Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. ~Mel Brooks
The other night, my wife drew my attention to a spec script written by comedian Billy Domineau in which he imagines what might have happened if there had been a 9/11 episode of Seinfeld. Now, first off, this episode is clearly in poor taste on a couple levels and is going to offend a great many people. Secondly, it’s also hilarious and for largely the same reasons. It also reminded me of the Modern Seinfeld Twitter, in which they posit plotlines that the Seinfeld crew would be up to if the show were running today. They, also, are consistently hilarious.
This comes to me at a time when I am growing more and more bored with the sitcom as a genre. Yes, I’ve watched Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, yes, I’ve tried Veep and obviously I’ve watched as much Modern Family and Big Bang Theory as I can take. They all fall flat. Some might have a great first season, and then they just become boring by their second time around. This, however, isn’t true of the truly great sitcoms of history. Seinfeld remains funny mostly forever. Frasier, also, remains amusing. Cheers was in this category, too, as was 30 Rock. The Simpsons, which is probably the most consistently funny show in history, was funny for over a decade before sinking into a slow decline.
How, though, have they all done this? Well, I’m not a comedy writer, so feel free to take my theory with a grain of salt, but I think what I’m about to say has a really solid foundation, so hear me out. See that Mel Brooks quote up there? Can you tell the difference between Tragedy and Comedy in his definition? It’s a little subtle – a lot of people miss it because they assume the difference is in the kind of injury. Falling into an open sewer is funnier than a paper cut, right? Well, maybe, but that isn’t the heart of the statement. The thing Books is drawing attention to is “I” versus “You.”
The difference between Comedy and Tragedy (or, more broadly, the “The Silly Vs The Serious”) is the emotional distance maintained between the audience and the characters. What’s funny about you falling into an open sewer is that it’s you and not me. If I die, it is upsetting and sad. If a person I don’t feel attached to dies (particularly in an absurd way), it’s funny. Dark, perhaps – maybe even offensive – but still funny. We laugh at the Black Knight having his limbs chopped off, but we cringe when Ned Stark loses his head.
Seinfeld, perhaps better than any other sitcom I can think of, balanced the audience’s distance from its characters to maintain humor. We are laughing at the characters in that show just about as often as we are laughing with them. We sympathize with their plight, but they seek to solve their problems in ways we would never consider, and so we are both sympathetic (“I’ve wanted to steal cake from my boss’s fridge, too!”) and detached (“She went in for a bigger piece?!”). This allows us to laugh without feeling bad. It is, at its base, the essence of comedy.
This is, I think, part of why I am dropping out of the sitcom scene of late. Too many shows are trying to get me to connect on too deep an emotional level. Kimmy Schmidt is actually inspiring, which doesn’t work. I mean, it makes for reasonable drama and an interesting storyline, but I can’t laugh at a person who I actively admire. Likewise for How I Met Your Mother. I loved those characters (well, except for Ted) and as soon as they started making Barney into a sympathetic human being, I stop laughing. I might still be interested, but it isn’t funny. If there’s a moment where the studio audience goes “AWWWWW” you have left the realm of comedy and gone elsewhere.
If I want emotional resonance or serious dramatic pathos, there are practically infinite dramas on television that do this far, far better than comedies ever do. If my goal is to laugh, well then I want a show that knows I want to stay at arm’s length. Therein lies the genius of Seinfeld and other shows like it. There is usually a straight man/woman with whom we can connect (Sam Malone, Jerry Seinfeld, Liz Lemon) surrounded by a zany world that we laugh even as it exasperates our protagonist. Seinfeld, of course, takes this one step further – the “straight” character in any given scene or show can change. Jerry is sometimes the zany one (“The lopper!”), sometimes it’s Elaine, and sometimes it’s even Kramer (!) who is the bastion of sanity in a madhouse world. That’s amazing character development, all maintained to get us to laugh at literally anything. Do you recall that George Constanza’s fiance dies as a result of wedding-envelope poisoning and it’s a joke? A JOKE!
But it works. Because it’s not us who died, and not us who lost a fiance. It’s that idiot, George. Maybe it makes us bad people to laugh, but if you gotta be bad to laugh that hard, then I don’t wanna be good.
Book Signing Coming Up!
I’m going to be at Pandemonium Books and Games on Thursday, September 8th, signing copies of my latest book No Good Deed. Come on by, bring friends, and I’ll bring cookies! 7pm-9pm!
I’ve returned from Kansas City! Though dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I fought my way back through the dread wastes of La Guardia International and American Airlines to deliver this report on what transpired in the distant cattle town.
So, let me explain.
No, it is too much. Let me sum up:
I attended a great many panels, spoke with a great many friends and colleagues, and watched the Hugo Awards get distributed to deserving people and watched thoroughly undeserving people get routed and driven back to Mordor. I will break this thing down, category by category.
The panels I attended were either panels about the craft of writing or panels about the subjects we are writing about. In the first category, perhaps the most interesting was the panel on how to pitch your work which was hosted by a goodly number of very spiffy agents (of which my agent, Joshua Bilmes, was member). That panel solidified in my mind what I have come to realize – that a good query is not smoke and mirrors and flowery language, but rather spare and efficient and evocative. Not “My novel is a thrilling death ride through canyons of moral ambiguity that asks the question “at what price justice?”” but, rather, “My completed fantasy novel is the story of a mercenary company that loses its way through a toxic wasteland and must rely on its captain, a recovering alcoholic, to see them to safety.”
I also saw a pretty cool presentation on Solar Sails by the guy who actually managed some of NASA’s solar sail projects. I listened to neat narrative tricks by Mary Robinette Kowal (who used her shoe as a puppet to illustrate concepts) and a panel of other luminaries. I watched a panel on immortality that became dreadfully boring so quickly I abruptly realized that the easiest way to live forever is to listen to an MD mumble jargon into a microphone for what seemed like eternity.
And there was so much more!
Let’s see, who did I run into? Well, first there was my Harper Voyager friends: Brooke Johnson, Beth Cato, Bishop O’Connell, Lexie Dunne, Becky Chambers, and editor David Pomerico. Then there were my Writers of the Future fellows, including Daniel Davis, Martin Shoemaker, Amy Hughes, Sharon Joss, Tina Gower, Steve Pantazis, (Quiet) Austin “the Dealer” DeMarco, and more besides. There was also my newest writing “family” in the JABerwocky Agency, including Joshua Bilmes, Ben Grange, Sam Morgan, Megan O’Keefe, and Heidi, Alison, Joe, Joey, and Chris (whom I spoke with during dinner but whose last names elude me).
I ran into Mike Resnick (editor of Galaxy’s Edge) and Shahid Mahmud (publisher of Galaxy’s Edge), I met CC “Charlie” Finlay, editor of F&SF, who actually remembered me right away and gave me a big smile and a handshake (which was awesome) and introduced me to his wife, Rae Carson.
And there were so many other people, besides! I couldn’t hope to name them all, and not least of all because I’m not 100% confident I would apply the right names to the right people!
Kansas City is a nice little town – very clean and evidently unpopulated (by my northeastern standards, anyway). Like, seriously – not a lick of traffic at any time, anywhere. Not even downtown. Hardly any pedestrians, either. I won’t lie – it was a trifle eerie.
It is a nice place for BBQ, though, and a big thanks to Brittany Constable (friend of Brooke Johnson and writer in her own right) for giving me a ride out to sample some great brisket and ribs. I also got to go to a fancy restaurant and have a Kansas City Strip Steak, which was pretty good (still not a huge strip steak fan, though). Stopped into the Dubliner pub, too, just to do a standard authenticity check on their “Irish” credentials. It was no Southie or Dorchester, mind you, but it was a really nice bar with some excellent chicken wings (though they don’t seem to understand the definition of “medium rare” for a burger). Got to stop into the Kansas City Public Library, which was a beautiful building that was everything a library should be, and got driven around by some of the nicest cab drivers I’ve met.
The awards show was a bit loosely organized, though they managed to get it into 2 hours on the dot, so kudos to them. The awards weren’t terribly surprising, for the most part – the Puppies were firmly routed yet again (and deservedly so), though I got the sense that their bitter negativity had driven a number of award winners from attending the awards, as quite a few people were accepting things on others’ behalf. Neil Gaiman’s acceptance speech (which was read on stage) was particularly scathing in that respect. Overall, though, I enjoyed the awards show more than I thought I would, as awards shows are usually overlong and deadly dull.
I was particularly happy for Lightspeed for winning Best Semiprozine and for Hao Jingfang and her story “Folding Beijing,” as they were all beside themselves with joy for their win. Jessica Jones also richly deserved the Best Dramatic (Short Form) Hugo, as well.
There was, of course, just a little bit of drama during the convention. I missed it, though whether I was fortunate or unfortunate in that regard is uncertain. A Puppy sympathizer by the name of Truesdale decided to hijack a panel on the state of short fiction and rant and rave about his own opinions about how “pearl-clutchers” are ruining scifi and was, apparently, completely unaware of the irony he embodied. You can look up plenty about this online and I’ll largely stay out of the discussion, but I will say this: Persons of color or women winning Hugo awards doesn’t ruin scifi for anybody. Being assholes, on the other hand…
…which is the song I’m going to be humming in my head the whole time I’m at WorldCon later on this week (I’ll be getting in about midday on Thursday). As I have never been there, I cannot vouch for the sanity of their women nor am I going for the express purpose of acquiring one. I am going because I plan to meet with a bunch of friends, possibly run into my editor (or agent), and basically take it all in. As I didn’t get my act together this year to put in for a panel (mostly because I didn’t think I’d rate one), I am not there in any official capacity. You’ll be able to find me sitting by myself in the back of various rooms, standing alone in corners, and maybe even awkwardly trying to insert myself into conversations with writers I admire and then completely and utterly embarrassing myself so that I will never look at nor speak to that person again.
So, you know, my typical convention experience.
I have high hopes this time around, anyway, that this will be more fun than I typically have at these things. You see, now I know people (well, virtually) who I will be able to link up with and whom, possibly, might not object to my presence or company. That’s the goal, anyway.
In the meantime, I am editing a novel (which is currently a torturous, miserable train wreck of a book), getting ready for the arrival of the fall semester (sigh – why does summer have to end?), and planning for my Book Signing and Reading at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA.
I’ll be there between 7pm and 9pm on Thursday, September 8th. If you’re in the area, come on down, hang out, get a book signed, and check out the Boston area’s best scifi/fantasy book and game store.
Anyway, gotta run–I’ve got to bash my head against this intractable manuscript a bit more. I’ll be back next week with a full recap of the magic of WorldCon!
Special treat today! Brooke Johnson is a steampunk author whose first book, THE BRASS GIANT, is a wonderful tale of clockwork, young love, and a hard-nosed female protagonist up to her neck in trouble. The second book in her series, THE GUILD CONSPIRACY just came out yesterday, and Brooke has been so kind as to allow me to post an excerpt of it for you all to read. Check it out!
EXCERPT from Chapter 2 of THE GUILD CONSPIRACY:
Petra reached the University square and crept toward the student entrance, hiding in the shadow of a nearby steam duct. Tucking her hair into the brim of her hat, she glanced down at her pocket watch, grazing her fingertips over the intricate C that decorated the case—just a few minutes before ten. She peeked out from her hiding place and searched the empty square, but no sign of Rupert.
With a sigh, she pressed her back against the warm metal of the exposed ductwork and waited, listening to the rush of steam hissing through the pipes. The machines of the subcity rattled and whirred beneath the stone street, synchronized gears and linkages ticking a rhythm of mechanical perfection beneath her feet. She inhaled a deep breath, catching the scent of coal and gasoline amidst the humid air billowing through the grates. It smelled of home.
A few minutes later, the lock above the student entrance unlatched, the gears knocking and grating as ratchets shifted the deadbolts. The door creaked inward, and Rupert’s blond head peered out, his face lit by the flickering gas lamps at the bottom of the stairs.
“Petra?” he called, his voice barely above a whisper. “You out here?”
She slipped out from behind the steam duct and met him atop the stairs. Rupert closed the door behind her. He removed his student key from the lock, and heavy gears ratcheted the deadbolts back into place, locking the door with a resounding clunk.
Petra leaned against the smooth brass-plated wall and breathed in the familiar air of the University, the lingering scents of grease and metal polish putting her at ease. The usual bustle of engineers, students, and professors was absent from the dark, empty lobby, the echo of distant machinery lurking in the shadows like haunting ghosts. It had been months since she’d been here after dark—when Emmerich was still here and her only worry was keeping their automaton project secret. It seemed an eternity ago now.
Rupert touched her shoulder. “Come on,” he whispered. “Or we’ll miss it.”
He took her to the lift and used his student key to propel them up to the eighth floor, the whirring belts and pulleys singing as they ascended. The lift slowed to an abrupt stop, and the lights above the gates spilled across the hall, startlingly bright in the quiet darkness of the University.
“So what’s this meeting about?” she asked Rupert.
Their brisk footsteps echoed off the hard floor as Rupert led her down the hall toward the student lounges and recreation room.
As they approached, a muffled cacophony met Petra’s ears—shouts and curses, cheers, a clash of metal on metal, the clear sound of a combustion engine igniting. Petra’s heartbeat quickened, and she pressed her ear to the door, feeling the vibrating hum of a purring engine in the room beyond, the sigh of exhaust, the smell of burnt fuel reaching her nose.
Rupert nudged her aside and keyed into the room, the clash of metal rising to a deafening thunder as he opened the door.
Inside, the billiard table, chess tables, chairs, and sofas had been pushed to the walls, the usual carpets and rugs thrown over the furniture. A spotlight illuminated a few dozen students near the center of the room, surrounding a hulk of moving brass, its shiny surface flashing in the glow of the electric light. The crunch of crumpling metal and subsequent jeers echoed off the walls, and the metal beast reeled out of Petra’s sight.
Leaving Rupert behind, she elbowed her way through the crowd of students and stumbled headlong into the center of the ring. A quick hand caught her by the collar and yanked her back into the crowd just as a metal arm swiped through the air, inches from her nose.
Petra stumbled into the student next to her, gaping in delighted disbelief at the scene before her. Two imposing metal figures stood in the center of the ring—a squat trapezoidal machine and a grotesque humanoid—dripping oil and smelling of exhaust. Jagged trenches cut through the outer shell of the larger machine, exposing a mesh of combustion enginery and electrical wiring inside, while the smaller, wheeled contraption had a stump of shredded linkages and twisted gears where its second arm should have been, its stout body half-crushed and front wheels bent.
The bipedal machine lunged, much to the crowd’s delight, and there was a terrible, teeth-grinding crunch as the metal shells crumpled and warped on impact. The biped hammered its fist into the smaller trapezoid, the squat machine’s outer shell buckling under the assault. Yet the contraption held its ground, wheels spinning forward as it pressed against the hulking mass of metal, its remaining arm buried halfway into the biped’s central system, pulling wires and tubes from its body like rubber intestines, oil and hydraulic fluid spilling onto the floor.
With a sputtering whine, the combustion engine rumbled to a halt, the spin of gears slowing to a groan as the mechanical biped powered down. The heavily damaged trapezoid pushed the biped away, and the mutation of combustion enginery and electricity toppled over with a resounding crash.
And then the room erupted in cheers.
From the far side of the ring, a young man stepped forward and waved the crowd into silence. Petra recognized him by his long, narrow face and shrewd eyes—Vice-Chancellor Lyndon’s son, Yancy. He spread his hands wide.
“Gentlemen! I believe we have our winner!”
The winning engineer stepped forward and swept into a low bow, tucking a metal control box behind his back. Petra noted the thick cord trailing from the brass case, snaking across the oil-slicked floor to the back of the trapezoidal machine. So that was how he controlled it.
She suppressed a smirk. Rudimentary technology.
Rupert squeezed in beside her. “What do you think?”
“It’s brilliant,” she said, her voice nearly lost amidst the cheers and shouts around them. “How long has this been going on?”
“Started about midterm, last semester. You know about the failed automaton project, right? Some of the boys who work in the armory found the remains of it and got the idea to start a mechanical fight ring.”
Petra pressed her mouth shut and nodded. So they had kept it then, the ruined prototype that Emmerich had so expertly smashed through the floor of his workshop—now collecting dust in the armory. The failed automaton project. That was what the rest of them called it, not knowing she had helped design and build it, not knowing what her involvement had cost her.
“Where do they get the parts?” she asked.
“Discards and surplus from the workshops,” said Rupert. “Some of the richer blokes buy parts offshore and have them shipped in. Most of it is scrap, though.”
In the center of the ring, Yancy quieted the crowd with a wave. “That concludes the inaugural competition of our mech fights.” Another boy brought forward a table and handed Yancy a pad of paper and a pencil. “If you wish to participate in the next tournament,” he said, waving the paper over his head, “sign up by the first bell tomorrow and have your mech ready for the first round sometime next month, date to be decided. Entry fee is a pound note—or equivalent—the sum of all entries to be rewarded to our next winner.”
He dropped the paper and pencil onto the table, and a handful of students stepped forward to enter. Petra watched as they scribbled their names, one after the other, knowing she could outmaneuver every single one of them with a machine of her own.
For six long months, she’d been stuck in boring classrooms, listening to dry lectures and permitted to do nothing more than pointless busywork. She missed the feel of a screwdriver in her hand, the smell of grease under her fingernails, the late nights of working with her hands deep inside a machine.
She yearned for it.
Rupert nudged her with his elbow. “Go on then. Sign up.”
Petra considered it, absently twisting the stem of her pocket watch between her thumb and forefinger. She could enter, write her name down and fight in the next tournament, finally have the chance to build something again. Yet . . . she knew they wouldn’t let her. They’d only laugh at her, mock her for thinking she could compete with them, for thinking she was their equal.
She stared at the sign-up sheet, the determination to prove herself burning in her chest.
To hell with them.
She released the breath she’d been holding and stepped forward, heart beating faster. Leaning over the table, she took the pencil into her hand and pressed the point of graphite to the paper, quickly scribbling her name at the bottom of the list of entrants before she second-guessed herself. She belonged here, building machines alongside the best of them.
She’d win the damn tournament, and then they’d see.
THE GUILD CONSPIRACY:
In the face of impossible odds, can one girl stem the tides of war?
It has been six months since clockwork engineer Petra Wade destroyed an automaton designed for battle, narrowly escaping with her life. But her troubles are far from over. Her partner on the project, Emmerich Goss, has been sent away to France, and his father, Julian, is still determined that a war machine will be built. Forced to create a new device, Petra subtly sabotages the design in the hopes of delaying the war, but sabotage like this isn’t just risky: it’s treason. And with a soldier, Braith, assigned to watch her every move, it may not be long before Julian finds out what she’s done.
Now she just has to survive long enough to find another way to stop the war before her sabotage is discovered and she’s sentenced to hang for crimes against the empire. But Julian’s plans go far deeper than she ever realized … war is on the horizon, and it will take everything Petra has to stop it in this fast-paced, thrilling sequel to The Brass Giant.
Release Date: August 9, 2016.
About the Author:
BROOKE JOHNSON is a stay-at-home mom and tea-loving writer. As the jack-of-all-trades bard of the family, she journeys through life with her husband, daughter, and dog. She currently resides in Northwest Arkansas but hopes to one day live somewhere more mountainous. You can find her on Twitter @brookenomicon.
This is just my friendly reminder telling you to get out there and buy my book in paperback! Yessiree, NO GOOD DEED is now available as a real, actual book so you luddites out there can get your fill of Tyvian and his mischief while smelling the sweet aroma of bleached, tattooed tree carcass. You might even get a paper cut or something.
Not convinced? Well, how about this BLURB:
Cursed with a magic ring that forbids skullduggery, Tyvian Reldamar’s life of crime is sadly behind him. Now reduced to fencing moldy relics and wheedling favors from petty nobility, he’s pretty sure his life can’t get any worse.
That is until he hears that his old nemesis, Myreon Alafarr, has been framed for a crime she didn’t commit and turned to stone in a penitentiary garden. Somebody is trying to get his attention, and that somebody is playing a very high-stakes game that will draw Tyvian and his friends back to the city of his birth and right under the noses of the Defenders he’s been dodging for so long. And that isn’t even the worst part. The worst part is that the person pulling all the strings is none other than the most powerful sorceress in the West: Lyrelle Reldamar.
Tyvian’s own mother.
Okay, okay – maybe you need a little more. For instance, perhaps you want me to scribble my name in your book and say something pithy. Fine. FINE – I will do that for you. On September 8th at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA I will be signing books and even doing a reading. Come on down to meet me in person and allow me to guilt you into purchasing a paperback. Last time was lots of fun so, with any luck, the streak will stay alive!
As for whether there is going to be a third book, well, time will tell. Stay tuned to this space (or follow me on Twitter or Facebook or Goodreads) and you’ll find out!
I just finished Stranger Things last night. Loved it – it’s magnificent television, some of the best I’ve seen in years, and you need to get your ass on Netflix and watch it yesterday. It’s Goonies meets the X-Files if written by Stephen King and no, that is not even remotely an exaggeration. It’s glorious. Not perfect, granted (there were a couple places it might have been *better,* but really I’d be quibbling), but crazy good.
Spoilers Below, by the way…
There are probably dozens of things I could write about this series and about the reaction to this series. Like, why the obsession with Barb? Why doesn’t anybody ever use the buddy system ever? Even when they do use the buddy system, why does nobody ever say “hey, look at this thing!” before wandering off, thereby defeating the purpose of the buddy system? Also: Does Matthew Modine live at the lab? Does everyone? If so, where the hell were they all when Hop broke in? If not, where do they all live, if not in the exact same small town as everyone else? Where do they commute from? I could also go on and on about Dungeons and Dragons, about that special kid-friendship that we have when we’re twelve but that melts away as we get older. I could even talk about the Acrobat and the Flea for a bit. About bullying (again), and on and on and on. But no – the topic I choose today is the tale of two moms, Joyce Byers and Karen Wheeler.
This show deliberately and consciously poses for us a pair of mothers who are, for all intents and purposes, opposites of one another. On the one hand, we have Joyce – a harried single mother, barely able to manage her life and her finances. She’s a terrible cook, has a bad relationship with her ex-husband, works a crappy retail job, and looks like she hasn’t seen a hairbrush in years, let alone used one. On the other hand, we’ve got Karen Wheeler – sensibly dressed, classy, well-to-do. She makes beautiful turkeys, sits her family down to dinner on time, maintains a beautiful home, and seems to have this mom game all sewn up. On the surface of things (and, indeed, in the eyes of Hawkins, Indiana), Karen is the “good” mother, and Joyce is the failure. I mean, hell, Joyce has her kid kidnapped right from under her nose, right?
But that isn’t the case. In fact, I’d like to argue that Joyce is the very best kind of mother and that Karen is, frankly, a pretty slack performer. Here’s why: Joyce trusts and believes and is engaged in her children and their lives. Karen just has small people that live in her house.
Let’s start with Karen Wheeler, shall we? First of all, Karen seems to have absolutely know idea where her children are at any time. Granted, neither does Joyce, but she’s busy fighting nether-demons and one of her kids is on an alternate plane of existence, so she should be given a pass on that one. Meanwhile, Nancy sneaks not one but two boys into her room while her mother is home. At the same time, Mike is hiding a psychic wunderkind with a shaved head in the basement and Karen has no goddamned idea at all.
But, okay, kids at a certain age acquire a life of their own, sure – Karen isn’t going to keep them in the Panopticon, right? Consider this, though: Karen doesn’t knock on Nancy’s door, she just comes in. Because she doesn’t trust her or because she is unwilling to grant Nancy the right to privacy, in either case it doesn’t speak well of her. Jonathan, who’s got a whole different kind of mother, is surprised at this.
And further: When Nancy learns that Barb has disappeared and suspects that something terrible has happened to her best friend, what is the thing Karen wants to talk about when they get home? That’s right – did you sleep with that boy. Not “how are you doing with all this scary stuff going down,” no, instead it’s “you LIED to me!” Classy move, Karen. Now, should she discuss the fact that Nancy has embarked upon an active sex life? Yeah, sure – obviously a serious discussion has to be had – but maybe approaching the topic right then and in that way isn’t the wisest plan, lady. Look, we’re all upset that she decided to sleep with that douchebag, but maybe the disappearance and possible death of her best friend takes precedence. Maybe you shouldn’t make her feel like a villain in her own home if you want her to talk to you?
And here, here’s the final straw: When her son runs out the door in a panic saying “if anybody looks for me, I’ve left the country” and then creepy government agents start rifling through her house and start taking her kid’s stuff, she gets upset, sure. But when Creepy Scientist Guy sits down and says “trust me – tell me where your son is,” what does she do? She gives him up. Just like that. It’s only fortunate that she is so disconnected from her kids lives that she is unable to give him up effectively. She has no idea where Mike might be.
Now, I don’t think Karen is a bad person and yes, she obviously cares about her kids, but she also has no idea what caring ought to entail. She is focused on keeping her kids clothed and clean and well fed (all admirable) while totally failing to appreciate or even like the fact that they have independent lives and are actual people worthy of her respect.
Which brings us to Joyce.
Yeah, Joyce can’t be home all the time (she’s a single mom in 1983 – cut her some slack, guys!) and she had some pretty terrible taste in men, but think of all the interactions we see between Joyce and her kids. She encourages Will’s creativity. She is engaged in the emotional well-being of Jonathan. She does more than love her kids – she admires them, she is proud of them, and she has their back no matter what.
When her kid talks to her from another dimension and everybody else thinks she’s completely nuts, you know who she trusts? Her. Kid.
When they show her a solid mock-up of her son’s body through a double glass pane from ten feet away, does she fall for it? Not for a second.
When an otherworldly monster rips a hole in fucking space-time right in front of her eyes and chases her from her house, you know what she does? Do you know what Joyce Byers does? SHE GOES BACK IN THAT FUCKING HOUSE AND SITS THERE WITH A GODDAMNED AXE ACROSS HER KNEES.
Why? Because her kid’s in trouble, she knows it, and even if the rest of the universe thinks she’s nuts, she is going to find him. Come Hell or High Water, she will be there for him. That – that – is true, pure, powerful motherhood. Not the birthday parties or the pretty house or the nice clothes. Not the quality of her mashed potatoes, but because of who she is to her kids: not a jailer or a disciplinary officer, but a lioness. Proud bearer of her children’s standard. Guardian of their potential.
All parents (God, don’t even get me started on the fathers in this show – a whole other post) should learn from her example. Believe in your kids, trust them, admire them, be there for them when they need you most, and they will return the favor.
The paperback version of No Good Deed comes out next week! On August 9th, be certain to pick up your copy in cold, hard paper! It’s a limited release, so don’t expect to see tons of them in bookstores – order online, from Amazon, B&N, and anybody else selling real, actual books.
Related to this, I will be doing a reading and book signing at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA, on the evening September 8th, so mark your calendars if you want to meet me/get a book signed!
In addition to novels, I also write short stories. Once I’ve got a story I think is good, I submit it to various publications, starting with the pro-level scifi/fantasy magazines (F&SF, Analog, Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Galaxy’s Edge) and then moving down the list until I get to the semipro markets. If I can’t sell a story at at least one cent a word, I don’t sell it. It goes in a trunk until I either stumble across an anthology that it might fit in or until I figure out a way to change it into a new story.
As you might imagine, there isn’t a vast array of pro-rate short fiction markets and, furthermore, not all pro-rate markets will take the story I’ve written. Analog, for instance, only wants scifi, and I don’t write scifi quite as often as I write fantasy. A bunch of markets want stories of 3000 words or less, and I tend to write stories that land in the 5K-7K range. This, again, limits the number of places I can send things. So it comes to pass that, after I’ve gotten rejections from the three or four ideal pro-markets that might take the story I’ve written, I’m left with fewer and fewer publication options.
That leads me to my topic of discussion for today: Young Adult fiction and what is appropriate. See, there’s a couple smaller markets out there that pay pro rates and cater specifically to a young adult audience. There are a few markets out there that insist upon a “PG-13” rating. There are others that simply describe themselves as “wholesome.” Now, I don’t typically write YA, exactly, but I do occasionally write stories with Young Adult protagonists dealing with Young Adult problems which, to my mind, ought to qualify. But I also write without any real regard to whether the language or subject matter is “appropriate” for younger readers or not and, as I honestly don’t read a great deal of YA, I’m often left wondering where the line is.
So, by way of example: I wrote a story once with a YA protagonist undergoing a struggle with his mother. It involved duels, intrigue, and some sorcery, but basically that was the main conflict – would this kid defy his mom or not and go dueling with this jerk. The story had a little bit of violence (somebody gets stabbed) and, at one point, I describe this kid’s rival as “miming fellatio at him.” So, here’s the question: Is the term “fellatio” (not the act – the word) sufficiently racy to knock it out of the PG-13/Young Adult rating?
Second example: Wrote a story pretty recently that was about some truly vile cyber-bullying and how this kid gets out of it (there’s a troll involved). His bullies, being nasty examples of adolescence, apply some very filthy and cruel language to this kid. There are f-bombs dropped, sexual situations described, and public discussions of this kid’s genitalia. Now, what about that one? Is that out of bounds?
From my perspective, I really don’t feel that it should be. Hell, it might actually not be, but I’ve had stories rejected because I had a guy lose his arm in a booby trap and that was too violent for them. And yet, in the PG-13 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a guy gets his heart ripped out and his body lit on fire and nobody batted an eyelash (well, perhaps not entirely true – they did invent the rating just for that movie because of the gore).
As for profanity, I pretty much learned everything I needed to know about profanity by the time I was in 8th grade, and most of it from the mouths of bullies. I learned everything I needed to know about sexual terminology in high school locker rooms. I was harassed just about every day in middle school by nasty little assholes who said all kinds of vile things about my mother. In high school, it wasn’t quite as bad for me – I was a varsity athlete my freshman year and that gained me a modicum of immunity – but a lot of my friends got it bad and I heard about it or saw it. In my role as “stealth nerd” I also got to hear how the alpha males of the school talked to each other, and it was hardly pristine. There was one guy who said “fuck” at least twice every sentence, and regularly used its verbal form to brag about which girls he’d had sex with and where and how often.
But can you put that in a YA story for 14 year olds to read?
I mean, I think so. Hell, these kids are living it anyway. I’ve always preferred the John Hughes approach to teenagers – treat them like real people with real problems. Don’t flinch because they’re “innocent” – they aren’t half as innocent as you think, anyway.
But, ultimately, it’s not up to me. And if I want to get paid better than .06 a word for some of these stories, I actually have to care about where the line is (or isn’t). Which is a long, round-about way of saying I’m worried some of my stories are going to offend somebody and I don’t think they really ought to.
I submit them anyway, though. Worst they can say is “fuck off.”
Hello, and welcome to the Sudden Valley Interdimensional Gateway Facility. Assuming you made it through security, you are reading this document while under the watchful eye of our armed guards. Please don’t be alarmed – they will only kill you if you show any signs of being an alien. So just remember to act totally normal. Easy, right?
Now, here are the basic rules:
- No animal or plant matter (beside yourselves) is to pass through the portal in either direction. No matter how human they look, we will shoot any people you rescue from alien overlords, so don’t even bother.
- Always send a robot through first. If you can’t get a good picture from a robot, spend some time building a better robot before sending through a person. Yes, even Gary.
- The scientist who designed the portal is never, ever, ever allowed to go through it, no matter how much she wants to. Do not give Marcia the access codes no matter how much she begs you. We’re serious.
- Do not operate the portal while drunk. We would say that you could be shot for attempting this, but no drunken lush has ever lived long enough for us to do so, so…
- If you dream about the portal “calling you,” please report to the nearest armed guard and say “Code Purple.” They know what to do next. We promise you’ll be fine. Honest.
- If something comes through the portal on its own, it has to die. We don’t care if it looks like your grandmother or dead girlfriend or long-lost father or whatever. Shoot first, questions later.
- After returning through the portal, please report to “Proccessing.” Remember to act totally normal.
- If the portal throws you forwards or backwards in time, remember not to cause any paradoxes. Assuming such paradoxes are possible, which they might not be, since they’ve never happened. Or maybe they did and we don’t know. Anyway, be careful. Remember: if confronted by security, remember to act totally normal.
- In the case of a time loop, we have a chess set set up in the break room at all times to help you signal to yourself that you’re in a time loop. Always remember to act totally normal.
- The alien species you may or may not encounter might end up being really cool. One of them might even be a seven foot tall blue cat chick who introduces you to her people’s ways. We do not care at all–keep her world’s problems on her world, dammit. We’ve got enough crazy shit going down on Earth. Stay out of it.
- In case of emergency, we have this facility rigged to the warhead of a hydrogen bomb. It is wired to the Big Red Button. Do not push the Big Red Button unless absolutely necessary.
- If you return under mind control, we will kill you. Sorry, but it clearly violates the totally normal statute.
- If you return with super-powers, but are in all other ways Totally Normal, we reserve the right to rent your services to the government so we can pay for our facility. We know, we know – that sounds dystopian and mean, but you get to be a superhero now, so shut up.
Good rule of thumb: expanding the knowledge of the human race is good and all, but let’s try to do that without blowing up the Earth.
Have fun, and happy adventuring!
Having a crazy week, so here’s just this quick link to a guest post I made over on Ragnarok yesterday. It’s about how writing novels/stories differs from tabletop RPGs, which is something I feel I know a bit about, as I’ve spend a good 25 years parsing through the differences.
Check out the post here, and check out Ragnarok, too – they’ve got a lot of cool things going on over there and they’re relatively new, so wander around.
Talk to you next week!
Hi folks – I’m back! And by “back” I mean “I’ve got somebody to cover for me today as I recover from jet lag.” Allow me to introduce Bishop O’Connell: friend, author, and apparent Irish ecclesiarch. He’s here to talk about villains and, as a frustrated super-villain myself, I can tell you that you ought to listen to his advice, because he knows what he’s talking about. He also has a series of urban fantasy novels out, the most recent being The Returned (I’ll let Bishop describe it for you at the bottom). For now, read his post. Then read his books. Then hack into and read his e-mails (they’re hilarious).
Wait…never mind that last part. You didn’t see that. Ummm…errr…just read the post, okay?
Interview with a Villain
Villains are important. Every book has one, in one form or another. No, I don’t (necessarily) mean a Blofeld-esque villain who lives in an active volcano, on a skull shaped island, laughing as he strokes his beloved cat.
I’m talking about the antagonist. While the story might not have a true villain per se, there is always an antagonist. I learned early in my writing career that if I wanted my stories to be compelling and interesting, I’d need to spend at least as much time on my “bad guys” as I do on my “good guy.” It’s true, not every antagonist is a person, it can be an environment, a society, or anything else. But for those times when it is a person, here are some things I’ve learned about making a good counter to my protagonist (main character):
Goals – “What’s my motivation in this scene?”
Every antagonist has one, and no, “because they’re evil” only makes for a sad caricature of a villain.
I’m not saying their motive has to fit with societal mores, but it does need to be believable; it has to make sense for that character. I could ask myself what my character wants, but better to ask them directly, and better style to ask them why they want it. I’ve found this can actually be incredibly helpful, especially if you pain the full picture. I imagine the scene where I’m meeting my villain. What is the character wearing? Is she waiting for me, or am I waiting for her? If he is waiting for me, does he stand when I arrive, or even acknowledge my presence? Who chose the venue? Are other people there? If so, are they staring? If they are, how does the character react? The more detailed the imagining, the fuller the character will be to me, and thus (hopefully) to my readers. As an example—since you might not know my work and to prevent potential spoilers—let’s take a villain from a story just about everyone has either read or knows about: Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. Apologies to Ms. Rowling for the butchering that follows. I hope you have a good sense of humor.
Voldemort met me at a popular London café overlooking the Thames River. His pale skin, serpent like nose, and trademark flowing, black robes made him easy to spot. He was sitting at a table with a view of the bustling river traffic, a cup of tea in hand, pinky extended. His now-famous wand sat on the table next to some kind of Asian inspired salad. I think he smiled when he saw me, it was hard to tell, and invited me to join him. A cup of tea was waiting for me, but since the wait staff was nowhere to be seen he poured the tea himself. I didn’t drink it.
Bishop: Thank you for meeting with me, Voldemort.
Voldemort: Lord Voldemort, if you please. I didn’t raise a dark army and commit mass murder to not use my title.
B: Apologies, thank you, Lord Voldemort, for meeting with me.
V: Certainly. I hope you don’t mind that I didn’t wait for you. They have the most exquisite quinoa salad here.
B: Not at all.
There is a moment of awkward silence as he takes a bite of his salad and a look comes to his face. It’s either pleasure or disgust, it’s hard to tell which with someone who looks like an escape from the Island of Dr. Moreau. After a moment he dabs the cloth napkin at the corners of his mouth and turns his attention back to me.
V: I’d ask if you want anything, but the wait staff is, well, indisposed at the moment.
He laughs, and it’s more comical than unsettling.
B: I’m fine, thank you. Let’s get to it, shall we? Lord Voldemort, tell me, what do you want?
He skewers some salad on his fork and looks bored.
V: I want to kill Harry Potter, of course.
B: Okay, I got that. I know that, you know that, Harry knows that, everyone knows that. But isn’t that kind of a simplistic goal? That’s kind of short term for you, isn’t it? I mean, what do you really want?
He chews the salad and a smile, or his version of one, returns to his face. He sets his fork down and pours himself more tea.
V: I’m so very glad you asked. No one ever really seems to care. My underlings are just trying to suckle at the master’s teat, and everyone else is just running for their lives. What I really want, and I know it’s terribly cliché, but what I truly want is to rule the world. My personal twist is that I also want to be the most powerful wizard ever. Harry Potter is really just an obstacle, the one who can best deny me those things.
B: Now we’re getting somewhere. Why do you want to rule the world?
V: Well, everybody wants to rule the world.
B: I had no idea you were a Tears for Fears fan.
V: Those are two of my favorite things.
He laughs and drinks more tea.
V: Seriously, though, I suppose I could say it’s the power I want, and I do, but that’s so simplistic. Power is a means, not an end. In truth, I’m a good old fashioned racist.
B: You’re a racist? That’s not something many people would openly admit.
V: I know. The word has such a negative connotation. The difference here is that my racism is based on genuine fact. I’m not biased based on anything as petty as skin color, birthplace, religion, anything like that. No, this is about magic. You muggles, quite frankly, are inferior to us wizards. In every way that matters.
B: Could you explain?
V: Happily. As wizards, we wield immense power. We have the capability to do things you only dream about by just saying the right words and moving a piece of wood through the air. We can violate your sad little “laws” of physics at whim. You are to us, what chimps are to you. We have flying cars, for crying out loud! Your scientists have been promising you flying cars since the 1950s, and yet the only ones I have ever seen are magical. Not that I need one of course, I can fly just find on my own.
B: So your racism is based on magical ability. Why are you opposed to muggle-born wizards and witches, or those from mixed families?
V: Just because the proverbial room full of monkeys with typewriters comes up with a play doesn’t make them Shakespeare.
B: Interesting analogy. Are you saying you admire Shakespeare’s work?
V: Not at all, I’m just using a comparison your small mind can grasp. To continue the analogy, you might find said monkeys an interesting oddity, but you’d never call them human. Likewise, Mud-Bloods, those wizards born from the horrible mixing of a wizard and a muggle, are just a sad half breed. While it elevates the muggle half, it pollutes the wizard blood beyond repair. Muggle-born wizards are just freaks of nature, abominations. No, it’s pure-blood wizards who can, and should, be the ones to rule. We’ve had magic in our families for countless centuries. We are the superior race, and I know it’s overplayed, but might really does make right.
B: It is a bit cliché.
V: Well, with rare exceptions, the one with the bigger club, and the ability to use it, wins. Your history has proven this over and over.
B: Okay, so you’re saying wizards—
V: Pure-blood wizards.
B: Sorry, pure-blood wizards should rule the world, and you being the most powerful, should rule them?
V: Exactly. You muggles, are an inferior species of the human race, like the Neanderthals—
B: Actually, I think it’s pronounced Neander-tal—
V: AVADA KEDAVRA!
And….scene. Obviously I had fun with this, partly because parody covers me from a lawsuit, but also because it kept you reading. Regardless, you see that he wanted more than to kill the kid with the lightning bolt on his face. It’s important as a writer to understand not just your villains’ immediate goals, but their long term motivations as well. When you go to the store, it’s not just to buy food. It’s because you have to eat to live, and odds are you don’t or can’t raise enough food on your own to sustain yourself. The disparity isn’t terribly complicated, but it has a big impact on the story. It doesn’t matter if the antagonist is a normal everyday person, or a scary, murderous monster. In fact, for a villain to be a monster, having a good motive is vital. Which is more frightening: A raving lunatic walking the street hunting people (insert generic horror movie monster here), or a true sociopath who is well organized, has a goal (however twisted), a detailed plan to achieve it, and goes about executing said plan in a cold, ruthless manner (Hannibal Lecter-esque)? Odds are you picked the latter. At least according to movie ticket sales, book sales, and cultural impact.
Tom Hiddleston, probably best known in the U.S. for his role as Loki in the various Marvel movies said, “Every villain is a hero in his own mind.” Hearing that quote for the first time was an “aha moment” for me. It made sense. Villains never think they’re the villain. Oh, they might recognize that society will see them that way, but THEY know the truth and it’s that truth that drives them. Look at your favorite book, movie, TV show, what have you, and think of the antagonist in it. I’d be willing to bet (but please don’t email me offering a bet because you found an exception to this) that they’re doing what they felt had to be done. It might be their own ideals, looking for vengeance (justice in their mind), because their dog told them, or anything else. Regardless, they have their reasons and they are meaningful to them.
No, villains don’t have to be likeable. But, if you make them understandable, and there is a difference, the reader will really love to hate them.
Bishop O’Connell is the author of the American Faerie Tale series, a consultant, writer, blogger, and lover of kilts and beer, as well as a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. Born in Naples Italy while his father was stationed in Sardinia, Bishop grew up in San Diego, CA where he fell in love with the ocean and fish tacos. After wandering the country for work and school (absolutely not because he was in hiding from mind controlling bunnies), he settled Richmond VA, where he writes, collects swords, revels in his immortality as a critically acclaimed “visionary” of the urban fantasy genre, and is regularly chastised for making up things for his bio. He can also be found online at A Quiet Pint (aquietpint.com), where he muses philosophical on life, the universe, and everything, as well as various aspects of writing and the road to getting published.
Blog – https://aquietpint.com/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/BishopMOConnell
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/bishopmoconnell/
Amazon Author Page – http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00L74LE4Y