Writing

Avoid Lady Puzzles

One of the double-edged aspects of streaming services like Netflix is the fact that, in a sense, you’ve pre-paid for all the content it offers. That often means that when you stumble on some piece of obvious trash—like, say, The Cloverfield Paradox—at 1AM, the bar for pressing select is pretty low. After all, you’ve already paid for it, and you’re obviously looking to waste some of your life. And hey, every bad movie or TV show you watch actually amortizes the amount of money you spent on each bit of media. You have a duty to watch moar.

Now, I’ll pretty much watch anything with time travel in it, which is my thin excuse for having fired up When We First Met on Netflix the other night. I was aware of the film from a few scabrous reviews that took the film to task for its rapey-rapey premise (guy meets girl of his dreams, screws up and becomes her best friend [obviously, gross] while she meets and marries a perfect guy, then stumbles into a mystical time travel photo booth and gets the chance to relive the fateful night so they end up bangin’, which of course he pursues with stalkerish glee despite the fact that his crush is, you know, happy with her dude) which is basically Groundhog Day if it was all about nailing someone who thinks you care about them as a person.

Still, I watched it, which means I am partially responsible for the rapey romcoms to come. Sorry about that.

Let’s put aside the odious premise and the fact that When We First Met is just simply not that good (to be fair, the story does try to bury a less-rapey twist as the main character learns and grows; it’s just unfortunate that guys in bad SFF movies have to use the awesome power of space/time manipulation to try and score a lot before they can grow as people). I want to focus in on one particularly terrible aspect of the story that could be a lesson for guy writers everywhere: The Lady Puzzle.

The Lady Puzzle

Interestingly, Groundhog Day is itself guilty of Lady Puzzle Plotting, but it’s saved by it’s brilliance and a few other things we’ll get to. First, what is Lady Puzzling? In essence, it’s that story where a guy thinks that women are essentially Encrypted Sex Robots. If you want to sex a lady, you need the encryption code, which is generally imagined to be secret intimate knowledge of their likes, dislikes, and opinions. None of which is ever treated as, you know, the sacred inner life of a living being, but rather as bullshit you have to memorize like you’re passing a sophomore year bio exam.

In When We First Met, when our Hero figures out he’s traveled back in time to the day he first met the object of his totally-normal obsession, he weaponizes the years of intimate knowledge he’s gained about her by being her friend [again: gross] to anticipate her every desire. So you get idiot ball stuff like him asking her what her favorite cocktail is only to interrupt her before she can answer so he can parrot her favorite drink at her as if it’s his own.

The idea is, time travel or no, the secret to getting into a lady’s panties is figuring out the Secret Code that will uncross her legs. Like, claim to like the same music or politics that she does! Learn her odd and obscure hobbies and pretend to like them!

You could call this the Taylor Swift Gambit: “Find out what you want / Be that girl for a month.”

Worse, in the film this works. Sort of. In the first iteration, his creepy knowledge of everything about her does indeed get him back to her apartment, but he’s ruined by an earlier interaction which convinces the girl that he’s a creepy stalker instead of a magical male version of herself. Ha ha, subversion of tropes! Except, it was working. Now, ask yourself: If a stranger came up to you and started claiming all of your personal tastes as their own, would you be charmed, or alarmed? In a Lady Puzzle plot, they’re charmed, because ladies must follow programming if you’re giving them the correct input.

Groundhog Day For the Win

I am fond of saying that there are no bad ideas, only bad execution of ideas. So, why then does the Lady Puzzle aspect of Groundhog Day not get a razzie award? For one, the aforementioned brilliance of the movie; it’s sharp and insightful, unlike When We First Met. Second, the character of Phil Connors is presented as pretty much an asshole at the beginning of the story, so the fact that he would use his time loop powers in order to gather information on a lady and use it to crack her encrypted code isn’t surprisingand his evolution away from such behavior is thus affecting and emotionally powerful. In When We First Met we’re supposed to take the main character’s “niceness” at face valuehe’s really in love, yo, and so his antics as he tries to speak the magic words that will get him into her pants is just a manifestation of his desperation to build a life with her. That this is kind of the fundamentals of “Nice Guyism” is completely lost on the folks making this movie.

Finally, in Groundhog Day, the Time Loop Pickup Artist technique is shown to be only intermittently successful. Yes, Phil does manage to seduce one woman using the trick, but it fails spectacularly with the woman he really wantsover and over again. She reacts with increasing alarm and suspicion as he tries to construct the perfect evening that will lead to sexy time, culminating in an epic supercut of face slaps. It’s not until Phil leaves off and becomes his true self that he escapes his time loop and winds up with the girl.

To be fair, as alluded to earlier When We First Met does ultimately concede that the Lady Puzzle approach is a bad idea (spoilers, in the unlikely event you watch this movie, follow). After several failures, our hero realizes that his crush will never truly love him no matter how he manipulates reality, and slowly begins to realize that his crush’s roommate is actually the woman who has always been there for him, and with whom he’s had a true connection. It’s meant to subvert the whole Friend-zoney, Red-pilly vibe of the premise, but I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. You’ll have to judge for yourself … though I wouldn’t recommend it.

When writing stories, something else I don’t recommend? A Lady Puzzle plot. Somers out.

The Short Story Report

As regular readers of this blog (or, you know, old-fashioned stalker-types [waves cheerfully out window]) well know, I’m a big believer in short stories, as art, exercise, and commerce. A lot of writers avoid short stories, for a variety of reasons. Some just don’t like the constraints, preferring to spend their time working on a 5,000,000 page fantasy epic they expect to finish about 35 years after they have died. Some think that short stories don’t pay well enough to be worth the trouble.

Self-promotion is exhausting.

Neither of these folks are wrong, per se, but personally have always found short stories a lot of fun, useful in honing my writing skills, and surprisingly lucrative (sometimes). It’s true that most short story sales will result in token payments that don’t even begin to cover the blood and treasure of your imagination used in its writing. But they actually pay better than you might think. I discuss short stories a lot in my upcoming writing book Writing Without Rules (order 75 copies today!), because I think they’re a fantastic tool for all fiction writers, but here’s the specific breakdown for 2017.

The Numbers

So, every year I write at least 12 new stories (one a month as an exercise), and submit as many as I can to markets. This year I wrote 21 short stories. I submitted 71 stories to markets (note, that isn’t 71 separate stories, it’s a small number of stories submitted to multiple places). I sold 1 new story (Arthur Kill) and saw 4 published (The Kendish Hit, Last Best Day, The Bonus Situation, and Nigsu Ga Tesgu). I earned $1722.95 from short stories in 2017.

Sales-wise and money-wise, not my best year. Publication-wise, much better; any time you see 4 titles in print or digital, it’s not a bad year. By comparison, in 2016 I submitted stories 54 times, sold three, and earned $4,227.52 from short stories. Then again, in 2014 I earned $34.93 from short stories. Every year is a financial adventure when you’re a writer.

The thing about short stories is you never know how long the Long Tail might be. Other writers have made this point, but I’ll echo it: In 2005 I gave a short story to an anthology for $0. Ringing the Changes was chosen to be in Best American Mystery Stories 2006 and ultimately I earned $765 from it. In 2009 I placed the story Sift, Almost Invisible, Through in the MWA anthology Crimes by Moonlight, which paid royalties to the contributors, and earned $620.14 over a few years. These aren’t huge amounts of money, but the point is you never know how long or how well a short story sale might earn out.

Most importantly, of the 21 stories I wrote this year, I think 7 have potential. That’s an unusually high number, actually. Many years I write 10-20 stories and don’t think any of them have legs. So even if I’m fooling myself and only 3 or 4 of the new crop are worth submitting, it’s still a pretty good year, creativity-wise. And since I am always on the look out for signs of mental decline and encroaching decrepitude, this is encouraging.

Unless I’m already disconnected from reality and the new stories are all gibberish. Happy New Year!

Another Blog: Writing Without Rules

You may have noticed that I haven’t been terribly active at this here blog, which is as much a tragic story of authorial incompetence as anything else. One reason I’ve been distracted is the other blog I’ve set up: Writing Without Rules.

WWR is where I’ve been posting all my genius, sodden, slightly warped writing advice (craft and career). The main reason I’ve set this blog up instead of simply continuing to dump my writerly thoughts here is because I’ve sold a book:

BAM!

It’s not out until 2018, so let’s hold our applause. But since you can’t start promoting something too early, I’ve set up a companion blog centered on writing. I’ll be posting thoughts on writing novels, short stories, and other things, as well as my half-assed ideas about promotion and marketing. If you’re an aspiring writer and you’re under the delusion that you can learn something from me, please do surf on over and leave me some insulting comments. And mark your calendars to buy this book when it comes out, as I guarantee you will be a hundredaire after putting it’s concepts into action.

“Black House” is Live

Chapter One of Black House, a novel featuring my character Philip K. Marks, has gone live over at theblackhousesite.wordpress.com, and you should go read it! I’ll be posting new chapters every day this month until the whole novel is up. Then it will stay up until June 15th, and then I’m deleting the site. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Let’s see what happens.

The novel is an experiment for me; I was inspired by an old puzzle book that was a house in the form of a maze, so I wrote a novel that is really a maze. It’s kind of trippy and strange, but I really like it, and hope you do too.

The book release schedule is basically 1-2 chapters every day, so you can check the website every day and find at least one new chapter, often two. I’d encourage you to let me know what you think as the story progresses—it’s be interesting to hear what y’all think in the midst of reading it.

And don’t forget—June 15th, I’m, deleting it. If you want to save the chapters for future reading, do it before then.

Enjoy!

Writin’ Ain’t Easy

I’m sitting here on a Saturday evening with a glass of Michter’s American whiskey, a cat, and my keyboard. It’s hot and humid, and I’m sweating like a pig, but it’s okay, because it’s been cold for so long I’m kind of into sweating right now.

It’s been a decent writing day, but of course it wasn’t all personal work and fiction. I spent a bit of time looking for new freelance work and touching various freelance projects I’ve got spinning. Not a lot, I’m not saying my life is hard in any way, but one thing they sure don’t tell you when you tear off your shirt in a restaurant and shout YOU PEOPLE HAVE HELD ME BACK LONG ENOUGH, I’M GOING TO BECOME A FULL-TIME WRITER is that the phrase “full time” means fucking full time.

As In 24/7

Writing for a living can be exhausting. The fiction is fun. The fiction is me taking my ideas and putting them into coherent form and seeing a world emerge where there was only blank paper or white pixels. The freelance, which pays a big part of the bills, is a different story.

You pretty much have to be an idea machine when you write freelance. While a few of my editors do send me assignments, if I relied on assignments being sent to me passively I’d make about $100 a month. Which, as I discovered in my first, extremely painful year of freelancing, isn’t enough to live on. So you have to constantly send out new ideas, and then you have to badger people to get to you with a yea or nay on those ideas. And then when you get 3 acceptances out of six ideas, you have to start thinking of six more ideas to send.

And you write more or less every day. I’ve tried making weekends into My Time, I’ve tried designated Wednesdays as Jeff Writes Fiction Day, Yahoo and both have worked for short periods of time, but freelance writing creeps in. Someone can only be interviewed on a certain day, or you got day drunk on Friday and so forgot to look for new work, so you have to carve out some time on Saturday to do it. Or, simply put, your earnings on the month are on the soft side, and you need to find a few hundred bucks’ worth of work before the week is out.

So, you find yourself working at odd hours and when you should be napping. It’s offset by the aforementioned day drinking, the occasional afternoon movie, the ability to go hang out with friends and then work at 2AM to make up for it, and, sometimes, the ability to trade a few hundred dollars in exchange for doing absolutely nothing, because no boss can loom over your desk and ask why you’re playing video games.

But damn, it’s exhausting sometimes.

The Unconventional Novelist

SO, I’ve written a book, and the contracts have been signed, and barring extinction-level event between now and 2018, The Unconventional Novelist will be published by Writer’s Digest next year. Huzzah!

My pitch was, in a nutshell, hey I do everything wrong and generally approach my writing career like a drunk guy approaches riding a bicycle down a mountainside, and yet here I am, nine novels in and making a living writing. And the editors took one look at my disheveled appearance and then one look at my surprisingly robust list of writing and publishing credits and decided that they could make some hay with this.

The book will be chock full of the wisdom I’ve accumulated during my lengthy and unusual writing career, most of which goes against received wisdom and, you know, the usual way of doing things. There’s this illusion that there’s a “right” way to get published and make money from your writing, and I am living proof that this is bunk. Also, there are more hilarious footnotes in this thing than is probably wise.

I’ll keep y’all updated. I’ve set up a blog over at https://unconventionalwriting.wordpress.com where I’ll be posting nuggets of drunken literary wisdom and other things, so if you want a sense of what the book will be like, there you go.

Another Novel Experiment

Anyone who pays attention to my wee blog here knows that now and again I try a little literary experiment. I’ve Tweeted short stories, I self-published six novellas that tied together as a new Avery Cates novel, I post free short stories here all the time.

Another experiment: A novel published as a transient blog. Here’s the details:

The Novel: Black House, featuring my character Philip K. Marks, who has appeared in short stories published at Buzzy Magazine (A Meek and Thankful Heart), Black Denim Lit (Howling on for More), and the anthologies Hanzai Japan (Three Cups of Tea) and Crimes by Moonlight (sift, almost invisible, through).

Here’s the synopsis:

All his life, Philip K. Marks has been a magnet for the strange, the surreal, the slightly impossible. His investigations into each macabre mystery that he’s stumbled into have always taken something from him, something essential. Old before his time, Marks is a shadow of what he used to be—but the strange and unusual still finds him. And he still can’t resist seeking answers.

At a rare upward swing in his fortunes, he finds himself able to imagine a more normal, stable existence for the first time in years. If he can just keep his head down. If he can just stay sober. If he can just resist the urge to help the little girl whose father went to look at an apartment and never came back. If he can stay out of the Black House.

The Blog: theblackhousesite.wordpress.com

The Deal: I’ll begin posting chapters of the novel on 5/1/17. I’ll post at least one chapter a day throughout May until the final chapter hits on 5/31/17. The novel will remain up until 6/15/17, and then I’m taking the whole site down.

Why? I dunno. To see what happens. To how it feels. To let anyone interested read what I think is a pretty cool story.

Lazy Writing 101: The Young Lover

You youngsters and your damned energy.

My wife, The Duchess, excels at many things, but her main skill is increasingly getting me to watch terrible, terrible television shows. She does this with a combination of stick and carrot; on the one hand if I mock and refuse to watch a show, she can become surly. On the other, if I mock and complain enough, she will often magnanimously swap a slightly less-awful show in for a more-awful show.

This is how I wound up squirming out from under the rock of Dancing with the Stars and found myself watching The Great Indoors.

The Evergreen Sitcom Plot

Look, I like Joel McHale. I loved him on Community, and he’s a pretty funny guy and a charismatic actor. I’m glad he’s getting a paycheck. The Great Indoors is a mediocre sitcom, and the bar is pretty low for a CBS sitcom to begin with, so mediocrity is nothing to celebrate. It has its moments, yes, but in general it’s a pretty lazy show. Point in fact, one of the first season episodes was a classic Lazy Plot. Specifically, it was the “aging lothario is exhausted by younger lover” (ALEBYL) plot.

The ALEBYL plot is simple: The main character’s virility is challenged (or their vanity is stroked) and they choose to date a much, much younger person. The younger person then puts them through a gauntlet of activities they barely tolerate and can’t possibly keep up with, until they’re miserable. But! They refuse to admit this, for a variety of reasons. Hilarity ensues.

This old chestnut wasn’t new in 1989, when Cheers did it in the episode “Don’t Paint Your Chickens,” wherein Sam Malone dates a younger woman who is very athletic, and pretends to be up to her standards of constant, exhausting activity. It wasn’t new when 30 Rock did it in the 2007 episode “Cougars.” It wasn’t new when it was initially conceived, more or less around the year 1. It is, in fact, a prime example of Lazy Writing.

The Getaway

Part of the reason writers get away with this laziness, of course, is our short cultural memories. The earliest example I can come up with off the top of my head is from 1989—nearly thirty years ago, sure, but still pretty recent. The simple fact is the doom of men is that they forget, and a new generation of idiots thinks the episode of The Great Indoors referenced above is the first time this old plot was ever done.

The three examples I’ve offered here are all slightly different. Cheers isn’t so much concerned with the age difference as it is with the younger person’s higher athletic ability and energy. 30 Rock‘s Liz Lemon is practically an asexual character, and the relationship serves to underscore her (often hilarious) combination of intelligence and dire insecurity. The Great Indoors leans in to the currently hot topic of how ridiculous and silly millennials are when compared to older generations. All of them, however, rely on a fundamental concept of sitcom comedy writing: Old people feeling their age are hilarious.

Maybe I’m just bitter, being an old person. But then I didn’t want to stay out all night when I was 20. Once when I was about 25 a friend invited me to have dinner with her and some of her friends, and I was delighted … until she told me she’d see me at 10PM. For pre-dinner drinks. TEN FUCKING PM. I’ve been an old man longer than you’ve been alive.

Look, older generations are always going to be convinced that the kids are vacuous morons. Any story that gently pokes Olds in the ribs about their age while simultaneously mocking Youngs for their idiocy and ignorance will be a hit, and the ALEBYL plot fires on all those thrusters. You can expect to see it at least four more times on different shows before you die, and there are probably two dozen examples I’m not aware of.

The Point

So what’s the point? The point is, you can discover valuable lessons about tired old tropes and lazy writing anywhere … even terrible CBS sitcoms. Eyes open, kids.