Saturday, October 1, 2011

"in the romantic-comedy world there are many specimens of women who... do not exist in real life. Here are some examples:" -Mindy Kaling, New Yorker

"It makes sense, then, that in the romantic-comedy world there are many specimens of women who—like Vulcans or Mothra—do not exist in real life. Here are some examples:"

1. Grown women whose existences can be entirely understood, permanently altered, and tidily concluded within ninety minutes.

2. ?

Friday, September 30, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: A Tough Job, OR, Waited My Whole Life for This Pun

Sathan scoured the earth for a good one. He found it in Job, a rich man with an indecently attractive wife. Cherubic children frolicked in the shadow of his great manor. The man knelt in the window of his room, hands folded over a chest of currencies. This was what his prayer looked like. Sathan snickered.

He sidled over to Almighty. Of course Almighty was everywhere, being omnipresent, but Sathan only fancied talking to the bits that were on clouds. Sitting next to this bit of Almighty, he gestured down at the genuflecting man.

“You like that one?”

Almighty nodded. “I’m all-loving. It’s nice. You should try it.”

“He likes you back.”

“He’s a good man.”

“Of course he likes you,” Sathan said, taking an adversarial posture. “You gave him everything.”

Even with the new posture, Almighty did not turn to regard him. There were other bits of Almighty for watching Sathan; this one was for watching Job. It rankled Sathan not to get the attention of this particular bit.

“He invested in businesses. He helped raise the camels and sheep. His wife went through labor for the children. To say I gave him everything is a gross oversimplification. I never do anything alone.”

“Yeah, yeah, there’s one set of tracks in the sand. All I’m saying is that he wouldn’t be so fond if you took the fun stuff away.”

“I am sure that is all you are saying.” Almighty spoke in simultaneous sincerity and sarcasm, because He was all things.

“I’ll wager you,” Sathan rubbed his hands together, “that he wouldn’t love you so much if you took his riches, killed his family, knocked down his home and covered him with, I don’t know, maybe boils.”

“I am sure you are only doing this in the auspices of a philosophical wager, and not for the entertainment value of human misery.”


“You are supernatural.”

“Supernaturally, then.”

“How about I wager you this? The locals, including Job, have done nothing to mitigate a bad flood cycle in the local river or dissuade raiders, so he's likely to lose material goods.His home isn’t particularly well constructed, so it will eventually crumble. His family never takes care of their health, so illness is even likely. Instead of breaking the laws of nature to torture a good man, I’ll let life be exactly what it is. The same life that let him get what you call 'the fun stuff.' I’ll wager you that when it’s done, Job will be exactly who he is. Would you like to take that wager, Sathan?”

Sathan turned his back on the entirety of the cloud. That meant looking at other bits of Almighty, but that felt alright. He could grouse at them.

So he groused. “You’re no fun.”

“Job seems to enjoy me, for now at least. You’ll see how it goes.”

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Do You Buy Books?

A 2010 study by Verso Advertising sought to graph what made people buy books. They singled out six key aspects that avid readers identified with. The results went:

1. Author reputation (52%)
2. Personal recommendation (49%)
3. Price (45%)
4. Book Reviews (37%)
5. Cover/Blurb (22%)
6. Advertising (including online) 14%

Wisely, the researchers allowed motives to overlap. You know you’ve waited for that new novel from your favorite author to go on sale before you got it. A cover can make you try the first few pages in a bookstore. If friendly recommendations are backed up by professional reviews or Goodreads… you get the idea.

Susan Kaye Quinn recently asked why her readers picked up their last three books. It's a good question. So readers, what are the last three books you bought? What made you get them? Were they paper or e-books? Could the above six motives apply, or are there other factors?

I reviewed my own recent purchases just to check. The first undeniably fits.

  1. Booker T. Washington’s UP FROM SLAVERY (Cosimo Classics 2007; originally, 1901)
There’s no question that the author’s reputation drew me to the book. It’s the same effect that moves so many celebrity memoirs, even if Mr. Washington’s celebrity is a little more respectable than most. He lived as a slave child during pre-Civil War U.S., through the Jim Crow period, and became a hugely influential and controversial political figure. Giving his opinions due time is just part of my intellectual back-filling. It was going to happen eventually.

  1. Harold Lamb’s HANNIBAL: ONE MAN AGAINST ROME (Bantam 1958)
“Subject” feels excluded from Verso’s six. For instance, I picked up a book about this infamous military figure because I don’t know much about him. The subject matter interested me more than Lamb’s reputation or book reviews. Reviews helped me narrow done which book about Hannibal I’d take, but it was secondary to my pursuit to broaden my understanding about the figure beyond his Wikipedia article.

     3. James Patrick Kelly's BURN (Tachyon Publications 2006)

I technically got this book for the second time. Kelly is well-respected in the SciFi community, well-reviewed, and a winner of awards that leave me green with envy. “Author reputation,” there you go. BURN is short enough that I figured I could give Kelly a shot. But then a certain someone borrowed my copy. And took it somewhere to the vicinity of New Mexico. Two years ago. Last week I realized I’m probably never going to see it again. I also realized Kelly provides the entire audiobook for free in podcast form on his site. Having author endorsement, and having already actually given money to that author, I downloaded my new copy. I guess that’s “Price.”

As I finish the latest draft of my new book, I wonder. What are the three books you bought most recently? And why?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lady Kickass & Superman: Why Too-Good Characters Are Still Good

I was on a certain writing forum once. An aspiring Epic Fantasy writer asked our crowd:

“I’ve written too good a character.
She’s smart, fast, generous, and good with a sword.
She’s too resourceful to ever lose. What can I do with her?”

It attracted the typical response: don’t write her like that. She was berated for creating a one-dimensional character and stifling all potential conflicts. “Mary Sue” was typed several times. Somebody even accused her of expecting readers to pay her to pen her own wish fulfillment.

That would have been my response if she caught me on a bad day. But, I arrived lucid. I recommended she write this protagonist into situations that weren’t simply win/lose. The following is closer to what I told her than is professionally flattering.

The gremlin war machines are pouring from the coastline.
They’ve laid siege to the north and south.
Lady Kickass is within half a day’s ride from
a nunnery in the north and a mechanist outpost in the south.
She may not even make it in time to assist saving either,
but she definitely can’t do both. One will be lost.
Which does Lady Kickass choose?

Okay, I renamed her character for the author’s anonymity. But the rest stood then as it does now. Situations abound in life where the stakes aren’t 100% Victory or 100% Failure. It ranges from who you sit with at lunch to how you allocate troops in Afghanistan. You do things for multiple reasons, and only have so much time and resources to accomplish anything at all. Writers always bellyache about there being too few hours in the day. Why not make that a problem for Lady Kickass?

It’s the dilemma of writing Superman. Since college, I’ve realized I love this character. But his bulletproof morality isn’t typically best displayed in a fistfight against someone’s bulletproof immorality. It’s in the decisions he has to make and the person they make him. My favorite thing Alan Moore ever wrote was For the Man Who Has Everything, which revealed the Man of Steel doesn't dream about us, but about living somewhere that doesn’t need him all the time.

I love Superman, at the very least as an archetype. I hold other people’s disdain for him with my own disdain. There is a grotesque demand in Literature, spiraling into all genres, to write “relatable” and “realistic” characters. Too often this means viewing your audience as cretins. They are vile, unimaginative subterranean spawn, all hideous, craven, and incapable of enjoying stories about anyone scarcely above their own level in any way. Something happened in the last five, ten, hundred or thousand years that eradicated wonder and aspiration. At some point, common readers became incapable of finding inspiration in characters who had capacities beyond their own. This marketing insight would mystify Christians and Muslims, whom adore deities and mortals they deify. From Hercules to House, M.D., we know the grubby audience stereotype is at least overblown.

Most of my characters are defined by one incapacity or another. It’s how I generate fictional people. But I’d never stifle the outrageous only for being outrageous. Like most bugbears of fiction, it’s not that a highly capable character is intrinsically bad. It's that you have to earn it, make it entertaining, and generally, make it worth the reader's time. Often that’s as simple as giving Lady Kickass some consequences.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: What Children Should Worry About

-Other children, re: their willfulness, viciousness and vindictiveness
-Being ostracized for wearing the wrong apparel
-Being in any way noticeably different, especially in ways related to any sort of vulnerability
-Global Warming
-The Rapture, Judgment Day, Apocalypse
-People believing in The Rapture who will kill them
-People disbelieving in The Rapture who will kill them
-The rise of other superpowers
-Corporate hegemony
-Wild animals
-Statistically, family
-That everyone they love and rely upon will go away
-Personal mortality
-General mortality
-The Meaning of Life
-Being gradually forced to become self-sufficient
-Being gradually forced to bow to society
-Emotional trauma from the duel between the forces of mandatory self-sufficiency and obligations to social structures
-That a B- will hurt their GPA
-Getting into a good school
-Getting into a good college
-Getting into a good Masters program
-No openings in the job market regardless of their education level
-Finite materials in an increasingly demanding global market
-Dangerously lax environmental protection laws
-Dangerously lax factory standards
-Syringes in sealed soda cans
-Sugar and preservatives in everything
-That watching any sort of viewing screen, including all those that entertain them, is gradually turning them blind
-Anxiety issues
-Early onset Alzheimer’s
-The multiple kinds of diabetes
-Sex, re: its performance, who you want it with, its reflection on your character, diseases contractible from it and assorted regrets experienced immediately afterward
-The various diseases you can contract from far more mundane activities than sex
-Cancers triggered by environmental factors, of which they’re largely ignorant
-Cancers triggered by genetic factors, over which they have absolutely no control
-That all their teeth will be bloodily shoved out of their mouths by a second pair
-Learning to operate an expensive, fragile mode of transport that runs on combustible fuel
-Moving out
-Maintaining a job
-Affordable healthcare
-Supporting relatives
-Looming adulthood
-Looking back on this one day and thinking it was so much better than the rest of their lives

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bathroom Monologue: Physics Isn’t Good or Bad

“Science is amoral. Physics isn’t good or bad. It just is. One guy patents the radio, another creates nerve gas. Equally innocent. Cure for polio or the atomic bomb? Totally, equally amoral. Cannot be judged. Must be allowed to continue developing at whatever rate scientists can secure funding. Chopping people’s arms off to measure how quickly they scream? This is science. Fuck off with your ethics. Ethics are fairy-story make-believe. Science believes in materials, like armor-piercing bullets and hobos signing up for human testing. You don’t want us to build a nuclear reactor just because an earthquake might release radiation over your city? That’s wrong of you. And that’s weird, because science doesn’t acknowledge wrong. Unless it’s the wrong of opposing science. You want to send aid to starving countries instead of paying for another moon landing? Well, fuck you. That moon landing is the future of science. So is creating sustainable agriculture for a ballooning world population, but that’s not for you to judge. Those moon scientists and food scientists both want money. Neither is more right than the other because there is no right in science. It’s not your place to project values onto these people. If anything, you should hold both their opinions and keep flinging money at each of them. That may seem like saying they’re both more right than you are, but that’s only if you think about it, and science is telling you not to. It’s wrong to think about it, because thinking about it is opposing science. In a few years neuroscientists will conquer the brain and, based on how you think, tell you what to think. Want a spoiler? It has you paying us for science. That’s good for everyone, or it would be if good were a material.”
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