Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

Lazy Writing 101: The Young Lover

You youngsters and your damned energy.

My wife, The Duchess, excels at many things, but her main skill is increasingly getting me to watch terrible, terrible television shows. She does this with a combination of stick and carrot; on the one hand if I mock and refuse to watch a show, she can become surly. On the other, if I mock and complain enough, she will often magnanimously swap a slightly less-awful show in for a more-awful show.

This is how I wound up squirming out from under the rock of Dancing with the Stars and found myself watching The Great Indoors.

The Evergreen Sitcom Plot

Look, I like Joel McHale. I loved him on Community, and he’s a pretty funny guy and a charismatic actor. I’m glad he’s getting a paycheck. The Great Indoors is a mediocre sitcom, and the bar is pretty low for a CBS sitcom to begin with, so mediocrity is nothing to celebrate. It has its moments, yes, but in general it’s a pretty lazy show. Point in fact, one of the first season episodes was a classic Lazy Plot. Specifically, it was the “aging lothario is exhausted by younger lover” (ALEBYL) plot.

The ALEBYL plot is simple: The main character’s virility is challenged (or their vanity is stroked) and they choose to date a much, much younger person. The younger person then puts them through a gauntlet of activities they barely tolerate and can’t possibly keep up with, until they’re miserable. But! They refuse to admit this, for a variety of reasons. Hilarity ensues.

This old chestnut wasn’t new in 1989, when Cheers did it in the episode “Don’t Paint Your Chickens,” wherein Sam Malone dates a younger woman who is very athletic, and pretends to be up to her standards of constant, exhausting activity. It wasn’t new when 30 Rock did it in the 2007 episode “Cougars.” It wasn’t new when it was initially conceived, more or less around the year 1. It is, in fact, a prime example of Lazy Writing.

The Getaway

Part of the reason writers get away with this laziness, of course, is our short cultural memories. The earliest example I can come up with off the top of my head is from 1989—nearly thirty years ago, sure, but still pretty recent. The simple fact is the doom of men is that they forget, and a new generation of idiots thinks the episode of The Great Indoors referenced above is the first time this old plot was ever done.

The three examples I’ve offered here are all slightly different. Cheers isn’t so much concerned with the age difference as it is with the younger person’s higher athletic ability and energy. 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon is practically an asexual character, and the relationship serves to underscore her (often hilarious) combination of intelligence and dire insecurity. The Great Indoors leans in to the currently hot topic of how ridiculous and silly millennials are when compared to older generations. All of them, however, rely on a fundamental concept of sitcom comedy writing: Old people feeling their age are hilarious.

Maybe I’m just bitter, being an old person. But then I didn’t want to stay out all night when I was 20. Once when I was about 25 a friend invited me to have dinner with her and some of her friends, and I was delighted … until she told me she’d see me at 10PM. For pre-dinner drinks. TEN FUCKING PM. I’ve been an old man longer than you’ve been alive.

Look, older generations are always going to be convinced that the kids are vacuous morons. Any story that gently pokes Olds in the ribs about their age while simultaneously mocking Youngs for their idiocy and ignorance will be a hit, and the ALEBYL plot fires on all those thrusters. You can expect to see it at least four more times on different shows before you die, and there are probably two dozen examples I’m not aware of.

The Point

So what’s the point? The point is, you can discover valuable lessons about tired old tropes and lazy writing anywhere … even terrible CBS sitcoms. Eyes open, kids.

Gout, Dementia, and Inspiration

I Got Me the Gout

Long-time readers of this blog (and possibly my old zine The Inner Swine) might recall that a decade ago I was diagnosed with old-timey disease Gout. Gout is a pretty awful affliction, but it’s manageable, and there are much worse diseases out there—specifically, diseases that will kill you. Gout is painful, but with a good prescription and some discipline it can be dealt with. Although it does make you feel Old, with a capital “O”.

What really makes me feel old is the word “rheumatologist.” My grandmother had a rheumatologist. Young, vibrant people not on the verge of dementia and death do not, as a rule, have rheumatologists who greet them by name, so simply by making an appointment to see my doctor I feel instantly 1,000 years old. Unfortunately, it’s not just the gout and the rheumatologist making me feel old: It’s also my tired, malfunctioning brain.

The Somers Curse

My brain has always failed me. My memory is terrible, and I forget things about five minutes after learning them. And I often think I understand stuff, and get irritated and impatient when people insist on explaining stuff that I clearly understand, only to realize hours later that I totally did not understand. You might think that that at my advanced age—and age so advanced I can be diagnoses with gout, for the sake of Pete—I’d be aware of my limitations, but no such luck.

For example, last week I was heading into Manhattan to see my rheumatologist so they could evaluate the broken glass-and-bubble gum that comprises most of my gout-ridden joints. I know that my wife, The Duchess, is partial to baked goods, so I offered to pick something up for her while I was in the City. A good husband, after all, knows just how to suck up and curry favor.

She said she wanted a slice of cake from Magnolia Bakery, and proceeded to explain to me where the most convenient location was in Penn Station. I waved her off. “I have a smartphone and a brain,” I declared. “I’ll find it.”

Yes, you see where this is going.

Cut to two hours later, and I’m sweating and panicked on 33rd Street. My smartphone is telling me I am more or less inside Magnolia Bakery, despite being clearly on the street. I can’t call The Duchess and admit I’m confused, so I spend the next forty minutes desperately exploring Penn Station, trying to find the god-damned Magnolia Bakery, because I cannot—can not—return home without cake. To do so would be admitting I hadn’t paid any attention when my wife explained the details of my mission.

I suppose I take some comfort in the fact that my brain has always been this way: I think I understand things when I really don’t, and my confusion usually turns to rage at the people who have failed me, then, quickly, shame. If this was a new development, this combined with the gout would be a good excuse to put me away in a nice, comfortable home until I died and my organs could be harvested (except my liver, which has been used badly). But since I’ve always been this idiotic, the fact that it took me an hour to locate a bakery and buy a slice of cake is cause for mockery, not worry.

So, the upside? My confusion and difficulty with simple tasks isn’t likely to be the first sign of an age-related decline. The downside? This is who I am: A sweaty man who spends 45 minutes circling the same spot in Penn Station, completely confused as to the location of a bakery. And yes, dammit, I eventually found it. No thanks to you.

The Dubious Connection

This stuff always makes me think about writing, because I don’t know about you, but my inspirations—my ability to think of new ideas and shape them into stories—is a bit mysterious to me, and so I live in daily terror that one day I’ll wake up and it’s gone.

The worst part is, I might not even know it. There are plenty of artists working who continue to put out new material, but it’s lost that spark, that certain something that made their prior work interesting. And I wonder; are they aware that they’ve lost it? Are they haunted by it? Or do they think they’re still killing it? So moments when my brain isn’t working too well make me worry that I might have already entered into that period of decline where my writing is no longer all interesting, and I’m not aware of it.

That’s the worst part of being creative, sometimes: Your lack of control over your own ability. It’s like a random light shined on you, and it might go out at any time, without your permission—or even your awareness.

On that cheerful note, I’ll conclude by letting you know there’s no need to worry: The Duchess got her piece of cake, and I was not physically punished for failure. Not this time, at least.

The Out of Ideas Fallacy

Yup.

I go out drinking with my brother, Yan*, all the time. During these boozy afternoons we often repeat arguments, circling around the same old disagreements like brothers do. Also, lifelong enemies. One of the arguments we have stems from my brother’s conviction that nothing in the arts has been worth watching since 1995, and even the period between 1985 and 1995 is kind of sketchy. Yan believes that with rare exceptions, the best movies, TV shows, and music was created before that era, and he turns a yellow and suspicious eye on anything that bears a copyright later than that.

He also, it goes without saying, dismisses any sort of reboot or update, believing firmly that Hollywood is out of ideas and should get back to making new stories, instead of raiding the past for easy dollars.

I haven’t had the chance to ask him yet, but I am confident my brother would despise whatever comes of the Matrix Trilogy reboot being planned.

To be fair, he likely isn’t a fan of the original, either. My brother is quite the curmudgeon.

Still, the general wails of dismay concerning the reboot of the Matrix kind of perplexed me. Because I think anything can be rebooted. And maybe should be.

Shakespeare

It’s funny the things we decide cannot possibly be remade or rebooted; they tend to be things we experienced directly in our own lifetimes, as if we have some sort of ownership of them. Some movie made long before our time, which we’ve maybe never seen? Sure, go ahead and remake it. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Hilarious! Go for it. The Matrix? Are you mad? That was just 18 years ago.

Look, I complained too when they decided that Batman needed to be rebooted just eight fucking years after the disastrous and terrible Batman and Robin. But I’ve changed my mind: Why not reboot things? Reboot them often, reboot them hard. Because all that matters–or all that should matter–is whether that reboot is good. They reboot Shakespeare on a regular basis, and no one in their right mind complains.

Of course, Shakespeare is theater–transient and of the moment. No one is going to complain that they did it better in 1601, after all, since no record of that performance exists, and even modern performances fade away like tears in the rain, memorialized only in our memories. Songs, too, get remade all the time, re-interpreted, slaughtered on reality-TV shows, remixed, sampled–you name it. No one cares.

But movies and TV shows? The outrage whenever we decide to reboot, remix, or simply remake a movie–unless it’s old and not part of our living experience–is always met with cries about how Hollywood is “out of ideas” and must pillage our cherished memories for more tickets sales. This of course ignores a few points:

  1. The movies we’re complaining about being remade are often themselves remixes, reboots, or a tasty melange of borrowed tropes, as all art builds on what has come before, and
  2. For a younger generation, the newer version will likely be theirs in the same way the older or original version is yours. Let them have it.

I just can’t get upset about a reboot any more. Look, The Matrix films were great–or, the first one was, and the two sequels, while containing some great sequences, were a slog–but our worst case scenario is that the new version will be a pale imitation of the original, which we’ve already seen and survived with The Force Awakens, so what’s the big deal?

 

*Not his real name. My brother is very important and cannot risk being embarrassed by connection with me.

Tipping and Incompetence

Sorry, I’d tip but I only carry $100,000 bills, because I’m a writer.

Friends, we may be moving into a post-cash society. I say this with a degree of confidence because I am normally at least two decades behind in any trend; I’m that guy who walks into a room and says something like “Wow, that Kanye West fellow sure can rap!” in 2017 and then wonders why everyone is smirking at him. So the fact that I never carry any cash on me means that a cashless society can only be moments away, if I’m already on board.

I was once worried about going cashless, because I didn’t want the Illuminati to be able to track all of my movements and purchases. But I don’t worry about that any more, because 1) smartphones take care of that for them and 2) I’m old and tired and dealing with cash is just too much fucking work, so if the Illuminati want to know all about my liquor and cheese purchases (and, as a direct result of the first two, my Beano purchases), I say let them have all the big data they want.

Going cashless is wonderful. I no longer worry about having money in my wallet, I no longer have pounds of coins weighing me down at the end of the day. I have a record of every purchase which does wonders for budgeting. The only problem? Tipping.

To Insure Proper Service

I like to tip. This is because I am a drinker, and drinkers live in bars and the bar ecosystem is predicated on tips. I also have a certain amount of empathy for every fellow human I meet, and when I meet fellow humans doing a hard job I like to reward them and make their day a little brighter. It also makes me feel like Jeff Somers, Millionaire About Town, I won’t lie.

But, now that I never have any cash on me, I am frequently in the position of being Jeff Somers, Entitled Asshat Who Never Tips.

For example, I was at a fairly swanky event recently. Open bar, finger foods, coat check, all that nice stuff. And all night I felt like an asshat because I couldn’t tip the bartenders, the coat check girl, or anyone. Do you know that time dilates and it takes about 6 hours to get a drink from a bartender when you know you don’t have a dollar bill to put in their little bowl? It’s science. I have performed the experiment to confirm the phenomenon.

Yes, I could—and should!—plan ahead and just get some cash to keep on my person at all times just for tipping. This would require competence, which I do not possess. Believe me, it’s on my list of things to do.

I suppose someday there will be easy digital tipping options, which would be a little ominous as it’s easy to imagine someone setting up a card skimmer to accept tips and the next day you’re cleaned out just because the bartender had a heavy hand pouring your shots of Wild Turkey. But I’d probably take the chance, because I love to tip, and the chances that I’ll remember to bring cash ever are disturbingly low. Just like my chances of wearing pants, which is another reason I never have cash; no pockets. Don’t ask where I keep the credit card. Don’t. Ask.

Writing: The Work You Don’t Want to Do

It all makes sense now.

The cold truth is, writing is the easiest part of writing for a living. The actual writing? Easy. Give me a topic, five minutes on the Internet, and a keyboard and I can gin up 500 words on just about any subject. Give me three months and a monetary incentive and I’ll write a novel. The act of writing words has never been much of a problem for me. I understand I’m not everyone; some writers do in fact struggle with the actual writing, and many of them produce great work. As Diff’rent Strokes taught us, it’s take different strokes to move the world. What might be right for you might not be right for some.

<wanders off, singing the Diff’rent Strokes theme song>

Where was I? Right: Writing is the easy part. If you want to make your living writing, however, a lot of more difficult skill sets come into play. If you want to actually make money from writing and you haven’t been able to get the six-figure advance or sell the film rights before you’ve even written the damn book like Garth Risk Hallberg, you’re going to have to learn to do a few things that—if you’re like me—you don’t really want to do. Things like

Make the Phone Calls. I do a fair bit of freelance writing to pay my enormous liquor bills, and some of it requires me to make phone calls and speak to people, usually people who don’t find me entertaining or charming. It’s my least-favorite aspect of the work, but it must be done.

Write the Synopses. If you’ve ever tried to sell a novel, you know the peculiar hell of trying to boil 90,000 words down to three paragraphs of pithy plot. But if you want to sell that novel, you have to do it.

Make the Pitches. When you freelance, pitching ideas is a constant. It is something you do every day, and it’s kind of exhausting sometimes, but you either do it or you earn about $500 a year.

Take Edits. Look, you and I both know that sometimes we nail it. Sometimes we write something great, and sometimes the feedback we get from clients or editors is less than coherent. Sometimes you get that edit letter and you just have to step outside and let out a primal scream … but you go back in and revise.

Massage Text. Sometimes your first draft is perfectly fine, but you have to go back and massage it anyway. Maybe to fall in line with style or SEO guidelines, maybe to hit a specific word count or other formatting metric, or maybe just because a client or editor didn’t like it.

These are things no one wants to do. I’d much rather write whatever I feel like and collect fat checks for each piece as I finish them. But if you’re looking to write for a living, forget twaddle like write every day–that advice is basically telling you to do something you already want to do. Instead, do the stuff you don’t want to do. That’s the best use of your time.

Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number

Artist’s Conception of Your Humble Author as a Child Writer

Here in 2017 we’re all basically waiting around to be woken up at 2AM to the news that the missiles have launched and we’ve all got about five minutes to say our goodbyes or go crawl into our bomb shelters with our cans of Dinty Moore and our gold bars. It’s hard to soldier on and try to write novels and such when you’re pretty sure the morons we’ve elected to the government — suddenly not simply an outsize insult, but rather an accurate description — are either stealing everything not nailed down or eager to destroy everything.

But soldier on I do, mainly because civilization has not crumbled yet to the point where the whiskey reserves are free for the stealing, right before they dry up completely because civilization is sort of necessary for things like whiskey.

So, I’m in a contemplative mood. And I am contemplating the fact that Christopher Paolini is 33 years the fuck old.

The Child Author

I wrote my first real, actual novel when I was about fourteen; there were “novels” before that, but they were very likely just novellas or even long short stories. Cravenhold was a short novel, but I wrote it. And promptly began trying to sell it. And telling everyone I met that I was just fourteen and I’d written a novel, as if that somehow warranted special attention. Like the president of Ballantine Books was going to call me up and congratulate me for being a super genius after offering me a million dollars.

The reason I think about this now, when I am withered by age and practically on death’s door with a whiskey in one hand and my smartphone in the other, is because it’s not unusual, believe it or not, to see kids posting to various Internet writing forums and announcing, smugly, that at the tender age of (14, 15, 16) they have written a novel. And I want to tell them, with all affection and sincerity, to go fuck themselves, because it doesn’t mean anything.

I sort-of, kind-of sold my first novel when I was 16; this wasn’t Cravenhold, but a subsequent novel titled White Rabbit. And believe me, I told everyone and more or less dug a hole for myself, so that when the deal dissolved like tears in the rain I had a lot of explaining to do.

Look, writing something recognizable as a novel when you’re still a kid is an achievement. And if, like Paolini, you manage to sell that novel and publish it to strong sales, that’s amazing. But simply writing a novel as teenager isn’t anything to shout about. Writing a novel at all isn’t something to shout about, actually; people write novels all the time — and routinely write them in a month or less. Sure, writing a novel is an achievement. But it doesn’t mean you’re destined for greatness or anything. Heck, I did it, but I didn’t sell my first real novel to a real publisher until I was 28 years old.

I always assumed that when editors read about my tender years they would be impressed; of course now I wonder if they didn’t immediately stuff the manuscript into the return envelope, rolling their eyes. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what I imagine happens now.

Writing for the Wrong Reasons

One Monies, Please

One Monies, Please

Friends, I’m not a very smart guy. Oh, I have a head filled with trivia, which in these low times often passes for smarts. Being able to win your local tavern’s Trivia Tuesday (increasingly difficult, let me tell you, when you’ve been banned from most of the local watering holes due to ridiculous and oppressive “must wear some form of trousers” rules) doesn’t mean you’re intelligent, it just means you absorb a lot of useless information very, very quickly. A skill, to be sure, but not the most useful skill.

Being able to write clear, well-constructed sentences about compelling stories and characters is also a skill I sometimes claim, but it also doesn’t make me smart. A lot of very dumb people make good livings writing words, and I am also very afraid that I am secretly one of them. Any time I start to think I might secretly be smart, all I have to do is gaze upon my works and despair, though. By which I mean any time I start to feel smart, I just look at some of the terrible novels I’ve written when I wrote for anything other than inspiration.

Take This Job and Shove It

The term “working writer” either sounds ominous or exciting to you. If it’s ominous, it’s because you’re smart and you know that the “working” part probably means you’re writing 300 catalog descriptions of sex toys at $1 a pop. If you’re excited, you’re like me and you imagine yourself lazily writing novels when you’re not busy cashing extravagant checks from publishers—not check for anything, just gifts of money they send you in the vain hope that you’ll choose to publish your next book through them.

Anyways, every now and then I get this idea in my head that part of being a Working Writer is trying to write something commercial, in the sense of writing something that will be easy to sell to a publisher because its part of a broad trend or somehow marketable. Don’t get me wrong—I want all my books to sell like hotcakes and I have no snobbery when it comes to genre or category. It’s just that sometimes I think I have to try a little harder to be, I don’t know, mainstream or something. So I’ll work up a story and write a novel not because I’m excited about the idea, but because I think it’s going to be an easy sell.

I am always wrong. And it is always a disaster.

Some writers might be able to pull this off, but whenever I’ve written a book for anything but pure inspiration and excitement, it doesn’t work out so well. Oh, as novels they’re fine. I’m usually fairly happy with the story, the writing, all that jazz. But there’s always something missing, some soul or other ineffable thing that means the novels fail. They look like novels, they tell a story that I like, and yet they fail. Whenever I try to be smart and engineer a book because I think I know something about selling books, the end result is a manuscript everyone reads and shrugs over. Meh, they all say. It’s not bad. But we can’t sell it.

The lesson here is obvious: Writing for anything aside from inspiration doesn’t work for me. The good news is, a lot of the books I write because I want to have sold. So one wonders why I think I need to change up my approach in the first place. Aside from the fact that I am, you know, not smart.

Celebrating “Mad Men”‘s Least-Celebrated Character

Paul Kinsey’s Very Bad, Super No-Good Life

Since this blog has become a receptacle for posts about Mad Men and other so-called “peak TV” shows plus a smattering of self-promotion posts about my own writing … let’s lean into it.

There’s often a sense that old TV shows should be buried and forgotten, as if there’s shame in discussing a show like Mad Men a certain time after it’s ended. Hell, we still discuss novels written centuries ago, so why not a TV show that’s less than a few years gone? But when we talk about Mad Men—and, remarkably, we still do, an awful lot—there’s a tendency to focus on the flashy main characters, naturally enough. But we have enough essays about Don Draper, I think. As writers, we tend to focus on Don, because he’s so obviously like us: Creative, tortured, stymied by the very instruments of his success.

Forget Don, though, and let’s contemplate a character that doesn’t get much attention in any serious way: Paul Kinsey. Because, writers, in many ways Paul Kinsey is us.

The Failed Writer

Kinsey doesn’t get a ton of screen time on the show, and what he does get is used mainly for comic relief, but as usual Weiner and company shade the character with plenty of good writing. We know, for example, that Paul is from New Jersey and attended Princeton on a scholarship, where he lost his joisoy accent and learned how to dress and talk and fondle a pipe like his richer classmates. At the beginning of the series, he’s one of a group of young men at the firm, all of whom are more or less equal despite being in different departments. He’s a copy writer, though, while his peers are in accounts.

And Paul is not talented. What he’s good at is superficial mimicry, which is why he does well enough at first when his immediate boss is the alcoholic and incompetent Freddie Rumsen. But Paul is weak and likes to think of himself as smarter than everyone else, so he dabbles. He dabbles in the Beatnik movement, the Hippie movement, the Civil Rights movement. He feigns an appreciation of the finer things, but he uses this appreciation as an excuse to let everyone know how worldly he is.

Paul is increasingly aware that something is off. Late in Season 1, a play he wrote is discovered in his desk and his co-workers stage it as a drunken, cruel prank. Paul eventually leans into it, directing the play with enthusiasm, but it’s clear the play is terrible. Meanwhile, Ken Cosgrove actually publishes short stories in real magazines, and slowly Paul sees his peers outpacing him. Pete and Ken and even despicable, harebrained Harry Crane move up the food chain, making more money and gaining status. Paul remains a Copy Writer, and not a very good one.

And then, in the middle of Season Three of the show, Paul Kinsey has an epiphany and realizes he is not a good writer. Because Peggy Olson is a good writer, and you can almost pinpoint the moment he realizes he’s not one to episode 10, The Color Blue. In that episode Peggy and Paul compete to come up with the best idea for a telegram advertisement. Peggy does the work studiously, and doesn’t come up with much of any value. Paul drinks, masturbates, and has a flash of inspiration–which he forgets to write down. We’ll never know if that idea was actually any good, because Paul shambles into the meeting later with nothing—and watches, stunned, as Peggy takes a throwaway line he used to explain his problem and runs with it, producing a decent if not world-changing concept on the spot.

At that moment, Paul knows he’s mediocre. In episode 13, when Don and the rest of the executives steal all the accounts and form a new company, Don personally recruits Peggy. No one recruits Paul. When Paul realizes this, its confirmed: He’s not good at his job.

The Downward Spiral

We don’t see Paul again until Season 5, when he appears as a member of the Hare Krishna’s, looking ridiculous and pathetic and lost with a shaved head. Like most failed writers, he hasn’t given up on his dream. Like anyone who has ever been voted off a talent competition show, he has decided that we haven’t heard the last of him, so he’s still writing.

Paul’s spec script for Star Trek is the sort of awful SFF idea that still gets written every few weeks by flailing writers, the sort of terrible idea that will always be written by flailing writers. Worst of all, Paul seems to know that he doesn’t have talent, as he has pinned his hopes on Harry’s TV connections to get the script considered. Paul has descended to a low point: No longer in the ad business, he’s not even getting paid for his second-rate creativity. He’s got nothing, and yet he’s still plodding away at terrible stories.

That could be any one of us. Even if you’ve published, and published widely, you can’t be certain it’s not just luck, that history will slowly rub your face out of the picture until no one is quite sure who you are, and no one remembers the stories you told. In just 40 episodes and probably a collective hour’s worth of screen time, the writers of Mad Men made Paul Kinsey into a well-shaded, sad individual, and he ought to be the patron saint of anyone who joined their high school literary magazine and thought they were special because they wrote stories.

The 2016 Short Story Report

Artist’s Representation of My Literary Career

It’s December—which is kind of amazing, as it was March just yesterday—which means its time to soberly contemplate my life and lifestyle choices, assessing how much good I’ve done in this world. Just kidding. I don’t do anything “soberly.”

No, it’s time to contemplate our short story submission game. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I love writing short stories. And, having written them, I love selling short stories, which ain’t easy. Just about every year I hear that short stories are making a comeback, and this past year the signs do seem optimistic. I have stories in four anthologies in 2015-2017 (Hanzai Japan, Urban Allies, and the upcoming Mech: Age of Steel and Urban Enemies), my story Howling on for More appeared over at Black Denim Lit as well, and Great Jones Street bought a reprint of my story Ringing the Changes (that appeared in Best American Mystery Stories 2006). Not too shabby.

The four antho sales and the reprint were solicited, meaning someone actually contacted me and asked for the story/rights. It’s easy to sell a story when someone has already decided to buy one from you. How did I do with the submission process?

Hell is for Short Story Writers

Last year I submitted 33 stories, and sold 1. This year I will have submitted 51 stories by the time the end of the year comes around, and I have 2 “maybes” to show for it—meaning two markets contacted me and said hey, we like this story, but we’re not sure yet, we’ll hit you up later.

That might seem like a grim statistic, but for me it’s pretty normal. Maybe some writers are more careful with their submissions, or simply better at choosing markets, or, of course, are better writers in general. For me, the most short stories I ever sold in one year is 4, which I accomplished twice, in 2002 and 2006. And in 2002 I submitted a whopping 107 stories in order to sell those 4.

What can I say, short stories is a tough market. I’m told that they’re coming up in the world, as the success of adapting stories into TV and even films is a-booming. And there does seem to be more markets paying a decent per-word rate for fiction. And submitting stories is pretty easy, these days; everyone takes them via submittable or email or similarly simple mechanism—it’s a long way from the days when I had to buy double postage and stuff envelopes. Man, those days sucked.

The Trouble with Tribbles

Of course, I wrote 14 new short stories this year; I manage at least 12 a year. Most aren’t that great, but there’s usually one I like well enough to submit, so I have a steady batch of stories cluttering my hard drive. So I don’t mind submitting. And submitting. And submitting. Because what else am I gonna do with these stories? Aside from give them away, of course.

What about y’all? Do you write/read short stories? Are you happy to pay for magazines/websites/anthos that publish them?

Skipping the Boring Parts

Your Novel about Intergalactic Reverse Vampires Whose Language is Comprised of Re-Enacting Old Star Trek Episodes Bores Me.

Your Novel about Intergalactic Reverse Vampires Whose Language is Comprised of Re-Enacting Old Star Trek Episodes Bores Me.

Elmore Leonard once famously included in his Ten Rules of Writing “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” The hard part for a writer, of course, is to figure out what those parts are. The first volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust spends a lot of time noodling about remembering how a specific cake tastes and ruminating on things like sleeping habits—and if you haven’t read it, trust me when I say you spend the first few dozen pages or so wondering how in the world you got suckered into reading it. And then, IMHO, it clicks into place and you begin to really enjoy it, but there’s a bit of a hump to get over, and that hump could very easily look like he included a part that people skip.

And, certainly, many thousands of people have indeed skipped reading Proust, much to their delight and relief. And loss.

One common question I get when talking to writers at conferences and events and occasionally when I come home to find them hiding in my closet with a roll of duct tape and a bottle of chloroform is “does every scene and line need to be dramatic?” In other words, how do you tell a story that feels real if you don’t offer up the sort of mundane details that Leonard seems to be advising you to skip? You can’t tell a story that is 100% people fighting, saying witty things, and blowing things up. Or, sure, you can, but it would just be … well … kind of awesome, actually. But! Not really a story. So how do you write about characters who feel real without including some of the boring bits that we all deal with?

The answer’s surprisingly simple in concept, although complex in execution: You’re not supposed to skip the boring parts, you’re supposed to find a way to make the boring parts not boring.

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