Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

Aw, Man!

We'll take the hippies and the hipsters, but not the Irish!

We’ll take the hippies and the hipsters, but not the Irish!

For some reason today I realized that I have been using the word man as a general epithet, greeting, and acknowledgement since I was about ten years old — which was probably the last time it was cool, hip lingo. Not to mention the last time it wasn’t humiliating. Not to mention my probable emotional age. Let it drift.

I can remember my Mother admonishing me to stop using it in her presence because she considered it to be, I don’t know — smartassy? uncultured? simply annoying? But obviously her shaming me didn’t have much effect; when I’m not thinking I still call everyone man, as in “Thanks, man!” or “Hey, man!”

Today for some reason I suddenly found myself ashamed of this. I’m a middle-aged grown up, after all, but I call everyone man like it’s still 1975 in my head (I also have the wardrobe of a hobo unless The Duchess cleans me up for adult events, so what?). In many ways it is 1975 n my head; I still expect everything to cost fifteen cents, including gallons of gas and shoes, and get very cranky when presented with invoices costing more; just ask The Duchess. But that’s no excuse. Today in the grocery store I told the kid working the checkout line Thanks, man and he looked at me as if I’d turned to dust and crumbled away in front of his eyes.

OLD HABITS, OLD MAN

Language gets embedded like that. We all need our go-to phrases and lines, the things we utter when we’re on autopilot, or don’t have time to think. Thanks, man just pops out, and in my head it sounds friendly and loose, casual in a cool way. Because that’s how it was when I first picked it up, a bunch of scurvy street kids playing Wiffle Ball with black electrical tape on our bats, doing complicated handshakes when we met up every day. Calling each other man because someone saw it on TV or something one day.

What bothers me is the lack of evolution and the lack of consciousness; I prefer to think I am captain of the S.S. Jeff Somers, this shambolic body I inhabit, and not merely a doughy-eyed passenger. A long time ago the word dude entered my lexicon about the same time it entered everyone approximately my age, and I spent a long time rooting it out and eliminating it, for the most part. Because dude may be the worst word ever invented, and must be burned from our minds. Once in a while I use dude ironically, and once in a while I regress 20 years in a moment and it slips out, but it’s rare. I won the Dude War. So the ongoing battle against Man irks me: Every time I utter the word I feel like a jackass.

EVERY MAN

Of course, what’s the alternative? I suspect man persists in my everyday speech because it’s egalitarian in its way. Take the boy at the grocery: What should I use to address him? Thanks, kid makes me feel like I’m 105 years old, or possibly in a old noir movie. I could go with just an unadorned thanks, but that sounds abrupt to my ear, almost rude. I could go full-on hipster and make up nicknames for everyone — thanks, Stretch; thanks, Noodles; thanks, Starscream — but somehow I expect that won’t solve my problem. Maybe this is why some people just smirk silently at everything. It saves them the embarrassment of calling someone Chuckles or something.

See, with Man, it’s levelling: Everyone is Man. You’re all my equal when I whip out the circa-1980 secret handshake and call you man (and yet if I said Thanks, woman to a lady I’d likely be entered into some sort of police database, or possibly a Future Cyborg Watchlist). On the other hand, man seems acceptable to me mainly because for one brief shining moment it was considered cool. I could say Thanks, person! and it would be just as universal, but because it sounds so robotic and nerdy, it just doesn’t have the same panache … panache that perhaps only exists in my tiny, booze-soaked brain.

So, man remains, like mild brain damage I can’t cure. So be it. If only I didn’t sound like such an idiot when I used it.

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The Unbearable Whiteness of “The Intern”

Shiny Happy People

Shiny Happy People

Because I have committed terrible crimes in a past life, The Duchess made me watch The Intern the other day. Someday I will get myself hypnotized to discover what sort of child-killing Venetian nobleman I was in the past to deserve stuff like this, but for the moment I just accept my punishments as what I deserve.

A pretty not-good comedy starring Robert De Niro as a 70-year old widower who participates in a “senior” internship program at Anne Hathaway’s ultra-hip startup based in Brooklyn, the film sparked an observation I make from time to time that drives The Duchess crazy: A Whiteness Analysis. And holy cow, this is the whitest movie I’ve seen in a long time.

Now, I don’t think every single cast has to be colorblind or forcibly integrated, and yes, there are also films with entirely black (or other) casts. But it’s easy to argue that an all-black film is a necessary correction against the overwhleming diversity problem in mainstream Hollywood, and many of those films also include at least a few white folks, because they’re set in something resembling the real world. Films like The Intern are set in a weird fantasy land where Brooklyn, New York is more or less a White Enclave. Literally no one with any sort of face time in the film is non-White (there might have been a few background characters who were black or another ethnicity). In other words, a film set in a borough of New York City that has

  • a population of 2.5 million people and which is
  • about 36% non-White (or, you know, nearly one million people)

doesn’t have any non-white characters.

As Gwen Stefani might say while she was appropriating even more Japanese culture to sell us her wretched things, that’s bananas.

The Opposite of Good

Now, I’m no paragon of racial virtue. I’m an asshole, and I walk about draped in my white privilege like some sort of King. But I grew up in Jersey City where my friends and schoolmates were of a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, so my eye is trained to think that a lot of skin tones and accents and strange cooking smells that hit you in the face when you come over for dinner is normal. Bland Whiteness, on the other hand, freaks me out, even though I am quite bland and quite white.

None of that means a movie is good or bad. A movie can have a painfully white cast and still be amazing — and vice versa. It’s just that once I notice the absolute lack of black characters of any kind, it grates on me a little. Sometimes it’s justified due to the focus of the story or the setting, true enough. But not The Intern, as noted above, because it’s set in one of the most racially diverse places in America.

And let’s be frank, The Intern isn’t a good movie (er, spoilers here if you care, though I can’t imagine why you would). It’s not awful, but it’s that mythical story that lacks any sort of conflict. De Niro’s character is friendly, supportive, intelligent, and only mildly stymied by modern technology and slang. His fellow interns and the employees at the company find him charming and a font of wisdom. Anne Hathaway’s major problem is that the investors at her wildly successful company want her to hire a CEO. And yes, her husband is cheating on her — but, as it turns out, only because she has emotionally abandoned him, he totally still loves her he’s just a modern man struggling to find manliness while being a house husband. Or something.

In other words, there’s no villain, no conflict. Everyone is jolly. Lessons are learned. The movie feints at making Hathaway’s character a bitchy ageist who dislikes De Niro simply because he’s observant while being old, and resolves this ghostly image of conflict literally one minute after it surfaces. This is a movie where everyone apologizes immediately for every single mistake so that no drama can possibly sprout from the seed. In that regard its very much like Downton Abbey, another show where conflict goes to die in a field of muttered apologies and hugs. And also a very, very white show, but they have at least established that black people and Indian people, at the very least, exist in the Downton universe. Plus, as mentioned above, the focus and setting on that show justify the monochromism to some extent, even if there is absolutely no justification for the total lack of stakes or conflict.

Authorial Struggle

Are there areas of this country where literally everyone around you is white? Sure, of course. And maybe those audience segments get unsettled when they see a diverse cast, so maybe there’s a marketing aspect to this sort of casting. I know in my own writing I sometimes have to take a step back and ask myself if my characters are all essentially just me and people I know and am comfortable with, and sometimes I purposefully model a character on someone outside of my tiny circle of friends in order to break out a little. So I can see that if you’re a writer who has pretty much all-white friends and family (which is just a circumstance and does not mean they’re a virulent racist) they can unconsciously write characters who are all more or less familiar to them without thinking about how it all looks.

That can happen. You write what you know, and if you don’t have anyone outside of your own ethnic and cultural experience around you, that’s a thing that can happen. It’s still jarring to see it, whatever the ultimate explanation.

Of course, if I started writing characters based on only the things I interact with on a daily basis, all of my books would feature cats, and would basically be 300 pages about napping.

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Writing Lessons from Assholes

I WILL CUT A BITCH

I WILL CUT A BITCH

I was an indifferent student, because I am the Laziest Man Ever Born. To this day the fact that I actually earned a college degree is kind of amazing, not because I’m dumb, but because it’s difficult for 2016 Jeff to believe that College Jeff actually performed the bare minimum of work in order to achieve a BA in English, which is the Do Nothing Bitch of college undergraduate degrees. Most of my memories of my college days involve a television, so the degree thing is a mystery.

I do have one memory that I like to tell people about because it a) makes me look smart and b) underscores the ridiculous nature of academics in general — and now I can add a third reason: c) there’s a lesson about writing in it. So let’s recount the glorious Moment Jeff Made a Professor Look Stupid.

The Glorious Moment Jeff Made a Professor Look Stupid

I was taking some laugher of a 200 level English course; I honestly can’t even remember what it was. Tortured Rhyme Schemes in Early 19th Century Poetry? Inscrutable Medieval Symbolism 203? Allegory for Potheads? I have no idea. It was a 200 level course so I can assume my strategy was to attend as few classes as possible and bring Other Stuff to Do when I did attend.

We had to write a paper at some point, with the stress that we had to cite original sources and all that usual drama. Again, I have no recollection of what the paper was supposed to be about. I know I hit up the library (my god if the Internet had existed I would never have had to leave my dorm room/apartment during college), wrote my paper, and handed it in. And when I got it back, I’d been given a big fat D.

Now, I was never very ambitious about my academics, sure, but this was fucking bullshit: A D? On an English paper? No fucking way. I wasn’t ambitious, but I had pride. So I scheduled an appointment with the professor and asked why.

The professor, as I recall, wasn’t a full-on professor (200 level class, remember) and might have been a grad student or something, possibly a homeless man recruited to watch us for an hour twice a week, who knows. Like I said, my memory is sketchy and very much like Homer Simpson’s habit of imagining himself in a tuxedo when he tries to remember his evenings. I had no curiosity about his status then, and certainly no memory of it now. I remember he had shaggy, thinning blondish hair and big moon glasses and a nervous tic that involved licking the corner of his mouth with his tongue. And he told me, in condescending tones, that I’d obviously plagiarized the paper.

I think my head almost exploded. You can accuse me of a lot of things and I won’t care. Say that I have poor fashion sense and hygiene? Fine. A tendency towards run-on sentences and semi-colon abuse? You may well be right. The musical talent of a wallabee? Fine. But suggest that I plagiarized something and Jeff Smash. So I asked him how he’d come to this conclusion, and he told me that the writing style was far too academic and elevated. I asked him if he’d found, you know, actual proof of plagiarism, and he said no, but he knew no one at my age could write the way the paper was written.

So I asked him if I could show him plenty of other examples of my writing that was at that level, would he change my grade? He said he would, so I brought him five boxes of manuscripts and papers from recent years. He took one look at the boxes, said he believed me, and changed my grade. The kicker? This paper that was so well-written he assumed it was plagiarized? He gave me a B. A FUCKING B.

Still. Angry.

The Writing Lesson

I think of this today because it actually points out one of the often-overlooked aspects of writing, in terms of that dreaded word craft: mimicry. Copying someone’s writing style is challenging, and while you certainly don’t want to steal someone’s style for your own, it’s a very useful exercise. Writing in a styler or voice that isn’t your own gives you an objectivity about word choice, phrasing, and other technical aspects of language that you sometimes get blinded to when it’s your own creative output.

I never realized how often I mimic what I’m reading until that unfortunate day when I came within seconds of murdering a pudgy teacher. Since then, I’ve been much more aware — I do it more or less without thinking about it. If I’m reading a book and really into it, I’ll start cribbing bits and pieces of the style, stealing tricks, and after a few weeks I’ll more or less be writing a pastiche of the style in question. Now that I’m aware of it, it’s a tool: I can indulge in it, learn something, work on something different from my normal stuff, and then keep whatever’s useful and incorporate it into my own evolving style.

And all it took to learn this was an awkward encounter with a smug teacher and a brief, passing interest in my own academic career.

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The Obligatory David Bowie Post That I Will Try to Make Into Something Interesting and Probably Fail

Blackstar

Blackstar

I’ve never been the biggest David Bowie fan. His more mainstream and accessible songs, sure. The awe-inspiring genius of the open-chord riff in “Rebel Rebel,” the effortless cool of “Modern Love,” the howling pain in “Heroes”—genius songs each. His more avant-garde work, his jazzy digressions and artsy pretensions left me behind. I am a simple man. I like a 4×4 beat and some major chord progressions.

I also don’t know much about Bowie as a human being. After the shock and awe of his passing faded, there have of course been a plethora of backlash pieces, concerning his interactions with underage groupies in the 1970s. I never knew that. I don’t care how many drugs were involved or what year it was, any grown man who has sex with an underage girl is shitbag, and that complicates my impression of Bowie.

As does Blackstar, his final album, apparently written and released not only in the full knowledge of his coming death due to liver cancer, but as an artistic comment on it.

####

Recently, Nick Mamatas, who I’ve met once and who has published me a few times, posted links to heartbreaking stories about writers who committed suicide. The latter I had read years before, the former was recent. They’re both tales of desperation, of people who have slowly given up on their dreams, become hopelessly tangled in the endless bullshit life rains down on all of us. Life is, after all, death; everyone we know slowly succumbs, and everything we do is tainted with the knowledge of its transience. Some people handle this, sheltered by loved ones, friends, a vibrant social life. Some of us lose that shelter, or never have it.

Oh, I’m lucky. And yet despite my good fortune, I can see myself in those stories. How easy would it be to slowly lose people? To find yourself alone, truly alone? Easier than we think. Easier than I think. It happens so slowly and subtly and then so quickly and suddenly. And money and fame is no certain bulwark against it; Harper Lee has both and I suspect she is lonelier than ever.

####

Blackstar is Bowie’s final album, and it’s pretty clear he planned it and the surrounding publicity—the photographs and videos and the design of the physical album and the liner notes et al—to be a funeral card. A final performance. The lyrics of some of the songs seem to clearly reference the cancer that was killing him and his awareness of a legacy.

That’s amazing. To think that for a year and a half he labored under the doom of his rebellious cells and produced something that was designed to be his swan song. I find myself wondering if he scheduled his death as well, coming as it did so close to the release of the album. The discipline is impressive, and even if David Bowie wept and begged at the last moments, it doesn’t take away from his achievement. Whether Bowie was a good man or not, whether he committed crimes or was a secret asshole, he faced the one thing we all face in the end and he used it for fuel. He created something from it, and turned his own demise into a Moment.

I despair of ever having that kind of discipline, or creativity. When informed of my own death—assuming I get more warning than a shouted “Hey!” or a sudden sense of gravity having turned against me—I’ll likely wallow in self-pity and booze for a long time and then watch a lot of Netflix and then die, bewildered and irritated.

I won’t release a Blackstar, I don’t think. And that’s kind of sad, yes?

####

I’m obsessed with legacy. I don’t really believe in an afterlife, so much of my motivation to publish and self-publish is to leave a slime trail behind me. I have a strong suspicion I have just been outclassed.

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What “The Affair” Can Teach Us About Arc Mysteries

Adultery Doesn't Look Like Much Fun, Actually

Adultery Doesn’t Look Like Much Fun, Actually

A lot of TV shows hit the small screen with noise and thunder, inspiring think pieces and heated discussion. Few series maintain that level of fascination. For every Game of Thrones there’s The Affair, a show that debuted to a lot of harrumphing about its central storytelling device (conflicting POVs) but has settled into a groove of “premiere television.” Who knows how many people are actually watching this show, and while it still gets mentioned here and there it’s certainly not a cultural obsession.

I enjoy it, although I’ll admit the central device — those conflicting POVs — is irritatingly mishandled, at least in my not-so-humble opinion. Maybe there’s a brilliant long game there, but after two seasons my main takeaway from the POVs is that they are often so wildly inconsistent the characters must be insane people. Unreliable narrators is a great idea: Looking for clues to the truth in two different versions of the same story is potentially powerful. And the show sometimes attains that greatness in little moments; for example, the male protagonist Noah (played, brilliantly as always, by Dominic West) remembers himself consistently as an asshole, which is a really wonderful note to strike, considering the character is clearly selfish, self-involved, and going through a real doozy of a midlife crisis. That sort of detail in an unreliable narrator — plus the fact that he actually often comes off a bit better in other people’s POV — is a great use of the device.

Unfortunately, frequently the recollections of the same scene from different people are so different it’s literally impossible. No one knows better than my wife and I how two people can remember a moment differently, but not to the extent of warping time and space the way The Affair does. It takes a powerful device and renders it ridiculous and irritating.

But! I have not come here to bury The Affair or to praise its misused conceit. I have come to discuss how brilliantly it’s using its central season-spanning mystery.

The Potboiler

Initially, the show is all soap opera: A frustrated father (Noah) of four takes his family on a vacation to Long Island. Feeling like a professional failure and outsider with his wife’s rich family, he starts a passionate affair with a troubled local waitress (Alison). The conflicting unreliable POVs are used to some good effect as the two recall the beginning of the affair differently. Spoilers to follow if you have not watched the show but plan to someday.

There are also flash-forwards to future events that the show’s timeline is slowly catching up to, a future in which Noah is divorced from his ex-wife Helen, and has a child with Alison, in which Noah has published a successful novel which is basically a thinly-veiled account of his affair with Alison, in which Alison’s former brother-in-law has been killed in a hit and run, and in which Noah is the main suspect in that crime. The details of this soapy set up can get a bit convoluted, so let’s just boil it down to the fact that the second season of the show has been leading to the reveal of what actually happened when the brother-in-law was killed. And here’s where the show, which has mutated now from a relationship drama with a borrowed literary device (that did more for the show’s pretension level than its effectiveness) into a show about a murder mystery, did something very smart. It set up a scenario where all three of the main characters — Helen, Noah, and Alison — are involved and complicit in the killing.

The show’s been very patient in setting up the threads it brought together in the Season Two finale, planting seeds for the characters so their decisions leading up to the accident make sense, and their mutual decisions to cover it up make sense. The end result is exactly what an arc-mystery is supposed to do when it’s clarified: It complicates things and provides fresh motivations for the characters. The show is now completely transformed, it’s no longer about an affair and its repercussions, it’s about one boozy night and a dead man and the fallout from the decisions made in the wake of that. The fact that all of these threads spin out from the show’s original premise — the titular affair — makes it feel very organic.

So Often Wrong

The problem with most arc-mysteries is twofold: One, they don’t actually have any resolution, the writers are just making things up as they go. and two, they often resolve in ways that are designed to leave the basic DNA of the story undisturbed. A show like Lost will always be remembered more for the frankly awful way the central mystery of the story was resolved than for the glories of its storytelling. And too many shows have offered up solutions to arc-mysteries that try to simultaneously be shocking while allowing the writers to go back to business as usual in the next episode. Arc Mysteries are easy ways of generating buzz and getting people hooked on a show as they collect clues and exchange theories, but they’re also constricting if there’s no plan. It sure is easy to write a scene where something mysterious and mind-blowing happens. It’s much more difficult to come up with a clear explanation for it later.

The Affair did it right. Whether or not they capitalize on that in future seasons remains to be seen, of course.

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“Jessica Jones” & the Back and Forth of Chekhov’s Gun

WORST ROOMMATE EVER

WORST ROOMMATE EVER

So, I finally got around to actually watching Netflix’s Jessica Jones, and, naturally, I have thoughts about it, because of course I do. This is 2016, after all, and I’m a writer with a blog: I have thoughts on everything. You’re lucky I don’t bother posting most of them.

Anyway, I enjoyed the series, for the most part, and give it a solid B overall. It would have been a smashing eight episode series, but at 13 episodes it sagged a bit. The acting was top-notch, the writing in general was good, and David Tennant, frankly, was awesome as the worst villain ever conceived, Kilgrave, a.k.a. The Purple Man. The story of Jessica’s victimization at the hands of this mind-controller was horrifying and interesting, and Kilgrave was without doubt the most despicable and horrifying villain to come around in a long time.

There were, however, two plot points that no one commented on that bothered me, because they underscored a lazy writing mistake you see a lot of. Let’s consider Chekhov’s Gun and how people generally miss the other point that piece of writing advice makes.

FOR GOD’S SAKE WHY IS PETE CAMPBELL STILL ALIVE?

So, everyone more or less understands the principle of Chekhov’s Gun: If you show your audience something that can have an impact on the story, they expect to see it come into play and will regard a lack of activity involving that something as a betrayal. The classic line is, if you show your audience a gun in the first act, it has to go off by the third. Easy enough, and most writers pay attention — except those writers, like Matthew Weiner, who enjoy toying with this rule for fun and fuckery; after all, we saw Pete Campbell’s hunting rifle in Season One of Mad Men, and every year since millions of people tuned in to that show praying that tonight was the night Pete committed suicide.

Knowingly ignoring Chekhov’s Gun is the writer’s prerogative, and can be a sign that you’re in total control of your instrument. But what we saw in Jessica Jones were two blatant instances of the Inverse Chekhov’s Gun Rule: Once the gun goes off, you have to consider the ramifications for the plot going forwards — and backwards.

Let’s examine these two moments in the show. SPOILERS, people.

1. The Security Team. At one point in the show, Team Jessica has established a “safe room” where Kilgrave can be imprisoned. It’s got a soundproof cell where he can be safely stowed. Team Jessica kidnaps Kilgrave off the street, drugging him to ensure he cannot simply command them to set him free. They manage to get just outside the building where the safe room is located when a team of security specialists/bodyguards arrive hot on their trail and overpower Team Jessica through sheer numbers, retrieving their client.

It’s a great scene. Team Jessica’s desperation to hang onto their victory slowly erodes under the sheer numbers of beefy guys who keep coming at them, and when Kilgrave is ferried off to safety without ever using his mind control power it’s a gut-punch.

The problem? Kilgrave has a security team. A security team that knows precisely where his kidnappers were taking him. A security team that never shows up or is even mentioned again. When Kilgrave is kidnapped again and brought to the same location, no security team shows up. They’re not even mentioned or hand-waved.

Once you establish that Kilgrave has taken the precaution of setting up a failsafe that will go into action if his mind control powers ever fail to control the situation for him, you can’t just pretend they don’t exist in future scenarios. Can you argue that Kilgrave fired his team for one reason or another — maybe when Jessica agreed to come live with him in her childhood home? You can argue it, brother, but it isn’t stated in the show, and it doesn’t make any sense in any event. It’s just lazy writing: No one wanted to figure out how they find a new location for a safe room and evade Kilgrave’s security team the second time, so they simply deleted them from the story.

2. Patsy’s Headphones. We can goggle at the fact that when faced with a mind-controller who takes control via the sound of his voice, Team Jessica takes 13 goddamn episodes for someone to experiment with some noise-cancelling headphones. I mean, as I was watching this show I kept thinking, why not crank up some tunes? Sure, it doesn’t stop Kilgrave from ordering other people about or doing other evil shit, but at least it would prevent him from, oh, hissing Patsy, put a bullet in your head at you as he rushes past you.

I mean, sure, headphones aren’t exactly a perfect solution, but one thinks they might at least be tried.

So when, in episode 13, Patsy shows up wearing some Beats on her head, it’s finally a smart moment, but it also makes those headphones into a reverse Chekhov’s Gun, doesn’t it? Once you see them, you realize the characters did have the idea. The question becomes, why didn’t they have it sooner? It’s not exactly “one weird trick.” It’s probably the first thing almost anyone would think of once they realized they were dealing with an auditory mind control scenario.

Again, I blame lazy writing. No one wanted to spend time trying to figure out what happens when Team Jessica shows up with headphones duct-taped to their ears, ready to swarm Kilgrave and stab him to death in a parking lot. So they just pretended no one ever thought of it, and walked away with their hands in their pockets, whistling.

Ah well, they can’t all be as smart as me. And hey, someone paid them a lot of money to write a thing for TV, and no one is paying me for that (yet). As I said, I enjoyed the series overall and will definitely be back for the next season — although I’ll miss Tennant, like the desert misses the rain.

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In Praise of Spoilers

And Also with You

And Also with You

So, over the weekend I did my patriotic duty and went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Mainly this was due to my old friend Ken, who bought The Duchess and I tickets while he was buying literally dozens of tickets because that’s what Ken does; he went to see the movie like four times and invited different people along depending on their known levels of fandom and insanity. He knows by now that I will never ever in life stand in line for anything or watch a movie at midnight, so he didn’t bother offering us the first showing. We got a slot at noon on Saturday, so I could sleep in and burn off my hangover, then amble over to a less crazy crowd.

Anyways, in preparation for the movie, I spoiled the shit out of it. That’s right: I went online and out of sheer curiosity I read every plot synopsis and every spoiled twist, and by the time the lights went down in the theater I basically knew the entire story and every surprise. Shit, I even knew to listen for Daniel Craig’s voice.

Madness, you might think, but here’s the thing: Fuck spoilers. Spoilers are the worst thing the modern world has ever invented, and that list includes Full House and the Paleo Diet.

Bruce Willis Was Dead the Whole Time

Look, I’m a functioning member of society and I have no problem respecting other people’s wish to be unaware of the story before they see it or read it, so they can be genuinely surprised. That’s fine, I get it. I use SPOILER tags and such, and I will warn people when I am about to spoil the utter shit out of something. I even use SPOILER tags when revealing plot twists that date back decades, because, as I said, I live in this world and people are allowed to make polite requests of each other. So, I’ll stipulate: There is nothing wrong with the convention of holding back spoilers so people can enjoy an entertainment in the way they prefer.

Here’s the thing: If the story can’t survive spoilers–if it’s somehow ruined because you know all the twists–then that story sucks anyway.

I’m not advocating that we should form Spoiler Gangs who run around spoiling everything for people. Live and let live. Consume your entertainments in whatever way you wish, and go with Gozer. But let’s dial back the insanity: The Spoiler Convention is a polite agreement between reasonable people, not a moral requirement or fundamental law of the universe. And if a story is ruined for you because you knew the twists, then that story will be forgotten not long from now, because if it relies entirely on the twist then that story sucks.

Spoil Me

Which is why I aggressively spoil things for myself. I realize this is my personal preference; I’m not trying to force y’all to do the same, and as I said I don’t go around spoiling things for others. But I like knowing the secrets before I get there, so I can judge more objectively whether the story is any good. Instead of sitting there with my mind blown, I can pay attention and see how all the seams come together. For me, personally, it doesn’t lessen my enjoyment of the story, it increases it, because I can often see how the writer(s) are laying the groundwork, and admire how they’re actually foreshadowing their twists or baking them into the foundation of the plot.

You might disagree, and that’s fine. Reasonable people can disagree about things like Star Wars spoilers and still live in peace. Just remember, if you make me angry, I can and will spoiler everything from The Sixth Sense to Mr. Robot in a scorched-Earth attack. And while we’re discussing Star Wars, can someone explain to me how you can extinguish a sun and still have people living on the planet orbiting it?

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“Master of None” Accomplishes the Unpossible

I am also a Jack of All Trades

I am also a Jack of All Trades

I’m a writer. That means I have writer friends and acquaintances, and as a result conversations often center on what we’re writing (or what we’ve recently sold)—unless there are also agents at the table, in which case the conversation will center on what other people are writing and selling. We also tend to get drunk and have weepy conversations about the books we’d write if someone would just give us a wooden crate filled with money, or perhaps a car made entirely of gold.

A lot of times, those writing goals have something to do with Literary Stretch Goals, those unicorn-like ideas we all have that would require a stipend from the government and a Life Coach to actually complete. Sometimes it’s the 300,000 word novel written epic poetry style, or the novel told entirely from a dog’s POV using only sense words (CHAPTER ONE: wood smell, damp, LOUD NOISES!). Fairly often, it will be the legendary Novel composed of Short Stories (NCSS).

The White Whale

The NCSS is simple in concept: It’s a novel, something novel-length and telling a complete, coherent narrative arc, but it’s also a series of short stories that stand alone 100%. In other words, the NCSS is both a series of stories you can read in any order and simply enjoy, as well as a complete novel you can read in order. In other words, it’s nearly fucking impossible.

Many writers dream of the NCSS (many don’t, likely due to a Trump Low Energy Syndrome) but it’s not easy to pull off. Writing short stories is radically different in approach from writing chapters, and not at all easy. Writing a novel is also not at all easy, so combining both is always going to be a challenge. There are some novels that have published with the claim that they are the legendary, prophesied NCSS, but really, they’re not. They’re usually either just collections of short stories that share characters and a vague through-line, or they’re novels with pretensions.

Which brings us to Aziz Ansari’s Master of None on Netflix.

Not a Novel

Okay, Master of None is not a novel. It’s a TV series. It’s ten scripted episodes of a show. Still, it’s basically the NCSS in TV form—the TCSS. What Ansari had achieved is pretty great: He’s got ten episodes that each play like tiny little movies (complete with Woody Allen-esque credits and music), but also link up into a larger story. Each episode can totally be enjoyed by itself, in a vacuum: Aziz’s character, Dev, goes through several zany adventures that explore modern life, and the way social media, the immigrant experience, and city living affect our interactions and expectations. In one episode, a broken condom leads to a late-night trip to a drug store for the Plan B pill. In another, Dev refuses to do a stereotypical Indian accent when auditioning for a commercial, and then encounteres mild racism and struggles with how (or whether to) leverage it for his advantage.

Over the course of the season, the story is really about Dev and Rachel, the girl in the “Plan B” first episode, who meet again and start dating. Their relationship and how it changes Dev is the arc of the season, and it’s just as interesting as anything else because Ansari gives both characters real motivations, real personalities, and real needs and goals.

In other words, it’s a novel, but it’s also ten short stories. It ain’t easy. It maybe isn’t the first show to manage this, or even the first narrative, but it’s a difficulty level that’s impressive. The beauty of it is, if you’re intrigued by this, you can literally watch any episode and enjoy it—or not—without needing to see the whole thing. It’s quite an accomplishment. Bonus: The series is delightful, and absolutely recommended.

Now off to write my own NCSS. And fail.

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880

I GOT BLISTERS ON ME FINGERS

I GOT BLISTERS ON ME FINGERS

Ever have one of those moments when you think about something and realize some insane fact or statistic? Happens to me all the time. I’ve mentioned my casual relationship with time before; things just slip by me, and that also translates to being generally unaware of statistics about my life. Like how old I am. Or how many pairs of pants I’m currently wearing (the Margin of Pants Error is HUGE).

So today I was wondering how many freelance articles I wrote this year. Don’t why it occurred to me to think about it; generally I’m much more interested and concerned about how much money I’ve earned writing freelance pieces, as money can be readily exchanged for liquor, whereas vague reflections on the professional year that was usually cannot. So I sat down and counted them all, and the number is 880.

Eight hundred and eighty.

Now, more than half of those you won’t see my name next to, as they were ghost-written. And thank god. A lot of freelance writing is like doing porn: You’re not ashamed, per se, because it takes skills most people don’t have and you got paid for it. But it doesn’t mean you want the relatives looking it up online when you come home for the holidays. But that does leave more than 400 essays and articles that do bear my name, and at any rate 880 is just a big number. And December just started. It’s possible, though unlikely, I’ll hit 1,000 before the year’s out.

At any rate, even if I got hit by a bus tomorrow and couldn’t write good no more, I’d still average more than 2 articles a day, and since I spend my weekends in an alcoholic haze that means I actually average much more on a typical work day. That just makes me sleepy. Who was this energetic, motivated person cranking out these writings? Not me, certainly. I like to sleep in, nurse my hangovers, and read essays about Doctor Who Easter Eggs online.

In-between all that freelance writing, I also wrote one novel, got about 50% through two other novels, wrote a number of essays for other websites in the spirit of self-promotion, and 24 short stories with one more about 90% finished as I sit here. And submitted 23 of those stories to markets, selling exactly one. And that doesn’t even count blog posts — oh so many blog posts. I am, without meaning to be, one busy motherfucker.

What’s my point? Aside from once again underscoring the fact that my sole skill in this life is tapping a keyboard in creative ways, it goes to show the value of putting your head down. I didn’t start the year with a stretch goal of 1,000 freelance articles plus assorted fiction. I started the year thinking about writing one piece that day to make a certain amount of money. It’s the same with a novel or a short story. Start with the first line, go from there. Don’t think about how many you’ve piled up. Word count is useful, but distracting: Ignore it until you need to know what it is (i.e., when you’re sending it somewhere for submission or evaluation).

I am suddenly exhausted, so my stretch goal of improving the Margin of Pants Error has to be deferred until 2016. I’m sure you understand.

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Shared Universes are Weak Sauce

Jessica Jones

Jessica Jones

The Internet, as always an individual reality with only a tangential relationship to actual reality (which is not, let me finish, a bad thing, just an observed fact) has been buzzing recently about Jessica Jones, the new Netflix series offering from Marvel, following in the steps of the dour, glacially-paced and thoroughly, thoroughly overrated Daredevil (and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me).

I haven’t watched it yet, because I am old and slow. I plan to, if only because of the praise the show is getting. And it does sound interesting to a guy like me who has never owned, read, or paid any attention to comic books. The villain, a mind-controller known as Kilgrave or The Purple Man depending on how dramatic you’re trying to be, sounds really creepy and evil and thus well worth watching a narrative about his (hopeful) downfall.

Ah, but see, now we hit the snag, don’t we? Because it’s a shared universe. In Daredevil they peppered in references to the larger Marvel Universe, with New York City recovering from the last time the Avengers showed up and other references. So, Jessica Jones exists in the same universe as Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk. Which means anyone watching the show might wonder: Why in the world don’t we just call The Avengers?

The Infinity Problem

Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still check out Jessica Jones and I may even enjoy it! But the problem, from an annoying writer’s point of view, remains: You have created these super powerful beings. Your story exists in that universe. Why can’t they help? Why does no one even try? I mean, when the bad guys show up and you desperately try to call Iron Man and all you get are increasingly annoying voicemail greetings from Tony Stark, okay, that makes sense. But why does no one try?

I mean, as has been mentioned elsewhere on The Internet, the Marvel universe has established that there are superpowered autonomous robots everywhere. We’ve already seen Ultron, and Stark’s Iron Man suits that can be remote controlled by JARVIS — so, The Purple Man shows up mind-controlling everyone, why not sic a few superpowered robots on him?

Sure, there are likely storytelling explanations for this. And yes, that would make most of these stories suck in a very Somers Way:

People: ERMAGERD! DRAGONS ARE BURNING NEW YORK TO THE —

Avengers: Here we are to save the day!

People: Never mind.

THE END

So yes, stipulated: Actually thinking about this stuff logically is boring and mean and annoying. We’re not here to approach superhero stories scientifically! We’re here to be entertained!

And yet, it’s a problem. Once you create a powerful being in a universe, you are stuck with that being, and stuck with explaining how they are defeated and controlled — and if they are not defeated and controlled (as most superhero failures are temporary plot points at best) then you have to explain why they don’t just solve every problem in the world, eventually. Sure, the Avengers can’t be everywhere at once, but they’re also not the only superheroes out there. It reduces all of your villains and monsters to mere annoyances, or forces the viewer/reader to wonder why in the world we’re wasting time throwing lesser superheroes against the Big Bad, when someone else would likely destroy them easily.

Too Many Cooks

This is a problem nearly unique to shared universes, where multiple creatives are spinning new tales, inventing new characters and new rules all the time. In a smaller-scale universe a single author might get themselves into trouble by creating a godlike character or two, but this can be handled because they are in total, godlike control. In a shared universe it’s nearly impossible. You can’t, for example, announce that the Avengers are all dead in Jessica Jones, because that kind of upsets all the people looking forward to the next Avengers film or future comic books. You also can’t really pretend that superpowered robots that would be immune from mind-control are impossible, because we’ve already seen them.

All you can do is ignore them, and have your characters ignore them, which makes them seem kind of dimwitted, but that’s okay. I do dimwitted things all the time. I have little doubt that if I became embroiled in a war against a superpowered villain, I would — well, let’s be honest: I would be dead almost immediately. But if I managed to survive, I’d at least try to get The Hulk or someone — even Ant Man, or the weird guy with no powers but the jetpack-like wings — to help me.

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