Why “The Girl Who Waited” is theBest NuWho Episode

By | November 24, 2014 | 0 Comments
Thirty-six years.

Thirty-six years.

Okay, I understand this is controversial for fans of Doctor Who, among whom the episode is considered kind of meh, but I recently re-watched the Season 6 episode The Girl Who Waited, and it’s one of the best episodes of the rebooted Doctor Who, for several reasons. The main reason, though, is how brutal it is.

Let’s consider the brutality:

  • Amy Pond is accidentally abandoned on a plague planet in a separate time stream amongst unintentionally murderous robots for thirty six years because The Doctor refuses to do any sort of basic research about where he’s traveling (“That is not how I travel.”).
  • The Doctor’s solution is to bring Young Amy into their time stream and then to abandon Old Amy to nonexistence even though over the course of 36 fucking years Old Amy has become a distinct and unique person.
  • The Doctor doesn’t even do this brutal murder himself, he forces Rory, Amy’s husband, to do it. And then he leaves it to Rory to explain to Amy that he basically murdered her older self.

That’s some dark stuff. And it gets to the core of what Doctor Who really is: It’s a horror series. And The Doctor is the monster.

The Doom of Men

Forget Amy and Rory’s ultimate fate — to say that Companions on Doctor Who often have less-than-happy endings is an understatement. But The Girl Who Waited underscores the fundamental conflict that drives the show. The Companions, usually (though not always) humans, want The Doctor to care about them. To be their friend. But he doesn’t, and can’t be, not the way they think. He’s not a human, and humans will always be collateral damage to him. He might feel bad about it — in fact, often does — but it’s equivalent to the way we feel bad when a pet runs away and gets run over by a car. We grieve. We feel bad.

Then we get another pet.

Collateral Damage

The murder of Old Amy is pretty dark stuff. And in the episode it’s not even obscured: The darkness is right there. Ostensibly, The Doctor’s decision to abandon Old Amy (or, to be fair, an Amy, as he leaves the choice of which Amy to leave up to Rory) is brutal, and Matt Smith plays it that way. It’s a murder. One moment Old Amy exists: bitter, fierce, and filled with rage, but also filled, suddenly, with hope of reclaiming her future, of having adventures and popping ’round the Pond house for holidays.

The next, she is gone. We’re supposed to be relieved that the hot, young version of Amy, the one we’re used to, the charming one not filled with bitter rage, has been ‘saved,’ and ignore the fact that Old Amy has … not been. But Old Amy existed. Imagine Young Amy, married to a man who abandoned her to die on an alien world, alone, her last memory her friends leaving her again, for the second time in 36 years. Imagine waking up next to a spouse who’d made that decision, no matter what the circumstances.

This is pretty much the core of Doctor Who. He’s a madman in a box, right? He’s an incompetent thief who stole a TARDIS that he’s not even 100% competent to operate and who has spent 2,000 years exploring and abandoning and generally destroying lives, often in the name of justice or the greater good. Viewed from far above, it looks like heroism. Looked at standing next to him, you have to know that if you became a liability, he would sacrifice you, and if he got a little moody about it, he’d just go out and get a new companion, eventually. The Girl Who Waited makes this subtext text, and that’s why it’s one of the new episodes I watch over and over again. Because it makes it clear: The Doctor is a monster.

“Coherence”: The Idiot/Genius Paradox of Sci Fi

By | November 20, 2014 | 0 Comments
Mind: Broken.

Mind: Broken.

I recently watched the film Coherence, written and directed by James Ward Byrkit and starring Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon, Elizabeth Gracen, Alex Manugian, Lauren Maher, Hugo Armstrong, and Lorene Scafaria. If you’re not terribly familiar with those names, check the IMDB page, you’ll likely recognize some of their faces.

It’s an interesting sci-fi movie with a deceptively simple premise: On the night eight friends gather for a dinner party, a strange comet passes overhead. Technology malfunctions, glasses shatter, and the lights go out – and they discover that the whole neighborhood is dark and abandoned, except for one house that blazes with the lights on. When they investigate, they discover the other house is … their house, and inside is … them.

SPOILERS

Spoilers? YES WE HAVE THAT. Don’t read if you fear spoilers.

So, the film essentially deals with a “Many World” premise: The comet has somehow caused coherence between realities, meaning the separate realities of quantum physics can, for a short time, interfere and affect each other. What this means in practice is that whenever someone leaves the house and passes through a “dark area” between House Prime and the Other House, they are actually spun randomly into a parallel universe, sometimes replacing themselves, sometimes encountering themselves.

What’s great about the story is that none of this is immediately obvious, and it (mostly) avoids tedious exposition (there is a moment with a Magic Science Book of Immense Convenience, but they had to figure out some way of getting the physics stuff spelled out). In fact, one of the greatest pleasures of the film is looking back and trying to figure out when, exactly, the exchanges between realities begin – and realizing it might have been much earlier in the story than you originally thought.

Also amazing: The ending, which is genius, brutal, and cuts on a final shot that floors. Emily Baldoni ought to get an award for that final facial expression alone.

Anyways, I’m not here to praise Coherence unconditionally. Because it does rely on a common sci-fi trope that is very unfortunate: It’s characters are all simultaneously morons and geniuses.

MORONS

On the one hand, these folks react to stuff in insane ways. The lights go off, and everyone almost immediately goes crazy, jumping at every noise and generally acting like they’re in a disaster movie even though most people have experienced a blackout before. These people immediately begin running around like decapitated chickens. Then, they do remarkably crazy things, like marching off into the night to “investigate” things when the obviously better idea would be to stay inside with allies.

GENIUSES

On the other hand, they figure out what’s happening remarkably fast, and when one character explains the whole Many Worlds thing and throws in Schrödinger’s Cat for good measure, they all absorb and comprehend it immediately and begin working on the assumption that they’re in a sci-fi scenario without any resistance or difficulty.

STORY MECHANICS

I get it. As a writer, I get it, and, frankly, Coherence handles this pretty well. The characters are all presented as reasonably smart people through the initial interactions and conversations, and I much prefer this sort of Genius Character than a more typical Always in Denial character you see in other sci-fi stories – you know, the characters who continue to insist nothing strange is happening way past the point that any reasonable person would cling to their illusions. The AID character is infinitely more annoying.

And the thing is, you need your characters to be both Morons and Geniuses in a story like this. Because if they were smarter and decided to hang back in the house and be calm and safe, they never find out the bits of information that spell out what’s happening. And if they aren’t immediately able to comprehend what’s happening, they can’t explain it to the audience and also they can’t take the story in the interesting directions you want it to go. So, I get it: Sometimes your genius characters have to be morons, or vice versa.

And, frankly, Coherence handles it very well. It gives you information very subtly, relying on the smarts of its audience (though it’s not like Primer in complexity – it’s fairly easy to track what’s going on once you figure it out). The fact that the characters, by about the midway point of the film, have all swapped out to alternate realities without realizing it is a fantastic idea – because their interactions just start to be off, slightly. Imagine you came home and your wife or husband or best friend was suddenly just off – you can’t figure it out, but you remember things differently, or they just say or do something that’s all wrong. Without knowing what’s happened, it just inspires a paranoia – which is what this movie deals in brilliantly.

I’d go see it. If only for that final facial expression.

The King of North Street: I Was Once a Gifted Athlete

By | November 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

This essay originally appeared in The Inner Swine 19(1/2), Summer 2013.

Okay, first of all, the ravages of fucking time are fucking horrible, right? Sweet Jebus on a tricycle, I once looked like this:

Proof I've looked drunk since the day I was born.

Proof I’ve looked drunk since the day I was born.

Sweet hell, I was adorable. Shut up – I was adorable. Blond, soulful eyes, the correct proportion of nose to ears, I had it going on. Today I look like the fucking Crypt Keeper. Oh, this is the normal and perfectly natural process of aging? Maybe so, but it’s still personally horrifying, and if you’ve been riding this zine ride for 20 years with me you know this is all about me being personally horrified at things. If I was the type to wear a monocle, it would be constantly popping off in shock and dismay.

Anyway, if you are only familiar with what we will refer to as Old As Hell Jeff, which is to say any version of Jeff you may have encountered after he discovered alcohol and began drinking himself to death every night, you may be surprised to learn that there was a brief time in my very early childhood when I imagined myself to be somewhat athletically gifted. Whether or not I was actually athletically gifted or if I was just the least un-gifted on a block filled with children of questionable dexterity and physical fitness remains a mystery for the ages, but when I was a kid, man, I was fast.

I know I was fast because I won races.

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Competence is Overrated

By | November 14, 2014 | 1 Comments
COMPETENT

COMPETENT

So, about 2.5 years ago my day job and I got divorced, and after the mourning period had been duly celebrated with hooch and crying jags, I launched a freelance writing career. The business plan boiled down to: Pay me any sort of legal currency and I will write anything you want, ’cause I write real good. Did I have visions of people writing me huge checks to interview glamorous people because I’m a famous author? Or, well, an author? Maybe. Did that happen? Dude, I can barely sell my own books, much less command big freelance money.

It’s been a haul. I started off writing some of the most boring shit you’ve ever heard of for ridiculously low amounts of money. Slowly, I built a client base, moved up the pay scale ladder, and today I can actually say I write for a living. Granted, “living” is a fluid term. What, you don’t supplement your diet with cardboard? Elitist.

But I digress. What’s really amazing about freelance writing, to me, is that it’s the first time in my life that I feel competent in my work.

MEMO

Back in high school someone explained the acronym MEMO to me: Minimum Effort, Maximum Output. I instantly adopted it as my life philosophy, and overnight I gained ten pounds, my grades plummeted, and I started writing all my English papers without actually reading the books. I made my way through the rest of my academic career in this way: The goal has always been to get by without doing much work, so that I would have more time and energy for the things I did want to do, like write novels or play guitar or train cats to fetch liquor for me.

As a result, I haven’t felt competent in decades, because I am always barely paying attention to things and people, including people who are, say, attempting to train me in how to do a job. I spent a lot of time in panic sweats, completely and utterly unsure how to proceed. It’s a stressful way to live, let me tell you. At least, it’s stressful when you’re not napping or playing video games while ostensibly employed.

But now, it’s remarkable: For the first time in my life I feel competent. I’m doing something for money that I actually know how to do and that I’m good at. Granted, it often involves writing product descriptions about sex toys, or pretending to be knowledgeable about things I only heard existed when the job was assigned to me, but it doesn’t matter: If there is one thing I know how to do, it’s write.

It’s a giddy feeling for an old-school incompetent such as myself. The best part? Drinking is finally officially in my job description, mainly because I wrote my job description. Huzzah!

Categories: Bullshit

America’s Next Idiot Model: I Spent a Day Wearing Scrubs

By | November 10, 2014 | 1 Comments
Yes, I was beaten several times for being too pretty.

Yes, I was beaten several times for being too pretty.

This originally appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 19, Issue 3/4.

So, 1:30PM on a Sunday and I’m a plastic surgeon’s office in Manhattan, wearing hospital scrubs and eating a free lunch. I’ve been here since 9AM, along with approximately six thousand other people: A photographer and his assistants, a wardrobe person, a producer, three professional models and many extras, of which I am one.

How I wound up here is unimportant. Suffice to say I didn’t seek out a one-day career as a model, it was thrust upon me. By The Duchess. Need I say more? Probably, but I won’t.

Hurry Up: Wait

I will say this: Modeling, even the half-assed form of it I engaged in wherein I was basically a warm body needed for background shots, a piece of human staging and decoration, is fucking hard work. Obviously not “hard work” in the sense of, say, working in a mine or sewing shoes for Nike in some unventilated Chinese factory, but hard enough for a pudgy boy like myself, used to frequent marinating in liquor and lots of nap time.

First of all: The waiting. You have to show up on time, natch, but then there is a lot of sitting around while they get their shit together or work with other people. So I sat there all morning writing. Not a bad deal, if you’re getting paid – sit around and work on a novel, go home with a check.

But if anyone out there has ever had to put in some serious waiting, you know it’s actually hard work. Reality distorts around you. You begin eating everything in sight. You watch the battery drain on your laptop in despair. After after being somewhat productive for a few hours, you find you just can’t work any more and goddamn you just want the photographer to call your name and ask you to do something. Anything. This is how people are lured into pornography. They hire you to ?model’ and make you sit around for hours and hours until you snap and when they say “Hey, wouldn’t it be fun if you took off your top?” you think God yes ANYTHING to relieve the boredom and six weeks later you’re starring with Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons 2: Electric Boogaloo and weeping in public toilets.

But I digress.

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The Night Will Echo Back at You

By | November 7, 2014 | 1 Comments
BUY ME

BUY ME

This story is … not so good. Written maybe 25 years ago or so, it’s notable only in that it’s an extremely early appearance of the magic system (and character of Hiram Bosch) that eventually turns up in We Are Not Good People. It’s almost unrecognizable – but it’s there. Cheers!

We were having coffee and cake and I was torturing Sally because she was so easy to upset. I enjoyed being mean to her. She clung to Harv and eyed me with big deer eyes, frightened by such cruelty. Harv was trying to be manly, so he laughed as if it was all funny. Maybe he even thought it was. I wasn’t being funny, though. I was being mean.

Billy slurped his coffee next to me and laughed in that soundless way he had, bobbing his head and grinning without a noise. Billy was a good, solid guy to have at your side, he was big and thick and had a presence. When Billy laughed you knew it, even if he didn’t make a noise. The whole room shook.

The place was pretty packed for one in the morning, mostly with kids like us, slackers from school or just out of it, smoking cigarettes and not wanting to get up for work or class tomorrow. I never wanted to go to work again, and I let my glittering eyes trail across them all with equal fear and loathing. I didn’t need any of them, and thank god for that. What do you get out of them, anyway? Fifteen minute friendships, and a year later you could pass them in the street gladly and not say a thing, if only you had the guts. No thanks.

I blew smoke towards Sally and grinned. She was trying so hard to like me, a friend of her new, true love, but I couldn’t let that be. If she was going to include me in her sunny, all-is-well-under-a-catholic-god world, it was going to be the hard way.

The cheesecake was good, but the coffee was bitter, probably been brewing for hours. I grimaced every time I sipped it, and had already put three too many packs of sugar into it. No one else seemed to mind. Bill was just drinking it because we were, and Harv sat with his arm around Sally like a dog pissing out territory. You could almost see his dick get hard every time he looked around the place and realized he was the one cock in the henhouse for this babe. Sally was like a little girl, scared and confused, and she grabbed at him sometimes like she was afraid of him, and that made him love her. I sat back and watched them as they talked with Billy, flicking ashes around the table and scratching at the beard I was going to have to shave off tomorrow. She was looking for a father and he was looking for someone pretty who he could take care of and feel smarter than, and the only thing that made me think they were really in love was the fact that in the year and a half they’d been together they hadn’t had sex, at her insistence.

Harv grinned at me like a man in love and I laughed at him.

Me and Billy, we were confirmed bachelors, wasted and probably unwanted. I had no illusions. I was no catch. I hated everyone I met and brooded alone too often, I dressed badly and drank too much, I was no fun at parties and said the meanest things, sometimes. The few women friends I had managed not to offend seemed to think this meant I’d be married soon enough, but deep down I knew I’d prove them wrong.

On those days when Harv and Sally were off being a couple, me and Bill would haunt the town on our own, raising what little hell we could manage on our own and feeling glad to be lonely. At least, I was glad to be lonely. I didn’t know how Billy felt about it. I was having fun, though, not having to be nice to anyone.

They started to talk about high school and all the old buddies they hadn’t seen in years, and I got bored instantly. If there had been anyone I’d actually liked in high school, I’d stayed in touch with them. The rest were gone and happily so, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t even like to think about most of them, these days.

I looked around at all the kids around us, chattering away, probably discussing their own wild, crazy pasts way back when they’d been sixteen and freewheeling. For most of them, hangovers and puke stories were the closest they ever got to excitement. Maybe a few sex tales, the forbidden and the mildly disgusting. For the rest of their lives, they’d be talking about the same crap, over and over again, to new sets of friends every couple of years. I wasn’t much different, I guess, in the long run. Just because I saw my stupid stories for what they were didn’t make them any more important.

I went from face to face and stared a little. Some of the girls were cute, and I smiled whenever they caught me staring. A few smiled back, not knowing what they’d be getting into, and I just shook my head and looked away, smiling. Billy and Harv were trading puke stories, right next to me, and I sipped cooling coffee with an odd mix of jealousy and dismay. I hated when people get like that, so small and dim, and then again sometimes I wished I could get down there, too.

Something caught my ruddy eyes and I glanced up at an old man sitting at the counter, making a Danish float over to him while the waitress looked the other way, filling coffee.

He did it with such matured ease and guilty knowledge, I knew I hadn’t gone nuts. I watched him for a few minutes more but he didn’t do anything strange after that, and then Billy was poking me and saying something about old times. I turned back to my companions and dragged the last of my cigarette, snuffing it in the ashtray as I exhaled and looked around.

“I don’t believe in old times.”

They looked at me strangely, but that was all right since it was time to get going. We all tossed money onto the table and stood up. It didn’t add up right so I kicked in an extra three to even it up. Sally hugged Harv on impulse and smiled at me; I scowled back and brushed past them harshly.

Walking home from Pirelli’s, me and Billy talked about things.

He walked too fast for me, and I smoked too much these days to keep up with him. I was always worrying about heart attacks, now. That was how I knew I was getting old. Billy, he sees the humor in everything. Everything is funny to him, even his own tragedy. Because of that he can walk into a room and be friends with everyone in moments, with just a few jokes and a roll of quiet laughter. Just like I hate everyone, Billy loves them all. And just like I don’t really hate everyone, I suspect Billy doesn’t love them all, either. Sometimes I think he might hate them all more than I do.

We talked about how easy our lives were. I was saying that I wished some catastrophe would happen to elevate me to the higher calling of hero, and Billy seemed to think that that was selfish as all hell. I guess it was, but hell, I had a point, I think. When the bomb drops we won’t have to work for a living; just surviving will be a noble calling. You’ll be able to kill in good conscience and no one would be able to waste away in front of the TV anymore. Of course, to Billy, that was the worst things he’d ever heard. Billy liked TV.

Our upstairs neighbors were sitting on the porch when we got home. Gwen and Judy. They were smoking light cigarettes like the girls they were and they began flirting with us almost immediately. I’ve lived in three apartments, and this was the first one we’d actually met our neighbors in. Usually they were faceless and annoying, the creeps who played disco at four in the morning, the morons who threw parties and didn’t invite us. This time they were sweet and me and Billy lusted after them in our spare time, dirty little fantasies involving the usual shit, the same boring sex over and over again. It passed the time. In real life we had delightfully meaningless conversations whenever we ran into each other. I had the feeling we might have been friends, if we hadn’t lived in the same building.

“Out late, boys.” Gwen said, blinking her brown eyes. I swooned. Billy said something funny and they laughed. I grinned despite not hearing.

We sat down with them for a little bit, but we were never going to screw them, so I got bored quick and made my excuses, drifting into the pad feeling tired and dull. In four hours I had to wake up and go to work and my supply of smart-assed bullshit had reached a giant low. A few more minutes out on the porch and I’d have strangled someone. I was safer inside.

Every weekday was like this:

I woke up at eight o’clock just to hit the snooze on my clock, a weird fifteen minutes of half-sleep that I went through twice just for fun. I had put my clock across the room on top of the stereo so I’d have to get up to hit the snooze, it was amazing how I could sleep through the wail of my alarm if I let myself. I crawled out of bed at eight-thirty and went to the bathroom to brush my teeth and take a piss, staring at myself in the mirror like a dead man. If I needed it, I shaved.

At quarter to I was out the door and into the street, trying to remember where I’d parked the car. I turned on the radio and pulled off and by nine o’clock I was still about five minutes away, I don’t think I’d been strictly on time in months. All day I drank coffee and pushed papers around and at five o’clock I left, speeding home as if my life depended on it. I spent the night trying to forget that I had to get up the next day. I’d go out with Billy and drink socially, or I’d call some other friend, one of the few that hadn’t drifted away in the wake of my accumulating bitterness, and we’d go out and drink socially. If it was one of my girl friends I’d try to get her drunk, which I guess is a low and dirty thing to do. Or maybe me and Billy would rent movies and gripe about our lost youth. Sometimes we even had things to do, places to go.

We were having drinks with Maureen and her best friend Amy after work, Billy and I. I’d had a few too many for a Wednesday night and Maureen did not like drunks. She was arch and disapproving and after the third whiskey in soda I was drinking just to spite her. Billy knew what was going on and chortled quietly along with Amy, who liked Bill well enough even if he didn’t know it. I loved ruining Maureen. Gleefully, I started playing up the drunk, speaking too loud and making grand gestures. Then I got bored, and as Amy started talking about some creepy guy sending her obscene faxes at work, I started letting my mind wander.

Harv and Sal were at the bar having a bad time, arguing about the same shit everyone always argued about, except it was special for them, unique. Some people just didn’t open their eyes, they just looked at what they wanted to look at. To Harv and Sal, everything that happened to them was the first time it had ever happened, to anybody.

I brought up magic, lighting a cigarette and leaning back with smoke around me like an aura, asking them if they believed in it or not. Maureen and Amy, of course, did not, they didn’t even understand the question. That was okay, I was used to being the only one, I was always the only one. Half the time no one understood me and when they understood me they usually didn’t like what I was saying. Billy said he believed in magic, but Billy was apt to believe in anything, if you caught him at the right time. Billy smiled and said something about Leprechauns.

I told them that I believed in magic because if sitting in bars with dumb friends was all life had to offer by way of entertainment, then I might as well stab myself and be done with it. They failed to find the humor there, and Maureen got all worked up about me being an asshole. A minute before I’d been a smart choice to have drinks with, suddenly I was everyone’s asshole. Except Billy, Billy was fully of love for everyone, he smiled at the world and held no grudges.

I decided right then that the smart thing to do would be to just hang out with Billy exclusively, for the rest of my life. I sneered at Maureen and said so. Next to me, Billy grinned like a sudden millionaire. Maureen looked like she’s suddenly remembered better things she could be doing.

I got a little tired of being the asshole and apologized. It was too late. Maureen decided to leave and since room-mates cannot survive for long without their partner, Amy shrugged sadly at us and got up too. I toasted Billy and he laughed, and for a few quiet moments we just sat there with our heads resting in our hands, watching the cute girls and talking about them as if we knew them.

Harv dragged a beer over to us and sat down with a scowl that just sent me and Billy into hysterics. Sally trailed behind him like a kicked dog, obviously distressed that she couldn’t whine and wheedle in front of us without stirring up our bad sense of humor. If she’d been a little more complicated, she would have been pissed off that he’d sat down with us because of that, to shut her up.

I walked home alone, because Billy ran into some friends I didn’t know and decided to skip work and get drunk. I was already drunk, so I stepped out into the cold with my hands in my pockets. The streets were empty, it was too cold to loiter and the cops kept the bums moving so they wouldn’t freeze to death in our town. Every now and then one still managed to croak, and it was very embarrassing.

He was standing on the corner across from me, and I stopped to stare at him, my loosened mouth just sort of hanging. If anything the frozen moonlight made him look older, more decrepit. He was standing with his arms out, crucifixion style, and pigeons were landing on him. Grey and white, plump and seemingly unaffected by the cold, they pecked the ground at his feet and perched on his arms, lined up from wrist to wrist, cooing. We stared at each other for a while, and then I crossed the street, keeping my eyes on him in case he might disappear.

When I was a few feet away, standing in the gutter, I stopped. I was shivering.

“How do you do that?”

He flicked an eyebrow, and a bird fluttered easily to my shoulder, settling in comfortably and grooming itself.

“It’s easy,” he said, his voice dry and brittle like the air. “You just have to not mind being alone.”

We stared again, and the birds suddenly leapt into the air, a fluttering commotion of wings. I threw my arms up reflexively and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

No one was sitting outside when I got home, which was good, since I didn’t have any snappy dialogue or frustrated lust to keep me interested in dull neighbors. The apartment was dark and empty, filled with unwashed dishes and garbage, dirty clothes and newspapers. I went to my room and stood in the dark, looking around at the books and albums, the posters and crumpled sheets. I didn’t recognize anything. It was all foreign to me. I wondered what I’d been saving for. I sat down at the desk and stared blindly at papers and parking tickets. I realized that for the first time in three days, I was by myself. It felt strange, after all that time.

My eyes caught the group of small shells an old friend I never talked to anymore had collected off of a beach and given me. They had been growing a thick pelt of dust for two years, but at one time they’d been special and so I never could throw them away. For the first time in months, I concentrated on them.

In the silence and quiet, the lonely darkness, I could feel their presence, their solidness and mass. I could feel the forces working on them, gravity and pressure. It was all so easy. They jiggled a little, and rose into the air, sustained against gravity by my will alone. I stared and then let them drift back into place, feeling nature take over where I released them. Then I leaned in and dug through my desk, looking for cigarettes.

We were in the diner again, the usual four of us again. Billy and Harv, the bastards, had abandoned us and left me stirring coffee listlessly with Sally for company. They were probably in the bathroom smoking and making fun of me.

She looked at me strangely, biting her lip. “Are you really leaving?”

I nodded. “Yeah. In two weeks, when the lease is up.”

“Why?”

Something vague and inexplicable, but powerful and changing, was beyond her. But I had run out of bitterness, and so I just sighed.

“Sometimes, you have to change things.”

“Everything? All at once?”

“No other way.”

It was the longest civil conversation we had ever had. She looked sad, and I wondered if it were possible that she might even miss me. I guess it was possible she didn’t know how mean I’d been to her.

Billy and Harv came back with a cake, slapping me on the back and grinning. I guess no one knew how mean I’d been to them all. Dumb fucks, I don’t see how they couldn’t. I don’t see how they couldn’t hate me, after all this time. It wouldn’t bother me if they did, it just amazed me that they didn’t.

I smiled and posed for pictures, I even hugged Sally and made her feel good about it. I could do this and not hate them, because I was leaving forever.

Categories: Free Short Stories

Ye Olde Creative Process

By | November 4, 2014 | 4 Comments
My desk is literally covered with hundreds of these.

My desk is literally covered with hundreds of these.

As a published author, I get a lot of emails and messages from writers who want some advice on how to get published or how to improve their writing [1], and, frankly, it’s always challenging to find new and entertaining ways to tell them “I have no goddamn clue.” Which I mean very seriously. For the “getting published” part I can’t tell you anything beyond I wrote a lot and submitted work fearlessly, somehow found an incredibly agent and took advantage of the opportunities that came to me. The rest of it is all blurry and confusing [2].

As for the writing: I honestly have little insight. While some folks attack writing as a craft, honing skills, for me it’s always been a simple expression of creativity. I don’t study writing (unless reading a lot counts, which it of course does, in which case I study writing every day) and I never workshopped or participated in a writer’s group or a creative writing program. I always just wrote and wrote and wrote and my submission process is a sloppy one, often violating submission guidelines I never read, hardly ever taking the advice to read sample issues or paying attention when an editor says they’re not looking for what I’m writing.

The worst part is how alien much of my writing comes to seem after time. Things I wrote ten years ago I can’t imagine writing now, and often don’t even remember writing at all. I have novels in folders (written back when I was still typing everything out on a manual typewriter) that I have zero memory of. There’s one titled The Hobo Obituaries. It’s 102 typewritten pages, which is about 40,000 words. I have no clue what it’s about. Nothing.

My memory is terrible, and there was a time when I worried about that, was frustrated by it. Much of my life has faded from memory. I might recall on some basic level that I did something that particular day, but the details e usually gone. I have no real memory of it, I just know it happened. That used to scare me a little, and frustrate people around me who remember things in vivid detail and assume my lack of memory meant it hadn’t mattered to me.

Today, I think of my awful memory as a good thing. [3]

My terrible memory allows me to reinvent things easily. I’m not a slave to actual detail; I can take the fuzzy dreamscape that is my memory and shape it and work it and add details that might not have actually been there in the first place. I can write my memories. Details are overrated, anyway. [4]

This is both a superpower and Kryptonite. Just like my beloved liquor! On the one hand, I am free to recreate anything without being tied to details, which is a way of being creatively free. On the other hand, those details are sometimes useful, and not having them at hand can result in some wonky Wikipedia lookups – which are doubly humiliating, as I’m researching stuff I actually lived. Or think I lived. If I can’t remember the details, did it happen?

Ultimately, I don’t think it matters. I’ve always rejected the idea that experience is important in the sense of collecting them – you travel and adventure and see things, but if you don’t do anything to share them, they die with you and what did it matter? Conversely, if my own experiences are by now hopelessly muddled [5], so what? The precise details don’t matter anyway. All that matters is what I write.

——

[1] “a lot” = one recently; most of my emails are meant for another Jeff Somers who might be some sort of secret agent.

[2] Just ask my agent, who is still cleaning up some of my awful mistakes signed before she took me on.

[3] For context, though, I also think of my lack of grooming as a good thing.

[4] Details like making a living and wearing pants, apparently.

[5] My whole life is basically this Simpsons clip:

Why I Miss Complete Games

By | October 30, 2014 | 2 Comments
Weak.

Weak.

WARNING: This post is about baseball.

All right, baseball. It’s the one sport I ever paid attention to, the one sport I ever tried to play (and failed disastrously at), and the one sport I still occasionally watch. My interest in baseball has waned a bit over the years, thanks to drug scandals and simply finding other things to occupy my time, but I still have some affection for the sport, and still like to scan the boxscores and watch the World Series. The reason for my lingering interest: Stats.

Stats are why so many of us soft white men of a certain age (SWMCAs) love baseball: It’s a slow-paced game you can keep up with, yes, but it’s true joys are statistics: Mounds of them. So many and so well defined that math-based card games have been created around it. I love the statistics of baseball. And one reason I love them so much is because they span the ages: You might argue whether pitchers in 1930 threw harder or softer or had more or less action on their breaking balls, but home runs are home runs, and statistics allow me to view baseball through a comprehensible lens of data.

Now, we’ve suffered some changes in baseball. I was too young to care about the designated hitter, and baseball’s been more or less the same through most of my life. And I’m not one to mourn natural evolutions in the game, either – times change. Strategies change. The way the game is played changes. That’s fine.

And yet, I miss complete games.

A complete game, in case you’re uninterested and unfamiliar with baseball and yet are still reading this, perhaps because you simply love everything I write, no matter the subject, is when a the pitcher who starts the game (that is, throws the first pitch) also finishes the game. It is usually, but not always, the winning pitcher who completes a game.

Even back in The Day, not every game got completed, and relievers have played an increasing role in modern baseball as managers figured out that it’s better to bring in some rested fireballer in the 8th inning than let their exhausted started squirt out a few beach balls for the batter to smack into the stands. It all makes sense, but I miss complete games. When I was a kid, starting pitchers still completed about 40% of all games. It wasn’t crazy for a starting pitcher to complete 20 games in a year.

Today? It’s not unusual for a starting pitcher to have zero complete games. Entire teams have less than 10 between all the starters.

Again, it makes sense. I don’t deny that. But I like complete games, for a simple reason: Baseball, for me, has always been about individual achievement. I like stats because it shows me what this particular player did. A starting pitcher with a lot of complete games is a great pitcher, because they controlled the whole game and came out a winner. Without that stat, everything else feels soft: Low ERAs? They didn’t have to battle through the ninth with a dead arm. High strikeout-to-innings pitched ratios? They had a lot more rest and threw a lot fewer innings. Without complete games, the rest feels cheaper.

On the other hand, thank goodness there are no statistics for authors to be judged against! Like book sales … or lack thereof. Excuse me. I have something in my eye.

Categories: Bullshit

Why I’ll Never Be an Actor

By | October 27, 2014 | 3 Comments
A face for radio!

A face for radio!

So, the other day I was recorded reading a brief excerpt of We Are Not Good People for The Author’s Corner, a public radio program. When I was initially approached for this, I was excited, of course, and also pretty confident. I’ve done a fair share of readings, after all, and I think I have a good sense of what works in a reading and how to read my own work so it’s a little entertaining. I’m fairly confident in my voice; while I don’t think it’s some sort of Saruman-like instrument, people don’t run screaming when I start to read some fiction. Or, more commonly, when I stand up in a tavern and begin to recite The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock from memory, as I am wont to do.

As usual, life noticed me being cocky and confident, and decided that Somers boy needs to be taught a lesson.

First, the first twelve or so excerpts from the book I submitted were rejected. We only had about a minute to work with, so the excerpt had to do a lot of work: Be entertaining, be coherent, have an arc and a point, not be too gory or profanity-laden (that last one, from a book written by me and involving blood magic, was a doozy). Finding the ideal piece to read was a struggle, and just when I thought we’d failed, I hit on the perfect excerpt: The very beginning of the book.

Triumph! We were both happy with that choice. So I sailed into the offices of my redoubtable lit agent and met the producer of the show. He unpacked his equipment and created a mini-studio in an unused office, and we started working on a very brief introduction. This was harder than expected, too, but we finally nailed it down and I commenced reading. And discovered I could never be an actor.

Which I guess I knew.

Take after take, the producer gave notes. Good notes, really. Smart notes. And while I always considered myself at least modestly facile with performance — see my leading man-caliber performances as part of Two Men Have Words, for instance — even I knew that I wasn’t really nailing it. I knew what I wanted to do, how I wanted it to sound, and yet when I read it I would lose the thread of what I was hearing in my head and it would be … not so good.

Actors, I imagine, have to go through something like that. Being told their performance was just not … quite right, do it again. And then that the version they gave five minutes ago was 98% right, but this most recent one was only 60%. And then you finally nail one bit that was problematic, and feel great, only to hear that there are 15 more things to tweak. It’s exhausting. It didn’t exactly make me think that actors deserve the tens of millions of dollars they get for their films, but it drifted me a little closer to that conclusion.

In the end, I got it right. For about eighty total seconds of audio we worked for an hour and a half. It’s probably the longest I’ve gone without a drink in years.

Character Attrition

By | October 23, 2014 | 10 Comments
I must be dealt with.

I must be dealt with.

Few people think of me as an expert in anything. Well, booze, yes, I suppose there’s that. But in general I am regarded in social settings as a mildly alarming Wild Card (or, more accurately, I go around demanding that everyone call me by the nickname “Wild Card” so I can use my self-made catchphrase, “I have to be dealt with! BECAUSE I’M A WILD CARD, BABY!”)

<crickets>

Maybe I’m an expert in novel writing, as I have published nine of them. Though technically that makes me an expert in selling novels, not necessarily writing them. Which leads me, with the drunken grace of a shore leave sailor, to my point.

 

There is a rule in fiction writing called the Law of Conservation of Characters. Is there? I may have made that up. Actually, after Googling it’s something Roger Ebert said about movies, but it still applies. It has to, or this blog post is a waste of everyone’s time.

Basically, what this boils down to is the idea that an author doesn’t waste time on characters who have no purpose in a story, so if you’re, say, trying to figure out who the killer is in a mystery novel you know it has to be a character you’ve spent some time with – and any character who so far hasn’t had much reason to be there is the most likely suspect.

There’s a flip side to this rule that doesn’t get talked about much, and that’s because it’s a rule you should apply while writing the damn story in the first place. This is the Rule of Character Attrition, and it might be a Somers-Only Rule, who knows, but it goes like this: If you’re struggling in your novel, consider cutting characters out and combining their role and attributes into another character. It’s often a tonic for an ailing novel, in my experience.

For example, I’ve got a WIP. As is my wont, I started this book off by throwing everything I could think of – exposition everywhere like a slow flood of molasses, details that just drop like anvils here and there just so I wouldn’t forget them later – and every character I could think of that might be useful. I do this. If I think there might be a scene later that would benefit from a unicorn, I will create a unicorn character.

End result? My protagonist has a very large posse of people following him around, and the story gets bogged down. And then I realize that character #5 hasn’t said or done anything in 50 pages.

That’s when it’s time for a culling.

I start over. I boil down my characters: Who can be combined? Who is unlikely to ever get a Big Moment or a reason to exist? Who have I completely forgotten was even in this book? Burn them off, and what you’re left with are the characters that actually matter.

It really just goes to show that we novelists really have no idea what we’re doing. We just make it up as we go along. It’s actually kind of surprising that any of us manage to feed and clothe ourselves – and yes, I know that in my case the definition of “clothe” is very loose. DAMN YOUR EYES.

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