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FXXK WRITING: THE GUTTERS, PART II: WHY YOU SHOULD GET PAID

WE CONTINUE OUR JOURNEY INTO THE GUTTERS, all the stuff that happens between the amazing success stories people collect to make a highlight reel of their career so that it seems like their life is a series of powerfully compelling moments, but is, in fact, a false flag operation for how reality actually unfolds as you toil in obscurity before becoming worm poop. You know, life!

So while I could razzle-dazzle you with contract signings, short story sales, and novel revisions, let’s examine five things that were happening as I crawled from nowhere into being a published, but not professional, author. Because professionals get paid

* * *

The Year was 2000. Y2K had failed to destroy Earth. Randy “Macho Man” Savage was still alive (praise be to him). And this was what yours truly was doing to make his stupid dreams come true.

  • It was the second year of my MA in War Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada. I got my first research gig, analyzing how major newspapers reported on the growing events of the “Kosovo Crisis” from 1990-1999. This meant chaining myself to a microfiche machine at Queen’s University for two months, day in, day out, because the internet was still in diapers. I almost went blind but learned a lot about the Balkans, including the collapse of the Albanian economy due to a pyramid scheme, the Albanian Civil War, and subsequent peacekeeping operation. The subject was fascinating, but the work left me brain dead and sore. Still, I proved myself a capable researcher to folks at the college. Which meant more work, more success, more exhaustion, and more work, more success, and more exhaustion . . .
  • . . . so I started reading a series of novels about people burning out. Wonder why! Among the books on the nightstand was the aptly titled A Burnt-Out Case by the sardonic and sage Graham Greene, that featured a quote I kept close. “You try to draw everything into the net of your faith, father, but you can’t steal all the virtues. Gentleness isn’t Christian, self-sacrifice isn’t Christian, charity isn’t, remorse isn’t. I expect the cavemen wept to see another’s tears.” 
  • Such reading infected my academic work. I submitted history papers with quotes from Albert Camus’ The Fall and Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf. I earned a rep for being a “well read punk” at the college, in part because I championed literature as a means to improve command of language, narrative, and deep analysis. I have yet to find a historian who has written this well and succinctly about the nature of historical scholarship and research: “To study history means submitting to chaos and nevertheless retaining faith in order and meaning. It is a very serious task, young man, and possibly a tragic one” (from Hesse’s epic masterpiece The Glass Bead Game). I used this quote in my doctoral thesis, and it remains a deep drum behind my thoughts.
  • SPACE, Canada’s “imagination station,” began rebroadcasting PRISONERS OF GRAVITY, a 1990s show hosted by comedian Rick Greene (of The Frantics!) that explored comics, science fiction, fantasy and other genres via interviews with writers, artists, editors, and more. It provided an informal education on genre writing, and introduced me to Harlan Ellison, Lewis Shiner, and George R. R. Martin when he was a failed novelist and popular TV writer! Since I didn’t have cable, my sister in Ottawa would tape these onto cassette and send them as care packages. POG, as we called it, eased the pain. Because my writing career was a single published story.
  • Rejections accrued with every other submission. Was it a fluke? I seemed to get more personal responses now that I had a writing credit on my cover letters. Maybe more credits on my letter might make me look pro, even if those credits were pathetic, and stop the rejection train! I AM A FUCKING GENIUS! So, I sent stories to small, bizarre outfits that were advertised in the costly tome THE WRITERS MARKET (now obsolete), mags with names like Cosmic Donut, Barbaric Yawp, and The Skittle Teeth Journal. They didn’t pay anything, but some of them allowed email subs: which saved me postages in those days of powdered mashed potatoes for lunch. My best story was “Fresh Flowers for Rachel,” based on a true incident from my days as a groundskeeper at a Jewish cemetery. It involved the Second World War, burial rites, and tragic love. As Oscar Wilde might say, it’s terrible, but sincere. After the usual suspects had rejected it, I sent it to a magazine called EYES (but not this sexy one!). They liked it. They wanted it. HUZZAH! I agreed. There was no contract. No payment. But I’d get a contributor copy and another publication on my cover letter. Then, my copy arrived. It was a zine, not a magazine. Poorly side-stapled. Weak, hand-cut blue Bristol board for a cover page, and no picture. The title, punched in from a typewriter (not a printer), askew. Sure. Fine. Go Econo. It’s punk rock . . . until I opened the cover. On the index, my story’s title was correct, but the author was . . . some other guy! Worse? They’d caught the mistake, but, instead of re-doing the index, just crossed out the dude’s name, and, with blue ink and palsied handwriting, scrawled JASON S. RIDLER above the voided ghost writer. Typos riddled the copy, and the other stories were awful.

As the kids say, that learned me! So I got righteous. No more working for free. If you were going to shit on my story with awful production, you’d need to “cross my palm with silver” as Harlan Ellison noted. I needed to get SOMETHING for my labor beyond default identity theft. 

That argument rested, however, on a major presumption: paying markets would want my work. So far, there was ZERO evidence that they wanted anything from me, or ever would. I’d need to drill down, work hard, and up my game. But, as you may have noticed, I was already burning out . . .

So, how long until I sold anything else?

FIND OUT . . . NEXT MONTH! Same Ridler Time, Same Ridler Channel!

Until then, go buy Jay’s latest novel with a brand new cover, A TRIUMPH FOR SAKURA, which award-winning writer and editor Nancy Kilpatrick called “Hunger Games, Fight Club, and True Blood rolled into one bloody good novel.” BUY IT NOW, BE HAPPY FOREVER!

Jason S. Ridler

Jason RidlerJason S. Ridler is a writer, historian, and actor. He is the author of The Brimstone Files, and his latest historical work Mavericks of War was called a “visceral read that is also an important piece of scholarship” by Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Rhodes. He is a Teaching Fellow at Johns Hopkins University and teaches creative writing at Google, Youtube, and for private clients.

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