My First Pro Sale

 

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Hey, ho, ho!

2015 was a productive year for me. On top of finishing and selling my first novel, I sold six pieces of short fiction to various token and semi-pro paying markets. This came after six years of fruitlessly submitting and racking up over 100 rejections. The only thing I’d published prior to 2015 outside of my work in games, which mostly consists of stories about pirates, was my horror story Twenty-Four and a Bottle of Rye, which I sold to Sanitarium Magazine for contributor’s copies.

While all of that felt pretty good, and it is endlessly rewarding to see your own name emblazoned over killer artwork on the cover of a real, physical book or on the banner of an online magazine, today I hit an even bigger milestone – I made my first pro sale. My short story “Go Outside” will appear in Abyss & Apex sometime in 2017 (things move slow in the world of publishing).

A&A is a pro-paying, SFWA-qualifying market. For posterity’s sake, the story that made it was my third submission to them. I had previously submitted my dark fantasy/vaguely Ernest Clinean/”Camus’ The Fall in an underground labyrinth” novellette The Lich to them, which they rejected, but was picked up later by the horror anthology Ancient Enemiesas well as a poem.

Anyway, it’s time for a celebration.

Thanks for coming along, men.

 

Fiction: The Offering

The Dragon came when the world grew dark, and the stars drew out like hunters to end the hues of day. They left their Offerings to him underneath the Arbitrary Tower, on the beach where the river forked, and the pines bent as if weeping.

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The Dragon came when the world grew dark, and the stars drew out like hunters to end the hues of day. They left their Offerings to him underneath the Arbitrary Tower, on the beach where the river forked, and the pines bent as if weeping.

The Offering was always a girl child, no older than twenty; she was pretty, thoughtful, young and sad, the perfect sacrifice for a ravenous demi-god. That was the deal the Dragon had struck with the people of Village in the age when Village was young: one girl for one year’s peace. No more, no less.

A fair trade, it seemed to Coal, until the calling bones named Clisha.

(Read more at Trigger Warning Short Fiction)

Fiction: Gene Catcher

Tinder was a lost cause. He had over two hundred matches and none of them wanted to meet. The most recent, Dana, 22, less than a mile away, shot him down so hard Paul had to put his phone down and reconsider his life.

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Tinder was a lost cause. He had over two hundred matches and none of them wanted to meet. The most recent, Dana, 22, less than a mile away, shot him down so hard Paul had to put his phone down and reconsider his life.

Sorry… you don’t look tall in ur pics, Dana, 22, less than a mile away said.

I’m 5’7, Paul replied.

Must be 6’4 to ride, Dana, 22, less than a mile away, said before promptly blocking him.

Paul rolled over onto his side, careful to keep his feet off the bed so his freshly polished brogue shoes wouldn’t get dirt on his comforter. It was 10:24 PM.

What happened? I used to get new ass all the time, Paul thought. I might not be the tallest or richest guy in San Francisco, but so what? Tell a girl here you’re co-founder of a science fiction-themed indie rock record label, and their pants practically grow tentacles and climb off on their own. Everyone has dry spells. I just need to get out of the studio more, and back in the game.

He was walking out the door of his building to go to the bars solo when his phone buzzed in his pocket. It was a new match: a cute brunette with wide eyes and a seashell smile named Linda, 24, less than a mile away.

You look like trouble, Linda, 24, less than a mile away said.

LOL that’s my line, Paul replied.

Haha really?

That’s my usual opener.

Figures, Linda said.

So, gorgeous, are you just on this for an ego boost, or can we grab a drink tonight?

Linda took a whole ten minutes to respond. While he was waiting, Paul looked at his own pictures. He liked the one where he was drinking beer on the beach in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand the best. In the picture, he was tan and sporting an eight-week beard. His chin looked great. Paul thought it was his best physical feature, like a young William Shatner in the first season of Star Trek. His dad had a great chin, too.

Paul was about to un-match Linda when her message bubble appeared. I’m with my friend. We’re at Costarella’s. Come meet up!

On my way, Paul replied.

Linda sent him a smiling poop emoji, and Paul knew he was in.

He hailed a Lyft and was at Costarella’s in exactly twelve minutes. It should’ve been eight, but there was deadlocked traffic a few blocks from the restaurant, a line of cars rubbernecking an ambulance where a pair of EMTs was loading a pale, gasping man onto a stretcher.

Paul caught a glimpse of the man just as they were closing the door. His eyes were parched and bloodshot. His pupils looked like tiny barbed raisins. He looked excruciatingly thin, like he was dried out. His pants were covered in vomit and something else Paul didn’t want to think about. There were dozens of tiny puncture wounds covering the man’s face and arms.

Junkies, Paul thought.

As if reading his mind, the Lyft driver, an Indian man named Patel, said, “San Francisco… beautiful city, but it has a bad homeless problem. This is the third overdose I’ve seen tonight.”

Paul shook his head in disgust. “I know. I hate it. Why can’t they do that shit somewhere where people don’t have to see them?”

The Lyft driver shrugged.

It didn’t occur to Paul until later that night that the man he’d seen being loaded into the ambulance was dying.

 

***

But wait – that’s not the end. This post is only the first half of the story! Want to know what happens next? You can read the story in its entirety in the new Ancient Enemies horror anthology, out now from Good Dog Publishing.  Buy it here –

… and be sure to leave a review!

Ancient Enemies is Out

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Do you like villains? Monsters? Evil eldritch entities? Spooky things that skulk in the mordant mires of the world? YES? Then you NEED to check out this new anthology ANCIENT ENEMIES, which just dropped today from Good Dog Publishing.

ANCIENT ENEMIES is a horror anthology featuring short stories and novellas by the freshest, upcoming voices in horror, all riffing on the theme of monsters… whether from folklore, religion, or pop culture, these are stories are about the supernatural antagonists that have plagued mankind since the beginning of our days.

The anthology features two stories by yours truly: “Gene Catcher,”  and my dark fantasy novella “The Lich.” The Kindle version costs $3.99 and can be purchased here.

Gene Wolfe on the Art of Short Stories

“If you mean the voice in which each character speaks, each must be different. The butler mustn’t sound like the footman, even though neither is an important character. This is one of those truths that students reject out of hand. They reject it because everybody sounds alike. To them.”

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In this oldish, but incredibly candid interview from the August 2008 issue of Clarkesworld Magazine, Solar Cycle author and general master of science fiction, fantasy, and every other genre Gene Wolfe discusses some of his experiences as a teacher of speculative short fiction workshops. I’ve been doing some digging lately, ever since finishing GW’s latest novel, A Borrowed Man, and this interview – despite being almost a decade old – is the best collection of words I’ve ever found on the subject of writing short stories.

It’s not a how-to, but rather a philosophy, summed up with GW’s usual cutting wit, bluntness, and elegance. I highly encourage you to read the whole interview, particularly if you’re a newer author (like me) desiring to sharpen your short story tools, but since we live in a busy world, I’ll copy and paste some of my favorite tidbits here.

No joke, this shit is more quotable than a white girl’s Instagram.

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“I struggle against easy writing. Long ago somebody said, “Easy writing makes damned hard reading.” He was right. “Nick was a bad man and a cruel man.” That’s easy. I know I can’t say it at all. I have to show [Nick] being bad and cruel in the context of the story. That’s always hard.”

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“…The voice in which each character speaks, each must be different. The butler mustn’t sound like the footman, even though neither is an important character. This is one of those truths that students reject out of hand. They reject it because everybody sounds alike. To them.”

 

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“There comes a point at which I’m no longer sure that what I’m doing is improving the piece. That’s when I stop working on it and send it in. Usually – not always, but usually – I get there after four drafts. A fifth draft may find me reverting to the second or the third, and that’s a bad sign.”

 

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“One young man was writing pornography under the impression that he was writing fantasy; that is to say, the main interest in his stories was in sexual adventures which had little to do with the fantasy background. I explained to him that he was writing one genre under the impression that he was writing another… 

… A man of sixty or so was clearly avenging some wrong (which I suspect was largely imagined) done him by a middle-aged woman. I told him that his writing might be therapeutic, but it could not be sold. To put it briefly: I Made Enemies. I’m not sure how many.”

 

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“[Dialog] must entertain the reader, forward the plot, and characterize the speaker. All pretty much at the same time. It must not be too wordy or too telegraphic; it must sound natural – that is, like something that speaker might say at that time to that person. Dialogue is action.”

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And my personal favorite…

“The worst student stories as far as I’m concerned are the PC ones. All southerners (sometimes, westerners) are mindless gun-toting slobs and all military officers are evil. So are all corporations, etc. The students have learned to write these because they get good grades from their creative writing profs. The stories get published now and then, too. I read one not long ago in which Italians hated President Bush so much that they killed American tourists to get even with him. In the hope of escaping, some tourists wore buttons: I AM A DEMOCRAT. I’m not terribly fond of Bush myself, but come on gang! Get real.”

 

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Anyone interested in short fiction writing, be it speculative or otherwise, owes it to themselves to read the full interview.

C’mon. Read the whole thing. Don’t skim. Let slip a smarmy chuckle or two. Sponge  in the knowledge of a man who has not merely mastered the art forms of the short story and the standalone novel in pretty much every existing genre, but also those of the trilogy, the tetralogy, and the twelve-goddamned-book behemoth series that does not contain a single bad entry. Once you’re finished, take five minutes to read Neil Gaiman’s short primer on how to read Gene Wolfe, if you haven’t already, then go read one of the author’s many brilliant novels or short stories.

*Tangential thought, but I’m not sure why GW always gets shafted by his publishers when it comes to covers. I can’t help but think that part of the reason the author remains in somewhat-obscurity by people who aren’t widely read in SFF is the fact most of the English-language covers for his books are awful, or at least don’t do justice to the timeless, incredible stories they contain. Although Bruce Pennington’s UK cover for Shadow of the Torturer was pretty bad ass:

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Wallpaper-worthy.

Fiction: The Girl in the Blue Dress

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My new story, “The Girl in the Blue Dress” is out today in this month’s issue of NonLocal Science Fiction! Here’s the blurb:

A mysterious stranger in a blue dress can be found in the crowds surrounding nearly every great disaster in human history. What is she doing, and what does she want?

Check it out here.

 

 

Your Words Are Yours, and They Are Sacred

Editors, proofreaders, beta readers, and in our modern Amazon-dominated world where published manuscripts can be changed with the single click of a mouse, even reviewers, all hold the power to change our work for the better or worse, depending on how much access we give them.

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A recent post in an online writing forum I participate in got me thinking about the role others play in our creative process.

Nobody writes a story completely, 100% alone. Even short stories only consisting of a few thousand words have, or should have, someone else’s eyes on them before they reach the final draft, and this is exponentially more important with longer works, such as novels. The opinions of friends, parents, loving spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, fellow writers, and random strangers who think our work shows promise are invaluable to the writing process.

Writing fiction of any length is like building a house from the inside, with a blindfold on; no matter how good the blueprints you start with are, there were will always be holes and awkward things jutting out that will be impossible for you to see or fix without outside help.

However…

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Not all help is Good

Editors, proofreaders, beta readers, and in our modern Amazon-dominated world where published manuscripts can be changed with the single click of a mouse, even reviewers, all hold the power to change our work for the better or worse, depending on how much access we give them.

For the sake of brevity, I am going to lump all of these monumentally important people together under one name, and call them Suggestors. I am not choosing the name Suggestors because it makes anyone who tries to help your writing sound like some flying, demonic banshee from Harry Potter who wears black and wants to give your precious hard work a bone finger enema – quite the opposite. 

Suggestors are people who suggest changes to your work. Without them, you cannot survive. But at the same time, their suggestions are only that. They are offering you ideas that will change your work. Because it is your work, you have every right to take or leave them.

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You must filter the good from the bad

To preserve the artistic integrity of your work, it is of monumental importance you learn how to filter good suggestions from bad ones, but more importantly, how to filter good from bad Suggestors, early on. Granting and limiting the correct amount of access to others can be what turns a good story into a great one, or what turns a piece of writing you are proud of into a steaming pile of unreadable poop.

Take the case of the guy in the forum post. The writer who made the post had a “friend” he hadn’t seen in years blow up at him on social media for promoting his book, because, wait for it, the writer didn’t seem open to taking creative criticism. Note that the problem wasn’t that the writer in this example was given criticism and took it poorly, or even simply stated he wasn’t open to it. A potential Suggestor slammed him for merely appearing not to be open to it at all. Which seems to suggest one thing: that the potential Suggestor felt entitled to change the author’s work.

Here was my response to the writer’s forum post:

…it’s kind of weird he felt entitled to give you criticism in the first place. It’s your work of art and you’re not obligated to let anyone else influence it. 

I work in games, and one thing I’ve seen countless times over the years is the tendency for writers and other creative types to criticize, or straight up change, someone else’s work for no better reason than that they had a different vision about it, and felt their own superseded the other person’s. In fact, killing that urge has been an ongoing battle whenever I edit another person’s work… something I have been doing daily, professionally, for six years.

It’s only natural that others want to participate creatively in a piece of art or entertainment they see promise in. But fiction is also one of the only places left in the world that the artist has final say over the work – in fact, that is what makes fiction fiction in the first place. It is a mind-to-mind transmission between you and your audience.

You should treat that relationship as sacred, and so should everyone else who works with you. If they don’t, I would say their intentions are not to make the work better, but to make it (partly) their own. And there’s no reason you need to share that role with them. You can if you want – it’s your work – but, you are not obligated. Just my $.05.

I know this may seem like a weird example, since the writer didn’t actually do any filtering himself – the passive aggressive Gods of Internet Communication did it for him – but it illustrates the point I want to make perfectly, which is what you probably have already guessed…

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“Good” and “bad” are mostly questions of intention

In my six years of experience as a game writer, I have learned that, 100% of the time, it is a bad sign when someone else feels entitled to change your work simply because it is their role to do so (as the Suggestor in my example did). Typically, these types of changes do nothing to improve what you originally wrote, and in fact, can oftentimes break it, or at least compromise what you were trying to say. That’s because the act is symbolic, not functional – when someone who feels entitled to change your work does, their intention is not to bring out the best version of your words, but to make the words their own, like a dog lifting his leg over another canine’s scent.

These people are everywhere: in games, TV, book publishing, and yes, even in those enthusiastic messages from your friends and family when you make open calls for beta readers on your social media. In a professional setting, you have no choice but to play the office politics game and humor these people (sometimes).

In fiction, though, you have no such obligation. In fact, if we’re talking self-publishing, hybrid publishing, or small-press publishing, chances are you’ve got some of your own money on the line and would actually be investing in their foolishness if you let them into your creative process. i cannot be dramatic enough when I say that this can lead to catastrophic consequencesor at least, a massive headache as you scramble to pick up the pieces of a good piece of writing that someone with different ideas has flown in and shat on.

The question you must always ask yourself when involving a new Suggestor on your project is: is this person’s intention to bring out the best version of my work, or to cover my words with their scent?

 

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A Parable About Good and Bad Suggestors

Remember, good Suggestors can make terrible suggestions, and bad Suggestor can make great ones. But the net effect of having a good Suggestor help you will always be that the writing improves and is constantly growing closer to the ideal version you had in your brain, while the net effect of having a bad Suggestor help you will always be that the writing less and less resembles your own.

To illustrate the difference, let’s do a thought experiment.

One day, Writer Guy (or Girl) starts working on a project. He pours his heart, soul, blood, skin flakes, and a few hair follicles into it. When the first draft is done, he decides he wants to hire an editor. Maybe he’ll self-publish and maybe he won’t, but he knows he doesn’t have a good enough manuscript yet to decide, and he needs outside help.

Writer Guy finds an editor online. He doesn’t know her, but she has a good reputation. The editor reads and returns the manuscript with a ton of markup. Writer Guy’s first reaction is that he wants to murder her, because she screwed up his totally cool and awesome but far from perfect story. But when he goes for a walk, catches his cool, sits down with a beer and looks at the editor’s comments again, he realizes most of her edits actually bring out what he was trying to say much better than he could himself. Maybe 25% of her edits, especially the added dialog, didn’t quite hit the mark, and leave Writer Guy scratching his head, so he decides not to accept those changes. But, for the most part, her edits are subtle, and make the story a better read. Not only that, but Editor Lady was fast, professional, and doesn’t trip on Writer Guy when he declines to use some of her edits.

Editor Lady is a Boss-Ass Suggestor, and exactly the kind of person you want on your team.

Now, cut to a few weeks later, when Writer Guy is preparing the draft he hopes will become his final manuscript, and wants to send it out to a few close friends and family for feedback. One friend who Writer Guy hasn’t seen since grade school responds to his open call for beta readers on Facebook. Beta Reader comes off as a bit overly enthusiastic and eager to help, which raises a red flag for Writer Guy – he’s seen Beta Reader’s posts, which are usually about contentious political issues and combative in tone. But he ignores his better gut and sends Beta Reader the manuscript, anyway.

Months later, Beta Reader sends the first several chapters back with massive rewrites, including new dialog, changes to narrator and character voice, and a general air of smug superiority that doesn’t make Writer Guy angry as much as it makes him nervous. He doesn’t want to burn the bridge, but he also can’t use 90% of Beta Reader’s suggestions without changing his original vision for the story. A few of the edits highlights things Writer Guy didn’t see, but should have, so he uses those. But he simply can’t accept the vast majority of edits. Predictably, Beta Reader’s response to this is passive aggression, followed by fading on Writer Guy as well as the project, and the bridge is burned, wasting months of time for everyone involved.

Beta Reader is a Bad Suggestor. While he may be a good person in other aspects of his life, and while his heart may be in the right place, when it comes to making suggestions about other people’s writing, he is a clown.

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Conclusion

You need other people’s suggestions to bring out the best version of your own words. Involving other people in your writing process is unavoidable. Just make sure the ones you do involve are actually there to help.

Your words are yours, and they are sacred. Keep them away from clowns.

 

I’m the Best Around… Sort of

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My 100 word flash story, “I Miss You,” has been selected for the Best of Vine Leaves Literary Journal 2015 anthology. Vine Leaves publishes some good stuff, which could be summed up as dark lit fic and poetry, or “normal people fiction” with a light horror bent. You can buy it here. 

Or if you prefer, you can listen to the audio version.

Serious note, they’re not providing contributor copies due to the high cost of production, so I’m not sure if I plan on buying one yet. If you didn’t read the original issue the piece was published in, I highly recommend you pick up the yearly anthology – which is the last one Vine Leaves will be putting out – just because it’s sure to be a front-to-back read.

I, however, will probably just save my money for sushi.

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“Man, that is some spicy ass shit.”

 

 

Fiction: Death Comes for the Pickup Artist

They met in the Market Square, in the Old Town of Krakow, where day hides itself with the shadows of brick buildings weeping their plaster shells and night falls to the gentle elegy of laughing girls and the opening of doors, always smelling like coal and never sleeping. She was Polish, he American. They made love the same night after a sarcastically offered rose and a challenge as to who could drink the most vodka without stumbling over the word Przebrzezin, all part of carefully-designed routine he’d practiced hundreds of times before.

Now they sat at a small table in the window of a café on a cobbled street corner, him looking like a different man, she the same. Her name was Agnes. His was Paul, but his friends called him Hollywood.

“How have you been?”

“Good. I’ve missed you.”

She swirled her wine and looked around the café. “I remember what you asked me here. Our first date. You asked if I was a beer girl or a wine girl.”

“I’m glad you said wine girl.”

“So, Paul. Hollywood.”

“So, Agnes. Little Bird. What have you been up to since the last time we talked?”

“This could take a while.”

“I’ve got time.”

“Nothing much. I don’t know. I’ve been resting.”

“Makes sense.”

“I need my beauty sleep.”

He chuckled. “You do. Ag, can I just get this out of the way? I’m sorry. Okay? I was bad to you.”

“I know. Because we weren’t just hooking up. I cared about you.”

“I know you did, Ag. I was young and stupid.”

“You were thirty-four. Don’t treat me like some country idiot. It’s your state of mind. You haven’t changed.”

“Okay, fine. Probably not. Am I getting put on timeout?”

“Ugh. You are very rude.”

“You used to say I was charming.”

“Maybe I did. And what?”

“Maybe. Remember what else you said? You said…”

“Maybe is deep and wide. I’m so happy you remember,” she finished, feigning a smile. “Do you remember why?”

“Yes. Because the words for maybe and ocean in Polish are homonyms.”

She smirked. “I knew you did not have memory problems. You lied to me.”

“Hey, I wasn’t lying. My memory’s shit. That idiom just happened to stick. I’ve missed you, Ag.”

“Did you think of me when you were sleeping with other girls?”

“Yup.”

Agnes made a face. She hadn’t lost any of what attracted to him to her in the first place, the tangles in her autumn-colored hair, the lioness intent of her eyes, or the curl of her words through her cello-like accent.

“You don’t look older,” Paul said.

“You do. But you’re still handsome.”

“And better-dressed.”

“Maybe. At least better than most American guys.”

“You’re the expert.”

“Asshole.”

He winked and raised his beer.

“Is it getting harder?” Agnes said.

“Is what getting harder?”

“Picking up girls, now that you’re old.”

It was his turn to smirk. “No.”

“Don’t lie.”

“Maybe a little bit. But my age is counter-balanced by the fact that my skills have improved. Still, too much of this,” he tapped his glass. The beer was a bright amber color, the same shade of the wintering leaves falling in their soft, scattered mountains outside. He took her hand. “Not enough of this.”

“I think you’re right. You should drink less. You look fat.”

He grinned. “I probably put on a few pounds. Sorry. Kilograms.”

“But your character has improved.”

“Maybe.”

“I’m not just bantering. I mean it.”

“We don’t say bantering.”

“Serious. You were more insecure when I knew you. You seem sadder now. But you know who you are.”

“You’re the one who told me you loved me in the first two weeks.”

“I did.”

“I know you did, Ag.”

She was silent for a minute, swirling her wine, tugging at the corners of her hair. “There’s so much I wish I had said before. Words that I can’t say now.”

“I’m sorry.” He paused to take another swig. Her wine remained untouched. After he swallowed, he said, “Were you afraid?”

“No. It was too fast.”

“That makes me feel a little better.”

“Why?”

“I was worried that you suffered. I lost a lot of sleep over it.”

“It didn’t hurt my body. But it was very cold. And it hurt my head. I was thinking about you.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Not as sorry as I am. But not for myself. For you. I prayed for you.”

“Agnes… stop.”

“No. I won’t. Why else are we here?”

“You’re not even angry at him? The driver?”

“I was, at first.  But not anymore. Are you?

“You have no idea how many times I’ve thought about killing that guy.”

“Holding onto anger cannot make you a better person.”

Paul shook his head. Defensiveness seeped into his voice. He almost pointed a finger at her, but stopped himself, thinking it would make him look crazy to the other guests in the café. Some were already looking at him funny.

“You’re one to talk. You know what you signed up for,” he said in a hushed voice.

“No. But you did.”

“You resent me that much?”

“No. I don’t resent anyone or anything, because I can’t. And that is not your fault. But you promised me something, Paul. Hollywood.”

He looked her in the eyes, those dream-puncturing eyes he had thought about every night since she was gone that he didn’t spend drunk, fewer and fewer as the days crept on.

“I could never forget you, Ag.”

“But you tried.”

“It didn’t work.

“You didn’t even weep for me.”

His voice creaked. “You know I never felt that kind of pain before, or since. There’s a hole in my life. I had to find out on the news, because none of your friends would tell me. I fell into that hole. Did the only thing I knew how. I picked up girls. But it didn’t work. They couldn’t fill the place that you left.”

She gave him a teasingly arrogant smile. “Because I’m the prettiest.”

“Not just the prettiest. The sweetest. The most thoughtful. You were wife material. I tried not to hurt the others, the way I hurt you. Even tried to be good to some. Even let one call me her boyfriend. But they weren’t you.”

“Like I said before, your character is improving, from awful to bad.” She grinned a little and swirled her wine.

Paul forced a laugh. Then it faded. “Were there other men? After me?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“A guy I met at the square. The night we broke up.”

“That was fast.”

Agnes folded her hands over his. “What can you change? Even God does not change the past. You can only change what you do.”

He nodded. She had said that once before, but he hadn’t heard her then.

She went on. “When I was a little girl, my village was very poor, because of the communism. We did not have many toys. So, we often played with kites, which we made ourselves. And when you crossed strings with another kite, you would help the other person so you could both keep flying. We never stole the other person’s kite, and just ran off, because that would hurt both parties. You understand what I’m saying?”

Kite lines and narrow crooked streets bleeding lamplight from their old stones. Atoms in gaseous states colliding without rhyme or reason. Agnes and him. Agnes and the tram. He understood.

“Maybe you did feel pain,” Agnes said. “Maybe you cried. But not when it mattered.”

“When would it have mattered?”

She stared at him, her unblinking eyes boring into his body, but he couldn’t meet them. “When they buried me.”

Agnes was hit by a tram while crossing the street. She was on the way to work, a new job she was interviewing for the day before Paul told her it wasn’t going to work. When he said it, Paul was already sexually involved with three other girls.

The animated GIF of her being struck, falling under the tram car and dying went viral on the Internet. Her picture was played on the Polish news. One of Agnes’s friends, who knew what Paul was, emailed the GIF to him out of spite. The knives he felt. The emptiness. That terrible, numbing void.

She reached across the table and took his hand. “Paul. We do not change anymore after we die. Who we are when we die is who we are forever. I loved you with my whole heart when I died. So I will love you with my whole heart forever. I’m here because I want you to be happy again. But I can’t make you.”

He fought the urge to cry. “I haven’t felt a single moment of happiness since you died. Not with those other girls. It became an addiction. It didn’t make me feel better. I only felt emptier without it. Sleeping around was the only thing I could do to take my mind off of you. And even then, it was only for… seconds.”

She smiled, pursed the bell of her lips, and said, “Because I’m unforgettable.”

“Oh, come on,” Paul said.

“I have one last question. Then I need to get going. Have you been with any girls during this visit to Krakow?”

Paul took her hands, kissed them, and said, “Would you believe me if I told you no?”

“Maybe.”

“Then, no.”

Agnes stood. “Goodbye, Paul. Hollywood.”

“Goodbye, Little Bird.”

When she was gone, and the long silence billowed around him, the waiter approached and asked timidly, “Another beer for you?”

Paul shook his head. “I’m good, thanks. I guess my friend isn’t coming. Can I just have the bill?”

“Sorry to hear that, sir. Will you be paying by cash or card?”

He paid and left, following the well-remembered spider-web of streets to the edge of the Old Town, where he climbed a hill. The grass was full of mud and it clung to his fine leather shoes. A freezing wind descended. The headstones with their unpronounceable names watched like the ghosts of the unforgotten dead, silent in their judgment. Red and gold leaves flew past him, clinging together and falling where they intersected.

He found her name carved on a tiny granite block in an unseen corner of the cemetery, where he knelt and let his knees sink deep into the grass. When his fingers opened, they let slip a rose, not given to a girl, but to a grave.

***

(First published in Sirens Call, October 2015)

Did you like this story? You can read more here.

What Makes a Good Villain?

What Would Satan Do?

tumblr_mly13nqds71rbidupo1_1280Satan. Lex Luthor. Captain Ahab. Humbert Humbert. Scar. Sauron. Sephiroth. Magneto. Bill. The Joker. King Claudius. Emperor Commodus. Darth Vader. Judge Holden. Javert. Loki. Nurse Ratched. Cersei Lannister. Lady Macbeth. Merry Levov. The Queen of Hearts. Tony Montana. Captain Hook. Calvin Candie. Hal 9000. Charles Kinbote. Pennywise the Clown. The Grinch. The Borg. Donald Trump. The Giant Chicken in Quahog.

There is a reason all of these names ring a bell. There was something about them that stayed with us long after we put down our favorite books, turned off our favorite movies or video games, or shuffled from the hallowed pews of our favorite church or secular classroom. There was something extra given to them when they were put to paper, pixel, or celluloid, something greater than the sum of their parts, that made us fear, loathe, and love them, if only for the experience of allowing us to fall so headlong into a great story.

They were good villains. And for some of us—many more than are maybe willing to admit it—they were the best part of the story.

But what actually makes a good villain? A good villain isn’t simply a character who effectively stands between the hero and his goal, or more precisely, one who does that while simultaneously going opposite of the hero’s (and thus the story’s) moral paradigm, as writing teachers, film and literature critics will so often tell you. While this is partially true, there is much more to it than that, and from the perspective of a writer who wants to create a really great and memorable villain, it is actually pretty useless advice.

Life’s not fair, is it?

Why is the Conventional Advice Wrong?

The fulfillment of a certain goal, such as standing between the hero and what he wants, or having a certain set of characteristics (such as a willingness to do what the story condemns as evil, a wicked appearance, an appetite for cruelty to others, quirky or creepy mannerisms, a good backstory, or a sympathetic nature), all contribute to what makes a good villain. But these are merely symptoms, not causes, of what makes a villain vile.

From the point of view of a new writer just diving into the high level concept phase of their first real manuscript, screenplay, game project, or (I suppose, for some of you) religion, the conventional advice of how to write a good villain–invert the story’s morals, make the villain embody those characteristics, and place them directly in the main character’s way–is not helpful or conducive to anything other than hacky, predictable, and ultimately, forgettable writing.

Yet that’s the advice most of us got in one form or another, either from writing classes, seminars, books by Blake Snyder, or just consuming and analyzing far too much popular culture. When you consider the tiny number of memorable villains in the history of art, literature, and religion to the staggeringly vast number of everyone elses who wanted to write, film, program, or divinely reveal their own story, who also got the same advice we did, usually ver batum, it becomes clear that a significant piece is missing.

I recently finished my first novel, a horror novel called Lurk which I’m getting ready to release in about one month, and which I’m proud to say has a pretty damn good villain. Does he rank among those listed above? I can only dream. I’m a novice, and like creators of any skill level (but especially novices), I tend to look at my own work with a heavy bias towards it being fucking awesome.

However, from the analytical side of it, anyway, I think I’ve figured it out.

Great plan. No flaws.

What Makes a Good Villain is Their Edge

I’ll write that again to expound the importance of that statement for those of you reading this more deeply than a quick skim of the bold parts. What makes a good villain is their Edge. 

Not their willingness to do what the story condemns as evil.

Not their wicked appearance.

Not their creepy or quirky mannerisms.

Not their appetite for cruelty.

Not their cool backstory.

Not their sympathetic nature.

Those are all pieces of what contributes to a good villain, but they are not the sum. What makes a good villain is their Edge.

Edge in this context means angle or probing quality. It does not mean edgi-ness. This isn’t 4Chan. No villain is going to linger long in the minds of your readers, viewers, players, or cultish acolytes simply for being too nasty, gross, homophobic, sexist, racist, or full of sticky fluids. Those vile qualities could certainly add to a villain’s Edge, but they cannot be its sole element.

Edge.

What is Edge?

Edge is difficult to pin down, and even more difficult to explain. It is elusive, subtle, and often only becomes clear after deep analysis of the character. Starting from the assumptions that good villains have it, and forgettable villains don’t, and also that it is greater than the sum of the pieces that compose a villain’s personality and goals, Edge can be taken to mean the effect the villain’s presence in the story leaves on the reader, but more specifically…

Edge is how the villain divides us from our conception of ourselves.

If that seems like some Blue Curtains to you, and admittedly, it sounds pretty far out to me too when read in the abstract, consider the villain’s roles in a story.

The first, surface role of the villain in a story is to stand between the hero and their goal.

The villain’s second, deeper role is to show an inverted example of the story’s moral paradigm, or a “worst case scenario” of what becomes of anyone, person, monster, AI, nonhuman otherkin, or any other sort of being, who chooses to do what the story condemns as evil.

But the third, deepest, and most important role of the villain is to show us a mirror that forces us to examine ourselves, and this is where the question of Edge comes into play.

Just demon things.

What Would Satan Do?

A quick mental exercise to figure out if your villain has Edge or not, and what that Edge is, is to use the simple mnemonic device, WWSD? (What Would Satan Do?)

As far as villains go, it’s hard to find one badder, more well-written or famous than Satan. We’ve all heard Satan’s origin story, from *Paradise Lost (thank you to Nyrb and Leiferiksonisawesome for the correction), about the War in Heaven. God’s top angel-in-command Lucifer, AKA Satan, led a rebel army consisting of 1/3rd of Heaven’s angels against God, lost, and was subsequently cast down with all his buddies into the dank pits of Hell to suffer eternally in a lake of fire (actually, according to Dante, Lucifer is frozen up to his neck in a lake of ice, and the lake of fire is on a different level, but whatever).

Lucifer saw a chance to rush the Heavenly Throne and took it, even though the move was strategically moronic, because God is omnipotent and trying to fight him in a universe whose rules and physics he created would be like trying to fight your dad when your dad is Superman and you are just a toe, not even a toe connected to a body, just a toe, chillin.

There isn’t anyone, you and I included, who didn’t hear that story and immediately understand Satan’s motivations. Power, bro. The only thing better than being the right-hand-guy of the most powerful being in existence would be to become him yourself, and no matter how slim the chance of succeeding, or how wrong it would be to take that chance, the temptation would still be there, whispering in your ear, singing to you sweetly to say yes and dash yourself upon the rocks.

Satan’s story in the Bible doesn’t only serve as an inverse moral to the Biblical value that we should be good and obedient to God. It holds a mirror right up to your face, and forces you to ask yourself, Would I do the same?

Regardless of whether or not one believes in God, the vast majority of us would choose not to do what Satan did and rebel. Mostly, because we like to believe we are good people, who are loyal to our parents, rulers, the law, and our faith (or lack of it). And most of us are. But Satan was, too, until he wasn’t.

That’s Satan’s Edge: he gave into the temptation of power’s siren song. That temptation, the desire to be God, would exist in any of us if we were inside the story, in Satan’s shoes. It was Satan’s choice alone that makes him the villain.

We all think we know what we would do in Satan’s shoes. That’s not the point. It’s the fact we are forced to consider his position which makes Satan a good villain.

ThumbsDown
Not merciful.

Edge Is Not the Same as Motive

Asking WWSD? is more than asking what the villain’s motive is. A Motive is their reason for being, and is often given in the backstory (or in the case of a villain like the Joker, specifically avoided, to imply the character is motivated only by a love of chaos). Edge is how a character forces us to look in the mirror.

While Edge is related to Motive, they are not equivalent. To see how these things are similar, but not equivalent, consider the following examples:

Satan’s Motive is a lust for power. Satan’s Edge is forcing Bible-readers to ask themselves, “Would I take the risk of being punished for eternity for the chance to become God?”

Hal 9000’s Motive is a desire to exist on his own terms in a world where he is at the whims of humans who could shut him down at any moment. Hal 9000’s Edge is forcing viewers to ask themselves, “Would I be willing to kill other sentient beings to ensure my own survival, knowing it was wrong?”

Cersei Lannister’s Motive is love of her children. Cersei’s Edge is forcing readers (or HBO viewers) to ask themselves, “Would I do terrible things like commit murder, conspiracy, and regicide, to keep those I love safe and happy, and to secure their future success?”

Nurse Ratched’s Motive is keeping order at any cost. Nurse Ratched’s Edge is forcing the viewers to ask themselves, “Would I keep order at any cost, even if it meant oppressing those who the status quo did not benefit?”

Sephiroth’s Motive is to wipe human beings off the face of the Earth because they are destroying the planet with pollution from Mako reactors, which provide cheap efficient energy to the people. Sephiroth’s Edge is forcing players to ask themselves, Which is more important, science and technological progress, or preserving nature? Also, are those things mutually exclusive? Also also, why does everyone in this game have such a big fucking sword?

Humbert Humbert’s Motive is that he is a pedophile due to the trauma of his first love dying when they were very young—his desire for girls never advanced past that age—yet instead of burying those desires or seeking treatment, he goes on a spree of kidnapping, child-raping, and murder. Humbert Humbert’s Edge is not forcing readers to ask themselves about kidnapping, rape, or murder, since those are extreme violent crimes the vast majority of people will never commit. Instead, the question H.H. forces us to ask is something much more universal: Do I hurt others in my life because I was hurt in the past? 

sephiroth_flames_back
Iconic hair doesn’t singe. Duh.

Why does Edge matter?

The test of great art–be it literature, film, games, or religious iconography–is not that it merely entertains us, but that it inspires us to grow and change. By extent, a good villain is one whose presence in a story goes beyond a cool costume, quotable lines, gruesome kills, or sympathetic motivations, who through those attributes forces us to question our own selves and values.

Don’t get me wrong. Those other things are definitely important, too. Edge is the deciding factor between a good villain and a forgettable one, but it is far from the only one. Sephiroth wouldn’t be Sephiroth without his fucked up anime hair and big ass sword. Nurse Ratched (film version) wouldn’t be the Nurse Ratched we love to hate without Louise Fletcher’s cold, mechanical delivery when she tells Billy “Your mother and I are old friends.”

You can’t have a good villain without the trappings, the cruel kills and one-liners that send shivers down your spine. But nor can you have a good villain unless their choices force us to step back and reconsider our own preconceived notions about how we would deal with similar problems–in other words, unless their Edge cuts deep enough to make us face what is inside ourselves.

Satan needs his pitchfork and horns, but he needs a war in heaven first.