Category Archives: Writing life

What happened to your favorite author (or his/her kid)

If you follow enough authors long enough, some of them will turn to garbage.

Repetition. Gaping plot seams with stitches bursting.

Story twists that wring the neck of what was once great about the franchise.

Bad editing. No editing. Bad proofreading. No proofreading.

How could someone capable of such greatness now turn out this steaming garbage?

Very many people ask that question; few receive answers. In few cases will they ever learn which answers apply. In most cases, it will be one or more of the following:

Profitable Franchise Syndrome. Through careful promotion and at least some display of some form of talent at some point, a select few authors become cash cows. Any book with Cash Cow’s name on the cover is guaranteed X number of copies sold which will produce a profit of $ZZZ,000 at the minimum. Once an author reaches PFS, many publishers no longer give a damn what s/he writes. If the author also no longer gives a damn, there are no barriers to the publication of wretchedness. For obvious reasons, such a publisher will never sick a sharp-penned editor on said author, to tell the author what s/he needs to hear. No one will risk causing a bad case of mastitis in the cash cow, least of all the cow him/herself.

Writing is hard and ideaing is sometimes harder. Some writers loathe above all (even above “will you please read my ms?”) the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” When writers run out of original ideas, they recycle, or steal, or meander without aim. When writers get sick of sewing together mismatched plot points, correcting inconsistencies, and otherwise trying to reduce eventual scarring on the patient, they stop bothering. Why bother, when people will buy it anyway? The priority is not to write a great book this year. The priority is to get a damn book written this year, keep the milk flowing, keep the name on endcaps.

Dotage. Sometimes this combines with PFS. The Grand Old Author has written one more book, after years of not writing. How come these are so often like watching a former home run king hit .189 a year after he turns forty? Because the author is often, at this point, well washed up, and probably either wanted or needed money.

Freelancers. When PFS is reached, the writing may not even be that of the ‘author.’ I have seen books in which it was sadly clear that each chapter had been done by a different ‘lancer and no one had checked the stitching, resulting in a couple of dozen rehashes of the same background material as each ‘lancer felt obligated to make sure the reader knew the pertinent backstory. The author did not bother to remove these redundancies. This is how little they care.

Delusions of inherited writing talent. Just because Mom could write does not mean #2 Son can write. Just because Dad could write really, really does not mean #1 Son can write. This, however, may not stop the grown child of the Famous Author, because said grown child may be a career screwup who sees in Famous Author’s inherited glory and name One Last Chance For An Easy Living. By that time, Ma or Pa may be too old to care. He or she may feel that dues have been paid, and that if this will keep the kid out of debt hell, that is their business. And it is–except for the money that honest readers will waste on dishonest, substandard effort. That is their bad business.

Psychological rabbit holes. In fiction writing, and in particular with first-person fiction that is semi-autobiographical, at times the author reaches a Nietzschean moment. Remember his famous quote? “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Life has taught me that Nietzsche knew what he was talking about, and writing life has countersunk all the screw holes for that lesson. Imagine you’ve got a major inner bugaboo (for example, sexual bondage and domination), and that it’s always been complicated for you. That balance of desire and aversion, the tension between two points, can be a productive wellspring for fiction ideas. It can also become the abyss into which you gaze too long, taking you to a place from which you can not easily come back. Your writing may reflect that, and it may get away from what your readers liked best about your work. Most anyone can take a mental illness (or some lesser condition/neurosis/syndrome/disorder/dysfunction/bugaboo) and use it to write a book. To do so without making the condition much worse, and without having the condition consume the franchise alive–that’s the tough part.

Fetishism. Closely related to the above, of course, and with some overlap, but not the same. One good example was a writer of Westerns with an obvious girlfight fetish. Rare was the book of his in which a pair of women didn’t mix it up. Do I even need to mention that blouses never survived a single battle? Okay, so let’s consider this. Suppose that’s your fetish, and while it does not consume you, you write enough of it to develop an audience–and business is good. Then you decide, okay, I’ve done my time on the pole and I can now de-emphasize my little kink. And sales fall off; reviews scowl. Your audience doesn’t like you so well when it doesn’t get its accustomed dose of the fetish. Tired of writing about breasts flopping loose in a fracas? You are stuck, because that’s the audience you attracted and that’s your brand. You may or may not be able to redefine your brand. You may just end up churning ’em out, supplying the expected unrestrained dairy tackle, because making house payments beats missing house payments, and writing what you know is easier than seeking new horizons.

There may be other reasons (opinions welcomed), but those are some of what I’ve seen. Your favorite author is like a car. It may run for a long time, it may be the best one you ever had, but one day you won’t be able to get parts for it. You may keep it as a classic, a project, but it won’t be your daily drive. You’ll get something you can rely on. By the time your heirs get the old one, they’ll wonder why you kept it so long past its prime.


The book chiropractor

Lately the title has described me. I come across a book with a spinal injury, and I give it care.

The descriptor feels somewhat odd thanks to my real-life experiences with chiropractic, neither of which inspire me to try it again. The first guy felt everyone should go to the chiropractor for everything, as the first point of medical contact. He was very entrepreneurial. The second guy was pulling a flim-flam on the insurance company; he also was very entrepreneurial. I know there are people who swear by chiropractic, and I am happy for them, but I probably will not be joining them soon. Feels too MLM.

What does make me happy is that I’ve figured out how to fix most broken paperback spines. It requires book tape, care, book glue, patience, waxed paper, a cutter that will make a very straight cut, q-tips, care, and great patience.

Why you should not…

Why you should not just use packing tape: because it will more easily crinkle, will age badly, will be completely unforgiving if you happen to begin sticking it down wrong, and because it’s not as thick. If you are serious about doing this, go to Vernon and get the right stuff.

Why you should not just use rubber cement, or Elmer’s, or some other glue you have laying around: because none of those will combine the properties found in book glue, and everything will work worse. If you use some other glue, and it screws things up, remember that I told you that would occur. Get it from Vernon.

Why you should not just use scissors: because the line must be absolutely straight, and you cannot reliably do that with scissors.

Getting going

There are two very common types of paperback spinal breaks. In the first, you can see the gap between portions of the pageblock (that’s the pages; the part you read). In the second, the gap is so wide you can get a clear look at the inside of the spine (which is probably badly creased and may be coming apart. Sometimes pieces of the pageblock are fully detached, or just individual sheets.

Before you start, cut off several 1″ wide strips of waxed paper. You will be wanting these and won’t want to mess with cutting them in mid-job.

The first order of business is to shore up the spine’s exterior. This must be done: to hold the thing together while you fix the pageblock connections, to confine any glue that could otherwise leak through, and because you would be having to do it anyway, so might as well do it first. A line of book tape down the spine, properly slicked down, will at least give you a bit of support.

The potentially messy part

Next, turn to the worst break in the pageblock. If there are several, go for the most hideous ones starting from back. Gently spread the block apart; for the milder sort of break, a line of glue along the middle third is probably enough. For the bad ones, be more generous. If there are several adjacent pages with breaks, start with the bottom one. Then take a q-tip, supporting the book with the other hand, and run it along the break to distribute the glue and push it into the break.

Don’t be too sloppy. It is almost inevitable that you’ll leave residual lines of glue above the q-tip on both sides of the break; take another and clean that off as best you can. You can’t get all of it off, but it is very important to remove all possible glue that is not down in the break; that is where you’re going to put the waxed paper. Your theoretical perfect glue line is way down in the break, just obscures its edges, shows little shine on the paper and no lines above where you ran the q-tip, and doesn’t leak out either end.

Why so fussy? Isn’t this waxed paper? Doesn’t waxed paper come right off? I’ve experimented and made the mistakes. It’s not true that book glue won’t stick at all to waxed paper; it is true that waxed paper can very carefully, very slowly be detached from small amounts of book glue. Do it too soon or too fast and the paper will tear, leaving tabs of it deep down in the crack where you’ll have to tweezer them out. You just fixed that crack; therefore, shoving a metal object into it, which will partly separate it again, runs counter to your entire intention. What is more, if you think about it, you’ve just cut the waxed paper. You’re shoving the unwaxed cut edge into the middle of the glue; the edge is the part to which the glue can take hold. And there’s no way around it, as there is no reasonable way to re-wax the cut edge. The glue will attach to its fibers and you will have to ease the paper loose or end up with a lot of remainder.

Would clingwrap work better for this? I think it’d be a pain to keep straight. I can barely even get a bowl of guac covered with that stuff. Foil would most surely tear at exactly the wrong times, as it always does.  I suppose if money were no object, one could use gallon ziplock bags without opening them, pushing them in bottoms first. I would certainly test them beforehand, lest it turn out they form a real bond with the glue that waxed paper does not. Book glue looks like Elmer’s but dries to a rubbery solid.

Anyway, with all that well in mind, and with excess glue mopped up, take a strip of waxed paper and slide it gently into the break almost as far as it will go. If there is a loosened page at the break, work it back into proper position. Close the book, which should now look as if some oddball decided that waxed paper would make a wonderful bookmark.

If there are more breaks, continue to fix them this way from bottom to top. How you decide which side is which, that’s up to you; what is important is that you don’t jump around the pageblock, but start from the lowest side and work to the highest (if the front cover was up, that would be from back to front). That way you will not need to disturb the breaks you have already glued.


When done, set the book someplace where nothing will mess it up, put a paperweight on it, and leave it.

If you let the glue dry at least three days, the waxed paper will be fairly easy to work loose. Open gently to the spot with the fixed break, and use a plastic tool like the back of a picnic knife to move back and forth along the inside, separating the waxed paper from the pageblock on both sides. When you sense that any further pushing on the plastic knife will begin to undo your repairs, stop and begin to ease the waxed paper out starting from one end. Be kind, and pull it upward where possible (almost directly away from the spine, slightly angled). Try not to let any pieces get detached, but it often happens near the middle.

Repeat all this for the next break you fixed.

Examine the book now as if you hadn’t fixed anything. Anything that still needs fixing, repeat the fixing steps and three days of subsequent waiting.

I told you it took patience.

Achieving dominance over book repair space and time

When you’ve fixed them all, though, the best description of the feeling is that one has resurrected a book. It was doomed, on its way to fall to tragic pieces. Now it can be read, enjoyed, studied, laughed at, scowled at, disagreed with, and passed on to other readers. And as you keep at this, you will get defter at all of it.

It may fall apart someday, but that isn’t going to be today or next year.

The pure joy of repairing books

That I love books is probably no great surprise. Who else took a 15′ x 20′ room of his house and made the whole thing into a library? Three aisles…’the stacks.’

There is a continuum of thought about book care. At one extreme is the “they’re made to be read, not worried about or nannied” viewpoint. My mother is a good example of this. With any paperback book, her first act was (I presume still is) to break the spine–and I don’t mean halfway. I mean in such a way that the book would begin to fall into halves if it received any sustained use. At the other extreme is the hardcore preservationist viewpoint, which laments every scrape, every crease, and every corner. This viewpoint will die in a ditch defending the spine.

If you assign these views to 1 and 10 on a scale, respectively, I’m about an 8.5. The question of usability vs. perfection touches many aspects of our lives; the best example I could offer would be computer security. At the 1 extreme would be complete flexibility and usability, at the risk of security and support nudity. (If everyone gets to use whatever they want, however they want, IT support is problematic. And if no one ever makes you change your password, or even makes you use a password, you’ll get hacked.) At the 10 extreme would be security so tight it would defend the system from any risk of being useful. (If you had to change your password every hour, for example, and your browser refused to let any script run without approval from some security guru.) As in most endeavors, neither extreme is a good idea. Thus with books.

So, yes; I take very good care of books, the best care I can arrange. As I read, by habit, I will press a paperback book into a shape that from directly above me would look like a {, using my fingers to support the spine. That first crease in the cover bothers me, and you can imagine how I feel if I spill beer on the book (such as that time I anointed my copy of Joyce’s Dubliners while sitting on the can in a B&B bathroom in Ballymote, Sligo). Since I like to fix things almost as much as I hate waste, for many years I have done my best with scotch tape.

Those days are over. Thanks to my wife, I now have equipment that gives me dominance over more amateurish book repair souls. For Christmas, she got me a wonderful device called the C-27 Taping System Applicator. I keep wanting to call it the C-27 Space Modulator in the Looney Tunes Martian voice.

This thing is badass.

“What’s the big deal,” you ask? “Why the hell can’t you just put some quality packing tape on it yourself?”

The problem with that is getting the tape lined up, especially while fussing with a handheld dispenser. With tape on paper, you don’t get a second chance. What is not obvious from the picture is that this C-27 thing has several key moving parts. For starters, the tape sits but is not spindled, and those black guides you see are movable (see the grooves in the metal roller). This allows one to use multiple tape widths, move the tape left or right. In the picture, the end of the tape shows the tartan pattern, but that white thing just right of it is a sliding cutter. The long table with the deep groove down the middle hinges at the front of the device, so you can lay the book on it, press down at the tape end of the table, and rest one end of your book at a level below the tape cutter. Pull out the tape to the correct length, line it up to your satisfaction, and stick it down going back toward the roll. Your hands don’t have to hold the tape or manipulate a handheld cutting device. Slick down the tape all the way to just before the cutter, run the cutter across (only takes one hand, leaving you a hand to hold the book in place), free the book from the table, and slick down that last end of the tape. The stainless steel bars on either side of the table swing outward to support larger books. Here is a short video of it in very simple operation.

As you can see from the legs, one could bolt it to a desk. One could drive two screws into a desk designed to anchor it, leaving the other side free to move it at need. My favorite move is to first run a strip of tape down the spine, then turn the book 90° and run a single strip all the way along the top cover edge–slick down the first side with the spine toward the roll, pull out far enough for enough tape to finish the second side, take joy in the way this thing lets me line the tape up so perfectly, slick it down, cut it off, trim any excess.

The other part of the secret is book repair tape, which looks like clear packing tape but is somewhat elastic; enough that one has to be careful not to stretch it out of shape, but that it molds and tightens and adjusts and forgives. It also lasts much longer than scotch tape or packing tape. She also got me a supply pack including book glue, a bodacious plastic tape-slicking device that looks like a Jethro version of the 3-4 plastic picnic knives I break every time I eat at Chipotle, and sheets of vinyl wings and corners designed to fix frayed spines and torn edge/corner problems. Bubble I can’t slick out? I make a tiny stab with an exacto knife at one end of the bubble, and slick the tape toward it. Bubble? What bubble? Add in a set of bitchin’ sharp scissors I already had–great for trimming excess so that no one will ever know that I stuck the tape down 1/16″ off line–and I’m loaded now. No book in this house is safe from being assessed, repaired, and protected.

Since a lot of my books were in lamentable shape and some would be problematic to replace (do you have a handy source for big thick Bantam-Megiddo English-Hebrew and Hebrew-English dictionary two-volume sets, each the size of a hefty Bible? Didn’t think so), this brings me enormous joy. Those that were deteriorating will deteriorate no further. Those that are venerable but have been preserved by gentle, affectionate use will receive reinforcement. And I won’t have to look at a book and think, crap, what a shame that’s falling apart, but I don’t see what I can do about it.

Yes, they are meant to be read. And thanks to an effort that brings me fundamental joy, they will be readable for my lifetime, and well into someone else’s.

I know that’s what they taught you in school; I don’t care

We still use language for the same purposes we did when I was a child. For that reason, I’m generally averse to changing a term’s definition, especially when we need that word (like ‘literally’; without it, we have no way to separate metaphor and exaggeration from accurate recitation), or when the word has been redefined not because it needed redefinition, but due to basic sociopolitical cowardice.

What we don’t do the same is commit language to record. We do not type on manual typewriters, where it took physical effort to begin a new line. We do not type on electric typewriters, where one used to hit a button for that purpose. If we wanted center justification, we did elementary mathematics. Younger people who never used typewriters would be astonished at how much of Word’s superficial presentation originates in the typewriter, such as tab stops. The earliest word processing was meant to imitate what people understood best, and that was the typewriter.

We also don’t write with a pencil or pen in our dominant hand. Many of us can no longer write a word of cursive English beyond our own signatures, and schools are discontinuing its instruction. One day the ability to read cursive English will be a specialized skill for wonks only.

Nowadays, we either type on a computer keyboard, a laptop keyboard (I only consider laptops as half a computer), or some tiny chiclet-sized key images on a glass surface. We do have to hit the space bar after a word or punctuation–the space itself is a character–and we have had some more years to debate the way punctuation inflects meaning.

We also don’t so often print the words on paper. We often send them electronically. No one–at least, no one whose hands are not too arthritic to type in the first place–is going to type several hundred pages of text, revise it with multiple rewrites, and send this ream-sized manuscript to one publisher at a time, awaiting its return and enduring its entire loss if it is not returned. We can wave the mouse and make the whole document double-spaced. We can enforce a paragraph-opening indent. We don’t need underlines or caps for emphasis. We have proportional fonts with automatic kerning. We don’t even need font cartridges, as we used to use in the earlier days of inkjet printers.

What we learned as kids, and in typing class, was what teachers of the day were conditioned to teach us. Some of it made sense. Some really didn’t. We got marked down if we did it differently, conditioning us to consider it ‘correct.’ Then: the way we committed language to record transformed. Those of us in ‘the industry’ transformed with it. Those not, mostly did not, obstinately insisting that what they learned in 1963 must still be right, and if you don’t like it, get off my lawn and stay off my Social Security.

It is time they–you, if you are reading this, and you are over fifty–awaken to what you are doing wrong. This is especially true if you start a blog, or start shopping your manuscript. If your editor tells you we don’t do it that way any more, believe him or her and cooperate. I would not lie to you about the industry standards, and if I tried, I could not get away with it.

Most people over fifty are doing some things wrong.

The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford. I have often vented about my refusal to recognize Oxford’s moral authority over the English language, but this comma phenomenon exists by any name. When presenting a listing with commas, our grade school teachers taught us to omit the comma before the conjunction (typically ‘and’ or ‘or’). Thus, “Seattle, Pullman, Eugene and Corvallis have I-A football teams.” They and we were doing it wrong most of the time, and here is why: failure to use this comma creates an association between the last two items in the list. If we want that association, we should omit it. If we do not, we should use the comma. There is no mindless rule yea or nay. So no, TCFKAO is not always required, but is usually appropriate; intended meaning must govern.  We were taught wrong, and rather than continue to do it wrong, we must improve. I don’t care what Miss Unruh taught you back in school. Start doing it right.

Two spaces vs. one space. This did not exist for me until I began to type. Our typing teachers taught us: two spaces after a period, exclamation point, or colon. One after everything else. For some reason, my age group and those older cling to this obsolete usage as though it were heavenly gospel. It existed because, on the typewriter, all fonts were fixed-pitch. A font consists of a typeface (Arial, Times Roman, Courier) and a pitch (size; typical number of characters per inch of printed text). Courier 12 is a font, as is Arial 8 or Times Roman 24. A typeface is proportional or fixed-pitch as one of its basic properties; most are proportional, because proportional was what we always wanted but could not do on a typewriter. Professional typesetting used proportional fonts because it could, and because it was more readable. To see what every one of my college history papers looked like, pull up a document in your word processor and change a paragraph to Courier 12, which is a fixed-pitch font. Our typewriters could not handle proportional fonts, like this blog’s. Because they could not, Courier was harder to read, and we learned to use two spaces after certain punctuation marks. This is no longer Mrs. Overley’s freshman typing class. In modern documents, an extra space is just pointless air. Let it go. Even Mrs. Overley probably has.

Underlines and caps. Gather round, children, for a tale of the days when we were one step above writing with flint knives, burins, mastodon grease, harvested ochre, and dried stretched deerskin. We could not make text bold on a typewriter. We could not italicize it. Only on later typewriters could we change fonts at all. Even then, we could not change their size as issued. If we wanted emphasis, and we were too lazy or illiterate to make our word choices convey the emphasis–or, in fairness, we were writing dialogue and needed the occasional emphasis–we had underlines, and we had all caps. This led a generation of kids, mine as it happens, to use these methods even into their middle age–when italics were available and didn’t cost a nickel. Stop it. There are very few reasons to use underlines. Debate goes on about book titles, but I think the underline is a holdover from when we would backspace and hold down the underbar key. There are even fewer reasons to use all caps, unless one wants to scream in text. When I see underlines and caps, I don’t see a good writer. I don’t give a damn what your IBM Selectric let you do; start doing it right, won’t you?


An abnormally long absence

I do not normally go this long without posting.

Here’s what happened: I was preparing for international travel. It is clear to most people that if you are about to leave your home for a couple of weeks, what you don’t do is announce it to the entire world. That invites criminals to come visit you.

Deb and I were in Ireland. I did not post from there for a number of reasons:

  • There was no Internet at our first week’s stay.
  • The Internet at our second week’s stay was glutinous.
  • About halfway through, Deb grew very sick, and I had other things on my mind. As she began to improve, naturally, I got sick.

Having to spend fourteen hours in aircraft seats, plus seven hours sitting around airports, doesn’t do much for a sick person–especially one who has not had access to familiar remedies. When I got home, I was ill enough I could not sleep reclining, and every cough created a ripping feeling all the way up my trachea. A couple of times I even coughed up tissue. In short, I have not really had a very good time since returning.

I do have some material I composed in Ireland (when your wife wants only to lay around and suffer and be helped by you, you have a lot of leisure time), and will sort it out and publish it as I regain strength. For now, that strength is limited but improving daily. I also have some client work that is due soon, and I trust the reader to appreciate that such has first claim upon my finite energy supplies.

Thank you for your understanding. I have not forgotten my regular readers, and I am grateful for each of you.

The dumbest criticism of writing I ever hear

Book reviews are great places to see people say dumb things. Some of those dumb things are also common in message board posts, comment sections, and ordinary face-to-face speech. I have a passionate loathing for “dumb things everyone repeats as if they were automatically true,” but this one is the dumbest of the dumb:

“Profanity is a sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The ability to rub together four brain cells would dispel this bromide at its birth, but since that ability seems so lacking, let’s perforate it once and for all with a volley of logic bullets.

In the first place, while I have been accused of many faults–some, with cause–a small vocabulary has never been among them. I don’t normally brag about it because it’s nothing for which I may take credit; it is the residue of fifty-one years of avid reading, 99% of which I enjoyed with gusto. I also have active vocabularies in foreign languages ranging from five to five thousand words depending on the tongue, with inactive vocabularies rather larger. There are few times to show off in an effort to humiliate someone, and that would be one.

I swear. I curse. I use bad words. I use them in speech and writing. Do I have a limited vocabulary? Pretty certain I do not.

People swear for many reasons. Some do it to release frustration. It’s better to swear than to break something, hurt someone, or bottle it all up inside. It can be used to intimidate, and intimidation is not always a bad thing. Some people will not do the right thing except when legitimately frightened, and a bad word or two says “I do not care what you think of me.” Some do it for comic purposes. Some swear just because it happens to feel good right about then. Some would not get through freeway and arterial traffic with sanity and language purity both intact. Some do it for effect in writing. I am sure you could think of other cases.

None of those reasons speak to a limited vocabulary. Claiming that swearing does so indicate only announces one’s own lack of reasoning capacity. Nice going. Look, if it offends you to hear or read profanity, just admit that it offends you. It’s okay to be offended. I’m offended by the foolishness of the claim about limited vocabulary, and I’m not going to apologize, so if you want to say that profanity offends you, fine. Be offended when you feel it necessary.

In our single-bit binary logic republic, perhaps a fair number of people will look at that and say: “Ah, so you advocate unlimited profanity without restraint. Classy.” Now that’s going from the frying pan of dumbth into the fire of stoopid. I advocate nothing of the kind.

In speech, as anyone not jumping into or out of frying pans of dumbth will grasp, times and places occur where profanity is appropriate or inappropriate. On the phone doing business? Mostly inappropriate, unless the situation is special. If my listing agent calls me to tell me that the buyer has bilged out of the deal for a stupid reason, and I have a long, collegial relationship with that agent, I may be entitled to a cussing-of-the-situation. If I’m calling the sheriff’s deputies to request their assistance, and there’s no reason for me to be worked up, gratuitous profanity would be a lousy idea. Let’s say I’m making a sales call on the Sisters of Perpetual Outrage convent; I probably shouldn’t drop bad words on Mother Superior, nor even on Daughter Inferior.

In writing, the rule would be: depends on the situation, but on balance one should consider profanity a chip one may play when and where it will have best effect. Like em dashes, ellipses, italics, caps, adverbs, passive voice, and all the other quirks that bad writers seem to mistake for ‘style,’ profanity loses its effect in high concentrations. Like all those chips, profanity has its place in the language. Its place is not in formal historical writing, for example, nor in a legal brief, nor in a cover letter. In a travel narrative? It may have its place. In fictional narrative? Same. In dialogue? If credible. How could one write credible stories involving bikers or ironworkers without profanity? “You better walk that stuff back, you child of a prostitute, or I’ll kick your backside!”

Telling people when to curse aloud is beyond the scope of what I do, but I can speak to the place of profanity in writing. The best approach I can suggest is: consider appropriateness and effect. Have you been burning lots of chips? If so, you should not tack on another bad habit. If not, then consider whether the likely impact is worth burning one of your precious deviations from good orthography. Would this naughty word make a real difference, enhance your narrative? If it would, let fly. But don’t do it just to indulge yet another lazy novice writing habit. Don’t waste the chip.

Admit it: you were waiting to see whether I would swear, weren’t you? Why would I? The goal of this article is to educate and persuade (with the secondary goal of shaming, in a few cases). Profanity would not do that. It would be as trite, predictable, and amateurish as the typical Facebook meme.

Not that I am incapable of triteness, predictability, or amateurism, of course. I’ve even been known to combine the three. I would like to think I rarely use them without reason. And I don’t need profanity to curse out the mentality that imagines profanity a sign of limited vocabulary. It would be fun for me, but less persuasive.

That is the point.


New release: Blue Ice, White Powder, by Jack Moscrop

This free travel story, in which the author summits Mont Blanc with his friends, is a recent release. I was developmental editor.

Jack, an English adventurer with a personality that radiates goodwill, came my way via Shawn Inmon. Shawn is one of the rising stars in self-published fiction, a field in which the reader has to kiss a lot of toads. (Believe me, because I’m the guy who gets the job of test-smooching.) Shawn seems to meet a significant number of people who are like him in that they have sincere desires to improve their writing work, and I’m honored when he suggests me as someone who could help them.

It was especially great seeing Jack walk through the shop doors because I’m a travel writing enthusiast. Not that I have to enjoy the subject matter to do my job, of course, but it’s nice when I do. Jack had me work on a couple of shorter pieces, and upon evaluating the first one I dropped a large bomb: I wanted him to change the verb tense of his presentation. In many cases, such a dramatic recommendation results in an answer like: “Or I could change editors, in hope of finding one who will tell me more what I want to hear.” Not Jack. Presented with the reasoning, he buckled down and did as I suggested. Now his voice was clear, and we could get somewhere.

What Jack didn’t and doesn’t need is help with describing the natural world. Early on it became obvious: he was the hands-down champion of descriptive language. Not even most well-known travel authors do it as well. All right, Mr. Editor, what do you do now? I asked myself. How do you give guidance to improve a talent that well exceeds your own? That’s why I like my work. It has the potential to present me with situations that will require me to elevate my own game if I hope to be relevant. I could not assist my client much in shaping his best weapon, but I could help him decide when and how to wield it.

I came to understand that Jack had expected a harsher experience from editing, because at one point in the first story he in essence asked if I’d pulled any punches. This is the sort of question to which one has at least some grounds to take umbrage, but I don’t believe that one should. Especially in the early stages of the relationship: if what the author gets is not the pummeling he or she expected, what is there but for him or her to ask the question? I answered in the firm negative. In the first place, I explained, this would be a gross dereliction of my duty, my profession’s equivalent of treason. Jack is a British accountant in real life, so it was easy to supply the stigmatic analogue to embezzlement. In the second, I’d just told him to do a complete recast of his first story before I could even render an opinion. Didn’t “go rewrite the entire thing before I can even begin to help” convey sufficient pain?

My reassurances pierced the fog of uncertainty, but it’s a useful thing to know about editing. Some writers are not expecting much in the way of kind words from us, and may not know how to take them. While I’m prepared to be waspish where I think it will help, I’m not here to crush someone’s soul. I’m here to help someone improve. In some cases, that is best done with wry humor, such as: “Now may we all rejoice. Your characters have learned the secret of teleportation.” The moral is to do it for effect, for camaraderie, for a desire to help–but don’t do it just to be mean, nor to look all properly grumpily editorial. ‘Needless jerk’ does not qualify as a professional philosophy. Just because the world has a stereotype of editors as the bean counters of literary products doesn’t mean that we must prove this true. Some doctors are like Charles Emerson Winchester, some are like Hawkeye Pierce, and some are like B.J. Hunnicutt–all of which M*A*S*H characters only resembled the medical stereotype to some degree. Yet on the show they were all superb doctors. Thus with editing: one keeps one’s eyes on the prize. If one believes that the author’s initial paragraph guarantees that the story will fail, one must so state. If one believes that the author has just written a loathsome sentence, one does not need the word ‘loathsome’; one might use one’s own writing talent to say, “This sentence simply must be rethought afresh, and this time lacking in flaws X and Y.”

In any case, Jack now believes that I’ll throw a tomato when he needs it, and that’s all to the good, because he also believes any praise he receives.

One great challenge facing the author of any narrative, fiction or non, is the decision of descriptive depth. How much detail does the reader want and need? Not everything needs exhaustive detail, or is worth the investment of crafting prose that conveys subtle shadings from rose to periwinkle or magenta. A primary character needs enough defining detail that the reader may fill in the rest of the picture. The traveled landscape needs enough that the reader camera can imagine a place on the trail where something of note occurred. A special sight, one the reader’s mind would not concoct, needs the kind of description that is in Jack’s power when he takes off the governors and lets rip.

In the case of Blue Ice, my first look focused on the areas where there wasn’t enough detail. This is why it’s hard: the author remembers the scene as it was, the story as it occurred. Now he or she must reconstruct it for someone who begins with no visual, no sense of dimensions, nothing. How does one place one’s mind back into the mindset of knowing nothing, then filling in the features as the author mentions them? It is very easy to underdescribe, to forget what the reader does not know. It is another pitfall to overdescribe, to take away all mystery and reach the Plane of Pointless Blather. That’s where I come in, because I’m also a reader. If I can’t figure out what the author means, I go back and re-read it. If I still cannot, I suspect the reader also could not, and I note that for my client. Often it helps to note the picture that my mind did paint, which may be erroneous, but that mails the missing piece that my client needs to supply.

The second look focused a bit more more on details of people, and there was some need to re-stitch some of the seams of continuity that now became apparent, but Jack had brought the tale a long way. I knew this was going to be good, and we moved toward publication. We still didn’t agree on the title, but if the reception continues to be good, this may not have been a detractor. Outcomes speak for themselves, of course. About the biggest thing I had to get out of him was a full-on description of what it looked like at a breathtakingly climactic spot in the narrative where, for some reason, he had chosen that spot to keep his marvelous descriptive facilities in the psychological camera case. After a polite version of “What the hell were you thinking? Of course they want to see this!”, he remedied it exactly as one hopes when one tells a real artist: “No limits. No guidelines. Create. Let’s see what you can do without restrictions. Own this.” Oh, he did–and he makes it look easy.

If you like adventure travel, I am confident you will wish to keep an eye on Jack’s work. Bill Bryson doesn’t even come close; Jack’s unpretentious humility and signal good nature leave Bryson choking on clouds of powder snow. It’s a different style from Tim Cahill’s or Tim Severin’s, thus fresh and interesting for its own sake.

This one is free, and can be had in numerous formats. Enjoy, for I think it quite likely you’ll say: I would have paid real money for this.