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.

Ah, yes, the ubiquitous “Best X of All Time” debate. Never can we get enough of these, and if we are honest, we admit that we tolerate (love) them only because we love to argue with them. And I’m nothing if not honest. I’m here for the argument.

The British genre magazine SFX took a poll of British fans to ascertain the “250 greatest moments in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.” (They appear to have limited these moments to media moments.) They report receiving 96,000 replies, a pretty good sampling, one would guess. (Only the top ten choices were released publicly.) So how do 96,000 people come up with this?

1. DOCTOR WHO The Doctor and Rose say farewell at Bad Wolf Bay in “Doomsday”
2. AVENGERS ASSEMBLE “Puny god!” The Hulk owns Loki
3. ALIEN The chestburster
4. FIREFLY Mal Reynolds kicks a bad guy into Serenity’s engine intake (“The Train Job”)
5. STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK Luke learns that Darth Vader is his father
6. BLADE RUNNER Roy Batty’s “Tears in rain” speech
7. GAME OF THRONES The Red Wedding: “The Lannisters send their regards”
8. THE MATRIX Neo dodges bullets in the bullet-time scene
10. BACK TO THE FUTURE “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”

Where to start? Okay, the beginning. Not a bad choice, and considering it’s a British poll, not surprising. But I think there’s room for argument. As opposed to say, no. 2, which is just plain silly. And Mal kicking a bad guy ranks higher than Vader & Son? Really?

Rather than dissect the entire list (which is largely unobjectionable, if controversial), here’s mine. I don’t know that these are the top ten moments in genre history, but I’d argue that any of them has a place on the list. I’ve limited each movie and TV show to one entry to avoid overconcentration (I’m talking to you, Twilight Zone!). They are presented in no particular order, except No. 1, which I would argue should have been no. 1 in the SFX poll, as well.

1. STAR TREK “City on the Edge of Forever” The death of Edith Keeler

2. SUPERMAN Superman: “Don’t worry, miss, I’ve got you.” Lois: “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?”

3. YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN The candle scene

4. TWILIGHT ZONE “Time Enough at Last” Burgess Meredith loses his glasses

5. STAR WARS Han saves Luke at the Battle of the Death Star

6. FORBIDDEN PLANET Anne Francis [swimming]: “Come on in.” Leslie Nielsen: “I didn’t bring my bathing suit.” Anne: “What’s a bathing suit?”

7. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) Kevin McCarthy in the final scene

8. ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. The animal skin bikini

9. SMALLVILLE Clark puts on the suit

10. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE My wife’s turn as an extra. I defy anyone to watch her performance and say she wasn’t a Starfleet officer.

Of course, now that I have a list, I expect you all to argue with it…

Why don’t they reboot novels?

I mean, movies get rebooted all the time. If they reboot Spider-Man any more, they’ll be writing over movies they haven’t made yet. Songs are rebooted; they’re called “covers.” Even TV series are remade occasionally. (Knight Rider? Really?) But nobody reboots books.

There are a lot of classic novels out there that no one reads anymore (unless they’re assigned in school). There are many times more classic novels out there that no one reads anymore at all. Many are not read because they are not, in fact, “classics.” But that’s never stopped the movie industry. In fact, you don’t remake “classics” because they stand the test of time, that’s the definition of “classic.” (I’m talking to you, The Day the Earth Stood Still.)

So why not books? Why not update a du Maurier thriller–not the movie Rebecca, but the book? Or even better, how about updating Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with a little gene-tampering?

Of course, a lot of books would not survive the changes. If Odysseus had kept his cell phone charged, he could have called home once in a while and avoided a lot of trouble. If Sherlock Holmes had the Internet, he could…oh, wait, they did that, and it’s really cool. Okay, but if Jonathan Harker had been able to Google Dracula before travelling to Transylvania, that would have turned out differently.

Still, a lot of old books are just chock-full of musty old language that you could clean up so people today could actually read them. Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare…let’s modernize and popularize! (Oh, c’mon, Will would be have all for it if it meant more sales.) We don’t even have to go back that far. Take Tolkien–please. You could cut him down to one book. And while we’re on the subject, can we re-boot the Harry Potter books into American? I mean, who can read that stuff?

“Day of Reckoning,” about a superhero contemplating his involuntary “retirement,” is going to be published by the award-winning Plasma Frequency Magazine. I’m thrilled to be able to break into this new market with my 16th career sale.


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