Tag Archives: kw

Current re-read: Yankee Hobo in the Orient, by John Patric

The first time I read this book, my (purchased well used) copy was a gift I soon intended to pass along. Kind of blazed through. This time, with a copy I plan to keep, I’m giving it better attention.

John Patric was an interesting guy. A die-hard libertarian and frequent traveler, he said the things one was not supposed to say. The travels in the book happened late in the Great Depression, but he updated it after World War II. We thus have someone writing about a Japan that was already embroiled in land warfare, but had not yet become involved in the general global war; he has impressions of his travel, but also perspectives on a Japan under occupation following the incineration of many of its cities (two with nuclear weapons). He was also a Pacific Northwest homie, born in Snohomish, WA and making his residence down near Florence, Oregon (southward along the coast).

What’s great about Patric is the sophistication and general fairness of his outlook toward Japan and its people. He compares costs of living in terms that avoid the common oversimplifications of relative value. His goal was to paint a candid picture of Japanese society and attitudes without quivering in fear that someone might brand him Not A Good Murrican. Even though Pearl Harbor was about the most fortunate way in which our entry into war could have come about–and yes, it’s true; they destroyed two fairly obsolete battleships and bottomed three more, while whiffing on the carriers that would have been grave losses, and came to be the most important ships in the war–his times were those in which Japan was made out The Ultimate Demon by our customary wartime fanaticism. Saying anything remotely positive about Japan was about as popular as the word “retarded” is today. Patric didn’t care.

Patric observed a Japan in which people lived with great frugality, where fancy lodgings and things were mainly for tourists who would not tolerate the sorts of accommodations and travel most Japanese chose. Insofar as possible, he avoided the spendier options in favor of local custom.  He understood that tourist industries are designed to insulate the traveler from the truth while thinning his or her bankroll. I suspect Paul Theroux is a fan.

The result is a travel essay that did not follow the beaten paths, that saw Japan’s natural strengths and weaknesses, and that was able to apply hindsight to earlier observations. My copy was printed in 1945, when the future of Japan was uncertain from a Western standpoint.  If the book has a weakness, it might be his libertarian political ranting; Patric indulged himself in this way with as few f-bombs given as about any other subject he explored. Given that we now can see that libertarian economics ultimately lead to monopolies and corporate fascism, I find that part a bit naive given that Patric was a bright enough guy to have worked that through to its logical outcome.

Recommended for sophisticated readers who, like me, love old school travel writing.

Current read: How I F*cking Did It, by Jen Mann

When I bought this book, it was with an eye toward Mann’s comedy. I find her hilarious. How can anyone resist someone whose pseudonyms for her husband and children are Ebeneezer, Adolpha, and Gomer? She is (in)famous for her love of the word “fuck,” as you might gather from her title. If there is one core truth about Jen Mann, it’s that she is consistently herself and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of that. The fact that she has an enormous mom following suggests to me that she often says what others think and feel.

This, however, is the story of how she became a high-earning author. That’s why I am recommending it as a read for aspiring writers. She is quite candid about how her career got a jet-assisted takeoff with a viral blog post, but one might well remember that having the blog made that possible. She discusses the varying methods of promotion she has tried (or wishes she had in hindsight), her experiences with agents and publishers, and becoming comfortable with the public. My own takeaway was a confirmation that I might never attain anywhere near her level of comfort, but that doesn’t mean others shouldn’t pay attention. It just means I’m not real outgoing that way, not nearly as much as I ought to be.

As I’ve said before in this platform, my typical first question to a prospective client can be offputting: Is it a vanity or a commercial project? Oh, definitely commercial, they usually reply, as if a vanity project were something less worthy. I then ask them about the marketing plan, and I get silence. The difference between a vanity project and a commercial project is that the latter has a marketing plan and the former needs none. Why be so blunt at the start? Because only a truly commercial project is likely to recoup my fees for the client, and as the industry pro it is my duty to know such things and proactively guide the prospective client. It would be dishonesty by silence to let someone imagine they were going to make Big Money if I knew at the outset that was improbable.

That’s why I recommend this book. I haven’t even tried to interact with an agent or a publisher in recent years. That world evolves. Mann’s experiences are modern and relevant to the marketing of literary property as it occurs today, including the question of self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. She discusses how she got her name out there, how she moved past her comfort zones, and in short, how she got past all the boundaries that my marketing adviser keeps encouraging me to surmount. She knows better than I do, and I’m listening.

A small bit of descriptive writing guidance

My current read is a series by an author with a significant body of work. For me some of his presentation flaws are less important than the overall storyline, which I like. I bookmarked a spot that I could sanitize into a useful example of what not to do, and what to do instead.

Rarely do I approve of constructions such as “he felt.” When possible we should always be showing rather than telling. What is worse: telling when we are already showing, thus creating redundancy as well as awkwardness. (One could even make the case that it insults the reader’s intellect. [“Put it back!” she sobbed. She felt sad. ] Well, duh; that’s usually why people sob. Does the au think readers are too stupid to infer that?)

Dialogue tags are often key to avoiding the need for overt description of sentiment. While the conventional wisdom is that everyone said or asked, more descriptive tags have their moments. Actions described alongside them can also make extra telling unnecessary–and that’s what we want. The context is maritime, age of sail and scurvy. Here’s a sample:

===

As usual, Montoya chose to be pessimistic. “And the sick ones?”

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped. He was becoming irritated by the Spaniard’s bad moods.

===

What’s wrong with this? A few things. First–looking last–is ‘he was becoming irritated.’ Better to say that he found the Spaniard’s moods irritating. We might safely assume that they are bad, since good moods are unlikely to irritate, and it happens Montoya’s attitude is well established in the story. But we won’t need to edit it, because it’s not coming with us. More important here is the inept/excess description. We don’t need to say that Montoya is usually pessimistic, because if that is true, this is already well established. One could then say:

===

“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

===

What did we lose? Nothing. Especially in light of what will remain of the next part, which should end after ‘snapped.’ This can work because Montoya’s attitude problem is a long-known reality to the reader, and the dialogue tag ‘snapped’ conveys all the irritation the reader needs. So we get:

===

“And the sick ones?” asked Montoya.

“If they aren’t doing better and can’t come aboard, you might have to decide to stay to look after them,” Will snapped.

===

Quicker, cleaner, no longer redundant, and allows the previous storyline and tone to carry the mail. We got rid of one full sentence and most of another. We drop from 42 words to 28–a one-third reduction.

This is why editors tend to shorten mss rather than lengthen them. Even seasoned authors tend to over-describe, and novices tend toward it all the more. And that’s okay, provided they have and heed competent editorial guidance. One can tell when this did not occur, and it can make a great story read average, or an average story read badly.

Trying to take my own advice

One supposes one’s clients are going to enjoy this.

The general public does not realize it, but I work on many uncredited projects. If you reviewed my credit list, you’d think I don’t work very often. While there are slow times, I’d guess there are as many items absent from the list as present. Most of the time it’s by my choice.

Wait, why wouldn’t I want credit? The most common reason is that the author rejected too much input or seemed likely to do so. It might amaze the world how many people will seek out competent guidance, then go right ahead and do it their (ill-advised) way.  It happens in other ways, such as the author asks me not to and doesn’t offer me a print credit. Or the book content queases me out, though not quite enough to refuse the project entirely.

In this case, a valued colleague got in contact with me. Her favorite uncle, a genial but near-deaf nonagenarian, had written a novel and wanted to see it in print while he was still with us. It was obvious to me that my colleague loved and appreciated this old gentleman and wanted to make him happy. Problem: The novel was not publishable in its then-current state. Another problem: Her bailiwick was exclusively non-fiction. She felt unqualified to handle the necessary rewriting.

Two other editors had provided evaluatory reads–finding all the same problems she had–but weren’t willing to undertake a rewrite. Would I be interested? Well, I said, I’d at least be willing to look it over and say either yes I could, or no I couldn’t.  The novel is set around 1970-73, and concerns gay cowboys in northern Wyoming.  For someone who is neither a cowboy nor gay, I was rather a good match for the project. I’ve at least been to northern Wyoming, lived rather near to it in that timeframe (northern Colorado), have an aunt and uncle who went to college at Laramie, and have ranching roots in the Kansas Flint Hills. I can’t rope a calf, and it’s been a very long time since I rode a horse. But I know the difference in meaning between cows and cattle, have bucked some hay, have felt a truck begin to slide on an icy road, and have been snowed on in Wyoming on the first of June.

Very few editors answer to anything like the above description. Perhaps most importantly, I understand why people live in places like Sheridan. I get the sort of amused pride they take in the hardships their state can inflict on daily life, and how they view the world around them. If I had to do any research, I wouldn’t quite come off as a dude (kids, this was once the term for an effete wannabe Westerner, and still is to a degree in some places). My aunt and uncle, now running the family ranch in Kansas, would have helpful knowledge on more than one level. There’s someone in a club I attend who is from Green River. I was at least alive and in a nearby region circa the book’s era. And if I had to start phoning people in Wyoming who didn’t know me, and try to obtain information from them, at least I’d be unlikely to alienate them.

My colleague was right. The ms was a mess. It happened in a world events vacuum; it head-hopped; there were time jumps of months at a time; those subjects the au did not understand (for example, the world of women beyond cooking), he skimmed; names were common to the point of character confusion. The au was present in the story (most amateur authors just have to insert themselves). The sex scenes were, well, not very sexy. Dialogue was not natural. Every voice was the same. The au had done most things wrong.

However. While I had not known this colleague for all that long, we had experienced immediate rapport based upon our revulsion for some of the more speech-policing aspects of editors’ forums. You might imagine that she was overjoyed at the possibility of getting a substantive editor/rewriter who had at least some idea of the story subject matter and region, and the resources to learn more. Did I know a brand inspector’s job? No, but I could see why they’d be necessary. Stuff like that. It also moved me that she cared enough about her uncle to want to do this for him.

Normally the minimal likelihood the book’s revenues would  recoup my fees (since the au would certainly not market it) would be an early discussion. This relates to the first question I ask most prospective clients, because I have an ethical duty not to take money based on mistaken premises. If an author doesn’t have a marketing plan, it’s a vanity project; while I’m glad to work on vanity projects, me being the experienced industry person the client has a right to expect the benefits of that experience. If one were a safari guide, and someone was about to leave their stuff in a situation where bonobos would surely swipe it, one would not be free to say to oneself “maybe it happens, maybe it doesn’t” and blow it off. The experienced, hired professional is there to foresee what the client does not realize, and to offer proactive advice.

Here that was irrelevant. In the first place, the client had his own primary advisor, one at least as competent as me, and didn’t look to me for guidance of that sort. In fact, he and I would never have contact (his interest in online interaction being limited, and his hearing not conducive to the phone). In the second, the client was not stupid. He understood his own motives and they weren’t commercial; they were bucket-list related. He just wanted to see his book in print.

Well, I thought, if he wanted to spend this much money on a trip to Egypt to see the Pyramids while he could, no one would discourage that. If his dream is to see his name on a book, and he can afford to, why shouldn’t he?

My colleague had very reasonable expectations. We agreed that making the book a home run was not practical due to the storyline’s basic weakness, and wouldn’t make sense. We were going for “much improved” and I saw ways in which that would be possible. She was pleased that I signed onto the project, but there was one slight drawback. The client told her he would just put back anything taken out that he wanted back in, and that dropped my non-credit red flag. I don’t urgently need credits, but I do need credited outcomes to reflect competent editorial guidance. I have had situations in which I completed full rewrites, following which the author went back and (to be blunt) re-butchered some parts. It is always the client’s right, but that makes me look subpar, and in such cases I reserve the right not to be credited. This would be an Alan Smithee.

The only surprising aspect of the work is a luxury I haven’t had since my freelance writing days: my very own editor. In most professional situations, I do not have another editor to backstop me. While it’s true that this is substantive editing (a mode in which a proof-ready ms is the expected result and nothing’s off the table), it verges on rewriting. More than verges in many places.

So here I must practice everything I spend so much time preaching. What must I require of myself?

  • Don’t keep doubling back to fix things and self-edit. Just do the job, move forward, get the work done.
  • Feel relief that I’m not the only experienced set of eyes on this.
  • Place my faith in those other eyes, which have more experience than I do with copy editing (if not with fiction editing).
  • Realize that I will make major mistakes I’ll need to repair, and be at peace with imperfection. If I let perfect be the enemy of good, I will get neither.
  • Remember that if it’s not good enough, I have an editor to tell me.
  • Have the guts to send the ms to the editor rather than self-editing forever.
  • Be the kind of writer I would wish as a client.
  • Fricking learn something about how my clients feel, and take that knowledge with me.

We’re working on all that.

The state of the editing world

Remember when The Beverly Hillbillies‘ Jethro Bodine decided that buying a metal hat, loading up a trench coat with tools, adding some goofy gizmos to the family truck, and claiming to be a “double-naught” made him a master spy?

Reading editors’ groups, I often think of Jethro. If I said on editors’ groups even a fourth of what I am about to say, I would be ejected. On the spot.

Stereotype: The editing world is full of red-pen-wielding grammar fascists who could play in professional word game leagues. They know their stuff.

Truth: You should hope for the stereotype. It exists. It’s also full of unqualified hopefuls who first christened themselves  editors, then ran to ask a bunch of editors what an editor did and how to do it.

It’s unclear to me how we got here. I suspect part of it is the general decline in written English mirroring our quietly engineered decline in education (nice dumb little worker drones supposed to just do as they’re told, never question authority). The decent English is still necessary, but fewer and fewer people can provide it. Those who feel they can do so thus consider it marketable, and they’re not always wrong. (They soon learn that most people who want correct English do not want to pay a fair price to have it fixed.) The student loan insanity surely contributes; people graduate from hoary Stuffshirt College with English degrees and owing the full cost of a small house. If they have liberal arts degrees, they reckon, that qualifies them. And in the cases of a few individuals, perhaps it comes close to doing so.

What is clear to me: Many people who anoint themselves editors lack even an understanding of what editors do. Most are available on the eEditor-flavor-of-the-month.com hiring sites. Before you go on one of those sites that promises to hook you up with an “editor,” please do bear in mind these observed realities.

For example: On editors’ forums, large numbers of new posters introduce themselves to their new colleagues something like this: “Hi! I’ve decided to be an editor! Will you tell me where I can learn grammar?”

The correct answer is “No.” In the first place, a comprehensive understanding of the language is the foundation for starting a career in editing. The cart does not go before the horse. Such an understanding normally takes decades of quality reading combined with some targeted education. If you have to ask that, you won’t qualify in the foreseeable future. A degree or certificate helps, but it does not make up for a couple of decades spent reading.

Or: “Hi! I want to be an editor but do not know how to market my services!”

Good luck, because very few of the people reading your post have any idea about marketing themselves. Marketing is the stumbling block for almost everyone in the literary world, and few overcome that. Also, not to be too blunt about it, but you do realize you are asking people for the real secrets of how to cut into their own work flow? That takes serious brass.

Or: “Hi! I have an English degree so I am now an editor!”

Really. Okay. I have a history degree. Am I now a museum curator?

Or: “Hi! I’ve been agonizing for 72 hours solid and just cannot decide whether this should have a hyphen, en dash, or em dash! Help!”

No. In case no one has told you this, it is your job to make those decisions. It’s a goddamn punctuation mark, not an invasion of the Asian landmass. Decide. Do something intelligent. Are you saying you cannot do something intelligent?

Or: “Hi! For the last 56 hours solid, I have been poring over my Chicago Manual of Style 8.110 and cannot decide whether or not to capitalize ‘Scienceology.’ Please give me a ruling!”

No. In the first place, this is only a serious question if your project requires strict adherence to CMS. If that is the case, then don’t go to the replay booth. Check in with MADD: Make A Damn Decision. You are engaged and paid to make those decisions. If you lack the guts to make decisions, you can’t edit. At some point, the quarterback has to throw a pass, the ref has to whistle the play dead, etc.

In the second place–if the style manual is just your personal Scripture–I have terrible news for you. In such cases, style guides are for guidance. They are not issued from Mt. Sinai on stone tablets. Again, when uncertain, do something intelligent. If you do not know how to do something intelligent, how can a reader trust you with his or her work?

At this point in the composition, I felt that the natural question was: Why does this bother me so much?

In part, I guess, because I have known people who were underserved by self-described “editors” they found off hiring sites. One has a hard time imagining these as the same people who asked in messed-up English where they could learn grammar, but perhaps there’s overlap. I also don’t like that it also trivializes and commoditizes what we do. People figure they can sign up for a couple of professional associations for credibility appearances, sign onto a hiring site, offer to “put an edit” on people’s work, and boom–new career! Some of those people will actually just run spellcheck and grammar check, accept all the changes, and put their hands out for money. I have seen the outcome of this. Others will torture themselves for ten hours because Chicago hasn’t told them precisely how to format this usage or that abbreviation.

To channel Jed Clampett, them stone tablets must be might’ heavy to tote around the office.

Everyone starts somewhere. For me it began with about forty years of voracious, broad-spectrum reading. I became aware of the various style books and accepted their potential as resources. Liberal arts degree surely helped, especially the literature classes; I still have the inch-thick stack of typed papers from those days (and I cringe any time I read them). As for editorial demeanor and priorities, I learned from some outstanding people, all of whom I am pretty sure read voraciously since early childhood. Could a specialized certificate or degree have substituted for experience watching the pros? Not quite–but I’ll admit it would better me on some level, if not enough to spend that money obtaining the paper.

So what is the state of the editing world? It contains a great many competent people, some specializing in this or that: tech editing, non-fiction only, or one of the standard editing modes such as developmental editing. It also includes a great many unqualified posers. Many are desperate from a financial standpoint, and will take any editing job for any compensation at all.

It’s the Wild West with red pens and tired tropes.

Ways to make telemarketers have bad days

Been getting a lot of these recently on the cell phone (which is also the business phone). Not sure why, but they always present us with the same choice: just hang up, or waste a scammer’s time. Because I’m the sort of person who will hit at an adversary with whatever he’s got, even if it’s a blade of grass, I waste their time.

When we do this, we should be careful.

I will never be as good at this as Haven Riney, who literally wrote the book on messing with telemarketers (that’s the title), but I have picked up/developed a few good methods for those of us who aren’t as quick-thinking in the moment. Here are my own guidelines for doing this:

Always remember that you are bound by no strictures of courtesy, honesty, or other values you might uphold in real life. If they were honest, they would not telemarket; ergo, they’re thieves. It is not moral to reward thievery with kind politeness, much less with success in any form. In any form. Seriously. They are among the few people in your world who deserve not one bit of understanding. When they aren’t talking to you, most of them are scamming bewildered elders (this is stealing and fraud).

Those rare few who are in fact offering an actual real service are like people coming onto your property with a weapon, then claiming that the fact that it was not loaded means you should have treated them as friends. You can’t see whether it’s loaded, so to speak, so you owe no distinction between honest and criminal, nor any energy expended to try. They’re all adversaries if you don’t know them.

Yes, I know it’s the day before US Thanksgiving. They’re still the adversary, and they will still be the adversary when many of us are sitting down to dinner tomorrow. I am thankful for just enough native creative wickedness to give them what they deserve, and for the fundamental crassness to advocate it even at festive times.

While it could be fun and would certainly be moral to press the get-a-human number on the robocalls–objective being to seek out a human’s time to waste–I myself won’t go that far because it’s like giving them permission. They should never get any permission. If you think it’s a robocall and want to test, just go hoccccccch real loudly, as if you are about to expel a mucous. A robot won’t know how to interpret that (robots do not experience mucous). A person will ask whether you’re okay, or will hang up.

  • First rule: Never, never, never say “yes” to any question. There are scam artists who will take that one recorded word and use it to show some sort of proof of your agreement. When you answer that phone, that word isn’t in your vocabulary.
  • Second rule: First job is to suss out whether they have your real name (quite often if you are a homeowner), someone else’s, or have just called at random. If they have your real name and/or address, find out what it’s about just in case it’s actually a legitimate call. While it might annoy you for your auto repair shop to call and market to you, that’s not as evil as someone trying to sell you Inhumana Medicare Silver Senior Elder Suckup Advantage “that you deserve.” (You know, the sort of thing you get between watching segments of Crochet Wars on The Living Antiquity Channel, which promises to put money back in your Social Security and give you free continence products. That You Deserve. Whatever it is, You always Deserve It.)
  • Third rule: Try to avoid saying anything illegal. This article discourages any activity that violates US law. It’s not as if someone in Shaitanabad or Santa Sinvergüenza can exactly call the FBI and have you arrested–but be careful nonetheless. Bear in mind that buying or selling under false pretenses is against the law depending on how it’s done, while just talking to a caller under false pretenses is not. Do a little self-editing.

Clearly, if it’s someone you do business with, you have better choices and should consider that. For example, you can tell them to stop, and they would be wise to heed you. But before you do that, make sure it’s not them trying to help you. It might be the nurse from your medical provider with a message from your doctor. I never advocate being an idiot.

Assuming it’s not a legit call: If they have your real name, deny it of course, remembering that how you answer anything could tend to confirm it by mistake. If they ask whether you still live at 101 Maple Street, the logical question is not “no”; it’s “which city is that even in?” Make up any name you want. Count von Crappenburg. Imelda Reina de los Zapatos. Alexei Alexeyevich Romanov. Joe Schwantz. Barron Maples. You have no idea where that address is, or even what state it’s in, but you live at x address. If you know it, pick the address of city hall, or the sheriff’s office, or your local mall. Tell them you’re homeless and living in a tent along I-5 atop Mount Rubbish. Claim to live in an army barracks, or an army tank for that matter. Claim to be flying an F-13 and about to shoot down some North Korean Dong missiles. To any question they ask, you tell anything but the truth. They have no right to ask such nosy questions anyway, so this is the proper way to reply.

Once you have worked out that it’s not real, and have assessed and blunted potential dangers, you are free to have some fun. The only rule is to drag the conversation out as long as possible (wasting their time) and making it as fruitless and annoying as possible. Everyone doing this should be made not to like it. This isn’t the grocery checker, who is earning an honest living and deserves your kind patience and courtesy when she is overwhelmed. This is not the guy at the McDonald’s window, underpaid and probably mistreated by his manager, who deserves your civility and decency. This is not the saintly nurse who stayed on the job through two years of pandemic and will not stop caring for people, even for donkeys who refused vaccination and then had the gall to expect care for their coronavirus. This is not the waitress at Denny’s, who should never be punished because the kitchen is stupid, and whose livelihood depends on you tipping her fairly based upon her service. This is not those good people. This is a bad person in a bad business. This is your chance to punish them. For example:

  • Affect an accent. Any accent. If it mimics their accent, that’s fine. That would be considered at least borderline bigoted if it were a decent person, but remember: it’s not a decent person. They choose to telemarket or join scam operations, mostly offshore, spoofing phone numbers so that you won’t know who it is. If they have an accent, there is nothing wrong with mocking it, whether it’s a Deep South drawl or a Pakistani lilt.
  • Come up with a name, since you are not going to admit to your real one. The more credible it is, the longer the call might go. Batman Supergirl might not get much traction. Cecilia Yobukovskaya might do better.
  • If you speak foreign languages, use them when you see fit. One sentence in English, one in Spanish. Be careful with Spanish, lest they say “Purdonnamay, senior, no hobblo esspaniel, uno momentito pourfuvor.” If they do that, and you speak a third language, when the Spanish speaker arrives you can switch to that. Imagine the conversation later: “You ignorant asshat. The name he gave you means “smoke pole” in Spanish and the language he was speaking was probably Italian. What, you think every foreign language is Spanish? Who even diapers you in the morning?”
  • Think of a backstory and flesh it out. Look back to an earlier phase of your life and answer as that person. Think of the craziest person you know and answer as them. The nephew who became a meth addict? This is the only good that will ever come of that human tragedy.
  • Consider speaking very slowly and not understanding half of what they say. Use enormous amounts of regional slang that no one in Hyderabad is likely to know. Talk about interests you don’t have. Tell them that you are an ethical vegan and that meat is murder and ask if their company abides by vegan principles. (If you in fact are an ethical vegan, ask them something else, so as not to tell them the truth in any way.) Ask them if their company is organic according to USC 14.285.828a. Since I just made that one up, they probably won’t understand it even if they’re American.
  • Tell them that you live by the Shania Laws of Appalachian Islam and that it’s time for your daily prayers. (Get a confederate (upper case possibly) to sing the Call to Prayer: “Y’all come pray now.”)
  • Go wild. Ask if they have Jesus. If so, ask whether they can help you find him and let him out. Ask if they have Satan (they do, whether they know it or not), and encourage them to let him into their hearts. Tell them you have ten million dollars in the credit union, and that the credit union is actually complaining because it takes up too much vault space. Ask if they like vaping.
  • Repeatedly interrupt the conversation by admonishing an imaginary child or dog. (“Timmy! Don’t do that or you’re going in the stew!”) Apologize in advance for your Tourette’s, and have periodic outbursts. Claim a very interesting occupation, such as cat herdswoman or fertilizer processor or bison yoga instructor or dromedary veterinary assistant. Say “kushkushkushkush” as if telling a camel to kneel. Be Jed Clampett. Be Elly May Clampett. Best of all, if you can pull it off, be Granny. Irene Ryan was one of the funniest comics I ever saw.
  • Ask the nuttiest possible questions about their product or service. Does their insurance cover Peyronie’s Syndrome? Scrotal lesions? Does it cover therapy for obsessive-apathetic disorder? Organ failure? Piles? Tiles? What about pudding therapy? Will their home refinance loan have an interest rate below 1%? They say that your “Windows Computer” is spreading a virus and they want you to go to a website; go to your microwave, pretend to have mistaken it for a computer, and attempt to follow their directions. Will their home warranty cover cases of Orson? “No, not arson. That’s illegal. Orson is different, obviously. It mostly affects houses with Welles, and can be quite costly to repair.”
  • Got a confederate in the house? Have her start screaming in the other room. Tell your child that right now it’s encouraged to go totally cattiewhompus. Got multiple people? Have them fake an argument in the Pentagon. “Fuck you, General! We are invading Guam only with Navy ships!” “They don’t do very well on land, Admiral.” “Dipshit, it’s an island! The Army can’t even get there unless they swim! This is our turf, so go dig a foxhole!” Got a cough? You do now! Sneezing fit? Let ’em rip in the middle of everything the caller says, then ask them to repeat it. Got a kid whose hobby is making flatulence noises with his armpit? Get him to do it as loudly as possible near the phone.

If you had fun, wasted their time, and gave them no truthful or useful information, you did well. If you felt a twinge, that’s normal; behaving with a complete lack of consideration is not natural for most of us. In such a case, remember:

  • No one forced these people to call you.
  • Nothing they are offering is legitimate.
  • Nearly all of them are giving false phone numbers.
  • Most aren’t even using their real names.
  • All of it is a fundamental insult to your intelligence.
  • While you’re wasting their time, they aren’t preying on someone’s grandma.
  • You are performing a community service, a random act of caring for others. It’s one of the few community services you can perform by being as cruel as possible.

Leave scars.

Current read: Forget the Alamo by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford

Provocative, eh? From my little editing perch with its industry perspective, I have to admire the marketing value of such a title. That’s how you throw a bomb. Love the book or hate it, I don’t see too much of Texas being neutral about it. Then again, I’ve only been to Texas a couple of times, and it’s probably one of the two or three states where I would least fit in. I do care about US history, though, and if California history is US history, so is that of Texas.

The book first sets forth to tell the history preceding and including the Texas Revolt, based on what the authors consider the best evidence and historical analysis. They do not reach the conclusion that has long been taught in Texas schools. They contend that black, Native American, and Hispanic participation has been written out or diminished, or at the very least oversimplified. This fortified a Heroic Anglo Narrative to which the remaining bits of the old mission compound in San Antonio represent the ultimate shrine.

The next part of the book, about half, details the making of the legend. It’s been what, 185 years since Santa Anna finally had it with his Texian subjects (and illegal US aliens who refused to abide by Mexican law) and marched in to subdue them? If you guess that people have spent the entire time arguing over the story itself, if and how it should be preserved, and who has the say in its future, you can don your coonskin cap in celebration. The story of the story of the Alamo is almost as interesting as the story of the Alamo, and is as germane to US history. Given the key role in advocacy and preservation (and in some cases, turf warring and neglect) played by women’s groups, it is also women’s history. (Not all of women’s history is automatically admirable. Time and again, they’ve proven they deserve to be remembered for their successes and failures, just like men.)

I don’t think any objective, educated reader of history doubts that there are some unverifiable “facts” that most people believe about the Alamo because those people want to believe them. That is normal about most history; why not this one?  I do think that any such reader realizes that minority contributions to the story have been minimized or bent into strange shapes. The error would be in somehow imagining the Alamo story as unique in this regard because it has been told–insisted upon–with such strident passion. I deprecate the idea that the loudest voice must be considered the victor. The louder they yell, the more suspicious I get.

Put simply, incomplete or exaggerated history happens everywhere. We just pay more attention to this one because people make so much noise about it, almost defying the world to contradict them. Well, yeah. If I sit in my living room, where no one can hear me, and say something provocative based on false premises, I’m probably not getting much hate mail over it. If it put it on an airplane banner, that’s another story.

The greatest thing about the book is the writing itself. I used to love Molly Ivins’s style, affectionate toward her homeland even when critical of it, like when her employing newspaper folded and she commented that she’d never had a newspaper shot out from under her before. It was always fun and often funny. This book is a history, and the history of the making of a history, told in just such a relaxed style. I can almost hear a gentle drawl as I read it. I believe she would have loved it and its message.

I find the authors’ historical study credible. To me, the amount of pushback they have gotten tells me that the detractors have long known there were ugly realities about the story, did not want to explore those ugly realities, and would defend this old mission compound’s ruins as a key bastion in the culture wars. Put it this way: If the authors were full of shit, and everyone had good reason to believe that, no one would feel threatened–just annoyed. It’s like that political fringe nut who thinks the queen of England is a drug dealer. The suggestion is not credible enough for the monarchy, or its defenders, to take seriously.

This book was very much worth my time.

New re-release: Frenchy’s Whore, by Verne E. Brewer II

This tale of the Vietnam War has quite a history. I provided general editing input and line editing. Note well: the Amazon blurb is copied from my original review, thus dating back nine years. It does not reflect current impressions of the book. I believe this is destined to be fixed.

I came to know Verne some nine years ago when we were playing Castle Age, a Facebook game. He was friends with a friend. Somehow–I don’t recall exactly how–I came to learn that he had published a book based upon his experiences in Vietnam with the 173d Airborne Brigade.

Since I like stories based in authentic experience, I decided to give Verne a boost. At that time, I still had enough review weight on Amazon that I could make a difference; plus, not only did the Vietnam vets receive shameful mistreatment, but my father-in-law had been one of those vets, and I felt like it would do his memory respect to give another old jumper (them, not me, just to be clear) a boost. I ordered the book, read it, and wrote an honest review. The story was excellent, textured, with significant descriptive talent on display and that authentic feel that you can only get by being there.

Problem: It did not reflect the benefits of competent editing. This was painful. I decided mentally to give the storytelling five stars, weighted for the descriptive talent that a capable editor would have brought out, but two for the actual prose. Net, four–maybe a 3.6, but there are no fractional stars. Normally I’ll just put down a book where it’s hard to get through the writing, but I had decided to see this through and tell the truth. My review did so.

I never heard much from Verne about it at the time, and I wasn’t sure how he felt about my review, but I felt good that I’d given his book a little bump. Most people arguably wouldn’t be as affected by editing and proofreading problems as a professional editor would be. Better to have a great story with writing problems than an eloquently written yawnfest. Writing problems are repairable; well-written dullness can only be de-dulled by adding better story characteristics.

I was still in touch with Verne here and there over the years, so I was pretty sure I hadn’t pissed him off. In 2020, he got in touch to tell me a story that astonished me.

Turns out that Verne’s reaction to my review was a combination of delight with my observations and disappointment with his publisher, which had committed to provide him with some editing and proofreading support. He told me of sitting through book signings feeling embarrassed, but he saw my review as having seen through to the essence of the book, and over the years he had felt good about that. Flaws aside, the book had remained in some demand over the years, copies still selling for a significant premium on the secondary market. Now, Verne told me, he had reacquired the rights and he wanted me to help him make a new release of Frenchy’s Whore the book it always should have been.

Careful what you write in reviews, right? Someone might say: ‘Okay. I agree with everything you said. You’re on. Let’s see what you’ve got, and let’s see this book reach that potential you talked about.’

That sounded like an enjoyable assignment, though. It’s not every day you hear something about stuff you wrote nine years back. Verne wanted to make a few minor storyline corrections, extend the tale a bit longer, and then we’d be ready for a line edit. Our first hurdle was that he didn’t have an electronic copy, just a box of the remaining copies from his former publisher. This forced me to confront a question I hadn’t dealt with: How does one scan a printed book back to an electronic format? While a capable transcriber could retype the whole thing, surely there had to be a more time- and cost-efficient way. I dug around and found a service that would do it for a basic amount of $14 plus six cents a page. While I had no idea how it would go, I asked Verne if he would be willing to risk about $20-25 plus a sacrificed print copy on a chance to jump straight to electronic copy. Boy howdy he would.

While the scanned version had the expected issues, we could work with it. We discussed the prognosis and Verne decided to get moving with some rewriting and recharacterization. That process hit a few bumps, such as when Verne got hurt pretty badly in a motorcycle accident, and times when the material was difficult for him to face. I can relate to this through my own trauma experiences, which I rarely discuss here but do understand how they can play back old mental tapes. There was nothing for it but to be patient with my client’s process and life situations, which is something editors must always be ready to do. If we are not, then when we have our own life situations, we can’t expect any understanding at all.

The line editing process faced some hiccups, such as material shifts (requiring changes in introduction points, for example, with careful scrutiny) and integration of new information that gave clarity to the story. I ended up over budget, which is uncommon but can happen in spite of my best efforts. A client has the right to make late changes, of course, and I need to accommodate them.

Late in the project, it occurred to me that I could offer a contribution. My own PTSD, while not arising from anything like the Vietnam experience, has been part of my life since my teens. It had always helped me to empathize with the impact of PTSD on veterans and others, even before I understood that this was what we had in common. I offered Verne a piece for the book’s front matter regarding why Vietnam matters, and he accepted. I hope it will help readers gain increased context. Context is everything.

The biggest dilemma came with names: real names, pseudonyms, and incomplete conversions of either. Verne had the advantage of actually having known all these people; I did not. Thus, was this guy really this guy, or is this another instance of that guy? On the third pass, this drove me absolutely nuts, frustrated, furious, and excruciating. Part of that was because I wasn’t charging for it, because I was fixing my own bad judgment. At the very outset, I should have asked for a complete table of real names, pseudonyms, and jobs. While my intent had been not to make this harder on Verne than I could help–these were real people and painful memories–it was a false economy.

After about twenty hours of uncompensated floundering work, I finally put my foot down. I told Verne I needed a complete list of all the real names, any fake names, and which he intended to be used. While I tried to be non-confrontational, realizing that my anger should be taken out on myself for having not required this at the start, I was prepared to insist. When he sent me the name list and told me it was so freaking confusing, that was the first time I’d smiled about this since I’d stopped work to await the list. If it confused the author who actually knew the real people, I was hardly losing it to be so confused myself. It confirmed for me that I’d finally done exactly the correct thing.

Took me long enough.

Besides the fact that his rewriting had shown a lot of growth, Verne’s goodwill, coachability, and gratitude stood out throughout the project. He always treated me like a valued colleague, considered my guidance, and appreciated me as though I were somehow doing him a big favor (rather than planning to be paid for services rendered). In fact, I was honored my words had impacted and encouraged him so much, and more honored to be asked to participate.

This time, I feel confident that Verne’s story retains all of the original’s texture but with more consistency and polish. I believe you will agree.

The tyranny of the style book

Do you really believe there are editors who run around agonizing about commas, stressing over where to put the hyphen, and otherwise driving themselves to drink over tiny fussy little minutiae?

If you look hard enough, you can find places where they ask for help with those questions. (“Should this have a hyphen? Augh! I’ve been near self-harm for hours over this! Or is it self harm, since it’s a compound noun! I can’t even contemplate suicide correctly!”) Many are novices who decided to be editors and then to learn the English language (that’s not the correct order in which we do this), but some others are professional copy editors. And very often the question will quote The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Style Book, or some other reference, asking for a ruling.

What’s wrong with this? Sometimes nothing. Sometimes one works in a guide-constrained environment where one of the editor’s primary duties is to conform a document to this or that style, including an internal style guide. In those cases, I understand the agonizing up to a point. One good example would be academic writing, where style fascism is the norm.

But at some point, even in those cases, there come guide-governed situations where the guide does not deliver a clear answer. Then what?

Then use your best judgment based on years of experience, familiarity with the style guide’s intent, and your own damn common sense, that’s what. Those are why you do what you do, and are in the position you are in.

What shocks me more: strict editing to a style guide, and agonizing over some point of punctuation order, when it’s not a requirement. I am serious. The editor views the CMS, or some other style reference, as a holy book whose first version came down graven on stone tablets.

It will eventually fail them anyway, because our language is too diverse for perfect coverage, even by such a voluminous reference as the Chicago Manual. But they are missing the point.

The point is that an editor has years of broad expertise with the English language. It can involve one dialect or many, but it probably began before kindergarten and involved reading hundreds of thousands of pages in varying styles of superb English before the age of twelve. Under normal circumstances, which is to say writing that does not require style guide conformity as a baseline expectation, the point of being an editor is not to worry oneself to death over whether one is in proper and full compliance with a style guide.

The point is to know the language well enough, to consult the various guides where they can be helpful, and to have enough guts and brainpower to make judgments that will make the book the best it can be for the target audience.

That is what we are here to do. Our work is to do all the things to the manuscript content that will help it be its best. What if the narrator doesn’t use upper case? Those who live in style guide tyranny might simply get busy with the Shift key. I might, too–but only after I’d reviewed the ms and satisfied myself that all lower case didn’t work well in this context. If the author’s style and syntax work well to communicate with his or her audience, I’m not likely to change those aspects. Correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation are the defaults, but they are not inviolable. There are times to break every rule in service of the greater good.

You aren’t supposed to cross a doubled solid yellow line when driving, at least in the US. That’s usually because that would take you into the oncoming lane in a dangerous situation (such as passing on a curve or while cresting a hill), which could produce a serious kinetic energy problem. It’s a good rule. Most of the time most people should comply. But what if an accident is imminent, and the only way to prevent it is to cross that line? What if there is a serious emergency meriting the risk? I’d rather get a ticket for illegal passing (and there are police stupid enough to give such a ticket, trust me; I once received an even stupider one) than be cut out of the wreckage by the jaws of life. Or have my remains cut out at leisure once they attend to everyone they can still save.

Style guides aren’t law books, and they are not crutches for indecision. If the work requires style guide conformity, all right; but if an uncovered situation arises, that’s why an editor has experience and judgment. It’s time to use them. That’s why not everyone can do this. If one needs to explain a decision to the client, that’s what margin comments are for.

One has to know the rules well enough to judge when to ignore them.

There’s a great part in one of W.E.B. Griffin’s books, the ones before his son started performing some unspecified percentage of the work, doing proportionate damage. Griffin was a military/police/intelligence fiction author of some note. While he had his weaknesses, the strengths were great enough to outweigh those failings. In this situation, the US Army is getting ready to invade Cuba after we bungled the Bay of Pigs. It is necessary to move an armored division by rail from somewhere inland to New Orleans, so it can be loaded for the voyage. There is a fascinating discussion of the logistical headaches involved in entraining about 450 tanks plus all their supporting people and equipment, the sort of detail into which Griffin always knew when it was time to deep-dive. In the end, it comes down to an engineer company that is already loaded, and a colonel tasked with getting things moving. The colonel has an idea how the engineer company can help get the division’s vehicles loaded on rail cars that are showing up with mixed consists. He wants to use their forklifts and other hoisting equipment.

The company commander is the POV character, and he is respectfully dismissive. He figures that the colonel probably considers himself the first person ever to think of using forklifts to load tanks. The captain thus states that it’s against regulations, and worse yet, that it would likely result in the equipment’s eventual destruction due to exceeding safety parameters, which, sir, as the colonel can surely see, exist to prevent such disasters. And therefore, with respect, sir, he can’t do it.

The colonel asks the obvious question, paraphrased from my memory: “Captain, has it ever occurred to you that your goddamn intact drag lines would look pretty silly sitting on a Cuban beach if the division’s tanks were still hung up in Texas waiting for proper train consists?”

When I see a style guide used like a crutch or a bible in situations where there is no specific rule that it must govern, I feel like I’m watching someone who would end up on the beach in Cuba with functional rock crushers, forklifts, and other construction equipment, having not brought the armored fighting vehicles that might make the invasion succeed. I laugh every time at this picture. “Mi comandante, the norteamericanos have landed on the beach!” “With what?” “Señor, they appear to be construction engineers. They have brought a road grader, some forklift trucks, and a backhoe.” “That is all? No tanks?” “None, mi comandante.” “Teniente, if you have been drinking rum on duty, your next assignment will involve cutting sugar cane–and you will not be supervising the process.”

Use your judgment. If you are afraid to use your judgment, overcome this unbecoming fear. Your client depends upon your judgment. If it was just about a damn style guide, the client could read that herself. You’re here to make decisions in her best interests.

Make them. Have and share good reasons for them. Be ready to have them questioned.

Being questioned is not time to wallow in imposter syndrome. Being questioned is time to show off the experience and consideration you invested. Explain your thought process. Show your client the level of effort you expend for what she pays. You should be proud of it.

The clients who write best tend to be the most questioning. They are the clients who drive you to become better.

BattleBots: S10 E4 — BattleBots Update

[J here. This time, for something completely different, I give you Draco’s take on a recent episode of Battlebots. While an editor can guide and teach many writing skills, some writers just have a voice that entertains. I’m a fan.]

[BattleBots: S10 E4 is available via streaming on Discovery+.] Welcome back to BattleBots Update. Took a quick break because I have the freedom to do so on account of being the only moron chasing pavement now that the season is over and I’m late. I’m also basically begging you to rewatch things you’ve probably long…

BattleBots: S10 E4 — BattleBots Update