2021 Writing Log, Part Nine

– I posted Chapter 45 of Malice, a Modern AU Legend of Zelda fanfic based on Breath of the Wild. As you can see from the accompanying illustration created by DiamondWerewolf, it’s dramatic! It took me about two months to finish and polish the chapter, and I’m happy to be able to share it. Only two more chapters to go, and this novel will be finished!

– I published a short minicomic zine called Ballad of the Wind Fish. It’s ostensibly about Link’s Awakening, but it’s really more of a meta exploration of a certain glitch in the original 1993 release of the game, as well as a meditation on nostalgia. You can download it for free from Gumroad (here), and I’m working on getting print copies into my hands soon.

Fated, a Legend of Zelda fanzine I contributed a short story to, has opened pre-orders! The zine sold more than 150 physical copies in the first 24 hours, which was wild. Fated is a big, beautiful, and super high-quality zine with a lot of gorgeous merch, and you can grab a copy (here). You can also check out their Twitter account (here) for previews.

– I’m starting to reconsider the validity of my zines both as publications and as art objects. I think I probably deserve to have a stronger sense of self-confidence, so I submitted two of my original short fiction zines to the Broken Pencil Zine Contest. I’m not thinking about this contest as something I’ll win or lose, but rather as a cool opportunity to share my zines with people who might be interested in reading them. Submitting gets you a subscription to the magazine, which is a wonderful bonus.

– Meanwhile, I’ve been submitting original stories to a lot of venues, and I’ve been getting a lot of rejections. It’s been tough – really tough, actually! – but what can you do.

– What I can do, actually, is support people whose work is a little more niche and doesn’t fall into neat publishing categories. I’d like to start posting short reviews of minicomic zines and small-press comics on this blog, and I’ve already posted my first review of Julia Gfrörer’s short Gothic horror graphic novel Vision. I was blown away by how much I love this book, which I’ve read from cover to cover three times since it arrived earlier this week. It’s brilliant work.

– Speaking of supporting good work, I posted a lengthy review on my Japanese fiction book review blog (here) of Eto Mori’s YA novel Colorful, which is going to be released in English translation by Counterpoint on July 20. This novel has been hugely popular in East Asia since it was first published in 1998, and I think it’s difficult to exaggerate the number of people who have been moved by its message of tolerance and self-acceptance. The translator is a superstar, and I’m overjoyed that the novel is finally available in English. Or, at least, it will be soon! You can find a list of pre-order links on Penguin’s website (here).  

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In nineteenth-century London, Eleanor lives in her deceased parents’ house with her brother Robert and his wife Cora, who is bedridden with a vague illness. Eleanor was previously engaged, but her fiancé died after enlisting in military service. Having become an unmarried woman of a certain age, Eleanor spends her days caring for her sister-in-law. At night, however, she engages in sexual fantasies in front of her mirror, which she imagines as speaking to her in the voice of an unseen lover.

This situation might continue indefinitely were it not for the romantic attentions of a certain Doctor Bishop, who treats Eleanor’s cataracts and prescribes Laudanum to calm Cora’s nerves. Bishop is affectionate and well-meaning, but Eleanor is a quiet storm of resentment and repressed sexuality whose veneer of quiet virtue and good sense is one the verge of cracking.

Vision is a brilliantly written and gorgeously drawn graphic novella that explores the subtleties of how trapped and lonely people isolate themselves while simultaneously seeking connection, but it’s also a sharp and disturbing story about sex and death. The death is understated and phantasmal, while Eleanor’s sexuality and desire is on open display. Each of the erotic scenes is mirrored by a grotesque reflection, such as when the imagery of Eleanor’s self-pleasure with a candle is reflected in an extended scene depicting her eye surgery. Julia Gfrörer’s linework is delicate yet expressive, granting her characters warmth and personality while occasionally portraying them as eerily inhuman.

Eleanor’s story becomes stranger as various small mysteries and imbalances accumulate into an ever more fragmented portrait of a haunted household. The climax is shocking but perhaps not unexpected, and far more questions are raised than could ever be answered. The absence of clear explanations and justifications is part of the appeal of the narrative conclusion, however, while gradual shifts in the ink style contribute to an encroaching sense of dread – and curiosity.

Vision was published by Fantagraphics Books in September 2020. You can read more about the book on the press’s website (here), and you can order a copy from the Julia Gfrörer’s store on Etsy via its listing (here). Gfrörer’s two previous graphic novel publications with Fantagraphics, as well as her zines, are also listed on Etsy, and each is as creepy and fascinating as the next.

Calm Your Anxiety for Only $9.99 a Month

Tell Me It’s Going to be OK: Self-care and social retreat under neoliberalism

But here’s the truly wonderful thing about neoliberalism — as it turns us all into paranoid, jealous schemers, it offers to sell us bromides to ameliorate the very bad feelings of self-doubt and alienation it conjures in our dark nights of the soul. Neoliberalism has not only given us crippling anxiety, but also its apparent remedy. It is no coincidence that as we become more nervous, “wellness” and “self-care” have become mainstream industries. Over the last few decades, workplaces have become ever more oppressive, intensely tracking workers’ bodies, demanding longer hours, and weakening workers’ bargaining rights while also instituting wellness and mentoring programs on an ever greater scale.

I was recently reminded of this article in The Baffler magazine after Tumblr started advertising a subscription-based mindfulness app through brightly-colored positivity posts. I don’t have anything interesting to say about this app or its advertising campaign that Miya Tokumitsu’s 2018 essay doesn’t already state with painful clarity, but seeing these ads gain tens of thousands of notes in less than two days made me so tired.

The essay also includes two hard-hitting paragraphs toward the end about positivity culture on Instagram that I’d like to excerpt:

Although people gravitate to social media in order to feel connected, social media, and Instagram in particular, has a tendency to make people feel worse about themselves. Instagram’s genius in distributing bad feelings across a vast social network is particularly revealing, as Instagram is typically considered to be the most upbeat social-media venue on offer—not the platform of massive owns and pile-ons. Indeed, the Instagram platform is host to a large crew of wildly popular posters of positive and reassuring content, such as pretty food and easily digestible poetry.

However, it turns out that this kind of content tends to make viewers feel alienated—by the ever-competitive logic of capitalist emotional display, even the feel-good content featured on Instagram breeds a perverse sort of invidious malaise, with each new post about an excellent meal leaving a powerful residual sense that the onlookers’ own lives are acutely lacking in the material to generate similarly celebratory posts. And yet, in another brilliant stroke of cloistral neoliberal mood marketing, the feelings of insufficiency that Instagram fosters in many of its users are exactly what make Instagram positivity all the more appealing to them.

“Positivity” continues to be something I struggle with a lot, to be honest. On one hand, I am not interested in pointless pablum about how “anyone can succeed if they try hard enough,” while on the other hand I’m so burned out from hot takes and monetized outrage that I’ve become extremely resistant to writing or drawing anything even remotely critical.

Online Boundaries

Sometimes I write about shitty men, but I today I want to write about a man I admire.

About two months ago, someone started leaving long (and I mean long) comments on every chapter of a current work-in-progress called Malice, which is my supremely self-indulgent Breath of the Wild Modern AU novel-length fanfic about magical monster-man Ganondorf showing up naked one morning in Zelda’s apartment. The comments were rambling essays on home invasion and gun control laws and so on, and they didn’t have much of anything to do with the story save for how it wasn’t how he would have written it… so he rewrote parts of it in the comments.

I deleted these comments as they appeared, but they came one after the other, and the guy edited each of them at least a dozen times. If I had to guess, I would say that this behavior may have been the product of a genuine manic episode. This is concerning, but it’s not something that I, a random stranger on the internet, am prepared for or equipped to handle.

I finally replied, saying that these comments were unwelcome and a bit creepy, and that he needed to stop. I also asked him not to reply or try to contact me, and that I would report his account for harassment if he did.

And that was it. No more comments. No nasty messages on Twitter or Tumblr. End of story.

I’m not saying I wanted to have to deal with the strangeness of this situation, but I do sincerely appreciate a dude who respects boundaries. Pushing back the keyboard and stepping away from the computer was actually very cool and cash money of him, and I’m going to remember this the next time I start to get a little too emotionally invested in what’s happening on the internet.

LGBTQ Gatekeeping

LGBTQ+ communities can sometimes be surprisingly horrible to people whose identities don’t fit into neat categories.

A lot of people who have to fight for a place to exist, especially queer people, have had numerous experiences of being rejected. After all, being “marginalized” literally means that someone is pushed to the margins, silenced, and denied support. It’s not just who you love and how you present yourself and what pronouns you use that people find upsetting, but also how everything resulting from that – your perspective, your trauma, your lack of opportunities, your frustration with being treated differently, and so on – makes you “queer.” If you have to fight to create a community that accepts you, it’s only natural that you would want to defend it from people you perceive to be outsiders.

This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to support members of the LGBTQ+ community. If you’re an ally, it’s best not to assume that members of the LGBTQ+ community don’t need your support because they will support each other. Speaking personally, I value and appreciate every single straight ally (and every member of the LGBTQ+ community who has felt compelled to remain closeted for personal or professional reasons) who has ever stood up, spoken out, and done the right thing.

That being said, a lot of straight people are still unconsciously (and sometimes unapologetically) bigoted. So, to all my fellow “queer” people – no one is going to create a space for us if we don’t do it ourselves. It can be difficult to be soft and yielding, especially when we’ve worked so hard to develop our emotional armor, but we should know better than anyone that there is strength and beauty in diversity.

Rejecting Diversity

If you’re a creative venue that claims to support diversity, and if you specifically seek contributions from people with marginalized identities, I’m begging you to be nice when you reject submissions. Rejection is a part of the process, but please be kind to the people who trust you with their vulnerability.

I had a story rejected from a literary magazine two weeks ago. I get at least one rejection a week, so I’m used to it, but this one really hurt.

Specifically, this rejection was from a magazine for LGBTQ people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and it encourages contributors to share their stories and experiences of feeling “monstrous,” with a firm resistance against the kind of “overcoming hardships” and “suffering beautifully” narratives that both disabled and LGBTQ people are expected to conform to.

Although it’s not required, the magazine suggests that you send a cover letter explaining your positionality. Given that this is a magazine for LGBTQ people with disabilities, you can imagine that there’s a lot of vulnerability involved in writing such a thing.

I submitted a story to this magazine, and they got right back to me with an extremely positive and enthusiastic response about a story that, in my cover letter, I explained was very open and honest about a difficult and sensitive topic. The next morning, they followed up with the standard “Thank you for your submission, but we will not be moving forward with this story at this time” rejection email.

Like I said, receiving a form rejection email is a super common experience, but this is a venue that aggressively claims to support a specific type of diversity. To me, the practice of soliciting stories written about sensitive topics accompanied by statements of vulnerability from doubly marginalized people only to respond with a flat rejection feels not just cruel but almost predatory. Like, the people involved with the magazine look good because they’re supporting diversity, but they don’t care who they hurt in the process.

Moreover, the magazine makes a big deal out of evaluating submissions on a “blind” basis, meaning that the initial readers evaluating the story are not given any information about the writer. Putting aside the fact that “blind” probably isn’t the best word for a magazine focusing on disability to use, this policy makes no sense for a venue in which personal identity is so critical. If I’m submitting a story about how an aspect of my identity sometimes makes me feel strange and inhuman, I want the reader to know who I am and what I do and what my background is and what I’ve experienced that has caused me to feel this way.

An impersonal rejection of personal stories about marginalized identity sent in response to specific solicitation of work from people with marginalized identities is just… mean, you know? It’s cruel and unfeeling. How difficult would it be for the editors to be sympathetic, even if – especially if – they’re sending a rejection?

Just to be clear, I’m not upset that my story was rejected. Rather, I’m upset because the magazine so specifically claims to promote diverse stories, and because the manner of rejection was so callous.

I’m not sure what there is to be done about this, save to caution people in marginalized positions to be cautious of venues that seem to be trying to capitalize on your experience of marginalization.

In the meantime, it’s probably a good idea not to submit sensitive work anywhere where rejection is going to be so personal that it actually hurts.

Re: #PitMad for Social Media Introverts

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think a lot of people…

…especially people born in the 1980s and 1990s, who had this sort of neoliberal ideology drilled into them at every single step of education and employment…

…may have the impression that creative success operates according to a meritocracy, meaning that the quality of the work you create will speak for itself.

As someone with a PhD in Comparative Literature, and as someone with a decent number of creative friends who watches creative economies play out in real time on social media, I just don’t think that’s the case. Instead, I think success is primarily based on three factors:

(1) Money
(2) Connections
(3) Luck

Or, to be more specific:

(1) Having wealthy parents
(2) Belonging to a strong and supportive network
(3) Being at exactly the right place at exactly the right time

You can’t control money or luck; and, for the most part, you can’t really control your network of connections either. Still, much more than inherited wealth and serendipity, you can take the initiative to support your friends and ask your friends to support you in turn. If anyone is successful outside of a literal PR campaign, it’s because of their friends. This isn’t just about mutual aid; it’s also about generating an aura of belonging to an interesting and special group that other people want to join, if only by association.

As I wrote in my previous post, it can be exhausting to be around people who are constantly hustling, and it can be a headache to be the person trying to hustle, but creative success happens because it’s organized. You have to ask people for help and support, especially at the beginning of your career, and you have to be willing to give it in turn. I think this actually benefits introverted people, as it’s the group that will collectively perform the bulk of the necessary emotional labor, while at the same time providing greater rewards to each individual for investing their limited emotional energy.

To be honest, I think the same principle should apply even to nonprofessional work like fanfiction. Like, I may not have the time and energy to read your 150k-word fanfic novel about a game I’ve never played or a show I’ve never watched, and I may not be interested in reading the porn you wrote about characters I don’t ship or that I’m not familiar with, but I will still leave kudos on AO3 because I want to support you and your work.

I used to do this all the time – meaning that I would leave kudos on my friends’ work when they posted stories for fandoms I didn’t know anything about or characters and ships that I wasn’t interested in – but I stopped because I received very little support in return. It takes all of fifteen seconds to click on a story and leave kudos, but a lot of people in fandom just aren’t willing to do this for some reason. I mean, we’re all familiar with stories that have hundreds and thousands of kudos, but the vast majority of stories on AO3 barely have any kudos at all, even when they’re written by authors with an established following.

And that’s a damn shame, because the emerging writers who contribute to fandom as they discover and refine their voices deserve so much more support and positive feedback than they’re receiving.

I guess the moral of the story is that successful creative people are people who not only support their friends, but ask their friends to support them in turn. This can be awkward, especially for shy and introverted writers, but it’s definitely worth it!

#PitMad for Social Media Introverts

I participated in the #PitMad event on Twitter yesterday. You can read more about it (here), but basically, the goal is to pitch your ready-to-submit novel in a single tweet. If an agent or publisher is interested, they will like the tweet, signalling that you should feel free to get in touch with them. Many agency representatives will also comment directly on the pitch tweet, asking you to send a set of materials to an email address.

In theory, this is an interesting way to get yourself and your work out there, especially if you don’t live on the East Coast and run outside of traditional publishing circles.

In practice, Twitter is still Twitter, and #PitMad is a popularity contest.

Tweets generally gain traction because people “like” them (by which I mean that people click on the heart button), which causes them to appear on other people’s timelines, as well as on the feed for any hashtags you’ve used. Once a tweet accumulates a certain number of likes, that’s when people start retweeting and commenting.

Because the rules of #PitMad say that you can’t like a pitch tweet if you’re not an agent or publisher, however, the tweet needs to receive other types of engagement in order to appear on the tag and on people’s timelines.

For people who aren’t on the Horrible Birdsite, I should probably clarify that Twitter doesn’t show users a chronological feed of content, and that its algorithm doesn’t display the tweets of the people you follow unless it deems them noteworthy. Someone’s tweet can be noteworthy either because you’ve made an effort to go onto their individual page and “like” everything they post, or because the tweet has already gotten enough attention from other sources. Otherwise, the tweet is invisible, and it most certainly doesn’t appear on the tags.

So, in order for #PitMad to work, you have to make plans in advance for people to comment on and retweet your pitch tweet. These markers of engagement will render your tweet visible and will also push it far enough up the tag for agents and publishers to actually see it.

If you have friends in the literary community, or just friends in general, you’re going to need to convince enough of them to shill for you that your tweet passes the minimum threshold of algorithmic engagement to start getting attention organically.

And there is no shame in this! This is what friends and colleagues are for, to help and support each other and work together toward your shared and mutual success.

But what happens if you’re a shy and introverted person like me? Which is to say, what if you are deeply afraid of ever causing trouble for anyone or creating awkwardness by asking for help?

This may seem like an unreasonable thing to be worried about, since “Even if you delete it later, could you please retweet and comment on my #PitMad tweet” isn’t that big of a favor, especially if it results in someone you know getting a publishing deal and thanking you in the acknowledgments of their book.

My own experience, however, was that I lost almost ten followers on Twitter during #PitMad yesterday. In other words, a handful of people who followed me got so upset and offended that I’m trying to pitch an original project that they didn’t just mute me, but they actually went through an additional sequence of button presses to unfollow me. And that’s tough to handle, especially since my pitch tweet didn’t actually go anywhere. I think it’s fair to say that this experience didn’t inspire me with a sense of self-confidence.

I know there might be people out there reading this and thinking, “Well, maybe your pitch just wasn’t that good.” And you know what? Maybe! But this isn’t about whether any given pitch is actually good or not; it’s about how Twitter functions as a platform.

Essentially, if you’re not comfortable enough on Twitter to already have the sort of following that you can reach out to, both broadly and at an individual level, in order to get people to shill for you and engage with your #PitMad tweet, then you’re going to have a disappointing experience.

If you are comfortable with this level of interaction on Twitter, then you’re going to need at least a hundred retweets and two or three dozen comments (including your own replies) in order for your pitch tweet to start gathering steam. Based on what I saw ysterday, publishers and agents started to be interested in tweets that had at least three hundred retweets and fifty or sixty comments. Again, this is just based on what I saw, but the people who were able to pull this off tended to have at least 2,500 followers.

To emphasize this once again, #PitMad is a Twitter popularity contest.

And being on Twitter isn’t that easy. Some people take to the platform naturally, of course, but it can be difficult to gain and retain followers, even if you have a brand and a niche and the time and energy to produce a constant stream of content. It’s been a struggle for me personally, especially as someone who’s become very sensitive to the general ambiance of outrage, hot takes, and assorted unpleasantness that feeds Twitter’s engagement algorithms. It’s important to be able to curate your online experience, but Twitter is infamously bad about showing you things that are specifically designed to upset you. Even if you surround yourself with friends and allies, and even if you’re diligent about blocking and muting, Twitter can be a mental health nightmare.

So I guess I have two recommendations.

First, if you’re going to participate in #PitMad, you need to plan for it in advance, and you need to be aggressive in signing on friends and colleagues to boost your pitch. In all honesty, this is probably good practice for promoting your published work.

That being said, a lot of people – especially other writers – tend not to like it if they feel that you’re cultivating their friendship or goodwill for the sole purpose of promoting yourself, and being around someone who is constantly hustling can be exhausting. If you’re the sort of person who is naturally extroverted and crowd-pleasing, and if you don’t mind certain quieter people drifting away from you, then you probably have a ton of followers on Twitter already.

And this isn’t to say that people like this don’t write and publish amazing and fantastic books! I also don’t want to suggest that “fake it till you make it” isn’t a legitimate strategy. Really, go out there and live your best life, but be aware that participating in #PitMad requires planning and prepwork.

Second, if you’re more introverted and tend to keep the time you spend on social media limited, then #PitMad can be a good way to strengthen the ties you have with your writer friends while hopefully making a few new friends along the way.

Still, because of how Twitter works (and doesn’t work) as a platform, the event has the potential to be a disappointing experience that punches you right in the self-esteem, and you might be better off connecting with potential agents and publishers on a more personal level.

In any case, all of the pitches I saw yesterday were excellent. If nothing else, it was a lot of fun to read through the hashtag, and I would happily sit down and spend time with every single one of those books in the making.

2021 Writing Log, Part Eight

– I posted Chapter 44 of Malice, a Breath of the Wild Modern AU fanfic. In this chapter, I restated and emphasized the themes and conflicts associated with Zelda’s character so that the reader will understand the decisions she’s going to make in the closing chapters. You can find the story on AO3 (here).

– I posted a review of Aoko Matsuda’s short suspense novel The Cat in the Coffin, which is about a young housekeeper’s intense relationship with her sexy employer’s uncanny daughter. I’ve been a fan of this book since it was first published in English translation in 2009, and I’m happy that I finally had a chance to write a review. You can find it on my Japanese fiction book review blog (here).

– My short story “At the Edge of the Garden” was published in 3 Moon Magazine. I was inspired by the theme of their seventh issue, “Growing Malcontent,” and the concept for the story jumped into my head fully formed. “At the Edge of the Garden” is about watching a place that should be familiar and comforting grow wild and strange. This is one of my favorite imaginative spaces to explore, so it’s fitting that it’s the theme of my first piece of formally published creative fiction. The editors at 3 Moon Magazine were wonderful to work with, and the magazine itself is beautiful and powerful and just the right amount of creepy. You can download all of the issues for free on their website (here).

– I submitted an original short story called “The Fish” to Boneyard Soup, a new horror magazine (here) with an interesting sense of style. I’m starting to get the sense that this story, which is primarily about the intersections between body image and economic precarity, is probably going to be a hard sell for a horror magazine, and I’m considering submitting it to more “literary” venues that are open to genre-crossing work. Although I’m expecting a hard rejection from Boneyard Soup, I’m very interested in the magazine, especially its short nonfiction articles. I also appreciate that its stories are illustrated, and I’m thinking that it might be worthwhile to send a query to serve as an illustrator myself.  

– Speaking of which, the illustration that I submitted to Analogies & Allegories was accepted for publication! This magazine has a lovely aesthetic, and I submitted the piece to them just because I wanted to express appreciation for the theme of their most recent issue, “Rejuvenation.” You can access a digital version of the magazine (here), and the editors were kind enough to allow me to share my illustration via Twitter (here).       

– I edited, reformatted, and reprinted It Never Happened, a collection of strange and creepy flash fiction. I relisted it on Etsy (here). I also edited Ghost Stories again and sent the third edition of the zine to the printer. If all goes well, I should be able to relist this title next weekend. It’s a bit embarrassing that it took me five months, but I’m happy that all of my zines are finally back in print.

– Along those lines, I set up a page (here) that has short summaries of all my zines, as well as links to where you can find them.

– I sold my third piece of original art on Etsy! This is so, so cool. If you’re curious, you can find the listing (here).

– And finally! I’ve recently been replaying the 2017 story exploration game Night in the Woods, whose depopulated and mostly abandoned Rust Belt setting feels very relevant to the summer of 2021, when people are beginning to go outside and take stock of neglected public spaces that have been transformed by evictions and business closures. I’ve been interested in the pandemic-related work published in Entropy, which is one of my favorite online magazines, so I decided to submit a short essay about Night in the Woods to their indie games editor. He got back to me right away with excellent feedback, and the essay was just published (here).

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