Important Notification Re: Your Hero Insurance

Dear Doctor Monstrosity,

This is an important notice regarding your Hero liability coverage in your FOUL Insurance Policy. You must read this document immediately and in its entirety, or our coven of witches currently on retainer will place a hex upon you that will result in you no longer being able to absorb fluid without vomiting, which means a painful and grotesque death by dehydration will await you. Feel free to take notes. Please eat the message when you are done, as that will guard against the curse. As usual, please understand this is meant as a safety measure to ensure your privacy, our privacy, and the privacy of our other customers.

Notification of Policy Change

As of this writing, FOUL will no longer cover the costs of heroic interventions against your operation that are perpetrated by orphans of your former enemies.

Furthermore, any pre-existing coverage offered for orphans created by accident or negligence are likewise null and void.

FOUL will also be increasing premiums by 50% on any liability coverage for heroic acts of revenge stemming from the loss of even ONE parent to your actions.

Finally, FOUL will disallow any further coverage against liability as a result of actions by those persons who believed they were orphans until they discovered you were, in fact, their only surviving parent.

Statistics have shown that those who have left the progeny of their foes to live have a 65% greater chance of being undone by those self-same offspring, even after an intervening period of apparent calm for decades. It seems apparent that the loss of parents is in some way traumatic (we are as surprised as you) and stands to create a kind of manic obsession with revenge which has proven costly. The claims FOUL has been forced to bear as a result of our clients’ own sloppiness has seriously tested our financial security as an organization.

So, some quick do’s and don’ts:

-DO NOT abandon your enemies’ offspring in a wasteland or in the midst of a storm and expect them to perish.

This ends poorly.

This ends poorly.

-DO NOT expect the power of love to crumble before your overwhelming might and grandeur.

Statistics prove that Love Conquers All, and we don't cover it.

Statistics prove that Love Conquers All, and we don’t cover it.

-DO NOT, under any circumstances, sell your victims’ progeny into slavery of any kind.

We know this is an excellent financial opportunity for you, but trust us that it never works out.

We know this is an excellent financial opportunity for you, but trust us that it never works out.

-DO NOT gloat over the child of an enemy or underling or endeavor to teach them any kind of lesson whatsoever.

They have a tendency to remember your face.

They have a tendency to remember your face.

-DO encourage your underlings to bring any and all errant children to you for re-education.

Though try not to electrocute them in front of their parents.

Though try not to electrocute them in front of their parents.

We at FOUL are happy to serve you for any of your evil financial needs and hope to do business with you in the future. Just try not to create orphans anymore.

One-on-One: The Dramatic Importance of the Duel

yevgeny_onegin_by_repinThis is something of a gaming post, but also a writing post, and also something about politics. Been thinking about that debate coming up tonight (and who hasn’t been?) and whether I want to watch or not and why. To a large extent, I feel like most people have already made up their minds about Trump and Clinton. I mean, how could they not? What on earth could either of them say to change anybody’s mind at this point? Now, I don’t actually know how many people are undecided – maybe it’s a lot – but even in that case, I have a hard time imagining that this debate is going to sway them. One wonders why we have the debate at all, if everything is all pretty well set in the public imagination.

I think a lot of it is because there’s gonna be a fight, and we’re invited to watch.

The duel – facing your foe mano a mano – is an ancient and hallowed tradition not only in history, but in mythology and story as well. Beowulf against Grendel, David against Goliath, Gandalf against the Balrog, Miyamoto Musashi against Sasaki Kojiro – two opponents doing battle for honor, glory, revenge, or even simply survival is old as the hills and universal as song. It is an inherently dramatic scene; it stirs the imagination effortlessly. Each combatant, representing their ideals and their supporters, facing one another in a defining conflict that can only end in a new understanding, either of the world, themselves, or each other. The duel is the symbolic manifestation of change itself.

And yet role-playing games are so often diametrically opposed to them. One of my biggest complaints about D&D (and about the systems derived from its lineage) is that there is seldom any good way to have a one-on-one battle that is interesting. It takes a lot of gymnastics to get those things to work, since D&D is inherently an ensemble game and no fool would go into battle alone when they could have a cleric there to boost them back up to normal. Thing is, though, without duels, beating the villain just becomes a kind of curb-stomping mob scene. Six mighty “heroes” surround the giant, pull it to the ground, and stab it until its dead and there isn’t a damned thing the giant can do. Kinda underwhelming, guys.

Vader could have saved himself a lot of effort if he just brought twenty stormtroopers, right?

Vader could have saved himself a lot of effort if he just brought twenty stormtroopers, right?

In this sense, though, there’s a fair amount of reality in RPGs: in real life, why the hell would you fight somebody one-on-one outside of foolish notions of manhood and honor? Bring five of your friends to the hill at dawn and beat the crap out of that jerk who challenged you and go home alive, right? Historically speaking, this is one of the things the Romans figured out (borrowed from Alexander) that screwed over the Celts and other “barbaric” tribes in their way: the Roman legions operated as one cohesive fighting group, whereas many of these tribes were just groups of warriors out for individual glory. The legions just ground them down and marched over them – not perhaps personally glorious, but victory itself was glory enough for Rome.

In fiction, the author has to jump through hoops to set up their one-on-one battles. They just don’t happen by themselves, you know? No cop in real life says to his unit “leave Mendoza for me!” No soldier on the front is going to stand back while his sergeant engages in a knife fight with an enemy combatant. Notions of “honor” and “good form” are fun and all, but in the broad history of the world, they aren’t precisely “real.” And, in particular, the person who is willing to bring a gun to that knife-fight, the person who sees nothing wrong in ganging up on the lone warrior to destroy him, well, they’re the ones who usually win. Because duels are pretty foolish.

However, we hang such importance on them in our popular imagination. We crave that moment when Vader challenges Skywalker, when Inigo finally catches up with Count Rugen. We love it because we want to know that our heroes are real – that these champions of ours can walk out there and smite evil all by themselves, without us backing them up. It makes us feel good, to know our heroes are the genuine article. Never mind that such knowledge is an illusion, an orchestrated sham – our heroes in real life don’t stand by themselves, but exist as a representative of a network of people devoted to our welfare. The firefighter who carries you out of the burning building gets the glory, but the 911 dispatcher and his fellow firefighters and the engineers who designed his gear got him there. We see the individual, but we forget the legion that made victory possible.

Nowhere is this irony more pronounced than in a “debate” between two people who, while potent individuals in their own right, are standing on a stage doing battle in the most coached, stilted, and artificial of circumstances. When Clinton or Trump speak, they are not speaking as one person – they are speaking as the heads of a movement, of a political party, of an electorate whose support they seek. They have very little power of their own to shape events – not without the millions of people who they hope will vote them into office, where they will again serve as the capstone of an administrative structure that is as collective and collaborative as their campaign is now. But does any of that really matter to us on an emotional level? Not at all.

We want our duel. We want to see our champion victorious. We want to believe in heroes, no matter how we manipulate the world to make them seem real.

It’s Not a Joke If No One Gets It

Hi, everyone – sorry I’ve been away for so long. I’ve been a mixture of sick and busy and just haven’t been able to get back. Hopefully you’ve all had time now to read my story in Perihelion. Right?

Hello?

satire

For those of you taking notes, this is neither satire nor parody. This is farce.

Anyway, for today’s topic, I’d like to discuss satire a bit. It’s on my mind lately largely because it is becoming more and more prevalent in my social media feeds of late and, like most things, I have definite opinions about it I want to voice, and as this is my blog, well, you know the rest.

Satire, technically speaking, is a style of art that exaggerates something in society (usually people or customs) to the point of absurdity for the purpose of critique. While it is often humorous, it doesn’t need to be. Ostensibly, its purpose is to effect social change or draw attention to social problems, which is broadly what distinguishes it from parody, which is primarily intended to entertain and, indeed, satire can use parody, but in the end it often isn’t very funny.

The thing about satire is that it can be done very well (e.g. The Onion or The Borowitz Report) or it can be done very poorly (The Daily Currant comes to mind, though it has gotten a lot better in recent years). The difference, to me, is this: if you, a reasonably intelligent person, read a satirical article and cannot actually tell whether or not it is satirical or not, this is bad satire. If you find yourself googling whether or not the thing described actually happened, it has failed as a piece of satirical writing.

Let me explain: Satire is the art of exaggeration for the purpose of creating an effect. It is a kind of reductio ad absurdum: “If political figure A is like this, it basically means they could also be like this absurd thing, which is stupid.” However, if your satirical piece comes across as merely “extreme but plausible,” then the “satire” part hasn’t hit home. People who already agree with the critique the satire was intending are merely outraged and the people who disagree with the critique don’t notice that a critique has been made. You haven’t actually satirized, you’ve just made something up.

Granted, lots of people get confused by good satire, too. The Onion frequently gets angry e-mails from people who thought their articles were factual. Some folks out there thought the “Stephen Colbert” of The Colbert Report was actually a conservative. Obviously, satire is not for the dull-witted. However, satire needs to wink at the audience at some point. They need to realize that this isn’t real, but is making a point through absurdity. Any reasonably well-informed person should be able to tell the difference, even if at first they are confounded.

I’ve been seeing lots of bad satire lately. Saw a piece the other day claiming Mike Pence didn’t want to use the word “vice” in Vice President because of religious grounds. The article barely had any indication that this was false, and even though it seemed extreme, it wasn’t so extreme that it was impossible. The article included links to actual events, which merely obfuscated things further. It was by a Journalism professor. The winks to the audience, such as they were, were so subtle as to fail to qualify. It was only after looking at the author’s other publications on the Huffington Post that you could see the pattern – this guy is a satirist. Just a bad one.

Part of the trouble, I fear, is because our current political climate is pretty absurd to begin with. It’s hard to get crazier than Trump, and satire is a challenging business in any event. Nevertheless, now is the time for satirists to shine, and shine they must. If they don’t, nobody will know they were there until Snopes posts a declaration, and by then their message will have been lost in the scramble. As E.B White once said:

Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process.

Read “When It Comes Around” on Perihelion SF!

Hi, folks!

Got another story published and released for public consumption. It’s free, too! Shuffle your internet consciousness over to this month’s Perihelion SF and read “When It Comes Around” – my dark and gritty tale of the hard life of a space pirate. Let me tease you with the first line, if I may:

You ain’t been there ’til you’ve clocked a knife-fight in zero-g.

This voice partially owes this old Battletech: Mercenaries image for inspiration.

This voice partially owes this old Battletech: Mercenaries image for inspiration.

Eh? Ehhhh? Pretty cool, yes?

I’m pretty proud of this one. It *just* missed some of the bigger markets (the narrator’s patois just didn’t do it for some editors), so I’m very glad it found a home. I have been in love with this voice I came up with for some years now (my first publication, “The Spacer and the Cabbages,” used it, as well, and that was about seven years ago now). With any luck, I’ll be able to do more with it in the future. Anyway, I hope you like it.

Go! Read! If nothing else, it ought to discourage you from a life of space piracy.

My Blog: Dramatis Personae

What's that? Sorry you missed that? Well, get your ass to the next one, then!

What’s that? Sorry you missed that? Well, get your ass to the next one, then!

Had a book signing last night at Pandemonium Books in Cambridge. It was a ton of fun. Turnout wasn’t exceptional, but I certainly wasn’t there by myself and I probably sold between a dozen and fifteen books, which ain’t too bad for an author nobody knows about. I totally forgot to take pictures, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it. A big thanks to the folks over at Pandemonium, especially Sarah, for giving me the time and space to sit there and talk about writing and D&D and fantasy and even sing a few bars from Disney’s Tangled.

Anywho, in conversation with my friend Kevin Harrington (who is a masterful networker), I started thinking about this blog and the purpose it serves and what kinds of stuff I do here. I’m not going anywhere, don’t worry (to the extent that anybody would ever worry about the disappearance of another author blog), but I guess I kind of just want to codify and explain this weird little thing I’ve got going on.

Note: I am ever-so-slightly fatter than this now.

Note: I am ever-so-slightly fatter than this now.

Blog Voice #1: Me

Most of the time, the voice you hear on this blog is that of myself. I talk incessantly anyway, so talking here is just an extension of my chatty nature. I tend to write about fantasy and science fiction properties, kid’s shows, Disney, my own work, the art and craft of writing, and whatever happens to cross my path. As a literature professor, I analyze pop culture stuff a bit more deeply than I probably ought to, and I don’t regret it one bit. I also stray off into talking about Role Playing Games (the pen-and-paper kind) and all kinds of other gaming, too. Basically, if you’re a writer, a geek, or some combination, you and I should get along just fine. Either that or become mortal enemies. Time will tell.

These guys gotta get insured *somewhere*, right?

These guys gotta get insured *somewhere*, right?

Blog Voice #2: FOUL (Financial Operations and Underwriting Limited)

I stray into parody a fair amount here, and one of the chief avenues of this is my FOUL posts. These are essentially me imagining the kind of financial and administrative and legal apparatus that would have to exist if there really were supervillains and evil masterminds in the world. They are pretty silly – very much along the lines of the Bank of Evil in the Despicable Me movies.

If I want pictures of Vrokthar, I just google "Barbarian" and there he is.

If I want pictures of Vrokthar, I just google “Barbarian” and there he is.

Blog Voice #3: Vrokthar the Skull-Feaster

Vrokthar is a dour, bloodthirsty barbarian of the Conan type, dwelling in some fictional wasteland just north of wherever you are. He is constantly angry, and bellows his threats from his throne of skulls. I use Vrokthar sometimes to vent about things that piss me off, since him venting is ridiculous and comical, and me venting is petty and mean. As Vrokthar is an absurdist caricature of a person, he says and believes things I do not, so there is a fair amount of distance between the things he might threaten to do or the things he finds insulting and the things that *I* do, but the stuff he’s complaining about is somehow related to what’s bothering me (even if I’m using Vrokthar to be sarcastic). Anyway, it’s just nice to have an angry barbarian come in sometimes and threaten to disembowel those who defy him.

Blog Voice #4: World-building Stuff

I also use this blog to flesh out settings for my novels. There’s a pile of old documents on Tvyian’s world under the Saga of the Redeemed tab, some stuff on the Union of Stars, some stuff on Nyxos, and more, besides. I mean, assuming you’re into that kind of thing. I have no blessed idea if anybody actually enjoys reading that stuff (it tends to get the fewest hits), so I try not to do it very often.

Blog Voice #5: Guest Posts!

I know a bunch of authors, and so many of them I invite to come on the blog and share excerpts from their new works or guest posts about whatever they feel like sharing. I should note that I don’t want to deal with unsolicited offers of guest posts just yet (I’m not so huge a platform I’d be doing you many favors, anyway, and I’m about as busy as I want to be here), but perhaps one day, if I’m able to quit my day job and write full time.

(Pause here for laughter)

Anyway, that’s basically what’s going on here. Oh, and there’s a few other things, too. Like that time I wrote about One Eyed Willie from Goonies, which has been very popular, or that time I channeled HG Wells for a silly joke, which is one of my favorites.

Well, long story short (too late), I’m curious as to what you folks like to read here and what, if anything, gets you coming back. I’m not saying I’ll change my behavior, mind you, but I’m curious. How is all of this going? Let me know!

Vrokthar Crushes Your Online Learning Tools!

Behold, wretched wetlanders, it is I, Vrokthar the Skull-feaster, Scourge of the Northern Wastes, once more compelled to visit my mighty displeasure upon thee and thy incontinent civilization. Oft in the past have I commanded this ensorcelled word-slate to convey my curses to your soft pink ears, but this time is different. Indeed, your fetid customs, while usually merely despicable and foolish in equal measure, have this time done Vrokthar true injury. Such injuries will be answered by your howls of pain. So have I decreed, and so shall it be. But before Vrokthar visits his meteoric wrath upon your flat, sweaty lands, let him first regale you with the story of the fatal errors that hath led thee to this bloody destiny.

As chieftain of a mighty tribe of marauders, it falls to Vrokthar to educate the youth in the art of violence and rapacity. These young ones flock to Vrokthar’s longhouse and squat by the side of his throne of skulls. By the firelight, I speak to them of mighty deeds and teach them the best way to flay a man whilst he lives. Woe betide the foolish boy who does not heed Vrokthar’s weighty musings, for it his he that we practice upon. The screams echo into the night, and we feast and sleep well.

Or so it once was. No more.

BEHOLD VROKTHAR'S MIGHTY PEDAGOGY!

BEHOLD VROKTHAR’S MIGHTY PEDAGOGY!

In our raids, very many of my tribe have wrested magical treasures from the twisted hands of thy wetlander countrymen. These “computors” and “celled phones” have proven their worth to my people many times. No more shall we be forced to wander endlessly the vast tundras of my land in search of prey. No, the oracle GOOGLE now betrays thy settlements to us, and we pillage at will. The many sacrifices we have burned in for the honor of the GOOGLE are great. Their clever logos also bring much amusement to my warriors.

But these gifts have cost my people more dearly than you know. Now my young charges wish to use the spirit world of the INTORNOT to aid in their learning. Indeed, there are surprisingly many learning packages for the young barbarian, purchasable for reasonable fees. We, of course, do not buy – we take – and many educational software companies have perished beneath Vrokthar’s heavy boots. I now command a flexible and versatile platform of interactive lessons meant to occupy my students, meant to free Vrokthar’s precious time for more butchery and razing of wetlander settlements.

But it is not so. Vrokthar is BETRAYED!

The learning software has failed to function. My foolish students cannot manage to log on. The structure of the program is as dense and mysterious as the Labyrinth of Gloom. Vrokthar has not saved himself time at all! Indeed, I am now forced to poke and prod at mine own word-slate to goad the sluggard programs to load. I am forced to prostrate myself before mine sworn enemies, Tech Support, and grovel for aid. Hours have become days, days have become weeks, and my students are as stupid now as when they began. Worst of all is this: the screams that echo into the night are my own, as I curse and flail impotently at the educational software’s inferior User Interface.

I now ask myself: what was ever amiss with my mighty axe and my booming voice? Where did I go wrong? I answer the question thusly: You fools have done this to me. This is thy vengeance – this is how you seek to destroy the mighty Vrokthar, by denying his heirs his weighty wisdom.

It shall not stand.

Beware, mewling wetlander scum! Vrokthar the Skull-feaster hath ferreted out thy cowardly plot, and now he shall unroot thee. He shall strike from the frigid north like a thunderbolt, dashing down your mirrored castles in thy sedate office parks. Then, when you have been dragged a hundred miles on your knees, eating nothing but the flesh of your fallen compatriots, THEN shall you grovel at the foot of Vrokthar for your very lives. And THEN Vrokthar will show mercy to any who can manage to log in to their wretched INTORNOT portal on the first try. Those who succeed shall become my slaves. Those who fail shall learn new ways to scream as they become an educational message for all their ilk, their entrails shipped to their competitors in small FedEx envelopes for months to come.

So sayeth Vrokthar. So it shall be.

Book Signing Promotional Ideas (Rejected)

main_logo_400x400Hi! Did you know I have a book signing this coming Thursday, September 8th? No?

Well, I do! Come to Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA for me to sign copies of No Good Deed and even, perhaps, do a little reading! I’ll be there from 7pm to 9pm. It’s free!

And…and I also desperately want this thing to be at least a modest success so the guys and gals over at Pandemonium continue to like me and the book sells and I’m not sitting there at a table, all alone, while people shuffle past me to buy Magic: The Gathering cards and try not to make eye contact with me because oh GOD would that be awkward.

I’ve done 3 book signings in my career thus far. Two have been successful (yay!), and one has involved me sitting alone behind the Nook displays at a Barnes and Noble mostly by myself, save for a handful of friends and that one guy who talked to me for a good hour and then didn’t buy the book.

So, in brainstorming over how I can improve my chances, I’ve come up with a variety of things that I probably shouldn’t try. Here they are:

  • Anyone who enters the store between the designated hours is trapped inside of a labyrinth (complete with minotaur) that they have exactly two hours to escape and win fabulous prizes. The only way to avoid being devoured by the minotaur is to BUY MY BOOK.
  • I shall impose a geas on all in attendance. They must either buy my book and recommend it to friends or turn into an attractive topiary garden-version of themselves until I get 50 reviews on Amazon.
  • I will bring cookies. The cookies will contain a slow-acting poison. On one of the pages of my book will be the antidote. Or maybe there isn’t any poison. Maybe I’m making that up. Maybe.
  • Your move.

    Your move.

    Anyone who refuses to buy the book will have to face Trial By Combat. My champion is Ibtihaj Muhammad.

  • Two words: Mind Control.
  • I grow much more hair, make it more curly, and then wrap my book up in the dust jackets of Patrick Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind. Then we see how long it takes people to catch on.
  • I summon up Lucifer and we negotiate (through my agent) for a distribution deal in which every bookstore I sign in has a line of the damned stretching out the door. You know, to drum up a whisper campaign.
  • Saaay...is that bigtime Fantasy author Auston A Habershaw?

    Saaay…is that big-time fantasy author Auston A Habershaw?

    I do the whisper campaign Kermit the Frog tries in Muppets Take Manhattan, but instead of in Sardi’s, I do it at every PokeStop in the northeast, and instead of Rizzo and his friends, I use white guys in clever T-shirts and cargo shorts.

  • I coax the Kaiju to attack Boston. There is only one Jaeger pilot left, and he is holding stick-fighting auditions in the basement of Pandemonium. It’s the perfect plan.
  • Rather than sit there at the table like a chump, I stalk through the book stacks, stealthily slipping signed copies of my book into everybody’s purse, bag, back pocket, or waistband. I whistle the Pink Panther Theme the entire time.
  • I slip flyers under the windshield wipers of every car in a mile radius. Written in a hasty scrawl are the words “No Killer Clowns in Pandemonium.” The genius of this, of course, is that it is literally true.
  • My cthonic spawn lay their insidious eggs in the water supply of the Boston area. Soon they will hatch, and all will be my slaves. I will use my newfound power to have them buy my book and then force them to use public toilets and outhouses responsibly and cleanly for the rest of their natural lives.

Alas, due to budgetary concerns, I have foregone all of these brilliant strategies. Instead, I merely ask you to show up, bring friends, and give a new(-ish) author a chance.

See you next Thursday!

Fearing Your Work

In all this talk of writing and revising and revising again and hunting for agents and publishers and book deals and all that jazz, there is something we sometimes neglect to discuss: how psychologically daunting writing a novel can be. And it is. It downright terrifies people – terrifies them into inaction or despair or even cleaning the house over and over again like some kind of deranged amphetamine addict. Writing hurts on a spiritual level. Well, it can, anyway. It often does.

If you’re reading that last bit and saying “ha! When I write, I am FREE!” I have this to say:

Wait.

For some, this is the scariest thing imaginable.

For some, this is the scariest thing imaginable.

The more I write, the more I believe that the great filter that separates those who write from those who wish to write is not one of talent or time or intelligence or training or money or any of that – it is a psychological barrier. You’ve got to sit down and fail. Yes, fail. And not even spectacular failure, either – mundane, limping, ignominious failure. Failure that makes you question your worth. And then you’ve got to get back up, sit down at that desk again, and try to find success in the failure somewhere.

In my case, I recently finished a draft of a novel (my seventh novel overall, the third in the Saga of the Redeemed). It was the fourth draft of the book and I completed it in about ten weeks or so. I walked away feeling pretty good about myself, let it rest for a week, and then went back to read it.

Oh. Oh God.

The thing is an unutterable train wreck. The external conflict was working okay, but the characters’ motivations were all over the place, the action was boring and predictable, and the twists weren’t telegraphed enough to make any sense. Gah! I’m going to have to rewrite maybe 75% of this damned thing and now the summer (with its blissful days of writerly concentration) is over! No! Soon the students will once again descend upon my mind palace and supplant all this novel-thinking with reams and reams of papers to grade and lectures to deliver and discussions to moderate! I’ve failed to finish the book I swore I’d finish this time around! No!

Honestly, the failure of this draft (complete as it is) has been enough to knock the wind out of my sails in these last days of summer. I feel useless. I threw the novel up on my office wall in color-coded index cards and stare at it bleakly.

But I’m wrong. I didn’t fail. I just didn’t finish yet – I’m one step closer to completion, and I will make that step. It’s just a matter of dusting myself off and fighting for some time to do it. But man, looking at that wall, looking at the orange Xs I crossed through terrible scenes, really hurts. Not physically, but almost so. It’s a knot in my chest I can’t work out, a thing that makes me wince every hour on the hour.

I’ll get over it, though. I’ll ride back into battle with that beast soon enough, and perhaps this time with the wisdom to see myself to victory. As Abercrombie’s Logen Ninefingers once said:

Once you’ve got a task to do, it’s better to do it than live with the fear of it.

True words, my friends. Sit down. Write the words. Feel the pain.

Comedy Against Tragedy – The Genius of Seinfeld

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.

But what is the secret?

But what is the secret?

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!

Back From WorldCon!

GMLBpgJFI’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.

Panels

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!

People!

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!

Places!

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.

Awards!

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.

Drama!

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…