Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

SMRT: Welcome to the Age of Faux Expertise

dumbOne of the most painful aspects of growing older is the slow sinking realization that I am not so smart. When I was a kid, school was easy and adults were always telling me how smart I was, and man did I believe them. I believed them hard, and my ongoing ability to achieve academic – well, success is too strong a word, more like mediocrity – despite a lack of interest, effort, or even reading the books I was assigned just reinforced it.

As I’ve gotten older, though, one thing has become very, very clear: I may not be stupid, but I am also not smart. Also, I am lazy and have no fashion sense, but these facts have never been in dispute and have also never been controversial in any way.

However, despite not being very smart, I am smart enough to know when commercials and other advertising is wanking me off. And it’s irritating, especially this new breed of Faux Expert come ons.

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Two Cents on Mad Men

Just give me five minutes, and I'll be golden.

Just give me five minutes, and I’ll be golden.

I CANNOT HELP MYSELF.

I know that writing endless blog posts about a TV show is silly, really, but at risk of annoying the folks who cannot comprehend how you can spend so much energy contemplating a work of art, I have thoughts about Mad Men and the finale. In a nutshell: The whole show is about the fear of losing that creative spark.

Let’s start with the pilot episode: Don Draper, in a sweat because he has no ideas. He spend the whole episode in a sweat, worried he’s lost his gift, worried his brain will, finally, betray him and leave him with nothing to offer in the pitch session with Lucky Strike. Creative folks know that sweat: Every time we take on a new project, we worry that the Idea Machine in our brains will abandon us. Trust me. I’m still haunted by a brief period in college when I came up dry on story ideas and feared my best was behind me at the age of twenty. Stop laughing. This shit is serious.

Over the course of the whole show, we’ve been watching Don Draper fade. Season One is where his two most memorable and most-quoted pitches occur: Lucky Strike and Kodak. Since then, what truly great pitches has Don managed? None that I can think of. Well — maybe the Accutron Pitch in the first episode of Season Seven. That pitch kind of rocked — but, notably, Don wrote it, but he didn’t pitch it. And while it’s an arresting piece of writing, it’s not exactly a creative triumph that has people rushing from the room in tears. It’s just a solid, well-written piece of marketing. Don is a pro. Losing your creative spark doesn’t mean you lose the skills as well — he can still write, and write well. But he has no new ideas.

That’s not to say he wasn’t still creative. Or smart. Or cool. But we’ve been watching a Don Draper who is less and less creative as time goes by. In the season four episode “The Suitcase” Don’s big idea at the end is a simple steal from the iconic photo from the big fight. Also in season four, Don wins a Clio for his Glo-Coat commercial, but not only is it not an especially brilliant idea, it’s also largely stolen from Peggy. In the season six episode “The Crash,” Don, high on speed, claims he has a great idea, but can’t even articulate it.

Don retains his “cool” until his disastrous pitch to Hershey in Season 6. In the final season of the show, Don is relegated to creative grunt work, and even when he regains his executive authority, there are no good ideas. Don Draper goes from a creative genius in 1960 to a man still coasting on past (and long gone) creative glory in 1970.

Until rock bottom. Until Coke.

Once again, in the finale, Don is up against it. While he hasn’t been officially tasked with coming up with a pitch for Coke, we know he’s been assigned to the Coke pitch. We know Jim Hobart wants Don on Coke. And throughout the last few episodes, Don has been seeing Coke everywhere: At the meeting for Miller Beer he walks out of, on the road as he wanders the country. Many of the details at the retreat end up in his commercial pitch, and even rando Leonard’s speech about being unnoticed and wondering about love — the speech that moves Don to embrace him and break into tears — reminds Don of Coke (think about it – the whole bit about the dream of being in the refrigerator).

Don finally has a good idea again. No — a great idea, because no matter how you feel about advertising as a creative medium, the fact is that Hilltop Coke commercial is regarded as one of the most effective and most creative ads ever. After nearly ten years of stagnation, Don manages one last flash of genius. And that’s why Don will be okay. It has nothing to do with his familial obligations or failures, or his money, or his libido. Don will be okay because he’s found his creativity again.

Or, yanno, it was a TV show and they made it up as they went along. Shut up.

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The Coming Age of Assholes: Mad Max Fury Road

Mad-Max-Fury-Road-lovely-dayMad Max: Fury Road is a great movie. Zero exposition, nonstop action, real-feeling stuntwork, and subtle performances plus a surfeit of imagination when it comes to the details and characters of a universe — these are the ingredients for a film that will probably be remembered long after the Marvel tent collapses under its own weight. If you disagree that Fury Road is a good-to-great film, we are no longer friends.

What struck me most about the universe in Fury Road is the way George Miller assumes that in the event of apocalypse, it’s not the strong who will survive. Or the just. Or the smart. Or the innocent. No, Miller’s universe has consistently assumed one thing: When the world ends, it will be the assholes who rule the embers.

Confining ourselves just to Fury Road, every single character, basically, is an asshole. You have your murderous thugs in Immortan Joe and his crew, you have your unsympathetic, gluttonous plutocrats in the leaders of Gastown and the Bullet Farm. You even have Max himself and Furiosa, our protagonists, who are both incredible assholes. Max, after all, spends much of the film concerned only for himself, and Furiosa isn’t exactly nice, and she’s making “amends” for some mysterious crimes, likely pegged to her rank as Imperator in Immortan Joe’s brutal society.

Now, this makes sense. A lot of apocalyptic fiction likes to imagine that at least somewhere some thoughtful, socialized folks will set up camp and impose some sort of order, or that even when pushed to the edges of their humanity people will still be fundamentally good. The Stand and The Walking Dead both trade in these tropes, but Miller is probably closer to what would really happen: The assholes who already act like civilization is an impediment to their enjoyment of life will simply strap on a studded codpiece, rev up a chainsaw, and take over your town with brutal glee.

Think about the folks you ride the subway with, who share your HOA, who bump into you at bars and nightclubs. Think about all those assholes and despair, because chances are they will be the Immortan Joes of our future world, whereas the rest of us will be killed, enslaved, or exiled.

In fact, I personally like an interpretation of the film that “Max” as portrayed by Tom Hardy isn’t actually the Max Rockatansky from the original three films — that Max has become a legend of sorts, a ceremonial name people adopt when they leave behind the brutal me-vs-you attitude of the world. This appeals to me because it fits in with my Assholes Theory: It’s like you have this epiphany that you just fought like a dog for something larger than yourself, or common decency, and you’re declaring that you’re no longer, I dunno, Gloriable Amputate or some other insane persona wearing leather and driving a car festooned with rusting metal spikes, but a person – the legendary Max.

Likely that’s a stretch, though Miller’s casual attitude towards continuity and throughline in his four films makes it entirely possible. Either way, it doesn’t matter, the point remains the same: In the Mad Max universe, the assholes have taken over, and it’s why the films are so good. It’s the verisimilitude.

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A Few Quick Mad Men Thoughts

How come when I wear a suit I look like a 10-year old kid playing dress up?

How come when I wear a suit I look like a 10-year old kid playing dress up?

While I realize the universe is likely not waiting breathlessly for one more set of random thoughts on a TV show, I have always been that jackass that likes to bloviate endlessly about TV shows and the like, so let’s do this.

Watching the final episodes of Mad Men I’ve been struck by the way the show repeats patterns in different ways, generally following changes in the characters. In some ways, each of the principles is ending the show on a pitch-perfect note for their characters, the perfectly appropriate ending. Roger has come full-circle as the monied but irrelevant figurehead. Joan, who once advised all the girls to pursue husbands and not get too ahead of themselves, is cut short on her rise to power. Peggy, whose life has been dedicated (to the detriment of everything else) to her career, attacks her new job with gusto. Pete, lusting after executive success, finally gets a job that lives up to his expectations. Betty – sure, Betty is dead, but her final scene showed her back in school, flirting with the boys, like she’d always wanted. While some of the details of these fates are unexpected, you can line them up with Season One’s depiction of these characters.

The perfect example, which I suspect will show up in next week’s finale in some form, is simple enough: Don is running away again. Don Draper, coward, liar, creative force, is once again fleeing his life into the West.

He’s done this before, or tried to. When Pete Campbell threatened to expose him, he tried to run away. When his wife found out about his affairs and his lies and began to assert herself, he fled to California for a long time. Don has always run away, or dreamed of running away. It’s what he does.

The difference is that before, Don ran out of fear. Fear was what drove him, a desire to escape consequences. What’s he running away from here at the end of the season? Not fear: For once he has nothing to fear. He’s secure in his career (or could be), he’s got access to all the best accounts, he’s divorced, rich, and his kids are finally growing up. His relationship with poor Betty was on the upswing. He’s even day-drinking in a modestly controllable manner and hasn’t vomited, passed out, or pissed himself in front of other people in ages!

You could argue that he runs out of fear, that what inspires him to run is actually the sight of all those other Creative Directors, the competition. Maybe Don is terrified he’s lost “it” and can’t compete. Instead of a big fish in a small pond, he’s suddenly a guppy, and he runs in terror. The clue, for me, is the shot of the plane that captures Don’s attention right before he flees. It’s not fear. He looks around and realizes he has no desire to do this work any more.

No, Don’s running for other reasons, finally. He sits in a boring meeting and realizes he’s no longer the Golden Boy, he’s one of dozens of Creative Directors. He’s a cog. And he’s bored. So he does what I think anyone with an office job has dreamed of doing: He walks out of a meeting, away from millions of dollars, gives away his car, and seems happy about it all. Just walks out. Because it’s not fear, for once. He’s just ready to move on.

This is why I’ve really enjoyed the show. It’s thoughtful, and while it could be occasionally obvious in its metaphors, and sometimes a bit plodding with self-seriousness, it’s one of the few TV shows I’ve ever seen that explores themes and patterns over the course of the entire show, and not just for a brief episode arc. Don’s a runner, so he runs – but not always for the same reasons.

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The Perils of Podcasts

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MY BOOK HE-YAW, HE-YAW!

LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT MY BOOK HE-YAW, HE-YAW!

As you may or may not know I am likely the most incompetent self-promoter in the universe, which is problematic when you live in the age of the Shrunken Publishers who basically buy your novel and then then wave vaguely at the wide world and wish you the best of luck promoting your book. Part of my incompetence is in the planning, certainly; I have never claimed to be skilled at or even knowledgeable about marketing or PR, and I literally often have no idea what I should be doing. Or not doing. So far all I’ve figured out is

SHOULD BE DOING: Wearing pants.

SHOULD NOT BE DOING: Cursing at people on the assumption that they have not bought my book.

That’s it. But I’m also incompetent on the doing of self-promotion as well. For example, I recently did a promotional thing and broke all the rules of a good live reading and interview appearance: I was not prepared, I got flustered, I got out of breath and spent the entire forty-five minute experience sounding like someone had recently kicked me in the groin and about a second or so away from passing out.

Once you lose your breath under pressure, my experience tells me, you’re screwed, because you need a few minutes of calm in order to get yourself under control, which means a few minutes of dead silence while the person or audience listens to you breathing (and possibly sobbing, or glugging down booze, or possibly all of those things).

Which brings me to the lesson here: Be prepared? Sure, see how that works out for you. No, the lesson is to always be drunk when doing any sort of appearance.

I am not kidding. In the words of Professor Jennings from Animal House: “I’m not joking. This is my job!”

Now, I’m not talking about being ripped, staggering about shouting. I’ve done that, and it is not effective promotion. Back before The Electric Church was published, I was invited to a launch party by my publisher. I’d recently been asked to consider writing sequels to the book, and so I thought: Jebus, this is it, I will henceforth be rich and famous and adored by millions and able to leverage that adoration into an income the likes of which has never been seen! Or something to that effect. I’d already written about half the sequel, and was really full of myself. So I got really, really drunk and began shouting all sorts of things I now regret. I can’t forget this because The Duchess reminds me of it any time we go out to an industry party, with the implication that she will knock me unconscious if I try to repeat the performance.

No, what I mean is: Have a drink. Sit for twenty minutes with a scotch, or a glass of wine or a beer and relax. Have two! Then stop, because your goal is a nice buzz, not staggering around in Hulk Jeff mode as described above.

I’ll never get this particular appearance back, and maybe it wasn’t as bad as it felt at the time (it was). My sole comfort is that no one is paying much attention to me anyway, so very few people will notice this when it goes live. Which means I might as well not wear pants and get horribly drunk anyway, right?

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Why I Was So Smug in College

Digging through rejections, another non-rejection that’s still kind of interesting, I think. I’ve told this story before, but now with pictures!

Back in 1989 I was a young kid, and I’d written a science fiction novel called White Rabbit, which was about a specially trained agent of a galactic civilization who could control his musculature so minutely he could actually change his appearance just by concentrating in order to infiltrate groups and such. On a mission, he discovers a terrible secret, and finds himself at odds with his own people, and on the run. Yada yada yada. Was it good? I haven’t read it over in 26 years, so who the hell knows. I did, however, manage to get someone to agree to publish it. In fact, I have the letter to prove it (and the contract):

Sic-Sic by the Seaside? WHAT THE HELL, 17-YEAR OLD ME?

Sic-Sic by the Seaside? WHAT THE HELL, 17-YEAR OLD ME?

Yup, not only was he not looking for submissions, and not only did I apparently write him an incoherent cover letter in which I assigned us code names, I also left several pages out of the photocopy I sent him. PROFESSIONALISM: Look into it. Hey, I was in high school! And any way, it worked: He wanted to publish me. We actually signed a contract. There was no advance, and about a year and a half later he wrote to say he had to cancel everything due to financial and health reasons.

Just goes to show that you just never know. I mailed 350 pages of manuscript, unsolicited, to a guy based on a (dubious) listing in the Writer’s Market, and came close to actually seeing a novel in print. No wonder I was such a prick when I arrived at college.

What I really wish is that I could see the letters I wrote this guy, especially that first one. I have no copies of them, and this was snail mail, so my letters are likely lost forever. That first letter must have been something, though, and certainly set the tone for the rest of my literary career. Which is to say: Batshit.

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Rejection-palooza Part the Fourth

Once again, I’ve taken a walk through my many, many, many rejections letters in search of interesting or humorous things. This time I switched over to my pile of short story rejections.

I write a fair number of short works out of love, and also because I think writing short stories keeps you in practice. By forcing myself to think up a premise and knock out 1,000 – 5,000 words that conclude with a recognizable ending every month, I’m keeping my skills sharp. Or so I tell myself. Whatever, shut up. Anyways, as a result of this practice I have tons of short stories to sell, and so I, er, sell them. I’ve been trying to hawk my short stories for decades, and I have the rejections to prove it.

These days, most of those rejections are emails, because I don’t submit via paper any more. But back in 2006 I was still sending out paper submissions, with HILARIOUS cover letters. Trust me: Hilarious cover letters for the win. I got this response for a short story called “Time’s Thumb”:

NO PANTS for the win.

NO PANTS for the win.

I don’t recall what I wrote in the cover letter about my pants, but it amused the editor enough to invite me to submit again. Did I? I honestly can’t recall right now. Probably not, because I am incompetent.

I do think selling writing is 50% finding someone on the other side that sees things the way you do, who gets your jokes and references. Making an editor laugh is a good way to be memorable to them, and to wedge your story into their brains. Also, it’s one more step towards a world where everyone just accepts that I don’t wear pants. Mission: Accomplished.

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It Follows: Needs More It Following

it-follows

It sure as hell does.

I saw the film It Follows over the weekend, and it was pretty damn good: I love the premise, and I thought the execution was excellent, for the most part.

If you’re unfamiliar, It Follows is a horror film with a simple premise: A young girl has sex with a new boyfriend and is promptly informed that she has now been cursed: “It” will begin following her, and if it catches her, it will kill her. She can pass “it” on to someone else by having sex with them, but if that person is caught and killed, “It” will return its attentions to her. “It” can only be seen by the people who have been infected, and it takes various forms, all chosen to be particularly terrifying to each of its victims; this means sometimes “It” takes the form of loved ones.

“It” always walks at a steady pace, “It” always walks in a straight line, and “It” never stops.

The Heroic Heebie Jeebies

Now, for my money that premise rocks. Yes, the slut-shaming angle is a bit musty, but at least it’s unisex, but the relentlessness of “It” is horrifying. Something about the slow and steady approach of horrifying death that only you can see is effective.

Even better are the moments in the film when people are talking or doing something else, and you (the audience) become aware of someone (or something) approaching from the background. Naturally, you begin assuming “It” is always lurking, slowly walking towards the camera, and it is very effective at making you feel the dread that the characters must be feeling.

In fact, the one flaw of the film, I think, is that it doesn’t do this very often. There are only perhaps three moments in the movie (that I’m aware of) where extended shots show someone approaching from a distance, prompting this sort of dread. That dread is powerful, kids, and the film would have been better served, I think, to set up a few more sequences when you find yourself desperately searching the middle distance of the shot.

Diminishing Returns

Which prompts the question: If you have a powerful device in your story (or film), how often should you employ it? Once too many and it loses steam and can even become a joke. Not enough and you miss an opportunity. Certainly in It Follows if every scene had been a game of “spot It!” the effect would have worn thin very quickly, and become kind of boring and predictable by the end. While I think once or twice more, in variations, would have served the film well (and since it’s only 92 minutes long now, two more long sequences like that wouldn’t make it overlong), five or six more would have become kind of tedious.

So how do you know? It’s difficult. You want that magic number one less than boredom, so the rule of thumb should always be to use a device or technique only as often as you need to – once to establish it for the reader/viewer, once more to make it a technique instead of a one-off, and then … as many more times as you can get away with without cheapening the whole affair.

It Follows played it safe with its most powerful aspect, and that’s fine – it’s still a pretty good movie that kept my interest. But a little more of It Following might have made It Follows the creepiest movie I’ve ever seen.

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The Lazy Writer’s Problem: Wikipedia

Tell you what ... you do it.

Tell you what … you do it.

The conundrum is classic: They tell you, as a young writer, that you should always “write what you know.” The idea is sound enough: If you stick to things you know something about from personal experience — be it people to base characters on, or outlandish stories that actually happened, or the infinite details of a trade or hobby — then your writing will always ring true. It was shimmer with that special realistic gravity that sucks people in.

There are limitations, of course. Say you’re halfway through your novel and the plot problems would be solved if someone, say, joined the army. Great! Except you’ve never joined the army. In fact, uniforms, exercise, and weapons — the three main ingredients of military service, peppered with humiliation, violence, and busy work — are so not your thing. You wind up facing the horror that Lazy Writers everywhere fear most: Research.

The Bad Old Days

Of course, in the Bad Old Days, research generally meant either hitting the books at a library or actually doing the thing you needed research on. The former, while affordable and possible no matter your circumstances, was often deadly dull. The latter was only possible if you were a Gentry Writer living off the fumes of a trust fund or something — the rest of us, proles all, were forced to work Day Jobs and do our research on the margins.

Ah, but then the Internet! Suddenly, Lazy Writers like me could just look stuff up. Need to know what a street looks like in a small town in France? Try Google Street View. Everything is out there if you dig hard enough, and you don’t have to put on pants and walk out into the sunlight to the library, or book a flight to France just to snap some photos.

The Bad Old Now

However, disaster looms for we Lazy Writers, because, as usual, Trolls are ruining everything. Wikipedia has always been a dubious place to do real research — you would never have used Wikipedia as the basis for anything serious. Novel research, however — why not. After all, 90% of a novel is made up anyway. Wikipedia was filled with misinformation and politically-motivated edits, yes, but for quick, basic stuff you could at least use it as a starting point.

No more; the Trolls have ruined it. A decline in working editors, an ever-expanding and torturous set of rules in an increasingly insulated Wikipedia, and a growing amount of bullshit going uncaught in the online encyclopedia has put the nail in it: If you want to be a Lazy Writer, you’re screwed.

Worse, a recent experiment found that small errors purposefully introduced to Wikipedia lingered for very long periods of time, meaning that your chances of picking up a detail you think makes you sound smart will actually make you sound incredibly stupid. This, of course, is the fear of the Lazy Writer.

So what does it all leave us with? A lot of novels about being sad, mildly-employed alcoholics, because now all of us Lazy Writers have to Write What We Know.

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The Last Rejection (Not Really)

As I continue to trawl my own storied past of rejection letters for blog fodder, I came across this significant bit of personal history. The year was 2002, the novels was called In Sad Review, which is a terrible, awful title, but it’s the novel that, several re-writes later, finally sold to Tyrus Books as Chum:

BUY ME

BUY ME

Now, those re-writes were done with the occasional advice of my agent, who returned to it every few years with ideas and kept trying to sell it even as other books of mine sold, and even as other clients of hers took off and became Big Deals. And this is all interesting because the rejection I got in 2002 was this one:

janetref2So, a rejection, but one that prompted me to send In Sad Review to the person who would become my agent, and a mere ten years later she in fact sold that novel. Just goes to show, even form rejections can sometimes lead you to something good.

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