The First No(el)

DC StationeryWhile scrolling through Tumblr the other day, I came across the image at right on Brian Michael Bendis’s account.

This is artwork by the late, great Dick Giordano, and it appeared on official DC Comics stationery. Take a close look and you’ll notice that the characters’ insignia are backwards. That’s because the image was printed on the back of the paper, so when you read the front, the characters would show through and would appear to be holding the DC logo in the letterhead.

I know this for a fact because my first ever rejection letter was printed on DC Comics stationery (the art on the back at the time was, I believe, by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, another DC legend).

The backstory: I was at the time a student at the Joe Kubert School. I enrolled with the intent of becoming a comic book artist, but as I realized I was very limited as an artist and didn’t have a future there, I started transitioning to the writing end of things. Many of my other classmates were already submitting their artwork to DC and Marvel, as well as coming up with creator-owned projects to pitch to the smaller publishers.

I followed suit in my own way. DC’s then brand-new Vertigo line was gaining momentum, and I found an old and mostly forgotten character in Dr. Occult that felt ripe for a rebirth under the Vertigo banner. I wrote a spec script, put together a submission package, and sent it all to editors Karen Berger and Jonathan Peterson. They passed it on to Tom Peyer, who rejected it, which he absolutely should have; I don’t remember the specifics of my proposal, but I’m certain that it was terrible.

I wasn’t surprised by the rejection, nor was I disappointed. I was actually quite thrilled that I had been acknowledged by DC Comics, one of the “Big Two,” and bonus, I had a really cool piece of official DC stationery to show off to everyone — and here it is:

Snapshot_20151215

As you can see, I still have that rejection letter, along with every other rejection letter I’ve received since then, primarily to serve as motivation to keep going and succeed at my craft. I wanted to one day be able to take all those rejection letters — all seventy of them — and symbolically laugh at everyone who turned me down before trashing them, thus putting that phase of my writing career behind me for good.

Seventy rejection letters spanning more than two decades — and this doesn’t count the e-mails or those publishers and agents who never bothered to respond at all.
Beatrix helps me take out the trash.
Beatrix helps me take out the trash.

Well, it’s time to do just that.

Bye-bye, failure phase. We had a good run, but I’m sure not going to miss you.

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Spoiler Theater: The 2014 – 2015 TV Season

I haven’t done any kind of review in a while, and I have a little bit of time before I have to head off to the Connecticut Renaissance Faire (cheap plug), so I thought I’d jibber-jabber a little about the current TV season, which is more or less at an end until the fall. As the header of this entry suggests, I may be dropping a few spoilers, so read on at your own risk.

I only had about a half-dozen series I watched steadily, but that’s more TV than I’ve watched over the previous few years. There’s some good stuff out there — and some stuff that started off good and petered out hard. I’m going to work my way down the list, starting with my favorite show of the season…

The Flash

I didn’t expect to love this show as much as I do, but this was just so much fun to watch. It’s a super-hero show, flat out, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more — and that’s fine, because it’s nice to have a lighter series to counter shows like The Flash‘s darker counterpart, Arrow.

The Flash

For me, the relationships between the characters are perhaps the high point of the show — especially the relationship between Barry (the affable Grant Gustin) and his surrogate father Joe (Jesse L. Martin), and between Cisco (Carlos Valdez) and anyone. Cisco is a treasure of a character and I will personally lead a riot if he’s ever killed off.

The show’s two flaws: its occasional habit of having characters make conveniently stupid decisions in order to keep the story moving, and its constant mishandling of Iris (Candice Patton, who deserves better). She’s regularly pushed around by the male characters, and her will-she-or-won’t-she relationship with Barry renders her rather unsympathetic. I hope the writers treat her better in season two.

Agents of SHIELDAgents of SHIELD

This show deserves a ton of praise simply for fixing its many, many season one flaws. The show didn’t come alive until it starting dealing with the repercussions of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) turned bad, and it kept the momentum up in season two. Plus, it had some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

My biggest gripe is that it still isn’t delving into the Marvel Universe as deeply as The Flash and Arrow dig into the DC Universe. It had a few great moments (I geeked out over the Absorbing Man), but Marvel has such a deep catalog of characters I’m baffled as to why it’s not taking advantage of it more. And, as a friend pointed out, the show could be retconned out of existence and it doesn’t impact the movies at all; Agents of SHIELD simply has no real relevance to the films. I’d love to see a more deeply connected universe, which might yet happen given that the Inhumans — due to have their own movie in 2019 — figure so heavily in season two.

Arrow

I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan season three as the weakest so far, but I don’t think it was bad. The Ra’s al Ghul storyline was interesting and had some nice twists, plus we got a whole season of John Barrowman as a complex antagonist, and who can complain about a steady John Barrowman fix?

JB Gif

John was part of a solid cast of supporting characters, and the tragedy here is that Oliver Queen himself (Stephen Amell) is the least likable one of the bunch. His constant cycle of pushing his crew away in the most dickish manner possible, only to later admit he needs them, is tiresome, but the season finale’s happy ending suggests that maybe he won’t be quite the brooding pseudo-loner in season four.

Sleepy Hollow

This is my wife’s favorite show, and we both agree that we should have never liked it at all. The premise sounds so stupid: Ichabod Crane awakens in the present to continue his battle against the Headless Horseman, who is in fact one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It turned out to be a rather fun adventure series, anchored by what may be my favorite TV partnership since Mulder and Scully: Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie). They have a great on-screen relationship (with no hints of sexual tension, thank god) and a lot of the fun derives from how they play off each other.

I also credit the writers for taking the “man out of time” trope in a different direction. Mison’s Crane is never perplexed by modern society or technology, but is instead alternately fascinated, frustrated, annoyed, and occasionally enthralled by new discoveries.

SH Gif

The show gets bonus points for having a woman of color as one of the main protagonists, and never treating her like the sidekick. Abbie gets to save the day as much as Crane, and has on more than one occasion pulled Crane’s ass out of the fire.

Season two wasn’t as strong as the first season, in part because it often felt like the writers had no idea what to do with Crane’s wife Katrina (Katia Winter) or what role she played in the story once she was free from Purgatory. Also, the second half of the season felt klunky; the Apocalypse storyline was mostly wrapped up by mid-season, and it became more episodic / threat-of-the-week — a move intended to make the show more accessible to new viewers, but without a driving storyline, the show as a whole felt like it lost steam.

The Big Bang Theory

I’m putting this show on my list of favorites, but it is barely holding on at this point. The humor hasn’t been as strong as in past seasons, and I’m frankly getting tired of the show trying to wring laughs out of the dysfunctional relationships all the characters are stuck in. None of the characters seems truly happy with their significant other, and with the exception of Howard and Bernadette (Simon Helberg and Melissa Rauch), everyone’s relationship was in trouble as of the season finale.

I’m in the process of re-watching Parks and Recreation from the start, and it’s really driving home how sitcoms take the easy way out and try to generate humor from bickering couples. The P&R relationships are all positive and healthy, and don’t try to make the sight of two people busting each other’s balls a source of entertainment.

I’m going to lump the rest into one chunk, since now we’re getting into the series that tried and failed to keep me entertained, and I’m going to start with the biggest disappointment, Gotham. I wanted this show to be good, but it never lived up to its potential, in my opinion. It had a great cast and some good ideas, but suffered from seriously hit-or-miss writing; when the show was good, it was great, but more often it was mediocre at best and painful at worst. Its early bad habit of heavy-handedly establishing who the characters were (Look! Selina Kyle goes by the nickname “Cat” and is playing with a dangling object! Get it?) didn’t last long, thankfully, but it continued to waste characters, often supporting female characters, and relied on characters behaving stupidly in order to keep the plots moving. Don’t even get me started on the brief plotline that stuck Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) in Arkham as a security guard.

I gave Gotham a chance to get good, but I ultimately decided to cut it loose, along with The Walking Dead and, sadly, Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead has become too repetitive in its plots, most of the characters are uninteresting and in a few cases (Rick Grimes) utterly unsympathetic, and the series feels like it no longer has an overarching point to it. It’s sad, because season one was amazing, but after cutting Frank Darabont loose as executive producer, the series crashed and burned and never fully recovered.

Then there is Game of Thrones, which lost me as a viewer with the highly controversial Sansa Stark rape scene. I have heard all the arguments, both those that condemned the scene and those that defended it, and I simply cannot abide by the creative team’s decision to go there.

As a writer, I never want to deprive myself of a storytelling tool, but when it comes to rape scenes, I feel strongly that there is always a better way to achieve whatever end such a scene is meant to achieve. A female character (or a male character, for that matter) can hit a low point from which to climb up in countless ways, none of which involve a sexual assault, and if you believe you need rape to show the audience what a monster your male character is, you’re being incredibly lazy. Same goes for using the rape of a female character as a means of motivating a male character. Find another way. Find a better way.

I’ll end on a positive note in the form of Marvel’s Daredevil, which I have yet to finish but am enjoying immensely. This is such a departure for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s working beautifully because it’s everything the movies and Agents of SHIELD isn’t: more realistic, gritty, edgy, and mature.

Daredevil

The high point of the series is Vincent D’Onofrio, who is knocking it out of the park as Wilson Fisk. D’onofrio’s Kingpin is sometimes terrifying, sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes pitiable. He’s taken a character I never found interesting in the comics and turned him into a complex, living, breathing person who owns every scene he’s in. I can’t wait to finish season one!

But I’m going to have to, because I have my own stuff to write — tomorrow, as a matter of fact.

The Action Figures Diversity Report 2015

Last year, I took a look at the cast of my books to see how well I was doing in representing women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. I did this because I’d been reading a lot of articles and essays about how the entertainment media, in particular TV and movies, have been falling down on the job in giving audiences something other than stories featuring straight white male protagonists. If you Google “representation in media” or “diversity in media” you’ll find a treasure trove of data confirming that visual entertainment needs to seriously step up its game when it comes to giving audiences diverse characters.

The issue has been on my mind again recently, but for a different and even more distasteful reason: reactions from what I’ll call “audiences of privilege” to efforts by some media companies to increase diversity. Specifically, some of the reactions to recent pushes by DC and Marvel to attract what can be rightfully called “non-traditional readers” — meaning women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

This should be cause for celebration. Attracting new readers, people who might not have shown much interest before in comics because they found none of the current titles appealing, strengthens the industry with an infusion of new blood (and, not at all coincidentally, cash).

Yet there’s been no small amount of push-back from the old boy community. They’re accused DC and Marvel of “pandering” to diverse audiences…because when you give, say, women more female characters and update their costumes to be less sexualized, that’s pandering to women, but keeping her in the same skintight leotard is, somehow, not pandering to men.

Top: not pandering to men. Bottom: pandering to women. Art by Kris Anka and Frank Cho, respectively, images courtesy Marvel Comics.
Top: not pandering to men. Bottom: pandering to women. Art by Kris Anka and Frank Cho, respectively, images courtesy Marvel Comics.

(FYI, “pandering” means “to do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper, good, or reasonable.” If someone wants to step up and explain to me why it’s unreasonable to give non-straight white male readers characters they can identify with, go right ahead. I’ll enjoy watching you dig your own grave with great amusement.)

I received a little bit of push-back myself on Action Figures – Issue Four: Cruel Summer, which explicitly establishes certain characters as openly homo- or bisexual. A reviewer on Amazon said I was getting “too politically correct.” Hardly a scathing rebuke, but what does it say about any reader when adding diverse characters is succumbing to political correctness rather than endeavoring not to be mindful of the fact not everyone in the world is straight, white, and/or male?

I admit, it took me a while to adjust my own thinking on this issue. I began the series open to creating diverse characters, but did so with the attitude that their diversity had to mean something. It had to matter to the character and the story. I didn’t want to simply throw in a bunch of diverse characters for the sake of it.

Then I read a few things on Tumblr (which, for once, provided me with civil, sane discussion points rather than a profanity-laden, anger-driven rant) that opened my eyes. I can’t find the original post to quote it verbatim, but the argument was, essentially: why do diverse characters have to have a deeper reason to exist? Real people are different for no reason other than that’s how they are. Do you walk up to an African-American and demand they explain why they’re African-American, and challenge their right to exist if they can’t provide a satisfactory argument?

The other post that made me rethink the way I approach storytelling stated that sometimes, simply seeing a diverse character in a story is enough. Giving the character depth and meaning is great, making their diversity meaningful is a lofty goal, but for some audience members, it is very gratifying and encouraging to see a character who is fleshed out, fully realized, isn’t a lazy stereotype, and matters to the story, and just happens to be someone of color, or just happens to be gay.

I understand some of you might be rolling your eyes at all this because it none of this matters to you. Well, guess what? As William Shatner said, you’re not the only one living on this planet. It might not matter to you, but to someone else, it matters a lot, and frankly, I’d rather piss off someone who complains about diversity than someone who complains about the lack of it — because those in that latter category are right.

I’d like to think I took some positive steps toward a more diverse cast with book four, and I’ll give you a head’s up now that the following updated cast list contains a few SPOILERS (capitalized to grab your attention!), so if you haven’t read book four yet, you might want to stop reading now.

  • Carrie Hauser/Lightstorm: straight white female
  • Matt Steiger/Captain Trenchcoat: straight white male
  • Sara Danvers/Psyche: lesbian white female
  • Stuart Lumley: male, one-quarter African-American
  • Missy Hamill/Kunoichi: half-Japanese female
  • Edison Bose/Concorde: straight male
  • Bart Connors/Mindforce: gay white male
  • Natalie Guerrero/Nina Nitro: straight Hispanic female
  • Astrid Enigma/Dr. Enigma: bisexual white female
  • Dr. Gwendolyn Quentin/Doc Quantum: straight white female
  • Joe Quentin/Rockjaw Quantum: straight white male
  • Megan Quentin/Megawatt Quantum: lesbian white female
  • Kilroy Quentin/Kilowatt Quantum: straight white male
  • Farley Quentin/Final Boss: white male (sexuality TBD because he’s only six. Give him time)
  • Tisha Greene/TranzSister: African-American transgender female (heterosexual by virtue of her current gender)

I dare say I have the LGBTQ spectrum well covered, and I readily admit I am more comfortable presenting these kinds of characters because it’s what I’m familiar with. I know a lot of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, at least one asexual individual, and one transgender person (that I am aware of, at least) through the renaissance faire community, and I encounter these people frequently at the pop culture conventions I work with my wife.

Obviously, my failing continues to be in presenting people of color in prominent roles. There are many minor supporting characters of color, but few in any major spotlight role. Let’s see if I can correct that as I move forward with the series.

Anatomy Of A Bad Cover

cover-lowrestrimCover art has been on my mind a lot lately. As previously mentioned in this blog, I rather agonized over the cover concept for Action Figures – Issue Two: Black Magic Women; I noted the conceptual similarities between the covers of Action Figures – Issue One: Secret Origins (by my artist Tricia Lupien) and the forthcoming issue of Ms. Marvel (by Annie Wu); and my buddy J.M Aucoin recently unveiled the cover art for his upcoming Jake Hawking omnibus (which, I add, I am looking forward to, since I am not a big e-book reader).

Cover art is a pretty critical element of the final novel package, and an element that a lot of novice authors overlook or ignore. Pop over to Lousy Book Covers and you’ll see how wrong covers can go, and I think that will serve as enough of an explanation as to why good covers are important. I mean, would you pick up any of those books?

Comic Book Resources recently posted a harsh, but dead-on, analysis of the cover for the newest relaunch of DC Comics’ Teen Titans. At first glance, the artwork (by Kenneth Rocafort) looks pretty damn cool, but CBR delves into its flaws in terms of concept, composition, and how it presents its characters — in particular Wonder Girl, who CBR maintains is sexualized to a ridiculous degree. It’s hard to disagree.

Teen Titans CoverThe background clearly suggests a high school setting is involved, and the book is called Teen Titans, so it’s not unreasonable to assume we’re looking at a teenage girl — and teenage girls do not look like that (not without the benefit of no small amount of plastic surgery).

It’s easy to dismiss criticism of Wonder Girl’s look as pointless fretting over sexed-up comic book females because that’s what comic book females look like, they’re idealized versions of real women, so shut up already and enjoy the book for what it is, but chances are, the people saying that are all guys who like their super-heroines to look like Victoria’s Secret models, but that’s one reason why such representations are so subversive: they send a message to readers that this is the norm for female characters.

This cover is the latest misstep for DC Comics’ “New 52” relaunch, which also shrank Starfire’s already skimpy costume, reimagined Harley Quinn as a pole dancer, and turned Amanda Waller, one of DC’s best characters, period, from a big, middle-aged African-American woman into a young, skinny, sexy African-American woman, because reasons.

Someone needs to show DC the memo that girls and women read comics too. Better yet, they need to show them Kelly Sue DeConnick’s run on Captain Marvel and show them how to do a character redesign right.

 

Stand Up, Comics

Ahoy-hoy! Spoilers abound in this post, so proceed at your own risk.

Years ago, during my ill-advised and ultimately unsuccessful time at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art — an excellent institution, by the way — one of my instructors compared writing for comics to writing for sitcoms, in that the characters are constantly undergoing false growth.

One of the major tenets of fiction is that the characters should come out of the story differently than how they went in. They should learn from and be changed by their experiences, but sitcoms and comics alike defy this principle constantly. Classic sitcoms would in any given episode present the illusion that a character had grown and changed, when in fact nothing had changed — so much so that when a similar situation rolled along later, characters apparently suffered amnesia…

FONZIE: Yo, Cunningham, I’m sacred I’m losing my cool.

(FONZIE illustrates this by striking the jukebox. Nothing happens.)

FONZIE: See? Nothing! …amundo.

RICHIE: Gee whiz, Fonz, what are you going to do?

(POTSIE enters.)

POTSIE: Hey guys! I won some free tickets to the circus! Who wants to go? They have clowns and tightrope walkers and a cage filled with man-eating lions…

FONZIE: That’s it! Potsie, you’re a genius!

RICHIE: What are you going to do, Fonzie?

FONZIE: I’m going to prove to everyone I’ve still got it by jumping my motorcycle over the lions’ cage!

RICHIE: But Fonz, you kind of did that already.

FONZIE: What are you talkin’ about, Cunningham?

RICHIE: The time we were at the beach and you jumped a shark on water-skis?

POTSIE: Oh, yeah, that was cool! A little silly, but…

RICHIE: And there was the time you jumped a bunch of cars in the parking lot.

FONZIE: When did I do that?

RICHIE: Long time ago, back when Mr. Miyagi owned Arnold’s.

FONZIE: Who?

POTSIE: Hey, whatever happened to Arnold? Or your brother Chuck for that matter?

RICHIE: My what who?

FONZIE: Ayyyyyyy!

(Audience applauds.)

For younger readers: See, there was once a show called Happy Days, and it starred the guy who directed The DaVinci Code the guy who played Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development

Point is, The Fonz was always losing and regaining his cool, Ricky was constantly letting Lucy perform at the club to disastrous results, Homer continues to overlook Lisa…the characters’ core remains constant and never changes. Even when something earth-shaking occurs like a marriage or a pregnancy or a death, the characters do not change. Their behaviors, quirks, flaws, they’re all firmly in place.

Sitcoms have since grown up a little, abandoning compartmentalized and extremely short-term character arcs for series-wide continuity and, yes, character growth. It’s usual incremental and almost invisible, but look closely and you’ll see it.

Comic books have yet to follow suit, which is ironic considering how, during the 1990s, the media was glutted with stories about how comic books have grown up (biff pow zok).

While classic sitcoms effectively hit the reset button with the start of each new episode, comics play the long con: a title will present a storyline that changes everything you know about (insert character here)! and then, after some time, backtracks to re-embrace the status quo.

Superman? Died, reborn; powers became energy based, got old powers back; revealed identity to and married Lois Lane, Clark Kent is single and Lois thinks Superman is a totally different guy.

Batman? Had his back broken by Bane, handled mantle of Batman to Azrael who later lost it to Dick “Nightwing” Grayson, got better and took it all back; got killed by Darkseid, Dick Grayson becomes Batman (again), Bruce Wayne returns from the dead and becomes Batman again.

Spider-Man? Got an alien black suit, went back to classic red-and-blue suit; Green Goblin dies in a fight, turns out he never really died; discovered he was a close, discovered no, he was the real Peter Parker all along; marries Mary Jane, never married Mary Jane.

Captain America, Green Lantern, Iron Man, The Flash, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Phoenix, just to name a scant few, they’ve all died and/or given up their costumed identity to a successor and then returned.

The problem here is multi-leveled. Readers love these institutional characters just as they are and lose their shit whenever a major change is made. Couple that with the fact creative teams on corporate-owned characters — which said corporations want to keep recognizable to the masses and therefore marketable — are always looking to put their own fingerprints on a title, it’s inevitable characters will return to the status quo, no matter what kind of crazy crap happens to them.

The most unfortunate drawback of this is that there is an invisible, unspoken safety net beneath every story, giving readers a subconscious reassurance that in the end, everything and everyone will be okay and, given time, it will all go back to normal. As a lifelong comics fan, I just roll my eyes when I read mainstream news stories announcing that “Marvel Comics will kill off the Human Torch in an upcoming issue of The Fantastic Four” or the industry publications tease “A major change is coming for Superman” because I know damn well that in a year or two, all the changes will be undone.

In mainstream comics there are no stakes, there is no character growth, there is no such thing as a permanent condition. In other words: mainstream comics are dull and predictable.

There are exceptions all around, but they are few and far between in mainstream comics’ major players. Dick Grayson assumed the Nightwing identity in 1984 and never looked back. Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman got married in 1965 and have remained husband and wife. Gwen Stacy? Still dead.

Both Marvel and DC are more willing to muck about with secondary and tertiary characters, but the  closest either of them have come to throwing all the conventional rules out the window is Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel line, where no one is safe. The Ultimate Universe has introduced — and killed off, permanently — its versions of Daredevil, Doctors Doom, Octopus, and Strange, Magneto, Spider-Man, and Wolverine — and even then, a few of these characters have made a return of sorts as others have assumed their identities.

If mainstream comics is going to continue to play it safe, they should at least abandon all pretenses that any given issue will offer readers something so monumental that it “will shake the Marvel/DC Universe to its very foundation,” because it won’t. Any comic reader worth his salt knows that.

Personally, I’d love to see Marvel and DC truly shake things up by throwing all the time-honored cliches out the window. Make death a permanent thing, for the big guns all the way down to the minor supporting characters so that it has meaning again. Let the characters develop and change, organically and realistically. Let their actions have permanent consequences, for themselves and the people and world around them.

I know that none of this will ever come to pass, but the thought that a storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League of America could sucker-punch me with as much fearlessness and ferocity as a single issue of The Walking Dead or move me emotionally like the finest issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — that comics could once again be as thrilling as they were when I was a kid — makes me tingle.

Sisyphus As Writer

My first-ever writing pitch was made to DC Comics way back in 1990. I stumbled across an obscure character named Dr. Occult, an early and lesser-known creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (who also created a character you might have heard of by the name of Superman), and thought he had potential.

At the time DC was keen on reviving its C-list characters and taking chances with edgier mature material — this was the era of Grant Morrison‘s brilliant relaunch of Animal Man and Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman — so I developed a proposal that brought Dr. Occult into the modern era, gave him a purpose in the Modern Age DC Universe, fleshed out his supporting cast, etc.

I submitted it to DC Comics and, lo and behold I received my first-ever rejection letter. It was on cool official DC Comics stationery and hand-signed by the editor I sent it to. Even though my idea was rejected, I had this awesome rejection letter. I still have it.

I still have all my rejection letters. Every last one. And when I finally get that letter that tells me yes, we will buy your novel/screenplay, I will buy a nice frame for my DC Comics letter (it’s that cool, people) and burn the rest. There may be naked dancing around the fire. I haven’t decided.

I admit, I am growing impatient for that day to arrive. My pile of fuel is a little too high for my liking, and it’s grown a bit — virtually speaking — over the past weekend.

Satisfied that Action Figures was as complete as it was going to get, I e-mailed it on November 4 to a prospective agent, who took eight days to send me a form rejection e-mail. I spent a day feeling lousy and drowning my sorrows in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, then got back on the horse. I sent a query out to another agent, who was far more efficient than my first victim, taking a mere two days to tell me thanks, but no thanks. So, another day of moping, then two more queries out the proverbial door.

This whole process is perhaps the most frustrating for me because of the nature of the beast. Agents and publishers get slammed with submissions, and for that reason many of them ask for just a synopsis and sample pages, sometimes nothing more than a bare-bones initial query letter in which I have three paragraphs to accomplish phase one of my mission: I have to hook the reader on the concept with the first paragraph, sell him on the concept with the second, and sell myself as a writer with the third. If I’m successful, I may be asked for a synopsis, a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown, and/or a full manuscript.

I understand the whys and wherefores of this process, but I hate hate hate it nonetheless, because the sum total of my effort is being judged on a small sampling — sometimes literally nothing more than a one-paragraph summary. Worse, with big publishing houses the first reading in carried out by low-level editors who decide whether to bump the query up the ladder. It’s publishing triage, and again it’s a necessary evil, but it means that every given submission could be shown the door because the low man on the totem pole is having a shitty day and taking it out on writers asking nothing more than a fair chance at success.

You might argue that a stellar pitch will overcome all obstacles, but I dare say you have never attempted to reduce a full story to one paragraph. Just for fun, go ahead and pick your favorite movie and then describe it in one tight paragraph. Chances are it will not sound anywhere near as awesome as a lengthy, detailed description. More likely, it’ll sound boring, or ridiculous, or like a story you’ve seen or read a hundred times before.

If you still think it’s not all that hard to make a story sound enticing in one measly paragraph, consider: Stephen King’s Carrie? Rejected 30 times, and one publisher declared it would never sell because it was so “negative.” King actually threw the manuscript in the trash in frustration (his wife Tabitha saved it and, unwittingly, her husband’s nascent career as one of the best-selling authors in history). The Chicken Soup for the Soul series, which currently boasts about 200 titles? Rejected 140 times. The only reason J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone saw the light of day after receiving dozens of rejections is because one publisher’s eight-year-old daughter read the manuscript and loved it and begged her dad to publish it.

Do a Google search for “rejected authors” and you’ll find several lists bearing some of the greatest names and works in modern literature, and you’ll see that some of these people and their books were sent away, sometimes rudely, dozens upon dozens of times before someone decided to take a chance and give the author a shot.

What’s the take-away from this? To me it’s that talent seems to be, for good or ill, almost a negligible element in the process, because there are some truly awful books out there that someone somewhere thought were good enough to print; rather, the key appears to be persistence to an obsessive degree.

That’s not entirely fair, but I learned long ago fairness doesn’t enter into it. There are too many variables at work and you can’t compensate for them all. All you can do is, as the saying goes, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.