Monday, July 16, 2018

Flee the Content Mills: Why Bloggers and Businesspeople Need Each Other

When I was between gigs, working the content mill helped me get a little money in here and there. It was grueling and largely un-fun, but it was money. And it was a chance to write more, thus improving my writing for when I got to a point when there was a job opening.

But for all the hole-patching it did, the content mill life was... not awesome? Not awesome. Because for all the help it offers both businesses in need of content and writers in need of work, the fact that it's a third-party system means the setup isn't particularly ideal. And you don't necessarily realize that until you find yourself in particular situations covered in the fine print.

As an up-front -- content mills are a wonderful short-term solution. This goes for both businesses and writers. Sometimes there's literally nothing else, because finding and hiring a writer is a luxury. And sadly, finding a job as a writer is also a luxury in this day and age. (Believe me, I know.) But for long-term blog content, or for long-term writing work, it's worth it to start moving toward interfacing with each other directly.

Mills Don't Let You Talk One-on-One

One of the major points of content mills in general -- and one we all agree to because we rarely see a situation where we'd want to go against it -- is the idea that we are all numbers. The businesses are numbers, you are a number, and we all interface via the mill's website. If you're spending eight hours a day shooting out 300-word SEO-optimized pieces on how to use boat cushions for arts and crafts, this probably won't bother you.

But once in a while, a business and a writer make a good connection. This happened to me with a legal firm setting up a new department, and I handled a couple of press releases for them. They tipped me extra for my work, and they liked me specifically. And I was pretty cool with them. In a different scenario, I'd happily have stayed on board with them.

Remember, though: you cannot talk outside the mill's website. And that's because the mill gets a cut of the transaction.

That's simultaneously one of the most understandable business moves they could make, and one of the biggest deal-breakers for me. Basically if a writer and a business mesh, they can't take it outside. If they want to work together, it has to be through the mill or you've broken their Terms Of Service and God knows what happens then.

To be fair, as you're swimming through ghost-writing for mommy blogs and Russian mail-order bride sites, you're not entirely likely to make a match. But it can happen.

Writing for Someone Means Knowing Them

I do news and features for a bunch of websites, and amongst the news are things I've never encountered. Like, say, shows I'm not into. Shows that aren't even out yet. Bands I'm unfamiliar with. But I still write about them, and I write about them well, because that's a writer's job.

However. If you're looking at consistently updating blog posts for your business, you need more than people doing a quick read on what you do, plugging in the keywords, and hitting word count. Will that do the trick? Sure, it's fine. It's adequate.

But the best and most attractive business blogs radiate a love for the business itself... and that's something that's hard to get when you're sending out a dozen work orders to a dozen strangers churning out a dozen other work orders.

Ten or 20 years ago, this scene would have been extremely different. Even owning a .com back then was such a big deal that you got noticed. But nowadays, that's nothing. My family bought a .com just so they could have reliable email addresses. Ten businesses doing the same thing can exist at the same time.

What sets you apart when you're creating content for your company's site is personality. And yeah, you can set "personality keywords," ask for a faceless writer to write in a certain style. But you're much more likely to get what you want sitting across from them, telling them about your business.

And writers, you know it's a lot easier to write for someone's site once you've heard/seen them talk. You can get a better feel for their personality and the personality of the business (which can very much be its own entity), whereas with a numbered work order you can do your best but there's still a degree of guess work.

Businesses and Bloggers Grow Together

In my experience, the hardest part of setting up a content and social media campaign for a business is figuring out what they even want to do. How often do they want to blog? What kind of blogs are they going to write? How central will that be to the site? To their social media? It's rare, and understandably so, that a business owner comes in with a set image in their head of how things will run.

Having a professional writer there, someone who's worked for a variety of different sites in a variety of different styles, can help narrow down what this particular businessperson needs when it comes to an Internet presence. Or if nothing else, having that avid listener there serves as a good "rubber duck" scenario for the businessperson actually figuring it out.

Plus, when a blogger and a business work together, they can watch what works and what doesn't as it happens. And then they can discuss what will work going forward, using their personal experiences to tweak and create something useful together. When you go into a content mill, you need to know what you need, no (or few) questions asked. And for a business just dipping their toe into the Internet, that's rough.

If you are in need of quick and dirty SEO (if you're a business) or quick and dirty cash (if you're a writer), then content mills are absolutely the way to go. But if you're a business looking for a sustainable, friendly Internet presence, reach out to writers. Having someone who knows you and what you do is infinitely more beneficial. And there are tons of wonderful, trained, professional writers out there who could do just that for you.

Like me — at the risk of being tacky right here at the end. I've worked as a journalist for ten years, writing for everything from family news sites to geek entertainment sites, and creating original content for streaming sites, live events, and more. I price by the word and I'd love to hear about what you've devoted your life to. Get in touch using any of my happy little social media buttons... or, if you prefer, look through your own circle of friends and associates and make connections with one of the talented writers in your area. You won't be sorry.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Sing Your Song: The Sounds of "One Hand Clapping"

I watch a handful of Let's Play-type channels on YouTube because, as I've said before, my gaming abilities are not particularly top-notch and my brain sucks for vertigo. But once in a while, I'll be watching a video and feel the need to stop everything, grab the game myself, and play.

That was exactly what happened with One Hand Clapping, a USC-produced demo/experience where your primary tool is your voice.

You play as a sad, nondescript little blob-person who first appears in a grey cityscape filled with shadowy people. You have two sets of controls: arrows (or WASD if you prefer) and the space bar, and your microphone. The keyboard helps you with basic navigation. But to influence the environment and solve puzzles, you have to sing.

Well, sing or hum or whistle. They've made sure the game isn't inaccessible to non-singers. And while there's some pitch-matching in later puzzles, it's not going to shut you out based on ability. Your "lowest comfortable note" (and "comfortable" makes a difference here -- more on that later) is calibrated at the beginning of the game, and can be recalibrated at any point if you feel like things are a little off.

Early puzzles involve just making sounds at all to make things move, then pitching higher and lower to raise and lower elements of the landscape. Once you've moved into the second phase of the game, you're met by a cheerful little green critter who is leading you to... wherever you're going. It's largely pitch-matching from here, but you have infinite chances and onscreen cues to help you along. Plus, it goes at a relaxed pace, so you have time to self-correct.

My absolute favorite part of the game was, without question, a sequence in which you self-harmonize. You're led through a series of concentric circles, guided to hit and hold certain notes, and then hear the resulting harmonies played back to you in your own voice as you move to the next scene. This sequence doesn't sport the vast pastel landscapes of the rest of the game's back half, but there's something really joyful about hearing your own voice integrated into the game. And as it's a slow build of the soundtrack's leitmotif, it makes you feel even more like a part of the game itself.

I hesitate to talk about "spoilers" in the traditional sense because this is a game of scenes and experiences. There's something of a plot to be had, but it's subtle and sweet and works more as a conveyance for the overall experience. Still, I don't want to talk too much about the very end. As simple and pretty as it is, I was happy I stopped the video I was watching and saw it for the first time as I was interacting with it.

A quick note on calibrating the game to your voice. I played it through twice in one day (and will likely do it again and again whenever I need a lift and want an excuse to make noise), calibrating it slightly differently each time. The first time, I did exactly as I was told, which was singing my lowest comfortable note -- that is, what I could reach for certain without straining.

The second time through, I calibrated it to... how to explain this? To the first "tone" I hit when I'm speaking. Basically if I'm not thinking and I open my mouth and go "Ah," that tone. That's about... maybe two steps above my "lowest comfortable note." And, for me at least, that actually made a big difference in the voice controls when it came to lifting and lowering things. But I'm also a soprano, so I have a lot of upward range.

That "lowest comfortable note" is gonna be your baseline. Anything significantly above it is going to be how you lift rocks and build stairs. So mainly, calibrate the sound in such a way that you have a lot of "head space."

I'm an absolute sucker for innovative sound design in games (see Ookibloks for another example of this) and for new ways to interface with the story. One Hand Clapping is a simple half-hour play, but you become so much a part of the world of the game in that time. By the time you get to the end, it's not so much a game as a duet. And it's one you'll find yourself wanting to come back to, just to test the interactions of your voice and the world of the game.

One Hand Clapping is available for download on a pay-what-you-want system. But I'd encourage anyone who grabs it to give the creators at least a couple of bucks. Imagine what else they could make with our support.

>> One Hand Clapping Website

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Monday, July 9, 2018

Editing Light Novels: Getting Myself in Gear

I don't have enough to do with my time, so now I edit light novels. And my first one is Full. Of. Gears. So I hope you steampunkers are happy.

A bit back, I was contacted by J-Novel Club about editing light novels for them. JNC is basically, like, Netflix for light novels. I'd heard a lot about them, have a couple friends who work with them, so I was on board.

The thing is, even though I co-write a light novel series, I'm not on board with every single title out there. I really wish I was, but there are only so many hours in a day. On the bright side, that means that (for the most part) any new job I take on will involve me discovering a totally new story. And I love discovering totally new stories.

My first project is Gear Drive (Haguruma Drive), and... yep, a completely new one to me. But I really love the look of it so far, and what I've edited is super entertaining.

Antikythera Is Now a Name.

Our heroine is Anti Kythera -- named after the Antikythera Mechanism, widely believed to be history's first "computer." Considering it ran heavily on gears, that's a good reference.

Anti is basically her world's equivalent of a squib, unable to use even the most basic of magic skills. We kick off with her fifteenth birthday trip to get her Skill Bestowal — basically a rite that reads out your stats and tells you what you can do.

And Anti doesn't get Water Magic or Fire Magic or Dark Magic or anything... she gets Frickin Gears. She can create them, modify them, and move them. She also gets a sentient tiara named Crown Gear: equal parts control panel, data readout, Bag of Holding, mascot character, and comic relief.

So what does that mean? Well, first of all, it means she's alone in learning how to use her new powers, since there are literally no other Gearcraft users in her world. But... and this is the bit I love... it also means she gets to be super creative.

What can gears do?

I don't want to give away the events of the book, but... let's just say if you're super creative, the ability to create and move gears around is hugely useful.

What I'm liking about Anti's powers most so far is that they're treated as very Green Lantern in nature. It's all about quick thinking and imagination. So sometimes her ideas work, sometimes they don't, and sometimes a mess-up can lead to a later good idea.

I'm still working along, so I haven't read all of it, but Anti's a fun kid and the Gearcraft magic system seems pretty neat so far.

If you're interested in reading it, check out its page on J-Novel Club. Bag a subscription and you can read Gear Drive, plus lots more titles constantly updating.

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Friday, July 6, 2018

So You Want to Read The Black Archive

As of my installment this month, Obverse Books' Black Archive series is 21 installments strong, with more already being worked away at for the coming months and even years. What started as a quarterly publication has now gone monthly, and turned out some seriously impressive stuff. (Check out that hero image, for instance... a Marco Polo write-up by someone who actually got to see it!)

I'm really excited that people are interested in reading my Heaven Sent installment, but I'm also noticing a few questions coming in about how to approach the series. Which is... understandable, because for a lot of you this is your first time hearing about it, and when I say "Hey, I write book #21" that sounds kind of daunting.

So, for the sake of anyone who sees anything interesting in their line-up, I figured I'd give a fast-run-down of How To Black Archive.

What even is the Black Archive?

The Black Archive is a series of book-length studies of Doctor Who episodes of all eras. Save for a very few exceptions, these are all main TV series airings.

Now, when I say "book-length," I mean more novella-length. Mine is 92 pages, for example. So you're not settling down for several hundred pages. Books tend to be in the 20k-40k word range.

For the most part, the books aren't in a strictly chronological order, or done era-by-era. Books are published based on which pitches come in that are most interesting. Though I will say this summer is a change from that: the June/July/August releases are a trio of books covering Face the Raven, Heaven Sent, and Hell Bent.

But what are they actually about?

Well, that depends on the author.

While The Black Archive has range editors to make sure everything stays in line, what the books actually tackle is the choice of the actual writer. For example Philip Purser-Hallard's take on Dark Water/Death in Heaven was a collection of several analyses of the story from different angles. Andrew Hickey's The Mind Robber was largely based around the state of children's entertainment (especially television) in the UK in the 1960s, and how that shaped the story. My take on Heaven Sent is largely Jungian, but pulls in several other things to focus in on one specific story point.

Some are critical in the sense that they are analyzing whether the story accomplished what it said out to do. Others are dives into the making of the series in its respective eras, and what the nature of television production at various points in time will do to its output.

A short answer is that they are scholarly takes on each story, where "scholarly" refers to the fact that each work is researched, analyzed, and footnoted.

Do I have to be super brainy to read them?

Big no.

One of the main things we're told when we set out to work on a Black Archive is that these should not be dry or inaccessible. And that while there is (as I mentioned) a range editor, our voices in the work should be obvious.

But they're meant to be interesting reads without huge amounts of prior knowledge. Some will absolutely delve into more academic areas, but by and large you should be able to pick one up about an episode you like and just roll with it.

Do I have to read them all in order?

Absolutely not, though I'd be super impressed if you did.

The books are numbered, but that's not an indication of any sort of reading order. Nor does it mean that you have to read everything that came before to understand the rest. Each one stands alone, so if you see a title addressing a story you'd be interested in reading more about, you can grab and go. No homework required.

Is there a subscription option?

Not last I heard. But I'd love one cuz I'd totally subscribe.

Why should a fan take the time to read them?

Besides the fact that they're really damn good?

Well, in this day and age, critique is pretty borked. Look around online, and you'll see a wide range of issues with how we engage with everything from real-world discourse to fiction. In a lot of circles, we've come to a point where only one person or thing can be right, or there has to be a Good Guy and a Bad Guy with no shades of grey, or you have to Love or Hate something, no questions asked.

One thing I loved about The Black Archive before I even took part was that these books take a method generally reserved for "classics" and uses them on a currently running genre show with a worldwide fandom. That's already something I enjoy doing, because any entertainment we take in is worthy of a deeper look, even if it isn't cerebral or classic or whatever.

At the same time, I like to think it encourages more helpful critique of the show we all love. Instead of "This story was bad and the writer should feel bad" or "I love this character and anyone who doesn't has problematic viewpoints and is therefore bad," the books take time to take the whole thing apart. To say "This was a bad move, but let's take a look at why it happened and how we can keep it from happening again." Or "We tend to take this scene one way, but what if we took it this way?"

Positive, negative, and overall benign statements about the same episodes can all take place in the same book, by the same person, who is in the process of explaining to us why it's worth sitting down to examine this story. There's no attempt to make you like, hate, accept, or deny any story. It's just looking deeper.

And for my part, I can say that the line editors make sure you do your best. I had to fight tooth and nail to back up a theory I had about an element of Heaven Sent -- not because the editor didn't like it, but because he thought it was valid, and needed me to make sure I explored it properly.

It's probably too much to hope that The Black Archive will completely change how we discuss entertainment, and help us shy away from emotional absolutes. But I like to think that exposure to these books -- observing someone who can have multiple simultaneous feelings about one piece of fiction -- will help other fans start to look at healthier ways of approaching criticism.

If all that blabble hasn't scared you off, I hope you'll go pick up a copy of my book on Heaven Sent. It's available now in print and ebook format. And if the idea of the series interests you, be sure to check out the full line for other titles.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2018

PSYCHONAUTS: On Unreliable Narrators and Psychic Dad Issues

NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the games Psychonauts and Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin. The statute of limitations is pretty heavily over for these, but if you still don't want spoilers, play them before reading on.

My friend Ginger is a major fan of Psychonauts, and I enjoyed what little I knew of it. It took her coming to visit and me watching her play — since it comes of a very specific era of game design that gives me Just That Right Amount of Vertigo — to get through to the end of the story. The whole thing was a couple of sittings, and I took a few guesses to the ending as I went.

There were some telltale bits dropped in: our hero, ten-year-old Raz Aquato, ran away from home to become a Psychonaut. By his own admission, his father (a circus performer) hated psychics because of a curse put on their family that dooms them all to die via drowning, and might be a latent psychic himself. By all accounts, there seems to be some serious grief in there.

Partway through the game, I started putting the bits together: a family cursed to die by drowning (water can be both a symbol of change and emotion... so we have a family either stuck in its ways or scared to share feelings), and a son trying to free himself of his father's influence. Fairly straightforward coming-of-age story, and I guessed that Raz would end the game having to fight his father or a father figure.

I had no way of guessing that it would be more a case of Raz having to fight his own flawed perception of his father, fused with a mental image of someone else's father, in a giant meat circus. But there are some things in this life you really just can't account for.

The Unreliable Protagonist

If you're an Invader Zim fan, you'll recognize Richard Horvitz as Raz in pretty much no time. (There are tons of amazing talents in this game, incidentally.) As amazing as Horvitz is as a voice actor... well, he's a grown man doing a cartoon kid voice. So while we are regularly reminded that he's a kid, and while he absolutely looks like a kid, hearing him speak can sometimes make us forget that we're not listening to a somewhat older character.

I'm not saying that as a critique, largely because I'm not entirely convinced that we weren't meant to make that subconscious mistake. We're playing as Raz, after all: an extremely talented psychic, someone who wants to be a hero and use his powers, and if we're going to play enthusiastically as him, we have to believe in him 100% of the way. His aptitude and quick learning reinforce that.

Then we get to the end of the game, and we see Raz encounter a mental projection of his dad: a hideous, angry man who taunts his son and forces him to run obstacle courses, while berating him for being one of those filthy "spoon benders."

And then we see his real dad. Who... like... doesn't hate his son being a psychic at all. Who is a little distressed at Raz's mental image of him. Who is, in fact, a powerful enough psychic himself to equip his son with an Eleventh Hour Superpower.

That's when you remember... Raz is ten years old. And while if we were talking about a real in-person ten-year-old it would be important to listen to his story and check into it, we're talking about a work of fiction. And the age of a protagonist in fiction is important. Raz may be finding his way and evolving, but this isn't a coming-of-age story in the traditional sense... because, quite simply, he's ten and not, like, thirteen.

Sound silly? It's not really. Think of magical girl shows, giant robot shows, etc. How old are the protagonists? Usually around puberty. Because the discovery of their powers and the defeat of some great evil feed into the narrative of growing up and self-discovery. There's absolutely some self-discovery for Raz, but it didn't start to come together until I completely ditched the idea of a coming-of-age narrative.

The Family Aquato

A mechanic of the game is that Raz can't go into water. Step foot in anything other than shallows one too many times, and the Hand of Galochio will grab you and pull you under. That's as close as we get to seeing the influence of the Aquatos' psychic rivals in-game, but it's a pretty powerful one.

My original thoughts on Raz's inability to enter water had been viewing water as a symbol of change. Think baptism. When we only had Raz's word to go on re: his father's personality, it made more sense. A family of people killed by water -- the concept of change -- and a man who didn't want his son to be a psychic.

But the real Augustus Aquato cancels that whole concept out. His fears are for Raz's safety, and he himself is a psychic -- so a psychic in the family wouldn't be any sort of change.

That said, water is also a symbol of emotion and the subconscious -- which starts to fit a lot better. We've got a ten-year-old boy with an extremely caring father who is proud of his son's gifts but wants to keep him safe, but this son views those actions as being uncaring and hurtful and a sign that his gifts are despised.

I feel like a lot of this could have been handled by talking with each other.

We never see Raz or his dad in each other's company until the end of the game, at which point their respective opinions of each other cause two major cases of outright shock. Raz can't believe his father doesn't hate him; Augustus can't believe his son mistakes his care and caution for hatred. It's clear that a lot has gone unspoken between these two, and not out of spite... because they're both obviously very good and caring people.

Perhaps that's what we can take away from this drowning curse, then: the idea that this is a family that, for whatever reason, shies away from emotional confrontation and discussion. And to be fair, that really is quite terrifying, besides being something that fathers and sons aren't always primed to do in the first place. We can't know what the Aquatos' family life is like, save for being a literal circus, but between a strong symbol of emotion (water) existing within the game solely as a death trap and a parent and child with literally no understanding of each other's feelings... we can get a fairly decent idea of what hasn't been happening before now.

So that's the journey we end up taking: not a coming-of-age story, but rather a coming-to-terms one. Two family members finally getting to speak openly about each other's feelings. Maybe next time they won't wait until one of them sneezes their brain out and becomes half of the core of a psychic death-tank first.

Coda: In the Mind of Dr. Loboto

Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin was a VR experience meant to bridge the gap between the first game and its eventual sequel: non-essential, but still with some story points and to show how things would look with a more robust engine. The show piece of the experience is Raz's journey into Dr. Loboto's mind, in which he comes to understand the history of the first game's villain.

And, you know, I couldn't help but notice that a lot of things that Raz thought were happening to him actually happened to the young Caligosto Loboto. The echo of stereotypical spoon-bending (the fake Augustus used "spoon-bender" as something like a slur in Raz's mindscape), the fear and confusion, the lack of appreciation for what's a truly good gift.

In the end, Loboto is (as you may have guessed from his name) lobotomized by his parents to "fix" him. The visual storytelling behind Raz's moment of realization is heartbreaking. I highly recommend giving at least this scene a look if you haven't.

While I'm sure Raz and his father have come to terms between games, I found it interesting that his major psychic journey in the VR experience was into the mind of someone who had genuninely suffered what Raz thought he was getting. That said... even though Rhombus of Ruin is meant to take place literally right at the close of the first game, I feel like Raz is in a better mental state now to appreciate this sort of parental behavior for what it is. And, who knows, maybe let it help remind him that he does have a loving parent after all.

If you haven't played Psychonauts despite reading this far, I highly recommend you do. It's on deep sale on Steam (until 5 July 2018) for literally a buck fifty. Even not on sale, it's only $10, and you definitely get more than $10 of gameplay out of it.

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Monday, July 2, 2018

When publishers ask writers to "blow their minds."

Not long ago, I ran across a tweet that embodied pretty much every feeling I have about calls for submissions from literary journals. It's since been lost to my timeline, but it was a parody — only just — of the sorts of things you see when publishers are asking you for a story.

If you've ever submitted a pitch or a manuscript to a lit journal or magazine or anthology, you probably know exactly what I mean. "We want stories that make us question our very existence. We want characters that blow our tits clean off and replace them with geese. We want metatextual works of art that use media in ways previously impossible in our measly four dimensions. 5k-7k words."

So, first things first, I am not against experimentation, weirdness, and boundary-pushing in writing. Shit, I enjoy it. And I enjoy the encouragement to do it. But I have seen the difference between publishers who embrace and encourage that, and publishers who don't know what they want. Guess what the above is.

There's a reason it's mocked, there's a reason writers get frustrated, and there's a reason why a lot of these lit journals that demand something new and exciting end up getting stories that come out... pretty samey. And when prestigious or aiming-for-prestigious publications are doing this, it's little more than a bullet in their own foot.

When expectations get ridiculous.

As creators, on some level we all want to create something that's new and mind-blowing and genre-changing. It might not be our daily goal, but we all want to leave our mark in some way. And we, of course, admire people who manage to do something new with whatever format we work in. Evolving our art, whatever it is, is a part of being an artist.

Too, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting prospective writers to push their boundaries. The writing field is enormous nowadays, and new stories are coming into the world by the minute. Many of those stories will be safe and standard. Many of them will not be publication material. And many of those will be sent in for consideration.

I can completely understand wanting prospective writers to know that you as an editor or publication do not want "safe and standard." I can understand wanting inventive, experimental, and exploratory. At the same time, being told "Change the world in 20 pages or less" is both daunting and unhelpful. And it doesn't lead to the creation of good, strong fiction.

They don't know what they want.

I don't do short story calls as much as I used to, but I highly recommend people dig into them if they're looking for a place to get started as a published writer. Sadly, that means you're going to occasionally run across these publishers who are asking you to write Klingon free verse with a mixture of stardust and your own blood or... whatever it is they're going for. I've never been entirely sure.

What I see in these requests, as I said above, are people who genuinely couldn't tell you what they're looking for. And the thing is, they know this. This isn't some sort of lurking subconscious thing. They're well aware they don't know what they want, and they think they'll just know when they see it: that they will read a story and go "Oh God, yes, this is it!" and they won't have to question anything. That sort of mentality is fine when you're buying a birthday present for a friend; less so when you're assembling a publication.

I've never done story selection or curated an anthology, but I know plenty of people who have. And while I know that "magic moments" are possible when it comes to arranging them (happy happenstances such as two pitches from two complete strangers feeding nicely into each other), the bottom line is you will have to exercise some brain power and do some decision-making. You will have to know what the publication is going to be, even if that's just working upward from a one-word theme. And that means you'll have to read critically and deeply, and not every story will magically hit you with an inspirational spark. In fact, that's kind of rare.

Saying I eventually stopped even considering submitting to publications with that sort of description may sound like I'm blocking myself off from tons of opportunities, but it's really not. There are lots of great publications out there, of all levels and all types, who are clear about what they're looking for. And when calls for submissions are clear rather than demanding every pitch be a rare innovation beyond their wildest dreams, they produce much more solid works.

Largely because you're a lot less edgy about sending in a submission when the responsibility of redefining the art of putting words on paper is off your shoulders.

Sounds like sour grapes.

It does, doesn't it? But nah. I've been accepted to and rejected from my fair share of publications with this sort of call. And I've got a secret for you: the more generic shit I sent, the more likely it was to be accepted.

I once sent into one with something that's decidedly Me Having Fun: a mix of heavy-duty action, nightmare fuel, and a few jokes. I figured if they wanted innovation, I might as well pull from my weird corner.

The response I got back? It was too over-the-top.

I started toying around, sending more and more benign stories to the more effusive publishers. I wish I could say I'm surprised that the benign stories were more readily accepted than my actual attempts to get off-the-wall and creative... but I sort of had a feeling.

It's much more fun, and more productive, to work with publishers who either have a clear idea of what they want or admit that they're allowing leeway for style and subject matter. It feels a lot more... honest, I guess? Even when I'm rejected, I know that it's because the story wasn't a good fit, and not because I didn't achieve some magical unknown. Plus, on the off chance that I do get accepted, I know I'm working with someone who can express themselves clearly when it comes time for the editing phase.

Granted, it's already presumptuous of me — a jobbing writer with no major contracts, no awards, and name recognition in one corner of a box in the back of the industry — to give publishers a should. And I'm fairly certain that any publisher who's putting out calls like this is not going to be reading my blog, because they're tilting at literary windmills and blogs overall are frankly rather average.

So I guess this goes out to fellow writers, especially those just starting out: you aren't required to reinvent the wheel. A publisher who doesn't give clarity in their call for submissions probably has none to give. And if you can't meet their expectations (either in your own mind or during one of their calls), that doesn't make you a boring or average writer. They're asking for something you can't define; they pretty much admit it.

If you want to be innovative, and it's something you're trying, more power to you. But despite what these particular mags say, you are not obligated to bring something previously unimagined to the art form to be worth anyone's time.

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Friday, June 29, 2018

It's time to change how we talk about "talent."

One of the Great Divides between the creators and non-creators (or even hopeful creators) in my circles of friends right now is the concept of Talent. It's to a point where my creator friends share joke comics about it, which the rest of my friends then struggle to understand.

A point we lose in conversation a lot is the fact that there are many things we can't understand unless we experience them. And that's annoying. Whether it's a point of career, lifestyle, or general overall experience, we'd like people to believe us when we say "No, it doesn't work that way." We want our experiences to be validated, but we as people also want to be shown that we're "worth believing." So when something we say is discounted — actively or passively — it hurts.

That. Said.

When I look at people who don't create, whether it's because they don't have the time or drive or desire or because they don't believe they have the "talent," I genuinely can understand why they chalk up the result of a person's hard work to something innate rather than something practiced. Like, I get it. On a psychological level, on a personal level, all that.

But — and here's your big pill — creators aren't playing when they say it "isn't all about talent." It's just that we also have a slightly skewed idea of what "talent" actually is.

What is "talent"?

Before we do anything else, I want to give my fellow creators a big pill, too: talent is real, it's a thing, and it does indeed affect our creative output.

What "talent" is, though, is often mistaken. We think of the concept as some magic little spark that makes us good at a thing, that replaces or shortcuts education and effort. And while there are absolutely prodigies out there who seem to have a magic knack for what they do, "talent" as a whole is a lot less about creation and a lot more about observation.

If we go by the idea that talent is defined as "something inherent to a person that positively affects their output," then there are two aspects of a person that count: knack and personality. And it's those two things alone that boil down to what we could consider "talent" by a traditional definition.

A knack is just something you're good at because you are, with little to no purposeful training. For example, I type at 100wpm, which absolutely affects my output as a writer. I didn't train to type that fast... I just really liked typing games as a kid and inadvertently made myself hardcore. Artists or designers may have a knack for abstract spatial calculations, or maybe they're one of those peeps who scores super high on the color recognition test. Musicians may have perfect pitch. These are all things they didn't (knowingly) train up, but which allow them to skip steps in their process or refine what they do in a way that someone without that knack cannot.

And then there's personality, which affects how you do a thing. An artist who loves certain colors or settings or lighting effects will be more likely to integrate them into their work. A writer is likely to write stories that reflect how they talk or think or what genres they enjoy. These are all the injection of personal feeling and preference and practice into the work.

Are these both things that make a creative work better and unique? Yes. Are they things that are inherent to the creator? Also yes.

So why do creators get mad at being called "talented"?

Talent vs. Effort

Learning to do something well, be it art or music or writing or decorating cakes or whatever, requires effort and learning. And lots of it. A good writer who rarely writes will remain the same level of good for years, but a mediocre writer who writes daily and receives regular critique will improve measurably from year to year. Or even from month to month. A fast learner who can pick out a tune on a guitar after learning how frets work, but someone hopeless with instruments can still become good if they study and practice.

Talent (as discussed above, anyway) will definitely have an impact on that. If you can type quickly, you will have time to write more, thus you will improve faster. If you have a good memory, you won't always have to look up poses and will improve more quickly at art. These elements do have an effect on a creator's ability... but they do not make the creator what they are.

Being told you're "talented" isn't the issue in and of itself. We tend to understand that it's shorthand for "You are very good at this thing," and as a standalone it doesn't pass judgment on how the goodness at the thing was achieved. And admittedly, being told "Wow, I can tell how much time and effort you put into learning how to do this!" runs a risk of sounding either disingenuous or low-level catty. So I get it.

The issue comes when "You're so talented!" is paired with "I could never do that!" That's when it gets kind of hinky for a few reasons:

1. It's compliment by comparison, which is a bad habit to get into.
2. It redirects the conversation back to the speaker.
3. It's fallacious.

So, one by one:

Compliment by Comparison

Generally we think of these in terms of either a non-present party or a subset of people. "Oh, you're very good at this. Not like those other people." That's a nasty thing to do, and it's something I think fandom is slowly but surely realizing they need to get away from.

But compliment by comparison to yourself is still a bad habit. A self-own is still an own. And even if you're not secretly insulting a third party, you're inadvertently setting up the compliment as one half of a dichotomy. If a compliment is genuine, it shouldn't need a second variable. Even if that second variable is you. "You're good at this" should stand on its own.

Redirection of Conversation

This is likely something that's predominantly true for Americans; for other cultures, your mileage may vary. When Americans hear someone insult themselves, we're hard-wired to counter that. This is why self-effacing humor flies more with a British crowd, but results in awkwardness in US circles. At least in my experience.

So while the speaker may be thinking "I am paying the person a compliment by saying that they are above and beyond something I personally can conceive of doing," what they're risking doing is creating a feedback loop that pulls the discussion away from its original intent.

It's Just Plain Not True

This is actually the most important one. The other two are largely unintentional, conditional, and don't always even come into play.

So, first things first: I will never write like Robert Shearman or Paul Magrs. Rob has a tone that manages to flip macabre humor into sentiment when you're not paying attention, and Paul walks a line between fantastical realism and fairy tale that is easily recognizable from twenty paces. Those are things that are products of their personalities, their upbringing, their choice of reading, and their own taste. I will never write like them just as much as they will never write like each other.

But. Their levels of experience, qualification, and technical expertise are achievable. Because they, like any writer, put in the work. Any writer or artist or musician or anything can become a peer (in terms of skill, at least) of someone they admire, provided they have the commitment. They won't spin the same brand of stories or lay down the same brush strokes, sure. But from a purely technical level, anyone can achieve a level of prowess in anything they put their mind to.

Speaking personally, I do find "I could never do what you do" a little frustrating. Because my brain goes, "Yes. Yes, you could. If you wrote every day, if you wrote for multiple people in multiple formats, if you read every genre you could get your hands on, if you studied writing and form, you absolutely could." And it feels a little bit like the work that goes into improving and achieving gets forgotten when someone says that.

This is all bearing in mind that this is reading a whole lot into a few words. Absolutely. But even if that isn't the thought process that goes into saying those words, it is somewhat symptomatic of the confusion of innate talent with effort.

Fine, what do I say instead?

So yeah. With the rather garbage realization that I've just told you "Don't pay compliments in the manner to which you are accustomed," I am in a position where I really ought to tell you what would work instead.

The easiest way to pay a creator a compliment is to just tell them you like the thing. Just saying so straight up isn't empty or feeble or anything like that. Just saying "I really like this" or "Hey, this is good" or something that simple honestly is enough when it comes to paying a compliment. We're a ridiculous breed of people who decided to make our livings in a way that requires others to approve of us. So yeah, positive feedback without any decoration is truly enough.

If you want to make a comment concerning just how good you think the person is, try "I can tell you really put your heart into this" or something similar. An acknowledgment that we worked hard, and that what we created is the result of a lot more than just a randomized magical skill, means a lot.

A third option is to flip the script: instead of making statements, ask questions. Instead of saying "I wish I could draw like that," ask "Where did you learn to draw?" Instead of saying "I could never write a book," ask what inspired them to write about that subject. It doesn't have to be a big cerebral question. But avoiding saying what you can't do in favor of what they did do will not only be more genuine in the long run... it may just inspire you to try something of your own.

The short version of all this is that creators like having their effort acknowledged rather than being assumed to be born with something that allows them to magically create, "talent" is a thing but not at nearly the level we assume, and creating works of art or fiction is not something reserved for a special few born with certain skill sets. And when we change how we talk to and about creators, we can start to not only appreciate what really goes into creating, we can potentially open the door for more creatively-minded people who won't pick something up because they aren't already good at it.

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