There’s great advice about life, love, relationships, career, how to live a good life, finances, career decisions, even spiritual dilemmas.
Frankly, I think this should be within reach of every single porcelain throne, nightstand, and above the Gideon Bible in every North American hotel room. But since I don’t quite have the capital to make that happen, I’ll just go with this instead.
I would LOVE for you all to head over, pick up a copy, and leave a review.
What do you believe? About yourself? About your work?
I had a story accepted this month (October). This makes three in the past four months. Death at the Door was accepted into an anthology that I didn’t even submit for! Consider the Possibilities was accepted into a stand-alone digital short series that should be published in 2023. The Wish Artist was selected for an online magazine with a professional-level rate ($0.10 / word), my first ever fiction publication of such status. (I have had other writing pay me more, but that’s a different category altogether, so I’m not including it in the mental gymnastics involved here.)
And yet, even with that relatively successful few months (versus the past five years), I still find it hard to get excited about these acceptances.
One of my fellow writers asks me, whenever I’ve got something like this to announce, “And how are you going to celebrate?”
I struggle with celebration. I struggle to accept that my story has been selected, published, that I got paid for doing it. I mean, intellectually I know that that’s exactly why I’m submitting, rather than just writing and either keeping it to myself or publishing it on my own site, but, still, I don’t exactly feel like it’s real.
The spiral of negative, self-sabotaging thoughts goes something like this:
How are you going to celebrate?
Well, see, I can’t exactly celebrate yet, because though they accepted my story and I’ve signed the agreement, they haven’t given a publication date and haven’t paid me and haven’t offered any suggested edits or anything, so I’m still quite skeptical that it’s going to actually go through.
How are you going to celebrate?
Well, see, I don’t really know if I should, because it was in an anthology that like nobody is going to read, and it was such a token payment anyway that it doesn’t really mean anything, and it’s kind of hard to find anybody who’s going to care, so, it’s not really something to brag about.
How are you going to celebrate?
Uh, for this one, mostly by disbelieving that it’s real until it’s actually out on the interwebz, despite the fact that I’ve gotten a contract and had correspondence with the editor and been paid, and yeah, this one is a “professional” level rate so it’s harder to ignore, but still, I’m going to keep thinking less of myself until it’s really out there, and, even then, I know that celebration is going to be hard to come by, because celebration and self-promotion and “Hey, look what I did!” isn’t really my thing.
God, typing it all out is rather disheartening. It’s sad to see that I think so little of my achievements.
But it’s typical of my whole personality, not just in writing. I disbelieve my work in virtually any area where I pursue. For example: I recently ran a half-marathon. 13.1 miles, took me over 2 and a half hours, and when I finished I was hella proud of myself for going farther than I have in nearly a decade. But you know what one of my very quick follow-on thoughts was? “Oh, sure, but there were people who ran marathons that day, too! Your half isn’t really that special.”
It’s like there’s this part of my psyche that just doesn’t accept that I can have good things too.
Like, it’s all well and good for other people to be happy about new stories coming out or sold, but, for me, it’s really hard to do. [Yes, I’ve forced myself to do it some, but it’s just not a natural feeling like I somehow think it should be.]
So why don’t I believe it? Why do I still feel like I’ve not “arrived” or I’m not “worthy” or I’m actually just sort of “pretending” to be writing these things? (Or running, or getting a certain professional qualification, or whatever…)
Is it the fact that it’s been such a long road for me to get here, something like 38 years between my first story in 3rd grade and now? When other writers I’ve admired have had stories, poems, even whole books published at 17, 23, 30? Am I just jealous or petty? Maybe.
Is it the rather harsh rebuke I received from another well-established writer when I pitched him a collaboration and he basically told me to Fuck off, if that’s the way you think about writing, you’ll never be a writer? I admit, I did let that bother me for the first couple of months, but it was years ago now and the idea only pops up in my head like once a year, so that’s probably not it.
Is it the fact that I’ve spent my last two decades treating writing as a thing for me only, a hobby, a pastime, rather than a craft to be honed with feedback, as everyone says it must be, because everyone says it’s really hard to write a story and make it the best it can be, and I don’t like that editing process, I really just want to write a first draft, maybe tune up a few paragraphs in the second draft and get it out into the world, and because I am ignoring the rules of developing writing skill and just sort of hoping to luckbox into publication I’m kidding myself that my stuff is any good, and so when things like acceptances come along I feel like I’ve somehow tricked the editors into accepting my story?
Or is it possible that I’ve been so spurned by the historical pattern of rejections, so burned and so jaded and so expectant that it will simply be more of the same, that I don’t actually believe the acceptance? That I distrust that it’s real? That in my subconscious, I’m self-preservationally holding back my excitement at this positive development, so that when things return to “normal” I’m not so scarred by that future state of everyone hates everything all the time, why bother? Maybe. Hell, that’s probably the surface of a really deep insight my therapist ought to help me unpack.
Point is, I don’t know why I don’t believe it. But I do know that it’s a consistent tendency within myself to discount my accomplishments, because they’re somehow never enough. I probably have some kind of “achievement complex”. I once complained that I was going through my mid-life crisis pretty early, like before 40, and my mother commented, “Well, you’ve always been an over-achiever.” Like I couldn’t even wait until a normal time to disintegrate my life, I had to make it happen extra-soon. Ugh.
There’s no way I’m going to figure it out right now. Maybe not even in the next year, or five, or ten. By the time I’m dead? Probably. Fat lot of good a new mindset will do me then, eh?
So I guess the only thing left to do is, just keep doing it. Faking it. “Fake it till you make it,” right? Because in faking it, you trick your body and mind into understanding what it means to “make it”. And then, when you actually do it, you won’t be faking any longer. And your subconscious won’t have to be so damn skeptical all the time.
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Do it again because you did it wrong the first time. Correct the mistake, as much as you can, and attempt to avoid making that same mistake again.
Do it again because you did it right the first time, and yet despite your efforts, the results were not as you wished. Perhaps there were external forces. Perhaps there was a chaotic winds inpired by a toucan flapping its wings inopportunately in the Amazon basin. Perhaps an unforseen tragic cosmic event happened just at the critical moment, a sunspot or a radiation burst from a far galaxy finally reaching us, and the neutrons and photons and neutrinos reacted in the one in ten trillion ways they needed to in order to somehow subvert your efforts, and as a result, reduced your outcome to something unanticipated, undesired, unacceptable.
Do it again because you did everything right and got the results you wanted. It worked, didn’t it? You got what you wanted – the date, the publication, the promotion – and so why should you stop there? Do you have a vision for the next avenue of approach? Pursue then. Are you interested in seeking out alternatives, [illegible], accelerations of what you just achieved? Do those too, building on your success as what you have to make it more special.
But don’t forget, in the real thing in the first time, to celebrate what you have achieved. Do not assume that it is what is not; you wanted that – Do not dismiss it so cavalierly as unacceptable or unfortunate. There is no way to arrange your world in which you are both always leveling up and ever satisfied with your achievements. So take the time, now to celebrate, to bask in the glory of what you have done, to see yourself as an accomplisher of things, of good things, of the ways you attempt and compete for being something valuable in your life. There is more to be done, yes. There is an infinite amount. And thus it is worthwhile to stop and accept your accomplishments as a validation, a positive, a good thing that you have completed.
And then, when you have satisfied that itch for confirmation and endearment…
The problem with readers is that they are not you. They have different backgrounds, different experiences, different ways they see the world now, different hopes for what the future could, should, or will bring.
All of this means that, generally, they won’t see your story in the same way that you will when you wrote it, or edited it, or published it.
What I’m saying is that I know there’s a story that the writer is trying to tell, and that it is very likely that what I read is not that story.
And that’s the problem that we have. We have several translation issues, where we play fiction telephone, in that we have a story in our heads. (For nonfiction, we have a message we wish to convey.) It’s up there. We, as authors, and that story, are the most intimate of partners. It literally lives inside our brain. Almost like we are symbiotic. It’s fully coalesced, fully baked. We know every nook and cranny, every nuance, every little corner behind the elbow that if our partner kisses it just right we fucking crumble.
And, just like the AI from the movie Her, we can have several of these relationships at once, with our several works that we have once created, are currently creating, or are just gestating, awaiting their own future moments of birth and emergence and maturity within our mind, to join the created and creative community. It’s not required to be monogamous for us.
Anyway – we have all these stories in our head, and then we must force them to go through the first adaptation: from our brain, to the words on the page. Here, we are so clouded by our own experience, which is obviously unique from every other person in the world, and so influenced by our own perspective and desires and fears, that it becomes virtually impossible that the magnificent, fantastic, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, award-worthy, inevitably-bestselling story survive that adaptation intact.
It can’t. There’s too much. From the limits of our vocabulary to the inability of language in general to express the nuances of emotion, something, many things, several elements of the story, will get lost or modified or perturbed in the first offload from our brain to the text. We may hope that it remains intact, whole, surviving, but invariably there is a loss of fidelity, sometimes slight, sometimes great, and this is just the first step.
Next, we have the medium. There certainly are differences between how users take in an experience when it’s delivered via hardcover, paperback, e-reader, serial email, audiobook, podcast, or web browser. The differences in these formats are vast, and bring with them several connotations about the work itself, which can vary reader to reader, culture to culture, and even when consumed at various times of day. All of which means that your readers who take in the first adapted story in the morning, on their tiny phone screen, as they’re jostled along by the mass transit commute, may have a wildly different experience from those who listen to it in their headphones while they work in the garden in the heat of the afternoon.
Finally, there is the translation from the medium back to the reader. She doesn’t have the same background as the writer, or the publisher, so what makes its way through her experience filters certainly impacts how she perceives the story. She may have good memories of owning a pet as a child, so my story of pet ownership evokes warm fuzzies. Whereas I was trying to express my disgust at the many ways that humans subjugate those pets to seek resolution of their own emotional insufficiencies.
Basically, the long and short of it is, you and I don’t see the same story. Whether it’s one that I write and you read, or one that you write and I read, it’s never the same. Sometimes it’s better on the reader’s end. Usually not. The process has morphed it, transformed it, sculpted it slightly or majorly from how it began. And that’s okay.
We shouldn’t be trying to be all things to all readers. We shouldn’t have this idea that we have to satisfy all sensibilities, all experiences, all backgrounds. And we shouldn’t expect that just because we wrote something poetic, or upbeat, or subversive, that our audience is destined to have the same feeling about it after finishing as we do. The only thing we can do is to craft the best story in our head. And then do what we can to minimize the translation errors in the first step. It is our authorial responsibility to make sure what’s on the page is as close as possible to the masterpiece inside our brain.
Because that’s storytelling. It’s part of the process. I think we in the audience have a subconscious understanding of this corruptive process. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Which is why I usually end my critiques to other writers like this:
“May the story in your reader’s mind be as wonderful as it is in yours.”
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Hey! So my story “Death at the Door” is now available in this anthology from Cloaked Press:
Here’s just a preview of the story:
There was someone at his door.
It looked to be at least a foot taller than him, wearing a hooded dark brown robe. And was that one of those farm tools with the ridiculously long handle and curved blade slung over its shoulder?
Was that Death at the door to his apartment?
Waiting for him?
It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the – what – sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.
It put two hands on the scythe and waited. Nothing happened. Why would it? Marcus wasn’t in his apartment, though he should have been for at least the last hour. Normally he would be sitting on his couch in his underwear, second drink in hand, mourning all that had been taken from him, television droning on unattended.
Want to read the rest? Of course you do! Head over to Amazon and pick up a copy. Hell, I don’t care whether it’s the Kindle or paperback version, just toss a few bucks towards the good folks at Cloaked Press and they’ll continue to do good work, and you’ll get to enjoy great writing.
August 27, 2022 – If you ever need something to write about:
If you ever need something to write about, just write a list of writing topics. Can be simple, or complex, just let your hand and your mind go. don’t worry about being real, or likely, or even good. Just write.
Write about a bird that won’t shut up.
Write about that same bird eating a cicada.
Write about the cicada attacked, yet escaping, and going off to live in the city with its cousin.
Write about that cousin resenting the cicada for coming and bringing his country ways with him, and having to put up with him, but not having the courage to stand up and make the first cicada mad, so it develops a complex and begins to go to therapy.
Write about the insect therapist, how they didn’t really want to do the job but they’re so indebted to their degree program that were they to take a pay cut and change careers, they would have to sell their house and live in a van down by the river.
Write about that van, and how it’s had several occupants over the years, and the whole community knows that it’s just a place for deadbeats to live out the remaining days of their spiral into oblivion, but the city Council won’t bother removing it, because, hey, at least if it’s there they know to go check on it every couple of days and maybe they’ll find someone there, someone that may need a little hand up, so they can offer that but if the van’s gone then those people who may have been helped out of a desperate situation could just be wandering the streets aimlessly and it would be so much more unlikely that they’d find those people and intervene in their lives to get them the help they need.
Write about the halfway house that those people / bugs / whatever are taken to, and how it’s okay, the good part is that there’s structure and a bed and a library and some counseling on how to get moving again. The bad part is that there’s really no privacy and it always smells like stinky feet and the books in the library have all become so old and worn that you can barely tell what the cover says and they’re all from like 50 years ago anyway, so to read them now, feels a bit like time-traveling back to another era when different sensibilities ruled and different views on the ways to interact in society dominated everything, just just the popular media.
Write about the rug on the rec room floor of that halfway house, how one time there was a fire and someone grabbed the rug on her way out of the building because she liked it more than anything that was in her room and if she was going to lose everything but one thing she wanted that rug to be the one thing.
Write about the boyfriend of that girl, who watched her spiral down and down, helplessly, as she got more and more addicted to booze and dangerous sex, so that he eventually realized that though he loved her, he had to let her go or, like a drowning swimmer, she would have pulled him under, too.
Write about how, when that boyfriend got a new girlfriend years later, he didn’t even mention the one who’d lost herself, but he did check up on her from time to time by calling her mother, once every six months or so, and how they would have a lovely chat and how she would promise to keep secret that he was checking up on the daughter and she knew she would keep that promise, but he was always like 5 percent skeptical.
If that doesn’t give you enough for a story, start again. You can do it. I believe in you.
The early 2000s saw revolutions in several technologies. There was the rapid expansion of internet access, the development of eInk and ePaper, and the rise of self-publishing tools such as blogging (WordPress, Blogger, and now OnlyFans and Patreon).
This perfect storm of technological advancements was supposed to be sounding the death knell for the publishing industry. Now that we’ve had eReaders like the Kindle, the Kobo, the nook, and even apps for our iPads and other phones for fifteen years, we’re all supposed to be reading everything electronically, instantly, wherever we go.
Books are supposed to be dead. Dead as the trees that make them. Deader than doornails. The publishing industry is supposed to be gutted, relegated to a slag-heap of has-been technologies like horse-draw carriages and the telegraph.
Yet books persist. Libraries still exist. People still read: old people, middle-agers like me, and even younger generations still read. They pick up two covers with a few hundred pages in between, sit down and stare in the general direction of their crotch for a few minutes or an hour, and then get up and go on their way.
Books are clearly not dead. Publishing is not dead. Books and eReaders and online blogs have somehow managed to find a sort of equilibrium of market share, wherein some people read only physical books, some read both physical and electronic (and audio) books, and some don’t read at all. But eBooks have clearly not eviscerated the market for paper books, much to the surprise of all those circa-2005 prognosticators.
Everybody’s got their own theories as to why publishing and books just won’t die. The cynics say it’s because there’s so much money invested in advertising that we just can’t help ourselves but to buy books. Others say it’s because we’re too old and set in our ways that we can’t adapt to the newer ways of life that would be better for us (more convenient! cheaper! faster!).
I don’t think those are the only reasons. I think there are several forces underlying our continued engagement with dead trees. Here are a few.
Books are tangible things. eBooks are not.
Sure, an eReader is itself tangible. But the book is a physical object. When you pick it up, you feel the weight and heft of it. You touch its pages. You smell the aroma of the ink, the faint tinge of memory that lingers on the pages. It’s something.
eBooks on your reader, on the other hand, are very fragile. Nebulous. They can come, and therefore go, with just a click. It’s almost like they’re not really there. When you have 1,000 books on your bookshelf, you can humblebrag to your neighbors about how hard it was to move last time, when in reality you’re swelling with pride that you’re so smart that you’ve read some of the titles that are on your shelf! When you have 1,000 eBooks, nobody knows. They’re all within that little half-inch slab on your desk, and you’ve got to do a hell of a lot more work to brag about that.
With a book, you can physically see and feel your progress through the experience. Your bookmark travels with you as you navigate the story. As you notice the end approaching, it’s unignorable how much is left because of how little is held in one hand and how much is in the other, and you can do the internal math to say, “Hey, this story isn’t going to finish in these pages,” or “Oh good! I’m almost done!” Can’t do that with eBooks. Sure, there’s that little slider sometimes at the bottom of the page or the side of the screen, but it’s not the same. You can see it, but you can’t feel it.
Books are real. eBooks just aren’t.
Books are permanent. eBooks are ephemeral and fleeting.
When you have a book on your shelf, it’s not going to change next week, next month, or next year, when the author suddenly gets cancelled for things she said twenty years ago. eBooks, blogs, tweets, and other “new media” are quite vulnerable to the tides of social sentiment, in several directions. Someone doesn’t approve of a chapter? Maybe it gets deleted or changed! Other people have asked for more on a certain topic? Well, just hit [update post] and now we’re exploiting the algorithms even more efficiently!
Books don’t have that vulnerability to changing externality. (Unless you’re in Oceania, of course.) They are what they were when they were printed, nothing more, nothing less. Yes, interpretations may change over time, but at least we have some permanent record of what was posited, and when, so that we can always have a fixed reference point to come back to.
That sort of permanence of idea means we don’t have to question what the author really thinks. We can just look at her words, and know.
Books are robust. eBooks are vulnerable.
In complement to the contents of our books being consistent, the physical thing of a book is also persistent. I can go to my library and read the exact same thing that my neighbor did a week ago, or the Mayor did a month ago, or my grandmother did fifty years ago. Physical books deliver a communal experience spanning space and time that you don’t get with eBooks. An eBook is a singular thing, a one-off instance, that disappears as soon as it is deleted. And it requires an external, electrical source to be able to access it. Sure, the content may be recreated, but it’s not the same thing. It’s a different thing. It didn’t exist before, and it won’t persist after you’re gone.
You can’t write a note in the margin or on a cover of an eBook that can be discovered by future generations and relate to. You can’t take an eBook with you on a hike on the Ozark Trail and trade it with someone you meet along the way, mingling ideas and their expression for a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience that parallels how swapping DNA beyond a limited gene pool benefits future generations.
In short, eBooks are for the right here, right now experience. If you want to have any kind of relationship with your ancestors, or your descendants, in your own family, tribe, nation, or even across the world, you’ll read books and you will tell others about that experience. You will listen as others tell you of their reading, and you will commune with them when your fingertips touch the pages that theirs did not that long ago.
And these are all good reasons that books will stick around. The biggest, though, may have to do with signaling.
Physical book publishing send a vastly stronger signal than eBook publishing.
Publishing a physical book requires vastly more investment than publishing an eBook. With both, it starts with writing up a manuscript. The similarities end there.
If you’re publishing a physical book, there are many next steps: finding a publishing company, which may take finding an agent or going through the never-ending saga of queries and rejections; editing; typesetting; cover design; interior design; paper selection; print schedule; marketing plan; and more.
It can be anywhere from a few months to a few years from the time the author types THE END to the day that a reader first sets eyes up Once upon a time…
For the eBook, though, it’s almost nothing. They can push [PUBLISH] and it’s done, whether that’s hosted on their own website or even a marketplace. There’s very little barrier to entry.
And yes, I know that many well-produced eBooks are clones of the physically-printed books. The publishers do all the work up front for the physical book, and then just port it over to eBook format.
See, the thing is, readers aren’t stupid. They know that there’s such a low bar for many eBooks that they lump those well-produced volumes in with the slipshod ones, and taint the whole format with their simplicity.
I don’t mind. It creates, in the mind of the reader, a much higher barrier to entry to be able to publish a physical book than an electronic one. Which means that the readers care much more about physical books than electronic books. They know the signal that publishing a physical book sends, and they respect that commitment to the cause.
Because they also know, even if it’s only subconsciously, that the author must have a stronger conviction of their message, if they’re willing to go through all that effort for something that cannot be changed later, cannot be rescinded, and will potentially (hopefully!) last for hundreds or thousands of years. The author’s belief, and the parallel commitment from the publisher, signal to the reader that, “Hey, this is something you really should pay attention to.”
Yes, some of that higher barrier to entry is being lowered every day, through print-on-demand capabilities, freelance cover and interior design, and the opportunity to self-promote through social media. Instead of reducing the signal for physical books, I think such ease of use contributes to the greater differential signal between externally-published and self-published volumes.
The vast outweighing of signals between physical books and eBooks persists. I’m confident that physical books will never go away, because readers don’t want them to. They want someone to be able to sort through all the multitude of potential messages on their behalf and tell them which ones are more likely to be good. That’s what the physical book does. That’s why we will continue to see them as so valuable. That’s why we’ll never, ever, ever give them up. And that’s why, in a hundred years, physical books are likely to echo Mark Twain’s apt quote:
The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.
In Parts 1-3, I described the drafting and revision processes.
In Part 4, I laid out what happens during the submission process.
Now, about 3.5 years on from that update, I make a further update.
So, way back then I had the following list of markets I was going to submit to:
Writers of the Future Contest
Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Abyss & Apex
Fantasy & Science Fiction
Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show
T Gene Davis’ Speculative Blog
Outposts of Beyond
Of those (and others, in italics), I have, as of this time, submitted to and received rejections from the following markets:
Writers of the Future Contest
Fantasy & Science Fiction
Abyss & Apex
The Colored Lens
Society of Misfit Stories
Summer of Speculation
So, why the difference? Why are there some on the original plan that don’t appear on the actual list? And why some new ones not listed before? And why does it take nearly 4 years to rack up a dozen rejections? Several reasons.
Some magazines just stop publication, like the T Gene Davis Speculative Blog and Intergalactic Medicine Show. Some stop accepting new submissions for a period, or are only open for a short window, like Strange Horizons. In order to meet those windows, several stars have to align. Sometimes, when I’ve received a rejection from a prior submission and am ready to send it back out again, the market is closed. So I (as any other author does) have to go down the list and search for a place to submit, make sure I’ve met all the guidelines, formatted correctly, addressed it to the right place and right person or used the right “author’s biography” paragraph, attached the right file, and so on.
The amount of administrative overhead to submit a story can be intimidating, slowing the process for those who aren’t diligent about keeping stories out on submission as much as possible. I’ve gotten better at this in the past year. Currently I have over a dozen stories and essays out. However, for a while, it was not uncommon for me to have none at all, delaying the process.
Plus some markets change their focus or put additional restrictions on author demographics. For example, I don’t qualify for several markets any longer because I’m white, male, and heterosexual, and they already have enough of those in their backlog so they don’t need another.
Taken all together, this means the submission process often drags, and drags, and drags. I don’t think this story is bad, in any way. It is, though, not good enough for those markets. Or, a better way of saying it would be, It’s not right for that market at that time with those editors.
Because, ultimately, publishing is an incredibly subjective exercise in itself. You must be able to have a story which not only meets various editorial benchmarks, but it must also fit with any “theme” that the publishers are interested in presenting, as well as playing nicely with all the other stories by all the other writers who are also submitting to that journal at that time with those same criteria.
It can feel like a crapshoot. Or a lottery. Yet we continue to do it, because we can’t not write, and the external validation feels nice.
However, I do have some news. I have tentative acceptance from my most recent submission, and I must wait for them to close their submission period and send a final notice. When this completes, I believe the target publication date is in the fall of this year. As that goes through, I will certainly brag and update here with Part 6 of, we hope, only 6 in total.
This is a 2-part post/essay/rant. Part 1, which is here, is the first installment: Top Gun: Maverick is terrible.
Part 2, And I’m Ecstatic it Exists, which I have written in my head but not with the keyboard, will follow.
Top Gun: Maverickwas a terrible movie.
Straight. Up. Terrible.
“But SJ,” you’ll say, “It made 700 million dollars at the box office in the first couple of weeks alone! It can’t be that bad!”
And you’re exactly right! Maverick is great business. What it’s terrible at is art, and storytelling, and all the little things that endear us to movies and books and poems and the stage and the microphone, encourage us to embed them in our memory, and want to have them in our lives for years to come. Maverick is a one-hit wonder. It’s pandering to the nostalgia and good memories that its target audience (35-55 year-old males) is still carrying forty years after the first Top Gun infiltrated all our lives and left an permanent impression.
I have a lot of problems with Maverick, and you people are gonna hear about ‘em! And then I’m going to offer some thoughts on why, despite the problems, I still think Maverick was totally fine to make. Why it was totally fine to earn $700,000,000 in the first couple of weeks. And why the overall results would be substantially the same, even if the producers had fixed all the “problems” I’m identifying.
So what’s wrong with it? Let me count the ways. But before I do, let me start with what I liked:
0. THE GOOD
There were only two scene that were very well done. The first was after Maverick’s first crash, when he asked the stunned diner’s patrons, “Where am I?” The little boy who replied, “Earth,” said so much in just one simple word. Awesome. Would that more of the movie had been like this.
Second, we have Rooster and Maverick are on the ground behind enemy lines. Maverick: “What the hell were you thinking?” Rooster: “You told me not to think.” Not only is it funny, it’s a compelling throwback to earlier in the movie, when Maverick had, in fact, told Rooster and the other trainees not to think. That’s the kind of tight dialogue that made Top Gun excellent. It’s raw. It’s real. It sounds like it’s coming from people actually in the situation they’re supposed to be in. And I loved it.
What else was there to like? Well, as you’re about to see, almost nothing.
Right from the start, I’m not interested at all. Sure, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still somewhat “stuck” in a test pilot role, and there’s someone coming to shut down his training program, and he’s supposed to eventually get to Mach 10, but I don’t care about those issues one bit.
So what if he gets to Mach 10? So what if he gets shut down beforehand? I don’t care because the story isn’t compelling at all.
Good stories start with a character who has a problem. A Real Problem. Like, in Harry Potter, Harry’s problem is that he’s constantly being turded upon by the Dursleys, and then even as he succeeds in getting away from them he’s now got an even greater evil to deal with in Voldemort. Who has put out a contract on his life. So he’s got 99 problems, and that bitch Voldemort is all of them. That’s a Problem in the purest sense of the word.
What kind of Problem does Maverick have? None. At all. Budget cuts are not A Problem. The Big Fancy Boss showing up two months early to cancel a program is not A Problem. And even when he’s hauled before some super-secret agency and presented with an opportunity to fly a secret mission, he still doesn’t have A Problem. A power plant coming on-line in some nebulous future isn’t a problem for Maverick.
Who has the problem? The super-secret agency. They are threatened by this power plant, and they’re the ones who want something done about it.
At least in Top Gun Maverick and Goose had significant problems in the form of an enemy they could see and who might, at the flick of a button, end their lives. They also had emotional problems of the needing to prove yourself as better than your old man variety, which drive the internal conflict of the whole first movie. What’s the internal conflict in Maverick? As far as I can tell, the biggest problem is the desire to get back with an old flame who’s doing just fine by herself, thank you very much. Not that compelling, frankly.
If you want a real problem for Maverick, Tom “Iceman” Kaczansky hit it dead on during his conversation with Maverick. He wrote, “It’s time to let go.” Honestly, that’s the real problem and the story that would have been fantastic here. How does Maverick move out of the way for the next generation? How does he check his arrogance, reduce his identity being tied to his position of status, and develop new friendships along the way, while still allowing Rooster et. al. to take the reins and become the hero who saves the day? (While, incidentally, Maverick knows he is the true hero because he, like Mick in Rocky, is the one who actually got him there; even if nobody else realizes it.)
That story, at least, would have been honest with the character and his likely progression from young, arrogant flyboy to washed-out hack. Instead, what we got was a direct rehash of the original Top Gun plot: Maverick does something stupid, screws up, yet still gets rewarded for it and, in the end, saves the day.
Yawn. Wake me up when you’ve actually put some effort into it.
Plus, the whole time it was very on-the-nose. Goose’s son is named “Rooster”. Come on, you couldn’t do any better than that? At least give the kid a reasonable backstory for how he got that call sign, like how Ice Man and Maverick got theirs, or give him a decent call sign that fits with his orphan status, like “Jump Shot”. (Because orphans are bad at playing baseball [they can’t find home], so he has to pick some other sport instead.)
As for the conflict between Maverick and Rooster, apparently Maverick interfered with Rooster’s paperwork for the academy. And that’s why Rooster hates him. Seriously? That’s the best you got? Paperwork? We’re talking about goddamn administrative delays as some kind of motivation for disrespect and disgust? At least give me “You killed my father, you son of a bitch!” That would be believable as a reason. And to completely gloss over that aspect of what should be an incredibly powerful part of their relationship is, frankly, rather disingenuous.
And, finally, um, plot hole: if the aircraft carrier has Tomahawk missiles that can hit an enemy airport, why can’t those same missiles hit the “target” that’s just a few more miles inland? Why can’t the unmanned drones that these trainees have been piloting do this work? Why does this mission need manned aircraft in the first place? Never understood that point. Unless the movie was just a weak-ass excuse to get Tom Cruise back into an airplane and onto a motorbike and onto the beach so that he can proclaim how relevant he still is in Hollywood.
Oh, right, that’s exactly what it was.
Maybe I missed it, but when did the action movie standard become 117 minutes of close-ups of character faces with a few scenes of dogfights splashed around haphazardly?
Honestly, this felt like a drama. Most of the conversations weren’t between two people, they were between two talking heads floating in space. Real people have bodies and exist in some physical space and move. They pick up objects. They stalk through a room. They stand up and sit down. Because they’re nervous, or happy, or frustrated. In Maverick, that’s virtually nonexistent.
At one point I thought, “Does this director have a nostril fetish?”
Plus, there were several scenes that were either reshoots (opening scene of planes launching) or homages (the double football as a throwback to the volleyball game, even down to Maverick stalking out of the game and sliding into a t-shirt). There was waaaay too much of this. One or two scenes would have been enough. This feels like this movie is trying to directly rip off the first, in an attempt to remind viewers exactly why they liked the first movie when they first saw it. It’s actually a very lazy, artistically weak choice.
I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. Penny, for instance. She and Maverick dated. He broke her heart when he left because he broke rules and was reassigned, I assume. Why in the world would she be so nice to him now? At least keep him at a distance, because he hasn’t done anything to earn her respect and care again. He’s done absolutely nothing to earn her feelings, except show up and be handsome. Or maybe, what, listen to her instructions while she’s captaining a sailboat? Which, if that’s all it takes, well, I’ll be at your doorstep tomorrow.
This is another of those “unbelievable” components of the movie that, were they just one or two throughout, would be overlooked. I’ll talk more about that later.
Another point: There are too many insignificant Top Gun trainees for the mission with too little time for backstory on all 12. Rooster, Phoenix, Payback, Bob, Fanboy, Hangman, Omaha, Fritz, Halo, Coyote, Harvard, Yale.
This dilutes the opportunity to understand why each one is there for the mission. Far better would have been to have something like 5 of them selected for this top-secret mission, and then we can get to know them and see them as they deal with the challenges of preparing for what is likely to be a suicide mission. As it is, we don’t really know anything about them at all, so we don’t care, so they just become filler. I guess that’s what was intended, though, since the movie was called Top Gun: Maverick, not Top Gun: The New Recruits.
The problem is, having so many minor characters means that none of them actually become real at all. They don’t start at one point and travel through their own development arcs to end up at another point by the end of the movie. They all remain in the background, supporting Maverick as he plays fast and loose with the rules and, somehow, manages to get away with it yet again.
And I get it, they want to have some kind of “competition” within the Top Gun academy, because that’s what was done the first time. However, it doesn’t make sense in this context at all.
The largest characterization problem exists, however, in the form (or, rather, un-form) of “the enemy”. At least in Top Gun we were fighting the Russians and their MiGs. In any story about the American Revolution you have the dreaded British monarchy and the corresponding Loyalists threatening to subvert the cause from the inside. In Maverick we have a nameless, faceless “enemy” that is just sort of there. They’re not a threat (see: power plant about to come on-line being the inciting incident).
Humans are a visual and auditory species. We believe what we hear and we see. When someone tells us “There’s an enemy over the hill!” we don’t really start running until we can actually see the enemy coming over the hill. We may hear something from another source, but we don’t trust or believe until we can experience it for ourselves.
Because we only have this nebulous “enemy” who doesn’t get a face and doesn’t get a name, it’s like they’re not real. And if they’re not real, they’re not a threat. Consider another 1980s movie, Enemy Mine. Here, it’s pretty clear who “the enemy” is – it’s the alien right in front of your face who’s trying to take your only source of sustenance and/or kill you. It’s pretty clear what you have to do. But in Maverick, we don’t get such tangibility. We don’t get any kind of immediate threat from the enemy. It’s three or four degrees away, filtered through the spy network / satellite photos, and then the mission commander, and then Maverick, to finally the trainees.
It’s no wonder they don’t feel any sense of urgency to actually push the envelope of their own capabilities to complete their flight training as they need to. They don’t care.
Consequently, neither do we.
I don’t believe any of these people are in the Navy, or are even pilots. At least in Top Gun, I did believe that everyone, including Tom Cruise, was actually in the armed services. They walked like Navy men, stiff and straight. They talked like Navy men: short, clipped sentences and Yes sir!s that came straight off the assembly line. They smoked like Navy men. They swore like Navy men. And they peacocked like Navy men, always on the lookout for a way to one-up their competition.
The actors in Maverick, like John Hamm as Cyclone, may be great actors in dramatic roles. But this isn’t supposed to be a drama. It’s supposed to be action. Every single character looked like they were acting. Tom Cruise too. Look back at Cruise’s earlier work, like Top Gun, Rain Man, and Risky Business. You couldn’t tell it was the same person in all of those roles, because he was such a good actor that Cruise disappeared and the character took over.
Here, not only for Cruise’sMaverick, but for everyone else: Cyclone, Penny, Rooster, even the trainer Hondo, just looked like actors playing parts. I didn’t believe for a second that Penny had once had a relationship with Maverick. I didn’t believe for a second that Rooster knew how to fly a plane. I didn’t believe for a second that Hondo knew jack squat about training anyone for anything, much less preparing pilots for high-speed aerial dogfighting.
Because they look like actors, and not characters, I don’t believe in them and I don’t care.
Don’t get me started. This is more artificial than Simon Cowell’s jawline. None of what came out of their mouths sound real. Honestly, if you’re in the back of an airplane that’s going to get shot out of the sky if you don’t go faster, you won’t take the time to say: “If we don’t increase our speed, we’re going to miss our connection with the target.” It’s too many words, too slow, too weak. Instead, someone scared for his life in that moment would be shouting “Speed the fuck up!” or “Hit the goddam gas, man!”
Remember in Top Gun, that scene where Maverick has just gotten chewed out in one of the classes, and Slider is giving him shit for it? He walks by, leans down, and whispers “Slider… [sniffs] … you stink.”
Which is tight. Powerful. And exactly the kind of line an arrogant flyboy would say to put down another arrogant flyboy. Awesome consulting by whatever retired Top Gun pilots they’d recruited to help them with the authenticity.
Ultimately, the dialogue in Maverick sounds like it was carefully crafted by a team of scriptwriters who had a few times watched action movies, but never lived anything more challenging or threatening than a weekend camping trip. Which, in conjunction with the casting mentioned above, just makes this whole thing unappealing to watch.
30 minutes too long. We did not need about 1/3 of the scenes that were included. Sailing a boat? Not necessary. The “training” flights where the pilots failed? Could have been a montage. Two downed pilots behind enemy lines? Didn’t need to happen. Virtually all of the conversations between Maverick and Cyclone… You guessed it, didn’t need to happen. Remember in Top Gun where Viper actually had something to say? Because he actually had some information to give to Maverick about Mav’s old man? There was a point to their antagonism, all the way through, even down to the period where after Maverick washes out and loses his confidence. Viper is there to not only encourage him, but to actually get him back up in the air. Because he needs Maverick, and he respects him. “Give me a call. I’d be proud to fly with you any time.”
Yeah, in this one, none of what Cyclone says or does with and to Maverick is necessary. It is, once again, a contorted effort to put Tom Cruise on the screen for longer and longer times, distorting the story and dragging it out way past what would have been necessary.
There’s an old adage that says, “The story should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer.” I guess the producers of Maverick never learned that one.
The soundtrack was scored by Hans Zimmer. And it shows. The original Top Gun soundtrack was all hard rock – Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away and all that. But this was a dramatic score, with sweeping orchestral movements and fade ins, fade outs, and so on. This is not the way to set the scene for action and violent conflict.
Zimmer is a great composer. I love his stuff for movies like Interstellar, The Dark Knight, and Pirates of the Caribbean. The thing is, in those situations, he’s writing for symphony, which is a different blend of sounds and emotions than rock and roll. How many Navy pilots get hyped up by a good violin solo? None. How many pump up with AC/DC, Kid Rock, or Marilyn Manson? Every one. So if we’re making movies with these pilots in it, shouldn’t we be matching the music to their emotional states? Which requires rock and roll – driving guitars, solid drums, consistent bass, and poignant vocals, not thirty-piece ensembles which lean only into “evocative” states.
Maverick would have been much better with a few rock and roll bands making the music. Hell, I bet there’s ten thousand who would have jumped at the chance to get the exposure that Kenny Loggins did with Top Gun. Zimmer doesn’t need more credits. This could have been a chance for the producers to reach back and give some up-and-coming artists a real shot at making something for themselves. As it was, they missed.
8. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF
One of the major requests that artists make of their audience is that we must ask you to not disbelieve the major premise of what we’re telling you. Honestly, we know that there’s no such thing as magical powers, and we know that you know this, too. But we ask you to suspend that disbelief for a few minutes or a few pages or a few chapters, so that we can tell you the story that we want to tell.
An element of good storytelling is to make the story compelling enough that we’re interested in finding out how everything resolves, but not so far out of the line of reason that we stop suspending that disbelief due to blatant incredulousity.
It starts with Maverick’s first crash of the test plane, while traveling Mach 10.2. Do you know what Mach 10.2 means? Nope, you don’t. Let’s back up.
Mach 1 is the speed of sound, or about 767 miles per hour. About twelve miles per minute, or one mile every six seconds.
Imagine – you’re inside your house, and a tornado is blowing on the walls at 767 miles per hour. Suppose that house disintegrates under the force of that wind. Don’t you think that some of those pieces of wall are going to be making their way in your general direction? And, if you were to somehow dodge all that potential decapitation-on-a-stick, don’t you think you’re going to be damaged just a little bit by that wind slamming into you at 767 miles per hour? Your internal organs would quickly become your external organs, a la the bug on a windshield. You ain’t surviving that, buddy.
Remember – that’s at Mach 1. Maverick was supposedly flying at more than Mach 10. Which means he was zooming along at upwards of 7,700 miles per hour, or more than two miles per second. When that plane cracks up, it’s disintegrating into a million little pieces, and so is Maverick.
To think that Maverick would survive intact is quite unbelievable. So we must suspend that disbelief in order to continue to participate in the show. And we do, for a while. One or two suspensions, we can get behind in order to stick with the story, especially if all the other parts (characters, dialogue, maybe a good sex scene) are worth sticking around for.
Unfortunately Maverick pushes the limits of our imaginations several times more than is feasible to expect. From the characters’ motivations to the fact that the US is launching a preemptive strike against an undeclared enemy to Maverick being able to steal a plane from a government facility to Maverick and Rooster escaping unharmed from their respective shoot-downs and then finding one another when they were miles apart, each piece stretches the bonds of credulity more and more.
Eventually those bonds break. We can suspend our disbelief. We cannot survive its wholesale disintegration.
9. THE STORY
Ultimately, a story is what the movie, or the book, or the song, is about. It’s what makes art art, beyond business or survival or reproduction. Top Gun had a story, a message: You must face your demons or they will destroy you. In doing so, they may still destroy you, or they will help you overcome whatever is threatening you.
Harry Potter had a story too: Despite your circumstances, you’re not that bad, and you’re not that good. You’ll need your friends around you to help defeat your enemies.
These stories are not the plot (see above). They are the reason for shooting the movie, or writing the book, or exhibiting the canvas. They are what the artist wants to say to the world. Even if the artist doesn’t know it. This is especially true if everyone who views the piece comes away with a different message. That’s when you know you’ve got a good story – it’s the reason for telling the story in the first place.
In one of my short stories, the message is even voiced blatantly by one of the characters: There is nothing proper about magic. But if you miss that one, you could still see that story as a conflict between old and new, between apprentice and master, or even between duty and freedom.
I don’t care what it is that you see. But I do care that you can take away some message, some story from the piece, that is separate from the plot.
Maverick had no story. What was the point of making this movie? What are we supposed to learn from this? Sure, you can argue that you don’t have to have a point. (My kids made this same argument after we watched Frozen.) Movies and music don’t have to have a point. But they do. The good ones even have multiple messages, based on who’s speaking and who’s listening. They are an inherent part of our storytelling species’ history, which means that we tend to seek out and value those experiences.
Since Maverick had no story at all other than a retelling of Top Gun (reckless, arrogant rule-breaker must break the rules to save the day), it missed. If you recall, under PLOT, I said that there was an opportunity for a good story. It would have centered around Maverick’s interactions with Iceman. When Ice tells him, “It’s time to let go,” that would have been a dead-on balls accurate perfect story to tell at this point in time. And I would be applauding Maverick rather than panning it.
Now – with all of that said – you’re probably going to think I’m about to say that Maverick shouldn’t have been made. That it was a waste of time and money. That it isn’t art. That it’s ridiculous, and nobody should go see it.
Unfortunately, if you bet like that, I’m taking your money. Because, in fact, while it may be terrible art, it is still art. And in the next installment, I’m going to tell you why I’m ecstatic that Maverick exists.
I think we’re saying “I want to climb Mount Everest” not because we want to do the climbing of Mount Everest, but because we want to afterwards say “I climbed Mount Everest.”
No surprise, though. Our society doesn’t value the journey nearly as much as the destination, despite how many self-help gurus or mindfulness masters tell us that we should believe otherwise.
Sure, it sounds good to say “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” but if you examine where we spend our time, where we put our efforts, where we drip our perspiration, where we work until our muscles ache and our fingers bleed and our brains finally shut down from the effort, it’s far more likely to be found in the pursuit at the status-creating or status-affirming external symbol of “success” than at the process you took to get there.
Most of the things we set out as “goals” for our life, whether they be personal, interpersonal, or professional, are set not by what we want to do, but based on what we want to have done.
For quite a while, I’ve had end-goal related writing goals. I wanted to win a prize in the Writers of the Future Contest. I wanted to get a book contract. I desired membership in SFWA.
I wanted the wrong things. I set my yearly or quarterly or weekly goals around those visible end points. The problem is, most of those end points are completely out of my control. Case in point: a couple of years ago I set a pretty hefty goal for my writing: >100 submissions, edit & publish 2 books, draft another, and offer >30 critiques.
All of those are in service to very external judgments of “me as a writer”. They make no consideration at all as to whether or not I would have time and energy to do all of that.
Now, to say that I was overconfident in my capacity would be an extreme understatement. I could probably tick off everything on the list if I had absolutely nothing else to do. But I have a day job and children to raise, and a house to take care of and no supportive spouse. (That’s the #1 ingredient to being a “successful writer”, according to one such person who spoke at a workshop I attended.) Which means my writing time is rather limited. Plus my writing energy will be just as impacted.
And so compared to those incredibly lofty goals, based on what I wanted to have done (publications) and based on what other people told me would bring success (# of submissions), I failed rather quickly. By the middle of March I was behind, way behind. Being behind also had this psychological effect that it intimidated me from working on those things I could actually do, because I think I had the feeling that if I wasn’t meeting my overall goal, it was a waste.
I never caught up. Sure, you can blame the pandemic, but a greater factor was that the goals were just set completely wrong.
In 2021, I had no goals. I just was kind of floundering, sort of hoping that I would get some stuff done here and there, I guess expecting that my meandering would somehow lead me to some kind of enlightenment.
This year, rather than asking, What do I want to have done at the end of the year? I asked myself, What can I do?
And I’ve allowed that difference to be absolutely transformative in the way I set intermediate goals and execute on them. My goals this year center on writing practice, attending writers’ group meetings, and finishing new stories and essays, rather than books. All of these are much more achievable, because they actually feed each other and reinforce each other.
The result? I’m writing more consistently in writing practice than I have in years. I’m generating new stories more frequently. I’m submitting more often, to more places, and actually enjoying the research to find new markets I didn’t know about before. Basically, I’m winning 2022. I believe I can continue to do so for the next 9 months. And I think it has a lot to do with how I’ve set my goals.
A different example: at my local writers’ group meeting last week, I had the privilege to talk about writing as a practice. I talked about daily writing practice, just letting the words flow, just enjoying the experience, and leaving it inside the notebook at the end, without worrying about making it into some finished product.
Many people kind of nodded with me, sort of like, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying, but I’m not gonna play along.” I know it’s because the vast majority of people who don’t practice, say that they’d rather spend their time creating a thing. Working on a story or a screenplay. They want something tangible at the end of their hour at the desk. I heard many say, “I don’t really want to be doing something that isn’t going to be a story at the end.”
Now, I love me some tangibility, I really do. That’s why I have thirty empty pens in my collection, used up over the past five years, that remind me of what I’ve done. That’s why I have twenty full notebooks that pile up so high I can’t see around them if I stack them all on my desk, each one filled with the ink from those same pens, creating worlds that no one will ever explore. Birthing characters and immediately burying them between the covers. Drawing great and wonderful insights about the universe which could save humanity from itself, but because of where they were spawned will forever be locked away from discovery and application by the greater population.
But those things won’t make me “a writer” in the modern sense, in which I am creating stories which other people pay me for, and I earn my living doing so.
However, that writing practice is immensely valuable. It’s reps in the gym. It’s miles on the trail. It’s the unseen bottom of the iceberg that pushes the visible peak just that little bit above the surface of the ocean.
Most of the time we do whatever it is that we do, not for the thing itself. We do it most often because of the goal – the end point – the pennant we could hang upon the wall that proclaims we are the champions.
Why do I practice? Because that is what makes me a writer. Not if a story is published in Fantasy or Lightspeed. Not if one of my scripts gets picked up by a production studio. Not if two or two thousand people sign up on my Patreon to receive my musings. I am a writer because I write, not because someone else publishes.
In short, I’m achieving my goals. Because they were set the right way. Not by asking, What do other people say would make me a writer? But by realizing, These are the things I canwrite and the activities I can take with the time and energy I have, and actually doing them.
No, I’m not going to have books published as soon as I wanted. I’m not going to qualify for SFWA as soon as I had planned.
But I’m enjoying this process much, much more. And every week, when I meet with my writing group, I get the opportunity to say that I am still meeting my goals.
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