Rejection

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I’m working acquisitions for White Cat Publications, specifically sorting slush into something that will hopefully soon resemble a magazine of speculative fantasy. I think that editorial blogs help cut down on rejectomancy, that most terrible and dark of the eldritch arts, so for the enterprising persons who Google me before or after submitting to Conjurings, you’ll find a bit here about what turns me off.

Rejecting stories is hard. To be clear, it’s easy to understand when a story should be rejected. It’s the part where I have to tell a fellow writer that our children don’t need to be hanging out that hurts.

Certain painful habits make it hurt a lot less, though.

I’m snarky. Not in writing so much as in person. My slush reader is a foil for this, and we will occasionally get riotous. One of our submissions was accompanied by this letter:

Dear Fiction Editor,

Be sure to read “TITLE REDACTED,” a modern-day version of ALSO REDACTED.

That opening line seems to have been written with the idea that I’m a viewer at home and he’s a channel that I might just skim past. It doesn’t work that way. And the writer’s cluelessness jaded me going into the story. The first thing I noticed? His opening line had the exact same meter and most of the same words as the somewhat infamous line, There once was a man from Nantucket.  My slush guy and I were having fun with the story for all the wrong reasons, and I realized that I really, really needed to write a form rejection letter.

I’m perfectly fine with being addressed as “Fiction Editor,” incidentally. I just hope that anyone saluting me as such is prepared to see “Dear Fiction Writer” in the reply.

Mostly, though, I do not have fun in the slush pile–I have a hard enough time picking a flavor of ice cream, follow? So when a story appeals to me aesthetically but then does a bunch of stuff that annoys me, I get sad. Frumpy, I’ve been called. I had to turn down a perfectly wonderful submission the other day because–even though I liked the plot and the world the writer had crafted, the characters were flat and somewhat illogical, and the prose … I’ll say uncontrolled.

Good–even great lines–were scattered through the story, but the voice was all over the place and the perspective bounced around. I’d have been okay working through some of this in proofs, except the story didn’t have a money shot good, memorable scene that I could identify as the fulcrum that made the tale lift readers up and off into the place we go when we love reading.

That’s what makes or breaks a story, at least for me. A single scene–often a single moment that ties together the whole of the theme with the character and the plot. The stuff leading to that moment needs to be passable, though compelling is always better–but even the most masterful prose, the keenest sense of aesthetic  and even a n awareness of what your demographic wants to read will all fall apart without this moment.

I have a TOC to populate, so I’m off, back into the slush pile. Thanks for reading.

-B

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Aside

Anyone wondering where I’ve gone, thanks for still occasionally looking at this space! I genuinely appreciate it. I’m a story teller at heart, and then an explainer next. Man-splaining, I’ve been accused of. That may even be true, as I am a man and occasionally explain things. I digress. Without something to explain or a story to tell, I’m kind of quiet. Which means this blog (and the blog that accompanies my web-comic) is often blank for periods of time that are too damn long.

I’m a language guy, too. Sometime in the last year, I learned to speak Chinese. 我觉得汉语很有意思。I’m not sure when or how that happened. I just remember it being really hard.

I’ve got a couple of gigs I love right now, and they both involve fiction magazines. I copyedit for John J. Adams at Nightmare, where I had to memorize the spelling of chtulhu cthuchu Cthulhu and I’ve been hired as an acquisitions editor at White Cat Publications, where I try to buy awesome fantasy stories.

I’m grinding away at my very last semester of undergraduate college, and that’s terrifying—thanks for asking.

I’m going to go write. Sometime in the next few days, I plan to produce an essay on the word fuck, which I will then post here.

Order to the Universe

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A man in black fatigues walked into a school yesterday and killed children until whatever fueled his blood thirst ran dry. Then he killed himself.

The horror of this is unimaginable. I cried on an off for an hour when I was finally brave enough to go read about it and to  listen to the president’s speech. There, in the darkness, drenching my beard in tears, I tried so hard to find order in this nightmare, to find some reason that any parent would have to face this news down. There isn’t any. That’s the true existential, Lovecraftian horror of this monster. And he took his own life, so all of us who want the universe to have order or justice will have no course of action but to rage in impotence until our lungs are dry and sore.

A lot of people will be arguing about gun control, and about mental health care. Gun lovers will enact their power fantasies of waiting, armed, in some shadow in the school to save 26 lives. They’ll politick a lot, and say that if the teachers had all had guns, it would have gone so differently. A lot of other people will compare this massacre to the knife attack in China, and in the parallelism of the events we can find a Great Social Truth.

They’re not insensitive. They’re human, and they, like I, want desperately for this shock to fit in a narrative and to make sense. Hero fantasies are easy outlets, and politics come a close second. I only wish the parents of the victims could unscramble this so fast.

It doesn’t make sense and it never will, but a pretense of order makes the universe tolerable.

I wrote this to stop crying.

No no no no
The mother says each day
Her no no no no
Goads the child’s play
And no no no no
He says about his classes
No no no no
Mom I don’t want glasses

And then the order of the universe vanishes into the sound of a man in black fatigues’ footsteps as he walks with a sense of corrupt purpose to the classrooms, loads his gun. Maybe he’s completely gone upstairs and sees a carnival shooting gallery. Maybe he sees nothing anymore. I want him to see nothing, because the thought of his perspective—bang, next target, bang, next target, more than twenty-five times—makes my marrow run cold, not from the horror alone, but from whatever terrible chemical let me see it so clear.

When the mother hears the news
No, no, no, no
When she boxes up his tiny shoes
No, no, no, no
How did the sun still rise?
No. No. No. No.
But there his body lies.
No! No! No! No!

Career Stuffs

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Oy, it’s been a busy summer.

I’ve just finished a script for Ramen Empire’s first story arc. I didn’t plan on doing this for a while, but Zach, the artist, decided to try for class credit with Ramen Empire. His teacher told him that not having a script wouldn’t be an excuse to not deliver. I pumped it out in a day, and am now looking over it wondering how the heck to fix the poor misshapen thing.

I’m now a proofreader over at Nightmare Magazine, which makes me happy beyond all measure.

I’m also hunting for Grad Schools. Either here in the US or overseas in Taiwan or China.

A lot of my efforts have gone into trying to promote the web comic. Bey0nd Facebook and Reddit posts, I’ve got a few ideas–but they all involve money, and that’s the worst.

Sold! + Delays

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The Firefly writeup is still under construction; I picked up a few freelance jobs to pay the bills and, sadly, those are eating into my blogging time.

The good news is that I finally sold one of my favorite stories, “Greencloak for Hire.” It’s in the 2012 summer edition of White Cat, which is free in the wilds of the wide webbernets.

Direct link to my story. This saves you exactly one click, but at the cost of so much other great fiction. You have been warned!

How To Write Bad Characters: An Inspection of Secret Circle

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I’m getting ready to do an examination of the Firefly series, mostly because I think it’ll do the writing community good to have an in-depth analysis of a decent show. Firefly is dated material, but it’s had a haunting effect on its fan base. The writing, acting, sets, and all the other minutia about it were wonderful, and more writers want to be able to produce that quality of work. The show isn’t all perfect, of course, and I’ll talk about its flaws, too.

Before slicing into Firefly, however, I want to take a look at Secret Circle. It, like Firefly, was a Spec-fic drama that got canceled after one season. Someone might be tempted to compare them; when Fox cancelled Firefly, the fan base seemed to agree that the decision was ill informed. I think it’s important to look at the two shows’ differences, lest that accusation be a rallying cry behind Secret Circle, and become input that network executives more easily ignore.

On paper, Secret Circle looks like it had a good shot at being a success story. It drew its aesthetic heavily from Twilight, and its other elements

Obviously not trying to attract Twilight fans.

from Charmed, both of which are wildly popular IPs. They have flaws, of course, and Twilight has a hater base that’s at least as rabid as its fan base, but that doesn’t stop a movie or a show from being heavily consumed. For every terrible flaw in Twilight, I can point at a reason why it’s succeeded. Had Secret Circle succeeded, however, I would be genuinely mystified.

The first major problem was that it had tropes, not characters. I love tropes, but only as the starting point for a character. The population of Secret Circle was never more than actors filling heavily familiar roles. The male cast was a weird alteration of the Smurfette Principle in that every reoccurring male character was the same iteration of intolerable White Knighting. That is, none of them had anything going on in their lives outside of caring about whether the female cast was okay. In the real world, that’s creepy. Even if a character’s screen time is devoted to his love for another character, it needs to be obvious that he collects stamps or raises giant mushroom off camera. This problem would be really hard to see from the aerial-level view of a network executive or a producer, or even a writer, because the problem would be completely invisible on a beat sheet, and it would look minor, at best, on the scripts.

The same problem is easier to spot in minor characters; writers are warned all the time to never have their minor characters be labeled “COP 1” or “WAITRESS 3.” It puts all of the creative work in the hands of whoever is reading the script, and it’s a red flag for a lack of creativity. For the same reason that a bit character should be an “ANGRY COP” or a “HIGH COP,” the main characters in a show need to be more than their first name. Cassie Blake, the female lead in Secret Circle, was always just Cassie. The reluctant witch part of her character was happily abandoned whenever they needed her to act tough, and the new girl in town part of her character faded after a few episodes. With no goals to motivate her other than the next plot intrigue, she quickly felt phony.

All of the characters in Secret Circle suffer from this. Never mind that the male characters all look like they came from the same underwear catalogue; that’s a point in their favor, since the show very much wanted sexual appeal to its young female target market. What makes them unwatchable is the shared goal between them; even when Cassie’s mysterious and supposedly evil father makes his appearance midway through the series, he never had any real motivation. Cassie was in constant danger, so the male cast members wanted to save her. This probably looks okay on paper, because it makes a degree of sense, but it would only become entertaining if Cassie’s constant need for rescue was a clear drain on the other aspects of their lives. It wasn’t. They happily played the cavalry of white knights, and attacked whatever tower Cassie was being held in on any given week.

The female characters are more diverse, but still do very little to break out of their obvious tropes. Cassie is, of course, Faux Action Girl, and she’s got her three friends—the responsible one, the free spirit, and the bitchy one. Given a few seasons, the female cast would likely have gotten to explore their characters beyond the tropes, but the same can be said of any rough draft.

In this scene, the evil black villain forces mind-control drugs onto our pristine white victim-princess. Secret Circle may have lacked self-awareness.

As an exemplary episode, let’s look at when Cassie’s father makes his appearance. This could have been the episode where the show turned around; her father had been played up as an evil force that would have to be reckoned with since early in the series. Father drama has an innate appeal, I think, and at the very least, a proven track record—Darth Vader’s name literally translates to “Dark Father,” and he’s one of the most beloved villains in the spec fic world. This trope’s inclusion into Secret Circle, however, wasn’t enough to rescue it. The episode is riddled with the series’ normal problems—Cassie has no goal, and everyone else’s goal, including the father’s, is to protect her. But something interesting almost happened; she almost killed her father after learning that he might not be such a bad guy.  In an episode that had no guiding theme or obvious character goals, this could have redeemed not only that script, but the 13 or so scripts before it.  Cassie would have had baggage, and her reluctance to be a powerful witch would then be at odds with her desire for revenge.

Instead, Cassie’s white knights show up at the last second, preventing her from magicking her father to death. And because the show didn’t have a theme of team work or the value of friendship, which could have saved this ending in a show aimed at younger people, the last-minute rescue felt like deus ex machina.

Firefly is, as I hope to show in my coming in-depth examination, largely free from these problems, and beyond that, beneficial to its genre as a whole by leaving behind new ideas for writers to play with. Far from this, Secret Circle left behind a lot to criticize, and will mostly be forgotten about over the next few years.