The Short Story Report

By | December 18, 2014 | 0 Comments
Know what I got paid to write this blog post? NOTHING.

Know what I got paid to write this blog post? NOTHING.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I write a lot of short stories – at minimum one a month. Not many of these are good, of course, but I like the exercise of having to come up with an idea and a structure and characters and 2,000 words every month on the regular. Too many writers endlessly discuss and plan their works but never actually write them, you know?

I also submit a fair amount, though in recent years submission turnarounds and contraction of markets has reduced those numbers a great deal. Here’s how it’s shaken out in past years:

2011: 33 submissions, 0 sales

2012: 18 submissions, 1 sale

2013: 22 submissions, 1 sale

This year is continuing this recent trend – I’ll probably end the year with 20 submissions and, unless something exciting happens all last-minute, 1 sale (which just happened). Since 1986, when I started writing and submitting short stories to anyone who would publish them, I’ve managed 1,279 submissions and sold 30 for a sell rate of 2.35%. Obviously I have no dignity. Also I have a fascination with collecting data on my own existence. Yes, I’m that guy who counts things and I am one tiny sliver of sanity away from keeping my piss in mason jars.

Old age will be fun, trust me. Inhibitions lost, sanity frayed, piss in mason jars.

Ahem. Back to the ever-elusive point: For me, the pay scale on short stories is chaos. Since deciding to only submit to markets that at least pay a token, I’ve made more than $1,200 on a single short story, and I’ve made $5. So I’m obviously not going to be making a living on short stories any time soon. But they’re so much fun to write – you can go from idea to THE END in a few days, sometimes. Short stories are the crack of writing.

And, once written, I want them read, and read widely. So, I submit them so I can point to that as some sort of legitimizing serum. You know, because otherwise it’s just me SPAM emailing short story PDFs to everyone who has ever sent me an email, including large corporations, offshore customer service bots, and imprisoned politicians (I’m writing this in New Jersey, so let’s just call them politicians). At least when someone pays me money for a story I can claim that I have a good reason for thinking it’s worth, you know, money. Or your time. Which is generally the same damn thing anyway.

As a reminder, I just released a new short story set in the Avery Cates universe called The Shattered Gears and it’s available on Amazon, Kobo, B&N Nook, and Google Play for just 99 cents.

Also, every now and then I post a free short story on this blog, so if you’re curious check ‘em out.

Writing: Leave Yourself Hanging

By | December 15, 2014 | 0 Comments
Typical Writer's Retirement Plan

Typical Writer’s Retirement Plan

Writing advice is one of those things that a lot of people want from you but are then almost always disappointed by. I’ve seen it plenty of times: Someone says, oh hey, you’ve completed/sold novels, what kind of advice do you have for the aspiring writer? And they are clearly expecting me to say something like drink heavily all the time and the magic booze faeries will dictate stories to you or jot down this ancient Sumerian magic spell and you can summon magic booze faeries to dictate stories to you or possibly sit down and let me buy you expensive cocktails on my dime.

When I offer instead some chestnut about craft or reading widely or avoiding Tom Swifty constructions in your dialogue, their disappointment is obvious, and their eyes always say something akin to you sir are a fraud and I despise you.

So I’ve been trying to think of a piece of writing advice I can offer that is actually practical and useful but also concise and simple, the sort of immediate benefit I think many folks want. They don’t want to hear something that if you apply diligently for the next thirty years might offer some insight. They want something they can go home and do immediately. And in my role as professional bloviator, this is a tool I must have. And after much thought, I have it: Leave yourself hanging.

This is something I’ve done my whole life without actually thinking of it consciously, and it really does work. The concept is simple: When writing a story, always stop for the day at a point where you know what the next thing will be. In other words, never write until you’re unsure of the next step in your story. Whenever I’ve written until I had no idea what came next, when I sat down the next day I was stumped. If I leave even the slightest bit unwritten, I can swing into it easily the next day.

Simple? Yes, but surprisingly not obvious to many. So there you go: A bit of easily marketed writing advice I can apply my unique brand to. Said brand summed up with the phrase Cranky Inebriated Incompetence.

A New Avery Cates Short

By | December 12, 2014 | 3 Comments

Shattered_cover

UPDATE: Links for Nook and Google Play added below.

So, this happened:

In jotting down notes for an Avery Cates sequel or three a while ago, I started with a story fragment which turned into about 10,000 words of actual story. I sat on it for a while, but never had time to get back to a full-fledged novel (what with working on We Are Not Good People and writing blogs for what seems like half the Internet).

And so, last week, I thought, what the heck, let’s just publish the story as it is. And so I have.

The Shattered Gears is an all-new Avery Cates story that picks up shortly after where The Final Evolution left off. Avery’s had a little time to orient himself in the ruined world he now resides in, and there are plenty of hints there are more adventures to be had. Mysterious inhuman figures, an abandoned prison, and … The Howler. And Avery slowly gets his mojo back.

A lot of fun to return to this character and this universe, and I hope y’all enjoy it too. It’s currently available for pre-order at Amazon and Kobo, and will shortly show up on B&N for Kindle and Google Play. Just 99 cents American money, kids. Enjoy!

B&N Nook

Google Play

Categories: Avery Cates, BAM!

The Cynicism Fail

By | December 11, 2014 | 2 Comments

blackmirrorSO, approximately three years too late, I finally caught the first episode of Black Mirror now that it’s on Netflix. I’ve been hearing about the show for years, especially that first episode – “National Anthem” – and was very interested in it. I’m too lazy to chase things down, so I just thought of it every now and then and finally my weak magical field worked its wonders and the show popped up on Netflix.

And it’s good – very well done, creepy, and the premise of “National Anthem” – a hugely popular member of the royal family is kidnapped, and the sole demand for her release is that the Prime Minister fuck a pig on live television – is inspired in both its creepiness and hilarity. I enjoyed it as a piece of black comedy and theater. It does, however, fail in a big way that often hurts supposedly audacious satires like this – it revels far too much in a cynicism about the world that’s supposed to feel edgy but is actually just really, really lazy writing.

And yes, I know: Me carping about lazy writing is like Charlie Sheen carping about drug addicts. Let it drift.

In “National Anthem,” the Cynicism Fail occurs when the story suddenly needs to give us a reason why any reasonable man, a Prime Minister no less, would actually agree to fuck a pig on live television. Yes, yes it’s satire and thus not beholden to normal rules of storytelling, but plot mechanics are plot mechanics. And Black Mirror falls back on the rickety old structure of “public opinion has shifted,” which is possibly the laziest writing crutch in the universe. In the story, at first the public is reasonably shocked by this ridiculous demand and supports the Prime Minister against it. Then the government makes the mistake of trying to fake a pig-fucking via CGI, and a raid on a spot where the princess might be held goes haywire and a reporter is shot. When the public finds out about these debacles, polling shifts, and suddenly the whole country insists the Prime Minister fuck the pig already. His party informs him that not only can they not longer support him if he doesn’t fuck the pig, they cannot even guarantee his or his family’s safety.

In other words, we are to believe that in the space of an hour or so the country goes from mild shock at this turn of events to rabid, primitive grunting.

And I call bullshit. The trope of “people are really the worst and will show their true colors when pushed” has been done. And people are the worst, I’ll stipulate. But bad polling as a reason you cannot possibly avoid fucking a pig on live television is perhaps some of the worst plot mechanics I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed the episode in spite of this bullshit, trust me. This is the sort of stuff a writer who has become completely divorced from real people trots out, imagining that everyone who is not him or people directly in his line of sight must be awful, ignorant, evil people.

I haven’t watched the other episodes, but likely will, and likely will also have drunken, belligerent things to say about them, as well. In the meantime it’s nice to know that even highly-paid folks with shows on TV can screw up their stories this badly. There’s hope for us all yet!

New Inner Swine

By | December 8, 2014 | 0 Comments

cov203-4sizSo, it’s been six months, and that means it’s time for a new issue of that thing you don’t read, my zine The Inner Swine. Volume 20, Issue 3/4 (Winter 2014) is out; I pushed it to Amazon and B&N, and I also posted the whole issue to Ello because why the fuck not. I mean, I literally have no idea what to do with Ello – no idea – so I figured why not do something stupid like post 65,000 words to it in poorly formatted HTML? Since I also have no idea what to do with my zombie-zine since I killed the print version.

So I did. Go read it for free, you filthy animals. It contains an entire unpublished novel of mine, BTW.

For those of you who prefer a bit more sanity, you can pay a dollar for the slightly-better formatting of the

Kindle

and the

Nook.

And as is traditional, I now take a moment to reflect on the insanity that was making approximately 1,500 copies of this zine on the office photocopier back in the day.

Categories: Bullshit, The Inner Swine

Retread: The Journey

By | December 4, 2014 | 2 Comments
BUY ME

BUY ME

(NOTE: I posted this back in February 2013, reposting here slightly altered)

We Are Not Good People: I started writing this book in 2010. It’s amazing sometimes how you start with a germ of an idea and then end up somewhere far away from that. Here’s the first ~850 words I wrote for this book. I trashed this (and several versions afterwards) before settling on the final approach in October 2010; much of this is still in the final version, though in a different form, and spread over many sections.

WANGP Draft Zero, August 2010

WHEN I was nine years old, my father picked me up after one of my Cub Scout meetings at the old church, which was strange because my father had left us the year before and I hadn’t seen him since. He drove an old boat of a car, cracked seats and broken radio. I remember climbing around the front and back seats, so much room it was like a little portable house on wheels. He let me; he just sat behind the wheel with a pint bottle of brandy between his legs, humming old songs as he drove.

We merged onto an empty highway, amber lights driving away the darkness but creating a weird Marscape of road, like we’d left the real world behind and were driving in the Ghost World. I didn’t know where we were going. Dad took regular sips from his bottle and answered all my questions with grunts and monosyllables. I had a lot of questions. I remember being really excited, after all this time Dad had come to take me on a trip, and after I got tired of not getting answers to my questions I settled into the back seat with my Webelos handbook and tried to figure out where we were going—amusement parks, zoos, the beach all seemed likely candidates. Eventually I remember falling asleep, liking the sensation of rocking back and forth in the big back seat, the smell of cigarettes and the sound of the wind.

Dad shook me awake and we were out in the middle of nowhere in the parking lot of a small square tavern with a huge red neon sign that said, simply, BEER. I followed him sleepily inside, where a handful of people who all seemed to be wearing flannel shirts and baseball caps were scattered around the tiny, gloomy room. Dad lifted me onto a stool and I remember slouching there, still asleep, looking owlishly around.

“Bourbon,” Dad said. It was the first time he’d spoken since he’d picked me up. “Neat. A coke for the kid.”

This was magic. The man behind the bar, who was fat and red in the face, his gray-white hair greasy and pasted flat against his round head, put a glass in front of me with a grin and used a gun on the end of a rubber hose to fill the glass with soda. Soda from a hose! It was magic, and I immediately schemed to have one installed at Mom’s house, because she always forgot to do the shopping and there was never anything to eat or drink.

Dad didn’t pay any attention to me, just sat there staring at the silent TV mounted up on the wall and sipped from his glass. Any time I finished a soda the man behind the bar waddled over, smiling, and refilled my glass. Free soda from a hose. After a while I eased off my stool and wandered over to where a trio of ancient electronic games sat blinking dully. Dad watched me for a moment, then shrugged and called the bartender over, fishing out a five dollar bill and holding it up.

“Give the kid some quarters,” he said.

I drank soda until I had to pee so badly my legs ached, and played fifteen games of bowling before finally giving in to the realities of the situation and heading for the bathroom. It was a scary bathroom. It had a door that didn’t close right and was dark, everything in it cold and slimy. To get there I had to pass by an old man of at least my Dad’s age sitting at the end of the bar. He wore a white suit with no tie or socks, just white pants and jacket that seemed too light for the weather and a white shirt. He was a mass of wrinkles. His hair was long and slightly curly, and his nose dominated his face, making him resemble a squirrel. I didn’t want to push past him to get to the bathroom, and hesitated for a second or two while my kidneys swam up behind my eyes, bulging them out. Finally I screwed up my courage and hustled past. He just grinned at me.

###

I got bored after a while. The games were old and creaky and not fun and after my seventh or eighth soda the impossible happened and I didn’t want any more of them. Dad just sat and drank and stared. I was afraid to make much noise or bother him, remembering how terrifying he was when angered, and tried to find other ways to amuse myself. I looked around and found the man in the white suit staring at me. He smiled and waved, and I looked away. When I stole a glance back at him, he waved again, and I realized with a start that his fingertips were on fire. As he moved them back and forth through the air they flickered and smoked.

The flames were blue-green. As I stared the man winked at me.

I looked around, but no one else seemed to have noticed. Everyone else might as well have been asleep. Not me. My heart was pounding

Salvage

By | December 1, 2014 | 3 Comments
This is the face of doom.

This is the face of doom.

I don’t know about y’all, but I have a problem with leaving things unfinished. Since turning in We Are Not Good People to my publisher, I’ve completed one novel (which I showed around to folks who all shrugged and evinced zero enthusiasm for) and since then I’ve started about four projects that more or less went nowhere, if you consider significant amounts of words to be “nowhere.” I’m not a big one for word counts, but it is a useful stat when discussing incomplete novels, so let’s say I have about 4 projects that got to be about 25,000 words or so and then petered out.

Usually this is because they lose that indescribable “buzz” that a living, breathing book has, at least for me. When a story is thriving, working on it is like picking up a live wire. I can feel that buzzing energy every time I put words to paper or screen. When that buzz is lost, I usually tinker for a while and eventually give up trying to make it move again. It’s like riding an elephant that suddenly keels over. For a while you’re bounding along going whoooooo and filled with adrenaline. Then you’re trapped under a ton of dead elephant and nothing you do, including stuffing dynamite under it and lighting a fuse, gets it moving again.

But, I hate to waste all those words. That means turning that dead elephant into a Frankenstein-monster via one of the following strategies:

  1. The Capper: Writing a brief ending of sorts that ties up your loose ends without much revision (“… and then the plane crashed. The end.”) and calling it a job … done.
  2. The Extraction: Taking some portion of the work that can stand alone as a short story with minimal revision and discarding the rest.
  3. The Combo: Realizing that some other unfinished monstrosity is similar in theme and combining the two into one much longer, less satisfying, but in some sense “finished” work.

None of these are ideal, but I will admit that #2 has worked pretty well from time to time. The thing is, I hate unfinished projects. I hate the waste, and sometimes in those 25,000 words there are 10,000 I think are pretty good, so I want them out there someday. So I’m often willing to roll up my sleeves, do some meatball surgery, and call what I end up with a success. Which, sometimes, it is.

Now I’m working on a new idea and I’m getting towards that point where the elephant either suddenly and quite surprisingly spread its Dumbo ears and takes flight, or staggers over dead, trapping me beneath its rotting carcass. I’ll keep you posted.

Categories: Bullshit, Writing

Why “The Girl Who Waited” is theBest NuWho Episode

By | November 24, 2014 | 0 Comments
Thirty-six years.

Thirty-six years.

Okay, I understand this is controversial for fans of Doctor Who, among whom the episode is considered kind of meh, but I recently re-watched the Season 6 episode The Girl Who Waited, and it’s one of the best episodes of the rebooted Doctor Who, for several reasons. The main reason, though, is how brutal it is.

Let’s consider the brutality:

  • Amy Pond is accidentally abandoned on a plague planet in a separate time stream amongst unintentionally murderous robots for thirty six years because The Doctor refuses to do any sort of basic research about where he’s traveling (“That is not how I travel.”).
  • The Doctor’s solution is to bring Young Amy into their time stream and then to abandon Old Amy to nonexistence even though over the course of 36 fucking years Old Amy has become a distinct and unique person.
  • The Doctor doesn’t even do this brutal murder himself, he forces Rory, Amy’s husband, to do it. And then he leaves it to Rory to explain to Amy that he basically murdered her older self.

That’s some dark stuff. And it gets to the core of what Doctor Who really is: It’s a horror series. And The Doctor is the monster.

The Doom of Men

Forget Amy and Rory’s ultimate fate — to say that Companions on Doctor Who often have less-than-happy endings is an understatement. But The Girl Who Waited underscores the fundamental conflict that drives the show. The Companions, usually (though not always) humans, want The Doctor to care about them. To be their friend. But he doesn’t, and can’t be, not the way they think. He’s not a human, and humans will always be collateral damage to him. He might feel bad about it — in fact, often does — but it’s equivalent to the way we feel bad when a pet runs away and gets run over by a car. We grieve. We feel bad.

Then we get another pet.

Collateral Damage

The murder of Old Amy is pretty dark stuff. And in the episode it’s not even obscured: The darkness is right there. Ostensibly, The Doctor’s decision to abandon Old Amy (or, to be fair, an Amy, as he leaves the choice of which Amy to leave up to Rory) is brutal, and Matt Smith plays it that way. It’s a murder. One moment Old Amy exists: bitter, fierce, and filled with rage, but also filled, suddenly, with hope of reclaiming her future, of having adventures and popping ’round the Pond house for holidays.

The next, she is gone. We’re supposed to be relieved that the hot, young version of Amy, the one we’re used to, the charming one not filled with bitter rage, has been ‘saved,’ and ignore the fact that Old Amy has … not been. But Old Amy existed. Imagine Young Amy, married to a man who abandoned her to die on an alien world, alone, her last memory her friends leaving her again, for the second time in 36 years. Imagine waking up next to a spouse who’d made that decision, no matter what the circumstances.

This is pretty much the core of Doctor Who. He’s a madman in a box, right? He’s an incompetent thief who stole a TARDIS that he’s not even 100% competent to operate and who has spent 2,000 years exploring and abandoning and generally destroying lives, often in the name of justice or the greater good. Viewed from far above, it looks like heroism. Looked at standing next to him, you have to know that if you became a liability, he would sacrifice you, and if he got a little moody about it, he’d just go out and get a new companion, eventually. The Girl Who Waited makes this subtext text, and that’s why it’s one of the new episodes I watch over and over again. Because it makes it clear: The Doctor is a monster.

“Coherence”: The Idiot/Genius Paradox of Sci Fi

By | November 20, 2014 | 0 Comments
Mind: Broken.

Mind: Broken.

I recently watched the film Coherence, written and directed by James Ward Byrkit and starring Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, and Lorene Scafaria. If you’re not terribly familiar with those names, check the IMDB page, you’ll likely recognize some of their faces.

It’s an interesting sci-fi movie with a deceptively simple premise: On the night eight friends gather for a dinner party, a strange comet passes overhead. Technology malfunctions, glasses shatter, and the lights go out – and they discover that the whole neighborhood is dark and abandoned, except for one house that blazes with the lights on. When they investigate, they discover the other house is … their house, and inside is … them.

SPOILERS

Spoilers? YES WE HAVE THAT. Don’t read if you fear spoilers.

So, the film essentially deals with a “Many World” premise: The comet has somehow caused coherence between realities, meaning the separate realities of quantum physics can, for a short time, interfere and affect each other. What this means in practice is that whenever someone leaves the house and passes through a “dark area” between House Prime and the Other House, they are actually spun randomly into a parallel universe, sometimes replacing themselves, sometimes encountering themselves.

What’s great about the story is that none of this is immediately obvious, and it (mostly) avoids tedious exposition (there is a moment with a Magic Science Book of Immense Convenience, but they had to figure out some way of getting the physics stuff spelled out). In fact, one of the greatest pleasures of the film is looking back and trying to figure out when, exactly, the exchanges between realities begin – and realizing it might have been much earlier in the story than you originally thought.

Also amazing: The ending, which is genius, brutal, and cuts on a final shot that floors. Emily Baldoni ought to get an award for that final facial expression alone.

Anyways, I’m not here to praise Coherence unconditionally. Because it does rely on a common sci-fi trope that is very unfortunate: It’s characters are all simultaneously morons and geniuses.

MORONS

On the one hand, these folks react to stuff in insane ways. The lights go off, and everyone almost immediately goes crazy, jumping at every noise and generally acting like they’re in a disaster movie even though most people have experienced a blackout before. These people immediately begin running around like decapitated chickens. Then, they do remarkably crazy things, like marching off into the night to “investigate” things when the obviously better idea would be to stay inside with allies.

GENIUSES

On the other hand, they figure out what’s happening remarkably fast, and when one character explains the whole Many Worlds thing and throws in Schrödinger’s Cat for good measure, they all absorb and comprehend it immediately and begin working on the assumption that they’re in a sci-fi scenario without any resistance or difficulty.

STORY MECHANICS

I get it. As a writer, I get it, and, frankly, Coherence handles this pretty well. The characters are all presented as reasonably smart people through the initial interactions and conversations, and I much prefer this sort of Genius Character than a more typical Always in Denial character you see in other sci-fi stories – you know, the characters who continue to insist nothing strange is happening way past the point that any reasonable person would cling to their illusions. The AID character is infinitely more annoying.

And the thing is, you need your characters to be both Morons and Geniuses in a story like this. Because if they were smarter and decided to hang back in the house and be calm and safe, they never find out the bits of information that spell out what’s happening. And if they aren’t immediately able to comprehend what’s happening, they can’t explain it to the audience and also they can’t take the story in the interesting directions you want it to go. So, I get it: Sometimes your genius characters have to be morons, or vice versa.

And, frankly, Coherence handles it very well. It gives you information very subtly, relying on the smarts of its audience (though it’s not like Primer in complexity – it’s fairly easy to track what’s going on once you figure it out). The fact that the characters, by about the midway point of the film, have all swapped out to alternate realities without realizing it is a fantastic idea – because their interactions just start to be off, slightly. Imagine you came home and your wife or husband or best friend was suddenly just off – you can’t figure it out, but you remember things differently, or they just say or do something that’s all wrong. Without knowing what’s happened, it just inspires a paranoia – which is what this movie deals in brilliantly.

I’d go see it. If only for that final facial expression.

The King of North Street: I Was Once a Gifted Athlete

By | November 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

This essay originally appeared in The Inner Swine 19(1/2), Summer 2013.

Okay, first of all, the ravages of fucking time are fucking horrible, right? Sweet Jebus on a tricycle, I once looked like this:

Proof I've looked drunk since the day I was born.

Proof I’ve looked drunk since the day I was born.

Sweet hell, I was adorable. Shut up – I was adorable. Blond, soulful eyes, the correct proportion of nose to ears, I had it going on. Today I look like the fucking Crypt Keeper. Oh, this is the normal and perfectly natural process of aging? Maybe so, but it’s still personally horrifying, and if you’ve been riding this zine ride for 20 years with me you know this is all about me being personally horrified at things. If I was the type to wear a monocle, it would be constantly popping off in shock and dismay.

Anyway, if you are only familiar with what we will refer to as Old As Hell Jeff, which is to say any version of Jeff you may have encountered after he discovered alcohol and began drinking himself to death every night, you may be surprised to learn that there was a brief time in my very early childhood when I imagined myself to be somewhat athletically gifted. Whether or not I was actually athletically gifted or if I was just the least un-gifted on a block filled with children of questionable dexterity and physical fitness remains a mystery for the ages, but when I was a kid, man, I was fast.

I know I was fast because I won races.

(more…)

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