Submission Advice from a Failure

I’ve gotten to that point in my writing (pre)career where I’ve written some stuff, I feel pretty secure in my abilities, and I’m putting myself out there. I’ve sent out six query letters for my novel (two rejections, more to come), and spent a little time looking for homes for a pair of short stories.

Obviously, this does not make me an expert. I’ve only gotten rejections, and not many of those yet. But I’ve learned three important things that I would like to share with my fellow would-be-published-speculative-fiction-writers.

(1) Read this before writing your query letters. Apparently I wasted my time with those first six query letters, because I hadn’t read the SFWA’s guide to finding an agent yet. Turns out I messed up about six different ways. Giving information that I shouldn’t give, withholding information that I should, that sort of thing. I can’t prove that the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America know what they’re talking about, but since they’ve all been published in my genre of interest I’ll assume they know a thing or two.

(And note: you’ll probably have to personalize part or all of most of your query letters. Every agent or publisher says they are looking for different things, so you’ll have to tell them how your work fulfills their desires.)

(2) Have some patience, and season your work. Put it in a drawer, or leave it alone on your hard drive, for at least a few months — six, if you can stand it. Then read it and edit it before sending it out. This advice comes from Steven King, enshrined in his excellent guide to writing, On Writing. This book should be your bible — it is mine. I followed this rule for my novel, but not my short stories until a kindly editor rejected my work and called it “rushed”. I know I can do better than rushed — but I’ve got to let some emotional space grow between me and my work before I can take a critical eye and editing-pen to it.

(3) Form rejections break your heart, personalized rejections are precious lessons. Notice how I called the editor who rejected my work “kindly”. That’s because he let me know WHY he rejected my work, in the form of real, critical advice I can use. I would rather he had accepted my work, of course, but I’m not even mad he didn’t, because I know what to try next. The form rejections I’ve gotten for my novel, on the other hand, have upset me. I don’t know what I did wrong, so I don’t know what to try next.

(The good news is that a few rejections do thicken your proverbial skin.)

If I have more professional query letter (see item 1) I assume that agents will take me more seriously, even the ones that reject me. If they take me more seriously, my hope is that they’ll send me personalized rejections with clues that will guide me to acceptance by another agent.

To reiterate — I am on this journey with you all right now. I have not reached the Peak of Publication yet, but I hope to soon. We’re running this grueling emotional marathon together, so if you have any additional advice or a cool anecdote feel free to leave it below in the comments.

I’ll let you know how it turns out!

Potter (No) More

So I guess there’s more Harry Potter stuff happening. A movie in the works, a play, some short stories on Pottermore about American wizardry.

And I can’t really get into any of it.

Part of it is that I spent the last decade analyzing and re-analyzing the Harry Potter books with my fellow nerds and by myself, for fun. I picked the Wizarding World apart already in a previous post, and I’m done with it as a concept. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and the Pottermore stories all sound like prequel material, the kind where, yeah, we really do know or can infer all this stuff already.

Moreover, much of the new material is set in America, which feels like pandering. I don’t know who decided that Fantastic Beasts and the new stories should be set in America, but I’d bet that’s a marketing decision, not an authoring one. Harry Potter’s charm is in part that it’s British! That it comes from a place dotted with castles and teapots, and not my own coffee-fueled, sky-scraper-studded land. Countries are not all the same, and JK Rowling’s style of whimsy doesn’t hold up well in an American context.

For instance, the new stories have already upset actual Native Americans. I assume (you assume, we all assume) that Rowling meant to be inclusive. But the fact is that certain Native Americans took offense at Rowling’s appropriation of their mythology, specifically “skinwalkers”.

Now, Harry Potter has always cherry picked from history and mythology, but it has largely been European history and mythology. In America, that’s default, that’s baseline, everyone’s welcome to do whatever they want to European history and mythology. But with Native Americans, their stories are still their own.

In the Wizarding World, there is no religion, no pandemics, no global warming. Racism is replaced by anti-muggle, anti-mudblood, anti-poor, and speciesist sentiments. There is no Al Quaeda, Boko Haram, Daesh, or KKK, just Death Eaters. That works in England, island alone by itself, relatively pure until the last decade or so as darker-skinned immigrants started pouring in to make the food better.

But that kind of whitewashing doesn’t work in the intersectional morass that is America. Well, not without complaint and ridicule by the left.

Me, I don’t mean to complain or ridicule. I’m just checked out of the Potter Club. Oh sure, I’ll probably go to the theme park when I get the chance, and I’ll reread the books someday — they’re good books, they’ll be fun to revisit. But that’s the thing. They’re books, a private conversation between me and Jo. A conversation she ended by saying, “Their adult lives were stable and boring. Don’t try to get more out of me because the story is over, there is no more.”

I want to respect that statement (even if the epilogue that contained it was objectively not good). Although, if Rowling had changed her mind, and Harry Potter and The Cursed Child was going to be an eighth book by Rowling, I would go buy it.

But it’s not. It’s a play by some other guy. Rowling had a hand in it, but it isn’t hers. It’s half fan fiction.

It’s hard to watch this happen to Rowling. While I’ve been privately picking apart her stories, learning this craft of fantasy storytelling from many authors but especially her, the marketers have made her their cow. And all the Potter milk is coming out pasteurized now.

As much as I want to be JK Rowling, get that popular, touch that many lives, maybe it isn’t worth it when others start to write your stories for you.

Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Is a Drag (a Review)

I’ve talked a few times about my reading practice — and considering how easy it is to take all your enter/edu-tainment by screen these days, it is a practice. I’m always reading at least one book. I choose books to fill in gaps — foundational speculative fiction I missed growing up, more current books by female or minority authors, and the odd piece of classic straight fiction.

So when we were sorting through my grandparents’ stuff, I kept a few choice pieces of straight fiction for myself. And one of those books was Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.

If my copy had not once belonged to my dearly departed grandparents, I would have put it down about 100 pages in, because this book is not worth it. Certainly it has its good points — it wasn’t a bestseller in the 80’s for nothing — but it is not worth it. It’s 900+ pages, it’s a friggin’ commitment. What do I expect in 900 pages? I expect an adventure, a transformation, a truly notable series of events, enjoyable characters. What did I get?

A vivid picture of what history looked like on the ground, among the commons, during the late 1800s and early 1900s in the American South. A memorable narrator, plucky Lucy Marsden, the titular widow.

And victims.

Every single character is developed as a tragic victim of circumstance, pushed into a certain mindset and mode of behavior by the intersections of gender, race, age, and the politics of the post-Civil War South. Even the characters who should have been villains — the slave-owning grandmother-in-law, the abusive and neglectful Confederate veteran husband, the parents who force Lucy (fourteen year old) into her burdensome marriage with said husband (who is fifty) — are instead portrayed as victims with their own struggles.

And that’s fine, except no one is held accountable. It’s all just a tragedy embedded in distant, impersonal history.

Don’t get me wrong, I love historical fiction. But Gurganus makes a big mistake. He frames the whole novel as a story told by elderly Lucy to a visitor in her retirement home. So rather than tell the past as if it were present, Lucy/Gurganus keeps reminding us that it’s the past. Everyone’s already dead. Lucy’s story is over, and no, she never left her husband.

And even that would be fine, except Lucy Marsden likes to pretend there was some love in her travesty of a marriage. She reassures us there were good times with Captain William Marsden, but never tells us about them.

And maybe that’s just fine too. There are lots of battered, neglected wives who don’t leave their abusive, self-centered husbands. But to ask me to spend 900+ pages worth of my time in their loveless disaster of a marriage?

Yuck.

But hark — 400 pages in, Lucy hints that she does spend some time on the loose, run away from her old Captain. So that’s what I was banking on for the next 400 pages. When does Lucy run away? How does she handle her nine kids when she does? Is it anything like Carolyn Jessop’s FLDS memoir Escape, only fleeing her bearded husband-patriarch in a Model-T instead of an SUV?

No, it’s nothing like Escape. Lucy doesn’t escape. She leaves for an evening, then creeps back at 4AM filled with guilt for nearly abandoning her kids. She makes plans for a second escape attempt, this time with the kids, only to learn the Captain just had a stroke on a hunting trip.

So she soldiers on, caring for her now disabled, senile husband along with their nine kids.

To add insult to injury, with less than 100 pages to go the book breaks character. The endless, relentless, historical “realism” of victimhood and tragedy lifts for a chapter about baby poop. Baby Marsden (the character’s actual name) swallows Lucy’s wedding ring, and the whole chapter that follows is a weirdly unfunny poop joke.

With the book’s character broken, I couldn’t take the ending seriously. Captain Marsden, intermittently violent throughout the book, has lost his mind to his stroke. So he tries to strangle Lucy. Twice. The second time, Lucy kills him with his own Civil War scabbard in self defense.

It’s a solid ending, but tacked onto 900 pages of poop (literally and figuratively) it’s too little too late.

Is It Sexist to Hit Her? Deadpool Reviewed

Deadpool is fantastic! Five stars, two thumbs up, new Facebook Wow FaceTM. Go see it before reading this, because you’ll laugh your ass off, and avast, thar be spoilers ahead.

Alright, so first I want to give a big shout out to my favorite joke: “Written by The Real Heroes”. Because it’s true. While the effects team worked pure magic and Ryan Reynolds knocked it out of the park (and dat ass…), without top-notch writing this movie would have been a big, obnoxious mess. My hats off to you, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.

And the runner-up jokes:

–The little figurine of “Deadpool” from X Men Origins: Wolverine.

–Going to meet Professor X. “Which one, Stewart or McAvoy?”

–Angel Dust’s boob popping out of her bustier mid-fight, and Colossus freaking out.

There are, of course, many, many more fine jokes from Deadpool to reminisce about. But at this point I’d rather take a long look at that last one. The boob, the gentlemanly freak-out, the coy acceptance of Colossus’s chivalry. And then Angel Dust hits Colossus hard with a sucker punch, because you don’t look away from your opponent in a life-or-death battle. Not even if she’s a pretty, and partially exposed, woman.

Thanks to Reese and Wernick, this movie gets exactly where we are in this conversation. Is it sexist to hit a woman? Is it more sexist not to hit a woman? Deadpool himself asks this question mid-movie. He answers by shooting the woman in question with comedic timing; perfect Deadpool. But yes, there is an automatic cringe upon seeing such a cute, petite woman gunned down by a masked maniac.

But we just saw Deadpool treat a dozen guys the same way. They’re all “bad guys”, they all work for Ajax/Francis, and Deadpool isn’t portrayed as heroic for killing them so it’s okay. His brutality is funny. Dark satire pratfalls.

So, in context, is it sexist to hit the woman? She’s just another hench(wo)man. No super powers to even out nature’s muscular imbalance — but those other henchmen weren’t powered up either. In context, it really seems more sexist not to hit her.

And that, oddly, is what makes Deadpool the “hero” in this film. He’s the only man on screen who isn’t sexist. Okay, yeah, so he encourages the cabbie Dopinder to treat the object of his desires as an object. But Deadpool is comfortable talking about masturbation with his roommate, Blind Al. Which is normal for male roommates, but Blind Al is a woman.

Similarly, Deadpool doesn’t get jealous about the chosen profession of his lady love. They never talk about it once — we have no idea if Vanessa is still turning tricks or not. Because it doesn’t matter. Deadpool and Vanessa love the heck out of each other. Whatever their relationship looks like, it’s working for them, and that’s what matters.

And there’s a streak of Bugs Bunny’s transvestitism in Reynold’s Deadpool. He never wears a dress, but he’s impressively comfortable with his own sexual objectification. His cross-acting (what else can I call it?) is used for comedic effect on screen, but it’s clear the character himself really doesn’t give a damn about gender norms. Unless he can use them to crack an excellent joke.

Meanwhile, Francis totally forgets about the Vanessa in the Fridge behind him. So when she escapes, grabs Deadpool’s sword, and stabs Francis…I can’t even call that a joke. That was cosmic justice for every damsel in distress who hasn’t waded into the fight the moment she could.

To acknowledge the naked elephant (stripper) in the room, yeah. We have a little full frontal female nudity in this film. But we also have a long shot of Ryan Reynold’s muscular butt, and another long shot of Everything when Francis leaves him to die in the burning laboratory. That, my friends, is gender equality.

It must also be mentioned that this movie is dark, intensely violent, and vulgar. It’s not the kind of movie I expect to find myself thinking good for people. Not good for kids, no. To the mom and dad who brought their two little boys to see Deadpool with them and sat in front of me — your boys are super well behaved, but what the heck is wrong with you?

For adults, though? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with depictions of violence in media, so long as the writers, directors, actors, etc. are honest with the audience. Violence is shocking, disgusting, and holds the possibility of dire, even mortal consequence.

Once that is stated (and it is, in spades), why not make fun of what squishy meatbags we are?

In short, if it’s fiction, just hit the girl already.

Gallery

Give Me a Noun (Art Dump)

We had a small flood in our apartment, so until we get our furniture back in order (why is that always so much harder than moving it out of the way in the first place?) I don’t have a desk to make more “finished” artworks at. So here’s some random stuff I’ve been drawing.

Two of these resulted from my new trick; asking my husband for a random noun to draw when I have no ideas. He asked for a guillotine and a gas mask, so I drew a dragon/daemon/horrible-monster-thing and an insect. Because that’s how I roll.

 


I came up with the throne/tree in the same spirit of “let’s draw two things at once.” I don’t know why I like to merge two objects into one. I did a whole semester of “people/trees” AKA “dryads” in art school, some of which you can see here.

Aaaaaand the fabulous, mammiferous lady is Wendy the Woods Witch, a being of infamous cleavage described as a joke by a friend while playing D&D. So I just had to draw her.

If you like, you too can give me a noun in the comments. I promise to draw something entertaining. (And if you’d like to cross my palm with silver, I’ll put extra work and care into it and bequeath you with the results.)

When Our Icons Betray Us

What a week. There were terrorist attacks in Jakarta and Istanbul, there have been more disappointing results in the cases of law enforcement officers who injured or killed people, those discontents are STILL holed up in the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, the environment…well, let’s just not go there.

And we lost David Bowie AND Alan Rickman. (Rest in peace, Metatron — I guess God wanted his Voice back.)

And then, because we all needed the emotional whiplash, a story emerged (re-emerged, really) that Bowie (hardly even cold yet) committed statutory rape with underage groupies back in the 70‘s. And he was accused of rape once in the ‘80s as well.

So what is anyone supposed to feel, morally, about that?

First, if you have strong feelings about this kind of thing already, you are totally entitled to them. Sex crimes are, by their very nature, a highly emotional topic. If you are most comfortable spending the rest of your life avoiding the creative works of Bowie or any of the many, many singers, musicians, actors, writers, directors, artists, etc. who have committed a sex crime, I understand.

But for me, it’s getting more complicated than that.

Like many people, I do have what I’ll term an “Ick List”, a set of celebrities whose works I try to avoid. Some are known sexual predators or abusers (Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Chris Brown, R. Kelly, Terry Richardson). Some have done legal but icky things (JD Salinger used and abandoned a series of college-age English majors; Katy Perry wore some very derogatory Jew-Face for her “Birthday” video).

But I haven’t put Bowie on my Ick List. Or Michael Jackson. Or Woody Allen.

So why? What’s my excuse? It isn’t just because I happen to LIKE Bowie, Jackson, and Allen. The Catcher in the Rye meant a lot to me as a teenager because I could identify with Holden Caulfield’s struggle with depression. I suspect I’d like Polanski’s films if I saw them. Full disclosure — I even like a few of Perry’s songs.

It isn’t because Bowie, Jackson, and Allen were cleared by the courts. Rape is notoriously hard to prove, and while I would like to believe that those three men were innocent of rape (or that Bowie’s underage partners were, as Lori Mattix insists, so willing they can’t possibly be victims) I don’t know that. No one knows but those men and the people who might or might not have been their victims.

It isn’t contrition. Allen has continued to say creepy things about his marriage to Soon-Yi Previn. I don’t know if Bowie ever publicly regretted his statutory rape, and his flat denial about raping Wanda Nichols may have only earned him more distrust from the Femterweb if it was a current event.

Seriality has something to do with it — Salinger’s many misused girlfriends, the many accusations leveled against Cosby. Character definitely has something to do with it. Richardson always comes off looking like a sleaze, Polanski fled the country, and Perry does have a penchant for very problematic lyrics. Kelly and Brown just strike me as bad men, certainly not the kind I want serenading me.

Meanwhile, I saw/rode Captain Eo again last time I went to Disneyland, and Jackson seemed so sweet and pure-hearted while fighting that crazy spider woman with the power of love, dance, and muppets.

So I have my own moral algebra — I make no excuses for it, it is what it is — but it gets more complicated than that. Because one of my favorite current pop stars, Lady Gaga, decided to work with Kelly and Richardson. And I really liked the song she did with Kelly, and the clips of the abandoned video with Richardson intrigued me. My understanding is that Gaga decided to work with these two known abusers BECAUSE they were abusers and she was working through her own rape. But she still funneled more money and fame their way, empowering both Kelly and Richardson in a way that they did not deserve.

That’s really the problem with watching, listening to, looking at, or otherwise supporting known abusers. Whether the creator is a separate entity from their creations or not*, sexually abusive creators don’t deserve all the money, power, and fame. They don’t deserve the satisfaction of knowing that millions are enjoying their work. They don’t deserve to be lofted up above their victims by society. They don’t deserve to be legitimized while their victims are de-legitimized.

So the question becomes, “Does your personal boycott matter?”

Maybe? We’ve come to the point where at least 95% of our society has condemned Cosby. His reruns have been pulled off the air, he lost gigs, and media-wise he’s very rarely anything but the butt of others’ jokes now. This only happened because a lot of individuals personally refused to watch him perform.

But unless the members of your particular Ick List reach Cosby-esque proportions of wrong-doing — unless guilt is certain, chronic, and unrepentant — society probably isn’t going to care about your personal boycott. It will not, in the long run, make one jot of difference.

Yet I maintain my Ick List. I’m not about to go buy myself a copy of Black Panties, even though Kelly’s voice was so beautiful on Gaga’s “Do What You Want”. Why? Because I want to feel like I have some control in this sometimes awful, always chaotic world. I can’t stop terrorism, or decrease the endemic racism in our justice system, or teach rural ranchers about the big picture, or end climate change.

But I can change the channel, flip the station, put down the book, click elsewhere, and get away from the art that represents a person who has transgressed.

The moral of this blog post? Avoid or enjoy any media that you want, because your relationship with the media you consume is all about you.

—————————–

*I wanted to say more about this philosophical question here, but I had to kill that darling for sake of flow. I’ll just have to write another blog post about it.

Long Live the Goblin King!

I’m sure many people have made better, more informed statements about David Bowie in the last 48 hours. Considering his entire body of work and how much (or little) I have listened to or seen of it, I can only consider myself a casual fan. But I am a creative individual living on this spinning rock we call Earth, and so Bowie did touch me and shape me. His influence was too enormous not to.

He was at the cutting edge of media for decades. He pushed music — both the actual music part, and the performance part, where the singer (and their band) takes on a character. Not satisfied with the characters of “falling in love” or “falling out of love” or anything as common as that, he created and performed through personas, some of them quite fantastic. And in pushing the performance of music, he pushed story. He pushed culture. He pushed our understanding of what it means to be human, and not-human.

And most relevant to me, well, I don’t think I can say it better than his New York Times obituary. “Mr. Bowie wrote songs, above all, about being an outsider: an alien, a misfit, a sexual adventurer, a faraway astronaut…his message was that there was always empathy beyond difference.”

My work is very different, but I try to get at the same message. I’m lucky to be able to take inspiration from such a great spirit, and to still have the chance to first experience new parts of him as they live on, left behind for those of us left on Earth.

Rest in peace, David Bowie. Enjoy your final flight, and your ascension as a Blackstar.