If you’ve heard of the film Frank, you’ve probably heard it described as the one where the improbably attractive actor Michael Fassbender wears a fiberglass head through 90% of the film or possibly as the one where this musician won’t take off his fiberglass head or somewhat less possibly as the one based loosely on the real-life Frank Sidebottom or something similar. And while that’s technically accurate description of the film Frank, both descriptions manage to miss the point, because this isn’t so much a movie about a crazy (and possibly genius) musician who wears a big round head all the time. It’s a movie about creativity, the creative process, and, most specifically, what happens when you want to be creative but aren’t very good at it.
Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements
As most everyone knows a few years ago I embarked on a fabulous adventure known as Jeff Lost His Day Job and Thinks He Can Earn Money by Freelance Writing, which so far has had a more or less happy ending (though, of course, none of us are getting out of this existence alive, so “happy ending” is relative – and transient, and therefore not an ending at all, is it?) in that I am in fact making a living writing things for people, both in terms of fiction and bloggy stuff done work for hire.
A lot of the bloggy stuff involves books; either reviews or listicles or round-ups and stuff. Plus, my publisher occasionally asks me to blurb something. The end result? A lot of “professional” reading, you know, reading books I might not otherwise get to. This is usually not because I’m not interested in reading said books, but more a matter of time management: I’ve only got so many years before the liver goes and the dementia starts (or, possibly, worsens; you have to always ask yourself every morning if you’re existing in a self-imposed fantasy driven by delerium tremens and bad burrito choices).
There are pros and cons to all this “professional” reading:
- I’m reading outside my usual comfort zone.
- I’m reading a lot more, overall.
- I’m reading with more of a critical eye; even when not reviewing books, I’m usually trying to think of an “angle” to write about, and therefore not simply enjoying myself as I read.
- I’m reading fast, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but does mean I’m not just luxuriating in a good book.
- It interrupts my pleasure reading, meaning I’ve been reading certain books so slowly it’s going backwards.
- I’ve read some really awful books I was totally right to not want to read in the first place, and these abominations will be part of my brain forever now.
This is a very First World type of problem to have (my god they’re paying me to read too many books! oh wait, that’s not a fucking problem at all NEVER MIND) but it’s such a mix of good and bad it’s hard to keep everything straight, to be honest. When your bathroom book changes every time you go to the bathroom in a vain attempt to meet deadlines, your life becomes a whirlwind of toilets and words.
Actually, that’s the new title of my autobiography: A WHIRLWIND OF TOILETS; subtitle, small print: and words.
And in-between all of this I’m trying to write the next novel some
sucker hero will pay me. In the long run, I fully expect all this anti-comfort zone reading I’m doing to have a beneficial effect on my writing as it opens up all new things to steal, er, reinterpret for my prose. Time will tell. Until then, it’s back to my whirlwind of toilets.
I recently watched the film Everly, directed by Joe Lynch and starring Salma Hayek, specifically so I could write this little essay, because I suspected that it would be a good place to start. Everly is a simple film despite the sheer number of corpses and gunfire – it’s also not exactly a good film. But that doesn’t actually matter for my larger point.
To get it out of the way (and SPOILERS HO!) here’s the basics: Hayek is a woman who has forced into prostitution by a very, very bad man, and has been living as a prisoner in a nice apartment, forced to never see her daughter or mother. Planning to betray the crime boss, her intentions are exposed and he sends a group to gang-rape her and then kill her in revenge, but she has a gun and a phone hidden in the bathroom and manages to kill them all. The crime boss sends wave after wave of people to kill her, and she manages to survive through a mix of luck, determination, and a very high tolerance for pain.
To say the film is inconsistent would be an understatement: It picks up ideas, plays with them a little, then discards them. It throws in several pointless moments of “excitement.” It has no relationship with reality at all. For all that, it’s kind of entertaining, actually. Some of that goes to the script, which is mildly witty, and some goes to the direction, which is occasionally arresting. And some of it goes to Hayek, who looks good with a machine gun and manages to sell the emotion when she’s not gunning down nameless thugs.
But mainly, the movie entertains because it’s essentially a video game run-through.
CUT SCENES FOR THE PLOT, Y’ALL
This is an increasingly popular form of action movie. It doesn’t matter much what the plot is, or the genre, or anything else. The main thing is, the film is structured like a video game: Quick setup, then a series of levels, each with its own challenges, special look, and sometimes a specific Boss battle.
Dredd was like this, too. These films are marked by the wave-after-wave structure, where the hero fights off a wave of adversaries, gets a brief respite (level loading) and then wades in again. The waves of thugs get either increasingly tough, show up in increasing numbers, or become increaingly bizarre as the hero advances through the game, er, story.
Everly follows this pretty closely: The thugs going after the title character start off relatively weak (they’re the other prostitutes in the building, who are offered a reward if they kill her). Then some standard-issue criminals in black suits and better weaponry show up. Then some bizarre torturer Boss-type guy, then a police SWAT unit with body armor and assault rifles, then the Big Boss himself with an RPG, a katana, and a nice suit. Every time Everly kills off a wave, there’s a sequence of quiet akin to a cutscene, where the story advances until the next level loads up, I mean, the next scene begins.
You Know, For Kids
Now, this isn’t an awful way to set up a film (and I liked Dredd very much if I didn’t think Everly was so great) when what you’re going for is that breathless, adrenaline-soaked experience. But the model is very clearly video games, and I can’t help but wonder if this is a conscious attempt to capture the youth market, where a lot of kids have come to prefer the way video games tell stories. The rhythms of action/cutscene/action, the stylized violence, the increasingly bizarre Bosses – it all matches up pretty well.
It’s been theorized that Video Games might someday be the future of visual storytelling – aside from action games, games like Gone Home or Myst had the feel of being inside a movie, walking around (albeit in Myst’s case the movie was an insanely dull one) and I can see it. Once graphics become truly realistic, why not – games like Half Life and Portal and others are already very story-driven in some ways, and, frankly, there’s something exciting about the idea that you could “re-play” a movie and explore different areas and plot options, etc. And instead of sequels, there would be downloadable content.
Although, as I get older, that would make watching a movie exhausting. But at least there would be speed run-throughs on YouTube.
In some of my writing, I have characters who use guns a lot, and every now and then I get some detail about guns wrong and I get flooded with notes from helpful people explaining my mistake. Which is fine and good. So, let’s turn the tables a little. I may not be an expert on firearms, but I am an expert in firewater (see what I did there? Me good professional word person).
I am in many ways, a walking cliché: The writer who enjoys his liquor a little too much. It’s certainly not my fault that my ancestors made alcohol both delicious, all-natural, vaguely healthy if you believe European doctors, and man’s best friend. I am the victim here, is what I’m saying. And my books often reflect this lifelong love affair with The Drink: In the Avery Cates books, in Lifers and Chum and We Are Not Good People my characters all drink heavily and while you might argue this also explains why the stories they find themselves in are so dark and awful (and yet, hilarious!) because getting shitfaced is itself dark and awful (but hilarious!) it remains a literary device I use a lot. Admittedly, I use the Booze Device mainly so my characters have something to do with their hands (see also: Cigarettes).
Still, if you’re imagining that I myself get all ginned up and plow through fifty pages of golden prose while my eyes are crossed (method writing, in other words), you’re wrong. I remember once Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane being interviewed and he was asked about playing live shows while high, and he dismissed it out of hand, saying something about how you can’t do that because the guitar strings would suddenly seem like they were as thick as firehoses and everything would go to hell (I’m paraphrasing). While a glass of the brown stuff has often been my companion when writing, it’s not like you can guzzle a fifth of bourbon and then write fifteen pages of really coherent prose.
Of course, characters actually in the book? Why not. From what I can tell no one wants verisimilitude when it comes to liquor in our stories.
Lucy, written & directed by Luc Besson and starring Scarlett Johansson, is currently enjoying a 66% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is, frankly, amazing, since it’s not a good movie or a good story. Oh, it’s pretty-looking. Some of the imagery is breathtaking, there are a few kind of cool action moments, and I’ll admit that the first forty minutes or so of the film is rendered with a bouncy, off-center energy that is enjoyable, cutting back and forth between Lucy’s increasingly dire predicament with some gangsters and an incredibly daffy lecture being presented by Morgan Freeman, uttering some of the most ridiculous bad science in recent memory.
But the story is pretty dumb. (SPOILERS, HO!) In a nutshell, Lucy (Johansson, looking believably bloated and rough as a young woman apparently surviving on tequila shots, questionable sex partners, and ramen) is conned by a skeezy boyfriend into taking a briefcase to a gangster (Oldboy’s Min-sik Choi), who turns out to be lamentably unconcerned about Lucy’s wellbeing. In the case is a new drug the gangster is smuggling around the world, accomplished by surgically inserting plastic packets of the powder into his drug mules’ bellies. On Lucy’s part, at least, it’s an involuntary job. After some shenanigans, Lucy gets kicked in the stomach hard enough to rupture the packet, and this experimental drug begins to leak into her system.
And Lucy turns into a god.
More specifically, the drug somehow unlocks the “unused cerebral capacity” of the old, bullshit saw about how we only use 10% of our brains. This wonder drug allows Lucy to suddenly use increasing amounts of her own brain, which in turn allows her to first control her own body, then the bodies of others, and finally, as she consumes more and more of the drug, matter and energy (and, ultimately, time).
So, this is kind of silly. Johansson goes into Stonefaced Goddess mode, and the rest of the story lacks any sort of tension whatsoever because Lucy is almost immediately unstoppable. One scene where she causes a bunch of thugs to float to the ceiling like balloons as she walks stiffly beneath them is a nifty visual, and completely boring. When Lucy can make people collapse, wall them into invisible boxes, and make their weapons fly off as if suddenly magnetized, there’s little doubt who wins the confrontations she gets into.
Fixing a Hole
You know what, though? This could have been a much better story with one simple tweak: Instead of the drug granting Lucy what are, essentially, magic powers, if all it did was sharpen her perceptions and reflexes to godlike levels, this could have been an interesting revenge tale: Lucy starts off as a crying, weak person confused and terrified, is abused and brutalized, and then through sheer accident uses the gangster’s own product to destroy his organization via uncannily accurate shooting, superhuman reflexes, and a sudden ability to plan sixteen steps in advance like a boss.
In that version of the film, Lucy would still be mortal and would still be able to be injured. The story would still have tension. And we’d still get to see Scarlett Johansson kicking ass and taking names while looking slightly hungover the entire time. In other words, if Besson had just pulled back a little with his premise, this might have been a fun film. Instead, it’s a lot of crazy imagery with an ending lifted straight from The Lawnmower Man.
Of course, there’s the alternate explanation that the last hour of Lucy is just the titular character’s death hallucination as she quietly overdoses on the drug, which is more interesting but no more entertaining, frankly.
Writing is a curious thing, sometimes. On the one hand it’s art and you have to respect the mysterious and largely amoral idea machine that lurks somewhere inside your head – mysterious and somewhat disturbing, most times. On the other hand, there’s artifice and artificiality to it as well – you take those ideas and you think about manipulating a plot, and the market you might sell it to, and how readers will react.
So, you sometimes develop crutches or tools – like, say, a character who exists mainly to star in a certain kind of story that you often return to. I’m a fan of detective novels, and I’m a fan of the old Kolchak: The Night Stalker series, and for some reason I keep coming up with gonzo supernatural stories that are presented and structured as mysteries. And so I’ve created a character named Philip K. Marks who often stars in these stories as an alcoholic former writer who investigates weird, strange situations.
In fact, he’s not that different in some ways from Lem Vonnegan, the main character in We Are Not Good People. He’s a bit run-down, has made bold, moral choices in his life that have cost him, and he’s oppressed by forces often – regularly – beyond his control or sometimes even his comprehension. Whereas in the earlier stories I wrote about him he was well-known and somewhat prosperous, over time he’s had adventures that went horrifyingly wrong, and there’s continuity in the stories themselves, so in the more recent ones he’s lost his memory and some of his focus and energy, and he’s fallen pretty far in social and economic turns, too. Although he’s not a mage or a gunner, he’d get along well with Lem and Avery Cates, I think, and his adventures always involve magic, horror, and science fiction elements.
I like almost all of the stories I’ve written about Marks, and I’ve actually sold a few. “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the MWA Anthology Crimes by Moonlight, edited by Charlaine Harris, in 2010, and “A Meek and Thankful Heart” appeared in Buzzy Mag in 2013. And I recently sold a third story, titled “Howling on for More” which should be appearing over at Black Denim Lit in April (or so I’m told).
Three stories ain’t exactly an anthology, but I have a bunch of others, and it’s been surprisingly successful for me to sell three stories with the same character, especially one so different from Avery Cates and Lem Vonnegan (or perhaps not so different). And since I have several other stories starring the amnesic and world-weary Mr. Marks, I guess I have a long-term project now to start sending out more of those stories so I can someday collect them into one anthology that no one will publish.
At my current apparent rate of selling one story every 2-3 years, I’ll manage this by the time I’m 157. Which is fine. I plan to live that long anyway through a careful application of booze, lack of exercise, and positive thinking.
In the mean time, Marks will remain a sponge character for all the ideas I have that need a bit of structure to hold them up. Even though Marks started off as a catch-all tool of sorts, he’s developed quite the backstory and personality. In fact, it might be time to write a Marks novel one of these days, if I can think of the right idea for it. All writers have tools they use to hide the gears from y’all, and sometimes it’s nice when those tools ascend a bit and become characters.
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I write a lot of short stories – at minimum one a month. Not many of these are good, of course, but I like the exercise of having to come up with an idea and a structure and characters and 2,000 words every month on the regular. Too many writers endlessly discuss and plan their works but never actually write them, you know?
I also submit a fair amount, though in recent years submission turnarounds and contraction of markets has reduced those numbers a great deal. Here’s how it’s shaken out in past years:
2011: 33 submissions, 0 sales
2012: 18 submissions, 1 sale
2013: 22 submissions, 1 sale
This year is continuing this recent trend – I’ll probably end the year with 20 submissions and, unless something exciting happens all last-minute, 1 sale (which just happened). Since 1986, when I started writing and submitting short stories to anyone who would publish them, I’ve managed 1,279 submissions and sold 30 for a sell rate of 2.35%. Obviously I have no dignity. Also I have a fascination with collecting data on my own existence. Yes, I’m that guy who counts things and I am one tiny sliver of sanity away from keeping my piss in mason jars.
Old age will be fun, trust me. Inhibitions lost, sanity frayed, piss in mason jars.
Ahem. Back to the ever-elusive point: For me, the pay scale on short stories is chaos. Since deciding to only submit to markets that at least pay a token, I’ve made more than $1,200 on a single short story, and I’ve made $5. So I’m obviously not going to be making a living on short stories any time soon. But they’re so much fun to write – you can go from idea to THE END in a few days, sometimes. Short stories are the crack of writing.
And, once written, I want them read, and read widely. So, I submit them so I can point to that as some sort of legitimizing serum. You know, because otherwise it’s just me SPAM emailing short story PDFs to everyone who has ever sent me an email, including large corporations, offshore customer service bots, and imprisoned politicians (I’m writing this in New Jersey, so let’s just call them politicians). At least when someone pays me money for a story I can claim that I have a good reason for thinking it’s worth, you know, money. Or your time. Which is generally the same damn thing anyway.
Also, every now and then I post a free short story on this blog, so if you’re curious check ‘em out.
Writing advice is one of those things that a lot of people want from you but are then almost always disappointed by. I’ve seen it plenty of times: Someone says, oh hey, you’ve completed/sold novels, what kind of advice do you have for the aspiring writer? And they are clearly expecting me to say something like drink heavily all the time and the magic booze faeries will dictate stories to you or jot down this ancient Sumerian magic spell and you can summon magic booze faeries to dictate stories to you or possibly sit down and let me buy you expensive cocktails on my dime.
When I offer instead some chestnut about craft or reading widely or avoiding Tom Swifty constructions in your dialogue, their disappointment is obvious, and their eyes always say something akin to you sir are a fraud and I despise you.
So I’ve been trying to think of a piece of writing advice I can offer that is actually practical and useful but also concise and simple, the sort of immediate benefit I think many folks want. They don’t want to hear something that if you apply diligently for the next thirty years might offer some insight. They want something they can go home and do immediately. And in my role as professional bloviator, this is a tool I must have. And after much thought, I have it: Leave yourself hanging.
This is something I’ve done my whole life without actually thinking of it consciously, and it really does work. The concept is simple: When writing a story, always stop for the day at a point where you know what the next thing will be. In other words, never write until you’re unsure of the next step in your story. Whenever I’ve written until I had no idea what came next, when I sat down the next day I was stumped. If I leave even the slightest bit unwritten, I can swing into it easily the next day.
Simple? Yes, but surprisingly not obvious to many. So there you go: A bit of easily marketed writing advice I can apply my unique brand to. Said brand summed up with the phrase Cranky Inebriated Incompetence.
SO, approximately three years too late, I finally caught the first episode of Black Mirror now that it’s on Netflix. I’ve been hearing about the show for years, especially that first episode – “National Anthem” – and was very interested in it. I’m too lazy to chase things down, so I just thought of it every now and then and finally my weak magical field worked its wonders and the show popped up on Netflix.
And it’s good – very well done, creepy, and the premise of “National Anthem” – a hugely popular member of the royal family is kidnapped, and the sole demand for her release is that the Prime Minister fuck a pig on live television – is inspired in both its creepiness and hilarity. I enjoyed it as a piece of black comedy and theater. It does, however, fail in a big way that often hurts supposedly audacious satires like this – it revels far too much in a cynicism about the world that’s supposed to feel edgy but is actually just really, really lazy writing.
And yes, I know: Me carping about lazy writing is like Charlie Sheen carping about drug addicts. Let it drift.
In “National Anthem,” the Cynicism Fail occurs when the story suddenly needs to give us a reason why any reasonable man, a Prime Minister no less, would actually agree to fuck a pig on live television. Yes, yes it’s satire and thus not beholden to normal rules of storytelling, but plot mechanics are plot mechanics. And Black Mirror falls back on the rickety old structure of “public opinion has shifted,” which is possibly the laziest writing crutch in the universe. In the story, at first the public is reasonably shocked by this ridiculous demand and supports the Prime Minister against it. Then the government makes the mistake of trying to fake a pig-fucking via CGI, and a raid on a spot where the princess might be held goes haywire and a reporter is shot. When the public finds out about these debacles, polling shifts, and suddenly the whole country insists the Prime Minister fuck the pig already. His party informs him that not only can they not longer support him if he doesn’t fuck the pig, they cannot even guarantee his or his family’s safety.
In other words, we are to believe that in the space of an hour or so the country goes from mild shock at this turn of events to rabid, primitive grunting.
And I call bullshit. The trope of “people are really the worst and will show their true colors when pushed” has been done. And people are the worst, I’ll stipulate. But bad polling as a reason you cannot possibly avoid fucking a pig on live television is perhaps some of the worst plot mechanics I’ve ever seen. I enjoyed the episode in spite of this bullshit, trust me. This is the sort of stuff a writer who has become completely divorced from real people trots out, imagining that everyone who is not him or people directly in his line of sight must be awful, ignorant, evil people.
I haven’t watched the other episodes, but likely will, and likely will also have drunken, belligerent things to say about them, as well. In the meantime it’s nice to know that even highly-paid folks with shows on TV can screw up their stories this badly. There’s hope for us all yet!
Okay, I understand this is controversial for fans of Doctor Who, among whom the episode is considered kind of meh, but I recently re-watched the Season 6 episode The Girl Who Waited, and it’s one of the best episodes of the rebooted Doctor Who, for several reasons. The main reason, though, is how brutal it is.
Let’s consider the brutality:
- Amy Pond is accidentally abandoned on a plague planet in a separate time stream amongst unintentionally murderous robots for thirty six years because The Doctor refuses to do any sort of basic research about where he’s traveling (“That is not how I travel.”).
- The Doctor’s solution is to bring Young Amy into their time stream and then to abandon Old Amy to nonexistence even though over the course of 36 fucking years Old Amy has become a distinct and unique person.
- The Doctor doesn’t even do this brutal murder himself, he forces Rory, Amy’s husband, to do it. And then he leaves it to Rory to explain to Amy that he basically murdered her older self.
That’s some dark stuff. And it gets to the core of what Doctor Who really is: It’s a horror series. And The Doctor is the monster.
The Doom of Men
Forget Amy and Rory’s ultimate fate — to say that Companions on Doctor Who often have less-than-happy endings is an understatement. But The Girl Who Waited underscores the fundamental conflict that drives the show. The Companions, usually (though not always) humans, want The Doctor to care about them. To be their friend. But he doesn’t, and can’t be, not the way they think. He’s not a human, and humans will always be collateral damage to him. He might feel bad about it — in fact, often does — but it’s equivalent to the way we feel bad when a pet runs away and gets run over by a car. We grieve. We feel bad.
Then we get another pet.
The murder of Old Amy is pretty dark stuff. And in the episode it’s not even obscured: The darkness is right there. Ostensibly, The Doctor’s decision to abandon Old Amy (or, to be fair, an Amy, as he leaves the choice of which Amy to leave up to Rory) is brutal, and Matt Smith plays it that way. It’s a murder. One moment Old Amy exists: bitter, fierce, and filled with rage, but also filled, suddenly, with hope of reclaiming her future, of having adventures and popping ’round the Pond house for holidays.
The next, she is gone. We’re supposed to be relieved that the hot, young version of Amy, the one we’re used to, the charming one not filled with bitter rage, has been ‘saved,’ and ignore the fact that Old Amy has … not been. But Old Amy existed. Imagine Young Amy, married to a man who abandoned her to die on an alien world, alone, her last memory her friends leaving her again, for the second time in 36 years. Imagine waking up next to a spouse who’d made that decision, no matter what the circumstances.
This is pretty much the core of Doctor Who. He’s a madman in a box, right? He’s an incompetent thief who stole a TARDIS that he’s not even 100% competent to operate and who has spent 2,000 years exploring and abandoning and generally destroying lives, often in the name of justice or the greater good. Viewed from far above, it looks like heroism. Looked at standing next to him, you have to know that if you became a liability, he would sacrifice you, and if he got a little moody about it, he’d just go out and get a new companion, eventually. The Girl Who Waited makes this subtext text, and that’s why it’s one of the new episodes I watch over and over again. Because it makes it clear: The Doctor is a monster.