Pen Names For The Win

Okay…so you’ve decided to take up your pen and start Writing for Fun & Profit*, but you have questions.

*Err…not Trademarked because, well, no one in their right mind believes there is much in the way of “profit” in writing…

Honestly, when I talk to folks about writing, I tend to get the same questions…over and over.  Here is what that generally looks like:

“Do your characters talk to you?” — Yes.  Yes, they do.  They make fun of me, too…all the damned time.    {Shut up, Oz!}

“How do you come up with your ideas?” — Beer.

“What’s the best way to write convincing dialogue?” — Read your stuff out loud.  When you read out loud, especially dialogue, you better understand the rhythm, pacing and problem areas.

“How do you deal with writer’s block?” — More beer.  Or, for the really acute cases, scotch.

“What advice would you give aspiring, new writers?” — Walmart offers benefits.

“How much money did you get in advance?” — What’s an advance?  For that matter, what’s this money thing you speak of?

Okay, okay, I admit it — I may be a wee bit cynical and irritable today.

Let’s go to one of the few questions that doesn’t give me (as much) room for sarcasm:

“Should I use a pen name when I write?” — I do.

**Sarcasm alert!**  Of course you should use a pen name*!  Do you really want anyone to know that you chose to do this for a living?  If ever I go to a high school reunion (not freaking likely, by the way), I’m pretty sure I’ll tell folks I’m the cleanup boy in an adult bookstore before I admit to being a writer…

*It’s interesting, by the way, that my spellcheck system likes to correct “pen name” to “penance”.  Is the Universe trying to tell me something?

Now, look, if you’re using a pen name to hide who you are — from, say, the mob, or the IRS (same thing), or the court system, or student debt collectors — don’t bother.  The courts and the mob will just call the student debt people, and there is NO hiding from those assholes.

If, however, you have legitimate reasons — or even semi-legitimate — then have at it, I say.

Look, I use a pen name for a couple of reasons…reasons I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before…

The DockRat series is sci-fi.  Not just that, it’s a series with a very specific tone and feeling to it.  It is, when you get right down to it, bitter, angry, pained…and personal as all hell.  I’ve mentioned before that Oz represents, in many ways, those friends I’ve lost to suicide; that, of course, means that I’m writing with…well…baggage.

I prefer to keep my baggage semi-anonymous, thank you very much.

Alright, so that’s the personal part of it.  The personal, by the way, is the less important part.  The more important part?  That’s simple: I’m a former Marketing & Sales monkey.Chimpanzee_seated_at_typewriter

Besides being the main reason why I’m drinking scotch at this particular moment, that former career also left a legacy of knowledge and awareness.  Specifically, that worst and most abused of marketing-knowledge: Brand Identity.

The only people who get pigeon-holed and type-cast worse than actors are writers.  I’ve been beyond-addicted to sci-fi and fantasy since…well…let’s not get into just how long…and still I can count on one hand the “names” who succeeded commercially at both sci-fi and fantasy.

Honestly, when folks check out the aisles at the local bookstore — or (far more often) the categories on Amazon — they look for names they know.  And not just know, but know are good at the genre/story for which they are looking.  They look for the brand, in marketing-speakthat oh-so-important confluence of author and genre and reputation.

I am, by the way, as guilty of this as anyone else: I know the writing team known as “James S.A. Corey” is good at writing sci-fi, but what if they came out with a fantasy story?  Yeah, I’d probably wait to buy it.

The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t want to be pigeon-holed into one genre.  I already have a story series in mind for when DockRat is done, and it’s completely different.  Not just different in genre — fantasy versus sci-fi — but different in tone and voice and message, as well.  As you probably guessed, that series will “live” under a different pen name than does DockRat.

When you get right down to it, Connor & Oz are unique to their setting, and to their stories.  And I refuse to have the other stories I want to write be judged by the “reputation” of two drug-addicted, criminal characters — much as I love them.

Why Do I Always Have to Work Holidays?!

St Patrick’s Day…

Ahh, St Patrick’s Day…

Okay, yeah, it’s American “invention” to (ostensibly) honor a minor Irish holiday. An invention, I might add, created mostly as an excuse to drink and party.

So what? It’s a fun time, even if it is “cultural appropriation”!

What else are you gonna do on St Patrick’s Day, by the way, except celebrate it at German brewery? Of course you are…I mean, c’mon, that’s multiculturalism at its finest!

Quite simply, you haven’t lived until you’ve celebrated St Patty’s day with a few games of hammerschlagen! And screw the corned beef, I want sausage! And rye bread!

Technically, I suppose, I’m working today…which means I have my iPad open in front of me at the moment. Well, that and I’ll help out at the brewery when it gets truly busy. And there is, of course, also the pending Irish Olympics to think about.


9D5A524E-9ABA-41F3-B500-559D88BB46A1Work, work, work…another day slaving in the mines…

Now, if only there was actual, you know, money in spending your “work” life writing and in a brewery.

Fun? Oh, yeah, there’s tons of that…but money? Not so much…

Crap, a thought occurs…I hate it when that happens, but what are you gonna do?

On the same theme from my post last Friday: I learned everything I need to know about this stuff from my (fairly extensive) travels across Europe & the Americas. Tragically, I didn’t do that travel as part of an official gap year. Nope, I was far too deprived and challenged to do that.

Oy vey! How much farther ahead would I be if I had started this insanity at eighteen?!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the keg curling competition is getting ready to start…


The Gap Year

One of the scariest sentences in the world?  “So, I was thinking…”

Thinking is dangerous…thinking can get you into trouble.

But…well…I got to thinking, anyway….

It started when I wrote about education a little while back, got reinforced by an article I read after, then was brought to the front of my mind with a podcast I had playing while I drove.

What was I thinking about?  College.  The whats and whys, mainly, but also a tiny bit about the hows.

I did college twice, mostly because the first time I didn’t really come close to getting it right.  To be honest, I was most definitely one of those kids who would’ve benefited greatly from taking a couple of years between high school and college to work and travel and just experience something of the real world.

Put simply, I wasn’t ready for college at eighteen — I wasn’t mature enough, hadn’t experienced enough, and certainly hadn’t learned to understand myself enough.  There’s a reason why I went through a few majors before I got to linguistics (and my eventual degree).

If anyone thinks I’m alone in that immaturity, they’re either freakin’ insane, or they’re living in a disconnected dream-world that makes me ask, “where can I get some of that shit?”
Most kids, I would argue, are nowhere near ready for college nowadays.  Oh, I’m not talking about academics — most high schools are very good at box-checking when it comes to classes and subjects — but rather I’m talking about life, and survival, and the maturity that comes from experience of the wider world.

We can prepare high school kids with all the prerequisites in the world, but no school can teach them to expand their horizons and develop the self-reliance and confidence that success in college requires.  Look, I know college is looked at — nowadays — as the end of childhood, rather than the beginning of adult life, but that outlook just infantilizes the students and defers for five more years the act of growing up.

The less prepared are the incoming students, the more in loco parentis do the teachers and administrators have to be.  The way things stand at present — let alone in the future — those folks already have too much sway and power over things that should be none of their business.*

*A fact neither their fault, nor intentional on their part: it is the fault of the families, and of society itself, who have done little-to-nothing to prepare their kids to be adults able to think and judge for themselves.

I’m far too many words in to this post — already! — to get into every area I want to touch on, so I am just going focus and finish on this one point:

Taking-a-gap-yearThe Brits do it differently.  They do it differently and, in my eyes, they do it better.  When a high school kid finishes their A-levels, they typically take a “gap year” to work or travel or study.  A year to grow up, and to experience something of the world.  A year to, hopefully, prepare themselves for university.  When that year is done, and university is beckoning, the students take three years for a bachelors.

Three years, not the five that is now average in the US.  Yes, the British Universities are structured differently than ours…but I defy anyone to show even the slightest evidence that they are somehow worse.

I repeat: THREE YEARS.  From the perspective of student debt* and finances alone, that is a huge win.  A gap year increases the odds that, unlike me in my freshman and sophomore years, a new student will have at least some idea as to what major they want to pursue.  We here in the US charge an arm-and-a-leg for college, and then do everything possible to stretch out that college experience.  Very, very few humans who walk away with $50,000-$100,000 in college debt are going to see sufficient return to justify that expense.  What, though, if we could reduce that by 40%?  Yeah, I’d take that deal, too…

*spit**spit* Don’t even get me started on the evil idiocy that is the US student debt industry — there aren’t enough curse words in the universe for me to express my derision and hate for that particular monster.

From an academic perspective, too, the reduced time in university is a win. From the perspective of the classes and work that is important to their intended major, three years of focused and intentional study is as much better than five of meandering confusion as it is from the financial perspective.

The point of this rant?  For those of you with kids nearing those college years — middle and high school age kids — think about what best prepares your kid.  Is it to go straight to university?  To, potentially, spend a year or two taking classes just to take classes…and, likely, partying, err, rather heavily?

Or is it better to spend a year experiencing the world?  A year to work…  A year to travel…  A year to, equally likely, party rather heavily…and get it out of their system?

You be the judge.

Looking back, by the way?  If I had it to do all over…the linguistics and history degrees would (very likely) be the same, even with a gap year, but the career path would be markedly different.  Oh, for all the paths I didn’t take, and the opportunities I missed…

Rest in Peace, Professor

IMG_0720Didn’t I just do one of these?

Sadly, time refuses to stand still…and death to stay his hand.

This time it was a titan not of the smaller world of sci-fi, but one that strode the entire world: Stephen Hawking.

Now, unless you live under a rock — or are just totally divorced from popular culture — you know who Hawking was, at least in a general way.

Take what you know and multiply that a hundred times.

Many of us know Hawking as the man who managed to “boil down” the incomprehensibility of astrophysics and cosmology in A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.  More, even, know of him from The Simpsons and Star Trek and Big Bang Theory.

Hawking was a great communicator, yes, but he was no vapid, empty suit who could talk only about others’ theories and accomplishments. His (all-but-incomprehensible-to-normal-humans) work on the Big Bang and on blackholes provide some of the very building blocks in their respective areas of cosmology and astrophysics.  He challenged theories and thought — even his own! — and he changed things.  In the process, he left an intellectual legacy that will last for generations.

But he was (still) more than that.

He was one of the bravest, and most driven, humans to ever live.

Most saw the wheelchair, and the attached computers that allowed him to communicate, and saw shackles and limitations.  Hell, the doctors who gave him two years to live — in 1963 — saw only death and failure.  Hawking, however, saw past those limitations and found reasons to live, and to thrive: “However difficult life may seem,” he said, more than 50 years after his predicted demise, “there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.”

So, to the man who was “supposed to die” in his twenties, I say this: Congratulations, sir, on a life well and truly lived.  Thank you for surpassing every boundary, whether theoretical or real, and for teaching others to follow.