Tag Archives: editing services

Current read: _Union Now with Britain_, Clarence Streit, 1941

One way to study history is through the writings of the times, including those writings that faded quickly from public notice. An old used bookstore is a wonderful source for these, and I found this one at an antique mall. I gather it’s at least a bit rare.

Streit was an interesting guy. From Montana, he had a passion for democracy as a concept. Might sound a little odd, since until recently the US hasn’t exactly had a large contingent of open fascists, but it’ll begin to make sense later in this post. After serving in WWI and observing the way the League of Nations floundered (usually attributed to us snubbing it), he developed strong feelings about the forward progress of human government. The start of World War II brought those views into urgent focus, and Streit wrote this book in an effort to awaken his countrypeople to a Federal Union of the primarily Anglophone countries: the US, UK, Canada, Union of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.

Context is everything, and let’s establish it for this book. It was early 1941. Germany had absorbed Austria and half of Czechoslovakia (the remaining half becoming a puppet state). It had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France (puppeting part of it, occupying the rest outright). Of all those, Norway had taken longest. The USSR and Nazi Germany seemed allied, or at least friendly. Nazi warplanes were bombing the UK on a regular basis, and Kriegsmarine submarines threatened to strangle British connections to the Empire’s resources. Italian forces contended with a British Imperial force in Libya. The US was not at war, but had become something of a non-belligerent ally. Japan occupied a substantial chunk of China and was going to have to find petroleum somewhere, or else.

Dark times indeed.

Streit felt he had the solution, which was to escalate the US system up one level. Just as the thirteen original US states had more or less put aside their plentiful quarrels to form a Federal government, Streit felt that a Federal Union of mankind could begin by associating the Anglophone countries as member “states” of a greater whole. If the Germans took Britain and got the Royal Navy, he reasoned, the danger to the rest of the free world would move from severe to mortal. But if all these countries united with the pledge of never quitting until all were free and at peace, Hitler would either have to exit the war or face the mobilizing industrial might of the United States. Membership could then be offered to other non-Anglophone states, including those occupied by the Nazis, with the pledge of “we won’t quit until you’re free.”

Having advocated this solution for years well before the war broke out in Europe, Streit had thought through most of the issues and ramifications. Some he more or less glossed over as “to be dealt with later: A majority of the population governed by these states, perhaps, were not masters in their own houses; he did not propose to end apartheid and the British Raj immediately, and the colonialist chauvinism of the times is present in his outlook. He acknowledges that black Americans were not even nearly on an equal basis with whites, but doesn’t address changing that situation. He felt it quite possible that Hitler would back down rather than face such a Union (not an alliance, which Streit deprecated as temporary and fragile) alone. Japan’s intent was not known at the time, but I think he doubted Japan would square off with a united UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. And if it came to blows, the Union would combine the best of all its sciences, locations, and populations to create a military juggernaut Japan could never overcome.

Was it viable? Perhaps, if one could get people to put aside all their comparatively minor conflicts and some major ones. With Britain standing to benefit most immediately from Union, I think Streit figured that a union with Britain looked attractive to our friendly former colonial overlords, and that the rest of the Empire would follow. He might have been right. In France’s darkest hour, Churchill offered them a political union, but the French rejected it. Churchill was still Prime Minister. Might he have advocated this, in order to assure the survival of the United Kingdom?

That telegraphs the basis of my own doubt: my cynicism about people’s willingness to put aside relatively small matters for the greater good. Every time I go to the grocery store and see a maskhole wearing it below his or her nose, or crowding me in the checkout line, I am reminded just how many people simply do not care about others. I felt that way before the pandemic and I feel more so now. Are some peoples better about it than the ones among whom I must buy food? Perhaps; perhaps not so much. I resist the tendency to imagine that people really differ at heart. Take former Yugoslavia, where not only have the former member peoples broken the country into a half dozen pieces–inflicting enormous damage and death upon each other before the matters became settled–but none of the underlying resentments and angers are gone. In fact, all have obtained new chapters of resentment and grudge. And all could join in shouting me down about it, that I misunderstand how their own people’s grudges are all legitimate and those of all the others so much noise, that I know nothing of their region and the Horrible Things Done Centuries Ago that remain unavenged. Maybe I don’t, but I do know they weren’t killing each other under Tito, and when he left, killing started. I think less killing tends to be a good thing. Prove me wrong.

The most essential key to understanding Streit’s perspective is remembering what had not happened when he wrote the book.

  • Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Singapore.
  • Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were at war.
  • The public had not the faintest idea of the potential in nuclear weapons.
  • No nation had delivered the Nazi military any meaningful defeat.

A year after its publication, three of four of those ceased to be true. That’s how fast things were moving. No wonder Streit felt such urgency.

With outdated books, hindsight is an easy temptation; we have touched on some of it. Streit’s adoration of the US system as the perfect fundamental basis for Federal Union reads chauvinistic. Dismissing nearly 400 million Indians as unready to govern themselves was not calculated to please them, and glossed over the legitimate grievances of an aggregation of peoples who had done just fine until they became a “crown jewel” in someone else’s empire. We know that the war situation was about to change, and that Britain would survive the Blitz, but Streit did not. If one seeks to pick him apart, he’s no longer around to defend his proposal; he passed in 1986.

In any case, it’s worth the read not only for Streit’s take on the political and geopolitical study of it all, but for the view it provides of the way the world looked through one Montana son’s eyes in early 1941.

Scumbag studies: Reichsleiter Martin Bormann

Hardly anyone in Germany knew his name, but everyone near the top feared, respected, and/or hated him in varying mixtures. He was Hitler’s secretary, head of the Nazi Party chancellery, and so much the political tapeworm that he has become a slang term in my own world.

Of middle-class stock, Bormann served in the German military during the last days of World War I without seeing action. In the 1920s he joined the paramilitary Freikorps, then the Nazi Party. His work ethic and organizational skills had few equals, but Bormann did not attain a position of importance until the Nazi takeover in 1933. He became chief of staff to Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, a muddled man whose disinterest and disorientation cried out for a functional assistant. It interests me because I have seen this phenomenon over and over: a weak or distracted leader gets that one employee or volunteer who makes all the troubles go away, and comes to depend on that person in all things.

Of course, Hess flew to the United Kingdom in 1941 in a controversial attempt to make peace. (Let’s here and now dismiss the conspiracy theories about him dying in captivity and replaced by a double. In the first place, the supposed double would have had to fool not only the senior Nazis locked up with Hess in Spandau, but Hess’s own wife and son. I think not. In the second, who a) happens to be a dead ringer for the odd-looking Hess, and b) signs on to spend his life in jail? That’s a nope.) With Hess’s departure, Bormann became the head of the Party Chancellery–the effective head of the Nazi Party’s day-to-day workings.

People rarely think about this, but Germany had several competing organizations running its affairs. While the National Socialist German Workers’ Party had no rival parties, its organization was not exactly synonymous with the government. Neither was the SS in its varying branches and functions. To get a good sense of how Nazi Germany worked, one should understand that Adolf Hitler always had his subordinates and their organizations competing with one another. Bormann’s power emanated from the fact that he was one of the only people who had daily personal contact with Hitler. This meant that a word from him had the power to bind and to loose. A tenacious, ruthless political infighter, he naturally used this power to strengthen his own authority, reward those who cooperated, and marginalize or destroy those who did not.

He was certainly complicit in the Holocaust because he was complicit in just about every action by the Nazi-led German state from 1933 to 1945. The most loyal of Nazis, he was expecting to retain some form of power even as he sought to escape the Soviet Union’s Berlin encirclement.

What kind of a person was Bormann? To some degree he was a living German caricature, the sort that a bad parody writer (and a committed Germanophobe) might devise. He was at your throat or at your feet, sullen in defeat and unbearable in victory, to borrow phrases from writers past. A tireless worker loyal to the chain of command–there being only one link above him–his meticulous ability to organize and maneuver could move mountains. An obsequious toady to Hitler and a bellowing tyrant to his staff, he loved his wife but made a habit of cheating on her. Bull-necked, squat, thick around the middle, and unpromising in appearance, his only serious limiter was the lack of any public speaking ability.

While there are always those seeking answers in conspiracy, in this case there isn’t much room for a reasonable person to believe that Martin Bormann survived World War II. He died on May 2, 1945, six days before the Third Reich surrendered to the Allies, probably from poison to avoid imminent capture. Forensics (1973) and eventually DNA testing (1998) leave no room for doubt.

In addition to his legacy of complicity in one of the most evil regimes of the modern day, Martin Bormann left me the perfect term for the political infighter, the tapeworm in the body politic, the ass-kisser who slithers into a position of great power. I saw Bormanns (Bormenn?) in most offices I worked in, and have seen them in several of my wife’s past employments. I have seen female and male Bormanns, ugly and attractive, thick and thin, smart and dumb (but with powerful animal cunning).

Any time there is a leader who punishes those who tell him or her what s/he needs but does not wish to hear, a Bormann scents opportunity and enters the body politic through the contaminated nourishment of zealous volunteerism and fawning humility. Once established, everything that passes through the body politic must pass the Bormann. After s/he destroys enough challengers, the rest learn not to provoke the tapeworm whose choice to bite in just the right spot can be fatal to a career.

Bormanns thrive in non-profits and for-profits alike, in government and business, even in social clubs.

If you can remember any Bormanns from your own experience, feel free to tell stories about them.

If you’re such a great editor, why don’t you write your own books?

We get this one a lot. There are many possible answers, and for some, multiple answers might apply.

  • The editor doesn’t want to. It can be as simple as that.
  • The editor realizes that there is more money in editing than in writing.
  • The editor knows that marketing is the difference between success and failure, and doesn’t like marketing. Or doesn’t mind it, but can’t or won’t do it well.
  • The editor has done so, either under a pen name or perhaps an unpublished work.
  • The editor takes more satisfaction in helping and guiding and teaching other people than in creating his or her own projects.
  • The editor doesn’t want the public engagement that could come with a reasonably successful book, at least not for the pittance s/he would likely earn from it.
  • The editor never got comfortable with the traditional publishing model (writer begs and begs, house condescends to accept the bulk of the revenue).
  • The editor isn’t neurotic enough to be a writer. (Okay, I’m sort of kidding. Sort of.)
  • Editing and writing require different skill sets and not everyone has both.
  • The editor hasn’t got anything original to share.
  • The editor is too busy helping others to focus on his/her own book.
  • A similar situation exists in many disciplines. Not everyone who can refinish furniture can build it. Not everyone who can repair a car can design and build a car.

Some of those apply to me to varying degrees. I’d bet some apply to most editors.

field trip

In school, did you like field trips? I always did. I’d do anything to get the hell out of the classroom.

Today the blog is going on a field trip to Kit ‘N Kabookle, the online home of fellow traveler/colleague Mary DeSantis. She has been posting visiting editorial tips for some months now, one per week, and I’m up to bat.

For my topic, I decided to talk about choosing an editing mode beginning from the writer’s viewpoint: in plain English, what exactly is a given writer seeking from an editing professional? “I need an edit” is very inspecific. It’s like saying “I need a car repair” without talking about what’s wrong.

I always think it’s nice to know the name of what one wants, myself.

Mary’s site has plentiful information resources. She was pleasant and professional in arranging and scheduling this, and I thank her for her kind e-hospitality.

A blueprint for becoming a well-paid, respected fiction author

No, really.

You might not like some parts of it, but it would work. It would also, if I were a participant, make me less money–just in case one is tempted to imagine that this is a purely self-promotional notion.

It also involves marketing. Yes, marketing is icky and you hate it. I get it. It is also what separates the moneymaking writer, even if mediocre, from the impoverished writer even if superb. You either embrace marketing and decide to do it, or you pay to work rather than being paid to work.

If you’re still interested, you at least asked, “What marketing would that be?” That’s a start.

First: learn to write and tell a story. Do this by writing a short story, say 5K words, and hiring a competent editor for at least one developmental edit. Might need more than one. The logic here is that if you hire the right person, you basically get an intensive writing class. You would also get that if you wrote novellas or novels, the difference being that this will achieve it cheaper and faster. You will overcome all the tyro mistakes: stop using italics as substitutes for good writing, learn differences between dialogue and narrative, get over your adverbs and ellipses and em dashes.

Once your short story doesn’t suck, publish it on Amazon as a free giveaway. Yes. Free. No, I am not joking, and no, I am not nuts. If you can’t make it free, charge the minimum, which I think is $0.99. The idea here is to build up a following. Your first five short stories should be free. Keep writing them. Continue to engage editing support as needed, but your editor will cost you far less because s/he will have less mechanical stuff to do and will have moved you on to more advanced thinking as you shape your storytelling abilities.

You want reviews and people interested in more from you. You are building up your promotional base while making sure that you don’t charge people much for your earlier, less polished efforts. You are getting reviews, one hopes, feedback as to what readers like and dislike. You can compare public opinion to your editor’s impressions, ask for guidance relative to them. That’s part of what we do, evaluate review comments for validity or bogusness (bogosity?).

After you’ve got five up there that you are willing to make free as often as possible, start charging $0.99 for those going forward. Your base will take chances on you, because most people do not recognize $0.99 as actual money. It’s about the price of their coke with fast food. They will gladly pay that for a lunch read by an author they know they like. Word will spread. You will start to earn. You might not yet be breaking even, but neither will you just be pouring money down a sinkhole.

What you are doing here is creating a pool of passive income and marketing that keeps working for you after you have already paid for it, like rent-free billboards with your name on them. By using short stories, you are doing this as cheaply as possible. Editing and proofreading cost less. They do add up over the course of about twenty-five short stories, but each is a spend-once-benefit-longtime cost. If you think you are pretty badass, you can always try releasing a story without editing guidance and see how it’s received.

Yeah. I just told you it was okay to try skipping hiring an editor. If you have started to believe that you are special, and you want to test your theory, just try it without one and see how the reviews are. Do I think you should do this? Fundamentally, no; but if you are starting to ask yourself whether you want to keep spending that money, this is the only way you will obtain an answer you can believe. If it doesn’t seem to matter, then at least you’ll make informed choices. If it gets lousy reviews and people wonder what the hell went wrong with you, then you’ll have a metric for what good the editor was doing you.

Once you’ve got a couple dozen shorts out there that people can use for discoverability, come up with a novella. Maybe it’s based upon situations and characters that the readers liked; by now you have ample feedback on that. Have a developmental edit on the novella, because the issues facing longer work differ from shorter work, and you now need to learn these. It will be far, far less expensive than if you’d just busted out a debut novel and had to go back and forth three times while your editor taught you to get rid of passive voice and write decent dialogue.

If you stall out, and think that you have “writer’s block,” you’re incorrect because there is no such thing. If you are tired of writing, tell yourself the truth. If you just need a break, tell yourself the truth. If you can’t figure out what to write, tell yourself the truth. Deep down, you either do or do not want to keep doing this. If you don’t want to, stop; it was worth a try. If you want to continue, write something, anything, every day. Write naughty limericks, journal, send letters to the newspaper editor, do a blog, even write about how old this is getting. Doesn’t matter. People who want to and have the time and means to write are writing; people who do not want to write are not. Right now I want to write this blog post. Never, ever externalize your desire to write and assign it to the completely invented, non-recognized, self-sabotaging syndrome/disorder/dysfunction that goes by W.B.

So don’t give your novella away free, but don’t make it too spendy. Most of your readers, being readers, can do a little thumbnail math. If it’s 35K, and you charge a buck for short stories averaging about 5K, and you hit them up for $4.99 for it, that won’t seem unfair. Its audience will overlap with that of your short stories, but not completely; you may want to have occasional giveaway weekends if Amazon will let you. Depends how it’s doing. The idea is to leverage your past following to break into a different market segment.

If you want to do full-length novels, make a similar step up from novellas as you did from stort stories.

While you are doing all of this, build a marketing plan. Yes. The first conversation I have with most prospective clients goes this way:

“So. Is it a vanity book or a commercial book?”

“Oh, it’s definitely commercial. Absolutely. It is many adverbs commercial.”

“Great. What’s your marketing plan?”

“What do you mean, ‘marketing plan’?”

“That’s what makes it commercial. A ms without a marketing plan is a vanity project–and that’s not a putdown. Vanity projects are just fine and I am happy to help with them. I run off half my prospective customers just by being honest with them about how this world really works. I would rather do that than take money under deceptive pretenses. You can surely find someone desperate enough to resort to deceptive flattery, but that’s not me. So: you don’t have a marketing plan, and right now it’s a vanity project. But if you develop a marketing plan, you will have a method in mind to get your money back and then some. Either way, that’s my first guidance to you: examine your goals and be honest with yourself about them.”

Any whom that approach sends fleeing for an editor who “believes in my work” or otherwise makes them feel warm and fuzzy, did the right thing. If they aren’t comfortable with blunt honesty even when it acts against its own financial interests, they aren’t the clients I want. If I’m going to make less money out of principle, I damn sure want to like my work and feel good about my clients.

At any rate, if you spent that year or two developing and executing and refining a marketing plan, you should have significant residual income coming in from the shorts. With a little luck, some of them will have broken even or better, and their income streams might help you fund editing, covers, etc. for future work.

Now and then it might make sense for you to put out a new short story even if you’ve mostly gone to longer works. Might even make it a new freebie, depending on your marketing plan. There is even the outside, bizarre, fantastic possibility you might have made your peace with marketing by now, even if it is the same sort of peace you have made with your toothbrush: “I either do this, or I have really bad dental days.” Believe me, that’s about as far as I have gotten with it.

So. Easy? No. Workable? More than ever before. Requires time and money? Yes, somewhat, but if I could imagine a quicker and cheaper method, I would be recommending that.

Project Hamilton

This isn’t about editing or writing.

This is Project Hamilton.

This is about current US society and economics. It may apply to others in other societies, but I am speaking to the only one I know and in which I participate.

This is me summoning the haves. If you’re doing rather well, I’ve got a suggestion for you.

Because of the disease, which it seems highly likely will soon enter its second phase and do multiple times more harm, there are two economic categories: the haves and the have-nots. The haves either have plenty of money or are still earning enough to live and save a little. Most of them are currently spending less money than they usually do, so they have some extra. The have-nots are chronically underemployed, working at risk, or deprived of all income. Few of them asked for those situations.

The reason the haves can still buy groceries and live through this in relative comfort is in large part because some of the have-nots go to work. The have-even-lesses can’t even do that. My answer is Project Hamilton.

The concept is simple. You probably don’t shop locally as often as you did before. When you do, kick in an extra $10. If buying groceries, give the extra bill to the checker, and ask her please to hang onto it until someone comes along who is obviously in serious distress, then contribute it to that person’s payment. If you are going to get takeout or drive-through from a restaurant, add $10 in tip. The drive-through people never get anything normally; the takeout people are probably waitstaff who normally rely on tips. Wherever you go, give them an extra ten bucks. If you need to, do like at the grocery store and have them share it with a person in need.

At some point the nail salons and barbers will reopen, and you can take it for gospel they are all financially blasted (and sick of driving Uber or Grubhub). First couple times you go back, tack on an extra $10 above your normal gratuity, to help them catch up and rebuild.

If you cannot afford this, I’m not asking it of you.

If you can, I am. Share. Show people that you value them. Sustain this through the recovery. Right now the economic reality is that the dollars aren’t turning over. It is in your power to turn over some more dollars, which will help people have work and make money and stay somewhat afloat. It will also give people heart, which has its own value.

We have become a dystopian society, but this initiative has nothing to do with nationalism or politics. This has to do with whether we choose to share, or not to share. This has to do with how we each define ourselves. Are we really this dystopia, or are we better than that? Talk is cheap (including blog posts). What you do is who you are.

I have made my choice. Yours is up to you.

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Addendum: in the early response to this post, shared in a number of places, I have seen many method variations on its basic theme. All of those variations are great. Better still, many people were already doing them before I got around to this post.

I salute all of you who participate in any way, whether you were already doing so or have now just begun. Any generous way one chooses to do this is a correct way.

An interview with time travel fiction author Shawn Inmon

Today I have an interview with Shawn Inmon, one of a very small percentage of authors who earn a living at this, and one of what might be a smaller percentage of fiction authors who handle time travel well. With his most recent release now out, he was able to spare us some time to answer a few questions about this dark art.

JK: So, Shawn, first please tell us how you got into writing in the first place.

SI: I won a writing contest when I was fifteen years old and was named one of Washington’s Most Promising Young Writers. I was sure fame, fortune, and Pulitzers were right behind that.

As it turned out, I didn’t actually publish my first book for forty-seven more years.

That first book was a memoir–an easy entry for many a first time writer. In my case, life had handed me a pretty terrific story–falling in love as a teenager, having that romance forcibly ended and rekindling it thirty years later.

It made for a can’t-miss kind of story that was easy to write. The hardest part, as Bob Seger memorably said, was “What to leave in, what to leave out.”

And it was one hell of a tale. What inspired you to transition from non-fiction to fiction?

I honestly thought that first book might be it for me. Then, when it surprised me and started to sell well, I decided there might be a career there after all. However, I only had one love story to write about, so I knew I needed to segue into making up stories. That proved to be the right move. Fiction is limitless, whereas if I tried to continue to mine my own life for stories, that could wear thin pretty quickly.

Yeah, and any life would eventually run dry. Not much interest in The Rock I Tripped over When I Was Three. Who was your greatest fiction influence, and how/why?

I think I’m probably more influenced by Ray Bradbury than anyone else. I loved his natural style of storytelling. It never felt like he was trying too hard, but rather that he just sat down at his typewriter every day and magic flowed from his fingertips. I’m sure he worked and sweated as much as any of us, but it never showed.

Also, he was so workmanlike. I suppose that could be insulting to an “artiste,” but that doesn’t include me. I’ve always tried to bring my lunch pail every day and just get my words down.

Plus, I think Ray Bradbury was a good human being and I so often agreed with the themes he put forth in his books.

When I was a teen, Robert Heinlein was my guy. He swung his opinions like a weapon of war. I was attracted to that when I was younger. As I’ve gotten older myself, I find myself returning to Bradbury much more often than I do Heinlein. All these years later, I’m envious of what he accomplished so consistently and with such apparent ease.

So did you seek to emulate those strengths when you took to fiction writing, beyond the very obvious one that the lunchpail approach is one that gets the job done?

No, I can’t say that I did. I never consciously emulate anyone, though I’m sure all the reading I did seeped into my pores through osmosis. I’m more likely to take an idea from a book I read–a trope, or a situation–and file it away for future use. I have dozens of situations stored in my brain and hope that my subconscious will hand me the right one at the right moment.

For instance, in my most recent book, my protagonist met an antagonist. The antagonist took an instant dislike to our hero. That was the extent of my plan for that character. Then, they got thrown in together and grudgingly grew to respect each other and of course ultimately became like brothers. That’s a situation I had loved in a previous book that fell into place here. My situation ended up looking nothing like the source material (which is a good thing!) but grew from it.

My overall favorite author is Stephen King, and although I never attempt to emulate him, I know his habits have worked their way into my writing. I so admire his ability to connect me to a character in just a few words. Unlike some readers, I love his little side trips off the main plot. The difference is, his side trips are often ten thousand words. I try to limit mine to just a few hundred!

How long have you been writing time travel stories?

I started my first time travel book in 2015. I initially published it as six separate episodes, then bundled it all together into a single book in July of 2016. That was intended to be a standalone novel. About halfway through writing it, my first reader said, “This is going to be a great series!” I had no plans for a series, but that planted the seed.

When I finished that first book, Lord help me, I added a single line at the very end: “Coming Soon, The Redemption of Michael Hollister.” I had no idea what that story was or what it looked like, but I suddenly had a series.

I published the twelfth book in that series last September. I’m taking a little break from it at the moment, but I am planning to write the thirteenth book in October of this year. Essentially, that series–The Middle Falls Time Travel Series–took up all of my creative life for about three years.

And it has been an enormous success, with compelling characters in conflict–the essence of good fiction. What drew you to the genre?

To me, it’s just so much fun. There are so many ways you can go about it.

The first book I ever started (and never finished) was a time travel book. I just didn’t know enough about how to structure a story yet.

Time travel lets us visit different eras, which is fun. I remember reading Jack Finney’s Time and Again and feeling like I had actually been in New York before the turn of the twentieth century. When Stephen King wrote 11/22/63, my favorite part of the book wasn’t about Kennedy, but just what life was like in America in the late 1950s.

Then, there’s the fish out of water element. What happens when we take modern man (or woman–I’ve written three books with a female protag) and drop them into a completely foreign time zone? Whenever I start reading someone else’s time travel novel or start writing one of my own, I am still in awe at the possibilities.

What were some early struggles or issues you had to confront about time travel fiction?

So many! To me, it’s so easy to go astray writing time travel. So many hidden traps that we can fall into.

I remember when I first told you I wanted to write a time travel novel, you told me what you often didn’t like about the genre–that events continue to play out the same, over and over. Whereas, we know that in reality, just because a person does or says something in one version of reality, there’s no guarantee they would do or say the same in another go-round.

I took that to heart. So, when my characters wake up back at an early point in their life, things are initially–the first few minutes or hours–very similar. The farther they move away from that reset point, the more things change, though.

That can be used for dramatic effect, of course. What if a character is counting on something to happen because it did happen in their first life, but does not happen in their second, because they’ve done things differently and changed the world.

Of course, there’s the whole issue with “What if I traveled back and killed my father before he conceived me?” Blech. I have avoided those issues by creating a multiverse in my series. Each time a character is “restarted” at an earlier point in their life, it creates a new dimension, so there can’t be any conflicts like that. Essentially, I took the coward’s way out.

In my new series, I am using a portal for time travel, a la The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. That also does away with that kind of conundrum. Someday, I suppose I should write the more prevalent type of time travel–get in a machine, or step through a wormhole, or something along those lines.

What would you say has been the single biggest struggle or issue?

For me, it’s been how to keep a series fresh over twelve books. My series are all standalone novels, so there isn’t one overarching plot line. That means I have to essentially reinvent the wheel every book.

The central conceit–someone dies with unfinished business on their soul and wakes up at an earlier point to set it right–is unchanged from book to book. My challenge has been, ‘How can I write stories that adhere to that conceit, without getting repetitive?’ I’ve done so by mixing up sub-genres within the main time travel genre.

For instance, the first book centers on stopping a serial killer from killing. It’s a cat and mouse game. The second book, which features the antagonist from the first book as the main character is simply a redemptive arc for him, if such a thing is possible.

Meanwhile, the third book focused on a romance–how many lives would you live to get back to the one you love? The tenth book was a murder mystery combined with time travel, which is definitely an aid in solving a murder. With the twelfth book, I set a special challenge: create a main character on the autism spectrum, then give him only thirty days to live, and require him to change.

With that twelfth book, I found that all my ideas were riffs on books I’d already written. That’s when I took a break to write the portal fiction trilogy. Now that I have, a great idea for a thirteenth book has arrived: What if someone doesn’t want redemption? I’m looking forward to writing that one.

I think quite a few people will be looking forward to reading it. Happily, you are prolific. Would you call time travel its own genre, or a subgenre of others (such as SF, fantasy, romance, etc.)?

I suppose it’s a sub-genre, although it could be located under either Science Fiction (if it is science based time travel) or Fantasy (if it is portal fiction). To be completely honest, although I call my Middle Falls books Sci Fi, they’re really not. There isn’t a bit of science in any of them. They would more accurately be labeled as Metaphysical Time Travel, or even Reincarnation, but Amazon doesn’t have categories for that.

The truth is, I just write the stories I want, then figure out how to market them later.

Who else is excellent at writing time travel, and what makes that author’s work excellent?

Probably my all-time favorite time travel novel is Replay by Ken Grimwood. Sadly, he passed away shortly after it was published, so the follow up he was working on was never published. Word is that his estate has been looking for someone to finish the book, but so far, no one has come knocking on my door.

In contemporary fiction, my friend Nathan Van Coops does an excellent series called In Times Like These. His books are filled with humor, adventure, and he does a great job at making the reader feels like he’s there.

That’s what I feel great time travel writers do: they bring you into a time with just a few short stabs of details. Some writers will do a bunch of research and then beat you over the head with it. Clever writers slip those details in as part of the story, instead of long info dumps. I love those writers.

There’s a big difference between storytelling and showing off, and plenty of writers seem not to realize that, I think.

Speaking of which: You’ve surely seen a lot of bad time travel writing. Not going to ask you to name names, but what are some of the tells that signal a badly done time travel story?

Thank you for not asking me to throw other writers under the bus!

The first sign to me is what I just mentioned–the info dump. If I start a book and the writer spends the first three pages setting the scene, I’m outta there. Too many books waiting on my Kindle.

With my new book, I have my hero discover the mysterious door in his basement in the first few thousand words. By the second chapter, he’s being dive-bombed by pterodactyl-like creatures. If it’s an adventure story, let’s have an adventure.

Of course, plot holes are easier to create in time travel than just about any other genre. I’m more forgiving of those, though, as I might slip into that pothole myself from time to time.

More than anything, though, I think the sign of a bad time travel book is when it’s more of a situation, rather than a story. I can throw a guy two thousand years into the past, but if I don’t do something interesting with him once I get there, it’s all for naught. All the elements of a good story–tension, conflict, goals and goals blocked–need to be just as present in a time travel book as anywhere else. So often, I find a writer will create a cool scenario, then not have any real idea what to do with it from there.

We all know that reviews can be ignorant, cruel, or quite frequently both. What’s the most unjustified type of review comment you see on time travel books?

I never mind bad reviews, really. If you go to Thomas Weaver on Amazon, the Top Review lists all the reasons people shouldn’t buy my book. (The book has 300 reviews, but that one stays at the top!) The thing is, I love having it there. The things she complains about (although she exaggerates somewhat) are things that other people will look at and say, “Hey, that’s for me!”

Occasionally, a reviewer will say something that flat out isn’t true – an element of the book that just isn’t there – but I feel like I’ve just got to move more copies of the book, which will result in more reviews, which will drown out the white noise of those few negative reviews.

I came to grips with the idea that not everyone is going to love what I write, no matter how hard I try. That was pretty freeing. Now, when those bad reviews crop up, they don’t hold any sting. The other thing is, if I’m just getting positive reviews, that probably means I haven’t done a great job of reaching a wide enough audience.

Initially, I try to swim where the water is warm and get the book to my readers that I know are prone to like it. Eventually, though, I’ve gotta toss it out there where there be sharks.

Which is a good outlook. But can you give an example, without singling anyone out, of a type of review comment you have seen often on a time travel book (yours or someone else’s) and thought, “That’s just ignorant.”? For example, when I see the snippy “obviously she should fire her editor,” that’s one of my own triggers. It says to me: “This reviewer doesn’t know how books are assembled.” Any category of comments like that, with respect to time travel?

Overall, I find that people confuse editing and proofreading. I think that’s because editing is mostly invisible. If an editor saved me from wandering down the wrong path, it just never shows up in a book. However, if a stray typo survives, that’s noticeable to anyone.

I think the kindest thing I can say is that there are different levels of readers out there. Many readers just want to skim along the surface and if they don’t pay attention and bump their noses against something because they weren’t paying attention, they may complain loudly about it.

I occasionally hear from readers who have put a lot of time into thinking about the concepts and themes of my books. Every writer loves that, of course, and I’ve had some enlightening conversations with people that helped me see things I didn’t even know I had put in the books.

Speaking of reviews, I have written an entire book because of a fairly negative review. It was on the third book in my series and the reviewer complained that my protag was too single-minded in the pursuit of his goal. I wasn’t put off by that comment, because that was a feature, not a bug, of the book. I wanted him to be single-minded to the exclusion of all else.

However, that review set my mind off on another path and I eventually wrote the fifth book in the series as an answer to it. Essentially saying, ‘Okay, you want a non-tunnel vision character? Here she is!’ I mentioned that in my Author’s Note for the book and the reviewer eventually got in touch with me. (He must have liked the series well enough to read at least two more books.) We had a good laugh over it.

Talk about abiding by the lemons and lemonade parable. I no longer need to ask you the question about “where do you get your ideas?” Because we know how authors love that one.

Ha! They do come from the oddest places!

The tenth book in the series came from listening to a sportscaster one morning. He said, “So picture this–eighteen year old kid is suddenly given fame and millions of dollars. You can imagine what happens next.” He was right–I could. It turned out to be a pretty good story, I think.

Of course the first book in the series drew from my own life. One of my cousins killed his older brother in a car accident, and I used that as the inciting incident in that first book. The serial killer came from my imagination, though. If I know any serial killers, I’m not aware of it.

And we’re going to keep it that way.

Since I’m close to the SF community, I talk to plentiful writers about time travel story concepts. What guidance would you offer a fiction writer new to time travel?

I guess to look beyond the setting to the story.

It’s always about the characters and the story. Do we care about them? If we don’t care about the characters, we sure don’t care about the book. We need someone to root for and maybe root against.

I just finished Blake Crouch’s Incursion. What an intricately plotted story! I felt my mind bending into a pretzel trying to keep up. It was exciting and full of twists. And yet, I forgot about it right after I finished it, because, for whatever reason, the characters didn’t resonate with me.

There’s a tendency I need to fight against, as well, and that’s creating “too” characters. Characters that are “too” good. Too competent, “too” whatever. I constantly try to remember yin/yang, and that there is a little of each in the other.

Yep. I see that all the time, the character where the author pounded me in the face with “this is the bad guy/gal.” Okay, I get it, now stop belting me with that.

You’ve got a new book out, one that looks to begin a new series. Can you please supply a purchase link, and tell us how your past work has influenced this new release?

Here’s the new book: A Door Into Time.

This book is essentially opposite of The Middle Falls series. That series is all about contemplation, introspection, redemption. This one throws a modern Special Forces member into essentially a prehistoric world, strips him of all his weapons, and challenges him to survive.

My favorite books as a young teen were John Carter of Mars, Pellucidar, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and The Mysterious Island. The problem is, those books were written 100+ years ago, so they are stilted in style and delivery by today’s standards. This book attempts to update that sub-genre of throwing a normal guy into an impossible situation.

I had such a great time writing it, and I hope that shows in the final product.

I am sure it will. Shawn, thanks so much for taking time out of your post-release schedule to answer these questions in such detail. Best of continued success in your work.

Thanks, J.K.!

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Please see the numerous links in the interview body for more about Shawn and his work. Others:

Shawn’s Facebook page

Shawn’s Goodreads page

Shawn’s page on Audible (most of his books are also available as audiobooks; he’s way ahead of the world on that)

I watch lightning

I watch lightning.

For all of my life, few natural phenomena give me such a thrill as lightning and thunder. Its fundamental randomness renders it superior to any fireworks display, that and each bolt’s brevity; each gives you half a second or so to absorb, as you begin to count down the distance. After that, the bolt is gone, as certainly as a wave is gone once it surges ashore. It is a thing, created in an instant and lost without trace when the sound rumbles away.

I sit or stand, choose a likely area of sky, and stare.  Sometimes it comes with a mild or distant flash. Other times it comes bright and nearby, a sudden white crack spreading and forking across the heavens, as if they were giving way at a line of fracture. The imminent thunder confirms the sensation, at times rumbling, at times booming. All our works, all our technologies and engineering, and still I must disconnect my computer from the wall unless I want to risk my primary writing tool.

I watch lightning, and it feels as though an angry divinity were pitching a colossal, god-sized temper fit. I can stand out in the midst of it without fear, without feeling chill from the acute soaking rain and its bald-spot-seeking drops. The last thing I desire is to take cover; not only are statistics on my side, if one has to go, I can think of few more sublime ways to pass on. If I cannot feel the rain and humidity of the storm, I did not truly experience it.

We get not so much lightning here in eastern Washington, but back in Kansas it means business. I recall a visit to my grandparents when the storm was loud and bright enough to jolt me out of bed at 2 AM, lightning and thunder alike both constant. It occurred to me that I could easily read a book to this display without turning on a lamp. For two hours I did just that, one of the redolent old tomes from my grandfather’s western-inspired library.

I find that with any climatic situation of extremes, there are two reactions: huddle against it, or soak it in.  Sip it gingerly as if forced, or tilt your chin toward the skies and pound the whole thing, yelling for more? Huddle and shiver against the cold, or breathe deeply and feel the ice? Shake one’s fist at the flaming star, or bask in it and battle on? Hiss curses at the downpour, or splash through it? They relate to our ways of living life, and in rather too many aspects of life I sip gingerly. In all those aspects, I take more harm and discomfort from my gingerness than from what I forced down my throat. In those aspects where I guzzle the whole quart and give a cheer, I do better. I emerge from them somewhat more bruised, and gods know what I did to my system, but exhilarated and suffused with adventure. We might liken life to trying a series of drugs. Do you split the tablets, just try a bit, or do you just swallow the stuff and hang on?

The stream of thought reminds me of the words of an ancient woman, in her nineties, asked what she would do different were she to take the walk of life again. One line:  “I would have more real worries, but less imaginary ones.”

Well said, ma’am.  Well said indeed.

Current read: Kosher Chinese

Kosher Chinese, by Michael Levy, tells the story of his two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guiyang, PRC.  Guiyang is in the southern Chinese interior–east of Tibet, northeast of Burma, north of Vietnam.  Even though it’s a city of four million (larger than Seattle), it says a lot about China’s population that I’d never heard of Guiyang before now.  Guiyang has about the same population as New Zealand, and Levy spent two years teaching English in its schools from 2005-2007. I am sort of reviewing Levy’s book, and sort of adding my own observations as influenced by and derived partly from it, so I admit this isn’t a strictly disciplined book review. That’s why it’s free.

You’d figure that a semi-observing American Jew might have an interesting take on a country that doesn’t have many Jews, and as Levy makes clear, understands Judaism mainly through stereotypes.  In fact, the statements Levy reports hearing about Jews jumped out at me early on. If they came out an American mouth, we’d call them anti-Semitic. Racism evidently doesn’t carry the same fundamental stigma in China, and most of the stereotypes recited to Levy about his culture weren’t meant to offend, but put admiringly (which would not excuse them here).

Very good travel/adventure writing, as I see it, tells the story and lets the reader discover the comedy. Levy does a fine job of this. A small example:  some Chinese studying English, lacking a bit of context, are prone to choose English names for themselves that aren’t even actual names. When two female students introduced themselves to Levy as Shitty and Pussy, we got an amusing example. Must have been interesting for him to try and call on them in class with a straight face.  He was able to write about it with a straight face, and I’m not sure I’d have had as much discipline.

The rise of PRC economic muscle hasn’t reached a lot of the population, including areas like Guiyang.  When Maoist semi-socialism became ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ what that meant was ‘all the corruption, none of the safety net.’  Since corruption happens in all types of government, we may interpret ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ as ‘capitalism.’ Authoritarian one-party capitalism, of course, but capitalism. Levy gives us a good look at how it’s working, with one’s connections and influence completely trumping merit or need.  If you’re connected and influential, you get taken care of, and you might be able to get rich.  If not, good luck.  I wonder if or when the Chinese will realize how deeply American their system has become; quite ironic when their education presents the U.S. to them as the ultimate exploitative capitalist plutocracy. (I take exception to ‘ultimate.’ )

The whole book was entertaining. If I had to pick the most informative and revealing aspect, it would be the central reason for Levy’s time in Guiyang:  education. The Chinese students Levy taught and spoke with affected (outwardly, at least) to believe everything they read in a textbook. The notion of critical thinking, to doubt or question textbooks or teachers, was more alien to them than Passover. We hear about this in the West, but it’s educational to have some firsthand description. It’s tempting to think that China’s demonstrated proclivity for copying, counterfeiting and imitating (rather than inventing, which was once a signature national quality) has a connection to this concept of education as indoctrination. I’d be wary of asserting it without broader reading, but it’s certainly got me thinking.

I think this book would get most people thinking.  Well worth the read.

On Stephen King

Reading on Salon today, I came across Stephen King: You can be popular and good. Author Erik Nelson is much perturbed by another article by a chap named Dwight Allen, which Nelson considers…well, let’s let him say it:

“Allen’s article isn’t just a bile-drenched, meandering hatchet job, it is a hatchet job with a rusty, dull blade, devoid of insight into anything other than the insecurities of its writer.”

Careful when you drop the gloves. The disagreeing side also has guys who don’t hesitate to do so. I had to learn that myself, writing reviews at Amazon. Nelson is good on his skates, has a good jersey grab and throws hard. Plenty of accepted adventure classics were not great successes in their time, and did not grab the literati of the day. It is later generations who start ‘rediscovering’ your literary merit after you are gone, in some cases. I like that Nelson got this hacked off; he writes like he means it. It’s a fun read if you like this sort of thing.

This voracious reader is not enamored of King’s books. We have a good percentage of the full set (all but one volume now for sale on Alibris) and I have only been able to finish one Stephen King book in my life. That does not make him a lousy writer, merely means his genre and style do not attract me. It’s possible to write bestsellers and truly suck as a storyteller (hello there, Dale Brown and Fatal Terrain). We can bring up all the old stuff about how you do not make money writing to please literati, but rather, by writing to please Visigoths who read trash. We can bring up the free-market paradigm, which says that financial success by virtue of crazy sales volume speaks for itself. We could argue about that all year, none of us walking away convinced and none of us changing our habits. We also won’t make one dent in King’s pocketbook. He could buy us and sell us into slavery if he were the type. If I were him, I doubt I’d care too much what the LA Review of Books thought. I might even send Allen a $500 check with the memo line “to help you make rent next month; thanks for the pub.”

While I may not fancy King’s fiction, he wrote what I consider the most worthwhile book on the craft of writing that I’ve had the good fortune to read. I would be many kinds of a dolt if I dared ignore whatever wisdom King had to offer about this pursuit. You may call the title On Writing frank and descriptive, or you can call it generic and uninspiring. Your judgment won’t change the value of the content, which is a Polar Bear Plunge into the way King creates a novel. Deb bought it for me one Christmas. I smiled politely, thanked her, pretended enthusiasm, groaned inwardly, then started reading. The enthusiasm ceased to be pretend. So many novice writers’ Frequent Mistake Points, all disposed of with such candor.

If you are trying to break into fiction writing, and you ask me for guidance, that book is my first recommendation. Most of the time, when people ask me about writing, they don’t really want advice. They want approval for their process. If they don’t get it, they get miffed: “Well, that’s my creative process.” Wonderful–best of luck and success! But please don’t get all chapped because I didn’t bless your creative process, or even told you I thought you were doing it wrong. Just disregard me and do it however you want to. I neither gain nor lose from what you do with the guidance you asked for, but you did ask for it. Remember?

When you no longer try to get everyone to read your stuff even if they show dubious interest, and you no longer argue with authors whom you ask for advice–in short, when you stop needing a steady flow of validation in order to continue–you level up as a writer.