Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The #1 Rule of Everything

I ended my last blog post with this "pro tip":

Yes, your blog is important, but your family and your fiction are more important. If you have to take time off from your blog (say, to finish long overdue revisions on a novel), don't apologize for it. Very few—if any—of your readers are going to be camping out, wondering when the next post is going to drop. If anybody gives you shit, give 'em the ol' mental middle finger. You know what you're dealing with/going through/working on—they don't. Do your work, and get back to the blog when you can. You're only human.

And boy did I take my own advice seriously.

Hello again. The revisions to the novel are finally happening in a productive way, and I have a rare moment of nothing-to-do here to catch you up on what's been going on with me. I just won the 2012 Codex Halloween Contest, so that's pretty awesome. Ken Liu and I battled it out for first place, going back and forth several times, but the voting happened to end while I was up. I admire Ken a lot, so it was a real honor. (Ken's story, by the way, was very good, and I expect we'll see it soon in the pages of a major magazine. I'm currently shopping my story around as well, and I'm finding even good horror can be hard to sell, especially at 7500 words. I'll keep you updated on my progress.)

But that's not really why I'm writing this.

First of all, let me say, there's a tendency for writers to become obsessed with rules. If you're reading my blog series "Chasing the First Sale," you know I'm the chiefest of sinners; my series is full of rules, and there's a good reason for that: rules are helpful. They give shape to good tendencies and bad. They create the illusion of objective form, so we can more easily articulate and decide whether to embrace an idea/technique/etc. or discard it. And that's fine. That's why rules are everywhere in the fiction world. If you're a beginner, you're probably choking on them right now. Choke away. It's good to let these things into your head so they can battle it out; the truly good pieces of advice will emerge shining and victorious by producing publishable fiction for you again and again. But by then I suspect they won't be rules; they'll be habits, and that's the goal.

But rules are not free. In some ways, they own the bridge between you and your success, but the tolls they level at you can be a bitch. Let me explain what I mean.

"I made that up."

How often do you hear that word? I'm willing to bet you hear it (and use it) every day. Probably several times a day. If you're a fiction writer, you hear it all the time in relation to your craft. You're told you should show, not tell. You should write sympathetic characters. You should avoid passive voice like the plague. (Cliches too.) (You should also avoid using too many parenthetical asides.) Should, should, should. This "shoulding" is plenty annoying when it comes to issues of craft—it's merely annoying because it's easy to adapt to rules of craft. You just go, "Oh. Well, I guess I won't use adverbs in dialogue attribution anymore."—but it can become devastating in issues of the writing lifestyle.

You should write every day. You should write 500-1000 keep-able words in an hour. You should read a new book every week. You should keep up with the major magazines. You should know the names of every editor in the business, every prominent agent, every writer currently doing top notch work. You should attend conventions regularly. You should blog regularly. (Gotta build that platform!)

It doesn't stop there. The more rules you hear, the more "shoulds" you absorb, the more they can begin to crush you. You'll even start "shoulding" yourself.

You should be farther than this. You should have more sales. You should have won an award by now. You should be more visible. You should make more money.

At this point, the "shoulds" have got you running scared. You want to be a successful writer so badly, you can't bear the thought that it's slipping through your fingers. This can motivate you, especially in the short term, but chances are, if you let this kind of thinking go on long enough, you'll crash. You'll crash hard.

This is why I'm blogging today, guys—this happened to me.

No sweat.
I just won't fall and break my ass, that's all.
I don't recommend ever doing what I'm doing here. Discussing your personal life in a professional setting is generally a no-no. (This is one of the good rules, more often than not.) But I feel compelled to share this in hopes that maybe someone reading it will recognize this tendency in themselves and hopefully prevent a real crash. Because once you fall all the way down, it's a long climb back up.

A year and a month ago, I had never been to a writing convention. In the space of a year, I attended World Fantasy Convention where I got my first real look at the landscape of publishing, what it takes to make it, the scope of the competition, the sheer number of immensely talented people out there. (The truth is you're not competing, not really, but that's another topic altogether.) I attended C2E2 and learned the same things about the comics field, which I am also very passionate about. I won my first Codex contest, taking first in January's Weekend Warrior and beating many writers I look up to and enjoy reading.

This last one is weird. Winning a contest should (there's that word) be an affirmation that you're doing something right, but I didn't take it that way. To me, it meant it wasn't skill standing in my way anymore; it was me. I should've been writing more stories, submitting them more diligently, etc. It took the full weight of the "why aren't you farther along" question and dropped it squarely on my shoulders.

Now let's pause. At this point, what was actually wrong with me and my career? Well, nothing. I could have been writing more, but I was still producing some good fiction. I was blogging effectively and gaining twitter followers. My blogs were going up on SFWA as guest posts. I was even selling some stories. So what was the problem?

Just that word. Goddamn "should."

I had allowed my expectations, the rules I had heard, my fears, all of it to creep in and soil my resolve. In short, I had should my own pants.

I won't go into my personal life in detail, but suffice it to say, an unhappy person is never unhappy in just one area of their life. Like a lot of writers, I have a tendency to get depressed. And I did. Big time. My work suffered. My relationships suffered. On and on, the snowball rolled.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, my wife suggested I get some help, and in a rare moment of clarity, I heard her. I didn't want to feel like shit. I wanted to feel good, to tell my stories, to be a fantastic husband and father and friend. Not because I had to (nice try, should; I see through that disguise), but because I wanted to. Because that's what life means to me.

So I went. And I learned some things. And with the help of a low-dose of Welbutrin (SCIENCE, bitches!), I was able to put those things into practice. I learned that just because somebody else feels something, it doesn't mean I have to feel it too. I learned that each bad moment doesn't have to connect to every bad moment that came before or might come after. I learned that other people's opinions of me are none of my business. I learned that sometimes it's okay to say "fuck it." And most relevant to this post, I learned to (god, it sounds so simple) do my best, and cut myself some slack. Nobody follows all the rules all the time, so why should I expect to?

I titled this post "The #1 Rule of Everything," but that's just a title. There is no rule like that, and god, I'm glad of it. (If you must have a #1 Rule, make it "Don't let rules rule you." Or something similarly snappy that wouldn't be out of place on a church sign.) If I had to retitle this post, I would call it, "You're Only Human."

"We should be on the moon right now."

And that's okay, Blog Reader and Aspiring Writer. That's just fine. Learn what you can, collect and archive those rules we talked about, do your best to produce and improve, but when you hit a speed bump, for the love of god, don't beat yourself into the ground over it. Success is a sliding bar; it will always drift away from you. Reach one level, and you'll find the bar has moved on to the next. So rather than chasing "success," chase happiness.

Don't think about how happy you'll be when you're living on the coast in a stylish little cabin making 100k/year writing books that come easy. Instead, think about how good it feels to sit down to write, snug in your chair, fingers on the keys, realizing that there's nowhere else you're supposed to be. It's time for that familiar sense of struggle as you pull the words out, one by one, and by god, doesn't it feel great? Like hard exercise? Like skinning your knee and standing back up? This is what you are, Aspiring Writer, and you're being it, right now, in this moment.

Think that. Then move your fingers.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

22 Storytelling Tips from Pixar

(If you haven't read these, yer welcome.)

Recently, Emma Coats (storyboard artist for Pixar's Brave, among other things) tweeted 22 deceptively simple tips on storytelling. My wife brought them to my attention in the car the other day; she just handed me the list, printed from an email. I was distracted and thinking about other things (like driving—I keed!), but when I started reading the tips, I sobered right the hell up.

These are beyond fantastic. If writing were a pop quiz, this is the shit I would scribble on my forearm in sharpie. Go follow Emma right now @lawnrocket. And if you haven't seen it yet, go watch Brave—gorgeous doesn't begin to do it justice.

Without further jibber-jabber:

PIXAR'S 22 STORYTELLING TIPS (as tweeted by bad-ass Emma Coats) 

1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

2. You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

3. Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

8. Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

9. When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.

11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.

12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.

14. Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.

15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.

17. No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on - it'll come back around to be useful later.

18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d'you rearrange them into what you DO like?

21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write ‘cool'. What would make YOU act that way?

22. What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.


Don't those make you want to lock yourself in a room with a notebook for weeks on end? (Is that just me?)

One final tip before I go. This one is mine, and it's about blogging:

Yes, your blog is important, but your family and your fiction are more important. If you have to take time off from your blog (say, to finish long overdue revisions on a novel), don't apologize for it. Very few—if any—of your readers are going to be camping out, wondering when the next post is going to drop. If anybody gives you shit, give 'em the ol' mental middle finger. You know what you're dealing with/going through/working on—they don't. Do your work, and get back to the blog when you can. You're only human.

Be back soon, guys. Got some junk needs doing.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Chasing the First Sale (Part 3): Becoming a Student of the Job

"All artists are willing to suffer for their work, but why are so few prepared to learn to draw?" —Banksy

I grew up loving stories. Not in a normal way; I loved them so much it hurt. It wasn't enough just to enjoy them; I had to own them, imitate them, and—eventually—create some of my own. No matter what I did with my life, I knew telling stories was going to be part of it. I wanted to write for comics, for video games, for the screen. But like a would-be musician desperately wanting to "be in a band," I had to learn an instrument first. Short stories were the first instrument I picked up. If you're reading this, maybe they're your first instrument too.


That's right. One step at a time, little guy.
Wait. Is that the new Guitar Hero controller?!
Because they're a good first instrument to learn. You can't make a career writing short stories—sadly, those days are gone—but they can teach you most of what you need to know to write in other capacities later on. They teach you, first and foremost, how to tell a story. They teach you how to format a manuscript, how to submit to editors, how to deal with rejection and—occasionally—success.

For example, what do you do when an editor says, "It's great, but I hate the ending. Make it better. I'm not going to tell you how, but if you're up to the challenge, I'll buy it." (Big gulps, huh? Welp. See ya later.) Aren't you glad you aren't going through that with a novel your first time out? Aren't you glad it's just a story you have to fix? Learn to fight the battles in short form so you'll know what to do when you have to fight them in long form; if you learn your lessons well, when that times comes it will be a (not-so-simple, but simpler) matter of adjusting what you already know.

Short stories are a proving ground. They let you get out there, try a bunch of things out, and make your mistakes small so you don't have to make all of them big. When I hear an unpublished writer talking about the epic fantasy trilogy they're going to write, my first thought (other than, "Man, I remember that phase.") is, "What a shame." Not because I don't believe they can someday do it, but because they're trying to play to a stadium crowd without learning a G chord first. Practice in the garage, play some local shows, then bigger shows, etc. Don't be the guy or gal with thirty unpublished novel fragments taking up hard drive space. Be realistic, even if it hurts. Look at where you are, own it, and grow from there.

So how do you grow? How do you learn that G chord?


You start (I'm abandoning the music metaphor now) by making sure you've got English down. This means grammar, punctuation, the works. I can hear you groaning from here, but I'm serious. If you aren't sure where commas go, how to use a semicolon, when to write in past-perfect, what the subjunctive mood is (and why or why not to use it), learn that shit. I was fairly fortunate in that most of this stuff came easily to me. The tangles I found along the way (and the tangles I continue to find), I comb out, first by googling them to make sure I have them right, then by drilling them in my brain until they're second nature. Every time [problem x] comes up, a bell goes off in my brain, followed by a little voice that says, "That's that thing you've been doing wrong; you just did it again. Stop it. Forever this time."

Sound nuts? Welcome to life as a writer.

If you want to be a pro writer, it should bug the hell out of you when you don't know something. You should make it a point to be as technical as you can stand to be, because the industry doesn't have time for your mistakes, and there are plenty of people who are just as hungry and talented who know and follow the goddamn rules. Know them. Follow them. (Unless you need to break them for some compelling reason, in which case, for god's sake, know why you're doing it.) Don't fail on a technicality before the game even starts.

Here's how nuts I am: I don't even text in improper English. Sure, I swear like a sailor and say the kinds of stupid things we all say, but I capitalize. I put in my apostrophes and commas. I spell out my words. Whether I'm texting, Facebooking, you name it, I make sure to do these things.Why? It's not because I'm a Nazi or because I think my shit don't stink; it's because, when it's time to write something professional, I want it to be effortless, like buckling your seat belt without even realizing you're doing it. Because it's important stuff. I'm a member of a forum called Codex for pro and neo-pro writers. Guess what? It's the only forum I've seen (other than SFWA) where every member can spell, punctuate, etc. It's amazingly refreshing. Now go, and do thou likewise.

"i do it 2 sav time!!!1 itz werth it duh"

And yes, I realize I just painted a big target on my back. I'm human too, and if it'll make you feel cool to point out the typos and errors I've (no doubt) made while writing this blog, knock yourself out. But when you're done schooling teacher in front of the class, I hope you'll remember the point of the lesson. Work hard. Do your best to weed out mistakes. You'll be glad you put in the time, because we're about to get to the harder stuff.


Harder stuff? But the headline has the word "fun" in it!

Changing what you do for fun (or at least paying attention to it in a productive way) can be really difficult. We don't like being told to change our lives, not the least little bit, but that's exactly what I'm about to ask you to do. (I'm being dramatic; this will only sting a little.) Here are some ways you can tweak and transform the things you enjoy to help make you a better writer:

1) Read. For god's sake, read.

First, find some heroes. These will be a few writers you want to emulate, to idolize, to learn all you can from. My heroes are Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Orson Scott Card; between the three of them, my awesomeness bases are more than covered. Find your heroes (I'll happily share mine), those writers you find effortless to read, who make your head spin with their brilliance, who become like old friends and teachers. Chances are, you already have some people in mind. It's usually these heroes who inspire us to take up writing in the first place. Never abandon them. Keep them nearby as a measuring stick. Don't aspire to be the best in your school or your critique group or your family. Aspire to be like your heroes. Don't settle for anything less. And, if at all possible, leave open the possibility of looking past your heroes. You may never grow to their level, but who knows? You may grow beyond it.

Once you have some writers to look up to who are doing the kinds of work you want to do, it's time to branch out. Read outside your genre. If you write horror, read westerns. If you write sci fi, read romance. If you write fantasy, read mainstream. Don't camp inside your genre and spend your career reheating Tolkien or Lovecraft. If you want to do anything of lasting value in your genre, you have to bring new things in from outside it.

Read nonfiction. (Documentaries count too.) Read books on history and science and psychology and astronomy and anything else you can get your hands on. Read books on business and marketing (believe me, you'll need 'em). Hell, read books about mathematics. Devour this stuff. Know the world you live in, and you'll have more meaningful things to say about it.

2) Listen to audio books. Wait, isn't that the same as reading? Yes and no. Audio books will teach you something that reading text on a page can't: the music of language. There is a flow to the spoken word, a kind of rhythm that just sounds right when it's done well. I've never heard of anyone being able to teach this in a class room or a workshop. It's a slippery, subjective concept, but an important one all the same. Listening to stories (even nonfiction) read aloud is the only way I know to improve your awareness of this aspect of writing. I'm not even sure you can "pay attention" to this. Just give your ears time with words. (By the way, reading your own work aloud can—almost without fail—instantly improve it. Read everything aloud. You can file that away with your other tricks.)

"These ARE the world."
3) Play roleplaying games, video or tabletop. I don't give this piece of advice lightly, and it's not without its dangers. Roleplaying games use numbers to create a model of the world, which in turn allows you to simulate anything you could possibly imagine. Kinda. This is the danger—not that you will lose your soul or become a satanist or something similarly ridiculous—that you will lose your worldview to that model, and with your worldview, you'll lose any chance you had of being a truly creative individual. You'll drop your keys and say, "Oops. Failed my Dex check." You'll wonder what level or alignment the characters in your story are.

That's a HUGE red flag. If you start rolling up character sheets for the characters in your stories, you'll know you're in too deep. I've seen this happen. I've seen smart, potentially creative people lose themselves in the false limitations of the game. Their fiction becomes rigid, like a cardboard cut-out of a story. Combat drags on. Every story is about a team, one member strong, another stealthy, another magicky, another healy.

God in heaven. Don't. Let. This. Happen to you.

But! If you're careful as hell, there is one wonderful thing roleplaying games can teach you:

The Moment.

Players always want to be doing something. They want a reason to be where they are, they want to know what the next step is, and they want a chance to do something to get there. If you can apply this mentality to your fiction—that every moment should have its own entertainment value, not because it's pretty or clever, but because it's relevant to the journey and it moves—your style (and your readers) will thank you for it. Don't have people walk into a room, say some shit, and walk out again. Put the scene in a cool place, give it some zing, and have the characters do something.

Making up a story on the fly for an audience, being able to gauge their reaction to each event in real time—there are few experiences more valuable as a storyteller. Video games can teach you this same lesson, but you don't have the benefit of sitting in the creator's chair. You have to hold the experience up to a mirror to get the full effect.

Let's say you're writing a fantasy novel about a teenage boy at a swordsmanship school. In this particular scene, your main character needs to ask a female teacher for some dating advice. You could have him go into her office, stand awkwardly by her desk while he spills his guts and talks and talks and talks. OR! You could have him trying to sneak questions in while he's taking his swordsmanship final, dueling the female teacher in the clocktower of the school, jumping between giant cogs, dodging blows, trying not to get killed, trying to land just one strike before the clock strikes twelve. That's a hell of a lot more fun. And it opens up all kinds of story opportunities. He might fail the exam he's so concerned with his girl troubles. He might get injured. He might realize during all the sweaty running around that he's actually (gasp!) attracted to the female teacher!

"I said parry, not thrust."

Mastering "The Moment" isn't just a matter of flavor. When things move in a scene, they bounce around and collide with other things. You could end up with new ideas that take your story to the next level. So don't write a dull moment. This doesn't always mean action; what it means is having an awareness of each moment's entertainment value, each moment's importance and inertia. Learn this well, and you can pick your publisher.

(I'm still working on this myself, and the biggest problem I've had is laziness. It's easy to miss opportunities when you're not putting your all into your writing, allowing yourself to be distracted by life, liberty, and the pursuit of your kids not trashing the house. But that's a whole other blog, folks, written by somebody who ain't me.)


Once you're harnessing your free time to better your writing, it's time to learn the nitty-gritty of the craft. There are a few ways to do this well, but one of the cheapest is to read books on writing. I hear a lot of writers talking smack on writing books, saying they don't really teach you anything, that you're only ready to learn what you're ready to learn, that practice is the only way to get better. Almost true. Practice is the best way to get better, but there are some things, especially for new writers, that you shouldn't have to learn through trial and error. Sometimes, it's easier to have someone just tell you. That's what writing books can do for you: they can save you time.

I've read a stack of writing books in my time, and I can tell you, not one of them left me feeling empty. I came away from each with new tools, new perspectives, and new enthusiasm for the job. That's not nothing, ya nay-saying snobs. That's a big something, and I'd like to pass it along to you.

Here are some of the books that taught me the most (and, in many cases, continue to inspire me):

(I ain't gonna pad my list for no man!)

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes
by Jack M. Bickham

This is a great first book if you're new to writing fiction. It's short, simple, and it hits the basics. If writing were basketball, this would be the fundamentals. Dribbling. Passes. etc. I've gone back to this book over and over just to remind myself what's what.

The Art of War for Writers

by James Scott Bell

This is the book I pick up when I really need refreshed. It's a beautiful, slickly-designed little tome full of good advice and motivation, and it always gets me excited about making things up and writing them down. This is a fire-extinguisher (and a damn fine piece of instruction as well). In case of burn-out or depression, break glass.

How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy
by Orson Scott Card

If you want to write sci fi or fantasy and you haven't read this, you have to. It's an essential handbook on writing spec fic. I've found none better.

On Writing
by Stephen King

Stephen King is a rare talent. (If you don't like him, fine. But don't be a hater; the man's got chops.) He rarely outlines his books and has an amazing capacity to do things on the fly, and few, if any, of you reading this will reach your potential writing the way Stephen King does. So why is this book important for mortals like us?

First, because of King's staggering and unpretentious skill with language. The whole second half of the book is dedicated to this. If there is a book to teach you the nitty-gritty about the music of words, this is it. The first half of the book is largely biography, etc, but you skip it at your own risk. Why? That's the second thing.

This book is like having a teacher in your brain. Not a list of dos and don'ts, but a REAL human being who just happens to be the most widely-read living writer in the English language. If you skip the first half, it takes the knowledge out of its human context and greatly weakens it.

Lastly, this is a great read. Fast, engaging, personal. It's effortless. You can learn a lot just from that. If you can figure out why on God's green earth this book is so easy to read, that's something big.


Wait? Screenwriting books? What about all that stuff about short stories and learning to play your first instrument? I stand by all that stuff, but once you've banged out a decent prose style—through loads of study and practice—screenwriting books become just as valuable as other writing books, if not more so. They can teach you story itself better than almost anything else. Here are my favorites:

The Writer's Journey
by Christopher Vogler

The first chapter of this book will change your life. If you're looking for a perfect formula for good stories, this is probably as close as you'll ever get to finding one.

Save the Cat
by Blake Snyder

This is essential shit all around, but if nothing else, you'll learn to make your reader instantly care about your characters. I can't think of many things more important than that.

by Robert McKee

Everybody I talk to who has read this book swears by it. I'm just now reading it, but I can already tell it belongs on this list. Read it with me. Let me know what you think.

There are lots of other great books on writing. The First Five Pages comes to mind. Also, the Writer's Digest's Elements of Fiction Writing books are a great go-to. Especially don't miss Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint. Avoid books on manuscript submission, querying, publishing trends, the internet, or any other topic you think might go out of date quickly; it's best stick to blogs and such for that kind of info. For example, if you want to know how to format a story for submission, just google it. (Here: I'll save you the trouble.) Better yet, read each magazine's guidelines. There are also some great books on self-editing, such as The 10% Solution and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (the chapter on dialogue beats is worth the price of the book by itself).

Gettin' ahead of myself. It's been a long night and one hell of a long, rambling blog post. Thanks for reading through to the end. I've made a mental note to keep things tighter in the future. There's a story about a famous writer who wrote a really long letter, then at the end said, "I apologize for the long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one." I can relate.

Be sure to check in next time when we'll talk about what could prove to be a very important aspect of your learning to write well, becoming a part of the writing community, and getting your first toe in the publishing door (it was for me): Audition-only workshops! It's a big topic that deserves its own post, and I'm looking forward to it. We'll see you in two weeks for "Chasing the First Sale (Part 4): Attending Audition-Only Workshops."

Monday, June 11, 2012

Switching to Weekly

I'll be blogging weekly from now on instead of semi-weekly. I wanted to start these two blog series strong, and I think I've done that in these first few weeks; it's time to pull back, spend more time working on my fiction, and continue to hone in on that ever-elusive "balance" everyone is always talking about.

There will be a new "Chasing the First Sale" this week, and a new "Owning Comics" next week.

By "the alien Perry" I of course mean "editors rejecting my ass."

Friday, June 8, 2012

Owning Comics (Part 3) : Superheroes and The New 52

We've talked a bit about how to read, and I've introduced you to a few classics to get you started; now we're going to delve deeper into what to read. We'll be getting into manga (Japanese comics), indie comics, movie/novel/game tie-ins, and a few other categories. [ETA: This may not happen for a while.] But first...

We're going to talk about superheroes.

First of all, let me apologize to the Marvel fans. I'm a fan of all kinds of (good) comic books—Marvel titles included—but I will admit to reading and enjoying more DC. Some people are cat people and some people are dog people. I'm an animal person (dare I Animal Man?), but I'd probably prefer to own a dog. Because they love me...and they have Batman.

My own metaphor is confusing me.

I'll try to give Marvel some quality time later on, but for now, we're going to focus on DC's superheroes, specifically the New 52. They say write what you know, and I've been devouring New 52 titles lately; they're where my heart and enthusiasm are currently hanging out drinking beer.

Even if you're new to comics, I'm sure you're at least vaguely aware there are two big dogs (oh, so now they're both dogs?) in the world of comics, Marvel and DC. They each have their charms, their flagship characters, their own ways of doing things. The only way to get to know them well is with time and experience, but here's the short of it:

Reader, meet Marvel.

And this is his big brother, DC.
(It's short for "Detective Comics," but he doesn't really like it when you call him that.)

(Intimidated by the ridiculous number of characters? Don't be. Just pay attention to the front row or two. When in doubt, remember: Marvel = Avengers, Spiderman, X-men. DC = Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman.)

DC is the one we're concerned with today, specifically the New 52 titles. I'm going to list some of my favorites for you to check out, and we'll talk about where and when you can get a hold of them, but first, a little history lesson about "continuity":

DC comics has been making comic books since 1934. Back then, the concept of comic book continuity was in its infancy. Superman and the other heroes just...did stuff, and that was enough for a long time. But as comic series continued to run, the fans grew more savvy and sophisticated, and soon, the demand for a shared universe where cause-and-effect would carry over from issue to issue couldn't be ignored. Soon, continuity became one of the defining facets of comics, sometimes for the better, other times taking precedence over storytelling. (It's not hard to imagine how decades upon decades of continuity, encompassing the creative decisions of dozens of writers and artists from different time periods, could become something of a creative buttplug* in the hole of the industry.) Eventually, continuity became a straight-jacket, strangling the life out of the stories it had been intended to deepen. Survival of the fittest kicked in, shrinking the fan base down to only the most obsessive and dedicated, fans willing to interact (and put up with bullshit) on a level the average person couldn't. Woe.



In late 2011, DC made perhaps the best decision anyone ever made ever period and rebooted their entire line of titles, and the New 52 was born.

What this means for you: 

1) Instead of seeing Batman issue #704 on the shelves, you'll (currently) see issues in the #1-9 range. Let me say that again: In a lot of cases, you can easily find ISSUE NUMBER ONE of Batman, Superman, etc. This is a big deal. For collectors, sure, fine, but mostly for freakin' readers! You can find the beginning of the story! Being able to start at the beginning, the sense of involvement and ownership that gives you—that's magic.

2) The comic books are better than they've ever been. Freed from all that bulky continuity, the writers and artists of the New 52 are able to do better work that we've seen in a long time. They're free to pursue good craft, not just good continuity, and it makes all the difference in the world.

3) You have a rare opportunity to engage in something old-school, yet palatable to modern tastes. Reading the New 52 is like watching The Avengers at a drive-in theater while drinking a root beer float. There is something timeless and charming about a good, ol' fashioned serial reading experience—the delayed gratification of buying issues monthly, enjoying a small piece of the story each time, having it to look forward to. There's nothing quite like it.

The New 52 is currently the biggest thing happening in comics. It is to comics themselves what Marvel's Avengers movies were to comic book movies. The New 52 is the now of comics. And it can belong to you. You can own Superman and Batman the same way previous generations did—not just the paper and ink and staples of the books themselves, but the characters, the iconography, the pure superhero-ness of them—and not as an amusing piece of American nostalgia, but as something relevant and fun, something you read because you want to read it. Now that's pretty amazing.

(I swear to god, I am not on DC's payroll.)


Without further ado:

(It should be noted, there are freakin' 52 of these series, and I have read only a small percentage of them. This list contains some of my favorites, compiled with a bit of consideration for general importance and artistic merit. I've excluded a few for being either too niche—like Blue Beetle—or too guilty-pleasure-y—Catwoman. The order is spongy, and I'll probably want to come back and revise this list every time I read another good title, but as a general list of good shit for beginners to read, this will do fine.)

1) Batman - There are lots of New 52 Batman titles (Detective Comics, Dark Knight, etc), but good ol', standalone Batman is still the best. This is top notch work in every way, and it belongs on the shelf next to The Dark Knight Returns and Batman Year One and The Killing Joke. I really think in ten years, people could put this story in that same category. This story presents Batman with an all-new threat to face, the mysterious Court of Owls, a body of masked, aristocratic manipulators and their deadly assassins (known as the Talons) whose roots go deep into Gotham's history and infrastructure. This series can be read on its own or as the core of the memorable Night of the Owls story, a comic book event spanning several titles (continuity used correctly!). The hardcover recently made the New York Times Top 50 Bestseller list. (Not the graphic novel list; the big list.) Don't miss out.

2) Aquaman - I never thought someone could make me care about Aquaman, let alone rocket him into the tip-top of my favorite superheroes, but Geoff John's smart, self-aware writing takes every joke you've ever heard about Aquaman and throws it in your face in the first issue. (He goes to a sea-food restaurant for shit's sake. It's gold.) But even if you've never so much as heard about Aquaman, you'll be captivated by the story of this noble, selfless person who sweats and bleeds to protect people who misunderstand and ridicule him. And, come on, after so much time spent gazing at city skylines, a trip to the ocean can be a welcome change of scenery.

3) Animal Man - This title literally gave me nightmares, and I'm a tough dude to disturb. This book has a maturity, depth, class, and boldness that reminds me of Sandman (my favorite comic ever, remember?). Here we have a less-recognizable superhero and really likeable guy living out his everyman existence with his family, and the shit hits the fan in a big way. It's surreal, it's touching, it's grotesque, it's inspiring, it's devastatingly creative, it's—just...just read it.

4) Justice League - This is a fantastic introduction to the Justice League, a who's-who organization of superheroes containing flagship characters like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and Aquaman (among others). The story itself is secondary in this book, serving as a backdrop for the real fun of watching these iconic characters meet each other for the first time. In many cases, the banter is on par with the Avengers movie. Pure fun. (Oh, and there's the ice cream thing with Wonder Woman. ... It's not what you're thinking.**)

5) Nightwing - When he was a boy, Dick Grayson was the original Robin. Now he's grown up, he's spent some time filling in for Batman, he's grown tremendously, and he goes by the name of Nightwing. Dick is one of the most likeable characters in the New 52. I didn't know him well before this, but I've become a fan. He's the kind of guy you just want to spend time with. The story is not only entertaining, it feels important. Other than Batman itself, this is the most important series dealing with the Court of Owls. We get to go back to Haly's circus where Dick's parents died. We get to see Batgirl. It's a ton of freaking fun. Highly recommended.

(I'll get into where you can buy individual issues later on, but for now, I've just linked to the trade paperbacks and hardcovers on amazon. Some of them haven't been released yet, but this way you can wishlist them if you'd like. If you'd like to know more about what comes out when, here's a list of the titles and when the various collections will be out.)

To learn more about the New 52 and all its titles, click here. Don't neglect the abundance of good reviews online. A quick google search can help you sort out the must-read titles from the must-skip. Happy reading!

See you next week when we'll be getting into "Owning Comics (Part 4): Manga."

*If you clicked this link, you are a very brave soul. Now go clear your history.

**Cute doesn't do it justice.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Chasing the First Sale (Part 2): What a Pro Story Is

Today, we're going to look at what a story is and how to tell one. It's going to be the crashiest of crash courses, but I think it's important to touch on this, at least briefly. It's my opinion that no amount of networking, no reputation, no amount of anything will sell a story that isn't a story. There are (unfortunately) exceptions to every rule, but they are (blessedly) rare. You may be tempted to say, but Steve, what about the piles and piles of crap published every year? Fair enough. But let's hold off criticizing other writers (especially published writers) until we've done some publishing of our own. It's been my experience that the meanest, most bitter and brutal critics are the ones whose work isn't any good. A good writer knows what it takes to tell a story. They realize even if another writer only gets a story 80% right—if the story has a skeleton it can stand on, even if the skin ain't so pretty—that's still something worthy of respect. This shit is harder than it looks.

There are tons of resources on writing fiction, and I won't even attempt to repeat all that information here. What I'm going to focus on (aside from a few recommendations of books to read and resources to keep in mind—these will come next week) are the macro, big-picture things I've learned through experience. Hopefully, they can save you some time.

First of all, let's get this out of the way. The old question "How do I become a writer?" really only has the one simple (and demonically difficult) answer: "Read a lot, and write a lot." That really is it. Most of the stuff I'm going to tell you, it's the details. It's icing. It's trim. It's freakin' parsley. If you don't read and you don't write, my blog will do nothing for you—and neither will any other resource. Unless you're a genius (trust me; you'd know if you were), you have to work. Once you're writing consistently, all the pieces of information you've picked up along the way will start to click into place, one by one, like cogs in a living machine. But until you start doing the writing part of being a writer, the cogs will just lie there on the floor, looking pretty (perhaps making you sound smart when you talk about how you would have written somebody else's book), but ultimately they'll just collect dust.

"The characterization was thin."
So what is a pro-level story? It's a joke.

I don't mean stories aren't to be taken seriously—quite the opposite. And I'm not saying the concept of a professional story is elitist or outdated (blah blah self-publishing, etc). God no. I'm saying that a pro story is a complete idea that evokes an emotional response, at any length. Have you ever met someone who likes to drag their jokes out with lots of details? What about someone who just tells it, hits the important bits, and gets to the punchline? Both methods work if the joke is a good one. It can be passed along, from person to person, but the core of it remains the same. A pro story is like that. If the concept is good enough, you should be able to get people excited just by explaining it, sometimes in just a sentence or two. A pro story's concept should be so good, people want to tell their friends about it. It should get stuck in their heads. They should say, "Man, why didn't I think of that?"

"So a voice actor lands a job playing an alien actor's roles in television shows captured by SETI satellites, all the while avoiding phone messages from his estranged daughter. When he learns the alien race who made the TV shows have all died in a supernova, he has to record the speech given by the alien actor to his dying people. This painful event gives him the courage he needs to reunite with his daughter, and he learns she has had terminal cancer the whole time.

OMG. It's so hilarious, I could chew my fingers off!"

Basically, when you begin developing a story, you should begin by saying, "What is this? What am I making? What is it supposed to do?" As a writer, you're not just putting down words or expressing yourself or "being creative." You're building an intellectual property. You're turning your thoughts into words into a product you can sell. If this concept makes you uncomfortable, it could be you aren't right for commercial or genre fiction. If, on the other hand, you get excited at the sheer power implied in what I just said—that people will pay you for building a construct of thoughts and letters—then great. We're on the same page; it's a pretty crazy page to be on.

As a beginner, it can be easy to feel like you've got story down; it's just your writing that needs work. I don't know you, but I feel confident in telling you that's probably bullshit. I believed the same thing once, and I spent years trying to teach myself to "write purdy" before I realized that wasn't the important part. The important part was what is the story about and how does it happen?

"Basically, there's this guy..."
Once you know what you want your story to be, it's time to figure out what it is. These aren't always the same; in fact, usually they aren't. Stories in our heads are incorporeal clouds of emotion. They're pristine, unblemished by logic or prying eyes from the outside. Your job as a writer is to take that cloud of emotion and imagery, examine it, throw it away, then try to build something that makes people feel the way you felt when you first had the idea.

But how do you know if your idea is actually worth developing into a story? Well, try explaining it to someone. Trying writing it out in a sentence or two. If you can't do this, I can almost guarantee your story isn't a story; it's still an emotion cloud. At this point you can either abandon it, or build a skeleton to hang it on—a concept that will carry that emotion, a plot to make it move, characters to make it relate-able, and zing to make it sing.

The zing I just mentioned is the only original thing you will ever bring to a story: you. The rest has been done and done, but this is the first time anyone has ever been you, with your unique experiences and perspectives. If I had to pick a most-important piece of advice to give a brand-new writer (other than the ol' "read a lot, write a lot") , it would be this: Put as much of yourself as possible into your writing. Not your life; you. (Autobiography is, almost without exception, dishonest and boring. Avoid it.)

Don't write from your life; write from your personality. Write from your soul. It's all you've really got to offer.

But if you don't have a good story, nobody is going to give shit-one about your soul, so we're back to that. So where do writers come up with good concepts? The dreaded question: Where do you get your ideas? I'm actually going to attempt to answer it.


1) Gather ingredients by living your life and paying attention to the amazing, funny, heart-breaking things that happen all around you, every day.

2) Mix the hell out of them in every imaginable combination.

3) Keep what pops.

I mean it. Mix the shit out of stuff.

It really is that simple. And believe me, if you have any small measure of talent (or humanity), you'll know when something really, truly pops. You'll see one concept line up with another, and suddenly you'll see all the possibilities between them, the tension, the way they play off one another. That's a great feeling.

Take the concept for my first novel (which I can't claim; it was my wife's idea):

"The story is about a guy and girl who take a love potion." Did I lose you? Are you asleep yet? That's not a story, not even close.

Now try this: "The story is about a guy and girl who despise each other. They're tricked into taking a love potion that makes them fall madly in love when they're apart, but not when they're together." Now we've got something to work with. That little twist—they don't want to be in love, they didn't mean to take the potion, and it only works when they're apart—sets the whole thing off. Now they have to be together to be themselves. (Love Potion + Proximity = Neato!) I almost peed myself when Lynna shared this concept with me. The ideas for what to do with it came almost immediately, like someone had turned on a hose. (The pee and hose comments are unrelated.) That's how you should feel when you have a good idea on your hands.

4) Repeat as often as desired, forever and ever, amen. You'll never run out of ideas until the world runs out of shit to show you.

Once you have your concept, the hard (and fun) part begins. You have to make your story into something people can read. You have to manifest it, bring it into existence, give it form. You have to provide it with a world and a chronology and characters. You have to give it tone, pace, and rhythm.You have to make it, and the only way to learn to do this well is with study, love, and loads of practice. Orson Scott Card once told me during one of his workshops, "Every writer has 10,000 pages of complete crap in them. Some writers get those all out in the beginning, and some—like me—insert them a page at a time throughout their career." The other students and I laughed, but we also learned the lesson. You won't improve if you don't write.
This post ended up being (and taking) longer than I expected, so we'll get to the rest of it next week. I'll be recommending some of my favorite books on writing and how to use them to get better. I'll even talk about attending audition-only writing workshops, how to get in, and how to get the most out of them. So be sure to check back in next week for "Chasing the First Sale (Part 3): Becoming a Student of the Job."

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Cold Beyond the Pools

My flash story "The Cold Beyond the Pools" just went live in Redstone Science Fiction. I originally wrote it for a Codex contest called Weekend Warrior where participants write a flash story every weekend for five weeks; "The Cold Beyond the Pools" ended up taking first in its round. I went on to take first in the whole contest against 50ish pro and neo-pro writers, some of whom were Nebula and Writers of the Future winners who wrote some damn fine stories of their own. It was one of those highs that keeps you writing.

Anyway, I'm happy to share the story with you. New blog post up tomorrow, "Chasing the First Sale (Part 2): What a Pro Story Is."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Owning Comics (Part 2): Begin with the Best

I had originally planned to include a full post in this series called "How to Read Comics," but I quickly realized—depending on which angle I chose to attack the issue from—there would be either very little to say or way too much. I decided to take the shortcut with a few quick tips and a book to read if you really feel like going extracurricular with this.

(ultra brief edition)

Tip #1: Realize it's not that hard to figure out how to read a comic book page. Believe that, and you'll figure things out in no time. Sometimes, comic book pages can be intimidating. The format is unfamiliar, there are lots of balloons and captions and panels and god it seems like a lot to puzzle out. Don't give into the temptation to get frustrated or feel like somehow the page looks different to other people; it doesn't. As with anything else, practice makes perfect—or in this case, practice makes effortless. Left to right, top to bottom. That applies to balloons (dialogue), panels (individual pictures), captions (boxes with text in them, like narration), and everything else. If the comic artist has done his job (most will if you stick to the best and the brightest), there will be a discernible flow to the page. Just do your best. This is for fun, and I promise nobody is going to shove a quiz under your nose.

Basically, you just look at it.

Tip #2: Start at the beginning of the story. Whenever possible, this is a good idea. This doesn't mean you have to go back to 1938 if you want to read Superman. There are reboots and self-contained arcs all over the place that anyone can pick up and enjoy. These self-contained arcs are often collected into hardcovers or trade paperbacks, typically about 4-6 issues long (an issues is around 22 pages). Not only does this make enjoying comics cheaper, it means you can read the whole story without hunting around like mad for individual issues. (We'll get into acquiring comics later in this series.) If you want to give Batman a shot, for example, often it's as easy as googling "Top 25 Batman Stories" and looking them up on amazon. I've discovered tons of great stuff this way.

Tip #3: Remember, it's okay that you don't know everything. Trust me on this; the people who know everything get paid good money by DC and Marvel to serve as consultants and continuity experts. So don't be discouraged if you run into a character you don't know or a reference that leaves you drawing a blank. This. Happens. Just do what the average reader does and keep reading. If you try to push through and find you still can't puzzle out (or enjoy) the story, chances are that either the comic book writer forgot his obligation to keep readers up to speed (every comic book could be somebody's first comic book, and it's the writers' job to remember that), or you've ended up the middle of a larger story without the benefit of going through the beginning. If the latter is true, again google can save your life. Wikipedia too. They often have extensive lists of comic book issues and stories, what came first, etc; sometimes there are even synopses so you can catch up quick and get back to reading.

To summarize further, just remember: You're smart enough for this! It can look like a big confusing world out there, but most of what you need to know is a click away. It's a treasure hunt, and discovering new things is part of the fun. I promise you'll stumble onto something amazing that will make it all worth it. And there's nothing like sharing something new with your friends and watching them get excited about what you dug up. There's great stuff out there; go find it.

Stand back.
Bad ass at work.
If you want to learn more about comics as a medium, there is no better resource that Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. It's a comic book about comic books. Read it. It will blow the lid off your brain. By the end of it, you'll know more about comics as a medium than 99% of the human beings on Planet Earth.

But what if you're thinking, Slow down, Steve.Your tips are all well and dandy, but I know literally nothing about comics. I've seen the Incredibles, and that's it. (Great movie by the way.) I can't google a character I want to read, because I don't know any of them well enough to know if I want to read them or not. I'm greener than Green Lantern on his first day. (Okay, you probably wouldn't say that last thing.)

Here's what I'm going to do for you:

I'm going to assign you some homework. That's right, I'm takin' yo ass to school. Eventually, we'll get into things like DC's New 52 titles, indie comics, movie and novel tie-ins, manga, current mainstream comics, animated movies, even individual superheros. We'll get into how and where to acquire comics, how to store them, the benefits of trades vs individual issues, but not yet. Right now, we're going to start with the classics. And trust me, in the world of comics, that's a good thing. A very good thing. Because these babies won't bore you. On the contrary, they will grab you by the face, entertain the ever-loving shit out of you, and overhaul your brain in the process. That's right. Some of the comics I'm about to suggest won't just entertain you; they'll change you.

Big talk, right? I confidently stand behind every word. These books are the reason why:

(alternate title: "Read These and You Can Instantly Talk About Comics Like You Know Your Shit")

1. Sandman by Neil Gaiman

^It's in here. All of it.
 This is my favorite comic in the world. It spans 10 volumes, every mythology and religion known to man, and seemingly every facet of the human (and inhuman) condition. Sometimes I wonder if there's anything that isn't in this comic book. My brother, Paul, put it best when he finished Sandman. He said, "I just want to go up to Neil Gaiman and say, 'I finished Sandman. Now what do you want me to do?'" This comic changes you. It stirs your brain with a stick. It makes you fall in love. It makes you cringe. It makes you cry. It breaks the way you see the world and rebuilds it better. (It might make you get a kick-ass tattoo or two.) One of the stories in this series won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story. That isn't even allowed, and it happened. In short, best comic ever. If you're a little scared, you should be.

2. Watchmen by Alan Moore

...but for reals this time.

This recommendation has lost some of its zing since the movie came out (and wasn't nearly as well-received as it should have been), but this is still probably the best comics story ever collected in a single volume. If I could only put one book in the hands of a comic book skeptic, this would be it. This is the story of superheroes in the real world. This is the story of their personal struggles, their human quirks, and the massive threat they must pull together to face. The sheer amount of colorful characters and truly gripping scenarios in this book is staggering. It's an epic in every sense of the word, and the literary brilliance and complexity of the story is second to none. I mean, come on, how can you argue with a comic that made Time's 100 Best Novels of All Time? (Not graphic novels. Freaking NOVELS.)

3. Batman: Year One and/or Batman: Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

The Sin City/300 guy does Batman.
If you liked Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, you owe those movies in large part to Frank Miller's work on Batman. The two titles above are credited with being the most important, influential, and well-crafted Batman stories ever told. Like the rest of the titles on this list, they are older and stylistically off the beaten path, but there is a reason they have stood the test of time. If you'd like your Batman served complex, dystopian, and brutally epic with a dash of frenetic punk-rock crazy, The Dark Knight Returns is probably your book. If, on the other hand, you'd like something simpler, more down to earth, and noir as black coffee (and if you'd like to be with Bruce Wayne at the very beginning), then Batman: Year One is where it's at. Personally, I prefer Year One, but Dark Knight Returns has some glorious moments, specifically the stuff involving Superman. (Shh. You didn't hear that from me.) Which ever sounds coolest, you should read them both.

That's all for now. I'm super stoked for the next post, "Owning Comics (Part 3): Superheroes and the New 52" because we'll be getting into the New 52, DC Comics' reboot of all their titles. If you know nothing about DC, go watch this documentary. (I know, I know. So much homework. But seriously, it's a great documentary even if you don't give a shit about comics.) The New 52 is what's happening now in the comics world, so it's relevant and fun and chock full of great stories (not to mention some of the slickest art I have ever seen). I can't wait. :)

Also, if you're following my series Chasing the First Sale, look for "Part 2: What a Pro Story Is" on Monday.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend

I'll be going out of town this weekend for Memorial Day—we're leaving tomorrow and coming back Monday night, so the second installments of "Owning Comics" and "Chasing the First Sale" will be pushed back a week.

Until then. :)

Monday, May 21, 2012

Chasing the First Sale (Part 1): Wherever You're Standing

Before we begin, a story:

It was winter 2005 in Wyoming. I was dirt poor, living with my in-laws, and driving a 50 ft. bus full of coal miners to and from the mines in the most god-awful, 20-below, white-out snowstorms you could imagine.

We're there. I think.

I was 15 hours away from everyone I knew--except my newly-minted wife of just over a year--and I was depressed in a way I had never thought possible. The only escape were library audio books, mostly Stephen King, piped into my head through a dangling earbud as I drove the same Wyoming roads twice a day, back and forth, with only 7 hours of down time between runs. On my days off, cramped in our small basement living space, I was discovering alcohol, and my life had become something I didn't recognize.

It was here that I wrote my first good story.

It was a simple premise: a man trapped in a failing marriage is gifted with horrible nightmares in which he murders his wife over and over; the imagery is so awful, it prompts him to treat her well in real life, thus saving his marriage. It wasn't great, but it was passably good, the first good thing I had written, and it was the first time in my life I thought maybe I could be a writer.

I had told stories my entire life in one form or another. As a kid, I recorded fake news broadcasts with my brothers, made up superheroes whose adventures we acted out in the front yard, and blatantly ripped off Jim Davis' Garfield comics in my own series of strips, "Little Bo," about a Zebu calf and his half-water buffalo guardian. (We'll talk more about Little Bo later in my series "Owning Comics.")

We made asses up just so we could kick them.
When I was nine, I started making up my own ghost stories (blame this) and having my dad type them out in language that didn't sound so nine year-oldish. (I have the coolest Dad in the world, by the way.) Soon, though, I didn't want to write on Dad's schedule, so I struck out on my own, hunt-and-pecking out pages and pages of utter shit practice stories. I was frustrated with my limitations, but there was something about making stuff up that had me hooked. It was like everything else--school, church, chores--was in black and white, and any opportunity to be creative made the world explode with color.

But it wasn't until I was fifteen--sitting in an upstairs bedroom at my grandparents house over Christmas, fan blowing in my face, the toasty smell of the furnace from downstairs all around--that I read The Hobbit, and for the first time, I realized what I wanted to do with my life.

I told you all this for a reason. If you recognize my life because you're living your version of it, if you say, "Yes, that's me," (amen, hallelujah) then I want to help you. Maybe you're where I was after writing my first good story that winter in Wyoming, flipping through the Writer's Market, feeling totally overwhelmed and lost and small, wondering if your work will ever see print. Maybe you're where I was after reading The Hobbit, full of enthusiasm and desire, but not really sure where to start learning your craft. Maybe you know you want to create things, but you're still trying things out, searching for your medium.

Those are all great places to be, and they're all frustrating places to be. I want to help you enjoy and escape those places. I want to walk alongside you, from wherever you're standing, right to the threshold of your first professional short story sale. I want to tell you what nobody told me and--this is my hope--to save you a year or two of your writing life.

(If, on the other hand, you've sold some pro stories or a novel already, chances are this blog series won't be of much use to you, except maybe as an amusing trip down memory lane or a surprising look into another writer's process. If you're at a place where most of the advice in this blog doesn't apply to you, I hope you'll share it with someone you think might need it. We all started a zero, after all, and we've all asked for this kind of advice a time or two.)

This is not a writing course; it's an early career how-to. It's a step 1, step 2 process. I'll be getting into the craft of writing and what a pro story is (if you don't learn this, the rest won't matter), but I'll also be blogging about what markets to send to, how to learn from your idols (sometimes literally from them), how to meet other pro writers who will actually help you in your career and not hurt you (sorry Local Writing Group; if you're not helping each other create selling work, you're doing it wrong), and how to plan your career so you have the best possible chance of winning beginner/new writer awards that could mean big money and exposure. (Wish somebody would have clued me in!) We'll even take a look at that "next level" beyond the first sale, what that means, and how to reach for it.

Repeat after these jackasses:
"There's hope! Zaba-zoot-ZOW!"
Do you feel that? That's called hope. And it's fine to let yourself feel it. If you've ever thought selling a story felt impossible, like a far-off hypothetical thing, I can tell you, a day will come when you will look back on it, when it will be something you did a few years ago, and it will feel so small and so easy, you'll forget what the big deal was. When that day comes, I want to ask you a favor:

Don't forget. Remember how hard it was. Then help other people get where you are. (And don't forget to keep learning from the people who are where you want to be.)

Can't wait to get started, my friends. See you next Monday when we'll get into "Chasing the First Sale (Part 2): What a Pro Story Is."