Deep Thoughts & Pronouncements

One Thing About “Mr. Robot”

One "O" Away from EPIC

One “O” Away from EPIC

Mr. Robot, the first TV show USA Network has ever made that’s worth paying attention to (which is different from simply watching), has been making some waves–most recently because they postponed the finale due to the recent on-air shooting in Virginia.

I haven’t watched the whole season, but I’ve already formed an opinion about the show: It’s far from perfect, but in one specific way it’s the most interesting show on TV right now. No, not because of the nerdy computer stuff (which yes they get mostly right but JESUS do they hit that button hard; am I seriously to believe people actually say things like “Oh you’re running Gnome? I run KDE myself” in actual conversations?) but because it’s one of the only shows I’ve ever seen that does the Unreliable Narrator right.

Elliot, the main character, informs us (yes, us, the viewer) that we are a creation of his–an imaginary friend he’s created so he can talk to someone. He reaffirms this several times during the course of the show. In other words, the whole show is an exercise in breaking the Fourth Wall, and acting like the character is aware of our presence, watching him. Many things in the show are depicted from Elliot’s POV, and sometimes they’re a little off, a little weird.

There’s also the fact that the whole show, from the opening credits onward, is filmed like a 1970s horror movie. And that is also a good thing.

In addition, there are hints throughout that at least one of the characters Elliot interacts with isn’t actually real. Like I said, I’m not through watching the season yet, so this may turn out to be untrue, but it doesn’t matter. Because this show has so thoroughly nailed the Unreliable Narrator that I can’t be sure of anything that happens on it. And that’s pretty exciting, because the story is still compelling (enough) and well-written, so I also don’t care if it’s really happening.

Most shows and novels mishandle Unreliable Narrators, because they see them solely as a Twist Delivery Vehicle, and that’s because for most people Unreliable Narrators were invented by Chuck Palahniuk in Fight Club. Don’t get me wrong, Fight Club is a great book and film, but jebus, people, there are other uses for the Unreliable Narrator. For example: Unsettling your audience. Keeping them off-balance. Everything we’ve seen in Mr. Robot might actually be happening in-universe, and that won’t ruin anything. It’s not about the twist (if there is one), it’s about the artistry. My uncertainty about what’s happening on this show is pretty epic, and that is refreshing.

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Single-Serving Culture

Somery has nothing to do with Somers.

Somery has nothing to do with Somers.

It’s a funny old life, ain’t it? There was a time when I bought albums — old-school, long-form recordings with a bunch of songs. I often bought albums by bands I loved without having heard a single song from them. I’d buy older albums from before I discovered some band, and if they came out with a new one I’d buy it immediately.

I used to love the weird candy-like smell of a new cassette.

I bought new albums by AC/DC and NOFX the moment I could, excited to hear what they had for me.

Sure, sometimes I’d be a little disappointed. I’d discover half an album was just complete bullshit. Or I’d realize I’d paid $5.99 or whatever for an album that was thirty minutes and eight songs long, four of which I didn’t care for. But usually if I bought an album blind there was a reason for it. And sometimes I’d be blown away by the unknown. I bought Exile in Guyville based solely on what I’d heard about it, and was instantly — and more or less permanently — glad I did.

Those were the days. This week I purchased The Most Lamentable Tragedy by Titus Andronicus and realized it was the first album I’d bought in a long, long time. Usually, I just buy single songs as I hear them, because I had that epiphany: Most of the albums I’ve bought over my lifetime were at least 20% filler, some as much as 80% filler. And when I converted my old analog collection to digital years ago, I shed a lot of albums, keeping just the songs I liked and actually listened to. My decision to buy the new TA album had everything to do with the first two songs they released from it: Dimed Out and Fatal Flaw are perfect songs, and it gave me a giddy moment of optimism. For that moment, I was fifteen again and my faith in the long-form was restored.

It’s a rare moment. Albums just seem unnecessary to me these days: If I like a three-minute song, why in the world would I buy nine more I’ve never heard? And if I end up liking all ten songs and overpaying for the album, it evens out on all the other songs I don’t waste money on, I figure.

Some will argue that albums are discrete works of art, and need to be listened to and experienced as intended: As a set, a collection, a sequence. Some albums are this, yes, and even then your mileage will vary. For every Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and there are still two songs on that one I skip every single time) there will be a Kilroy Was Here, an album I almost bought when I was seventeen because I was going through a strange Styx fascination. In other words, just because some musician thinks I ought to listen to their songs in a certain sequence doesn’t mean I give a shit.

So, it’s mainly single-serving songs for me. And it’s weird to realize that my listening and buying habits have changed so drastically over the years. Some of this is simply the freedom that new technology affords me: MP3s and digital platforms have made it possible to sample entire albums and decide ahead of time if you want to actually own every single track on the album. This is a superpower for someone my age; back in The Day the only way you got to sample an entire album was a) if a friend of yours already owned it or b) if a local record store had a listening station, or maybe c) if your library stocked albums to borrow. In other words, it wasn’t easy, and frankly if a friend owned the album and was willing to lend it I probably just dubbed it onto cassette anyway.

The Pale: An Avery Cates Story

The Pale: An Avery Cates Story

I am thinking about this, actually, because I’ve been writing these Avery Cates Digital Shorts. These short stories are all about 10- 15,000 words long, and will combine into a standalone novel eventually. But they’re also single-serving. In other words, while they tell an ongoing story about everyone’s favorite beat-up, aging future assassin, they’re also standalone. You can read them out of order and while you might miss some details or callbacks to the others, you’ll also get a distinct standalone arc in each one. So, like today’s music, you can wait to buy the whole complete book or just sample the stories that sound interesting.

Will it work? Define “work.” It’s a slightly different way of writing a book for me, but the end result will be an Avery Cates book. If some folks buy the first one, The Shattered Gears, and decide not to proceed, that’s too bad for me, but it’s great for the reader, because they got to spend one dollar and realize this is not their cup of tea, as opposed to eight dollars. And if they wind up buying each story as they come out, in the end they’ll spend as much as if they bought the book whole, so it’ll be a wash financially.

And in the meantime, I’m having fun writing like this, with a tighter focus on each individual section of the overall story. It’s a single-serving universe these days, after all. Why fight it?

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My Weird Childhood Creative Projects

WEIRDO

WEIRDO

I have always been that Weirdo Kid. You know him. There’s one in your kid’s class right now–or maybe it is your kid. I was always the kid who liked to be creative, who made up his own games and made shit up all the time. That kid who makes up complicated games and gets all the other kids in the neighborhood to play them, that kid who can be left alone in a room with a piece of string and remain calm and thoroughly entertained for hours. That kid that most parents assume is some sort of psychopath, and hurriedly tug their own children away from. That was me. (And yet, I was adorable, see photo).

In the pre-digital world of the 1970s and 1980s that I grew up in (I didn’t have a personal computer until I was 12 years old) that sort of creativity took some pretty strange forms. Whereas today I would likely have spent my teenage years making Youtube Videos, Vines, and self-publishing novels, back in 1970s/1980s Jersey City I had none of these things, so my brother and I got, er, creative. Unlike that vocabulary choice. Sometimes our creative outlets were a tad on the strange side.

Since I have no dignity to speak of, why not discuss these strange creative endeavors? WHY NOT.

The Star Wars Photos

My brother and I were late to the Star Wars game; I think the first movie had been out for about a year before we saw it. But once we saw it, we fell hard. We bought tons of the figures and other toys, and like a lot of kids we played with those action figures and made up our own stories. Unlike most other kids, we also created several complicated stories using our mother’s camera: We would set up dioramas using the action figures (say, Stormtroopers surrounding Luke and Han with the Millennium Falcon in the background out in our backyard, standing in for a strange forest planet where the dead leaves were man-sized), take a photo, and then assemble our photos on pieces of paper with captions explaining the stories. We’d draw lasers and other special effects directly on the photos with markers. The one weak link? Sometimes Mom would take weeks to get the film developed–because back in those days it was either Polaroids, or developed film.

These stories got to be pretty complex and involved, actually, and often involved dozens of photos, each one meticulously staged and photographed. The only people who ever saw them, of course, were our parents, who could not have been less interested.

The Paper Plate Theater

This one’s weird; I can’t even reliably tell you where we got the idea, though a school project is a very good possibility. The way it works was: You take a standard paper plate and you cut a square in it towards the edge (but leaving the edge intact. Then you put plate #1 on top of plate #2 and trace the square onto the blank plate. Repeat all around, so you have like a dozen or more small boxes on plate #2.

Now, go in and draw a story in the boxes, starting at the top and going around clockwise. Draw your characters and everything else, maybe some quick dialogue. When you’re done, you put plate #1 on top again so you can only see one box at a time, and use it sort of like a viewfinder, moving from box to box to see the story told in frames.

We made a lot of these for a while. Like, a lot. I recall our mother buying whole packs of paper plates just to feed the monumental production of these stories. Yeah, I know it’s weird. Shut up.

The Chipmunk Tapes

Perhaps the strangest project though was my brother and I making Chipmunk Tapes.

You know the Chipmunks: Alvin and Theodore and the other one, and Dave. When we were kids we loved The Chipmunk Song every Christmas, and one year our uncle gave us a reel-to-reel tape recorder and we discovered that you could speed up or slow down playback manually. So my brother and I started making up little skits and recording ourselves, and then we’d play back the tapes super fast to create the chipmunk effect and record that onto a cassette.

Yes: Holy shit, it was kind of batshit.

Still, we were little kids and we had a blast writing scripts and making jokes that were only funny because they wound up sounding like a bunch of prepubescent squirrels were delivering them. Or at least we thought they were funny.

These days all I do is write stories and record music no one wants to hear, which now seems kind of lame and boring, don’t you think? I doubt there are many of these examples left in the old Somers Manse, but someday I might look for them, and if they turn up I’ll post some samples, because my humiliation is not complete.

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Need to Explain “Show Don’t Tell”? Watch True Detective Season 2

We also get the TV show we deserve.

We also get the TV show we deserve.

So, True Detective season 2 has ended, and bow howdy it wasn’t very good. There are of course plenty of bad TV shows every year and few of them rate the amount of attention that TD2: The Failuring has gotten; this is largely a result of the outsize praise season 1 received, of course. After “Time is a flat circle” briefly made up 90% of all Internet traffic, the second season was doomed to disappoint. It’s just the scale of the disappointment that’s surprising.

Because True Detective season 2 is complicated. It was terrible, don’t get me wrong, but also prestige television. It was pretty poorly written, but also delivered at least a handful of well-written lines. The acting was all over the place, and the direction was lackluster, and the plot overly complex with a weak payoff, but there were still tantalizing moments when it seemed poised to transcend these issues and become, if not great, at least watchable.

Ultimately the problem was a simple one, a fundamental one, a problem all writers struggle with: How do you handle showing and telling? And how do you ensure you earn your characters’ fates? That’s where TD2: Electric Mustache Review went wrong. It told. It told everything in an effort to be cagey, and it told it badly.

Vince in the Basement

Vince Vaughn’s character Frank Semyon is the perfect ur-example here. In an early episode, Frank had a soliloquy about his father locking him in the basement as punishment and then getting drunk and arrested, leaving little Frank to fend off rats in the dark for several days, starving. Vaughn delivers the speech with a blank-faced lack of affect that might have been poor acting or might have been batshit direction, but either way the speech lands flat because it’s all Tell and no Show. People think Telling is when you write something like

FRANK: I am a broken man because my father was a drunk who abused me.

But the fact is, Telling isn’t so much about declarative statements that are better left for the reader/viewer to figure out on their own. It’s about subtlety. It’s about understanding how real human beings act and speak. Who in the world lies in bed with their partner in the morning, staring up at water stains in the ceiling, and tells a five minute story about being locked in a basement by their father for no other reason than to let the invisible audience know these crucial details about themselves?

It’s also Telling (and bad writing) because it’s meant to stand alone. We learn very, very little about Frank (or the other characters) over the course of the show, but specific events in their past are supposed to stand in for actual knowledge. Frank and his basement story. Ani and her rage and her knives and her promiscuity. Ray and his wife’s rape and the murder of her supposed rapist. Paul and his closeted homosexuality and his time with the military contractors. We never really get much else about these people: These single events define them absolutely (and are often only vaguely outlined — we know Paul is troubled by his experiences “in the desert,” but we have no idea why or what he did). Frank’s basement story is Telling because it is supposed to be everything we need to know about Frank: He was locked in a basement and fought off rats in the dark, and therefore he is Frank Semyon.

Yeah, it makes no sense. Telling is like that.

And then Frank’s death is like a cluster bomb of Telling. As he staggers through the desert, bleeding from a belly wound after a final betrayal, a few million in diamonds in his pockets and vultures literally following his trail of blood, it’s almost a great scene. Frank came alive a little in the final 2 episodes, and his reversion into a scrappy gangster who takes down his enemies and negotiates his way — almost — to freedom was kind of fun. And watching him refuse to give up, watching him force himself to stagger onward despite the clear odds, could have been affecting if his character had a little more development and backstory before this moment.

Instead, as if the show was fucking with us, it chooses instead to Tell us again, using the worst mechanics of any freshman-level writing workshop: The mysterious hallucinations with no context. We get his father, who has never been personified before in the show, abusing him in a generic way, his speech the sort of thing you’ll find in any  piece of crap about an abusive, one-note father. We get a group of black kids taunting him for being tall and white and gawky. We get a man Frank presumably killed over a debt, begging for his life. This all sketches out a potentially interesting story of how Frank Semyon went from terrified kid to small-time gangster, but it does so in the final five fucking minutes of the character’s story, in a rushed, awkward sequence that treated Frank like a hero, when he isn’t one. Instead of last-minute hallucinations, we could have gotten Frank’s backstory over the course of the season, instead of the endless stilted conversations about a land deal no one gave a shit about.What really hurts is that in the final moments of the scene, when Frank is dead and yet having a sort of Owl Creek Bridge moment, Vaughn stops limping and grimacing and for thirty seconds he turns on a Charm Ray so powerful you almost forgive him. Those thirty seconds as Frank realizes he’s dead are great, and it demonstrates the possibilities.

It demonstrates what they could have Showed us.

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My Day at #WDC15

Jeff's Il Duce Pose

Jeff’s Il Duce Pose

This year I was once again invited to give a seminar on plotting a novel at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference held in New York City at the rockin’ Roosevelt Hotel. Sure, I’m a cheap date because I live in New Jersey and thus can be booked for this conference for the cost of two drink tickets, but that’s actually kind of true no matter where your event is being held. Am I saying that you can have Jeff Somers giving a speech in your living room for the price of two free cocktails? Yes, I am saying that. But it better be top shelf. We will not tolerate any of that Early Times bullshit.

Anyway, I digress. I gave the same seminar I gave last year: Take Off Your Pants and Write: Pantsing Vs. Plotting a Novel. It’s all about plotting your story and the two main techniques most people naturally gravitate towards, and how you can get out of blocked situations by using a hybrid approach. It’s rather brilliant. I’m hilarious. I even wore pants!

Unlike last year, this year we will refer to the WDAC as The Year of Competence, because with the help and guidance of The Duchess I was pretty much an adult the entire time, which, as we all know, is unusual.

I Need a Stinkin' Badge

I Need a Stinkin’ Badge

JEFF’S TIMELINE OF COMPETENCE

6AM: I am actually awake, despite consuming a lot of whiskey and some wine over dinner the evening before. Yes, my way of prepping for a big day of public speaking is to drink heavily. What of it?

8AM: I am actually on a bus, showered, sober, and dressed like either a published author or a middle-aged schoolteacher, I’m not sure which. I actually had all of my props and a backup of the presentation on a thumb drive. I make a mental note to drink more, as it obviously helps me wake up early, clearheaded and organized.

8:45AM: I am actually at the hotel and have my badge and know where my seminar is being held. This is unprecedented. The year before, I was racing around this hotel like a maniac, wide-eyed and sweating freely.

8:55AM: The Duchess, concerned that I do not know how to make my Power Point Presentation appear on the screen, stomps to the laptop and starts touching things. The screen goes black. The Duchess turns away and resumes her seat and refuses to discuss what we should do next.

9AM: A nice technical person comes and fixes what The Duchess has wrought. She looks around and whistles nonchalantly.

9:01AM: I am actually giving my presentation, and it goes well. Last year I finished up with my prepared material 20 minutes into a 50-minute session, and had to soft-shoe, sing, and take questions for half an hour. This year almost none of that is necessary. Well, the soft-shoe isn’t strictly-speaking necessary, but I do it anyway, to thunderous applause.

10AM: After some gladhanding and chatting with attendees, we stalk my agent by following the scent of brimstone. I am hopeful that she will buy me alcoholic refreshments despite the time of day, but she is too clever for me: She leads us to the bar area, sits down and makes cryptic remarks about the state of my career, shouts HEY LOOK OVER THERE and when I turn back there is only a haze of purple smoke.

11AM: The Duchess and I go to lunch. I’m not sure whether managing to eat a burger and drink several beers without incident can be listed under my accomplishments for the day, as most people manage to feed themselves without trouble. But, as The Duchess is fond of saying, I am not most people.

NOON – 3PM: Lost time. I have no memory. I am still checking the news for mentions of a drunk white man taking off his pants somewhere.

3:00PM: We’re back at the hotel, and hit the bar, where I drink several whiskies while engaged in a war with a cloud of gnats who all intend to commit suicide in my drinks. After three of the little buggers die in my tumbler, I start drinking like I’m in prison, hunched over my glass and muttering and twitching. Or, you know, like usual. Yes, I drank it anyway. This is whiskey we’re talking about.

Jeff Merely Pawn in Game of Life

Jeff Merely Pawn in Game of Life

5:30PM: I am at my assigned spot in the ballroom for the cocktail reception-slash-book signing. Jacqueline Woodson is seated at the table next to me. Her line goes out the door. I have no line. I am sad.

But, because of this newfound competence, I stick it out and eventually my people find me. My people, I think, had their priorities straight: Getting to the bar first with their drink tickets so they could double-fist the booze as quickly as possible. I meet a few folks, sign some books, and have those curiously awkward conversations where you have to shout so much you’re hoarse. A few folks buy copies of We Are Not Good People and I fall asleep, and The Duchess carries me home.

So, here’s to a job: Done. Hopefully they invite me back next year so I can try the opposite approach: Total batshit incompetence. This would be for scientific purposes, of course, to see which approach works better.

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Unnecessary Thoughts on “Friday Night Lights”

TIM RIGGINS FOREVER

TIM RIGGINS FOREVER

So, about 10 years too late to the party, The Duchess and I binge-watched Friday Night Lights recently. And I do mean binge: We normally don’t tear through shows too quickly, but The Duchess became absolutely addicted to FNL and so it took about three weeks to watch 76 episodes. It’s also one of the rare shows that could make her declare “I hate this show” when it did something emotionally devastating, only to have her welcome it back moments later when it did something uplifting.

Friday Night Lights isn’t a perfect show, despite what some people might say. It had some seriously dubious plot developments (there is no need to speak of the murdered rapist) and it dropped more plot threads, never to be mentioned again, than your drunk grandma at a knitting contest (we must imagine that poor Santiago is still living with Buddy Garrity, possibly in a pit in his basement, putting lotion on its skin).

But what FNL did well, it did exceedingly well. There were few Big Moments; this was a show about normal-sized people without super powers just trying to find their way through modern small-town life. But when it came to Character Arcs and sketching out the lives of these people, it was nearly perfect. Let’s discuss two specific things that are representative of the show as a whole: Tim Riggins, and the Housing Market in Dillon, Texas.

The Housing Market in Dillon, Taxes

One of the simplest ways to define a character in a visual medium is to show where and how they live. Yet for most TV shows (and most films) there’s a tendency to go for Setting Porn instead of realism. The kids on Friends couldn’t afford those impossible large apartments, and the titular Broke Girls on that awful sitcom Two Broke Girls live in a huge apartment that people would pay top dollar for, rats and all.

But in FNL, where the characters lived was pegged very realistically to their socioeconomic status. Smash Williams, whose mother moved her family from a crime-ridden town nearby and can barely afford West Dillion, lives in what appear to be either public subsidized housing or very low-cost rentals. Vince Howard, living in poverty-stricken East Dillon, lives in similar lodgings with his drug-addled Mom. Matt Saracen, living with his grandmother while his father is in Iraq and his mother is elsewhere, lives in a sagging old house with a scrabbly front yard. The Riggins Brothers live in a run-down ranch house that had once been part of a new development.

Moving up a little, Coach Taylor and his dual-income family live in a nice enough home on a suburban-looking street, with a neat front yard, and the taylors feel safe enough to play pin-pong with the garage door open at all hours. But they’re just municipal employees; the house is tight on space and little things are broken or run down. They’re doing okay, but there are frequent dreams of larger places and frequent arguments about money.

Buddy Garrity, initially a successful car dealer, lives in a much larger and newer home. It’s not a mansion, but it’s much nicer than the Taylor home. And the McCoy’s, rich and moving to Dillon solely to get their talented quarterback son into the best high school football program around, do live in a mansion. The housing for every character is almost perfectly chosen. It tells you everything you need to know about their economic background, their social status (outside of football, of course, which has its own social pecking order the town respects), and how they live, all without one word of exposition of “As you know … ”

Tim Riggins

As played by Taylor Kitsch, the character of Tim Riggins initially seems like a poorly-acted jock asshole, the sort of athletically gifted handsome lad who coasts through everything and while not precisely mean–though he is, initially, selfish and callow–does a lot of damage solely by dint of not really caring about anyone else. This character could have been a sad cliché, but FNL approached character development in a very smart and measured way.

First of all, most of the true character development took place in the younger characters, the kids. The adults in the show had their tribulations and their moments of clarity, but by and large all the adults are the same people, basically, that they were at the start of the show (which only covers about 3 years of fictional time, after all). It makes sense that characters that start off anywhere from 15 to 18 years old would go through a lot and emerge on the other side changed people: That’s what happens when you’re in high school. Me, I’m 44 fucking years old. I am who I am.

Tim Riggins is handled with almost supernatural subtlety. In the beginning his best qualities are his absolute affection for his friends, and a brooding inability to complain. Over the course of the show the writers slowly move Tim, an inch at a time, from the entitled jock to an actual adult person, someone who sees his glory days as a past chapter in his life–but not with any bitterness. Tim, in the finale, is a man who still loves football, still loves Dillon, Texas, but sees clearly that winning the State Championship as “Big Tim Riggings” of the Dillon Panthers was just a great moment–a great moment that’s gone. He practically spends the last two seasons of the show advising people to put football in perspective, to value it and enjoy it, but to be prepared to leave it behind.

Tim’s depicted as a fundamentally good guy who slowly figures out that you don’t do good things and behave in a responsible or moral way because you’re rewarded for it–in fact, the show mined a lot of drama and humor out of the fact that Tim often did good deeds only to be punished for them–but rather because it’s the right thing to do. After being crushed underneath a litany of bad breaks–deadbeat father, idiot brother, continually assumed to be an amoral seducer of underage girls, and finally falsely confessing to a crime and spending some months in jail–Tim could easily have been depicted as a rage-filled asshole. Instead, he finds some peace in knowing exactly what he wants: A house he builds himself on the outskirts of Dillon, a job that pays the bills, his brother and his extended family.

That’s a character arc that’s almost a straight line in its subtlety, yet it’s a powerful moment, and it’s the reason the series chose to end on the image of Tim and his brother building that house. Tim Riggins was the whole point of the show, in a way: People suffer, people triumph, and in the end all you have is what you make for yourself.

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How I Conquered the Country, Grew Fat on the Blood of my Subjects, Tired of Absolute Power, Abdicated the Throne, and Returned to my Ancestral Home

The Nova I drove. Gumby was not present.

The Nova I drove. Gumby was not present.

This essay was written in 1994 and appeared in Volume 1, Issue 1 of The Inner Swine.

(Or, South Dakota and Back in a Few Short Days)

The trip cross-country is an icon of the American Experience, a dream which has lost none of its attraction with the aging of culture. The Unites States’ Interstate Highway system never fails to fascinate, the concept of going anywhere never fails to boggle the mind. You could fit Europe inside the U.S., and we can drive from one end to another, any time we want. I know it made me giddy. I suppose I had the same romantic vision most people have, just me and Jack Kerouac motoring down empty roads bathed in pure sunshine, eating local food and making new friends, laying the local girls and somehow burning my name into this cold land of ours. I guess I figured it would be like the end of that movie How I Got Into College, where the hero’s friend gets picked up by a group of gameshow hostesses driving around the country in a pink convertible with a U-haul attached full of unclaimed prizes. At some point, I thought, MTV would be secretly filming me for use in one of their videos.

And if not that, then I would have the sort of intense experience that bring about books, that bring about movie rights for the complex, moving tale of a young man finding himself in the heartland of America. I could entitle it Wild Country or Dark Roads or something like that and be hailed as the brooding new artist of the shadows, writing biting commentary about our fellow Americans while still managing an epiphany of wisdom, of sorts. I would come back a changed man, I thought: how could I not?

I’ll tell you how. Because there are more Bob’s Big Boys out there than local diners, because no one living out there gives a shit that you’re driving cross-country and finding yourself, because the cops are all pricks when your license plates aren’t local, because gas is too fucking expensive and the local girls don’t fuck the drifters prowling through like thinned wolves looking for a fire to lay down next to. Because the closest things to friends I made were two drunk guys named Todd and Marty who owned a Chevy Malibu with a rusted tailpipe and a trunk full of beer, because the closest thing to an epiphany of wisdom I managed was the realization that there is absolutely no reason to ever, ever enter Nebraska.

So, I suppose in a way I learned a great deal by attempting to drive cross country, since I now know better than to ever want to do it again.

(more…)

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Process and Plot

Walled_coverAs I mentioned last week, I’ll be returning to the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in August, once again giving a presentation called TAKE YOUR PANTS OFF AND WRITE! THE BENEFITS AND PITFALLS OF PANTSING VS. PLOTTING A NOVEL.As you might guess, the subject of the presentation will be plotting out novels, and the different approaches you can take to the problem. After all, it’s easy to come up with a clever premise. It’s much harder to create a story that doesn’t simply make sense, but keeps your reader guessing in a good way, surprising and challenging them but hanging together in the end.

I’m not a particularly experimental writer. For a while, in my youth, I thought I might be, and I played around with POV and narrative technique a little. Even today I’ll work in some little bits of experimentation from time to time, just to give myself a jolt of energy. For example,when I found myself missing Avery Cates and suddenly filled with ideas about a new set of stories set around that character, I could have just wrote a fucking novel or three and been done with it, as I usually do. Instead, I decided to try something new: I pieced it out.

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

I already had a stray short story on my hard drive starring Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears. It was the germ of my new ideas for the character, so I simply dusted it off, ran it through editing, and published it myself as a digital-only short. Threw it up on the online stores, and then set to work–writing more short stories. What I mean is, I took about three novels’ worth of story and carved it up into short segments, and began working on them individually. When I finished the second one, The Walled City, once again I ran it through the editing machine and published it, then began working on the next segment, which will be titled The Pale and will be out in a few months.

It might seem like a minor change in process, but it’s really kind of a big change, at least for me. I don’t usually outline my novels much before writing, but this time I plotted the whole sequence out first, one long story. Then I divided that story into three, and then I divided each book of the resulting trilogy into 4-6 sections. Instead of writing the whole story, I’m working on quick sections of it, getting it ship-shape, and then publishing it. The danger is, I can’t go back and change anything if I have an inspiration or realize I’ve plotted myself into a corner.

But the fun is, it’s a fast, dirty way of working that’s kind of exciting. If this was how I always wrote it would just be my process. But since it’s different, it’s exciting–and often that’s the key. You just have to shake things up, sometimes, to get the rusty plot gears turning. The big question, of course, is whether or not I’ll be able to finish all these connected stories and put out the complete novel versions. Gosh, that would be embarrassing.

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The Inexorable Sadness of Pencils

Jeff Needs Some Liquor Monies

Jeff Needs Some Liquor Monies

Y’know, fiction and films and TV shows are supposed to entertain. And also inform and expose us to ideas and lifestyles, but for a lot of people entertainment is primary, and that’s fine. As a result, a lot of the stuff we consume–even the dramas and tragedies–are more or less uplifting, in a way, even if only by allowing us to be smug for a moment. After all, you might be bored and unhappy in your life, but at least you weren’t diagnosed with terminal cancer which inspired you to start baking meth, becoming a monster-god that destroys your whole family.

Sometimes, a particular aspect of our entertainments bothers me: The depiction of work. As in, jobs and careers, not, y’know, barn-raising with the community. With a lot of exceptions, a huge swath of entertainments depict careers and jobs as incredibly positive and life-affirming: People on TV shows (especially TV shows) and films are often shown either loving their jobs, peacefully co-existing in their jobs, or seeing their lives changed for the better simply by getting a job.

And in real life that’s very often bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong: Jobs are necessary. And if you’re unemployed, getting a job is the most important thing in your life. And everyone should have a way of contributing to society, and for most of us that’s going to be a job: Performing meaningful labor in exchange for money which you then use to keep the economy’s plates spinning.

But, as someone who has worked jobs and who knows a lot of people who have jobs, I know one thing for sure: Jobs are much more frequently soul-killing boredom machines or even destructive stress factories than glorious life enhancements. Your job is much more like to suck than to be a wonderful place you can’t wait to get to, or even a more or less benign activity that fills your day and gives you beer money. And yet our entertainments constantly try to tell us otherwise.

Job as Adventure

You see this a lot in situation comedies, where a character who needs an arc winds up lusting after a career, and then gets a lot of A, B, and C plots depicting their struggle to get credentials, to netowrk, and finally get that job! And once they get that job, their lives change for the better. We could call this the Rachel Green Effect, from the Friends character. Rachel was a humorously aimless woman for much of the show, and in later seasons found her calling and pursued a career, and was therefore happy and fulfilled and mature.

Bullshit, of course, as anyone who actually has a job–much less gotten a job after being out of the corporate world for years, like Rachel was. Jobs suck. They eat up 8-12 hours of your day depending on your commute and other aspects, they force you to socialize with other people (shudder), and they put you under the thumb of other folks who may or may not be sociopaths or incompetents or boors. Yay job! Jobs erode your will to live and can ruin huge chunks of your life with misery.

Another trope in fictional careers is the Easy Button Job. The EBJ occurs when characters are given jobs that they are effortlessly and preternaturally skilled at and enjoy 100%. This is where it gets really awful, because characters with the EBJ are usually depicted as loving their career, and spending all their time on it because it’s just so goddamn enjoyable and fulfilling. They stay late, work weekends, are very successful and sought-after, and yet somehow also are usually depicted as having copious free time, lots of friends, and a lust for life.

Fuck that noise. Of course there are people in this world who “love what they do.” Of course there are people who work very hard and don’t mind and are rewarded as a result. That’s great. Most of us watch the clock until 5PM and then leap from our chairs with a song in our hearts, and when we’re on our deathbeds we will regret every moment we spent staring at a computer screen, selling our time off for pennies a minute.

Job as Salvation

And, of course, careers are frequently used as easy ways for troubled characters to find themselves, often with the implication that all anyone needs to settle down and start enjoying life is to get the right job. Or any job, for that matter. How do you know you’ve found the right job? Generally, you will be magically competent at it without any prior experience or training, and it will make you very happy and eager to leave behind your troubled past.

That first part, the ease with which fictional characters often pursue careers, is part of the entertainment factor, of course: No one wants to see Jimmy embark on his new career only to immediately become mired in training seminars, night school, and weeks, months, or perhaps years of being junior and shit on by the higher-ups. That’s understandable in a fictional work where the career is just a prop and not the point. But it’s still insane, because very few people decide out of nowhere to be, for example, salespeople and simply start killing it on day one. Most sitcoms present a white collar fantasy where you go from unemployed and possibly homeless or couch-surfing to working in a nice office almost instantly, and of course you’re always super excited about your new career.

Again, this is bullshit for most people, for whom a job is a way of not starving to death. Jobs can be stressful, boring, and restrictive–but even when they are interesting, fun, and exciting they’re still a matter of selling off your time for money, and I wish more TV shows and movies would address the fact that rather than being healing, transformative wonders that save souls, jobs suck.

The Illuminati Again

Of course, this is all part of the plan: Work is always celebrated in American culture, and no matter how hard you’re working you’re likely not working hard enough. We get very little vacation or other time off, yet the conversation is usually about people not working hard enough. Careers and work in general are celebrated as the solution to just about any problem. Depressed? A new career! Broke? A second job! It’s obviously beneficial to society as a whole that we all sell off our time in service of other people’s goals, and therefore a lot of media celebrates being a workaholic and devoting your life to your career, your job, the labor you’re doing for other people.

Your mileage may vary, of course. Some people do sincerely love their work. I love the work I do now–though it’s not a job, as I’m a freelance writer and author. When I did have jobs, I kinda sorta hated them. Admit it: So do you.

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Speaking @ The 2015 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference

Me Smart.

Me Smart, circa 2014.

As some of you may recall, I conducted a seminar on plotting a novel at last year’s Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, which was a smashing success. Or at least I was not chased from the building, pantsless and weeping, as so often happens when I am invited to things.

Welp, surprisingly, they invited me back to offer my insta-classic seminar Take Your Pants Off and Write! The Benefits and Pitfalls of Pantsing vs. Plotting a Novel once again.

http://www.writersdigestconference.com/index.php/schedule

What will you learn at this amazing seminar? Many things! I’ve written nearly 20 novels and published 9 of them for money, so I can obviously string fictional events together into a story. If you’re struggling with that aspect of your writing, I’ll be exploring the two main plotting processes writers use (pantsing vs. plotting), the advantages of each, and how they can be combined into something I have dubbed plantsing.

You will also learn how sweaty a grown man can become in public, how often his wife interrupts him so she can “tell the story right,” and how many times he can mention the fact that he’s published nine novels. Also, I’ll be lingering around the rest of the day, lurking on the edges of the events until the cocktail reception, at which time the pants come off and my inner John Belushi comes out.

Pass this on to anyone looking to improve their writing! Or anyone who wants to insult me in person.

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