New blog can be found Wordpress: The Flint Hatchet. I will not be updating this journal any more but will leave it up for future reference / backup / whatever.
Thanks, and please update bookmarks.
‘We build stories in our heads’, writes Gaiman. ‘We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what they see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?’
So simple yet so profund. Are works of fiction safe - and should they be?
I am going to take the side of "no," works of fiction are not obligated to be safe places for the reader. At the same time, the author is under no obligation to challenge the reader. But wait, how can that dichotomy be? Well, let me try to expain.
In my experience, the best lessons in life come not from the classroom or the laboratory, but from the world. Someone can be told about love, terror, despair, joy, and triumph. Someone can have their assertions and biases challenged in an academic setting. Someone can watch a slideshow the best way to drive a car. None of those are as effective as actually driving. Or interacting with someone that knocks their preconceived notions off a pedestal. Or loving, fearing, despairing, being overjoyed, or winning over an obstacle.
And I think that is what succesful stories do. They draw the reader inside and tap into those deep emotions seated in the back of our lizard brains. We experience the wins and losses of the protagonist. We anguish alongside them at their heartbreaks, and feel that delightful schadenfreude at their revenges.
But here's the thing: change is hard. Change is scary. We're creatures of habit. We resist change. At some level, if we knew before reading a book or watching a movie that we'd experience such intense emotions, on some level we shy away. It's a danger to our states of mind and we do move away from danger. But fiction should be allowed to challenge us, to make us look inward, make us reflect and feel. After all, it is only through change that we grow.
Then one might ask the question, "Should fiction be obligated to challenge the reader? Should fiction always be an unsafe place?" Well, no. That is entirely in the hands of the author. For all the intensity and haunting imagery felt by the reader, it is felt by the writer first. A quote about peering into the abyss seems appropriate here. I've written some pretty dark and disturbing stuff, to the point where even good friends and family members have asked, "What is wrong with you?" (Good question, guys.) So, if on the chance I want to write something cliched and traditional, where not only will I not make the reader unsafe, I will not make it unsafe for myself, why can I not do that? Can I tell a story where there is no great moral imperitive or raging torrent of emotional energy? Yes, it might make the story a little - for lack of a better word - boring. Maybe. But is that my right as the author?
I like to read stories that challenge my assumptions, as long as I don't feel lectured. I also like reading something predictable and safe. And I should be able to. It's comfort food for the mind and sometimes, you just have to do something kind for yourself. Otherwise, why do anything?
So anyway, rambling thoughts for early on a Wednesday morning. As always, comments, dissenting thoughts, and insults are always welcome.
YOU CAN'T STOP IT. People will speak up, no matter what you do. If that means depicting the prophet Muhammed covered in mayonnaise while shaking hands with Batman, then it's going to happen. Attack or kill them, more will take their place - and while our society is tolerant of your differences, it is not eternally so. All you do with your violent acts is invite it back tenfold on yourself and everything you care about. So don't go away mad. Just go away.
Anyway, I went almost two weeks into this year without even setting any goals for myself. The slacking never ceases.
So here's what I want to get done this year:
1) Get PIlgrimage to Skara published. Number one goal, come hell or high water. Even if I have to do it on my own.
2) Finish Princess of the North and get the next book in the series started.
3) Make three short story sales.
Yeah, I am kind of setting myself a low bar. Trouble is, I have some other non-writing goals in life this year and we all know, there is only so much time in the week.
So we'll see.
Have you ever experienced that moment of trepidation, when a new fragment of information enters your perception, an you realize that no matter how excellent you thought you were doing, you are, in reality, fucking up quite badly?
(Muse: Could you have worked any more commas in there?)
Maybe. Don't bother me.
I spent the better part of this morning reflecting on what I accomplished this year, writing-wise. Not much, it seems. Sure, I retired from the only career I'd had for twenty years, moved 1200 miles, dealt with a house burning down and a death in the family but that is just making excuses. I didn't get as much done as I wanted. Let's see:
- I wrote (I think) five short stories this year. One was selected on Fantasy-Writers.org as the top entry in their monthly contest (October), and three others were well-received even though they did not win during their respective months. Not bad but my volume needs to be higher.
- I submitted eighteen times. With that, came one acceptance. That's around 5% success rate. It's better than zero, but still .... ouch.
- I put between 10 and 20K words into Princess of the North. The story is shaping up nicely and I think will be a good lead-in for the series. Still, if I am not going to write short stories, I need to get a move on with this.
- I blogged a little but not as much as I could have.
Lastly, I had my agent queries, the subject of which ties back to my opening statement. I submitted seventeen queries to agents for Pilgrimage to Skara in 2014, from 1 Mar to the end of October. Fourteen were rejections, with three still pending. Of those fourteen, the last four are assumed rejections due to non-responses.
But here's the problem. Like any diligent writer, I toyed with my query letter again and again. I mean, I went through countless iterations. I scaled it down. I added stuff back in. I wrote a lenghty bio and took it back out. I adopted a playful tone then striaghtened up. Round and round and round, back and forth and back again. Finally, after torturing that short letter until I thought my typing fingers would revolt, I thought I had it right. I ran with it.
Well, the more I read, the more I realize I may not have gotten any of it correct, past spelling my name right. I spent some time this morning reading Chuck Sambuchino's series over on Writer's Digest, on successful query letters. Oy. I think I was way off the mark. I want to be more bothered by the advice given, as a lot of what I see the agents highlighting as "success" points are things that either wouldn't have impacted me as a reader either way, or items I would have looked at as negatives. (I wanted to give examples but I don't want to call out specific authors or agents from the site. Maybe if I can think of a generic example....)
(Muse: Well, maybe that's why they are agents and you aren't.)
No doubt. Besides, it would be the height of arrogance to discard the advice given in good faith by the agents. After all, they are saying what influences them and makes them key in on a particular submission. While I may not understand or agree with these choices, that's besides the point. If I want them to represent my work, the least I can do is pay attention to what they are telling me. An obvious point, but someone as obtuse as me sometimes takes a while to get it.
Even with all that, this is a crushing realization, which leads to further self-questioning. Of those fourteen agents I queried, how many might have been enthralled by my novel if I could have gotten them past that simple letter? That question will probably haunt me for a long time, and I am sure I am only joining a host of writers with the same self-doubts. If nothing else, this musing merely confirms to me that I have mountains to climb as a writer. I can use the humbling.
The good news is that tomorrow starts a new year and the symbolic opportunity for a fresh start. So ... this first week of the new year, I'll upload my plan and goals for 2015.
Recently, I made a submission and for the first time I can recall seeing, the submisson guidelines explicitly called for the submission to only have a single space between sentences. There was a blurb in the guidelines about the two-space paradigm being put in the grave, and then the guidelines move on to other issues.
But that got me thinking.
As I write this entry this morning, almost every writing article or grammar guide I can find on the subject says that single-spacing is the way to go. Most of the articles I can find on the subject have a light condesending touch to them (such as this article from Writer's Digest, which says, "Sorry two-spaces, it's time to make the switch.") As if the information is something that is so obvious it can be seen from space.
(Muse: I see what you did there.)
Some of the argument comes down to improvements in tyopgraphy. I concur that with realistically-spaced fonts (pretty much all of them these days) replacing old-style typewriter fonts (like Courier), where each letter took the same amount of room in a line, make the two-spacing less of a necessity than it used to be. That is a more compelling argument than any other. Some of the arguments also seem to come down to aesthetics or time-saving, in the effort of reducing keystrokes.
Let me go ahead and say this: to any writers or typers out there that are still engaged in the double-spacing habit, I fully recommend that you break the habit and get used to one space. It will make your lives easier when dealing with the rest of the publishing world. If nothing else, make friends with the Find & Replace commands (CTL-H in Word) and replace your double-taps with single spaces before you submit. (Example on how to do so found here.)
But now I say precisely why I am not going to do that.
First of all, I find the aesthetics argument unconvincing. I have been to museums of modern art and witnessed what has been labeled "fine art." This is stuff I would have labeled as offenses against nature. Modern home decor is, to my eyes, bland, unappealing, and soulless. Not interested in sterile living; my cozy country decor is much more comfortable. Facial piercings have wide appeal but I am not interested in seeing them or having my own. Aesthetics are a purely personal decision. So who the heck are they to tell me what's visually appealing and what isn't? I can read single-spaced text well enough but I find it cramped and jumbled, especially in a small font. Two spaces feels more regimented and natural to me. The "rightness" of this is based on the opinion of people and as I have said many times, people can and usually do fail. They are wrong. They are arrogant about the rightness of their beliefs. Millions of people watch reality televsion. Does its popularity make it "right" and "good" Trends come and go; what is proper today is passe tomorrow and the rules, like most fad rules, are capricious and unpredictable. So I am bucking the "popular" trend and going with what is comfortable and appealing to my eyes.
Second, all of the articles I read provided themselves an escape hatch by saying that two spaces is acceptable for those uniformly-space fonts, like Courier. Standard Manuscript Format (SMF, also known as Shunn format in many spec-fiction circles) is still considered the standard for formatting submission to many magazines, including a good portion of the professional market. Well, guess what? Shunn format recommends submissions be in Times New Roman .... or COURIER! In other words, one of the two acceptable fonts for a sizeable chunk of the market is of that dreaded type that needs a double-spacing. Granted, many markets that take online submissions are moving away from rigid formating guidelines. It's pretty easy to reformat a lot of packages and if they are having trouble, mags can always send it back to the author and ask for formatting changes. Even so, pretty telling that the standard for submissions retains the old way of doing business.
But that brings me to my third point. If an editor really likes a story, how hard is it to do the copy-n-replace I mentioned above? It isn't.
(Muse: But what if-)
Yes, it is possible that the editor may not elect to read through the story because of a double-spacing format. That is the risk one takes by persisting with the old ways, which is why I recommended above that nobody do that. I think a writer wants to be in the business of minimizing risk and giving their story every possible break. At the same time, if editors are really hard over on this, it will be in their submission guidelines. I think when you start trying to second-guess an editor's intentions, you don't improve your odds. For every time you guess right, you also put yourself out of the running. So it is best to follow the guidelines explicitly. If it says SMF or Shunn format, then the editor gets my double-spaced Courier submission.
Last - and this is more of a meta-argument than a direct rebuke to the single-space mafia - what is the point of communication, really? Is it to be beholden to a set of rules? Or is to beam a message the recipient? Now, I agree, we do need a some uniformity to prevent the Balkanization of the language (where every sub group splinters their dialect away further and further until they no longer resemble the original or each other). But where is that line? Language is constantly evolving with society. "Email" did not exist as a an acceptable word thirty years ago. "Automobile" did not 130 years ago. Saying the two-space rule is right and that's final is as ridiculous as the rule about the salad fork being on the left. As far as concrete tangible effects on the world, what the hell difference does it make? Seriously? The text is still readable. You can argue that people used to double-space can be trained to read single-space easier. Well, the inverse works too, so I find few convincing reasons to abandon the double-space, short of an editor's guidelines. Besides, the way the semi-sneering attitude taken by many who hold this position ruffles my feathers to no end, as if it's a moral imperitive on the order of "Thou shalt not kill." One person quoted in the Slate article above referred to double-spacers as "amateur typists." (I had a vision of this woman in black cocktail dress, gently swirling a glass of wine as she circled her debutante ball and sneered about poor people in her nasal Martha's Vineyard voice.) Holier-than-thou folks, inside writing cicrles or out, make my fingers curl into fists. If they are for something, I automatically lean the other way.
Anyway, those are my rambling thoughts. Feel free to pipe in and disagree. I the meantime, I am sticking with my two spaces. Where necessary, I will change my format to one. As for the rest? Oft-quoted philosopher Henry David Thoreau exhorted his readers to seek justice and rebuke the government as a matter of conscience but to also be prepared for the consequences of doing so. I might cost myself a sale with my intransigence.
But it is my position and I wil stand with it as long as I can.
(Muse: You would have bought yourself less trouble arguing about the Oxford comma.)
Maybe next time.
Everyday Fiction is one of those sites we ought to all be signed up for. Like Daily Science Fiction, Everday Fiction will put a flash story in your inbox each day of the week, and their stories cut across all genres. Check it out, most especially on Saturday, please.
"Home" is a story I shopped for a long while and went through five versions before one found its way to a buyer. As always, feedback is welcome.
But I did stumble across this site: Hero Complex Gallery. They have a lot of prints of cool artwork, which are rife with pop-culture references. I put it in my favorites, just in case I decide to resurrect the fantasy art project. It's not all fantasy per se, but still, some neat stuff.
Check it out.
So you can imagine my considerable delight when I read this headline on Tor.com today:
Starz Reunites Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi for Ash vs. Evil Dead TV Series
It makes me want to run out in the yard, hoist a shotgun, and yell, "This is my BOOMSTICK!"
The show is set for a 10-episode production to start airing in 2015. Color me excited.
- Regardless of some rumors to the contrary, I am still writing and still working on projects. The other day, I spun out 2500 words on Princess of the North in just a few hours, and really without much trouble. That just makes me want to work on it a little more. I also wrote a 1400 words story on a mother waiting for some terrible news about her child and her mind goes into really dark places. This has been a theme the last few years with me: writing some really dark stuff involving parents and their children. Guess it's just a phase.
- I still have Pilgrimage out with agents for query. I have not given up - not even close - but so far, I have still have gotten nothing back but form rejections and non-responses. I am going to give it a bit longer.
- This has been an up and down year for short story rejections. On the one hand, with the major life events (house fire, leaving the military, etc.) I have still gotten 16 submissions out, with the first one not going out until 31 May. So far, I haven't sold one. This is a little disconcerting; since I started submitting my work way back in 2007, I was able to sell at least one piece a year, even if just for a pittance. I might be breaking that trend this year. Ouch.
- It is sometimes amazing just how much time one can spend in front of a computer. I recently took a hiatus from a message board (unrelated to writing) that I frequented. I suddenly have a lot more time on my hands, to do other things. As I said, amazing.
- Have you been watching this season of The Walking Dead? Just when I thought that show could not get any more grim, they found a way ....
Not a terrible much of an update. I'll find something interesting to say next time.
I wonder what authors are thinking when I see things like this. The instinct to defend oneself from biting words is natural but the reality is this: if you work in any kind of artistic or entertainment industry, there is going to be someone who does not like your work. Always. Even the consensus best works of all time have their detractors. And the way the western world is structured, legally, if they don't like it, those detractors are allowed to say so. Loudly. Profanely. In the most scathing and insulting manner they can. And there is absolutley nothing you can do about it.
As I see it, an author has three options when they chance on bad reivews of their work:
1) engage with the reviewer and either a) get in a pissing contest, where they will always look like a loser (the saying about wrestling a pig in mud comes to mind) or b) try to respond nicely which - while okay - is probably giving the reviewer exactly what they want: fuel to keep slinging poo.
2) Let it chew you up and obssess on it until you curl into the fetal position on the floor, mumbling the reviewer's name over and over.
3) Or develop a thick skin and get back to work.
In just the last few months, there have been some big hacking scandals, where dozens of celebrities (mostly actresses) have had nude photos of themselves released. While I am sure that is upsetting and feels violative to them, I have not heard a single one say they were going to stop acting because of it. They nut up and soldier on. If I can't do the same when someone basically says my work sucks and so do I (which has happened) then I need to hand in my author card.
If you read a bad review of your work, my recommendation is:
- Defer the hurt. Ignore it.
- Look to see if there is any truth in what they wrote. This is the hardest but most crucial part for a writer - that is, self-honesty. If someone says only a fat moron would write a plot this trite with all these Oprah-sized holes, ask yourself: is it trite? Are there holes?
- Pick up a pen and get back to writing,
- If you still hurt, get a punching bag or go for a hike.
And as Wendig says, the last thing you should do is respond, unless you are absolutely in control of yourself.
Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled programming.