Monthly Archive: May 2009

Back in the U.S.A.

Well, I forgot to mention, but I’ve been in Italy for a week following my wife around and attempting to conquer the country with exactly 25 words of badly conjugated Italian. Which is more possible than you’d think. I got more mileage out of can you tell me where and quanto devo than you’d ever imagine. Of course, everyone seemed to speak English there as well, and this is what usually happened:

JEFF: <garbled, barely-intelligible and badly pronounced phrase in Italian that loosely translates to excuse me, but can you the bathroom in the footwear? Pizza!>

ITALIAN GENTLEMAN: <Sighing>. You’re an American, eh? Give me fifty Euros.

JEFF: Grazie!

Anyway, it was a fine trip, aided by the fact that even in these sad modern times you can jab a meaty finger at a menu and grunt hopefully, and something will be brought to your table. Sure, sometimes it’s Tripe, but that’s Italy.

The trip made me think about world-building, actually, because there are places in Europe which are so drastically different from America, yet they both exist in the same world. Heck, even cities in Italy are very different from each other; Florence for all its Renaissance charm feels much, much more modern than nearby Siena, where Black Death and war apparently froze development for hundreds of years, leaving the city little changed, in some ways, from its Medieval roots.

This got me to thinking about writing science-fiction – at least SF that’s based in the future, like mine. What you’re always trying to accomplish with futuristic SF (well, maybe not always, but a lot of the time) is a believably weird extension of our present. This is sometimes a fine line to walk. On the one hand you want there to be technological advances and seemingly-impossible, unexpected cultural shifts. On the other hand, you want to avoid creating a future world that is completely wonky and disconnected from the previous state of things. Things here in the 21st century might appear bizarre and incomprehensible to someone from the 14th, sure, but there are threads of things that remain the same. A road is still a road, a loaf of bread is still recognizable. Some things – more than you might expect – have remained the same.

This principle applies, I think, to any story set in a future Earth: You have to avoid the temptation to re-imagine everything. Because the future, unless it is so far away as to be completely disconnected with the present, is an extension of said present. Things only change when forces act upon them – better technology, changing climates, new ideas. Some things stay the same despite technology and time, simply because no one can conceive of any advantage to changing them. If you can think of a reason why people will be wearing bizarre plastic suits in the year 2109, fine, go on ahead. You don’t even have to explicitly detail why or how, as long as there’s a reason in your head as you write. But if you can’t think of a good reason why people would wear bizarre plastic suits. . .then don’t make your characters wear bizarre plastic suits.

Look around: I’ll bet you there is tons of technology and infrastructure around you that is old. They invent all sorts of cool new things, but the old sludgy things stick around a long time. The water pipes in the ground in my home town are 100 years old. There’s tons of old copper wire strung between houses. Old cars, old buildings, old technology – just because new stuff gets invented doesn’t mean the old gets swept away in a glorious tide of newness, so if you make your future world a shiny example of all-new everything, it’s going to feel a little plastic.

Just one writer’s opinion, of course. And a drunk writer at that. And a drunk writer with just 25 words of Italian under his belt. What sense could I possibly make?

Writing Advice

Being a writer who has earned something less than a poverty wage in return for his exciting novelin’ (and yes, I declare “Noveling” to be a new word; TRY AND STOP ME). I sometimes get asked for advice.

Sometimes the advice is practical: “Jeff, how can I feign sobriety during important things like job interviews, wedding ceremonies, and trials?” The answer: monosyllables. Makes you look mysterious and wise.

Sometimes the advice sought is businesslike: “Jeff, how did you get your agent, who is clearly smarter and funnier than you, and has much more interesting clients?” The answer: Trickery. For the first two years of our business relationship, my agent thought my name was John Updike.

Sometimes, however, the advice is for the ethereal artistic side of things, as in, “Jeff, how do create your plots?” or “Jeff, how do you write your dialog?” or “Jeff, how can I get you to stop writing altogether? Tell you what, write a number on this slip of paper and tomorrow that amount will be in your bank accounts, no strings attached, as long as you promise to not write any more.”

So, here’s the best writing advice I can offer:

1. Don’t ask other writers. In fact, I recommend not even associating with other writers at all. We’re arrogant and vainglorious, and if you give us an opening we will pry that sucker open like a swarm of invading termites and we’ll talk your ear off for hours about our “craft”. This is because most of the people in our lives, our intimate friends and relatives, don’t care much that we write, and finding someone who does is like finding a forgotten bottle of whiskey sunk in the toilet tank; we lose track of time. Plus, we will steal your ideas. And probably your wallet. True story.

Since you’re still reading, I assume you’re ignoring #1 and sticking around to see if I’m going to actually dispense any advice. Although since you’re ignoring my advice I wonder why.

2. All righty then: Forget all the pithy little things folks have told you: write what you know, avoid passive voice, you can’t write a novel entirely from the dead dog’s point of view using a complex code involving repetitions of the word “bark”. Screw it: Write a book you’d want to read. Shocking, I know, but a lot of the nuts and bolts of writing can be gleaned just by reading good books. Read a lot, write a lot, and write stuff you’d pay good money for.

3. The best cure for writer’s block that I know of is to write something else for a while. I know someone who has been working on the same novel for 27 years. One book. Nothing else. I suggest the best way to get anything done is to have several projects at once, keep the juices flowing in different directions. A blog is a nice way to drool words if you’re not ready with a second or third novel to work on. Short stories are excellent ways to get ideas on paper and work on scenes that otherwise might wander aimlessly. You know what else works for writer’s block? Liquor. Seriously. Look into it.

So, have a nice weekend, folks. For those of you who write, get crackin’ and good luck. For those of you who don’t, and just want me to get the damn books out already, I’m a goin”, I’m a goin’…

Just Like Starting Over

So, I saw Star Trek over the weekend. Good movie, didn’t taste much like Star Trek – even Nimoy’s reading of classic Spock phrases sounded like they were from a different universe – but fun nonetheless and I have little doubt it will spawn several sequels, until, inevitably, this series gets bogged down in bad writing, new directors, bloated actors, and doomed attempts to have the greatest special effects evah. I’m not exactly a rabid Trek fan, though; casual would be the right word for me. I’ve seen an awful lot of Trek material in my day, but I don’t exactly keep track of it all. So the only real question for me was whether it was a fun movie, and it was.

I mean: Damn, that was one shiny movie. You could run it with the sound off and it would still be kinda entertaining.

It did make me think about other things: JJ Abrams thinks Slusho is a lot more interesting than it actually is; he’s one of the few filmmakers out there who seems to have had a drink in an actual bar at some point in his life; a girl in green skin makeup will never look like she’s an actual alien; and something else: This awesome/horrible new trend of rebooting old series.

Just in the past few years we’ve seen Batman, Superman, Star Trek, and James Bond reboots – defined as a new movie that dispenses with established canon and timeline and just, well, starts over. From a practical point of view, this is a great and necessary strategy, as it allows for the clearing away of deadwood actors, cumbersomely intricate backstories, and outdated design and special effects. Especially when your series has been losing ticket sales and popularity of late, it’s an obviously good decision, even when the resulting movie doesn’t turn out too well (Superman Returns, we’re looking at you).

The real question is: Are Reboots good for us, the consumer? Are they merely cynical ways to get kids into the seats, ignoring older fans and trashing decades of established storylines and mythology, or are they ways to wring a new freshness from an old story? Wouldn’t it be better if Hollywood actually created new stories instead of dusting off old ones – I mean, wasn’t there something startling and original they could have spent money on instead of Star Trek? We’ve all seen Star Trek, in one form or another, haven’t we? On the other hand, when Hollywood does trot out a new story, it usually sucks, so maybe rebooting a series that at least has the dessicated glory of its past clinging, barnacle-like, to its belly is better.

After a lot of thought over beers, soul-searching, and absolutely no research or determined discussion with people holding differing opinions from my own, I’ve decided that reboots are, in fact, mostly harmless.

As a writer, I struggle occasionally with the fact that once I release a work into the wild, so to speak, I cease to own it. It becomes collective property. Oh, I own the copyright, of course, and have some control over what happens with it, but people can decide whatever they want about it. They can interpret as they see fit, and they can critique, discuss, and reach whatever conclusions they want to, as well. Nothing I can do about it, and that’s fine – that is, in fact, as it should be. A franchise reboot is, essentially, the same thing, really. You release movies into the wild, and they get reinvented after a while, even after everyone who worked on the originals has died and thus cannot provide any more creative ideas.

In short, I can dislike a particular reboot, but I can’t dislike the concept of reboots as a whole. Or, better said, I can dislike the idea, but I can’t think of a real argument against them. Which is the slogan of the lazy mind, and thus: My slogan.

Of course, would I have the same opinion if someone were to reboot my books in book form? That is to say, what happens if, 30 years from now, Avery Cates seems like a stuffy old-timey kind of character, the kind of story that makes people say Well, that’s how things were back then. Sort of the way we look at spy movies from the 1960s – in other words, aching for a reboot. And they hire some dashing young author to whip up a fresh, hip new version of the character and the universe. How would I feel about that? Aside from the obvious answer, which is: Nothing, as I’ll likely be dead from liver disease. If I was still alive I doubt I’d be interested, unless I had some serious balloon mortgage payment to make, or some serious health insurance premiums. In which case: Sign me up, I’ll write fucking Avery Cates children’s books if I have to. Barring that, I’d obviously rather write new stories than reboot old ones.

If I’m dead, go with Gary, what do I care? I don’t know if the reboot idea will ever invade the literary world – movies, requiring so many fingers in the pot, are much more apt to be groupthink projects that view idiosyncracies as problems for marketing. If it does, I wonder if they’ll make Avery Cates a teenager or something.

The Communicator Fails in Japan

Like a lot of folks, I’ll likely see Star Trek: The New Hotness this weekend. I skipped the last 2 ST movies (I never even rented them) due to a lack of interest that bordered on disdain; I don’t know if it was the fact that the Next Generation characters had been played out or if it was just the lifeless and automatic nature of the storylines I gleaned from the ads and reviews, but I barely noticed these movies existed. When a kid I’d been really excited by Star Trek: The Motion Picture and its first three or four sequels, and I recall getting a bit jazzed when they combined the NG cast with the TOS cast for Generations, but after that it gets cloudy. The problem I think is simple enough: If you’re not willing to take any real chances with a universe, if you’re not willing to kill off characters and shift political realities – if you’re not willing to mess with the basic infrastructure of a universe – it gets dull. No matter how inventive the story is, we all know every movie ends with everything status-quo, and that gets dull.

Star Trek II through IV managed to escape this, I think, via Spock’s death and eventual resurrection. Having Spock die was unsettling, having him come back as a decidedly changed man was unsettling, and unsettling is good for stories.

Anyway, we’ll see what JJ has done with this storied franchise. I’m interested in how he handles the tech stuff, because some parts of Start Trek have not aged well.¬† Sure, beaming up is still cool, ships hurtling through space remain beyond our reach, and phasers still have that tang of futurism on them, but other things are hit-and-miss: The Communicator, for instance. Sure, the thing can put you in touch with your ship light years away, instantly, apparently without network outages, but the Communicator would fail if introduced to the market today. A single-purpose speech device that does nothing else? The iPhone would eat it alive. Maybe if combined with the Tricorder – and one wonders why no one ever thought to suggest this back in 1966 – there’d be a chance, since apparently the tricorder can be rejiggered in a variety of ways to do almost anything.

One thing I’m still waiting for, of course, is the replicator. Although the day I can just keep ordering Scotch from the microwave without having to get up from my chair is probably the last day you see me. Some folks might get lost in the Holodeck, but I will be lost to an endless supply of consumables, limited only by imagination. Monkey-flavored beer? Why not. The fact that it always seemed like we’re supposed to be blown away by the warp drive and the beam-me-down stuff while taking the replicator in stride is weird anyway. The replicator would solve world hunger and any other shortage problem, immediately. Gold would be worth about a penny a pound and the world economy would collapse, but we’d all be fat on Twinkies and Root Beer. Assuming you can afford a replicator, which would probably cost somewhere around forty or fifty trillions dollars apiece.

But I digress.

Updating a story like Star Trek so that it seems like science fiction again to a modern audience is tricky. On the one hand you don’t want to step on all the things that people love about it; on the other you’d got to clear away some of that 1960s and 1980s gunk that’s cluttering everything up. I’m glad to hear the rumor that they’re keeping the miniskirts, although that maybe doesn’t fall under the category of technology. I will also miss Shatner’s legendary. Speech. . .patterns, and hope the new guy doesn’t try to imitate them too much, if at all, but again, maybe that doesn’t have anything to do with SF. Unless a Romulan Brain Worm infestation is revealed as the source of Kirk’s speech impediment. Which would rawk.

Ah, Sweet Booze

I keep a PO Box for my zine correspondence, and yesterday I found an airplane-sized bottle of vodka in it, sent by an angelic benefactor:

I suggested a few years ago in my zine that if people wanted to buy me a drink but couldn’t travel to New Jersey/New York, you could mail me a tiny bottle of booze, and more people than I would have originally imagined have taken me up on the offer. Thank god!

Random Friday Post

I have nothing coherent to say this morning, partly due to having drinks with the very interesting and talented Sean Ferrell at the World’s Greatest Bar last night. Sean and I share an agent and have been trading random pantsless jokes for months, so we decided it was time to put all that brain power into one place and pour whiskey over it. The experiment went well; I had some nice Glenmorangie Port Wood 12 year and we had a great conversation that ran the gamut from the movie memory hole to day jobs to the modern affliction that is modern pants requirements. Also, Sean outlined a story idea for a novel that I am going to steal, it was so good. Avast!

What was fun about meeting Sean, as well, is that at no time did either of us give any serious thought to dinner. Myself, I like to have cocktails after the working hours (9-5), and often when I indulge in cocktails (which for me means whiskey, neat) I slowly lose the desire for food until I wake up the next day starving. It’s hard to fnid folks who either share this sort of approach to serious classy boozing or who can at least tolerate it; usually people are tossing cheeseburgers at me, interrupting the flow of booze to me, which is unforgivable. In the immortal words of Mel Brooks as channeled through Gene Wilder: Food just makes me sick.

It’s a glum, rainy day in Hoboken today, which is good writing weather.¬† Of course, any day is good writing weather. I think I’ve decided to put a personal embargo on any essays concerning Twitter and the Kindle-slash-eBooks; I’m personally getting tired of everyone weighing in on whether Twitter is destroying conversation and privacy as we know it or just a toy for overly self-liking kids, and I’m definitely tired of the debate about whether the Kindle will destroy print books and whether that’s bad or not. I do have my opinions, but I doubt either technology will change/destroy the world, as nothing – not even the goddamn hydrogen bomb – has managed to do that so far. I’m no fan of the Kindle (because it strips you of your rights as a reader) and I’m still trying to decide if Twitter is fun and useful or just weird and pervy, but I don’t fear either technology and so I think I’ll just let them marinate for a while.

I’m sure someone will alert the media.

I’m also pondering Lost, which I’ve watched faithfully almost since the very beginning. I’m not as excited as other folks are about this season, and I have 2 theories: One is the inevitable letdown whenever the curtain is pulled back. The only revelations in a story that really sock you in the head are the ones you don’t expect. When Tyler Durden turns out to be the evil second personality of the Narrator in Fight Club, that hit me in the head (let’s table discussions of my intelligence and perception for later, thanks). But with Lost, I’ve been waiting for these revelations¬† – and guessing at them – for years now, man. It’s like any monster movie: The Monster always seems cooler and more badass when all you get are shadowy glimpses and people screaming. When they real that latex-and-CGI hokum, you’re invariably less afraid of it. With Lost, half the power was in the mystery, and as those mysteries get revealed they simply become spokes in the plot wheel, and thus a bit of a letdown.

My other theory is that Sci Fi is leaking into the mainstream at such a rate that you have a lot of folks who have never read/watched a time-travel story in their lives suddenly hooked on this show and it. is. blowing. their. minds. Don’t get me wrong: Lost is a great show. But I’ve read so many time-travel stories that the idea of looping back on your own life doesn’t, by itself, amaze me, so maybe I’m wanting more from Lost than some folks who started watching because it was a creepy and well-done survival story at first.

Anyway, I started this post at 10:30AM and now it’s 2:11PM, and I did absolutely nothing in-between. Talk about Time Travel. I’m apparently fast-forwarding through my entire life.