I’m a writer. That means I have writer friends and acquaintances, and as a result conversations often center on what we’re writing (or what we’ve recently sold)—unless there are also agents at the table, in which case the conversation will center on what other people are writing and selling. We also tend to get drunk and have weepy conversations about the books we’d write if someone would just give us a wooden crate filled with money, or perhaps a car made entirely of gold.
A lot of times, those writing goals have something to do with Literary Stretch Goals, those unicorn-like ideas we all have that would require a stipend from the government and a Life Coach to actually complete. Sometimes it’s the 300,000 word novel written epic poetry style, or the novel told entirely from a dog’s POV using only sense words (CHAPTER ONE: wood smell, damp, LOUD NOISES!). Fairly often, it will be the legendary Novel composed of Short Stories (NCSS).
The White Whale
The NCSS is simple in concept: It’s a novel, something novel-length and telling a complete, coherent narrative arc, but it’s also a series of short stories that stand alone 100%. In other words, the NCSS is both a series of stories you can read in any order and simply enjoy, as well as a complete novel you can read in order. In other words, it’s nearly fucking impossible.
Many writers dream of the NCSS (many don’t, likely due to a Trump Low Energy Syndrome) but it’s not easy to pull off. Writing short stories is radically different in approach from writing chapters, and not at all easy. Writing a novel is also not at all easy, so combining both is always going to be a challenge. There are some novels that have published with the claim that they are the legendary, prophesied NCSS, but really, they’re not. They’re usually either just collections of short stories that share characters and a vague through-line, or they’re novels with pretensions.
Which brings us to Aziz Ansari’s Master of None on Netflix.
Not a Novel
Okay, Master of None is not a novel. It’s a TV series. It’s ten scripted episodes of a show. Still, it’s basically the NCSS in TV form—the TCSS. What Ansari had achieved is pretty great: He’s got ten episodes that each play like tiny little movies (complete with Woody Allen-esque credits and music), but also link up into a larger story. Each episode can totally be enjoyed by itself, in a vacuum: Aziz’s character, Dev, goes through several zany adventures that explore modern life, and the way social media, the immigrant experience, and city living affect our interactions and expectations. In one episode, a broken condom leads to a late-night trip to a drug store for the Plan B pill. In another, Dev refuses to do a stereotypical Indian accent when auditioning for a commercial, and then encounteres mild racism and struggles with how (or whether to) leverage it for his advantage.
Over the course of the season, the story is really about Dev and Rachel, the girl in the “Plan B” first episode, who meet again and start dating. Their relationship and how it changes Dev is the arc of the season, and it’s just as interesting as anything else because Ansari gives both characters real motivations, real personalities, and real needs and goals.
In other words, it’s a novel, but it’s also ten short stories. It ain’t easy. It maybe isn’t the first show to manage this, or even the first narrative, but it’s a difficulty level that’s impressive. The beauty of it is, if you’re intrigued by this, you can literally watch any episode and enjoy it—or not—without needing to see the whole thing. It’s quite an accomplishment. Bonus: The series is delightful, and absolutely recommended.
Now off to write my own NCSS. And fail.
Ever have one of those moments when you think about something and realize some insane fact or statistic? Happens to me all the time. I’ve mentioned my casual relationship with time before; things just slip by me, and that also translates to being generally unaware of statistics about my life. Like how old I am. Or how many pairs of pants I’m currently wearing (the Margin of Pants Error is HUGE).
So today I was wondering how many freelance articles I wrote this year. Don’t why it occurred to me to think about it; generally I’m much more interested and concerned about how much money I’ve earned writing freelance pieces, as money can be readily exchanged for liquor, whereas vague reflections on the professional year that was usually cannot. So I sat down and counted them all, and the number is 880.
Eight hundred and eighty.
Now, more than half of those you won’t see my name next to, as they were ghost-written. And thank god. A lot of freelance writing is like doing porn: You’re not ashamed, per se, because it takes skills most people don’t have and you got paid for it. But it doesn’t mean you want the relatives looking it up online when you come home for the holidays. But that does leave more than 400 essays and articles that do bear my name, and at any rate 880 is just a big number. And December just started. It’s possible, though unlikely, I’ll hit 1,000 before the year’s out.
At any rate, even if I got hit by a bus tomorrow and couldn’t write good no more, I’d still average more than 2 articles a day, and since I spend my weekends in an alcoholic haze that means I actually average much more on a typical work day. That just makes me sleepy. Who was this energetic, motivated person cranking out these writings? Not me, certainly. I like to sleep in, nurse my hangovers, and read essays about Doctor Who Easter Eggs online.
In-between all that freelance writing, I also wrote one novel, got about 50% through two other novels, wrote a number of essays for other websites in the spirit of self-promotion, and 24 short stories with one more about 90% finished as I sit here. And submitted 23 of those stories to markets, selling exactly one. And that doesn’t even count blog posts — oh so many blog posts. I am, without meaning to be, one busy motherfucker.
What’s my point? Aside from once again underscoring the fact that my sole skill in this life is tapping a keyboard in creative ways, it goes to show the value of putting your head down. I didn’t start the year with a stretch goal of 1,000 freelance articles plus assorted fiction. I started the year thinking about writing one piece that day to make a certain amount of money. It’s the same with a novel or a short story. Start with the first line, go from there. Don’t think about how many you’ve piled up. Word count is useful, but distracting: Ignore it until you need to know what it is (i.e., when you’re sending it somewhere for submission or evaluation).
I am suddenly exhausted, so my stretch goal of improving the Margin of Pants Error has to be deferred until 2016. I’m sure you understand.
The Internet, as always an individual reality with only a tangential relationship to actual reality (which is not, let me finish, a bad thing, just an observed fact) has been buzzing recently about Jessica Jones, the new Netflix series offering from Marvel, following in the steps of the dour, glacially-paced and thoroughly, thoroughly overrated Daredevil (and I will fight anyone who disagrees with me).
I haven’t watched it yet, because I am old and slow. I plan to, if only because of the praise the show is getting. And it does sound interesting to a guy like me who has never owned, read, or paid any attention to comic books. The villain, a mind-controller known as Kilgrave or The Purple Man depending on how dramatic you’re trying to be, sounds really creepy and evil and thus well worth watching a narrative about his (hopeful) downfall.
Ah, but see, now we hit the snag, don’t we? Because it’s a shared universe. In Daredevil they peppered in references to the larger Marvel Universe, with New York City recovering from the last time the Avengers showed up and other references. So, Jessica Jones exists in the same universe as Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk. Which means anyone watching the show might wonder: Why in the world don’t we just call The Avengers?
The Infinity Problem
Don’t get me wrong; I’ll still check out Jessica Jones and I may even enjoy it! But the problem, from an annoying writer’s point of view, remains: You have created these super powerful beings. Your story exists in that universe. Why can’t they help? Why does no one even try? I mean, when the bad guys show up and you desperately try to call Iron Man and all you get are increasingly annoying voicemail greetings from Tony Stark, okay, that makes sense. But why does no one try?
I mean, as has been mentioned elsewhere on The Internet, the Marvel universe has established that there are superpowered autonomous robots everywhere. We’ve already seen Ultron, and Stark’s Iron Man suits that can be remote controlled by JARVIS — so, The Purple Man shows up mind-controlling everyone, why not sic a few superpowered robots on him?
Sure, there are likely storytelling explanations for this. And yes, that would make most of these stories suck in a very Somers Way:
People: ERMAGERD! DRAGONS ARE BURNING NEW YORK TO THE —
Avengers: Here we are to save the day!
People: Never mind.
So yes, stipulated: Actually thinking about this stuff logically is boring and mean and annoying. We’re not here to approach superhero stories scientifically! We’re here to be entertained!
And yet, it’s a problem. Once you create a powerful being in a universe, you are stuck with that being, and stuck with explaining how they are defeated and controlled — and if they are not defeated and controlled (as most superhero failures are temporary plot points at best) then you have to explain why they don’t just solve every problem in the world, eventually. Sure, the Avengers can’t be everywhere at once, but they’re also not the only superheroes out there. It reduces all of your villains and monsters to mere annoyances, or forces the viewer/reader to wonder why in the world we’re wasting time throwing lesser superheroes against the Big Bad, when someone else would likely destroy them easily.
Too Many Cooks
This is a problem nearly unique to shared universes, where multiple creatives are spinning new tales, inventing new characters and new rules all the time. In a smaller-scale universe a single author might get themselves into trouble by creating a godlike character or two, but this can be handled because they are in total, godlike control. In a shared universe it’s nearly impossible. You can’t, for example, announce that the Avengers are all dead in Jessica Jones, because that kind of upsets all the people looking forward to the next Avengers film or future comic books. You also can’t really pretend that superpowered robots that would be immune from mind-control are impossible, because we’ve already seen them.
All you can do is ignore them, and have your characters ignore them, which makes them seem kind of dimwitted, but that’s okay. I do dimwitted things all the time. I have little doubt that if I became embroiled in a war against a superpowered villain, I would — well, let’s be honest: I would be dead almost immediately. But if I managed to survive, I’d at least try to get The Hulk or someone — even Ant Man, or the weird guy with no powers but the jetpack-like wings — to help me.
Friends, as we celebrate the Birthday Month of Patty Blount across the world, with parades, television specials, and an attempt in Paraguay to set a world record for Largest Chocolate Sculpture Ever Created, it’s naturally a good time for me to write about my second-favorite subject, alcohol. Because it is always a good time to write about alcohol.
Much like how Patty tests her physical limits when it comes to chocolate, constantly experimenting to see how much chocolate is too much chocolate (results so far are inconclusive), I once tested my own limits when it came to alcohol in all its forms, before settling into my middle-aged dotage awash in whiskey. These experiments included the following episodes, which to this day cause full-body shivers of horror among my friends and acquaintances:
The Martini Massacree: I once through a Martini-themed party because Martinis seemed so sophisticated and urbane despite tasting like cemetery dirt. I downloaded a bunch of recipes and laid in supplies, and then despite waking up with the Stomach Flu of the Damned, decided not to cancel, despite the fact that the smell of alcohol more or less made me puke immediately. I spent much of the party reclining in my bed doing breathing exercises, and the Martini recipes turned out to be speculative at best.
The Bubblegum Shot from Hell New Years: Persevering in my quest to understand all forms of alcohol, I volunteered to be bartender for a New Yeat’s Eve party, and prepared several shot recipes, one of which was a Bubblegum Shot. This was the worst thing anyone had ever prepared for consumption, in all of human history, and the party ended early with just about every sitting, stunned, all their joie de vivre sucked away.
My thirst for alcoholic knowledge was cooled somewhat by these misadventures, which took a toll on my health as well as my sanity. Then I discovered whiskey and it was my own personal burning bush, something that provided all the answers, and for a while held off on the experimentation. Until the first time I had Sangria, which kicked off the question: Is Sangria just fruit juice they pretend has wine in it?
The Sangria Question
Growing up in the Tri-State Area, my only prior experience with Sangria was as part of TV commercials for Beefsteak Charlie’s, which always promised all the “beer, wine, or sangria” you could drink, which always sounded kind of enticing. What was sangria? I had no idea. When I sat down to dinner with friends one day in my mid-20s, and we were offered sangria, I insisted we order it solely because I had those old commercials in my head: I was going to party like it was 1982.
The Sangria was fine. Delicious, even, a sweet fruity concoction in a glass decanter, bits of fruit floating about. And when we’d consumed it all, we felt … nothing. Not even the slightest buzz. I’d gotten drunker from a single beer, or from standing up too quickly on a hot day. And the question loomed: Was there actually wine in Sangria? Or was it justa fruit-filled con? So we did the only thing we could do, as men and women of science: We kept ordering more. We figured if there was any alcohol in there, we’d feel it eventually, right?
We were so wrong. To this day I firmly believe you can drink Sangria all day long, then get behind the controls of a huge skyscraper crane and have no trouble whatsoever. No amount of evidence otherwise will ever convince me that Sangria isn’t just fruit juice, and that’s probably why Beefsteak Charlie’s gave it away for free. Sangria is the devil’s drink. That’s why I prefer whiskey–I like my alcohol to burn on the way down and force you to do some deep knee bends after each sip, because at least you know what you’re getting.
Hapy birthday, Patty!
As threatened, the fourth installment in my little novel experiment with Avery Cates, The Iron Island, is now available for preorder at Amazon, and will soon be live at the Kobo Store and Google Play (as always, Barnes and Noble will go live on December 15th, as they don’t really do pre-orders for the likes of me).
If you’ve read the first three in the series (The Shattered Gears, The Walled City, and The Pale) you know we left Avery with a bag over his head and on his way to the Iron Island against his will. The story picks up here shortly after as I observe Elmore Leonard’s rule about cutting out the boring bits.
Go on and pre-order if Kindle is your jam, and I’ll let you know as soon as other formats go live.
FULL NOVEL: A lot of folks have asked me if there are plans to collect the six short stories into a single volume and/or do a print version: Yes! After #5 (The Bey) and #6 (The City Lord) come out, I’ll be collecting all six into a single volume titled The Shattered Gears and putting out both a digital omnibus and a print version via Amazon’s Createspace. The price will be as close to $6 as possible so no one is penalized because of format choice.
If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to ask!
So, I love me some James Bond in general. I love a good Bond movie, even the bad ones. And I’ve been particularly fond of Daniel Craig in the role; I like the physicality he brings to it. So, yes, I went and saw Spectre despite the unpromising reviews. And it is kind of a bad movie.
But it’s a special kind of bad movie that could have been a good movie. Even about halfway through, there was plenty of potential. I was enjoying it, the action sequences were really well done, and there was a touch of humor here and there that made me really excited. And then there were a few awful, really bad storytelling and character decisions that derailed the whole thing and turned a pretty-good Bond movie into a terrible Bond movie, and there was much sadness.
There was also sadness because the audience I saw this film with was the most restless group of people I’ve ever shared space with, just constantly running in and out of the theater at full speed, like they were monitoring a small trash fire in the next room simultaneously.
However, if you’re a writer, go see Spectre, then come back. Because you can learn a very important lesson form it, and that lesson is simple: Well-drawn characters with believable motivations can elevate a story. Bad characters can destroy it. Spoilers ho: I will spoil the shit out of this movie.
The character I’m talking about isn’t Bond. As I said, I like Craig’s interpretation of Bond. It’s a physical, interior performance that manages to suggest a lot of things, from the animal way he walks to the almost obnoxious way he wears the shit out of a suit. Craig’s Bond is a thug with a familiarity with money and the world it buys, but he’s also aware of being a glorified killer. His contempt for his “betters” combined with his absolute dog-like loyalty to the few people he respects makes sense for the character, and Craig does fantastic work of making you believe that Bond can be simultaneously a trained killer and a man who falls deeply in love with someone in a few days because he is so overwhelmingly lonely.
Nor is is the character of re-invented Blofeld the problem. While Blofeld is completely mishandled and wasted as a Bond villain here, the film still could have attained a sort of B grade decency with him. Yes, the revelation that he was Bond’s adopted brother of sorts was lame and unnecessary, and they did little to make you believe that Christoph Waltz’s Blofeld was actually as dangerous as we’re told he is, but the film could have survived that.
No, the problem is Léa Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann. The character single-handedly destroys the story because she’s so badly written.
Bond Girls for the Fail
Sure, Bond Girls are always tragically underwritten. The Craig-era films have tried with mixed success to elevate the Bond Girl to something more than a piece of ass, but Bond Girls are still challenging because the audience knows full well they will be Bond’s love interest and then disappear.
But Swann is more problematic because they break several rules of good writing with her character, and here’s what the film can teach you about bad writing and what not to do:
- Making Your Characters Fall in Love Solely to Have Motivations Is Lazy. There is a moment in Spectre when Seydoux’s Swann tells Bond that she loves him and the audience laughs. This is because the character has literally known Bond for about a day at this point, and has spent that day hating him with a passion. In fact, Swann’s character instantly changes–instead of the steely-eyed woman who hates Bond because he represents the poisonously masculine world of her father, she’s suddenly flirty, fragile, and dedicated to Bond, and it’s solely so she can serve as Bond’s motivation going forward. It’s clumsy, clunky, and simply bad writing.
- Making Your Characters Idiots to Keep the Plot Moving is Lazy. Swann also decides, suddenly and without warning, that she cannot stay with Bond right before the climax. It’s framed against her past: She lived a life of danger and intrigue with her father, and she won’t repeat her mistakes with Bond. All well and good, but literally any other time would be a better moment to have that conversation. Why give your little speech and walk away–alone–just seconds before Bond heads out to the final confrontation? Because you’re a lazy writer and you need to have Swann captured and held prisoner so Bond can go insane trying to save her in a ginned-up emotional moment. Having your characters behave in insane ways simply to create a scenario is bad writing.
These decisions regarding the Swann character ruin the story. Yes, the climax was already compromised by other problems with the writing–the fact that Blofeld’s evil superpowers are all telling with no showing, that Bond makes the curious tactical decision to deliver himself and the woman he loves directly into the hands of the enemy with no leverage or plan, the complete lack of any sort of realistic time sense in the whole story–but it could have been saved if they’d found a better use for the Bond Girl character, and not relied on bad writing tricks to move the story along. Watch this movie and learn what not to do.
Hey there hi there ho – a reminder that the 4th installment of my experimental-oh-so-modern series of digital-only short stories starring Avery Cates, The Iron Island will be available for pre-order next Friday, 11/13 (it would have been the 15th, but Sundays are for napping). I’ll post a link when it’s live.
A trailer’s coming too! Watch the skies.
Finally, here’s the first two paragraphs to remind you that you love Avery.
1. criminal, cop-killer, legendary asshole
Stomach rolling, I contemplated vomiting in the bag cinched over my head and the impact on my reputation that would cause. My hands were still bound, though Herra had been kind enough to cut the hogtie so I could sit normally; I could picture her wide grin on that wrinkled, weather-burned face as she reached around me to cut the ties, saying “Honor system, Cates, we’re trusting you not to jump an’ drown yourself.”
She smelled like a corpse—they all did, unwashed bodies in clothes that had been sweated and pissed and slept in—but then so did I, probably. The one blessing of the world was that you could never smell yourself.
Time, my eternal enemy. Look, we’re all busy, and if you’re a writer or some other creative type who also has to do other things to keep yourself in whiskey and Netflix, time begins to form up into your greatest foe, constantly conniving to steal your life right out from under you. Once you pass a certain age — different for everyone, but essentially the Rubicon between your carefree youth when spending hours watching cartoons while day drinking was a constructive use of your time and your maturity when every day is a heart-attack-inducing marathon of squeezing ninety minutes of activity into sixty minutes of actual time — time is the biggest obstacle to achieving things.
Unless you’re me. In which case it’s not so much time as your perception of time.
it was autumn by the time I got around the corner
I’m fairly famous in my household for having absolutely no idea how long anything actually takes. I am always confident I can walk anywhere in about five minutes, that chores will take about an hour no matter what they involve, and that I always have about fifteen minutes to spare no matter when I’m supposed to be somewhere. Put simply, time is a foreign country and I have never learned the language.
This also means that for a very long time I felt like I had no time to do anything, and as a result I worked constantly at writing, because I was convinced I was squeezing in about five minutes of work every day. As a result I’m reasonably prolific, because I always work like my time is about to run out. As another result, I disdain revision and contemplation because my god man time is running out.
I had an epiphany a long time ago wherein I realized that I waste a monumental amount of time. This was an accurate but ultimately unhealthy epiphany, because it exacerbated my sense of time pressure, because now not only was The Man stepping on my neck in terms of time as a precious resource, I was stepping on my own neck. But it’s true: I like to waste time. It’s actually part of my creative process, sitting here doing nothing but mildly entertaining myself. But it was helpful to understand that my feeling that I was always lacking the time to work on projects wasn’t anybody else’s fault; if friends and family, bosses and colleagues used up hours of my day every day, well, I wasted just as many, so how could I get all pissy about it?
a whole lotta nothin’
A side effect of my complete bafflement with time is the constant feeling I haven’t actually done much. In 2015, I wrote two novels, 18 short stories, a screenplay, and hundreds of essays, and yet I feel like I’m always spinning my wheels and failing to produce enough material. Life is short, I am told I will die someday (I have my doubts), and as a result life is a race to write as much good stuff as possible. And I always feel like I’ve got nothing to show for my time.
It’s a disease, of course. If you’re waiting for me to keep an appointment and get that sinking feeling that I once again thought a one-hour commute would take only fifteen minutes, it might be amusing or irritating. From my point of view it’s exhausting, and yet in a lot of ways it’s the engine that drives my work. In the end it will kill me, either from the stress or from a miscalculation involving how quickly it takes a grown man to run across a busy street or train tracks.
I was a weird kid. This is almost certainly obvious to anyone who has actually met me IRL, and it’s probably no shock to anyone who’s read my fiction, my zine, this blog, or literally anything else I’ve written, including my Twitter feed, which is clogged with photos of cats, rando announcements about haircuts, baseball, the weather, and, of course, self-promotion conducted with all the subtlety of a man burning down his house for the insurance money.
When it comes to my childhood, I often joke about how my whole life changed after a concussion, but it’s only half a joke. I suffered two concussions as a child. In the first I was wrestling with my brother, whose hideous strength is legendary, and he hurled me across the living room and the soft spot in the back of my skull hit the edge of a chair. This may or may not have been retaliation for the time I hid a pencil in couch cushions which my brother promptly sat on, and it may or may not have been part of a plot to murder me on the part of my brother who also once hit me in the head with a metal yard rake. So, yes, my home life was a chaotic mess of violence and poor diet choices because my exhausted mother allowed me to eat cookies for breakfast, but that’s not the point.
The second concussion occurred one summer when the fire hydrant outside my house was opened up for the kids. This was Jersey City, New Jersey in the late 1970s or very early 1980s; I don’t think there was a public pool anywhere nearby and our video game technology involved boxy sprites moving around a 13-inch black and white TV screen, so running around in the street in a bathing suit, risking stepping on broken glass, was as fun as it got.
Anyway, I was running around the freezing water when a red-haired kid the approximate size of four or five red-haired kids ran smack into me, knocking me down. My head hit the curb, and I was once again on my way to the hospital with a concussion. In retrospect, these injuries should have clued me in that I lacked coordination and was not going to be a professional baseball player long before I spent all those years playing Little League to the combined dread and amusement of my team-mates, but it did not.
After that second concussion, I swear I was different. My memory is awful and unreliable and I have subconsciously filled in the blanks with made-up shit, scenes from films and TV shows, and other strange detritus, but I’d swear I didn’t need glasses until after the concussion, that I got pudgy and slow after it, and became more introverted and read more books afterwards. Before that, I’d been a street kid, running around all day, playing with the other kids in the street and generally being athletic. After it, I withdrew and became the handsome but socially awkward devil you see before you now.
I can’t prove it, but I believe it.