read it all before, over and over. (I should add that I don’t read romance or much “chick-lit” for the same reasons, even though a lot of that is written by women.)

Fair enough. I’d add W.E.B. Griffin to that list, even though it’s speaking critically of the recently deceased.

Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they were good writers.

You can find a ton of articles online with examples of how men have written women poorly. They’re often hilarious, while also sad. When they describe a woman being aware of how her breasts move, you know they’re so entrenched in the view of women as sex objects that they think we actually view ourselves that way.

My mind reels with comic examples of women busy living their lives, punctuated by internal monologue about breast movement.

Yeah. Can’t say I’ve ever experienced that in real life. I mean, what kind of bras are these women wearing? They shouldn’t be moving that much!

I’m told most women are wearing poorly fitting bras. Of course, I’m told that by people who are selling bras.

They do, but even those keep them from swinging around and rubbing against each other.

And the key point, of course, is the tendency for the whole thing to be about the breasts because that’s what the author identifies with femaleness. Or femininity. “Welcome to You Are Your Ta-tas!

Okay. Narrowing the focus for a moment to the portrayals of women, what would you say are the most prevalent flaws–the moments where nearly every female reader rolls her eyes? I say ‘female’ because the reader may well be under the age of eighteen. I understand that this may be slightly redundant, but I’m looking for identifiable trends.

When she cowers and waits for the man to save her. Or when she falls prey to obvious emotional manipulation.

The scene in Captain Marvel (spoiler alert!) when she looks down at her former commander and says, “I have nothing to prove to you,” is possibly the most empowering moment I’ve ever seen on screen. Because every girl and woman has been made to feel like she has to prove herself to a man.

Would it be fair to say that ‘proving oneself’ to the men is another of the prevalent flaws in men’s writing as well as on the screen?

It’s everywhere, in our society as well as our media. That’s why it’s believable when he throws down the weapons and challenges her hand-to-hand.

I didn’t see the movie, but I know that it inspired very polarized reactions. Some of them struck me as comically insecure.

It’s a great movie. One of the best of the MCU, for sure. And any man who has a problem with it should probably get professional help.

I sense that most of the men who feel threatened by the fact that there’s a movie about a superheroine, of which most women and girls seem to approve, aren’t too receptive to help.

What are some obvious early ‘tells’ that inform you there is bad gender writing ahead? The one that comes to my mind is the inability to distinguish girls from women, but you would surely notice more than I would.

I cringe when there’s an excessive emotional response to something because it signals that the author considers women to be over-emotional. If you want to create a character that is highly emotional, it needs motivation–just like anything else. Gender isn’t motivation enough.

I’m pretty selective about who I read, though, and probably 80 percent is by female authors. So I don’t come across it a lot these days.

Oh–something that hasn’t come up that’s important to mention: We need to stop using sexual assault as the default reason for a woman to have emotional or psychological problems. Yes, it’s prevalent in society, but it’s used too often as a convenient and easy explanation. Men get more varied backstories.

Same for domestic violence?

Yeah, domestic violence, too. Along the same lines is having lost a child or having an inability to conceive. Give us motivations that aren’t rooted in the fact that we’re female. Just like a character in a wheelchair may have something to be angry about other than being in a wheelchair, or a person of color might have a chip on their shoulder about something not related to race.

Or if you’re going to use those elements, don’t just make it a throw-away.

I think a similar interview could be done with a reader of color, with equally productive results.

Or a disabled person. Or a non-straight or non-cis person. It’s far too common for one trait to define a character’s entire personality and backstory.

You definitely never want to read Harry Turtledove. Not only are you your difference in Turtledove, but it comes up in every single scene.

Ugh! “Othering” needs to end. If someone can’t recognize the full human experience of someone who’s not exactly like them, they shouldn’t be writing. We all face limitations to understanding other people, but we need to do what we can to overcome them. I know that as a white person, I can’t fully understand what it’s like to be, for example, a brown person in America, but I can pay enough attention to know what issues people of color face, and I can view people of all types as complete people with complex lives and personalities and experiences that aren’t all tied to a small set of characteristics.

Okay, this goes back to characters like Captain Marvel, at the risk of ground already having been trodden. Please think of female protagonists you have encountered in fiction. Can you identify some whose appeal you consider very widespread among women, and tell us what makes them so appealing? One of my favorites is Ari Emory, out of C.J. Cherryh‘s Cyteen series.

It’s hard to deny the appeal of Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games. She’s capable, independent, brave, and analytical–all traits that are considered typically masculine. She’s also insecure and protective of the people she loves. You might think of that as her softer, more feminine side, but how many books and movies picture men protecting their families? (Die Hard and Taken come to mind.) And insecurity is universal, even though we see it portrayed in women and girls more frequently.

Because that’s how the authors view women and girls, one supposes.

Yep. And because we don’t want our alpha males to show weakness.

Kara Gillian, in Diana Rowland’s Demon Summoner series, is someone I think would appeal to a lot of women. (Those books should really be more popular!) She’s a homicide detective who summons demons on the side. She’s tough, snarky, and intriguing with a mysterious backstory.

What do you think of Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Anita Blake?

I actually haven’t read her yet, but she’s on my list.

Patricia Briggs‘s Mercedes Thompson, for a localized example?

I’ve read a little of that series. I’ve heard Mercy criticized as an unbelievable female character because she’s too much of a loner and “women need at least one close confidant.” I don’t buy it–I think that’s too stereotypical a view of what a woman is, and that characteristic is believable in the character.

Mercy has a lot in common with the two heroines I’ve mentioned, and that series is wildly popular. Interesting, eh? Amazing what happens when you put a complex, non-stereotypical woman on the page.

Now I would like to look at your own writing experience. I can imagine it going the other way. Do you find it challenging to write male characters in your own fiction?

I don’t, and I don’t think many women do. How many articles have you seen calling out women for unrealistic portrayals of men?

I think the reason for that is complicated. For one, we’re inundated with the male viewpoint all the time, and a disproportionate number of characters we read or watch are males written by males. Second, there’s a pervasive myth in our society that women are mysterious and men will never understand them–so why should they try?

The book I just finished (Plague, which will be out in September) is my first long work with a male protagonist, but I have prominent male characters is all my fiction. I don’t find it hard to relate to that experience because I pay attention to people. I watch, I listen, I learn. I go beyond a small set of traits when imagining who people are.

As a screenwriter, I’ve never had an actor say, “This isn’t how a man would act.”

Here’s the thing about authors who write bad female characters–their men aren’t that much more interesting, either. They’re generally what the author wishes he could be, not honest reflections of the human experience. Readers who like those authors like to see male and female in terms of stereotypes and dated expectations, and they tend to get whiny when their expectations aren’t met.

Is there anything I should have asked you, but didn’t think to?

I don’t think so. We’ve covered a lot of ground.

Indeed. Anything you’d like to add?

I’ve worked it all in already. LOL

Thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts with the readership, Adrienne. Best of success to you in all your creative efforts!

My pleasure, and thank you!

Amazon losing market share

They are. Oh, not a statistically significant market share. But they are losing a good percentage of the share that is our household, and it would surprise me if we were the only ones.

Why?

It isn’t for moral reasons. We aren’t engaging in a partial boycott. Whether we should is a worthwhile question, but it’s not like Wal-Mart, where I haven’t knowingly shopped since I borrowed bought a breast pump I knew I would return. It’s not like that chicken place with the stupid name, where I wouldn’t eat there simply because the name is too stupid, even if they hadn’t come out as homophobes.

That’s not to say that this outcome doesn’t please me. It does. Amazon needs competitors. Amazon offers numerous shopping irritants:

  • Sellers like Wal-Mart hiding behind fake names. Nothing like getting a good deal and finding out you shopped at Wal-Mart.
  • Rating system is garbage, and vendors can easily get nasty reviews removed. Vendors have nothing to lose from nasty reviews.
  • Try calling Amazon for customer service. Hell, try emailing them for it.
  • Opaque tracking system clumsy to use. Seeming delays of a week to ship while, evidently, they move stuff around their network.
  • The known truths about what a hell it is to work there.
  • Delivery vans unmarked and pretty much just throw your stuff at the porch. And that’s if your Amazon delivery guy doesn’t turn out to be your porch pirate, as happened in one case near where I live.
  • Good luck getting an Amazon shipper to combine shipping for multiple items.
  • Amazon still thinks it’s a reasonable deal to ask you to pay, what is it, $90 or so per year just so that you can get free two-day shipping on all the stuff you buy from them.
  • Worse still, Amazon nags you without cease to sign up for this.
  • Still cannot block a bad shipper. There’s one book outfit there, a horrible vendor, and they have perhaps a dozen branch operations. It’s very hard to avoid them.

Of late, I’m buying routine items increasingly on Ebay, using Amazon to help identify/select them (such as small bits of hardware; just like many people use a brick-and-mortar, then go buy the thing online). Because:

The rating system may be hugely inflated, but no seller wants a nasty feedback. In my experience, most will fall all over themselves to avoid it, provided they have evidence of dealing with a reasonable person. And if you are a complete jerk toward a seller, s/he has a different remedy toward you: s/he can prevent you from seeing their merchandise in the future. So unless you want potential vendors to go away, it is in your best interest to be reasonable.

I have several times called Ebay for customer service. Using a telephone (ask your grandparents what that was). And received it. Other good parts:

  • Tracking: either it has a tracking number, or not. If it does, you can see where it’s going. If not then not. Wow! It’s almost as if that’s the way the concept is intended to work!
  • Doesn’t use Amazon delivery, thus doesn’t lead to unmarked vans out of which people leap desperate enough to work at one of America’s workplace gulags, and who quite often look like they would just as soon turn porch pirate. And near where I live, have done so.
  • Shippers will quite often combine shipping for multiple items within reason.
  • Not everything is up for auction. Much of what’s on Ebay is fixed price. In some cases, you can make a lower offer and it will be accepted.

Today was a good example. I needed some very large manila envelopes at a reasonable price. I didn’t know what the standard size was, but Amazon was a great place to look it up. When I was serious about buying, I went to Ebay and found the same thing, about the same price. It wasn’t even a contest. I would have paid a little more to buy it anywhere but Amazon.

I bought from the platform that used real shippers, cared about my feedback, and didn’t feed a massive inventory and shipping machinery that grinds human beings to submission.

Another example, on a later day of blog post composition. My wife needed some supplies she always uses. I went to Amazon to look up what their people wanted for these supplies. When it came time to make an actual purchase, I bought on Ebay. The deal was much better.

I got a volume discount. I won’t have to deal with sketchy-looking Amazon delivery vans. Everything was better.

Do you not now see what was the point of Amazon Prime? It’s a brilliant strategy provided one is dealing with an ovine people who love the meth that is ‘free shipping.’ Get people to pay an annual fee, and they will feel compelled to shop at Amazon to take advantage of the shipping. It’s like a ‘loyalty’ card at a coffee place, except that coffee places don’t expect you to pay an annual fee and don’t propose to automatically renew you by charging your credit card unless you cancel. Amazon Prime is the worst deal going and it has the effect of roping you into acting to your disadvantage. They would not offer it, and pressure everyone constantly to sign up for it, if it were not to their profit. It is to your disadvantage.

Yes. You are advantaged by buying only what you need, and by shopping for the best value. Amazon is advantaged by you buying there even if you do not need, and by you not comparison shopping.

I never take any of those ‘loyalty’ cards because it’s obvious that their intent is to get me to shop at a given venue more consistently–and in the case of mag-strip cards, to compile a nice dossier on my shopping. The employees don’t understand why I won’t just do it to get 10% off. I explain, as patiently as is in my power, that the card’s goal is to induce me to shop there; that my goal is to shop where is most advantageous for me. Thus they have their goals and I have mine, and they are mostly opposed. I can tell by the look in their eyes that, in spite of how hard they work for what little they are paid, they never thought of that. Their eyes say what their mouths won’t: whatever, man, you should just take the discount.

I wish they would blurt that out. I might rejoin: “Has it ever occurred to you that one reason for poverty is poor attention to money management?”

The vendors have their goals and problems. The consumer does not need to own either. I don’t see the company stepping up to support my goals and they aren’t owed support for their own.

At heart, they flat do not give a damn what I think. As Amazon does not.

Somehow, I’m not supposed to adopt the same attitude.

We saw it with IBM. We saw it with M$. When a company reaches complete market dominance, it tends to stop caring what the public thinks of it.

It never quite seems to process the fact that this sword cuts both ways.