What We Talk About When We Talk About Skywalkers

The Skywalker Saga—what we old-timers knew as Star Wars—is over. I refrained from adding my hot take on The Rise of Skywalker to the pile of hot takes because a saga that spanned 42 years of my life needs time to settle, and honestly, nobody cares about hot takes.

But I have been doing some deep thinking about endings, as I did for The Matrix, the Battlestar Galactica remake, Lost, Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, and all the other long-form stories that I couldn’t binge. In all those stories there was time to speculate, to wonder, to consider what would be a good ending, and what would not.

In a writer’s reckoning, a satisfying ending is a function of the story’s structure. Structure, more simply, means promises and payoffs. In a Whodunnit, we’ll find out who done it. If a youth on a farm is dreaming of adventure or some undefinable “more,” we’re going to go on an adventure with significant stakes. If a cryptic prophecy hints at salvation or doom, we’ll see which it is. If someone loves someone else from afar, they’re going to get their shot. In short, something changes, and that change addresses the questions, the needs, raised at the beginning. That’s a story.

Whatever Lucas’s shortcomings are with dialogue, he’s a master of structure. (See this wonderful discussion of Star Wars Ring Theory.) Star Wars is the go-to exemplar to illustrate Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” monomyth, a structure that’s ubiquitous in adventure stories. Consider how the promises and payoffs build on each other in the two Star Wars trilogies under Lucas’s vision.

  • Episode IV: A backwater farm boy wishes for life of excitement and significance. He gets swept up into an adventure that ends with him harnessing a mystical power and striking a crippling blow to the evil Empire.
  • Episodes IV – VI: A farm boy, secretly the son of the galaxy’s most feared agent of the evil Empire, wishes for a life of excitement and significance. He learns to master his father’s mystical power, and instead of falling to evil, uses it to redeem his father and destroy the Empire.
  • Episode I: A boy with the potential for enormous power, is enslaved on a backwater planet. He is spirited away by a mentor who believes in him, and he is put on a path to stand against a mysterious evil.
  • Episodes I – III: An evil Sith Lord uses his mystical power to create an avatar of that power, a “Chosen One” of the Jedi establishment who oppose him. He corrupts the avatar into destroying the Jedi who oppose his rise to authoritarian dictatorship.
  • Episodes I – VI: An avatar of a great, mystical power is created by an evil Emperor to help subjugate the galaxy. He is redeemed by his own son and destroys the Emperor who created and corrupted him, freeing the galaxy.

It’s amazing how the story reinterprets itself and expands its own circuit, beginning as a hero’s rise and evolving into a full-on mythology of the corruption and redemption of the Force itself in human form. Anakin is alternately a tragic hero, a villain, a redeemed hero, or a demigod, depending on the scope. Luke is the hero, the instrument of the hero’s redemption, or a demigod version 2. And the Skywalker line itself changes from representing embattled heroes to a human incarnation of the Force itself.

But George Lucas envisioned his saga to be a trilogy of trilogies. I had heard those rumors way back when I was processing the shocks delivered by The Empire Strikes Back. So in the fourth decade of speculating about this story, with the franchise under new management, it was natural to wonder whether the concluding trilogy would stick the landing. And what “sticking the landing” even meant. 

If the Ring Theory analysis held, there would be arcs of Episode VII, Episodes VII – IX, and Episodes I – IX that built on one another. The Force Awakens gave it a promising start. 

  • Episode VII: A tech scavenger named Rey with a natural fluency in the Force waits for the return of her parents on a backwater planet. She is drawn into an adventure that ends with her harnessing a mystical power and striking a crippling blow to the evil First Order.

Looks pretty similar to the Episode VI arc, except Rey didn’t long for adventure. And the question of her lineage lingers. But with The Rise of Skywalker a mirror of the original trilogy forms.

  • Episode VII – Episode IX: A tech scavenger, secretly the granddaughter of the evil Emperor behind the First Order, joins a battle against the First Order. She learns to master her grandfather’s power, and instead of falling to evil, uses it to redeem the fallen Skywalker bloodline and destroy the First Order.

It’s a little clunky. The promise of Rey’s parentage is a red herring, along with the mutual gravity between her and artifacts of the past, like the Skywalker lightsaber and the Millennium Falcon. It’s fitting that Palpatine would be the final antagonist, as he was the one who set the Skywalker Saga in motion, using Shmi Skywalker as a Force Madonna. Supreme Leader Snoke was revealed to be a proxy for Palpatine (I mean, what else could he have been?), but Palpatine should have been more of a presence throughout the final trilogy. The First Order is indistinguishable from the Empire anyway, and if Palpatine were going to use a puppet proxy, why wouldn’t he choose a beautiful, charismatic form than something that just looks like the Emperor, smooshed a little differently and using a dumb name?

But more significantly, this is the Skywalker Saga, and whether you found this ending satisfying probably hinges on how you think of the Skywalker bloodline and the prophecy of the Chosen One. Palpatine used the Force to induce the midi-chlorians to create life in Shmi Skywalker. Anakin Skywalker was the Force made flesh—a mortal incarnation of the Force. The Jedi of the time even had a term for it: a “vergence” in the Force. They also had a prophecy around it: a Chosen One would be one such vergence, and he or she would “bring balance to the Force.”

As the incarnation of the Force merged its bloodline with human beings by having children, the poetically minded among us might suppose the Force acquired a human soul, capable of moral agency. There was Luke, trained by Jedi of the old order. There was Leia, untouched by both Jedi and Sith philosophies. And then there was Leia’s son Ben, trained by Luke in his own reconstruction of the old Jedi way, but corrupted by the Palpatine proxy. And then there was Rey: Force-intuitive on her own, offered training by the fallen Ben, refused but then grudgingly granted training by Luke, and finally trained by Leia.

But Rey ended up a Palpatine, not a Skywalker. At least by blood.

So what does the whole saga look like, in terms of promises and payoffs?

Episodes I – IX: The Force is incarnated as prophecy’s “Chosen One” by the machinations of an evil Sith Lord who seeks to corrupt him away from his purpose, but…

…but the Sith Lord’s granddaughter redeems the Chosen One’s grandson, and together they destroy the Sith Lord?

It lacks poetry. Yes, a Palpatine corrupted the Force incarnate, and generations later, another Palpatine redeemed it and set it free. And yes, at the end, Rey adopts the name “Skywalker.” But what about that prophecy about bringing balance to the Force? Did that just translate to “kill Palpatine and make sure he stays dead?” That isn’t satisfying at all. Especially since the saga seemed to be dropping clues about a deeper meaning, right up until the end.

  • Trilogy 1: The aloofness, arrogance, and lack of empathy of the Jedi order enabled Palpatine to divide Anakin’s loyalties, and it was a only a violation of the Jedi code—loving, marrying, and having children—that set in motion Anakin’s eventual redemption.
  • Trilogy 2: It is only when Luke defies Yoda out of compassion for his friends, and Darth Vader exposes Obi-Wan’s lies by omission, does Luke seek to confront his father with love. In the confrontation, his fear for his sister drives him to batter Vader into submission, but a flash of empathy makes him stay his hand instead of killing him. It was emotion that enabled Luke to turn Vader against the Emperor. And it hints at what a balanced Force could look like.
  • Trilogy 3: An untrained girl uses the Force like a natural, and seeks the last Jedi master for instruction. Luke says he was wrong, and the Jedi order was wrong. He says he must be the last Jedi. Rey intuitively reaches for the Dark Side of the Force, and Luke is terrified. All around the galaxy, more Force-intuitives begin to awaken, without any Jedi or Sith dogma. Rey uses both Light and Dark powers to serve her own purposes, remaining true to her heart throughout.

It really seems that the prophesied balance to the Force was going to be a union of the so-called Light and Dark sides, the disciplined head and the emotional heart, focus and passion. The final, encompassing ring could have elevated the mythic saga of I – VI to a statement about the human condition.

Maybe this would have been the story if we hadn’t lost Carrie Fisher. Leia, of the incarnated Force’s bloodline and free of the influence of both Jedi and Sith, could have taught Rey a third path. Or better still, redeemed her own son, not through combat, but through love. Leia, Yoda’s fallback “other hope,” could have been the key to ushering in an era of the Balanced Force that none of the others could imagine.

Episodes I – IX: The Force is incarnated into the human Skywalker bloodline to balance itself, and the Jedi and Sith war over their hearts and minds with their binary philosophies. The one Skywalker left unindoctrinated finds the truth of the balance.

That’s the sort of ending that would have satisfied me.

The Insufficient Language of Boredom

In these times of sheltering in place from COVID-19, the insufficiency of the word “bored” is especially pressing. It carries a connotation of indolence. Laziness. Consider: Children complain, “I’m bored.” Parents respond with a list of chores. The children’s problem is not solved, simply transformed into a less indolent flavor of boredom.

But also consider: A middle manager’s day is booked with back-to-back Zoom meetings, where she re-hashes the same talking points among multiple stakeholders. So boring. She hopes the next day will be different, and it is: she spends it approving expenses, vacation requests, and system entitlements; she fills out status reports and tailors the language to each audience to which she’s beholden. Bored bored bored.

Indeed, these are times that call for greater precision. The experience of boredom is multifaceted. Though any number of dimensions could be argued, I propose three:

  1. Unstimulated / Stimulated is mental engagement: intellectual, emotional, aesthetic.
  2. Unoccupied / Busy is the engagement of one’s time and effort.
  3. Discomfort / Pleasure is the basic component of emotional experience. Pain or pleasure. Aversive or attractive. Boredom is discomfort, of course, but let’s include pleasure for contrast.

The combinations of these dimensions yield emotional states that deserve their own vacabulary. These are some proposals. They certainly invite improvement.

Bored_Alternatives

I’m feeling bored if I’m experiencing unstimulated, unoccupied discomfort, like when I’m sitting on the sofa, with no motivation to attack anything on the to-do list, and feeling miserable about it.

I’m feeling relaxed if I’m experiencing unstimulated, unoccupied pleasure, like when I wake up with the alarm but realize it’s a weekend with no commitments but to listen to the wind howl outside while snug in my bed.

I’m feeling burdened if I’m experiencing unstimulated, busy discomfort, like when my day is full of pointless bullshit, the completion of which is a precondition for getting paid.

I’m feeling meditative if I’m experiencing unstimulated, busy pleasure, like when I’m driving, or stuffing dumplings, or doing something easily productive, and getting into the flow of it.

I’m feeling restless if I’m experiencing stimulated, unoccupied discomfort, like when my brain is bursting with ideas, I don’t have the means to act on them, and I’m frustrated by it.

I’m feeling imaginative if I’m experiencing stimulated, unoccupied pleasure, like when I’m caught up in daydreaming.

I’m feeling stressed if I’m experiencing stimulated, busy discomfort, like when I have engaging work, but way too much of it.

I’m feeling engaged if I’m experiencing stimulated, busy pleasure, like when I’m in the zone, doing something I want to do.

Any better adjectives? Any additional dimensions? Chime in. It’s not like you have anything better to do…

 

Before the End of Game of Thrones

SPOILERS for all but the last episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones.

As we enter the closing gambit of Game of Thrones, social media commentary shifts from what might happen to how what’s happening is wrong. It’s natural. The story is sprawling and complex, and those who developed an investment have fitted the details to their own moral and narrative models. Now is the time those models will be validated or violated. And Game of Thrones is a story that thrives on violating expectations.

Depending on our lens, the central question is anything from “who will sit on the Iron Throne?” to “will the strong female characters tear down the corrupt patriarchy?” Those with the latter lens have already expressed their disgust with this season: the hope of the superior woman ruler has been dashed by the show’s penultimate episode. There’s a meta element here. In the conflict for the throne, all the adherents pin so much hope on their contender, and all such adherents have had their hearts broken–their hearts at the very least. Every single claimant has failed to hold onto power. If there’s a thesis statement that forms a through-line of the story, it’s Varys’s riddle about the nature of power.

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the name of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me – who lives and who dies?” The answer Varys gives is both profound and simplistic. “Power resides where men believe it resides. No more and no less.” We’ve seen the permutations of this for eight seasons.

In the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones, Daenerys faced a moment of choice. She could honor the surrender of King’s Landing, as Tyrion pleaded, or she could utterly annihilate her opposition. Her choice broke the hearts of the viewership (and elicited accusations of bad writing and misogyny), but the seeds of her decision were planted in the very first season, when a girl, told from childhood that her family had a right to rule a land of which she had no memory, was given three weapons of mass destruction that steadily grew in power. Daenerys is not at all a bad person. But if she has has a defining trait through most of her story, it is her unwavering certainty that she is the rightful ruler of the Seven Kingdoms. This will to power made her spectacularly formidable. It also prioritizes power over compassion, especially when crossing the Narrow Sea leaves her friendless, loveless, and delegitimized. Cersei murders Missandei before her eyes, brutally destroying the symbol of her most worthy accomplishment, the freeing and elevation of slaves. All Daenerys has left to assert her claim, her very identity, is her one remaining nuclear bomb. Using it basically destroys the throne itself. It’s a very Game of Thrones outcome. It’s tragedy in the Classical sense. It’s supposed to hurt. No one is unscathed by power.

The one remaining permutation of power is that of god itself. It’s alluded to after the battle against the Night King, when Davos comments that the Lord of Light supposedly stepped in and then buggered off without a sign. Game of Thrones has not been subtle in noting fate and causal chains; how each character’s past formed the events bringing them to their ultimate destiny or (more often) doom. And of course Bran, who is now the closest thing to God in this world, notes that without Jaime shoving him out the window, he would never have become the Three Eyed Raven, a being capable of tinkering with history. Of writing the narrative. If I’ve correctly gleaned the story Game of Thrones intends to tell, Bran has been spending his time shaping the past so the exact events we are watching can come to pass.

And when we see the ultimate conclusion, we will be left to argue, was it just? Did the good outweigh the bad? Was Bran the Old God a virtuous ruler or a tyrant? Should he have done more to reduce the net suffering in the overall ledger? We won’t have an easy answer. Because, like the characters, we view this story through our own lenses and our own moral frameworks. We see–and judge–the narrative we’ve built in our own minds, which is not necessarily the narrative being spun by God. Or the authors. We’ll say Martin, Weiss, and Benioff were geniuses or hacks, depending on how the story delivers what we want from it. But the truth, much like power, may just be shadows on the wall.

So what the heck. Now, just before the end of things, I’ll indulge in some predictions.

  • ARYA, the rider on the pale horse, will kill DAENERYS, possibly wearing GRAY WORM’S face. Maybe Drogon will eat her. Maybe the two will go off and have adventures.
  • AEGON “JON SNOW” TARGARYEN will have rulership thrust upon him, much as Eddard Stark did, but unlike his adoptive father, he will flee north of the broken Wall, to pal around with Tormund and reunite with Ghost. The one happy ending.
  • TYRION, the dead Queen’s Hand and the only survivor whose will to power was trumped by compassion, even for Cersei, will step in. But to administer, not rule. He’ll draft a new type of governance document, uniting the rulers of seven independent kingdoms.
  • SANSA, Queen in the North, will be the first to sign.
  • BRAN, nodding at what he considers the best possible outcome, transfers his mind into the Winterfell heart tree, leaving his empty, broken, mortal body in the Godswood.

A Beginner’s Guide To Publishing Your SFF Short Stories

I sold my first short story for publication at the age of 45. I’d been writing stories almost since I could write at all, and daydreaming of being a published author for nearly as long, but back then, what little I could learn about getting published (and paid for it) made it seem like such a long shot that I shelved that ambition until, late in my middle years, I realized that my “somedays” were running out. So I got serious, and was fortunate enough to enroll in a night school program that included a “Business of Writing” seminar on how to sell one’s stories. That got me started, and when I decided to embrace science fiction/fantasy (SFF) instead of “literary” fiction, I learned that the gates were open much wider, and the community was far more welcoming. I also learned that selling stories was every bit the thrill I imagined it would be.

I’m new to this career, but the steps in the process are fresh enough in my mind that I hope they could help others who just need a little demystification of the process to get started. I’ve come up with ten concrete, practical steps to sell your first SFF/speculative short story.

  1. Write the “final” draft of your story.
  2. Find your markets.
  3. Format your piece and follow the guidelines.
  4. Write your submission cover letter.
  5. Make and track your submissions.
  6. Handle rejections with grace.
  7. Handle holds with grace.
  8. Handle acceptances with grace.
  9. Sign your contract.
  10. Publicize your story and market.

Keep trying. It’s not that mysterious at all.

1. Write the “final” draft of your story.

Unlike in novel publishing, you won’t work with a developmental editor from the publishing magazine or website. The draft you send should be the draft you’d be happy to see published. That means that you’ve done your revisions and line editing, had some other eyes look at it and give feedback, and read it aloud a few times. If your story is accepted, the editors may have some small revision suggestions, but they’re treating your story as a finished piece, not a work under joint development.

2. Find your markets.

There are several resources to help you find the magazines, anthologies, contests, and websites (collectively referred to as the “markets”). In addition to print resources like Writer’s Market and Poets & Writers, there is a popular and robust search tool called Duotrope, that will also help you track your submissions (more on that later). At the time of this writing, Duotrope is a subscription-based service for $5 per month or $50 per year. I use the Submission Grinder, a free, donation-powered website that gives you much of the same capability, and has a good user base. I’ve been using it for a couple of years, and it happens to be run by Diabolical Plots, a professional rate (more on that later) SFF market itself.

Some other websites I use to find markets include:

Social Media is especially helpful in finding markets. On Twitter, following short fiction authors you like will lead you to markets, editors, and other writers. (You’ll find some great stories to read, too.) At the time of this writing, I’m maintaining a Twitter list of short fiction SFF/speculative fiction markets you might find helpful.

Most markets advise you to read some of their past issues prior to submitting. It’s good advice. Aesthetic and thematic preferences become quickly apparent, and if you can’t see your story side-by-side with the ones they’ve published, it may not be the market for you. Many markets make explicit the things they’re looking for, and things that would be hard sells or instant rejections. Honor them, but where the guidelines are fuzzy, take a chance on yourself. Most editors are looking for stories that affect and surprise them, not ones that conform to a prescribed formula.

Some markets have special submissions periods for stories on a particular theme or topic. These can be fun, especially if you’re searching for inspiration and can quickly write on specification, as with a writing prompt. Watch for markets that solicit stories from particular underrepresented groups or identities. If you’re not a member of the group, cheerfully move on. There is no shortage of places to submit. But if you’re a member, dig deeper, perhaps with a note to the editors, to see if the market seeks stories centered around the group or identity, or simply wants to boost the visibility of those writers, and the topics aren’t in any way limited.

Some markets are permanently open for submissions year-round, but many have specific reading periods, and will not accept submissions outside of that period. Honor the reading periods: they allow a small staff (or solo operation) to buy stories, edit them, produce an issue, release it, and publicize it. Appreciate that a small number of people are doing an enormous job, usually in their spare time.

The science fiction/fantasy short fiction landscape has many markets that pay on a per-word basis. “Professional rates” (as defined by the SFWA at the time of this writing) start at $0.06 per word. Other markets offer “semi-pro” or “token” payment rates, or a flat sum. Some (especially anthologies) offer royalties, or pay in “contributor’s copies.” Many are unable to offer any payment at all. Realize that most of these markets are labors of love. They don’t make a profit, and depend on donations. The staff have day jobs. That said, carefully consider your attitude towards “working for exposure,” and whether the non-paying market you choose will give you the kind of exposure you want. For me, there’s something especially validating about even a token payment. It means I’ve sold a story.

Some markets (most in “literary” fiction, less in genre fiction) charge a submission or reading fee. Be wary of these. Contests often have submission fees to cover their prize amounts), but in SFF, reading fees are often considered exploitative of writers dreaming of being published.

Probably the single most enlightening experience I’ve had in short fiction publishing was volunteering as a slush reader for Shimmer Magazine, during its final year. Slush readers are unpaid readers who help winnow down the submissions by issuing rejections and escalating the top candidates. Not only did reading slush give me a chance to read a lot of good stories, but it also gave me a sense for how editors discuss stories and weigh their merits. And it let me experience what kind of writing “pops” from among hundreds of stories under consideration. I can’t overstate how valuable it is to look at the submissions process from the other side.

3. Format your piece and follow the guidelines.

The top pet peeve I read from editors is about writers who don’t follow the submission guidelines. The guidelines may specify the file formats the market accepts, the fonts and line spacing, the information that should and shouldn’t appear on the page headers, whether to underline or italicize, and the minimum and maximum word count. Take these as hard rules. It shows consideration for the editors’ time. They don’t want to haggle with you about accepting PDFs when the guidelines say DOCs or RTFs.

Many markets will ask you to use “Standard Manuscript Format.” The most common example of this format I’ve seen referenced is from William Shunn: https://www.shunn.net/format/story.html

Some markets will also specify the kind of stories they don’t want to see. For example, they may be burned out on seeing vampire and zombie stories, or they don’t want explicit content, or they have a hard policy against depicting rape or violence toward children. Attend to these restrictions, and don’t waste everyone’s time.

The submissions guidelines may also mention “simultaneous submissions” or “multiple submissions.” Simultaneous submissions are when you submit the same story for consideration at more than one market at the same time. Some markets take more than a year to make a decision, and tell you that simultaneous submissions are okay, as long as you notify them if you get accepted elsewhere. Others expect a shorter turnaround, and ask that you only submit your story to other markets after they have rejected it. Multiple submissions are when you have more than one story under consideration at the same market. Some markets allow this, to a limit. Others ask that you wait for a decision before sending them another story.

4. Write your submission cover letter.

Don’t agonize over this. Keep it simple. The cover letter is not the place you need to be creative or make a sales pitch. For most markets, the following format is sufficient:

Dear Editors,

Please consider my [approximate word count]-word short story 
"Story Title Here" for the next issue of [market name here]. 
My fiction has appeared in [up to 3 other markets that have 
published your work, if any].

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

[etc.]

If you’re a member of the SFWA, a Clarion graduate, or have some other writerly credentials, you can mention that. If the market states an interest in publishing emerging writers, you may mention that, if accepted, this would be your first publication. If you are an acknowledged expert in a particular relevant domain (like, you program robot behavior for a living, and your story is about robots), or a member of an underrepresented group writing about your group from an insider’s perspective (“own voices”), mention that. But be brief, and keep it to-the-point. Unless specifically requested, DO NOT summarize or tease your story. Let it speak for itself.

Some markets might ask you for a short third-person bio or even a statement of purpose. Feel free to get creative here, but look at the bios and statements already published by that market for a sense of what they want.

5. Make and track your submissions.

As you get the hang of the process, you will make more submissions, and sometimes those will take several months to resolve. There are guidelines on when to query (inquire after a submission that has received no response), whether you can submit a story to multiple markets simultaneously, and how long before you can submit to a particular market again. As you get busy, you may lose track of whether your story has already been rejected by a particular market, or when the submissions period opens. It pays to get into the habit of tracking the status of all your submissions. You can do this using online tools like Duotrope or Submissions Grinder, or you can just make your own spreadsheet with rows for each story + market, and columns indicating when you made the submission, the status of that submission, the market’s website, and the dates of any follow-ups and responses.

When you start making story submissions, you will probably find yourself refreshing your email and trying to perform predictive math on the submission / rejection / acceptance rates for your markets. BE PATIENT. SFF markets have a pretty good turnaround time compared to literary magazines (where you can wait a couple of years for a form rejection letter), but it may be months before you receive a decision, and a year or more before your story sees publication. Often, the submissions guidelines for a market will tell you the number of days you should wait before inquiring after your story’s status.

You may end up cringing at the story that was accepted, because you’ve moved far forward in your craft between that time and publication. But such is the game. Just use it as an incentive to get your next story out there.

6. Handle rejections with grace.

In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King described a spike on his wall, on which he’d stuck every rejection letter he got. For him, the thicker that stack, the better–it meant he was putting his work out there, and each rejection was another step toward an eventual acceptance. That’s a healthy and useful way to see rejection. You will get rejected, and you may not always know why. Your story may not fit the aesthetic of the publication. It may have structural problems. The quality of its writing may not be up to par. Or maybe it just didn’t “do it” for that editor, at that time.

Whatever the case, the best response from from you to a rejection is no response at all. The markets don’t owe you an explanation, so don’t demand one. Stick the rejection on your virtual spike and move on, revising your story if you wish, and choosing another potential market. (Unless specifically requested, do not revise and resubmit a story to the same market.) Occasionally an editor may offer some feedback when rejecting a story. This is not, on its own, an invitation to resubmit. You may be inspired by it, or you may reject it utterly, but don’t consider a personalized rejection to be an invitation to debate your story’s merits.

Rejections sting. There’s no way around that. But be a professional and deal with it gracefully. Resist any temptation to toss a barb (or worse) back in response. Rejections are not of you as a writer, but of that particular story, and you may write other stories you’ll want that editor to consider. Be someone pleasant to work with.

7. Handle holds with grace.

A “hold” is when an editor gets back to you saying they haven’t made a final decision whether to buy your story, but they’re putting it on a short list for consideration after they’ve reviewed all the submissions. Congratulations! Your story has done better than the vast majority of submissions. Now the editors will have to make decisions that factor in how much space they have in their next issue, whether any theme has emerged among the candidates, and which stories best reflect the diversity of their submissions. You may still be rejected. Or you may make a sale. And the waiting will be nerve-wracking.

But be patient. Putting together an issue or anthology takes a lot of work, and many short fiction publishers are doing it on their own time.

8. Handle acceptances with grace.

Congratulations! You did it! At this point, the editors may request a few minor edits from you. They may ask for a short, third-person bio, and an author photo. Some publications may even do a short Q&A interview with you about your story. Respond promptly. They are at a particularly busy stage when they are putting the issue together, and having everything they need makes it easier to put out the issue on schedule. And thank them. They liked your story enough to put it in their labor-of-love publication, and as long as you’re professional and polite, you have the foundation of a writing relationship you can build on.

9. Sign your contract.

Your contract specifies the agreement between you and the publisher to publish your story, with what recompense, the media in which your story may appear, and the length of time you grant the publisher exclusive rights to present your story. Typically, copyright remains with the author for the small markets. Pay attention to the exclusivity periods, because when that expires, you may be able to submit your story as a reprint to another market. If there are clauses in the contract that give you pause, Google them–there are many discussions you can find about publishing contracts. It’s not unheard of to negotiate the contract, but bear in mind that most markets are using boilerplate contracts and don’t have the legal resources to hammer out separate considerations for you and your story. Pushing on the contract may make it more than your story is worth to the market.

10. Publicize your story and market.

Self-promotion is not a sin. When you’re also promoting the market that published your story, you’re helping them as well, not to mention all the other writers published in that issue. Boost their signals on social media, and let them boost yours. Bask in that special sunshine of being a published writer. And keep working on the next story.

 

 

The Chicago Pedway: Descent and Return

The GPS guided me into the dim, twisting tunnels of Lower Wacker Drive, where its signal promptly cut out. Lower Wacker is a realm of eternal night. The walls block the lake-sense that tells Chicagoans which direction is east, and there is no skyline or architecture to orient them. The street signs, where they exist, are easy to miss. The only landmarks — small placards indicating which building is above a stretch of concrete ceiling — whiz by before they register. (You don’t slow down, lest you anger the dark racers always on your rear bumper.) There’s an economy of sorts, down here. Homeless men are the rangers and guards in this urban cavern. They sit at intersections, and for a couple of bucks, will point lost drivers to a ramp ascending back into daylight. They’ll also watch your car if you park in one of the sunless lots. Keeping calm, I watched for light at the intersections, where I could turn and exit to the familiar, sunlit surface.

IMG_20171230_103129847Lower Wacker Drive is an unchecked box on my list of Chicagoan credentials. Coincidentally, I was driving downtown to meet my friend Sam at the Fairmont Hotel for a tour of another open item on my list: the Chicago Loop Pedway. The Pedway is a system of covered passages downtown, through which the savvy adventurer can navigate much of the Loop, protected from the rain or cold. But the Pedway can be as twisty a maze as Lower Wacker, and both are rightly feared. No few unwitting wanderers have lost their way, down below. But Sam’s old improv friend, Margaret Hicks (who operates as Chicago Elevated Tours), would play Virgil to our Dante. At last I would face my fear, and inch closer to being an Expert Chicagoan.

We began our descent from the lower level of the Fairmont Hotel. Other cities with extreme weather have pedways, but Chicago’s is different because it isn’t a centrally planned or managed entity. It’s a network of basements, voluntarily connected by their respective owners. It’s an organic hodgepodge, more grown than constructed, more evolved than designed. You can tell when you’re moving from the territory of one hotel or office to the next. The carpets, lighting, decor, and smells all change. Even the signage and wayfinder markers are inconsistent. The connections are sometimes ad-hoc. It brings to mind analogous concepts in computers, from the architecture of the internet, to the “Cathedral and Bazaar” model of open source software. Loosely coupled components. The User Experience is all over the place. It’s part of what makes it confusing, but also your greatest ally when navigating. There exists a map, but it’s not particularly helpful.

IMG_20171230_113107325Margaret cited an improv maxim: “If it feels wrong, do it more.” Follow that unlikely path, even if you’re certain it’s not “official.” Embrace the chaos. It will give you what you need, if not always what you want. Open yourself to the Pedway, and the Pedway will open itself to you. She clearly loves this place. She once spent a week, never going outside, just to see if she could. She had access to dining, movies, bars, and all sorts of professional services. And, of course, a hotel room to stay in. We walked past a random gallery of stained glass, an exact replica of the front door of the Chicago Cultural Center, a swimming pool behind glass. We walked the length of an underground train platform. We climbed up into the middle of Macy’s (formerly Marshall Field’s) to view a priceless mosaic ceiling dome. The Pedway had its seedy stretches too, where homeless people slept and the smell of urine was unavoidable. Margaret calls the Pedway Chicago’s “78th neighborhood.” At the end of the tour, she gave us all cards with her number, in case we ever get lost. Others have used the number.
IMG_20171230_113738867
Margaret left us under Block 37, where a passage connects the Blue and Red Line trains. Sam and I decided to find our way back to the Fairmont on our own. We made it, with only a few false turns. Our return journey awakened the memory of how I used to navigate unfamiliar terrain in the Before Times, when there was no GPS lady to tell me where to turn. My brain was engaged. Active. I used my visual memory to recreate the angles from which I viewed landmarks on the first trip. I was in the moment, processing my surroundings in a way I usually don’t. It was exciting. I had switched off autopilot. There were plenty of areas I already knew well — you can’t work in the Loop for more than a decade without some familiarity. But I was building the connections in my mind, the big picture. When Sam and I emerged from the Fairmont, it was with an understanding and a boldness that digital gadgets couldn’t provide. Those covert passages hold no fears for me now. When the zombie apocalypse breaks out, I have my secret escape routes. This city is a little more mine.

Next stop: Lower Wacker Drive.

The Last Jedi: The Kids Are Alright

[SPOILERS for Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi]

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

Luke Skywalker said this to Rey, but he was talking to us. And by “us” I mean the Generation X folks who saw the original trilogy in the theater a zillion times, daydreamed about it endlessly, and made Star Wars a cultural fixture. He’ll forgive our skepticism. The new movies are packed with echoes of scenes we know by heart. We’ve seen this before. This is a Ring Cycle, the pattern is repeating. Until it breaks free. Episode VIII’s message is that the past is baggage, and it’s time to burn it down. Generation X had its own trilogies. Star Wars belongs to the kids now. It’s bittersweet, but it’s a good thing. That’s how passing the torch works.

Leia knows. The new kids, inspired by their elders, want to charge head-first into danger to pull off daring capers. But the war against the First Order isn’t like the fight against the blind stormtroopers of the Empire. For every mistake, entire fleets die. Every victory is Pyrrhic. Every significant blow is a suicide mission. The cost of repeating the past is unthinkable. Leia needs Poe Dameron to be less of a Han Solo, and more of a, well, General Leia.

Luke gets it. He didn’t fly off to the ancient, uncharted Jedi temple to unearth some secret knowledge of the true nature of the Force. He left because he had failed the next generation. Luke is the dad who suddenly realizes he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. He was trained by the last remnants of the previous generation to be something he barely understood, an acolyte of a religion of which he was the sole surviving practitioner. Trying to rebuild the Jedi order, he feared he was doing more harm than good. His fears were justified. The old orthodoxies don’t stand up to modern scrutiny. Like Old Ben before him, Luke realizes that the best he can do for the next generation is to give his life to buy them time.

Supreme Leader Snoke is the ugly face of the past, building the First Order in the spitting image of the Empire. Is he really Emperor Palpatine, who survived his fall or cloned himself anew? Probably. But it doesn’t matter. This isn’t Snoke’s story any more than it was Luke’s. Snoke is dead and chopped to pieces in only the second act of the trilogy, because this time, Kylo’s redemption arc is more complicated than Vader’s dying act of love.

Kylo Ren is a man nearly crushed by the legacy of his grandfather. He wore a ridiculous helmet to honor it. Uncle Luke feared him for it. Snoke shamed him for not living up to it. He’s the last scion of an immaculate conception by a Sith lord, a living avatar of the Force. So many expectations. Kylo hoped to free himself of the past by literally destroying it: taking a new name, nearly murdering his mother and uncle, and murdering his father and master. But even when he does, he remains trapped in a role made for him, not by him.

And what is the secret lineage that defines Rey’s destiny? Who is she, and why is she so powerful? Wrong questions, Generation Xers. This is the new Star Wars, breaking free from the old. Anakin Skywalker’s bloodline may have been born of Dark Side voodoo, but in the new world, the Force isn’t the private domain of a couple of elite warring sects. The Force is in everyone, and can awaken in an abandoned girl with no special lineage, a young rebel who gives her life to drop bombs on a dreadnought, or an indentured boy sweeping stables. This Force isn’t a divided binary of Light and Dark, it’s a complexity, like the souls of people. The new Star Wars isn’t about Light vs. Dark, it’s about the future vs. the past. Rey doesn’t need an old Jedi Master to shape her — even if she wants him to. She is in the vanguard of the New Order, rising up everywhere against Kylo’s First Order.

In my generation’s Star Wars, the Rebellion fought to bring back the glory days of the Old Republic. It was motivated by looking backwards. Even the prequels looked to an ancient prophecy. This generation’s trilogy rejects that thinking. The new Rebellion, much like Disney’s Star Wars franchise, is fighting to become something completely new, on its own terms. This new generation embraces diversity. It distrusts binaries and understands moral complexity. It trusts itself. It harnesses the power of both anger and love. It opposes oligarchs as well as fascists. It listens to, but doesn’t always trust, anyone over 30. And it’s going to do fine.

The older generation just has to move out of the way.

 

Sucker Punch

The first truly cold day in Chicago is a sucker punch. Every summer you forget it’s coming, and in the fall, when it shows up, you smirk at it like a schoolyard runt with a chip on his shoulder, brushing him aside until he grabs you by the coat, turns you around, and socks you in the gut like he’s been practicing that move all summer on a punching bag his parents got him in a last ditch effort to vent his bottled-up rage. But he was training. He puts his hips into that punch. And you’re on your ass, the wind knocked out of you, staring up at him with your mouth a silent O, more shocked than angry or afraid. Every day of fall flashes through your mind at once: short sleeves yielding to sweatshirts, coats dragged out of the basement, the chill bedroom air when you climb out from the covers, driving you back under like the groundhog seeing his shadow. The signs were all there. But you just threw on a coat this morning without buttoning it — no hat, gloves, or scarf — because you know Chicago, and you know cold, and you’ve survived it every year and this year will be no different. But the cold knows you too. And he keeps coming back, harder and fiercer, every year, because he’s persistent and he knows that one day when he knocks you down, you won’t get up.

NLP and The Wheel Of Time – Part 1

I love epic fantasy stories. All the characters, plot lines, world-building, and the little details that foreshadow big developments — I devour them in multiple readings. I also have some time to play with the Google Cloud Platform’s Natural Language API. So I decided to see what analysis I could do with that API on one of the most voluminous and detailed epic fantasies I’ve read: Robert Jordan’s The Wheel Of Time series.

I’m going to blog my efforts, in case something interesting or useful shakes out. I’m using this opportunity to teach myself Python as I go, since that language is popular in the A.I. work I’ve seen. So there will probably be some discoveries (and horrendous examples of code) along the way.

My rough plan has the following milestones:

  1. Get the Wheel Of Time books in plain text format, so the Google APIs can read them.
  2. See what the API’s sentiment analysis, entity analysis, entity-sentiment analysis, and syntactic analysis data looks like for The Wheel Of Time.
  3. Use sentiment analysis to graph the emotional arcs, in total and maybe of characters, of the story, to compare them to the “six main story arcs” discussed in this article in The Atlantic.

After that? Let’s see where the data can take me. I have some thoughts on creating a system that can answer questions about the story, and possibly expanding the training model to include labels and concepts, but I’ll focus on my first three milestones to begin with.

Part 1: Get The Wheel Of Time In Plain Text

Tor Books has the commendable policy of selling all their eBooks unlocked and DRM-free, and I already have the books on my Barnes & Noble Nook, so I started with the EPUB file format.

Unfortunately, the Nook app on Android devices hides your eBook files in a directory you can only access if you have root access to your device. I wasn’t interested in the warranty implications of going down that route. But the family Windows 10 machine has a free Nook app that downloads your eBooks. After that, it’s just a matter of searching the drive for where it put *.epub. I found them in the rather obscure directory:

C:\Users\[myuser]\AppData\Local\Packages\BarnesNoble.Nook_[somehash]\LocalState

Huzzah! Then I renamed the file as a .zip (an .epub is a .zip with a particular directory structure), and dug into the ZIP archive. Unzipped, the file looked like this:

+- META-INF
|
+- OEBPS
|    +- Images
+- mimetype

The files I’m interested in are in OEBPS\. Each chapter or section (basically, each table of contents entry has an HTML file, conveniently named for sorting by the chapter number. The markup is clean and well-formed, and the style classes are intuitive. Cleaning it would be straightforward.

Now I had to learn some Python. I was familiar with the syntax, and I was an experienced Java programmer, so most of what I had to learn could be found on StackOverflow. Unless I got fancy, it would be a 1-use script, but there are 13 books in The Wheel Of Time (including the prequel, New Spring), so it wouldn’t hurt to take a stab at maintainability. I wanted to do proper Test-Driven Development, but I was getting impatient to see progress, so I just kept tweaking-and-running until I got it to work on real data.

I envisioned three components:

  1. Something that stripped out HTML markup from a character stream and left readable plain text.
  2. Something that created a plain text file from an HTML chapter file, using the first component.
  3. Something that took an EPUB file, unzipped it, iterated through the chapter files, used the previous component to make text file equivalents, and zipped them up for transfer to Google Cloud Platform, or wherever.

Python had a built in html.parser.HTMLParser which did exactly what I needed, for the first component. After that, it was all file I/O and some ZIP manipulation, all with standard packages. The “if __name__ == “__main__” construction for an executable class seemed awkward, but otherwise I was impressed with how compact the code was.

If you want to see my ugly-but-functional beginner Python code, feel free to peek on Github.

At this point, I had The Wheel Of Time all in a ZIP of plain text files. I was ready to figure out how to use the Google Cloud Platform’s Natural Language API. That will be in my next post.

 

Might As Well Jump

 

 

 

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the mystical Bene Gesserit sisterhood had a litany against fear.

“I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

To the Bene Gesserit, what separated a human from an animal was the ability to withstand and endure terror, suborning it to one’s will. The animal reacted. The human planned.

I’ve always been a planner. I got afraid if I didn’t have a plan. So when people ask why I left my job without another in hand, I tell them “I was about to turn 46, with more years behind than ahead, and my ‘maybe someday’ list was running out of somedays.” When it’s more than a passing conversation, I quote Annie Dillard in The Writing Life: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” They commend me for having the courage to pursue my dreams, which embarrasses me because it had nothing to do with courage, or even dreams. I’m privileged to have resources to get by while I figure things out. My family is in no real danger. All I did was react to my calculus of competing fears.

They weren’t even interesting fears. On one side was the mid-life crisis of a plateaued career, mounting frustration, and a nebulous sense of being trapped. On the other were the worst-case scenarios of starting over. The boredom I knew, versus all the worse ways I could fail. Endurance versus action. I flipped the Bene Gesserit’s script, building up a fear-driven resilience to the daily grind that paid the bills and gave me a respectable job title. I could detach my emotions, do the work, and set my brain on autopilot. “The examined life is not worth living,” I’d joke. Because once examined, I’d have to respond to what I saw. And that meant I’d have to leap off the edge of that plateau, into the unknown.

Jumping was on my mind when my supervisor took me to task for not being enthusiastic and inspiring enough for my team.

In my sophomore year of college, I joined some dorm mates and went skydiving. It was a half day process of getting familiar with the equipment, practicing the sequence of actions that would get me to the ground intact, and drilling on the safety contingencies. That done, we went up in a tiny Cessna. A static line was attached from the plane to our parachutes; they would open automatically when we fell a certain distance, provided we arched our bodies in the way that kept our backs up and bellies down. One by one, we followed the steps we’d practiced.

When my turn came, our instructor called ONE, and I stood in the open door frame in the side of the plane.

TWO. I stepped out between a pair of bars under the wing; one that I could grip in my hands, and the other that supported my feet.

THREE. While holding on to the upper bar, I stepped off the lower, and hung from my hands under the wing.

FOUR. There was no getting back into the plane now, even if the shame of doing so was endurable. The only things I could do were continue to hang there, or do what I’d come to do, and just. let. go.

Confusion. The roar of wind in my ears through my helmet. A jumble of images and no idea which way was up. Then the parachute opened, and it all went quiet. Peaceful. Free. I hung in the sky supported by air, and drifted over green and brown rectangles of land. I saw a barn. A house. A Christmas tree. It was a sublime, singular experience. Only later did it hit me that I’d jumped out of an airplane. It seemed insane. They key was that I hadn’t approached it as a single action. Even at the very end, it was four steps, which I concentrated on executing as well as I could, my mind focused on that specific task and not the entire chain of events that would put me in freefall, 12,000 feet up.

Of course, underneath it all was a huge amount of faith in the entire support system. I had faith in the instructors, the pilot, the equipment handlers, the equipment itself. I had faith in the invulnerability that came with being 19 years old. More than two decades later, I had forgotten that faith, especially in myself. As my responsibilities expanded beyond myself, so did my caution. I allowed my roles to define me, and as they did, my life became less about me and more about my obligations. That’s even considered virtuous to some. They call it a work ethic. I suspect that’s what a mid-life crisis is: after years of paying dues and being responsible, the sidelined self roars back into focus, demanding satisfaction. It wants, selfishly, unapologetically. In my case, it wanted, once again, to jump.

ONE. I told my supervisor that if my attitude was such a concern, but there was nothing to do about what caused that attitude, I really had to think about why I was here.

TWO. I asked my wife how concerned she’d be if I outright quit. This week. Tomorrow. She had once quit in frustration. She said we could make it work.

THREE. I backed up and cleared away everything personal on my laptop and desk, and took a final inventory of what I’d be leaving behind. Surprisingly little, all told.

FOUR. I looked forward to the follow-up meeting with my supervisor. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I had power. I was no longer beholden, no longer obligated. A feeling of magnanimity swelled up in me. I didn’t need to vent my grievances, I simply thanked him for his candor and give my two weeks notice.

I was light, free, floating and smiling all those two weeks. My relationship to people and objects in and around the office had shifted. I moved among them, but untethered. All the weight was lifted. Ironically, I could focus better, and the magnanimous attitude buoyed me through the remaining work days. I did ask myself if I could have somehow manufactured this way of being while keeping my job, but it was a passing thought. The feeling of release, of hope for the future, couldn’t be faked. It could only come from facing down my fear, letting go, and tumbling into open air.

CODA. The following week after my last day, my phone buzzed with texts, emails, and instant messages. Several people, including my supervisor, his supervisor, and half my peers, had their jobs terminated. A part of me wished I had held out three days, for a severance package. But the better part was happy to have my instincts validated. It’s better to jump than to be pushed.

 

How To Be a Tweet Journalist

As public figures in entertainment and government take to Twitter, the public gains a unique form of access to that person’s thoughts, raw and in real time. While you may think that such directness of communication relegates the internet journalist to the role of merely interpreting and contextualizing such messages like some chin-stroking intellectual, you would be wrong. There remains a booming industry of Twitter journalism that simply republishes the public figure’s words — and monetizes it. You too can get started as a Tweet journalist by following an easy formula.

Banner Ad

Begin with a banner ad, to make you some money.

Headline

Also known as the “clickbait,” your headline should allude to the content of the public figure’s Tweet without revealing it. Consider a headline of the format:

{Public figure} Absolutely Destroys {subject of Tweet} In a Single Tweet

There is no need to qualify that the subject of the Tweet wasn’t actually destroyed. It’s implicit in this journalistic form.

Ad Space

This is a good place to put another ad. Now you have two above-the-fold ads to make you some money.

Links To Related Content

This is the place to put some links to other “articles” on your site that have some of the same words. Or fall into some of the same categories. Or relate in more creative ways — have fun with it. Your SEO manager will mutter something about bounce rate, and Google liking richly interlinked content, but all you have to know is, the more Google likes you, the more money you can make on your ad space, and that’s why you’re engaging in this pointlessness, after all.

Background

Okay, you can’t get away with having no interpretation or contextualization. This is where you write one or two paragraphs of background for the Tweet, informing your readers if this is a singular event or part of an ongoing feud. Here, you may give more detail than your headline about what the public figure’s 140 characters will say, but don’t be too clever about it. The Tweet is the headliner here, and your exposition is just the opening act. Check your ego and bons mots at the door.

Ad Space

What, you thought you were done? If your reader has scrolled down this far, then you’ve done your job. And you should be paid for it.

The Tweet

Embed that Tweet. And hope its author doesn’t delete it.

The Future

An ambitious Twitter journalist will want to explore the ramifications of the Tweet going forward. And in the world of Twitter, “going forward” should never mean more than 24 hours. Here is the place to embed the zestiest of @-replies, quoted retweets, and subtweets. Give your readers a 1-stop shop (besides Twitter itself) of the conversation around the public figure’s Tweet. But don’t spend more than 15 minutes of research. Twitter Journalism is a fast-paced business.

Join the Conversation

Invite your users to post to your message board and discuss the topic. 99% of the posts will be garbage or worse, but that doesn’t matter. If you’re using a message board solution that is crawlable by the Google bots, then you’re getting the SEO juice of dynamically changing content, and maybe even some worthwhile “user-generated content” (where readers write things on your site that others may want to read, and you get paid for it).

Ads, Ads, and More Ads

Go for broke. Add a block of those links to “related articles” that another website will pay for you to host. Put in some more animated ads, maybe a pop-up, auto-playing video to punish readers who scroll this far down. The show is over. Roll credits.