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I’m sitting looking at a picture of an original Star Wars movie poster–and when I say Star Wars, I mean Star Wars, not A New Hope. I put the “old” in old-school; I saw Star Wars the night it premiered–because I saw the poster featured on “Antiques Roadshow,” and I thought the appraiser under-valued it, so I looked it up. And now I’m looking at it, and I see three pretty much unknown actors listed, followed by Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness, who were anything but unknown. It follows that George Lucas paid a pretty penny to get them. Which leads to the question:

What did he think he was doing?

I don’t mean that pejoratively, as in, “Was he crazy, spending that kind of money on a space opera?” I mean, really, what did he think he was accomplishing? What do any of us think we’re accomplishing when we write a story or make a movie or paint a painting? And more to the point, should we be proud of what we’ve done?

You look at Star Wars now, and it’s gone way past “global phenomenon.” But back in the day, we didn’t know it would do that. Certainly when that grandiose poster was printed, nobody knew if the darn thing was going make a dime. It could easily have been laughed out of the theater–and would have, if it hadn’t made so much money. So it’s easy to say now, “That’s something George Lucas can be proud of!” But what about before?

You’d hope no creative person would release story or movie  that he wasn’t proud of, but we know that’s not the case. (Where there’s a buck, there’s a way. And someone who is proud of it–proud of making a buck, anyway.) But is that legitimate? Are we allowed to be proud of a story if no one ever publishes it? I mean, seriously, are we allowed to be proud of a story that sucks? Are we allowed to be more proud of it if someone publishes it–and then it wins a Hugo? On the other hand, are we allowed to be proud of writing a story that wins a Hugo–even if we ourselves don’t think it was worthy?

It is said that, “Pride goeth before a fall.” But it’s also said, “Don’t submit a story you wouldn’t want others to read.” So pride is bad, but without it, nobody knows you exist. And in the end, you may be the only person who even thinks you should be proud of what you’ve done–which sounds like a great recipe for a fall to me.

I sent a story yesterday to a major magazine. I had real hopes for it. I was proud of it. I thought this could be my chance to break into a new market. I went to bed happy. Fifteen hours later, it came back. A form letter, not even a personal note. I was proud, now I’m fallen.

But I sent it out again immediately. Because I’m proud of it? No. (Although I am.) I sent it out again because I like it. And that’s even more important. You can be proud of doing a job well even if it’s a job you don’t like. But to do a job well enough that you like it, well, that’s something to be proud of.

#SFWApro

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As everybody who is not living at the bottom of the sea knows, we have an election in about a month.* And along with most of my fellow citizens, I plan to vote.

Wait–let me rephrase. Along with many of my fellow citizens, I plan to vote. Whether “most” will is a matter of speculation. If you do plan to vote, you can skip this post. But for any of you out there who plan not to vote, I have a story to tell you.

When I was a child, back in the Middle Ages, we of the nerdish persuasion eagerly awaited the new fall line-up of TV shows, because every year there was one (sometimes a couple) that qualified as SF or fantasy. Usually it stunk, but it was what we had, so we watched. Then, in 1966, something changed. We didn’t know it then…in fact, it didn’t actually change for some years, but the seed was planted. In 1966, Star Trek premiered.

Star Trek was one of the first intelligent SF shows on TV, along with The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. It lasted two years, but was not on the network’s schedule for a third season. Fans got into an uproar, there was a famous letter-writing campaign, and a third season was granted. Then Star Trek went away.

For nearly ten years, we were back in that pre-Trek desert. SF was once more a ghetto. Then magic struck, this time in the form of Star Wars. Suddenly SF wasn’t so geeky; millions enjoyed it who weren’t SF fans. In the years since, our field has grown to the point where now there is an entire channel devoted to SF and fantasy (and wrestling, which really fits better than you’d think). But none of this would have happened without Star Wars, and Star Wars would not have happened without Star Trek.

So what does this have to do with the election? Just this. Nerdism is so pervasive that you could probably find more people who can tell you why Captain America should be allowed to lecture the NYPD on crowd safety than can tell you what Mike Pence said about the border fence a few nights ago. Nerds are no longer in a ghetto. Everyone is now a nerd. We’ve won.

And how did we win? By a small group of like-minded individuals demonstrating for what they wanted. Although it appeared at first they only won a small, limited victory, they ended up taking over the world. Not just the comic book world, or the Star Trek world, but the real world. Where things cost real money and the movies create real jobs.

Now how long do you think it would take to affect change if you started in the real world? If fantasy can affect reality, how would real votes affect reality? Your vote doesn’t count? It isn’t enough? If Star Trek fans had thought that, we wouldn’t have Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe–both of which are worth billions.

Think your vote won’t matter? Small actions have big consequences. I won’t say, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain.” But I will say, “If you don’t vote, you can’t help make your dreams come true.”

*Those people at the bottom of the sea are, I will admit, probably happier than we are.

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Writing is a lot like a romantic relationship. As I was talking about with a friend, a writer can take you places you would not normally go, if he or she establishes trust first. For example, we all know that in Star Wars, the spaceships and explosions make sound–in space. And we all know that can’t happen; space is a vacuum, “no one can hear you scream,” right?

But by the same token, we don’t care. We don’t care because George Lucas created such an entertaining universe that we’re willing to let him have his little idiosyncrasies. Somehow,  he established our trust in him almost immediately (for me, it was the scrolling letters that always remained in focus. That was the mark of a man who cared.)

A writer can establish trust by his canon of work. You know he will tie the story together, no matter how weird it gets, because he’s done it before. But a new writer doesn’t have that luxury. He has to earn your trust by laying that groundwork in front of you. And if he fails, he may fail to have a career. In romantic terms, he may never have a relationship.

So maybe take a chance on a new writer once in a while. After all, he can’t rest on his laurels; he has to prove himself every time. I’m not saying that high-selling authors don’t try any more, but that new writer, he might just be trying a little harder.

And who doesn’t want a partner who’s willing to go the extra mile to impress you?

#SFWApro

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Difficult as it may be to believe, not all writers are in it for the money. (If you’re a writer, this is not difficult to believe at all.) Some are in it because they want to be read, to make a mark on the world. When we watch our TVs and we see the daily parade of misery, when we witness a mass shooting like yesterday’s, we want to do something. As writers, we want to write a story that will shake some sense into the world. And we could, we know we could, if only we could find the right words. Sadly, the truth is that as a writer, you have more chance of making money than of making the world a better place.

Yes, you can argue that you make the world a marginally better place by providing entertainment, by brightening up someone’s existence for a few hours, and you would be perfectly correct. But if you want to make the world a better place, well, then, there’s a book you should read, Don Quixote, because you are that character.

It’s not hopeless, of course. Upton Sinclair changed America with The Jungle. J.K. Rowling has inspired people the world over to join in The Harry Potter Alliance. If you write for TV or movies, you could create Star Trek, whose inspiration of a generation of scientists is well-documented, or Star Wars, with its 501st Legion.

But those are four examples from a hundred years of books and TV/movies. Your (or my) chances of joining that elite rank are vanishingly small.

The odds of being published alone are perhaps 1 in 1,000. You can self-publish, sure–you and 100,000 others every year. The odds of having a real success are small–and the odds of “making a difference” to more than a few fans are infinitesimal.So why do it? Why bother?

Because like the hero of Don Quixote, we don’t know when we’re beaten. Who else can find his career choice rejected 500 times and still keep going? Who else could look at the odds of success and still want to do this thing? Don’t think I have a chance of making a difference? Just throw your statistic on the pile and I’ll pay attention when I have time. Which is never. Because if I did, if I rationally considered what I was doing, I’d quit and go to law school.

But I don’t. And I won’t. Because I’m a writer, and the written word has power. Ask Thomas Jefferson. Ask Thomas Paine. Ask Sinclair or Rowling. Ask the guys who wrote the Bible.

Even if we don’t achieve great fame or readership, writers are like teachers. Maybe we reach only 40 people a year. But we can do it over and over. Forty becomes 80, becomes 120, and maybe some of 120 those reach out, too, and spread the message. And maybe it grows really slowly, but we’re writers, we’re used to that. Maybe someday, somebody who was reached by somebody who was reached by one of us has the chance to blow that message up to where everyone can see it. Wouldn’t that be cool?

And perhaps all we’ll ever do is earn a couple of bucks by making one person’s rainy afternoon a little sunnier. That would be good, too.

#SFWApro

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For the record, no one has ever asked me, “Where do you get your ideas?” I’m probably just not that famous (yet). But in the interest of keeping ahead of the curve, I’m going to tell you right now where I (and all of the other writers) get my ideas: The same place you do.

Very often an idea will come to me through a misspoken sentence, you know, when you mean to say one thing and something not quite right comes out. Then I think, “How neat. I can use that,” and I write it down in one of my little notebooks. (Not the one that’s been through the laundry. That one’s done. But one of the others.)

There’s no difference between where writers get their ideas and where everyone else does. It’s not like there’s a writer gene that you either have or you don’t, and if you don’t you can’t come up with ideas. The difference lies in what you do with those ideas. As I said, I write them down. And I think about them. If someone at Thanksgiving were to say, “Gee, Bob said he knew how to carve a turkey, but he doesn’t,” and someone else replied, “Yeah, he’s doing such a bad job I keep expecting the turkey to grab the knife and say, ‘Here’s how it’s done, jerk!’ and there goes Bob,” most people would chuckle and make a note about how Bob shouldn’t be allowed near the bird next year.

I, on the other hand, who ask myself, “What would happen then? Would the cops arrest the turkey for manslaughter? Would it be a case of self-defense?” And so on. The difference between writers and non-writers isn’t that we get these ideas, it’s that we use them.

Not all art is created the same way. It’s well-known that sculptors don’t create anything new; they chip away at a block of stone until they reveal the statue inside. They’re kind of like policemen that way, because they pull back layers of obscuring material to get to the truth. Writers, on the other hand, are like children, because we play with Legos. If you want to build a Lego Millennium Falcon, you start with one block. You add another, then another, and eventually you have the Millennium Falcon (if you’re good enough with Legos.) That’s what writing a story is like. You start with an idea, you add another that seems to fit, and you keep adding. Sometimes the pieces you add don’t look right, so you take them away and add different ones. It doesn’t matter how long it takes or how many wrong turns you take, because nobody’s going to see it until you’re done anyway.

And that brings me to my oft-repeated belief that anyone can be a writer. If you have at least an adequate command of the language, you can build a story. It might take ten years, it might require fourteen revisions, but so what? Nobody’s going to say you’re doing it wrong.

But they might just ask you where you got your idea.

#SFWApro

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Figured it out yet? Last post’s hint: “You have to wait until my next post.” On the face of it, it’s about patience, which is one of the most important skills you can develop as a writer. Because if you’re a writer, you’re going to do a lot of waiting, like an extra between takes. But the experienced extra takes a paperback or his phone with him to occupy him in the downtime, and the smart writer knows that waiting time is time best spent writing something new. That will help you stay sane, but it will not help you survive. Survival is a harder task.

The secret to survival is a tough skin.

Initially, you need a tough skin because you’re going to be rejected. A lot. (Actually, you’re not. Your stories are. You won’t be rejected until later.) It takes some stubbornness to insist that you know better than all those editors who are turning you down, that you have that thing that will raise you above the slush pile hordes, even if you haven’t found it yet. (This takes longer than you think. In fact, you will always be proving yourself–if not to others, than to yourself. And there’s nobody harder to persuade that you’ve “got it” than you.)

But as you go on, you need to get tougher yet. Because blind rejection of your work is not the meanest and hardest criticism you will ever receive–it is the nicest and mildest criticism you will ever receive. If you think it’s tough being rejected by one editor at a time (who is being paid to read your work and who really may be sending your manuscript back for reasons entirely unrelated to its quality), try being rejected (read criticized) by people who have themselves paid to read your work.

You see the problem. And it’s compounded by the fact that a lot of that criticism, again, has nothing to do with the quality of your story. Some won’t like your choice of protagonist (for his/her gender, color, religious affiliation, favorite liquor); some won’t like your genre (yet feel qualified to render an opinion on your specific story); some won’t like your author photo.* No wonder so many writers swear they won’t read reviews.

And then there are the people who honestly do not like what you’ve done. Those are the hardest, because they can’t simply be dismissed. Ironically, they should be. Because it all comes down to the fact that nothing is universally popular. There are people who don’t like Star Wars, for heaven’s sake. There are people who would honestly argue that Sean Connery was not the best Bond. (Okay, assuming there are infinite universes, somewhere there exists a person who would argue it.)

No matter how many Hugos and Nebulas your work wins, no matter how many Oscars the movie version takes home, someone won’t read/watch it, someone will find fault with it, and someone will hate it. If you want to make your life as a writer, you have to develop the skill to accept that you can’t change these things and not let them affect you. Of course, none of us is Spock; it’s going to have an effect. But that effect can be managed.

Other than output, it may be the only aspect of one’s career that can be managed.

 

* I once had a reviewer who started out with, “I don’t like these kinds of stories,” and went ahead anyway to render an opinion anyway.

#SFWApro

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Vampires. Ghouls. Zombies. Donald Trump.

Sexy vampires. Sexy ghouls. Sexy zombies. Sexy–oh no, not going there.

This is the time of year that boys and girls, men and women of all ages dress up like their favorite fantasy (or fantastical) characters: the kids for candy, the adults for parties. And everyone does it; no matter how much they eschew fantasy and make-believe the rest of the year, virtually everyone dresses up, or has, or caters to those who do.

Why then, do people who have no trouble making themselves into something they are not have so much trouble reading about something that isn’t? Why are SF and fantasy still looked down on–except on Halloween, when horror gets a pass? And it’s not like people don’t like this stuff. How many of the top-grossing films are SF or fantasy? How many TV series? How long have commercials used fantasy trappings to sell cars and soap? It’s the books that are suffering.

Is it reading? Because a lot of today’s young adults grew up on Harry Potter, so they have read for pleasure. Was Harry Potter simply an anomaly, accepted because it was popular, like a Kardashian?

Maybe it’s the conventions. Maybe all those pictures of kids dressed up like anime characters and Batman and female Thors are giving the field a bad rep. Hey, I’ve got news for you–they’re only doing in July what you’ll be doing in October…

Yes, SF and fantasy are more popular than ever, if you go by movies and TV. But while it’s quite normal to see adults in Avengers t-shirts, ask one of them if he reads the stuff. Any SF, not just comics. Because he probably doesn’t. Reading this stuff is for kids, or grown-ups living in their parents’ basement. (Okay, most kids today come back to live in their parents’ basement, but that’s not the point.)

It’s well-known that fantasy thrives in times of economic turmoil, which explains why it’s so popular today. But other than Harry Potter and the Avengers and Star Wars, it’s still not considered grown-up entertainment. We who know the field know this is ridiculous. We’re past ray-guns and BEMs and Mars Needs Women. We deal with climate change and gender roles and politics. We write romances and mysteries and westerns. We just throw in a few aliens now and then.

Do we need better marketing? Do we need more Lucases and Rowlings and Spielbergs? Or should we simply be thankful for our gains and go on thinking we know something other people don’t know?

It should not be difficult to get other folks to read what we like, just to see if they like it too. I mean, if people will accept this current crop of presidential candidates, they’ll swallow anything.

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