Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

The Vantage Disadvantage

So, we’ve been discussing Jeff’s awesome History of Fail in terms of rejection letters I’ve gotten along the way to my stunning … is “success” the word we’re using? Anyway, yes: Rejections. I have many. This one actually isn’t a rejection. And it made me very angry. And if you’ve ever met me, you know it’s really difficult to make me angry. Like, people have stabbed me and I’m all like “Oh, no worries.”

Subsidize This

If you were submitting novels to every single listing in the Writer’s Digest back in the Day, you probably came across Vantage Press. Founded in 1949, sued for millions in 1990, they finally shuttered in 2012 and were for a time the most recognizable and well-known “vanity” publisher, or subsidy publisher. This was in the Dark Times before POD and easy eBook self-publishing, you see, and it worked like this:

  1. 17-year old Jeff mails a photocopy of his novel Cravenhold (previously discussed) to Vantage Press via the listing in the Writer’s Market, which does not mention the words “vanity” or “subsidy”.
  2. Jeff receives the following letters, informing him a) they love the novel and want to publish it! b) it will only cost Jeff $14, 675 to do so [the fact that I would be paying them and the actual amount wasn’t in the letter; it was in the contract] ! c) wait, what?
Why yes, I *am* pleased.

Why yes, I *am* pleased.

That’s right: A mere $15,000 (that’s about $30,000 in 2015 dollars, BTW) and my book would be published! Along with this list of absolutely hilarious promotional efforts:

"Study additional promotional steps after publication." UH, *sure*.

“Study additional promotional steps after publication.” UH, *sure*.

Yes, an advertising announcement not in The New York Times, but the “The New York Times”! And they will “suggest” “autograph parties” (what in bloody hell is an “autograph party?)! But the best is the “Production Specifications” section at the bottom, which assures me the trim size will be “about” 6×9, and that it will be printed on “quality” paper.

I mean, seriously. That this place operated for more than 60 years is a crime. I was 17 but not stupid, so I wrote them back a nasty letter telling them to return my manuscript or I would burn their place of business down. And this is what I got in response:

Just THIRTY THREE easy monthly payments of $350.

Just THIRTY THREE easy monthly payments of $350.

Yup – a fucking discount. They were sorry to hear I wasn’t incredibly stupid, or rich, or both, so they generously double-tapped me by suggesting I was so fucking talented, they could swing publication for just $11,675, saving me $3,000 over the suckers who didn’t bitch and moan. Even better is the suggestion that I could make monthly payments of $350 and they “would work on your book as we received the payments” so my book would publish three years later.

Oh this was rich. So I wrote a second letter demanding they return the manuscript or I would show up at their offices and perform the Daffy Duck Gasoline Trick He Can Do But Once, and they finally relented and returned my manuscript … but included this final gem of passive aggression:

"we do believe it would be worthwhile for you to make the effort."

“we do believe it would be worthwhile for you to make the effort.”

Holy hell. “You might be one of the fortunate few.”

I mean, seriously: My fault for not knowing any better, but assholes like this are why people think publishers are evil gatekeepers. Don’t worry; a few years later in 1990 they were successfully sued and ordered to pay $3.5 million to 2,200 authors who had paid them for services that were never actually performed, and the business moved to Massachusetts. Still, they stayed somehow in business for another twenty-two years, and apparently when they closed up shop they left a lot of authors in the lurch. Just goes to show: I’m dumb, but I ain’t that dumb.

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The Art of Rejection Part Deux

Here we are in the second installment of essays about rejection letters I’ve received, because it’s educational and also because this blog is a hungry time-devouring beast that demands content, content, more and more content! until I lay awake at night wondering how in the world I will attract eyeballs tomorrow, and the next day, and the next until sleep is a distant memory.

Also, going back through these rejection letters has been eye-opening. First of all, I don’t recall being this industrious. I’m typically a lazy, lazy man. Secondly, I don’t recall being this hilarious.

Back in the Day I bought a Writer’s Market and read all the advice within and then promptly ignored it all and wrote these sloppy, funny, shaggy-dog type query letters based on the theory that I didn’t want to work with an agent or editor who didn’t “get” me or my sense of humor. This has proven to be excellent advice from my younger self, which is an unusual condition as my younger self’s advice is typically horseshit along the lines of “Sleep more” or “Dude!” – that’s it, just the word dude.

Anyways, here’s a query letter I sent out to a small publisher in early 1997, which was sent back to me with the handwritten notes on it, requesting the manuscript, and then my follow-up letter delivering the manuscript and the handwritten notes rejecting the book. I thought I’d share these because the query letter is a disaster in many ways, and yet it got a request for a full solely because I amused everyone in the room – in fact, I have another rejection somewhere that tells me flat out they would publish the query letter but not the book.

Yet Another Query letter from a Desperate and Violence-Prone Writer of Fiction

Yet Another Query letter from a Desperate and Violence-Prone Writer of Fiction

reject_97_Page_2

My God You Want to See the Book

The book itself was title Shadow Born (yes, yes, I know – my titles are awful and everyone knows this) and is one I still quite like, actually, although it is definitely juvenilia. It’s set at a college party where something terrible happens, is told from various POVs and employs some minor experimental things (experimental for me, not, you know, literature itself). The bit about my brother’s feedback is true. When he read the MS he complained that the final chapter, which was the MC ranting in a stream-of-consciousness way, should be titled “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” because of its pomposity, so I promptly re-titled the chapter “Lord Kincaid’s Farewell Address” in a fit of pique. BURN.

Anyways, I had a lot of success getting responses from agents and editor by sending humorous, self-deprecating queries. I also had a lot of blank, form, and slightly negative responses to this tactic, so Your Mileage May Vary.

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Being Charged for Submissions

I have cats to feed, you know.

I have cats to feed, you know.

The other day, writer Nick Mamatas mentioned pulling a story submission from a magazine because the magazine had instituted submissions fees (see the Storify here: https://storify.com/NMamatas/against-submission-fees). As it happens, I’d spent the day before seeking markets to submit stories in my typically semi-incompetent, shaggy dog kind of way, and I’d gotten frustrated after hitting three markets in a row that required submission fees of $2-$4 or thereabouts. It’s not a lot of money, maybe, but I didn’t submit to those magazines, because I agree with Nick: Submission fees are exploitive, and demonstrate that the market in question doesn’t value writers very highly.

It comes down to this: My work has value. The essential belief involved in fiction markets is that people (readers) will pay magazines and publishers money to read the things we write. If a magazine charges readers for the privilege of reading my genius, they should pay me for the right to publish it. If no one pays the magazine, that’s not my fault or my problem. They’re free to stop buying my work if I’m not bringing in eyeballs.

And I am free to not submit to markets that charge a submission fee, so what’s the problem? Well, I know that a few decades ago when I was just getting my legs under me, I might have paid some submission fees, because I was dimwitted and desperate for some professional street cred. And $2, even in those ancient days, was low enough that I could have considered it the cost of doing business. And all that would likely mean today is that I would have spent $500 on submission fees and likely not sold a damn thing, because the stories I was submitting weren’t all that great.

Being inundated with awful slush from idiots like me isn’t a good reason for submission fees, either. As Nick points out somewhere in there, a) reading slush is the price you pay for accepting submissions, b) there are ways to throttle down submissions if you’re being crushed by crappy subs (most easily, reading periods or very tight guidelines) and c) fees won’t stop the awful, it just monetizes it.

Money should flow to the writer, because we created the shit you want to read. It’s that simple. Yes, publishers get a cut for providing infrastructure. Others might get a cut for facilitating or assisting, who knows. But writers shouldn’t pay to play, period. As Nick points out, everyone else associated with getting a magazine out to its readers gets paid – why shouldn’t writers? And if people choose to volunteer for a magazine out of love for words, that’s great, but has nothing to do with submission fees.

Now if someone wants to talk to me about paying me for my submissions, I am open to that conversation. I’ve got a lot of stories, people. A lot of stories.

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I’m Naked and I’m Far From Home: Save Me (In Video Games)

It's a purty game.

It’s a purty game.

FRIENDS, sometimes I try to elevate this blog and write about something serious, like writing or social issues. Well, I tried that once, at least. The rest of the time this blog is incoherent and spastic as I try to promote myself, crack jokes, and look smart all at once, with a typical outcome being a lot of people digitally shaking their heads and virtually tsking me as I lay sprawled on their monitors, humiliated.

So, today we’re not even trying. I’m going to go into Natural Somers Mode and simply complain. It’s what my people were bred to do. And what I will complain about is painfully prosaic and a very First World Problem and I do not care! I will complain because it is my birthright. And what I choose to complain about is the checkpoint save system in video games like Bioshock Infinite.

Slow and Dimwitted

Three things you need to know about me before we proceed: I am cheap. I possess almost no hand-eye coordination or reflexes. I am lazy. Anyone who has spent time with me knows the first. Anyone who played with me in Little League when I was a kid knows the second. And anyone who … well, actually, everyone in the world knows about the last one.

This carries into video games. I have a pretty narrow love for First Person Shooter games, and I’m terrible at them like I am terrible at everything that requires quick-thinking and lightning-fast reflexes. Let’s just say in the event of Zombie Apocalypse, I should not be your first draft into your Zombie Defense Team. Leave me to the second or third round, after your best people have been eaten.

I recall a looooonggggg time ago when people could reasonably say they spent a weekend playing Unreal Tournament, my friend Ken set up Unreal Tournament at his office, where his LAN made it easy (this was before Internet multiplayer was really a thing). Our friend Jeof and I came by, we sat in separate offices, and spent the day trying to murder each other, virtually. And I camped the whole day. I found a hidden spot just over a tunnel junction, and sat there, and every time Ken or Jeof walked past I shot them in the head. After a while they banded together to hunt down my hiding spot, and then for me the war was over. That’s how I play video games.

Also: I cheat.

This is not because I don’t believe in the rules of polite society. This is because if I didn’t cheat, gaming wouldn’t be any fun for me. I don’t play multiplayer, so when I say I cheat, I mean use cheats to do things like live forever, have endless ammunition, and walk through walls, so my lack of skills doesn’t turn the game into something frustrating. Frankly, I just enjoy playing god. I am immortal, I know all, and I can do anything. It’s fun!

Also: I save my game constantly.

Saving my game with the press of a button: If you don’t play video games you might not understand how crucial this is for sanity. This way, in case I am not cheating, if I die a spectacular death by zigging when I should have zagged, I can jump right back to where I left off. Or if I screw up by missing something I can’t easily go back to. Or if I miss a cool extra bit. Basically, by saving constantly, I can explore, roam, and enjoy the universe that’s been created for me – and that I paid for – with impunity, at my pace.

Some might say this is not really playing the game, that if I can’t manage to gun down mine enemies and manage my own ammunition, I shouldn’t complain. These people can go fuck themselves, of course.

So, Bioshock Infinite

Yes, so, I bought a game recently on Steam called Bioshock Infinite, which is the third Bioshock game. Played the first one, enjoyed it. Skipped the second, never regretted it. But it was $13 on Steam along with some extras, so that seemed about right. Game looks gorgeous. Interesting intro sequences. But it has what is called a Checkpoint save system. Basically, the game automatically saves your progress at certain points in the game and you have no input into when or where. Likely it’s because the game was developed for the consoles (XBox, etc.). There are also no cheat codes, as far as I can tell. So, yes, the game is ruined.

Checkpoint saves are the worst idea ever in the history of ideas, right ahead of National Socialism and formal wear. They force you to maddeningly repeat areas of the game over and over. Scenario, for example: You’re weak and barely survive your last encounter. So you scour the area for supplies to gain health and ammo. Then you solve a puzzle. Then you step into a firefight, get chewed up, and die. And then … you have to start over twenty minutes ago, and repeat. all. the. same. actions.

Come to think of it, Bioshock Infinite can go fuck itself, too.

Game as Novel

See, increasingly, video games are narrative. Bioshock and its sequels all have fairly intricate stories, complete with characters and twists. More importantly, their universes are extremely detailed and expansive. You can wander around them and investigate instead of simply murdering everything that moves (although, hey, that’s fun too). In fact, many games actually reward the wandering.

And for me, that’s part of the fun of cheating and saving my game constantly: The freedom to just wander and experience this world the way I want to. It’s like when you buy a new book and read the last page, or flip around and read it out of order. You read it the way you want to. A Checkpoint Save system is like buying a book that’s somehow programmed to force you to read it one sentence at a time – and if you close the book before a certain point, you have to go back and re-read that section again.

So, to recap: I have no reflexes, I’m a cheater, and Checkpoint save systems were somehow important enough for me to write 1,000 words about them today. I’m gonna put this one in the WIN column and go have a drink.

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Forever Twelve

This sweater was likely a hand-me-down and probably cost $1 AS ALL SWEATERS SHOULD.

This sweater was likely a hand-me-down and probably cost $1 AS ALL SWEATERS SHOULD.

ANYONE who knows me knows I have a distinct inability to comprehend that the universe evolves and changes around me. This is most evident in my attitude towards the prices of things: To me, everything should still cost as much as it did in 1980, and when I’m confronted with $3 coffees I am outraged, convinced I am being screwed. You don’t even want to know my reaction to discovering that a modest new car can cost as much as $15,000. My first car, the much mourned Laverne the 1978 Chevrolet Nova, cost me $1.

A moment of silence, please, for Laverne, best car ever.

Another aspect of this can be identified in my artistic identity, to an extent: As a writer I’m often still that 12-year old who feels ridiculously grateful when anyone bothers to read my work, much less actually pay me for it. When presented with offers and deals for publication or something else, I am a terrible negotiator because at some level I’m still that kid, and I think I should be happy just for the attention. On phone calls with people who want to do something with my work, I’m breathless, nervous, and supremely uncomfortable with the idea of insisting on getting paid. It’s not because commerce defiles art (Ha!) but rather because I immediately regress to that 12-year old kid who made his own book covers out of construction paper.

If Amazon-style self-publishing had existed in 1983, my friends, the world would be littered with my juvenelia (complete with my own cover art) and I would have earned about $50 in the ensuing 32 years. There would be regrets.

Kids: This is why you want an agent. This. Because if you’re like me, you need someone who will laugh in the face of piss-poor offers and fight tooth and nail for every right and every sub-right. If I were doing this on my own no doubt I’d actually owe publishers money simply because they half-heartedly published my work.

Now, writers do tend to be at the bottom of any entertainment budget, it’s true. Films that have budgets in the hundreds of millions will be paying a novel author a few hundred thousand for the source material. That’s a lot of money, but when you contextualize it, it’s a tiny percentage of the total. But of course, nothing happens unless a writer first creates a story and characters, does it? Slowly, I’ve come to realize that giving away work for free doesn’t make sense – it takes me time and energy to write this stuff, it will make someone else some money when they publish it or adapt it, so I should absolutely always get paid. It’s taken me decades, but I’ve come to own that.Still, put me in a meeting or a conversation about getting paid for some writing, and I’m instantly twelve years old again, demanding that a new pair of sneakers cost $10 and shocked to the core that books cost more than the $3 they cost in 1983 – and somehow conflating my writing career with the chores I did at the old Somers homestead in exchange for a $10 weekly allowance.

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With Age, Wisdom: Advertising No Longer Mesmerizes Me

This blog post is as lousy as it is brilliant.

This blog post is as lousy as it is brilliant.

This originally appeared in The Inner Swine, Volume 16, Issue 1/2, Summer 2010.

THERE is an infamous incident: About 20 years ago, give or take, I was sitting in a living room with TIS Staff Artist Jeof Vita watching television. This despite Jeof’s dangerous and horrifying levels of unacceptable odor, which shall be the subject of another article altogether someday when the restraining orders expire.

Anyway.

This is not the story of Unacceptable Odors. This is the story of our Taco Bell experience.

I’d never been to Taco Bell before, which is strange. By that time of my life (carefree, single, and with a liver that wasn’t the size of a football) I’d been to most of your standard fast-food establishments, this being before I learned to love and respect myself. I haven’t actually had a meal at a fast food restaurant in probably a decade now, I don’t think; maybe I’m forgetting something, but at any rate it’s certainly not a common occurrence. Back then, though, I loved that shit. I also loved Olympia beer and any kind of hard liquor found lying around, so that tells you all you need to know about my level of taste and life experience, bubba.

Anyways, we were watching TV, just farting away an evening, when an ad for Taco Bell came on. This might have been back during the ¡Yo quiero Taco Bell! days with that annoying dog, but who the fuck knows—I can barely remember the incident at all. The amazing thing about this is that it’s the last time, I think, that a commercial actually took control of my brain like a wasp riding a roach and made me do exactly what it wanted, which in that case was to leap up with Jeof Vita, get in the car, drive to the nearest Taco Bell, and order some food.

Jeof and I were in perfect harmony: We stood up and went. No discussion, no doubt. The food looked delicious, we were suddenly ravenous, and so we went to Taco Bell. It was terrible, and I’ve never been back, or even mildly desired to. I mean, it might have been one of the worst meals of my life, although my brain has self-defensively deleted the actual sensory input from the meal, saving me from night sweats and bad dreams.

This would never happen today. I’m old and withered, yes, and if I met 1990 Jeff he would be able to defeat me in any sort of Games of Strength or Endurance. But I’m smarter than 1990 Jeff. If nothing else, I now pretty much completely ignore advertising, knowing the central truth of it: That even when it is telling the truth, it is lying to you, somehow. It’s like quantum physics: The commercial can be 100% facts, and yet still equal a lie.

The main thing to always remember about commercials is that they are trying to convince you that you need something you obviously do not need. If you needed it, they would not need to convince you about it; no one has to convince you to eat, after all. They merely try to convince you what to eat, but the necessity of the act is never in question, right? The necessity of, say, drinking Bud Lite, on the other hand, is pretty much given: there is none. Thus, advertising!

Once you realize this, you gain a level of simple perspective. Nothing that is advertised is necessary, because if it was necessary it wouldn’t need to be advertised. Sure, in general the things advertised can be absolutely required—food, again, is a good example. You must have food. But you already know that. You know what food is, where you can get some, which foods you like especially. Yes, advertising can lead you to foods you’ve never tried before but that isn’t advertising’s goal. They don’t want you to be aware of other choices, they want to convince you that you need other choices.

While I don’t doubt that advertising bamboozles me in ways I can’t even imagine every day, shaping my behaviors and desires, I do think I’ve grown more resistant and aware of it. I distrust advertising to begin with, and generally go in to every commercial break assuming I’m going to be lied to, fucked with, and manipulated. This is partly why advertisers more and more target kids—kids are dummies with money, these days. Which is not to say anything specific about the current generation of kids—I was a dummy when I was a kid, too. I didn’t have any money, but times change and kids are now a huge force in discretionary spending in this country, so advertisers like them. See, I’ve got life experience and bills to pay, so I’m a harder sell. Taco Bell is a perfect example: Due to decades of life experience I now know that Taco Bell’s food is like eating plastic that has been flavored with Fail, and I have better choices to spend my money on. Taco Bell doesn’t want to waste time on me.

The most shameful development in advertising over the last few years is, of course, pharmaceutical advertising. The people who come up with these commercials should be lined up and shot in the ass. These commercials all seek to convince us that every little tweak and creak can be best treated with a pill, and strongly advise us to pressure our doctors to prescribe them, with the unspoken admonition, I think, that any doctor who refuses to do so is obviously trying to destroy your life.

FOR GOD’S SAKES, THEY NOW HAVE A PILL TO TAKE IF YOUR FIRST PILL DOESN’T WORK.

Abilify: That’s raw genius, there. If our first pill doesn’t work, you don’t need to reassess your treatment, you need our second pill. That’s like saying, if your first car doesn’t run, you need our second car to pull it along. Convincing people to do shit like this is why advertising is evil, and pharma advertising is like selling your soul to the Robot Devil.

So, my Timeline of Advertising Horror goes like this:

THE INNER SWINE’S TIMELINE OF ADVERTISING HORROR

Age 7: See an ad in a paper for plastic milkshake cups I inexplicably think come with milkshake in them. Pester Mom to buy these cups, which she does. 6-8 weeks go buy as I wait impatiently for my milkshakes. Cups arrive, no milkshakes. I almost commit suicide.

Age 12: Advertisements for the Atari 2600 almost make me murder a man in Journal Square in hopes that he has enough cash in his wallet so I may purchase one. Get a Sears knockoff for Christmas and spend 6 months mindlessly playing Pac Man and Pitfall.

Age 19: The aforementioned Taco Bell incident. Faith in world shattered, stomach never quite the same.

Today: You can’t sell me water when my house is on fire. I’ve gone around the other end of crazy: Frightened of being fooled, I just don’t believe anything and buy nothing but whiskey and processed deli meats. Sure, I’m living like an animal, but at least corporate America isn’t getting much of my money.

The lesson here is that you can only be fooled so many times before you just walk away and don’t look back. I will always have the searing memory of what that Taco Bell meal did to my internal organs to remind me that advertising is a strange game where the only way to win is not to play.

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Draftback: Burn After Writing

Let's edit.

Let’s edit.

So, the Somers How Close Are We to True Dystopia (SHCAWTTD, pronounced SHWATTED) Scale has basically been at two minutes to midnight since the Internet came to be, and inched just slightly closer to Kaboom Time with the invention of Draftback, which allows you, essentially, to record yourself while working in Google Docs. In theory, this means you could spend two years working on a novel in Google Docs and then you – or someone else – could watch the whole slog, complete with every typo, deleted chapter, and occasional Freudian Slip where you insert your mother’s name into a squicky sex scene or something.

On the one hand, I can see where something like that might be fascinating to readers. Imagine being able to see James Joyce write Ulysses word by word (possibly fast-forwarded just a tad, and maybe with some judicious editing to compress time a little). The insights you’d get! Assuming you could stay awake/stay alive long enough, of course.

For a writer, or at least for this writer, this is a horrible thing. It’s like that episode of Black Mirror where everyone records their entire lives: Horror. The last thing I want anyone to know is how awful my initial ideas are – or, sometimes, how little I actually edit (revising is for nerds). Although, naturally, I doubt anyone will ever be sufficiently interested in little old me to want to view my writing process that closely – but still, it’s a thought akin to dying suddenly without being able to contact your Porn Buddy to instruct them to destroy your collection before your family finds out you took that Brony thing waayyyyy too seriously.

Plus, knowing that your early drafting and revision might be viewed by people someday would, of course, have an affect on your writing. And probably not a good one.

Intent

There’s a time in a writer’s life when they don’t seriously expect anything they create to be published. It’s usually when you’re younger; if you stick to it and do the work, chances are you’ll get published somewhere, somehow. Maybe not as often, or as widely, or as lucratively as you’d like – but still, published. But when you’re still starting out, that can seem very, very far off. So a lot of the writing you do is private, in a sense – you don’t expect anyone to ever see it.

And of course that gives you a lot of freedom, because if you doubt anyone will see it, why not experiment? Have your characters say and do awful things beyond the pale? Be incomprehensible, maudlin, sentimental, savage – make your main character a Sue of yourself and delight as they do everything right, cut down their enemies with devastatingly precise bon mots – go crazy. Why not? If it turns out to be half-decent you can revise it into something civilized. If it remains half-assed and embarrassing, you can have a private ceremony and burn it in the bathroom. Or add it to the Brony porn stash and set up a Dead Man’s switch that will alert your Porn Buddy. Either way.

But if you knew everything you wrote – literally, every single key you hit with your pudgy little fingers – was being recorded and might be viewed someday (say, at the inevitable depositions you’ll be mired in after your criminal schemes go awry), you’d do it differently. You’d pause longer between words. You’d think ahead a bit more, maybe even cheat and scribble out your first drafts in a burn-after-writing notebook. It would change everything, and not for the better, because you only know something’s worth reviewing in Draftback when it’s finished.

Now that we’ve got that settled, on to more important questions: Who wants to be my Porn Buddy?

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Frank

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

Frank Poster by Ryan Gajda

NOTE: The illustration included here was created by Ryan Gajda (http://www.sundaydogparade.com) and I neglected to credit him.

If you’ve heard of the film Frank, you’ve probably heard it described as the one where the improbably attractive actor Michael Fassbender wears a fiberglass head through 90% of the film or possibly as the one where this musician won’t take off his fiberglass head or somewhat less possibly as the one based loosely on the real-life Frank Sidebottom or something similar. And while that’s technically accurate description of the film Frank, both descriptions manage to miss the point, because this isn’t so much a movie about a crazy (and possibly genius) musician who wears a big round head all the time. It’s a movie about creativity, the creative process, and, most specifically, what happens when you want to be creative but aren’t very good at it.

(more…)

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Professional Reading Vs. Reading for Pleasure

Eventually I'll just spend all of my time in the bathroom.

Eventually I’ll just spend all of my time in the bathroom.

As most everyone knows a few years ago I embarked on a fabulous adventure known as Jeff Lost His Day Job and Thinks He Can Earn Money by Freelance Writing, which so far has had a more or less happy ending (though, of course, none of us are getting out of this existence alive, so “happy ending” is relative – and transient, and therefore not an ending at all, is it?) in that I am in fact making a living writing things for people, both in terms of fiction and bloggy stuff done work for hire.

A lot of the bloggy stuff involves books; either reviews or listicles or round-ups and stuff. Plus, my publisher occasionally asks me to blurb something. The end result? A lot of “professional” reading, you know, reading books I might not otherwise get to. This is usually not because I’m not interested in reading said books, but more a matter of time management: I’ve only got so many years before the liver goes and the dementia starts (or, possibly, worsens; you have to always ask yourself every morning if you’re existing in a self-imposed fantasy driven by delerium tremens and bad burrito choices).

There are pros and cons to all this “professional” reading:

PROS

  • I’m reading outside my usual comfort zone.
  • I’m reading a lot more, overall.
  • I’m reading with more of a critical eye; even when not reviewing books, I’m usually trying to think of an “angle” to write about, and therefore not simply enjoying myself as I read.

CONS

  • I’m reading fast, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but does mean I’m not just luxuriating in a good book.
  • It interrupts my pleasure reading, meaning I’ve been reading certain books so slowly it’s going backwards.
  • I’ve read some really awful books I was totally right to not want to read in the first place, and these abominations will be part of my brain forever now.

This is a very First World type of problem to have (my god they’re paying me to read too many books! oh wait, that’s not a fucking problem at all NEVER MIND) but it’s such a mix of good and bad it’s hard to keep everything straight, to be honest. When your bathroom book changes every time you go to the bathroom in a vain attempt to meet deadlines, your life becomes a whirlwind of toilets and words.

Actually, that’s the new title of my autobiography: A WHIRLWIND OF TOILETS; subtitle, small print: and words.

And in-between all of this I’m trying to write the next novel some sucker hero will pay me. In the long run, I fully expect all this anti-comfort zone reading I’m doing to have a beneficial effect on my writing as it opens up all new things to steal, er, reinterpret for my prose. Time will tell. Until then, it’s back to my whirlwind of toilets.

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The Video Gaming of Movies

SHE KILLS LITERALLY EVERYBODY

SHE KILLS LITERALLY EVERYBODY

I recently watched the film Everly, directed by Joe Lynch and starring Salma Hayek, specifically so I could write this little essay, because I suspected that it would be a good place to start. Everly is a simple film despite the sheer number of corpses and gunfire – it’s also not exactly a good film. But that doesn’t actually matter for my larger point.

To get it out of the way (and SPOILERS HO!) here’s the basics: Hayek is a woman who has forced into prostitution by a very, very bad man, and has been living as a prisoner in a nice apartment, forced to never see her daughter or mother. Planning to betray the crime boss, her intentions are exposed and he sends a group to gang-rape her and then kill her in revenge, but she has a gun and a phone hidden in the bathroom and manages to kill them all. The crime boss sends wave after wave of people to kill her, and she manages to survive through a mix of luck, determination, and a very high tolerance for pain.

To say the film is inconsistent would be an understatement: It picks up ideas, plays with them a little, then discards them. It throws in several pointless moments of “excitement.” It has no relationship with reality at all. For all that, it’s kind of entertaining, actually. Some of that goes to the script, which is mildly witty, and some goes to the direction, which is occasionally arresting. And some of it goes to Hayek, who looks good with a machine gun and manages to sell the emotion when she’s not gunning down nameless thugs.

But mainly, the movie entertains because it’s essentially a video game run-through.

CUT SCENES FOR THE PLOT, Y’ALL

This is an increasingly popular form of action movie. It doesn’t matter much what the plot is, or the genre, or anything else. The main thing is, the film is structured like a video game: Quick setup, then a series of levels, each with its own challenges, special look, and sometimes a specific Boss battle.

Dredd was like this, too. These films are marked by the wave-after-wave structure, where the hero fights off a wave of adversaries, gets a brief respite (level loading) and then wades in again. The waves of thugs get either increasingly tough, show up in increasing numbers, or become increaingly bizarre as the hero advances through the game, er, story.

Everly follows this pretty closely: The thugs going after the title character start off relatively weak (they’re the other prostitutes in the building, who are offered a reward if they kill her). Then some standard-issue criminals in black suits and better weaponry show up. Then some bizarre torturer Boss-type guy, then a police SWAT unit with body armor and assault rifles, then the Big Boss himself with an RPG, a katana, and a nice suit. Every time Everly  kills off a wave, there’s a sequence of quiet akin to a cutscene, where the story advances until the next level loads up, I mean, the next scene begins.

You Know, For Kids

Now, this isn’t an awful way to set up a film (and I liked Dredd very much if I didn’t think Everly was so great) when what you’re going for is that breathless, adrenaline-soaked experience. But the model is very clearly video games, and I can’t help but wonder if this is a conscious attempt to capture the youth market, where a lot of kids have come to prefer the way video games tell stories. The rhythms of action/cutscene/action, the stylized violence, the increasingly bizarre Bosses – it all matches up pretty well.

It’s been theorized that Video Games might someday be the future of visual storytelling – aside from action games, games like Gone Home or Myst had the feel of being inside a movie, walking around (albeit in Myst’s case the movie was an insanely dull one) and I can see it. Once graphics become truly realistic, why not – games like Half Life and Portal and others are already very story-driven in some ways, and, frankly, there’s something exciting about the idea that you could “re-play” a movie and explore different areas and plot options, etc. And instead of sequels, there would be downloadable content.

Although, as I get older, that would make watching a movie exhausting. But at least there would be speed run-throughs on YouTube.

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