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Being All In or Busting Out

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    Posted: Mar-05-2015 at 8:22am

Being All In or Busting Out, by Robert J. Santa

originally published 1/16/2007
I'm a poker player. A lot of people are, these days, but I'm not one of those guys jumping on the bandwagon late. I smoked cigars with my grandfather twenty years ago, well before they became "cool" (which was followed soon thereafter by "not"). I also drink martinis, once again not because they came into fashion with flavored vodkas, espresso, or--shudder--splashes of fruit juice. No, martinis are cold gin with vermouth, and you can keep the vermouth. 

So I'm a poker player from way back, when nobody but my family and close circle of friends knew what Hold 'em was. What's convenient for me is that everybody thinks they can play this game, which is much harder than you might think (even if you think you know quite a bit). It's also very convenient that I live near to Foxwoods and get to spend Friday nights there teaching people the difference between a few years' worth of playing poker and a few decades. 

Some of the simplest concepts in poker translate very well to the area of fiction writing. Card players will nod in appreciation of these values, but you need never have held a pair of aces to apply these philosophies: 

YOU ONLY GET BETTER BY BEING IN THE GAME...Many great students can learn by reading books and taking classes. The shelf in my writing room has a few dozen books on the craft of fiction writing, and I consult them often. I revisit the concepts that I've learned over the years and study old and new ideas alike to see how they can improve my prose. Still, unless I'm out there banging away at the keyboard, I know my skills will never improve. Watch all the World Series of Poker that you want on television; if you're not sitting around the table pressing your hand, you ain't goin' nowhere. 

More importantly, you can learn a lot by making mistakes. Much like attacking with middle pair from first position, going back and reflecting on your writing pitfalls will improve your future writing. If you happen to write a lot, more often than not your writing will be less than perfect. Manuscripts that are unsold after a few years can be recycled into future stories. If it's unsold, it's not making any money, which leads to... 

YOU CAN ONLY WIN MONEY BY BEING IN THE POT...Does anyone know a writer who never sends out their manuscripts to markets? I know one, and he's so hung up on rejection that he lets no one but his wife see his writing. Guess what? He's not getting rich as a writer (well, not many of us are, but that's a different gripe). Give your manuscript, like your cards, a good, hard look. If you think it can make you some money, then put it in an envelope. If you don't think it will, fold it--I mean--rewrite it. Make it the best it can be then let an editor see it. 

(VARIATION) YOU CAN ONLY WIN A LOT OF MONEY BY BEING IN A LOT OF POTS...Okay, so for the sake of my comparison we're playing limit poker. Big gains in money are for blockbuster novels, and we're talking short fiction here. Just like limit poker games where there is a cap on the amount you can win, short fiction will pay out modest sums, at best. Fold a lot of hands and you guarantee that you won't make anything. However, taking a small chance with a small investment (the price of a few stamps, a manila envelope, and some printer pages) might reap you a small reward. Do that enough times, perhaps the bigger pots will start to happen. 

EVERYONE THINKS THEY CAN DO IT...God, I should quit my stupid job and just live at Foxwoods! But Friday night is when the suckers come out, and while a few hundred dollars a couple times a night is good money, it just doesn't pay the bills. Ego aside, I consider myself a good poker player. Great? Only in my circle of friends. My biggest weakness is my aggressive style of play, doom in no-limit Hold 'em when you get unlucky or simply come up against a better player. But there's no counting the number of people that think they have the chops to handle swimming with the big fish. Same goes for writing short fiction. Most of it stinks. Worse yet, most of those people actually do put their stories in envelopes and mail them to editors. How many awful--let's go with ridiculously awful--stories do these poor editors see on a daily basis? If you want to be one of those little fish gobbled up by the sharks at the poker tables, by all means, forget about rules of grammar, spelling, tight prose, character growth, and plot resolution. Just push in your chips and see what happens. 

Last week I was playing a $100 sit-and-go (which means there were ten players at a sort of mini-tournament). Blinds were in the third level at $100-$200, and I was the big blind. [Okay, I'll catch the non-players up to speed. The first person after the dealer must bet "blind" by putting money on the table before he/she even sees cards. The next person puts up twice that amount, hence, "small" and "big" blinds.] With $1500 in starting money, this is not exactly chump change. I had already doubled my stack but just lost a good pot and held about $2500. Eight players were left. The first guy to act called, everyone but the small blind folded, and that guy called. I look down at the eight of spades and the two of hearts, called 8-2 offsuit, the second-worst starting hand in Hold 'em poker. But since I had already put $200 in the pot I was free to see the next three cards (a community set of five cards that all players use to make their best hand eventually get dealt). Lo and behold, the cards are 8, 2, jack. I have "flopped" two pair, a statistical monster. The guy on my right is the first to act, and he bets $400 dollars, about a third of his remaining money. I call, curious what the guy on my left is going to do, and he pushes all in with about $1500. The first guy calls immediately, and--surprise, surprise--so do I. The first guy has an ace and a jack, known as "top pair with an ace kicker," a great hand. The guy on my left has a pair of queens, an even better hand. But my two pair stays strong, even after a scary king gets shown that I thought was a queen. Those two guys go bye-bye, and I rake in enough money to just about guarantee a win unless I suddenly develop a case of head-up-my-ass-itis. I don't, and I cash a casino check for $500. 

What was the mistake? Those two other players let me see the cards that defeated them for free. My money was already on the table; as a blind, it was forced there. As far as I was concerned, the hand cost me nothing. If one of them had raised, even the minimum, I would have folded. The guy who acted first should have raised, the second guy probably would have called, I'd be out, play would have happened exactly the same way except that the guy with queens would have doubled his chip count. It was a rookie mistake, made by two players, and it cost them the game. 

If you'd like the same results with your fiction writing, by all means drop it in an envelope as soon as it's written. That form rejection letter should be in the mail in about two weeks. 

Or, and I acknowledge this may seem like a crazy idea, you could separate yourself from the school and polish your work until it shines. Get constructive feedback from people who will give you an honest criticism. Set the story aside for a few months and then rewrite it in its entirety. Work hard as if you meant to be the only one in the room to make money at what you freely admit is your hobby. Your manuscript will leap out at the editor, and you just might see a payday for it. 

TIMING IS EVERYTHING...Let's go back to no-limit Hold 'em. Heck, let's go back to that hand I described above. Now, if you take my lucky flop out of the equation, you've got one player with a pair of queens sitting opposite a guy with a pair of jacks. The guy with the jacks has a pretty good idea he's got the best hand, but there's still two more cards to see. Anything can happen in poker. If you sat in the chair of the guy with the queens, you'd get the same vibe; he's pretty sure he's got the other player beat. They both commit to the pot, two more cards show, and the queens stay strong. If you did the same hand the same way except for the last two cards one hundred times in a row, how many times would the queens win? 

About eighty of them. It's the mathematical favorite, yet it will still lose one out of every five times. 

I look at writing the same way. Imagine you research a market--ahem--like we all do before sending them a story. You read two years' worth of issues, and you have a feeling not just for the style of writing the editors seem to enjoy but also the plots of the stories they've purchased for two years now. You put your dragon-turns-into-a-schoolboy manuscript into an envelope, invest a dollar eighty-seven to send it to Greensport, Maryland, and feel confident of a sale. 

Wouldn't you know they just purchased a story about a dragon turning into a school girl, and even though yours is the better of the two, it gets a rejection. Let's make matters worse: the editors don't even let you know about this previous sale and just send you a form rejection. You have no idea why your well-researched and better-written story gets the thumbs down, and you hang your head in sorrow as you look for a paltry second market choice. Unlucky. 

The flipside of the coin is that you could never read a single issue of a highly-paying market, send them a story you wrote in a drunken fever one Saturday night, and make your biggest payday. Lucky sometimes counts in writing, as it does often in poker. When it happens, don't knock it. Thank the Fates and move on to the next one. 

LAST BUT NOT LEAST, DON'T BE ASHAMED TO TAKE MONEY FROM YOUR FRIENDS...Eventually, after a few good sales, you'll get invited to submit material to a market in which you have a passing acquaintance with the editor. Maybe you'll get favorable treatment; maybe you won't. I know this for certain though: when my wife and I go to Foxwoods we often sit at the same table. If the flop comes ace-eight-five and she goes all in with her ace-king, I'm sure as hell going to call with my pocket fives. If I'm unlucky, I lose, but if I cash that $500 check, I won't be crying myself to sleep that some of it was hers. 

Good luck. I look forward to seeing you on the felt.
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