I do believe in -isms

I signed a contract today to have a short story published as a standalone electronic unit. This is my first foray into that particular distribution model, so I’m really intrigued to see how it all goes. Many more details and reflections about the story will come as it gets closer to release, but for now the only hint I will offer is this: it’s an original superhero story, another first for me in terms of semi-pro publishing, which is nothing short of remarkable considering the sheer percentage of my life for which I’ve been obsessed with superheroes and comic books. Somewhere north of 90%, at least.

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Since I’m not going to talk much more about the story itself here, I thought I’d take the opportunity to dissect a couple of questions of terminology. What exactly is a superhero? What, for that matter, is a hero?

Let’s start with the second part first. It’s a little easier to get a handle on the concept of heroism because it’s a real thing in the real world; superheroes are idealized fictional constructs, but there are living, breathing heroes all around us. And yet attempting to define heroism can be surprisingly controversial! Still, semantic arguments that reveal more about the arguer’s worldview than the objective truth aside, the basic nature of heroism is fairly simple and straightforward. A hero risks or sacrifices some aspect of himself or herself for the benefit of someone else.

Note there’s nothing in there about nobility or respectability, and whether or not we should all aspire to living that way. Of course people, myself included, tend in casual conversation to use hero and idol interchangeably sometimes. If you look up to someone, and want to be like them, you call them a personal hero. And that could very well include someone who is perfectly described by my definition above. But it could also include someone who has accomplished something you want to accomplish. A kid playing guitar could point to Jimi Hendrix as a hero, or I could say Stephen King is mine, but that’s a bit outside of what we’re talking about here.

It may be a fair question to ask how much a person has to risk and how much they have to help someone before they can rightfully be called a hero. When we say that soldiers or police officers or firefighters are the real heroes, we’re acknowledging that getting shot at or running into a burning building unquestionably puts their physical safety, and quite possibly their very life, on the line. Nobody can give more than that. And by and large those same people are doing what they do in order to save someone else from an untimely demise. Very little gets as much instant, unchallenged respect as saving lives.

So is anyone who makes a different kind of sacrifice or takes a different kind of risk and in the process helps people in less dramatic ways therefore not a true hero? Does heroism encompass a very small subset within larger realms of role models and humanitarians? And does labeling anyone other than those who stare death in the eye without blinking as a hero somehow diminish the importance or the due respect of the bravest among us?

I would humbly offer a firm no to the lattermost question. Praise and appreciation are not zero-sum games. Reasonable people can disagree about where exactly to draw the line around worthy heroes and what constitutes a legitimate hazard and/or a worthwhile benefit. I have a fairly expansive sense of heroism myself, with room for both men and women in uniform as well as, for example, transgender sports celebrities who sacrifice privacy and risk being scorned and reviled in order to offer comfort to others struggling with their own identities. You are of course free to say that one is more heroic than the other, and I won’t argue with you. You are similarly free to say social standing, perception and identity issues aren’t that important, or don’t matter and don’t count, but there we would disagree. If you do strongly feel that way, I would be willing to bet that you are some combination of cishet, white, and male, and every aspect of your identity is so rock-solidly default normal that you have little to no experience standing up against people with the clout to make you feel inferior and invisible. But be that as it may.

Incidentally, this brings up your free bit of fiction writing advice for the post: if you think of the protagonist of a story as the hero, especially if you want your audience to think of him or her that way, then the character has to risk something over the course of the story. There’s really no way around that. The protagonist should be trying to accomplish something, and there have to be negative consequences to the possibility of failure. There may also be negative consequences to success! A story where there’s nothing to worry about – physically, mentally, emotionally, socially – tends to be a fairly inert story.

Assuming you’re still with me … with that reasonably workable definition of hero, how can it be a component of the superhero? Whether it’s thanks to skin (alien or mutant or secondary armor) that shrugs off exploding warheads or speed (freak accident side-effect or the pinnacle of human training) that allows for dodging bullets, superheroes aren’t known for taking their lives in their own hands. The character tropes are inextricable from the native medium of ongoing monthly adventures that never end – they can’t die and they can’t lose, so how can they be seen as risking anything?

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There are other eternal arguments about the parameters of superheroism, of course, the ones that probe the necessity, or lack thereof, of concepts like secret identities, costumes, code names, special powers and abilities, and so forth, and aim for an up-or-down vote on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Luke Skywalker or Nick Fury as superheroes. I think that those inquiries focus on the super- half, but I’m much more drawn to settling the -hero question.

Here’s how I settle it, my personal definition of superhero: a character who could do anything he or she wants, but who chooses a dedication to helping other people. Any fictional creation who meets those criteria is a superhero full-stop, as far as I’m concerned. I love the motifs of masks and capes and hidden headquarters and all the rest, but I recognize that they’re just color-coordinated trappings. I further believe that there’s something really key in that “anything he or she wants” element, in addressing whether or not a superhero requires superpowers. They don’t, I maintain, but they need to have a superabundance of life options, whether that’s because their godlike power puts global domination firmly in the doable column, or just because they are so wealthy or good-looking or smart or all of the above that the world is their proverbial oyster.

So technically superheroes do make sacrifices in the sense of giving up the easy life of luxury that is among their viable choices; however, far more importantly, they do what they do for the benefit of others. That’s what saving the day is all about, that’s what truth, justice and the American way or with great power comes great responsibility is supposed to stand for. Not personal advancement and achievement, but service. Altruism. Being other-oriented rather than self-obsessed. And when I look at it that way, there isn’t much daylight between hero and superhero at all.

And there you have it, my hot take on heroes and superheroes (and a whole lot of my life philosophy and personal politics in the bargain). Of course I make allowances for nuance and exceptions and all kinds of complications that keep things interesting, but that’s the core idea. As far as whether or not I was successful in pulling that off in my own fiction, I suppose I’ll have to leave the judgment call to you.

One reason why I write

Because we are all beautiful empyreal bundles of feelings and thoughts and subjectively lived experiences, each inherently, gloriously unique yet united by the deepest essence of human nature. But at the same time we are all isolated within layer upon layer of physical existence, and ultimately unknowable to one another.

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EXCEPT for our capacity for communication. No person can directly observe another person’s interior actuality, but we can choose to share those feelings and thoughts and subjective lived experiences by putting them into words. Language gives us the framework, we just have to choose to use it.

Talking is the most immediate, accessible way to exchange ideas and offer glimpses of what’s inside our own heads to anyone who’s interested enough to listen, and don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan and practitioner of conversation, thinking aloud, and every other verbal variant. Writing, though, is all of that slowed down and refined to a more pure form, taking the time to choose each word and construct each phrase and arrange the entire message to minimize misunderstanding and maximize the possibility of a meaningful connection. It’s more effort, with no guarantee of success on any level, but it’s worth it all the same. Words on a page have the power to open two awarenesses at once, mine and yours, and let them intermingle for a little while. Imagination and philosophy swirl and synthesize into something new.

If life as we know it has any point at all, it might well all come down to understanding the world around us, and the biggest challenge in that is understanding other consciousnesses than our own. Relationships based on understanding are our greatest accomplishments, uniting the essentially divided. We allow ourselves to bleed together, into one another, or else we bleed alone, floating in our separate lonely jars on the shelf.

Good karma

I keep a spreadsheet that tracks all the stories I’ve written, revised, and started sending out to potential markets. In addition, I use The (Submission) Grinder to track where I’ve sent my little scribblings. It is, in a lot of ways, a duplication of effort. And my personal spreadsheet has the convenience of capturing all the info I care about the most, all in one place, in a format that is intuitive for me. Which raises the question of why I bother with the online system.

The Grinder

Two reasons, really, but they both revolve around the same idea: the online system is free and publicly available and lots of people use it. So on the one hand, there is a certain amount of crowd-sourced information I can only get from The Grinder, including the average response time for each market, and whether or not people have started getting acceptances or rejections from the editor. People really do log both of those outcomes, which I admit surprised me a little when I first started checking in there. I would have understood completely if people happily updated records when they got acceptances and anything that was just hanging out as “pending” would have to be assumed to be a rejection, with the author in question not caring to rub salt in the wound of a “no” by navigating The Grinder’s interface solely to select REJECTED from the Submission Status dropdown.

That’s the idea on the other hand, that even though I, personally, do not like dwelling on rejections any longer than is absolutely necessary, I still need to dwell on them long enough to enter them into The Grinder. Making use of the outcomes of a group effort without contributing any effort of my own would be a cruddy thing to do. So I swallow my pride and add my own results to the corpus of statistics, and I tell myself that maybe, just maybe, in some cosmic way this not only balances the scales but tips them a tiny bit in my favor.

As you may have guessed, this post is a bit of a follow-up to this one, in the same vein of sending things out and seeing if any publishers bite. That was three months ago; I’ve sent out more since then, but I’m still waiting to hear back on a few of the ones I was already waiting on back then. I did, encouragingly, hear yesterday that one of the stories I submitted all the way back in February was shortlisted, with a final decision expected by mid-August, so that was a plus. I also got a rejection for a story I had sent out just two weeks ago. I dutifully logged the “no thanks” on The Grinder just before I started this post.