You never really know what your story is about until you finish writing it and sometimes not even then. Sometimes you don’t figure it out for years.
In 2015 I signed with a literary agent and I thought “here we go!” I’d been studying, writing, hustling for my whole adult life. I had a manuscript I was very proud of and a whole lot of optimism. Over the next few years I wrote two more books and my agent submitted all three of them to editors. We got some positive notes but nothing sold. Ultimately, in 2018 my agent left the business and, with three books that were effectively dead to publishers and no agent, I almost quit writing. I poured everything I had into the work that didn’t sell, into the proposals, and the grace I needed to survive rejection. I was crushed.
A couple weeks ago Kelly Sue DeConnick was a guest instructor for the Bad Dream Factory writing workshop masterminded by Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain that I’m privileged to be the TA for. Someone asked her advice on coming up with ideas. She said, (and I’m paraphrasing here, so apologies for not capturing her full Kelly Sue-ness), that ideas aren’t the limiting factor. What you really need as a writer, what’s really in short supply, is time and courage. I’d never heard it phrased quite like that before and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. In 2018, my courage was gone. I still had ideas, still put in the time, still wrote, but I was missing something.
At the bottom of my courage, I made a choice to start again with the fundamentals. I had a certain comfort level with novels as a form. I’d written 8 books before the one that got me an agent and 10 total by 2018. None of them got cover art or shelf space at Barnes and Noble but I at least knew I could throw hours and hard work into my keyboard and make something novel shaped out of it. What I was less sure of were short stories. I’d written some in college but rarely since. My agent said short stories were a waste of time but when he was gone and I was starting over, I committed to short fiction. I felt like it might be a good way to rediscover my love of writing and a way to connect with the speculative fiction community at a time when I felt most isolated. I tried out a few ideas that didn’t come together and ultimately stuck on this one about a lonely traveler in an empty world that finds a hint that someone else is out there.
In retrospect, the subtext isn’t even a little bit subtle.
With “Merely Players” I wrote my loneliness, my sense of purposelessness after that “here we go!” crashed into “what do I do now?” Jester, the main character, is an actor without a stage or an audience. He’s a comedian in a world without laughter and he asks himself, is he even alive if he doesn’t do what he’s meant to do? The same issues I grappled with as a discouraged writer in 2018. Jester scours the desolate landscape of my post apocalyptic world for batteries like I scoured my reserves for the courage I was missing.
I included an adorable dog sidekick because who doesn’t appreciate an adorable dog sidekick and I used Christmas as a counterpoint to the grim post apocalyptic reality Jester inhabits. What I didn’t know writing “Merely Players” is how much more it resonated with me– and maybe for readers– in a post-Covid world. Jester marvels at all the useless strip mall commerce that’s left behind when all the people he misses are long gone. Quarantined through 2020, I mirrored these same feelings. I would have gladly traded the boxes of old CDs in my office for a night laughing with old friends.
In early 2019 after polishing and sitting on “Merely Players” for several months– call me the Cowardly Lion, Kelly Sue– I finally submitted it. It was my first ever short story submission (in college, I wrote for classes not sale) and I picked the publisher I thought was most likely to reject it in a day or two so I could just get it over with. That didn’t happen. The story made the second round and I found myself awkwardly not mentioning that to the publication editor at a cocktail party at Norwescon. I finally got my rejection and submitted it to the two next publications on my list and they passed quickly and efficiently. I used it in my application for a writing workshop that I got waitlisted for and even though any writer not completely out of batteries might have taken that as a sign that it was a good story that just hit tough competition, I was not that kind of writer and with my battery light blinking red stopped submitting it anywhere. I decided it was probably a terrible story after all and I was a terrible writer after all and wallowed in ridiculous self pity. I worked on other stories and other submissions with limited confidence but effectively gave up on “Merely Players.”
Quick aside: don’t do this. Believe in your work and keep trying. I was a Sad Writer Dwelling in Darkness. The character in my story had more courage than I could manage then. Jester, I’m sure, would have offered me a song and dance and given me a hug.
I mentioned my truly self-destructive and not at all logical defeatist attitude about submitting short stories to my friend Luke and he told me I might try, you know, submitting a story to more than 3 places before I gave up and listened to Concrete Blonde in Self Pity Town. I figured I’d show him how foolish that kind of thinking was and sent off “Merely Players” to Escape Pod in October of 2020. I got the acceptance not long after. It was picked to be the Christmas story for 2021 so I needed to be patient for a very long year but that patience has delivered me an extraordinary gift.
People read the ending of “Merely Players” different ways. In the end does Jester find his audience or do his batteries just run out? I intend that answer to be a personal one, different for each reader, but for me right now listening to the incredible narrator Karlo Yeager Rodriguez bring this story that so transparently mirrors my writing journey over the last 3 years to life, I think Jester has just enough courage to get his happily ever after.
And I think maybe I found the courage to move on too.
This silly, sweet, sad story that will almost certainly never mean as much to anyone else as it means to me wouldn’t be possible without Divya, Mur, and Ben at Escape Pod plucking it out of slush and making it shine or without Karlo who I think might understand a little something about little dogs. Recognition also to my wife who still cries when she reads or hears it, my dog who has tolerated years of nicknames, and my friend Luke who was right. Thanks also to Chuck and Chelsea for taking in a stray Cowardly Lion and to Kelly Sue for helping me finally see what my own story was really about.
Merry Christmas to you and yours and cheers to 2022, may it give us what we all deserve. The trick, my friends, is leaning.