Category Archives: Writing life

It’s time to start telling them the brutal truth

In the past, this blog has described the steady incoming stream of Amazon review requests. Most are easy to dismiss with a reason that is not the only reason, but is a truthful reason:

  • “I don’t review e-books.”
  • “It’s outside my area of interest.”
  • “I cannot spare the time to devote to such a large volume.”

I’m just being gentle.

I’m not helping them by doing so.

Truth: every time, if I thought the book would be interesting, I’d take a review copy and read and review it. Further truth: my work involves reading a great deal of horrible writing and being nice to its authors, and when I am not being paid real money, I have less mental energy to dance around the truth of “this writing is no good.” I have to save more detailed and tactful replies for paying clients. They are entitled to tactful constructive critique in detail, and review-seekers are not.

So we’re getting to:

  • “The review would very likely be negative, which I’m sure was not your objective.”
  • “You have interesting subject matter, but I cannot get past the choppy writing.”
  • “The writing does not reflect competent editing and proofreading services. These are not optional.”
  • “If the Amazon Look Inside feature is at all reflective of the published work, the typesetting is borderline unreadable.”
  • “The writing does not even reach the fundamental baseline for adequacy in print, sorry to say.”

Or, in some odd cases:

  • “I am not sure what about my body of work caused you to think a children’s book would interest me, but it does not.”
  • “This is the second time you have contacted me to volunteer my time as your marketer. When you receive no reply to your first inquiry, a second is probably going to get you the type of attention you would not want. No, thank you; and let that please be the end of this, all right?”

Do I enjoy this? No. Do I wish people didn’t publish crappy writing? With all my heart. Is it my duty to tell them so? No, but if it will avert further solicitations, that’s all right with me. Do I get a kick out of disappointing writers? If I did, I would not be in the business of helping them succeed.

We’re just going to have to lay it out there.

New Release: Life is Short, by Shawn Inmon

This short story anthology is now available. I was substantive editor.

If I counted correctly, four of the stories have appeared in previous fiction anthologies, some of which were for charitable projects. Shawn would never tell you openly about this particular part, but nothing’s stopping me: for the charitable projects, he tried to pay me, but obviously I was having none of it. No big deal, right? Right…except that here’s the kind of honest guy he is. When he decided to republish them in a for-profit anthology, he turned around and tried to pay me for them after the fact. When I smiled and thanked him for the intent, but declined, he offered to take me to a Mariners game and host me at his and Dawn’s place. I figured I could accept that, so I said all right. We had a fantastic time at the game and on the drives there and back. Anyway, if you’ve noticed how much effort Shawn makes to put forth quality reading in an attractive presentation, do know that he treats his vendors with the same conscientious courtesy and fairness with which he treats his readership. No wonder his pre-publication people, like me, work extra hard to help his work to shine (not that it needs much help).

The good news is that at least 2/3 to 3/4 of the stories in this compilation are new material. The variety is appealing. Some of it is dark and even a bit paranormal. Some is autobiographical, telling stories from his youth. As you might expect, many touch upon familiar Inmonian themes: 1970s and 1960s nostalgia, music, etc. He experiments with the unreliable narrator, and in my opinion succeeds in this mode. The overall outcome is anything but predictable, with fresh styles and approaches as well as fresh plots and varying lengths. This might mean that few people will enjoy every one, but also makes it likely that no one will find it predictable from one story to the next.

So far it is only out in Kindle, but if you keep an eye on it, I suspect it will come out in dead tree.

Interpreting ‘lancing ads, and introducing ABSS

If you’ve ever been a ‘lancer, you’ve looked at the ads. If you are curious, head to your local Craigslist. Look under Jobs: Writing & Editing and Gigs: Writing. That’ll give you a fair sample of the usual offerings.

Don’t get me wrong; it is quite possible to get good writing gigs off Craigslist. It just means kissing a lot of toads along the way, and translating from adbullshitspeak to common English. In adbullshitspeak (ABSS), all faddish business jargon is in play. The ‘Lancer is here to help you parse the ABSS:

Academic writing: Professional cheating.

Best practices: Whatever makes the company the most money without giving you any extra.

Branding: Shoving stuff in front of people who would rather not see it; thus, fancy word for advertising.

Creating positive content: Writing fake glowing reviews for businesses whose business practices get them blowing reviews, trying to drown out the truth in lies.

Exposure: No pay.

Friendly environment: Chaotic environment, typically with a couple of half-nutso co-workers who can’t be fired for whatever reason.

Ghost writer: Person expected to accept minimal pay and maximum intervention/micromanagement. Will be lied to by client.

Other duties as assigned: Expect to be shunted into something else. Your opinion of it will not really matter.

SEO: You’re writing to game Google. Expect to be required to stick irrelevant HTML tags into your stuff for this purpose. Put another way, your job is to make the Internet worse.

Serious writers only: Yeah, in a buyer’s market, we have to advertise on Craigslist to get anyone interested.

Social media experience: Welcome to the world of comment trolls!

SME: Person who knows everything you will be required to document, but is incapable of conveying it to an uninitiated Philistine like yourself.

Top earning potential: This is the number you will never approach no matter what you do.

(we are not providing our company name): We don’t want you researching us until we get our pitch in.

Why you don’t lie to your editor

Are you surprised to find that some writers lie to the person they hire to help them succeed? Don’t be.

The reading public, which I love nonetheless, at times lacks a clear picture of the author/editor dynamic. In most people’s perceptions, the editor/author relationship is a battle between conflicting views of “what’s best for the book.” I do not operate according to that model. If the client thinks s/he knows better than I do what’s best for his or her book, and began this relationship simply to fight with me, I have better things to do than play the game. Maybe that person just wants to win an argument for ego’s sake, or is simply disagreeable.

(For confirmation: if you go to any message board meant for writers, you’ll see enough ego on display to last you weeks. Let it be known that you’re an editor, and you can begin the countdown to your first typo, and a smug callout from a small mind who considers that s/he has just taken a scalp. They are rarely worth one’s time.)

Perhaps some editors do work in such an adversarial way. I prefer a discussion/consensus model, and I find that the better the writer, the better that works. The best writers crave feedback and specifics, and they will beat both out of me–exactly as they should, if by some lapse I fail to volunteer them. I cannot get away with a terse statement to them like “that’s incorrect.” They want to know my whole reasoning. This in turn makes me a better editor, because I had better not propose anything I’m not willing to defend. And if I don’t also have the solution to offer, I’m in trouble. What good am I if I can’t tell my client how to improve? Better writers make me a better editor. With them, the consensus model works best because the better writers have more grounds for valid counterpoints, which means we can put our heads together for the best outcome. Viewed another way, when someone can’t write and can’t storytell, the person doesn’t have much to defend. I can and will help that person, but he or she doesn’t usually have the ability to debate how things should be.

By now, not much surprises me, but some things disappoint me. I have had clients accept a lot of developmental feedback, then stiff me. My fault, really, for allowing the situation to get to that point. In one case, though, I was deceived from start to beyond the finish. It involved an Alan Smithee, and I think the story can now be told.

If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Alan Smithee is a pseudonym sometimes seen in cinema credits. It replaces the name of a person who did not want name credit. I use a similar method when I do not want to attach my name to a book, which can be for many reasons. The most common reason is that my client won’t listen to me, and stands firm in believing that s/he knows better, deciding to override my guidance.

Some time back, I heard from a writer with an incredible story to tell. This client, who went by an obvious pseudonym, told me that s/he had met a renegade who supposedly performed blatantly illegal activities at the behest of legally sanctioned individuals, had had a change of heart about those activities, and decided to tell the story. My client was expecting any moment to suffer great retaliation for talking about it (the renegade supposedly being either dead or beyond reach of retaliatory acts). I read the ms. There were minimal specifics about the illegal activities, but lots of sociopolitical rants, and over half the book told the tale of an abusive relationship that had no bearing on the book’s billing. Why did this renegade open up to my client? The answers were vague, where any were forthcoming at all.

I gave my frank impressions: the story’s billing was deceptive, the logic was flawed, the rants were illogical and alienating, the tone was self-serving, and the book wasn’t going to be very good. I wanted much more about the cloak-and-dagger stuff, less about a bad childhood, and much less about a very bad relationship.

My client rejected most of my guidance. S/he was often very coy, the sort of person who won’t just come out and say something, but will drop enough hints to enable one to Google. I was able to verify some of the renegade’s story, though in many cases there seemed to be two sides to that story. The client claimed to have promised the renegade to leave certain parts in; naturally, they were the very worst parts. I did trim out a lot of the fat, and I obtained the addition of a minimal segment of cloak and dagger, but in the end my client only acted on about 15% of my guidance. This client therefore wasted about 85% of the money spent, and I could do nothing about it.

I came to realize that when my copy arrived. (I do not negotiate a complimentary copy, so this was at my instigation. I take pride in being one of the first customers to buy a copy at retail. Seriously, when someone pays you thousands of dollars, the very least you can do is buy your own damn copy from your client.) I shook my head in disappointment. Early reception and sales confirmed my expectations, with those few reviewers calling out the book’s deceptive nature. The positive reviewers were obvious sock puppets. It was all rather sad.

Not long after, my client contacted me: retaliation was coming, might catch me in the target area, and s/he would no longer be able to connect with me by normal means. In so doing, this client dropped enough information to confirm what I had considered 90% certain from the start: the client was also the renegade. All the stuff about getting the renegade to tell his story was twaddle. All the stuff about material the writer had promised the renegade not to alter? Baloney. How challenging it must have been to keep up the whole charade, with the author wondering if I were just playing along, or whether I could possibly be that dumb. Maybe that’s why the client ignored so much of my guidance: going along with the pretense made me look stupid, and thus not to be heeded.

Now, of course, I had much better reason to doubt most aspects of the tale, including its fundamentals. It was not all lies; I had verified a few of the less controversial parts. The renegade was a real person. The illegal activities? I came to believe they were all inventions, and that I didn’t get specifics because the renegade/client didn’t want to author any more fiction. The author’s naive belief was that people would buy a book purportedly full of Shocking Revelations, and not mind when it turned out to be mostly a story of bad childhood and bad relationships, combined with the renegade’s desire to spin the entire story to his/her own glory and the detriment of the renegade’s enemies. Somehow, the client believed that the buyer would not feel scammed.

If the few purchasers felt taken in, I understand that. So do I. If someone isn’t honest with me, it will limit my ability to help that client. In this case, throughout my editing work, I’d had to operate as though accepting the cover story. In reality, I hadn’t been talking to a person who had made an arrangement with a renegade just before that person planned to disappear, and who thus was not a direct participant with no ax to grind. I was talking to the ax-grinder in person, and the ax-grinder had had to supplement lies with more lies.

That simply piles atrocious upon bad and flawed.

Why do that? In the end, I think that the better writer believes that the relationship is about quality, and the worse writer believes that it is about control. The better writer wants to discuss, to hear justification, to brainstorm, to learn, and to produce ever-improving literary product. The worse writer fears a loss of control, and in service of control, may keep secrets. Or tell lies. Or defend the illogical. Or bicker without need. In the end, the worse writer knows his or her work is worse, and that the fundamentals boil down to:

“Well, my client, the bad news is that neither the story nor the writing are very good, but we could fix those.”

“But that’s my style, Mr. Editor! That’s my story!”

“Well, if you insist, then your style and story are bad.”

“I cannot accept that answer. I will keep looking until I find someone who believes in my work.”

“Very good. Best of success to you.”

Allowing major change, the thinking goes, would lose the battle for control. I do not consider that so. Allowing major change would teach the writer to be a much better writer with a more evolved perspective on his or her products, better able to defend decisions and less likely to need to do so.

But if they lie to me, it is fair to say that the percentage of the truth I am told sets an upper ceiling on the percentage of the available good I can do them. And once I learn of the lie in mid-book, while I will finish what I started, there won’t be a second project. I don’t care much for being deceived. I find that most people who live mostly by lies are not offended when caught lying. It’s not the first time, and won’t be the last. They do not expect a consequence if they continue lying; all debunked lies are now water under the bridge. Lie too often, for too long, and it becomes more addictive than an opiate. It becomes reflex, habit, first nature. Before deciding how to answer, the person ceases to ask him or herself ‘what is the actual true answer?’ and asks only ‘what answer would best suit my needs?’

Now, if someone came to me with an explosive tale of intelligence work that would shock the nation to its core, here is the first thing I would say: “Let us have one understanding. What truths you do not wish to tell me, tell me honestly that you will not tell me those, and I will not press you. But do not, even once, tell me a lie. The moment I believe you have is the moment I reserve the right to drop the job like a live grenade. If you cannot live by that agreement, let’s go our separate ways here and now.”

Like anyone else, editors live and learn.

Fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek

Everyone has read about its impact, how it would not die, how it created a movement. True. As an eleven-year-old knuckling down to six years of protracted cruelty, I can point to Star Trek as one of the things that got me through it all. I was not the only one. I have seen a friend of color say: “Until Star Trek, I didn’t realize that the future included black people.”

Yes. Did Star Trek mean more than the Beatles? No, the Beatles are not some sacred cow that automatically surpasses every other phenomenon. They were culturally important, but lastingly more than Star Trek? I am not thinking so. Of course, I like Star Trek and do not like the Beatles, so I admit a basic bias.

BBC America is showing a bunch of old Star Treks, and I am DVRing them and will rewatch them all again. Well and good. I will see more redshirts destroyed than an overpaid college coach trying to avoid a 5-7 record in his third year of program recovery. However, the show spawned a less savory product, and I’m not referring to / fiction. (95% of you do not know what that means. ‘Slash’ referred originally to ‘K/S,’ as in ‘Kirk/Spock,’ the notion that the two of them were in a gay relationship and often expressed in fanfic (fan-authored fiction). Now you see why I think this outshines the beatified Beatles? Scoff if you wish, but gay America living through the 1970s and 1980s does not.)

After the original series’ three seasons ended, and fans refused to let the show die, there came a less savory product: paperback novels, and many of them were awful. Loopy story ideas. Inept writing. Lazy naming. So many moments of “Oh, no. Seriously? You did not just name the security team after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ first line? And you got away with this?”

No, no individual callouts. Remember, I go to some SF conventions. I could end up having drinks with someone in whose withers I left banderillas, and who would now like an explanation. “J.K. Kelley. From where do I remember that name? Ah, yes, it’s associated with the knout scars on my back from your blog comments about my writing. Well, I was 25 then. Are you the same writer today that you were at 25, Mr. Kelley?”

Here’s a secret. Want to know what made me think I could be a good editor? I looked at what was being published by New York. Then I looked at what was coming out of the smaller houses. Then I looked at the indie publishing movement. In few cases did I see books that I could not much have improved in the editing process. In many cases I saw decent book concepts botched or clumsily executed. I knew that I could help those who wanted help badly enough, and could afford the help.

Since I have a library, I must maintain it. I have learned that one of the best ways to winnow out the chaff is to look at books and be able to say: You know what? I knew you were a lousy book even before I became a professional writer or editor. I need the space you occupy. You will be donated. And thus, book by book, I have done so. I am ruthless. Is the book a piece of crap? Will neither I nor my wife ever again wish to read it? Then it does not need to take up space. I refuse to be a book hoarder.

So what I am doing is to re-read all the hundred-odd Star Trek books, most purchased cheaply from used bookstores on the Ave (referring to University Way NE in Seattle, the beating heart of the University of Washington’s U-District). And while I may re-finish those whose storylines I can now respect, if they suck, I am going to get rid of them. Stupid plot? Gone. Author can’t write (the case in 75% of those books)? Gone. Authorial laziness or fetishism? Let’s not eat a whole egg to confirm that it’s rotten. It’s time to de-dross this library–or at least, in the case of some of my trashy westerns, accept the dross with a full understanding of its drossage.

This will take a while, but I expect to thin this collection out to the minority of books worth revisiting. And it’s time.

I want to call this author out, but I can’t quite

Last few days, I’ve been rereading a moderately successful SF series. I hadn’t revisited it for twenty years, since back before anyone paid me anything to write or edit. I won’t go so far as to say that I had no critical perspective back then, but years of doing this stuff professionally do alter that perspective. I am more perplexed now than before by the popular acceptance of bad writing.

Not that I ever sniff “well, clearly she should fire her editor.” We’ve been over that. In the first place, I do not know whether she had one. In the second, I do not know whether she heeded him or her. In the third, there are many different types of editing. The most I could ever say would be something like: “The book does not reflect competent copy editing.” That may be the the publisher’s fault, as in one spectacular screwup where the house printed and distributed an early draft by mistake. I am not joking. They really can be that stupid and haphazard.

No, the problem is greater: I have to live with these people, and with my words about them. That wake-up call came at an SF con. I have no idea what the panel’s subject was, but one of its participant authors rang a bell. I sat there trying to remember why. Something vaguely familiar here. And then it came to me–I’d read one of her books, and panned it on Amazon. Odds she would remember me, even if she happened to look at my name tag? Very low. Odds of me meeting her socially at all? Not so low. Odds of me feeling awkward? Bank on that. Yes, I would have stood by my words, but the issue is that I’m in the business too. In theory, at least, she was a potential client.

Now let’s consider the leap from a harsh Amazon review to this  blog. One might write many reviews on Amazon, or elsewhere, and have them lost in an ocean of snippy “obviously she didn’t have a good editor” junkfests. To dissect this author by name, in this space, would take it to the next level. That would single her out as an example of what not to do. She would probably learn of it, from a devoted fan or message board if not through her own searching. People being people, she would wonder who the hell I was, and what she had ever done to make such an enemy of me. She would remember my name, whether or not she were fool enough to reply here, and the memory would be unfriendly. It would not be that I said anything unfair, or that I didn’t mean. Her best rejoinder would be: there are tons of books out there with similar flaws, or more grievous ones. Why single me out? And while we’re at it, this is my work twenty years ago. You of all people ought to know that we evolve. Why pummel me today as if my older work represented my current standard? How would you like to be judged and strung up for writing you did during the first Clinton administration, hm?

She’d have a point or two, and such a reasoned reply would be the best case scenario. Authors can be sensitive. It could get awkward. Could she harm me professionally? Not really, but she could make sure I didn’t soon hear the end of it. What if I’m on a panel with her someday? Even if she did not notice, or did not bring it up, I know I’d be pretty uncomfortable. The issue would not be that I had been critical. It would be that I had made a vindictive-seeming, special, personal effort to hurt her. If I were here, I wouldn’t like that either.

So we’re not going to talk about how authors come up with motifs they evidently consider very clever, then hammer them so hard that each mention might as well come with “thissss…issss…significant” background music (props to my bro John for that joke, moderately edited and recycled). We’re not going into how “She felt…” are two of the worst words in narrative fiction. And we’re not going to say who is so guilty of contrivance that the story becomes predictable. And no, before some of you who know me personally begin to suspect, she is no one I have ever met in person. But I might.

And that’s why we won’t be citing examples. It’s also why I write rather few reviews on Amazon (along with not much wishing to donate free labor to the behemoth). If I don’t feel comfortable being objective and candid there, silence is best.

Compilation release: The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver

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

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

I’ve never been a joiner.

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

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

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

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

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

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