MiniCon Report (and my first editor pitch)

I’ve been meaning to make it to a science fiction convention for quite a while now. Even before I started writing they sounded like fun, lots of people with similar tastes all getting together and hanging out, swapping book recommendations, arguing about which authors write better books and why, and so on. But now that I’m writing, I figured I should check out the con scene from the fan side before people start knowing who I am.

For some reason all the cons in the Twin Cities seem to occur over holiday weekends, so for the last few years I’ve been out of town visiting family and unable to attend. But this year, I learned early that Brandon Sanderson was the writer guest of honor. So I registered early and decided that this time I would go.

I asked a few people if they’d want to go with me, but no one took me up on it, so I ended up going solo. Which was probably for the best, because if I’d been there with someone I probably would’ve just used them as an excuse to not meet anyone. So to avoid just sitting by myself the whole time I struck up conversations with a few strangers, met a few writers I’ll try swapping story critiques with, and just got a chance to talk to people about all kinds of things.

I missed the opening ceremonies, including the keynote speech by Brandon Sanderson because we’d bought hockey tickets for that night long before I registered for MiniCon. So I didn’t get to MiniCon until Saturday, with the meetup of the local speculative fiction writers group Minnspec. That was nice to meet a few of the members. I’ve been meaning to get involved with them for quite a while but I’ve just never gotten around to it. I mostly stuck to the panels during the day, not the bars after or the musical guests or anything like that. I’ve been so busy with schoolwork lately that I haven’t been able to spend as much time with Heather as I’d like, and since I was lucky enough to get a homework free weekend in the middle of the semester I wanted to make sure I didn’t neglect her the whole weekend.

For those of you who are used to the big mega-size cons, this is many orders of magnitude different, which is both good and bad. Bad because, of course, there are less guests, less people. But good because it’s so much more personal. At the big cons, if there’s a big guest, you could be one of thousands of people waiting around for a chance to get a glimpse, let alone any actual personal contact. But here, there just a few guests, and about four parallel programming tracks in four rooms. Even the guests of honor are extremely accessible. Most of the panels had a few dozen attendants, and a handful would hang around to talk to the folks presenting.

After the MinnSpec panel was an Editors’ panel with Moshe Feder (Brandon’s editor), Ben Bova (who should need no introduction), Eric Heidemen (editor of Tales of the Unanticipated), and Michael Merriam (slush reader for Fantasy Magazine). That was really cool, especially seeing Ben Bova was particularly cool. All four of them had a good sense of humor and had a lot of good interplay.

That afternoon I stopped at a Dan Dos Santos art exhibition. He showed a sped up video of him painting the cover art for Warbreaker, 70 hours compressed to 10 minutes or so. That was really cool to see it start at the vaguest shapes and down to finer and finer details, with layers of colors that look strange at first but blend into the vivid colors and textures of the final image. After that, he did a quick portrait of Brandon while everybody watched and while the fans could watch both of them. That took about a half hour and was really neat to watch.

Most of the rest of the programming I went to was Brandon Sanderson programming. He gave some interesting advice, told some funny stories, and was just generally good to listen to, including one panel dedicated just to telling the story of how he got the Wheel of Time gig.

But the highlight of the con, for me, was The Pitch. Anyone could volunteer to throw a three-minute novel pitch, for a novel that’s complete or incomplete, and give it front of Moshe Feder and Brandon Sanderson. I only heard about it a few hours ahead of time, but I decided that the opportunity was too good to pass out. So between the panels I wrote out a quick outline to help me when I was on the spot.

We volunteers raised our hands and Brandon picked one of us at random to go first. That random person happened to be me, so I got to go up and throw out my pitch before seeing what anyone else’s pitch sounded like or seeing how kind or cruel Moshe or Brandon were. So I gave my three minute pitch, terrifying, a bit awkward, but I made it through the whole thing with only a few ums and ahs. I didn’t have time to get out the whole plot, but I got about halfway through to a good stopping point. My characters, uh, need a little work, so I concentrated mostly on the plot.

Both Moshe and Brandon were simultaneously nice and honest. Both for my pitch and everyone else’s they gave constructive criticism and you got a pretty good idea of their level of interest in the story. Both of them had their points about my story, and they were mostly on target. I didn’t describe my characters much, which is an area that I’d had trouble with in the manuscript itself as well (it’s been quite a while since I worked on it, it could use some polish in that area). Brandon thought one part of the plot was too much of an idiot plot–that one I didn’t agree with, but I can see how he would’ve thought that from the short pitch. They also pointed something out which I hadn’t thought of at all–my beginning is very much a thriller beginning, an ordinary guy with his life thrown into sudden and immediate danger, and putting him on the run. But, despite the things they pointed out as needing improvement, Moshe said he’d be interested in seeing the manuscript. I’ve been concentrating on short stories for quite a while but it seems this would be a good time to reawaken the novel writer in me.

And after the feedback, Moshe gave me a Jelly Rat (like a Swedish Fish, but with a wormtail), which was a nice touch.

Some of the pitches were smoother than others, but Moshe and Brandon found something to compliment and something suggest an improvement for each one. I’ll list some of the more prevailing threads here, for anyone who might learn from it:

1. Don’t be too vague. Editors don’t care about spoilers when they’re hearing a pitch. One of the writers was afraid of giving away details that would be stolen, but it left the pitch so vague that it meant nothing. Sentences like “and they did something” means that you should probably either leave that out entirely or flesh it out to something more specific.

2. Tell something about the characters. Most everyone can come up with an SF idea, and there’s no doubt that SF ideas are important, but there need to be characters that have the problems, that drive the story, and it’s the interactions between the characters and the idea that make the story really unique.

3. Try to include as many of the relevant details as possible. Granted this is really difficult when you have such a limited time limit, especially when it was an impromptu pitch in the first place. For instance, if you explain the climax of the story, and it depends on some major plot point that happens earlier, you’ll want to make sure you mentioned that plot point.

So that was my first editor pitch. I thought it went well, and I’m looking forward to sending something to Moshe a manuscript as soon as I can.

Anyway, back to the con. Then, Sunday was mostly centered around doing the autograph fanboy thing. I bought a copy of Warbreaker, and got it autographed by Brandon(who wrote it), Dan (who did the fantastic cover art), and Moshe (who edited it). On top of that, I bought a print of a really great piece of art by Dan, a portrait of Moiraine Damodred (from the Wheel of Time series). I didn’t intend to buy any art, but it was just so beautiful I couldn’t possibly turn it down. I need to get a really nice frame for it and hang it in my office over my desk.

I’ll definitely be going again next year.

Fun With Flash Fiction!

Hi everyone! I have a writing exercise I’m going to try out. I’m curious to see how it works, and I’ll need your help to do it. Don’t worry, no heavy lifting or paperwork required. All I need from each and every one of you is a trigger. Now you’re probably wondering what the heck I’m going on about. Well, a trigger, in this context, is a word or phrase that is used to try to create a story from. Once I have a trigger, I’ll try to use that to root a story idea in it, and will let the story grow from there. The story does not have to contain the word, nor does the connection to the word have to be obvious. The goal is get the creative flow going and end up with something in the end. So what I need from you are the trigger words. You can leave a comment here. I intend to use each and every one of them to create a story–the time frame for doing this is uncertain since I’m not sure how big of a response to expect from this, and I do have other writing projects as well as Real Life going on in parallel. So please, drop a message here with a trigger. Please keep it clean to some extent.

Where did the idea for this come to mind? Two places:
1. I first came across this idea at Liberty Hall Writer’s Forum, where they hold a weekly flash fiction challenge. Once you log in to see the trigger, you have just 90 minutes to write a complete story and submit it so you can view others’ stories and vote on your favorite. It’s a great way to get a story going when you’re having trouble getting the start. I encourage you to stop by and give it a try.

2. I lovingly stole the idea for taking triggers from a group of friends from an interview with writer Greg Van Eekhout who has tried this before. It sounded like fun, so here goes. Thanks Greg!

Technology and Writing

Technology is constantly changing the way we do so many things, and writing is no exception. How exactly? I’ve broken down the answer to that question into a set of categories. Keep in mind that all of this is through my own perspective on writing, which has been primarily speculative fiction short stories.

Is there anything I’ve left out, related to any sort of writing? Leave a comment!

1. Revising/writing

a. Spell Check-Many would be lost without spell check. Many programs, including Microsoft Word, even do a spell check as you type, and immediately mark an incorrectly spelled word the moment you type it. The spell check program can suggest alternative spellings, provide dictionary look-up. Still, spell checks could be improved–if the program could recognize a name through context this would prevent a lot of false alarms. Word also comes with a grammar check, but that is less useful because its grasp of grammar rules is shaky at best.

b. Revise and print-You decided you want to add a new paragraph on page one of a five hundred page manuscript? Or you discovered that all of your pages need a 1.5 inch margin instead of 1 inch? No problem! All you need to do is open up the document in your word processor, make your changes, and it’s ready to print. If you wanted to do this with a typewritten manuscript, it would not be fun at all.

2. Backing up your work

Imagine that, after putting weeks, months, or years of work into creating a masterpiece of prose, you suddenly lose your only copy of your manuscript. You remember the major plot points, but you’ve lost all the little details, and all the beautiful sentence-level work. It’s a terrible thought! Well, these days, there’s no reason to lose all your work if you just take a little time to prepare. Email is a convenient way to back your documents up. Many email services provide large storage banks for each account. I have a Gmail account that I started for free that makes a great aid to backing up documents. While I’m working on a new document, I email myself every couple of days. If I ever lost my other copies, all I would need to do is dig up the saved email. In addition to that, if someone plagiarized your work in the future, the timestamp on the email could help prove that you had a work in progress of the story long before it was in print. In addition to email, it’s always a good idea to back up a file in several places, each at different physical locations (so that a disaster like a fire doesn’t destroy years and years of hard work).

There are even programs designed specifically to help you keep your stuff backed up. Anthony recommend Carbonite.

3. Learning the craft

a. Interaction with pro authors-When I was younger, professional writers seemed to be a race of distant and otherworldly beings that I could never hope to interact with, lest my head explode (like when humans hear the voice of God in some belief sets). But now that illusion has been mostly dispelled. Don’t get me wrong, I still admire my favorite writers greatly for the amazing worlds they’re able to pull seemingly out of nowhere, but it turns out that quite a lot of them are quite nice people, and I’m even pretty sure that some of them are at least mostly human. Lots of them have blogs where they freely give writing advice to anyone who’s interested in listening. David Farland, for instance, has an email blog called Kick in the Pants–you can sign up for it at his website. Dean Wesley Smith is another favorite, providing great advice on his blog, including ideas for self-motivation like The Race. I’ve even added quite a few of my favorite authors as friends on Facebook–I enjoy hearing their writing updates and hear when they’re coming through my area for book signings.

No single writing method works for everyone, so if David Farland’s advice doesn’t work for you, don’t be discouraged. Just keep trying different methods until you find something that really clicks. Check out the sites of a few different authors. At the very least, their perspectives are entertaining. And if you have any questions, drop a comment to one of them. Keep in mind that they’re busy, but it’s not at all rare for them to take some time to reply to questions or comments.

b. Peer critique forums-Once I decided to start writing I spent more than a year writing a novel, mostly in isolation. I had just a few people who were willing to give me feedback on my stories, but these people tended to be inclined to tell me that they really liked the story, but not tell me much else. This was good for my ego, but not so useful to improve my writing skills. After that year, I decided to start writing short stories, and while doing market research I came across Baen’s Bar, a peer critique forum that doubled as a submission vehicle for Jim Baen’s Universe. You can post a story to their forum, and it is available immediately for feedback from others registered on the forum. Staff members of JBU often gave their comments, as well as other aspiring writers. Not only can you get feedback on your own work, many of whom are very experienced and have a good eye for picking out what’s missing in a story, but you can critique the writing of others. Of all the ways to improve your own writing, critiquing others is the best way, in my opinion. It allows you examine the stories of other aspiring writers and examine them with a cold eye without any emotional attachment to the story. You can decide what you like and what you don’t, and the real trick is to learn how to apply this to your own writing.

Jim Baen’s Universe will be closed as of mid-2010. There are no official plans to close Baen’s Bar critique forum, and the newsgroup it exists on will probably still need to be maintained for Baen’s Books and the Grantville Gazette magazine, so i hope the venue is around for a good long time.

c. Easy sharing-If you want to share a copy of a story with a friend, all you have to do is drop them an email. It’s free, and it’s quick, and a great way to share your work for feedback or just for fun.

d. Autocrit-Autocrit is a subscription-based service which provides automated tools to help watch for trouble spots in your manuscripts. It can look for potential flaws such as overused words and phrases, cliches, and overused dialogue tags. No tool is the end-all be-all of revising your manuscript, but this tool in combination with other techniques and tools can make a big difference.

4. Research

The effect of the Internet on research is obvious. Anyone with Internet access has nearly endless banks of information at their disposal, but one must always keep the source in mind. Wikipedia, for instance, is good for finding quick, interesting information, but because it is created by users, information provided there may not be correct. If a writer decides to write a story about doppelgangers, a quick Google search can provide a plethora of information in a fraction of a second.

5. Market info

1. Sites like Ralan provide submission information for a wide variety of publications.Â

2. Most markets have submisions page which describes exactly what they’re looking for, including any special formatting they require, required length, and preferred themes. Be sure to check out this page each time you send out a story to that market. You never know when some of their requirements will change. Many markets close to submissions from time to time, also, and it’s best to check here to be sure the market is still open as well.

6. Electronic submission/staff interaction

a. Save money-It costs nothing to send an email. That’s a major perk! Mailed submissions usually cost something like 2 dollars domestic within the US, including the SASE, and that’s not including the envelopes or the printing costs. Email submissions cost nothing. When you’re just getting started, those postage costs add up fast!

b. Quick interaction-An electronic submission arrives nearly instantly, ready for perusal by the magazine’s staff. My record fastest response was only 47 minutes (from Fantasy Magazine). That one was an outlier, but a few magazines consistently respond within 24 hours such as Fantasy, Clarkesworld, and Podcastle.

c. Geographically separated staff-A magazine’s staff members no longer have to be located anywhere near each other. In many cases, staff members may have never met in person, but members can interact easily with technology like email and online forums. This makes it much easier to find staff members, if you have the entire net-connected world to filter for candidates.

d. Competition fiercer every day! A downside to the recent ease of submission is that when submissions are both free and easy, more and more people will try it, which means more competition!

7. New publishing mediums

Printed words (either in magazine or book form) are no longer the only way to publish fiction. In fact, print may be the hardest one to maintain profitability with, and is probably the hardest method to start a new magazine with. Even a few years ago, print publications were generally considered to be more prestigious, but minds are opening a little bit more every year. SFWA recognizes professional markets based on pay and the circulation level, regardless of the medium.

Both of my sales to date have been to non-traditional publishing formats.

a. HTML-text format on a website. This can be provided for free (like Fantasy Magazine or Strange Horizons) or on a fee-based system (like Intergalactic Medicine Show or Jim Baen’s Universe).

b. Podcast-I’ve recently discovered audio fiction and I honestly don’t know how I’ve done without it. I can load up many stories on my iPod and I listen to them every day on my commute. Now I look forward to driving to see what the next story is! My first fiction sale was to Pseudopod, so I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for podcasts. And, even better, audio rights and text rights often do not overlap, so there is a large potential for resales for audio markets, as they are providing a substantially different product.

c. Print on Demand-Even just a few years ago, POD wasn’t really a viable option. Nowadays, if you have a good idea for a book or an anthology, you can publish it through POD and if you can find the audience for it, you can really do well. POD is not as risky as doing a huge preprinted print run (the traditional method), because you only print copies of the book that you have already sold. This means that once you’ve covered your artist/design and other upfront costs, each sale holds a share of profit. This is particularly appealing if the level of interest is uncertain or expected to be low.

Northern Frights Press was the publisher for my second sale. This was NFP’s very first anthology, provided via POD. Despite it being POD the printing is of a high quality that you could find in any bookstore, and it’s available to order from Amazon just like any other book. I’ve been very impressed with POD so far.

d. E-books-E-readers like Kindle are just starting to gain more widespread popularity. For a small fee, you can download books right onto the e-reader. With this technology you can grab new books instantly for less than what you would pay at the store, and you can carry your whole library with you wherever you go. I’m not sure that they will ever replace real books entirely–there’s just something I love about holding a physical book in my hand, the smell of the pages, the feel of the binding–but there are a lot of advantages to e-readers.

8. Social networking

In decades past, writing was generally considered to be a pretty lonely profession. Long hours alone with your typewriter were the norm, making a writer feel isolated from the very world she’s trying to write about. But if you’re writing on a net-connected laptop, you no longer need to be isolated. The importance of social connections in writing cannot be understated. There are many forums focused solely on writing, some geared towards particular genres, and they’re a great place to meet fellow aspiring writers. You’re not the only one struggling to be published. Together you can celebrate your successes, console each other for your failures, swap critiques, discuss writing techniques, and maybe just unwind a little bit.

#8 is closely related to #9 and #10. Read on!

9. Self-promotion

This overlaps somewhat with social networking in methods and tools, but the intent is different. Rather than meeting people for the sake of meeting people, this is working to spread your work to as many people as possible. Site like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit work as very powerful promotional tools. With each of these you can share links with huge amounts of people with minimal effort, and they’re all free. Most of the hits for this article were probably generated by these tools. With a little careful promotional work, like book giveaways, traffic can be driven to your site to advertise your writing and help with name recognition.

10. Availability of distractions

The flip side of the coin of all these advantages is that with the whole web at your fingertips, distractions are easy to find. If you’re stuck on a story, staring at the word processing screen, it is far too easy to pop up Facebook to go read your friends’ statuses, to hop on an online forum to discuss True Blood vs. Twilight, or to go read (or write) a blog post about writing. Those things all have their time and place, but if you want to write, make sure you get your writing time in too!

Support our ‘Zines Day

It may come as a surprise that such a day even exists (it did to me) but today, October 1st, is Support out ‘Zines Day.

The short fiction market has been in a state of decline for years, if not decades. I could go on and on as to what might be to blame for this but there is really only one solution. People like yourself, like me, need to bite the bullet and subscribe to that magazine or online magazine that we read every day. Maybe you love the fantastic fiction that you find over at Fantasy Magazine. Go make a donation! Perhaps you wait on baited breath for the latest Fantasy and Science Fiction but still haven’t made the commitment of a subscription. Maybe it’s time.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Realms of Fantasy, Clarkesworld… the list goes on and on. Each and every one of these magazines exists because someone like you loves robot prostitutes and dystopian governments and angry leprechauns and bug eyed aliens so much that they are willing to work for peanuts to bring imaginative fiction to you every day, week or month. But they have operating costs. They have to pay for art and stories and web hosting.

Next time you read a story that makes you forget about the problems in your life. Makes the sluggish economy and your boss and your screaming kids and your snippy spouse all disappear for just a few minutes. Think about giving back.

The point is that you are here on this site because you love fiction, specifically speculative fiction. If you don’t support these wonderful publications, who will?

Jim Baen’s Universe Closing April in 2010

I received some sad news this week. Jim Baen’s Universe will be no more after the April 2010 issue. Jim Baen’s Universe has been distributing compelling fiction three years now and has quickly become a staple of the short fiction market.

The death of JBU is a tough blow to aspirant writers as no other professional market has made such an effort to nurture new writers. Sam Hidaka has said that the slush forum on the bar, which has served as a makeshift workshop for many writers, will remain open for now but its demise cannot be far off.

I give the good folks at the JBU slush bar, especially Gary Cuba, Edith Maor and Sam Hidaka, credit for much of my limited writing success. Both of my honorable mentions from the Writers of the Future contest were posted there and the unapologetic criticism I received there made those stories better by far. Their feedback has made me a better writer and a more effective self-editor.

JBU is only the latest in a stream of recent closing or near-death experiences for short fiction venues. Realms of Fantasy recently hung it up only to be snatched from the jaw of death by Tir Na Nog Press. Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction closed in May of this year. A small start up venue, Oddlands, closed in September of last year after only five issues. Even the beast, Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine has felt the pinch and gone to a bimonthly release schedule. There are many, many more publications, both online and print, who are suffering right now.

The question is why. We used to say that the internet was killing print media but JBU is an online publication. If this were true then JBU should be fine. Many other online publications have gone under as well so that logic simply doesn’t fly anymore.

Another consideration might be that short form fiction simply isn’t what readers are looking for. Recent success stories include epic series such as the Harry Potter series and Twilight. Both are multi novel sets with some books weighing in the five to six hundred page range. I would never speculate that short form fiction is ceasing to exist but it seems evident that demand is dwindling and publications are going to need to think of new ways to attract readers.

I believe that the time isn’t far off when publications are going to have to look at publishing in a whole new way. JBU tried something new with their Universe Club which provided them much needed capital early on but ultimately regular subscriptions never grew strong enough and they became too dependent on the Club income. I think there are two points of interest to make note of. First, The Universe Club was a success and readers enjoyed feeling like they were part of the magazine rather than just subscribers. This probably kept many of them subscribing longer than they would have otherwise. Secondly, the subscription model is still necessary and must be nurtured with as much care if not more than before.

I don’t pretend to know what they next big thing in periodical publishing is but one thing is certain. Editors all over the industry are watching as each of these guys fall. I hope that they are taking the time to analyze and learn what they can do to insure they don’t suffer the same fate.

A Year in Rejections

It was 1 year ago that I sent out my very first submission, my first novel to Tor. And what a year!

1 novel finished before the year started.
19 short stories written to completion within that year.
31 venues received my submissions.
91 rejections on those stories.

Almost to the century mark for rejections. Lately the trend seems slightly more positive–I’ve actually gotten a few “almost” replies, and one that’s being held for consideration for an anthology. I’m hoping that’s a continuing trend and not just a shallow peak. Here’s hoping! Who knows what the next year will bring.

I am a little bit curious what the big 3 digit rejection will be, the big one oh oh!

When is a Writer a Writer?

This was inspired by a Facebook post where someone said “not everyone who calls themselves a writer is a writer”.

When is a writer a writer?
To write: to form (as words) by inscribing the characters or symbols on a surface.
So whoever puts symbols surfaces is a writer? No. Writing does not make you a writer, or anyone who is literate would be a writer. A person would become a writer when they pay with a check or write a grocery list. That’s writing, not Writing.

When most people speak of a writer, they are speaking of someone who has written something in particular, especially a book. But does one become a writer simply by writing a book? I’ve written a book. Does that make me a writer? It’s sitting in submission at a publisher at the moment. I’ve written more than a dozen short stories, does that make me a writer if none of them are published? What about a writer who’s been too afraid to show his work to any other person? Are they still a writer, or does their fear of rejection take away that title?

Does someone have to like your writing to make you a writer? What if you’ve shown your writing to some people, but none of them have enjoyed it in the slightest. Must we seek a seal of approval to call ourselves writers, or should this writer declare his title regardless if anyone cares for his work?

Are you a writer once published? Most people would agree that people who make their primary income from writing are writers. But what if you’ve published a single short story? What if you’ve been published only at semi-pro markets? Token markets paying a half cent a word? No pay at all? Does that make you any less of a writer? Many of history’s greatest artists were not appreciate in their time, does that mean they only became artists post-mortem? Until then they were just losers with paintbrushes, and somehow became artists as a side effect of decomposition?

When the subject comes up, I tend to call myself an “aspiring writer”. Not because I really think there’s much difference, but because that one word avoids the inevitable and awkward follow-up question: Where can I see your work? But once I publish a short story, is that the time to call myself a writer or do I need a longer bibliography? Perhaps there should be stages of writership, novice, apprentice, journeyman, master, grand master. I could try using these as my writing career develops, but unless these terms go into wide usage, people will just think me a weirdo. Which is fine, I am a weirdo and proud of it, but the terms don’t provide clarity if no one knows what they mean.

Once a writer, always a writer? What if I won a short story contest in grade school and never write again? Does that mean I can always carry the title? If people ask, I can show them the story collection with the byline “David Steffen, age 7”. Does that entitle me to call myself a writer? What of J.D. Salinger, who has not published an original work since 1965? Most people would call him a writer because his wild success of “Catcher in the Rye”, but what if the book had been less successful? What if it had been a single short story? Would he still be considered a writer today?

Many similar questions apply to painters. Monkeys can manipulate paints on a canvas, but does that mean that monkeys are artists? I suspect that painters would be insulted by the idea–no lower species could be capable of art. Yet I’ve seen some abstract art that looks remarkably similar to monkeys fingerpainting. Does that mean that that artist is not an artist because a monkey could do the same?

Google Precedence–number 5

Just for fun, I did a Google search for my name to see where I rank these days. I’ve now moved up to #5, and even passed up one of my unsavory name-doppelgangers that has thwarted me for a long time–the web page is titled “Is David Steffen and elitist bigot?”

1. President, Biomedical Computing in Texas
2. convicted murderer from a case back in 1983
-I think I can safely say that I am absolved of all guilt in this case–I was less than 2 years old.
3. Generic WhitePages.com search for my name
4. Internet Broadway Database (IBDB)– a fellow who works in marketing
5. Me!
6. Is David Steffen and elitist bigot?

What Lies in Wait Beyond the Next Branch

Just some philosophical musing today at the approach of an important anniversary.
One week from tomorrow (June 5th) is the 1 year anniversary of my very first story submission dropped in a mailbox. It’s also my 5th wedding anniversary, but that’s not what I’m talking about today.

I started writing fiction in 2007, and jumped right in, diving head first into writing a novel with no prior experience writing fiction, no critique group and rare feedback from anyone. I finished a rough draft of that novel last year. Over that whole year I hadn’t even considered writing short stories. If you want to make it big, I reasoned, you’ve got to aim high. Book royalties, that’s the key. Once I finished writing the entire book, I polished the first 3 chapters to the best shine I knew how, wrote a synopsis for them and dropped them in the mailbox addressed to Tor. Their website at the time estimated 4-6 months for reply to slush, so I figured I had time to polish some more chapters before I had any chance of hearing back from them. I figured most places will take at least as long as the time estimate they give you. Right? Wrong!

I had their rejection in my mailbox 12 days later, a grainy photocopy of a form letter: “Dear Submitter”, “signed, the editors”. Now what should I do, I thought. Not that many places even take submissions of just 3 chapters + synopsis. Many places require you to work through an agent. Many others require an entire manuscript. I found another publisher that would take 3 + synopsis, Elder Signs Press, and sent it off to them. Once that was out the door I decided I needed a change in tactic.

Since novels take such an ungodly amount of time to write, and since so few publishers will take 3 chapter submissions, I decided I’d better get writing something shorter. So I wrote up my first short story, originally titled The Long-sought Purpose of the Divining Man. It was filled with almost constant exclamation points and semi-colons as I’d had a secret love for these punctuations. It was very long and had all kinds of problems, but of course I thought it was great.

I made my very first story post to Baen’s Bar, the critiquing forum associated with Jim Baen’s Universe. It took me quite a while to work up the courage. What if someone steals my work? What if someone rips my story apart? But I sucked it up, because quite frankly, their money was among the best pay in the short story biz. And of course, the good Barflies there told me what they really thought of it, pointing out all the problems that they could find. “Wow, this is harder than I thought”, I said, but at the same time was delighted to get prompt and knowledgeable feedback not only from fellow writers who were more experienced than I, but from the slush readers Edith Maor, Gary Cuba, and Sam Hidaka.

I’ve used Baen’s Bar both to give and receive critiques since then and have yet to see its equal. The critiques I’ve received there have helped me grow as a writer much more quickly than dogging through it on my own. In the year since I started writing shorts I’ve learned 10 times what I learned the year before trying on my own.

I also found other useful writing forums like the Writers of the Future forum (where I met Anthony Sullivan among others), and Hatrack River forum where I began wonderful friendships, discussed the ins and outs of writing and of the publishing business, and just had a great time.

More recently I’ve started grabbing writer friends on Facebook, which has been fun. Many of them give frequent updates about tour dates, publications, and you can just interact with them for fun too. It’s been awesome. Before you start talking to these people it’s easy to put them up on a pedestal and think of them as some sort of strange otherworldly being that can pull prose out of their ears unbidden, but they’re folks just like you and me (albeit talented ones).

Anyhoo, I sent that ESP novel submission out over 300 days ago now, and have queried at 6 and 9 months without even an acknowledgment in return. How different would my writing career be nowadays if I had sent that first manuscript off to ESP instead of Tor. I probably would never have started writing short stories, so I wouldn’t have come across critique forums like Baen’s Bar. I never would’ve made the awesome friends I’ve made, and I would be left slogging through the revisions of that novel (or ones of a second novel) with little or no feedback to help me understand what works in stories and what doesn’t. ALL it would’ve taken would have been a different address on that one envelope, and this would be so different.

I’m glad I addressed that first envelope to Tor, it set me on the path I’ve traveled to be where I am today.

Now I just need to get back to revising that novel! Such a daunting task now that I have a pretty good idea what I like and don’t like about different stories!

Wicked or Oppressed: Humanity Through the Eyes of Sweeney Todd

sweeneyFor those of you who haven’t seen Sweeney Todd, as either the movie or the play, be warned that there will be plenty of spoilers following. FULL SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

First, it’s kind of funny how I first heard of Sweeney Todd. I first saw it in the Ben Affleck/Liv Tyler movie Jersey Girl. In that movie there was a parent/child talent show where each pair was asked to choose a song to perform and act out for the school. Everyone but Ben Affleck and his daughter performed “Memories” from Cats. So after hours and hours of replays of the same song, these two go on stage and perform “God, That’s Good!”. On the upper tier of the stage, the barber Sweeney Todd cuts the throats of customers, who then fall through a hole in the floor and are served as meat pies to unsuspecting customers in Mrs. Lovett’s restaurant to dispose of the evidence.
If you want to see that video clip:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkLSFdvrhq0

Anyway, the details of the story FULL SPOILERS AHEAD are this:

I’m assuming that you all have seen the story. If you want to remember the details, here’s a link to a Wikipedia synopsis:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sweeney_todd

In the song “Epiphany”, Sweeney states his view of mankind:
“They all deserve to die. Tell you why, Mrs. Lovett, tell you why. Because in all of the whole human race, Mrs. Lovett, there are two kinds of men and only two. There’s the one stays put in his proper place and the one with his foot in the other one’s face. Look at me, Mrs. Lovett, look at you. We all deserve to die. Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I. Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief. For the rest of us death will be a relief.”

His simple bimodal distribution of humanity is very apt for the play. Only a few characters violate this description, and those are the most remarkable characters. Here’s an analysis of all the named characters in the play, classifying them as the Wicked and the Oppressed:

First, the clean cut ones:

Mrs. Lovett (played by Helena Bonham Carter in the movie):
Definitely Wicked. She’s the one who suggests putting human meat in her pies. She also deceives Sweeney, leading him to believe that Lucy is dead so that she can seek Todd’s love for herself. You can’t get much more wicked than that.
Dies by Sweeney’s hands for her crimes.

Judge Turpin (played by Alan Rickman in the movie):
Definitely Wicked. He wrongfully imprisons Barker to get at his wife. He exploits Lucy to the point that she attempts suicide. He imprisons Johanna and tries to force her into marriage. Rich man, and civil officer, taking advantage of decent people–definitely wicked.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Beadle Bamford (played by Jamie Campbell Bower in the movie–you may know him as Wormtail/Peter Pettigrew in the Prisoner of Azkaban)
Wicked. He seems to have a pretty good life. Though he lives under the command of Judge Turpin, he doesn’t really seem to suffer for it. He’s well-dressed and happy enough. He helps Judge Turpin in his unethical actions. He’s wicked, though not to the extreme of his employer.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Signor Pirelli (played by Sacha Baron Cohen in the movie)
Wicked, though he’s the least wicked of the wicked. A rich man, very well dressed, who exploits the general populace by pretending to be Italian and selling them overpriced barber services as well as selling them “miracle elixir” that’s supposed to grow hair, but is really just a mix of urine and ink. Tries to blackmail Sweeney.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Lucy Barker
Definitely oppressed. Her husband is wrongfully imprisoned, then she’s relentlessly pursued by a man in power, then exploited, then takes poison, but doesn’t die. She ends up brain damaged and begging on the streets.
Dies at Sweeney’s hands.

Now for the dual case:

Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd (played by Johnny Depp in the movie)
These two sort of follow the rules, if you consider multiple personalities to be different people. I think that Barker/Todd really believe their statement that there are only two kind of men. Benjamin Barker is the oppressed man who lost his wife and child. Desperate for revenge, but unable to bring himself to it, he creates another persona: Sweeney Todd. Sweeney Todd is more than capable of enacting revenge on the judge, but he’s incapable of compassion and more than willing to commit mass-murder.
dies at Toby’s hands

And the really strange cases. Interestingly, the strange cases are the ONLY people who survive:

Toby:
Transitions from neutral to Wicked. His life at the beginning isn’t particularly terrible. He has a home and a job being a crier for Signor Pirelli. If I remember right, he’s a rescued orphan so his life is looking up. After that he’s taken in by Mrs. Lovett who treats him like a son. He’s suspicious of Sweeney, but they manage to coexist until near the end when Toby discovers what Todd and Lovett have been up to. He’s lurking in the sewers beneath the basement when Mrs. Lovett is killed. After that, he creeps up and kills Todd while Todd is cradling Lucy’s dead body. Murder at such a young age seems like it will make him wicked for sure.
She is still alive at the end!

Johanna:
Transitions from Oppressed to Neutral. Her life at the beginning is terrible, forced to live with Turpin as he tries to force her to marry him. But Anthony comes along and rescues her. In the end they run away together. You could argue that she’ll be Oppressed for the rest of her life because of childhood trauma, but I like to think there’s a happy ending there.
She is still alive at the end!

Anthony:
He is the most unique character, arguably the hero of the story. He is neither Wicked nor Oppressed at any point in the play. He does not perform any actions to hurt other characters, but he does not allow himself to be pushed down by other characters either. His actions only have good effects, allowing Johanna to be free, and absolving Todd’s guilt to know that his daughter will be in good hands.

Judging by all of these things, I think the story is told from Barker’s point of view (hence why most everyone fits so neatly into the two categories). In this story, Anthony is the hero because he saves Todd’s daughter.

If anyone has any thoughts on this analysis, I’d be glad to hear them! 🙂