Dear (Jackass), I don’t deserve to be a published writer, and neither do you.

Dear (Jackass),

Have you read this? If not, go ahead. I’ll wait.

If you’ve gotten to here you’ve either read the linked Q & A, or you don’t care to, and either way is fine with me. I think Sugar might have said a few things better than I would have, and a few more things MUCH better than I would have, but either way if you get to the end of this post you’ll have all the important bits of what I was trying to say.

I’ll say it again, so you know I’m serious: I don’t deserve to be a published writer, and neither do you.

We’ve all heard the voices us telling us that we deserve this – this publishing contract, this “opportunity”, this grant or fellowship or rich uncle to support us while we toil away on our masterpiece. Sometimes the voices come from the outside, like our families or our friends, but it usually comes from within. There is some part of our brains that sees the success of others and craves it, needs it, covets it like it’s the last Ring of Power in Mordor. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired by others and using it as motivation to push yourself further, but many people see it as something else – the unfairness of the Universe. Why, they ask, why does that person have what I don’t? Aren’t I brilliant/beautiful/talented/educated too? Don’t I deserve a chance to shine?

No, princess, you don’t.

If you’ve made it to an age where you can reasonably call yourself an adult, and you’re still holding on to the idea that you not magically succeeding is somehow unfair, your parents did not raise you right. Life is not fair. It isn’t meant to be. You can’t stomp your foot every time something doesn’t go your way and wait for the people around you to fix it for you. You can’t cry to the heavens and expect a brilliant novel to fall into your lap. You can’t gnash your teeth and rant about the unfairness of the Universe and expect success to knock on your door. This should be obvious to anyone with a bit of common sense, but in practice, there’s still that little voice, saying, “Sure, that might be how things work, but it isn’t fair.”

You know what’s not fair? Expecting something you don’t deserve, and being angry or sad or upset or jealous or anti-social simply because you didn’t get it.

You know why you’re not a multiply-published writer with a book deal, or an agent, or movie options or a jet? You haven’t done the work. You know why I don’t have those things either? I haven’t done the work. It takes a huge amount of writing and rewriting and submitting and being rejected and having your work read and torn apart by readers you’d suspect were part hyena if you weren’t already trying to figure out how to get them fed to a hyena, one piece at a time. If you haven’t finished your novel, you don’t deserve success. If you haven’t written a hundred short stories, go back and write more until you do. I guarantee you that your 100th story will be so much better than your first ten that you’ll wonder why you ever thought those were “finished”. It takes years of practice, either as part of writing classes or workshops or on your own, and you need to produce a truly epic number of words, only some of which will ever see the light of day, and most of which will be rejected as unfit for publishing. And those rejections? Those are fair. Those are what you deserve, until you learn to be a good enough writer to not only create something worth reading but to also know which markets might be interested in buying it.

But, what about my voice? you might ask. My pure, authentic voice, the stories I would tell, the worlds I would build, if only I had the chance … if only I didn’t have to work at a dayjob or take care of the kids or my aging parents or if only someone would support me so all I had to do is write …

Do you know how you get to be a full-time writer? You write. And write and write and write, and sell stories, and write more, and sell more stories, until you have so much paying work that your only choice is to quit your job or hire a nanny because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to write everything you’re contracted for. That voice of yours? Those special stories only you can tell? Yeah, everyone has those. Everyone has their own perspective, their own vision of the world, their own dreams and their own stories. The only difference between a writer and everyone else is that writers take the time to put their words down on paper. That’s it. It’s a tiny thing, and it’s a huge thing, and the act of writing words does not, by itself, make you better than anyone else.

But, there is hope. If you do the work, if you write until your voice is finely honed and your story is both original and universal, and if you let it be read and critiqued and you take that advice into your heart and make the changes your manuscript so desperately needs, then you might someday be a great writer. It’s still no guarantee that you’ll be a published one, or a rich one, or a widely acknowledged one, but you’ll be wonderful.

If you get to that point and you still wonder why you’re not getting the rewards you “deserve”, if editors and publishers won’t return your calls and you can’t get an agent to read your work, maybe it’s not your writing. Maybe it’s just you.

What I’ve Been Reading: 2 issues of Weird Tales, and some H.P. LOVECRAFT’S MAGAZINE OF HORROR

I recently subscribed to Weird Tales (and you should too!) and along with my first issue, Summer 2010, I also got two old issues of H.P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror. The Spring 2011 issue arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago … I was feeling overdue for some seriously weird reading. The magazines include more than fiction, but it’s the fiction I’m concerned with, so I’ve left out the other bits (reviews, interviews, etc). There are 30 stories in this review, so I’ve put them after the jump.

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You Should Read: MACHINE OF DEATH, ed. by North, Bennardo & Malki !

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spat out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words DROWNED or CANCER or OLD AGE or CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN. It let people know how they were going to die.

The problem with the machine is that nobody really knew how it worked, which wouldn’t actually have been that much of a problem if the machine worked as well as we wished it would. But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. OLD AGE, it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death — you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does. (More at http://machineofdeath.net/about)

I picked up a copy of MACHINE OF DEATH about a month ago, in a bookstore which was closing (but now, isn’t) in another state while wandering around my favorite small town. “I’ve heard good things about that,” the man I was with said to me, looking down at the antholgy. I picked it up, trusting his judgement about books. It was thick and had a lot of names on the back and was edited by a couple of guys I was certain I’d never heard of, but a dystopian collection of short fiction about a machine which ironically predicts the exact manner of your death? I was sure I’d love it.

Turns out I was only right about one of those things.

MACHINE OF DEATH was at least 1/3 edited by Ryan North, based on an idea he’d put into one of his comics a while back. While I couldn’t place the name of the guy, the name of the strip was DINOSAUR COMICS and upon realizing that I did a happy little dance. I love T-Rex and Utahraptor and Dromiceiomimus! and follow them on Twitter and I even tolerate the regular appearance of GOD, who in this comic is usually high anyway. (What, no one else thinks that? It’s just me? Hmm.) I belatedly remembered the strip in which the idea appeared, where T-Rex decides he’ll eventually write a story on the idea that a machine can predict your death, which in the case of cows just means there were a lot of prediction cards which read MADE INTO DELICIOUS CHEESEBURGERS.

It could have stayed a joke. It could have, even after submissions started rolling in and the idea became an anthology, stayed funny, and maybe even veered into ridiculous.

It didn’t.

MACHINE OF DEATH is, when you get down to it, pretty brilliant. There are a few funny stories and a few silly ones and a few which take an alt-history view of the world but for the most part this is our Earth and our frail and brittle humans and a machine which does only one thing but does it perfectly. What do you do then, when you know how you’ll die? When everyone everywhere knows how, but almost never when they’ll shuffle off this mortal coil (and to be honest those perfectly right predictions are vague in a sort of unhelpful way)? Whether the characters hide, plead, bargain, grieve, and refuse to live what time they have left, or use it as a way to live recklessly by indulging in every whim except the one attached to their prediction slip, the stories in this collection show you something worth thinking about.

What if you knew? What would you change about the life you’re living right now?

In a way, I think that’s the best part of this anthology. It acts as its own memento mori, holding up its artifice and saying, “Remember your death – it’s coming,” but by shrouding it in fun and whimsy, you get to feel safe about it. It’s almost like getting bad news while being wrapped up in comfy blankets, snuggled with your favorite person/pet/stuffed animal, while cookies bake in the oven, and knowing that if you don’t like the news, you can always put it back on the shelf and look at it again later when you’re ready. We all die, kids, most of us faster than we’d have liked, and it’s refreshing to be reminded of it every so often. It could be CANCER or LOSS OF BLOOD or a CRASH of some kind or even something interesting like MURDER or EXHAUSTION FROM HAVING SEX WITH A MINOR but one way or another, we all go. No matter who you are, there’s a death in there for you, and a story which will make you consider your own choices.

And if you’re not up for that, there’s always FLAMING MARSHMALLOW.

What I’ve Been Reading, Mar 4th edition

As the “being sick” portion of the program has gone over the scheduled performance time, I don’t have much writing or editing to report. In between lots of sleeping and thinking about the things I’ll be doing once my brain, you know, works again, I have been getting some reading in. Several graphic novels and some short stories this week:

Unwritten Vol. 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity; Mike Carey (author) and Peter Gross (illustrator), Vertigo, 144 pages. In a world where Harry Potter was, at least for a while, the King of All Media, it’s no surprise that someone would write the “our wizard is better and also very similar but better because he’s really real!” story. And yes, you can say it’s analyzing the way our society reacts to the creation of the classic boy hero archetype blah blah blah. It doesn’t matter. Whether Carey is ripping off (or being inspired by) Potter or Timothy Hunter or Luke Kirby or T.H. White’s Wart, it doesn’t matter. Carey pulls in literature and alt-history possibilities and a league of extraordinarily bad men, and puts his own spin on the whole adventure. What you get, then, is a book that is literate and almost delicate in the way the pieces slide together. I loved it, and can’t wait to get the rest of the series.

Locke & Key Volume 1: Welcome to Lovecraft HC [Hardcover]; Joe Hill (author) and Gabriel Rodriguez (illustrator), IDW Publishing, 152 pages. Beautiful, brilliant, and oh yeah, fucking dark. I mean, let’s start the story with some gruesome murder, shall we? And, while we’re at it, let’s throw in a bunch more. In between the loss and pain and moving across the country and (by the way) there’s a creepy thing in the well, Hill’s written a mad masterpiece. You just know that everyone he brings into this tale is going to die miserably, but the story is so good, you’re kind of willing to make that trade. They die, you’re entertained, and you’ll keep coming back for more.

Planetary Vol. 1: All Over the World and Other StoriesWarren Ellis (author) and John Cassaday (illustrator), WildStorm Productions, 160 pages. Oh, Warren Ellis, you’re so meta. A comic book about superheroes who don’t act like superheroes but find out our world has been mixed with other worlds where comic book things have happened? And their superheroes want to fight ours? And Asian men talk about their testicles while worrying over the corpse of Mothra? *sigh* So far, I’m not in love with the series, but it’s interesting. I do like Ellis’s work, and the writing isn’t bad (the art’s lovely too) so I think I’m just having a hard time with the HA HA HA IRONIC USE OF TROPES of it all. There are moments where I think I might be too well read, and reading PLANETARY isn’t helping.

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die; Ed. by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki, 464 pages. From the first story, I loved this collection. The premise, first bandied about by a cartoon T-Rex, is that a couple of guys create a machine which tells you, often in one word, the manner of your demise. From the first story (“Flaming Marshmallow”), which tells how such a machine can change the social structure of a high school lunch room, to stories about how the machine can make you afraid of love and death and sex and the machine itself, this anthology says something about the human reaction to such perfect news of our mortality. The machine is, after all, never wrong – it’s just a little vague, as in the story where death by SUICIDE doesn’t exactly mean you’re going to kill yourself. Definitely recommended.

I’ve also been keeping up with the daily offerings at Everyday Fiction. They’re not always great but the flash-length stories are new every day, short enough to be read on a break from work or while dinner’s cooking, and it’s good exposure to a wide variety of writing styles. Bonus: a better idea of what does or does not work in terms of storytelling under 1000 words.

We All Have Our Own Languages, or, Why I Need Editors

I talk about being a writer here because that’s how I primarily see myself. I write fiction and non-fiction, creating stories on spec for open markets and writing essays and articles by request for a couple of different places, so that makes sense. But I also work as an editor, both for Dagan Books and for (more recently) another publisher. I’ve edited newspaper articles, academic essays, short fiction pieces, novels, book-length anthologies, poetry … As much experience as I have, when it comes to my own work I try very hard not to be my own editor.

Most writers will tell you that having someone else read your work is an absolutely necessity, a thing which must happen before you submit it to a market. This is because a new pair of eyes will often catch things that you missed. A common problem for writers is that we know what we meant to say, so we don’t always notice if it isn’t what we did say. Leaving a word out of a sentence? I do that. Using the wrong word, dropping off a letter (I did that tonight, using “to” instead of “too”) or starting one word but ending it with the end of the next word. Well, that one might just be me.

This is the obvious use of an editor – read and fix. This isn’t the main reason that I need one. Continue reading