Bullshit

How to Annoy Your Agent

Your Anti-Monkey Rhetoric Makes Me Sad.

Your Anti-Monkey Rhetoric Makes Me Sad.

When you’re a young writer seeking an agent, you always think getting an agent will be like it is in the movies: They’ll buy you an expensive lunch and then start sending you plenty of contracts. In other words, we all think getting an agent is pretty much the same as becoming rich and famous. And then you get an agent and you discover what it really means is there’s someone to tell you how incredibly annoying you are, and that if you weren’t such a genius writer they would certainly have a restraining order against you.

This past week I tortured my lovely agent excessively with a series of oddball contracts, opportunities, and mysterious contacts from mysterious people. I had the following conversation with her at least three times:

<phone rings>

ME: Hello I am required by court order to inform you that I am not wearing pants.

AGENT: What in the sweet sainted hell is this?

ME: A short story contract.

AGENT: Who wrote it? Monkeys? DID MONKEYS WRITE THIS CONTRACT?

ME: Uh —

AGENT: IS THIS A JOKE? ARE YOU PRANKING ME? I Swear if you are pranking me I will have you killed.

ME: Uh — No prank. Is it okay to sign?

AGENT: Jebus. Yes, I’ll mark a few changes and you can sign it. Tell whoever wrote this contract they should plan carefully to never meet me in a dark alley.

And so on.

I did earn the ultimate compliment from my agent, though, when I sent her something on Saturday night around 10PM and happened to catch her still checking email (and a version of the conversation above did in fact occur), when she said “You really do provide the most entertainment of any client I have.”

Frankly, if I make you swear and then tell me I’m entertaining in the same breath, I figure I am doing my job as a writer. Right? This is why you need an agent: A lot of people out there think they know how to write a contract, or how to run a magazine or publisher, or how to do, well, anything. As a writer I have realized that the ONLY thing I know how to do competently is write (and believe me, there is a long string of Day Jobs where world-weary bosses will back me up on that). There have been plenty of contracts large and small that I would have signed without hesitation, only to pause when I spied the rictus of horror my agent’s face had taken on.

Am I saying that without my agent by now I’d have signed a contract written by monkeys and would be, in fact, working for Monkey Overlords and being paid in abuse and grooming sessions? That is exactly what I’m saying.

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Rejection Letters, I’ve Had a Few

SO, every weekend I sit here hungover and desiccated and try to think of something to write about on this blog that will make me feel like a Real Writer, entertain y’all, and possibly win me some sort of obscure blog award (do they still do that?). So I try to think about my few skills, which is always depressing. Aside from the ability to drink heavily (right up until the moment I lose that ability) and a certain skill in manipulating remote controls, I have disturbingly few talents. Oh, sure, the whole writing thing. So let’s amend that sentence to read “disturbingly few remunerative talents.”

And then it hit me: I do have one skill: The ability to collect rejection letters. I sent out my first fiction submission when I was 11 years old, and since then I’ve collected tons. Tons! of rejections.

These days they are largely electronic, of course, but I am so old I actually have a stack of rejection letters that I keep like the proverbial slave whispering in Caesar’s ear during the Triumph. So I thought, let’s examine some of these. It can be fun to humiliate yourself by exploring your failures. We’re starting off with this gem from the late 1980s.

WHAT'S MY NAME, BAEN?

WHAT’S MY NAME, BAEN?

SO: Cravenhold was an awful fantasy novel I wrote when I was about 14. It was inspired a bit by The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and I took from that series the idea of a person from our universe being transported to a fantasy universe where he had immense power but very little understanding of it or how it worked.

It’s not good. Still, because at the age of 14 I hadn’t yet realized that “good” is generally a requirement for manuscripts, I submitted it. Also, I had no idea that different publishing companies had different styles or flavors, and Baen was almost certainly not a good fit for my work.

Now, back in those days submitting a manuscript was a damn job, kids. I had to photocopy 360 pages of typewritten work, smeared with white-out (or, more accurately, pester my father to bring it into work and photocopy it for me) then type out a cover letter where I bragged about being 14, then stuff it with an SASE into a manilla envelope, then take it to the post office.

So, you can imagine my adolescent outrage when they sent back a flimsy form letter without even bothering to make a note of any kind to indicate that my manuscript was not immediately fed into a machine that turns manuscripts into dark black cubes that are then used to build more machines that in turn transform manuscripts into dark black cubes, and so on. Today, of course, I can only imagine the hilarity that ensued when Baen received a novel from a bragging 14-year old that contained as much awful writing and borrowed ideas as Cravenhold, and so I now think I got off easy.

The form letter rejection, of course, lives on, and I’ll admit that even today I am more surprised when places I submit (on my own, typically magazines) don’t use a form rejection, because I totally believe the line about how they have so many stories competing for attention, yada yada. So when I get a “Dear Jeff” and a line about the story itself, I am generally made very happy.

I’ll be posting more exciting moments of Fail from my literary life as we go. Because all y’all seem to really enjoy it when I fail. <bursts into tears>

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I’m Naked and I’m Far From Home: Save Me (In Video Games)

It's a purty game.

It’s a purty game.

FRIENDS, sometimes I try to elevate this blog and write about something serious, like writing or social issues. Well, I tried that once, at least. The rest of the time this blog is incoherent and spastic as I try to promote myself, crack jokes, and look smart all at once, with a typical outcome being a lot of people digitally shaking their heads and virtually tsking me as I lay sprawled on their monitors, humiliated.

So, today we’re not even trying. I’m going to go into Natural Somers Mode and simply complain. It’s what my people were bred to do. And what I will complain about is painfully prosaic and a very First World Problem and I do not care! I will complain because it is my birthright. And what I choose to complain about is the checkpoint save system in video games like Bioshock Infinite.

Slow and Dimwitted

Three things you need to know about me before we proceed: I am cheap. I possess almost no hand-eye coordination or reflexes. I am lazy. Anyone who has spent time with me knows the first. Anyone who played with me in Little League when I was a kid knows the second. And anyone who … well, actually, everyone in the world knows about the last one.

This carries into video games. I have a pretty narrow love for First Person Shooter games, and I’m terrible at them like I am terrible at everything that requires quick-thinking and lightning-fast reflexes. Let’s just say in the event of Zombie Apocalypse, I should not be your first draft into your Zombie Defense Team. Leave me to the second or third round, after your best people have been eaten.

I recall a looooonggggg time ago when people could reasonably say they spent a weekend playing Unreal Tournament, my friend Ken set up Unreal Tournament at his office, where his LAN made it easy (this was before Internet multiplayer was really a thing). Our friend Jeof and I came by, we sat in separate offices, and spent the day trying to murder each other, virtually. And I camped the whole day. I found a hidden spot just over a tunnel junction, and sat there, and every time Ken or Jeof walked past I shot them in the head. After a while they banded together to hunt down my hiding spot, and then for me the war was over. That’s how I play video games.

Also: I cheat.

This is not because I don’t believe in the rules of polite society. This is because if I didn’t cheat, gaming wouldn’t be any fun for me. I don’t play multiplayer, so when I say I cheat, I mean use cheats to do things like live forever, have endless ammunition, and walk through walls, so my lack of skills doesn’t turn the game into something frustrating. Frankly, I just enjoy playing god. I am immortal, I know all, and I can do anything. It’s fun!

Also: I save my game constantly.

Saving my game with the press of a button: If you don’t play video games you might not understand how crucial this is for sanity. This way, in case I am not cheating, if I die a spectacular death by zigging when I should have zagged, I can jump right back to where I left off. Or if I screw up by missing something I can’t easily go back to. Or if I miss a cool extra bit. Basically, by saving constantly, I can explore, roam, and enjoy the universe that’s been created for me – and that I paid for – with impunity, at my pace.

Some might say this is not really playing the game, that if I can’t manage to gun down mine enemies and manage my own ammunition, I shouldn’t complain. These people can go fuck themselves, of course.

So, Bioshock Infinite

Yes, so, I bought a game recently on Steam called Bioshock Infinite, which is the third Bioshock game. Played the first one, enjoyed it. Skipped the second, never regretted it. But it was $13 on Steam along with some extras, so that seemed about right. Game looks gorgeous. Interesting intro sequences. But it has what is called a Checkpoint save system. Basically, the game automatically saves your progress at certain points in the game and you have no input into when or where. Likely it’s because the game was developed for the consoles (XBox, etc.). There are also no cheat codes, as far as I can tell. So, yes, the game is ruined.

Checkpoint saves are the worst idea ever in the history of ideas, right ahead of National Socialism and formal wear. They force you to maddeningly repeat areas of the game over and over. Scenario, for example: You’re weak and barely survive your last encounter. So you scour the area for supplies to gain health and ammo. Then you solve a puzzle. Then you step into a firefight, get chewed up, and die. And then … you have to start over twenty minutes ago, and repeat. all. the. same. actions.

Come to think of it, Bioshock Infinite can go fuck itself, too.

Game as Novel

See, increasingly, video games are narrative. Bioshock and its sequels all have fairly intricate stories, complete with characters and twists. More importantly, their universes are extremely detailed and expansive. You can wander around them and investigate instead of simply murdering everything that moves (although, hey, that’s fun too). In fact, many games actually reward the wandering.

And for me, that’s part of the fun of cheating and saving my game constantly: The freedom to just wander and experience this world the way I want to. It’s like when you buy a new book and read the last page, or flip around and read it out of order. You read it the way you want to. A Checkpoint Save system is like buying a book that’s somehow programmed to force you to read it one sentence at a time – and if you close the book before a certain point, you have to go back and re-read that section again.

So, to recap: I have no reflexes, I’m a cheater, and Checkpoint save systems were somehow important enough for me to write 1,000 words about them today. I’m gonna put this one in the WIN column and go have a drink.

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With Age, Wisdom: Advertising No Longer Mesmerizes Me

This blog post is as lousy as it is brilliant.

This blog post is as lousy as it is brilliant.

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

THERE is an infamous incident: About 20 years ago, give or take, I was sitting in a living room with TIS Staff Artist Jeof Vita watching television. This despite Jeof’s dangerous and horrifying levels of unacceptable odor, which shall be the subject of another article altogether someday when the restraining orders expire.

Anyway.

This is not the story of Unacceptable Odors. This is the story of our Taco Bell experience.

I’d never been to Taco Bell before, which is strange. By that time of my life (carefree, single, and with a liver that wasn’t the size of a football) I’d been to most of your standard fast-food establishments, this being before I learned to love and respect myself. I haven’t actually had a meal at a fast food restaurant in probably a decade now, I don’t think; maybe I’m forgetting something, but at any rate it’s certainly not a common occurrence. Back then, though, I loved that shit. I also loved Olympia beer and any kind of hard liquor found lying around, so that tells you all you need to know about my level of taste and life experience, bubba.

Anyways, we were watching TV, just farting away an evening, when an ad for Taco Bell came on. This might have been back during the ¡Yo quiero Taco Bell! days with that annoying dog, but who the fuck knows—I can barely remember the incident at all. The amazing thing about this is that it’s the last time, I think, that a commercial actually took control of my brain like a wasp riding a roach and made me do exactly what it wanted, which in that case was to leap up with Jeof Vita, get in the car, drive to the nearest Taco Bell, and order some food.

Jeof and I were in perfect harmony: We stood up and went. No discussion, no doubt. The food looked delicious, we were suddenly ravenous, and so we went to Taco Bell. It was terrible, and I’ve never been back, or even mildly desired to. I mean, it might have been one of the worst meals of my life, although my brain has self-defensively deleted the actual sensory input from the meal, saving me from night sweats and bad dreams.

This would never happen today. I’m old and withered, yes, and if I met 1990 Jeff he would be able to defeat me in any sort of Games of Strength or Endurance. But I’m smarter than 1990 Jeff. If nothing else, I now pretty much completely ignore advertising, knowing the central truth of it: That even when it is telling the truth, it is lying to you, somehow. It’s like quantum physics: The commercial can be 100% facts, and yet still equal a lie.

The main thing to always remember about commercials is that they are trying to convince you that you need something you obviously do not need. If you needed it, they would not need to convince you about it; no one has to convince you to eat, after all. They merely try to convince you what to eat, but the necessity of the act is never in question, right? The necessity of, say, drinking Bud Lite, on the other hand, is pretty much given: there is none. Thus, advertising!

Once you realize this, you gain a level of simple perspective. Nothing that is advertised is necessary, because if it was necessary it wouldn’t need to be advertised. Sure, in general the things advertised can be absolutely required—food, again, is a good example. You must have food. But you already know that. You know what food is, where you can get some, which foods you like especially. Yes, advertising can lead you to foods you’ve never tried before but that isn’t advertising’s goal. They don’t want you to be aware of other choices, they want to convince you that you need other choices.

While I don’t doubt that advertising bamboozles me in ways I can’t even imagine every day, shaping my behaviors and desires, I do think I’ve grown more resistant and aware of it. I distrust advertising to begin with, and generally go in to every commercial break assuming I’m going to be lied to, fucked with, and manipulated. This is partly why advertisers more and more target kids—kids are dummies with money, these days. Which is not to say anything specific about the current generation of kids—I was a dummy when I was a kid, too. I didn’t have any money, but times change and kids are now a huge force in discretionary spending in this country, so advertisers like them. See, I’ve got life experience and bills to pay, so I’m a harder sell. Taco Bell is a perfect example: Due to decades of life experience I now know that Taco Bell’s food is like eating plastic that has been flavored with Fail, and I have better choices to spend my money on. Taco Bell doesn’t want to waste time on me.

The most shameful development in advertising over the last few years is, of course, pharmaceutical advertising. The people who come up with these commercials should be lined up and shot in the ass. These commercials all seek to convince us that every little tweak and creak can be best treated with a pill, and strongly advise us to pressure our doctors to prescribe them, with the unspoken admonition, I think, that any doctor who refuses to do so is obviously trying to destroy your life.

FOR GOD’S SAKES, THEY NOW HAVE A PILL TO TAKE IF YOUR FIRST PILL DOESN’T WORK.

Abilify: That’s raw genius, there. If our first pill doesn’t work, you don’t need to reassess your treatment, you need our second pill. That’s like saying, if your first car doesn’t run, you need our second car to pull it along. Convincing people to do shit like this is why advertising is evil, and pharma advertising is like selling your soul to the Robot Devil.

So, my Timeline of Advertising Horror goes like this:

THE INNER SWINE’S TIMELINE OF ADVERTISING HORROR

Age 7: See an ad in a paper for plastic milkshake cups I inexplicably think come with milkshake in them. Pester Mom to buy these cups, which she does. 6-8 weeks go buy as I wait impatiently for my milkshakes. Cups arrive, no milkshakes. I almost commit suicide.

Age 12: Advertisements for the Atari 2600 almost make me murder a man in Journal Square in hopes that he has enough cash in his wallet so I may purchase one. Get a Sears knockoff for Christmas and spend 6 months mindlessly playing Pac Man and Pitfall.

Age 19: The aforementioned Taco Bell incident. Faith in world shattered, stomach never quite the same.

Today: You can’t sell me water when my house is on fire. I’ve gone around the other end of crazy: Frightened of being fooled, I just don’t believe anything and buy nothing but whiskey and processed deli meats. Sure, I’m living like an animal, but at least corporate America isn’t getting much of my money.

The lesson here is that you can only be fooled so many times before you just walk away and don’t look back. I will always have the searing memory of what that Taco Bell meal did to my internal organs to remind me that advertising is a strange game where the only way to win is not to play.

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Draftback: Burn After Writing

Let's edit.

Let’s edit.

So, the Somers How Close Are We to True Dystopia (SHCAWTTD, pronounced SHWATTED) Scale has basically been at two minutes to midnight since the Internet came to be, and inched just slightly closer to Kaboom Time with the invention of Draftback, which allows you, essentially, to record yourself while working in Google Docs. In theory, this means you could spend two years working on a novel in Google Docs and then you – or someone else – could watch the whole slog, complete with every typo, deleted chapter, and occasional Freudian Slip where you insert your mother’s name into a squicky sex scene or something.

On the one hand, I can see where something like that might be fascinating to readers. Imagine being able to see James Joyce write Ulysses word by word (possibly fast-forwarded just a tad, and maybe with some judicious editing to compress time a little). The insights you’d get! Assuming you could stay awake/stay alive long enough, of course.

For a writer, or at least for this writer, this is a horrible thing. It’s like that episode of Black Mirror where everyone records their entire lives: Horror. The last thing I want anyone to know is how awful my initial ideas are – or, sometimes, how little I actually edit (revising is for nerds). Although, naturally, I doubt anyone will ever be sufficiently interested in little old me to want to view my writing process that closely – but still, it’s a thought akin to dying suddenly without being able to contact your Porn Buddy to instruct them to destroy your collection before your family finds out you took that Brony thing waayyyyy too seriously.

Plus, knowing that your early drafting and revision might be viewed by people someday would, of course, have an affect on your writing. And probably not a good one.

Intent

There’s a time in a writer’s life when they don’t seriously expect anything they create to be published. It’s usually when you’re younger; if you stick to it and do the work, chances are you’ll get published somewhere, somehow. Maybe not as often, or as widely, or as lucratively as you’d like – but still, published. But when you’re still starting out, that can seem very, very far off. So a lot of the writing you do is private, in a sense – you don’t expect anyone to ever see it.

And of course that gives you a lot of freedom, because if you doubt anyone will see it, why not experiment? Have your characters say and do awful things beyond the pale? Be incomprehensible, maudlin, sentimental, savage – make your main character a Sue of yourself and delight as they do everything right, cut down their enemies with devastatingly precise bon mots – go crazy. Why not? If it turns out to be half-decent you can revise it into something civilized. If it remains half-assed and embarrassing, you can have a private ceremony and burn it in the bathroom. Or add it to the Brony porn stash and set up a Dead Man’s switch that will alert your Porn Buddy. Either way.

But if you knew everything you wrote – literally, every single key you hit with your pudgy little fingers – was being recorded and might be viewed someday (say, at the inevitable depositions you’ll be mired in after your criminal schemes go awry), you’d do it differently. You’d pause longer between words. You’d think ahead a bit more, maybe even cheat and scribble out your first drafts in a burn-after-writing notebook. It would change everything, and not for the better, because you only know something’s worth reviewing in Draftback when it’s finished.

Now that we’ve got that settled, on to more important questions: Who wants to be my Porn Buddy?

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Marriage

Originally published in The Inner Swine Volume 14, Issue 3, September 2008, the following remains sadly accurate.

shorts

Yup.

A typical exchange at Casa de Somers:

YOUR HUMBLE EDITOR: All right, let’s go.

THE DUCHESS: Uh, is that what you’re wearing?

YHE: (glancing down at his ensemble: black T-shirt, blue khaki shorts, a pair of black sneakers) Uh, yeah, why?

TD: Maybe you would consider wearing the clothes I put out for you.

YHE: Wait a second. . .the clothes you put out for me?

TD: Yep. Right over there.

YHE: (crossing to the dresser where a blue T-shirt and a pair of black khakis sit) These clothes?

TD: Yep. Soooo much better.

YHE: (staring for some time at the new clothes, expecting something to happen) So, let me get this straight: This T-shirt and shorts is better than this T-shirt and shorts.

TD: Yep.

YHE: So again, let me clarify: I am thirty-seven years old, and you are putting out clothes for me?

TD: Yes!

YHE: And the clothes you are putting out for me are basically identical to the clothes I have chosen for myself.

TD: Except, you know, soooo much better.

YHE: And yet I am supposed to change clothes.

TD: Well, obviously.

YHE: I can’t see any difference.

TD: Of course not. You’re incompetent. If you hadn’t married me, you’d likely be dead by now.

YHE: Stipulated. I don’t see how a few dozen incidents of reckless drinking and one incident involving superglue and my underpants have anything to do with my ability to dress myself.

TD: The glue and underpants thing was disturbing.

YHE: Solved! I don’t wear underpants any more. At all. Ever.

TD: We are going to put a pin in that, but we will come back to it. For now, just change clothes.

YHE: First you have to show me the difference between this pair of shorts (indicates the pair he is wearing) and these shorts (indicates the pair neatly folded on the dresser).

TD: (pointing at the pair on the dresser) I’ve already explained. . .these are so much better.

YHE: Okay. . .let’s stipulate for a moment—just a moment—that these shorts are somehow subtly better than the ones I’m wearing. They lack the microscopic imperfections and possibly have an imaginary sheen of the favored pair. The issue remains that I have a basic human right to dress myself.

TD: Sure, if you do it correctly. What you’re missing here is this: If you grant that the outfit is pretty much the same either way, then why not just change?

YHE: Uh. . .wait a second. . .

TD: You’ve already wasted more time arguing than you would have used to simply change clothes.

YHE: The principle is not a practical consideration of available resources, woman, but a consideration of my dignity. I’m a grown man and you’re putting out clothes for me like I’m five years old. And beyond that, since there’s no difference between your outfit and mine—

TD: (takes breath)

YHE: —I know, I know, so much better, but listen! Since there’s no appreciable difference, you’re basically working on the assumption here that any choice I make will be a poor one, simply because I am ill-equipped to handle my day-to-day responsibilities. You probably don’t even look too hard at what I’m wearing. The assumption is that if I picked it out, it must be unsuitable. This is madness. I’m old.

TD: Believe me, you’re young at heart. You used to think Converse Chuck Taylors were appropriate for every occasion.

YHE: Still do. If they didn’t warp my feet into painful orthopedic conditions, I’d still wear them all the time.

TD: I rest my case.

YHE: What that is, you see, is a matter of opinion. You can’t make blanket dressing rules based on an opinion.

TD: It’s not an opinion. Chuck Taylors, like your current ensemble, are heinous. Now we’re late. You know being late makes me cranky. Please change immediately.

YHE: We have not settled this. I see no reason to change.

TD: (raises eyebrow)

YHE: Aside from the threat of physical pain, which grants no points, I mean.

TD: Oh, for god’s sake. . .Look, some people have taste, and some don’t the ones who don’t. . .like you. . .are forever claiming it doesn’t matter what you wear, because they can’t see the difference. They’re taste-blind. This would be the same thing if you were colorblind and I told you something was blue and you said it was a matter of opinion.

YHE: No, because blue is a scientifically measurable frequency of light reflection. Taste is completely subjective. Unless you want me to believe that jackoffs like Christian Soriano have some sort of measurable scientific ability, instead of just being, well, jackoffs.

TD: I am unfamiliar with this term, jackoff. And I think Christian Soriano is adorable! Like a little doll. Or a puppet. Now put on the shorts.

YHE: So, basically this boiled down to you think I have bad taste and don’t want to be seen in public with me wearing my own taste.

TD: And I will start slapping you until you cry unless you change immediately into the So Much Better Shorts.

YHE: (meekly pulling his pants off) Actually, that’s a good marketing idea. We could start selling So Much Better Shorts. They’d just be regular shorts from the store, except. . .so much better.

TD: Are you mocking me? Because I can make you wear the pink shorts and the cornflower blue tank top.

YHE: No! Not the. . .punishment outfit.

TD: Then be quiet.

YHE: Yes’m.

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Fooling Yourself, You Don’t Believe It

There are rules.

There are rules.

There were a lot of things that bothered me about Gillan Flynn’s Gone Girl. I enjoyed the book, but there were aspects of it that bothered me – most notably, the inconsistency of Flynn’s POV writing. The main problem is Nick, who somehow contrives to not think about his mistress once during the early sections of the book told from his point of view. I mean, we’re in his head. His burner cheater phone is blowing up all the time. It would be more than natural for Nick to make a passing mental reference to his mistress, in his own thoughts. Yet he doesn’t. We’re supposed to believe that a man in the pickle Nick finds himself in would maintain bizarre mental discipline concerning the existence of his youthful side piece – as if he knew we were reading his thoughts.

Of course not. Flynn needed to keep that twist under wraps, and she was telling the story from Nick’s POV. The only solution was to simply, and incredibly (in the old sense of not being believable), have Nick never once think about her until it was time to reveal her to the surprised reader.

IN short, Flynn’s got a POV problem. And she’s not the only one. And it’s one of my pet peeves.

Breaking the Deal

The thing is, when you write a story from a certain POV you make a deal with the reader. They know you’re going to control information. But you’re promising to remain consistent. If you offer us a glimpse into the head of a character, you’re telling us that we can rely on that information … or be given a good reason why we can’t – say, insanity, or because the POV narration is actually a confession being recorded somehow. If we’re supposedly getting the unvarnished thoughts of a character, playing cheap tricks like them miraculously not thinking about vital relationships or other facts is just weak writing.

Even with Unreliable Narrators, there is a deal – albeit a deal only fully revealed to the reader at the end of the story. An Unreliable narrator must still be consistent, must still have rules. You should be able to go back and re-read their sections and see where they fooled you, and how.

There are worse examples. In her novel The Five Red Herrings, Dorothy L. Sayers informs the reader that she deliberately won’t mention a clue that would be perfectly visible at a scene she’s describing. She just says fuckit and tells you in no uncertain terms that if she mention the item, you’d be able to figure out the whole mystery, so she’s just not going to, but didn’t think she could get away with just not mentioning it because it would be obvious. And then, to add insult to injury, she implies archly that you shouldn’t need her help:

“(Here Lord Peter Wimsey told the Sergeant what he was to look for and why, but as the intelligent reader will readily supply these details for himself, they are omitted from this page.)”

That is what literary scientists call bullshit.

He Told Them

There are other examples. Have you ever been reading a book and a character is asked an important question, the answer to which will explain much and go a long way to solving mysteries, and the next line is a variation on “He told them”? A made up illustrative example:

“Mr. Somers,” Captain Awesome said in his booming voice,  “I’ve solved the mystery. There is one vital clue you missed.”

Somers wiped blood from his face. “What’s that? For god’s sake, man, tell me!”

He told him. When he was done, all the blood had drained from Somers’ face. “That one sentence has changed the universe,” he said solemnly, then belched.

Again: This is what scientists call bullshit. It’s weak. It’s a lazy way of getting out of a jam, as a writer. It’s a trick I’ve used, but I feel dirty about it.

I’ve also played a dirty trick on you, because from now on you won’t be able to read a book that uses these tricks without noticing, and, like me, you’ll hurl the book across the room and hiss bullshit!

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Memory, All Alone in the Moonlight

look on my works ye mighty and despair

by Jeff Somers

I have found a small green caterpillar in the back yard and decide I will keep him as a pet. I put him in a mayonnaise jar, holes poked into the lid, with a leafy branch for sustenance. A few days later I notice a red scar along his body. I think he’s dying. I release him back into the yard and am sad for days. He is not the last insect whose existence I step on.

My brother and I have just been informed that alcohol burns. We spend the afternoon in the kitchen taking bottles out of my parents’ liquor cabinet and trying to light shots on fire. We burned a lot of whiskey. Miraculously, despite the fact that we didn’t try to hide any of this, we didn’t get into trouble. I suspect because it was ostensibly an educational moment.

My mother didn’t want us to have pets when we were kids because she was pretty certain she would end up taking care of them. To satisfy us, we bought a goldfish. Our first fish lived for a year, which I now understand is remarkable for a goldfish. When he passed away, we carefully put him in a jar with water and buried him in the backyard. We bought a new fish. Which died within days. So we buried it in a jar with water with slightly less ceremony. We bought a new fish. Which died. Then another, and another. The backyard of my mother’s house is littered with jars filled with decomposed goldfish. Then she finally gave in and let us take in a neighbor’s cat that they were planning to put to sleep.

In grammar school I started playing Dungeons & Dragons because our teacher had the books in class. Two friends and I decided to create and market our own role playing game. The result was the spectacularly bananas INFILTRATE, which was a complete set of rules with a crazy construction-paper cover. We named the ‘company’ after a portmanteau of our last names and decided we were going to be famous. The most amazing thing is we actually wrote the fucking rulebook. I mean, jebus, I was twelve years old.

Back in college I actually started jogging a little. Not seriously. I doubt I ran more than half a mile, ever. I did it mostly as a dramatic way to have some time to myself. I used to run in the golf course on campus at night. It was cool being in a semi-wooded area in the darkness, alone. One night I sat down by a pond for a while feeling curiously sorry for myself, and came home with a tick embedded behind my knee. Chaos broke out. Word spread throughout our coed floor and before I knew it about fifteen people were in my room examining the tick and offering suggestions for getting rid of it. We burned it, we put nail polish on it, one guy took a penknife, ran it over a flame, and tried digging the fucker out. I could actually feel it squirming there, which remains one of the worst sensations of my life. The next day I had to take my bandaged self to the clinic and have a very bored nurse extract the tick and re-bandage the area. She never batted an eye at it. I supposed she’d seen dumber things.

In Eighth Grade I briefly became a Crossing Guard. Details are fuzzy, but I remember it being a big deal. Only the Eighth Graders could become Crossing Guards. You got a cool belt to wear. It kind of sucked. I did it for about a week and had the first of many why the fuck am I wasting my time with this bullshit moments that led to my mediocre and just-barely-adequate academic and professional career. I regret nothing. Anyway, after a week, I quit. And my teacher pulled me aside and gave me this ridiculously over the top speech about how I’d regret this decision for the rest of my life. That I was making a huge mistake. Even at the tender age of thirteen I could barely keep the smirk off my face. Was she fucking serious? Quitting the Crossing Guards was going to wreck my life? Jebus. I still get all outraged, decades later.

I read The Lord of the Rings. I write a book.

My next-door neighbor has moved off to college and left his pet cat behind. His parents keep her in the basement and talk about having her put to sleep because they don’t want to care for a cat. I go over and visit. Every time I go down into their basement she comes out meowing and likes me to bend over so she can stand on my back. I have no idea why she likes that but she purrs when I do it so I do it every time. Three weeks later she is my cat. She comes into my room every night and sleeps with me. Once I forget and lock my door and she is trapped in the room all night with me. When I wake up she is sitting on my chest staring at me. She immediately begins to cry.

I now have four cats. One sleeps with me and The Duchess every night.

In Seventh Grade my class does a Shakespeare video project, with kids dressed in costume and performing scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. I get assigned The Taming of the Shrew with a girl whose name I cannot remember. We have to come up with costumes. Mine involves tights, which seems to make sense though I am extremely disturbed. I find myself wearing a pair of pantyhose and being filmed. Somewhere in the universe there possibly exists a videotape of me wearing pantyhose and doing Shakespeare. This is terrible knowledge to carry around with you.

I am nine years old. I am challenged by my eleven-year-old cousin John to urinate in the basement. I accept.

I am some undetermined age under my bed eating crayons. I have no reason to be eating crayons aside from the belief that they will make my poop multicolored. They do not.

My friend Jeof gives me a cheap acoustic guitar. I do not tune it or make any effort to learn how to play. I sit at home and invent chords on my own. They are terrible chords. Chords awesome in their strident discordant terribleness. The guitar eventually breaks and I throw it away. Years later The Duchess buys me a new guitar and some lessons. Those awesomely terrible chords are lost forever.

When I’m a little kid of some unremembered age I beg and plead for a Huffy dirtbike. All the kids in my neighborhood have dirtbikes, except me, and it causes me a lot of angst. On my birthday my parents amaze me by giving me a Huffy dirtbike. I take it out on its training wheels to ride. Two older kids come and steal it. Just like that. Knock me off the bike and one of them rides away on it faster than I thought possible. That is still my takeaway from this event: How inhumanly fast that kid rode my bike.

I can remember when I was a kid, when I would eat too much my mother would tell me I was going to “explode”. I always thought this was just a colorful expression, until one summer day when we were having some sort of party and I’d been eating hot dogs and hamburgers for hours, I went in the kitchen, opened the fridge, and started drinking soda from a bottle. I got a few swallows in before vomiting energetically onto the floor in a violent manner. There was no nausea. I just threw it all up. I’d exploded.

Years after releasing the green caterpillar back into my back yard, I have an intense dream. This is unusual because I do not normally dream, or remember dreams. In this dream I am standing in my backyard and a large, beautiful butterfly comes and settles on my shoulder. It sits for a few seconds flapping its multicolored wings, then flies away. It is the caterpillar, transformed. I wake up crying.

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Hesitate To Die Look Around Around The Second Drummer’s Drowned His Telephone Is Found

This originally appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 19, Issue 1/2, Summer 2013.

I Used to Have Hella Long Hair

My god, man, have some self-respect.

My god, man, have some self-respect.

WHEN I was a wee lad in Jersey City, my parents took my brother and I to an Italian named Barberlo (not his actual name, though it was equally amazing) to get our hair cut. It was an old-school barbershop and Barberlo was a diminutive man who spoke in a delightfully cartoonish Italian accent and dressed in elaborate suits just to walk to his shop, where he promptly put on a white surgical type outfit for the touching of filthy, lice-ridden heads like ours.

Barberlo had a habit of making groin-hand contact with me when he cut my hair. I was never sure if this was on purpose or not, but it freaked me out. I never told anyone, because it was so subtle as to be in my imagination, and I saw no reason to hurl about accusations when the whole thing didn’t exactly damage me, just made me feel slightly skeeved out. Worse than the occasional groin contact was the fact that Barberlo was an awful barber. Truly awful. I emerged from each session with him looking like someone had attacked me recently, and been unkind.

In High School I developed a hairstyle that I now dub The Moron in a Hurry. It was sort of a Justin Bieber-esque bowl kind of thing, and was truly awful. This wasn’t Barberlo’s fault, really; I was the only giving out orders that he cut the sides and back but leave the top longer. This should have told me that I was not mature enough to manage my own hair (Hell, I don’t believe I’m mature enough now) but I was too young to learn anything. When I went off to college I prepared by resolving to not get my hair cut any more. So I sailed into Freshman year with a shock of a mullet. It was a grand, unruly mullet, just a mess of hair that I often tied back out of my face with a rubber band.

And I just let it grow. There was no effort at shaping, or styling. No cutting. No conditioner, either, so it wasn’t long before my haircut was a frizzy mess of straw on my head. I had these huge plastic glasses and a tendency to wear T-shirts with cartoon characters on them. In other words, it was like someone was paying me to not get laid.

(more…)

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Professional Reading Vs. Reading for Pleasure

Eventually I'll just spend all of my time in the bathroom.

Eventually I’ll just spend all of my time in the bathroom.

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:

PROS

  • 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.

CONS

  • 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.

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