Good Example, Bad Example: Firefly, Language choices, and Admitting I Was Wrong

Last week I wrote a guest post for BookLifeNow where I talked about being aware of your language choices when writing stories set in the future. It’s a first step kind of post, covering a few different points, and encouraging writers to think more about the topic. One of the issues I brought up was writing a multi-cultural future:

 It’s terribly easy to slap on a few “exotic”** words and think you’re creating accessible multi-cultural characters but if you don’t know what the words mean or how language evolves over time, it sounds slapped on. It shows very quickly that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mixing languages gives you a more honest feel, but that means you’ll either have phrases your readers don’t understand or you have to find a way to explain everything in context.

I gave two examples of this – Firefly, the popular but short-lived scifi television show, and Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the 1956 American reboot of Gojira (the Japanese-language production of the classic rubber suit monster movie). In one, the characters used two languages mixed together in the dialogue, and the other used the original Japanese footage cut together with scenes of a white guy, speaking English, asking “What did he say?” It was my way to help people visualize the difference between having “phrases your readers don’t understand”, or having to “find a way to explain everything in context”.

In that sense, I felt, it worked. But one of the readers rightly argued that Firefly was problematic in its portrayal of Asians (and, I agreed, its treatment of women). What “worked” as an example for my blog post didn’t work for the reader, who said:

I, the viewer, was very confused because I kept trying to parse the Mandarin they were speaking. Their diction was, on the whole, terrible. So, no, for me, I did not know what the inserted language meant. (And what’s so wrong with subtitles? If we had subtitles, we could have had a more realistic portrayal of the integration of English and Mandarin rather than the derogatory portrayal of Mandarin as being “that language you swear with.”) …. to me, the way it used Mandarin is symptomatic of those problems, not separate from them.

In that sense, no, Firefly doesn’t work at all. I meant it in a different way than it was taken, but there are times when intention doesn’t matter as much as what actually got said, and this is one of them. My motivation for writing the post was to get people thinking about their language choices, particularly as it pertains to race, and this is all part of that conversation. It’s a conversation we should be having, not just about a show that was cancelled a decade ago, but about how we write fiction now. A few places to start:

Mike Le asks some important questions in Frustrations of an Asian American Whedonite (there’s video of Le asking that question at Comic Con and Whedon’s response here).

You can download and read Jennie Fong’s paper “Stuck in a Blender: Genre and Racial Hybridity in Joss Whedon’s Firefly“, which suggests that:

Instead of a completely blended East-West culture, Firefly only persisted in detaching Asian cultural signifiers from their cultural significance. By blurring distinctions among the different Asian ethnicities and borrowing from Asian cultures without acknowledging the population, Firefly fell into the trap of cultural appropriation rather than cultural blending.

and that this actually influenced the network’s decision to cancel the show.

Thea Lim points out Whedon’s tendency to put Asian characters in the background in her essay for Racialicious.

And someone put together a brilliant Firefly recast showing the characters portrayed by Asian actors (found on tumblr). Very fine actors on that list.

Look, it’s easy to get defensive when our words get taken in a different way than we’d like, but do you want to be right, or do you want to be better? I’m going to keep working on my writing, and the way I talk about writing, which means getting a few things right and acknowledging when I don’t. Hopefully you’ll all stick around, and we can work on these issues together.

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)

The Jazz Solo; or, What Writers Do When We Compose Intertextual Dialogue

A quick thought to start the (writing) day:

To the unaccustomed listener, a jazz solo, particularly a solo that strays far from an easily recognizable melody, can seem abstract, formless, linear. Yet most jazz performances take place over a repeated sequence of chords, the chords that underlie the piece the group is performing. A composer might write an attractive song, as George Gershwin wrote “Embraceable You,” and a jazz group will begin by playing a loose version of the 32-bar melody together. (Most songs that began in Broadway musicals have an introductory verse which jazz musicians rarely perform. Jazz musicians simply repeat the chorus over and over.) Then a soloist will create his or her own melody while the rhythm section essentially repeats an accompaniment to that 32-bar chorus. Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody, by following the chord progression. In fact, the procedure of most jazz is based on one main principle – that a nearly infinite number of melodies may fit any song’s chord progression. The jazz musician’s traditional task is spontaneously to compose new melodies that fit the chord progression, which is repeated over and over as each soloist is featured, for as many choruses as desired.” – Jazz, From Its Origins to the Present, Porter, Ullman, Hazel

In music we call that an “improvisation”. In writing, it’s an “homage”. Sometimes we admit outright that’s what we’re doing, sometimes it’s “inspired by” or a “retelling of.” Umberto Eco calls it “inter-textual dialogue” and I think that’s the most accurate term. A piece of writing quotes another piece of writing in a stylistic or thematic way, and the impact of a story on the reader is heightened when the reader understands what’s being quoted.

The key to understanding the similarity is this line:

Experienced listeners will be able to “hear” the song, even when no one is playing the original melody

How often do you read a story and think, “Oh, I recognize this fairy tale!” even when it isn’t the original telling of the story? Revamped and reconstructed fairy tales are quite popular at the moment, and range from subtle barely-there mentions to stories which wrap themselves in the original tale like a cape, only differing in setting or dialogue. (Read Kelly Link’s “Swans” for an example of this.) You’re supposed to have enough knowledge of the first version of that story to recognize all of the elements in the modernized tale. In fact, a good author can remove the details which are commonly known so that you don’t see them, but you recognize their absence and your mind fills in all of the missing pieces anyway.

Just like in jazz.

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.

So You Want to Write an Author Blurb? Readercon Edition, With Advice from Ken Liu and Don Pizarro

We all know the first step toward getting yourself invited to talk on a panel at a convention like Readercon is to have a really outstanding author blurb. The kind of run-on sentence (or three) that not only conveys your vast experience in talking out loud but that also implies your great range of knowledge*.

Picture it, if you will.

Actually, I did take a picture. Don (left) and Ken (right) in the Marriott bar, July 16, 2011

One hot afternoon in Boston I found myself sitting across a table from Ken Liu and Don Pizarro, brilliant authors and Men of Experience. We were sitting in the hotel bar, like you do at a convention, talking about how awesome I am. Well, how awesome I’m not. See, I’d jokingly mentioned something to my day job boss about my positive attitude and wide set of skills, and while he didn’t seem to be sure if I was kidding or not, I felt a bit embarrassed. I mean, who goes around telling people they’re awesome unless it’s a joke?

But no, these men assured me, I was on the right track. Once they got done laughing hysterically at my faux pas, I was informed that this was the beginning of an author blurb that was sure to get me noticed. Ken had been on a panel earlier in the day, and both Don and I aspire to be on panels in the future (Don also aspires to be famous enough to say terrible things when he’s really old and get away with it, so I think I’m going to need to stick around and write his apologetic morning-after press releases for him). Don stopped giggling long enough to pay attention at what was about to be a very serious conversation.

“You have to start with that,” Ken advised me. “Carrie Cuinn, author, editor, publisher. Then, ‘I’m awesome’.” He made air quotes with his fingers as he said that part. “Or maybe put, ‘I’m awesome’ first.”

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Your Book Synopsis Should Never Be This Bad

Searching through my Netflix instant viewing options, I was struck by the similarities between a movie blurb and a book blurb. When we’re pitching our novels, especially in person, we often have to be able to explain our brilliance in only a few sentences. Even when talking about our work with other writers, it’s helpful to be able to give a quick “this is my book” speech. Reading movie blurbs can help give us a sense of what works, and what doesn’t.

Below are some of my favorite bizarre, disturbing, and completely unnapealing choices:

MUTANT HUNT, 1987. “When a corporate executive named Z comes morally unhinged and unleashes an army of cyborg robots on an unsuspecting New York City, there’s a lone mercenary who can save the Big Apple from complete and total annihilation.” What is it? Are they mutants, or cyborgs, or robots? Pick one!

NARCOSYS, 2000. “The world is ruled by the heartless IT Corporation, which controls citizens through manufactured drugs and a destructive virus that’s spread through the streets. Can a gang of cyber-punks stop the mammoth institution bent on domination?” Aside from the awful plot, the grammar makes this blur read like there’s a diseased street out there, citizens, so watch where you step!

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Dear (Jackass) Writer, Offering Your Book For Sale Every Other Hour Is Quite Enough

Dear (Jackass) Writer,

Yes, I know you wrote a book. Your novel, the first of many (you are sure), is a thrilling/scary/original/erotic/captivating/special story that only you could have written. It is sure to include thrills, spills, and some sort of romance. Probably “paranormal”. Unless you are, dear writer, of the male persuasion, in which case your hero will only find romance as a side note while he is doing thrilling and heroic things, probably including the saving of a romantic/erotic character at some point. Good for you. The world needs more horror/fantasy/erotic/paranormal/romance novels. I have no problem with the fact that you wrote the book. I have slightly more problem with the fact that you appear to have published it yourself, but do not appear to actually have had your novel edited by anyone. Well, that’s a personal choice, and one you’re free to make. I would never judge a book by its cover, as they say, unless of course your cover was created in some sort of computer graphics program, one which manages to make your artwork look as if it was drawn by a not overly-talented 9th grader. In that case, I will judge your cover, since if you can’t be bothered to pay for a professional artwork (or, let us remember, an editor), why should I pay for your book?
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It’s the wisdom of our elders, so listen up.

Over the last three weekends I’ve seen three different documentaries about famous writers. Done in dissimilar styles, I think all three were worth watching.

The first one was two weeks ago. I watched PUBLIC SPEAKING, a documentary about Fran Lebowitz, which was directed by Martin Scorsese and put out in 2010. It’s primarily a conversation with Lebowitz, interspersed with a few clips of speeches or performances of people she found inspiring. I love that sort of context, uncovering pieces of the foundation that makes a writer’s perspective and language and education. I know I am made up of the writers I associate with, the books I have read, the stories I’ve been told over a cold beer in a hot bar right before last call. We’re all a collection of our bits. Lebowitz makes no apologies or excuses for her opinions and why should she? She’s brilliant, insightful, funny and above all appreciates brilliance in others. My kind of person. I would happily spend an evening handing Lebowitz cigarettes and refreshing her drink as long as she kept talking.

Last weekend I watched Harlan Ellison’s DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH. Directed by Erik Nelson, put out in 2008, it’s a mix of Ellison’s cheerfully sharp ramblings and interviews with his friends, which includes Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman. Harlan’s got a nasty reputation but oh the man can write. Talking the documentary over with a friend, the question came up: does his writing excuse his being an ass? I think that no one is strictly one thing, and Ellison is clearly a nuanced character with a history and a sense of humor and a comfortable familiarity with his role as a “cranky old Jew” (as Gaiman keeps pointing out). Still, does his writing excuse his behavior? I think it doesn’t matter what I think of the man. I doubt very much he would care. What will endure, after he’s gone, after we’re all gone, is his writing, and his writing is brilliant.

This weekend I learned something completely new. I watched TRUMBO, a documentary about Dalton Trumbo, award-winning Hollywood screenwriter and member of the Hollywood Ten, a group of writers blacklisted in the 1950s. I admit, I didn’t really know who he was before this. Put out in 2007, it includes some footage of Trumbo himself, some interviews with the children of his friends, but also the most beautiful readings of his personal letters. Trumbo was fabulously prolific, writing novels, screenplays, and thousands of these letters, which have since been archived. Famous actors (Joan Allen, Brian Dennehy, Paul Giamatti, David Strathairn, Donald Sutherland) lend their voices to Trumbo’s 2 am missives to friends and family, musings on his political and economic situation, and even a couple of snarky letters to the phone company over the price of their intercom systems. There’s another about masturbation, but you’ve got to hear that for yourself.

In all three cases we’ve got smart, sharp, witty, individuals, unafraid to be themselves, who’ve had their lives strongly affected by that bravery. I think this, more than anything else, makes a writer unforgettable.

Be bold, young writers. Learn from your elders (and maybe even from me). Be who you want to be. Be kind, be thoughtful, but be bold. Write stories that speak about something you think is important. Bring to life characters that live their lives, deeply, fiercely. Frankly, don’t be boring, don’t be dull, don’t be afraid. What good is that going to do you? Fear keeps us in dead-end jobs, bad relationships, makes us stay friends with people we outgrew twenty-years ago just because there’s safety in numbers. Be like Fran, and respect art, respect genius, respect real individuals. Be like Harlan, and be unafraid to be brilliant, and to demand that the people around you are also living up to their potential. Be like Dalton, and stand up for your beliefs.

And above all, keep writing.

There’s You And Then There’s Me

A friend, who happens to be an amazing writer with more publications to his credit than I have (and, honestly, more prestigious ones) asked me today if I’d want to swap stories with him – it turns out we’re both writing for the same upcoming anthology. I love his style, so of course I said yes, since I’d be happy to have any comments he can come up with, but in his email he also said he’d understand if I didn’t want to, since we’re sort of each other’s competition.

And that’s true, except where it’s not.

One of the things that has never bothered me about being friends with other writers, the thing that I’ve heard a lot of people do have trouble with, is the competition. There are so many of us all trying to get into the same markets, and the more particular or peculiar our writing is, the fewer markets there are for us. An anthology can only accept so many writers, a monthly magazine only has so many regular story slots to fill… so why would you surround yourself with people who might literally be taking the paycheck out from your pocket?

Because they’re not.

My friend is a brilliant writer, but he’s not me. I am not quite brilliant, but I am me. We are not each other. Even if we set out to write the exact same story – and very rarely does that happen – the end products would be vastly different from each other. Not because we’re of different genders or backgrounds or marital statuses or ethnicities or even born in different countries… or, probably, because of a combination of all of those things. The simple truth is that he sees the world in a different way than I do, so his perceptions and his expressions will be different than mine. My story can only ever be written by me. His story can only ever be written by him.

I’ve said before that it’s not our uniqueness that makes us writers, because each and every human is unique. What makes us writers is our need to get those stories out, and our drive to learn and grow and refine our writing until we are saying exactly what we mean to. So at the end of the day if this particular market chooses his story over mine, or mine over his, it won’t be because he’s better than me (well, maybe a little, but I’m working hard to catch up). It will be because that one story fit what the editors were looking for better than the other. How can that be something to fear, or be jealous of?

Personally, I’m hoping they take us both.