Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Here We Go Again

        I was recently playing around with a new short story, and at the same time I noticed the latest Toronto Star short story contest was coming up.

        I decided to enter the story, for better or worse.

        Although I've never been big on contests, I did enter the Comedy Network's television pitch competition a few years back. I was chosen as one of the five finalists, and did the "live pitch" for a couple producers, two celebrity judges and a live audience of about 50 people. 

        It was not a good experience. 

        First, the amount of time available for the pitch was ridiculously short, seven minutes, with a few minutes of follow up questions from the panel of judges. I had to live or die by the presentation of one short scene from the show, and few minutes to present the concept. I had to recruit friends to perform the excerpt, and a theme song, and spend time and energy rehearsing. Secondly, the first prize was a $5000 "development deal" wherein the Comedy Network would supposedly develop your idea for broadcast. The prize for second place was a T-shirt.

        My health was very poor at that time, and I spent about 50 hours preparing the script, visual designs of the animated characters, and rehearsing. Another 30 or so man-hours of rehearsal were contributed by three very wonderful pals of mine from the improv world, Jane Luk, Gord Oxley and Sarah Buski.

        Long story short, I got a T-shirt.

        I really felt ripped off. All that time an energy and I didn't get so much as a dinner coupon to reward my investment, or all the time my generous friends contributed.

        My show, Dorkwads, was an animated show about a couple of awkward, nerdy computer experts who move into an apartment building inhabited mostly by sexy women. Sound familiar? About a year and a half after the pitch competition, the sit-com Big Bang Theory, about two awkward, nerdy scientists who live across the hall from a sexy gal, debuted and became a smash.

        I could have puked.

        So, as you can imagine, I'm a bit wary of competitions.

        However, the Star contest has a long, positive history, and the time I invested was much less extensive. (In the event that the result is, once again, negative.) Plus, if they don't select it, I can still send it out to other publishers.

        As I mentioned before, this year I'm sending out stories. This will be the first.

        Wish me luck.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Taking The Plunge

            This year I start sending out stories.

            I write a lot of horror fiction, and those may be the scariest words I’ve ever written.

            But, I’ve been working hard, writing a lot of stuff, and taking my medicine at the writer’s group in an effort to improve my work. It’s time to put up or shut up.

It’s a terrifying objective, for a number of reasons.  First, because the fiction magazine market has withered into a shrunken, dried out little prune in comparison to the big juicy plumb it once was. Second, because what little market remains is an intensely competitive, live-or-die Colosseum of Blood, where one has little chance of even being noticed, let alone surviving and thriving. Third, and most depressing, the money involved is either non-existent or hovering around 1935 pulp magazine standards at only a few cents per word! (How is it possible rates have not gone up in nearly a century?)

However, these are not the things that truly terrify me. It’s the impending judgment that causes my blood to turn into sand and a girlish shriek to rise unbidden into my throat.

While it’s true that I face summary judgment at the hands of the Moosemeat writers group on a fairly regular basis, these rulings do not spring from faceless editors existing only in the misty, white ether of some distant Literary Limbo. When a Moosemeat associate comments on one of my stories, positively or negatively, I can look them in the eye, take the measure of them, and even offer a reasonable counterpoint to their comments at the end of the discussion. These are not luxuries afforded me by magazine editors.

In fact, the usual response is by way of a form letter, faceless, impersonal and utterly devastating to one’s ego. There are no eyes to look into, no way to assess their sincerity or insight, and no one to punch in the groin, should the occasion call for it. 

Many moons ago, (about a decade or so), I sent out a few stories to some magazines. I had three stories, which I submitted to a total of five magazines. None were accepted.

To be fair, I gave up after only about a year of submitting. The rejections hurt, to be sure, but what hurt much more was the stated, or implied justification for the rejections. Those really made me feel like an idiot. I simply couldn’t work out the seemingly inscrutable wants and needs of the magazines and their editors. Especially since they bore no discernable relationship to the stated parameters in their submission guidelines.

Here’s a reply I got from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s magazine, unfortunately now defunct.

This was by far the most frustrating response I received. Now, don’t get me wrong. If you don’t want to publish my story, that’s okay by me. Just say so and move on. But, damn people, don’t give me a lot of baloney.

Apparently my story lacked any discernable elements of “classical fantasy”, oh and by the way, it also has no “sense of wonder”. It also tells me to read a few issues to get a feel for what they publish.

Well, okay… I guess.

But, just for fun, let’s look at the submission guidelines for the magazine, which I sent for and received by mail in May of 1998. That date is interesting, so remember it for later. 

What an incredible list of do’s, do not’s and beware of’s. What the hell is left? What elements of classical fantasy remain if you obey that extended shopping list of taboos? Those are almost all the damn elements of classical fantasy.

And, just for the record, I bought and read three issues of the magazine before submitting. I’m a Virgo, damn it, we always do our research. And you know what, in those three short issues I read a story that was an angular take on Sleeping Beauty, one that was pure, unadulterated romance with an inter-dimensional twist, one about a ghost and one about a sorceress. Clearly, I was getting some mixed signals here.

The last line of the list is the key I suppose. “We reject all but the truly unusual and well written ones.” Hmmm… that gives you a nice little trap-door escape hatch doesn’t it? In other words; “We don’t like that sort of thing, unless, of course, we happen to like it.”

In the immortal words of Good Old Charlie Brown as Lucy pulls away the football at the last moment: AAAUUUUGGGH!

Remember that date from earlier? I got these guidelines just a few months before the North American release of the first Harry Potter book. A book for which J.K. Rowling received 12 rejections before Nigel Newton of Bloomsberry publishing, not bothering to read some sample chapters, gave them to his daughter Alice to read instead. His daughter loved the chapters and demanded more. Newton basically bought the book to stop his kid whining.

Rather like the record companies that passed on the Beatles, isn't it?

Sadly, I think Marion Zimmer Bradley would have been one of the ones to reject the book. After all, it includes half the stuff on her list of no-no's.

Am I saying I'm as good a writer as J.K. Rowling? 


I'm saying, publishers and editors, that having a long list of taboos and bugaboos predisposes you to instantly reject that which may be quite special based on the sudden appearance of a Troll. Perhaps that's a short sighted approach for someone looking for a "sense of wonder". 

Bottom line?

I liked my little story a lot, and still do, but I stopped sending it out because I got discouraged. Well, not this time. After freshening up the story a bit, I'm sending it out again. And this time I'm not stopping until someone publishes it or I have exhausted every viable market.

I have some pretty good new stories to accompany it, and I'm going to be just as steadfast with them this time around.

So look out editors. I will not be discouraged this time.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Of Apes and Men

If you are a Planet of the Apes fan, (and who the heck isn’t), here’s something nifty you should check out, Timeline of the Planet of the Apes, and the recently released Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes.
More fun than a barrel of... well, you know...
            These two tomes of delicious Apey goodness were written by a rather mad genius named Rich Handley. Rich, who can only be described as an extreme Planet of the Apes fan, has compiled the definitive timeline of all things Apes, and a compendium of all the remaining elements of the Apes sagas. It encompasses all the movies, TV series, comic books and assorted ephemera that have borne the name. It’s a daunting task, to be sure, and one that has been performed with great precision and unmatched dedication by the industrious Mr. Handley.

            But the most fun thing for me is, I’m kinda in the books! As part of a short lived Canadian comic book publishing company called Mr. Comics, (AKA Metallic Rose), I wrote and drew a short, five-page backup story for issue #4 of their mini-series Revolution On the Planet of the Apes, edited by Toronto comics maven Ty Templeton.

            And such is Rich Handley’s obsession for minutiae and unassailable accuracy that he has included my little story and its characters in both books. Hell, the dude even includes references to a story I roughed out for the comic, which was rejected in favor of the published story! How delightfully compulsive is that? But Rich didn’t stop there. He shared the roughs of that unpublished story with a UK periodical named Simian Scrolls, who liked it so much they published it in issue #16 of their magazine.

Thanks for helping that story see the light of day Rich.

            Rich Handley first became obsessed with all things Ape after viewing all the Apes movies during a week-long afternoon film festival on ABC in the late ‘70’s. As a precocious ten year old with an already overdeveloped love of movies, he was doomed from the moment the first gorilla appeared on screen.

            Shortly after the millennium ticked over, Rich began a website featuring a rudimentary version of his Apes timeline entitled “The Hasslein Curve”. Science fiction writer Ed Gross approached Rich about turning his web site into a book. Unfortunately, after compiling the timeline, Ed Gross was unable to follow through on the publishing. Rich then teamed up with his good friend Paul Giachetti, and the diligent duo deftly decided to publish the book themselves. And thank goodness they did, because this stuff is just indispensable for any self respecting Apes aficionado.

            Rich currently lives on Long Island with his wife Jill, their two kids Emily and Joshua and their skittish cat Newton. Rich is busy working on some new books, including two Apes novels with co-writer Drew Gaska and some other top secret stuff.

            Check out Hasslein books at the URL below, or be forever banished to the Forbidden Zone.

            And, since this is my blog, I’ve included my own little Apes stories, published and unpublished, for your enjoyment and edification.

The unpublished story.

The published story.