Tag Archives: non-fiction editor

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.

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 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? 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.

Current read: In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, by Peter Matthiessen

I learned of this book from one of its primary subjects: Leonard Peltier himself. The full title continues: The Story of Leonard Peltier and the FBI’s War on the American Indian Movement.

While I’m nearly always sympathetic to Native American causes, I don’t swallow  without question every cause put before me. I knew of Peltier, and of the killings on Pine Ridge, but few of the details. I’d generally assumed that justice had not been done, since Native Americans rarely get justice from the US legal system. This is especially so in states where anti-Indian bigotry is the social norm for whites. When the deck begins stacked against a group, I stop offering default faith in those who stack it. The burden of proof and honesty falls upon the stackers, and until they satisfy me, I assume that they will lie and cheat.

In this case, the legal system was the BIA-supported tribal police, the local law in South Dakota and other states, and the FBI. For me, that begins as oh-for-three in terms of fundamental trust.

A few years back, not much later in the year than this, I was sitting in the lobby waiting for an auto services company to put the studs on Deb’s car for the winter. At a nearby table sat a Native American man, older than me, wearing a shirt or jacket advocating freedom for Leonard Peltier. I nodded and complimented the shirt, a standard icebreaker for talking to strangers, and he invited me to sit down. While I do not remember our entire conversation, and definitely could not identify him now, we had a pleasant and informative talk. We talked about the dry sense of gallows humor often seen in Native-specific situations, such as when they seized Alcatraz on the grounds that its complete lack of resources and facilities made it the perfect Indian reservation. We spoke about Leonard, and the man expressed his firm conviction that Leonard Peltier had killed no one.

The killings in question occurred in 1976 on the Pine Ridge reservation, during a series of armed confrontations in which one Native and two FBI agents died. The latter were wounded in an exchange of gunfire, then executed. All police have visceral reactions to deaths of their own, which is understandable enough; the problem here is that there was and is no reliable proof of who killed the agents. Eventually four Native Americans were charged with the murders; three were indicted; two were acquitted. Having fled to Canada and been extradited, Peltier was the last to stand trial. One might reasonably suspect that, this being the last chance to make sure some Indian paid for the agents’ deaths, the government forces were taking no chances with a fair trial. In my opinion, based upon a review of the government witnesses’ credibility and much evidence suppression, no fair trial occurred.

It’s not that this proves Peltier innocent; it’s that it does not, to my satisfaction, prove his guilt. And if he were white, I do not believe he would have been indicted, much less convicted.

Leonard Peltier has been incarcerated ever since. He is 77, in poor health, and there is good reason to believe he is currently being denied medical care.

Until I studied the Rosenberg case some years back, I would have begun with more faith in (or at least, less distrust of) Federal agents’ and courts’ integrity. That case made it abundantly clear to me that when a case touches certain issues–a Red Scare, for example, or a Native American movement painted in public pronouncements with the potential for foreign subversion assistance–the government will cheat. In short, Julius was guilty enough (no real argument there), but Ethel’s indictment was flimsy. Julius had the option to plead out and inform on others to save his wife, whose indictment rested mainly on her brother’s suborned perjury, and the government expected him to accept. He maintained his innocence and refused to help the Federal agents bust others, so the government carried out its threat. The trial proceedings represent a craven failure of justice, with even defense counsel at great pains to distance themselves from any hint of being soft on the Red Menace. They shamed this country and its system of justice.

Based upon my conversation with my tablemate in the waiting lounge, I determined to look into the Peltier case. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m enough of a Kansas boy to have a good sense of bullshit when I smell it. My review satisfied me that Leonard had not received a fair trial, and that the case against him should have been rejected by jury nullification based upon the suppression of evidence and vindictive reactions to the agents’ deaths. I came to believe that this elderly man should have his conviction vacated; at the least, that he should receive executive clemency. I had thought that Il Douche might have pardoned him just to piss off the FBI, which he resented for not doing his bidding, but it did not happen. Biden won’t, unless it’s in the last days of his administration (by which time Leonard might no longer be with us). The Federal government has long memories, extensive files, and unchecked power. For half a century, a virtual secret police chief led the FBI, and the country got used to the idea that the Feds had dirt on everyone. I can see where that might intimidate even a sitting chief executive, though I don’t see where it absolves them.

Not so long ago, I was wondering what I could do that might mean something. Evidently Leonard is kept in solitary confinement, but can receive letters. If I were in solitary, I would want letters, so I wrote to him. My first mailing came back; the prison had rejected it for using an address label on the envelope. I repackaged it, handwrote my return address, and sent it again. (Those fuckers owe me a 55-cent stamp.) I did not expect to hear back, but I did, a handwritten two-page letter from Leonard himself. His writing and outlook were consistent with what I had come to know about him: a man perhaps willing to fight if provoked, otherwise peaceable, but who would never cease to struggle for Native rights. The tribes get bullied any time a corporation learns that it can make money by stealing their resources, or whenever they try to assert treaty rights.

Like Kathryn Janeway, I don’t like bullies. Many of my interactions with our judicial apparatus and its various arms have shown me that bully culture is at the heart of our national character, and that government’s tendency to bully represents the soul of the nation. It’s just what they do; what we do. It disgusts me, and I’ll call it what it is.

Leonard recommended I read this book, and I have. I find it persuasive, honest in its basic bias (I trust that more than I trust anyone calling him or herself objective), and well researched. Matthiessen hit some brick walls, but mostly on the governmental side. I believe that his Native sources were in the main truthful, with the caveat that they wouldn’t tell him anything that might get any of their own in trouble. I respect that. I wouldn’t either. Matthiessen eventually met someone, name not provided nor known to him, who accepted responsibility for the agents’ killings. The account reads credible, and the man was not Leonard Peltier.

The most telling aspect of the episode that led to Leonard’s show trial and railroading, to my mind, is the degree to which the American Indian Movement was portrayed as a domestic terror movement with backing from overseas Commies. If you believed the government, this might be the next Cuban- or Soviet-sponsored insurgency, and we should all be Very Afraid. In 1976, at 13 and very much indoctrinated in the toxic nationalism that has now consumed (and will ultimately ruin) my country, I might have bought that. Now I don’t. All my life, there have been demon words used to whip up hatred and fear against those we are ordered to rejected. I don’t take those orders well; I prefer to decide for myself who deserves those emotions of me. Native Americans insisting upon their rights, and resenting/resisting abrogation and violation of those rights, do not deserve my hostility. This country will never heal until we do them justice. I will not live to see it, but I hope later generations will. Maybe then we will cease to be Bully Nation.

I recommend Matthiessen’s book. I thank Leonard for recommending it to me.

How to pick out an editor

Since you probably do not follow editors’ forums, I’ll spill: There are a great many people who first decided they wanted to be editors, then set forth to learn the English language.

For the record, that is not the proper order.

A high degree of English proficiency in at least one dialect is the baseline expectation for an editor, which means having been a voracious reader for at least a couple of decades. If one has to go on editorial forums and ask about punctuation because one’s chosen style guide doesn’t dictate one’s every action,  one evidently doesn’t know enough about the language to make those decisions oneself. That’s like a military platoon leader who doesn’t know basic small unit tactics outside a field manual, and is afraid to improvise under fire lest s/he break a rule.

Writers take harm by hiring a less than competent editor, or by hiring the wrong editor. I’m not the right editor for everyone or every situation; no one is.

How would I go about it, putting myself in the writer’s chair?

I would learn what editors do. An amazing percentage of writers do not understand that there are different editing modes with different objectives and requirements. In nearly every case, my first job is to explain my job to the prospective client. They come in thinking “editing is when you fix all the things and crush my soul, duh.”

I would be clear and realistic about my goals for my project. If it was meant to make money, I would develop some marketing strategy beyond “hope to get discovered without doing any actual work.” I would take a guess at the type of editing that might best help me with my goals. I would prepare to be told otherwise, but I’d at least give it some thought.

I would ignore all the gig-economy.com sites where people can just list themselves and be hired directly. I would talk to other writers, ask about their experiences. I would eavesdrop on the Facebook groups for editors. I would observe the state of the art, all the people who need a committee meeting and an emotional support group to know where to put a comma, who treat the interpretation of a Chicago Manual of Style passage like rabbinic scholars treat Talmudic passages. I would look for the people who answer the questions, and how they answer them. I would pick out a few that seemed knowledgeable, intelligent, and successful enough to share their knowledge.

Then I’d get in touch, one at a time, but at first I’d let the editor direct the process. This would not be me abrogating my right to decide; rather, it would be meant to show that I wasn’t a control freak, and to observe the editor’s screening method. I would want to decide whether I liked that method, whether I found it helpful and promising.  I would not profess to know anything about editing, though I would at least have done some basic homework. I would wait to see how well the editor guided me to a wise course of action and cooperation that would take into account my concerns and goals, about which I would expect to have been asked.

I’d keep doing this until I found someone that completed a good team, that I could afford, and above all was a knowledge sharer rather than a knowledge hoarder. This distinction is of paramount importance. Successful and skilled people tend to signify their success and skill by sharing knowledge in a generous fashion. They are never afraid they will run out of wisdom because they know how much they know. They are concerned not with being paid for every tidbit, but with giving the maximum value and support for any form of payment.

It’s expensive enough. You might as well get someone good–and that’s how I’d go about it.

Recent read: Ottoman Odyssey, by Alev Scott

The basic concept of this book was creative: After finding herself barred from Turkey, Scott (of English and Turkish parentage) decided to travel and write about the former Ottoman dominions. Most were lost to the former Sultanate just about a century ago, post-World War I.

After reading her first book, Turkish Awakening, another volume by Scott offered considerable appeal. The Erdogan government evidently wasn’t too thrilled with what she wrote. Turkey can be very sensitive about critics, enough that it has a law against “insulting Turkishness.” That includes, for example, referring to the Armenian genocide as genocidal. Formerly a somewhat authoritarian but determinedly secular republic, Turkey of late has shown significant drift toward theocracy. It once ruled much of the region, and that has left not only lingering grudges but lingering allegiances. Not everyone regrets the Turks’ absence.

D and I have been to Turkey, but only briefly. We liked what we saw, realizing our sample size was too limited for any generalization, and we liked the people we encountered. We felt safe and well treated. But that was over ten years back, and I am not sure we would return in the current climate. I’m not pointing a finger over the rise of theocratic hyper-nationalism; no American reasonably can. But I can also see why tourists were avoiding my country after 2016.

As Scott traveled about the former Ottoman lands (the Balkans, the Levant, Iraq, etc., she saw that Turkish support for local Islamic education and places of worship was on the rise. A century after its dismantlement, at least in the United States where historical understanding is atrocious, only history majors even know that “Ottoman” can mean anything other than a place to rest one’s feet.

All right. At its height, the Ottoman Empire included all the modern Balkan countries as far north as part of Hungary and some of Ukraine; the entire Black Sea coast; the Caucasus and Iraq; most of the Arabian peninsula; the north African coast from Egypt to Algeria. Its western boundaries somewhat curled around Italy. That’s big. This was a powerful, sophisticated, diverse imperium in which Muslims enjoyed preference (lower taxes, for example) but which, to be blunt, treated non-Muslims much better than western Europe treated non-Christians most of the time in most places. Jews, Greeks, Turks, Slavs, Arabs, Armenians, mostly lived and worked in amicable proximity. Western Europe took the Ottomans very seriously, especially when the Turks tried to expand into the Balkans.

Over the 1800s, the Ottoman grip grew flaccid, its member regions declaring independence or being seized by other powers. By 1900, the Ottoman Empire had a glass jaw. Siding with the Central Powers in World War I sealed its fate. When the outcome was settled, there was no more Ottoman Empire. Turks controlled only the area bounded by modern Turkey (minus Antakya, better known in the west as Antioch, which they reabsorbed in 1938-39). They had learned a thing about European wars, and they sat out the one immediately arriving. Not a single Turkish soldier died in World War II.

Postwar Turkey became a staunch NATO ally, in spite of periodic conflicts with fellow NATO member Greece, and to all external appearances was the farthest thing from seeking a new empire. Its troubles mainly involved a large Kurdish minority deeply resentful of its overlords. From the US standpoint, that’s long been the biggest problem for US support to the Kurds: such support would alienate Turkey, one of the most strategic positions in the world and a key US ally.

It has been, at least. Nowadays that alliance stands shaken and uncertain, with both sides thinking they never really knew one another. Maybe they didn’t.

If not, Scott’s book is a help in understanding the various undercurrents of that relationship. I look forward to more from her.

The investing fast takes I wish I had absorbed when I was much younger

When not editing people’s manuscripts, one of my interests/occupations is investing. In thirty years, I’ve paid lots of investing tuition, which means I made stupid mistakes that cost me money. This has taught me some things, ones I can distill into the modern attention span, so here they are.

  • Stock and index raw numbers do not matter. Only percentage change matters. If you see a headline like DOW JUMPS 100, and you care, you are incorrect.
  • The Dow sucks (and not just because it’s the market’s FUD dispenser). When it’s done, it sucks some more.
  • The money media spend long hours trying to scare you into reading their media. None ever get fired for being wrong. So we keep reading them…why?
  • All fees and taxes matter. Never ignore any fee or tax; that’s the path to self-delusion.
  • Any investment setup that looks like a cutesy little dance, such as little gimmicky stuff that gives you free money to invest, is probably an e-monte game designed to tap into your “omg i could get rich yes plz” wishes. Read the terms, especially those about how you get out when you want to. Bears repeating: Watch the fees. Yes, even those little ones. Yes, those too. And yes, that one. Do you sense a trend? Are they targeting those at younger and less experienced investors? Well, what do you think? Do you suppose that it’s aimed at people who know much about what they are doing? If it’s that great, wouldn’t affluent older people be doing it?
  • Wall Street gets to cheat; you don’t. Love that or hate it, but it is what you will live with, and no one with the power to change it will ever do so.
  • Anyone who uses the word “bagger,” without “grocery” or “vance,” start ignoring. Just put an R after the B and all will be clear.
  • When you are young, time is your friend. Most young people will reject this friendship. I get it; so did I. I was a young idiot. If it were easier to accept that friendship, more young people would do it.
  • Even your brokerage will give Big Money better deals than it will to you. They will only be surprised if you act surprised (or outraged) by it, as if all people were created equal or something. In investing, you would be a hopeless naïf to believe this, and they would treat you with the gentle restraint and pity typically shown toward volatile persons missing a few marbles.
  • The three main ways to make money investing are to: sell it for a profit, get it to pay you, and/or save on your taxes. Growth, income, tax advantages. That’s them.
  • You really can’t know how you’ll react to big gains and big losses until you experience them. What you say about them now is irrelevant. What you do when the crowd’s going wild, or the building is on fire, is your investing identity.
  • Most non-index mutual funds do not beat their target indices, raising the question of why pay them more in order to do worse.
  • Conventional open-end mutual funds have some inherent flaws that harm performance.
  • Understand every investment you buy. It is very stupid to buy something and then go find out what you just got.
  • The biggest enemy of your success is your own emotions, both greed and fear.
  • If you just read the above and though, “Aha! I’m a man, and the women are more emotional, so I have the advantage!”, your furry ass is showing. A book called Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl makes a convincing case that women are likely to be better investors, more prone to do their research homework. I wouldn’t take any generalization too far, but read that book before you start patting your XY chromosomes on the back.
  • If that doesn’t convince you, consider this. With the exception of Berkshire, the only separate issue stocks that have ever succeeded for me were the ones my wife picked. She knows very little about investing. She rarely misses. I don’t even buy them any more, except those she directs me to buy. If you want to know her secret, it’s not very complicated; she buys stock of companies she likes and uses.
  • If you want to punish an evil company, don’t boycott their stock.  That’s mindless, and doesn’t hurt them. Want to mess them up? Buy a bunch, and then vote against management every time in shareholder elections, especially for the loopy proposals management recommends you vote down. Donate the dividends to anti-company causes if you like. But don’t confuse activism with investing, because they do not have the same goals.
  • If your job has a 401k, and you aren’t putting in at least up to the employer’s match, you are financially self-harming. They’re offering you free money and you are refusing it.
  • As you change jobs, roll your old 401ks into a rollover IRA, then manage them yourself. You will have better and more options.
  • Read good books about investing. Ask successful investors which are good books, and why. Don’t read stupid books.
  • If you’re tempted by an investment newsletter, start by rejecting any that arrive as junk mail.
  • If you just want the market return and can be happy with it, buy and hold index ETFs. If you did that consistently, you’d probably end up with a pile without having to do any work.
  • Every minute you spend watching Jim Cramer, you’ll get a little dumber. About 160 hours might be a functional financial lobotomy.
  • “It’s different this time” are investing’s famous last words.

It’s up to you. Good hunting.

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.

Laura Miller on Spamazon

Here’s her article.

The emptor must caveat real well these days.  While I think that the advent of e-readers has a lot of benefits (though I don’t currently plan to obtain one), any new technology signals that it has become popular and mainstream when it is invaded by crooks, garbage and advertising.  (Okay, sorry, that was triply repetitive.)  Anyway, do keep an eye out when buying, so you don’t get sucked into the Great Internet E-Trash Vortex of these sorts of books.

Over time, having moved from writing into editing, I have also seen this evolve. For example, I used to get tons of book review requests, but one day they just ground to a halt. What replaced them? Seriously irritating spam trying to bribe 5-star reviews out of people. I’ve had to change my whole guidance to editing clients with regard to marketing, because I once knew how to generate book reviews, and it no longer works.

Trolling Craigslist for work

This is what ‘lancers do, troll around for assignments.  But how to winnow out all the crap from the legitimate opportunities? The former outnumbers the latter.

First, you can throw away anything where they don’t even give you a hint of what they want you to write, nor who for.  They aren’t professional.  The less they tell you, and the more hype, the more likely it’s spam.  For example:

Do you love writing???
Do you love making money???
Then this is the opportunity for you!
Internet companies are looking for fresh, new writers to create original content for their websites, blogs, and newsletters. The more articles you write, the more money you earn.
Write about almost and topic or subject you want. Write from the office, from home, or wherever…

This is obviously crap.  No specifics, no idea who it’s for.  Just ignore these.

If you are willing/desperate enough to write search engine optimized stuff, a lot of online writing leads there.  SEO essentially means marketing writing, which is probably the largest market out there for online writing.  What you are doing is writing something, but you are following some rules to work in the right keywords.  This will help the article float to the top of Google (and the other 15 search engines no one uses).  Companies get a big wood when their marketing floats to the top of Google.  If you are at all a competent writer and present yourself well, you can probably find SEO work (if you learn what it is and how it works).

Is there anything wrong with the literary prostitution of SEO? You’re asking me, the literary mercenary? The only things I won’t write for money are those which I a) am too incompetent at to even understand much less write, b) find too morally disgusting even for my rather unconventional moral code, or c) don’t get paid enough.  Most of what I turn down, that’s the reason.  The work sounds fine, but $3 an hour doesn’t cut it.  A lot of opportunity out there is designed to attract those desperate for exposure, which I am not.  I like to work with professionals who have high standards and clear expectations, with reasonable compensation for quality work promptly done.

However, I confess I got my start writing marketing stuff.

I don’t believe in ‘writer’s block’

Honestly.  I do not believe in it, and I believe giving it a name makes it a bugaboo, like a syndrome or disorder that comes to be the attribution for counterproductive behaviors.  “Why I can’t I write? Augh!  I have ‘writer’s block!'”

If you truly want to write, you will.  About something, anything.  Why am I currently writing this blog entry? Because I want to write.  When I am not writing, it’s because I am doing something I want or need to do other than writing.  Might be mowing the yard, might be playing Alpha Centauri, might be watching Looney Tunes DVDs, might be making something to eat.  Right now I want to write, and I’m doing so.

“But what do you do when you sit down to write and nothing comes?” I so often hear.  Well, here’s the usual dialogue:

“Here’s what I do.  I go to my filing cabinet.”

“Your filing cabinet? Is that where you keep your file of ideas?”

“No, it’s where I keep my file copies of contracts.  I pull out the most recent one and skip down to the part where the para begins ‘You will write…’  I read that paragraph carefully, as it delineates what I agreed to do.  Then I skip down to the paragraph that says ‘You will be compensated…’  I take careful note of the parts that point out, in short, that if I don’t do my work I won’t get paid, and if it sucks, I also won’t get paid.”

“And how the hell does that help you feel inspired to write?”

“It doesn’t help me feel inspired.  Inspiration is for creating art, and my writing is my job, not my art.  It does help me feel motivated.  As in, ‘you better sit your butt down there and get it done.’  I rarely even need this, because I like to write.  Nearly all the time when I have work to do, I like it and want to do it.  And when I don’t, tough; it’s a job.  I accepted it.  Time to knock it out, get ‘er done.”

“Okay, fine, but I’m working on my science fiction novel and I don’t have any contract at all to read, and I’m not getting paid any time soon.  I’m stuck!  How do I get unstuck?”

This part is hard.  “If you can’t figure out where to take your story, you need to do some thinking.  But if you know where you want it to go, and can’t put it on paper, then you don’t want to write badly enough right then.  If you did, you’d just start writing whatever part of it you thought of first, and fix it later.”

“Uh…but….” They taper off into silence.  I just dropped a bomb.  I said the thing you can’t say.  I may just have blown their supposed ‘writer’s block’ to gravel (I was certainly trying my level best), but it’ll take time to process that.  I just challenged their basic desire to write, the unchallengeable.  They look at me like I’m the kind of cold S.O.B. that just isn’t supposed to exist in the “Oh, for a muse…” world of Writer’s Digest.  Well, yeah.  I’m a freelancer, a literary mercenary.  If you want feelgood advice that will reinforce all your existing perceptions, I’m the worst person to ask.  However, I don’t get jollies from the fact of jolting eager psyches, so I soften it…

“It’s true.  If you think about it, you aren’t sure where to start with what you want to say, and you don’t want to redo it all later.  Sorry, more bad news:  you will anyway, so just embrace that.  Start with something, anything, even if you have to throw 90% of it away later.  Any writing at all is progress, and not writing is zero progress.  If you clearly understood and absorbed this, you will now desire to go immediately to your computer and begin banging keys.”

“(various confused and noncommittal responses)”

Now, none of this bothers me.  I’m used to it, it’s part of what I do, like a hardware store owner being asked by his brother-in-law about caulking.  Only two things bother me:

  • Arguing with me, trying to tell me how wrong I am.  Maybe I am, but you aren’t paying me for this advice, so if you don’t like it, or find it an annoyance, debating me is useless to you.  You gain nothing except that you can be sure that you’ll never have to worry about getting free advice from me again.  Do I mind healthy disagreement? Not at all–but something I am doing is working, so what I say can’t be too totally incredible.  And if what someone is doing is not working, then where is the knowledge basis for debating me? This blog began purely because my favorite author gave me some stern, kind, wise advice:  “You must start a blog.  People who like your writing want more of it, often, and you need to learn to think in terms of giving it to them.  They want to know the mundane stuff you can’t imagine anyone would care about.  You must have your own domain.  You must learn to present yourself in your profession.”  Did I argue with her? Hell’s bells, no.  I went and did it, within two days.
  • Ignoring what I said, and continuing to seek approval for the dysfunctional methods they’re currently using.  If you wanted to know, why did you just ignore everything I said? Surely you can understand that if I think you’re doing it wrong, I gain no happiness from having to break that to you.  It’s a service.  Freely given, but please think of what it’s like to be simply ignored and have the same thing thrown back at you.  It feels ineffectual for me.  It makes me want to stop.  I don’t fundamentally want to stop.  I like to help people.  I hope what I say will help them write more productively and happily.  If I’m not perceived as an authority, why ever ask me?

This has wandered afield from the topic a bit, I acknowledge, but it does all pertain (if tangentially) to the busting of this mythical ‘writer’s block.’  If you stopped believing in the concept, and started writing–something–anything–even a piece on abuse of the em dash, like someone on Salon recently did–the concept would go away.  Bang out 300 words about how frustrated you are.  Describe your beer can opener.  Rhapsodize about five hairs on your arm.  Write a scathing rebuttal to this, telling me I’m full of baloney.  You will be writing.  That’s the idea, is it not?

Writers want to write.  Non-writers want to talk about how cool it would be to write, or why they can’t write.

And if writers know they should blog, and have no idea at all what to write about some night, you can see what happens.