Latest Posts

The Ones that Get Away

shoplifters-beware-1444139-1279x862Every now and then someone makes a terrible mistake and assumes that because I have published a few novels and stories and such that I know something about publishing and writing. I don’t. Like Jon Snow, I know nothing, and generally go through life feeling like a confused and slightly dimwitted teenager.

One question that comes up relatively frequently concerns protecting your ideas. A lot of people seem to think that Idea Thieves are hanging around all the coffee shops and bars, soaking up any stray novel idea you slur out and rushing off to write that sucker themselves, cashing in for the millions of dubloons that should rightfully be yours. And I have to burst their bubble by telling them that this only happens after your idea starts generating those millions, and even then only very, very rarely. In general no one steals ideas, and any sleep you lose over it is likely misplaced, because there are literally no new ideas anyway.

Case in point: Designated Survivor.

(more…)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Hermetically Sealed

Perfect

Perfect

Last week, under the commands of our hidden alien overlords beamed directly into our brain implants, The Duchess and I went to see Captain America: Civil War Why Not. This is not a review; the movie was fine for what it is, with my sole pedantic complaint being the incredible surveillance camera located on an isolated road in the middle of fucking nowhere that captured an assassination with perfect clarity, including several impossible camera angles. Other than that incredibly wonky detail, it’s a film with approximately 5,000 characters that somehow hangs together in something at least resembling sense, and for that I salute the filmmakers. Batman V. Superman had 90% fewer characters and plot threads (and laughs) and somehow made 100% less sense, so seriously, Civil War, congratulations on a job … done.

BUT! I have not come here to bury Captain America: Civil War, which if nothing else gifted me with the image of Paul Bettany in full Vision makeup dressed like Mr. Rogers on the Prowl. It’s just that as we walked to the movie theater I experienced what has become pretty typical anxiety, because seeing a movie in the theaters always carries a 50% chance that your audience will made up of Trash People and you will hate life for having joined them.

In other words, bring on the wall-sized TVs that never turn off, as long as they come with first-run movies on the same day as general release.

You All Terrify Me

In general I regard my fellow humans as potential murderers and suspected assholes. It makes my personal relationships fraught with drama. It also means I am always one step away from full-on Howard Hughesdom minus the money, which is the worst form of Howard Hughesdom you can come down with, my friends.

In my old zine The Inner Swine, I constructed a persona that was basically me in full-on Howard Hughes mode, swanning around an underground complex. This is, I have to admit, my ultimate retirement plan: To remain in my house at all times, preferably with blast shields down, and all personal contact with the unwashed masses conducted via video conference. Towards that end, please everyone buy 500 copies of my books immediately.

So, getting back to movies: The other day I was having a conversation about the appeal of going out to the movies, and my conclusions are that they mainly lie in the idea of getting out of the house and interacting with the rest of humanity — the social aspect, in other words. Yes, there’s still some superiority in the sound and vision department, as you don’t yet have the same sized screen at home, or (usually) the same sort of sound system. But we’re getting close, and, frankly, every time I find myself in a movie theater I invariably think you know what would make this even better? My house.

In other words, I picture myself sitting on my couch with a glass of bourbon and a remote control.

The $50 Question

Recently there was some news about a startup hoping to roll out first-run theatrical release movies (like, say, Captain America: Civil What the Ever Living Fuck) and charge people $50 for a 48-hour rental. And people went a little batshit about that price point; after all you pay Netflix somewhere in the $100 range (depending on when you signed up) and can watch as many movies as you like as often as you like. In that context, $50 a movie seems steep.

Others countered that four tickets for ~$20 apiece, plus popcorn and sodas made $50 seem like a bargain. For me there’s the extra, priceless bonus of not having to deal with the worst people in the world, a.k.a. everyone who is not me. Being able to put my feet up and get blackout drunk while watching? Worth it. Not having to listen to someone ask their date sixteen times who Ant Man is? PRICELESS.

So, to sum up, we all look forward to the glorious day when my personal resources and the available technology allow me to remove myself from society completely, including establishing my own distillery on the property so I won’t even need to truck in booze (food is not a problem as food just makes me sick). Until that heady day, my friends, I will continue to complain.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

The Ustari Cycle Novellas: The Stringer

I may have mentioned this several thousand times by now, but Pocket Star will be publishing three eBook novellas set in the blood magic world of The Ustari Cycle this year and next. The novellas are titled The Stringer (August 2016), Last Best Day (October 2016), and The Boom Bands (January 2017) and I am really, really excited for y’all to read them.

The covers are final, I think — or at least the cover for The Stringer is, because it’s up on all the store sites, so here you go:
Stringer.jpg
They’ve also revamped the covers for Fixer and We Are Not Good People to make the series cohesive, and those will pop up in due time. In the mean time, The Stringer and the other novellas are all available for pre-order, so why not go and, um, pre-order them?

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

Details and The Ragged Genius of “Rules of Attraction”

VAN DER I WILL MURDER YOU

VAN DER I WILL MURDER YOU

Every story is a collection of details, an accumulation of notes about expressions, actions, reactions, natural phenomenon, etc. Sometimes those details are layered on with a heavy trowel, burying the reader under a mountain of words. Sometimes they’re used more sparingly, leaving more of the heavy lifting for the reader’s imagination to fill in gaps.

Sometimes, they’re used really, really specifically.

Consider Roger Avary’s 2002 film, The Rules of Attraction. Based on the 1987 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, it’s a film that remains somewhat ignored and controversial. It is, after all, adapted from an Ellis novel, which means it is a film about Monied Trash People who screw and puke and get stoned and exist for no reason whatsoever, and wallows in their elite crapulence. It has Patrick Bateman’s little brother as a lead character. You can’t like anyone in the story, and the story itself eats its own tail and appears to be about nothing much at all.

The film’s pretty amazing.

Number one, you have James Van Der Beek, still young-looking enough to be Dawson, giving a really great performance as the creepy, dumb, pathetic Sean Bateman. Number two, there are a lot of little tricks that work in this movie, from extended sequences played backwards, complete with backwards sound, and split screens and super creepy close ups of people. The performances are solid. If you can stomach the awful Monied Trash People who are its subjects—and the fact that one of the leads is literally raped within the first two minutes of the film—it’s a fascinating movie that has emerged from 2002 more or less unscathed except for the fact that no one has a cell phone.

But the real reason you should watch this movie is one of the details: This woman.

wayman

Before he ruins it with a shitty flashback montage obviously designed for idiots who aren’t paying attention, Avary does something really great with this character, who is unnamed in both the novel and the film. It’s a clear use of planting details purposefully—not to bury the reader/viewer in minutiae, or to world build, but simply for effect. Anyone writing their own stories can learn this trick and make it their own.

A Little Exposition

First, though, for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie or read the book, a little exposition. Spoilers for a movie that came out in 2002, if you really are that weird, follow.

James Van Der Beek plays Sean Bateman, attending elite Camden College, where he has been receiving anonymous letters from a girl. His secret admirer leaves her perfumed, glitter-bomb letters in his campus PO box and never signs them. Sean is smitten with his unseen admirer, and comes to suspect she is Lauren, an elfin virgin played by Shannyn Sossamon, who he meets cute and falls in love with. On the day of a big party, his stalker leaves a letter telling Sean that “tonight is the night” that they will finally meet. But when Sean arrives at the party Lauren isn’t there, and he decides to sleep with her roommate (played by Jessica Biel as a coke-sniffing wild child).

When the author of the letters is revealed, however, halfway through the film, it appears to be a girl we’ve never seen before. A wholly new character who is devastated when Sean goes off with the plastic and awful Biel. Avary, in fact, cuts from the narrative to spend several minutes with this new face as she commits suicide in the communal dorm bathroom, keeping a tight focus on her face as she bleeds out. It’s harrowing; her face starts off blank and depression-numbed, but as she bleeds it collapses into a flurry of emotions that is truly hard to watch.

As a first-time viewer, you can’t help but wonder where in the hell she came from.

On second viewing, you see it: She’s been there all along. The character appears four times before her suicide, always stalking Sean Bateman. She’s in the foreground, the background. She’s at the party when Sean, thinking Lauren has stood him up, leaves with her roommate. She’s always been there. We just didn’t notice.

(And then, yes, Avary ruins it by including a hamfisted montage of those prior scenes just to make sure we get it, and it’s so awful it makes me angry to this day, because it ruins a truly perfect moment).

The Power of Details

Avary’s choice to have the character in scenes but keep her part of the set dressing is a powerful one, because it makes the audience complicit with Sean. We’ve both just spent the entire movie not noticing this girl. We’re both mystified when she appears on screen, her face filling the frame (or Sean would be if he ever realized his mistake, which he does not). If you didn’t notice the girl the first time around (and if you claim you did I don’t quite believe you), her suicide is shocking. It’s powerful storytelling pulled from a few details Avary scatters here and there.

And he’s not done. Because in the sequence when Sean is having sex with Lauren’s roommate in their dorm room, he glances up from Biel’s contorted face at the wall where a collage of photos has been pasted up. And one of those photos is of Lauren and the unnamed stalker girl, who is killing herself in the bathroom a few doors away at that precise moment.

The implications are strong. And never explained. Obviously, Lauren and this girl know each other, and thus she must be part of their shared world on campus. And yet Sean Bateman has no idea she exists. He meets Lauren and decides he is in love with her within a short time, but he never even sees this girl who is literally following him everywhere and is friends with Lauren herself.

Avary’s decision to leave the girl’s character as a string of details is brilliant, even if it is ruined by that later montage. The viewer has to extrapolate the whole story from a few grains, and it elevates the film. In a world where a lot of writers seem to think that the more dense your details the more real your world will feel, there’s a lessen, and it’s pretty clear: Less is more. But only if you know what you’re doing.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

The Tipping Point

I recently Tweeted a few thoughts on tipping, making a joke about how I use tipping to enforce my will like a modern day Caligula. That’s half-true. I also use tipping to reward good service, like a normal human being. And while there are scenarios where I’d celebrate the end of Tipping Culture (as discussed in Think Pieces here, here, and here) in general I’d likely still tip even if the person’s hourly wage was adjusted up to compensate for a theoretical lack of tips. Because I like tipping.

You Sure, Brah?

Not me. I'm cuter.

Not me. I’m cuter.

One weird artifact of tipping is when you’re a big tipper, as I like to think of myself, sometimes, and society recoils in horror. For example, my barber.

I hate getting haircuts. This is known by the Internet, which is collectively subjected to my whining about it on a regular basis. The reasons I hate haircuts have nothing to do with hair or style, and have everything to do with having some Rando touching my head and talking to me while I am forced to sit there in mortal fear as they wield sharp objects near my jugular. So when I find the Platonic Ideal of barbers—someone who doesn’t chat, who simply gets to work cutting my hair in a silent, businesslike manner, I want to reward that person. I want to tip like 50% and reinforce that urge to not talk, to not ask me what I do, to not pretend that we’re somehow friends just because I allow them to touch my head.

And every time I try to tip some ridiculous amount, the software at the POS machine always pauses and makes me confirm the amount. It’s essentially a message that says, whoa, brah! that’s a lot of coin. You sure?

It’s 3PM on a Thursday, motherfuckers. I’m sober-ish. I am fucking sure.

The Public Shaming

There is an idea that tipping is like a limited resource you should only parcel out in tiny sips, as if you might someday exhaust your personal supply of tips. That every transaction is a complex equation where you weigh millions of pros and cons, each worth, like, a penny or something, and end up with some bizarre number like $23.64. That awarding some peon a tip is like Caligula waving an imperial baton and granting clemency to a gladiator. Like leaving a tip is equivalent to pissing out a kidney stone or having a child: painful and difficult and only to be done with lots of down time and rest in-between attempts. When you attempt to tip in a more freefall, fuckit manner, you get a lot of pushback in the form of calls from fraud services on your credit card account or, as with the barber, robots demanding that you certify you haven’t been day drinking since 11AM and are tipping your barber $25 because they’ve slipped you some Roofies or are holding a straight razor to their throat.

In short there’s an assumption that being generous is by default a mistake, and that’s troublesome.

And that’s likely because rather than a reward for good service, tipping is supposed to be a form of control, a way of making people jump through hoops. Giving someone a bit of kosh because they treated a haircut like the grimly uncomfortable horror that it is seems like I might not quite understand the capitalist system, and thus must be discouraged. Fact is, most of the barbers I’ve met treat cutting your hair like an opportunity to make a new best friend, or possibly to recruit you into their Amway cult. They talk, they ask the same questions every time (because they don’t actually remember me from the last time) and they try to upsell you on hair product.

You’ve seen me. Do I look like a man who uses hair product? Note, not a man who needs hair product (because, obviously: yes) but one who actually uses it. The answer is no. Trying to upsell me hair product while I am writhing in awkward discomfort in your barber’s chair is just dumb.

So, my current barber: A glorious woman who speaks exactly ten words during the entire experience:

Hi Jeff.

Same as last time?

See you next time!

A glorious woman who gets to work, doesn’t waste time, and doesn’t even ask me what kind of shampoo I use, or whether that smell is me, or if I am in fact wearing pants made of cocktail napkins and duct tape, possibly cobbled together in a public restroom after waking up pantsless in a dumpster. She just does the job, takes her pay, and we both move on. And whether the robots like it or not, I am going to keep tipping her as heavy as I can.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

DICK FOR ETERNITY

The Urban Bizarre

The Urban Bizarre

I wrote this story in 1993, and in 2004 it appeared in the anthology The Urban Bizarre, published by Prime Books and edited by Nick Mamatas. It was actually one of two of my stories that appeared in that anthology, which I can only assume meant Nick had space to fill :-).

It’s disorienting to read something you wrote so long ago. Very clearly inspired by some of the awful parties I attended in my college years, it also sports the gross nihilism I pretended to as a younger man.

The title comes from a Too Much Joy song, “What It Is,” which contains the line “Congratulations, James, now you’re a dick for eternity!”

 

I used to know this girl named Brenda, but that was before Rodney killed her, almost completely by accident. A big-boned redhead with horrible pale skin that seemed to break out into sympathetic rashes with alarming regularity, Brenda was a loud, outgoing girl that didn’t let the fact that no one liked her slow her down any. I guess someone liked her. Someone kept inviting her to the parties. Looking back, I suppose it was Rodney, since he’d been sleeping with her.

At the time, though, I didn’t know that. All I knew was that this tall pale girl with bad teeth and the loudest voice in the world kept showing up at the house and chasing everyone away. She talked to all of us with big hugs and excited squeals, as if we were old, old chums reunited by chance, no love lost. We’d squirm in her grasp until she took her eyes off us, and slip away one by one to grouch in private until she was all alone and had to find new victims.

Eventually she’d disappear, but not until drinking enough to awe even Fat Billy, who could sink most mortals, his liver glowing softly.
The night I’m thinking of, however, she didn’t disappear, didn’t leave us to the relative peace and quiet of our little lives, although I did get a few minutes of quiet relief when I thought she had. That night, though, Rodney came hooting down the stairs, tucking his shirt in and grabbing me in tight-sweat desperation.

####

Let me tell you a little about Rodney. He was half Black and half Puerto-Rican and all asshole, one of those sweaty heart-attacks for whom life was a never-ending series of surprises, usually unpleasant. He had a bug-eyed stare that had a remarkable steadiness, it latched onto you and didn’t let go until someone waved something bright at him. I don’t know what he had at the center of his life, what kept him waking up in the morning, I didn’t know him that well and didn’t feel the loss at all. It had something to do with drinking and his dog Percy, though, I knew that because they were the only things he gave a shit about.

He worked as a bartender at a strip joint, which was good money but bad health, because he stumbled home in a horrible mess of intoxication and lust, his little bug eyes nervous, gasping in big gulps of air. he’d rush into the living room and sit on the edge of the couch next to me, his hands clasped between his knees and the stale living-room air squeezing in between his teeth. Sometimes I waited a few minutes for him to speak up, sometimes I couldn’t take it and asked him outright.

“Those girls……” he would say with a dull, hollow haunt in his face.

We would all nod and ignore him, then, having heard it all before. That was Rodney. Rodney didn’t make love, he banged. It was sweaty, uncomfortably desperate act of drool for him. We know this because we lived with him between tissue-thin walls and he had no concept of how much noise he made, screaming, begging, cursing.

He was banging this girl Brenda and God knows why it wasn’t obvious to me. Part of it was the fact that you stop being interested in your room-mate’s sex life pretty fucking quick. And no one could ever hear the girls over Rodney’s hopeless bellows. We all had our own problems, coming up with one-fourth rent every month being chief among them. Rodney just didn’t rank.

####

Just like every night, it seemed, a tape-loop, eternity, that night we’d thrown a party. Rodney’d gotten Brenda up into his room, although no one noticed. Things were sweaty and except for me, who was eagerly driving people away with snarling insults and steely glares, no one was paying anyone else any attention unless sex was involved, somehow. I was standing by the front door, sweating buckets in the heat made worse by hundreds of leech-like people struggling to bore their maws into us. I was demanding that newcomers know names before I let them in, picking fights and talking with this brunette girl who wasn’t drinking. She insulted me back with pretty sobriety. We kept blowing smoke into each other’s faces, and I was falling in love with her.

I felt the sweaty paw on my shoulder and turned to find Rodney at my elbow, half dressed and ugly.

“C’mon upstairs, Lenny. I got something you gotta see.”

I squinted at him suspiciously. Beer did nothing for him, just made him grey and pasty-faced. I tried to put on a friendly ‘not-now’ face. “Fuck off.” I grinned, patting him on the shoulder. It was my job to torture these people. It was why I was here. They thought they were having fun. It was up to me to prove them wrong.

“No, Len,” he hissed, “you gotta.”

I looked back at him, this puffy leech which had inserted itself into me. There was doom about him, the clinging scent of emergency. There was no way he was going to let me get back to wooing the wonderfully abrasive girl before I had a peek into his private life, so I waved him on and followed. I just hoped he wasn’t having a mid-life crisis or something.

Everybody was having a mid-life crisis. Every other night some poor joker was up in his room weeping for his lost youth or something. It spread like a disease, from room to room, identity crisis again and again, grown men trying to find themselves. You could hear the wailing even downstairs sometimes, but this particular night I was lucky, in one small sense. Rodney wasn’t having a midlife crisis, which was good, because I was no good at talking people down from ledges. I got bored too easily. I wasn’t much of a friend, but I was fun at parties so everyone kept me around. I even think they were a little afraid of me, which was why I hated them all, the spineless shits. They probably wanted me to move out, but were too scared, and I hated cowards.

####

Rodney’s room was upstairs buried next to the bathroom, which was safest for all involved. We paused in the doorway, staring at her like she was just an ugly rumor, a joke in bad taste staring blindly up at the ceiling with bland, dusty eyes, one bra strap pushed off her pale shoulder.

I eyed Rodney with a discomfort born of any number of truths but held together by the uneasy realization that I was in a murderer’s midst. Neither of us would say it, but the possibility hung there anyway, the unutterable image in our minds, that Rodney had fucked her to death.

He stood there like a behemoth, unsure what to do with his hands. I turned and shut the door. I leaned against it and put my hands in my pockets, just to show I knew what to do with my hands.

“You crazy Fuck,” I said conversationally, “you’re going to jail.”

That wasn’t what he wanted to hear. His sallow face crumpled up into a gibbering hole of terror, and he started to pace around his room in a sweat, muttering curses under his breath, until finally exploding.

“I can’t do that, Lenny!” he hissed, grabbing my shirt and pulling re close. “You gotta help me!”

I eyed him with hopeless sarcasm. I put an arm around him and led him on a spiral around his room,

“Let me spell out a few quick ones, okay, Rod? You’re going to jail. You’re going to have a new friend named Bubba or Pinky or something who’s going to try to do to you what you just did to Brenda.” I paused to glance reflectively at her. I was enjoying myself.

Rodney quivered there in my arms, ready to just burst into tears. I was terrified that he might start bawling. Completely terrified.

“Now,” I went on, “if someone came up to you and asked you to go to jail too and get fucked to death by some guy named Tiny, you’d tell him to go to hell, wouldn’t you?”

He paused. “Well —”

“Go to hell, Rodney.” I snapped, leaving him alone by the bed.

####

I was fighting my way through the crowd around the bathroom, trying to get away from Rodney’s inevitable pursuit, when I saw Fat Billy fighting his way toward the toilet. Fat Billy was three hundred pounds of heaving, sweating flesh and I’d seen him throw up once and once was all I needed to be very afraid of seeing it again.

I was caught between two hells, and in the end I let Fat Billy go by and so got caught by Rodney, who had a trickle of spittle lolling from the corner of his mouth. From the bathroom, Fat Billy drowned out the crowd, because Fat Billy howled in sheer terror or something whenever he threw up. We couldn’t hear a goddamn thing over the pitiful wailing driving everyone away, so we retreated back into Rodney’s room and shut the door again. I stood defeated before him, a victim of fate.

“All right,” I sighed, “Let’s think.”

Rodney collapsed in relief, and I Just patted him on the head and told him to shut up. In the background Fat Billy screamed so you’d think blood was shooting out of his nose as he knelt on the damp and scabby bathroom floor, and I had no doubt he’d driven everyone else away. I lit a cigarette and ashed on Rodney’s rug, staring at this fat and flaccid body still staring up at the dull ceiling. I was curious as to what had happened, but was afraid Rodney might actually start talking if I asked him about it.

“Well,” I said finally, “we’ve got to get her out of your room.”

This was not so easily done. Fat Billy had cleared the floor, so me and Rodney carried her milky white and soggy to the stairs without a problem. The stairs, however, had recently seen a frightened mob fleeing Fat Billy, and glazed strangers stared back at me with barely concealed apathy and dislike.

“Move aside, you bastards, I live here.” I growled.

No one paid me any attention. I glanced back at Rodney and pulled our luggage upright, her head rolling brokenly against my shoulder.

“Watch out everybody,” I said with an eat-shit grin, “I think she’s gonna puke.”

They studied her, judged relative distance and looked me in the eye to see if I was the sort to stand by and let friends puke on total strangers. After a moment a shallow path was opened grudgingly and we carried her down, only dropping her once.

The sons of bitches were everywhere, so we couldn’t just carry her outside and be seen disposing of a body. I snarled back at Rodney every chance I got, the fucker, pushing him into gibbering despair. We deposited her on the couch and put some distance between us.

I walked around and lied a lot, spinning stories and assuming names. Mostly, these parties were just big suckfests, the guys sucking up to the girls in hopes that, on a good warm night with cold beer and the right vibe, the girls would end up sucking off the guys. It never really happened that way, but that’s the way I described them to people when I wasn’t out to make friends, which I usually wasn’t when my housemates opened up our domicile to every bride-and-tunnel ass who could follow directions from Manhattan.

Brenda became the center of attention, wearing a pair of my sunglasses and sprawled in an open invitation on the couch. Rodney stared at her from the corner of the room as if he wished he’d at least gotten to come before she kicked off, and all the other beer-dicks followed his stare like lemmings eyeing a ledge. She was the focus of unbridled lust, a heady vision of fading perfume and one bra-strap slipped over a pale and paling shoulder.

####

Kent Booker, the skinny little shit, must have seen me carry her in, because he horned in on me to scam on her, pinning me against the wall with one finger and breath that would have been a health hazard if we hadn’t had the windows open. I didn’t see his sister Kelly with him, and figured she’d ditched him to make out with older men, as usual. She was a skinny eighteen-year old with a single monotonous eyebrow, pretty in a high-school way, and Kent spent much of his free time beating up his friends because of her. It was entertaining and okay by me; everyone here was being punished for something.

A few years earlier, Kent had been known as “Pud” Booker, because we’d caught him masturbating one lucky evening and even had negatives to prove it. We’d matured since then, of course, so we didn’t call him “Pud” any more. But we still had the negatives. Neal Tucklin kept them in the little cubbyhole behind his bed’s head-board.

They deeply worried Kent, they hung over him with dangerous weight and kept shadows under his eyes. Whenever he saw one of us he incessantly tried to barter them away in desperate attempts to regain his manhood. We usually jeered him heartlessly, wondering when he’d realize we only kept the photos because they worried him. If he quit worrying about them, we’d get bored and throw them away.

This particular night, however, he didn’t even mention the pics, he put a slimy, conspiratorial arm around my unwilling shoulders and asked me for Brenda’s name. That’s how I knew he really wanted her, with her gummy tongue and dry, bloodless lips. She was a vision of cooling indifference squeezed between various face-sucking couples, lolling elastically with each subtle shift of the cushions.

I sneered at him. “You goddamn bastard.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Sister?”

####

Only relatives were safe. Unescorted women were mauled with a frenzy approaching the animal once they were drunk enough. Escorted women merely narrowed the mauling down to one. But sisters and cousins and aunts walked safe and miserably bored inside little pockets of protection. Only the foolhardy and the brave would attack someone’s sister, which is why your sisters always married the crazy fucks.

I denied the sister rumor, seeing the need to distance myself from the corpse on the couch in the living room. I moved into the Kitchen just ahead of the triumphant return of Fat Billy, amid shouts and cries of relief that the king had survived yet another bout with his liver. The drinking games had quietly degenerated into loosely moderated discussions about life. As if the bastards had ever stumbled far enough out of that very same fucking kitchen to have done any living—living bed to subway to office to subway to bed. I was surrounded by vinyl-skinned corpses who all wanted to fuck my poor dead sister sitting half-naked on the couch in the living room. They kept asking me about the meaning of life and I spat curses back at them, grinning around my beer heartlessly. They loved it. Everyone you met wanted to know what you did, meaning what your job was. We all had the same jobs: show up daily, donate a sizable portion of your breath, skin flakes, eyelashes, hair, and stomach gas to the contained atmosphere of the building, and go home exhausted enough to not cause any trouble. I told them dirty stories made up about that wonderful, acerbic brunette at the front door and basked in the warm glow of male bonding or some such crap.

Rodney sauntered in and crouched in the corner, watching me with his unhealthy pop-eyed adhesive stare. He didn’t laugh. I had all the pricks hooting and Rodney just stared. It was hard to tell if he just didn’t get the jokes or if he just had his mind on other things. I could have flipped a coin. I scowled at him every chance I got, but that didn’t help either.

####

At four thirty in the morning, Stan Manler used to say wisely, good parties are over and great parties were just beginning.
I was the clean-up team, walking through and pitilessly hauling loved ones and invited guests out into the street, the bunch of drunk parasites. Fat Billy was passed out on top of the kitchen table, which normally wouldn’t have stopped me from rolling Fat Billy out the back door into the driveway. Fat Billy was stuck fast to the table, though, glued on board by some magic combination of beer, drool, and cigarette ash. I left him as he alternately snored and whimpered in his sleep, crying out against something.

Stan Manler himself was locked in the basement with Kelly Booker, the crazy bastard. Kent was walking around our backyard screaming to me to let him back in, because he couldn’t find his kid sister. Down in the basement Stan couldn’t hear anything, and he was lucky. I peeled them apart and spent equal time berating her for loose values and pounding him on the back with macho enthusiasm. As we chatted I guided them gently to the door and thrust them rudely out, at the mercy of Kent and all the overprotective brotherly fanaticism he could muster.

I found Rodney in the living room, sitting next to Brenda with a woefully lustful expression on his face, saddened by the loss of such a beautifully compliant girl with such pale and doughy skin. I felt sorry for Rodney, he had so little. Just his dog which none of us had ever seen but which he talked about lovingly whenever the subject was least appropriate, and long sodden nights like this one which had been ruined so early. But we still had a body to get rid of So I didn’t give in to sentiment.

The house settled around us and I knocked glass around as I sat down next to Brenda as well, quietly lighting a cigarette and enjoying a moment of peace that was immediately destroyed by Rodney and his chubby, bleating voice. I stopped feeling sorry for him. My night had been ruined, I wasn’t nearly as drunk as I deserved to be, I’d lost the insulting little brunette into the night forever, and Fat Billy was stuck to my kitchen table. I didn’t feel sorry for anyone. Not even Brenda. They all got what they deserved. Even me.

“What are we gonna do, Len?”

I curled my lip up. “We could eat her. Got any relish?”

He looked ready to agree, so I stood up. “Fuck, Rodney, I’m just gonna call the cops and have a clear conscience.”

He leaped up, pop-eyes bulging. “Len—”

I smiled. “Just kidding.” I said quietly. “Sit down before I kill you.”

He could see it in my eyes, the bloodshot near murder that had occurred. He sat down.

“We’re gonna bury her.” I finally admitted. “Pray your killer has the same mercy on you, asshole.”

####

The next morning I sat on our front porch in mud-caked pants and dirt-stiff hair, squinting into the sun and smoking my last cigarette. Rodney was asleep in his room, in his bed as if no one had or would ever die in it. The world was still and I just let the sun bake the mud on like sin.

“Been groveling?”

I turned and smiled at her, her short brown hair and beautiful “fuck you” grin. She held her shoes in one hand, and stood flat footed on my front porch eyeing me with insulting archness. Something lodged itself in my chest, and I smoked to dislodge it. Just like that, and I was in love.

She sat down next to me and we sat there like an old married couple, watching all the lunatics driving to work. Upstairs Rodney began screaming in his sleep and there was no one next to him to offer any comfort. He just went on and on and on.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

All Over the Place

I Think the Hair Sealed the Deal for Me. IT WAS SPECTACULAR.

I Think the Hair Sealed the Deal for Me. IT WAS SPECTACULAR.

I became obsessed with baseball as a kid because of Burger King. I think it was 1979; for the Mighty Somers Clan BK was our go-to low-rent celebration place, the fast food restaurant that Mom and Dad took my brother and I to eat when we got the Honor Roll or won a Little League game or something like that. There weren’t many good pizza places, I don’t think there was a McDonald’s at the time. The only other restaurant that was even close to BK in importance for getting little kids excited was Arthur Treacher’s. Man, I miss Arthur Treacher’s. But to go to Arthur treacher’s we had to drive into (gasp) Union City, so that was much rarer.

Anyway, BK had a promotion giving away Topps baseball cards of the World Champion 1978 New York Yankees, and I got a few one time when Mom took us out to eat. And I was fascinated. The design of the cards, the photos, which were all super serious and seemed like they’d been taken without the players being aware — and the stats. Oh, the stats printed on the back.

This is why baseball is the go-to sport of soft white boys everywhere. It’s the closest thing to a role-playing game that’s still a manly sport.

I started watching the game, playing the game (really, really badly; I played like eleventy seasons of Left Out in Little League, and I can still hear the groans of my teammates when I stepped up to the plate for my inevitable pop foul), and collecting baseball cards. Google tells me those Burger King cards are worth a little something these days, though I imagine only if you actually took care of them and haven’t had them rubber-banded together in a shoebox in varying climate conditions for nearly 40 years.

Anyway, for a while baseball was part of my personality. I could quote stats. I listened to every single Mets game on the Radio in 1987. Every single game! I can still hear Bob Murphy in my sleep. I wore a baseball cap everywhere. My Dad used to get free Mets tickets in the early 1980s, and even though Shea Stadium was absolutely empty for some reason we still sat up in the weeds, getting nosebleeds. I played Rotisserie baseball and formed a computer game league with friends from High School where we drafted Hall of Fame players and played 16-game seasons against each other.

Today, not so much. As a middle-aged man, baseball has slowly receded from me. I can’t give a single reason; it’s a tasty melange of changing tastes, boredom with something I’ve explored pretty thoroughly, the altered aspects of the game over the years, and yeah, probably the scandals. Whatever, for a wide variety of reasons that may indeed include my general level of suckitude, I don’t pay close attention to baseball any more.

####

I think of this, strangely enough, because I’m a novelist. A novelist with a messy range of books and shorter works out there, including thrillers, mysteries, dysotpian sci-fi, urban fantasy, and some straight-up general fiction. In other words, my work doesn’t fit well into a single shelving category, and I do think that hurts me sometimes.

That’s also a function of evolving tastes and interests. When I first started writing, I was heavily inspired by epic fantasy, so that’s what I wrote. Much of my pre-college work is swords and sorcery, epic quests, magical talismans and such. In college I got into crime thrillers and mysteries, and then I went into a very pretentious phase where I read classic literature and thought I was capable of matching it. A little later I got back into speculative fiction but more on the sci fi end of things. I’m all over the place.

This isn’t unusual; most writers have a wide range of influences and a wide range of projects they’re interested in. And plenty of writers manage to publish in a variety of genres and still have great success. But I do wonder sometimes if my work isn’t too varied, making it hard for someone who loves, say, the cyberpunk sci fi of Avery Cates to jump over to the snarky dark comedy of Chum. Whereas if I published exclusively in one genre I might build more momentum with people, as they’d be able to check into new books without having to research what they’re getting into.

But of course, sort of like my interest in baseball, you get bored with stuff, don’t you? I explore a concept, an idea, a character, and sometimes that’s it: There’s no more there there for you personally. So you go looking for something more interesting. And you write a new book. And no one knows how in the world to market it.

####

I’ve always been suspicious of people who are, in turn, suspicious of change. Changing, evolving opinions, tastes, and beliefs are healthy. Dogmatic refusal to re-asses and re-evaluate is kind of boring and unimaginative. Why in the world would you like exactly the same things as when you were younger? I mean, when I was 25 I thought lite beer was great and buried my whiskey in mixers. It was a savage, unschooled time.

So I don’t think too hard about baseball, and I don’t miss it much. Unless you told me I’d sell a boatload of books if I started watching Mets games again, in which case I’m all in. Because poppa needs new shoes.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

The Dangers of Not Enough Alternative in Your History

I LOVE COCAINE SO MUCH

I LOVE COCAINE SO MUCH

Like a man paralyzed with fear as he watches a horrible auto accident, I continue to tune into HBOs Vinyl now and then. The wonders of the digital age on my cable company’s circa-2005 technology allows me to time shift to my heart’s desire, which means a show like Vinyl that would get skipped hard if I had to choose between it and several other, much better shows actually gets watched in the wee small hours when I’m bored and tired. While being bored and tired when watching a show might not be the ideal headspace for appreciating art, it is the ideal headspace for undercooked prestige dramas.

Vinyl has its pleasures, but it remains an unsatisfying slog of a show filled with a clichéd antihero lead character and plenty of overblown self-importance. Overall, I’d give the show so far a hard C+, but something’s been bothering me about it from the get go, something that has nothing to do with the characters or the dialog or even the fact that the lead character is so awful (seriously, if you haven’t watched the show and want to know what the character of Richie Finestra [Bobby Cannavale] is like, imagine Don Draper on a bloaty, self-hating binge but then remove all his charisma and magnetism and any sort of redeeming artistic sense of beauty). I finally figured it out: It’s the half-measure alternative history of the show.

This is why watching or reading not-great works can still be profitable for a writer, because the failures can crystallize concepts for you. Put simply, Vinyl demonstrates that if you’re going to tell an alternative history story, you must be prepared to actually change history.

Vinyl As a Work of Sci Fi

Is Vinyl, the story of a record executive in the early 1970s, science fiction? No, of course not—except it kind of is, because Vinyl exists in that mainstay of SF stories, the alternate history. Richie Finestra isn’t just a fictional character at a fictional record company, he’s supposedly a heavy-hitter who’s the principle shareholder of a major record company. A company that has a reasonable chance of signing, say, Alice Cooper or Elvis to its roster.

And the show has fun with that, having actors portray some of the biggest stars of the time, and imagining they’re actually on the American Century label or being pursued by the team of A&R people working there. David Bowie shows up. Robert Goulet (!) shows up. A host of lesser-known stars of the era show up. The impersonations vary in quality and effectiveness, but the key here is that a plot point in several episodes has been American Century, a label in serious financial trouble, keeps trying to woo big stars onto their label. And it keeps failing, for the simple reason that those stars never signed with American Century, because American Century didn’t actually exist.

In other words, things like this keep happening: A hapless A&R guy, his job on the line if he can’t sign a new act, has a random run-in with Alice Cooper, who in 1973 was a huge rock star. So the hapless A&R guy spends a boozy, exhausting weekend wooing Cooper and trying to convince him to leave his band and go solo on American Century. That’s all fine, because it’s 100% possible that Alice Cooper was in fact wooed by a wide variety of A&R guys from a wide range of labels and no one was there to snap photos and write breathless accounts of it. But of course we all know that Cooper didn’t go solo until 1975, and when Cooper humiliates our hapless A&R guy because he hates Finestra and American Century, there’s no surprise. So far Vinyl has proved unwilling to actually re-write history too much, so we know it won’t take Alice Cooper from fictional version of a real person into the realm of 100% fictional character. That makes all the cameos by 1970s rock stars pointless. We know what will or won’t happen.

And so, Vinyl turns to fictional rock stars for the actual kinetic storytelling, inventing someone like Hannibal, an R&B superstar, so American Century can actually have a contract in play that won’t break history. That’s fine, but mixing the fake and the real just underscores the problem: Vinyl‘s unwilling to change history in service of its alternate version of history, and if an alternate history is kind of exactly the same as actual history, what’s the point?

Meet The Drapers

Mad Men danced the same dance: Set in the advertising world of the 1960s, it had a fake ad man in Draper, working at a fake advertising firm, but working with real-life products. And it works, for two reasons. One, people (or at least: me) are much less familiar with the shadowy world of advertising. In other words, as far as most people are concerned, Don Draper might as well have come up with the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign, because most normal people have no fucking idea who actually did it.

Two, Mad Men did in fact change history many times on the show, in the sense that it often had real products and real companies hire Don and company to work on campaigns for them. Heck, the Coke Ad in the finale is an actual campaign, a famous campaign, and Matt Weiner just decided that in the Mad Men version of the universe it was invented by Don Draper, and screw reality.

Mad Men is also assisted by the fact that large corporations often did and do have several advertising firms on the payroll, so it doesn’t break any rules to imagine the boutique-style firms Draper worked at might not have picked up an account here and there.

Vinyl has no such luxury, since rock stars are only signed to one label at a time. Teasing us that Richie might sign Led Zeppelin in 1973 instead of watching them get their own Swan Song label is only exciting if we think it might actually happen in the alternate universe of the show. Once we figure out that stuff like that is never going to happen, we get bored. When Richie sits down with a bloated Elvis in Vegas and tries to get him to dump his residency and start over with a new label, the audience twiddles its thumbs because the show has established that a major departure from reality like that is never going to happen.

If the show did take those chances, it would instantly be orders of magnitude more interesting. A show where Elvis cleans up, hits the gym, and signs with a demented cokehead record executive desperately trying to make music meaningful in his own life again? That would be interesting for no other reason than it would be 100% unpredictable. As it is, the impersonations of celebrities on Vinyl are only as interesting as the performers’ mimicry skills.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus

The Writing Bona Fides: Software

The Page Cannot be Displayed by Jeff Somers

The Page Cannot be Displayed by Jeff Somers

I’m a lazy, lazy, lazy man. I mean, just writing that sentence exhausted me, and I had to go and have a shot of whiskey to regain my energy and lust for life.

I’m also an easily distracted man. I can’t remember what I used to be like pre-Internet, but with the Internet sitting on my desktop, I am a cocaine monkey.

So, to recap; I am lazy and have the attention span of a small fly. And yet I am a professional writer of some success. Let’s not quibble on what the precise meaning of success is in this context. Or professional. Or quibble. Let’s just say I have sold some books and make a living with words, and yes, there are plenty of teachers in the Jersey City School System who would be very amazed to discover this.

When interacting with folks who want to be writers themselves, I get a couple of standard questions. You can probably guess a few of them — what’s my process, will I read their manuscript, will I please give them back their cocktail, which totally wasn’t mine to just grab off the bar — but a couple always confound me, especially questions about the software I use when writing a novel.

I usually respond by grabbing them by the lapels and screaming are you going to buy me a whiskey or what until they flee. But the questions stick with me, because whenever I answer I feel like a fraud.

The Stipulations

First, a stipulation. This is important.

I am a moron.

No, seriously — I’m an idiot. A charming, handsome, well-spoken, pantsless idiot. I am frequently ill-informed, I sometimes have trouble hearing people and pretend I understand what they’re saying, I parrot opinions all the time and am easily confused and defeated in rhetorical competition. In short, for god’s sake my experiences are my own and mine alone and nothing I say here is meant in any way as a proclamation. In other words, there are many, many paths to writing a novel or having a freelance writing career. If your experience differs from mine, that’s great! I am a moron.

The Edumacation of Jeff Somers

The software question mystifies me, because writing a novel is the most straightforward thing you can imagine. You have an idea. You tell a story. It’s literally a process of putting one word after another until you have, oh, 80,000 of them. That’s it. It’s that easy. That’s one reason I aspired to being a writer in the first place, because it’s easy.

Of course, not everyone thinks it’s easy. I can understand that. Because it actually isn’t all that easy — the process is easy. The intellectual effort of creating characters, premise, action, and coherent narrative is hard. But writing is and always will be the act of putting one word after the other. Until about 20 years ago, I wrote novels on a manual typewriter. On paper. I still have drawers stuffed full of hardcopy manuscripts. When I grudgingly switched to writing on a computer because no one wanted to receive 400 pages of typescript covered in coffee stains, correction fluid, and shocking pornographic doodles, I used an open source, free word processor and still do (Libre Office, currently).

And that’s it.

The idea of using complicated software to track plot arcs, characters, and other minutiae frankly mystifies me. The idea that any App or software is helpful in any way is mystfiying to me. I’ve never felt the need for it, and can’t see the benefit, and that alternatively makes me feel smug and triggers my Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome

Sometimes the accoutrements of a profession, the jargon of a profession are comforting. You might not be at the top of your profession, but at least you know how to use the super secret tools that the rubes don’t even know exist. At least you know the passwords. So when people ask me about the tools I use to write fiction and my answer is literally “Uh: words?” and they give me that look I know so well from all the times I have emerged from pub restrooms without my pants, I wonder if maybe I am fooling myself. Can you be a professional if you don’t use any tools?

At other times my answer to that last question is fuck yeah you can. But the use of specific tools can make you feel like you’re at least part of the club. When I’m on panels or in informal gatherings and a writer starts talking about the complex array of tools they use to write their novels, I do start to feel a little like the Slow Cousin, and I wonder, if only briefly: Would my work be better, or would there be more of it, or would it sell better if I started using some kind of magical software?

And then I am usually distracted by alcohol and forget all about it.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plus
loading