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Story Notes on Merely Players

Me and my Digby

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.

Escaping on an Escape Pod (for Christmas!)

Real quick website update! First off, here’s a holiday card for you! Second, maybe check out the Ink to Film podcast? I was just a guest and we talked about the Green Knight! You can look them up “Ink to Film” or here are some links!

Apple https://apple.co/3H38EXi

Spotify https://spoti.fi/3stYOd6

YouTube https://youtu.be/CahOSb26BXM

Third, this is a really cool thing for me! My first professional short story sale to Escape Pod dropped today! It’s a Christmas story! There’s a dog! It might make you sad!

Have a wonderful holiday and New Year!

Read My Stories for the Holidays!

December is a great month to fill your stocking up with stories I’ve written! You can, right now from the comfort of your wherever-you-are, order a fresh copy of Buckmxn Journal 007 featuring my all-new ode to one of my favorite musicians and traumatizing children in amusement parks, Either Or (for Elliott) right here! You can also get volumes 2 AND 3 of Space Cocaine including, yes it’s true, stories by me! Finally, and this one is very exciting, I have a story that will be running on Escape Pod on December 23rd! My story, Merely Players, narrated by a professional beamed straight to your listening devices!

Happy holidays to all of you and stay tuned for the New Year! I’m sure it will be a Hell of a ride.

On Writing: Workshop Tips and an Adorable Otter

Supportive Otter Believes in You

Most writers have lots of experiences in critique groups or workshops but not all of these experiences are awesome and helpful. Sometimes changing your approach as a participant can make them more awesome and helpful though. So for what it’s worth, here’s my workshop manifesto (part 1).

Tip: Set Your Expectations Appropriately

Workshops can really vary in format, intention, mood, snacks, etc. If you go into a workshop expecting one thing (cookies) and get a different thing (cupcakes) you might be disappointed. I recommend doing your homework. Read up on everything the workshop or group organizers say about it. If it applies, ask former participants. Go into the experience meeting the workshop on the workshop’s terms. After you’ve participated in some, let’s arbitrarily say four workshops or groups, you will have a better sense of what works well and what doesn’t for you.

Tip: Discomfort Can be Good

I never advocate putting yourself in a position that feels unsafe personally or creatively but there’s a lot of space between unsafe and being cozy in your comfort zone. If your goal with a workshop or critique group is to improve your writing, approaching it from an all-new angle can shake up or affirm your creative instincts. By necessity so much of the writing process is internal. A group allows you to “road test” your act like a stand up comedian or musician. Sometimes you want a new crowd for that sort of thing. You might find that you can expand your work to be more accessible to more people that way.

Tip: This Isn’t Mandatory

To be clear, workshopping/critiquing is never required. You can write your glorious amazing words without ever getting notes or criticisms (constructive or no) from anyone. You can write for yourself. You can attend groups that are purely about support. That’s great and essential! My process involves sharing my roughest work with only people who will love and support it first (my wife, number one superfan) before I introduce it to anyone. There were points in my writing development when all I needed was a cheer squad, not a red pen. There are pieces of writing that are still too tender for me to subject them to anyone else’s approval or disapproval and that’s valid as fuck.

Also, a tangential point: a lot of writing events start or end up in bars but not all writers drink. I don’t drink much and almost never when I’m in training for a running event. It’s awkward sometimes but there are usually other people ordering sodas. We share meaningful, sober looks. There are also people who just don’t go into bars for all sorts of reasons. I’m tremendously sensitive to cigarette smoke and I have to leave events sometimes if I’m somewhere with smokers (usually patios these days). You need to remember that your health comes first and anyone or any group that pressures you to do things that aren’t healthy for you is not a good fit. Setting boundaries is important and if anyone ever gives you a hard time about it they are telling you to GTFO.

Tip: Don’t be an Asshole

As mentioned, workshops vary a lot. Some devote a lot of time to each writer giving their feedback verbally or in writing, some are primarily about the thoughts of a teacher or workshop organizer. Some get into a groove of cutting straight to the criticism. Some do a “compliment sandwich” approach (say something nice, something critical, something nice again). Whatever works for the writers, the workshop, the organizers, the most important golden rule for behavior is just don’t be mean. If you are giving your thoughts on something, keep it focused on the page not the person. Try to put yourself in the other writer’s place. What would help you? What would hurt you? Just, be cool. Don’t monopolize the conversation. Don’t speak over others. Behave like a grown up decent person who can social. The process is stressful enough already. Being a big ego meanie know-it-all is just uncouth and uncalled for. This may seem like real basic kindergarten advice but a truly unfortunate number of writers believe workshops and critique groups are places to demonstrate how much they know and how great they are and <big eye roll>, that’s not it at all. Groups like this exist to help. They exist to teach, demonstrate, and encourage. It is not and never will be your duty to brutally break down another writer and remake them Robocop style into your vision. You will find some writers and some pieces need more help than others and it may be tough to say or express all of the things you think need attention. That’s okay. Offer what you can in good faith when you can, with respect and patience, and you get the gold star.

Tip: Workshops are NOT All About You

I think there are four stages of workshop/critique engagement. In the first stage you are focused primarily on how your work, your precious words, will be received and what guidance you will get. That occupies most of your time and seems like the biggest priority. You wait for your turn, almost tuning everything else out until the focus is on you. Then you get to stage two and realize that other writer’s work and the feedback they receive really helps you learn your craft. Sometimes someone will use a device you were thinking of using or have used but haven’t brought in and you can get a sense of how well it goes over. Sometimes you learn a new trick. The third stage is when you learn enough about writing that what you see in other writer’s work and your thoughts help both of you. It’s a great big ah ha! moment when this first happens. Explaining a thing to another person sometimes (often even) improves your understanding and appreciation of that thing. A lot of writers think this is the ultimate stage, the goal. I don’t. Stage four is when you learn enough about yourself and about writing and enough about other writers that you can see the story from their perspective and give them insights to help them get what they want. It’s an easy trap to tell all writers to write more like the way you write but what you really want to do is tell all writers to be more like the unique writers they truly are. I love so many writers (as a reader, a friend, a critique partner) that write things I would never write in ways I would never write them. There are some universal concepts in storytelling, I blog about them sometimes, but there is more room for personal and unique expression and vision than you might think. When I read a story I want to understand the story the way the writer understands it, not the way I would tell it, and I do my best to get out of the way, suppress my own biases, and tell them how to get there. That’s workshop magic.

Tip: Come Back to My Blog for More Tips (Probably)

I could just go on and on about workshops and writing and the great big creative hug I want to give the whole world but we’ve all got stuff to do right? So, I’ll leave you with just these tips for now. Maybe there will be a sequel. Maybe even in 3D! Good luck with your words and your writers’ groups. Try to take a break to look at otters. Stay hydrated.

On Writing: It’s All Memoir

Darkness behind, camera flash up ahead.

A lot of people have stories they want to tell about their lives and some of them have come up to me and say “hey Erik, you’re a writer,” (accurate) “I want to write this memoir…” My responses to this are probably not what they might expect. First off, memoir is a totally different publishing universe than fiction and while I have a kind of maybe if you squint understanding of how the fiction machine works, I don’t know anything at all about memoir business. I do know something about storytelling though and what makes a readable book. So that’s where I focus my advice and it starts with above all else, lie.

Storytelling is about what you choose to say, when, and in what order and it’s equally about what you choose not to say. The instinct when setting down to write a memoir is to tell a story from beginning to end. Start with your cousin Steve because he was there, oh and also that neighbor across street, and it was probably 1996 because Bob Dole was all over the news, and then and then. That’s not a story. That’s a recitation. It’s a grocery list of events. It might be interesting to the people that are on the grocery list but to everyone else it’s lacking the compelling parts that make stories universal. Which doesn’t mean your memoir ISN’T compelling or universal. It just means you need to fight the grocery list urge and edit. You need to lie. I know your cousin Steve was there but <magic flash!> now he’s gone! Also, Bob Dole? We can move on from Bob Dole.

Good storytelling is focused. It’s intentional. It’s not the same thing as talking to your friends at a party about That One Time. Your friends have context. They have YOU. Go into a room of strangers and you’d tell the story differently. Like, maybe say “hi” and put on a “My Name Is” sticker with your name on it. When you write a story your audience, ideally, are all strangers. You need to introduce yourself. You need to introduce everyone. And cousin Steve isn’t important just because he was there. Cousin Steve, in fact, is hurting your memoir. You need to get rid of him and everything else that doesn’t serve your story’s purpose.

“Wait,” you are maybe asking me right now in this imagined conversation we are having: “but what is my story’s purpose?” Easy answer: I don’t know! You need to know that. THAT is, in fact, the first thing you need to decide before you commit yourself to a story(fiction or memoir). What do you want out of writing a story? Common answers are to entertain, inform, relate, or evoke some kind of emotional response or responses in readers. Some memoirs are about grief and the grief process. Some are about hope. You might be thinking “well my memoir’s purpose is to make me all that fat memoirist money” and that, my theoretical uninformed capitalist friend, is not it.

You might also be thinking that writing your story down would be therapeutic. That 1996 election with Bob Dole was really upsetting for you and you have feelings about it you want to work that out. I think that’s awesome! But that’s therapy. That’s not writing a book. Writing a book can also be therapy (usually is actually) but there should be more to it. You need to remember that the story is as much about the audience as the storyteller and if the audience isn’t connecting to it, you have a problem. Audiences connect with shared emotion and experience and I hate to break it to you, not a lot of people are still having nightmares about Bob Dole.

The good news is that people are fundamentally similar beasts and we all want to find common ground. You might be surprised how easy it is for a person to relate to a totally unexpected thing in a totally unexpected way if the give them the space and opportunity to do it. And you guessed it: you create space in a story by getting rid of cousin Steve. You create opportunity in a story by lying. You don’t have to wholesale invent new things (hey there, James Frey) but you might move things around a little. When I say “moved around a little” I don’t mean (necessarily) moving your memoir’s climax from the October 16th 1996 debate between incumbent president Bill Clinton and Former Senator Bob Dole at the University of San Diego moderated by America’s most trusted newsman, Jim Lehrer. I mean moving around when you present this climax. Some people assume stories start at the beginning, chronologically, and end with the end, chronologically. This is grocery list thinking. Stories move around. They digress. You memoir could start with election night and then flashback. It could start in modern day. It could start anywhere. It can hop. Your story is a frog. You choose where it lands based on your chosen purposes. You lie (edit) to present the story that you need to present.

You still with me? Because here’s where we go ask Alice. Memoir and fiction– they’re coming from you and they slip back and forth. I wrote an autobiographical thing once and spent a paragraph on this close friend of mine’s sad blue eyes. My close friend has brown eyes. I didn’t do this on purpose. Fiction accidentally slipped into my memoir. And it will happen a lot because memory is imprecise and you fill bits in as you go. On the flip side, fiction will always have “real” things slip in. Sometimes you write a story down and it takes years before you look at it and realize “oh boy this is actually about Ross Perot being excluded by the presidential debate commission.” A story well-told is a part of you and you are all memoir whether you want to be or not.

Anyway. That’s what I say to people that want to write memoir.

RIP Norm Macdonald.

Of Minotaurs and Sad Round Boys

In which the author implores you buy my story and tells another for free.

When I was a sad round boy I used to call my middle school teachers at home when I was lonely. I just wanted someone to pick up the phone. I had this one teacher, Mr. S. I thought he was someone that understood me. I thought he was my sad round boy mentor but, in retrospect, he was not someone a sad round boy should have been left alone with.

I used to imprint on older men, follow them with big round boy puppy eyes, collecting their tossed off affections and approvals. I wanted to be a better sad round boy and I thought they could tell me how. I wanted my brother back, my dad, my favorite ghosts. I admired charming monsters and sometimes they looked at me with vicious sad round boy devouring eyes and I thought I heard them say “sad round boy, you can do this” but they never did.

So I got taller, less round. I paid a lot for therapy. And taxes. And a custom URL. But I always had this unresolved craving for a Mentor with the big letters. I imagined a Punk Rock Novelist. Blue collar. Self-made. He would tell me How it Was and he would be foul mouthed and honest and vulnerable and he’d tell me he’d been through 37 kinds of Hell, had a closet full of souvenirs and matching scars, and he’d say “I understand you and believe me because of the 37 kinds of Hell thing we just talked about, Erik: you can fucking do this.”

There is no Punk Rock Novelist. He’s just a character I wrote because I needed him. And maybe I still imprinted on him. Maybe I still wanted his tossed off affections and approvals. Maybe I thought I needed them. Turns out, I didn’t.

So, Space Cocaine. Zip zap COVID-19 fun times short fiction hell yeah. Some very wonderful people invited me to join their madcap adult supervision recommended anthology, Space Cocaine: the Zoom Situation, and I wrote them a story called “Whispers.” I wrote it when I was lonely and just wanted someone to pick up the phone and understand me. It’s about our hero, Vanessa. She’s blue collar, self-made, foul mouthed, honest, and vulnerable. She really doesn’t have a clue how it is but she’s been through 37 kinds of Hell and she’s so scarred and she’s so scared to open the door and go outside. But she needs to save the girl, doesn’t she? She’s our hero. Our hero, she needs a Mentor with the big letters and she gets one. It’s the one she never expected and the one she’s always needed.

I’m the Punk Rock Novelist. I’m the Mentor with the big letters and I swear, frequently and through 37 kinds of Hell and back, you can fucking do this. Every sad round boy, every funny shaped sloppy feeling person in the whole infinite multiverse, you are stronger than a minotaur and you can do the thing that scares you. Believe me.

The Life of the World in Flux

Life, as it tends to do if you’re very lucky, goes on. As I continue to shake some of the static from the last year it seems a great time to short blog a little bit about Erik Stuff and Things Optimistic Post-Pandemic Edition.

I have been doing my hustle thing and haven’t fully updated you, my faithful readers (hi, Joel! how’re the cats?). First up, catch me guest podcast hosting and generally being associated with the very excellent Overcast podcast. Subscribe and tell your friends! I am specifically the host-y voice of episodes 145 and 148. If you clap and make laser sounds into the mirror I might even be back!

Next, I am incredibly proud to be associated with and share pages with the excellent weirdos of the Space Cocaine anthology Volume 2: the Zoom Situation! We have a reading coming up super soon where I will be Live and In Person at the Rose City Book Pub Tuesday June 1st! There is also going to be a Zoooooooooom (and in the Future a YouTube recording)! Check out the event description!

Finally, I continue to write and run in the world and there’s a lot of cool things coming up! I am excited to participate in a writing workshop run by Chelsea Cain and Chuck Palahniuk starting soon in a haunted movie theater! I continue to query agents that have never heard of me for a Dirty Space Opera with Wizards and Sad book and I signed a contract for my first professional short fiction sale for a Christmas-y kind of thing that will appear later this year to get you in the a holly jolly mood! I am working on lots of poorly conceived shenanigans and just so so enthusiastic about emerging from the shadow of COVID-19 into a new, unpredictable future.

Stay tuned! Get vaccinated! Tell a friend you haven’t seen in a while that you miss them! Drink plenty of water!