So a Funny Thing Happened…

Many of you may not know it, but in addition to writing, I’ve taken up stand-up comedy over the last few months. My first time on stage was back in June or July on a lark. A local comedy collective here in Milwaukee called the Caste of Killers was putting on an open-mic night, which happened to coincide nicely with the bucket of Miller Light and two screwdrivers I’d already had that evening, so I signed up and took my five minutes under the light.

Now I have some experience writing humor. The first novel I wrote, (still looking for an agent, ahem…) was a sci-fi comedy. But while I’ve always loved stand-up comics, I had no experience writing jokes per se. My first effort in the basement of Karma that night was met with some polite laughs and ended somewhat anti-climatically, but I had gotten the taste of something new. I started trying to build coherent sets. Jokes that tied together in a common narrative, walking the audience through a story. It wasn’t long before I realized just how much like writing  good stand-up is. Anyone can tell one-liners, but with a few exceptions like the late Mitch Hedberg, the best comics don’t just recite a list of unconnected material. They tell a story. Often a wandering story filled with tangents, but a story none-the-less.

In fact, the entire exercise of writing comedy feels like writing a book, only much faster. You write rough drafts, practice, prune, add new stuff, and edit, edit, edit. Then you send your story out into the world, in this case a direct audience, and face the daunting prospect of success or rejection. But instead of months of waiting, the feedback is instantaneous. You either kill, or go home wanting to kill yourself. But then you figure out what didn’t work, change it or rip it out, and edit some more. It’s just like writing fiction, but on fast-forward.

I’ve seen my own writing improve because of this experience, mostly because of fresh perspectives and training my brain to think in new ways. I find myself being less attached to my work, and more willing to identify, change, and rip out the stuff that isn’t working. Being a dispassionate editor of our own work is one of the very hardest things writers have to do, but my experience in comedy has made the task much easier. I just imagine the blank stares of a cold audience, but instead of being at a club listening to my set, they’re in their pajamas reading my book.

Many of us wind up so focused on writing that we tend to distance ourselves from other hobbies and new experiences. This is a mistake. Real life is what informs our work, gives it color and texture beyond the words on the page. I’m not saying everyone should hit an open-mic next week, but don’t lose sight of your other interests. Make time for them. They will give you the space and time away from writing to keep your mind fresh and engaged in the real world. Ultimately, no matter what our genre, it’s that real-world flavor that really separates great writers from merely good ones.

After Action Report: VisionCon 2013

Hello nerdlings! After burning a day on such enticing activities as expense reports, I’m back up and running from a weekend in Springfield, Missouri. VisionCon was once again a great experience. It was going to be tough to top last year’s performance, but I think the organizers did so masterfully. A few personal highlights for me included the successful launch of The Wererat’s Tale: The Collar of Perdition, judging the Saturday night Masquerade alongside the guest of honor, Aaron Douglas, (I hear he got his picture taken with the mayor) and drinking some excellent twelve-year-old Scotch with friends both new and old.

The diversity of guests was impressive, and the charitable nature of all the attendees was evident as the con raised over $4,000 for breast cancer research. Not bad for a local convention. As far as I know, VisionCon managed to break all previous records for attendance. It’s wonderful to see such a fan-focused con growing at a time so many others are struggling to stay afloat. If you’re anywhere near Springfield and like to party, come on by next February and say hello. I’ll be there to launch Book IV of the Wererat saga, and probably to get a tattoo. Yup, they had a temporary tattoo parlor setup in one of the hotel rooms!

D.C. Comics, Orson Scott Card, and Cognitive Dissonance

Morning, everyone. The big dust-up in the world of geeks this week comes courtesy of D.C. Comics decision to hire world-renown but controversial sci-fi writer Orson Scott Card to pen upcoming issues of Superman. And since everyone is sharing their opinions on the topic, I figured I’d get in on the action.

I’ve actually struggled with my feelings about OSC for a number of years. For those of you who may not know. Mr. Card is a best-selling and multiple-award winning author of such famous sci-fi works as Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. His work has also included writing for screenplays, video games, and other lines of comic books such as Iron Man for Marvel. Ender’s Game is soon to be released as a major movie staring Harrison Ford, among others. I consider Mr. Card to be right up there with the second wave of great sci-fi writers like Larry Niven and William Gibson. Several of his novels sit on my bookshelf as I type this.

So it’s under this umbrella of professional accomplishments that I have to confront his repulsive personal views. An active and outspoken member of the Mormon Church, Mr. Card has very publicly denounced homosexuality as aberrant behavior, and has aided in the fight against things such as same-sex marriage rights, the repeal of DADT, and other measures that would bring equality and dignity to so many of our fellow citizens. That his public statements are in line with the tenants of his religion holds very little water with me.

The predictable response to Mr. Card’s personal views, a response D.C. really should have seen coming, has been calls to boycott the Superman titles in question, and even D.C. comics in general. Many people within the pantheon of comic geekdom feel particularly betrayed by D.C.’s decision, and rightfully so. The clan of geeks has always contained a large slice of social misfits and outcasts. People who didn’t fit into the mainstream. Instead, they built their own community based on inclusiveness and non-conformity, (unless you’re an attractive cosplay chick, but that’s another post). So it should be no surprise that there is a significant overlap between the community of LGTB persons and their supporters, and geek culture. Asking a proud homophobe and enemy of equality to write for the most important comic book character in American history must have come as a real slap in the face, and D.C.’s tone deafness led them right into this trap

However, all that said, while I certainly can’t blame anyone for being upset, or choosing to participate in a boycott, in this instance, I can’t recommend it, or participate myself. Here’s why. If you haven’t read Speaker for the Dead, you absolutely must do so right this second. Leave your job, abandon your children, interrupt the lunchtime copy-room tryst with the new girl from accounting, and go buy this book. While it is a sequel to Ender’s Game, it takes place far in the future and does enough catch-up and character-building early on that it stands alone very well. All you’re really missing is how much of a bad-ass young Ender was.

What you’ll find inside the pages of “Speaker” is the most elegant, moving, and iron-clad argument for tolerance, diversity, and inclusiveness ever captured in sci-fi, or perhaps any genre. The journey the human characters take in learning about, and eventually accepting the incredibly alien “piggies” is at times challenging, heart-wrenching, and ultimately empowering. I won’t ruin the ending, but the final scene of the book caused me to weep with relief. If you boycott Mr. Card’s work, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to read a work that turns the entire argument for diversity on its ear and shakes out all the loose change. It is simply beautiful.

The experience of reading “Speaker”, then running head-first into Mr. Card’s bigoted intolerance was… jarring, to say the least. It took me a while to work through it, and it’s been percolating around in the back of my head for several years. This latest incident has given me a reason to talk about it publicly. How, I wondered, could a mind that had written something that profound, simultaneously expound the sorts of regressive, backwards beliefs that he had just penned perhaps the greatest refutation of in contemporary literature?

I really couldn’t understand it for the longest time, and in some ways I still can’t. But what I’ve come to better understand is that Mr. Card, like so many millions of people in our culture, suffers from compartmentalized thinking. His plea for religious tolerance in “Speaker” was written with the benefit of his clan, the Mormons, in mind. He has never taken the next logical step to apply those same arguments to other groups. To do so would risk cognitive dissonance, which would be an unpleasant experience indeed for someone with a mind as sharp as his. It would require a level of self-reflection and bravery that he has, alas, not yet acquired. It is for this reason that I pity him more than I loathe his opinions.

However, I also believe that even if he does not yet possess the mental tools necessary to see over the walls he has built, there are many millions of others who are not so afflicted. I think that with the core message at the heart of his seminal work, Speaker for the Dead, Orson Scott Card could inadvertently do more to further the very causes of tolerance and acceptance that he has publicly opposed. It would be a fitting fate if his accidental message of inclusiveness and diversity spread far and wide, and ended up helping liberate those his personal beliefs had sought to condemn.

Seriously, go read the book, then share it with your friends.

Thoughts on a Snowy Afternoon

Wisconsin finally decided to commit to the whole “winter” thing, so I’m here basically locked into the house for the day. A few things have cropped up in the community of writers and publishing in the last week or so, and I thought I’d take a minute to add my thoughts.

First, there was the curious case recently of an editor of a small, no-pay ezine flipping out on a writer who asked a simple question about her publication. The writer on the receiving end of the tirade posted the comments to social media, where they quickly went viral. Well, viral among writers and other people connected to the craft.

Now, I’m not going to weigh in on the merits of publications who only pay their writers in exposure. Most of them are small and just starting out, trying to build up subscriptions and page-views. This very closely mirrors the journey new writers have to undertake, and I wish all of them the best of luck. Personally, I believe in being paid for my work, even if it is only a token sum. I’ve been paid as little as $3 for a piece of flash fiction before, but it was still real money that was able to buy me a significant fraction of a Culver’s Snack Pack. Other writers may feel that in the early goings, exposure is a sufficient reward for their troubles, and that’s fine. The only person who can make that call for you, is you. But there comes a time in the career of every creative where people will only start valuing your work if you do. I just decided that for me, that was Day 1.

No, what was so strange about this incident was just how much of an outlier it was, at least in my experience. From the get-go, I’ve been shocked at how supportive, even nurturing the community of writers, editors, agents, and publishers is. You have to be willing to work hard, and churn out quality material, but there has never been a shortage of people willing to extend a helping hand with advice on the business, critiques, beta-reading services, etc. I cannot tell you how many of the friends I’ve made over the last few years have gone out of their ways to help pull me along and try to find success. It’s unlike any working environment I’ve ever been a part of before. There is almost a complete lack of competition among writing professionals. It’s a fraternity, and a warm one at that. I would send a shout of thanks out to everyone who has helped me, but the list would take up far too much space, and I would invariably forget someone.

So it was through this lens of camaraderie that I read this editor’s attack, and that’s all it could be called, upon a fellow writer for having the gall to ask her a politely worded question about compensation, and for the nerve to believe her work might be worth real money. How dare she believe she should be compensated for her work the way everyone else in the universe is compensated for theirs! Not only did this editor display an incredible lack of grace and professionalism, but she had somehow forgotten the people who had in their own time helped her reach what success she had achieved. I don’t care who you are in this business, someone took the time to give you constructive critiques, someone gave your first published story a break, someone volunteered to be the Beta reader for your first novel manuscript. No one does this alone, it’s just not possible.

And maybe most importantly, someone teaches you the ‘rules’. Listen, we all make mistakes coming through this process. There is no creative writing program in the country that teaches you the rest of the story. Finding markets, submitting, landing an agent, negotiating contracts, running a social media campaign. branding, etc. We all walk into that part of the job blindly and stagger around in the dark for a while. Mistakes will be made, and all you can do is hope whoever catches you will be gentle and understanding.

I, for example, am still in the process of shopping around my very first novel manuscript. I’d sent it out to nearly eighty agents and publishers. And while I’ve gotten some solid nibbles, I haven’t managed to drag any of them back to the boat with this one yet. Then, late last year at World Con Chicago, I thought I was getting a break, when a side conversation with an acquisitions editor for one of the biggest sci-fi publishers in the business (names withheld to protect me from embarrassment) asked me to send him the manuscript. Needless to say, I was ecstatic. I ran right back to my hotel room and emailed it to him straight away. Only later did I come to realize that another person, whom had asked for a sample of the manuscript some months earlier, was actually an editor for the same publisher. I had inadvertently gone around his back and submitted directly to his boss.

Now, this is a Four-Alarm, Gold-Plated, No-No. But here’s the thing that our meanie editor above had either forgotten, or never knew. When you fuck up by the numbers, the best possible thing you can do is fess-up and immediately apologize. Acting tough, entitled, or too important for such lowly concerns is the single fastest way to stain your reputation. And this is a very small industry, with very long memories. In my case, I hadn’t known the two men worked for the same company, but even that wasn’t good enough. Unlike submitting to agents, who expect that you are blasting your novel out to anyone who’ll listen, editors at that level expect an exclusive look. This was one of the rules I hadn’t been in a position to learn yet, so all I could do was thank the man I’d wronged for educating me, and promise not to repeat the mistake. Fortunately, I hadn’t run into a primadona, and while he was rightfully irritated, he chalked it up to a rookie mistake. Would he have been willing to do so if I’d been defensive, or given him an attitude? Would you?

The moral of all this is, no matter how far down the road of succes you get in this industry, always remember that there were people there all along to help push your cart. Someday, it will be your turn to do the same for the next person coming up the road. And that ended up being quite a bit longer than I’d planned, so I’ll sign off for today. More tomorrow on “used eBooks” and “Space Marines.”