Writer Wednesday: A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise was born and raised in Montreal, and currently lives in the Philadelphia area with a spouse, a stripey cat, a spotty cat, and a very short dog. Her fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed,and The Best Horror of the Year Volume 4, among others. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits The Journal of Unlikely Entomology(www.grumpsjournal.com), an online publication of fiction and art generally dedicated to all things multi-legged and creepy-crawly. You can find her online at www.acwise.net, and on twitter as @ac_wise.

1.    What is your favorite of your published works, and why?

Well… My favorite work is usually the one I haven’t written yet, but is currently setting my brain on fire. Or the one I’m deep in the middle of, slinging words hither and thither like an irresponsible maniac. Among the works actually published, I find it harder to choose. There are pieces I think I like, but haven’t read in a while, so it may just be a factor of looking back with rose-colored glasses. With the more recent works, I have a certain fondness for ‘Final Girl Theory’ and ‘Venice Burning’. That said, as a general rule, I try to avoid re-reading my stories once they’ve been published.

2.    You started publishing your work in 2004. Has the state of the publishing industry changed since then? Anything you prefer about being a writing now? Anything you miss?

I think online publications have gained more respectability since I started publishing. They were already well on their way with publications like Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, and ChiZine (know as Chiaroscuro back then), but I think the advent ofClarkesworld, Tor.com, Lightspeed, and its predecessor Fantasy Magazine, really tipped the balance in making online publications widely acceptable and desirable. In addition to the rise of online publications, I think the widespread acceptance of electronic submissions is more prevalent these days, which is definitely an improvement. In terms of things I’ll miss… I’ll always lament the loss of Story House Coffee. Not only did they print my first-ever professionally published story, but they printed it on a freakin’ coffee can label. Coffee! Fiction! It’s so many things I love all in one place. What more could a person want?

3.    What market would you most like to be published in, and why? What do you think has kept you from breaking in there so far?

I’ve been lucky enough to have my work published in the majority of publications I admire – Strange Horizons, ChiZine, Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, and (forthcoming) Lightspeed, among others. Something I aspire to is being invited to contribute to an original anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. I adore her work; it was, and continues to be, a major inspiration and influence on my writing. I distinctly remember an ‘ah-ha’ moment reading the fairy tale anthologies (Black Thorn, White Rose; Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears, etc.), which she edited with Terri Windling, where I thought: Yes. This is what I want to do with my life. I want to write stories like these.

 4.    You often talk about your super adorable corgi. What other people, creatures, or activities help keep you relatively sane in a field known for breaking aspiring writers?

My cats ‘help’ in their own way. Mostly by insisting my lap is the absolute best place in the world to be as soon as I settle down to write, which means the laptop needs to be shoved out of the way, and chin scritches need to be administered NOW, or else. In the realm of things that are actually helpful, my family has always been incredibly supportive of my writing, which definitely helps, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet other writers along the way who help keep me sane(ish). Or, who are at least willing to listen to me rant and moan when sanity abandons me for warmer climes.

5.    In your, well, let’s call it “free time” you also co-edit the Journal of Unlikely Entomology. How did that project come together? 

The short answer is: It started as a joke, which rapidly turned into, ‘Hey, we could actually make something of this.’ The longer answer requires finding me or my co-editor at a con and buying us a drink. (No, I’m not trying to scam free drinks, how dare you suggest such a thing!) In all seriousness, even though it did start as a joke, I take my role as co-editor of the Journal of Unlikely Entomology very seriously. It’s also given me a whole new appreciation for the multi-legged critters that share our world. In a way, bugs are much like zombies, the ultimate blank-slate monster. It’s the story the author tells around theme that counts and one can tell some incredible stories around bugs. There’s an amazing wealth of symbolism and mythology to do with bugs. We get the question ‘why bugs?’ a lot, but, really…why not bugs?

6.    How does being an editor affect your writing?

Heh. It makes me more conscious of time management, for one thing. It also gives me a new appreciation of the submission process. I’m far more patient with response times than I used to be. It also helps me take rejections less personally. Ultimately, I hope it’s allowing me to build better instincts, and helping me avoid clichés, slow openings, and all the other things that annoy me when I encounter them in the slush pile.

7. What are currently writing on? 

Theoretically, I’m working on a novel. (Ha!) It’s based on my short story ‘The Thief of Precious Things’, which appeared in Ekaterina Sedia’s Bewere the Night anthology. At any given time, I also have a handful of story stories brewing. And there’s always editing to keep my busy.

Thanks for stopping by! Looking for other Writer Wednesday interviews? Click on the links to read more about Ken Liu, Claude Lalumière, and Mercedes M. Yardley.

A few thoughts on writing comics

Now that my secret love of comic books is no longer a very well kept secret, I’ve had a lot of people – artists, writers, and readers – talk to me about their work, their favorite titles, and share some great stories about the industry. It’s been lovely to sort of “come out” as a geeky, comic book reading, girl, and not get the kind of dismissive “what do girls know” attitude that made me stop fangirl squeeing in public a long time ago. But …

One of the most common things I hear when I talk to other people about comics is, “Oh, I thought about writing a comic book someday”. Their idea is that writing comics is a) pretty simple and straightforward, and b) still more important that the work of the artist, who (it’s assumed) will just draw what the writer wants. Because I talk about writing here, I thought I’d lay out the facts of the situation, with some helpful quotes and links to other people saying it better than I could. This quick overview is meant to be the beginning, not the end, of the conversation, and assumes you already know things like “come up with original ideas”, “use a spellchecker”, and “edit your work”.

How do you get started in the writing side of comics?

Step one: Read everything.  If you don’t read enough to have a sense of what’s being written, or has been written, especially in your genre, go do that.

“Do not learn to write comic books from reading comic books only. (Nor should you learn to draw comics from comics.) Reading good comics will help you learn elements of form and style, but it is also inherently limiting. You get into the law of diminishing returns, for if you don’t have any reference points beyond comics, everything you write will be derivative. Read novels. Read newspapers. Read non-fiction. Watch foreign films. Go to the theater. Expose yourself to more than what you find on comic book shelves. The more you know about the world around you, the more material you will have with which to build stories. The more storytelling styles you have encountered, the larger your own bag of tricks will be.” – Joe Edekin, Writing for Comic Books

Step two: Be a great writer. Not just a good writer, but the best one you can be. Write short stories, novels, plays, whatever – but be a great writer before you turn your hand to comics because you will need to be a great writer to work in comics. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that that comics are easier just because “you only have to write what happens, not describe everything”. Writing a comics script is more complex than writing a screenplay – which probably is the easiest kind of writing to do – because you will create your script as if you are the writer, director, art director, casting agent, and more, all in one.

“The fact of the matter is that as a comic book writer, you are responsible for everything that goes on the page, just as if you were writing in prose. The artist is your partner, not your substitute. Think of writing a comic book as a collaboration with another writer, one to whom you must give very good instructions!” – Barry Lyga, Writing Comics

Step three: Learn what you like and don’t like in comics. There’s only one way to do this. You have to read every comic you can get your hands on, take recommendations from friends, seek out other work by writers you like, and always check the credits to see who did which part of the book. Who is the writer? Were there multiple authors? Is there a creative team manager overseeing a large crew, or is it a single artist/writer/creative on the book?

Step four: Learn how to write a comic book script. 

“Too many writers think about the script merely as a tool for them. It’s not; it’s a tool for the entire process. It should be prepared as such.” – Comic Related, Learning The Craft: Writing

Step five: Be sure this story is best told as a comic.

Deciding that you’re writing a story told in both words and pictures, an adventure in narrative art, means that it won’t just be your words telling the story. You will need an artist to bring your ideas to life. You have to give up on the idea that the story will be 100% yours, that everything good about it will come from your brain. And, of course, you’re going to need to pay your artist to drop everything and work on your book, even if you plan to submit it to publisher. Even if you haven’t any idea how to get paid for doing this story as a comic, you need to spend money to hire an artist to create it with you.

Because a comic isn’t just words. As Kelly Thompson says in her “Don’t Write Comics” series:

“I know, I know, you’re saying that your story is SO GOOD THAT THE ART WON’T MATTER.  That is great news.  Write it as prose.  Seriously.  If the art doesn’t matter, if your story doesn’t HAVE to be a comic book, then simply don’t do it.  It’s only worth all of this if you know that comics is the right medium for your story. And if comics is the right medium for your story then the art very much matters.”

What do you think?

Links:

The script for Cable #83, with comments from author Robert Weinberg

Dark Horse’s comics submission guidelines, including guidelines for writers and a sample script

Kelly Thompson’s great “Don’t Write Comics: How To Write Comics” series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Dennis O’Neil’s series on writing comics: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8, part 9part 10, part 11, part 12, part 13, part 14, part 15 & 16, part 17, part 18, and finally, part 19

Anina Bennett’s list of terms: Visual Language, writing for comics (with a lot taken from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics)

Dear Jackass, Why Did You Quit Your Day Job?

Dear Jackass,

Do we really have this conversation again? Every other day I hear about some who’s “ready” to stop working for the MAN and start working for ART. That’s how it’s always presented; one person, tired of their day job, trying to convince themselves that they’re ready to take all that time they’re wasting on earning a paycheck and instead spend it on writing their novel/screenplay/collection of short stories. Convinced that the only reason they haven’t finished it yet is the 30 or 40 hours a week they’re sitting in an office, as if all of the time they sit at home watching tv isn’t the problem. Having to be responsible, pay their bills, take care of themselves, and, you know, be a productive member of society, well all of that is just too stressful. They deserve to be full-time writers, don’t they?

No. They don’t. And neither do you. No one actually deserves to be a full-time writer, except those people who work their way up to actually being full-time writers on top of their day job, and have gotten themselves to a place where they’d actually earn more money if they focused solely on their writing. That’s the progression, folks. You do not quit your job to have more time to write. You write until you write so much that you a) get paid a living wage for it, b) have savings to fall back on, c) can afford your own health care, and d) have spent so much time on writing that you’re literally doing nothing else but going to your day job and putting words on the page.

When you get there, you can quit the 40-hour week to focus solely on the 50/60/70-hour week that being a full-time writer requires. You do know that being a professional writer means more than just fans want your autograph, right? You have to churn out work, consistently. If it takes you more than a year to write a novel, you are not ready to be a full-time writer. If you’re not creating several short stories a month, all of which are getting published in pro-rate markets, you are not ready to be a full-time writer. If you don’t have the level of fame which makes publishers take another look simply because your name is at the top of the submission, you are not ready to be a full-time writer. Simply put, you will not make enough money and your rent will not be paid and you will starve.

God forbid you have a spouse or children or anyone else depending on you, because you will drag all of them down with you. And don’t tell me that your wife wants to support you so you can follow your bliss. You think she’s not worried about having to take care of you? You think she doesn’t have a bliss she’d rather be following instead of being your ATM machine? She wants you to be happy, sure, because it’s the only way to get you to stop being a whiny jackass.

There is nothing more selfish or more pathetic than someone who’d risk their family’s happiness and security because they want to be something they haven’t actually put the work into being.

I know it’s tempting. Who wouldn’t want to spend their days “researching” on the Internet, or having coffee in a cute cafe with your laptop open in front of you? Being able to have lunch at 3 pm at your favorite Indian restaurant because you don’t actually have to be anywhere at any particular time. Taking long strolls in the park or on the beach, soaking up the sun, letting your brain wander. You know, for “inspiration”. It all sounds lovely, but the only people who can afford to actually do these things, to live a life of ease, are people who have someone else footing the bill. Working writers do not have this life, because they are too busy WORKING. They are not playing tourist in scenic old Downtown on a Thursday. They are not catching the latest blockbuster at the multiplex. They are in their offices, writing words down, chasing submissions, promoting their work, adding up their sales figures, and trying to figure out how to cover the electric bill.

There is a way to work as a writer instead of working at anything else. It’s the same path you take when you want to be a CEO of a major company, or a college professor or a professional dancer. You don’t just wake up one day and decide you want to be that thing. You start at the bottom, you put in your time, you educate yourself, you work your way up, and you take every single step on the ladder. It isn’t easy and it isn’t quick and there’s no guarantee that you’ll be any good, but it’s the only way to be sure that you’re not wasting anyone else’s time or money.

But don’t take my word for it. Let Georgia McBride point out, “you’re either high, stupid, extremely romantic, disillusioned, brave or have a tremendous amount of faith in yourself. Or–all of the above,” if you think you can make a living wage from writing YA novels. Let Carol Pinchefsky tell you that, “A writer of speculative fiction can earn awards, the respect of peers, and the admiration of fans. However, what the writer frequently does not earn is a living wage solely off of spec-fic writing.” Briane Keene will tell you that you’ll need, “The clarity to separate art from profession and business from pleasure, because we are not having fun with a hobby—we are paying the fucking bills on time.”

Chuck Wendig cautions that you need 25 things before you can be a full time writer. “Ahh. The old day-job. When you could, conceivably, rise to the level of your own incompetence and sit around watching funny cat videos all day long and still get paid for it. Ha ha! Sucker. Those days are gone. You’ve now entered into a more pure relationship between effort and compensation, as in, the more effort you put into something, the more work you put out, which means the more money you earn. Fail to work? Fail to create? Then you fail to get paid.”

The only good thing about being the kind of person who thinks they “deserve” to be a writer is that generally, you won’t be a very successful one. You don’t understand how to make that work, and you spend too much energy trying to get other people to support you, to fix your problems for you. You’ll fail, you’ll quit, you’ll move on to something else, and we won’t have to deal with you any more. So you know what? You want to be a jackass, you go right ahead.

I’ll be over here, writing.

PS. A few of the people quoted above talk about the need to have a spouse who works full-time to support you, but let me remind you that if you’re depending on someone else to pay the bills, you’re not working as a writer. You’re playing at being a writer like some people build model trains or walk the mall every Saturday morning. It’s a hobby, not a profession. How can you be proud of that?

What Else Working Writers Do (Besides Write)

It’s been about a year since I decided to be a writer again*. Over the last year I’ve settled into a comfortable balance between my writing life and everything else, and developed habits that have taken me from obscurity to someone who’s appeared on guest blogs and podcasts, gotten good reviews, made friends with writers and artists that I respect, attended conventions, had a pro-level sale, been accepted into the SFWA (didn’t I mention that? Yes, that was my good news this week), and edited a few books. Oh, and built a tiny but respectable little publishing company. In a year.

But it hasn’t been easy, or simple. I spend between 40 and 60 hours a week working on my writing (and, along with that, the editing and publishing that goes into Dagan Books). I spend about 10 hours a week actually putting words on paper. The rest of my time is taken up by all of the little, largely unseen, tasks that make up the life of a working writer:

  • I read every day. I don’t just read books and magazines, and in fact don’t read them as often as I’d like. I do read them when I can, but a lot of my reading is through the (growing) list of authors I subscribe to on my Google Reader. Through them I am introduced to new writers, new books, movies, and music. I am told where to find a recording of Leonard Nimoy reading Israeli author Etgar Keret. I get reminders about upcoming readings, author events, and conventions, some of which I can make it to. When I can’t, I can find a recap of what happened so at least I know what I missed. I get introduced to film criticism as expressed by The Incredible Hulk, whose breakdown of structure and plot should be required reading for new writers. I read what NPR and The Paris Review have to say about books making the NY Times Bestseller list, and what indie book bloggers say about books I’d never have heard of otherwise. I get to be part of a world-wide conversation on what fiction is today, and what it should be, and that informs how I see my own writing. It has changed how I write, for the better.
  • I also read slush for Dagan Books. In fact, I read every bit of it. 200 fish-themed stories for our latest anthology? I read them all. And for each of the two books before that. I read the novel queries too. From these I learn how many terrible ways there are to pitch your novel, and the few good ways. I learn which opening paragraphs sound less impressive each time you read a new author do the same thing, and which sentences always work, every time. I see authors who come across as arrogant, nervous, self-doubting, clueless, and worse, and I remind myself not to make those same mistakes. Every day, I read all of these things, and my writing improves before it even hits the page. Continue reading

The Problem With Pen Names

There are a lot of reasons for using a pen name these days. From wanting to keep your writing a secret from friends or employers, wanting to keep two distinct writing styles separate so that readers from one genre aren’t turned off by the writing you do in another, or preferring a pen name which is less gender/racially specific than your legal name*, the reasons behind wanting a pen name are many and varied and for the most part, I don’t have a problem with any of them. However, I’ve run into a few people whose actions, enabled by the use of a false persona, are running dangerously close to unprofessional or even illegal.

Author Seanan McGuire also writes under the name Mira Grant. It is an open pseudonym, in that McGuire openly admits to using it. From her FAQ’s:

Q: Why are you Mira Grant?

A: I wanted a pseudonym for my science fiction because I wanted to create some “distance” between it and my urban fantasy work. Mostly, I wanted people to judge the Mira Grant books on their own merits, not based on how much they read like something they’d expect me to write. I believe this was the right decision, and I’ve been very happy with my life as Mira Grant.

Both websites use photographs which are actually of McGuire, and while the Grant site has a brief faux-bio blurb, the rest of the information is factual – release dates, book info, and the bio and the FAQs both end with pointing out she’s also McGuire. Author Joe Hill was born Joseph Hillstrom King, the son of author Stephen King, and felt a need to write under another name in order to be judged on the merits of his words instead of his father. His website and Twitter feed and books all say “Joe Hill”, but the pictures are actually of him, and when he talks about his children or his predilection for pie, he’s actually talking about his own life. These are just two examples of what I consider to be acceptable use of a pen name: you’re changing the name for the purposes of story submission, so you’ll be judged “fairly” when a publisher considers your work or a reader buys your novel, but the rest of your life as it’s presented under that name is close to 95% true.

Submitting stories under a pseudonym without informing your publisher that you have another, legal, name – or much worse, signing a contract under your pen name – can cause legal issues and certainly makes me less likely to want to work with you, but we’re still talking about just one mistake – not disclosing your legal name. I’ve had authors do that, and learn from it, and stop making that mistake, in which case, I’m happy to keep looking at their work. At what point does it go beyond acceptable use of a nom de plume for work purposes and pass into unacceptable, creepy, or disturbing? That point differs for everyone but for me it’s when the fiction becomes not just a mask but a lie. There are authors who use more than just a new name: they create a whole new life. Websites, Facebook pages, even in chatting online with others, they use not only another name, but false images and fake biographies. Posting pictures taken from the Internet, of people who are not you and don’t know you’ve stolen their image, to support your pen name is one example of going too far. Writing lengthy blog posts about the life you don’t actually have, with people who don’t exist, supported by pictures you didn’t take … unless you label the site as itself being fiction, you’re trying to convince your readers that you are someone who doesn’t exist. What’s the purpose of that? If it’s just to support your pen name with what you consider to be a reasonable back-story, then it’s possibly only poor judgment on your part.

What really makes me angry are the people who create this fictional life and use it to prey on others. Creating a persona that is (for example) a young, sex-hungry woman and then using it to flirt online, manipulate others, play games with their emotions … or use it to turn a profit, soliciting donations from others to support what is essentially a hardworking avatar … that’s cruel. It’s a lie, it’s wrong, and when I find out that authors are doing this I will never, ever, accept work from them.

Personally, I don’t use a pen name. I made a decision a long time ago to be read and judged and known for who I really am. I like knowing that my friends actually know me. I feel lucky that I’m not in a situation where I’d be forced to hide my writing, which is so much a part of who I am, in order to get a job or maintain peace with family members. I understand wearing a mask in this business, but you should ask yourself if you really need it. Do you think a white-washed name or a bio photo which is younger/thinner/prettier than you think you are is protecting yourself from being judged wrongly, or is selling more books? Are you honest about yourself within the confines of your persona, or is everything you present to the world a lie? And if it is … why?

* For the purposes of this discussion, I’m not using the phrase “real name”. What that is can be very different depending on who you’re talking to, and no one has any right to decide what’s your real name but you. I’m only interested in the distinction between “legal” (often but not always “birth name”) and “pen name”, a fake name under which you write and publish, which is not the same as your legal name.