Cabin at Dawn

Light trickles through gaps in the window linen, invisible until glittering motes whisper of its passage. Soft reflections from woodgrain cast it throughout the room, sending it to uncover what night hid away. From the darkness it pulls a chair, brown leather cracked and broken; a wooden desk filled with the scuffs and tears lifetimes of use carry with them; a tablet of white paper, unmarred by the ink of the pen whose lid it finds on the smooth oak floor; an empty bottle laid sideways, empty but for a thin puddle of caramel liquid. It nestles gently in the corner, among the dust-laden cobwebs and labrador hair.

When Tragedy Strikes

It’s been all over the news: a gunman affiliated with a radical Islamic coalition gunned down 50 people with no provocation aside from his belief that they needed to die. The outcry came immediately: “Ban assault rifles” from the left; “Ban Islam” from the right.

They’re both fraught with hypocrisy, and they’re both wrong. And I’ll explain why.

Most people you speak to will tell you that the First Amendment to the Constitution is pretty straightforward. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. People have the freedoms of speech, religion, press, and congregation, and they should be able to exercise those rights without the government stepping in and preventing it. So, this madman who ran into a nightclub and gunned down fellow human beings has to right to practice his religion of choice, in this case, a radical branch of Islam. An Imam espouses his religious belief that killing homosexuals is “compassionate,” and he is protected under the First Amendment, both because it is part of his religion, and because of the governments inability to restrict his speech. I make these examples because they specifically apply to the situation that occurred this last weekend. I don’t support these ideas, nor do I think they are representative of modern Islamic practices.

The Second Amendment is, for reasons that never made sense to me, a source of contention. A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed. Those who wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights can be quoted over and over as saying that this right is intended to allow citizens to have a means of protections against the government, in the case of tyranny, fellow citizens, in case violence is brought against their person, family, or property, or foreign invaders. It seems simple to me that this right is extended to the people to ensure sovereignty and just rule. In order to safeguard this idea, the right to own and use firearms “shall not be infringed.” To me, being raised as a “do it yourself” person in basically every aspect of life, there’s no question in my mind that the Second Amendment is there to allow me to ensure the safety of myself and my family in case we are confronted by a person with intentions to harm us. That “well regulated Militia,” piece gets tossed around a bunch, but it doesn’t bother me, because in the eyes of those that wrote it, the Militia means the citizenry. The populace. Every citizen, when war comes knocking, becomes either soldier or prisoner. That’s how war works. It’s brutal, and unforgiving, and it’s all the worst that humans are capable of.

Now, on to the real point. For some reason, one group of people (the “left” to use popular characterization) think that someone’s First Amendment rights are sacrosanct; someone can believe whatever they want, say whatever they want, print whatever they way etc. and it’s okay. With the next breath, however, they will demonize gun owners, ranting at how peoples’ guns should be taken away and bans should be implemented, seemingly blind to the idea that the very same document that gives them them right to their free speech and religion, also guarantees the gun owners’ rights to his firearms.

And the flip side of the argument is, to me at least, equally silly. These people (the “right” to use popular characterization) will talk about how terrible Islam is, and how the entire religion needs to be wiped from the planet, and with the next breath (as above) will espouse the Bill of Rights to protect their ability to keep and bear arms. Again, they are seemingly ignorant to the fact that their right to protect themselves is housed in the same text that prevents them from stripping this man of his religion.

What’s the point of this post? I’m not totally sure. I suppose part of it is reaction to hate I’ve been getting on social media as a result of trying to defend the Bill of Rights in the face of outcry against rights and protections from both sides. I just want to try and throw some perspective into the chaos of public reaction.

At this point, I think the only acceptable reaction is sympathy and regret. At least fifty people are dead as a result of this man’s actions. Fifty lifetimes’ worth of experience, love, and joy will never be lived, because of this man’s hate.

We, as a country, need to practice less hate.

Writing Fears

My biggest fear as a writer, and the reason I sometimes avoid my keyboard, is that I won’t be enough. Enough for the story. Enough for the world. Enough for the people I’ve created in the reality of my imagination.

I worry that the characters and their stories deserve better than the meager voice I can give them. I worry that I don’t use flowing prose to proper effect, or that my descriptions are too straightforward and lack a depth of metaphor. I worry that the lives I create on the page ring hollow, like they have no insides.

I’m a little ashamed to admit that some days I let that fear get the better of me, and I don’t bother to write. I prejudge myself as lacking, as so, I don’t even bother. Other days, I sit down and hammer away at the keys believing that whatever I write is better than whatever I don’t, and that by the simple act of hitting the keys, I’m improving.

Yet other days, I sit down at the computer and things flow out of me. I feel really great about the things I get on the page, and I end the session with a sense of accomplishment. Those days I really think I can do this whole writing thing. “Man, I’m pretty good at this!”

Usually, when I sit down and do a second or third or fourth draft, I can’t tell the difference between good days and bad ones. Sometimes I go back and re-read what I wrote the day before, on one of those awesome days, and think “This is terrible, real horseshit.” Most of the time, that can be fixed with ten minutes’ work and fifteen of the exact right words.

Anyway, some days I think I’m garbage. Other days I think I’m awesome. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Right there in the “You’ve spent time honing your craft, but you aren’t quite good enough to show the world yet.”

And I guess that’s okay. Still, it would be nice to be able to look inward and ask these people if they’re happy with their author. Did I paint them well enough? Can they see themselves reflected in the strokes of my pen? Have I left some piece of them empty, or are they whole, complete, and unabridged?

My deepest fear when writing is that they would say no, and that somehow I would have let them down.

Dear Agents

Dear Agents That I Query,

Thank you. I understand that you’re extremely busy, and you might not be thrilled with the idea of slogging through the slush pile tonight after work. But you do it anyway on the off chance that someone sent in something that isn’t terrible. Hopefully you’ll be in a reasonably good mood when you come across my submission. Hopefully you’re a fantasy geek like me and the idea of a kid in the desert who hears weird voices intrigues you.

I can’t imagine with your job is like. I hate reading bad writing, which is why revising my first and second drafts is like pulling teeth. I couldn’t imagine a more torturous version of hell than having to read through every trotted out and beaten down trope-laden crapfest of a storyline we writers come up with and present to you with 76% spelling accuracy and bad grammar. On a daily/weekly basis.

I’ve been querying my fantasy series for years now. I started before it was ready. I thought it was ready, but it definitely wasn’t. Looking at it now, after having a group of extremely talented and skilled writers critique and help me improve it, I almost laugh at how bad it used to be. And even then, I had a couple of nibbles from agents, because they saw the potential in it. Now, though, it’s probably as good as it’s going to get without some serious professionals nit-picking it and polishing all those little rough spots that I’m not experienced enough to see.

Now, after a few years, you’d think that it would become sort of rote. Draft a query, send it out, forget about it and get a response. Rinse off the rejection. Repeat.

But it doesn’t work that way. I fret over each query I send out. Each one is unique. I sit and draft a brand new letter for each one of you I send a letter to because I want each agent to know that I am querying them for a reason. They are a person I am hoping to build a career with, a business partner that I would like to spend quite a long time building a trust and rapport with. That sort of commitment shouldn’t be made lightly, or with just the first person who offers it to you.

I send out a query and mark it down in my spreadsheet, then I enter it into my querytracker account, then I review the statistics on how long you typically take to respond (even though my experience has shown just how far off those stats are) and I check the comments on querytracker every few hours during the day to see if anyone who queried around the same time as me has heard anything back and then what that might or might not mean vis a vis my query and whether you’ve looked at it and whether it might have made a second round of ‘this might be interesting’ or whether it’s just sitting there because you haven’t had time to send out the boilerplate. Yeah, it’s a little manic sometimes.

And I totally understand why it takes weeks to hear back. You’re extremely busy during the day working and fighting to get the best deals for your clients, and making sure that each project is as good as it can be before it gets to the editor’s desk for submission. Expanding your client list probably isn’t your number one priority, nor should it be. Your first responsibility is to the authors you already represent, the ones who trust you with their careers. But that doesn’t make it easier.

And as much as it sucks to get that rejection letter, I have to say I am EXTREMELY grateful that you replied (closure is a wonderful thing), and it climbs to a whole new level when it’s a personalized rejection. Even a simple mention of my protagonist’s name lets me know that you actually reviewed my pages and had an opinion on them. Then there’s the second-best response. When you ask me for a manuscript and read it and get back to me with a genuine, helpful, personalized response with the reasons you didn’t quite connect with it. Those are the next best thing to an offer. Because, while you might not want to rep me or my book, your honest critique is going to help make me and/or the work better.

So, in closing, thanks for doing an extremely frustrating job. It balances against the frustrating job we’re doing out here, pouring our blood onto the page and hoping it matches type with someone out there in need of a word transfusion. One of these days I’ll scale the wall and all the self-doubt and anxiety will have been worth it. Until then, expect to see my name in your inbox.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Write Your Story

Nike said it. A lot. Then Shia Labeouf yelled it in front of a green screen. Now I’m writing it in the vain hopes that I’ll possibly help someone improve their life.

Do it.

A few years ago I had a random thought. It went something like “I’m going to die one day.” That thought, and what it truly meant, summoned a storm of images, but one imagined snippet of my possible life really stuck with me. I was older, not old, but older. Perhaps fifty. I was dying. Lying there, in my bed , I was on the edge of death, and I was sad. Not because I was leaving this world, but because I was leaving this world without having done all the things I wanted to do. I hadn’t written my stories (literally and metaphorically).

That single thought changed my life. From that moment, I told myself that I would look at every decision and consider the consequences, and whether I would look back on it from the future and wish I had taken the chance. Or, if I was willing to let that one slide in favor of a better road for me, a better story.

I dedicated myself to my writing, because being published is a dream that I’m not willing to let go without a fight. That isn’t to say that I love writing, because writing sucks. It’s painful and filled with anxiety and self doubt and fear of rejection. But, when I finish something and I give it to someone to read and they connect with any part of it… that feeling is nearly incomparable. It’s on a level with having children, and seeing them grow and flourish. They’re both things you’ve had a hand in creating, and you’re sending them out into the world to fend for themselves.

I quit my job. That’s a little dramatic. I changed careers. At 32, I moved from a field I was competent in, one where people came to me for answers, to become the new guy in a subject that I found fascinating. Now, I’m working in that field, and making reasonably good money, and loving it. If I had stayed, I wouldn’t be miserable, but I’d always have been wondering what if.

Now I don’t have to.

So, my advice, wholly unsolicited, is to just go for it. Sure, weigh the consequences, but realize that long-term regret is perhaps the biggest consequence you will face in this life. Write your story the way you want to. It won’t be easy, in fact the harder it is, the better it will be, but it will be your story. Your life. Nobody else’s.

I’m Not Racist, But…

Well, yes you are. You know how I know? EVERYBODY IS.

Avenue Q said it best: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”

And it doesn’t stop with race. People pre-judge all the time, based on all kinds of (sometimes totally ludicrous) cues. I don’t talk to people about “edgy” topics very much because I’m continually disappointed by them. I am something of an optimist in that I just assume that people think the way I do, and by that I mean “at all”. I try to question my thought processes daily. When something surprises me, I ask myself why that surprised me.

I’ll give you an example. I was driving home from work the other day and saw someone driving like a complete jackass. Swerving in and out of traffic, gunning it to pass someone through the tiniest little hole between the poor sap they were about to rear and the near-victim they almost sideswiped to gain their tenth of a second. From my days in college, my immediate assumption about this person was that they were a privileged early twenties douche bag looking white dude with a badly lined goatee and a tight fitting wife beater. Yes, that’s what my subconscious thinks shitty drivers look like.

I was wrong. I passed the car as they were stuck in line to exit the highway. It was a woman talking on her phone. I couldn’t really tell the ethnicity because she was wearing huge sunglasses, but she was light-skinned, so my guess is white, but she could have been latina.

That surprised me. And that made me ask myself, why was I surprised by that?

That simple question is the key to evaluating your personal biases. You have them. Don’t try to tell me that you don’t. Everyone has them; it’s a side effect of existing as part of an ecosystem. It’s instinct, like being afraid of big cats. You should be scared of tigers because you, or some of your ancestors, saw what they were capable of and didn’t want be added to the menu. So, you prejudge a tiger as a thing that will kill you. That doesn’t mean that every tiger will snap your neck, but in your mind, tigers are capable of extreme violence, and so you are weary around them.

The same concept applies to interactions with people. Let’s say that when you were young, there was an ice cream truck. That ice cream truck was driven by a man without much hair and who had shocking blue eyes. He was the only bald blue-eyed guy you ever met and he was always smiling and handing you your favorite dessert treat. Now, you might form a subconscious opinion about bald blue-eyed men. So, when your forty and some blue-eyed guy with a bad toupee sticks you up in an alley somewhere, it surprises you. Not only because you just got jacked, but because that guy did it. You thought blue-eyed guys were the nice ones.

It surprised you.

So, when something surprises you, think about why; really think about it. Don’t just give it a cursory inspection and move on with your day. Substitute different people into the scenario. Why does it make more sense for those other people to do that thing? What about you makes you think that. Because here’s the truth that not many people seem to want to accept: It’s your fault you feel the way you do. It isn’t anyone else “living up to stereotypes” that make you biased or prejudiced. It’s you and only you.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting and the woman in the corner raises her hand and has a really good idea, see if it surprises you. And if you think the idea she had wasn’t very good, ask yourself if a man had said it, would you feel differently? If the black guy on the subway scoots over so you can have room to sit, see if it surprises you. And ask yourself if you think a white lady doing it would have been weird. If the middle eastern man at the shop is rooting for the same team as you, see if it surprises you. And ask yourself if a white guy doing it would have been odd.

It’s incredible how much you learn about yourself when you remove the assumption that you’re right. Confirmation bias, I believe is what it’s called. Ignore it. Don’t assume you’re right. Assume you’re wrong until you can prove to yourself that your brain can be trusted. You might be surprised.

Then ask yourself why.

Birthday

Happy birthday, Tom.

Today my father-in-law would have been 64. He died from a tumor in his brain. Specifically from gliobastoma multiforme.

Glioblastoma multiforme is an extremely aggressive and hard-to-kill type of tumor that kills more often than not. It took my wife’s father from her over the course of just a few months.

For more information, please visit the following:

American Brain Tumor Association

If you would like to make a donation to help find a more effective treatment for glioblastoma and other forms of brain tumor, please consider:

ABTA Donations

St. Jude’s is always good