Nerd for Hire

Freelance scribbler exploring worlds real and imagined

TV, like the internet, is simultaneously among the best and the worst things for a writer. It can absolutely be a distraction that can prevent you from writing if you allow it to be. But it’s also a potentially valuable source of inspiration and ideas, and one that I think gets overlooked because it’s viewed as an unproductive time sink.

What’s great about TV for a writer is that everything on-screen is edited and packaged for maximum viewer retention. It’s a case study in creating emotional hooks, setting up cliffhangers, establishing tension and intrigue, and building characters through dialogue and actions—all things that are very useful for both prose writers and poets. 

You can also get more direct story inspiration from watching TV, and not always in the ways you might expect. Here are three prompts that can encourage you to see TV in a more creative way:

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I’m going to take a second for a minor brag first, but I promise it’s relevant: I’ve had a pretty solid first half of 2024 when it comes to submissions. So far this year, I’ve gotten 53 responses from publishers: 50 rejections and 3 acceptances, for an acceptance percentage of 5.7%—about a full percent higher than my typical average. Adding in the 4 article pitches I’ve had accepted and the fact that Cryptid Bits came out in February, and I think it’s safe to say 2024 is shaping up to be my best year by far as a writer.

Even aside from the publications, though, one of the main things that has me feeling like I’m building momentum is the fact that 13 of those rejections (roughly a quarter of them) weren’t just the standard form letter. This included a short-list from Andromeda Spaceways, a long-list from The Masters Review, and a personal from Missouri Review, all places it feels good to hear a nice no from.

Being a writer—or at least, being one who actively tries to get work published—means hearing “no” a lot. I’ve been at this for a while and have developed a fairly thick skin, but even so it can be rough sometimes when the rejections stack up. I’ve had spans where I’ve gotten a dozen or more form rejections in a row, sometimes multiple on the same day, and it can be hard to muster the motivation to send work out again when I’m in one of those stretches—the doubt and imposter syndrome start to creep in, and this is when I’m most likely to self-reject myself out of opportunities, or to question why I’m even doing this in the first place.

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I’ve been particularly fascinated by ghosts of late. They’ve always intrigued me to some extent—as an avid horror fan, I’ve enjoyed plenty a ghost story over my lifetime, though I haven’t played with hauntings in my fiction until the last few years. I mostly avoided them because of how widespread they already are. It’s just like dragons, vampires, or zombies—the world already has so many stories about them that they can quickly veer into tired cliches if a writer isn’t bringing something new to the trope.

One thing that sets ghosts apart from other fantastic creatures is that they’re one of the supernatural elements most likely to feature in literary fiction. From Hamlet’s father to Sethe’s daughter in Beloved, there are ample examples of hauntings across the literary canon. I see two potential reasons for this: 

  1. A lot of people don’t think of ghosts as speculative. In a 2021 survey, 41% of respondents said they believe ghosts exist, a similar percentage to those who believe in demons. That’s lower than the percentage who believe aliens exist (57%) but much higher than belief in bigfoot (13%), vampires (8%), or werewolves (9%).

  2. Ghosts and haunting are easy ready-made metaphors for emotions like grief, regret, loss, and nostalgia. This is reflected in our euphemistic language for these feelings—you might say someone is “haunted by the past” or that a place is “a ghost of what it once was.” Ghosts are reminders of what used to be, unchanging intrusions of the past on the present.

  3. Their ephemeral nature makes it easier to insert them into a narrative. The “suspension of disbelief” factor is lower with a ghost than something corporeal because the reader has less of an expectation that it would leave physical signs and evidence. This also allows for more play between what’s real and what’s imagined by the narrator, especially in first-person narratives.

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Christine Stroud 58 pages Disorder Press (2017)

Read this if you like: hybrid stories, fragmented narratives, grief and loss narratives

tl;dr summary: Twin grieves and remembers her sister in the aftermath of her suicide

See the book on Disorder Press’ website

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Jason DeYoung 44 pages The Cupboard Pamphlet (Volume 42, 2020)

Read this if you like: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Carmen Maria Machado, character-driven apocalyptic horror

tl;dr summary: Three people survive together during a quiet apocalypse

See the book on The Cupboard’s website

 

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A lot of literary magazines have basically the same deal. There are slight variations in the genre, length, and vibe of the things they publish, but you’ll find the submission guidelines of most journals are 90% identical (sometimes even repeating the exact same phrases), and their format is equally homogeneous: prose and/or poetry, published either in a book-like form or as web pages.

And not that there’s anything wrong with that. A straightforward, expected format keeps the reader’s focus mostly on the work itself, and that’s where it should be. But I’m always excited when I’m scrolling through open calls and I stumble across a market that breaks this mold. Even if it’s not a place any of my current work will fit, I find I’ll often add these to my list of journals I go to just as a reader—which is a much shorter list, that’s much more difficult for a journal to land a place on, than the magazines I read with the goal of deciding if my work would fit in their pages.

So for other folks out there who appreciate places that do things differently, here are a few journals that stand out from the rest for you to be hip to if you’re not already.

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I’ve been freelancing for long enough now that I’ve had several other writer friends come to me asking for advice on how to do it. I think sometimes they’re looking for a step-by-step, and I’m afraid I always leave them disappointed because the truth is, there really isn’t one. Every freelancer’s path is going to be different, which is simultaneously one of the best and the worst things about being self-employed in general.

It’s like the difference between playing a side-scroller or an open-world RPG. A side-scroller has a logical, clear progression from level to level—you don’t need to wonder what order to do things in or where you should go next. In an open-world RPG, you can spend hours just wandering around before you accomplish a single game objective, or accidentally wander enemies you’re not strong enough to fight yet and have to backtrack to a more familiar map area until you’re ready to face them. It’s up to you to decide when you’re ready to fight the next boss, or which activities and areas you’re most interested in spending time on. It’s no coincidence that open-world RPGs usually have a significantly longer average playtime than side-scrollers, too. If you want to do speed runs, you’re probably playing the latter type—and, I would argue, if your goal is to make quick advancement into a 6-figure salary, traditional employment is where you should focus. You absolutely can reach that income level as a freelance writer, but it’ll take some time to build.

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From the time I was a wee nerdlet, I loved text-based adventure games, choose-your-own-adventure books—anything that let the audience, not just participate in the story, but influence how it played out.

As much fun as these stories are to read, writing a choose-your-own story can be a beast of an undertaking. I attempted several that I never finished before finally completing my first one—and even though I made it through, it took a couple of false starts. On the plus side, I made a few valuable learning mistakes along the way. I’m currently in the planning stages of a new choose-your-own story and, while it’s still a bit of a daunting task, I feel much more confident about how to tackle it than I was last time.

I’ve been seeing more interest in these kinds of narratives of late. In part I think because online publishing makes it much easier to share this kind of story with readers, but I’ve also seen a few writers playing with the form in print books (a chapter in Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House comes to mind). So I figured I’d share some of my tips for writing a choose-your-own story without losing your mind.

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Brandon O’Brien 64 pages Interstellar Flight Press (2021) 

Tl;dr summary: Eldritch horror meets pop culture meets Blackness meets black humor, all mixed together and with line breaks

Read this if you like: Elwin Cotman, speculative poetry, hip hop culture

See the book on Bookshop

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Conventional wisdom says to read a journal’s back issues before you send them work so you can get a sense of what they publish and whether your stuff’s a good fit. The same advice is often given to folks shopping around a chapbook or book-length manuscript: read what the press has done before. It’s good advice—when it’s possible. That’s easy for free online journals, for instance, and even many print journals, small presses, or paywalled online publications have free samples available.

In other cases, though, the only way to read past issues is to buy them. While I’m in favor of supporting small publishers in theory, my budget and bookshelf space also aren’t infinite. Granted, there are other ways around this conundrum. You could only submit to places that do have work available on line, for instance, or you could just say fuck it, send your stuff anyway, and hope for the best. There are other ways to get a sense for a journal’s tastes too, though, ones that don’t involve spending any money. Here are some things I’ll often do when I want to scope out a journal, anthology, or press to decide whether it could be a good home for my work.

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