Danger Returns

Since she was on campus, Lisa thought she’d ask the asshole in person. He’d been missing for a few days, and she might like to see her worst enemy in person again. She knocked on his door, and he didn’t answer, like he hadn’t answered the past few days she’d been checking on him to make sure he wasn’t in the process of killing himself. She knocked again, and again he didn’t answer. She thought nothing of pulling out the key his mother gave her and opening the door, like she did whenever he didn’t answer. She would never forgive herself if he was successful, but she couldn’t sit with him every hour of the day, especially with his sleep schedule. Maybe when he got back, her boyfriend could take a couple of shifts.  

The door swung open, and when she saw the asshole, he was scrambling, and he straightened out with his hands behind his back. He wasn’t wearing his ratty-ass cardigan, and he liked baggy clothes, so the sight of him in a yummy black T-shirt (did she just think of the asshole as yummy? Ew!) looked so good you could forget he was a walking skeleton. 

“Oh, hi, Lisa! Why are you breaking into my dorm room? I know you have a key, but you can’t—” 

“Sean,” she snapped, “I’ve been worried sick about you. I promised your mother that I would protect you, and she meant from yourself.”  

“I’m sorry,” he replied, “I’m fine. I stayed in a hotel for a couple of days.” 

“Why is your hand behind your back, Sean?” 

“It’s like that military thing,” the asshole said. “You know, at ease?” 

“Let me see your hands, Sean.” 

He raised his left hand to shoulder level. “See?” 

She breathed in and out and growled. “I want to see your other hand too.” 

He started to return his left hand to its at-ease position when Lisa pounced. She grabbed his left arm and twisted it behind his back while slamming him against the wall. He coughed. “Now use your words.”  

She peeled him off the wall and slammed him again. 

“Safe word!” he groaned. 

Now that she had him where she wanted him, she could focus on what he was holding. Was it a bottle of pills? A sharp knife again? A fucking gun? She emptied his hand, and it was not any of those things. It was a thick, round disk about the size of her palm. The disc was split down the middle on the narrow side. In the center was a wound-up slip of string. “Is this?” she demanded. “A fucking yo-yo?” 

He sat down on his bed and hung his head. “I didn’t want anybody to see me like this.” 

“How long do you think you could hide this from us?” 

“Why do you think I disappeared to a hotel this past few days?” he said. “I just wanted to try it out.” 

She sat next to him and put a hand on his knee. “Look, Sean,” she said with a sign. “Just because you’re curious about yo-yos doesn’t make you a bad person. Everyone experiments with yo-yos at some point in their life.” 

“Really?” he sniffed, finally looking up. “I thought it was just me. 

“I know how you feel. I used a yo-yo when I was younger. But I’m okay now,” she told him. “You will be too.” With the hand that wasn’t on his knee, she held his. “We’re going to get through this together.” 

He put his head on her shoulder.  

She held the accursed thing directly in front of his eyes. “Now tell me, where did you get this? Who taught you how to use this thing?” 

“It’s going to be okay, Sean,” she cooed soothingly. “Do you trust me?” 

“YouTube tutorials, mostly,” he replied. “As for how I got it, I was walking by a toy store, and in a fit of whimsy, I went inside. Toward the back was where the forgotten toys of yesteryear dwell—the wooden bock, the hula hoop, the ball on a string with the cup on the top, you know what I’m talking about. There was this employee using a yo-yo, and I didn’t know what to do. I just kept watching. He seemed so happy. There was no sign of the misery and pain yo-yos cause. I knew that yo-yos came with a price, and I knew I shouldn’t pay it, and I know a bunch of tricks now. Would I do it again? I don’t have the answers. I know I can’t keep living like this.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Of course not,” he replied. “You’re a succubus.” 

She smiled weakly. “Then it’s not going to be okay.” 

He smiled back.  

They turned to each other again, and once again, she was alarmed at how close they were. Lisa couldn’t figure out where this was coming from. Why was her heart rate increasing exponentially? Why was her mouth so dry? Why were her palms sweating? Did she get covid? 

The asshole quickly looked away and sprang to his feet.  

Her heart immediately began to slow down. She had no idea what was causing this. “You said you picked up some tricks.” 

“Why do you think I spent three days in yo-yo boot camp?” 

“Show me.” 

He dropped the yo-yo until it reached the end of its string, and it hung there, until it returned to his hand with a snap of the wrist. “Sleeper.” 

“That’s just yo-yoing in slow motion. I want to see more advanced tricks.”  

“Check it out. Walk the dog. Elevator. Cradle. Those are basic tricks. One I could never get ahold of is the loopty-loop.” 

“Try it,” she demanded. 

He tossed the yo-yo, pulled it back, and didn’t catch it when it wound back up the second time the asshole screamed, “It’s coming back!” and dove to the floor. He forgot that it was attached to him, and Lisa laughed her ass off. 

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Don’t You Know That You’re Toxic?

I smoked an average of twenty cigarettes a day from October 1994 to May 2007. I was not a person who smoked, I was a smoker. And I was all in. I’d had a total of three Zippos in my life, and I had a hip pocket devoted to pack and lighter (currently for the cell phone). I followed the lead of top intellectuals like Denis Leary and sang the praises of smoking. And while I became much less of an evangelical about tobacco after cancer took a beloved aunt, I still enjoyed it.

I tried quitting, but I never wanted to, so every attempt was a failure. Sure, they made you cough, and sure, if enough time passes without having one, you turn into the Incredible Hulk. Sure they turned my fingers and teeth yellow, and sure they were just pumping carcinogens into my lungs, I wanted to keep doing this. I was young. I was immortal.

I enjoyed the taste of the filter on my lips. I enjoyed the pageantry of lighting a cigarette. When I was in college, anybody I knew who had a Zippo pulled elaborate stunts with them to light a cigarette. Not me—I flicked open the lighter, ignited it, lit the cigarette, and flicked the lighter closed. It was out and back into my pocket in less than five seconds. According to some, my technique wasn’t necessarily the coolest, but it was up there. I enjoyed a cigarette in my hand. I wasn’t so much holding a cigarette, as much as the cigarette was an extension of my fingers.

I was the kind of person who would say things like, “You want a cautionary tale about smoking? I bring you George Burns.” (To my Hastings College contemporaries, substitute “Darryl Lloyd” for “George Burns.”) At the time of my being the most militant about smoking, I was no better than any Trump fan. Give me irrefutable proof that the tobacco corporations were breeding and cultivating the perfect piece of toxic waste to make you keep sticking toxic waste in your mouth until you died, and I’d make up excuses. I can’t remember any of the excuses because when I had my epiphany about them (several years after I quit), I purged every single positive thing I could say about big tobacco.

I didn’t quit smoking because of the horrible things it did to me. I found out about the horrible things it did to me because I quit. For example, I’ve never had a masculine musk, and I do sweat a lot, but in the middle of August with the A/C broken was Drakkar Noir compared to how I smelled as a smoker. You can’t smell yourself when you’ve caused permanent damage to the inside of your nose. When it grows back, and a smoker is nearby, you know it. You know it before the get within ten feet. It was a Doppler effect with smell. I smelled like that. All. The. Time. How could anyone stand to be around me? How were women ever attracted to me?

I have been a non-smoker for fifteen years. I can’t say I haven’t smoked in fifteen years because I’d had two cigarettes since, a little over ten years ago. They were both really horrible, and I have not wanted to go near one in the past twelve years. One of the cigarettes was a blatant attempt to start a conversation. It worked. Cigarettes used to be really good for that. I had a lot of friends whose relationship with me could withstand five-to-ten-minute bursts every hour, and that was about it. Smoking was a solitary or a social activity, depending on how you were feeling that day. There was something magical about that. I wanted to capture that.

I was full-on smoker when I created a number of my enduring characters, and as a result, many of them were full-on smokers—in the stories I wrote during that thirteen-year period of my life. In stories I’ve written about them since, they’d either quit, or I’d completely forgotten about the smoking thing. I wrote one story last year where I paid lip service to tobacco for continuity’s sake, but otherwise ignored it.

Smoking is intertwined through much of my early oeuvre, but it’s not crucial to the story. I only call attention to it as a set piece of something cool happening. (Girl puts a cigarette out in boy’s coffee. Boy, eyes on the girl, drinks the coffee.) I’ve started writing scripts set in the time period where most of these characters would have been smokers, and I’m choosing not to write the smoking. The way I see it, I have three choices.

One: I can add tobacco to the contemporary stories. It wouldn’t be hard because I’m still in the draft phase, and I’ll be going over them several more times.

Two: I can go back into the classic stories, some of which have been quasi-published, and strip the smoking out. That would mean removing non-essential but still fun scenes and exchanges. The boy meets the girl when he creeps out while bumming a cigarette from her. This is the most important relationship in this series of stories. So I’d have to completely rewrite it.

Three: Or, I could leave the smoking in the classic stories and not include it in the contemporaries. I don’t have to explain it. Let the smoking and non-smoking characters be alternate universes. Whatever. The important thing is, this requires the least effort. Why do I want to be giving this vile habit anymore thought than I’d already put into it?

The world is evolving, and I am there for it. Popular opinion has turned against tobacco, Homosexuals have the same marriage rights as the rest of us. You cannot function without a cell phone now. The creator of the most beloved contemporary series of children’s novels is currently on blast for being anti-trans. Dr. Oz is not Senator Oz. The legalization of cannabis in New Mexico kind of ruined the screenplay Shane and I wrote about the hunt for a vicious pot dealer on the Navajo Reservation. It took us days to figure out how to fix that.

There was a time, not that long ago, when public opinion was generally cool with cigarettes. I used to smoke in my dorm room. You could smoke while you were eating at restaurants. There were ashtrays in hospital waiting rooms. Can you imagine? That’s when these characters were born. And while some of these stories have been rewritten from the ground up (one twice), they are still a product of their time.

I am definitely going with option three, for nostalgia’s sake.

Star Tropin’ Across the Universe 

I’ve loved Star Trek since I was a kid. I remember once, when my friend Alex was staying the night, my dad let us watch Star Trek while we ate dinner, which was the height of luxury at the time. A few years later, in high school, I was introduced to Starbase Gallup, my fine city’s fan club. We traded licensed paperbacks, fanfiction, and costumes. Tony, the captain of our little ship, wore a uniform every week when we met. I saw him once as a civilian, an assistant district attorney for the State of New Mexico, and it was jarring. I can imagine any of his peers saw him at Starbase Gallup, the effect would be the same. 

I started to lose my interest in Trek as I entered college. This was during the Rick Berman years, when Trek was cautious, overly self-referential, and more spectacle-oriented, drained completely of the political subtext that made Star Trek and The Next Generation the meatier among their contemporary sci-fi shows. I remember my disappointment at First Contact, when the cerebral, even-tempered diplomat, Picard, became a gun-brandishing sociopath, and I remember how much my nerdier peers loved it. Trek and its spinoffs became just more movies and TV series about lasers and rocket ships and not much else.  

I tried the JJ Abrams Star Trek movies, but they’re all flash and lens flares. They brought the bright aesthetic that made the original series great, but at the same time seemed kind of ashamed of it. The Kirk of the movies was a petulant asshole, and he never should have been let near the captain’s chair. However, in this universe, captains pick their successors. One of the movies had Kirk on a motorcycle, and later, the obscenely powerful bad guy’s only weakness was “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys. This was Trek at its dumbest. 

When Discovery came on the air, it brought back the intellect and the politics, it brought me a character I could fall in love with (Ensign Tilly), but something still wasn’t quite there. It was good, but it wasn’t Trek enough. The show focused on a small handful of characters, but the bridge crew all had names, all had individual looks, one of them even had backstory, but they are completely forgettable. Meanwhile, Star Trek focused on its three main characters. Someone like Uhura didn’t contribute much to the story, and neither did Sulu or Chekov, but you know who Uhura is. You recognize her by the sprinkle of sass in her voice. You know Sulu and Chekov. You might have gone to sleep remembering Sulu running around shirtless with a rapier. But who are these people in Discovery? That’s a big part of it. 

All of that leads up to Strange New Worlds, which was probably my favorite show of the year so far, period. It’s got a message, it embraces the brightness, the characters have personalities (though with only 10 episodes their entire first season, they didn’t really develop), Anson Mount is exceedingly handsome and laid back, like a cool dad, and the rest of the cast definitely had a handle on the material. Most importantly, it’s episodic. There was no overarching plot to tie together in an exciting episode-ten climax. Each adventure was one and done, and the only continuity was character development.  

Star Trek is such a part of our national identity that I don’t need to tell you what a Vulcan is. However, if you’re Amish on a rumspringa, they are pointy-eared aliens whose entire culture is based on logic. Vulcans have no emotions, but more on that later. 

One of the most important characters in the entire Star Trek lore is Spock. His shtick is that he’s half-Vulcan, half-human, with both sides warring with each other for control (you don’t get to see a lot of warring; the Vulcan half appears to have won). His father, Sarek, is a high-ranking ambassador for Vulcan. His mother, Amanda (I think her last name is Grayson), is human. That’s her entire personality, she’s human. She was developed a great deal in Discovery, but she was still motivated by caring for her children and not much else. My question is, what brought Spock’s parents together? What did this paragon of logic see in an overly emotional human? What was their first date like? What was it like the first time they made love? Was he an animal in the sack? 

And then there’s T’Pring. T’Pring is the reason I’m thinking about this. When T’Pring was introduced in the second-season episode of the original series, “Amok Time,” she appeared to be an arranged marriage and a prize to be overlooked in favor of your best bro. If there were queerbaiting in the late sixties, this episode would be that. Strange New Worlds introduces us to Spock and T’Pring together, a real couple. They kiss, they have sex, they propose marriage, they make dumb mistakes together, and they’re very clearly in love with each other, even if their tone of voice says “disinterested.” Vulcans do have emotions, but it is against their religion to express them. I want to give Gia Sandhu credit for breathing life into her. It’s not hard to do cold and emotionless (even Henry Cavill can do it), but in the episode “Spock Amok,” she gets very angry. Her pose is stoic, and her tone and volume don’t change at all, but by the time she leaves Spock’s quarters, you’re more scared than if she had been shouting at him. T’Pring comes across as naïve and sometimes bored, but something like that happens, and you can see what’s boiling under the lid. You never know what she’s thinking. I have been transfixed by this character ever since that episode. 

Thinking about these things, I thought it would be fun to write a fanfiction of a Vulcan woman falling in love with a human man or woman. And then I realized, I’d done it before, in two romance novels. They’re human, but their restrained emotions and distance from humanity makes them pretty much Vulcans. I’m afraid to write this fic now because I’m beginning to repeat myself. Meanwhile, in my fantasy novels, one of my villains was so coldblooded and efficient and dry that I kept finding excuses to bring her into subsequent novels.  

What fascinates me about this trope? The sass, mostly. Delivering thinly veiled insults in a flat, even voice is absolutely devastating. Being calm and affectless is a thoroughly masculine trait, though. As boys, we’re taught to have two emotions, anger and lust, and sometimes it’s easy to conflate the two. Other than that, we hold it in, lest we have our Man Card revoked. Masculinity is so fragile. Obviously I’m oversimplifying it, but not by much. Is my being attracted to cold women—attracted enough to marry one—the intellectual equivalent of someone ogling Paris Hilton eating a big cheeseburger?  

It should come as a surprise to no one I’m a cat person. And I don’t mean because I talk about my cat all the time. I mean that I thrive on indifference. For the last half of my marriage, I couldn’t get my wife to say I love you, and yet I stayed. As someone who wanted approval all the time, I got extra points if I got it off of a cold person. If you can get a cold person to feel, then you win. The prize is the new person they turn into, who you may not like so much. You did fall in love with them when they were cold. 

It’s also a straight male power fantasy for the reserved woman to completely lose it, usually through lust, but occasionally she’ll flip a desk. Realistically, if she’s going to lose it, it will be because she’s tired of men grabbing her ass as she walks by, and what would happen next would be the exact opposite of a male power fantasy. We like to watch the cold woman absolutely terrorize her employees then turn around and fall in love with us, the only ones who can get past her force field.  

Does this make it a problematic trope? Sure, but on the other hand, you can do a lot with a trope as long as you know what you’re doing. Kate Winslet was a manic-pixie dream girl in Eternal Sunshine, but she had a soul; she had weight. She critiqued the trope. Same thing with the cool girl in Gone Girl. What does that mean? It means I’m going to continue to write these characters (I love snark), but I’m going to be a little more mindful of them. 

Without showing a single crack in her façade, maybe a slight widening of the eye, T’Pring tells us that she’s tightly coiled, ready to explode, and watching her try to hold it together is pretty entertaining. (Watching a man try to hold it together is intense and wins Oscars and Emmys.) I think there are ways to tell a cold woman’s story without her becoming a prize of some sort who needs to be tamed by a man, and I intend to do it.  

But mostly, though, I like cold people for their snark.

Behind Closed Doors and Minds

I don’t often have call to compare myself to a hard-right, easily and loudly offended, conservative, but things have a tendency to take you by surprise.

In December, I made a new friend. In fact, she’s the first woman I’ve been attracted to in a long time (not counting little crushes). She is into a lot of the geek ephemera that I’m into, she’s ace too, and most importantly, she’s a writer. She writes fanfiction for one of the big sites, and she has a really good following. When she told me this, I asked her for her username, and she said, and I quote, “Not a fucking chance.” I’m the opposite—I’m overeager to share my work. We’ve stayed in touch since the conference, mostly through IM, which is funny because her office is ten feet from my cubicle. I don’t know what prompted this, but last week she decided to share her works with me.

I don’t know what I was expecting, to be honest. I knew her fandom was the Avengers, but that’s all I knew. If you know anything about fanfiction, there is a tendency to create worlds and identities for a character (or real life person) that are nothing like the ones we’re familiar with. Fifty Shades of Grey is famously Twilight fanfiction, and when a major publisher picked it up, they made EL James change the names, and that’s pretty much it. She had recast Edward Cullen as a businessman, as opposed to a sparkling vampire. That’s what she did here, though not as drastically. It hews closely to the movies (as of when they were posted), but otherwise, so much has been changed.

The most interesting thing was what I found in the tags: D/s. In case you didn’t know, that means Dominant/submissive. Within a few paragraphs, it was clear that the relationships were going to be between male Avengers. So I found out my asexual friend was writing gay bondage fiction about the Avengers. Here’s where my mind took a hard right: I assumed that it was going to be sexual.

Conservatives are obsessed with sex. The recent tragic Supreme Court decision was not protecting the babies, it was about restricting who can have sex and inflating the consequences of it. In entertainment news, the newest Pixar film made conservatives freak out because a character had two moms … WHO KISSED! When normal people sees this, they think this is a family. It’s innocent. Not a conservative. They see two middle-aged women scissoring and fingering each other. When they see drag queens, they don’t see men who dress as women having fun, they’re picturing them sticking their penises inside of each other. And they expect you to be thinking about it too. The mere act of being LGBTQ at all is a sexual statement.

When I started reading my friend’s fic, my assumption was that it was going to be porn. I’ve been surprised by erotica in some of my friends’ writing before, so I braced myself, but this was nothing like that. It was an Avengers high-octane, dark action story. However, Captain America and Iron Man were married, and they shared a sub in Bucky. They did not whip Bucky or make him lick their boots, but rather it affected their relationship. When Bucky goes rogue, the bond between doms and subs is tested, and the most fooling around we get are Captain America and Iron man holding hands while they worry about Bucky. Nothing about their relationship was sexual.

Like homosexuality, bisexuality, and heterosexuality, B/s is sexual at its core, but like all of these other sexualities, B/s is about relationships. I’ve never thought about B/s deeply before because, if I know anybody who is, they haven’t shared it with me. Full disclosure: before we were married, my ex-wife was into that kind of thing, and it was very sexual. That’s why my mind went there.

I feel silly now. I feel like Tucker Carlson. I wasn’t going to go off on a rant about it, but I was thinking what he would be thinking. I guess I’m not as Woke as I thought I was. But then again, who is?

A Question About Some Romantic Comedies

I started a new novel last week, and I’m already at sixty typed, double-spaced pages. Part of the reason I’m putting so much work into this in what little time I have is because it’s made up of little set pieces that I am itching to write out. It’s also been surprising me every time I think of a new idea of where to take it. For example, a chapter in was when I decided that the main character’s best friend was going to be trans, and I’ve never written a trans character in a major role (hopefully one day I’ll tell a trans person’s story, but I’m not ready yet).

Another reason I am so taken in by this story is because it’s making me flex my gender politics muscles, to the point where it’s the most Woke thing I’ve ever written.

When I sat down and started writing this, it was going to be a simple story about a guy who has a crush on his boss, who always looks serious at all times. He vows that he will make her smile, and his friend calls him out on it, i.e. calling him a white-collar construction worker. Twenty-three years ago, I’d vowed to make a coworker smile, which I’m filing away as something I did because I didn’t know better. (I wasn’t creepy or an asshole, I just engaged her when everyone else in the office had written her off as a bitch.) It took fifty pages for the boss to smile, and when she does, it makes her uncomfortable because of baggage she’s been carrying around since she was a kid.

Even before the smile, the relationship evolves into heavy flirting coming from her but appreciated by him, and the real issue at the center of the narrative comes into focus: it doesn’t matter the boss is hot and female, and it doesn’t matter if the underling likes it, any advance they make toward them is still sexual harassment. The encounters with HR are intense and ridiculous, labeling an innocent St. Patrick’s Day pinching as sexual assault. But don’t they have a point?

I think about my boss’s boss, a slightly overweight middle-aged dad who sometimes grows a beard. What if he gave an unsolicited pinch to my crush, his underling? We’d get HR on that, right? How would that be any better if it was my crush, a tall, lean, pretty blonde, pinching me, her underling? I’d probably like it a lot (maybe not, though, as I’m touch-averse), but someone who has some control over my professional life shouldn’t be deciding when it’s appropriate to touch me without consulting with me first.

The main character takes HR with a grain of salt, and the boss begins flirting with him even harder, and what I believe to be the central conflict of my book becomes clear (and it only took sixty pages to find it). At first it will appear to be how do they have a real romance under the nose of human resources? But the real question is, how can they have a real romance when everything about it is unethical?

The book is written in the first-person perspective of someone who is really enjoying these advances because I am really enjoying writing these advances. My last book (The Sass in Assassin) involved a lot of murder, so I want to make the characters in this one happy. But the more I write, the more it’s becoming clear that the boss is wrong. She’s hot, the flirting is hot, but it’s so wrong. Is she going to get out of this situation without being fired? Is the main character? Are they actually going to get together, or will they just tease each other until someone loses their mind. I don’t know because I haven’t written it yet.

Crap Shooting Script

I finished the first draft of my first solo screenplay, and it’s not very good. I’m not saying this out of low self-esteem or false modesty or anything like that. I’m usually beyond pleased with my first drafts. But this is badly paced, inconsistent, full of plot-holes, kind of boring, and the main character doesn’t actually do anything. I have some ideas on how to fix it, but I may need to put it down for a little bit before I try.

I learned some important lessons along the way. First is that you can’t write the beginning of a screenplay without knowing how it’s going to end. I can’t do what I do with a novel, and that is write from the beginning and let the story write itself and the characters tell me who they are as I move along. You need a lot more control in a screenplay, which is more rigidly structured than a novel.

You can’t try writing a screenplay as a way of exploring the idea of time and change and your own identity vis-a-vis the identities you embodied in the past. You can write a screenplay that is a look back at your past selves, but you’d better have a really good handle on the characters and plot before you sit down and put pen to paper. Likewise, you can’t be very introspective in a screenplay. There are introspective movies, but that’s generally the work of the director.

Basically, the more I wrote, the more I knew about the characters and the settings and realized that I’d have to introduce these ideas sooner in the story. I came up with an idea about a minor detail from the beginning that should have loomed large through the whole story, but I didn’t recognize the importance of it until I was about a third of the way through. I had an idea that I thought was genius but will be the first thing I cut in the revision.

If I was writing a novel, I’d close my laptop, say “Well done, old chap” (I talk to myself like I’m an upper-class Englishman), and put the notebook on my bookshelf with all the other notebooks for completed and abandoned novels. I’d take a few days to read a novel, and I’d sit down and start my next book. But my screenplay isn’t done, not by a long shot. This is a whole new thing to me, and it’s pretty exciting, actually.

The Road to Tinseltown

I’ve decided that I’m going to write a screenplay. This is a huge undertaking on my part because I have no idea what I’m doing. I wrote, with Shane Van Pelt, a screenplay twenty years ago, and it’s getting great (but not winning) marks in the contests I’ve entered it in, but my teleplay for a TV pilot got excoriated so harshly that I doubted my ability to write again (for about a day). The negative review indicated that I wasn’t properly using the formatting, but they gave me no advice on how to actually do it, so, if I want to learn, I’m on my own.

And there’s the challenge. When I write novels, I’m doing it completely freeform. I write what feels natural, I throw in a few twists, and I decide after sixty thousand words or more that I should probably wrap this up. The only formatting I need to know are paragraph breaks and decent grammar.

But screenplays have, like, so many rules, guys. Teaching people to write screenplays is a book-publishing, webinar industry on its own. Not only do you have the dreaded formatting, you have to worry about a three-act structure, rising and falling action, low points, high points, call to action, and a whole bunch of other save-the-cat details that must go into writing or it won’t even be considered. That involves plotting and outlining.

I can’t stand plotting and outlining. A story will tell itself to me in the process of writing it. I can’t tell it what to do. It’s like an external force.

So I’m going to do something I never thought I’d do. I’m going to read a how-to-write book and see what it has to say. Maybe I’ll learn something.

If you’re curious what this idea is that’s got me so worked up, let me know, and you can become a beta reader for my 350-word pitch.

Production Racket

Late summer, early fall, I decided to try something new with my writing: I was experimenting in getting seen by movie and TV producers. The thing about trying to sell scripts and pitches is that there is a precise science to it. If you don’t do everything 100 percent right, they throw you away, regardless of how good your idea is. There is a whole publishing industry dedicated to how to write screenplays. I have a lot of good ideas, and the closest I came to being seen was a video pitch (in which I tried and failed to not sound like I was reading off of a sheet of paper). If I had made it past that round, I would have been put on a Zoom call with actual producers who would have ruthlessly picked my idea apart and probably made me cry. There are thousands upon thousands of ideas out there for movies, and it is up to these gatekeepers to decide which movie will be made.

My question is this: with this much quality control, why are the vast majority of movies and TV shows rubbish? I was just looking at Netflix for a movie to watch today, and I couldn’t find anything that I hadn’t already seen or didn’t look like a complete waste of my time. Are the ideas I come up with actually worse than these ideas (no, they’re not)? I know that movie-making is a business, not an art, so will I base my success as a writer on how marketable I am?

I don’t know what about my video pitch didn’t sell. Was it my insistence on making the main character a party animal? Was it that I turned the other main character into a stalker? Was it how well I read my script? Was it my tie? I don’t know, I didn’t get feedback. But I know what I want to write, and I will write a tale of drunken debauchery with a side of stalking. I don’t need anybody’s permission to do that.

My experiment ended up costing me about $400 in fees and gave me a bad review that still troubles me to this day, and I’m glad I did it. But I know after all that that this isn’t the way forward for me. I’m sticking to unpublished novels from now on.

Confronting the Sphynx

As I am about to enter this screenplay-writing competition, and, as I’m expecting to lose, it’s got me thinking a lot about the process of trying to get accepted for my writing. My screenplay will likely get passed over because it doesn’t follow the five-act structure, and there’s even more reasons that I don’t know about because there are loads of books on how to write a screenplay, none of which I’ve read. With my novels, I know that there are several technical reasons my queries are getting rejected, despite the fact that, when people read them, they really like them, as is evidenced in my modest number of Amazon and Goodreads reviews (except for that one guy on Goodreads who gave me a mysterious 1-star, as well as that 1-star guy on Amazon who really hated what I wrote).

If there are people so strictly enforcing quality control for the written word, then why is there so much garbage out there? I don’t mean like Two and a Half Men, which was a terrible show but popular enough to last for around ten seasons. I mean the cancelled-after-half-of-a-season kind of shows. The ones that are not well-plotted and lack any memorable or likeable characters and doesn’t connect with an audience, but they still impressed someone enough to hire directors, producers, actors, special effects, and various crews. I’m talking about the dreary, repetitive, badly written books that have made it through an agent, a publisher, and an editor. The first ten pages are what sells your books, so these bad writers must have amazing first ten pages because the rest is just horrible. They’re awful works of entertainment, but they knew the right code words to make it past the gatekeepers. I feel like, if I could figure out how to do the steps precisely, I might have a chance. That means I have to learn the steps intimately, and I don’t really have the patience for that. That’s not why I write.

What does that mean for me? I can’t afford to buy slick covers anymore, so no more self-publishing. Even though she ghosted me, the agent I talked to in April made me think I had at least one book worthy of sending out, and I might get to that later this year. But mostly, I’m going to write. When a contest like this comes up, I’m going to enter, not because I’m expecting to win, but because the challenge of it will appeal to me. Who knows, maybe I’ll do the right dance move and get in the door someday. If I don’t, I’ll keep writing because it gives me joy in a difficult world.

Special Agent, Man

Almost two months ago, I took an online class called, “How to Hook an Agent.” At the beginning of April, if you were paying attention, you may have recalled me stressing out about query letters or about how every other person in my class wanted to sell literature, and I had a superhero romance. Also, as I had not noted, I was the only one in the class with any experience trying to woo an agent.

The last class was a twenty-minute one-on-one with the agent teaching the class, where she would discuss any corrections made to the query as well as the requisite ten-page sample. The agent was incredibly positive about my book. She said there was a market for this kind of thing, and to avoid the label of romance because that’s a whole separate publishing industry that had its own rules and customs. She sent me a list of agents who were looking for work that was more fantastical.

After I explained the book to her a bit so that she might not have gotten from the sample and query, she asked me to send her more of the novel so she could get a feel for it. She told me up front that she probably wouldn’t be interested in it, so it’s not an agent query, but she might have some ideas for how I could better sell it, and she might even be able to give me a few names I can try to query.

I sent fifty-six pages to her about six weeks ago, and I haven’t heard back, and I don’t know what to do. She’s not a queried agent, and she’s not doing this for (potential) money, but as a favor to a student. I don’t even know how many students she’d done this with. Since she’s not a queried agent, then I shouldn’t be afraid of getting rejected. But if what I wrote was good, don’t you think she would have reacted to it by now? I know she loved the first ten pages, so what if the subsequent forty-six were a letdown, and she recommends I stop writing? She probably won’t do that. But I don’t know what to expect. I’ve gone from elation at her asking for more to trepidation at what she might say if I poke the bear.

I will probably write her, that much is clear, but what will I write? I don’t have the slightest clue. I keep getting blocked every time I think about it. And when do I reach out? I know that she will not write me unless I write her first, so what is a good time to allow to pass before I do write her?

This is why I went into self-publishing: it’s all on my schedule. Now I need to wait for someone else, and it’s making me a little crazy. I wish I could just write books and let other people worry about this stuff.