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Whew! What do you call a ten-day whirl of delayed flights, storms, malfunctioning Jetways, broken luggage, 11 hours of non-functioning in-flight video, and 45 minutes on an LA tarmac in August without air conditioning? Answer: My trip to Loncon 3. And I mean that precisely: That was the trip out. (Not to mention the 90-minute tube journey through London at rush hour with two suitcases, but we knew about that.)

It is a tribute to the Loncon crew that even with all that, the trip was worthwhile. It helped that we lucked into a hotel next to the convention center; some people were commuting 30 minutes every day. We only commuted ten minutes a day, and that was because we were on the “unfashionable side” of the ExCel, as Lady Bracknell would say, and it was a long walk to the convention space proper.

And still it was worth the trip. European cons offer one great advantage that American cons just cannot seem to match: Europeans. I lost count of how many languages we heard. And European cons don’t run on the wimpy 10 – 5 schedule we have here. They ran seven tracks of programming from 9 am to 11:30 pm. (I shudder to think who you had to offend to get an 11:30 pm reading. Maybe those were reserved for horror authors.)

I did have a problem with the program–not that there weren’t panels I wanted to see, because we’ve been to so many cons that new and interesting panels are few and far between, but because I was shut out of fully sixty percent of those I did want because the rooms were too small. I realize Loncon may not have been expecting 7000 attendees, but really, if your venue’s rooms aren’t big enough, get a new venue. Otherwise you might as well call yourself Comic-Con.

Fortunately, the real reason I went was to meet people. I’m a member of Codex, the internet community for newer pros, and we have an annual Worldcon breakfast which is the only chance many of us ever get to meet the others, let alone those of us who live in Europe and don’t get to smaller domestic cons. The breakfast was a great success, and I managed to put faces to a lot of names, exchange some business cards, grouse a little about magazine response times. There were other meet and greets, and I believe I made some worthwhile contacts.

After four days mostly spent walking or sitting at the convention center coffee house, the con was over. The concom was exhausted. Most of the guests went home. Us? We were only half-way through our London adventure, and the “interesting times,” in the Confucian sense, were only beginning…

“Time heals all wounds.” I don’t know about that, some wounds are pretty deep, but it’s amazing the wounds time can heal in your fiction.

The standard wisdom is that once you draft a story, and re-draft, and edit, and…you get the picture, and you do this however many times are right for you,* you put your story aside for a while, preferably long enough that you can no longer recite it in your sleep and will be able to look at it with a fresh eye. (I call this the “cooling-off period,” like when you leave a pie on the window sill for a cartoon bear to steal.) Then you do some more editing and it’s finally ready to send to your beta readers, if you’re lucky enough to have some.

Well, guess what? That “cooling off” period is never enough.

I just finished revising a story which had been through a number of initial edits and which I considered good enough for submission. It went to 18 different magazines, receiving personal rejections and being short-listed more than once, but never bought. (And yes, I know it’s bad form to talk about how many rejections it’s gotten; that’s why I’m not saying which story it is. Honestly, I hadn’t realized how many times it’s been rejected until now.)

So at last I asked a new beta reader to look at it, and the number of things that now appear blindingly obvious, things that I should have taken out, things that I have now added in, is ridiculous. There is so much more to the story now…

And this isn’t the first time this has happened. It happens with every story, even the ones you sell, which is why it might not be a good idea to re-visit your successes. It happened most vividly with one sale that was handed over to an editor after acceptance, not just a copy-editor, but an editor. When she and I were done the story was so much better I couldn’t understand how I sold it in the first place.

So a “cooling-off” period is never enough, because if you wait long enough that you have improved, and gain sufficient objectivity, to refine your story to its peak, the scientific advances you’re writing about will have taken place and you’ll be creating historical fiction. You need help. You need another set of eyes—and not just any eyes. You need someone who (a) understands the field you’re writing in, and (b) loves you enough to be honest. A well-meaning but soft critique is worse than useless. Get used to it. You need a thick skin to do this.

But don’t worry. Time (and sales) heals all wounds.

*There is no one way to write. As long as you are actually writing, your way is the right way.

If you ask a writer what the most unwelcome words in the English language, you would expect him to say, “We’re sorry, but your work doesn’t suit our needs.” This is truly a hated phrase, one which no writer enjoys hearing (or more likely, reading), but when you have been in this life for a while (i.e., after your first submission), you come to realize it is part of the job. If you can’t deal with it, you bail for something less stressful, like bomb disposal.

Every writer lives in fear, however, of a different phrase, two sentences whose utterance can inspire panic and desperation in the greatest, the most stalwart, and the ones who couldn’t run away fast enough. I refer, of course, to:

“I have this idea for a story. How about you write it, and we’ll split the profits?”

(Pause for shrieks of agony from writers.)

How do you deal with this? How do you tell this well-meaning but incredibly naïve hopeful (who may range from a complete stranger to your brother-in-law) that you would rather read slush for a living at a for-the-love unicorn-slash fanzine than accept his offer?

First, let’s examine why this is such a terrible idea. There are two main reasons: (1) Most the writers have more ideas than they know what to do with. (I have notebooks full, myself.) They don’t need your ideas. (2) Your ideas are your ideas. You want to see them written down because they resonate with you. They will not resonate with others the same way. So if your idea is so great, if it sets you on fire, write it yourself. (Note: Certain celebutantes with too much money and no self-esteem have tried to make it acceptable to hire a ghost writer and then put their own names on the cover. Really? You can’t be bothered/brave enough to put your own work on display?)

These days, if you have an idea for a story or a novel, you can write it and publish it yourself. It won’t even cost you anything. So why would anyone ask someone else to do this for him? Why would anyone ask another writer to put in hundreds of hours hunched over a laptop, spend days researching agents, dispatch dozens of queries and submissions, and endure months of waiting only to find that, “We’re sorry, but your work doesn’t suit our needs”?

Huh.

Say, I have this idea for a story. You want to write it and we can split the profits?

As we all know, the only dangerous thing about being a writer is when you become so famous that you forget where you came from. As we all also know, writers are notorious liars (it’s what we do), so you will not be surprised to hear that the above is a complete lie. Becoming so famous you forget where you came from is only dangerous to your old friends who may try to hug you at an signing event and be manhandled by your personal security. The only danger to you is writer’s cramp.

So with that myth dispelled, what are the dangers of being a writer? The most obvious (and most common) is depression stemming from constant rejection. This leads to self-doubt, imposter syndrome, the “maybe my sale was just a fluke” dilemma. Insidiously, it does not go away upon selling a story; it may never go away. And it’s a hard thing to discuss except among other writers, who are either also suffering from it, or have sold a story in the last 48 hours.

But are there other, hidden dangers? You betcha. Two, in fact, hazards so sinister because they are cloaked in a disguise of benevolence, even charity. Every writer of any (perceived) success has been exposed to: The Critique Request, and The Collaboration of Doom.

The Critique Request, is the lesser of the two evils because it is not inherently harmful. (But as you will see, context is all.) A beginning writer will ask you if you can critique his story. Well, that’s no surprise, everyone needs an objective eye. The devil is in the details. How well do you know this person? Do you know this person? (The only time you critique for strangers is when you’ve set up an editing service.)

Assuming you agree, you face the possibility that the story is not very good. How do you explain that? A soft review serves no one, but a frank appraisal may hurt. (The point of critiques is not to hurt feelings, but more than one inartful analysis has set a fledgling writer back for years, or even ended his career.) Proper critiquing is a skill. It’s a balancing act, and can place a lot of strain on the reviewer (not to mention a friendship). I’ve seen even a properly diplomatic critique go wrong. (There is, of course, the opinion that if you can’t handle honest feedback, you’re in the wrong business, but one person’s “honest” is another person’s “brutal.”)

So, The Critique Request, the quicksand of writing. Agree, and it can suck you into a situation you never asked for and can’t escape gracefully. Or decline, and gain a reputation that will require personal security at your next signing.

Next: The Collaboration of Doom.

We all know that writers accept as a fact of life the form rejections with which we paper our walls because we can’t afford insulation, and which we collect by the hundreds while waiting for that Big Break. I did, Stephen King did, and there are thousands out there doing it right now. Getting that first acceptance letters in the mail is cause for frenzied celebration with a bottle of cheap rotgut and maybe a Big Mac if the check is large enough. (Oh, wait–there’s no check? I get paid on publication? There goes my Big Mac.) And of course our debauched sojourn into the land of rose petals and congratulatory Presidential telegrams comes to a sudden end when we find that selling one story does not make the rejections go away. Such is the life of the writer, the pendulum swinging between two extremes (although it spends far too much time at one end of the spectrum).

But there is a lesser-known part of the spectrum, a grey area where writers can, against all odds, take some measure of solace, some crumb of artistic nourishment, where failure is not so pointed, albeit just as poverty-stricken. This is called the “personal rejection.”

If you have the extreme misfortune to be involved with a writer, you may have heard of these “personals.” (This does not mean he’s putting ads in the paper!) You may understand that, to a writer, receiving a personal rejection is almost not a rejection at all. It means an editor liked the story enough to separate it from the pile of dross (and there’s a lot of dross) and include a small, individualized note. Perhaps it says, “Liked the opening, not the ending,” or “I kind of like your writing. Please send more.”

Now, this is still a rejection. The editor doesn’t want the story. But the difference between a “This doesn’t fit our needs,” and “Came close,” is like the clouds opening up after 40 days of rain on your ark. God may not have reached down his hand to you, but at least he’s glancing your way.

Non-writers have a hard time with this. They see submissions as a win/lose proposition. But writers (real writers) are in it for the long haul, and this kind of encouragement can lift your mood all day. I still remember my first personal, even though it was a very long time ago. So if your writer friend is looking, well, less put-upon than usual, and he says it’s because he got “a good rejection,” don’t look at him like he’s lost his mind. (That ship has sailed.) It just means that on a scale of one to ten, today wasn’t a zero. And that will do for now.

Some of the boards I visit were having a discussion of how one defines a “professional” writer, and to be honest, I was shocked by some of what I saw. After weighing in, in a deliberate and careful fashion, I decided to elaborate here, where my comments will not be perceived as aimed at any one person (not that my other comments were), and were if I start to lose my cool, at least the only moderator is me.

To state my qualifications, I have been in this business since 1973. That’s when I submitted my first story, and by some measure, when I became “professional.” I was not “a professional,” by any means, but that was when I began to act like one. I was submitting stories to professional (i.e., someone paid to buy them) venues, hoping to be paid myself. (This went on for a depressingly long time.) I have now sold well over a dozen stories and qualify as an Active Member of the SFWA. So “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now.”

There is a belief that being “professional” is defined by how much money one makes as a writer. (SFWA demands a certain level of remuneration, and some call achieving that level “professional.” I have no problem with that so long as it is limited to SFWA qualification.) I believe that if one consistently pursues a writing career for pay, and one has made money in that pursuit, then one is a professional writer. It doesn’t matter if you’ve only made $30 in your career (as I made on my first sale), and it doesn’t matter if you’ve only sold one story in the last five years. If you’ve reached that point even once, and you’re trying your best to get there again, you are a professional writer and I salute you. And if someone says you’re not, I will (metaphorically) ask him to step outside.

There are recognized “professions” where one achieves such rank after passing certain tests, e.g., doctors, lawyers, contractors. There are no such tests in writing. That’s because there are no set classes, no degrees or diplomas or certificates. It makes getting there harder for us, and harder to see it when we have it.

Being professional is more than making money; it’s acting like a professional. If a you’re yelling at your agent, missing your deadlines, and walking out of autograph sessions, you may be a pro, but you’re not “professional.” If you send out a story a month with a quick cover letter, follow markets, and dress like an adult at conventions, you may be an amateur, but you’re being professional.

It’s not about the money. Sure, without a paid sale you’ll never be “a pro,” but you can act like one, and you can be professional, without a sale to your name. And when you get that sale–which you will, and believe me when I say I know–you will find that the people who treat you as a professional…why, those are the “pro’s.”

You read any article about the most popular kinds of movies today–the “franchise” movies–and you will find extensive discussion–and often derision–of superhero movies, or more accurately, comic-book movies. Common wisdom holds that their popularity arises from simple themes of good vs. evil, the need for escapism in uncertain times, and–oh yes, lots of explosions. But no one seems to consider the question: Why now? Comic books are less popular than they used to be, times are always uncertain for one reason or another, and explosions are nothing new in movies. So why are comic-book franchises now popular?

One critical reason: They’re good movies. If you review the history of superheroes in movies and TV (not just comics, but pulp heroes), for the most part the genre has been treated poorly, as fare for children and only children. TV has been especially guilty of this. I can’t think of a single serious superhero show on television in the 20th century with the obvious exception of Superman, and that was back in the 1950s. The only other show of note, Batman, was deliberate camp.

And movies…up until Superman (again) in 1978, there were no good superhero movies. But with Christopher Reeve as a movie-worthy Kal-El (and an Oscar-worthy Clark Kent), the movies had a chance to start a superhero franchise revolution. What happened? They followed it up with a decent Superman II, a forgettable Superman III, and, well, did anyone see Superman IV? Would you admit it if you had?

Fast forward to 2001, and (you guessed it) Superman makes another valiant attempt, Smallville. Smallville took its time, and meandered a lot, but by the end of its ten years it was the best superhero show TV had ever produced, and spawned the TV superhero renaissance we’re seeing today. But what about movies?

Well, finally it was time for somebody else to take the yolk, and it was none other than Superman’s buddy, Batman. (Yes, I come from the era when they were friends.) Like Superman, Batman had suffered through a series of movies that went from competent to… yeah. But in 2002 there was Spider-Man; then in 2005, Batman was rebooted in Batman Begins, and nothing was ever the same again. For the first time, a series of superhero movies was produced that were not for kids, not dumbed down, and which made a ton of money. Never ones to fail to imitate their competitor, Marvel (which had its own speckled Hollywood history) jumped on the bandwagon with Iron Man in 2008, and the rest is history.

So what changed? In a word, money. Hollywood put money into superhero movies, hired real directors, real writers, real actors–and made real movies. After 70 years, they realized that there was nothing inherently childish about superheroes, they’re just fantasy heroes like Frodo and Conan and Luke Skywalker, and their stories can be as compelling as anyone’s.

It doesn’t matter who you write about, or even what genre you pick, any story can be important (or at least profitable). What matters is that the writer put truth in the story, be it about a Depression-ear migrant worker or an alien who rescues women falling out of helicopters. That’s how you start your own franchise, and maybe even teach Hollywood a lesson.

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