Saturday, June 2, 2012

Dig In, Redux

“I am so tired of that apt criticism. Yes, this Applebee’s is like all of the others. The hamburger is prepared the same way with the same patented and publicly disclosed secret sauce. The calorie content of every platter is the same in Texas and Maine. The employees here wash their hands as often as they do in Alaska – if there is an Applebee’s in Alaska. From Seattle, Washington to Washington, D.C., we’re all mandated to have crazy crap on the walls, so that while each array is unique, they all feel the same. The building feels almost identical to Chili’s, which feels almost identical to Friendly’s. And for some reason you feel the right to condemn us, as though homogeneity was our problem. The problem lies in a society so twisted and uncomforting that when people don’t want to cook for themselves, when they decide they want a night away from their homes and normal lives, they go to a franchise that they’re sure will be just like every other one they’ve ever visited. How mean-spirited, how rude and insensitive, how untrustworthy must the rest of the world be if you look to letting strangers serve you food for familiarity? With all the delicacies and rare cuisines available, dinner is where you come not to be challenged? Then you must come from a sick world. But if my chicken tenders will heal you, then let me lay my hands on your plastic. We take Discover.”

Friday, June 1, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: Love Like Lightning

Do you remember the day we met?

That thunderstorm? Of course.

So you don’t, then. It was sunny.

I only came out during the rain, hon. It’s when my father lost concentration. He gets carried away throwing lightning at unbelievers.

Maybe it was sprinkling and you split a relatively clear sky to get a better look at me.

That is not what happened.

How do you remember it?

It was pouring, and your silly costume clinging to you, and your lip was split, and you were running for your life.

I was in a scuffle that day. That’s true. They stole an old lady’s purse, and someone has to stand up to injustice.

Running for your life. Hair plastered to your scalp from all the rain.

It might have been sprinkling.

I thought it was very unfair for you to be against four at the same time.

I knew you didn’t remember. It was eight.

Maybe you saw eight eventually. They were really knocking you around.

It was not my best day. I’m not good on sunny days. All that heat.

You just would not give them the purse back, even when they went to crush your head under a trash can. You’re always adorable when you’re doomed. I couldn’t help myself, and so I came down. I landed in-between you and them.

I remember that view. The look.

I was facing them. You couldn’t see me.

Oh, I know. I had the full view up your skirt. The sun was coming between your knees, because it wasn’t raining, and it cast a lovely color across them.

You’re terrible.

No, you were terrible. You tore apart eight men.

Four. And I didn’t kill anyone.

Merely electrified them into unconsciousness.

Lightning does that.

I wondered why a girl that pretty would help me.

Not why lightning would help you?

It was a lovely view.

You’re terrible.

Your father was terrible. I thought God was angry at us.

He’s a god, and he was very unhappy. He’ll never forgive me.

I didn’t understand what he was saying, but that voice would make any language obvious. The vitriol. Also, the giant head in the clouds. I thought I was brain-damaged.

If you were worried about head-trauma, why did you come over to me?

I thought you were going to drown on the sidewalk. Hunched on the concrete as the flood waters started rising. The pelting rain, the waters coming out of the gutters around you. It was like it hurt you. Like you couldn’t look up anymore. So I figured, offer her an umbrella.

So it was pity?

It was head trauma.

You could barely stand and you were trying help me?

Well, maybe I’d pass out, but you didn’t look like you could swim, and I had a secret. I’m buoyant.

Now that part is true.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why 2,000 Words Per Day is Unnecessary

Wayne Hoffman-Ogier, a wonderful writing teacher at Bennington College, used to remind us that if we wrote only one page a day, that would produce a 365-page novel at the end of the year. He’d hold up his palms as though holding a weighty manuscript and say into your eyes, “That’s a hefty book.” It would also be more than Hemingway or Joyce could be relied upon to supply daily at points in their careers.

I’ve thought about Wayne and his stories of writing processes since writing The Brutal 2,000-Word Day. There, I explored why the fast pace of e-publishing is likely harmful to most writers. But today I’d like to explore why it’s simply unnecessary.

In mocking Scottoline, tweeters pointed out that at 2,000 words per day, seven days per week, she would accumulate 730,000 words per year. The average SciFi or Fantasy novel is somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 words range, with most genres measuring in shorter. Such productivity, tweeters chided, was god-like and almost certainly a lie. At that pace, Scottoline would have to shelve five or six novels per year.

To me, the simple math also debunked the need for the 2,000-word day. At 1,000 words per day, taking one day for rest per week and the occasional extra day off when your mother catches fire, you could hit the 100,000-word mark in four months. That’s shorter than the NFL season, and yet would create something as long as The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

If you aimed for ceaseless productivity at that 1,000-word pace, you could produce a rough draft of N.K. Jemisin’s entire trilogy in just one year. I doubt anyone has the chops to produce that kind of quality work at that pace, but it’s worth reflection.

Even at 500 words per day after work, a school teacher could produce a similar door-stopper Fantasy novel more than once per year. And because so many bestselling authors still have to work second jobs, that’s likely the schedule for some of the writers you admire.

I write faster than that. It’s been pointed out that I’m on the opposite side of the spectrum from who Chuck Wendig was mocking, as I produce over a novel a year, sell short stories and flash fiction, and produce daily content here. But it’s necessary that fast-producers respect slower processes.


Well firstly, some day your words will probably come slower. Then you’re either going to delude yourself that they aren’t, or self-loathe. I’d head that off if I were you.

But thirdly and most simply, because many vital works take time. Right now traditional publishing is pressuring writers to produce faster. If self-publishing takes over like we expect it to, it shouldn’t adopt the same Mean Girls approach. We’d have a legitimately better landscape if those people whose platforms thrive from quick production help out slower produces.

Just imagine the next generation’s John Locke marshalling his followers to check out the next David Foster Wallace. The former is comfortable and successful churning content, and can subsidize the latter not with cash, but just with a public interview and some tweets. It would perpetuate both extreme paces of production and vary the market, and that would be worth our time.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: The Prime Directive

I was on the first mission that found signs of extraterrestrial life. Pockmarks in a moon’s surface, craters so radioactive our sensors broke. All we had were a few cement structures and garbage, the remnants of life-forms that had warred themselves out of existence before we could even knock.

I wasn’t on the Astra Mission, whatever they called the one that found two previously inhabited planets. Faster-than-light travel brought us all three of those stories inside of one year. I’ll grant you the last one might have been disease, though there’s no proving they didn’t engineer the diseases that did them in. Even if you blame the one extinction on a plague, the Astra and the outlier were both self-inflicted extinction. Never forget the photos from that rift they opened in their own planet. Went down to the tectonic plates. There were skeletons down there.

Hard for science to recover its luster after we found space was a cemetery. There had always been that cruel joke that any life evolved enough for space travel would kill itself off. We don’t want to believe with the outlier, the only lonely heaven-sifters. But it got the Prime Directive passed the Senate, didn’t it? If you find another culture, interfere before it’s too late.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Bathroom Monologue: No Militaries in the Gay, Redux

Click here to hear the news report.

In a radical reversal of roles, today the U.S. government banned the military from gays. War will no longer be allowed to be declared where there are any gay people, to avoid exposing soldiers to what one White House staffer called, “uncomfortable environments.”

The Prime Minister of Iran quickly explained that earlier speaking snafus were mistranslation and there are indeed homosexual people in his country. In fact, he added, “I may be gay, or may have a gay person near me at all times!”

In related news, the governments of North Korea, Sudan and Venezuela have begun importing people of alternative lifestyles in bulk. Massive tax credits, free upscale housing and ludicrously generous civil unions have been offered to lure these sexual expatriots, or "sexpatriots," as bloggers have begun to call them.

North Korea and China entered a bidding war this morning to attract the cast of the now-defunct Bravo television series “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” hoping to have them spruce up their capitols. Anonymous sources close to the bidding war say government heads hope to make their populations look more fabulous and thus render their countries even more immune from military action.

No officials would confirm these allegations.

“We’ve been planning this for a long time,” explained one North Korean insider. “Our tight borders have left us unfashionably stuffy. The glorious leader is a longtime fan of Queer Eye. This has absolutely nothing to do with avoiding being attacked by a major superpower.”

More as this story develops.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Fifteen Novels That Stick With Me

Recently on Facebook there’s been a game to Name fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you.  List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. 

It’s morbid of me, but I don’t believe any book will stick with me forever. I phone my grandfather every night. With his age, he suffers from dementia and can’t name two books he’s ever read. The other night he tried to ask how my kids are – and folks, I don’t have any.

However, there are books that stick around for the long haul. There are books with long-term influence on behavior or how we write. Just like when the Fifteen Authors game was in vogue last year, though, I think it’s shameful to not write some of why these books stick with you. So while I made the list in fifteen minutes, I spent a few more writing just why they’re listed. Going to use this noodle while I’ve got it.

Here we go.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit
It’s my entry point into the fantastic. The archetypes of Bilbo, Gandalf and Smaug are dug pretty deep into my artistic psyche. The adventure, the convenience of invisibility, the force into so many kinds of bravery and ingenuity – ah, it’s just neat stuff. Also, The Hobbit sticks with me because no matter how I study it, I cannot figure out why as a kid I thought Beorn was black.

2. Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's
Guide to the Galaxy

My father was pleased that I liked it, but looked dismayed when I said how good it was the Science Fiction could be fun. No, I didn’t mean “funny.” It was the first SciFi I ever encountered that didn’t take itself so seriously that it failed to entertain, and it remains one of the cleverest novels I’ve ever read. Oftentimes I reflect on it as the end of the spectrum, where all goofy Speculative Fiction ideas race to the edge of visibility.

3. G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was

Part was reading it so long after its publication. Time has certainly helped the satirical novel’s opinions age and become more pliable than originally intended. That initial reading made it a damning satire, but also a damnably effective satire of satire itself. Religion is defended, but also excoriated. Anarchism is embraced, but by morons. Especially after Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s a stirring reminder not to leave any side standing in humor.

4. Jim Starlin's Infinity Gauntlet

At least one comic book would be on here. At several junctures in my ADD-addled childhood, they got me to sit down and read at all. This one introduces Thanos, probably my all-time favorite villain. It’s rare that a god doubles as a mad scientist, and rarer that either of those is a hopeless, cuckolded romantic. There’s a Mary Sue quality to his rise to power and eradicating so many iconic heroes, but there’s also a Hamlet quality to how he loses it. And who doesn’t want an Infinity Gauntlet?

5. Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

One of the first novels I ever re-read, and one that I re-read as a bedridden teenager. Divorced from social interaction, I misinterpreted Tom’s romantic values, which Twain meant to be skewering satire, for earnest instruction and tried to live by them when I started walking again. I got made fun of a lot. The comedy of errors I lived out for a few years as I weeded this stuff out of my head has always stuck with me.

6. Mark Twain's The Diaries of Adam and Eve

Hard not to go back to Twain. I read this one later in life, in a collected edition. It’s disappointingly funny – disappointing in that very little comedy can hereafter be written about the tensions between the sexes without seeming pat. That he disarmed with anarchic humor to mount some deep emotional catharsis about attachment and loss has helped it stick around in my head.

7. The Book of Job

I actually got offended when a friend told me she wasn’t surprised this was my favorite part of The Bible. Sure, life has kneecapped me a few times, but come on! Yet, it is one of humanity’s greatest hits. It was also one of the biggest hype-bubbles my non-academic ever burst, as it’s not about blind devotion to God, but about how people rush into inaccurate judgment of each other, especially in bad times. It’s a literary and theological kick in the ass that most people need twice-daily.

8. Stephen King's Needful Things

The first of the King novels stuck with me, following a familiar theme in his work. This time it was Mr. Gaunt as the creeping, supernatural thing in civil guise, joining, linking and sinking his teeth into the way we live. One of the sickest things Horror can do is point out how ignorant quotidian life makes us to dangers. Making those dangers abstract or fantastical can deepen things.

9. Stephen King's Desperation

My favorite of the King novels. There is guts, of course, with the blatant relationship to the Bachman book The Regulators, and that stands out for humor. But there’s also god against god – the hands-on against the hands-off, both tormenting us mortals in some ways, sure, but the difference between them is so much more provocative and thoughtful than I’ve seen in any modern novel that grapples with gods. It’s lucky that it all plays out over some crazy set-pieces: the heart-wrenching story of the boy hit by the car, and the family that gets locked up by a mad police officer, and that poor bastard who gets eaten in the bathroom. All that scenery stuck with me too, because it showed the benefits of delivering the goods while feeling out your themes.

10. John Steinbeck's East of Eden
I wonder how many people list this one, of all the Steinbeck books? I’d guess Of Mice and Men and Grapes of Wrath lap it. And those are compelling works, but the primal explosion of the Cain and Abel archetypes is so interesting. It’s almost a blueprint for how you should appropriate someone else’s work, with homage and obvious familiarity, but not leaning on it so heavily that your authenticity disappears. This whole novel is authentic Steinbeck in its tragic psychology.

11. Aleksandhr Solzhenisyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

If we talk about bleak fiction, chances are I’ll think of this. As a general and poor rule, I dislike bleak fiction, for especially in the Literary variety, it leads to masturbatory and uninteresting work. A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is neither of those things, nor is it about heroism or a great escape, nor is it so mired in social commentary that it chokes on opinion like 1984. It’s just a day in a miserable life that too many people were forced to live, and through Denisovich’s experience in the gulag, is a veritable model for how not to break under the weight.

12. Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Perhaps the finest book of dialogue I’ve ever read. I still can’t pull of those voices – the plethora that doesn’t need to be marked or divided, each of which is so readily identifiable by vocabulary, topic and coherence. It is brightly and darkly funny, sad and hopeful, and damn it, that ending is better than anything I’d expected.

13. Gail Simone's Deadpool

One more comic book. Like M*A*S*H and Lupin the 3rd, it sticks with me because she assembled such an endearing cast with so many opportunities for modular dynamics. I could read about the fake cowgirl and the crappy hitman and the failed superhero who wears a tuxedo over his costume forever. A shame sales didn’t hold out for this or Agent X. I feel good when I read her missing that cast, too.

14. Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country

I’d wanted a book like this for years. It’s a novel about a nation at unrest with its past and its future, where virtually everyone is guilty. The citizens, the voters, Europeans, natives of all colors, rising political figures, judges – and rather than assaulting them for their failures, it’s compassionate in its descriptions of the ways they can fail. There’s optimism in some of it, obviously, but the holistic approach to why problems are so endemic is too rare.

15. Homer's Iliad
In a little corner of John Wiswell’s mind is the desire that every novel actually be this: dudes beating the crap out of each other until the biggest dudes butt heads, and then the end. It’s gorgeous in every translation I’ve ever read, and the theme of the rest of the world’s experiences being woven in by metaphor to express what war is fought for is among the greatest feats in literary history. But I know me. Ajax is such a hoss.

So there are my fifteen. Any surprises for you? If you decide to play this game and write up why the books stick with you, please link me up in the comments. I'm curious why fiction sticks with you.
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