Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Waiting Game

I'm sitting at my desk staring at the little icon for my email.  When I get a message, it jumps up and down like an excited pug and I get the nervous butterflies in my stomach. But then, when I click on the little hyper bastard and see that the incoming message is spam, my mood sinks just a little bit more.

Welcome to my life.

Actually, it's the life of every writer, agented or not. People who don't do this make assumptions that you can send your manuscript out and, like any other piece of email you send, you'll get a reply back within twenty four hours. But that's not how it works. Don't believe me? Here... Look at this:

Blow that up and what you'll see is a listing from, which a site dedicated to folks like us who write and want to make a living at it.  Specifically, they update submission requirements every day.  See those highlighted areas? Those are listed as "RT."  That means "response time." Notice anything?  Yep.  Some of them are more than six months for a reply. Six. Months. Why? Because these people are professionals.  They are in the business of making money and publishing the very best manuscripts that they can find, which means, of course, that everyone wants their manuscript published by them. One (conservative) estimate is that editors receive about 600 queries per week. That, if my math is correct (and I'm using a calculator... Math isn't my strong suit) is more than 31,000 queries per year.  Now, if each query is, let's say, a 400 page novel, that's more than 12 MILLION pages that these people have to get through. See where I'm going with this? 

Pictured:  Agent/Editor
Sure, your book may be the greatest thing written since the invention of the QWERTY Keyboard, but the agent/editor has to get to it before she offers you gobs of money, and that means wading through all the rest. Fair or not, it's how it works. And, by the way, agents have the same type of wait, just like unagented people do.  They just get to nag when they feel it's appropriate. 

Pictured:  You.
To clarify, you've just spent four months (or more) of your life writing a novel that is the best thing that has ever been written, and now you have to wait even more? Yes. That's just how it works. Deal with it. But what, I hear you asking, am I supposed to do while I wait? Start the next novel. 
Move it, monkey. 
Okay, yes, take a break. Take a mini-vacation, if you must. But if you are like me, while you were busy hammering your last opus out, thousands of ideas hit your brain and you lamented not working on them then because you had to finish what was already in front of you. So go write them. All of them or any of them, but get back to work while your creative juices are flowing. The point is, once you send something out, there is no point in worrying about it anymore.  It's out.  It's gone. You can no longer tweak it or fix any errors. Now you just have to deal with the fact that your little baby sparrow is trying its wings out. Wherever you sent it, put a mark in your calendar for whenever the response time is, and if you've received nothing by then, send it out again. 
This is your life now.
I'm playing the waiting right now. I'm waiting on word back from my agent about the manuscript for my latest novel, Ungeheur.  I'm also waiting on a reply from another publisher for another manuscript for Bokor Island. And, last but certainly not least, I'm waiting for the yea or nay from Emerson University to see if I got into their MFA program. I hate waiting. Since I'm someone prone to stress and suffer from depression, waiting is really hard for me to do. So what else am I doing? Working on a new novel. Sewing (yes, really) a couple of new shirts. Petting my pug. Paying attention to my wife and kid. I'm trying to let all the anxiety slip away while life happens. Then, if something wonderful occurs, I'll be thrilled. But in the meantime, waiting is all I can do. 

Until next time...


Monday, August 8, 2016

Movie Review: Suicide Squad (what went right and what went wrong)

If you are in any way attached to the internet (which, if you're reading this, you are), you've probably seen at least some of the hype surrounding the new DC movie Suicide Squad. Since this movie seems to be very polarizing, I figured it would be a good exercise to take a hard critical look at it to see what went wrong and what went right in it. Why? Because there's a lot to be learned from a movie like Suicide Squad, whether you loved it or hated it. Me?  I'm one of those people who fell squarely in the middle and found it flawed, but entertaining. We'll get into the whys of that in a minute. But, for now, I'd like to focus on picking this movie apart from the point of view of the actors, the plot, and the overall production.

Oh... It should be obvious that beyond this point lay spoilers a-plenty.
You've been warned...
Suicide Squad is a movie about a government official who has the bright idea to take super-powered bad guys out of prison and use them as a disposable and deniable task-force against other super-powered baddies. This is accomplished by asking nicely.  No, just kidding... They put a micro-explosive in their heads that, should they disobey, try to escape, or act otherwise true to their nature, will blow their freaking heads off. So far so good, right?  So let's look at the list of participants, shall we?
My high-school reunion photo...
Left to right:  Slipknot, Captain Boomerang, Enchantress, Katana, Rick Flag, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, Killer Croc, and El Diablo. Right away, I can see at least one major plot-hole. Can you?  It's Harley and Boomerang. I mean, okay, I get why everyone else in the group was chosen. Slipknot can climb anything...Which makes his name kind of stupid. Katana wields a soul-snaring sword with deadly ability. Enchantress is a 6000-or-so-year-old entity with magical powers. Deadshot never misses. Killer Croc... well, look at him. And El Diablo is a pyrokinetic. Captain Boomerang and Harley Quinn, on the other hand, have no powers. Boomerang fights with possibly the most inconvenient weapon on the planet and Harley... Is crazy. With a  bat. That's it. So, in a group of super-powered people, why would they choose a crazy person with a bat? It doesn't make much sense, does it?  Look at the photo again, however, and it becomes evident that she only is part of the group to wear tiny shorts and be psycho-sexy. But, for the time being, let's just accept her and move on.

In the opening scene, Amanda Waller (played byViola Davis) gives us a rundown of almost every character in the show.  It takes a good chunk out of the movie and is a reminder that not all of us in the theater are comic book geeks. See, we already know the characters. Non CBGs don't, so the film spoon-feeds the non CBGs the characters.  As if you couldn't already tell they were bad guys.
It then goes into details of how Batman captured most of them, with gratuitous cameos by Ben Affleck and his stunt double. Not that it's a bad thing... it works in this context. Thrown into the whole mix is Jared Leto's Joker, who really has very little to do with the movie. Which brings us mistake numbers two and three:  Telegraphing and Superfluous Characters. 

Remember up there where I said almost all the characters got an introduction?  Well, the first one who didn't was "Slipknot," played by Adam Beach. Everyone else gets a detailed introduction complete with snappy dialogue and capture footage.  Slipknot, however, steps out of a van and all we get is "This is Slipknot... He can climb anything." Right at that point, I knew "This character is unimportant, so he's going to die." And he does.  In fact, he serves only to prove that the explosive charges in our heroes' (villains'?) necks could, in fact, take a head off. The poor guy gets maybe 45 seconds of screen time before BOOM... No more head. This is called telegraphing.  This is where you create a thing so obvious that even someone who is only half paying attention can see it coming. It's lazy writing, and it doesn't work well. Which brings me to...
Superfluous characters.  Despite all the hoopla around Leto playing the Joker, the whole movie could've played without him.  Which made his presence in the film seem forced. Sure, he rescued Harley Quinn, but then she turned around and went right back to the group after they shot her helicopter down. Now, had they saved her rescue for the end and only showed The Joker at that point, it would've been better. In fact, it would've been a great moment.  But as it stood, The Joker didn't need to be there, and his scenes made the movie feel even more disjointed. 

Let's move on to the actors and their performances. We'll forget Slipknot since we really only got to see him look pissed off and then die. 

I know you can't tell, but that's Will Smith under that weird-looking mask. Immediate impressions were that Will Smith didn't work in this role. Not that he didn't give it his all, not that he didn't do well with what he was given, but Smith was miscast in this role. Say what you will, but I just didn't buy him as an unrepentant killer. Look, there's a line in this where he says "Every time I put on this suit, someone dies. I like putting it on." And Smith couldn't pull that line off. He seemed full of regret, hesitant to kill, and even angst-ridden over it. Even when attacked by monsters, he still looked less "cold-blooded assassin" and more "dammit, more people I have to kill." Also, the mask was stupid and pointless. The point of the mask in the comics is that it holds his targeting eyepiece. But Smith wore that without the mask. So what was the point? None. Moving on. 
Captain Boomerang
Jai Courtney's Captain Boomerang came off as woefully underutilized, and, worse, as a one-note joke. In fact, he came off as completely unnecessary, so another superfluous character.

Katana, played by Karen Fukuhara, had the opportunity to be a wonderful character, driven by revenge and pain. We, however, were only given a one-dimensional view of her. Moreover, we were told her sword stole the souls of whoever it kills, but we were given no evidence of that. 

While the character of the Enchantress is fascinating in the comics, I question the reasoning of her transformation on the screen. Played by Cara Delevingne, the Enchantress starts off as a cool and genuinely terrifying villain, but then is reduced to parody by means of a wiggly-dance she does while constructing her doomsday machine.  Her costume is designed primarily to show off her body, and apart from that, she does little more than chew as much scenery as she can get. 

Rick Flag
Joel Kinnaman gave us another one-note performance in this film, and I don't blame him in the slightest. It was the writers.  They did it. As the government leash-holder Rick Flag, Kinnaman's job in this was to keep the squad in line. As a military leader, he comes across as incompetent, clueless, and, at many points, lost.
There were very few characters in this movie that I thought were well drawn, and Diablo (played by Jay Hernandez) was one of them. As the fire-throwing man who was wracked by guilt over the accidental killing of his wife and kids, Hernandez did a great job with what he was given.  Unfortunately, the writers had to go over the top by changing his heroes' journey into a farce at the end. When Diablo attacks the main bad guy, Incubus (who is really nothing more than window dressing), he is sacrificing himself to save the team. But instead of letting him have a redemptive death of dignity, the character burns away his own flesh to reveal (I couldn't make this up) a giant Mayan fire monster. Still, Hernandez deserves accolades for his performance.

Killer Croc
I may be in the minority in this, and I frankly don't care.  I loved Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje's portrayal of Killer Croc. The guy owned the role and committed entirely to the beastial nature of the human reptile. Of course, we couldn't even see him under the prosthetics, but that didn't stop the character from coming through, nor did it make his one of the best performances in the movie.  I just wish we'd seen more of him.
Harley Quinn
Margot Robbie owned this role.  Hands down, one of the best performances in the movie, despite the character's inexplicable presence or costume choice (hot-pants and a t-shirt). She genuinely came off as damaged, crazy, scary, and everything that Harley Quinn's punk alter-ego should've been. She also managed to pull off the tragic nature of the character, which is difficult to do.

Amanda Waller
I had a real problem with Amanda Waller, played by Viola Davis. Here's a character that should, by all rights, be colder than any of them, more frightening than even The Joker, and ruthless, and she came off in the movie as just... Tired. One-note performances seemed very common in this movie, and none of them were more saddening than this one. Waller should strike terror into the hearts of anyone because she doesn't have a problem shooting a room full of interns to keep her secrets. But instead, we got droopy eyes and what I assume was supposed to be a mean look. She just didn't work. 
The Joker
After months of speculation and anticipation over Jarod Leto's Joker, I can honestly tell you that he comes across as a disappointment.  Not a "beautiful disaster" as some would have us believe. And it's not the tattoos or the capped teeth, though they didn't work (I mean really, who needs "damaged" tattooed across the freaking JOKER's forehead?  Like we don't know he's damaged...).  It was Leto's performance. He came across as more slimy than maniacal. More oozy than chaotic. The Joker should be an agent of chaos. He should anything but what Leto made him. In addition, the laugh just didn't work.  It wasn't The Joker. Nothing about Leto's performance worked for the character. Now, another character might've worked with the same performance but a different name, but The Joker, he wasn't.

Whew... That was a lot, wasn't it? 

Movie made me tired...
On the other hand... I really did have a good time while I watched it. Yeah, I know, it sounds like I hated it, but I didn't. I didn't love it, but I didn't hate it. I had a good time watching it, and I know I'm likely going to buy the soundtrack. As summer movies go, it was a great way to spend two hours, and it's what I like to call a "popcorn flick." I mean, I love the premise, a few of the performances were great, and the movie just overall looked impressive.

So what can we learn from Suicide Squad? Well, for starters, if a character's only purpose is to die, your'e being a lazy writer. Figure out another way to make the point. Second, too many characters can muddy up the plot. Third, and possibly most importantly, you need to make choices in your plot that make sense. Even if those choices only make sense to the other characters, they still need to make sense.  Why would you send a psycho with a baseball bat with a group of super-powered individuals?  She'd be worse than useless... She'd be a hinderance. So it makes no sense to put her on the team at all. It's also not a coincidence that the two most likable characters (Harley Quinn and Diablo) were also the ones with the most depth of character. I'm pretty sure Deadshot would've made that list, but Will Smith just couldn't pull off "bad guy." See, at the end of the story, your characters shouldn't be the same as when the story started. They need to grow and evolve as the story goes. That's what makes them interesting. 

So how would I have made the story better?  First, cut Captain Boomerang, Slipknot, and Katana. Their parts could've been absorbed by others pretty easily. Second, cut Incubus as the bad guy and just left Enchantress as the big bad. Third, Different Deadshot. Fourth, give Amanda Waller more range than "I'm pissed off and cold-hearted." And finally, give Harley Quinn a reason to be there, or cut her out entirely (even though I loved Margot Robbie). 

So that's my take.  I give this movie three stars. Not the greatest thing I've ever seen, but also better than a sharp stick in the eye. 

Until Next time


Friday, July 22, 2016


It's bound to happen.  In fact, if it doesn't happen, you're not trying hard enough.  I'm not talking about the eventual publishing contract that comes with a suitcase full of money and promises of questionable moral fiber. I'm talking about that little thing that comes before. The little thing that can destroy your self esteem, cripple your ego, and make you wonder if this "writing" thing is ever going to happen:  Rejection. And, like it or not, it's just a part of life for whatever kind of writing you do.  So today, we're going to talk about rejection, how to deal with it, and what it means to your career.

Pictured:  Your dreams...
It has been theorized that a writer must get about a thousand (feel free to add a few zeroes to that number) rejections before ever getting an acceptance. And, unless you're insanely lucky, it holds true. The process goes something like this:  Write the novel, be certain of its ability to make you rich and famous, send it out, wait three months (or more), then get back the rejection and watch your certainty slip just a bit. Lather, rinse, repeat. When the rejection comes in, you read it, then you go through every stage of grief possible. 
  • Denial - No, they couldn't possibly have rejected this!  It must've been mistaken for someone else's piece!
  • Anger - Obviously, it was just too intelligent for those bastards at the publishing company! How dare they reject me? When it gets published, I'll buy this publisher and fire him!
  • Bargaining - Okay... But how could I change it to make it better and make you love it?
  • Depression - Maybe I'm just not good enough. What if I've been fooling myself all this time and I'm actually that guy that all my writer-friends make fun for deluding himself?
  • Acceptance - Yeah... they rejected it. That's their right. It wasn't right for that house, so maybe I'll try sending it to another house.
Again, lather, rinse repeat.

Guess what... You're not alone. So far, I've had thirteen books published. That sounds like a lot, but really, it's been mostly through micro presses and smaller presses. But before that, i got my share of rejections. And I saved them all. 
Pictured: rejection pile
Of them all, I've gotten some really nice letters, some pretty nasty letters, and even a few about which I was certain the sender got me confused with someone else.  My favorite rejection to date was on a torn scrap of paper one inch wide with the word "nope" scrawled on it. Yes, someone actually spent postage to mail me that. Thirteen books later, I still get rejected. 

So how do I deal with it, Uncle Scott?
The short answers are "The best you can" and "With grace." It's easier to talk about what not to do than what to do.  For starters, you don't quit. If you quit, you won't get the acceptance that you're after. You keep writing, keep improving, and keep trying to write that novel that will put your name on the shelves of bookstores. Second, you don't log onto social media and pitch a wall-eyed screaming crying fit. Oh sure, you can pitch a fit, but not where anyone can see you. It's okay to be hurt or angry, but what isn't okay is taking it out on anyone.  If you go throwing a fit, believe me, someone's going to catch wind of it, and it will get back to your agent and/or the publisher. 
But here's the thing... Read the rejections and see if you can get something out them. Take, for example, the latest rejection I got for my new manuscript, Ungeheur:
Thanks for sending UNGEHEUR by Scott A. Johnson. I’ve had a chance to read it, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to pass. I thought the writing was sharp, and I liked the mounting suspense, but I felt the plot was too standard, and I didn’t think it did anything different with the genre. I also would have liked more backstory on the creatures to elevate them beyond simple monsters. 
This, sent by my agent. So what can we glean from this?  First, this editor thinks my writing is sharp. That's a positive. The editor also liked the mounting suspense. Another positive!  Okay, so there were a few negatives, but this is constructive criticism, and it'll do nothing but make me better if I follow the advice and try to get something published with the same editor, but if I focus on the positives, I actually feel pretty damned good about this rejection.
Of course, a lot of rejections that people receive are form letters. Most agents get personalized responses. But when you do get a personalized response, first, focus on the fact that it's personalized. That means that the rejector took the time to write something out. That's a positive. Then pour through it to see if there are any positive notes that you can use. And, whatever you do, don't quit writing. Keep going, and learn from every rejection.  Hone your craft. 

But Uncle Scott, what does rejection mean to my career?
Honestly?  Not a damned thing. I mean, it means you're trying, but other than that, nothing. Want to feel good about your writing?  Take a look at this list of folks who were rejected numerous times:
  • Agatha Christie
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Louis L'Amour
  • Dr. Seuss
  • Zane Grey
  • C.S. Lewis
  • Judy Blume
  • Vladimir Nabokov
  • Beatrix Potter
  • Peter Benchley
  • L. Frank Baum
  • Madeleine L'Engle
  • H.G. Wells
  • Herman Melville
  • Stephen King
  • Frank Herbert
  • John Grisham
  • Norman Mailer
  • Mary Higgins Clark
  • Jack Kerouac
  • George Orwell
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Mario Puzo
  • Ursula K. LeGuin
  • William Faulkner
  • Jack London
  • Isaac Asimov
The list goes on and on. You've been rejected?  You're in good company. Look, writers number in the millions.  And there just aren't that many open slots for a new book at any given time. So the absolute best thing you can do is look at the rejection for what it is, and just get over it.  Move on.  Send that manuscript back out, get back on your horse, and start writing the next book. 
Get back to it, monkey!

Until next time...


Monday, July 18, 2016

Worldbuilding: Who is particularly bad at it?

I go on and on about world building. It's kind of annoying, really, and I know it, but if a world isn't properly constructed, I get yanked out of the story. I know I should just sit back and enjoy the show/book/movie/whatever, but I just can't.  See, that's one of the drawbacks to being a writer. Not only are you hyper-cricical of your own work, you notice when others aren't doing their job. Which brings me to one of my favorite television series:  Star Trek: The Next Generation. Now, before anyone goes powering phasers to "obliterate" and launching photon torpedoes, let me restate:  I LOVE ST:TNG. I feel Lt. Commander Data is one of the greatest characters ever written, and I'm not just saying that because my wife loves the guy. However, as a writer, there are lots of things about the show that makes me cringe, and it all comes down to proper world building.  So, crew of the Enterprise, I've judged you to be guilty of poor world building. You will confine yourselves to quarters until evidence has been given.

My prisoners...
Ignoring for a moment the whole Deus Ex Machina that is the "Universal Translator" (a gizmo that can translate any language into English for whomever might be listening....) there is still much for which the crew needs to answer.  For example:  With a universe as vast as the one they traverse, how, exactly, does one just arbitrarily use "ENGLISH" as the default? I mean, come on... There are literarily a billion stars out there, and millions of species each with their own languages. But even if there weren't, there are also more languages than just "ENGLISH"on Earth, so who picked it?  And why? Why not French? Or Russian? Or Spanish for that matter?

Donald Trump's America...
Here are a few other things that take me out of the moment when enjoying ST:TNG:
  • Sound doesn't travel in space... So why does the Enterprise (and other ships) whoosh along? How do we hear the phasers fire? 
  • Why do other alien species, with whom the Federation has had no previous contact, refer to their planets as Planet-name-NUMBER? How would they know what we call it? If they've never been off planet or their world is primitive, how would they know how many others of their planet be? It makes no sense to call this world "Earth 6" because if we did, we'd have to worry about what happened to Earth's 1-5. 
  • Ever notice how in almost every episode, someone has to make some sort of non-standard modifications to the warp-coils/engine/computer/dish array or one of a thousand other little issues on the ship?  Is any of it standard configured anymore? It's a miracle the Enterprise still flies with all the psychopathic rigging that Geordi LaForge has done on her. 
  • Okay, I'll go with the Holodeck and the Replicators, but why not, y'know, actually use them to their full potential? Whenever someone says "if only we had..." on this show, I roll my eyes. Why don't you just describe it to the all-powerful Computer (Long may Majel Baret reign, first lady of nerds) and make one? 
  • And, for that matter, with all the insanity that has come from having a Holodeck onboard, wouldn't a competent captain taken the damned thing offline by now? 
  • In space, everything moves in three dimensions, and there's no gravity... So why are all the other ships we see right-side-up? How does all the tech manage to match up? Why have we not yet met up with another "Federation of Planets"-style group? 
  • What are the odds that EVERY species that the Enterprise comes in contact with are bipedal with two eyes up front and compatible anatomy (I'm looking at you, RIKER)?
Pictured:  Kirk's Girlfriend
There are dozens of other examples as to why the world building in ST:TNG could've used some tweaking. From how certain races who were portrayed as very simian in nature ever got to the technological state where space travel was possible, to the way the captain repeated slaps around the Prime Directive, it's infuriating. 

So how does this apply to your writing? World-building, simply put, means you must first ask why. Why is her skin green? Why is the Holodeck left online? Why is the planet called Melos 4 BY ITS OWN INHABITANTS? And if you can't answer the question of "why," you've got some more thinking to do. 

Crew of the Enterprise, evidence has been presented... How do you plead?
Thought so.
As I suspected.  Guilty as charged. Look, I love ST:TNG. I love it for the positive message it tries to send, and because it's brain candy.  But, as a writer, there are things it does that I just can't abide, and poor world building is one of them. So don't hate ST:TNG, but learn from it. Ask the simple question with every point of your world:  Why? Your writing will be better for it.

Until next time...


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Getting Down the Basics

Here we are, the first week back from residency at Seton Hill University's Writing Popular Fiction Masters in Fine Arts program. And while we're all simmering in the creative juices (alcohol) from a week of hanging around with other crazy people (writers), I figured now would be a good time to remind everyone of a simple truth:  If you're going to be a writer, or be in a MFA program (and keep in mind, technically, this is an MFA in English) you really should know the basics. I mean, if you want people to take you seriously, you want to come across as someone who knows what he's doing, right? I mean, if a mechanic opens the hood of your car and doesn't know what he or she's looking at, you wouldn't take him seriously, would you? If a doctor asked you to remind him where the lungs were in the body, you'd leave pretty quickly, wouldn't you? The same holds true if you are a writer. If you send your manuscript in to an agent, editor, or publisher, and you appear to not know the basics, your manuscript will find its way quickly to the circular filing cabinet.

Pictured: Rejected Manuscripts
So what are these "basics" of which I speak?  If you've ever been a student of mine, you already know the answer. It can be broken down in four simple terms:  Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation, and Sentence Structure (GSPS). And, let's face it, if you find yourself in an MFA program and you don't have at least a basic understanding of this, you've got a lot of work to do. By which I mean outside work.

Buffalo Custardbath tells it like it is...

So, in case you don't really know what these things are, here's a helpful guide. 
  • Grammar - is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language.  The term refers also to the study of such rules, and this field includes morphology, syntax, and phonology, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics.  Put simply, what are nouns, adjectives, adverbs, tenses, clauses, and the like? If you don't know, you should really figure it out. Things such as subject-verb agreement, irregular verbs, who vs. whom, prepositions, etc. are all part of grammar, and they're all tools in your writers' toolbox. 
  • Spelling - Right... Who needs it, write? I mean, owl are computers have spell-checker on them, right? Nobody kneads to no how to spell anymore, right? Read that sentence again. Realize every word in it is spelled correctly, and realize that spelling actually goes beyond just what letters make up a particular word.  It's also figuring out which word is the one you actually mean. 
  • Punctuation - Commas. They are the bane of my existence. Whoever started the whole "put a comma every time you take a breath" should be taken out back and beaten with a well-worn copy of Strunk & White. Punctuation deals with spacing, periods, semicolons and colons (never use them in popular fiction), quotation marks, hyphens, ellipses... As well as a thousand other little rules that you need to use to make yourself look like you know what you're talking about. And don't ever believe that's what the editor is for. Your work won't even get to the editor if you don't have a firm grasp on this. 
  • Sentence Structure - Quick!  How many sentence structures are there?  One? Ninety?  How about four?  Yep, four.  Can you name them? If you can't, you might have a problem. How about fragments? Run-ons? Comma splices? Any idea what I'm talking about? 
Didn't think so.
But wait, you say!  I'm a creative writer!  The rules of grammar (etc.) don't apply to me! It's art! Listen to me very carefully.  The rules. Still. Apply. You have to know the rules to know when and why to break them. Also, that's the difference between amateurs and professionals. Pros learn their craft. Pros take the time to improve their skill level. Pros never stop learning. Amateurs?  Not so much. So choose. Which one do you want to be? 

Two paths converged in the woods...

But where, you ask, can I learn such things? Glad you asked. There are so many books out there. Here are a few that I often recommend:
There are also a lot of FREE online resources that you can use to hone your sword of knowledge.  Here are a few:
And, of course, if all else fails, always trust in your good buddy "Weird Al" Yankovic to break it down for you.

Also, while we're at it, learn the proper expressions and idioms, unless the character is supposed to be a blithering idiot.  For example:

  • It's "For all intents and purposes," not "For all intensive purposes/porposes."
  • It's "I couldn't care less." "I could care less" means you do, in fact, care.
  • It's "Specifically," not "pacifically" unless you're referring to the ocean.
  • "Literally" means it actually happened. You've not been waiting "literally" a million years for this blog post. "Figuratively" is the word you want. 
  • It's not the "Statue of Limitations," it's the STATUTE of limitations. 
  • What the hell is a "mute point" anyway?  It's MOOT.  
So that's it.  Education is your weapon.  Use it. 

Until next time...


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

It's That Time Again!

Twice every year (January and June), I travel to the wooded wilds of Pennsylvania to the quaint village of Greensburg. There, I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program at glorious Seton Hill University. During the week-long residency, I (along with people far better published than me) attempt to take students and mold them into something that they most desire: Professional writers of popular fiction.  Aspirations of sci-fi, romance, horror, children's lit, mystery, steampunk... You name it, we have someone who writes it. We take those aspirations and distill them down into something workable. We take the unpolished turd, as it were, and polish that sucker up nice and shiny, until it's something that a student can submit to an editor or agent with pride. And we break egos and dreams by the dozen.
Hello, Ones...
Just kidding about that last part. Our job is to nurture, and that's what we do. Students draw on various experience levels to try to make it in this disturbing profession. Its a unique and remarkable blend of creativity and chaos when the students are in town, and from workshops to modules, there are always ears to listen to pitches, human backstops against whom to bounce ideas, and opinions about how to improve your manuscript.
Pictured:  Workshop
But this term, the June residency, is always special. It's always something a little different. See, this is the term when all the alumni come back to throw themselves back into the volley of insanity, and that's something truly special. See, a few years back (I've been teaching with the program for nigh-on twelve years, so I can't remember when it happened), a bunch of graduating students realized how special the program was, and also that they didn't actually want to leave. They realized that Seton Hill doesn't just look like Hogwarts, it is really a magical place. So they began showing up anyway. Remember that creepy guy who graduated from high school and just never left? Same thing, only with insane writers. 
So out of this need to still be involved with the cadre of writers, the alumni founded the In Your Write Mind (IYWM) Writer's Retreat. And boy did it grow. They now feature modules of their own, guest speakers, an ENORMOUS book signing, agents, publishers, fellow writers, editors... It's become quite a to-do. And it's fabulous. And I look forward to it every year. Why? Because I missed all these crazy bastards. Many of them were once my students, and they've gone on to publish extensively. And I couldn't be more proud for them. But they're not my students anymore. They're my colleagues. They're my friends. They are my tribe. We are cut from the same cloth, which, oddly, is made from paper. And just being around them gives my creativity a boost. 
Pictured: Recharging my Creative Batteries
I love these people. They're the family I never knew I wanted, until I got them. 

Which brings me to my point: Every year about this time, I publish a blog full of helpful hints for all the incoming ones. The points become more and more important as time goes by. So I just wanted to reiterate a few of my favorites:
  • Listen - There are people in the program with more experience than you. Also with less experience. Open your ears and you'll get gold in the form of sage like wisdom from everywhere, and from places you least expect it. 
  • Socialize - Don't sequester yourself with your fellow ones. By the end of the first full day, you should know the names of at least five people who are not in your incoming class. They can show you the ropes. 
  • Be Nice to EVERYONE - Because you never know who you're talking to. Wondering the halls in the past have been editors, famous authors, Hollywood producers (no kidding... Sweetest guy in the world), and other people who will remember you. You want them to remember you in a good way, not as that asshole who was so full of himself. 
  • Check the Ego at the Door - Listen, everyone in the program is after the same thing:  To get better. And they also have another goal in mind:  To help you get better. Take the advice in the spirit in which it is given and don't swell up that someone dared to not like your high-fantasy-elfquest-ripoff-story-about-a-fish-out-of-water-girl-with-big-purple-wings. Listen, learn, and accept the words with humility. It doesn't mean everyone gives good advice... There are some real nut jobs. But you have to decided what advice is good or bad on your own. Just try not to burn any bridges while you're at it.  
Pictured:  Your relationships.

This term, I'm teaching several courses: The Language of Fear, Characterization and Dialogue, Using Magic in Popular Fiction, Worldbuilding 101, and Primary Research: Why You Need It. I'm also leading four workshops and attending at least three thesis defenses. It's going to be a busy week for me, but worth it. So very worth it. 

So, to the ones, welcome aboard. This is a tough program, and people do wash out. It's time to get serious about your craft. But if you work hard, you will never have more fun in your life. I look forward to meeting you. And to the rest of you still in the program, a few of you still owe me a blood sacrifice. I'm coming to collect. 

And to all the alumni... Gods, how I've missed you all. I hope you came with your chaos-boots on. It's going to get weird. 

Until next time...


Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Few Words on Agents

Writers depend on a lot of people to do their jobs. Sure, the actual writing part of it may be a largely solitary endeavor, but once the first draft is done, we need help. We need our beta readers, critique partners, editors, significant-others, and a host of others to help us achieve our collective dreams of getting on the NYT Bestseller List, and eventually conquering the world. And one of the most important people to that process can be your agent.

It's said a good agent can make an author's career while a bad one can surely break it. Sage advice. So here's me, you're good-old-uncle Scott, to let you know what an agent actually does, and how to tell the good ones from the bad ones.

What an Agent Does
A common misconception is that agents are the keys to success, and that once you've landed one, you're on your way to international fame (and world domination). Not true. The real key to success is still your own manuscript, hard work, honing your craft, etc. And once you've landed an agent, the publishers are not going to come knocking on your door waving suitcases full of cash and offers of possibly unethical and immoral favors. Sorry to destroy the fantasy, but that's just not how it happens.

What an agent actually does, however, is an insane amount of work that you will probably never see. Their job is to sell your manuscript, sure. But it goes beyond that because an agent does things that you, the writer, can't do. First thing's first: The agent takes your manuscript, evaluates it, then gives you notes on how to make it more marketable. For some, that's line-editing. For others, it's a "keep-or-crap" mentality. It's their job to know what's trending, what sells, and who buys the most of it.

Once the manuscript is ship-shape (or shit-shape, depending...) they start the arduous process of submission. Y'know how many publishers put a clause in their submission guidelines that say "3-6 months reply time" or something of the like? Yeah... Agents aren't immune to that. Editors get gobs of manuscripts every day, and it takes time to weed through them all. And, if you send your manuscript in, you have to sit patiently and wait for the rejection letter to come in the mail before you send it out again. But the agent can do a little thing that you can't do: NAG. My agent is the queen of the nags. If she thinks an editor has had a manuscript for too long, she has no qualms about sending out the nagging e-mail. Just a gentle "hey, did you read it yet?" or something of the like.  Now, if you or I try that, our manuscript will never get read. But the agent? Yeah... it's in her job description, and the good ones?  They are damned good at it.
Pictured: Agent to Editor
Not only that, but they can get your manuscript in front of editors that you can't. Take a look at many of the biggest publishing houses' submission guidelines and you'll see the phrase "agented submissions only." Why? Because everyone thinks they can be a writer. Everyone thinks their story is the one that will change the world. and, frankly, everyone is wrong. It takes skill, education, and determination to be a writer, and not a small amount of blind stupid luck. The agent acts as a gate-keeper to these publishers. "I've read this work," says the agent. "And I certify that the person who wrote it isn't crazy, untalented, or illiterate." The editors take the agent at her word.

Acceptance isn't the end of the agent's job either, hoo no. The agent's job is to act on the behalf of the author. Negotiation is key here. What do you think a writer gets when his book gets sold? An advance, right, along with a percentage of the book sales? Sure.  But there's more.  The agent is there to negotiate how much of an advance the writer gets, as well as how much of a percentage he gets. See, the advance is a lump-sum payout based on how many books the publisher thinks the writer can sell.  It's an advance against royalties. But that's not all. How many copies of the book in question does the writer get to distribute as he sees fit? Bet you didn't think of that one. See, when we go to conventions, signings, car-washes... We need to be able to give away or sell copies of our book to build our audience. The agent negotiates that number. In fact, the agent negotiates every aspect of the contract. Why? Well, it's in the agent's best interest. See the agent doesn't get paid until you do.

You read that right. Agents live off commission. They take a standard 10-15% of whatever you get. So, for the sake of argument, the agent negotiates an up-front advance of $10,000. Of that, they get up to 15% ($1,500), which leaves you with $8,500.  "But wait!" you shout. "That's my money!" Yes, and if it weren't for the hard work of the agent, you wouldn't be getting a thin dime of it, would you? No. So sit down and shut up. They earn it. But now you can see why they work so hard to negotiate. 10-15% isn't a whole lot of money, so they make sure to get you the best deal they can so they can get the best deal they can.  Get it?

Good Vs. Bad
So how can you tell the difference between a good agent and a bad agent? Glad you asked. There are lots of ways to tell if an agent is legit or not.

  • Client List - Any agent will be able to tell you who they represent, and will be able to show you a list of sales for the last year. 
  • Agency - Are they part of an agency, or do they lone-wolf it? Either way, you can find out about them or their agency. 
  • Google - Google is your friend. If I look up my agent's name, I find all sorts of interviews, message board posts, and other sorts of documentation that she is, in fact, a real person and an agent of merit. 
  • Predators and Editors - If you do not know this site already, bookmark it. Not only do they list editors, but agents, publishers, and scam artists. 
Choose wisely...

Other things you should know...
  • Agents do not charge the writer up front. Period. They get paid when you do. Remember, money flows to the author, never away
  • Agents are not your keepers. If they are representing you, you need to do your best to represent them. You want people to think of you in the best possible way? So does your agent. If your agent acted like a maniac, you wouldn't get into any door. If you act like one, your agent will lose credibility, and you'll lose said agent really fast. Follow the golden rule:  Don't be an asshole
  • Agents are not your friends. You may become friends, but the truth is, an agent doesn't need to placate your ego or smooth ruffled feathers by telling you what you want to hear. They, like all of us, are in the business of making money. And if your latest opus won't do that, they have the obligation to tell you point-blank. 
  • Agents are the experts. You hired them. You're paying them 10-15% of your contract. SO LISTEN TO THEM. Look, you hire someone to rewire your house, are you going to stand over them and badger them about how poorly they're doing their job? No. So, once you've got your agent, let them do their job. Listen to their expert advice. And, again, don't be an asshole. 
So how do I find an agent?
I know several ways, and they all boil down to the same technique: Query, wait, lather-rinse-repeat. Ah, but how do you find the right agent? Well, that's a bit more complicated, though less of a mystery. 

  • Search - Look at your favorite authors. Check them out on the web. Look for other authors who write similar things to what you write. Chances are, those are the ones you're looking for. 
  • More Searching - Go to writer's market or (again) Predators and Editors and look up the agents you're thinking of querying. 
  • Networking - Y'know those things that I attend called "writer's conferences?"  Yeah... Agents go to those.  And they look for people to represent there. They're called "pitch sessions." And even if you don't land an agent there, you do have the best chance of getting to know one or two and picking their brains to see what they're looking for. 
  • More Networking - My agent was introduced to me by a friend. No, I'm not going to namedrop, but he (an author of considerable respect) handed me her name and number and told me to give her a call and drop his name. That was the first and last time I've name-dropped to get ahead in the world, and it worked out. 
We approach the Agent cautiously...

But do I really need an agent?
Yes. And no. 

If you're looking for mainstream success with one of the major publishers, then yes. You absolutely need one.  If you're content to send your work to smaller publishers or to self-publish, then no, you don't. It depends on the kind of writer you want to be and what your goals are. My goals are to publish in the major markets and live next door to Stephen King and become recognized as the dark entity of evil that I like to pretend to be, but that my wife and kid refuse to acknowledge me to be.

The point is, it's up to you. Agent, no agent, it's your choice. I love mine, though. And that says a lot. 
What you can do with my advice. 

Until next time...