Archive for Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

By | September 8, 2014 | 6 Comments
Damn You Book Meddlers!

Damn You Book Meddlers!

Friends, we all need a Literary Meddler in our lives. The Literary Meddler is that person who foists unwanted books on us and demands we read them, and is unperturbed when you hate 90% of the books they force you to read.

Of course, I’m kind of disagreeable: A smug know-it-all who deprecates anything he didn’t discover himself. You know the type. If I wasn’t so devastatingly handsome and effortlessly charming, I’d be kind of an asshole. This is why having a Literary Meddler has been so important to me.

Early on, my Literary Meddler, as with many folks, was school: School was constantly popping up at unwanted moments, dancing around my knees like an over-excited puppy, and demanding to know if I’d read those books yet. Had I? Had I? Had I? What did I think? What about that one part, huh? And then when I finally did read them and wrote up a paper on it School was a dick and gave me a B- on it and then handed me a pile of new books to read, many of which I would never have read in a million years on my own.

Today, my Literary Meddler is my wife, The Duchess, who gets incredibly excited about books I would walk right past in the book store and then hectors me to read them incessantly until I do and then is very sadfaced and irritated when I (usually) don’t like them nearly as much as she does.We’ve even had real-life, bitter fights when I didn’t like a character she loved. But the effect is the same: I am forced to read outside my comfort zone, and this is generally a very good thing. Because I have a disease that’s very common in my family (it might be genetic) which causes me to become increasingly cynical and convinced that something is crap the more popular it gets. This is one reason The Duchess and I fight: She assumes I am pre-disposed to dislike things, and when I dislike things it means I never gave them a chance.

Which, to be fair, is often true.

As a writer, this also means I am exposed to a lot of tricks and deceptions I’m not aware of, or have never thought in using in certain ways. Having a Literary Meddler is an essential part of an ongoing education. While their constant insistence that you read things often results in horrifying journeys into fictional worlds you’d rather not visit followed by vicious arguments over whether or not you’re a closed-off poopyhead who wouldn’t know a great story if it hit them on the head much the same way your wife is hitting you in the head with a sock full of quarters right now, it also sometimes broadens your world just a tiny bit.

The take-away? If you don’t have a Literary Meddler, get one. Even if it has to be that weird guy on the subway who always smells like Salmon and is always trying to hand you a handwritten novel in a box.

Cocksucker Blues: Profanity When Reading in Public

By | September 2, 2014 | 5 Comments

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

The glamorous life of a writer.

The glamorous life of a writer.

FRIENDS, I occasionally read from my fiction in public, which is surprising, since I am frequently drunk, pantsless, and belligerent. Since I am not a BIG STAR in the literary world, I almost never get to read all by myself, which is good because when I’m sharing a stage I can imagine that the audience hates the other readers and not, as would be my natural assumption otherwise, me.

Sharing the bill with other readers does however present me with another problem: Invariably, I am teamed up with writers who read beautiful, lyrical pieces of prose involving elves or Grey Aliens who contemplate the universe and seek enlightenment, and then I stand up and read a piece that is is 84% the words fuck and cocksucker.

COCKSUCKER BLUES

There is, simply, a lot of cursing in the Avery Cates books. Well, in all my fiction, actually, because, frankly, people curse in real life. I’ve been peppering my speech with cuss words since I was about nine years old, and I was a late bloomer in my neighborhood. I worry about it when I read in public, though; not because my audiences are filled with blue-haired old ladies who will die from shock—the people who actually attend any reading I do are quite prepared for a little cursing—but because I am the blue-haired lady in this scenario. Somehow I become all guilt-ridden and Catholic when I find myself having to shout cocksucker at the top of my voice in a room filled with strangers.

There are three approaches to this situation:

BOWDLERIZE

One, I can bowdlerize my own writing and replace every curse word with its prime-time equivalent, frick for fuck and all that jazz. This has the unfortunate side effect of making me resemble the berries and cream lad.

THE CURSE WHISPERER

Two, I can read the text as is but keep the volume low so I don’t feel like a nun is going to time travel from my past, rap my knuckles, and steal my pants.

GUSTO, MOTHERFUCKER!

Finally, I can read the text as is but emphasize every curse word with something that can only be described as gusto, delighting in the sudden freedom of being able to shout curses at a crowd and not be arrested. Generally I choose the latter as it promises the least humiliation, and everyone seems to enjoy themselves.

####

This hangup only exists when I’m reading out loud to people; when I’m writing I have no problem dropping language so foul it would make your nose hairs burn. In my everyday life I generally go around cloaked in what I have dubbed White Boy Politeness, which is a way of behaving towards people that generally makes folks want to rub your head and call you a good lad, even thirteen-year-old kids who would otherwise be knifing you for meth money.

curses2This sometimes causes a minor bout of mental dissonance when people meet me for the first time just prior to a reading. I am all, shucks, nice to meet you, did you know I was an Eagle Scout? And then I am all fuck you, cocksucker.

curses3Of course, this is nothing compared to my other public reading foible, which is spontaneous and inexplicable pantslessness. So if all you ever experience during one of my readings is some rough language, consider yourself: lucky.

Just Because Some Watery Tart Threw a Sword at You

By | August 28, 2014 | 1 Comments

I’ve had Enough of The One for a Lifetime

Hi there. I'm He-Man. Won't Someone Love Me?

Hi there. I’m He-Man. Won’t Someone Love Me?

Let us discuss He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, because it is a subject that has been sorely ignored by the media old and new for too long. When I was a kid He-Man was on TV all the time, protecting Castle Grayskull for some reason and fighting his eternal battle against Skeletor, who wanted in to Castle Grayskull for some reason. It’s all a bit fuzzy, because I was ten years old, and because I barely remember anything from all that time ago. I remember almost nothing from yesterday, in fact, so thirty years ago? We’ll need Leo DiCaprio and his totem to drill in that deeply.

Still, the problem of motivation: Why was He-Man He-Man? In other words, aside from Mattel’s desperate need to sell kids like me plastic action figures and advertising on the cartoon, why was He-Man chosen to be super strong and manly by The Sorceress (Note: There was also a Sorceress)? Aside from the fact that he’s one of about two men in reasonable physical shape on Eternia, his buddy Man At Arms would have been a better choice. Man At Arms is not only in pretty buff shape to begin with, he’s also a technical genius inventor of weapons. If you’re handing out He-Man-ness to random people, why not him?

An argument could be made that giving Man At Arms super powers in addition to his super-genius at creating awesome death-dealing weapons would have made him too powerful. I reject this argument because it requires a depth of thought impossible in the He-Man universe. He-Man is chosen to be He-Man simply because – and that is awful storytelling.

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Ancient Book Reviews Part Two

By | August 21, 2014 | 1 Comments
Darrell K. Sweet WAS the 1980s As Far As I was Concerned

Darrell K. Sweet WAS the 1980s as Far as I Was Concerned

Not too long ago I wrote about Lyndon Hardy’s “Five Magics” series with the intention of regularly returning to my ancient bookshelves to contemplate treasured cheap paperbacks from my youth. And then of course forgot all about it. Until today! Today for reasons beyond my ken I was moved to consider one of the most obscure books I’ve ever read, and one that I will frankly admit I do not remember at all: Dennis McCarty’s Flight to Thlassa Mey, published by Del Rey in 1986 and on my shelves ever since.

I remember nothing about this book, or the two sequels I also own.

This is what fascinates me about my book collection, these books I can’t remember. Dennis McCarty sold this book, no doubt promoted it, and published sequels and at least one other book I can identify – and yet no one remembers him or this book. Sure, someone does, but collectively he’s been burned out of the pattern. Since I always worry this will be my own fate, I’m drawn back to these obscure books.

And yet, nothing, literally nothing remains in my memory about this book. Sure, I read it 30 years ago and never again since – but you’d think something would remain, right? There are books on my shelves with similar stories – bought three decades ago by a younger man, read once, carted around the country ever since – but I recall at least a few slivers of detail and plot from them.

Flight to Thlassa Mey: Nothing.

The scant information on the Internet doesn’t help much; the book was a fairly standard fantasy from the 1980s (one glance at the cover tells you as much) and it was a time in my life when I was reading three books a week, just burning through cheap paperbacks like there was no tomorrow. I probably read this in three days and was on to the next thing immediately afterwards, all of its story elements lost in a swirl of swords and wizards and (based on the cover) princesses wearing ridiculous head gear.

But it is precisely this lack of information and memory that now fascinates me. Sure, I could read this again and maybe I should, but what really grabs me about this is the complete obscurity of it all. Try to find out something about the author or his books: I dare you. And that of course drives me to pour approximately six fingers of whiskey into a paper cup and slam it down, forgetting that I had just done that a few moments ago, and now here I am finishing this post from the hospital. Again.

Certainly the odds are good that I’ll be this guy in 20 years. While I’ve sold a few books and made a little money (and published more novels – 9 in October than most), I haven’t made any lasting cultural impact and don’t pretend that I have. If I stopped writing today, slowly I’d just sink beneath the waves of history, which will likely happen even if I continue to publish – there are books and authors that were best sellers in their day that are now totally forgotten, after all.

So, for a book review, this was shit. I can’t remember a thing about the book. You have learned nothing concerning whether or not you should read this book aside from the fact that no one remembers it which I guess is actually a pretty useful piece of data so this was, in fact, a great review and you are welcome.

The Real Reason “Halt & Catch Fire” Sucked

By | August 15, 2014 | 1 Comments
This poster is much better than the actual show.

This poster is much better than the actual show.

So, if you were one of the very small number of people who watched Halt and Catch Fire on AMC this summer (possible reasons for your interest include being fascinated by 1980s-era computer technology and hacking [that would be my excuse] or possibly a fascination with bad television [also, strangely, me]), you likely share my reaction to the Season One Finale: A disgusted shrug. Put succinctly: This show was awful.

Also, the Whitest Show Ever Produced (and I watch Mad Men, y’all). But mainly: Awful.

It was, however, awful in a curious way. Yes, the writing was slipshod, the show reached for ridiculous dramatic moments far too often and failed to pull them off, and for some reason thought simply giving a character a “mysterious backstory” and then immediately revealing it to be a shallow and poorly conceived …. non-moment was somehow deconstructive or brilliant. Sure, stipulated.

The real reason this show sucked? It was too real. Halt and Catch Fire was the realest fucking show on television.

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“Dollhouse” and The Problem with U.S.-Style TV

By | August 6, 2014 | 4 Comments

DollhouseIf you fear spoilers on 5-year old TV shows, boy are you in the wrong place.

About five years late to the party, I started watching Dollhouse on Netflix recently out of curiosity. I remember the show, vaguely, from it’s run on broadcast TV, recalled the slight buzz about the unaired season 1 finale, so I tuned in. I often watch stuff out of morbid curiosity: Canceled shows, films with record low Tomatometer rankings, that sort of thing.

Dollhouse, for those who don’t share my morbid curiosity about failed pop culture, is a Joss Whedon show developed around the concept of “imprinting” personalities on people. The titular “dolls” are volunteers (mostly) who sign a 5-year contract, have their own personalities removed, and spend their time being imprinted with whatever the clients need them to be. Sometimes it’s a security expert. Sometimes a secret agent. Usually, the show implies very heavily, it’s a sex toy.

The show starts off a little rough with some really, really bad stories involving reasons to get Eliza Dushku into skimpy outfits. Slowly, the over-arching story arc asserts itself: The “doll” technology is getting out of hand, and that unaired final episode of season 1 makes it very clear: The “doll” technology is going to end the world as we know it.

Dollhouse as it ended up – 26 episodes – is a hot mess. But there’s a really, really great story in there that would have worked incredibly well in a British-style short-run of maybe 10-12 episodes.

The American Model  = Doom

To be fair, you can almost see (and Whedon has said as much) how Dollhouse got sold: Eliza Dushku in hot outfits, engaged in a new Charlie’s Angel-esque adventure every week, but with a Sci-Fi glamour about it. The first few episodes are pretty much this, and they’re awful. Whedon actually started to say publicly that people should stick around for episode 6 of the first season because that’s where he thought he began to assert the type of show he really wanted to make – and it shows.

A lot of Dollhouse is this awful filler, with the “dolls” instantly transformed into spies, backup dancers, fancy prostitutes, and other fairly dull ideas. The true joy of this series is in the back story and the arc, which details how the technology became mobile and broadcastable – meaning you could “imprint” someone over the phone, essentially – and how that basically allowed the rich and powerful to live forever by snatching other bodies, and how that basically led to the total breakdown of society and the end of civilization.

That story is pretty damn good.

The other aspects of the show that work are where the basic premise of imprinting someone is explored in more interesting ways. When a Doll is imprinted with a recently murdered woman who then investigates her own murder. When a major character on the show is revealed to have been a Doll who wasn’t aware of her status – who thought she was real, and her reaction to this knowledge is explored.

But mainly, it’s the end-of-the-world stuff that grabbed me. Cut away about 50% of the episodes, and you’d have a pretty tight British-style show that told an interesting Sci-Fi story. And you’d still have plenty of opportunities to put Dushku into miniskirts and have her shake her ass a little.

That’s the problem with American-style TV: The goal is always infinite episodes, or at least 100 episodes and syndication. This automatically lends itself to padding, filler, and awful plot decisions. In fact, I’d say that the fact that Dollhouse was pretty much always in danger of being cancelled at any time is likely why so much of it actually works – because Whedon was forced to always be thinking hard about getting his story goals accomplished. I can picture him madly typing away in some smoke-filled office, trying desperately to get to a denouement before FOX canceled his ass.

Is Dollhouse great TV? Not really. But it might have been, if they weren’t shooting for infinite episodes. Now that we’re moving into an era when a show like Dollhouse, with its traditionally puny 26 episodes – along with popular British fare like Sherlock, Luther, and The Fall – can be successful on Netflix, or Amazon, or Hulu, maybe we’ll see more experimentation this way, and more shows modeled on a shorter run, with less filler. And that would be awesome.

 

WDC14: Achievement Unlocked

By | August 4, 2014 | 4 Comments
Me Smart.

Me Smart.

SO, I was a speaker and panelist at the Writer’s Digest Conference over the weekend, which was a blast. I went in assuming what I always assume: That no one knows who I am and the entire experience would be one of richer, better-selling authors pelting me with refuse and chanting hurtful things until I finally broke down into tears, at which point someone would film me blubbering, post it to YouTube, and it would get 5,000,000 views within moments.

That’s what I always assume.

But, it went well! First, I was on a panel with fellow authors Joe Nelms, Julia Fierro, Kristopher Jansma, Sean Ellis, and Kelly Braffet where we discussed our experiences getting published and getting agents, which I think was eye-opening and educational for all involved and where I managed to avoid doing something embarrassing by using the Pro Tip of keeping my hands in my lap the whole time so as to avoid knocking things over and accidentally picking my nose.

I'm the psycho-killer looking one in the middle.

I’m the psycho-killer looking one in the middle.

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Plotting “We Are Not Good People”

By | July 28, 2014 | 0 Comments

webWANGPThis coming Saturday (8/2) I’ll be standing in a room giving a presentation on plotting novels (pantsing Vs. plotting) at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference (details here and you should totally sign up). I just informed my harried agent that I will be wearing a clown costume and plan to communicate via honking a horn and making sad faces, and she seemed to support me.

Why am I qualified to teach people how to plot a novel? Likely I am not. But someone has to give these presentations, or else middling successful novelists like myself would have nothing to do. You don’t want me wandering the streets, unmoored.

I’ve occasionally posted essays about plotting novels here to both promote my new career as the Novel Whisperer (I plan to stop writing them and spend all my time charging people huge sums of money to coach them in their own creative endeavors) as well as the novels themselves. Because, you know, I offer these books for sale as a way of avoiding real work. And you are part of my secret plan.

Next up in the plot analysis? My upcoming novel We Are Not Good People, publishing in October (a free prequel, Fixer, is available for free download right now!).

Plotting WANGP

Yes, the acronym for this novel is WANGP and that pleases me to no end.

Plotting this novel was an exercise in pure, joyous Pantsing. As with most of my novels, I started off with an initial image — an old apartment that had been sealed up decades before and left undisturbed, based on a true story I heard about a place on the Upper East Side of Manhattan that had been closed up for the season in the 1940s and then abandoned, the bills paid, the doors locked. I imagined rustling around in there, then saw a dead girl in a tub, and then saw two grifters who used small spells to help their scams. I had no idea what the story was going to be. I just started writing.

I often — but not always — write this way, just pouring on words. I got a little stuck after a few chapters, which also happens a lot: Once I’m done establishing a universe and characters, I sometimes stall wondering what exactly they will do. Then I read a book by someone else, and there was a sequence I enjoyed so much I decided on the spot to steal it, and worked a variation of it into the work in progress, and that got everything going.

Pantsing, for me, generally means imagining my characters as real people and wondering what they would reasonably do in reaction to each other and plot events outside their direct control. The answers are usually very obvious once I start thinking about it. Meanwhile, pantsing leaves me free to steal any ideas I come across, repurposing them into my story – which makes telling one a lot of fun, and very exciting, as I’m not sure where it’s all heading myself.

Does any of this make sense? Probably not. Anyone who tells you the act of creation should make sense is lying.

Briefing for a Descent into Freelance

By | July 9, 2014 | 6 Comments
This is why I drink.

This is why I drink.

ONE of the reasons I kind of hate doing “writerly” events is the repetition of small talk effect: You wind up making the same small talk with other writers and non-writers alike. I’ve had a variation on the following conversation roughly one billion times (some of the following may only have occurred in my head):

OTHER: So, are you published?

ME: Don’t you KNOW who I AM? I will smite thee with this old manual typewriter I carry everywhere!

OTHER: Cool, cool. Is writing, like, your full time job?

ME: I’m not wearing any pants. Do I look like a man who has income?

In other words, all these conversations quickly establish that the other person has never heard of me (indicating my book sales) and then requires of me some sort of financial disclosure.

Up until a few years ago I was one of the Day Job Writers, just like 99.9% of all of us. I wrote and was published (pretty well) but I had a day job. Then in 2012 my day job and I had a disagreement and we decided to see other people. The disagreement, I think, had something to do with the fact that I last paid conscious attention to my Day Job in 2009, but at least I wasn’t the guy who got fired from my company because he sat in on a conference call with his webcam accidentally switched on while wearing no shirt. True story.

But I digress.

After breaking up with my day job I hurriedly called my agent to ask whether I had coincidentally gotten rich in the last few hours. Being informed that this did not happen, I knew I needed to replace my day job revenues somehow, or my wife The Duchess was going to ask me to leave the premises. She’s old school, you see, and thinks men should have jobs. No matter how often I’ve explained to her that I am a Modern Beta Male who is 100% okay with being supported by his wife, she just boxes my ears and shoves a classifieds section into my hands.

BUT! I had a bold idea. The only skill I have ever demonstrated in my whole life, the only thing I can actually say I am good at, is writing. In fact, the list of things I am not good at is pretty much infinitely long. The list of things I am good at has, at most, five things, and four of them are curious physical abnormalities I’ve never been able to monetize. So I said, I could write freelance.

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Plotting and The Electric Church

By | June 30, 2014 | 2 Comments

The Electric ChurchRight, we all know the drill now, right? I’m giving a plot seminar at The Writer’s Digest Annual Conference (see here) because like Iggy A I am fancy, and thus I am writing a series of essays about how I plot novels by way of proving my bona fides, right? All right, glad to have that out of the way.

So: The Electric Church. The story about this book is an epic in and of itself. It’s actually simultaneously the book I plotted most, and perhaps the most epically pantsed novel in history. I wrote the first draft in 1993 in about six months, just pantsing along merrily. The end result was a sloppy narrative with what we in the writerly industry refer to as a shit-ton of problems, but it had spark, and verve, and a premise that I wanted to do justice to. So I never quite gave up on it, picking it up a few times over the next decade and starting a few revisions.

Then, in 2004 I saw an ad for a fiction market. They were accepting proposals and required a detailed plot outline, character sketches — the whole nine yards.

As aside: In what has proven to be a reliable rule, the markets that pay the least have the most strenuous requirements. I’ve sold novels to major publishers who ran the book through a warm room full of copy editors and proclaimed it ready for prime-time. Stories and books for which I was paid in admiration and slaps on the back? Gruelling rounds of editing. This was one of those: No money (I did eventually earn $3.14 from it — that is an exact number — but the submission process was epic.

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