I was recently interviewed for the podcast Yes and Dragons, which discusses how improv/improvisational theater and RPGs intersect. In the interview, I discuss how improv, gaming, and writing intersect quite a bit, and it was a really fun interview. Go and check it out and, if you liked it, check out the other episodes of the podcast, which will be releasing once a week going forward.
Oh, and there was something amiss with my microphone during the interview, so it sounds as though I’m talking inside an airplane hangar. Sorry.
Anyway, give it a listen! If you’re interested in any one of those three topics, I hope you will find it enlightening or otherwise useful.
I’ve been pissed off at the world lately. Each day brings a new outrage, a new soul-crushing horror, and while I wouldn’t say it’s directly harming my capacity to write, it is having an effect on how I want to write. Emotions – the writer’s emotions – transfer onto the page. They kind of have to, right? If we’re to be writing in a genuine voice, then some aspect of our emotional sphere is going to show up in what we write.
Now, typically, I have written from a relatively calm emotional state. If I’m too upset, I can’t concentrate on the words. But the flares of anger of late have dulled into glowing hot coals that just simmer there, deep inside me. I should note that none of this anger is directed towards my friends or family or coworkers or students – this is a broader kind of rage, targeted at the political sphere more than anywhere else. Venting my rage, then, at the people around me could never be justified – they have done nothing and do not deserve it. Also, of course, venting into the Void (i.e. Twitter) is hardly cathartic and certainly not constructive.
The outlet remaining to me is my writing.
I am no fan of angry political screeds thinly veiled as fiction. I find those things generally tedious. But, of course, I am nevertheless tempted to vent my frustrations at the world in some kind of story, anyway. This story would be ugly and unkind, I have no doubt. It wouldn’t really be the kind of story I want to be a part of. But it’s still there, gnawing at the edge of my imagination. Write me, it growls, let me out.
I don’t, though. Because I’m not ready yet. Anger, you see, isn’t enough. You can’t write a story that’s nothing but anger and expect it to work. Not enough range for a novel, too crass for a screenplay, and too on the nose for a short. I need something else. I need the hope that tempers the anger, I need the calm rational voice to make the story more than just a primal scream of rage. I need the voice of civilization.
I’m still trying to find it. I guess that means I’m still too angry.
Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I should just let loose.
Saw a tweet from Sam Sykes the other day which has been kicking around in my head ever since. I tried to find it to post, but I can’t seem to track it down, so you’ll just have to put up with a loose paraphrase. Essentially, Sykes, in response to the newest Star Wars movie, Solo, observed that he kinda preferred not knowing exactly what the Kessel Run was or what Han and Chewie got up to. He worries that this “obsessive canonization” cheats the audience out of their own imaginations, which are more evocative and powerful anyway.
The thing that stuck with me here is the simple fact that I love worldbuilding (and I get waaay too obsessive about it), but I also very much understand that worldbuilding does not create story and, in fact, it can potentially take away from story. I think Sykes has a really important point there – leaving spaces in your world building allows the reader to fill in blanks in potentially wonderful and exciting ways. As a writer, you shouldn’t even try to explain everything – you merely need to fill in enough so that the audience can do the rest.
Reading is a collaborative process. That sounds weird – reading is done alone and writing is done alone, so how is this possible? Well, the reader and the writer are still engaged in a kind of collaboration, just one that is separated by space and time. If you read a book of mine, you are getting my end of a story. You, however, as reader fill in many of the gaps in that story. And furthermore, you fill them in typically in a way that makes the story more interesting to you. The more I fill in for you, the less work you have to do (which can be good), but also it makes your imagination do less for you. Imagination is key, though – as a writer, you want your book to set the reader’s mind aflame with possibility and wonder. Too much detail can kill that magic.
Star Wars is a perfect example of this. Much of the magic of the original trilogy was rooted in the fact that it hinted at a much larger world, but didn’t bother to codify that world. You were left to wonder what Kessel was, why Tibanna gas was valuable, what the Old Republic was like, etc., etc.. For every mystery it revealed, it hinted at more mysteries. People sunk themselves into that world because they wanted to explore (and they could explore!).
Think, then, of the let-down that the prequel trilogy was. We saw the old republic and fought the clone wars and they were, well, kinda lame. The Jedi were dull. Even Palpatine was a bit of a bummer. Anakin Skywalker? We didn’t even like the guy. The desire to reveal too much about the world – to canonize even more – was a killer. When you throw in the obsessive canonization contained within the EU, we quickly arrive at one of the major reasons The Last Jedi got such negative reactions from hardcore fans. They felt as though they already knew what could and should happen, and then the movie changed that. They felt as though they were dealing with an already explained world and that TLJ was breaking the rules. And, in a sense, they were right, except that the world they thought they knew was being rewritten, and so all the old stuff doesn’t apply anymore. This, incidentally, is good for the long term health of Star Wars, but it doesn’t seem that way to people who have gotten themselves invested in what is “canon” and what isn’t.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that every detail you nail down in a story is a detail you can’t change later very easily. The more you nail down, the less can change. The less that can change, the more stale the world becomes until, at last, it is rigid and boring and only appeals to those old hardcore fans (who are always the minority, anyway). As a writer, then, it becomes an important challenge to figure out how much to reveal to keep the story evocative and immersive and how much to leave blank so that the audience can build an even better world into their imagination.
Just re-posting this, as the Nebula deadline looms.
Additional writing update: Book 4 of the Saga of the Redeemed has a complete draft in the hands of my agent and beta readers. It’s now just a matter of making final revisions before it is submitted!
So, it’s Nebula Award season again. This year, I am eligible for my novelette “The Masochist’s Assistant” in the July/August issue of F&SF! If you’re in the SFWA and eligible to nominate works, I’d appreciate the nod – I’m very proud of the story, it got good reviews, and I’m told a copy of it is available to read on the SFWA forums (for members only). Go and check it out!
Additionally, the copy-edits of Book 3 in The Saga of the Redeemed, DEAD BUT ONCE, are done! Done! The book is off and set to release in
March April. April is the release date, the 17th to be precise. You can pre-order a copy through this link. Go and check it out!
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The most popular post on this blog, by far, is this little bit of Goonies fan fiction I wrote a few years back. In it, I describe a loosely plausible explanation for One Eyed Willie’s pirate ship winding up in Astoria, Oregon and imagine it as having been written by a grown up Mikey, who is now a history professor at Portland State University.
This thing has been viewed thousands of times and a day doesn’t pass where it doesn’t get 10-20 hits.
So, just on the off-chance somebody in Hollywood is reading this here blog (Hi! Check out my action-packed swashbuckling fantasy novels!), I figure it can’t hurt to whip up a quick, very rough treatment for a hypothetical Goonies sequel (it’s just a sketch, really). This is the age of 80s nostalgia, right? May as well see if I can cash in. So:
Open on a prison, present day. The guards come to a cell to escort the occupant out–it’s the day of his release. It’s Francis Fratelli, who managed to plea-bargain his way out of the death penalty by ratting out his mother and brother. His cell is a lunatic’s collage of newspaper clippings, history books, and computer printouts. Prominent in the center: a picture of Michael Walsh, PhD.
Michael is a single father raising an only daughter, Sarah. He lectures at the university and does his best to keep Sarah out of trouble, but Sarah is the definition of trouble. She is relentlessly curious, endlessly stubborn, and usually unsupervised. She finds her dad incredibly boring – there is literally nothing on this Earth more boring than history. “It’s all dead people and pointless places, Dad. It has literally no bearing on anyone’s life.”
Sarah is going to be a scientist. She is a chemistry whiz. This is how we meet her – she’s devised a stinkbomb that renders the entire teacher’s lounge at her Junior High school uninhabitable. Mikey has to pick her up from school and finds hazmat trucks out front. The principal implies she may be charged with some “light terrorism.”
Father and daughter fight on the way home. “You have so much potential,” he says. “And you’re wasting it.” She’s sent to her room without supper (“how 1984, dad – you’re such a nazi.”), and she promptly sneaks out. A dark and stormy night. Sarah meets up with her super-nerd friends, Milo and Kwan – they are entering their battlebot in a local battlebot arena against some super-geeks from the engineering department of the university. They lose, big time.
Back and the house, Mikey is alone. He’s going through a scrapbook, looking through old photos. We see some familiar faces from the first movie. Lightning flashes, the lights go out. The door bangs open. “Who’s there?”
A flashlight lights underneath Francis’s face. “What? No pictures of me?”
Sarah and the boys come home to find her father missing. Also missing: a bunch of stuff from his old trunk, the one he had from grandma’s house (we see Willie’s treasure map, news clippings from the events of the first movie, a book by her father about the treasure).
The cops are called. They want to take her to Uncle Brandt’s house. She has other ideas.
Sarah eludes the cops with the help of Milo and Kwan and head over to “Chunk’s Auto Mart.” That’s right: Uncle Chunk owns a car dealership outside of Portland. Clark (Mouth) is one of his salesmen. The kids explain what has happened. Sarah shows them the book: Her dad always insisted that, given the amount of treasure found aboard Willie’s ship, a significant portion of it had to have been moved off the ship at some point, as Willie’s own log indicates they should have had several tons more booty aboard. In other words: there’s more treasure, and Sarah thinks Francis Fratelli has kidnapped her dad to make him find it for him. She needs help to go after him. Well, more specifically, they need a car.
Chunk doesn’t give them a car. He offers to drive. Mouth agrees to come, too. Off they go.
But to where? Cut to Francis and Mikey on a dysfunctional road trip. They’re heading south, into California. Francis tells him how he blames “you kids” for the death of his family and the loss of his whole entire life, and how he thinks Mikey owes him. We learn that Mikey theorized the extra treasure was probably transported overland by sailors who abandoned Willie and tried to make their way south to Spanish California. Mikey never figured out where, though. Francis: “A billion dollars on gold bullion don’t just vanish, Mikey!” He waves a weather-beaten, oft-folded map of California at him with a big red circle around a settlement near San Deigo. A church – a huge mission, built by some “random Spaniards” a few years after Willie’s ship was entombed.
Sarah doesn’t know where they’re going, though. She reads her dad’s book in the back seat as they drive south. She starts to learn a lot more about his adventures as a kid from Chunk and Mouth. Chunk’s car breaks down at a gas station somewhere in California. While Mouth and Chunk argue and the nerds fix the car, Sarah sees a library across the street. She goes in. If she wants to find her dad, she needs to think like her dad. She figures out where her dad is being taken by going through some old land record books in the library.
Francis and Mikey arrive at the mission. It’s a museum now; they’re on a tour. Francis has a sledgehammer over one shoulder. No sign of any treasure, but when they reach the basement, they hang back. Francis goes to a water bubbler. “Remember this trick?” He smashes it with the bat, follows where the water drains. Sure enough, they find the lowest spot–at the back of the cellar. Behind a dusty old bookshelf, there’s an “X” carved into the wall. “Start digging, college boy.” Francis slaps the sledgehammer in Mikey’s hands.
The kids, Mouth, and Chunk arrive at the mission at dusk. Mouth and Chunk want to call the police, send them into the mission, and that’s it. Sarah says no way. “Walsh’s solve their own problems. I’m going in there to get out my dad – he’d go in there for you.” The nerds break out headlamps and their drone gear. Sarah has a few bottles of various chemical mixtures. They go into the mission. Reluctantly, Chunk and Mouth follow (Chunk: We’re seriously going to do this again? Mouth: Let’s just hope we don’t find Mikey dead in a fridge again, okay?).
The kids find the tunnel at the back of the cellar. It leads to the bottom of the mission well – more coins, but this time no wishes. Beyond is a deep pit, a waterfall dropping into an abyss. The nerds fly the drone down, headlights on – they find a hidden staircase. Chunk almost falls. Milo is scared of the dark. Sarah presses on.
At the bottom is a labyrinth of tunnels. No tracks, no way to know where they might have gone. Despair. But then Sarah notices a mark made in the wall – chalk from her dad’s coat pocket! It’s the chemical symbol for a compound Sarah knows. She figures out that the atomic numbers of each element are the turns they need to take. Her dad is talking to her with science! They race through the labyrinth, headlights bobbing.
Meanwhile, Mikey and Francis have reached the final challenge. A series of stone levers to be shifted around a table, each with a number on the top. Shift the stones into the right pattern and you can pass. Shift them into the wrong one, and you die. On the wall is a number – the solution. Mikey doesn’t know how to solve the puzzle. Neither does Francis. “Math! Fucking MATH?”
“They were engineers,” Mikey says. “What do you expect?”
A drone flies into the room. Francis shoots it. Then he gets an idea.
The kids and Mouth/Chunk are coming around a corner when they see Francis holding Mikey at gunpoint. “Hello, braniacs. Do exactly as I say, or the fat nerd gets it!”
Mouth mouths off. Francis shoots him in the leg, “You think I’m fucking around, here? You think this is some kiddie games? Do as I say, or I will kill every last one of you!”
In the puzzle room. Chunk is freaking out, babbling about how Francis has been in his nightmares. The nerds are hugging each other. Mouth is swearing as he hugs his wounded leg. Mikey is telling Sarah to get out of there – to call the cops, to run for safety. He’s angry that she came after him.
Sarah and Mikey fight. It all comes pouring out. How she felt abandoned after mom died. How he was never there for her except to punish her. How it seemed he never seemed to know her or care to. “But none of that’s true!” Mikey said. “It’s not true! You’re just like me. Just like me.”
Sarah nods, crying. “I get that now.”
Francis, pissed, orders her to start work on the trap. Sarah starts work with the nerds. They shoulder her out of the way–they’re the math nerds, anyway. Milo screws up, though–the chamber begins to flood, the exit is blocked. Kwan takes a shot next–fails. The ceiling begins to descend.
Mikey and Francis struggle with the gun. It goes flying. Chunk tries to find the gun in the rising water.
Sarah pushes the nerds out of the way. She moves the levers in a different direction. Success! Or so she assumes.
The floor falls away. Everybody drops into darkness. They land in a vast underground cistern. There is a dock here, and pieces of an old ship. On the shore are rows of big, heavy chests. Whooping in victory, Francis swims to his prize. Everybody else is busy trying to save Mouth, trying to get out of the water.
Francis knocks open the chests, one by one. Empty. Empty. Empty. Empty. “What? No! NO!”
Everybody else gets to shore. Mikey sees old writing on the wall–Spanish. “It’s another clue!” Francis screams.
Mouth reads it. “You who seek our treasure, know that you are too late. Gold belongs not in the ground, but in the hands of those around you.”
“The mission!” Sarah smiles. “They used it to build the mission! To sink this huge well! To help people!”
But we aren’t out of it yet. Francis is beyond angry – he’s irrational. The past 30 years of his life, wasted. And all because of some stupid smart-ass kid! If he can’t have money, he’ll settle for revenge. He pulls a knife and comes after Mikey. They struggle. In the commotion, the dock breaks loose from its moorings. The current in the cistern is pulling them away from shore. Sarah leaps after her dad. The three of them swirl into the dark, beneath stalactites and past whirlpools.
Francis gets a hold of Sarah, puts a knife to her throat. “Last thing I want you to see, Walsh – you killed my family, I kill yours!”
Sarah reaches to her belt and throws a bag of something in Frances’s face. He screams. Mikey pushes him off the side. Down he goes, howling. He’s gone.
The dock emerges from underground. They are in a stream, running through the old center of town. Everything Willie’s men built – a community. “I take it back,” Sarah says. “History isn’t boring.”
“What was in that bag?” he asks.
“Itching powder.” Sarah says with a laugh.
“I take it back,” Mikey answers. “You haven’t wasted anything.”
The police are on the shore, helping them out. Francis is also dragged from the river, headed back to jail. Their friends find their way out on the river, too. All is well, lesson learned.
They go home.
Hello, friends! Are you in the Boston area? Are you planning to attend Boskone? No? Why the hell not?
What’s Boskone, you say?
Well, it’s only the New England Science Fiction Association’s annual scifi/fantasy convention, held each winter in my hometown of Boston, Massachusetts! This year, it will be February 16th-18th at the Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel.
It really is a top-notch convention, too, drawing writers, editors, and agents from all over the country, but most particularly the northeast (which includes a little town called New York City) and even the UK (given that Boston is about as close as you can get to England and still be in the US). I went last year as a fan and had a ton of fun. This year? They invited me to participate!
So, if you’re coming, here is my schedule of panels and what-not. Most of it is on Friday and I have a signing on Sunday. Perhaps most interestingly, I’m hosting my own Kaffeeklatch! Basically, you sign up/sit down with me and a small group of people and get to pick my brain for an hour. I hope to see some of you there!
My Favorite Game
16 Feb 2018, Friday 15:00 – 16:00, Lewis (Westin)
Join us as we explore the wonderful world of board games. Our panel of expert gamers will discuss their favorites from the past 10 years. We’ll compare bragging rights, and swap tales of our victories (or defeats). Let’s include our top ten lists — feel free to bring and share your own!
Auston Habershaw, Walter H. Hunt (M), Carlos Hernandez, Dan Moren, M. C. DeMarco
Law and Justice in Speculative Fiction
16 Feb 2018, Friday 17:00 – 18:00, Burroughs (Westin)
In an SF or fantasy world, justice may be meted out by a familiar legal system, by religious hierarchies that rule through faith, by some corrupt order that props up an evil regime, etc. How do you show the complex evolution/interplay of a society and its justice system in a single tale? Why do so many stories concentrate on crime and criminals? How do you quickly sketch out a justice system for a culture that’s different from our own?
B. Diane Martin, Bracken MacLeod, Kenneth Schneyer (M), Alan Gordon, Auston Habershaw
The Sword in the Stone: A New Beginning for the Arthurian Legends?
16 Feb 2018, Friday 18:00 – 19:00, Marina 2 (Westin)
First published in 1938 as a stand-alone tale, T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone departs from older sources to (wonderfully) imagine King Arthur as a boy in Merrie Olde England. What did it bring to now-popular tropes such as shapeshifting, the hidden prince, or the magical education? Later incorporated into the first part of White’s 1958 novel The Once and Future King, it helped spark the musical Camelot. (And, of course, Spamalot.) Would we remember much about King Arthur, his Knights, and their Round Table without these books? How did they influence the wider fantasy genre? Have they been replaced by the stories they inspired?
Faye Ringel, Elizabeth Bear, E. Ardell, Auston Habershaw, Heather Albano (M)
Kaffeeklatsch: Auston Habershaw
16 Feb 2018, Friday 19:00 – 20:00, Harbor I – Kaffeeklatsch 1 (Westin)
Autographing: Auston Habershaw, Christopher Paniccia, Max Gladstone
18 Feb 2018, Sunday 13:00 – 14:00, Galleria – Autographing (Westin)
Christopher Paniccia, Auston Habershaw, Max Gladstone
Come on down this February! I look forward to meeting you all!
Tomorrow, if you live in the Boston area and have a free evening, you should really come on down to Improv Boston in Cambridge to see me interviewed on stage for their Spotlight Series, after which I gather there will be comedy improv based upon the things that I say. IB has a talented
bunch of performers and it should be a hilarious, good time. You can also say hi to me afterwards, no doubt, as I will be there in the flesh and what-not. I mean, assuming you want to talk to me. You can also duck out the back door and dodge the goons I’ll have there waiting for you. That’s an option, too. But, you know, sooner or later you’re going to have to pay me that money you owe me, sooooo…
But I digress.
This will be the first time I will be on stage in this kind of performance setting since I left Improv Boston as a performer in 2005. In my five years with the theater, I performed in 12 different shows of varying sizes, directed and assistant directed a few shows, and was one of the architects of Quest – IB’s super-popular fantasy serial show. It was a great, great time and I made a lot of friends and learned a lot of things.
As the years have passed, I find my improv training comes in handy just about all the time. I am delightfully devoid of anything resembling stage fright – I will get up on stage in front of any number of people wearing anything and say whatever without really breaking a sweat (just don’t ask me to dance). I am a champion of doing things by the seat of my pants. It is very hard to knock me off-kilter when I’m teaching a class – I can work the class clown right back into the lesson without breaking stride. All of these things are life skills I either learned or honed through improv theater and have served me very well in my day-job as a lecturer and teacher.
It also helps my writing. Improv, in a lot of ways, is like the antithesis of writing a novel or story – what you do on an improv stage is collaborative, frequently aimless, and usually ephemeral. Writing a story is solitary, firmly directed, and intended to last. However, one of the biggest questions every writer fields is “where do you get your ideas” and nothing gives you a better answer than the skills you develop in improvisation. See, improv comes from everywhere and can be inspired by anything. There are stories and jokes and moments all around you, waiting to be observed. The improvisor sees these bits of inspiration, seizes upon them, and lets their imagination run rampant, free-associating and inhabiting the story they are weaving on the fly until some kind of pattern emerges to ground it. Writers basically do the same thing, just not out loud and not as quickly and not
quite so randomly. Basically, improv is accelerated storytelling, preferring spur-of-the-moment inspiration to meticulous plotting. Now, this does mean that improv rarely rises to the dramatic heights that the plotted, well-considered, well-planned, well-crafted story can, but it manages to capture the excitement of creation and the feeling of wonder that eludes authors so often in an almost effortless way. And it is absolutely perfect for brainstorming new ideas, making new connections, and approaching your outlines loosely, giving your story the permission to breathe and change organically. Improv, in short, teaches you how to be loose without being out-of-control. It teaches you to work with chaos and make something rational out of it, and there are few more apt skills you can learn to become a writer.
So, this is basically a very long and involved way of saying: why don’t you come out Thursday evening, see me in a show, and maybe get exposed to a whole new way of storytelling. I think, in the end, you’ll really enjoy it.
Greetings, gutter-born sewer people of the industrialized and enslaved Wetlands! It is I, Vrokthar the Skull-Feaster, Scourge of the Northern Wastes. It seems I am yet again driven to bellow oaths of vengeance from my throne of skulls, even though it was scarcely a half-moon’s time since last I came to berate thee. But some things will not stand, and so Vrokthar inscribes his mighty words into his slate so that you might tremble at their utterance.
It has come to my attention that you have liked a Thing that I did not. It matters not what. What matters is this:
You are wrong.
It matters not what this Thing is! However, for the sake of argument, let us say that this thing is a tale of high adventure in distant lands in ages long past. Perhaps about a cadre of barbarous raiders who hath usurped the authority of their rightful leader and have, therefore, sought succor from an ancient, wicked sorcerer who will smite the king’s champion on the field of battle. Yes, let us say it is about that.
Let us therefore say, for the sake of argument, that Vrokthar did not enjoy this tale. In this case, it is impossible that you have enjoyed it. No matter how feeble-brained or malnourished you are, that which Vrokthar believes must, by rights, be the belief of all. This is the Order of Things. Vrokthar is the Keeper of Universal Truths. I know this because the previous Keeper of Universal Truths, Hodrank the Horrible, was slain by mine own hand and his head removed and skull polished so that I might keep the Truths therein (just as Hodrank kept the Truths in the skull of his predecessor). As I hold the skull, so too do I dictate your experiences. If I say you are wretched, cowardly wetlanders, it is doubtlessly so. If I say you are diseased, half-dead wastrels, likewise the truth is readily apparent to those who have eyes.
Of note, those who contradict me will have their eyes gouged out. So it is written.
But Vrokthar digresses! The main thing is this: your opinions are worthless. If the Thing is obviously bad to Vrokthar, it is bad by nature. There can be no argument, because Vrokthar is right. And yet you pack of whining dogs cannot cease your howling! “We loved it!” sayeth you. “It was everything we hoped it would be!” you continue. Fie on such untruths! Your weak beer and over-cooked meats have weakened your minds or, worse yet, you are seeking to spread sedition among Vrokthar’s tribesmen!
Yes! I see your plot, now! Ha! You are undone! Your inexplicable love for the Thing can only be rationalized as a duplicitous ploy! Clearly you know the Thing to be terrible – even a half-blind child could see this! – so you are simply lying to gain favor among the weak and impressionable! But of course such an obvious ploy is doomed to failure! As Vrokthar knows the Thing is terrible, so too will his followers – they are loyal and, more importantly, know that I’m carrying around Hodrank’s skull full of Truths.
The logic here is clear and obvious! Vrothar is Right! As Vrokthar is Right, so therefore must those who disagree be Wrong. The Wrong must be purged so that the Right may claim their lands and loot their halls. That’s just Nature for you. Woe to thee who loves the Thing that Vrokthar hates! Thy name will be burned from the sagas, just as this terrible movie shall be expunged from the minds of the Righteous! Yes, flee from my wrath – the hunt only makes the kill sweeter. In time, you will see that mighty Vrokthar is right about that, as well.
Greetings, wretched wetlanders and pathetic cowards of the gluttonous south. It is I, Vrokthar, returned from a long absence to make his demands of you, the fat indolent swine that feed his mighty tribe. When last we spoke, I was pleased with the misery and chaos that was brewing in your decadent civilization. Indeed, this year has been even more glorious than the last! Vrokthar’s invincible raiding parties have been so busy pillaging the ignorant, defenseless villages of your horrid nation that I hath had scant opportunity to taunt thee via my magical word-slate (also, I lost the charger for some time and it was difficult to find a replacement – art thee aware that not all of thy power cords are equivalent? RESOLVE THIS AT ONCE!).
Yes, the mighty warband of I, Vrokthar the Skull-feaster, waxes daily. My warriors are well-fed upon heaps of man-bacon and entertained daily by the many wretched slaves dragged back to my longhouse. Truly, Vrokthar lives in a golden age.
But Vrokthar’s mighty appetites are endless! Though your absence of competent governance has laid the wealth of your impotent nation bare and ripe for the taking, there is still more I desire! No – more I shall have!
I speak, of course, of Santa Claus.
Yes, my wetlander slaves speak of him often. He is some kind of mystical champion, it seems, who travels forth on an enchanted battle-sledge yearly to deliver his spoils to the worthy among thee. Whilst I cannot imagine what you have done to earn his favor, it irks me that such a being – a sorcerer gifted with such great wealth – might be hiding in the arctic vastness of mine own lands! This is an affront! I will find this Claus, I will take his head, I will raze his house, and I shall take his enchanted sledge for my own! So it shall be!
It is for this reason that I have deigned to contact you, denizens of the mystical ether known as “Inter-not.” Heed carefully my words, for failure to do so shall be met with your endless agony:
BRING ME YOUR ELVES UPON SHELVES!
Do not ask how I know of them! Vrokthar’s sight is as mighty as that of the Claus! How clever of him to install spies in your homes – and also a sign of his weakness. Now, all I must do is capture these tiny creatures and torture them until the location of their master is revealed through their broken teeth and blood-caked lips.
There is an obstacle to overcome, however. Thanks to the Claus’s sorcerer’s tricks, all of the Elves on Shelves I have thus far apprehended have been transmuted to mere cloth and plastic before they could be put to the question. Initially I had thought it a mere ruse or, perhaps, the elves were only able to come to life in the light of the moon. Nevertheless, no matter how many of the perfidious creatures I placed upon my own shelf, they remained inert. The Claus, for all his cowardice, is a clever opponent. He cares nothing for the lives of his diminutive slaves (and well he should not!) and will sacrifice them freely to keep his location secret.
Such resolve, however, cannot last forever. The Claus will make a mistake! Mine own shamans have prepared mighty rituals to interfere with his infernal holiday sorcery. And then, oh, then will his fate be sealed! If torture cannot loosen the tongues of these elves (and Vrokthar’s tortures are mighty and varied indeed!), perhaps I might win their loyalty through the many boons I mighty shower upon their stocking-capped heads.
HEAR ME, OH ELVES! You have been abandoned by your infernal master! He shall transmute thee into mere cloth and fuzz rather than let himself come to harm. But Vrokthar is a far more generous master! Reveal to me the secrets of the Claus, and be showered with all the riches your tiny brains can imagine! Candy! Gold! Slaves! Beasts! Meat and mead in plenty! You need only sunder the chains by which the Claus hath bound thee!
Then, with you by my side, we shall raze the fool’s arctic manse. I shall take his beard as a trophy for my belt, and you shall have any number of his reindeer as yours! Truly, Vrokthar is generous to his friends, but his patience is limited. Speak now, or burn forever in a boiling pool of your own fat!
SO IT SHALL BE!
I’m reading a book right now. It is not good.
It is also not bad.
This is infuriating.
Bad books are easy to discard. Long, long ago I shed that absurd “completist” affliction where I felt the need to finish any book I started (and for that, I thank you, Doctor Zhivago). Now, if I am not feeling a book within 50 pages/20% (whichever comes first), I drop it and move on with my life. This has saved me oh so many hours of pain. If you don’t do this yourself, do it. Your life will improve.
On the other hand, of course, good books are pure pleasure. They fly right by. I can’t wait to read them, I regret having to put them down, and I finish them within a week, no matter how long they are.
The ones in the middle suck. They suck worse than the bad ones. See, they have the audacity to be interesting enough to keep me reading, but the
temerity not to be any good so that I actually want to keep reading. These books are eminently put-down-able. At every chapter break, I quickly set the book down and look for something better to do. It is notable that I mostly read on the train these days and frequently I can, in fact, find something better to do than read the book in question.
I will remind you that I am on a train underground.
Of course, the natural impulse should be to jettison said snooze-fest of a book and move on to bigger, better titles. But wait! There’s still potential there! Maybe it will get good in the next 50 pages? It had such good reviews! The concept is so interesting!
So I keep reading, page by torturous page, as the book plods and stumbles towards its lackluster conclusion. These stupid books eat whole months of my life. I hate them.
Very often, the thing that causes the book to fall into this category is the characters. If I don’t care about the characters, I don’t care about the rest of the book. It really doesn’t matter how cool the idea is, the characters and my capacity to identify with them and care about their plight is essential. This means that the characters need a plight, for one thing. They also need to be sufficiently real and interesting that I can connect with them. They also need to do things about their situation. A lot of books (a surprising number, actually) don’t really do this. They have this wizbang cool idea behind them, but the book isn’t really populated with “people” as much as “placeholders for people.”
I could name a lot of names, here, but I don’t like ragging on fellow authors and, honestly, my tastes are not necessarily your tastes. Suffice to say that I’m reading a book right now with one of those super cool high-concept science fiction worlds, but the characters seem to be shoehorned in. It seems as though somebody told the author that they needed actual people in their futuristic techno-thriller and the author sighed and say “Oh, okay – here’s a guy with job and a girl with a katana – that good enough?” The answer is “yes,” but only barely.
Now there are plenty of books that go the other way – really interesting characters in drab, low-concept, predictable conflicts in mundane settings. Those, however, are way more palatable. I could watch Han and Chewie doing anything, you know? Even if it’s a book about Han and Chewie making ice cream for 75 pages, I bet I’d still like it. Character, to me, is everything.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll probably ought to read more about…this crap I’m reading. How far am I through? (checks Kindle). 54%? That’s it?
But I’m more than halfway now…so…(sobs)