Today's post is for writers. I don't mind if you check it out, layman readers, but you should probably be aware that the train goes to a different part of town today.
So I was watching the Robin Williams interview on the front page of Reddit earlier when I realized that what he does when he improvises is a pretty good analogy for writing, and for pushing yourself to write in particular.
What he's doing is rummaging in his stream-of-thought and just flinging handfuls of everything he digs up, hand over hand, without fear and without hesitation. If you'll watch, you'll see that not all of it makes sense. Not all of it is funny (though it is one of Robin's talents that he knows what's funny, so his flow is funnier than most). Some of it's even cringey--check out that pidgin English. There are a few duds that tumble out with the good jokes. But by and large, most of them are comedy gold, partially because of his off-kilter delivery. And, you know, comedy's going to offend somebody, especially a stand-up act. The best usually do.
When he improvs, he gets into the Groove, the Flow, and the jokes come out of him like a firehose. Wit is nothing more than being the fastest at making mental connections, and he's tapping a deeper level of fact-connections because he doesn't allow his output to be ruled by his inhibitions, his fears, or self-censoring. He's mainlining it straight from the source, no filter, no brakes. Imagine a switchboard operator, plugging and unplugging, plugging and unplugging. Robin is an octopus with a telephone wire in every tentacle.
But you see, the disadvantage he has against you is that you can do the same thing he does, but when you do it, you're typing it out, and when you're done, you can whittle it down to something a bit more coherent. And that's the secret--you've got to be fearless like Robin and just pour your brains out all over the page and get it out, get the words out of you and fix them later. All you cats in /r/Writing asking "how do I get motivation?" and "I'm afraid to write" and "What if nobody likes it?" and "how do I start?" and "what do I do now?": you've got to not be afraid of your brain, just cut the end open and squeeze it out. That's what some of the writers in here are getting at when they say "just start writing". Put your butt in the chair, your fingers on the keyboard, and take the training wheels off.
Well, that's as close as I can explain.
"Not really an explanation, but more of a...bizarre exploration."
Like a pair of hands cup water, each generation's portal-fantasies frame the heart of the day. Alice in Wonderland scooped up a handful of Victorian propriety and served it to us, with a great helping of poetic absurdity, on a fine silver platter. The Wizard of Oz gave us the hard-won optimism of the Dust Bowl Depression on a fine china plate. A Wrinkle in Time packaged up the fear of Communism and the unknowable darkness of the Cold War in an avocado-colored box of quaint Americana.
Lev Grossman's Magician series is a fantasy mainstay that cups the low-latency, jaded, disaffected heart of the 21st century in its pale pink hands in that same timeworn fashion. Instead of quirky Space-Race kids in unironic Christmas sweaters or no-nonsense demi-adults in hoop skirts, Grossman's disillusioned middle-class boomerangers crawl out of a primordial sea of wine and, through the gauntlet of the narrative, cast off the caul of grublike vulnerability so endemic to youth today. Point-of-view chapters shift voice on the fly: smooth, lean-written description from the increasingly stoic Quentin leapfrogs with terse, impatient prose from the snarky and driven Janet, peppered with Internet terminology like "WTF" and "lulz".
In much the same way Dorothy Gail was forced to trust and rely on others, and Meg Murry was led to believe in herself and treasure her own uniqueness, and Alice came to walk to her own beat and not take life so seriously, Quentin Coldwater's directionless woe-is-me naivete is burned away by the crucible of heartache until nothing is left but a Grown-Ass Man who is leagues distant from the put-upon manchild where he started the series. And the entire thing plays out on a stage that should be realistic but isn't--a flesh-and-blood fantasy world that, by dint of modern pragmatism, is made into a stage arrayed with elaborately-painted scenery. It makes no attempt to validate the silliness of Fillory and simply revels in it, a self-referential conveyance that acknowledges its own storybook heritage with the numbness of a group of friends playing World of Warcraft. That, to me, serves up today's unfeeling brand of face-value wonder. Like those that came before it, the Magician series holds up a mirror to the 21st century, but lo and behold, we the jaded have no reflection at all.
And that's the most satisfying thing, to find a morality tale with no moral, a journey-more-important-than-the-destination story where we, as the reader, only bear witness to the events that catalyze Quentin. We are excluded from the lesson just this time, but we get to see its effects. For a nice change, someone else has to take a sip of that deep cool water of learning, and we get to see the smile of a lesson learned dawn on their face.
I see these questions quite frequently from fledgling writers, usually on Reddit's Writing subreddit. They are asked every day, and someone answers them every day, and it seemed to be that it would be in everybody's best interests to compile all the answers in one place once and for all.
Write and read. As much as you can. They say "every day" but that can burn you out and frustrate you. Shoot for at least four or five days a week. Even Stephen King leaves the house once in a while. This is the important part: give yourself time to think. Thinking, contemplating, daydreaming is a vital part of the writing process. Get away from the screen for a while and let your writing marinate in your head. Take a long walk, take a long shit, lie in the bed not sleeping. We writers work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, even when we're not actively typing. You'll be surprised by the good ideas that will pop into your head when you least expect them. This is why keeping a notepad by the bed is essential.
Read the good books to develop an idea for what works. Read the bad books to develop an idea for what doesn't work. Write bad material to get it out of your system. No butterfly ever came out of its cocoon fully-formed and beautiful, it takes time to work out the wrinkles and chrysalis slime out of your wings.
I can guarantee you it has. Do it anyway. Your job is to make it new, and where the substance of your work comes from is providing a new perspective on this old idea. Fashion several different ideas into one big new thing. We're all gravediggers here, we're all crafting our own Frankenstein from the flesh and bones of the dead. Your job is to make the best damn Frankenstein you can.
Your idea has been used. But not by you.
There's no easy answer to this. Either you want to write or you don't. If you want to write but you can't get your head out of the internet's ass for long enough to get anything done, turn off your wifi. If you can't turn off your wifi, get an app like Freedom--there are big-name writers that swear by it. For those of you in the comments trolling about having self-control, here's a great big "fuck you" from Timbuktu. It's possible to get addicted to a lot of things, and the internet is one of them. If it were possible to just shore ourselves up with a big ol' helping of self-control, there wouldn't be things like AA, interventions, and rehab clinics.
If you've lost the will to write, identify what made you want to start writing in the first place. Narrow it down, sharpen it like a shiv, and stab your apathy in the kidneys with it.
For me, it's the exploration of hidden spaces. When I was a kid, I had a original Nintendo and a Game Genie, a device that plugged into the game cartridge and allowed you to alter the code as the console read it. I would enter all kinds of gibberish as codes and painstakingly record each attempt until I found certain codes that had far-reaching effects on the game world. These random gibberish codes would create glitched-out secret worlds that only I knew about, and it was deeply satisfying to explore these hidden, unknown worlds. This is what drives me to write--exploring secret worlds and bringing my readers along for the ride. I am the Christopher Columbus of the multiverse, the Vasco de Gama of the inscape.
Locate your creative drive, the thing that made you start writing in the very beginning, and focus on that.
Ultimately it's down to you to try everything and find what works best for you. Scrivener works very well for a lot of people, including me, so I'm suggesting it here. If you're a masochist, you can go ahead and stick with MS Word, because the comments below will be full of exhortations to write in MS Word, or longhand on notebook paper, or on a scroll of vellum with a goose quill because hipster. If that works for them, cool, great. You keep doing you, guys.
Try everything. Stick with what works for you.
Emotes. Actions. Have the characters do things that expose their mental state. Are they sad? Have them cry or bury their face in their hands. Are they angry? Have them pace back and forth, throwing their hands up and gritting their teeth. Are they confused or scared? Have them flatten against the nearest wall and look around the room while wringing their hands. Think of stage directions--you're the director AND the actors here. As the director, ask the actors for "scared" and then, as the character, give it to the director. If you have to get up and act it out to catch those nuanced details, do so. Maybe you'll find a part of the performance you didn't expect.
How do you eat anything? Bite off a piece, chew it up, swallow it. Little bites. Distribute them throughout the story in little shreds, like a mouse leaves poops, where people can find them. Work these shreds in organically--through dialogue, books the characters find, inner narrative, even descriptive passages.
In my current series I make short "bookend excerpts" that I slip in between the chapters to serve as flashbacks of a sort, to illuminate events that occurred prior to the present day. Video games do something similar by displaying short passages of expository text during loading screens.
"Write what you know" isn't about inserting your own technical knowledge into your story. If you're a plumber, "write what you know" doesn't mean "write books about plumbers". WWYK means bringing your memories, your experiences, your understanding of the human condition into your work. It means shattering yourself, shattering your soul, and using the pieces to create your story.
Okay, maybe you're a plumber. Have you ever snaked a particularly nasty drain full of hair and mildew and human sludge that smells like feces and cheese? All right then. Say you're writing a horror story and you want a convincingly nasty monster. Draw on your drain memory and have the monster come pulsing out of a drain as a tangle of black snot that snakes across the tub with reaching tendrils, an amoeba of hair that fills the bathroom with the odor of a dead hobo.
Now you want the fully-exposed monster to be scary. Think about what's really scared you and infuse the monster with that. Maybe when you were little, one of your neighbors had skin cancer in his face and they had to surgically remove his nose. But he never wears his surgical mask, so he walked around with a huge hole in the middle of his face all the time and you could see up into the back of his red, raw, dry sinuses. I did this with my Wilder monsters--when you pull off their masks, you drag a bundle of slimy hoses out of their throat, leaving a meaty orifice full of gore.
Maybe your character needs to adequately convey the sensation of loss. Have you ever lost a loved one? You know what that feels like, right? That bleak, empty feeling where you feel like nothing's ever going to be right again, and you just want to be left alone. All music has lost its rhythm and all food tastes like cardboard. That kind of crying where you're just squeezing the steering wheel and wailing because there's so much sorrow inside you that there's no room for it. And you believe that if you just cry loudly enough, you'll be able to get it all out of your system. That if you grieve hard enough, that agonizing splinter will squeeze right out of your heart and you'll be able to breathe again. You punch the car ceiling trying to hurt something, to hurt yourself because maybe if you break your hand it will hurt worse than the invisible wound inside you and you can manage physical pain. They don't make Tylenol for heartbreak.
That's "write what you know". Use your losses, use your victories, use all of your senses in your writing. Give the world your soul.
If you have to ask, probably. Read it aloud to yourself. Print out a page of it and get someone else to read it aloud to you, preferably a stranger. Take it with you and hand it to someone the next time you have to wait in line somewhere.
Write the way you speak. Look at your work. Is this the way you speak? Do you use a lot of lyrical language when you speak? Do you use a lot of three- and four-syllable words when you speak? It's okay to get lyrical every now and then, but as the saying goes, "everything in moderation". Try to constrain the more flowery writing to descriptive passages.
The best quote I've heard illuminating this is:
"Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
Imagine your book is a filmstrip, and your reader's head is the projector. Picture the scene in your mind's eye, and look for details that you can use to bring that to life for your reader. Here is an example:
I completely missed the first catch. My Christmas present thumped me on the chest and rolled toward the landing, bouncing down the stairs. The word "WILSON" printed on its rough hide seemed to wink at me just before it fell, slow and sluggish at first, with a hollow blap blap blap.
At the bottom it gave two great leaps and banged hard off the wall, knocking down a portrait of Mother with a crash of glass. Michael caught my lost prize as he came through the door and bounced it off the foyer floor several times, then tossed it over the railing to me. "He shoots, he scores!" he cheered, taking off his jacket.
How long did it take you to decide that I was talking about a basketball? What about the fact that it's currently winter? You can tell the stairs are in a high-traffic front area because there are pictures on the wall and it leads down to the foyer. Of course, I could have just said "The basketball rolled down the front stairs," but that wouldn't have been nearly as compelling or artful.
Then people will probably hate reading it. Try writing something else with a different idea, or incorporate another idea into what you're writing. Either tinker with it until you yourself get curious as to what's going to happen next, or abandon it and try something different. Maybe tomorrow night while you're sitting on the toilet staring at the wall, you'll have a genius idea later that will rejuvenate your interest for this particular work.
Somebody will hate everything. Everybody will hate something. That's just a fact. Even the best, brightest, most lauded books in the world have one-star reviews on Amazon. You will get them too. Everybody does. Your responsibility is to not give a shit and do it anyway. If something is too offensive, an intermediary player--your beta readers or your editor--will straighten you out.
No, you don't. Just describe it and move on. If you have to break out a thesaurus, you're overthinking it. Write the way you speak. Have you ever broken out a thesaurus in the middle of a conversation? Vocabulary is fun, but "three-dollar words" make the narrative grind and readers of a less intellectual persuasion will be dissuaded. Momentum is of vast importance--without it, the reader will find the prose too thick, lose interest, and put down your book. Spur your reader on with lean, punchy prose--kiai, kiai, giddyup!
Yes, you do. Even if you just do it yourself with beta-readers. You can barter for someone else to edit it, or you can save up the money and hire someone. No one is waiting with bated breath for your book, so you have all the time in the world. Delay the publishing of the book for a few months and save up the money for an editor.
I hope this helps answer a few questions. I don't do this often, but today I just got really frustrated at seeing the same ones over and over again. Caveat: these are not golden rules. They are not the word of God and they're not written in stone. They're just what I hold myself to, bolstered by and mixed with similar advice I've seen from other, more widely-known authors.
So please keep your trolling to yourself.
If you have any good advice of your own for any new writers that may happen to be reading this, feel free to chime in with a comment. The more the merrier.
THE GRINDING may well be one of the first books I've ever read that manages to moonwalk into characterization. Dinniman kicks off the book with the love interest in trouble and THEN makes us care about her throughout the rest of the story, with well-placed anecdotes that serve to continually fill in the character. By the time the climax rolled around, I was nearly tearing my hair out in suspense. I was now the protagonist, I was in love with his wife, and it was all I could do not to shout in encouragement at my Kindle.
And what a climax it was! Jesus Christ, that one really came out of nowhere. The big twist blew me away and was so satisfyingly crazy that it might have even saved a badly-written book. But GRINDING didn't need that, because Dinniman's prose is so clean, efficient, and fierce that by the midpoint my eyes were just being dragged across the text as if I were tied up behind a truck. I literally had to slow myself down and take in every word.
There were a couple of internet Easter eggs peppered throughout the book that, coupled with the totally insane premise and the mindblowing twist, made me wonder if perhaps this book might have been a sort of crowdsourced dare from a website like 4chan. I saw an "over 9000" joke and a Three Wolf Moon shirt. In a lesser book, they probably would have knocked my immersion out, but with writing this good they're actually sort of a plus. I saw a handful of grammatical errors, but nothing game-breaking.
If the SyFy Channel has any sense, they'll option this for a film, because it beat the living hell out of Sharknado and all those other SyFy original movies. Horror fans, pick this one up. It does not disappoint.
I tend to eat when I get bored, which is a problem because I used to be almost three hundred pounds. It's a daily struggle to keep from eating when I'm not looking. So as usual, I found myself in the kitchen last night without realizing I'd gotten up out of my chair.
The ceiling fan light was off but the stove hood light was on, dim and yellow, and as I went around the island to pull the pullchain, I kicked something that felt like a hat. I backed up and peered through the glow from the stove hood and found one of the several gluetraps distributed around the house to catch our ugly, hulking brown spiders--but this one contained a mouse.
Right about that time, my sister comes stumbling out of the dark dining room. "Hey, look at that," I told her, pointing at the gluetrap. The mouse had dragged it out from wherever we'd hidden it. Also caught in the glue was a scorpion and I think a cricket.
I turned on the light and knelt to examine the unfortunate creature. It was a larger mouse than I was used to, and somehow had transitioned to lying on its back in a sort of anthropomorphic Roman repose, belly-up but turned so that it had both forelegs caught as well. Its exposed hind ankles looked red and raw, the hair gone to the skin. There was no hair in the glue around it, which led me to believe that it had chewed away the hair and started on the ankles--intending to chew its feet off to get away--but had lost its nerve. That might or might not have been true, but that's how my writer-mind works. The animal world around me is a constant offshoot of Redwall, of Runaway Ralph and Stuart Little.
It was vermin, but still, I was crestfallen. I didn't know what to do. My sister immediately left the room and I picked up the gluetrap, taking it through the French back doors and out onto the deck. Holding it up in the porch light, I apologized to the mouse. "There's nothing I can do, little guy. I don't have anything that'll break this stuff. I'm sorry."
Its little whiskers twitched and it struggled, jerking back and forth in the glue, staring at me with those black little bulging eyes. I could feel it through the plastic. Standing there with the mouse held up to eye level, I took a moment to watch it, wishing I could free it. I could put it in a bucket until I could find a good aquarium to put it in. I couldn't just let it go, because it'd go right back into the house, but it'd make a cool pet, I guess. You know, outside of the risk of rabies and bubonic plague and whatnot.
"I'm sorry," I said again. I considered filling a bucket with water and drowning it. The only other alternative I could think of to avoid prolonging its misery was smacking it with a hammer, and there was no part of me capable of doing that. And on further consideration, there was no part of me capable of drowning it, either.
This wasn't the first time I'd found a rodent stuck in a glue trap. Several years earlier, I had been living in an apartment complex in Jacksonville, Alabama. I worked for my landlord, doing all the daily fix-it stuff that he couldn't be bothered with (he also worked in two other complexes in two other counties), and part of those responsibilities was taking care of the swimming pool.
One day I finished with the pool and went down into the little cellar underneath the pool terrace to check the skimmer inside the pump. In the shadows by the stairs was a gluetrap identical to the one with the mouse in it, but this one had a chipmunk in it. Yep, tiny little tail, white racing-stripes, the works. I picked it up and took it outside, every bit as heartbroken as I was now and more--how could I, a lifelong fan of Chip & Dale Rescue Rangers, leave a goddam chipmunk to die?
I deposited the chipmunk on the sidewalk outside the pump room and paced back and forth, pausing every now and then to squat down and look at the animal. It had well and truly lodged itself in the glue, sprawled out on its belly, its chin stuck and all. "I'll save you, little guy." I found a pair of gloves to mitigate biting while I pried and pulled and sprayed him with water.
The water didn't do much, but I eventually got him out, even if he was missing a few patches of hair. He laid there on the sidewalk for a moment, soaking wet and weak, then walked stiffly away into the treeline without looking back and disappeared.
I told my boss. He was pissed. "That fucking chipmunk was the whole reason I put out that gluetrap in the first place. It was chewing shit up in the pump house."
Oh well. Maybe it learned its lesson.
I put the mouse down on the back deck and stepped away. What do I do now? I knew if I freed this one, it would just come right back into the house. Mice in our house were de rigueur at this point; when I used to live in the basement I would hear them scuttling back and forth on top of the HVAC ductwork strapped to the ceiling. This was probably one of many. But to be honest, I'd rather have the mice than get a cat. I can't stand cats. I like other peoples' cats. But I don't like having them in my house. Between the hair and the toxoplasmosis and having to clean litter boxes, mice are cleaner than cats any day, at least where the day-to-day having-to-deal-with-them is concerned.
The mouse struggled a few more times, watching me as I stood over it, fretting and thinking. I'm not a killer.
"I found a mouse caught in a gluetrap," I messaged my girlfriend a few minutes later on Facebook. She is very animal-centric.
I walked into the kitchen earlier and kicked something
What was it?
I turned the light on and it was a mouse in a gluetrap
it had dragged the gluetrap out to the middle of the floor
It was still fighting to get out
I felt so bad.
uhm. Did you ..er. Put it down?
and then wash your foot?
Well I was wearing shoes
I took it outside and washed my hands
I thought you were running around in stocking feet like I do.
Well it was flipflops
Those don't count as shoes.
It's been too hot for socks
So. No glue shit on you?
Yeah it's a wonder I didn't get my foot stuck
If that happened to me I would so freak the hell out.
That would be my luck to get my foot stuck in the trap with the mouse and the mouse is biting my fucking foot
AND THEN YOU WOULD HAVE TOGET RABIES SHOTS
I left it outside. I think part of me hoped the ravens that come around in the mornings would handle it, but I hoped that they wouldn't get caught in the gluetrap too. That'd be my luck, the raven would get caught in it and unable to fly, and then a fox would come along and get caught trying to catch the raven, and then there's a fucking Katamari made of wildlife rolling around in my back yard, barking and squawking.
Before I went to bed, I flicked on the back porch light and checked on it, looking through the back door. It had started to chew through the plastic trap tray.
When I got up this morning, I went to the back door to see what was what. The mouse and gluetrap were still where I'd left them, untouched--I guess the ravens hadn't noticed it. It had dragged itself a few inches across the deck. At first I thought it was dead, but as I knelt to look at it, its whiskers twitched again.
How do people feed these things to their pet snakes? I couldn't handle it, I'd have to leave the room while the snake handled its bidness.
I went outside to apologize again and the thing had tears in its eyes. The fucking mouse was crying. I'm going to Hell.
At this point I'm inwardly disconsolate. I'm rational and cool on the outside but a mess on the inside. I pick up the trap. The mouse is flaccid but still twitching. This is vermin, I tell myself, carrying it out front. Maybe a cat will happen by and find it--there are stray cats and dogs that wander into the yard all the time--but I get that mental image of a Katamari of animals rolling around the premises again.
I put it on the retaining wall next to the garbage. What a horrible way to die, but I still can't bring myself to smack it with a hammer. Besides, I'll get the hammer stuck. As I walk away, though, I realize that I always see our desert spiny lizards chilling on that same wall and I really don't want those guys getting stuck because they eat spiders and such, so I put the gluetrap in an empty washtub sitting next to the garbage.
I feel even worse. You're not garbage, little guy. I'm so sorry.
The mouse is still in that washtub as I type this and I still can't bring myself to hammer it.
This isn't the first time I've put a mouse in a bucket. Back during my first marriage, my ex and I moved into her stepfather's old house, a tiny brick ranch-style in a subdivision of Rome, Georgia, on the outskirts of the Bad Part of Town. The house was filthy when we moved into it, and had a pantry that was basically just a linen closet--you open the door and bam, shelves, flush up against the doorjamb. Also, bam, every time you opened the door a mouse would jump off the top shelf, hit the floor, and scuttle underneath the bottom shelf.
I got the idea to jerk open the door and thrust the bucket into the mouse's trajectory. It worked. As soon as I opened the pantry door, the mouse jumped right into the bucket with a thump.
I filled a saucer with some water and put it in the bucket with the mouse. It took a few sips and looked up at me.
"Hi little guy," I said, crouching next to the bucket.
The mouse leapt at the side of the bucket and almost over the rim, two feet off the floor. I recoiled in surprise and took out the saucer, then picked the bucket up, carrying it outside. The street was dark, spotlighted by the occasional blue arc lamp. The mouse and I took a stroll down the road a bit--two hundred, three hundred yards maybe--and I poured the mouse into the weeds. "Be free, you little shit. Be free!"
There's no saving this one. I still don't know what to do. I am racked with guilt and it's too beautiful a day to die.
I think maybe the penance I've chosen to pay today is to write this blog post and let you know that I am horrible and I should feel horrible. Maybe I've built up a little karma by saving the chipmunk and the other mouse. Maybe I've offset my cosmic footprint with all the birdseed I've bought and the dogfood I've bought for a dog that doesn't even belong to me, and protecting that nest of babies a pair of cardinals built in the bushes right up against the front porch earlier this summer.
This is me, having an existential crisis over a fucking field mouse.
gandhi is my gun
Will Weisser - The Reintegrators - $2.99
The first thing I want to make clear is how masterfully well-written this book is on a technical level. Clarity without austerity, description without purple prose, witty and natural dialogue, all tied up in a gripping, extremely original story and starring a relatable, three-dimensional hero--THE REINTEGRATORS has it all and it's definitely worth the money. It also has one of the most original methods of crafting parallel plotlines I've ever seen and I can't wait to see Weisser get comfortable and really experiment with it.
Warning: may include spoilers.
My only gripe is Mr. Weisser's extremely light touch when it comes to details and exposition. I feel like I'm reading the second book in a series, and REINTEGRATORS feels like it could have gone on for a hundred more pages and I would have been all the happier for it. If this book was a movie, where a light touch is treasured, it would be a very fast-paced and intensely enjoyable movie. As a matter of fact, it reads quite a lot like a really good summer scifi blockbuster, albeit somewhat more cerebral and complex than your usual DIVERGENT or HUNGER GAMES moviegoer.
There's little to no background given to the subject of metanautics--the practical effects of artifacets were fantastic, but I would have loved to have seen much, much more historical information about the absolutely fascinating practice of metanautics itself, as well as a better explanation of how artifacets work. The sort of information Teddy would have seen on his study binges in the library: secret mathematical societies in the Renaissance, Dark Age cults, government experiments, redacted documents, private correspondence, crumbling old diagrams that fully explain the artifacet function. There are a few teases at revelations like these but it never really goes full MKULTRA. Conspiracies and secret conflicts are hinted at but never really explored, castes and designations such as "Naturals" serve as major pivots but there isn't much under the rock when you turn it over. This goes back to filling out the legend of metanautics--I really want to know what makes Naturals tick, why they are what they are.
Likewise, the worlds Teddy travels to are amazing to look at and feature stunningly unique aspects, but without giving these alien cultures historical gravitas they become facades, like taking a quick tour around the hollow sets of western movies. There is one particularly original and intriguing world where much of the terrain is covered in bathroom tiles, and I really wanted to know more about why and how this came to be beyond the quick explanation provided. I also wanted to know more about the societies and customs of these otherworlds and see more of their cities.
Very little physical description of characters results in a loss of individuality. No characters quite suffered from this like Kevin and Charles, who could almost be the same person (I welcomed one portion of the story where one of them integrates into a body with a distinctive physical quality, because it was suddenly much easier to tell them apart). At one point I had to take a hiatus from the book for a few days in order to focus on some work, and when I came back it took several pages to remember that Teddy was the protagonist, not Kevin. There isn't much delving into their motivations and histories either, and several supporting characters that seem integral to the plot turn out to be red herrings.
All in all, I might have typed a lot up there but it really just comes down to bantamweight pacing. REINTEGRATORS has quick footwork and punches like a piledriver, but lacks follow-through and scope. If you're looking for an engaging action ride built on a foundation of fringe psychoscience like remote-viewing, this book is a damn good read. I'll be on pins and needles waiting for the next one, and hoping Mr. Weisser takes us deeper into the history of metanautics.
Amazon: $0.99 - Division Zero
Cyberpunk isn’t an easy genre to write in. With the contemporary and fantasy genres, authors have a little leeway to be lazy and let the reader make assumptions about the setting, or go balls-to-the-wall and do whatever they want. They won’t get far being lazy, but it’s still possible to half-ass a book and still qualify as “fantasy”. And with a contemporary world, all you have to do is describe what you see.
Cyberpunk, though, you have to know your stuff. If you want your story to have authenticity, or even qualify, you have to address all kinds of conventions and predictions: where technology is headed and how it can go bad, pop culture trends, urban evolution. Veer too far into nihilistic desolation and you’ll end up in Mad Max territory. Stray too far into modern pop culture and creature comforts, and you’ll just time-travel to next Thursday. You have to hit all the right notes to make the secret passage to the cyberpunk vault open. And even then, without innovation or doing anything to put your own spin on it, you’ll find nothing inside but a limp retread.
Luckily, Matt Cox managed all of the above and then some with vivid details, some extremely strong characterization and a robust, powerful, complex female protagonist, all tied up with a jene-sai-quois that gives it the deliberate, introspective charm of a 90’s anime like Ghost in the Shell, Dominion: Tank Police, or Akira.
While still buckling the reader into a trashy, augmentation-addicted environment familiar to cyberpunk readers, he’s brought his own touch in the introduction of paranormal elements, the familiarity of a police procedural, and a refreshingly cynical look at our own tech-soaked world. The skies are cluttered with floating ad-bots wrangled by smug drone operators that project ads across windshields, while Fifth Element food skiffs peddle dubious ethnic dishes made out of soy man-kibble. Civil-rights-bestowed androids called “dolls” populate corporate offices and bordellos alike. Do dolls dream of electric suffrage?
The paranormal elements are what really make Division Zero stand out against your usual cyberpunk, rendered with the kind of irreverence that made ghost movies like Ghostbusters and Frighteners such a hit in the 80’s and 90’s. Some ghosts chitchat with the protagonist on the city bus, while others surprise her in the shower or burst out of walls to attack. She keeps them at bay with her own version of the proton pack—a psychically-generated energy whip, and they get even older and scarier when she chases them into the dilapidated ruins of our own time period.
Where the book really shines is in the depiction of its put-upon protagonist Kirsten Wren. Brought up by a violent, anachronistically religious mother, the telepathic and telekinetic prodigy Kirsten has developed severe self-image issues that cause her to push away potential suitors and pre-emptively intimidate potential bullies. This twisted-up knot of anxiety is chugging along at all times, leading up to a cathartic mid-book climax worthy of Hitchcock, but until then our Neuromancer Carrie mitigates her worries in deep philosophical discussions with her cop partner, the enigmatic Dorian Marsh, who never seems to eat. Dorian is the center of his own mystery, a tidy little riddle that peppers the book with frustrating clues and makes his relationship with Kirsten all the more satisfying.
Other than the pre-requisite indie misspellings and misused words, my only problem is the style and word choice, but that might be more subjective than anything else. There’s too much engulfing in water and engulfing in sewage, and placing things upon tables and upon chairs. Sometimes the scene bogs down in visceral detail and long-legged sentences. Writing lyrically is fantastic in scene-setting (especially in one of his many beautiful chapter-openings), but in action sequences and dialogue-heavy interaction, it bogs the writing down and makes it grind. Attention is lavished on inconsequential details while important environment info is omitted, resulting in blurry backgrounds and microscopic closeups on hands and facial features. When people eat, I can almost feel them chewing, smell their breath, feel their spittle on my face, but I have almost no idea what the restaurant looks like. Several times I found myself at the end of a paragraph and had to go back and read it again. A fellow reviewer called it “wordy”, and while that seems like a harsh assessment to me, I plead the Fifth.
Cox also has a weird sense of time progression, and sometimes effects happen before their causes (“Kirsten doubled over the assassin’s hand as he slammed a fist into her gut and knocked the wind from her lungs”, to paraphrase), which makes the “movie” in my head skip around erratically, making me have to re-read sentences again to get a clear picture.
I have a feeling that the time and word-choice issues I mentioned above are probably because Matt adheres to “the rules” perhaps a bit too fiercely, forcing his writing into contortions to avoid things like passive voice and word repetition (which ended up happening anyway). Passive voice is uncool, daddy-o, but you are allowed to use the word “was” every now and then.
Summary: Regardless of the fact that my tastes run to a leaner voice, this is a good and outstandingly fresh book—Matt is far and away one of the finest character sculptors I’ve ever seen, and he’s not bad at plot either. And since there are so many themes and threads woven in—ghostbusting, mental powers, cop-show bravado, Bladerunner—it’s easy to picture it your own way because there’s something there for everybody.
I think if one approaches D0 as more of a character study than anything else, one can more fully appreciate the bonsai-like care he’s taken to developing the people that inhabit his dirty neon world. If you’re a fan of writers and makers like William Gibson, Luc Besson, Neal Stephenson, or Masamune Shirow, this book is worth every red cent.
When I started reading THE RIGHT KIND OF STUPID, I wasn't sure what to think going into it. I don't usually read "comedy", and wasn't entirely sure what the genre entails. I usually traffic in fantasy and horror--the kind of light summer reading that requires either a glossary or a bedside weapon. Lovely surprise, then, to find out that TRKOS protrudes well outside of its comedy constraints like a Saint Bernard in a cat's bed.
Don't get me wrong--there are some very funny parts--but by and large, the book is a rich tapestry of both humor and pathos. Hell, I'd almost call it lit-fic if I thought Oprah could stomach it. One minute it can be offensive enough to make you do a double-take at your Kindle, and the next you're hit with a moment of catharsis or introspection that leaves you stunned and itching to start the next chapter. One scene in particular involving a surprisingly violent temper tantrum in a restroom would have qualified the actor for an Oscar, I think, if it had been a movie.
About that offensiveness: great swaths of the book are devoted to building up situations that seem so politically-incorrect you'll be laughing and shaking your head in disbelief and developing characters that seem almost cartoonishly stereotypical. Drunken Japanese businessmen. Mexican landscapers. A schoolyard bully grown up into a boardroom bully. Then all of a sudden one of them does something that humanizes the hell out of them and you realize, 'this person doesn't need defending', or 'this guy is just like me'. You realize that underneath that Mexican landscaper's stereotype is a noble, hard-working immigrant that views his work as high art and loves his job so much his private life suffers. Underneath the bully's veneer of juvenile, name-calling, Biff-level antagonism is a clever, scheming sociopath with an inferiority complex.
You start to realize that a lot of this political incorrectness comes from Oakes's subtle yet full-force immersion of the reader in the main character Cody, who in his affluence is almost a shut-in. He's so sheltered he's damn near feral--a little boy raised by wolves in the tree hazard on a country club golf course. Thanks to his utter ignorance of the nuances of wider society, Cody's world is a minefield, teeming with racial slur naivete and faux pas trip-wires.
And in that ignorance is the book's first stunning magic trick: making you see the world you thought you knew in a whole new light, like some kind of portal fantasy dressed up in Billy Madison's clothes. Where Adam Sandler's stunted rich-kid manchild is viewed from the outside, turning him into an obnoxious clown transplanted into our common-sense workaday world, Cody Latour warps the Texas we know into an unfamiliar, trap-strewn labyrinth. Suddenly a character that could have been a buffoonish, one-dimensional 1-percenter playboy is brought down to our level and shaped into a real guy, a flesh-and-blood human being whose achievements and mistakes are our own. When the climax takes place and Cody realizes he's screwed himself into a major ass-beating, Oakes had developed him enough by that point that I actually felt ashamed and stupid FOR Cody, and I almost experienced cold physical fear at the prospect of getting my skull "cracked open" (as the antagonist so eloquently puts it, along with a very well-placed "Jesus Titty-Fucking Christ") in front of all his new friends.
The second magic trick, the real sawing-the-woman-in-half, is where Oakes crafts likeable, relatable, distinctive people out of the rich. In a time when billionaires are warning each other about pitchforks and guillotines and hiding their excess from the poor public eye, Oakes injects the lifestyles of the rich and famous with fully-realized characters that justify every Mercedes and Olympic swimming pool. Even the main antagonist draws a little empathy when Tagg and Cody get roped into an impromptu drinking contest at a wedding and we learn bully Tagg gets a little maudlin when he's had too much to drink. Oakes even makes the convoluted business and legal mechanics Cody has to navigate easy to understand.
By the time you get near the end of the book you'll be racing to the end just to see if all your suspicions are right--and then flipping back to the beginning to catch clues you missed the first time around. There were a scattering of grammatical issues throughout the book, but I've marked them all down and given the list to the author to take a look at, so by the time you read this review they will probably have been fixed. But even if they haven't, they really don't take away from what is a hilarious Catcher in the Rye for the Lebowski crowd, a modern martini monomyth full of goddams and one-liners and men born to wear cut-off jeans with yellow shooting glasses.
I haven't slept. This seems like an appropriate point to make another pass at doing a blog; insomnia, in the movies, is narratively speaking one of the tastiest environments for a character to undertake a task as potentially melancholy and introspective as blogging. One of my favorite YouTube series, "CaughtNotSleeping", started out this way.
I don't know why I haven't slept. I took two melatonin just after midnight and laid down, and then proceeded to lie in the bed awake for several hours.
I took the opportunity to finish reading John Oakes' The Right Kind of Stupid, and it was without a doubt one of the best books I've ever read of any genre, or of any provenance, self-published or traditionally-published. If you like "realistic" drama stories with a lot of verve and comedy, I highly recommend it. I'm going to be writing a glowing review of it once I've had some sleep and can assemble a coherent thought.
Between repeatedly checking my Twitter and the upvotes on my Reddit posts, I drank a whole half a pitcher of iced coffee and I'm sitting here groggy at 10am. For some reason, judging by the stream-of-consciousness silliness I tend to pour into Twitter when I'm like this, apparently I should do my "humor edit" on my WIP when I'm sleepy. Like they say (who was "they" again? Hemingway?), "Write drunk, edit sober." Well, I hear that going without a night of sleep is legally comparable to being under the influence of alcohol--at least, where driving is concerned--and I can believe it.
I'll probably do up something about Amazon when I wake up, and how Kindle Unlimited is horseshit for everybody. Here's a sneakpeek: you have to be on KDP Select to be included as an author on (and benefit from) Unlimited, and Select requires exclusivity to Amazon. This basically means that Amazon is now actively bleeding every other bookseller into a bucket like a hog in a slaughterhouse and drinking it to gain the hog's powers. I hope you guys like Amazon, because it's turning itself into a monopoly gestalt like some kind of Megazord made out of assholes and money, and the government doesn't seem to give one shit. Welcome back to the 19th century, folks.
stare at a point on the wall