The Da Vinci Factor: A Quick Thought on Integrating Other Artforms

It’s easy to forget what art used to look like. We have only had videogames for about forty years. We have only had film for just over a century. Even novels are a relatively new artform when compared to other forms of expression. We have had music and painting for far longer than we have had long narratives. We can trace the genealogy of literature to the narratives told in cave paintings and songs and to epic poetry. As such, it is important to remember that we as a species are predisposed toward stories with visual and auditory components. What can we as writers take in from other art forms, whether we practice them or not? What can practicing and trying out these forms do for our writing?

The first storytelling was visual. Cave paintings became carvings. Carvings became tapestries. Urns and pots were frequently inscribed with scenes. Now we have comic books and films and as such, we get visual stimuli with a lot of our narratives. Many of our comics writers are also artists. Directors like David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Tim Burton are also painters. Alan M. Clark, an acclaimed horror artist I know is also a fantastic author of morbid, fascinating historical fictional. Just as Lynch and Burton turn their skilled eye to storytelling, so too does Alan turn his attention to aesthetics, detail and scenemaking to his fiction. If you watch a film by Lynch or Burton or look at a painting or read a book by Alan, we get a richer sensory experience than we would in the hands of an artist who doesn’t pay attention to the eye. When we’re writing we should remember this. We don’t just need to let readers experience the scene but to find interesting things inside it, to build sets and create captivating details and images that are not necessarily one hundred percent relevant to the understanding of the story.

Visual details are extremely important in fiction. But we shouldn’t forget the ear. Writing might seem like a visual medium since mostly when we read, we do so quietly and relate to the text with our eyes. This is not entirely so. The rhythm and cadence of our language changes our experience as readers. Before there were novels and short stories, there were poems, before there were poems with our songs. We read with our ears. The rhythms and line lengths of a piece change how we relate to it. A long, plodding, monotonous sentence that seems to have no conclusion in sight, one that does not give the reader much time for respite is one that will instill in the reader a sense of lethargy or tension or a desire to either put down the text in hand or to skip ahead and hopefully reach a point at which the language begins to move at a crisper and more organic pace which creates a sense of immediacy and urgency and presence in the situation. See what I did there? That long, plodding interminable sentence provides you with the information but you really want it to end. The rhythm of short, sharp sentences does the opposite. You write. The scene seems to be progressing too slowly. The fight scene doesn’t seem urgent enough. You shorten your line lengths. The story speeds up. The readers eyes progress faster through the page, the voice in their head reading it speeds up. The action happens quicker. Rhythm is your friend.

As a poet and singer/songwriter, I see the importance of keeping your ear attuned. A lot of writer neglect the sound of their prose and the rhythm of it because they don’t stop to listen. This can sometimes create an emotional disconnect or prose that plods and is less pleasing to the reader. Remember what the poet, the songwriter and the painter know about storytelling and mood. You can take that with you. A story with nothing for the mind’s eye and ear won’t stand out for readers and might be harder for you to write because you lose your emotional connection with it. Read out loud. Tap out your sentences. Your readers and editors will be grateful if you do.

Speaking of music, I have an ulterior motive for this post but not a particularly sinister one. My songwriter partner Wick Hill and I just dropped our second album Things That Can Never Happen Again. You can listen to it or download it here. I sing on three tracks and was involved in the writing of almost all songs. You can see in this how songwriting and poetry can inspire and inform a writer and editor’s ear. You can also buy it because we worked hard on that shit.

GET IT HERE

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Trope vs. Tripe: the Sincerest Form of Failure

Genre fiction has been built on a foundation of pulp. Pulp has been built on a foundation of modern myth. When a writer takes to genre writing, one of the first impulses is to see if their work looks like other genre writing to see if it fits comfortably into that stable. Depending on the writer’s level of familiarity and comfort with genre, this will mean either a.) they will try to see if their work looks like their favorite author in the genre or b.) they will see if it looks like the most popular author currently working in the genre. These two might be one and the same in some lucky cases but that’s exceedingly rare and is rarer depending upon how well read the author is in said genre. For example, there are very few contemporary crime writers who will tell you that James Patterson is their favorite crime novelist of all time. Some will say Donald Westlake, some will say Raymond Chandler, others will say Ed McBain or occasionally even Mickey Spillane.

What happens next is what separates a lot of good writing from a lot of bad writing. The reactions to passing or failing this test can determine the trajectory of a writer’s work for some time to come. If a writer sees that their work looks like their favorite writer in the genre, how they decide to react can change how they approach fiction. The writer has two options here: 1.) continuing imitating author x because author x is awesome or 2.) see how their work differentiates from author x and work with that. The writer who has chosen choice number 1 has a set of challenges ahead. The biggest of these challenges is that when they submit to anyone who has read author x, they will be compared to author x and the editor will know that author x did it first and probably better. If the author imitating author x chooses self publishing, readers will know the same thing but the author can try to bet on the populace not being well read enough to recognize their influences. This gets very difficult when their influences are Harry Potter or Underworld.  If you want to base your well-being on whether somebody has never seen a McDonald’s or had coffee at Starbucks, you will probably not win that bet. There are some readers that wlll not care that you look exactly like author x and will think “oh boy, more Tolkien!” And this might look like a blessing, until you realize that if author x is that popular, then a lot of authors will be imitating author x, and you are not just competing with author x for readership but with several other people whose work looks exactly like yours.

The author who takes the second road risks people not recognizing them as a disciple of author x. Is this a problem? Only if you were trying to bank on your brand being “I’m just like author x”. They have to figure out what their fanbase will look like and whether their unique take on the genre does not knock them outside of its hallowed halls. There is still a chance that people will say “this is like author x” but they are more likely to use the term favorably. If the author on the road of differentiation stretches genre too far, he meets up with the author who has failed the genre test in an awkward but potentially wonderful place. These authors meet at the place where they either change the genre or become their own genre.

The writer whose work looks nothing like the rest of his genre risks rejection a lot. Editors might look at the work and say “dude, this is a horror magazine. I don’t know what this is but it ain’t horror.” But this author has two of the three weapons of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition at their disposal: fear and surprise (devotion to the pope optional). They get the benefit of an editor saying “hmm, this horror story looks like no other horror story. I am trying to edit a publication that stands out from other publications. I will take this because it will help me stand out.” Depending on how driven the writer is, how ready the market is and how competent their allies are, this can lead to either a series of rewarding small victories or long term changes in the genre they want to work in.

Imitation is the sincerest way to flatter, yeah. Tolkien and Stephen King don’t need to be flattered though. You’re the one who needs to look good.

This Space (Sort of) For Rent (But for Free)

A lot of blogs benefit from guest bloggers. This gives others in the industry a chance to share their voice and to mix things up for the blog. I hadn’t really done this before with my old blog but this new one has encouraged me to try different things, like writing about the fundamentals of writing and editing and actually using blogging to draw attention to my services. Because of this, I’d like to open up this blog to other authors and professionals in publishing. If you have a unique perspective, a challenge, an interview with an interesting person, a project you’re kickstarting and want to talk about, an amazing, courageous pet or just a weird experience, I might like to hear about it.

So, email me at thecentercannothold@gmail.com with your ideas for articles, interviews or whatever and I might have you on here as a guest blogger. Hope to hear from you all soon!

Reading is Fundamental

The other day, I lost one of the most important influences in my life and development. We’d been out of touch for years but teachers don’t expect people to stay in touch, not really. My literature professor, Jaysinh Birjepatil passed away recently. In his classes, I first read the works of Joyce, Kafka, Gunter Grass, Wallace Stevens, Baudelaire, Sylvia Plath and many more. Through his classes, I began to learn where the limits of storytelling were. The novels he exposed me to taught me about characterization, taught me about playing with voice, taught me about embedding dreams. The poets he exposed me to showed me rhythm, images and how to play in a conceptual playground of ideas. I don’t write what you would call “literary fiction” but the literature he exposed me to still influences every single word I write.

When I started reading more widely in genre fiction, I learned more about plotting. I saw tropes subverted and played with. I saw Nick Mamatas arm William Burroughs against The Deep Ones in Move Underground. I saw a contemporary urban fellowship of vampire hunters come apart under the stress of dealing with punk rock bloodsuckers in John Skipp’s The Light at the End. I saw a hero who was at once a leper, an asshole, a rapist and a messiah deal with the complications of saving a world not his own in Stephen R. Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. The architecture of possibilities got bigger and extended far beyond what I had seen on television or read about in the D and D tie in novels I had loved in elementary school.

I encounter clients and writers who don’t think it’s important to read in their genre. Recently, an author I know pointed out that someone had reviewed a book on writing claiming that it was out of date because they did not use writers of contemporary bestsellers as an example and instead used Elmore Leonard, a master of tight plotting and characterization, as an example. This was, excuse my language, one of the biggest heaps of horseshit I have heard in my life. He was then accused of being an elitist. If he’s an elitist, I am quite certainly one. I’m an editor. I’ve gotta be. If I didn’t like quality, I wouldn’t want to be a writer or editor. It’s good to have high expectations.

How do you get high expectations? You read really good fiction. Ulysses might not be your cup of tea but maybe The Big Sleep is. Maybe It or The Great and Secret Show. Even if you plan on being the next YA paranormal romance bazillionaire, you still need an edge and you still need something better than the other aspiring paranormal romance bazillionaires. And your way to get a leg up on them is to learn some dirty tricks from the greats. Remember that your genre started with the Bronte Sisters and Bram Stoker. Know gothic literature, see how to create that tension, learn about how to make your characters pop, and maybe find some ideas that haven’t been touched for awhile, dust them off, repurpose them and make them yours.

You need an edge. Knowledge of what’s hot is not enough. Imitating what’s hot can get you at best one hit wonder status. It will also prevent you from surprising your reader. Even if you’ve found something that’s been done before, seeing you do it better will get you a fan for life. Talk to writers in your genre and see who influenced them. Read essays about your genre. This book, Horror: The 100 Greatest Books, changed not only what I read but how I read it and how I perceived the genre. If you want to change the game, you have to know the players and how it is played. Knowing what’s on the bestseller list is good. Knowing your ass from your elbows is better.

Narrative Maladies: Projectile Exposition

I came from the town of Wenham, Massachusetts, on the North Shore. It was a town with a population of about 3,000, though it was actually bordered by 17 different towns. Wenham was 9 square miles of swamp with a fudge shop, a library, an ice cream stand and an antique store, in short, there was nothing there. Wenham was once called Enon because there was much water and it made most of its money off of the ice trade. It was the advent of the refrigerator that turned Wenham into an impractical yuppie suburb, a safe place for sure, but one not untouched by a legacy of snobbery and Puritanism. It is perhaps growing up among stereotypical white clapboard churches built atop swamp and knowing that those around me were in their secret hearts the witch judges they came from that planted the seeds for me becoming an editor and writing this article for you about why not to use too much exposition.

Projectile exposition is the most common Narrative Maladies I encounter. Why? Well, you know how they say that haters gotta hate? Narrators gotta narrate. Fiction is, after all, a narrative form. As writers, we are obligated to provide details to and convey atmosphere for our readers. So, our job is to narrate. But how do we know when we’re providing too much information, providing it too soon or not providing it right? There are some factors that we need to consider.

First of all, we have to take into account whether or not our exposition slows the piece down. When we start with a mound of exposition, we actually prevent our readers from getting to know our characters and worlds. Why? Well, let’s say somebody told you that Paris was a city in France. Then they stopped and told you about the GNP of France. Then they told you about the trade goods of France. Then they showed you a blueprint to the Eiffel Tower. What would you think of Paris? Would you think the same of it as you would watching it come to life in a Goddard film? Would you think the same of Paris as you would if you went on a vacation there? Showing how the world works day to day is an almost axiomatically better way to introduce people to it than to say how it works. The exposition is making your reader wait to experience your world and your characters.

Second of all, we have to take into account whether this information is needed immediately. Do we have to know how the protagonist’s fifth birthday party went if he is killing vampires on the top of a subway train full of dynamite? Even if vampires attacked his fifth birthday party and killed his parents, we don’t need to know that right then. Things we need to know: who this man is that is fighting the vampires (and just barely), that there are vampires and that they are on top of a train full of dynamite. We do not need to know about this man’s birthday party and we certainly don’t need to know about Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite. People will pay attention to the vampire fight on the dynamite train. They might expect you to START explaining what the hell happened afterwards but as long as you know, you can get that info out there.

Lastly, we need to figure out whether a reveal later will be more interesting. The TV series Arrow for example, has a massive back story that it could have laid out immediately. It has a lot of reveals that explain facets of the world and of the protagonist, Oliver Queen’s life. But Arrow decides instead that introducing you to these situations and concepts as they become relevant is a lot more interesting. The character’s back story is told in every episode in a series of very short flashbacks. As these flashbacks come together, you get a bigger picture. If the pilot had just been these flashbacks and the A plot of the show carried on, then it would be a lot less interesting. Exposing people to something directly is better than telling them about it. Surprising them with the depth and breadth of your world is better than surprising them with the depth and breadth of your outline.

But if you’re worried about projectile exposition of other narrative maladies, there’s an easy solution: seek out an editor. We’ve read enough, written enough and worked with enough manuscripts to know these sicknesses and help you ameliorate them so that your story or book can hopefully live a long and happy life.

You Might Just Make It Out of This Alive: Thoughts on Building a Short Story Colllection

Though I am an editor because I am committed to using the skills I have to survive and help others thrive too, I am first and foremost an author. It’s kind of hard to pin down who I am as an author sometimes because I tend to believe that first and foremost I must serve the story over myself. So, piece by piece, I do my best to embrace curiosity in its most extreme forms. I’ve therefore surveyed a lot of territory beyond what I identify as my Bizarro fiction brand. I go from Cosmic Horror, to Urban Fantasy to Bizarro and to other places entirely. Which is why I’m really excited to be putting out a collection. Choosing the pieces and the order, I was reminded of discussions with my bandmate as to what we were putting on our album, arguments on the aesthetics and tone of it and the way the tracks were laid down. My editor, Jeff Burk and publisher, Rose O’ Keefe gave me a lot of freedom on this one.

First of all, they let me decide how I presented the stories to you. This was a daunting task but an enjoyable one. I remembered thinking about The Beatles album Let It Be. Let It Be had always been a puzzle to me. I knew a lot of the trouble was the meddling in the studio and Phil Spector not quite getting what was going in John, Paul and George’s heads. When I listen to this album, I didn’t hear a single track I didn’t like. The pieces listeners would be likely to point fingers at, i really like and would have been welcome on a different album. One After 909 is a fun throwback to their early days, I Dig a Pony has a quiet intensity to it. Though I’m not crazy about The Long and Winding Road, it would be a different matter on an album that didn’t already have the emotional 1-2 of Across the Universe and Let it Be. Good tracks do not necessarily make a good album. So, I looked instead to The White Album and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, albums that embrace diversity but still have a unified effect. I of course went for the things that had been picked up by markets I liked but some of my favorite things I’ve written still got the shaft.It took me awhile to figure out the order I wanted to show these things in but when I established that rhythm, I was happy with it.

Another great bit of freedom that I got was input on the title and cover design. Eraserhead is awesome to work in this way. While sometimes wary of my missteps in the decision-making process, Rose and Jeff were always listening and put a lot of trust into their authors. I’ve spoken before about the usefulness of the small press support system and Rose and Jeff showed me exactly why this is an organization I believe in and take pleasure in working with.  The title was pulling teeth. I gave Jeff and Rose a bunch of phrases that were too decadent, too subcultured and oftentimes, just too silly. Ideas ranged from But She Was Made of Leeches to Shadowpuppet Autopsy to a bunch of different stuff about razors. I was at one point told that I was not looking to title a Rob Zombie album. Eventually, I picked up on a phrase I use jokingly a lot and one that appears in my work sometimes. It clicked. And when I had that phrase, I had an idea for the cover aesthetic. I talked to Jim Agpalza, a very talented artist I know and I told him I had a really cool idea. He said it sounded like something that would be fun to draw. Rose and Jeff agreed. Rose and Jeff took Jim’s image and created the book design. What did it come out like?

You Might Just Make it cover

Pretty damn great.

They took my years of work and struggle and hurt and they helped turn them into something beautiful.

My collection You Might Just Make It Out of This Alive is available now on Amazon.

http://www.amazon.com/Might-Just-Make-This-Alive/dp/1621051730/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421519681&sr=8-1&keywords=You+Might+Just+Make+it+Out+of+This+Alive

Fear of Your Own Words

Did you know that right now, somewhere in the world, people are having anal sex and enjoying themselves? Did you know that right now, somewhere in the world, people are shooting up on heroin, and, right or wrong, they are enjoying themselves? Did you know that right now, a woman in PVC is smacking another woman with a riding crop and they are enjoying themselves? You probably knew that. Why wouldn’t you know that? This world is full of violent, interesting, weird, dangerous, silly and dirty things. If you were ever tempted to take pen to paper or read someone’s blog about doing it, then you most likely had to have noticed this.

Lately, I see a lot of writers wondering if they can write about certain things. I see media outlets shocked that a certain relatively common sex act was performed on an HBO show, a network that has brought us rape, incest and dragons on the same show. I see writers wondering if their bad guys can use racial slurs, whether young people know if they’re gay,  if showing someone smoking weed encourages drug use, if someone losing their virginity at 16 is child pornography. Some even wonder whether swearing alienates readers.  These questions are posed by people residing in a world in which massacres, white slavery, torture and female circumcision are occurring as we speak.

Is it still the job of writers to lie so people are comfortable? The sitcoms of the 1950s are a thing of both amusement and terror to us nowadays. We look at them and see misogyny, racism, anti-Communist witchhunting and the fear of being annihilated by nuclear weapons. This is a chilling, stagnant place where mommies and daddies have broods of children even though they never sleep in the same bed. If you wish to go to work for The Disney Channel, trying to create a safe, comfortable space where this is still so, nobody will fault you and the money is good. But if you asked the question at all, if it came up and you thought about it even, that means there is at least a part of you that knows that drugs don’t automatically ruin your life, that black, brown, gay and female people still got it bad and that some people like to get spanked.

To those of you who are worried about swear words, offense and shock, I am published by a press that has put out a book called The Baby Jesus Buttplug. If you heard those words and even tried to figure out what they could mean, then chances are you should not be asking whether swears are okay in your work. If you know what a buttplug is, if you have had an orgasm, or, hell, if you know someone who has had an orgasm, you should not be afraid to swear. Reading The Baby Jesus Buttplug was a cornerstone in my career. In this book, somebody took a repugnant and frightful and dirty central metaphor and used it to talk about the anxiety of family building, the intervention of religion in our bedrooms and the pressure for men to adhere to a specific Judeochristian model of fatherhood. The contents might sound gross, they might not be for you but this book boldly dealt with these issues and with the author’s anxieties using intense, shocking, imagery, commensurate with the writer’s feeling of the situation’s grotesquerie. He got some nasty emails from Glenn Beck’s The Blaze but he still walks down the street without having bricks thrown at him and did not burst into flames the first time he typed the word “buttplug”.

You are probably not writing something as shocking as The Baby Jesus Buttplug or Burroughs’ Naked Lunch or even Joyce’s Ulysses, considered by many to be the greatest novel of all time in spite of its sexual content and pervasive fart jokes. You probably don’t need all of the fantastic, deadly words you have at your disposal in this language to build your book. Still, the fact is, there are neuroses, dark and uncomfortable thoughts and actions some would call reprehensible out there and inside us and if we are afraid to talk about them, then they go unaddressed and the people dealing with them have to keep everything bottled up. Art is about dialogue. The words of great artists are feared by puritans, bigots, zealots and the status quo. And they got to say them because they weren’t afraid of them.

What Have I Got to Lose?

Being a working artist is tough. I know what it’s like to go hungry. I know what it’s like to be afraid to keep a roof over your head or not know where the next roof over your head will be. It is only through the support of friends, fans and community that I have managed to keep going to make and support the work I love. I cannot promise anyone who seeks to make it as a writer that the streets will be paved with gold and you will be met with respect and empathy from the people around you. When it happens, it’s good. When it doesn’t, it’s awful.

I keep my rates low because I’m building this and because of the memory of growling stomach and fear of a cold house and maybe someday a cold alley. I know it sucks in the early early phases of your career when everybody around you acts like you’ve lost your fucking marbles and might as well be shooting up behind the White Castle. My rates are for the people like that or maybe they’re what they are because I can’t feel how high the ground I stand on is. Whatever. What’s important is that I try to be available for people who need my work.

Seeking clients takes time and energy that I could be devoted to doing the work. I mostly want to just do the work, whether it be writing my work or editing yours. So, this morning, I decided to try something new. Patreon is a method of supporting artists and showing you believe in what they do. They, in turn reward you with exclusive opportunities. Patreon might seem on the surface like an admission of defeat, a community throwing its hands up and saying “This is impossible!” But it’s not. This is a way of connecting to fans and giving them an opportunity to vote you up with their dollar, an opportunity to get some freedom. Artists should not be intrinsically poor. We shouldn’t have to be living hand to mouth, supplementing the thing we do best with hauling crates in warehouses or grinning and bearing it as we suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous bullshit.

Throw down on this Patreon and you can get some special opportunities, a chance to contribute a component to a crowdsourced novella, a chance to read stuff before it hits the street or a personal consultation on your book pitch. When this thing hits 120 dollars a month, I write and share a story a week. When it hits 200, I write a crowdsourced novella. At 600, I go to Texas, the land of my estranged father’s origin and keep a record of my journey, which might well have some special literary guest stars. Thanks for your time and maybe, for your patronage.

Patreon link here

Narrative Maladies: Destinitis

As an editor, an author and a reader, I’ve encountered a slew of narrative issues. Some of them are exotic and strange and particular to the manuscript at hand, Most of them are not. Just as grammar problems are fairly systematic, so too are plot problems. There are a stable of misconceptions about writing, insecurities in the authorial psyche and pop culture tropes we’ve been hit in the head with so much that we think this is how fiction should work. The job of both author and editor is to point out these maladies and cut them off before they claim another victim. You (probably) work hard on your manuscripts and you don’t want to see them toetagged.

Today’s narrative malady is a common one. We grew up with it. We loved it and still love it in a certain context. Who doesn’t love a chosen one, the one guy or gal born to be so good at what they do that it will save the world? Heroic destinies remind us of our own unlocked potential, tell us that while we might just be humble vapor farmers now, someday, a tiny green  Muppet will teach us how to unlock the secrets of the universe and be the best us we can be. Harry Potter, Star Wars and Dune all work this magic and take us somewhere where human dignity and potential are the most powerful force in existence.

So, what’s wrong with writing a story about heroic destiny? Nothing, really. These are stories that shape our imaginations and cultural narrative. The problem lies in one important element of storytelling: The element of surprise. When you’re telling stories about heroic destiny, you are in danger of telling a story with a binary outcome: 1.) the person with the heroic destiny uses their inner awesomeness and frees the universe from oppression. Which is good. Oppression is really bad. OR 2.) the hero fails and the universe remains a terrible place. Children stare tearfully at the Happy Meal toy in their hand as if were Charles Foster Kane’s snowglobe. The first ending’s not a bad ending. We all want that ending in our own lives. The second ending can be beautiful and full of pathos. The problem is that more cynical and experienced readers sit down with your book knowing from page 1 how the book’s going to end. Except when done extremely well, this will lead certain readers to put down your book pretty quickly or not even buy it in the first place. Though a lot of crap does rise to the top of the heap, readers are still very much drawn to surprise and originality.

What can you do about this? Well, you have to do what Harry Potter and Star Wars have done: keep a big secret. While the ultimate outcome of the story is obvious from the getgo, the exact nuances might not be. With the twist ending out of your arsenal, your reveals need to be significant and the nature of the person who saves the world must be changed fundamentally by the reveal. Hell, you can even change which character is your world’s savior. Star Wars might have been something else if it was revealed halfway through that Chewbacca exhibited more potential as a Jedi than Luke did or that Dumbledore and Snape have pulled off a fantastic ruse, concealing Voldemort’s true archnemesis, Draco Malfoy from danger.

For keeping the reader interested in the heroic destiny narrative, other elements also help. On the show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, Joss Whedon has a Chosen One front and center. You see worldshattering villains and bloodthirsty vampires attacking a town full of (reasonably) innocent people. You watch a teenage girl become a martial arts killing machine whose destiny it is to wipe out evil. If the martial arts killing machine is going to wipe out evil, then, chances are, some shit’s gonna go down for evil. That doesn’t sound like a very rewarding story arc. Let’s say someone tells you the following story: “this morning, I wanted a cheeseburger. The cheeseburger was open and I had sufficient funds to eat one. Guess what happened?” Part of you is starting to really hope this person fails to get a cheeseburger.

Buffy overcomes this problem by surrounding Buffy with complicated and vulnerable people, her best friend Willow, who has a long and complicated hero’s journey all her own but is not particularly great at impaling the undead on pointy things, Xander, a geeky and supposedly comical sidekick whose support is integral in spite of his feelings of worthlessness not just to the heroic project but the project of his own life and my personal favorite, redeemed demon Anya, who deals with the frustration of living in a world whose ethics are not her own and with the sudden influx of very human feelings. These characters don’t just create tension for Buffy by being more fragile than she is but create tension for the viewer because they have their own worlds to navigate that are less cut and dry than Buffy’s. And they’re also entertaining.. Guardians of the Galaxy is not a movie about a cosmic messiah retrieving a deadly artifact. It’s a movie about a cosmic messiah, a redeemed killer, a vengeful criminal, a wisecracking raccoon and a talking tree retrieving a deadly artifact.

So, when you create a story of heroic destiny, make sure that there’s more going on than heroic destiny. It’s a popular framework for a tale but it takes a lot of gears to keep that engine running. Remember the stories you love when you create new ones, not just to emulate them and imitate them but to understand how they work so you can innovate. Consider your characters, consider your world, consider the secrets that can make it a different place. If you don’t, Destinitis might claim your manuscript’s potential and you certainly don’t want that. Good luck, Chosen Ones.

Thinking Outside the Bomb Shelter: Making Career Choices Without Your Tinfoil Hat

Well, looks like Fifty Shades of Grey has become a huge Hollywood film. What a story! A fanfiction writer managed to rise through gumption and talent to the top of the heap and had their self publish erotica turn into an empire. Go West, young author, opportunities abound to get rich and become a film franchise with your self published and poorly researched erotica. You don’t need to know anything about human behavior, BDSM etiquette or the dynamics of abusive relationships. The success of the book is an inspiring story, though one fraught with very complicated feelings. Success is good. Crashing the gates is good. Changing the game is good. Raising awareness of alternative lifestyles is good, even if it’s not in the most reverent and competent manner.

I have a lot of clients and friends who self publish. It suits them. They want to put out as much material as they want when they want without having to deal with the politics, opinions and timetables of others. These are people who know what they need and why they need it. They’re usually not spewing venom about fatcats or bragging about how their next book is going to buy them a new BMW or a hovercraft with a front-mounted missile launcher. They find designers, they hire an editor (ahem) and they use beta readers to make sure they’re not working in a vacuum. They read up on their genres to make sure they know what other authors working in their fields are doing. They cultivate friendships with self published and traditionally published authors alike. They’re cool.

But sometimes it seems that the sentiments against traditional publishing get venomous in these times of upheaval for the industry. The chance to work without the eyes and approval of some monocled millionaire who is damn close to foreclosing on the Bailey Savings and Loan has made it possible for a lot of authors to scream “LATER, SUCKERS!” as they set bridges to a better life ablaze behind them. I’ve heard certain authors speak of a publisher I work with that started out as a socialist publishing collective on stolen copier paper as if they were Monsanto, or run by Lex Luthor instead of a woman in her thirties that makes life easier for dozens of people (myself included) with a staff that can ride in the same car. The possibility of crashing the gate can make a rejection letter seem sinister or the fact that small presses often work with the same authors or know the authors they work with well seem conspiratorial.

The small press is not for everyone. Like self publishing, it still requires good self advocacy and communication and a good marketing plan. It is not that small presses aren’t willing to help you get your book off the ground it’s that the time and resources might not necessarily be there. You aren’t likely to receive the sizable advance you associate with getting a book published or the instant clout of having your book selected by an editor. You may find that your book does not get shelf space as much as you would like it to. These are all factors that can be discouraging to new authors and might make them wonder if they have misplaced their trust.

But this is not inherently the case. A small press offers a lot of benefits. For one thing, having someone to design your book for you that has experience doing it cuts costs and will often lead to a better, more aesthetic product. What looked like cliquishness when you were outside the organization is now a support system that will follow you for some time. There are opportunities for mentorship and, since, the press might be shorthanded or just willing to teach, opportunities to learn new skills. And, honestly, if your self published book is the kind of book that would take off, your million dollar idea with a good cover, a couple blurbs and extra feet on the street to push it will still flourish.

Nothing is axiomatic in the arts. Nothing is perfect for everybody but informed decision making, getting to know people and building a support system is always good, better than any kneejerk prejudices. Whatever your manuscript is, I wish the best for it and hope you consider what I’ve said in deciding what kind of home and future it needs.