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Hanzai Japan

Hanzai Japan

Hanzai Japan

One of the great joys of writing, for me, is selling a short story. I can’t explain it: You can’t live on the money you make, you often get very little notice for it, and yet I’m privately incredibly excited whenever I manage to convince someone that some chunk of words is worth paying me for.

My short story “Three Cups of Tea” will be included in the forthcoming Hanzai Japan from Haikasoru, which naturally makes it your priority. “Tea” is a Philip K. Marks story; this is the fourth story I’ve sold starring Mr. Marks, who’s a sort of run-down paranormal detective with huge chunks of his life missing from his memory (but not from some unpublished stories). For some reason when I think of Marks I tend to get some really awesome ideas.

I have some stiff competition in this anthology, though. Here’s the complete TOC:

Genevieve Valentine “(.dis)”

Yusuke Miyauchi “Sky Spider”

Libby Cudmore “Rough Night in Little Toke”

Ray Banks “Outside the Circle”

Yumeaki Hirayama “Monologue of a Universal Transverse Mercator Map”

Brian Evenson “Best Interest”

Jyouji Hayashi “Vampiric Crime Investigative Unit: Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department”

Naomi Hirahara “Jigoku”

Carrie Vaughn “The Girl Who Loved Shonen Knife”

Kaori Fujino “Run!”

S. J. Rozan “Hanami”

Violet LeVoit “The Electric Palace”

Setsuko Shinoda “The Long-Rumored Food Crisis”

Jeff Somers “Three Cups of Tea”

Chet Williamson “Out of Balance”

Hiroshi Sakurazaka “The Saitama Chain Saw Massacre”

Get excited and pre-order this one today! And while you’re at it, buy Haikasoru’s other anthologies: The Future is Japanese and Phantasm Japan.

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

The Nova I drove. Gumby was not present.

The Nova I drove. Gumby was not present.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

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Process and Plot

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

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

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

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

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

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

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The Inexorable Sadness of Pencils

Jeff Needs Some Liquor Monies

Jeff Needs Some Liquor Monies

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

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

And in real life that’s very often bullshit.

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

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

Job as Adventure

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

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

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

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

Job as Salvation

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

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

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

The Illuminati Again

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

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

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Speaking @ The 2015 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference

Me Smart.

Me Smart, circa 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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drying eyes, wasted breath

It had only been fifteen minutes, and Bob hated them all. He knew every detail of the elevator, from the three buttons which refused to light up when you pressed them to the minute design of diamonds on the worn, red and black carpet. He didn’t know the specific people he was trapped with, but he thought he knew their type, and was convinced, based on the slanting looks and curling lips, that they knew his. Jocular in familiarity, contemptuous, he snapped his gum cheerily, to annoy, and shifted his weight from foot to foot.

Softly, in the background, an instrumental Killing Me Softly played over the tinny speakers.

Bob had not been very surprised when the little door marked EMERGENCY had been opened to reveal loose wires where the phone should have been. None of the other people in the elevator evinced any shock either, but whether that was actual cynicism or an urbane facade Bob couldn’t say. They had all looked at each other and shaken heads, clucked tongues, no longer amazed, it was implied, by the incompetence of Other People. He thought it must have been the rarest of coincidences, that the Brain Trust of the World, the four most brilliant people in the universe, happened to all work in his building. One of the Brain Trust was now busily reading People magazine, slouching against the rear wall of the elevator with the bored insubordination of youth, the implication that he would not even attempt to somehow make the situation better, and that the rest of the Brain Trust ought to leave him alone.

The kid annoyed Bob the most. Probably about twenty-one or -two, he had INTERN written all over him, from the wrap around sunglasses he wore (still) even indoors to the loud music leaking out of earphones, to the combination of decent dress pants and shirt with unlaced sneakers and a worn denim jacket. His cool demeanor made Bob decide that if anyone was going to have to climb into the shaft in a heroic search for help, it would be the kid.

They were suspended between the fifteenth and sixteenth floors, the elevator having squealed and sighed and jerked to a halt a few seconds after the doors had shut on floor fifteen. Bob had accepted this turn of events with cheer and aplomb, because he was now about ten feet away from his floor, twenty seconds away from being off the elevator and into the warm current of a Typical Day. Now instead of floating along on the swells of things that happened every day, he was standing in a box with four strangers who were, if nothing else, not quite as tantalizingly close to a Typical Day.

They’ve got to know what happened. They must be working on the problem.”

Bob looked up in surprise, at The Librarian. He didn’t know what the woman actually did with her time, but the sharply angled glasses perched on her nose made him think of a librarian. She wore an affected shawl over her shoulders, too, and stood in the center of the elevator in a stiff-backed posture. She wasn’t looking at anyone, and he figured she was speaking just to comfort yourself. He snapped his gum a little louder and replied to the air

Sure, sure. That phone looks like it was attended to without delay.”

The Librarian looked at him, sniffed, and looked away.

Bob shrugged, chewing his gum. He leaned against the wall of the elevator and stared at the ceiling. He couldn’t even see an escape hatch, a maintenance crawlspace -every movie he’d ever seen that had involved people trapped in an elevator had involved a crawlspace, but he couldn’t see one here. He wondered if there was any way out of the elevator. Or at least one that didn’t involve the elevator splitting open after hitting the basement.

(more…)

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“The Shattered Gears” Reviewed at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

Avery Cates: The Shattered Gears

Patrick over at Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist has always been a fan of the The Avery Cates Series, and he’s put up a great review of the first Cates short story The Shattered Gears, which was released in December 2014:

“I was pretty keen to read it! And then the Holidays rolled around and I totally forgot about it. My bad, I know . . . If you are a long-time fan of the Hotlist, you may recall that I pimped Somers’ series as much as I could every time a new volume came out. And though it’s been four years since the last one, it was so much fun to be reunited with Avery Cates, if only for the duration of a short story.”

It was also a lot of fun to return to write a return to Cates, frankly. Sometimes as a writer you get caught up in seeking challenges for your writing, breaking new ground, or worrying about your sales and your audience, and you forget to just enjoy writing. These Cates shorts, which will keep coming and eventually coalesce into a novel or three, are just a lot of fun!

You can buy The Shattered Gears over at

Amazon

Kobo

B&N Nook

Google Play

for 99 cents.

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WINNERS: “The Walled City”

Walled_coverToday we held the ceremonial Choosing of the Names here at The Somers Compound. Dressed in our ceremonial Choosing Robes, I handed my wife The Duchess a copy of the comments left by the hopeful who wanted a rare print version of The Walled City, the new Avery Cates short. She reviewed them, drank half a bottle of wine, watched some TV, and finally chose:

Winner #1 — MATT MCROBERTS

Winner #2 — SEAN P.K.

Congrats to you both! I’ll contact you via email to get delivery specs. For those of you who were not favored with the Random Hand of The Duchess, you can always buy a digital copy for yourself:

KINDLE

NOOK

KOBO

GOOGLE PLAY

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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:

KINDLE

NOOK

KOBO

GOOGLE PLAY

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