Saturday, June 30, 2018

Harlan Ellison 1934 - 2018

As many know by now, Harlan Ellison died a few days ago. His death is a loss to the world of American letters.

Personally, I discovered Ellison a little too late to be able to say he had a great impact on my writing directly. I say "directly" because anyone writing science fiction or fantasy or horror in the last 40+ years has been influenced by Ellison, even if they've never read a single word he wrote or cracked the spine of one of the anthologies he edited. If he had written nothing other than "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" (surely the most terrifying dystopia ever put to paper), he would deserve to be called one of the greatest writers of  fantastic fiction. If he had edited only Dangerous Visions, he would deserve to be remembered as one of the most important anthologist the field has ever seen. But he did much, much more. His impact on the field almost can't be overstated.

Yes, he was also a cantankerous asshole, if the stories are to be believed. (And since he himself told many of the stories, there is no reason to doubt their veracity.) But he was also, if other stories are to be believed (and again there is no reason not to), he was extremely generous to new writers and veterans alike.

He also refused to write on a computer, which makes him a hero in my view.

If you've never read Ellison, do yourself a favor.

In closing, here's Ellison being very Ellison (and also very correct) on the subject of paying writers. It's from a documentary called Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which is very much worth checking out if you're interested at all in Ellison or the history of twentieth century fantastic literature.

Monday, June 25, 2018

In Praise of Form Rejection Letters

Every writer hates form rejection letters, it seems. You pour your heart and soul into a story, research the markets, send your story out into the world with high hopes, wait days or weeks or months to hear back, only to receive some variation on the following:

Dear Author,

Thank you for sending us your work. It was given careful consideration by our staff. Unfortunately, it does not suit the needs of the magazine at this time.


The Editors

Ouch, right!

In the old days this would come in the form of a fifth-generation photocopy, usually on a half-sheet of the cheapest copy paper money could buy. These days you're likely to get a nicely formatted email. Sometimes they even have a macro set up to auto-fill your name and the story's title! So fancy!

Contrast this with the much-coveted PERSONAL REJECTION LETTER. In this letter, an editor takes the time out of his or her day to write a note specifically addressing things both good and bad about your story. Everyone wants to get these. They are the best. We are told that they mean we, as writers, are getting close to the mark. That we almost sold a story! 

(Note: There is a category of personal rejection letter that no one wants to receive: This is the personal rejection where the editors tell you maybe your time would be best spent submitting elsewhere. (Read: don't send us your junk anymore.) These are exceedingly rare and are not the topic at hand.)

In the hierarchy of rejection letters, personals are head and shoulders above forms. I've seen authors get as excited about a personal rejection from a high-tier market as they do about an acceptance from a less prestigious magazine or website. (Confession: I may have done this.) I've also seen authors get foot-stompingly mad at receiving form rejections. This usually occurs when the form is sent after a great deal of waiting or after an editor asked for changes. But regardless, the message is clear: form rejections suck. That is the received wisdom, passed down from writer to writer, through the generations.

But how's this for a hot take: Form rejections are great and there should be a lot more of them.

I'll tell you why:

Personal rejections are the enemy of quick response times. The time an editor spends thinking about and writing a personal rejection is time that same editor could have spent reading the next story in the slush pile. Would you rather wait longer for a personal rejection or rip the band-aid off and get a form in a week or two? The result, after all, is the same: you didn't sell your story to that market.

Most writers prefer faster response times. We complain when a market takes too long. We refuse to submit to certain magazines if they're average response isn't fast enough for our liking. Well, folks, I have news for you: Form rejections = faster responses.

I know that people are now thinking, B.S. it takes maybe three minutes to type out a personal rejection.

Well, yes and no.

First off, three minutes to write a personal rejection is considerably more time than the three seconds it takes to click the button to auto-respond with a form rejection. And unless personal rejections are as rare as hen's teeth, those three minutes per rejection start adding up. If an editor sends ten personal rejections at three minutes each, that's a half hour that could be spent reading new submissions. The response time just got that much faster if he or she just presses the auto-reject button or copy/pastes a form into the body of an email.

Secondly, I'm calling B.S. on you Mr. Pretend-Author-I-Made-Up-For-The-Purposes-Of-This-Blog-Post. Because there is no way that a meaningful personal rejection can be composed in three minutes. Okay, sure. Maybe some of them could be, but most are going to take longer. And most of those three-minute-personals are going to be about as helpful as a form rejection. While it's nice to say you got a personal rejection (and it can certainly be a boost in morale), realistically most of them don't do much else beside give you the warm and fuzzies.

Now, some personal rejections can, in fact, help you revise the story into something more publishable. However, in order to give advice of that caliber and with that great detail, an editor is going to have to do some thinking--and thinking takes time. Time that editor could spend on reading more stories.

And all of this supposes that receiving a personal rejection is a wholly salutary event in the life of the author who receives one. Well, for most that is the case. I certainly enjoy getting them, and as we've established, most writers I know feel the same way. That said, there is a downside to getting a personal rejection. Namely, they can open the door to debate, if only in the author's mind. "If it's so good, why didn't you accept it?" the author thinks after hearing the editor praise his or her latest short story in a personal rejection letter.

Have you ever tried to let someone down easy when they invite you to do something you aren't interested in. You make up an excuse, and then they counter. You give another reason you won't be able to attend, and they try to overcome that objection. Better to just say, "No." A form rejection is a polite but flat refusal. There isn't any wiggle room. There isn't space for the author to think, If only . . .

Now true, responding to any rejection letter, even personal rejection letters, is very bad form (DO NOT DO THIS!), but too often writers do this in their minds if not in an email to the editor. They think, addressing the editor from the safe confines of their imaginations, "You said you liked this, but that the ending was weak; what if I changed the ending to this?" 

Now, unless you are actually going to change the ending based on the personal rejection letter you got, this is a complete waste of time. You are lying in bed, staring at the ceiling thinking about what you should have said to Susie when she said she had to wash her hair on Friday night rather than go with you to the drive-in movie. (I assume this is how teenage dating works in 2018.) If you can take a personal rejection in stride, awesome. Let it make you feel good about yourself, file it away in a drawer (or an email folder), and move on with your life. But too many times I've seen people obsess over the exact wording of a personal rejection, poring over it like a Talmudic scholar, searching for hidden meaning in every turn of phrase. (This is but one part of that arcane art known in writerly circles as rejectomancy, a subject I'll tackle in a future post. Short version: we all do it and we should all stop.) A personal rejection is still a rejection and should be treated as such. That is, it should be filed away and the story should be sent back out to another market ASAP.

But say you are actually going to take the few lines of criticism from your personal rejection and rework your story. Good for you, being willing to incorporate criticism! But before you do, let's think about that . . .

Advice is great, but it's just one editor's opinion--and that editor has already rejected the story. If you revise based on a personal rejection, you're tailoring your story to a market that has already passed on it. 

Now, certainly getting advice, even if it is just one or two lines, from a professional editor who reads thousands and thousands of submissions can be a great insight into how your stories are being received. But unless the advice rings oh-so-true to what you want the story to be, you would be wise to think hard before making changes. Because what works for one editor won't necessarily work for another, and the thing you change might have been the thing that would sell the story to the next place you send it.

I realize this may be coming across as anti-personal rejection instead of pro-form rejection. It's not to say that personal rejections are bad and that the practice should be abolished. Indeed, personal rejections can be a great ego boost, as I have said. And often the advice editors give might result in changes that make the story more salable. It's always nice to get a peek behind the curtain, as it were. And I've certainly benefited from nice personal rejections from various editors.

But if we, as writers, attach too much importance to personal rejection letters, then we certainly heap an unfair amount of derision on the form rejection. So, let's talk about why form rejections are actually great.

I already mentioned the thing about response times. The more form rejections sent out, the faster a market's response time will be.

But the biggest reason I'm a fan of form rejections is something I hinted at earlier. Rejection is going to be a constant in the life of a writer. You have got to get used to it and you have got to learn to take it in stride. You should spend as close to zero seconds mulling over a rejection as possible.

When writing and revising a story, you should do the best job you can. Send that story out to readers you trust to give you feedback, and then revise it until it's as close to perfect as you can get it. Then send it out. And when it comes back, send it back out as soon as possible, until you've sold it or run out of places to send it to.

Wondering why a story is being rejected is largely a waste of time. As artistic a process as writing and revising a story is, submitting should be cold and calculating. Just keep those stories in circulation like a story-circulating robot. Form rejections facilitate this. Form rejections help writers learn to move on from rejection quickly. They are impersonal and cold--though not, in my estimation, at all impolite--and this is a good thing. There are no lines to be read between in a form rejection. There is no space to pause to wonder if the editor is right and you should work on the character's motivations.

And for God's sake, please stop wondering what form rejections mean! They mean what they say: "No thanks." That is all.  Writers waste too much time worrying about these sorts of  things.

So, the next time you get a personal rejection, put it aside and submit the story elsewhere. When you get a form rejection, do the same.

Write. Submit. Repeat. That's the formula.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Recommended Movies June 2018

Here are some films I've watched recently that you should check out, if your taste is as impeccable as mine.

1. Solo: A Star Wars Story

Thought I'd start with a small indie film that most probably missed. But seriously, folks! It's a bit odd to have a Star Wars movie with no Force, no Jedi, no lightsabers, but I think Solo pulled it off. This isn't changing the paradigm or breaking new ground, but it is a very, very solid entry in the Star Wars saga and the most straight-foward fun of any of them since Episode IV. Probably my favorite of the Disney Star Wars movies. Alden Ehrenreich ain't Harrison Ford, but then no one is, and he does a good job of filling the Han Solo riding boots.

2. You Were Never Really Here

Arty, intense film about a man who rescues underage girls who have been sold into the sex trade. Not the slam-dunk I was hoping for, but Joaquin Phoenix delivers. Lynne Ramsay also directed We Need to Talk About Kevin, and if you liked that, you'll probably like this. You Were Never Really Here is based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, who created the HBO series Bored to Death, which also didn't quite deliver as much as I wished but which was still worth a watch.

3. The Woman Chaser

Great movie or the greatest movie? This black-and-white comedy stars Patrick Wharburton as a car salesman turned filmmaker. Set in 1960 Los Angeles, it's period details are spot on. The Woman Chaser is based on a novel by the great paperback writer Charles Willeford, and if you've read Willeford, you know what you're in for. Hilarious, if you've got a twisted sense of humor.  Released in 1999 to much critical acclaim but no audience interest whatsoever, it's now available on various streaming platforms.

4. Small Town Crime

John Hawkes plays an ex-cop who tries to solve the murder of a woman he finds on the side of the road after an alcoholic blackout. If that sounds too cliche for you, then you should probably skip this one. But if you are me and that sounds right up your alley, then Small Town Crime is worth watching. It's Tarrantino-esque and Coen Brothers-y. Like Solo it doesn't exactly break new ground, but it does what it does very well.

5. First Reformed

Though The Woman Chaser is one of my all-time favorite movies, I've saved the best for last here. Written and directed by the great Paul Schrader of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull fame (among others), First Reformed is going to be a serious contender come awards season, particularly for Ethan Hawke, who turns in as good a performance as he ever has as an alcoholic minister struggling with his faith and the loss of his family. Filmed in Academy ratio and without a score, this is definitely in the "art house" vein, but don't let that trick you into thinking this is some pretentious, navel-gazing horse hockey. The intensity and tension mount throughout until you reach an ending that will keep you thinking for days.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Recommended Reads June 2018

I've been wanting to write more reviews on here, but haven't been able to find the time to do them in-depth. So instead, I'm going to try to post more frequent, but shorter reviews of books, movies, ketchup, whatever. Starting with . . .

1. Dope by Sara Gran

Pitch-black noir set in 1950s New York City. The main character is a recovering heroin addict who is hired by the wealthy family to find their daughter, who has fallen deep into dope addiction herself. The characterization and the plot are both top-notch, but the period details are what sells this. Seriously, I read a lot of hardboiled crime and noir from the 40s-60s and if you told be this was written back then, I would have believed you. One of the best noir novels I've ever read, from any period--period. Check it out, but be warned: this is Noir with a capital N. The ending is devastating in the best noir tradition. Not for the faint-hearted.

2. The Adjustment by Scott Phillips

Another modern crime novel I would have believed was written in the mid-twentieth century. (How do these people do that?!) This one is from The Ice Harvest scribe Scott Phillips, and like that novel, is set in Kansas, though The Adjustment takes place just after WWII. Wayne Ogden is perhaps the most unlikable protagonist I've ever read--and I've read lots of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford--so if that's not your cup of tea, skip this one. But if you're a fan of Thompson or Willeford and like your crime fiction tinged with misanthropy and nihilism, check this one out.

3. One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Though it's another period piece, this one couldn't be more different from the previous two books on this list. Bryson is one of the best nonfiction writers working and though I'm only 100 pages into One Summer, I feel no reservations adding it to this list. If you're a fan of American history and/or great writing, this one is for you.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Year's Best Military & Adventure SF, Volume 4 Out Now!

Well, well, well . . . look what hit bookstore shelves (both real and virtual) yesterday: it's The Year's Best Military & Adventure SF, Volume 4, edited by yours truly! Buy multiple copies for friends, relatives, and strangers you sit next to at the bus stop. It's guaranteed to satisfy!

Buy it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Baen eBooks. Or even better, support your favorite local indie bookstore. If they don't have it in stock, ask for it by name.

Still not convinced? Well, take a look at the table of contents:

Preface by David Afsharirad
The Secret Life of Bots by Suzanne Palmer
The Snatchers by Edward McDermott
Imperium Imposter by Jody Lynn Nye
A Thousand Deaths through Flesh and Stone by Brian Trent
Hope Springs by Lindsay Buroker
Orphans of Aries by Brad R. Torgersen
By the Red Giant’s Light by Larry Niven
Family over Blood by Kacey Ezell
A Man They Didn’t Know by David Hardy
Swarm by Sean Patrick Hazlett
A Hamal in Hollywood by Martin L. Shoemaker
Lovers by Tony Daniel
The Ghost Ship Anastasia by Rich Larson
You Can Always Change the Past by George Nikolopoulos
Our Sacred Honor by David Weber

Friend, you won't find a better collection of short fiction with a military or action/adventure science fiction theme!