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Skipping the Boring Parts

Your Novel about Intergalactic Reverse Vampires Whose Language is Comprised of Re-Enacting Old Star Trek Episodes Bores Me.

Your Novel about Intergalactic Reverse Vampires Whose Language is Comprised of Re-Enacting Old Star Trek Episodes Bores Me.

Elmore Leonard once famously included in his Ten Rules of Writing “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” The hard part for a writer, of course, is to figure out what those parts are. The first volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust spends a lot of time noodling about remembering how a specific cake tastes and ruminating on things like sleeping habits—and if you haven’t read it, trust me when I say you spend the first few dozen pages or so wondering how in the world you got suckered into reading it. And then, IMHO, it clicks into place and you begin to really enjoy it, but there’s a bit of a hump to get over, and that hump could very easily look like he included a part that people skip.

And, certainly, many thousands of people have indeed skipped reading Proust, much to their delight and relief. And loss.

One common question I get when talking to writers at conferences and events and occasionally when I come home to find them hiding in my closet with a roll of duct tape and a bottle of chloroform is “does every scene and line need to be dramatic?” In other words, how do you tell a story that feels real if you don’t offer up the sort of mundane details that Leonard seems to be advising you to skip? You can’t tell a story that is 100% people fighting, saying witty things, and blowing things up. Or, sure, you can, but it would just be … well … kind of awesome, actually. But! Not really a story. So how do you write about characters who feel real without including some of the boring bits that we all deal with?

The answer’s surprisingly simple in concept, although complex in execution: You’re not supposed to skip the boring parts, you’re supposed to find a way to make the boring parts not boring.

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(Don’t Fear) the Routine

XXIX

Yes, That’s Volume 29 of Handwritten Short Stories.

FRIENDS, when you have achieved the summit of midlist author success (or, like me, if you’re stranded at base camp coughing up blood but insisting you’re going to make the ascent any day now), you get asked a lot of questions. One of the most popular questions that writers get in interviews or when buttonholed outside the restroom at conferences concerns process. Everyone is curious about the disciplined, specific routine and schedule you follow in order to produce sellable wordage (did I just coin that phrase? can I sell T shirts with SELLABLE WORDAGE on them?). How many words do you write per day? How many hours? What’s your routine?

My answer is, I don’t really have one.

Which is strange, because I am a man of habits. Of routines. Of deep, deep ruts. If you followed me around for one day you would know precisely what I’m doing the next day, and the day after that, because I deeply love a routine. And yet, when it comes to writing, one of the most important things in my life, I have no routine.

Oh, to be fair, I do keep regular working hours for my freelance writing. That stuff is usually on a very short deadline, and I don’t get paid until I turn it in, so I’m inspired to work regularly on that stuff. So yes, every day between certain hours you can usually find me working on a freelance project. But when it comes to fiction, there’s no schedule or routine whatsoever, and it’s because I didn’t start writing seriously until college.

“my parents became alarmed at my mediocre grades and apparent belief in a benevolent god who would always take care of me”

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Announcing Our “Stringer” Giveaway Winners

Stringer.jpgAs anyone who has signed up for the mighty mighty Jeff Somers Rocks You Like an Email Hurricane newsletter already knows, I recently ran a newsletter-only giveaway offering up five rare print copies of my Ustari Cycle novella The Stringer, which is only available for sale as an eBook right now.

I plan to do a giveaway like this every time I send out a newsletter, and I’ll be doing about 4 newsletters a year. So if you haven’t signed up for mine yet, do the math and sign up immediately. I’ll be sitting here, staring at my MailChimp dashboard, waiting.

Anyways, it’s too late for you to win The Stringer because that ship has sailed without you. But I can now reveal the winners!

THE STRINGER CAPTION CONTEST

The contest was simple. I included this photo:

Unimpressed Cat is Unimpressed

And asked folks to offer a caption. I received a couple dozen entries, which I anonymized and sent to my wife, The Duchess, to choose 5 of the best. Here are her selections, the lucky winners:

  1. “Thumb monkey I demand string. This is unacceptable.” — Terry Moody
  2. Sorry, you can only give away four copies. I chewed on this one a little bit. — Jesse W
  3. “Hey! So, where’s the string?” — Colin D. Smith
  4. Attached are my revisions. — Emerson Dameron
  5. I wanted to play with string and the drunk gives me this. It’s just insulting. — Jason Falter

Personally, #4 is my favorite for no reason whatsoever, although #5’s reference to alcohol is always a winning strategy with me.

Congrats to the winners!

Writing Necessities: Bad Books

THE BAD WRITING, IT BURNS US!

THE BAD WRITING, IT BURNS US!

A writer’s life is pretty much nonstop glamor. For example, today I cleaned out litter boxes, drank three beers before lunch, and fell asleep with cats on my chest and half a sandwich on my head. The glamorous life indeed.

The fact is, writing is kind of an interior existence. When Hollywood needs to dramatize writing, they usually make us look like computer hackers, pounding away at keyboards with intense expressions on our faces. Sometimes we drain a tumbler of whiskey really intently, or smoke cigarettes, or sweat profusely. But let’s face it: Writing a book is just typing, for a long time. Easy? No. But also not, like, working in a salt mine.

I’ve written forty novels so far. If that number impresses you, you haven’t been writing long, as a lot of writers have rooms full of trunk novels hanging around their necks like the shrunken heads of their enemies. Out of those forty novels, about thirteen have been deemed (by me, at least) publishable, and nine have actually sold for American money (the one I sold for a small bag of interesting bottlecaps doesn’t count). That means that I’ve written twenty-seven novels—twenty-seven novels—that kind of suck.

And so it goes. Not only is this high number of terrible novel-length monstrosities not really a concern, I’ve recently come to think they’re necessary. Because when I look back in anger at my writing over the last 15-20 years, there’s a pattern: For every decent novel I’ve written, there are like at least five or six terrible ones. You have to write the shitty ones to get to the good ones.

The Pattern

I wrote six novel-like things before my first published novel, Lifers. One of these is really just a novella, and one was the proto version of The Electric Church, but this early draft is definitely juvenelia. After Lifers (written in 1997), I wrote the following novels:

“The Only Time” 1999

“Book of Days” 2001

Chum 2001

“The Night Will Echo Back at You” 2002

“The Weak Theory of Mike Edelson” 2002

“The Ancestral Home of the Malarchy’s” 2002

“Almost as Delightful” 2003

“Fallen Among Thieves” 2003

“The Hobo Obituaries” 2004

With the exception of Chum, which was eventually published in 2013, none of these novels are very good. In fact, a few of them are lost to my memory, and I can’t even guess what they’re about. Two of them have been re-worked into a new novel that took the best of each and discarded the crap. The others can’t be saved, I don’t think. Then in 2004 I wrote the revision of The Electric Church that sold.

That string of six stinkers in a row between 2002 and 2004 is quite a dry streak; I often have trouble giving up on projects and must continue to pound the keyboard until I somehow come up with an ending of sorts, just so I can call it finished. Lord knows my long-suffering agent has seen plenty of these:

AGENT: What in the great googly-moogly is this?

ME: A new novel I thought you could sell. We’re so hungry …

AGENT: This is not a novel. It’s a collection of gibberish and erotic doodles.

ME: They’re not meant to be erotic.

AGENT: … that is even worse.

The Purpose

But you sort of have to get these bad books out of your system. You can’t write the good ones unless you write the bad ones, for a couple of reasons:

  1. If you don’t get those bad ideas into a mockable format, you’ll never know they’re mockable.
  2. Sometimes you have to get obsessions out of your head so you can move on.
  3. Sometimes the only reason to believe a gimmick is a bad idea is to actually write that novel in the second person from the perspective of a cat (I just made that up I totally did not ever consider doing this nope not me)
  4. You can often generate some great stuff inside the boundaries of a bad book, material that can be later excised and re-used.

In short, your head will start to fill up with terrible ideas. Let’s face it, you’re kind of a bad idea machine. You’ve got to drain them out of there like pus out of an infected wound.

So, sometimes when I realize the novel I’m writing isn’t so great (something I just realized about what I’m working on tonight) I don’t give up. I push on. Not only will I get to mark a novel complete, I’ll have gotten a whole raft of terrible ideas safely into a file on my hard drive, where they will glow with evil power but never actually hurt anyone. Unless I choose to send them to my agent, which would just be mean-spirited.

JOE MORGAN SUCKS

Originally written in 2007. In honor of the World Series, I’m reprinting it here.

Mr. Morgan was a great second baseman. Not so much a great play-by-play man. I am not wearing pants.

Mr. Morgan was a great second baseman. Not so much a great play-by-play man. I am not wearing pants.

After lo these many years some of you may know me a little. You may not know what’s in my secret heart (hint: Teddy Bears and Whisky Fountains) but you know certain things: I like The Drink; I have three cats; I am frequently pantsless; I like baseball and no other sports, including sports which are not actually sports, like golf. It’s like we’re old friends, walking hand in hand along a moonlit beach.

So, you know about the baseball. As I write this, it’s early October, and that means it’s postseason time, which in turn means I’m pretty much parked in front of the television night after night, just like I have been for the past 25 years or so. There’s a lot of beer involved, a bit of screaming at the screen, and, naturally, some weeping. The weeping has nothing to do with local teams or anything—I think it’s neat when the Mets or Yankees make the playoffs, but I watched the entire 1991 series between the fucking Twins and the Braves, so I think it’s obvious I just like the damn game. I don’t know much, but I’ve learned a thing or two about baseball on TV over the years. Rule number one is, you’re better off listening to the radio. Rule number two is, Joe Morgan sucks.

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Writing: HBO’s WestWorld Teaches Us that Your Audience is The Enemy

teddyIf  you’ve been watching HBO’s WestWorld, then you’re probably pretty creeped out about the coming Singularity that will result in thousands of super-strong robots murdering us all in our beds.

If you’re a writer watching WestWorld you’ve just witnessed a Master Class in Audience Trolling.

The premise of the show is pretty clear: In an unspecified future (we assume) a hi-tech resort is built where the American Wild West is recreated using robots. Essentially this is a sandbox-style video game brought to 3D life; you dress up, interact with robots you can’t tell apart from the humans, and have adventures. These adventures might include killing or even torturing a robot, or having sex with robots, or generally doing whatever you want. Guns can hurt or “kill” robots but are only minor annoyances to Guests.

So, everyone watching the first episode is immediately trying to suss out who’s a robot and who’s real. And the writers know this, and they do what ever smart writer does: They treat their readers/viewers like the enemy and they troll them.

LAST STOP FOR THE TEDDY TRAIN

We’re introduced to Teddy, played by the impossibly handsome James Marsden, as he wakes up on a train heading into WestWorld. A few Guests in front of him discuss how much fun the resort is going to be. Teddy comes into town, resist the invitations to engage in a bit of side-questing, and interacts with Dolores, the pretty rancher’s daughter who is programmed to conveniently drop some groceries so Guests can latch onto her storyline.

Teddy has obviously played this loop before. He knows his lines, and before you know it he’s back at the ranch, where Dolores’ father has just been murdered. Now this is some Wild West action. Dolores is menaced by a man in black, Teddy steps forward to defend her … and then Teddy is killed, because (surprise) Teddy isn’t a Guest. He’s a robot.

TROLLING YOUR READERS

This is good storytelling for three reasons:

  1. It uses reader’s assumptions against them
  2. It keeps them engaged in what is otherwise exposition—the purpose of the preceding scene is to establish the loop and that robots interact with each other independent of Guests
  3. It ensures that viewers will begin speculating on who is a robot and who is a human, because you’ve established that this is a Trickster Universe

Treating your audience like the enemy means you’re in control of the narrative. Being overly friendly towards your audience means they’re in charge, because you’re trying to please them, trying to anticipate their needs like a good host. The former might seem counter-intuitive—aren’t authors supposed to please their audiences?—but it’s more effective because you’re setting the pace of discovery. And because people like to be tricked.

That last bit is one of the best things you can learn as a writer. Don’t be afraid of leading your readers on. People enjoy it when they’re fooled well. Just be certain your tricks have a narrative purpose.

WestWorld May Be Too Clever for Its Own Good

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

Marsden is Either Bored or Constipated

So, I’ve been watching WestWorld on HBO. This enrages my brother, Yan, who more or less believes that all remakes, reboots, and reinterpretations are bullshit. The moment he learns that a remake is looming, he goes off on a rant about how no one writes new stories any more.

He’s not wrong, but he’s not right, either. HBO’s version of WestWorld is entirely different from the original film. Everyone has a lot of affection for the original, mainly because of Yul Brynner’s classic performance as the Gunslinger and because every young man who watched that film in the 1970s and 1980s immediately began thinking about Sex Robots.

There are plenty of Sex Robots in HBO’s WestWorld. There’s also a lot of video game stuff, because some clever bastard obviously thought that a place like WestWorld would basically be an IRL video game. So when a guest arrives in town it’s like being in a sandbox-style video game, where you have a main storyline, but there are endless side-quests you can get sucked into that add content and depth (and playing time) to the game. That’s all well and good. That’s interesting and quite clever for a modern reboot of the concept.

The downside? The god-damn Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and the god-damn cutscenes.

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Not These Pants

Jorts Are Pants Too.

Jorts Are Pants Too.

WRITING ADVICE INVOLVING PANTS, FOR A CHANGE.

Friends, the worst part about advancing age is easily the self-awareness. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to be back in my dullard youth, completely and blissfully unaware of what a massive asshole I could be. I had some good times back then, believe me, secure in the myopic knowledge that I was awesome.

Today, I can’t fool myself so easily. I’ve seen too many repeated patterns, and too many poor results. After a while, you either have to admit you’re doing it wrong or accept the fact that your existence is going to be an increasingly awful existential hell of your own making. So, I am finally ready to admit it: I am not easy.

LIKE SUNDAY MORNING

In my youth, which is to say up until a few years ago when someone accidentally spilled paint thinner on my Dorian Grey painting and I melted like the Nazis in Indiana Jones, I thought I was the easiest guy in the world, because I didn’t give a shit about a lot of stuff other people seemed really worried about. Like, what a group of us did for fun at night. Or what did I want for dinner. Or what I wore. I prided myself on being easy, like Sunday morning: Just tell me what we’re doing, and I’ll wear whatever I have lying around, and anything is cool for me for dinner.

When something becomes part of your self-image, it’s hard to shake. For a long, long time I was convinced that I was Easy. Everyone else complicated things, stressed over unimportant stuff, and wasted time. Case in point, the first time The Duchess ran her yellow eye over me and decided I needed new pants.

ME: What’s wrong with these?

HER: We will dub them the So-Called Pants and their fame will be eternal. Now drive me to Old Navy.

ME: Yes’m.

I can now admit it: I am not Easy. I am, in fact, a royal pain in the ass, because my ideal is always whatever I’ve been doing. When it comes to pants, I like the pants I have. Any attempt to replace those pants will be met with petulant resistance and passive-aggressive plotting to undermine you as a person. It’s not that I don’t care what pants I wear, it’s that I want the pants I already have.

This extends to every other aspect of my life. I used to think I was easy, but now I realize that not having a strong opinion about anything actually makes me an enormous pain everyone’s ass. And this sort of personal epiphany is going to serve me well as a writer, because it’s exactly what the characters in your stories ought to be dealing with.

####

Nobody likes characters that are too woke, too self-aware, perfectly in tune with themselves. They come off as flat and obvious, and they resist character arcs, because they have nothing to evolve from. In real life, of course, no one is 100% self-aware. And just like when you write dialog and have to find some artificial patois and rhythm that seems realistic without being at all how people really talk, when creating a character you want the semblance of real people.

An essential part of that is a lack of awareness about their limitations or annoying traits. Think of it this way: We all go around thinking we’re pretty cool, that we’re the heroes of our own narrative. We usually aren’t, but we think we are. Your characters have to have things about themselves that they are unaware of, at least at the start of your story. They can have epiphanies as the tale goes on, but saddling them with things they don’t know about themselves is powerful, and feels natural.

Getting a POV character to convey things to the reader that they themselves are not aware of? That‘s where the old chestnut about “show don’t tell” comes into play. For example, years ago when some girlfriend took me shopping for pants, I thought I was being Easy. My inner monologue was filled with self-congratulations on how chill and easy I was being. BUt anyone watching would have been aware of how difficult I was within moments. That’s your job as a writer.

So, don’t say my pants have never done anything for you.

Newsletters Are the New Black

newsletterThe mysterious and ever-changing formula for riches in the writing world apparently skews heavily towards newsletter signups. How this works, exactly, is mysterious to me. So far I’ve figured this much out:

  1. Launch Newsletter
  2. Lure people into signing up
  3. ????
  4. Profit!

Still, I have a newsletter now, and to avoid the ignominy of having said newsletter descend into chaos and dormancy, to avoid having my writer peers point and laugh at me and whisper behind my back have you SEEN his newsletter? Poor fellow hasn’t sent one out in ages and has a tiny mailing list! I’m going to have to keep thumping it.

So, if you haven’t yet signed up for the Jeff Somers Rocks You Like an (Email) Hurricane newsletter, why should you?

  • It will make us best friends. Benefits of being my best friend include:
    • always being able to stop by for a whiskey;
    • free pass to pet any of my cats (you can even take one home if you like, we got plenty);
    • right to refer to me as “my friend Jeff Somers” and to create and wear T-shirts, buttons, or other paraphernalia referring to me as such
  • You’ll get free short stories, essays about writing, and other content that no one else gets. This includes previously unpublished writing, early or alternate drafts of books, and other arcana.
  • I promise no spam, political rants, religious theorizing, or personal opinions that are not hilarious, about whiskey and baseball, or other harmlessly entertaining things. No one cares what I think about politics, and I am eternally grateful that this is so.
  • Ask Jeff Anything. I’ll answer any question you have, sometimes on this wee blog, sometimes via video on my YouTube channel, occasionally by showing up your door to drunkenly yell at you.
  • Free stuff! I’m planning to offer a giveaway with every newsletter. These will be determined randomly, usually in a panic moments before I have to send out the newsletter. The possible giveaways include:
    • Signed books (likely you’ll be able to request which book)
    • Rare print versions of eBook-only publications
    • Random stuff from my pockets or desk drawers
    • Cash, if I’m desperate enough for attention
  • Stringer.jpgFor example, the next newsletter will be out in November, and I’ll be giving away five super-rare print copies of the Ustari Cycle novella The Stringer, which you can only buy as an eBook right now. Giveaways will be open to every subscriber, but you do have to subscribe to be in the running.

So! Why not join the Super Happy Best Friends with Jeff and Other Benefits Mailing List? I mean, if you can’t be bothered to click the DELETE button just four times a year, to hell with you.

So, pass it on. And send me questions. Or demands. I’m open to anything, really, as long as we get more signups. You can find the simple, easy signup link in the right-hand column of this blog, or here.

Cheers,

Jeff

“You’re the Worst” & Subtle Unreliability

It's Not Funny

It’s Not Funny

Used to be, things like unreliable narrators or breaking the Fourth Wall on television was a bold and uncanny thing to do. It shocked viewers who had been trained to rely on the narratives and narrators TV offered up. But as TV shows have gotten more and more novelistic in their approach, the Fourth Wall is getting demolished. And unreliable narration is almost assumed.

Novels, after all, don’t have a Fourth Wall. When you read a book the narrator’s voice is in your head, addressing you. You’re basically there, following everyone around. So when a TV show like Mr. Robot or Fleabag deletes the Fourth Wall, it edges closer to being a novel in visual form. When those narrators prove to be unreliable, it can still pack a punch, but often it’s easy to see. Who, after all, was at all surprised when Fleabag or Elliot turned out to be unreliable? No one who was paying attention. It still worked, it just wasn’t a surprise. Which is neither a good thing or a bad thing.

Another show that transcends typical TV comedy work is You’re the Worst, which could be a dumb show about trying to disgust the audience as much as possible with how truly terrible the characters are, but is just smart enough to back up off that level of depravity. The characters on You’re the Worst are in fact terrible people, but there’s just enough decency sprinkled in to keep your attention.

It’s also a show playing with unreliableness, which might come as a surprise, as it isn’t a show with a fixed POV or narrator, and always seems to be presenting these awful people more or less as they are. But the show has been revealed to be subtly unreliable because of S03EP05, “Twenty Two.”

Shitty Jimmy & Company

So, You’re the Worst, like most TV comedies, has a core cast who play specific roles. The main characters are Jimmy and Gretchen, two awful assholes living and striving in L.A. In their orbit are some friends: Shallow, monstrous Lindsey, her milquetoasty husband Paul, and Jimmy’s odd roommate Edgar. Other characters orbit at increasing distances from these. This is a pretty standard comedy setup: Main folks, second-tier characters, and a diaspora of decreasingly important characters.

What’s interesting about comedies is that there are funny folks and straight people. Straight people are often used to bring context—and in the case of You’re the Worst, the straight person is usually Edgar. Edgar has PTSD after his service in Iraq, and lives with Jimmy in exchange for acting as a cook, housekeeper, and general servant. In the past he regards Jimmy as his friend, but he is always somewhat disturbed by the callous and terrible nature of the people around him. His character serves as an important contrast, because he’s fundamentally decent, always means well, and registers his hurt when Jimmy and the others treat him awfully, which they always do. Without Edgar the show would be 100% assholes, and as anyone can tell you, a show that’s 100% assholes is Seinfeld, or Veep, and that only happens once a century or so.

So, Edgar’s usually not the funniest person on the show. He reacts, and sometimes he’s in funny situations, but he’s not actually all that funny. In fact, the show puts a button on this by having Edgar become involved with Improv Comedy, and be more or less terrible at it. He’s not funny, because he’s not the main character of the show.

Which becomes very interesting in “Twenty Two,” which is the first episode of the series from Edgar’s point of view. And it’s not really a funny episode. It barely has any jokes. Because suddenly we’re seeing it fro Edgar’s point of view, and the people around him aren’t hilariously callous—they aren’t hilarious at all. They’re just terrible people.

What If You’re Just a Character in My Sitcom?

This is interesting because it forcibly reminds the audience that in the previous episodes of the series, they’ve been seeing everything from the main characters’ POV. From Jimmy and Gretchen and Lindsey’s POV, everything is hilarious, because they’re the center of the show. Their POV dominates everything. Yes, they can sometimes see the pain and suffering of others, but it’s marginalized, distant, and easily ignored.

The audience of course always identifies with the main characters; we can’t help it. Even the Walter Whites of the world, we want them to succeed. To survive. It’s human nature.

So “Twenty Two” shifts away and offers us Edgar’s POV, and suddenly the people we’ve been laughing at and with, the people who we unconsciously regard as the protagonists of this story, are revealed to be braying, not-particularly-funny assholes. And Poor Edgar, rather than being a supporting player in a comedy, is the lead actor in a tragedy, and we’ve been watching him for dozens of episodes without a thought, and that makes us complicit assholes as well.

It’s a sobering, exciting moment. While Fleabag‘s cheeky glances and funny asides and Mr. Robot‘s paranoid lectures might be flashier and more obvious breakings of the Fourth Wall and reliability, You’re the Worst‘s is more powerful, because even as you watch it some time goes by before you realize you’ve just seen a complete shift not just of POV but of tone, inviting you to realize that your impression of the show has been carefully managed all along, and you’re part of it.

You’re always part of it.