Twenty-Five Years Ago Today, I Killed Myself

When I logged into Facebook, I got an eyeful of alternate history.
“Can’t believe it was 25 years ago today that we graduated!” said the merry message from the “Norwalk High School Class of 1987” group I belong to.  Except I didn’t attend my own graduation.  I was in the hospital psych ward, because I’d attempted to kill myself.
The reasons I’d tried to kill myself were embarrassing in retrospect.  My girlfriend had broken up with me to go back to her ex-boyfriend, and as a lonely and socially awkward teen, I was convinced that I’d never have another love like that again.  So I snuck back to my house and swallowed a handful of pills, then called up some friends to tearfully say goodbye, and lay down on the bed to sink into oblivion.
Everything about that suicide attempt was laughable, in retrospect.  I called my friends, and what were they going to do?  Support me in this venture?  And I’d chosen the pill bottle at random, so what I attempted to overdose on was prescription antihistamines.  The ER technicians laughed when they found what I’d done.
Still, I was serious about the death.  I think about what had happened if I’d been a little more clinical about the suicide… And today, my parents could be mourning on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the day their son killed himself.
And I think of everything I would have missed:

  • The joy of performing on stage as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, becoming a sex star in high heels and fishnets, discovering that joy of transformation;
  • The thrill of writing a silly humor column for Southern Connecticut State University, and finding that I could make people laugh;
  • All the happy silliness of going on local poetry tours and playing gigs with my bands – none of which went anywhere, of course, but the pure delight of hanging with wonderful people aligned towards a common cause turned out to be more lasting than the art we created;
  • The incredible honor when Borders Books chose a mere store clerk to head its new software-selling department, because I’d done such a good job selling computer books there they trust me with its new initiative;
  • The agonizing challenge of using every one of my skills to try to make software possible in bookstores – I failed, but that was the first time in my life I’d ever poured literally everything I had into a taskgoaland it taught me not to be afraid of failure;
  • The breathtakingly wild mountains of Alaska, the windy perfection of Chicago’s urban sprawls, climbing in abandoned castles in Germany, gawking at all the movies in Hollywood, and travelling to a hundred other cities I would never had seen had I shut that door;
  • Taking that bold risk of going, “Yes, I love this woman, I’ll drop everything to move to Alaska to be with her,” and knowing that it was a crazy risk but taking a strange pride that yes, I had become the sort of person who would take wild risks;
  • That first day I split my hibachi shrimp to my daughters Amy and Erin, the hibachi shrimp I’d always stolen from Uncle Tommy and Mom, realizing that I now loved my two daughters enough to give them the selfish things I’d always craved, and be glad to sacrifice for them;
  • The incredible honor of being accepted into the Clarion Workshop, and that first realization that I might be good enough to make it;
  • That first professional short story sale to Asimov’s, the magazine I’d always wanted to be published in;
  • Signing my membership application to SFWA, knowing that I’d made three short story sales to some of the toughest markets in the country, and had managed a feat that only a handful of writers had been able to do;
  • Getting the phone call telling me I was nominated for a Nebula award, an achievement of a lifetime, and then people being very casual in their confidence that I’d be back to get another nomination some day.
  • All the friends I’d gather as I moved from place to place – the card-playing misfits at SCSU, my Champions-playing Ann Arbor buddies, the Alaska Magic players, and all the wonderful warm people in Cleveland.
  • All the times spent with my family and friends – years spent with Dad, Mom, Tommy, Grammy, Grampop, Gramma, a thousand hugs and smiles and conversations that would have been erased had I dropped into that hole.

There’s a hundred thousand things that I’d never have gotten to see, had I swallowed the right set of pills that day.  There’s this ad campaign for gay teens saying, “It gets better,” which helps… But looking back over the last twenty-five years, I’ve had such a wonderous and varied life full of such happiness, that to throw it all away over a broken heart seems like a personal holocaust, burning a quarter-century of life experiences on one bad day.
I want to go back in time and take my seventeen-year-old self’s hand and whisper: “Listen.  I know it hurts.  But some day, you’re going to be just this lonely and aching, and you’re going to go online to a meeting place… And there, you’ll start to argue with some girl over the tactics the Alliance used to blow up the Death Star.  That girl is going to become the love of your life.  You will love her so much that you will surpass yourself for her, caught in the throes of a love so gargantuan that you will find yourself changing because you need to in order to keep her happy.  And you will grow wise, and strong, and competent, and all of that will only take place if you live.  So put down those pills, my friend.  Put down that hopelessness, because all of that will disappear if you do that one, irrevocable thing.”
And if I could, I would whisper my story into the ears of every suicide out there, to tell them the truth: there’s more.  There’s always more than this.


When I was raising my two daughters, I made a point of teaching them they could do everything that men did.  I was handicapped slightly by the fact that, as someone who’s poor with his hands and has no sense of direction, I can’t do most things that men can – but I taught them my lesson in a unique way:
I didn’t tell them what a man thing was.
Whenever I taught them a skill, I didn’t explain that they were doing well for a girl.  Whatever they wanted to learn, if I knew how to do it, I attempted to show them.  Because reinforcing gender barriers is bullshit.  So I taught them videogames and cooking and computers and critiqued their stories and basically treated them as competent human beings.
Society probably fucked me on that one.  A lot.  But I tried hard to draw no distinction between any set of skills.
Which is why this video pisses me off.

Now, E.J. Newman does a good job dissecting why the video is so wrong, and honestly I probably could have linked it and she would have said it all – but I was so infuriated that I had to throw in my own two cents.  Because if you want women in science, you have to do two things:
1)  Make women feel like there’s something in it for them.
2)  Make it a welcoming environment so women can show up at a scientific gathering and not be asked, “So you’re here with your boyfriend?”
Now, you’ve got the whole “girl LEGO” fiasco, wherein LEGO created “Lego Friends” – a prettier set of LEGO blocks that lend themselves more to roleplaying, so girls can play doll with the LEGOs.  People were spluttering with outrage over that, but actually I understood where LEGO was coming from.  They did a hell of a lot of studies to find why girls weren’t attracted to LEGOs, and basically the two reasons were “they’re ugly” and “they wanted to identify themselves in the LEGO minifigures.”  So they created a set of LEGOs to sneak sideways in through the existing gender roles, to say, “Well, this is what young women have been trained to want, so let’s make sure we have them building, too.”
It’s a subversive empowerment.  Yes, they’re going to have pink blocks and prettier avatars… But if it works out, then LEGO will have women doing what boys have done with LEGO for years – learning spatial skills, feeling the joy of creation, and hopefully graduating to LEGO Mindstorms.
That’s what LEGO does.  They’re a company.  They can’t dictate the market, they can only reflect it and change it through the back door.  As this article says:

The Lego Friends team is aware of the paradox at the heart of its work: To break down old stereotypes about how girls play, it risks reinforcing others. “If it takes color-coding or ponies and hairdressers to get girls playing with Lego, I’ll put up with it, at least for now, because it’s just so good for little girls’ brains,” says Lise Eliot.

The thing is, LEGO is dressing up in traditional gender roles to try to push what should be universal experiences: the love and pride of assembling complex things. The feeling that one can create.  It’s not pretty, but it’s something that hopefully works.
This scientist video does none of that.  What’s it show?  That the only reason you’d want to get into science is to have great friends and to be pretty.  And I think most women who are in science would agree that they did not take eight years of biochemistry classes because they had a deep-seated need to win a popularity contest.
The video’s not selling a product – it’s selling a lifestyle.  And it is completely misrepresenting that lifestyle, making it about vacuous fun.  It’s subtly reinforcing that science is guy work – look how surprised he is when the women walk in and start posing sexy for that male gaze of his, because the only way you can do science is to impress a boy!  It’s telling you that what’s important is your bodies, not what you learn.  It’s telling you that science is about makeup and ponies.
Fuck, man, if you’re gonna sell science, sell it accurately.  Because what women like about science – what people like about science – is that thrill of discovery.  That joy of going, “This is how the universe fits together.”  That wonder when you realize how marvelously complicated things are, and how much of it we’ve discovered through observation and testing, and how much there is to learn.
Basically, these idiots are trying to fix a deep-rooted problem – namely, that women are taught to be valued by how pretty and well-liked they are – by lying to them and saying that science is about cool hair-dos.  So the women who might be encouraged by the concept of learning will be utterly put off by this, and the women who really are traditionally quote-unquote girly may try science and walk away disappointed.  It’s looking at the question of going, “Why are girls not attracted to science?” and not thinking, “Well, it’s probably that so few people encourage women to think critically,” and instead blurting, “Women like perfume!  We’ll make Chanel-scented labs!”
The difference between LEGO and this is that LEGO is honest about what it delivers: in the end, dress it up though you will, you’re still playing with blocks.  This encourages behavior that’s already too fucking prevalent and rewarded in society, in order to sell a fantasy that does not exist.
Fuck that.  Change the attitude.  Stop thinking of women as crawling out of the fucking womb wanting a mani-pedi, and realize that to get women into science, we have to fight that cultural programming that tells women, every day, 24/7, that there are certain places you should not go.  That those are boy things.  That you’re better off over here.
Explain that science is just as empowering as a good haircut, and maybe you’re getting somewhere.

Mapping the Novel: What Is A Scene?

Hey, guys!  The Clarion Blog-A-Thon starts today – and with it, my attempt to outline my novel live, in a members-only community, as an advanced seminar in plotting, theme, and character!  A $10 donation and an email to with your LJ name will get you access – and also help one of the greatest writing workshops in history.
How good is Clarion?  In twenty pre-Clarion years, I had three sales.  In three post-Clarion years, I had twenty sales.  That’s how much you learn.  And the Clarion Echo, where I’m doing all of this plotting, is designed to be a little taste of Clarion.  I’m certainly teaching you everything I learned.  So I’ll ask you to donate, both for a good cause and some entertaining tutorials.
So what am I writing today?  It’s an essay on what benchmarks make for a good scene, and it starts like this:

To plot this novel during the Blog-a-Thon, I’m going to have to break everything down into scenes. That’s tricky for me, because I’m an exploratory writer — I usually don’t know what’s going to happen until the words hit the page.
Now, in a lot of cases, I get to a point where I don’t know what’s going to happen next. That’s when my writing theory skills come in handy.
See, all that writing advice you’ve ever gotten? You never need it when a story is working. You only need to reach into that bag of tricks when a scene’s falling flat, or an ending is nowhere in sight, or when that character is relentlessly limp.
Now, for me, when I hit that terrifying blank page, I fall on my old standbys for What To Do When You Don’t Know What Happens Next. Neil Gaiman told me that every story is really about what a character needs — and so I think, “What life lesson could this character use most in this moment, and how can I teach it to her?” James Patrick Kelly taught me that if I couldn’t figure out what happened next, come up with ten terrible endings and think about why they’re terrible… And lo, elucidating the reasons I hate this awful, cheesy, and obvious ending makes me realize what I want to have happen. And I have my own custom advice, which is, “If you were the GM in a game, how would you plot this?”
All utterly unneeded when things are going well. But when instinct fails, theory’s what gets you back on track.
So for me, in unfamiliar territory, I thought about what would make a good scene for this novel, so I’d have a clear-cut set of tests to apply during plotting.  I read probably four or five books dealing with novel-writing and outlining, to try to devise a set of “acid tests” to see if something was up to snuff.  Which is important in novels; a short story is usually about one or two ideas, and if your writing is compelling or your ideas dazzling, you can kind of tapdance around that rotten hole in the stage.  But for novels, you need to have an underlying structure that works… and without actually writing the scene, something I’ve always done before, I need something else as a sanity check for this novel.
Note those words: for this novel. I’m writing what hopefully will be a very cinematic, simple script — other novels may have different scene requirements. For example, some novels may need breather scenes where the character sits back and thinks. That’s not the effect I’m going for here, so I’m going to try not to have those.
So what will my sanity checks for this novel, as we plot it out together, you and I?  I made a list.  And that list contains both generically good scene advice, and advice specific for this novel….

The rest of the entry can be found here, but you can only read it if you donate.  It’s $10.  That’s not a huge amount, it will get you entry to fabulous prizes from twelve amazing authors, and I’ll consider it a personal favor.  So why not donate?

No, They Can't Take That Away From Me

I was sitting in the parking lot, debating whether to go inside, eaten alive by social anxiety.  I was going to a local poly meeting, where I only knew one person, and crowds scare the fuck out of me.  I’m okay once introduced, which is why I usually do okay at conventions – but the thought of entering that Panera’s and talking to a lot of people I’d never met before terrified me.
I thought about driving home.  I’d done that before.  Going to a place full of new people, sitting in the driveway, then going right back.  It’s a secret only the socially awkward know about – kind of like how sometimes we don’t have a lunch date but don’t want everyone at the office to know what losers we are, so we order drive-through and then sit in the parking lot, eating alone.
My armor.So.  Going home sounded like a good option.  I touched the keys, debating whether to say I couldn’t make it…
…then I saw my hat on the seat next to me.
It’s weird, having a hat.  People treat you differently in a good hat.  Suddenly, you’re more stylish, perhaps a little older, and people say “Sir” more often.  They act as though you have more discerning tastes.  They feel free to throw compliments in your direction – “Nice hat!” “Looking good!”
And donning the hat becomes an act of transformation.  There’s something about cupping it in your palm and then clapping it to your head that says, “Right.  We’re doing this.”  Perhaps it’s all those 1940s movies where the reporter brusquely puts on his hat before headed out to do Business… But in that moment, I understood everything Barney Stinson had ever said by saying “Suit up!”
Clothes make the man.  The hat completes him.  I may not be confident, but under the brim of this straw-weaved chapeau, I can convince others that I am.  And when I put that hat on, I nodded once and strode into Panera’s to meet my group.
It was a fine meeting.  And a fine feeling.

You've Got Two Options. Choose.

So without going into details, I just got a rejection on the novel I’m currently trying to sell.  It said, as others have said, that there’s too much focus on worldbuilding, and not enough honest emotion.
The thing is, I spent about fourteen months working on that novel, getting it to be the best it could be.  I’ve polished it to the absolute best of my ability, and if there are ways to fix it at this point, it will involve a complete rewrite from scratch.  Which will be another fourteen months invested, because my first drafts suck.  I’m pretty much curled into a ball right now, suckin’ back tears because I put everything I had into this goddamned novel, and here’s a data point suggesting that my end product may not be good enough.
You know what my options are now?
1)  Quit writing.
2)  Write a better novel.
That’s it.  That’s the writer’s creed.  Maybe this story can’t sell.  Maybe your talents aren’t good enough.
Keep trying.
And it sucks.  I mean, that’s a year of my life invested that I may have to throw away.  I got good critiques on it from my fellow writers, professionals told me they didn’t think I’d have problems selling it, the friends I handed it to largely liked it.  I used every bit of technique I have to make it sing.  Yet here we are, racking up a very kind “No thanks.”
Now, keep in mind that this is a transitory emotion.  My novel may find a home, because maybe it’s just quirky and needs to find the right place to nourish its baby-bird delicacy.  Or it just may not be very good.  But this is what happens when you’re a writer.  You spend weeks pouring your heart’s blood into a golden chalice for someone, only to be told hey, this Bud Lite over here is way tastier.  And what do you do then?
1)  Quit writing.
2)  Write a better story.
I’m not dicking around here.  There was a time when I racked up form letters from Asimov’s.  Eventually, I got in to my favorite magazine, fighting against the best in the business for my well-earned slot in one of the most prestigious magazines in sci-fi.  Then I did it again.  And again.  Why?  Because I looked at my choices.
1)  Quit writing.
2)  Write a better story.
I kept writing.  Eventually, I wrote a better story.  As you can, if you stick with it.
This entry is written from the heart of rejection, that stinging kick to the teeth where you feel like this rejection is proof you don’t deserve a seat at the big-boy table.  That you’re a fraud, masquerading as a writer – which is an emotion, I think, every writer faces.  That fear that maybe you can’t do this.  But I’m sharing this pain because the difference between you and the people who didn’t make it is going to boil down to perseverance.  You’re going to send that story around until hell won’t have it, and your next story will knock their socks off.
I don’t know if I can sell this.  I may not be able to.  But I do know that my next novel will be better.  And, if necessary, the one after that will be even better.  I’ve taken my gut punch for today, but I’m gonna stumble back into the damn ring, because the other option involves flinging a bloody towel at the feet of the refs.  And when I do that, the game is over.
Option #1’s a little easier on the ego.  Option #2 will get me there.  I hope.  Some day.  And so I tell you:
Write a better story.