Character Attrition

By | October 23, 2014 | 8 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.

Wednesday is Guitar Day

By | October 22, 2014 | 0 Comments

Epiphone Les Paul CustomI sometimes ponder how history will remember my musical compositions, often coming up with the disturbing-on-many-levels conclusion that the answer is “better than your fiction.”

Harrumph.

Here, songs:

Song663
Song664
Song665
Song667
Song668
Song670
Song671

You’re welcome.

The usual disclaimer: 1. I admit these are not great music; 2. I claim copyright anyway, so there; 3. No, I cannot do anything about the general quality of the mix, as I am incompetent.

Categories: Bullshit

Poorly Scheduled Film Analysis: PROMETHEUS

By | October 20, 2014 | 5 Comments
THERON WILL DESTROY YOU

THERON WILL DESTROY YOU

As I like to inject my “brand” (incompetence and intellectual laziness) into everything I do, here’s the second in my series of essays discussing films that came out a couple of years ago, when people might have been interested in such things. This time around, we’re going to consider Prometheus, which is really just a gorgeous blob of WTF.

Let’s start with a simple question: Why is Charlize Theron in this film? Her character is completely and totally unnecessary. I’ll give you a moment to ponder this.

There are two possible answers to the question of Theron’s character’s inclusion:

1. The less charitable possibility involves two producers discussing the film over a pile of cocaine the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. Producer One suddenly says, wait a second, there’s only one chick in this movie and she’s played by the scary-looking actress from Girl with Dragon Tattoo who doesn’t speak English? We need a hotter chick in this movie. And Producer Two thumbs his phone for a moment and announces they can get Charlize Theron and make her do pushups in her underwear, and Producer One writes a check for one billion dollars.

2. The more charitable view is that Theron’s character exists solely to embody two of the film’s themes. She’s a walking, breathing symbol.

Theron’s character is just a visual metaphor – which is, essentially, the whole problem with the movie in a nutshell. It has some great ideas, some clever stuff, but it smothers under the weight of its pretensions. Theron is there to do two basic things (aside from those aforementioned push-ups): To represent mortality and how awful it is to try to avoid it (her father refuses to die, and thus she’s literally living on a lifeboat), and to represent death without purpose.

Other characters are either purely Redshirts or their deaths are heroic sacrifices, or they are transformed into monsters. The Engineer at the beginning of the film sacrifices himself for a greater good. Holloway sacrifices himself heroically when it dawns on him what’s happened. The captain and the crew sacrifice themselves to save the distant earth, following clear motivations that were deeply lodged inside Ridley Scott’s head, because they sure weren’t on the screen.

Theron? Theron’s character tries to save herself. She doesn’t want to sacrifice herself, but she doesn’t want to die. So she flees, and winds up crushed under an alien spaceship because she apparently forgets how to run at ninety degree angles – her death is completely meaningless.

As is her character – if you removed Theron from this story, nothing would change at all. Except Idris Elba wouldn’t get laid. Although I doubt Idris Elba has much trouble in that department. But the point is not that Idris Elba is a damn fine good-looking man; the point is that Theron’s character is just a walking, talking metaphor. If you were wondering what that pebble in your brain driving you crazy while watching this gorgeous blob of WTF, it was probably Theron and her ghost of a character.

 

Jeff’s Guide to Reading Good

By | October 13, 2014 | 2 Comments
Jeff at Noir at the Bar NYC 10-5-14

Jeff Struggling Not to Faint at Noir @ the Bar 10-5-14

So, in support of my new novel We Are Not Good People (you may have heard me mention it one billion times so far), I’ve been doing more public appearances than usual. Which is to say: More than none public appearances. I like meeting people who like my books, and enjoy conversations about books and such (especially if the conversation skews towards how awesome I am), but I also fear people and often feel very awkward with my fellow humans, so I don’t do a lot of public stuff.

But, when you have a novel you need to sell, you get out there and shake your awkward, slightly hairy ass (slightly?). I trooped to the Brooklyn Book Festival, I did a reading at Shade in Manhattan with some MWA peeps, I did a very short radio reading that I assume will go live at some point soon … I went to New York Comic Con this year as a guest speaker. All the public speaking got me thinking about it, and about book readings in general.

Jeff’s Guide to Reading in Public

I’ve done my share of book readings at this point. I’ve read in bars, in bookstores, to crowds and (literally) to no one. I’ve done my work. And so I have a few simple guidelines that I think work well for me. And, since I’ve also been an audience member at all these readings, I also think these rules of thumb would work for other writers as well.

The disclaimer is, your mileage may vary, and my limitations are not necessarily your limitations. So feel free to ignore my advice here. These are my general impressions after having been involved in a ton of readings over the years – take my advice or leave it.

  1. Don’t read dialogue. A section where two (or, god help us, more) characters are speaking can be really, really confusing to the audience. Your ability to do voices is probably not nearly as good as you think, and reading each line in the same nervous monotone makes figuring out which character is speaking really tough.
  2. Don’t read for more than 5-10 minutes. And lord, skewing closer to 5 is better. Time yourself at home. Trust me when I say no one wants to hear you drone on for 20 minutes, and if you’re sharing the night with other writers going long is just rude.
  3. Practice. I am always amazed when an accomplished writer with a lot of success publishing their work gets up, flips to a page in their book, and staggers through a section like they only recently learned to read, much less like they themselves actually wrote the words. You may think that because it’s your prose you’re golden, but trust me: Read it out loud a few times before the event rolls around.
  4. Edit. When you’re reading, you’ll probably hit a few moments when you stumble because reading out loud is different from reading in your head. Don’t be afraid to edit slightly to make it easier on yourself and easier for your audience to follow.
  5. Have fun. You’ll trip over words anyway, or mispronounce things, or trip over sound wires or something. Don’t worry. Just have fun, and remember this: Very few people will leap up from their chairs and rush out to buy your book based on a 5-minute reading. You’re there for the camaraderie and the exposure, not to start a cult.

Finally, try to choose a scene in your book that captures tone, but doesn’t require everyone know the plot – stopping to explain things just drags everything down.

Those are my thoughts. You are, of course, free to completely ignore me or even show up at my next reading and heckle me until I cry. At which point my wife will beat you up, so be careful.

NYCC Throwback

By | October 10, 2014 | 0 Comments

So, in honor of my appearance at New York Comic Con today (see the schedule here), here’s a throwback to 2009 when I spent 2 days running my ass off at this humongous event:

I certainly hope to be slightly more competent this time around.

Categories: More Shit I Gotta Do

Drum Trial

By | October 8, 2014 | 0 Comments

This short story originally appeared in Strangeweirdandwonderful in 2008.

Field Marshall Tyner pulled his gloves snug onto his hands, the foreign snow crunching under his boots in a different way, somehow, than snow in his home in Montana. At the age of fifty-three he had not seen Montana in seventeen years. But he could still hear the distinct sound of snow as he walked there, the odd non-silence of heavy snow back on Earth.

His mind reeling with numbers and news about the supply and relief lines-none of it good-he paused in the sub-zero night and peered upward into the opaque, unbroken black sky. He could not see the Fusion Bombers, but he could hear them. Only when he thought to; their constant roar had become something of a silence, in a way. White noise.

“Are you well, sir?”

Tyner closed his eyes, and for a moment allowed visceral weariness to rush through him. He had not slept in four days, since the Metro-234 Offensive had begun. Mired in swamp-like snow, and meeting stiff, fanatical resistance around the alien city, he expected to go several more sleepless nights.

He turned to the young officer who had spoken, one of a dozen who followed him everywhere: His staff. He pushed weariness from his mind and concentrated on the suddenly embarrassed officer. Tyner was a Field Marshall, one of twelve on the planet, and he oversaw three armies, a total of four million men. He put them all into his eyes and stared at the man until he looked away, quickly, and then back up at the ranking officer.

Field Marshall Tyner was not a physically imposing man. He was of average height and build, and aside from the five gold bars on his overcoat, his uniform was identical to the ones worn by the dozen men grouped around him. He was a pale man, blond and gray-eyed. He conveyed no emotion, no warmth. His stare was disconcerting.

“Captain Bishop,” he said in a careful Midwestern drawl, “When I am indisposed, I will alert Command.”

The captain swallowed. “Yes, sir.”

(more…)

Categories: Free Short Stories

Noir at the Bar NYC

By | October 6, 2014 | 0 Comments
The Authors Right before The Fisticuffs.

The Authors Right before The Fisticuffs.

So, last night I participated in a reading at Shade bar in New York City – Noir at the Bar NYC, to be exact – organized by Thomas Pluck. I joined Tom, Sj Rozan, Cathi Stoler, Tim Hall, Rob Brunet, Albert Tucher, and Angel Colón in reading from our work and giving away copies of our books to the audience, and it was easily one of my fave reading experiences.

I read, of course, from We Are Not Good People and implored everyone to buy a copy on Tuesday like a good little author (Kirkus Reviews calls the book an “insistently entertaining novel”!!). I think it was a pretty good performance, albeit not my best. I did manage to be just drunk enough, which is a fine line when it comes to public speaking.

I also traded books with a few folks (the bartender won a copy of WANGP and was really, really excited about it, which I’ll take as a good sign) – including snagging a copy of Tom Pluck’s Blade of Dishonor, and I actually won a copy of Tim Hall’s Dead Stock:

IMG_20141006_135250

Nestled inside of Dead Stock, in fact, was a signed original page from the manuscript!

IMG_20141006_135323

In other words: I won the night. I even got home with a public urination summons, for a change.

Thomas Pluck also read a story of his that I thought was easily the best of the evening (with a close second being Tim Hall’s piece), and told him so, which is rare as I usually only like my own stories. So his must have been good! All in all, a great event. If you missed it, it will likely feature on your list of regrets on your deathbed.

Upcoming Events!

By | October 2, 2014 | 0 Comments
October 7, 2014

October 7, 2014

I’ll be showering, putting on pants, and showing up in public twice in the next week or so, kids, and you should make plans to come, buy me drinks, and tell me how well I’m doing with the whole pants thing.

Noir @ the Bar: I’ll be reading from We Are Not Good People on Sunday, October 5th, at Shade Bar (241 Sullivan Street, NY, 212-982-6275) at 6:30pm. I’m one of several writers showing up, and I’ll also be selling copies of WANGP and giving away bookmarks and stickers if anyone wants them. Also, probably weeping. Definitely drinking. Possibly running out on a bar bill.

NY COMIC CON: Whoa nelly, I’ll be back at NYCC again this year. At 1:15pm on Friday, October 10th, I’m participating in a panel called Playing with Magic along with A.M. Dellamonica, George Hagen, Gordon Andrews, Ilona Andrews, Kim Harrison, Sam Sykes, and Steve Saffe, moderated by Lev Grossman.

THEN, I’ll be at the Pocket/Gallery Booth (Booth #1828) to sign copies of We Are Not Good People for anyone who dares to show up. Be there to comfort me or insult me, I don’t care, I’m numb to it all now. I mean, yay!

Poorly Scheduled Film Analysis: TED

By | September 29, 2014 | 0 Comments
Ted Actually Happened

Ted Actually Happened

So, this essay is going to be about the film Ted, directed by Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy fame and co-written by him as well, starring Marky Mark and Mila Kunis. You may have seen it two years ago when this essay might have had some cultural relevance.

Anyhoo, I was thinking about this movie again for reasons impossible to explain. It’s not a terrible movie. Like all of MacFarlane’s work, it has flashes of quick wit and even brilliance muddied up with poop jokes and a frenetic over-reliance on the flashback. Still, all in all I enjoyed it. Except something has always bugged me about Ted. Something’s always been a bit off. Can you put your finger on it?

The titular Ted in this movie is an enchanted teddy bear who magically comes to life. But he completely, totally, absolutely does not need to be.

The Courage of Your (Writing) Convictions

Let’s consider this. No, seriously, let’s. There is absolutely no story reason that Ted has to be a magical teddy bear. None. Let’s play a thought experiment: Imagine watching this movie, and Ted is replaced by a CGI Benny Hill. Everything except some minor dialog would be exactly the same: Marky Mark and Ted become friends as children, Ted has some brief fame (for a reason other than being a magical teddy bear, of course – stay with me here), and Marky Mark’s girlfriend is fed up with their immaturity and lack of focus.

Every single plot point and scene still works with Benny Hill instead of a teddy bear. Every. Single. Plot point. Even the kidnapping at the end makes sense if we assume that Giovanni Ribisi’s character is just insane. Which, since he’s being played by the always-disturbing Giovanni Ribisi, we assume he is. Heck, even the one liners and jokes generally wouldn’t have to change, or not change much.

So why is Ted a teddy bear? Why bother when the movie’s really a buddy film about two friends finally taking the plunge into independent adulthood? I can only speculate, but I think he maybe didn’t trust his material.

I’ve done that: Dressed up a story as something else because I didn’t think I had anything funny or exciting to say. Turned a detective story into a SF story, a love story into a horror story, all because I thought I needed a lot of scares and flashing lights to keep people’s attention. I can’t say that Seth MacFarlane did that. Maybe he had a meeting with your typical Hollywood Producer:

MacFarlane: I have this idea for a coming-of-age comedy starring Marky Mark.

Producer: I am so stoned right now you appear to be a magical talking teddy bear.

MacFarlane: Okay … uh, it’s really warm and witty with my trademark –

Producer: This briefcase is filled with cocaine and cash. You can have it all if you make a movie about a talking toy bear. Otherwise I will dedicate my life to destroying you professionally.

MacFarlane: … SOLD!

You know it’s possible. In fact, I am now 100% certain this is exactly how Ted – and several other recent Hollywood films – came to be. My only question is, why won’t someone with a suitcase filled with cocaine and cash show up and force me to make films from my books?

Brooklyn Book Festival

By | September 25, 2014 | 1 Comments
October 7, 2014

October 7, 2014

When people live in New Jersey, the borough of Brooklyn is viewed with much anxiety and excitement, because it’s relatively unexplored by we Jerseyans. Myths and legends abound, but there’s is precious little actual information. We hear tales of men with outrageous facial hair and people amassing small fortunes via Air BnB, but when you go there it’s pretty much just like every other urban area. When I was given the opportunity to spend an hour signing We Are Not Good People at the Mystery Writers of America‘s table at the Brooklyn Book Festival recently, I agreed because so far wishing very hard hasn’t resulted in anyone paying attention to my book, and because I am always looking for ways to defy the various restraining orders that bookstores have on me.

It was a sultry day. So sultry I almost swooned several times, and had to be resuscitated by my friends Ken West and Sean Ferrell, who showed up demanding I pay them monies I owed them, then stuck around on orders from The Duchess, who feared I would slip away without supervision to the nearest bar.

Ken offers me a quarter for my book while Sean laughs uproariously, delighted at my humiliation.

Ken offers me a quarter for my book while Sean laughs uproariously, delighted at my humiliation.

(more…)

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