Monthly Archive: March 2010

Like Immortality: I Suck at Correspondence

“A Letter always seemed to me like Immortality, for is it not the Mind alone, without corporeal friend?” — Emily Dickinson
The aging process is an adventure! Who knows where it will lead you...

The aging process is an adventure! Who knows where it will lead you...

The aging process takes us in unexpected directions, doesn’t it? It’s always disturbing. You’d like to think you’re an eternal creature, a permanent existence, when not only is it a fact that someday—relatively soon, friend—you won’t be here any more, but you’re not even unchanging. You wake up every day a little more eroded, a little more educated—changed. Unfortunately, our self-image does not always change accordingly, resulting in people like me who still see themselves as they were when eighteen—svelte, optimistic, able to handle their liquor—instead of how we are—bloated, ruined, and suffering permanent yellowed skin from debilitating liver damage.

Time is indeed a harsh mistress.

There are plenty of examples of time’s softly scrubbing fingers I could offer: My taste in booze, my aching back, the fact that I’d rather shove pins under my fingernails than go out to a movie these days. These all seem subtle to me, however, and easily ignored. One aspect of my changing existence that always strikes me these days is the fact that I now suck, totally suck, at correspondence. This is not simply bragging about my misanthropic tendencies, my friends—when the phone rings, I glance at it in annoyance and let the machine pick up, and then fail to respond. When an email arrives, it sits in my inbox for weeks, ignored and threatening. I haven’t written a letter in years. People often write me through my zine or this blog, and even if they send me emotional, interesting letters or gifts, the most anyone ever gets back is a curt note thanking them for their interest. If I am drinking while stuffing envelopes, they get incoherent threats that if they don’t stop assaulting my bunnies, I will fertilize their lawn. Or something.

In short, I completely suck at correspondence.


HOT TUB TIME MACHINE (or, Oh, I see what you did there)

Me Likey DrinkyPeople ask me why I drink. Well, to be honest, they’re often asking me what I drank, and the setting is usually an emergency room in a region where I don’t speak the language, and, naturally, I have no pants. Wait, what was I saying? Right: People wonder why I medicate myself when my life is so great. I have a loving wife (the lovely and fearsome Duchess), four cute cats (and the facial scars to prove it) and a thriving writing career. What’s to get hum about?

Other writers, of course.

Professional jealousy is a terrible thing. I’m not talking about people who strike bigger money lodes than I do, or people whose sales are higher – I actually don’t worry about that. No, what I get hum about in regards to other writers is when they have better ideas than I do, or ideas I simply wish I’d had. Pretty much the moment I meet another writer, right in-between the friendly handshake and the polite cocktail banter, I start hating them because of some idea they had that I would kill to steal.

Which brings us to Hot Tub Time Machine.

Went to see this over the weekend despite mixed reviews and several warnings that it was gross, immature, misogynistic, homophobic, and dumb. The sheer power of that title was too much to resist, so The Duchess and me and our friend Ken went to check it out. Is it misogynistic? Yep. Homophobic? Yep. Dumb? Yep. Funny? Off and on – overall I enjoyed it, and there were some side-splitting moments, but overall it’s a mediocre movie. I honestly wouldn’t steal much from this movie – the SFnal aspect of time travel is treated as a gonzo plot device and nothing more, and they quickly borrow some well-worn tropes to set the main story in motion (Butterfly Effect anyone?). There aren’t too many surprising twists as the story resolves itself, and most of the jokes wouldn’t work outside the framework of this movie and the combined charm of the lead actors, which is considerable.

What would I steal from this movie? Cincinnati.

Here be spoilers, so turn back if you regard spoilers as bad. The one thing I think this movie does that is interesting and effective from a writing point of view is fail to explain several running jokes and references. Not fail to explain them, actually, but rather boldly lampshade them and then stand around with its chest thrust out like Mussolini soaking up the crowd as it refuses to explain these bits of business. There’s a moment early in the film when John Cusack’s character is reminiscing about his old girlfriend from the 1980s, and the three middle-aged friends who form 3/4s of the main characters start chanting “White Buffalo, white buffalo” over and over again in decreasing volume. The younger kid in the car with them demands they explain themselves but they just keep chanting. It happens once more in the course of the story, but it is never explained in any way.

At another moment one of the characters refers to something that happened in Cincinnati, and the kid mentions finding a shoebox in Cusack’s closet labeled Cincinnati. The other two friends react violently, aghast that Cusack would a) keep it in the closet and b) label it clearly, adding that whatever it is is “admissible”. Again, despite thirty seconds of screen time devoted to it and the strong reactions of the characters, Cincinnati is never explained. Or even mentioned again.

Finally, and perhaps my favorite, there is the Boozy Bear: A man dressed in a bear costume shows up constantly throughout the movie, drinking and dancing. He’s just there; no one comments on it, no one asks about it, and the bear is never explained.

I love this stuff. A lot of writers get caught up explaining every single grace note and reference, terrified that people might not get what they’re trying to say, or so caught up in their own perceived cleverness that they have to underscore every bit to make sure you see it in all its glory. The three credited writers didn’t exactly create the Schindler’s List[1] of Sci-Fi, or even a movie you’ll remember two years from now. But these kinds of bits, left for you to make up your own backstory to explain, elevate even a lame story at least slightly, and I am a complete sucker for them. I’ll spend the next several months trying to figure out if there’s any clues I missed as to their provenance, and then I’ll spend several months having dreams about Dancing Bears in Cincinnati. Trust me, I’ve been through this before, though usually it’s a David Lynch movie, and not frickin’ Hot Tub Time Machine.

[1]Still one of three movies that always makes me cry. The other are discussed in Volume 10, Issue 3 of my zine The Inner Swine.

Writers Life = Not Adventure

So, The Duchess and I were watching Castle the other day (a guilty pleasure – actually, almost all our televisual viewing is Guilty these days, and it’s all my wife’s fault; I wouldn’t even know who Crystal Bowersox was if not for The Duchess) and I once again considered the fact that Hollywood seems to believe that authors live lives of adventure and glamour. Every author you meet on TV or in the movies is a part-time detective, full-time celebrity who goes to sexy parties and lives in huge lofts in Manhattan. It gets to me, because an authors life is really more about getting a part-time job to pay for your crippling liquor habit and getting instant sunburn when you go outside because it has been so long since you were outside. Let’s not even start on public appearances or sexy parties. If you’ve ever been to a book reading or a launch party, you know the lie behind that.

So, I was inspired to give everyone a glimpse into a true writer’s life. Herewith, then, is a Typical Day in a Writer’s Life. Castle it ain’t:

These Damn Cats are My Only Source of News, but Damn This Bourbon is Delicious

The War of the Gem Book 1I’VE been writing since I was nine years old or so. That’s a lot of words, most of which are terrible, ugly words no one should ever see, and which I keep under lock and key for the protection of society as a whole. As you age, as with just about everything else, you slowly perceive eras in your life, chapters. Most people have a distinct era in their lives labeled Childhood, for example, and maybe others labeled High School or College or This Guy Touched Me at Summer Camp 1998 or whatever[1]. Once you hit a certain age you can see the dividing lines pretty clearly.

It’s no surprise I’m at that certain age, and I can clearly see these eras not just in my social and emotional life, but in my writing as well. I mean, I’ve been writing every day for decades, through some of the most tumultuous and ridiculous eras of my life, like She’s So Beautiful I Swear I’d Sleep with Her Brother, or The Desperation’s Gone Part III. It shouldn’t be any wonder that I can also see distinct eras in my own writing, everything organized not necessarily by the events going on in my admittedly bourgeois and dull life, but by the themes and development of the words themselves.

Now, this sort of thing is navel-gazing at its worst, of course. Sitting here going back over your reams and reams of turgid, purple prose and sighing contentedly as you note the first time you played with an unreliable narrator, or the bizarre period you went through trying to write everything as a second-person dialog, or your string of really neat ideas that came so effortlessly and now you sit and blood pops out of the pores on your forehead because you can’t think of anything nearly as good to write and the sad thing is you never even sold those great stories and and and

Uh, sorry, I lost my train of thought. The point would have been that even for this solipsistic zine, a serious and thoughtful review of the strata formed in my largely unpublished writings would be a new low. That’s okay, we’re just going to focus on one era: The very earliest one, the first things I ever wrote in my entire life. Now, you’re used to grown-up Jeff, who is annoying and endrunkened and kind of an ass (don’t pretend, I know what the Internet chatter on me is), so your instinct when you read an essay like this is more than likely to knee me in the balls. But you see, when I wrote the work we’re about to discuss, I looked like this:


That’s right: I was frickin’ cute.

The reason I started thinking about all this is because of a conversation I had over dinner a few weeks ago. A friend was telling me that his young son has some aspirations to write, and wondered if I might be willing to chat with the kid some time. Normally I regard other people’s children the same way I regard enraged monkeys: I stay as far away from them as possible; if they’re in a cage of some sort I enjoy taunting them. But I actually told this guy I’d be happy to chat with his kid if he really wanted, because of Mr. Galvin.

Mr. Galvin was a co-worker of my father’s. My Dad was inordinately proud when his son wrote a 30-page Fantasy novel (The War of the Gem; it eventually turned into a 100-page trilogy—the cover of the first manuscript is at the beginning of this post) and handed out photocopies to everyone at his job. Mr. Galvin read the story seriously, and returned it to me a few days later like this:


That’s right: My very first copy-edit. He was nice enough to not mark every single mistake, and I’ll never forget the revelation it was to me that you needed to use punctuation marks like quotes on a regular basis. Up ’til then I think I regarded punctuation more like optional garnishes than necessary components.

It was the first time someone who wasn’t Mom or Dad had ever taken me seriously as a writer, and it was exhilarating. It was, of course, the first and last time I enjoyed being copy-edited, but it remains a highlight of my early life. I have no idea what’s become of Mr. Galvin—in fact, I don’t know anything at all about the man, to be honest; I was pretty young when he worked with Dad and after that I spiraled pretty quickly into the era known as I Am a Jackass Teenager but Don’t Seem to Know It, during which I valued nothing and complained a lot, mainly to people who weren’t listening to me.

It was probably a good thing that my first brush with being taken at all seriously as a writer had to do with being edited, as this is the general relationship the writer has with everyone. You write something, you show it to people, and there commences several decades of people telling you that you are Doing It Wrong. So I’m probably lucky to have gotten that splash of cold water in the face right off the bat, as it likely inured me to, well, pretty much the rest of my life.

And thus my first-ever Writing Era, the You Must Comprehend Me Via Magic, ended, and my second Writing Era, Yes Everything I Write is A Recreation of The Last Book I Read and Also Too I am The Main Character and I Have Super Powers to Punish Mine Enemies began. And a glorious time it was, too. Thanks to Mr. Galvin, I started using quotation marks in my prose, making it slightly more understandable, and this began a series of events culminating in me actually getting paid to write. Hooray for me! And Too bad for society.

My current Life Era? Simple: These Damn Cats are My Only Source of News, but Damn This Bourbon is Delicious.


[1] If you’re me, you have eras like Drinking on Jersey City Street Corners, Post-Confirmation Church Attendance, Swearing Off the Booze I, II, III, IV, and What Do You Mean I Don’t Pay My Taxes, Why Do You Think I’m Always Broke?

Obscure Books

Because I am a cheap bastard, I frequent Used Book Stores a lot. There used to be a store in Manhattan where you could buy old paperbacks for $1 each; man, I did some damage in there. One of the benefits of frequenting Used Book Stores is the low barrier between you and books you’ve never heard of. In a regular store if I come across a book that looks vaguely interesting but about which I know nothing, the roughly $500 price tag might scare me back to the old familiar haunts of Elmore Leonard and Richard Morgan novels, but in a Used Book Store, what the hell. It’s only a few dollars. As a result, I’ve bought and read some strange and obscure books. The odd thing about them is for the most part they weren’t always obscure.

Which may seem obvious, but it’s weird to think of yourself as an aware and well-read person and then discover there are literally thousands of books that once sold very well, that were very famous, and of which you have never heard. Consider The Crime Book of J.G. Reeder. I bought this one day while wandering a street fair with The Duchess. The only reason I bought it, for $3, was the cover:

The Crime Book of J.G. Reeder

It just looked interesting. I’d never heard of J.G. Reeder or the author, Edgar Wallace (though I should have). Turns out, they were both quite famous and popular, and stories featuring the character of Reeder have been filmed a few times. Not exactly the Collected Works of Shakespeare here, but still, books that were at one time pretty big, and which now might as well have never existed.

They’re not even all that great, honestly. Some better than others, but one of the stories stands out as inexplicably bad: In Red Aces, the mystery Mr. Reeder is investigating is explained in a 2-page infodump at the very end, with absolutely no effort made to, you know, actually make it into an entertaining mystery story. You get the set up, the characters, some of the investigating, and then at the end a character you never noticed before is arrested and we’re treated to a memo filed by Mr. Reeder explaining everything, including tons of details that weren’t given to you in the story.

Okay. . .so maybe it’s not so weird that these stories are now more or less forgotten.

This isn’t new for me; I began my career of loving obscure book back in high school, when I discovered a series of Italian book by Giovanni Guareschi about a small-town priest in Italy named Don Camillo. My father had a paperback copy of a book called Don Camillo Takes the Devil by the Tail, which I read and really enjoyed against all odds. I mean, this is a book originally written in Italian in the 1950s – what are the odds? When I found four more collections of Don Camillo stories in my school library, I noticed they hadn’t been borrowed in 25 frickin’ years, so I offered to buy them. The school charged me $5 a piece for the four books, which I still have, and still enjoy.

The Don Camillo stories are just hokey fun, for me – they’re charming. There are probably about five other non-Italians below the age of 75 who have heard of this character, though.

It’s fascinating, this glimpse into the past. These books sold well, were made into movies, were comon pop-culture currency at one time. Today they might as well have never existed, except for the occasional lunatic like me who hoards them, gloating over books no one else wants. Even before I had my own set of books to watch anxiously sink into obscurity, I found books like these fascinating, not only because they were once popular and now forgotten, but for the insights into the psyche of a long-gone reading public.

You can see now why I was never one of the Cool Kids. But screw it. The cool kids read boring books.

Villain Decay

Ben Linus! FOR THE WIN!I’ve been hard at work writing the fifth Avery Cates novel, which is the last in this series, which means I’m wrapping things up and settling scores. Which also means I’m going to have significant page-time with the main villain. So I’m pondering villains in stories – especially SFnal stories – these days, exacerbated by the fact that the TV show Lost is also wrapping itself up, and also dealing with villain issues in the form of Ben Linus’ character. For those of you who watch the show, you know what I mean; the last episode “Dr. Linus” dealt with Ben and his descent from power on Craphole Island.

Villains are tricky. They’re like monsters in horror movies: Usually the less you see them, the less you know about them, the better it is. The more familiar we become with villains the less scary they are, either because their supposedly awesome powers are revealed to be not so awesome after all (because the hero usually defeats the villain, thus putting into question just how tough the villain was to begin with), or because we learn something about the villain that humanizes them (awww, they have a child! awww, they love kittens! awww, he could have let the hero die horribly but he saved him!).  Villains usually do have backstories, but it’s generally best to keep those backstories vague and mainly for the use of the Writer. I mean, if I’m writing a story, it’s good that I have some idea why my villain behaves the way he does. It’s usually not useful that the reader knows, however.

Part of this is the simple fact that your reader’s imagination will always have better special effects and more meaning to them than your own. If I give you a vague, menacing villain with some pithy dialog and dark hints about their abilities and backstory, you will come up with something on your own that is better – for you – than anything I’d come up with. Because your imagination is tailored precisely to your own likes and your own squicks. The moment I start filling in blanks, I’ll invariably select things you don’t think are so cool, and thus my villain decays.

Part of it, though, is simple familiarity. In a serial fiction, either a series of books or a TV show, or even a movie series if it goes on long enough, the villain has to have screen/page time, even if you put off the final encounter with the hero. Take Ben on Lost: This is season six, and Ben’s been around a lot, and he’s been one of the more popular characters. As a result he’s had a nice arc, and we’ve learned a lot about him, and recently he seems to be inching closer and closer to redemption, which kind of sucks. While I admire the way the show’s writers have maneuvered him into being a sympathetic character, I mourn the loss of the villain. He was much more fun as a character when he appeared to be a cold, ruthless manipulator rather than a tortured, unhappy soul.

The ultimate problem, though, is that readers/viewers want it both ways. They like their villains to be badass and unbeatable, they want the hero to beat the villain, and they want to know about the villain. The longer your series goes on, the more you have to reveal about the villain (otherwise you risk them becoming a humorous caricature of evilevilevil) and as a direct result the less impressive your villain becomes. If this goes on long enough, your villain often has to switch sides and go hero, like, transforming from Vader to Skywalker. This can be a dramatic moment, of course, but it does leave you with Villain Vacuum. You can then come up with a new villain, even More Awesoma than the previous one – but that trick only works once, maybe twice, and then you start to have a rather comical collection of ex-villains puddling about, looking less than impressive. This wears out your audience sooner rather than later, trust me.

The solution: Well, there is none. If you’re presenting a standalone story, of course, it’s not a problem at all, because your villain is going to get it in the end anyway; by the time your audience starts to get to know the villain, you destroy him. In a series, however, you will suffer Villain Decay, unless you’re okay with your protagonists being useless little pricks who always get beaten. Which you might be. The hero winning all the time is so predictable, after all.

Voice Acting for Avery Cates

The Terminal StateWell, Avery Cates #4, The Terminal State is heading for bookstores this summer, kids, and we’ve been working on a web site for it, which is always fun. I need a little help and have decided to make it a little contest; members of the super-secret Street Team got an early wink at this, but now that they’ve had their head start (I’ve already got a couple of pretty kick-ass submissions) I’m opening it up to any one:

The web site will  include some videos I’ve been working on. The videos are tiny little clips representing 4 characters from the book. The voices for these videos are placeholders. I tried to give them some flair, but I can’t help but wonder if they could be better. I figured, why not crowd-source it?

If you’re interested, I’d like to invite anyone who wants to to submit a recording for one or more of the videos. If you think you can give it a real performance, here’s what to do:

1. Surf on over to

2. The scripts and videos for each character are there. The way the voices are in the videos are a guideline–feel free to experiment and be creative, but of course I do want something in the same ballpark.

3. Record yourself and send it to me (to – please send ONLY to this email) either a WAV or MP3 file as an attachment, or as a link to the file on another server where I can download it (FTP sites are fine as long as you can give me access to them). Feel free to apply effects if you want.

4. Include in the text of your email explicit permission for me to use your voice on the web site. I’ll give credit, though I haven’t decided how yet.

If any of the entries are good enough, I’ll use them on the site. This will be entirely up to my discretion, so it’s 100% my sensibility. Feel free to pass this on to anyone if you think they’d be interested, it’s not a secret. I just wanted to give y’all first crack at it if you wanted. Have fun!

I Can’t Go, but You Should

The rather genius Evan Mandery is reading tonight in Manhattan. He is hilarious, and I wish I could make it, but I naturally forgot all about it and made other plans. Because I am an incompetent jackass.

The event is being moderated/hosted by the insufferably talented Sean Ferrell, which means it’ll be twice as entertaining. Afterwards, Sean will dance for drinks if you ask him. But only if you ask him.

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