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The Lazy Writer’s Problem: Wikipedia

Tell you what ... you do it.

Tell you what … you do it.

The conundrum is classic: They tell you, as a young writer, that you should always “write what you know.” The idea is sound enough: If you stick to things you know something about from personal experience — be it people to base characters on, or outlandish stories that actually happened, or the infinite details of a trade or hobby — then your writing will always ring true. It was shimmer with that special realistic gravity that sucks people in.

There are limitations, of course. Say you’re halfway through your novel and the plot problems would be solved if someone, say, joined the army. Great! Except you’ve never joined the army. In fact, uniforms, exercise, and weapons — the three main ingredients of military service, peppered with humiliation, violence, and busy work — are so not your thing. You wind up facing the horror that Lazy Writers everywhere fear most: Research.

The Bad Old Days

Of course, in the Bad Old Days, research generally meant either hitting the books at a library or actually doing the thing you needed research on. The former, while affordable and possible no matter your circumstances, was often deadly dull. The latter was only possible if you were a Gentry Writer living off the fumes of a trust fund or something — the rest of us, proles all, were forced to work Day Jobs and do our research on the margins.

Ah, but then the Internet! Suddenly, Lazy Writers like me could just look stuff up. Need to know what a street looks like in a small town in France? Try Google Street View. Everything is out there if you dig hard enough, and you don’t have to put on pants and walk out into the sunlight to the library, or book a flight to France just to snap some photos.

The Bad Old Now

However, disaster looms for we Lazy Writers, because, as usual, Trolls are ruining everything. Wikipedia has always been a dubious place to do real research — you would never have used Wikipedia as the basis for anything serious. Novel research, however — why not. After all, 90% of a novel is made up anyway. Wikipedia was filled with misinformation and politically-motivated edits, yes, but for quick, basic stuff you could at least use it as a starting point.

No more; the Trolls have ruined it. A decline in working editors, an ever-expanding and torturous set of rules in an increasingly insulated Wikipedia, and a growing amount of bullshit going uncaught in the online encyclopedia has put the nail in it: If you want to be a Lazy Writer, you’re screwed.

Worse, a recent experiment found that small errors purposefully introduced to Wikipedia lingered for very long periods of time, meaning that your chances of picking up a detail you think makes you sound smart will actually make you sound incredibly stupid. This, of course, is the fear of the Lazy Writer.

So what does it all leave us with? A lot of novels about being sad, mildly-employed alcoholics, because now all of us Lazy Writers have to Write What We Know.

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The Last Rejection (Not Really)

As I continue to trawl my own storied past of rejection letters for blog fodder, I came across this significant bit of personal history. The year was 2002, the novels was called In Sad Review, which is a terrible, awful title, but it’s the novel that, several re-writes later, finally sold to Tyrus Books as Chum:

BUY ME

BUY ME

Now, those re-writes were done with the occasional advice of my agent, who returned to it every few years with ideas and kept trying to sell it even as other books of mine sold, and even as other clients of hers took off and became Big Deals. And this is all interesting because the rejection I got in 2002 was this one:

janetref2So, a rejection, but one that prompted me to send In Sad Review to the person who would become my agent, and a mere ten years later she in fact sold that novel. Just goes to show, even form rejections can sometimes lead you to something good.

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Announcements: A Thousand Cuts

Terrible indeed. Note: This is how I remember my Cub Scout uniform.

Terrible indeed. Note: This is how I remember my Cub Scout uniform.

When I was a sturdy young man in Jersey City, New Jersey back in the previous century, I was a Cub Scout (eventually, an Eagle Scout, a fact that blows minds to this day–suffice to say when you meet me, Eagle Scout is the last thing that comes to mind). As a Cub Scout (a WeBeLo, no less, which will mean nothing to you if you weren’t involved in the scouts at some point) I got to go on a week of summer camp every year with my pack. The first time I went was pretty great, and I remember one very odd detail: Every night in the dining hall, they would make announcements. And every time the guy got up to make the announcements, everyone would chant:

“A-NOUN-cements, A-NOUN-cements, a terrible death to die!”

(or, yanno, something like that; I was nine or ten years old).

It was so oddball. Obviously an ancient custom at the summer camp, and I never quite understood it, although of course being a very nicely socialized little bugger (Jebus, did I mention I was in the fucking Cub Scouts?) I chanted along with everyone else. If you do some light Googling, you’ll find that this song is pretty universal in scouting environments, for some bizarre reason (note: almost all of my scouting memories must be followed by the phrase for some bizarre reason). There’s little information about its provenance or the reasoning (if any beyond a little light ribbing for the authority figures) behind this little ritual.

Now, normal kids might have remembered the knots they learned. Or the funny songs. Or swimming in the ice-cold lake, or the campfires, or the time our camp counselor took us on a hike and got lost and we were tramping through the wilderness for 8 hours (oh wait – I do in fact remember that). But what I remember is the dumb A-NOUN-cements song, because that’s the sort of insane detail that seems completely impossible, and yet is real. As a writer, this is important, because it helps you trust that instinct that some insane detail you want to include in your work won’t actually make everyone start passing it around on the Internet for the lulz, but actually might sell the whole story to a reader, because the detail is lived-in, and real, and crazy enough to be somebody’s normal.

The world seems like a continuum, with generations passing information on to the next in an orderly fashion, and so the assumption is that because we know how to refine gasoline today, we will continue to know how to do so in the future. But the fact is, this “passing on” is messy. I learned the stupid “Announcement” song, but I don’t the why or the history of it. I know a verse, and if the collective survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse came to my door and asked for help reconstructing this portion of world culture, I would provide them with a really shitty answer. Details get glossed over. Origins get lost. A cosmic game of “Telephone” is played with the details, and the future is a little fuzzier than it used to be.

And now I have that damn song in my head.

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The Vantage Disadvantage

So, we’ve been discussing Jeff’s awesome History of Fail in terms of rejection letters I’ve gotten along the way to my stunning … is “success” the word we’re using? Anyway, yes: Rejections. I have many. This one actually isn’t a rejection. And it made me very angry. And if you’ve ever met me, you know it’s really difficult to make me angry. Like, people have stabbed me and I’m all like “Oh, no worries.”

Subsidize This

If you were submitting novels to every single listing in the Writer’s Digest back in the Day, you probably came across Vantage Press. Founded in 1949, sued for millions in 1990, they finally shuttered in 2012 and were for a time the most recognizable and well-known “vanity” publisher, or subsidy publisher. This was in the Dark Times before POD and easy eBook self-publishing, you see, and it worked like this:

  1. 17-year old Jeff mails a photocopy of his novel Cravenhold (previously discussed) to Vantage Press via the listing in the Writer’s Market, which does not mention the words “vanity” or “subsidy”.
  2. Jeff receives the following letters, informing him a) they love the novel and want to publish it! b) it will only cost Jeff $14, 675 to do so [the fact that I would be paying them and the actual amount wasn’t in the letter; it was in the contract] ! c) wait, what?
Why yes, I *am* pleased.

Why yes, I *am* pleased.

That’s right: A mere $15,000 (that’s about $30,000 in 2015 dollars, BTW) and my book would be published! Along with this list of absolutely hilarious promotional efforts:

"Study additional promotional steps after publication." UH, *sure*.

“Study additional promotional steps after publication.” UH, *sure*.

Yes, an advertising announcement not in The New York Times, but the “The New York Times”! And they will “suggest” “autograph parties” (what in bloody hell is an “autograph party?)! But the best is the “Production Specifications” section at the bottom, which assures me the trim size will be “about” 6×9, and that it will be printed on “quality” paper.

I mean, seriously. That this place operated for more than 60 years is a crime. I was 17 but not stupid, so I wrote them back a nasty letter telling them to return my manuscript or I would burn their place of business down. And this is what I got in response:

Just THIRTY THREE easy monthly payments of $350.

Just THIRTY THREE easy monthly payments of $350.

Yup – a fucking discount. They were sorry to hear I wasn’t incredibly stupid, or rich, or both, so they generously double-tapped me by suggesting I was so fucking talented, they could swing publication for just $11,675, saving me $3,000 over the suckers who didn’t bitch and moan. Even better is the suggestion that I could make monthly payments of $350 and they “would work on your book as we received the payments” so my book would publish three years later.

Oh this was rich. So I wrote a second letter demanding they return the manuscript or I would show up at their offices and perform the Daffy Duck Gasoline Trick He Can Do But Once, and they finally relented and returned my manuscript … but included this final gem of passive aggression:

"we do believe it would be worthwhile for you to make the effort."

“we do believe it would be worthwhile for you to make the effort.”

Holy hell. “You might be one of the fortunate few.”

I mean, seriously: My fault for not knowing any better, but assholes like this are why people think publishers are evil gatekeepers. Don’t worry; a few years later in 1990 they were successfully sued and ordered to pay $3.5 million to 2,200 authors who had paid them for services that were never actually performed, and the business moved to Massachusetts. Still, they stayed somehow in business for another twenty-two years, and apparently when they closed up shop they left a lot of authors in the lurch. Just goes to show: I’m dumb, but I ain’t that dumb.

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How to Annoy Your Agent

Your Anti-Monkey Rhetoric Makes Me Sad.

Your Anti-Monkey Rhetoric Makes Me Sad.

When you’re a young writer seeking an agent, you always think getting an agent will be like it is in the movies: They’ll buy you an expensive lunch and then start sending you plenty of contracts. In other words, we all think getting an agent is pretty much the same as becoming rich and famous. And then you get an agent and you discover what it really means is there’s someone to tell you how incredibly annoying you are, and that if you weren’t such a genius writer they would certainly have a restraining order against you.

This past week I tortured my lovely agent excessively with a series of oddball contracts, opportunities, and mysterious contacts from mysterious people. I had the following conversation with her at least three times:

<phone rings>

ME: Hello I am required by court order to inform you that I am not wearing pants.

AGENT: What in the sweet sainted hell is this?

ME: A short story contract.

AGENT: Who wrote it? Monkeys? DID MONKEYS WRITE THIS CONTRACT?

ME: Uh —

AGENT: IS THIS A JOKE? ARE YOU PRANKING ME? I Swear if you are pranking me I will have you killed.

ME: Uh — No prank. Is it okay to sign?

AGENT: Jebus. Yes, I’ll mark a few changes and you can sign it. Tell whoever wrote this contract they should plan carefully to never meet me in a dark alley.

And so on.

I did earn the ultimate compliment from my agent, though, when I sent her something on Saturday night around 10PM and happened to catch her still checking email (and a version of the conversation above did in fact occur), when she said “You really do provide the most entertainment of any client I have.”

Frankly, if I make you swear and then tell me I’m entertaining in the same breath, I figure I am doing my job as a writer. Right? This is why you need an agent: A lot of people out there think they know how to write a contract, or how to run a magazine or publisher, or how to do, well, anything. As a writer I have realized that the ONLY thing I know how to do competently is write (and believe me, there is a long string of Day Jobs where world-weary bosses will back me up on that). There have been plenty of contracts large and small that I would have signed without hesitation, only to pause when I spied the rictus of horror my agent’s face had taken on.

Am I saying that without my agent by now I’d have signed a contract written by monkeys and would be, in fact, working for Monkey Overlords and being paid in abuse and grooming sessions? That is exactly what I’m saying.

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The Art of Rejection Part Deux

Here we are in the second installment of essays about rejection letters I’ve received, because it’s educational and also because this blog is a hungry time-devouring beast that demands content, content, more and more content! until I lay awake at night wondering how in the world I will attract eyeballs tomorrow, and the next day, and the next until sleep is a distant memory.

Also, going back through these rejection letters has been eye-opening. First of all, I don’t recall being this industrious. I’m typically a lazy, lazy man. Secondly, I don’t recall being this hilarious.

Back in the Day I bought a Writer’s Market and read all the advice within and then promptly ignored it all and wrote these sloppy, funny, shaggy-dog type query letters based on the theory that I didn’t want to work with an agent or editor who didn’t “get” me or my sense of humor. This has proven to be excellent advice from my younger self, which is an unusual condition as my younger self’s advice is typically horseshit along the lines of “Sleep more” or “Dude!” – that’s it, just the word dude.

Anyways, here’s a query letter I sent out to a small publisher in early 1997, which was sent back to me with the handwritten notes on it, requesting the manuscript, and then my follow-up letter delivering the manuscript and the handwritten notes rejecting the book. I thought I’d share these because the query letter is a disaster in many ways, and yet it got a request for a full solely because I amused everyone in the room – in fact, I have another rejection somewhere that tells me flat out they would publish the query letter but not the book.

Yet Another Query letter from a Desperate and Violence-Prone Writer of Fiction

Yet Another Query letter from a Desperate and Violence-Prone Writer of Fiction

reject_97_Page_2

My God You Want to See the Book

The book itself was title Shadow Born (yes, yes, I know – my titles are awful and everyone knows this) and is one I still quite like, actually, although it is definitely juvenilia. It’s set at a college party where something terrible happens, is told from various POVs and employs some minor experimental things (experimental for me, not, you know, literature itself). The bit about my brother’s feedback is true. When he read the MS he complained that the final chapter, which was the MC ranting in a stream-of-consciousness way, should be titled “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” because of its pomposity, so I promptly re-titled the chapter “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” in a fit of pique. BURN.

Anyways, I had a lot of success getting responses from agents and editor by sending humorous, self-deprecating queries. I also had a lot of blank, form, and slightly negative responses to this tactic, so Your Mileage May Vary.

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The Music Makers

We watch him warily, all of us, trying not to look apprehensive. We watch him and Henry. Henry sitting politely, smiling a little. The Doctor was smiling too, but it was the toothy grin of the vulture, and we all vibrate with tension. I glance over at Ubie, and he flashes his bright blue eyes at me for just a second, but for Ubie to show any hint of weakness meant he was tremendously upset. He glances back at me again and shook his head just a little bit, telling me, telling us all to hang back.

Good morning, Mr. Bodkin,” the doctor said cheerily, pulling Henry’s chart off the bed and glancing at it with a fussy expression. “How are we today?”

Henry offers him his brave smile, but his eyes fly around to all of us.

I try to will all of us to stay quiet, for once. I shut my eyes and will it. Then Lil’s voice, high-pitched and tremulous.

You’re okay, Henry. Okay!”

And that was it, everyone starts talking at once. All of us, shouting at Henry. He tries to ignore us for a while, smiling at the doctor, and then he shuts his eyes and cocks his head. I open my eyes in time to see him shiver a little.

Shut up!” he shouts. “Shut up all of you!!!”

(more…)

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Being Charged for Submissions

I have cats to feed, you know.

I have cats to feed, you know.

The other day, writer Nick Mamatas mentioned pulling a story submission from a magazine because the magazine had instituted submissions fees (see the Storify here: https://storify.com/NMamatas/against-submission-fees). As it happens, I’d spent the day before seeking markets to submit stories in my typically semi-incompetent, shaggy dog kind of way, and I’d gotten frustrated after hitting three markets in a row that required submission fees of $2-$4 or thereabouts. It’s not a lot of money, maybe, but I didn’t submit to those magazines, because I agree with Nick: Submission fees are exploitive, and demonstrate that the market in question doesn’t value writers very highly.

It comes down to this: My work has value. The essential belief involved in fiction markets is that people (readers) will pay magazines and publishers money to read the things we write. If a magazine charges readers for the privilege of reading my genius, they should pay me for the right to publish it. If no one pays the magazine, that’s not my fault or my problem. They’re free to stop buying my work if I’m not bringing in eyeballs.

And I am free to not submit to markets that charge a submission fee, so what’s the problem? Well, I know that a few decades ago when I was just getting my legs under me, I might have paid some submission fees, because I was dimwitted and desperate for some professional street cred. And $2, even in those ancient days, was low enough that I could have considered it the cost of doing business. And all that would likely mean today is that I would have spent $500 on submission fees and likely not sold a damn thing, because the stories I was submitting weren’t all that great.

Being inundated with awful slush from idiots like me isn’t a good reason for submission fees, either. As Nick points out somewhere in there, a) reading slush is the price you pay for accepting submissions, b) there are ways to throttle down submissions if you’re being crushed by crappy subs (most easily, reading periods or very tight guidelines) and c) fees won’t stop the awful, it just monetizes it.

Money should flow to the writer, because we created the shit you want to read. It’s that simple. Yes, publishers get a cut for providing infrastructure. Others might get a cut for facilitating or assisting, who knows. But writers shouldn’t pay to play, period. As Nick points out, everyone else associated with getting a magazine out to its readers gets paid – why shouldn’t writers? And if people choose to volunteer for a magazine out of love for words, that’s great, but has nothing to do with submission fees.

Now if someone wants to talk to me about paying me for my submissions, I am open to that conversation. I’ve got a lot of stories, people. A lot of stories.

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Rejection Letters, I’ve Had a Few

SO, every weekend I sit here hungover and desiccated and try to think of something to write about on this blog that will make me feel like a Real Writer, entertain y’all, and possibly win me some sort of obscure blog award (do they still do that?). So I try to think about my few skills, which is always depressing. Aside from the ability to drink heavily (right up until the moment I lose that ability) and a certain skill in manipulating remote controls, I have disturbingly few talents. Oh, sure, the whole writing thing. So let’s amend that sentence to read “disturbingly few remunerative talents.”

And then it hit me: I do have one skill: The ability to collect rejection letters. I sent out my first fiction submission when I was 11 years old, and since then I’ve collected tons. Tons! of rejections.

These days they are largely electronic, of course, but I am so old I actually have a stack of rejection letters that I keep like the proverbial slave whispering in Caesar’s ear during the Triumph. So I thought, let’s examine some of these. It can be fun to humiliate yourself by exploring your failures. We’re starting off with this gem from the late 1980s.

WHAT'S MY NAME, BAEN?

WHAT’S MY NAME, BAEN?

SO: Cravenhold was an awful fantasy novel I wrote when I was about 14. It was inspired a bit by The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I took from that series the idea of a person from our universe being transported to a fantasy universe where he had immense power but very little understanding of it or how it worked.

It’s not good. Still, because at the age of 14 I hadn’t yet realized that “good” is generally a requirement for manuscripts, I submitted it. Also, I had no idea that different publishing companies had different styles or flavors, and Baen was almost certainly not a good fit for my work.

Now, back in those days submitting a manuscript was a damn job, kids. I had to photocopy 360 pages of typewritten work, smeared with white-out (or, more accurately, pester my father to bring it into work and photocopy it for me) then type out a cover letter where I bragged about being 14, then stuff it with an SASE into a manilla envelope, then take it to the post office.

So, you can imagine my adolescent outrage when they sent back a flimsy form letter without even bothering to make a note of any kind to indicate that my manuscript was not immediately fed into a machine that turns manuscripts into dark black cubes that are then used to build more machines that in turn transform manuscripts into dark black cubes, and so on. Today, of course, I can only imagine the hilarity that ensued when Baen received a novel from a bragging 14-year old that contained as much awful writing and borrowed ideas as Cravenhold, and so I now think I got off easy.

The form letter rejection, of course, lives on, and I’ll admit that even today I am more surprised when places I submit (on my own, typically magazines) don’t use a form rejection, because I totally believe the line about how they have so many stories competing for attention, yada yada. So when I get a “Dear Jeff” and a line about the story itself, I am generally made very happy.

I’ll be posting more exciting moments of Fail from my literary life as we go. Because all y’all seem to really enjoy it when I fail. <bursts into tears>

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I’m Naked and I’m Far From Home: Save Me (In Video Games)

It's a purty game.

It’s a purty game.

FRIENDS, sometimes I try to elevate this blog and write about something serious, like writing or social issues. Well, I tried that once, at least. The rest of the time this blog is incoherent and spastic as I try to promote myself, crack jokes, and look smart all at once, with a typical outcome being a lot of people digitally shaking their heads and virtually tsking me as I lay sprawled on their monitors, humiliated.

So, today we’re not even trying. I’m going to go into Natural Somers Mode and simply complain. It’s what my people were bred to do. And what I will complain about is painfully prosaic and a very First World Problem and I do not care! I will complain because it is my birthright. And what I choose to complain about is the checkpoint save system in video games like Bioshock Infinite.

Slow and Dimwitted

Three things you need to know about me before we proceed: I am cheap. I possess almost no hand-eye coordination or reflexes. I am lazy. Anyone who has spent time with me knows the first. Anyone who played with me in Little League when I was a kid knows the second. And anyone who … well, actually, everyone in the world knows about the last one.

This carries into video games. I have a pretty narrow love for First Person Shooter games, and I’m terrible at them like I am terrible at everything that requires quick-thinking and lightning-fast reflexes. Let’s just say in the event of Zombie Apocalypse, I should not be your first draft into your Zombie Defense Team. Leave me to the second or third round, after your best people have been eaten.

I recall a looooonggggg time ago when people could reasonably say they spent a weekend playing Unreal Tournament, my friend Ken set up Unreal Tournament at his office, where his LAN made it easy (this was before Internet multiplayer was really a thing). Our friend Jeof and I came by, we sat in separate offices, and spent the day trying to murder each other, virtually. And I camped the whole day. I found a hidden spot just over a tunnel junction, and sat there, and every time Ken or Jeof walked past I shot them in the head. After a while they banded together to hunt down my hiding spot, and then for me the war was over. That’s how I play video games.

Also: I cheat.

This is not because I don’t believe in the rules of polite society. This is because if I didn’t cheat, gaming wouldn’t be any fun for me. I don’t play multiplayer, so when I say I cheat, I mean use cheats to do things like live forever, have endless ammunition, and walk through walls, so my lack of skills doesn’t turn the game into something frustrating. Frankly, I just enjoy playing god. I am immortal, I know all, and I can do anything. It’s fun!

Also: I save my game constantly.

Saving my game with the press of a button: If you don’t play video games you might not understand how crucial this is for sanity. This way, in case I am not cheating, if I die a spectacular death by zigging when I should have zagged, I can jump right back to where I left off. Or if I screw up by missing something I can’t easily go back to. Or if I miss a cool extra bit. Basically, by saving constantly, I can explore, roam, and enjoy the universe that’s been created for me – and that I paid for – with impunity, at my pace.

Some might say this is not really playing the game, that if I can’t manage to gun down mine enemies and manage my own ammunition, I shouldn’t complain. These people can go fuck themselves, of course.

So, Bioshock Infinite

Yes, so, I bought a game recently on Steam called Bioshock Infinite, which is the third Bioshock game. Played the first one, enjoyed it. Skipped the second, never regretted it. But it was $13 on Steam along with some extras, so that seemed about right. Game looks gorgeous. Interesting intro sequences. But it has what is called a Checkpoint save system. Basically, the game automatically saves your progress at certain points in the game and you have no input into when or where. Likely it’s because the game was developed for the consoles (XBox, etc.). There are also no cheat codes, as far as I can tell. So, yes, the game is ruined.

Checkpoint saves are the worst idea ever in the history of ideas, right ahead of National Socialism and formal wear. They force you to maddeningly repeat areas of the game over and over. Scenario, for example: You’re weak and barely survive your last encounter. So you scour the area for supplies to gain health and ammo. Then you solve a puzzle. Then you step into a firefight, get chewed up, and die. And then … you have to start over twenty minutes ago, and repeat. all. the. same. actions.

Come to think of it, Bioshock Infinite can go fuck itself, too.

Game as Novel

See, increasingly, video games are narrative. Bioshock and its sequels all have fairly intricate stories, complete with characters and twists. More importantly, their universes are extremely detailed and expansive. You can wander around them and investigate instead of simply murdering everything that moves (although, hey, that’s fun too). In fact, many games actually reward the wandering.

And for me, that’s part of the fun of cheating and saving my game constantly: The freedom to just wander and experience this world the way I want to. It’s like when you buy a new book and read the last page, or flip around and read it out of order. You read it the way you want to. A Checkpoint Save system is like buying a book that’s somehow programmed to force you to read it one sentence at a time – and if you close the book before a certain point, you have to go back and re-read that section again.

So, to recap: I have no reflexes, I’m a cheater, and Checkpoint save systems were somehow important enough for me to write 1,000 words about them today. I’m gonna put this one in the WIN column and go have a drink.

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