What Counts as Writing?

Hanging around with friends and other panelists of the GenCon Writer’s Symposium this year, I was hit with an unexpected question several different times.

“So, are you trying to be an author, or a comedian?”

The question caught me off guard, although in retrospect, it probably shouldn’t have. People love labels and categories. It makes things easier to separate and understand quickly.  But the tendency also builds up artificial barriers that make it hard to see the whole picture.

To outsiders, I can understand why stand-up and writing fiction might look like different disciplines. Stand-up requires a degree of human interaction and public speaking absent from putting words to page. Many of my more introverted writer friends can’t imagine the “bravery” it takes to get in front of a crowd and do something like this.

But from my perspective, the bravery needed to get on stage isn’t greater than the bravery needed to send out a billion query letters, just different. Both involve putting yourself out there to be judged by a harsh and often unforgiving public, and both risk a mountain of rejection. The only difference with the stage is rejection comes in real-time instead of after weeks or months of delays. I’ve done both, and I’ll take the live audience every time.

The secret is both writing comedy and writing fiction are still writing. I don’t see any functional difference between them. Both are forms of the oldest and most human of activities; storytelling. I write and tweak jokes just like I write and edit short stories and novels. Both of them go through many drafts before their final versions emerge. And in my experience, both mediums inform and strengthen your talents with the other.

Storytellers are all performance artists. Whether you perform on a stage or on the page doesn’t matter. You are still putting on a show to entertain your audience. The borders between the mediums are disappearing in our age of cross-platform interconnectivity. How many comedians also write books or maintain blogs? How many authors do interviews, panels, and seminars?

I’m not saying that all writers should immediately go out to an open mic and start slinging jokes, but with the changing nature of the job, I think it’s important to build your platform and grow your fan-base through any available channel. There’s nothing wrong with using whatever your other strengths are to accomplish that.

I don’t want to be known as just a comedian, or just an author. I want to be known as an engaging and entertaining storyteller. The labels don’t matter to me so long as the audience comes along for the ride.

Slushie Machine: Escape the pile

Hey gang. I’ve just returned from GenCon in Indianapolis, and while I had a wonderful time as always, (more on that later) after talking to a group of aspiring authors, I was once again struck by how often the same questions about submitting stories and working with markets keep coming up. This stuff is old hat to me, but only because I had to wade through my own mistakes waist-deep for the first few years.

I’d written an article on this very topic that appeared in The SFWA Bulletin a while back called “Confessions of a Slushie Machine.” Those of you who’ve been following the blog from the beginning might remember it as a six part series of posts, but I figured it might be easier just to put it all in one place. So, in the interests of helping writers new and old float to the top, and to save slush readers from a mountain of bad submissions, here it is. Please help it spread far and wide:

Confessions of a Slushie Machine

 

So you’ve decided to become a professional writer. Congratulations, for you have embarked on the only career path with a one hundred percent success rate. No one traveling the path of the author has encountered so much as a pothole on the road to publishing a best seller.

What, you don’t believe me? Have your efforts been met with resistance, frustration, or even, *gasp* rejection? In that case, the odds are good that you have run up against someone like me, for I am a Slushie Machine.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the nomenclature, the slush pile is the stack of unsolicited stories, poems, or book manuscripts that publishers receive everyday. Submitting a story through the slush pile is the literary equivalent of selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in a neighborhood already infested with salesmen. Even a good writer, with a good story, is going to be rejected more often than not.

However, hope is not lost. As a slush editor for a prominent online publisher, I sort through dozens of stories per week. One thing I’ve learned after reading the work of hundreds of aspiring writers; not all tales are created equal. Many, if not most stories in the slush pile are hobbled by errors that are easily avoided.

Though writing often feels like a solitary pursuit, the slush pile reveals otherwise. Without careful management, it can quickly grow to overwhelming heights. These stories aren’t writing themselves, at least not yet. There are thousands of writers pecking away on their laptops in the hope of nabbing one of a finite number of publishing slots. Your job as a writer (and never forget that it is a job) is to cut down on the errors that annoy slush editors. For your story to get through to the actual decision makers, and therefore have any chance of seeing print, you have to get past me.

There are as many ways to self-destruct a story as there are writers, but the bulk of unforced errors fall into a handful of categories. In rough order of obviousness, these include: Cover Letter Crimes, Formatting/Guidelines, Market Incompatibility, Slow Starts, Where’s the Story, and Haven’t I Read This Before?

Cover Letter Crimes: In short fiction, less is more. Cover letters should consist of your name, a pseudonym if you use one, the title of your story, word count, and a handful of your most impressive publishing credits; if you don’t have any yet, no problem. Got all that? Good, now stop.

Wait, why are you writing a three-hundred word summary of your three-thousand word story? Stop that. Your last thirty publishing credits? Cut it out, I mean it this time. All the authors you’ve talked to at cons and books signings? Now you’re just making me angry.

And for the love of ink, if you don’t have any publishing credits, don’t come out and say so. Do you want to know that the guy about to cut into your chest is doing his first lung transplant surgery? It would make you a little apprehensive about what came next, wouldn’t it? Well the same is true here. There is no reason to put a Las Vegas sized neon light over your story, blinking ‘Unpublished Author’ before the eyes of the person who is about to read it. Clear enough? Okay, moving on.

Formatting/Guidelines: This should go without saying, but please, read the submission guidelines of the market you’re submitting to. Twelve-point, Times New Roman or Courier font, and double-spaced is a good place to start. This may seem like common sense to many of you, but I am consistently amazed at the number of manuscripts submitted that do not follow this standard formatting.

The next item to tick off your pre-flight checklist is word count. Most publishers of short fiction work within tight constraints, especially those printing hardcopy. As a result, most prefer stories of a certain length. For example, the market I work with has set a hard cap of 7,500 words. This should be self-explanatory, however I return between one and three stories unread each week because they exceed our limit. This doesn’t have to happen.

All of the previous mistakes can be avoided with very little effort on the part of the writer. These are simply good habits to develop. The next step requires a bit more work.

Market Compatibility: There are many hundreds of paying literary markets, each trying to carve out their own audience. Think of it as a market ecosystem, with every magazine, website, and anthology series acting as a unique species.

Just like in nature, markets evolve to fill specific niches in their environment. Some are generalists that publish work from diverse genres. However, most markets are specialists who have built a reputation around a specific genre, be it high fantasy, hard sci-fi, urban supernaturalism, steam punk, space opera, etc.

The market I read for has established a reputation for horror and suspense stories with a fantastic or supernatural bent. It’s what our subscribers have come to expect. Yet still I get stories every week that contain no horror elements. Many of them are quite good, but are incompatible with our goals; so back they go.

Before you hit the ‘Send’ button, or lick a stamp, take some time to read a handful of selections from the market you are considering submitting to. Figure out the genre and tone of the stories the editors liked enough to print. If your story feel like it’s in good company, send it along.

However, if it doesn’t mesh, then don’t send it to that market. This wastes not only your time, but the time of the reader on the other end, which won’t endear you to that editor should you send another story in the future. Some of us have surprisingly long memories for that sort of thing. As I said earlier, there are hundreds of paying markets. You can always find one that will be a good fit for whatever you choose to write.

Everything we’ve talked about so far: cover letters, formatting, word count, compatibility, has been about preparation. These are things you can do to improve the odds of any story being accepted, without changing a single word of text. Now, we’re going to dig into the content itself, and teach you the importance of avoiding…

Slow Starts: Novels and short stories are a fundamentally different reading experience. With a novel, the average reader will gladly plough through the first chapter or two waiting to get snagged by the ‘hook’. People commit to reading books and realize that character building, back story, and scene-setting takes time.

Short stories are another matter. In the short format, the first page, even the first paragraph, is critical. This is doubly true for getting past slush editors, because if the first page of your story doesn’t make us want to read the rest of it, most of us aren’t going to. We don’t have the time. Odds are your story is one of anywhere from five to ten that we need to read that day, in addition to our own writing, paying jobs, and families. You have to show us that your story is worth the time we’re going to spend reading it, and you need to do it fast.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. As a writer, I find it appalling that someone would pass judgment on my work before finishing it. But as an editor, I find myself doing exactly that. Here’s why; if a story can’t hold the interest of an editor, odds are it won’t hold the interest of our readers either, and they have surprisingly long memories as well.

There is a simple test to determine if your story suffers from Slow Start. Find a five-to ten year old. If this is a rare species in your vicinity, a teenager with ADHD or a twenty-something with a hangover can act as a substitute. Corner them in a room with only one door, and stand in the exit. Start reading. If they sit in rapt attention, you’re probably fine. However, if they are trying to escape through the window before you’ve finished the first page, then there may be a problem.

Where’s the Story: A weakness that plagues many of the submissions that I read is a simple failure to tell a complete tale. Short stories are a challenging format, because scene-setting, character introduction, conflict, resolution, all of it has to happen inside a very small space. Like conducting an orchestra from inside a closet.

When writing short fiction, many new writers fail to include one or more of the elements that makes a self-contained story. To be complete, a tale needs characters the reader can relate to, a conflict, and a resolution.

For example, little Suzy is eight years old. She has lost her cat. She embarks on an epic journey to find her cat that will span many years, several oceans, and every imaginable mode of transportation, while being pursued by her parents, and some Somali pirates.

So, scene, characters, and conflict are all present. Now there needs to be a resolution. If Suzy spends the rest of her life in a futile search for her lost cat, which any reasonable person would know had died many decades ago, that isn’t really a story.

There needs to be some satisfying resolution to the central conflict; Suzy finds the cat under her bed. The resolution doesn’t have to be what the reader is expecting; Suzy finds the cat, but it has died. Suzy finds the cat, but an evil scientist has set up Schrodinger’s box experiment, and she can never open it out of fear of collapsing the wave-form. Suzy finds the cat, but it turns out that it contained the reincarnated soul of a man that Suzy had murdered in a past life, and traps her in a Rube Goldberg-esque contraption lifted from the Saw franchise. Whatever tickles your fancy, but the resolution has to be there.

Haven’t I Read This Before: Here is where the rubber meets the road. Above all else, short fiction needs to be original. That is the deathblow for many stories I have read. They can be well written, with full characters and a complete story, but if it doesn’t feel new and fresh, then it will almost invariably fall flat.

Several times, I have read a story, only to find it is a well-known tale with the serial numbers filed off. One stands out in my memory as a carbon-copy of Blade Runner. The writer in question had never heard of the movie, or even the book it was based upon.

The best way to avoid this trap is also the most time-consuming; read lots of books and magazines, watch loads of movies and T.V., and play video games and RPGs. The only way to learn the tropes of your genre is to immerse yourself within it.

This is not to say that a story cannot include familiar elements. Sci-fi will always have space ships, aliens, and ray guns, and fantasy will always have elves, dwarves, and wizards. But find ways to tweak the conventions and make them your own, unique version. By defying expectations, you will grab the reader’s attention. Think of all the successful authors of vampire fiction.

If you follow these relatively simple steps while crafting and preparing your work, you will have positioned your story ahead of as much as two thirds of the deluge we have to wade through every time we open our inboxes.

Of course, you still have to get past the Senior Editors. But that’s another article.

Robin Williams and Depression as a Muse

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This post is about comedy, but there won’t be anything funny about it. In truth, I’ve been looking for a way to share much of what I’m about to say for a long time now without knowing how. But today seems as appropriate as any.

For those of you who don’t know, Robin Williams, the infinitely strange and immensely talented comedian and actor was found dead today at age 63. While we don’t have all of the details yet, the consensus is he committed suicide, a conclusion supported by reports from his surviving family that he had been fighting a severe bout of depression recently.

And fighting is the right word. The only word that fits. It’s easy for someone watching from the outside to mistake depression for a bad day, or a sour attitude, something that passes like bad weather. Nothing could be further from the reality millions of people face. Depression isn’t an outlook, or a worldview, or even an emotion.

Depression is a monster. But unlike the monsters that torment children, hiding in closets and under beds, this monster is real. You can’t escape it, because it lives inside your soul, waiting. You can’t hide from it. It stalks you, relentlessly, every waking moment of your life, probing the armor you wear against it, searching out chinks and gaps it can exploit. It whispers to you, lies to you, undermines you.

At every moment, this monster is trying to kill you.

I know this monster. Not as well as some, but well enough. I have been its prey. Looking back on my life, I’ve probably tangled with it a half dozen times or so, dating back to grade school growing up as a scrawny, nerdy atheist kid in a small town. Right after high school, it almost got my little brother, but failed.

Life was pretty good after college. I’d moved down to Florida with my best friend, and my girlfriend followed soon after. We married four years later. For nine years, we were a model couple. We seldom fought, started building careers, dug ourselves out of debt, and settled in to start a family. We were the pair that our friends looked up to and wanted to emulate. I’d never felt so happy, loved, and secure in my life.

Then, two weeks after we became pregnant with our first child, she told me we were divorcing. She refused to participate in any counseling, and demanded that I sign the divorce papers or she would have me served. No warning, no signs of trouble, no money problems, no infidelity, nothing.

I pleaded with her, begged for the life we’d built together, and for the life growing in her belly. But if she heard any of it, she didn’t care. She told me that she had never loved me, had never been attracted to me, didn’t respect me, and didn’t trust me.  It was a lie, of course. A lie she told to me, but more importantly to herself. A lie she continues to tell herself to this day.

But at the time, I couldn’t recognize it. I was, simply put, destroyed. It was like being unmade, almost murdered. I cried uncontrollably everyday for weeks. I didn’t have a full night’s sleep for seventy days before I lost count. I ate so little that I lost twenty pounds, and if it wasn’t for the rivers of beer I drank to numb the world, I would have lost even more.

This is when my monster came back from its exile and pounced. Somehow, I managed to continue on auto-pilot, paying my bills and working, but at every moment the monster sapped my energy. It left me mentally and physically exhausted, yet unable to sleep and recover. Alcohol and sleep medication was all that kept it at bay for a few hours at a time and let me rest.

My monster consumed my sense of self-esteem and worth, leaving me with nothing to fight back against it. I entered counseling for a time, searching out new weapons, but growing up with a psychologist for a mother, I knew the score and saw through the manipulations designed to help me find my way out again. My monster turned my intelligence and stubbornness against me, convincing me that it was right using my own greatest strengths and defining characteristics to do it, convincing me that it was actually my voice I was hearing, instead of its lies.

At about this time, my beautiful daughter was born, and the monster took her from me. It, along with some less-than-helpful words from my now ex-wife, convinced me that I was so worthless, so broken, that I would be nothing but an anchor on my daughter’s life. That she would be better off if I wasn’t around to screw her up like her pathetic, unlovable father. I signed away my parental rights, not because I wanted to give her up, but because wallowing around in the pit, I believed with all my heart that I was doing what was best for her future. It’s a mistake I’ll never be able to take back, and the only thing I actually regret from that time in my life.

Then, the monster managed to put a gun in my mouth. I was half an inch from surrendering to it and becoming yet another statistic. I don’t know why I didn’t. I’d like to say something inspiring like I saw a picture of my daughter and I didn’t want her to grow up without her real daddy. Or I had a moment of clarity and insight that pulled me back. But those aren’t true. Honestly, I may have just been too tired and unambitious to pull the trigger.

So it’s with some authority and personal experience that I say this next bit: If you’re one of those people who says suicide victims are weak, or cowards, or selfish, do me a favor. Grab the nearest pen, and stab yourself right in the eye, because you don’t have the first mother-fucking clue what you’re talking about.

Suicide victims are exactly that, victims. By the time the monster has eaten away that much of you, you aren’t capable of seeing yourself, the world, or your place in it rationally. I believed right before that moment that I was a cancer that needed to be cut out of humanity, that I was a disease infecting my friends and family, and that the right, proper, and noble thing to do was to excise myself and save them from the symptoms.

That’s what depression does to people. Male, female, beautiful, homely, young, old, famous, obscure, wealthy, poor, none of it matters. The monster will hunt them all. Some of them will fall victim to it and people will stand around saying stupid shit like, “They had so much to live for,” or, “They were rich, what did they have to be sad about?” Seriously, fuck you.

Which brings me to comedy. It’s a poorly kept secret, but comedians aren’t actually funny people. Often times, they are some of the most emotionally scarred people you can imagine. I’ve been doing comedy in the MKE and Madison scene for two years now, and I don’t know a single comic who wasn’t damaged in some way, often severely.

It’s what we do with that pain and emotional disfigurement that sets us apart. I was fall-down drunk the first time I did comedy. I was drunk because I was hurting deep inside myself, way down past where smiles and kind words could reach it. I was able to get up on stage in front of complete and utter strangers and slur my way through some lame jokes I hadn’t prepared not because I was brave, but because I had already lost so much  that there wasn’t anything left to be afraid of.

What did I care if these folks didn’t like me or thought I was an idiot? How would that be any different than the way I thought everyone else already felt about me? I told jokes that night more out of anger than anything. I vaguely remember asking the audience if they’d ever been so hung-over they put hair conditioner on their toothbrush. That’s about it.

But, to my amazement, some people laughed. Genuinely laughed. For the first time in almost a year, I felt the world open up a little bit. So the next week, I did it again. And again. Soon, it was a habit, then an obsession. I was watching all the pain and anguish that had tormented me turn from poison into something positive. I was making people laugh, giving them a break from their own struggles to share in the absurdity of our mutual existence and give it the middle finger for an hour or two. Comedy, family, close friends, and the love, understanding, and unconditional support of my girlfriend finally gave me the weapons I needed to subdue the monster. It sleeps once more.

The best comics are born from tragedy. It gives them the perspective, motivation, bravery, and material to rise above the fray. How many comics can you name that are still on their first marriage? How many haven’t had a private, or often very public battle with substance abuse? Hell, Richard Pryor very famously lit himself on fucking fire, nearly becoming Richard Pyre in the process.

Robin Williams was no exception. His comedic brilliance was fueled by his manic depression, battles with drug addiction, and personal tragedies, many of them self-inflicted. These were battles he fought his entire life.  Without his personal struggles, the world would have been deprived of his wit, his zaniness, and his heart. We would never have met Mork, or seen Peter Pan all grown up fight against Captain Hook for the love of his children, or watched Mrs. Doubtfire square off against James Bond over Sally Field, (not that I’d fight over Sally Field, but whatever). And me and Tim Korklewski wouldn’t have been literally rolling around in the isles in the Desert Star Theatre in the Dells while we watched Rainbow Randolph shouting at Edward Norton in a rhinoceros costume, “That’s not a rocket. It’s a COCK! Twig and berries! Rumple Foreskin!”

There are people who have had immense impact and influence over my life who died before I had the opportunity to meet them, shake their hand, and thank them for all they meant to me. People like Jim Henson, Gene Roddenberry, Douglas Adams, and Christopher Hitchens. I had to add another one today, and it breaks my heart.

If you know someone who is fighting the monster, do everything you can, everything, to help them defeat it. Never give up on them. If they’re still alive, it’s because they haven’t yet given up on themselves. They need tools, they need weapons, they need allies, even if they can’t put their needs into words or find the strength to ask. Give them what they need.

I’m going to leave you all with a playlist of my favorite of Mr. Williams’s performances. Robin Williams: Live on Broadway. Enjoy it, and thank the memory of this man for all the joy he was able to give the world.

 

Daily Dose of Awesome

 

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This is just about the coolest space picture I’ve ever seen. Let me tell you why. What we’ve got here is a picture taken from inside the Saturn system by our intrepid space probe, Cassini. NASA launched this plucky little bugger back in 1997 when  every twelve-year-old girl in the country was losing their shit over Titanic.

Seven years later, Cassini reached Saturn and set up shop, where she’s been doing the fuck out of some science for the last ten years, like a boss. The band in the foreground is Saturn’s famous rings known since the time of Galileo as seen from edge-on, looking out on the rest of the solar system.

The small white cue-ball just below the band of rings is the tiny moon of Enceladus. Despite being discovered in the eighteenth century, very little was known about this diminutive satellite until Cassini showed up and discovered liquid water geysers which not only continually replenish Saturn’s E ring, but reveal the presence of an underground heat source, organic compounds, and the probability of a sub-surface ocean in the moon’s southern polar region, instantly jumping it to the top three places in the solar system to look for life behind Mars and Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The brown, fuzzy pancake behind Enceladus is Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Titan is unique for a number of reasons, including being the only moon in the solar system with a significant atmosphere. It’s actually quite a bit thicker than the atmosphere here on Earth. It is also the only other known body outside of Earth with liquid at its surface. It has lakes, rivers, clouds, and even rain. Granted, the liquid is made of hydrocarbons many hundreds of degrees below zero instead of water, but still. The only reason we know any of this is, yet again, because Cassini told us, or more accurately the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe that hitched a ride. Huygens parachuted down to Titan’s surface back in 2005, and while it only lasted a few hours before succumbing, it sent back a wealth of data and amazing pictures which have wet the appetites of exobiologists around the world at the possibility of exotic bio-chemistry lurking on the surface.

What really blows me away about this photo, as opposed to the wealth of images from say the Hubble Space Telescope, is that it was taken on scene. This is a vacation shot taken by something we built and shot out over hundreds of million of miles that has been in space for seventeen years already. And it manages to capture not on the rings, but two of the top four places to search for new forms of life in the solar system. It’s an amazing demonstration of how far we’ve come as a species, and how much more there is for us to do.

So stop bitching about how much money we spend on space exploration and fund these nerds already.

I’ve seen Guardians of the Galaxy Before…

So let me get this straight. A cocky American male with a habit of shooting first, making 80’s pop culture references, and wearing AMAZING coats is ripped away from Earth to a remote part of the galaxy, where he accidently get swept up with a motley band of criminals who escape their confinement, including a muscle-bound warrior, a tiny wise-ass, a plant, and an alien woman who’s beauty is matched only by her deadliness, who our main character immediately starts to fall for.

I’ve loved this story since it was called FARSCAPE, bitches!

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But seriously, they’re both just awesome. And considering the comic predates Farscape by quite a little while, the question of who copied homework off of whom gets a little murky. Regardless, plots, backstories, and characters are secondary to execution, no matter your medium of storytelling. Both did so beautifully, and as Picasso said, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.”

If you liked Guardians of the Galaxy, Farscape is on Netflix. Binge all four seasons and the made-for-tv movie. You will thank me later.