Nerd for Hire

Freelance scribbler exploring worlds real and imagined

Toshikazu Kawaguchi 272 pages Hanover Square Press (2019) 

Tl;dr summary: Intersecting stories of the employees and patrons of a café with a time travel seat.

Read this if you like: Haruki Murakami, Twin Peaks, magical realism

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I adore Star Trek. But one common (and fair) critique of the series is the fact that most of its alien characters are really just humans in a mask—and not just on a physical level. Many of the aliens in Star Trek generally act and think the exact same way that people do, and it’s far from the only universe that’s guilty of this. Star Wars has more weird-looking aliens, but a lot of them are still functionally humans. The Mon Calamari look like squids, for example, but they use the same spaceship controls and don’t seem to have issues breathing air.

I use a lot of non-human characters in my stories, so this question of what makes them truly feel like a distinct being—and not just a human in an alien suit—has been at the front of my mind lately. The key, I think, is ultimately in the worldbuilding. The writer has thought through the environment and culture these beings would live in, and that is reflected in how they look and act. This makes the details of their appearance or behavior feel purposeful, like they’re driven by an in-world logic.

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Getting feedback from a workshop group or beta reader can be a great way to refine and polish your writing in preparation for submitting stories or poems to publishers.

Journals that have a feedback option, on the other hand, offer you a different kind of insight. It’s a way to hear straight from editors who choose the work for journals, anthologies, and other publications. At minimum, they’ll give you some insights about why they rejected the piece, and usually they’ll offer some other tips about areas you can improve, to increase your odds of getting an acceptance the next time you send it out.

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When I’m reading submissions for After Happy Hour, I try not to make any judgments about the writer. We read things anonymously for a reason. We don’t want anything to sway our decisions except the work itself.

That said, I am still human, and humans are adept at noticing patterns. There are some things writers do that give me the impression they haven’t been writing fiction for very long. Usually, when I see their bio after we’ve made our decision on the piece, I find that I’m right.

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Elwin Cotman 89 pages Nomadic Press (2023)

Read this if you like: mythic fantasy, punk poetry, Haruki Murakami tl;dr summary: Combination poetry collection and story about a galaxy-traveling wizard

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Christmas-themed things can be a bit of a landmine for storytellers. It’s pretty easy for them to veer into cliché or maudlin territory, and a lot of the familiar themes and plots have been written to death.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get inspiration from the holiday season, though. Here are some prompts that can get your brain going on some stories in the Christmas spirit.

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Reality television is one of the more decried entertainment genres. And, sure, it’s got its flaws. I’m not going to claim it’s high art—but I do enjoy watching it. Competition-style shows are my reality genre of choice, and I’ll gladly watch people do just about anything if they’re competing on a TV show while they do it: cooking, designing clothes, modeling, doing drag, surviving in the wilderness, making piñatas, you name it. They don’t even need to be that good at it. Honestly, sometimes it’s better when they’re not.  

I also do feel like this content has value for a writer, and I’m not just saying that to justify the hours of it I’ve consumed. Here are three lessons that storytellers can learn from reality TV, arguably better than from any other television genre.

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I recently finished watching the Netflix miniseries The Fall of the House of Usher and thoroughly enjoyed it. It had everything I like in my horror: a dollop of creepiness, a dash of humor, and a high body count and gore quotient (also Mark Hamill as an evil lawyer). 

While there’s a lot to discuss about Fall of the House of Usher—I may do a future blog post on the panoply of Poe references if the spirit so moves me—the thing that most impressed me was how well it pulled off two simultaneous and complementary tropes, what I’ll call “inevitable demise” and “cruel and unusual death.”

These are often found side-by-side in horror movies. Most frequently, at least in my experience, they show up in slasher films, usually ones that are either intentionally campy or are just plain not that good. This isn’t coincidence. These tropes are difficult to pull off with any kind of storytelling grace. When paired, they tend to end up in narratives where subtlety and depth weren’t ever on the menu.

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Virginia Woolf 329 pages Mariner Books (1928)

Read this if you like: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, magical realism, literary satire

tl;dr summary: 16th-century aristocratic English teenager grows up into a 19th-century British woman and has many adventures along the way.

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If you look at the dates on the posts here, you’ll notice a bit of a gap: I took the last couple of weeks off while I was on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. Normally I still do things like post blogs and whatnot when I travel, and I did still do a bit of work and a few other creative career type things during the trip. Unlike my usual working-on-the-road excursions, though, I wanted this trip to feel a smidge more like an actual vacation.

I struggle to take breaks as a rule, largely because I genuinely like to work. Having literally nothing to do is not my idea of a good time—I can handle it for a day or so, but more than that and I start to get antsy. This is a good thing for a freelancer most of the time, but it also makes me prone to epic burnout if I’m not careful about keeping my life in balance.

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