Bullshit

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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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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We Are not Good People & WDAC

This year at the 2015 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference, I’ll not only be offering up my presentation on plotting a novel (which was really well-received last year and which will be 150% more awesome this year because I plan to be sober this time) I’ll also be attending the cocktail reception and signing copies of We Are Not Good People (the plotting of which I discussed last year in a WDAC-related post). It’s my understanding that the conference is sold out, so this isn’t really me drumming up attendance (and yes, I fully expect to be sitting there alone, nursing a drink and weeping when absolutely no one buys my book to get signed).

If you’ve read WANGP, then you know the ending sort of folds back on the story, and the ending has been a divisive aspect of the story for some. It was very deliberate, though; Despite the fact that the whole book was more or less pantsed (that is, made up as I went, as opposed to being planned out) I did have the ending in mind as I wrote. As the story progressed, it became clearer and clearer to me that this was the only way the story could end.

One of the hardest things to come to terms with as a writer isn’t the people who think your works sucks and that you’re a terrible writer–every author will have those folks, and what can you do? No, it’s the people who love your work but hate one thing vehemently. When people tell me they loved We Are Not Good People but hate the ending, it’s difficult, because you feel like you disappointed Your People. These aren’t haters, they’re fans, and so their feelings about your work matter a lot more than the people who think you’re a Pantsless Wonder.

While writing this book, though, it slowly dawned on me that the whole point was really the friendship between the main character, Lem, and his nonsexual life partner Pitr Mags. This was a bromance, really, and Lem has nothing without his friend. As that friendship loomed larger and larger I realized, in the end, that Lem would do anything to save that friend–and thus that friendship. At a certain point, there was really only one way it could end. Sometimes plotting is like that: There’s only one possible ending, whether other people get it or not.

I’ll be talking about WANGP a bit during my Writer’s Digest presentation, and I’ll be ready to sign copies. Or sit there getting soused and muttering obscenities at people, whichever.

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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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“Orphan Black” Has a Villain Decay Problem

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

Somehow made all cute and hilarious this past season.

That Orphan Black, the SF show about a woman who discovers she’s one of many, many clones produced by a secret and unethical experiment, has over the course of three seasons become almost insufferably complicated. What was once a fairly crisp story about a woman struggling to save herself and her child while dealing with the horrifying realization that she’s a clone has spiralled into territory familiar with anyone who has watched TV shows based on a “mystery” premise: The audience wants answers, but if you actually give them the show is over, so you pull a trick wherein you explain a mystery while setting a new one in motion.

This can work for a while, if you’re skillful, and Orphan Black, in fact, seemed to pull it off in its second season, expanding the world and complicating the mystery while delivering a continuously interesting story week in and week out. This past year, though, things have come off the rails a bit. There are still pleasures to be had, mainly in Tatiana Maslany’s incredible performances, but the story itself is slow-moving hogwash, to use a technical term. The main problem is that Orphan Black hasn’t met a villain it can’t destroy in a few quick episodes. In fact, the show has had so many it’s solution to the malaise at the end of the last season was to circle back and recycle a villain from the first season.

Villain Decay

In the beginning, there were the Neoloutinists, a cult that believed in “self-directed evolution” who backed the cloning experiment and sought to control the clones, manipulating their lives and monitoring them. There was also a religious cult that saw the clones as abominations, and trained one of the clones to be an unstoppable killing machine, Helena, who was basically a serial killer of clones.

But the clones managed to turn the tables on the Neolutionists, maneuvering one of their allies into a position of authority at the institute set up to monitor the clones and removing the evil clone who’d been working with the Neolutioninsts. Also, Helena, once depicted as a crazy and incredibly dangerous person, was turned into a cuddly if sometimes murderous piece of comic relief as she became affectionate towards her clone sestras. So a new threat was devised: A separate military project involving male clones, which caused a bit of trouble until, again, the female clones managed to completely neuter it and render it impotent. And so, in the third season finale, the show surveyed its field of limp and defeated villains and came up with the idea that the Neolutionists, seemingly defeated for a very long time, were actually embedded in all of these other organizations and running the whole show secretly.

Much of this seems to have been done in the service of surprise: Build up someone as a Big Bad, then shock everyone when they are defeated much sooner than expected. This kind of writing gimmick is like crack: It feels good, but has diminishing returns and leads to your show being canceled.

The problem here is twofold: One, it’s hard to take these villains seriously when all it takes, usually, is a few episodes for them to either be utterly destroyed or brought over as allies; two, the new villains are always just permutations on the conspiracy the clones have been fighting against since Day One. They’re nothing new, just new versions of the same enemy.

A Glimmer of Hope

It’s possible that the bloodbath that was the Season 3 finale was a purposeful clearing of the decks, bringing back the original villains who will now be coherent and focussed. Instead of more and more variations on the “someone is secretly making and modifying or killing or spying on clones!” riff, we might get a real purpose to everything, and perhaps a single face for the enemy. That would go a long way to excusing Season 3’s disastroys meandering. Only time will tell.

The TL;DR version for writers is simple: When you’ve got a mystery-driven storyline, do two things immediately: a) have an exit strategy that involves and overall explanation for everything, and b) don’t give in to the temptation to destroy your villains on the regular just for the story shock value.

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Win a PRINT Copy of “The Walled City”

Walled_coverIf you’re a fan of Avery Cates, you already know, most likely, that The Walled City, a short story that picks up where the previous story, The Shattered Gears, left off came out last week on Amazon, Nook, Google Play, and Kobo–in short, as a digital-only story.

Well, if you’d like to actually have a print copy of this story, I’m giving away two. Just two–signed any way you’d like, and mailed directly to your door.

How do you get you mitts on one? Just comment here, and I’ll pick two random comments. I’ll announce the winners on Friday, June 26th.

Get commentin’!

OR, buy a digital copy for yourself:

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I Was a Teenage Script Kiddie

For a brief, glorious moment, I was King of the Nerds.

For a brief, glorious moment, I was King of the Nerds.

When I was eleven years old, my parents bought me a Commodore 64, which at the time was the most amazing thing ever invented, built, or sold retail. It was also kind of pricey for my family, and I have no doubt they justified the expense by telling themselves it would help inspire me to become a computer programmer and thus be rich.

That never happened: Math is hard. Let it drift.

However, they hedged on the budget by opting to buy just the computer itself, with no storage device. That meant that I was limited to what I could do with the computer – I could type in a program, but with no way to save it the moment I turned off the computer it disappeared. After spending weeks typing in a program listed in a Commodore magazine, I successfully lobbied for a storage option, but we went for the cheapest option: Magnetic tape.

Tape worked, but it was slooooowwww. I had one game: Telengard, and it took about five minutes to be read in from tape. This was not a game that actually deserved five minutes of my time for loading, but it was all I had. And at least I had a place to store programs and other things, although if I’d been stuck with that tape drive I would likely have gotten very, very tired of my Commodore 64 very quickly.

Thankfully, we got robbed.

A No Good, Very Bad Day

My grandmother came to live with us when I was maybe ten or eleven; my memory, as always, is vague. Nanny was strict and somewhat mean-spirited, or so it seemed to us kids; she was always grousing that we were lazy and messy. Later in life she went through a bizarre period when she claimed to be unable to swallow food, and wasted away to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed despite the fact that doctors could find nothing wrong with her, at which point my Mother apparently went in, close the door, and told her she would be put in a nursing facility if this bullshit didn’t stop.

Nanny got better.

Anyways, when she did eventually pass away, we went to the funeral only to come home and discover our house had been robbed; thieves had obviously scanned the obituaries and noted the date of the funeral. Our neighbors had noticed the busted window but done nothing but stand around and cluck nervously, so it was up to us to call the cops.

The house was a mess. Drawers had been turned out, everything pushed out of place. They took some jewelry that wasn’t worth much, missed all the cash my mother had hidden around the house, and stole the Commodore 64.

My parents, exhibiting a crafty sort of self-serve justice I’d never seen before and never did see again in them, listed a disk drive on the insurance claim form instead of a tape drive. It was a little shocking, to be honest with you, to see them indulge in some minor insurance fraud. But I got my 1541 single 5.25” disk drive to go along with a new C64, and I was off to the races.

Floppies

The 5.25” floppy disk was an amazing thing. It stored 170 kilobytes of data, but you could cut a notch into the side that would allow you to flip it over and so each disk was instantly doubled, although this did increase the wear and tear a bit.

A few weeks after getting one, a kid at school introduced me to a program called Copy Quick. This was an amazing moment, because it opened up the world of software piracy. From that moment on, I never bought another program, because there were kids at school to trade with. Want a copy of Beach Head? Go find Hector and offer him a copy of Blue Max for it. Get turned down, because no one wanted Blue Max.

It was a whole subculture. We all had lists of the software we owned and we would pore over them and cook up trades like real wheeler-dealers. When someone got their hands on a hot or rare program, it was chaos and excitement as everyone tried to pry it out of their undeserving hands.

None of us thought it was wrong, or illegal. None of us really understood any of it, either. We were early versions of what you might call Script Kiddies: The kids who don’t actually know much about programming but download software and use it. I had no idea how my 1541 disk drive worked. All I knew was that if I wanted to copy a game, I would try a succession of copy programs until I found one that worked: Copy Quick, Fast Hack’Em, dozens of others. They were themselves copied.

By the end of grammar school, I had thousands of games and utilities on floppies. And despite lots of reports that the 1541 disk drive was unreliable, mine worked like a charm and may still be in working condition today, who knows? I still don’t know how any of it actually works, really, despite sporadic attempts to read about programming and hardware and teach myself a few things. But I do sometimes wish I could play some of those old games on the original hardware, especially the mysterious games I never figured out.

Non Comprendo, Compadre

You see, when you copied a game (often from a copy of a copy already) you didn’t get the manuals, and every now and then I got a game in a trade that I simply couldn’t figure out. It would load and appear to work properly, but I would have no idea what to do, what the rules were, how the controls worked. Sometimes you could figure it out. Sometimes my innate idiocy and lack of brains would assert themselves, and the game would remain a mysterious presence, ominous and filled with potential. Combined with the Internet, I could look up those games and totally rock them today.

If I ever invent time travel, that is exactly what I’ll do.

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The Walled City Available

Walled_coverHey all: The new Avery Cates short story, “The Walled City,” is officially available. If you didn’t pre-order it, you can straight-up buy it any time you want, like a boss — even on Nook, which didn’t allow pre-orders for some bizarre reason.

Continuing Avery Cates’ story from “The Shattered Gears,” “The Walled City” sees the aging Gunner tangle with a psionic who has set himself up as a City Lord in the crumbling remnants of civilization.

Here: read an excerpt!

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The Power of a Classic Lack of Choice

Visual Representation of Most People's MySpace Pages.

Visual Representation of Most People’s MySpace Pages.

MANY BOTHANS DIED TO BRING US THIS INFORMATION: So, over at US Weekly (don’t ask how I came across this) they did a little piece on Kim Kardashian’s old MySpace account. You can Us Weekly on KK’s MySpace Monstrosity, and view the pink horror of Princess Kimberly and her 856 MySpace friends. This was in 2006, two years before Facebook arrived on the scene, so people can be forgiven for having a MySpace page. However, I think there’s a lesson here for writing and writers — no, seriously, wait, where are you going? Come back!

So, here’s the thing: Forget Kim Kardashian, just look at that hot mess of a page. Then compare it to Facebook. On the one hand, MySpace should have been the more popular. People can customize their pages, changing colors, adding graphics and music. Facebook is like the Dystopian government of social media: You get one shade of blue and one shade of white and fuck you if you don’t want to see promoted shit. And yet, Facebook is dominant and MySpace … well, people are generally confused to discover that MySpace still exists.

The lesson here for writers is: When it comes to worldbuilding, classic and clean is usually better.

See, back in 2006 you might have been forgiven for assuming that the world of social media and online profiles et al would go the way of MySpace: Increasing customization, increasing personalization. People had some hideous, hideous and horrific (but very personal) MySpace pages back in the day. Don’t believe me, just Google “ugly MySpace pages” and see them in their eye-straining glory. But if you were trying to imagine the kids using the intrawebs back in 2006, or trying to envision what the Super Internet of the future in 2015 would look like back in 2006, you might have used MySpace as a jumping off point and imagined a world where everyone had complete and awful control over the aesthetics of their social media.

Instead, of course, Facebook came along. Like a stern older executive at your company, they don’t allow customization, really. Everyone gets exactly one shade of blue, limited control over what they see and who sees what they post, and generally a uniform and bland visual experience. And people love it. Or at least like it better than the nightmarish universe that was MySpace.

The Lesson

So, the lesson: Be careful when imagining where the world will be — and also when cherry-picking the details you use to establish time and place when your story is set in the present. If you published a novel in 2006 that went on and on about someone’s MySpace page, then welcome to that awkward moment when everyone in the universe will have a moment of eyebrow-raising disruption when they come across this nugget in your story.

Now, we all get things wrong, sometimes. And heck — you might use Facebook in a story today, feeling fairly confident that its 7-year reign of terror over us all will go on forever. But like Kubrick’s use of Pan Am in 2001: A Space Odyssey, even the most established and seemingly rock-solid organizations and corporations can fall, leaving your work sadly dated. This would argue for limiting such references as much as possible. After all, your reference to Facebook might lend your scene a verisimilitude today, and make it feel ancient and outdated three years from now. Keep it classic and clean — which means concentrating more on what your characters are doing rather than the corporate channels they’re using.

And, in case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t have a MySpace page. I actually thought I was too good for social media until 2010 or so, which might explain why I’m so unpopular.

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On Reading Everything

Holy shit this book is awful

Holy shit this book is awful

So, as many may have noticed, I’ve been doing a lot of writing about books lately over at Jeff Bloviating at Barnes and Noble and Jeff Bloviating at About.com. It’s a lot of fun, and since I am one of those people who lives in constant danger of being buried under his immense piles of books that he keeps around his house like some sort of over-educated hoarder, it’s a perfect fit. But it’s also a job, so I am often expected or encouraged to read outside my normal taste, including some things I frankly would not choose to read of my own free will. And you know what? It’s been fantastic.

Here’s the thing: Most books have something to offer. I really do believe that — even the books cynically created by marketing divisions to absorb cash from gullible morons, even those books have something in them that you haven’t seen before, or, if nothing else, are edifying in their sheer monstrous evil hollowness. Reading widely doesn’t mean reading an occasional book you haven’t heard of. It means reading shit you would rather walk on glass than read. It means reading shit by political commentators and authors who resemble corporations with divisions pushing novels out of the corporate colon several times a year and reading immensely popular phenomenon novels that appear to have been written by a drunk superfan of other overwrought phenomenon novels.

It means reading everything.

Not all this stuff is good, of course, but it’s all interesting if you find the right angle. And I’ve found myself reading a few books that I would never have otherwise read that turned out to be awesome and incredibly enjoyable books, and as long as that rate hovers somewhere above 0%, I’m pretty much winning.

The Rut

I’m a man of ruts and habits, deep, deep habits that tend to get ossified over time.If left to my own devices I would be reading nothing but classic novels, old science fiction, and old-school detective fiction, repeated endlessly. If I were to design an experiment to encourage me to read more widely, I might create something like this: One third paid assignments, one third rando recommendations from people, one third drunk shopping on BN.com. Maybe a bit more of the latter, depending on how drunk I am that week. Which, judging from past weeks, is typically pretty drunk.

Anything that breaks me out of my usual routines is a good thing. And reading everything — including some hair-raisingly bad books — and then figuring out a way to comment on those books intelligently (or so I kid myself) has been a blast, and will likely continue to be a blast. Some people act like reading a book they know is outside their wheelhouse and is also probably pretty badly written will somehow infect them and ruin their palette for good books. That’s ridiculous. Read the bad books. Think of something smart to say about them. It’s good for you.

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