Tag Archives: shawn inmon

An interview with time travel fiction author Shawn Inmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long have you been writing time travel stories?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha! They do come from the oddest places!

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

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

And we’re going to keep it that way.

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

I guess to look beyond the setting to the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, J.K.!

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

Shawn’s Facebook page

Shawn’s Goodreads page

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

What happens when you set up a Facebook page

On the wise guidance of a friend and marketing advisor, I set up a Facebook page for the editorial business. I had no idea what would occur; much did. I decided that the readership might find it interesting and entertaining.

In the process, I was required to give a street address. (Phone number was optional.) Despite choosing to keep that address private–I don’t have a physical location except for my home office–I had to go in again and make it private. Even now, I am not quite sure that FB will honor this.

It wanted a photo and a cover photo. That didn’t seem unreasonable.

FB then encouraged me to spam all my friends with requests to like the page. Having seen enough such spams in the past from friends promoting their own pages or those of their associates, I decided that my friends wouldn’t get mad at me about it. For the most part, I was right. One person whom I barely knew unfriended me, which was all right.

FB’s first attempts to sell me advertising came within an hour of creation. No joke. I suppose I may safely assume that this will be a regular occurrence.

FB tried to get me to make a post thanking all the new likers. I tried to do this three times; it never completed its process any of those times. I made my own post, which worked fine. Thanking everyone seemed very reasonable. It was pleasant to see the comments and even one recommendation, from Shawn Inmon, himself one of the most capable storytellers going–if you are not familiar with his fiction, by all means use that link. Some of his best work is non-fiction, but fiction is mainly what he does nowadays, and he does it well.

One thing I can’t seem to hide is FB’s posts encouraging me to send more spam, including to my friends. It seems not to know or care that I have already done just that. I do not think very many people would appreciate another spamming.

It tells me I have ten notifications and ten inbox posts. When I check the inbox, I have none. Notifications five, all of which already viewed and addressed, but I still have to tell the notifications that I consider myself notificated. As with normal notifications, I’ll go out on a limb here and suspect that FB doesn’t really take “okay I heard you” as the final answer.

It feels somewhat as if I have just set off the whole fireworks display at once, with notifications and such coming thick and fast. Besides the nervous feeling of not yet having full control over it all, most of it is positive. I’ll know more when the smoke clears away and I police up all the used sparklers, empty Roman candles, firecracker papers, and little mortar boxes.

Day two: page nagged me to list myself as part of the ‘team.’ I guess the idea was it would ‘build my brand.’ Being an old Kansas boy, I think of branding irons and the Rawhide theme. It also continued to rag on me to set up automated ads. These people really, really, really want some money. They want me to set up a group for the page (wonder why?). There’s a nag at the top to ‘add a button.’ Really? Button to do what? I’m afraid to push it lest it trigger a bunch of other crap. At the moment I have more than adequate FB crap to sort out.

This is a bit overwhelming. Do this, buy this, set this up, give us this, add this, blah, blah, blah. I don’t know about adding anything until I’m sure what it does. I guess this is the personality difference between reckless abandon and cautious advancement, and I’m more the latter based on all the goat rodeos in life I have seen ensue from those who just swallow and hang on. Plus, I’m obstinate. The more I feel pushed, the more I resist. The less I trust the originator (FB, insurance company, bank, car dealer), the more I resist. Here I feel pushed by a deeply distrusted source, so the default answer is No.

It is still carping at me to invite all my friends to Like the page. It seems amnesiac. I invited all my friends to Like the page as my first action after setting it up. (An amazing percentage did so. I heart you folks.) Is this all an exercise in laughing at algorithms? All, no; somewhat, yes. I’m a strange person. I reserve the right to take any indiscriminate mass broadcast as though the company CEO singled me out and said it personally. This means I hate a lot of corporations. This, I find, is my comfort zone. I am most creeped out when I find myself liking a corporation. Faceplant has little chance of ever creeping me out in that way.

Day three: more notifications and inbox red markers that, when investigated, mean nothing. Another nag to ‘boost’ my posts by buying advertising. I sense trends. It also admonished me to set up business hours, which isn’t illogical, though it is inapplicable in my case.

Day four: supposedly I have four ‘inbox’ items. I can’t believe any of these red markers. I am nagged to pressure my friends to like the page. There are some interesting statistics: I can see my total likes and follows; I can see the identities of the first but not the seconds. Right now they differ by one numerically (no, I don’t care who does which or what, except to thank all who did either; no one is obligated to like or follow a Facebook page).

It’s about time to check out page settings. I want people to have freedom to post. The default setting should always be liberty rather than restriction, after all; restriction is only for when complete liberty results in some problem. Going into settings, the first thing I find is that I have not Verified that this is my real business page. I can either scan and send them a document, or have them call me with a code. I have them call me with a code. I follow the process, but it does not work and I am told I am unverified. Okay, screw verification.

People can post without restriction, so that is good. Interesting: I can filter a given word, or engage a profanity filter. Multiple language posts are turned off; that’s no good. I have a higher than average likelihood, for an American, of someone actually posting in a foreign language, and I like it. Enabled! Except that it’s not. Or it is. It says it is not, but when I try to do fix it again, it won’t let me change it. These people are lousy at software. I’ll have to post something in a foreign language and see if it ralphs.

While I was doing that, we had another stupid ‘like’ nag. Bruce, one of my oldest friends (since I was about twelve), liked a photo. That caused FB to nag me to invite him to like the page. Cretins. Do they not suppose that he probably already does? Would Bruce love a nice little nag to do something he has surely already done? No, Bruce probably would not. Insight: if you obeyed every nag from FB, you’d hose down your business in short order. Friends will help you out, but not to the point of making their lives worse. I have one friend who has gone way overboard with this, and I definitely don’t want to be That Guy.

At the same time, many pages do nothing. I also don’t want to be That Other Guy. I should begin a procedure of attempting to post one funny, uplifting, or enjoyable thing per day. Just one. No one will unfollow me over one thing per day, one presumes, provided it is not political or negative. So I posted a music video.

Within a few hours, Zuckbook was asking $30 to ‘boost’ my post.

Day five: International Women’s Day, so I post a story. FB nags me to add a donation button. It obviously hasn’t been too early in this relationship for Zuckbook to start asking me for money, but I think five days in is too soon for me to launch a beg-a-thon. Nope.

Maybe I should describe the weird, somewhat clunky control panel one gets in order to check on the red boxes for Inbox and Notifications. I can’t tell why something would be in one and not the other, nor why. The Inbox has a nuclear symbol for automated messages (maybe it was programmed by someone laid off from Hanford), and purports to show you Messenger, comments, FB (why you would need an icon to take you to FB from FB is beyond me), and Instagram (not happening, I don’t own an Instagraph and can’t send any of them). The Notifications looks like a bigger version of the dropdown you get from the little icons at top right of FB. It’s where FB nags you to invite people to like your page, which same people you know already like it. They might like it a lot less if every interaction with it gets them a fresh trip to nag hell.

If you did everything this mechanism rags on you about, you would be broke shouting into a virtual void, because you would alienate even the people who like you independent of Zuckbook, and spend all your money buying ads from Zuck–seen by no one, because you would have driven away the audience.

Oh, and I have hit 200 likes. It nags me to create a post thanking people. My view: best way to thank them is not crap up their news feeds with stupid posts of that sort, and instead focus on posting something fun or educational or topical. For example, something for International Women’s Day. Another ad sales nag as well; this one offering me a free credit. What do you bet I wouldn’t have gotten one of those had I just plunged headlong and started buying ads? Sorry, but I don’t want to create more FB ads even if Zuck gives them to me free.

Day six: it’s time for the daily advertising sales nag! One senses that I had better get used to these. The clickable spots are positioned close to where one would normally hit X to close an unwanted dialog box. Surely this is accidental. Surely.

Day seven. Yesterday, I set my mail checker to mark anything from FB’s ad sales as spam. Since they show signs of planning to do this daily nag for an open-ended period, this will make them easier to ignore. That’s the best I can do, since the notion of getting them to cease sending this spam is problematic.

One thing I have found is that when I post a link to a blog post, and it gets shared, I get a spike in reads. I am grateful to those who do this. It’s the only way that the reach from such a page is likely to increase without drinking the FB ad cool-aid.

Day nine: now the page presents me with a banner called Page Education. It suggests that I learn ‘easy tactics’ to grow the page’s popularity, such as re-spamming my friends–all of whom already got one spam; those who didn’t ‘like’ as a result, no doubt, will be more persuaded to do so by bothering them further. They also suggest sharing it to my personal timeline. As if; one of the key objectives here was to decouple my public presentation from my private life. Another easy tactic: nag my friends to recommend my page. Yeah, because beggary is such a classy look.

Yeah, so forget those. I have a better idea: post actual content that people might enjoy.

Day ten: now it’s nagging me to set up automatic responses to new messages. As if I get such an avalanche of new PMs that I need an answering service. An automatic response is no response, and therefore only annoys; might use it when on vacation, or otherwise well away from the blog. Today must be response day because there’s also a nag to increase my response time. If I trim it down to fifteen minutes, I am told, I will get to wear a special badge. Let me guess: it’s the badge that says “I have no life except to respond to these messages.”

Naturally, there’s also a nag to get started with automated ads. Those are beginning to fade into the wallpaper for me.

Day eleven: since this was the day Facebook was borcked in most ways for most of the US daylight hours, as a side benefit, I didn’t get any nags. Either that or I am better every day at ignoring them. Now and then I’m going to repost some older posts from here. Naturally, for the much older ones, I will do some hasty editing so that I don’t have to post them with a bag over the profile picture.

I suppose it’s time to tie this up with a bow. The experience was chaotic, and felt designed to overwhelm–to inspire one to just say yes to some of the things, in order to still at least a few of the yammers. It doesn’t work on me because I have at least some technical background and have the attitude of a constipated badger when I feel pressured, but it probably works on enough people that it generates some advertising revenue.

On the positive side, there’s a moderately refined mechanism for private conversation engagement if someone PMs me. Some of the statistics are nice, even if they do turn out to be nag platforms: “This post is performing better than 75% of your other posts–Boost it for greater reach!”

At least it’ll offer a good place to post links for these.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Release: Life is Short, by Shawn Inmon

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

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

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

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

Compilation release: The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver

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

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

I’ve never been a joiner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strange Second Life of Thomas Weaver, Bowl 6 and final

This, now out in Kindle, completes the serial novel Shawn began some time back. I was developmental editor.

Some time ago, Shawn proposed the saga of a middle-aged loser who commits suicide in his early fifties and awakens in his fifteen-year-old body, over thirty-five years back in time. Writers often bomb at time shifting and travel, because it keeps creating thorny issues that most authors gloss over or mishandle. When Shawn brought the idea up to me, I hammered on that point. If he must do it, and couldn’t be dissuaded, very well; but he should know that I wasn’t going to sit quietly and accept crummy shortcuts without vocal objections. He expressed an interest in my vocal objections, then got to work.

We had our first big disagreement during Bowl 2, if memory serves. I should put this in perspective: by a disagreement, I don’t mean we had harsh words, hard feelings, or anything negatively affecting the relationship. Rather: Shawn wanted to do what he wanted to do, I told him it was a very unwise idea, he explained his reasoning, and we ultimately worked out a plot solution that didn’t give either of us heartburn. During Bowl 6 the last, we had another round of these, both of which centered around the nature and timing of the rebirth of souls in his universe. Shawn was leaning toward actions and solutions that he felt would be more emotionally satisfying to the reader. I was arguing the side of situational ‘physics,’ used in the loosest possible sense given that all of this time travel stuff–and angels, for that matter–go against all our known conventional physics. By physics in this context, I mean what a thinking person could logically infer given the altered assumptions in play. I guess it’s fair to say I prevailed, though not in some overwhelming way, because when I object to a plot choice, it doesn’t very often mean that I am insisting on a specific alternative. It means I feel strongly that we need something other than what the author is proposing. If that’s how I feel, I must participate in helping the client perfect a solution that will pacify me.

I also did a thing the reader has no way to notice, but that I think will affect Shawn’s writing going forward. As I see my job, to the extent my client wants to grow, I always have some duty to teach. Difficulty: I am a very linear thinker who tends to dial in on a given mode and stick to it. This can result in very disciplined, consistent work, but it can be fundamentally uncreative since it may disregard for too long signs that the chosen mode is unsuitable for the best outcome. In this context, it means that when I am reviewing, I am not editing. At all. I salt the ms with little margin comments, always in lower case to distinguish them, so that I make sure to fix certain things when the real editing begins: “nts ghastly phrasing” “sp” “nts punct” “tcfkao”* and so on. (‘nts’ = ‘note to self’.) I don’t want or expect the client to fix these, though if s/he chooses to, what am I going to do, complain? I am better at review and commentary and teaching when I’m not being the punctuation mechanic.

Here, Shawn had a section that was well isolated from the rest, about a third of the way into the story. For those who end up reading it, it’s the very significant discussion Thomas has with Anne. The original was full of overtell, enough that it would be more like rewriting than editing. I don’t mind doing that, but it’s hard for an author to learn from tracked changes. So, this once, I did the editing early and asked Shawn to go over it with great care, and in each case put his takeaway lesson in comments. Afterward, I found it very hard to get back into the I-will-read-and-comment-without-changes mode, and I probably did some minor edits without thinking about it. No harm done, just one of the situations we encounter, germane to a piece on how the sausage is made.

The end result is something that keeps taking on the tough questions even as it rides into the sunset. I think readers will love it.

 

* The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford. I’m in full earnest about my rejection of Oxford’s moral authority over the English language after they sighed and said that ‘literally’ can mean ‘metaphorically.’ It can’t, they’re wrong, that decision was moneychanging in my temple, and I will drive them from it with scourges. However, the comma situation still remains, and we need a reference term for it. Ideally it would be a reference term that aims a banderilla at Oxford’s overhyped withers in every feasible instance. Therefore, “tcfkao.”

More Serial: The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver, Bowl 5, by Shawn Inmon

This installment, part five of six planned, is now available in e-format. I was developmental editor.

Shawn is proving to me that the serial form can be an effective way to release a novel and get paid along the way. It enforces a certain discipline, this form, in that each installment has to pay its way. One cannot decide that Bowl Four, for example, will be the dull downtime bowl. If one were to do that, Bowl Five and Bowl Six would be gutshot. This dynamic demands that the author continue to hold interest, and it comes with risk for him: if he doesn’t stick all his landings, the rest of the planned installments will lose significant portions of readership and sales.

As this bowl came my direction, the overall story was building toward some decisions. Some I expected to like, others not so much, but #5 out of 6 has an additional duty: it’s throwing setup for the closer. It has to prepare the reader for a conclusion many months in coming, and that reader deserves a very good one, because s/he has probably showed fidelity and faith in reading this far. One thing I like about Shawn is that he understands there is a limit to how much one should tease or troll one’s reader, because the reader is his friend. S/he is the reason he has a job; s/he deserves respect and affection; s/he may be teased, but must be able to take on faith the ultimate promise of literary satiation. More simply, Shawn likes and appreciates his reader, s/he knows it, and that’s partly why he sells so much writing. When they figure an author for a phony, he’s finished.

In this particular case, Shawn wrestled the issue of voice uniqueness. Simply put, when his characters have offended other characters and are apologizing, in first drafts there can be an almost predictable sequence to the sorries. I had to rake him over the coals about this, getting my message through: not everyone apologizes the way Shawn does. Some people half-ass it. Some left-hand it. Some can’t choke it out. Few make detailed confessions of fault, full of intensifiers and validations. Perhaps they should, but they do not.

The reason Shawn keeps getting better as a writer is that I can say something to him like: “*sigh* Okay, this is way too much Shawniness. Time to begin the de-Shawnification of this segment,” and he won’t wet himself. Trust me, if you said suchlike to most writers, there would be a new chill in the air; some would fire you on the spot as someone who “doesn’t believe in my work.” Shawn isn’t most writers. He won’t “fight for his words” (he has no opponent; I can’t force him to accept any change). He won’t take offense. He won’t bawl and threaten to quit writing. He’ll look over what I did, keep it if he finds it better than what he had, and learn from it. If he doesn’t understand what I thought was wrong, we’ll discuss it. And next time, he’ll probably write better.

The result has been a serial novel that has improved over the course of its execution. Not bad for a concept to which my initial reaction was: “Oh, for God’s sake, not another fucking time travel story.” (It’s not that I hate all time travel. It’s that I hate lazy time travel, and since we do not know of any practical means to travel in time, there is work to be done in postulating how and why, and some writers consider work to be very icky.) I’m getting very picky about anything paranormal or fantasy, not because I don’t like the genres (look, I edited a parenting book, and I never wanted to be a parent myself), but because most people are leaping onto the bandwagon and doing them wrong. And there’s a problem: the worse the writer, the less receptive s/he will be to growth. It has become predictive and tiresome. If the people who most needed help, truly wanted it, that would be great, but the people who most need help wish to be told they do not need help. I’m not their guy.

If you enjoy a good story by someone who isn’t afraid to break stuff, and who is committed to not letting you down, Shawn’s your guy.