onwriting

On Writing: Fighting a Wizard in the Basement of the Moon Base

When I was at the Willamette Writer’s Conference a couple weekends back I attended a session called “Eleven Rules for Writing Science Fiction.” The instructor was enthusiastic about the subject matter and probably has a real strong industry knowledge about publishing Science Fiction in the current market but I found myself seething with barely concealed contempt for an hour and a half. My notes from the panel include a couple of pretty sweet lightning bolt doodles that my middle-school notebooks would be jealous of, and a lot of “truths” offered by the instructor: “Science Fiction IS real”; “In sci fi there is nothing supernatural/fantastic”; “ESP/telepathy is NOT Science Fiction.”  Aside from the fact that there are plenty of sci fi classics that defy these “rules” (there were more than eleven – I counted),  they seem arbitrary and exclusionary. Is that what Science Fiction is about? Is that what any kind of storytelling is about?

No ESP or telepathy in Science Fiction, huh?

No ESP or telepathy in Science Fiction, huh?

I grew up in a small city in Southern Oregon and when I was a teenager my life revolved around four things: new comic book Wednesdays, new episodes of Star Trek, (the Next Generation and then Deep Space Nine), the release dates of sci fi/fantasy/horror/awesome movies, and my regular Dungeons & Dragons games. I hated going to school. The students were culturally conservative bullies that would sometimes yell out “devil boy!” and tackle me while I was walking toward the bus. The aggressively religious teachers and counselors used their positions to proselytize and shame me in front of classes, like Mr. Fox who boomed “may God strike you down!” in front of about thirty kids after I got caught with a fantasy book in my backpack or the academic counselor that told me I could get out of detention (for bringing that same fantasy book in my backpack) if I went to his Christian youth group. I didn’t get along with my family and I didn’t have many friends. The few friends that I did have bonded over being outcasts and we escaped, like so many kids then and now did, into fantastic worlds where the freaks had a school where they got to be superheroes (X-Men) and a future where smart kids were respected (Star Trek). Science Fiction didn’t have rules for us. It had possibilities. Time travel, telepathy, lasers, jetpacks, aliens, and spaceships hung out with spandex and cape wearing supermen, elves and paladins. If we could imagine it, it belonged, like we did in a small pocket world free from gay bashing, racism, religious intolerance, and the casual abuses of modern cynical American culture.

This story about how I first found Science Fiction is the same story you could hear from a million others. So what happened?

Eventually the playful arguments over who would win a fight, Wolverine or Batman, turned serious. I don’t know if it was just me and my friends getting older and becoming more set in our ways, if we created rules that allowed us to be the ones rejecting other people for the first time, or if it happened to everyone universally around the same time as genre fandoms grew and matured. The Tim Burton Batman movies were great. Batman Forever was not and if you disagree, you have to go. If you like the Star Wars original trilogy, you have to hate the prequel trilogy or you need to get out. If you like the odd numbered Star Trek movies, there’s something wrong with you. ESP/telepathy is NOT Science Fiction and if you disagree, you should leave the class, you should stop liking Science Fiction, you should never tell Science Fiction stories.

Science Fiction is ALWAYS super real, you guys. Those are the RULES.

Science Fiction is ALWAYS super real, you guys. Those are the RULES.

When someone talks about rules for imaginary worlds what I hear is “may God strike you down, Devil Boy!” or “your fag brother is going to get AIDS and die.” Obviously that’s not what the instructor of this WWC session was saying or thinking. She was just talking about the tropes and accepted norms for a marketable genre. But it rankles me the same.

I find myself a lover of science fiction that has a really conflicted relationship with science fiction fans that I find sometimes hostile and standoffish. I’ve been called a “self-loathing geek” because of how uncomfortable I am with some of the trappings of fandom but I’m not self-loathing at all. I’m proud of my geek bonafides. I was married in a Superman t-shirt and I have a cool rancor toy in my regular Christmas decorations. I love Science Fiction more than I can capture here. It was a life raft for me and I have no contempt or hesitation for it but all of the rules and segmentation just make me really sad and disappointed. When I wrote about comics and other genre topics at Bleeding Cool regularly I would often get comments that said something like “you don’t like X or Y the same way I like X or Y? FAIL” – and a lot more that used saltier language. I was celebrating the culture and content and I was on the receiving end of flippant vitriol. It seems that the only thing outcasts can agree on eventually is the need to make more outcasts. I’ve seen people use the “rules” of Science Fiction to say that Anime fans can’t come to the same parties as Doctor Who fans or that cosplayers don’t belong at comic book conventions. I’ve seen these rules used to discriminate against women, minorities, or just enthusiastic fans that like things other people don’t like as much. Genre “rules” start out as fun debates between equally accepted fans but they turn ugly as soon as those debates aren’t equal anymore.

I believe in stories as a means to bring people closer – not a means to keep people on the outside. So much of modern Science Fiction (or fantasy or comics or Vin Diesel movies) seems to be a series of litmus tests to “prove” you’re a real fan. When people asked me what I was pitching at the Willamette Writer’s Conference I told them I was pitching Science Fiction but I wanted to tell them that my Science Fiction doesn’t have your rules. My Science Fiction doesn’t have any rules. My Science Fiction thinks your Science Fiction is interesting and wants to talk about it more but my Science Fiction has better things to do than fit into your Science Fiction box.

Alright, I don’t like to waste a whole blog post on a soapbox diatribe so I’m going to give you, right here without the necessity of a weekend writer’s conference, all you need to know about writing Science Fiction:

  • Always focus on your story and your characters – don’t get hung up on gadgets or backstory (even if they’re pretty cool)
  • Be aware of the tropes and expectations of your setting/sub genre so you can play to them or play against them
  • Make it new and wonderful and awesome for all the lonely outcasts reading it on crowded school buses
  • Have fun with it because at the end of the day it’s all just stardust and hope from your fantastic imagination

I got an email from someone that’s reviewing one of my manuscripts. He wrote that he was at the part where they (the superheroes) are fighting a wizard in the basement of the moon base. I was so proud. Hell yeah they are. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

On Writing: Why Your Pitch Probably Didn’t Work

Pitch

It’s not easy or pleasant to distill your big awesome writing idea into a compelling and concise pitch but, if you’re going to convince someone to read it (an agent, a publisher, a random reader, your neighbor Carl), you’re going to have to do it. To make it easier on yourself, I recommend these two things – pitch often and spend time thinking about why the pitch did or didn’t work. This blog post is going to talk about some of the common reasons why your pitch might not have worked and in exploring those, help you to make a better one.

You’re Pitching the Wrong Person

Carl’s interests include Norwegian Death Metal and Miss Marple

This is a pretty common problem with pitches. You might be sending your query letter (or doing an in person pitch) to an agent or publisher or you might just be chatting with your neighbor Carl and they’re just not your audience. Agents and publishers do their best to prevent this sort of misunderstanding by listing the kinds of content they want to represent/publish in all sorts of places including their websites. An agent that specifically represents romance novels, for example, is not the right agent for me to pitch my science fiction epic about the Great Space Otter Wars of the 27th Century. It’s important to do your research and know whether or not you’re pitching at a receptive audience but, unfortunately, even if you’ve done the best research you can do, you still might be talking to the wrong person. Could be that the epic science fiction agent you found got in a drunken fist-fight with a rabid otter in Saskatoon and he still carries those terrible, terrible scars. And your neighbor Carl, even though he’s a tattoo artist and wears sick metal t-shirts, he’s really more of a cozy mystery reader. It’s going to happen. A lot. You’re going to talk to a lot of the wrong people and all you can do is be polite about it, maybe try and understand more about their interests, and then thank them for their time and move on to the next guy. It in no way reflects on the awesomeness of my fantastic new novel about the Great Space Otter Wars of the 27th Century.

You’re Using the Wrong Pitch

SPACE OTTERS, YOU GUYS

SPACE OTTERS, YOU GUYS

Ok, so you talked to the right person and you still didn’t get a hug and a million dollars after your pitched your story. What does that mean? Well, it could mean you used the wrong pitch. There are a lot of tips on the best way to pitch your novel but the simplest thing is to make sure you answer these three questions: who is your story about? what are they trying to do and what is preventing them from doing it? why are you the right person to tell this story? Easy, right? Well, not even a little bit. Your pitch has to be an organic thing. It should be different for each different person you’re talking to. The pitch I give my friends in the Space Otter internet forums should be different from the pitch I give to an agent. More than that, agents and editors and those guys on the forums, they’re all unique people that have unique moods and triggers. You can’t develop One Pitch to Rule Them All. You need a slightly different pitch each time. It could be that you used the wrong version of your pitch on the right person and it’s going to crash and burn and you’re going to feel terrible about it. That’s also going to happen. A lot. Walk it off.

You’re Pitching the Wrong Story

Before I talk about this reason, the dreaded reason, the oh-come-on-Erik-please-don’t-say-it reason, I want to assure you that there are absolutely other unexpected calamities that can and probably will come along and derail your pitch. Earthquakes. Locusts. Roaming adorable pandas. All you can ever do is your best and then do that a million more times because you can’t let those damn pandas steal all the glory. Maybe you think that all you need is for one person to hear about your story and then that person will become an evangelist for it and you can sit back and never have to pitch again. That could happen. It’s probably not likely though and the worst thing you can do is set your expectations for that and feel like a failure when it doesn’t work out. Because it’s probably not ever going to happen like that. Even if your Space Otter sci-fi epic is really that good. (Publishers: because it totally is. Email me.)

Okay, let’s tear off the band-aid – sometimes the pitch doesn’t work because you’re pitching the wrong story. That doesn’t mean that your story isn’t amazing and that your mother and dentist don’t all have very nice things to say about it. It doesn’t mean that you failed as a storyteller or that you should quit telling your stories. It might just mean that you’re not telling the story at the right time.

No one wanted the story to start here.

No one wanted the story to start here. No one.

Think about Star Wars. There are (currently) two trilogies of movies and they (kind of) go in order. If someone pitched you Return of the Jedi before you’ve seen or heard of or been pitched any of the other movies it wouldn’t work. That pitch requires the stories that take place before it be told first. Maybe the story you have is really the end or the beginning of a different story. Maybe you need to start earlier or go forward farther. Maybe your story needs to be smaller or maybe it needs to be bigger. Maybe you need to take this story and put it aside for awhile and come back to it. I’ve been there. It’s tough. I have stories that I think are fantastic but they’re not the right stories for me to pitch right now. They might be the right stories later or they might change when I go back to them. It’s never easy to really know when the story is wrong but the easiest way to find out is to pitch it. A lot. And see what people say.

On Writing: Diversity and the 21st Century Writer (Part 1)

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This otter has nothing to do with this blog post but people are more likely to read blogs with pictures and everyone like otters.

I think about writing a lot. I don’t mean that I just think about the act of writing (which I do) but also that I think about writing and the role of a writer in a larger context. I think about the craft, the profession, the passion of writing. I think about the role of the storyteller in society and how I identify with that role and often feel challenged by it. I knew that I wanted to be a writer the way I imagine people know they want to devote their lives to faith or service; I was compelled, I was entranced, I was called before I was even old enough to have the right words for it. Writing isn’t just something I do; it’s something I am.  In these blogs I’m discussing my points of view on writing and I’m also talking about who I am and the things that are most important to me.

Right now I’m spending a lot of time thinking diversity in content creation. I think it’s the most complicated and important topic for contemporary storytellers that cuts right to the center of the role of a creator. I’ve been trying to figure out how exactly I wanted to cover it here because I have a lot more to say about the topic than a single blog post can sum up. I’ve ultimately decided to just begin with the first of a series of posts on the topic that could going go on, in no formal schedule, for months or years. I hope you’ll stay with me and consider joining this conversation along the way.

I want to be clear about what I’m going to talk about in this part. I’m not omitting or glossing over things as much as I am breaking things up to manageable (readable) pieces. In this post I’m going to give my definition of the topic and terms and I’m going to lay out four key reasons why other creators should give this topic as much consideration as I have. This post is going to be less jokey and more philosophical than usual so if you want snark and one-liners check out some of my other posts and be patient – I’ll have more snark soon. Let’s get started!

This otter is also not related to this blog post but damn, it's adorable, amiright?

This otter is also not related to this blog post but damn, it’s adorable, amiright?

First, a lot of people use the term “diversity” and sometimes we don’t always agree on what it means. This is what it means to me: diversity is the world I see outside the window. I don’t mean the literal window. The window at my desk literally looks at my neighbor’s side yard and a lot of weeds. I mean the window I look through to the world that includes the folks I see in my neighborhood, in downtown Portland, in every other place I’ve been from New York City to Paris, in all of the news and media I consume, and in my social circles both physical and digital. Realistically, as curious and affable and slightly-above-average traveled as I am, I’ve only really seen the smallest, most limited fraction of the world, but to me, diversity, is recognizing the incredible richness and variety in that fraction and trying, humbly and honestly, to represent it. Yes, diversity is about being aware of the differences between people- the differences in their skin, their eyes, hair, gender, beliefs, wants, desires, and identities- but it’s also about their commonalities. If all you see is how people are different you’re doing it wrong and you’re missing the real core of diversity. Let’s not minimize it – there are differences between us sometimes that are substantial and no amount of cross-stitched pithy wisdom (or white dude bloggery) could or should homogenize us into one big generic bunch – BUT there is always a common humanity. Diversity, as I’m going to use it here and onward, is about acknowledging and embracing the whole spectrum of people you see” outside your window and attempting, with empathy and curiosity, to connect to it.

Writer philosophy digression: you know how Mark Twain said “write what you know” once upon a time and ever since then people have taken it really literally and used it both as a justification for writing about a really limited cross-section of people and as a critique for people that attempt to write outside of what they “know?” I could write a whole lot about that quote and how I agree and disagree with it but instead I’m just going to say right here – writers need to know more. This isn’t a litmus test for a being a writer but it’s part of the identity of being a writer. A writer that isn’t curious, that isn’t always expanding the world outside the window, is a shitty writer. If you’ve only met 7 people and they’re all named “Bob” and they are all look exactly the same and think and act exactly the same and eat the same thing for breakfast and wear the same pants, first of all, take photos because that’s really weird and I want to see it, and then go out and meet some other people. If you’re a white male almost 35 year-old guy named Erik that lives in Portland that doesn’t give you an excuse to only write about white male 35 year-old guys named Erik that live in Portland. Drive somewhere else, dude. I haven’t met or spent a lot of time with every single one of the 7 billion people that are currently living on the planet because that’s impossible and I certainly haven’t spent time with the untold billions that have lived and died before – no one has – but I still make an effort to know more, to meet more, to be open-minded and inquisitive. That’s part of what being a writer is and, from my lofty soapbox, I think it’s part of being a human too. Being a writer means connecting to and relating to every one of your characters if they are good guys, bad girls, or made of bees. That’s diversity. Mic dropped. Digression concluded.

I think you see the pattern here. Bonus: teddy bear.

I think you see the pattern here. Bonus: teddy bear.

Real quick while I have us all on the same page about our universal oneness and how empathy is the most critical thing ever and always as a writer and awesome person – let’s talk about why you, the 21st Century Writer, should take diversity into account when you pen your opus.

Reason Number One: if your content doesn’t connect or represent the world your readers inhabit, you create an off-ramp. This doesn’t mean that you pander to every demographic but you should be aware that if you have a big sprawling epic story with 500 characters and they are all macho monochromatic dudes that could alienate some readers and they might switch to something else. This is especially true in the current era of media consumption where consumers are more aware and savvy about that sort of thing than they used to be. For example, I watched the first 5-hour Hobbit movie with my wife after it came to home video and it was so overwhelmingly dude-y that we both commented on it and mocked it. Aside from Cate Blanchett in a tiny little cameo the movie was virtually ALL men. Even the extras were notably masculine. Certainly Tolkien purists would have been apoplectic if one or two of those dwarves were gender-swapped (oh! the dwarf-manity!) and Peter Jackson ultimately did create an all-new (and controversial) female character but it still seemed weird and off-rampy to me that one of the biggest movies of the year showed a world where 99% of the population is a man when more than 50% of the potential audience is women. More than that, all of those characters were progressively paler shades of white as if historical accuracy to made up races in a made up world demanded it (I’m also looking at you Game of Thrones). If the world you create feels inauthentic because it is at odds with the world your readers see out their windows, that creates a dissonance that could lose you readers.

Reason Number Two: making your work diverse makes it more interesting AND makes it stand out. Leading directly from the last point, I hated the Hobbit  movies. They were boring and redundant. I’d seen pretty much that same story before with different British accents and different set pieces. A lot of creators will moan that all stories have been told. Certainly if you understand that myths and stories follow certain patterns (read your Joseph Campbell), that’s true but it’s also absolute nonsense. Stories are different and new because the characters are different and new. Every story should always be new because every character should always be new. One way to really shake things up is to make your characters diverse, explore new ground. I say this as a white male creator and consumer – I’m a little tired of white men or at least the same cookie cutter white men that we so frequently see. I do thought experiments with myself when I’m creating a new character for a story. I ask myself what would change if the character was older or younger, a different gender, or a different background. I usually find that there’s something more interesting for me to explore (and presumably for readers to read about) in deviating from the easy, monochromatic mold.

Reason Number Three: seriously, you need all the readers you can get. I’m sure there are content creators out there that are lounging in their Scrooge McDuck-esque pools filled with gold and little green portraits of Ben Franklin waving their hands and saying “make them stop reading, I have too much of the money!” but I suspect that’s a pretty small demographic. Most of us want all the readers we can get not just so we can get paid but also because we legitimately want to share our work with the world. One way to get readers is to actually make an effort to give them what they want. Women buy and read a lot of books. I’m not going to do a statistic dump but I’m positive that if women don’t want to consume your work you are losing out on a massive market and that’s not good. The one thing I’ll give women and minority readers – they’re better at reading (or viewing) than white men. They can more easily connect with characters that don’t look exactly like them than white men can because they have to and they’ve learned how. If you look at popular culture you see a lot of narratives where the characters are just white men and you still see a lot of women and people of color enjoying those stories. Those are “universal” stories. But if you have main characters that are all women, or black, or gay those are “women’s stories” or “black stories” or “gay stories” and that creates some kind of hurdle for white men. As if those stories aren’t “universal” anymore because “universal” means white dudes. It’s silly and it really doesn’t reflect well on us, guys. All of that point is to say – if you make an effort to include them, you will grow your audience. Don’t take it for granted that women and people of color will always accept your monochromatic characters. Now that media is becoming more democratized and people have new choices, they don’t need to.

Reason Number Four: introducing diversity into your story is at the core of what being a writer is. Alright, I’m getting back on the soapbox. The first three reasons were almost cynical “business-y” reasons for incorporating diversity into your work. This one is from my heart and soul. Telling stories and connecting with people through those stories is my Purpose. I have to capitalize that word because, for me, my Purpose deserves at the very least the shift key. Everything I’ve ever seen and experienced has shown me a world that is sometimes fickle and painful and tragic. People you love hurt you, sometimes by accident, sometime on purpose. People you love leave you, sometimes because they want to and sometimes even when they don’t. People you love die. Life is messy and it hurts, sometimes more, sometimes less. But you get to love people. You get to know people. You get to connect and grow and learn from them and, if you’re lucky, you get to share what you’ve learned. I share what I’ve felt, what I’ve learned, with my stories. It’s not just jokes and punching and plots and dialog in my stories. It’s a line that I’m throwing out to world with every story, a line to hold onto, a line to climb, a line to pull, a line that brings me closer to you and you closer to me. The craft of writing is intensely and deeply personal and spiritual to me. I can’t heal the sick. I can’t end wars or make a Coca-Cola jingle that unites the world in a great big Don Draper mountaintop vision. I can tell stories that are funny and thrilling and sad and sweet and as honest as I can make them. So, of course I’m going to fill these stories with everyone and everything I’ve known, tall, short, gruff, chatty, male, female, gay, straight, trans, bi, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Mormon, Taoist, Hindu, vegetarian, Republican, smart, strong, simple or complex. I don’t even need to think about it. Every character is human. Every character is awesome. Every character is different and I want to connect with all of them and all of the people that connect with those characters. I can’t think of anything so beautiful or meaningful. I can’t think of why anyone wouldn’t want that. Now, I have my biases and my experiences and my privilege and that comes out in my work. I am who I am and I don’t get to co-opt or token-ize anyone’s life or experience. I don’t want or intend to do that. I’m going to write things that will offend some, intentionally or unintentionally, and I’m going to always try to know more and be better. That’s what writing is to me. That’s what being a writer is. So, I guess if you’re a writer and actually need an argument or reasons why you should include diverse characters in your work, I don’t understand you and, from my smug dominant place as the writer of this blog, I think you’re doing it wrong.

I think that’s enough to chew on for now. I have a lot more to say. I want to write about “tokens” in content, about cultural appropriation, and about how to make your work diverse without pandering. And more. A lot more. Thanks for reading. Let’s do this again soon.

 

On Writing: Off Ramps, Ice Barbarians and Jon Hamm’s Hair

A friend shared a smart blog post from TechCrunch with me over the weekend about Publishing’s Kickstarter Moment. It’s a good piece about ‘Indie authors’ with some valuable points and cogent analysis. But I couldn’t get past the first paragraph because when the piece was originally posted, it had a really embarrassing typo (typo underlined):

While the tools are far simpler than they have ever been, the perception that and Indie book is an inferior product, at least in the eyes of established media, is strong.

It looks like it’s since been fixed but I spent more time talking about and thinking about that ironic fumble than I did about the rest of the piece. It unfortunately undermined the blogger’s point but it provided me a good on ramp to discuss something I think every storyteller (or job hunter/first dater/Ren Faire soliloquy-er etc.) needs to be cognizant of; the dreaded off ramp. Let me explain what I mean with that term by recounting an anecdote from a time when I had much cooler hair: 1996.

jon_hamm_90s_hair2

It’s like Jon Hamm was my 90s hair spirit animal.

Back in college I was an editor for a literary journal. It was my first experience with that kind of environment. I was an eager and idealistic teenaged English major, drunk on reading Faulkner, Hemingway, and Eliot for the first time. As the first submissions poured in, I wanted to give every piece a thorough and fair reading. Even if I hated the first 5 pages of a 10 page short story, I kept reading until the very end before I would make my final recommendation. But I learned pretty quickly that I couldn’t keep that up. There were just too many submissions and I had too few hours. I had to start sorting pieces based on technical merits. I started by giving authors that followed the submission guidelines (typed, word count within range, numbered pages with their name in the footers etc.) more consideration than the authors that didn’t. Then I started making faster judgments based on spelling, grammar, and rudimentary craft. I wouldn’t completely dismiss a submission with six spelling errors in the first paragraph but it definitely got less of my attention and had a tougher time getting past my first round of reviews. I’m pretty sure I didn’t pass on anything that shouldn’t have been passed on but if I did because the writer failed to run spell check, I can’t feel too bad about it. Those authors gave me an off ramp and I took it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Right now there are millions of books for sale on Amazon.com and more are being written and posted every day. The gatekeepers are gone and now everyone has an equal chance to get that magnum opus directly to readers. That’s awesome! … Except now every single potential reader is exactly where I was as a literary journal editor; buried beneath an overwhelming number of options with only a limited amount of time to pick the best ones. It wasn’t that long ago when you could find maybe one book a year about bear-punching ice barbarians if you were lucky. Now the floodgates are open and you can find all kinds of self-published books about bear-punching ice barbarians. How is a discriminating connoisseur of ice barbarians supposed to pick the bear-punching tales that are most worth his time? I think you start by tossing out the ones that have cheap covers and messy, poorly edited first chapters.

conan-pelicula-2

Coming Soon: Son of the Bear Puncher by Erik Grove, Book 9 in the Ice Barbarian Saga!

An off ramp is an excuse to stop reading and it’s the last thing you want to give your audience. All it takes is a typo in your first paragraph and suddenly a reader stops engaging with the point you’re trying to make and gets off your ice barbarian (or blog post about Indie publishing on TechCrunch) freeway.

There are a lot of off ramps a reader can come across. Some you can control. Some you can’t. I have blog posts about some other off ramps that I’ll be posting in the future, but the most obvious one here is professionalism in your copy and presentation. It can seem nit-picky in the digital age to harp on content creators about silly 20th century things like spelling, grammar, and clear presentation. I’ve certainly made plenty of these same errors myself (I’m cringing even now as I imagine my wife, the proofreader, mentally highlighting all of my errors in even this blog post) and I’ve taken it on the chin from readers (and my Aunt Lisa, who has a really good eye for details). I’ve posted blog posts here and columns for Bleeding Cool that got more commentary about my commas, excessive use of parenthetical statements, or sloppy proofing than they did about the quality or substance of the content. Nothing stings more than carefully crafting over 2000 words of copy only to have the 1 or 2 that you flubbed steal the show.

Here’s my final point: I’ve been involved in hiring people a few times and I’ve talked to a lot of hiring managers about what they need to see in resumes or online applications before they advance a candidate on to a first interview. The most important thing you can do to make your application or CV stand out is to make sure your application or CV is professional, neat, and polished. I have always been much more ruthless with reviewing and hiring people in a professional environment than I ever was as a literary journal editor for a college that didn’t even have the budget to pay authors. Whenever I get a sloppy resume, I delete or recycle it pretty much immediately. Here’s the part you want to quote when you tell all your social media friends about this post: Your resume/cover letter/first paragraph/online dating profile bio is the answer to a question about your attention to detail, self-respect, and respect for your hiring manager/reader/date that you didn’t realize you were being asked. It’s the first, and if you blow it, the only tangible example of who you are to the stranger reading it.

Everybody makes typos. Not everybody fixes (most of) them. If you do, not only do you avoid giving your readers an excuse to stop reading, you also distinguish yourself as a writer that re-reads your own stuff for quality and that can be the difference that it takes to make Son of the Bear Puncher by Erik Grove, Book 9 in the Ice Barbarian Saga, a best-seller. Coming soon. Pre-order. Tell your friends.

 

EDITING NOTE: I am not, in fact, actually Jon Hamm. This blog post has been edited to reflect this. Sorry for the confusion. Special apology to my wife. I probably should have been clearer about this point earlier in our marriage and omitted the part where I said that I was Jon Hamm in our weddings vows. Also, I don’t care what Jake told you – I have punched a bear on at least two occasions and it was super cool, I’m serious.

EDITING NOTE 2: Typo in first editing note corrected.

On Writing: Do You Still Need An Agent?

Casino Royale - filmstill btintern

Despite my best efforts there are some things I can’t do at the same time. I can’t carry on a conversation when I’m cooking, I can’t read a book while I’m riding in a car, and I can’t update my blog reliably while I’m trying to finish a novel. While I can pat my head and rub my belly or chew gum and walk at the same time (well, I have the gum chewing down pretty well at least), another thing I can’t do is write and think about the business of writing at the same time. There’s something incompatible in these things for me. When I’m working on a book or a story, even a stray thought about distributing or marketing it can derail my train of thought and when I need to put on my business socks and get down to it, I need to suppress my inner protective writer that thinks all of my pretty words are so, so precious. I need to focus on one or the other and, since my real passion is creating content and not selling it, it’s a pretty easy choice to make. But easy choices aren’t always the best ones and I find myself now with a precious manuscript full of precious words freshly completed and I know that now’s the time to put on those socks. It sure would be awesome if someone else could handle the business while I do the writing though, right? Those mythical people, unicorns in business casual attire that smile and mingle so comfortably at conferences, are agents.

Last night I went to an event hosted by the Willamette Writers in downtown Portland. The topic was Why You Still Need an Agent (and Why an Agent Still Needs You). The main speaker was Chip MacGregor from MacGregor Literary Agency. Chip is a good public speaker, obviously incredibly sharp with an impressive resume in the book business, and a really likeable guy. It’s easy to see why he is a successful agent that can talk to creatives (crazy people) and contract folks at publishing houses (robots) with confidence and ease. That said, neither Chip nor the writer that spoke with him (Leslie Gould, a sincere, smart and also really likeable speaker) tackled the big topic head on. They both talked about what an agent does and they are all good useful things that sound really enticing but they also sort of sound like a new kitchen appliance that might do a few things really well but might be pretty expensive and take up too much space on your counter. They did a really great job of convincing me that I Would Like to Have An Agent (If I Can Get One and He or She is Dishwasher Safe and Fits in My Cabinets Next to the Food Processor I Never Use) but I went there with that in mind already. I suspect it was really a matter of time and maybe format that kept me from getting the hard sell that the event title suggested but I’ve been thinking about it a lot and the whole thing leaves me with some conclusions and more questions.

I don’t believe agents are exactly the gatekeepers they used to be. You still can’t get real interest with the Big 5 New York City Houses without an agent (or at least a big YouTube following) but I don’t think the Big 5 are the gatekeepers they used to be either. The publishing industry has changed and it’s not going to change back. Everyone knows and accepts this which is why it seems peculiar to me that the old agent/writer relationship hasn’t been critically reconsidered. Once upon a time in the Algonquin Round Table days publishers had little clockwork gnome people that had to hand chisel magic plates to send to the presses to make baby novels come out (I think – I may have skimmed the Wikipedia articles and filled in some things) and agents were the only ones that knew the passwords to get to the Publishing Overlords. Now, you can write a book about your pet Chihuahua’s herooics in outer space and put that bad boy on Amazon.com with 13 well placed clicks and no clockwork gnome people are necessary. This means that password agents used to have and the relationships they have with publishers aren’t necessary to blast Li’l Chi Chi off to Mars for a series of fuzzy adventures. So, what else does an agent have other than a good Rolodex and experience in an industry that’s not the same industry it was when they started out 30 years ago? There are two really good qualities for a  21st century agent that I think help to answer that.

A good agent is an adviser. He or she can look at the business trends, look at your skills and weaknesses and suggest the next moves you make, not just how to finish the move you already decided to make before you signed with an agent. Chip hit on this during his talk last night as something he sees as crucial but also acknowledged that many agents don’t see themselves in that role. Some agents are all about the legal paperwork. Some agents are all about nipping and tucking your prose but those skills aren’t special. Yes, publishing contracts are probably labyrinthine and confusing to lawyers who don’t specialize in that kind of contract law but a lot of us new breed of writers aren’t ever going to sign those contracts and for those of us that do, the contracts themselves might change faster than the lawyers who remain attached to them. Also, with no disrespect intended, if I want someone to nip and tuck my prose, I’m going to listen to an editor or another writer before I listen to an agent. That part about being an adviser though, there’s something irreplaceable there.

A good agent should also have a clue about marketing your book. Yes, I was just dismissive of the lawyer agent and the editor agent but the marketing agent? I hate to say it but that agent is worth his or her weight in gold. Publishing is not the obstacle anymore for new writers, selling your work to readers is. A good agent that knows and understands all of the different marketing avenues available and can either dig in and help with that work or knows the right tools and the people who use them well is indispensable. It’s one of the reasons I’m so skeptical of so many current agents. I’m not convinced that they understand what gets people to buy books in the 21st century. Twenty years ago you’d walk into Borders and look on the shelf and browse for what you want. Now you go online. I don’t know anyone that primarily buys books from a brick and mortar store anymore and the experience is very different online. Online book groups, reviews, social media recommendations with links to your book – this must be part of the strategy. So, I Google agents and if the agent I’m googling doesn’t have a decent digital presence for himself, how is that agent going to advise me on how to market myself digitally? There are agents that still won’t accept queries by email. These agents better have a robust portfolio of already successful authors because no writer under 40 is ever going to send a manila envelope to a slush pile again.

So, do you still need an agent in 2015? To me the keywords in that question are “still” and “need.” The word “still” acknowledges that the relationship has changed and it must change (as Chip put it, publishing is not going through an evolution but a revolution). The real question that the word “still” is asking – are agents just relics of the past like those clockwork gnomes? I think a lot of them are, probably more than know it, but I don’t think they need to be. Chip and his agency seem to be making a lot of the right moves to me although their website could use some TLC if they ever do want to attract new authors (not that I have room to judge with my WordPress theme and minimal graphic design). If the agent/writer relationship is going to remain a common partnership, both writers and agents need to change the way they do things and work together.

That other key word – “need” is what makes me say the answer to the question is ultimately no. You don’t need an agent anymore anymore than you need a microwave or a blender or those awesome bear claw looking things I have for shredding carnitas but there are things that are much harder to do without an agent. Do you want to be the sole marketer and business analyst in charge of your book’s financial success and your ongoing creative career? I think I can do that, I think there might even be something rewarding in it for me, but I also think I can write another book instead while someone else helps with the business stuff and that might end up being more lucrative and valuable for my career. I also know that getting an agent isn’t an easy process and the hunting and networking involved in that might actually be more frustrating than stumbling through the business side solo. My gut tells me that what a writer really needs to do is write and get it out into the world in as clumsy a way as possible. Then, if the work is good, the writer is lucky and knows how to create opportunities for more luck, an agent will just flash a smile and saunter over while you’re mingling at some awkward event and hand you his card. Then the tables turn and you get to query the agent, you get to make the agent answer the question because the real truth is, they need us more than we need them now.

On Writing: Kublai Khan, My Wrecked Pants and the Freedom of Humiliation

marco-polo-benedict-wong

I don’t have enough time to write this post. Officially, I’m crazy busy stressed out pushing against deadlines I’m not sure I’m going to meet and working with time I just don’t have. But I fell down while walking like a normal person and destroyed my pants a little earlier today and it was awesome. I should digress.

I have written before in my blogs here about being aware of and valuing your support network as a writer. Part of my support network, what I like to call my Kublai Khan War Council, is Tiffany. Tiffany is my life coach (her marketing) but I prefer to think of her as one of the Mongols that hangs around my writer’s throne room and advises me on invading walled cities in China. Metaphorically. I’ve worked with Tiffany for a few years now, talking about goals, unraveling my various anxieties and angsteses and helping to focus and refine my goals and harness my forward momentum. She’s a trusted part of my Khan-dom. Another way to put it – and one that I think most accurately defines the relationship we share – she’s the advocate of my better angels. She applies her training, expertise and our rapport to help the strong, confident voices in my head shout out the weird, neurotic voices that try to come down out of the hills and kill my horses.

So, I’m having a hectic month. I’m working on an aggressively ambitious project, I’m worried about not hitting the dates I’ve set to meet the milestones I want to meet and I have a slew of other things all coming at me at the same time. I met with Tiffany today and we spent a lot of time talking about that stress, about how it aids and hinders. I sometimes have big “AH HA!” moments during Tiffany’s life-coaching sessions (come on, war counseling sounds cooler) but more often than not, I have those “AH HA!” moments on the drive home or a few days later when that introspection and personal honesty stuff just starts to fall into place like mental Tetris and little dancing pixel people come out and celebrate. Today though, I had my “AH HA!” moment walking from her office to my car.

This brings me back to the pants I’m going to have to throw away and, obviously, to failure and how the fear of it looms large over all of us. What happened was this: I walked back toward my car and I just fell down. My ankle did a weird roll and the grass was wet and I tumbled down like a sack of potatoes in the mud. Then I tried to stand up and the combination of slippery ground and the angle of my pants-crotch teamed up to split down the center with a riotous sound like an embarrassing pants-thunder sounding out all over the Portland metropolitan area. If you were out and about this afternoon and heard a rip and suddenly felt deeply red-faced for some fool that was now in public with demolished pants, that was me.

Obviously, I started laughing. I looked up at the rain that was drizzling down on me (because: Portland) and laughed. AH HA!!!

What stresses me out the most is the fear of failure. This big project I’m working on, I’m worried people won’t like it or I won’t have executed it properly or I just won’t know what to do with it. The closer I get to accomplishment, the more I feel a nagging sense of dread. But what is the fear of failure anyway? It’s a fear that I’m going to fall down and look like a fool. Today, I did that. The worst thing that could happen, metaphorically, happened. I did the best I could at walking around like a normal not falling down person and I fell down anyway and then I ripped my pants and for a little while (before I hastily walked to my car and drove away) the block around Tiffany’s office saw my pasty Portland thigh and a little bit of my underwear. All of my worrying, all of that dread, in the end it didn’t matter and now? It’s not like I can’t walk anymore. All I can really do is laugh at the perfectly timed cosmic joke, have my little epiphany and put on new pants.

There are three morals to this story: be good to your war council, laugh when you fall down, and always maintain at least two pairs of pants in case of ironic calamity.

 

On Writing: Distribution Bias – Self-Publishing, eBooks and the Direct to Video Stigma

When I was teenager I used to go to a video store called Video World that had a big central display for all of the video new releases. The new releases fell into three general categories. There were the mainstream movies that I’d seen or could have seen at the local multiplex, the art house foreign and indie movies that played in theaters in big cities and college towns and there were the direct to video releases. I watched a lot of movies from the first two categories and almost none from the third. Featuring fading (or completely faded) movie stars, knock-off plots and ill-conceived sequels to mainstream movies, direct to video movies radiated mediocrity and poor production values straight off of the shelf. The direct to video movie’s highest ambition was a modestly successful rental run followed by a spot on late night cable television. While some (mostly horror and sci fi focused) direct to video operations reveled in their marginalized status and created trashy late night masterpieces most lived down to the worst expectations; low budget, poor performances and terrible writing. Even if a truly marvelous direct to video film found it’s way to the new release shelf at Video World, most people wouldn’t watch it, including me, because of the assumed low quality that it’s release suggested. After all, a lot of mediocre movies get big studio distribution and well-made independent efforts would percolate through film festivals and find a home in the art house theaters, right?

Now I look at the new releases on Netflix and see the descendants of the direct to video market; a half dozen Nicolas Cage movies no one has ever heard of and just as many obscure genre offerings filmed on the cheap in Eastern Europe. Among the familiar fair though, a growing number of indie films and lower budgeted mainstream movies are experimenting with simultaneous digital and theatrical releases or are making the tactical decision to skip crowded theaters and go direct to digital on day one. Even as the quality gap is disappearing, I still find myself pausing when I see these “direct to digital” movies and wondering why they weren’t good enough to make it in theaters. I recently watched the movie Stretch directed by Joe Carnahan. The movie boasts a great, recognizable cast and I’m huge Carnahan fan but I still hesitated to watch it until I read that it was supposed to be a theatrical release. I watched it one afternoon with my expectations incredibly low and discovered an amazing movie that I’ve recommended over and over again to friends and acquaintances. Every time I recommend it though I’m careful to tell them, it’s a digital release but it was supposed to be a theatrical release. I sent out a few tweets about how much I liked the movie after I saw it and saw some other comments that all seemed to talk around the same thing; Stretch was too good for digital distribution. There’s a sense, even now, that the direct home market for films is the minor leagues and that to be a legitimate movie a theatrical run is still expected (even if it only plays in 8 theaters for a few weeks). Even as more of us watch more movies for the first time from the comfort of our couches from Netflix, Amazon or iTunes this outdated bias stays with us and big theater chains are doing everything they can to keep it going.

I remember the first person I knew that self-published a full length novel. I was in college and she was from an upper middle class family that had a new bright yellow car with a custom license plate (“Poet”) and printed copies of her book. I never asked her much about the process of self-printing them but I assumed then that her parents helped pay the cost for the poetry/prose hybrid and chocked the whole thing up to vanity and privilege. I’m certain that was an unfair dismissal but I was 20, skipping my Hemingway and Joyce survey class to write my angry young man fiction in a cheap room with cheap beer and a growing lump of college debt wanting nothing more than to “break in” to the literary world. I knew what it was going to take to get there. It was going to take misery and it was going to take rejection and when it happened, when I had my printed book in my hands for the first time, it wasn’t going to be from the campus Kinkos. The truth is, her book was better than I was comfortable with it being and however she managed to get it done, the confidence it took for her to do it was, and continues to be, commendable. Unfortunately, for her and her book the publishing industry and the whole apparatus of the literary world 15 years ago would be just as dismissive as I was. Back then, self-publishing was a vanity project. It was what a writer did that couldn’t get into the major leagues and all of the trade magazines and books about getting published warned against it.

It’s funny how expectations work for different media. When it comes to music, I’ve always been a garage band DIY punk rock guy. A band on a major label has a similar stigma for me as a direct to digital movie. The band needs to prove to me that being on a major label hasn’t changed their sound, that they haven’t sold out. One of my top 5 favorite bands, Bad Religion, signed to Atlantic in the early 90s and I spent a lot of time grousing about it and listening to their new albums waiting for my distrust of mainstream music to be affirmed. It might be a coincidence but my least favorite Bad Religion albums came out during their Atlantic years and they returned to form when they went back to being indie. Music tends to be the vanguard of how we consume and interact with media. Savvy musicians have leveraged digital media and self-distribution through social networks for years and most of us think that kind of guerrilla approach to creating and owning their own work is innovative and commendable, not minor league vanity.

So you have a novel. You’ve done what’s supposed to be the hard work of writing it. You did the misery part of the equation. Maybe you’ve already got some rejection. What about self-publishing in 2015? What about focusing on the digital-only market? The truth is that the publishing industry and the whole paradigm around it is in the middle of a revolution. Big bookstore chains are disappearing and readership of traditionally printed work is a dwindling while e-readers are more mainstream than ever. Agents and editors continue to adapt and go forward with the same middle man approach to getting a book to market. The old way to success is to compete for an agent from a list of hundreds, doing your best to find a good fit for your work and figure out if an agent really is reputable or not, and then hoping the agent does the agent magic and gets an editor to offer you a deal to print your book. You still have to sell it to readers, and those last, classically infuriating steps for a beginning writer, are all prologue to the real challenge for an author. It doesn’t matter how good your book is, how agent-y your agent is or how old and reputable your publisher is, you still need to reach the audience. Self-publishing (print or digital) is an option that cuts out the rest and takes your book directly to the people and most people don’t care how you got it to their attention – they just care if it’s something they want to read and if it’s any good. When you crunch the numbers and look at all of your options, self-publishing is a compelling possibility to get your work out there.

Most publishers and agents still see the same stigma on self-published work that they did 15 years ago. Most authors do too. That stigma is fast becoming a relic though. It’s a vestige of an industry that convinced us we needed gatekeepers for our own good even as the gatekeepers didn’t always open the gates for the right works. Brilliant voices waited too long for mainstream acceptance while YouTube celebrities and reality show spokesmodels have been given hefty advances and contracts. Meanwhile, while publishers chase after fads, media has become democratized more than ever before. Different, sometimes unconventional or socially marginalized, voices can find a way to distribution and legions of readers on social networks can review and recommend that work without the old guard of the publishing world giving any blessing or feedback. What the gatekeepers don’t see yet is that the gate still stands but there are now a hundred holes in the wall surrounding it.

It’s a strange time to be an aspiring author. A generation ago we would have been resigned to the predictable labyrinth of slush piles and query letters and a generation from now it’s possible that big publishers and the paradigm they represent could be gone or transformed completely. It’s only been a few months since the first major war between traditional publishing and new distribution. Amazon and Hachette resolved a dispute on pricing that hinted at the bigger philosophical divide and a lot of authors were caught in the crossfire. I suspect there will be more battles like this and writers will continue to be collateral damage as these giants decide how our work will be distributed for us. As a technology consultant, I find my allegiance is with Amazon. As a novelist that still wants to hold a physical copy of a book with my name on the cover, something that I could sign in a bookstore and could slide next to my favorite authors and inspirations on my book shelf, my sympathies are with the majesty and tradition of the big publishers.

I haven’t figured out how I intend to leverage or not leverage self-publishing my work. I consider a manuscript and I still wonder if it’s not good enough to be a traditional release, as if distribution still has any bearing on quality which I know intellectually it doesn’t. I think about how there are no big media rights deals that come to mind for exclusively self-published material and my childhood dreams of seeing one of my books turned into a movie I could pick up on the new release shelf at Video World. I also think about listings for agents or publishers that don’t even deal in email, don’t use Twitter or have any kind of significant web presence and I wonder if they even understand the world they work in anymore. I think about the punk rock revolution from 35+ years ago and I wonder if my self-published manuscript would be pre-Atlantic Bad Religion or a direct to digital Nic Cage movie. For a long time agents and editors have guided authors through questions and concerns like this. They insulated us so we could sit in our writer caves and knock out a million precious words but even if we still use them, they must become partners for us, not business nannies and the question about how we distribute our work ultimately comes down to us, not the gatekeepers, not anymore.

 

On Writing: Muses, Mountain Climbing, and the Inspired Writer

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Mount Everest

 

I can’t work without music. I’ve always written with a soundtrack and I can’t even imagine writing without one. Music is an inexorable part of my process. I also need something to drink close by, usually water, coffee, or diet soda. Oh, and I can’t write when there’s anyone else in the room, I try to alternate between more serious and more humorous projects to keep my creative muscles “in shock”, I can’t hand write anything more substantial than vague notes, and I can never, ever, just skip ahead if a chapter or piece isn’t working right; if chapter 4 isn’t working, chapter 5 is going to wait for me to fix it. I can forgo any one or all of these things (and I have) but I rarely feel confident in the output that this creates. Like most writers I know, I’m attached to these trappings and habits. They work for me like lucky socks or knocking on wood. I don’t just expect them, I rely on my trappings to keep me moving when I’m stuck and to spark ideas.

There are a lot of quotes about creating things that all boil down to the same thing; creation is a little bit about the idea and a lot about execution and perseverance to see that idea through. I don’t just believe in this, I live by it, but what this supposes is that creation is a straight line; it isn’t that at all. Creation is a great big twisty maze of lines, circles, bends, and dead ends. Inspiration doesn’t stop and hand off the job to perspiration like a baton in a relay race. Inspiration is a compass that guides you to true north every single step of the way. You always need it and you always need more of it because you can lose it far too easily. The worst thing a writer can experience is to get 80% through a project and find that the muse that whispered brilliant ideas into your ear is now whispering only doubt and uncertainty or worse, nothing at all.

Imagine that instead of writing I’m talking about mountain climbing and the mountain is your story. The mountain needs to be there for you to climb it. This is obvious and seems silly to state plainly like that but just like the mountain has to be there to climb it, the idea has to be there to write it. A mountain climber straps on boots and hook piton harness rope things and sets out for the mountain with unshakeable confidence that when he’s most of the way to the summit, the mountain isn’t just going to vanish out from under him. All the mountain climber has to do is keep going up but sometimes for a writer, a story turns on its ear and instead of going up you need to go upside down to the left because just like mountains can just vanish for a writer, they can also change shape, size, direction or general laws of physics. If these reality changing mountains really existed mountain climbers would need to learn how to predict and navigate these changing landscapes. All the preparation and endurance training is moot if you can’t find Everest to climb it.

So let’s revisit that notion about inspiration and perspiration. Even if the hours you spend on executing an idea will outnumber the hours spent generating that idea by tremendous margins, you still need the mountain to stay put.  If success is 99 parts labor and 1 part epiphany that means that success is both a lot of work and that it’s impossible with that 1 ephemeral, essential part. It’s folly to discount the intangible exciting tug of a cool idea or to take it for granted. I wish it was easy to predict when and how a great idea will come and to hold onto not just the fact of that idea but the feeling and inertia of it but it’s not easy. Mediocre ideas can become amazing and amazing ideas can degenerate. Many of the ideas I’ve had that I turned into something I was really proud of started as ideas that sounded bad to everyone else but I felt the worth in the idea, I nurtured and gave the idea room to develop, not by laboring through it but by letting inspiration continue from start to finish. I’ve also had killer ideas that I felt weren’t right and they remain unfinished. I can’t explain it and I’m not sure I’ve always been right but instinct and feeling is the best I’ve got.

I’ve written before that I don’t give a lot of credence to writer’s block but that’s because I believe so strongly in the importance of inspiration and enthusiasm through the entire creative process. That doesn’t mean that I don’t hit peaks and valleys in my projects and I don’t deal with doubts and lose momentum. It means that I put faith in my muse and I know that most often, when I’m stuck in my labors, when I’m mired in what could be called a writer’s block, that I need to stop climbing and work on finding the mountain. I need to reconnect with what excited me about the idea in the first place and if I can’t find that, if the excitement is entirely gone, I need to be honest with myself and decide if maybe this isn’t the story I should be telling right now.

The music, the water bottle, the solitude, and the habits I’ve adopted are short cuts I’ve discovered or depended on to remind me and keep me faithful to my capricious anthropomorphized muse. I will give a million hours to an idea if that’s what it takes but if I lose that muse 999,900 hours in, I know I’m just a mountaineer without a mountain and I will never make it to the summit. Whether it takes lucky socks, knocking on wood or your favorite rock band, whatever it takes to inspire and stay inspired, you must do it and you can never take it for granted.