Monthly Archive: January 2011

SitCom Writin’ at Its Finest

I love a good Situation Comedy, I admit it. And NBC’s Community has been my drug of choice recently. Here’s a context-free speech made by one of the characters that I’m still laughing about (see it here if you’re interested:

Jeff Winger: I’m going to say some names to you. Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. Rich. What do they have in common? We don’t know them very well. What do we know about Ben Chang? We know he’s nuts.

Ben Chang: Let him finish!

JW: We know he’s dangerous. Unpredictable. Selfish. We know he uses his name to make bad puns.

BC: Guilty as Changed.

JW: When he talks, he over- and under-emphasizes words, seemingly at random! When he eats, he holds his fork like a murderer’s knife, gnawing at its skewered payload like a deranged woodland rodent!

BC: Bring it home!

JW: We know he smells like band-aids. We know he dresses like a Cuban cab driver. We know he exhibits–nay! Flaunts proudly obvious symptoms of over half a dozen disorders you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy’s pets!

BC: Feel the *heat*!

JW: We know these things about Ben Chang. And so much more than we ever wanted to know about him. And why? Because its there. It’s on the surface. What you see may be what you don’t want, but it’s also what you get!

I think it was the “he smells like band-aids” that got me.

The World of Fail

The only sport I pay much attention to is baseball. Baseball, I think, attracts nerds like me because a) a lot of baseball players (more so when I was a kid than today) look like they don’t work out much, and it creates this illusion that anyone can play baseball, and b) the stats. Other sports are much more physical, much more fast-paced, and you can blame a lot on the sheer magical physical capability of the athletes. In baseball you can crunch the numbers. If you think about it, baseball stats are basically Failure Stats. The best hitters in the game fail to get on base 60% of the time. The best pitchers in the game lose one-third of their games.

Baseball is beautiful. But it is a game of suffering.

So is writing fiction, babies. As a matter of fact, I sometimes think my own personal batting average for successful stories is worse than a batting average. The sheer number of failed novels in my desk drawers and on my hard drives is kind of amazing, and are so numerous they can actually be categorized:

  1. The Rejected: Novels I wrote, polished, submitted to someone, and was told, gently, to bury as deeply as possible. Sometimes to deny having written in the first place.
  2. The Single Drafted: Novels I wrote and immediately regretted, like a burrito ordered and consumed after you spent the day drinking bourbon in a dive bar with Sean Ferrell.
  3. The Juvenilia: There are several novels written in my formative years when I actually thought my shocking and ballsy attitudes and opinions would scandalize the world! In other words, I was an asshole, and these are novels written by an asshole.

Hell, if you did the simple math and divided every novel I wrote by every novel I would actually show to you, my success rate is pretty abysmal. This is nothing new, of course. I maybe have more completed novels in my files than some, but possibly fewer than others. Writing a novel ain’t easy to begin with. Writing one people can read without shooting themselves in the head is a whole other level of difficult. And writing one that people would pay to read, well, that’s nearly impossible.

And then it hits you: Writing is a goddamn World of Fail.

Even successful stories go through a hell of revision and feedback where people point out everything you did wrong, or didn’t do well enough.  I have a feeling that if I ever wrote a book that sailed through all beta readings and the entire publishing process without any Fail, I’d have something like The Entertainment from Infinite Jest, or Monty Python’s Funniest Joke in the World. Which would be great. Because I would totally leverage that into world domination. I imagine some outfit like Halliburton would be at my door the next day with an 18-wheeler filled with diamonds and a 500-page contract for exclusive use of the novel in warfare.

Of course, when you’re living in a World of Fail, such fantasies are all you have.

The worst part is the Dan Browning: Even if you’re a successful writer who sells scads of books, you still get to Fail, and often, through the fact that all the hipster doofuses start complaining about your lack of lietrary merit or your tendency to lose control over POV throughout the story. Or that your story makes no sense even after you’ve huffed an entire tube of airplane glue in an old Taco Bell bag. You might think that doesn’t hurt our feelings, but it does. In other words, even when a writer Wins, they Fail.

And you wonder why we drink.

What About Raoul

I caught Panic Room on TV the other day. I haven’t seen it since it was in theaters; it was one of those movies I enjoyed while watching and then never thought about again. I still let the gods of cable TV run my viewing; despite the growing ability to watch whatever I want when I want to, I never actually put in a DVD of an old movie or order it up. I like to just find them on TV when I least expect it. It goes back to my crude childhood days of having 12 channels and no VCR; the sudden rush of delight when you turned on the TV and there was actually a good movie on still warms my otherwise black and unhappy heart.

Motherfuckin' Raoul

Motherfuckin' Raoul

So, I watched Panic Room for the first time in years. Still a great movie, in my opinion. Sure, you once again have to try and care about characters who are so goddamn rich they can buy a townhouse like that in Manhattan. And that is pretty goddamn rich.

The question of why so many characters in fictions are rich is an interesting one. Of course, let’s first agree that I have no idea what percentage of characters are, in fact, rich in fiction stories. I’ve done no research. It just seems to me like an awful lot of stories focus on people who are rich. In stories like Panic Room, of course, the simple answer is: Poor people do not have anything to steal. Case closed.

Anyway, they manage to get you caring about our rich white protagonists with the double-punch of Sad Jodie Foster as Divorced Wronged Woman and her daughter, played by pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart, as Sick Girl who has diabetes and needs constant care to stay alive. So, sure, they’re rich and white and privileged, but they have their problems too. Once I get past my own class-warfare issues, it’s a fine story, told very well.

Except for Raoul.

In the story, Junior, a crackhead Trustafarian, recruits Burnham, who works for the security company that installed the alarm and titular panic room in the house, to help him break in and rob the place. It’s made very clear that Junior has chosen the moment carefully because his aged uncle has died and the house was sold, but he believes escrow has not yet ended, so the house should be completely empty. So the plan is clearly that they sneak in when no one is there, Burnham uses his knowledge of the alarm system to make sure they are undetected, they steal the $22 million in bearer bonds hidden in the panic room safe, and then they sneak out. Since no one else even knows the bearer bonds are there, it is obviously planned as a quick, easy crime. When Junior finds out the house is occupied, he goes into a fit of rage and panic. Because he was sure no one would be in the house.

Junior has just introduced Raoul to Burnham, and Burnham is upset at his last-minute inclusion. Raoul wears a mask and carries a humongous gun, and talks like a hard case. Why in hell is Raoul there? Junior says he recruited Raoul because he has experience with robbery, but it doesn’t make any sense: Junior was convinced the house would be empty and they would encounter no resistance. Junior is clearly shown to have no ability to think ahead or make complex plans. So why would he recruit a psychopath like Raoul before knowing there were people in the house that would need to be ‘handled’?

On one hand, the answer is easy: The story needed Raoul. Junior’s weak. Burnham’s a good guy, deep down, who refuses to hurt anyone. Junior and Burnham are not menacing. Raoul adds that edge of menace the story needs, because he is not a nice guy, he is willing to hurt people, and he is clearly in it for himself. So that’s the easy answer: Raoul is there because the writer decided he needed Raoul to bring some tension to the story, and to escalate the violence believably.

On the other hand, it makes absolutely no sense. Junior expects an easy score. Why would he risk a share of the money and complications to bring Raoul in? This could have been solved very easily: Have Junior call in Raoul after they discover the house isn’t empty. A panic decision. Works perfectly. Except then, of course, you’ve ruined the flow of the sequence. As it stands the scene where the three criminals arrive at and enter the house is masterfully done. David Fincher, the director, has an ease with the camera that makes for fluid visual storytelling. The camera swoops through the house like a bird, smoothly tracking the movements of the men as they appear outside, traverse the perimeter, and finally effect an entrance. They then go immediately to work. To insert a sequence where Junior calls in Raoul and then waits for his arrival would have slowed down the pace excruciatingly and ruined that flow.

These sorts of ripple effects happen a lot. As you write a story you have to be thinking about your details, because a simple change suggested towards the end can cause your whole plot to ripple out, knocking things out of place. In the end, I could believe that the screenwriter just decided to let that slight illogic lie, handwave it as evidence of Junior’s criminal-wannabe, crackhead-addled thought process. And it does almost work. Well enough anyway to get by with, except for one cranky guy watching it on Encore or whatever eight years later.

That’s why my wife The Duchess and I can’t wait for true Internet Television, so we can just press buttons on our remotes when we like or dislike something. I’m not thinking about tedious typing of opinions. Just big red and green LIKE and DON’T LIKE buttons we can mash whenever something displeases us. And then a little avatar of our heads pops up on screen, cursing and dancing in rage. For both buttons, actually, now that I think about it. And who wouldn’t want my disembodied head to appear on your screen, cursing and complaining?

This is the problem with being a working writer: You just can’t enjoy movies any more. You’re always tugging at the plot threads, seeing if anything shakes loose. It can be maddening. This is why I drink. Because I know someone’s out there right now, doing the same to my books. The bastards.

Ask Jeff Anything 1-5-11

After a hiatus imposed by all the More Shit I Gotta Do, we’re back with answers to your questions! And by “we’re” I mean “I am” in the royal sense. Because I’m the king of rock, there is none higher, Sucker MC’s should call me sire. To burn my kingdom, you must use fire, I won’t stop rockin’ till I retire. And also, look for a quick cameo by Spartacus the Cat, incensed that I spent a few minutes paying to attention to something that is not him. Little bastard.


Happy New Year

Well, here e are, the arbitrarily numbered year 2011. Whoop! We survived. Although I am reminded that life is a zero-sum game: None of us are getting out alive, kids.

I don’t do resolutions. First of all, the sheer number of things requiring improvement and modification in my life is staggering and, frankly, exhausting. And far too many of them involve cats. Which is the general speed of my entire life these days: Cats. Some people’s speed of life is Speedboat, or Champagne, or Battlestar Fucking Galactica. Mine is: Cats. Make of that what you will. So I don’t make boring little lists of goals. I mean, you want to do something, do it. It’s not complicated.

As a sort of general goal for life, however, I believe I have resolved to stop watching bad movies.

This might seem easy to do, yet I have failed at it for many years now. Somehow the books I read tend to be uniformly good. The music I purchase is generally what I want as a soundtrack, at least for the present. Yet about 50% of the movies I watch suck. The worst part? I know they suck before I watch them. I can’t explain it. If you shaved my head and showed me where they’d wired in the mind-control circuitry, man, I would not be surprised.

Movies are just too damn easy to watch these days. When I was a kid, you had to climb fucking mountains to see a movie. I remember actually paying to watch Who’s Harry Crumb? one night because all the good movies were sold out. And I swore, never again. But I don’t have to borrow my mom’s car and scrape together allowance to see movies any more. I press a button on my remote. The bar is too low, and I’ve gone soft from liquor and indolence. No more! I’m tightening shit up around here.

This might not matter much anyway, since the world is ending, according to insane people. I would welcome this, as I believe the instant removal of all these people would improve the world greatly. Even if the world was turned into a Lake of Fire afterwards, it would still be a better place. Wo0t! Still, I have to admit an abbreviated 2011 ending in Rapture relieves me of some responsibilities. I will spend the five months drinking and yelling abuse at the neighborhood children out my window. Good times.

So: Happy New Year, everyone! I’ll be starting up Ask Jeff Anything very shortly, so if any questions have occurred to you, send them along. And consider this: Why has no one asked Jeff to do something yet?