I took my kids to see Lego Batman a week or so ago, and I’ve been turning the movie over in my head ever since. It’s a weird one for me: while I recall laughing and finding aspects of the film clever, I very much did not like it, and I’m trying to pin down exactly why. I think, in its broadest sense, this movie represents the death of the Batman character for me – the point at which the character becomes a parody of itself.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that, while there was nothing expressly wrong with Lego Batman, it made it very, very clear that there is something very wrong with Batman himself. The parts of the movie I liked were the parts that broke apart the Batman mystique and myth – the parodic elements, basically. Batman heating up his Lobster Thermidor in the microwave. Batman’s ridiculous outfits. Batman’s improbable 50 year history in film. I even got a kick out of seeing Sauron and Voldemort and the rest of them bopping around. What I hated – hated, hated hated – was the actual story. Which is weird, right? It was the classic Batman story. Hell, it’s a classic story full stop – my own Saga of the Redeemed has elements of that story in it. And yet I very, very much did not want to see any of those scenes. None of them. I squirmed in my seat as I was watching Batman go through his emotional arc. I literally thought to myself, with a sense of dread, crap, do we actually have to *watch* him develop a relationship with Robin?
This semi-instinctive revulsion is indicative that I no longer actually like the Batman character. We’ve seen all his stories, we’ve played out all the rope we can, and now he’s just…dreadfully dull. Lego Batman makes this really clear, actually – Batman is, in reality, boring. I’m watching the movie and realizing, albeit belatedly, that I totally agree. Batman is done to death – there is nothing more to say. For all the zaniness and crazy action and wild jokes and bizarre plot twists, that movie was utterly predictable. What’s more, we all knew it was predictable. We knew exactly what was going to happen, when it would happen, and why it would happen. We only had to sit back and wait for the inevitable. The excitement from the movie was entirely generated by the peripheral, surface-level effects of cool vehicles, sight gags, and visual effects – in other words, the shallowest kind of storytelling. The meat of the story was as overcooked and shoe-leather gray as a steak at the Cracker Barrel.
What else can we milk from Batman, exactly? Anything? The same tired villains, the same dull monologues, the same staid Alfred, the same basic style…ugh. We are all going through the motions, now – there’s nothing left interesting to delve into. So, you know, it might as well be funny in the same way that Airplane! made airports funny or Caddyshack made golf-courses funny – because, by themselves, those places just aren’t that entertaining. It’s not the same kind of parody that is done out of love for the source material, either (the Star Wars episodes of Family Guy come to mind), but rather the kind done because every other thing has already been said and we are all collectively tired of it. Is anyone out there actually looking forward to the next Ben Affleck Batman movie?
Didn’t think so.
What a sad fate for a character I used to love so much. I wonder how this happened, but I think the answer is rather complicated: a combination of over-saturation and over-reliance of formula are the primary contributing factors. And, you know, maybe I’m wrong – maybe ol Bats has a few tricks left. I do know, though, that we’re gonna have to wait a while before we can appreciate it and, when they do get around to it, they are really going to have to break the Bat-mold wide open.
Author’s Note: Before I get into the main topic here, let me just give a shout-out to Out of Stock, which has published a little flash piece of mine titled “For Consideration” – go check it out! And check out the rest of the site, too – lots of cool stuff in there, all inspired by weird stock photos.
Each spring semester for the last few years I have themed my Expository Writing 2 class around the idea of heroism and the hero’s journey. I feel it serves as an accessible and (hopefully) interesting avenue by which my students can learn how to do in-depth literary analysis without resorting to the tired old Literature Anthology and the incessant blizzard of 19th century short fiction and lyric poetry.
Anyway, just this past weekend I had a paper submitted to me regarding Anakin Skywalker and his status as hero figure. I will decline to discuss the precise particulars of the student’s work here (inappropriate violation of his privacy), but in conversation with this student regarding the paper, I found myself revisiting the character of Anakin and the interesting parallels one can draw between him and many contemporary phenomena.
The Star Wars prequels get tarred for being shallow, awkward, poorly paced, and suffer from poor dialogue and stilted performances – all this is deserved – but at their root, they are describing a pretty interesting thing: a good guy (Anakin) becomes a bad guy (Vader). How the films accomplish this change in practice is too rapid (Anakin’s turn is too sudden to be believable), but the idea in theory is actually quite astute. What the prequels are trying to demonstrate – what they are saying is the thing that changed Anakin from a good man to a genocidal lunatic – is that Anakin lacks any constructive outlet for his emotion and, suffering from emotional trauma such as he is, he is easily radicalized by a manipulative ideologue.
Consider this: Anakin lives the first years of his life as a slave. For all his brusque exterior, he is still just a little boy living in bondage in a harsh environment. He is made to take part in terrifying death races for the amusement and profit of his master. He is taken from his home, from his mother, at a young age. This represents enormous emotional trauma for a child and it is trauma that he bears throughout his life. We can look at little Ani and say “hey, this kid seems fine – look, he saves the day!” but that isn’t how emotional trauma works. People can act fine, but inside they are suffering.
Accordingly, throwing this kid into the arms of the Jedi is very, very bad for him. The Jedi don’t do emotional trauma. They seek to suppress, neutralize, and erase strong emotions, preferring instead the peace and balance of the Force. This is all well and good for small children who grow up in the context of the Jedi temple, but for a kid with Anakin’s background, it is the very worst environment. Yoda is the only one who realizes this – he is against training the kid, against the kid being taught in the way of the force. He’s too angry and the Jedi can’t deal with this. Yoda himself, throughout the prequels, is the only Jedi who sees things going wrong but he is completely at a loss at how to help. This, of course, is the great flaw of the Jedi, noble as they are – they expect spiritual perfection and have no tools to help the hurting. Telling Anakin to “learn patience” and telling him “it will all work out in the end” just comes across to this angry young man as the voices of people who cannot sympathize with his problems.
And that, of course, is even presuming he is able to recognize his own problems. Since the Jedi don’t appreciate or understand the power of emotions, how could they hope to approach the complex problem of deep-seeded childhood trauma? Their solution is always to push it away, plow it under, erase it under a wave of peaceful contemplation. Ani, though, is too damaged for this to work. Of course, rather than thinking they are failing him (which is true), he develops believing he is failing them (which only exacerbates his problems).
Enter Palpatine. The Sith, of course, understand the power of passion and emotion and trauma quite well – it is their exclusive domain. Ani is a ripe target for his manipulations because, for once in his life, Ani finds himself faced with somebody who actually seems to understand his problems. Palpatine, of course, uses this connection to mislead Anakin and warp his understanding of the world: it’s not you, it’s them, Ani. Your failures are their plan. They are holding you back. They need to be removed from your way.
There is just enough truth in all of this to actually work. Anakin believes him. Now, granted, the films do a pretty poor job of actually expressing this phenomenon, but I really do think this is Lucas’s actual intention. The fall to the Dark Side is simply another word for something we hear in the news all the time: Radicalization.
These young men who join ISIS, these kids who tattoo swastikas on their biceps, these angry loners who go in and shoot up their high schools: these are as much victims as villains. These are kids who are, in many cases, angry at the world around them. This may be as a result of trauma or economics or circumstance, but nevertheless, they are wounded individuals. They also live in societies that cannot and will not allow men to explore their emotions or traumas in healthy ways – the only suitable response is anger and the only satisfactory catharsis anger affords is violence. Somebody has only to whisper in their ears and say “that pain you’re feeling? I understand. I can help. I can tell you who is to blame.” Of course they jump at it. Who do they have to balance them? What do they have to lose?
This is the ultimate tragedy of Anakin Skywalker, and it is a tragic fate he shares with an all-too-long list of young men who succumbed to their hatreds because of the wicked words of someone far, far more evil than they are. Leave a wound untended for long enough, and it will fester, and then there will be lightsabers and assault rifles and the blood of innocents.
This failure, I believe, is what Yoda contemplates on Dagobah. He has no answer for his failure until Luke – another angry young man – comes along. Luke breaks the rules, though, and Yoda is concerned this is yet another failure. He thinks Luke will succumb to the same radical poison that turned Vader. But it doesn’t. Why is probably a different post for a different day, but it is the root of Yoda’s line on his death bed:
No more training do you require. Already know you that which you need.
Luke has figured out something that not even Yoda was able to puzzle out – how to take a wounded heart and make it healthy and whole again.
Given the world we live in, it is a secret we should all spend a long time seeking to uncover.
Okay, okay – everybody is talking about politics lately. Kinda hard not to, right? The world is freaking out, opinions are being expressed, people are upset, and so on and so forth. So what’s a writer (or any artist in general) supposed to do, here?
On the one hand, I have the advice of Kevin J Anderson, who told me and the other guests at the Writers of the Future workshop a few years back that political discussions by an author were unwise. “There is no sense,” he said, “to alienate half your audience.” He suggested we stay out of it. Do our talking through our writing, essentially.
On the other hand, we have a cadre of very politically vocal authors such as John Scalzi, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley, and others besides. Notably, I recall a tweet from Ann Leckie who said, essentially, that politics is present in our lives and in our writing, no matter what we think of it. To ask that an author alienate politics from their public discourse is to ask that the author alienate a significant part of themselves. What are the odds that if you don’t like my politics, you are going to like my writing, anyway?
In balancing these points of view, one has to admit that Anderson has a point: why alienate potential readers if you don’t have to? Of course, it is notable that Scalzi, Wendig, and the like are hardly suffering as a result of their political opinions. One might argue that for every person who puts a book down thanks to politics, another picks it up for the same reason.
It’s Leckie’s view that sticks with me, though. How do you even avoid politics in writing or in social media? The avoidance thereof is, itself, a political statement. Your writing is going to espouse political viewpoints, no matter how apolitical you seek to be. Politics is important. You ought to have opinions about it. Lack of opinions about it signifies privilege, which is a side-effect (or even a goal) of particular political views. So, okay, sure – you can tiptoe around this stuff for years on end and act like you have no opinions, but you do. We know you do, you know you do, and we can even find your opinions in your writing no matter what you think. So why not just be honest? Speak your mind. Will it piss people off? Sure. But they probably weren’t going to like you anyway.
Now, for my own part, I have tried to keep overt political statements off this blog. I haven’t always been successful (I’ve had one or two people ragequit over some idle quip here or there), but I think I’ve made this a fairly “safe” environment for fans of my work to read what I have to say on the subject of scifi, fantasy, writing, and other geeky endeavors. But on Twitter, I just speak my mind. Because if you’re following me on Twitter, that implies you want to know me, not just read my feed for book ads. Now, back before the political world went batshit insane, my Twitter feed was a pretty dull, sedate place. These days not so much. You don’t want to know my political opinions? Don’t follow me.
Of course, if you wind up reading my books or stories, you’re going to get my political opinions anyway. You just might not realize it, I guess. In thinking about this post, I debated whether or not to discuss or reveal what I feel the true, underlying meaning of some of my work is in a political context, but I eventually decided against it – Foucault’s author function and all that. I will point out, though, that everything in scifi and fantasy has contemporary political meaning, whether you like it or not. There’s the obvious ones, sure – Star Trek, Star Wars, and the like. But then there’s others, too. Game of Thrones is about us and our political systems, not the middle ages. The Walking Dead, likewise, is a story about our own political terrors. The Martian? Political, though indirectly so – a love letter to government workers and federal systems, to international cooperation and technological advance through capitalist means. The Expanse? Obviously. Colony? Hell yes. Even American Horror Story is rooted in political discourse. You can disagree, but it’s all there. Even the MCU can’t escape. Books, comics, movies, video games – they are caught up in it.
This is because politics is the stuff of life, like it or not. We authors (and artists) are engaged in the study and exploration of life and, therefore, we are inevitably drawn to discuss politics. So, yeah, I guess I could be all coy about it and resolve never to speak a political word in public, but then I’d be wearing a mask over my true self. I’ve never been much good at that; neither have a lot of good authors. Will it hurt my career to be so open on Twitter? That remains to be seen, I suppose. I just can’t fully imagine being any other way, though.
This, ironically, would probably make me a poor politician.
I’ve been entirely too negative lately. Granted, there is much to be negative about (waves towards the tire-fire that will soon engulf the US), but I need a break. So, instead of growling about the world, I want to spend some time with something I find completely good: the character of Bilbo Baggins.
In one of my Lit classes, I currently have assigned a paper in which my students need to select a hero (of any kind from anywhere, so long as it is a fictional person) and analyze the reasons they are considered heroic – what do they symbolize, to whom, and why? It usually generates a really interesting batch of papers (some good, some bad) that ideally gets my students to consider the underlying cultural and psychological forces behind the idea of heroism.
Now, if I were to write that paper myself, the hero I’d probably pick is Tolkien’s (and Jackson’s) Bilbo Baggins.
Bilbo Baggins is the hero with whom I most identify in all of literature. He is, at heart, a man who craves adventure while, at the same time, realizing how insane that is. He knows what is really important – what really, ultimately matters – is a good home and good food, a warm bed, and one or two good friends. Adventure is inimical to these things. And yet he needs it anyway.
In this way, I see Bilbo as being the spiritual standard bearer of all of Geek Culture. Geeks are, of course, obsessed with adventure and excitement: they love stories of spaceships and dragons and daring do, and they spend hours pretending to be this hero or that heroine, battling the forces of evil. However, the vast, vast majority of them, if asked to give up the comforts of home to go traveling into the wilderness with a bunch of gung-ho survivalist types, would have a hard time agreeing.
And who can blame them, right? You can just imagine the conversation. This guy shows up at your door, possibly in the middle of the night. He claims to be an agent of some secret international organization. He has with him a bunch of bearded mountain men. He shows you a map. And he says this:
We need your help, (insert your name here), to overthrow a brutal Third World dictator and reclaim the resources he has pillaged from my friends here. We believe you have the skills. Sign here.
That’s crazy, guys. I wouldn’t sign that paper. But you know what? Just like Bilbo, I’d wake up the next day after the mountain men threw their rager and think to myself “did I dodge a bullet, or miss the greatest opportunity of my life?”
Because the thing that makes Bilbo a hero – the thing that separates him from me and you and just about every geek and homebody on the planet – is that he goes. He says yes (late, of course, but still yes). He goes for the whole damned way. What’s more, he becomes more and more important to the dwarves survival. Why? Because he’s a thinking man (err…hobbit). He’s clever. He retreats when he ought to and talks his way out of trouble. He’s smart. And for once, the smart guy – the good, ordinary guy without the bulging muscles – actually comes out on top. Because he’s good at riddles (a geeky pastime outside of some Anglo Saxon hall), because he’s friendly, and because he uses his head.
Bilbo doesn’t slay the dragon. Bilbo doesn’t smite the goblin army. Bilbo doesn’t become some incredible warrior. But he’s an essential part of the adventuring party – he saves their lives several times over – and he comes back having, just for once, lived the adventures he’s always dreamed about. And then, to kick it all off, he writes a book about it – you just don’t get much more nerdy than that. This is what makes Bilbo the quintessential geek-hero – the Sir Gawain of GenCon, the Paradigm of PAX.
Then, to top it all off, he goes on to be an awesome old guy. The guy who tells the stories at parties that enthrall all the kids. The guy who has mysterious sacks of gold in his cellar. The guy who everybody thinks is just a bit off. This, too, is a geek fantasy.
Every nerd wants to end up the mysterious elder statesman – the man who knows mysteries. The guy who can casually discuss that time he looked death in the eye but who, at the same time, isn’t some wacko down by the river. Not a soldier, not a prince or king or leader – just your friendly neighborhood bookworm with secret depths. The guy who stages the best parties at which he manages a prank they will talk about for the rest of time, all so he can go off and retire with his super-awesome friends in the distant mountains.
Everybody talks about how they want their letter from Hogwarts or their development of mutant powers and a visit from Professor X – both cool, granted – but I feel Bilbo’s life is the one I’d actually want. A guy who lives in what amounts to the world’s most comfortable book-nook and who, once long ago, was dragged off to adventure by his ears, had the time of his life, and lived the rest of his days in comfort, surrounded by friends. That’s the life, guys. That’s the goal.
Let’s all go forth and be Bilbos.
I am beginning to plan out my convention-attending plan for the year. As of a few years ago, I’ve made it something of a point to go to two or three each year. I’ve found them to be useful networking opportunities, I’ve usually come away with a few interesting ideas to turn over and apply to my writing, and I’ve always wound up having fun. So far, I’ve been restricting my travel to the lower 48 states. This year, though, a new opportunity presents itself:
This year, the World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon) is going to be held in Helsinki. I had a lot of fun at WorldCon last year – met up with some old friends, made some new ones, ate some good food, and so on. I’d really like to go again. Finland, though, presents some difficulties. For one thing, I’m not really sure anybody I know is going this year (Finland is a bit of a hike for most of my writer-friends). Going to an American city all alone is one thing, but going to a completely foreign city where I don’t speak the language and also don’t know anybody sounds even more lonely. My first convention experience was just me wandering around a convention hall, not talking to somebody, until an acquaintance pulled me out of the crowd and started introducing me to people. Would this happen in Helsinki? Maybe. But I’d also be paying more money for that gamble – that first convention I just drove to.
Then again, there are some really good reasons to go, too. This year I might get to sit on some panels, which would be worth it. The cost is actually surprisingly low (living in Boston, I have probably the shortest distance to go compared to anybody in the US)–it would cost me about as much as it cost to go to Kansas City last year (well, a *bit* more, since I’d probably stay an extra night or two to make the 13 hour flight worth it). Also, from a sheer adventure standpoint, when is the next time I’ll have an excuse to go to Finland? That seems pretty cool, honestly.
So here I am, still going back and forth. Perhaps, as I often do, I should go back and read the old masters and follow their wisdom. Most notably, the gentlemen of Monty Python:
So, awards season is coming up, which means Hugo Awards nominations are now open. As is customary among authors who have published work in science fiction and fantasy in any given year, I’m going to write a handy-dandy little precis of what works I have out there that are eligible and in what categories. To nominate me (or anybody else), just go to the Hugo Awards website to learn all about it. Hey, maybe I’ll even see you in Helsinki, Finland for this year’s WorldCon.
Anywho, here’s my eligibility (I believe):
No Good Deed, Published by Harper Voyager Impulse in June, 2016
“Tea With Silicate Gods” Published on Perihelion in March, 2016
“When It Comes Around” Published on Perihelion in September, 2016
“The Day It All Went Sideways” Published in Time Travel Tales from Chappy Fiction in November, 2016
Of all those, the ones I am perhaps most proud of are “Lord of the Cul-de-sac” and “The Day It All Went Sideways” and I’d ask you give those particular attention. Like, if you were to read one thing, read the Galaxy’s Edge piece. Then again, “When It Comes Around” is free and “The Day It All Went Sideways” is free for Kindle Unlimited members, so there’s that.
I obviously think the world of No Good Deed, but it’s the second book in an as-yet unfinished series (working on it, working on it), so I’m not going to ask people to nominate it, really. Second books don’t tend to win awards. Then again, it isn’t as though I’m likely to get nominated for much of anything, anyway (listens for crickets) see?
Anywho, this is me, humbly planting my flag and saying “I’m here, too!” Thanks so much for your time and attention.
So, I’ve been posting a bit less than usual these past few months. This is thanks largely to some steep writing deadlines I’m struggling to meet, limiting me to about 1 post a week or so. My apologies for whatever regular readers I have, but it’s for a good cause, trust me. Hopefully I’ll pick up the pace again soon. In the meantime, I recently watched the pilot episode of the new Lethal Weapon television show, and I’ve been bitten by the bug to run another session of Danger Patrol: To Protect and Serve – a home-brewed hack of the Danger Patrol game. I’ve included more of the play materials here below. First, though, you might want to read the Game Introduction and you might be interested in a recap of our first session.
Let’s talk your role on this miserable squad. The roles are as follows:
You’re a fresh-faced kid straight out of the academy, all adorable and eager. It would be cute if you weren’t so goddamned talented. You spend most of your time embarrassing us older guys and we hate your guts. It’s not personal…well, maybe it is personal, but that’s not the point. The point is that you’re in your prime, kid, and that counts for something. Just don’t attempt to grow a brain, okay? Stick with the older heads and you’ll go far.
Suggested d12 Trait: Athletics
I don’t know who you pissed off, but somebody upstairs doesn’t like you very much. When you were in the academy, dinosaurs walked the earth. You are literally older than dirt and pretty close to retirement, yet here you are, in a room full of heroes and lunatics. I pity you, I really, truly do.
All that said, the rest of these kids are the lucky ones. You’ve served in every division in the department, from traffic to narcotics to the gang unit. You know everybody, you got tricks they don’t teach anymore, and then there’s the fact that you draw a big enough salary to own a house or maybe even a boat. That is, of course, if you live to enjoy it…
Suggested d12 trait: Knowledge or Driving
You are the guy we call when we need something resolved without bloodshed. Sometimes it even works. Succeed or fail, though, you know how to negotiate with scumbags, you know when people are lying, and you can get a confession out of anybody (assuming they’re still alive).
Your job with this crowd is going to be keeping these animals from eating every two-bit crook from here to Cincinnati alive. You need to get prisoners, talk to them, and learn their secrets. Good luck on this one, buddy. Try not to get dead.
Suggested d12 Trait: Interaction
I guess you’re some kind a braniac. If it were up to me, we’d still be using pencil and paper and walking the beat on our own two feet, but you’re a cop for the new millennium, I guess. You know computers, gadgets, and bombs like the rest of us know the contents of our underwear drawer. Christ, you’ve forgotten more about gizmos and high-tech widgets than the rest of us will ever learn. We need you, as annoying as you are. The only thing I ask is that, when you start to explain something, use plain fucking English, okay?
Suggested d12 Trait: Tech or Driving
The Weapon Specialist
I’m gonna level with you: assholes like you are my worst fucking nightmare. For some reason, you seem to think your job isn’t filling the jails with scumbags. Instead, you fill the fucking morgue with bodybags. I got no idea what they taught you in Nam or Iraq or SWAT or whatever hell-hole vomited you into my office, but I swear if you keep putting bullet holes in my city, I will be personally shitting on your head every fucking day. Could you leave the goddamned machine guns at home for once? You know what, forget it—why do I bother? You just better hope what goes around doesn’t come around, because Karma for a violent asshole like you is bound to be a bitch.
Suggested d12 Trait: Shooting
Oh, great—we’ve got help. Look, I don’t care if you’re from the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the DEA, the WWF, or whatever the fuck. I don’t care if you flew in from Hong Kong or if the guy you’ve been tracking all the way from Moscow owns a B&B in my own neighborhood—we here in Danger Patrol don’t need help. You know what I hate the most about you lousy Feds? I never really know what you’re up to. You’ve got secrets and special training and all kinds of covert directives and I don’t have the fucking time to keep my eyes on you. So, you want in? Fine—your funeral. I got news for you, Miss Quantico: this town will eat you alive. Stick close to my guys and don’t fuck things up, and you may just live long enough for us to trust you.
Suggested d12: Knowledge and Stealth (you get two)
The Beat Cop
You are from the school of hard knocks, so you have that going for you. Police work is a personal thing—you understand community policing (drinking at the local bars) and local outreach (gambling at the local bars). You understand that you can’t be a good cop behind a desk or a microscope. You’re also a stubborn, filthy, stupid moron who thinks your shit don’t stink. I’m here to tell you, flatfoot, that it stinks to high fucking heaven. This ain’t 1932, got it? Today’s criminals will run circles around you unless you learn how to use a fucking smartphone. Knowing the name of all the local bouncers only gets you so far. Still, street smarts and the basic skills you’ve got in spades are still essential to our business. There ain’t no app that makes perps cuff themselves.
Suggested d12 Trait: Fighting
You’re smart, I’ll give you that. You’re the guy who puts the clues together, figures out who did what to who and with what. You probably fancy yourself a pretty good judge of the human soul, too, huh? Well, fine, but don’t let it go to your head. Fact is I’ve buried more of you idiots than I care to mention, and you wanna know why? You tend to stick your nose where it don’t belong and never call for fucking backup. I had a dog like you once—used to chase every goddamned rabbit he saw. I put up a fence, tied him with a chain, bought one of them fancy electric gizmos, and the poor stupid mutt still wound up flattened by a car. You wanna know why? Because he didn’t know when to quit! Maybe that’s admirable—I dunno. Anyway, just keep your partner close and maybe, just once in a while, come up with a theory that will stick in court.
Suggested d12 Trait: Knowledge
Character Creation in a Danger Patrol-type game is super, super simple. You pick a role (above) and then select a style (below) – bingo, you’ve got a character.
So, there you have it – my own home-brew action-cop game. Can’t wait to run it again; can’t wait to let you folks know how it goes.
That’s it for me at the moment – back to writing!
I’m in the middle of reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. It’s beautifully written and has a really interesting and unique premise and, as I haven’t finished the book yet, this isn’t going to be a review, exactly. Mostly, reading the book has reminded me of an interesting complication when trying to deal with the mysterious in your writing.
Throughout The Night Circus, there is some kind of mysterious “competition” going on, the details and purpose of which is unknown to the reader and even unknown to the participants. It is, apparently, the driving conflict of the book and the central mystery of the plot, but here I am, halfway through, without any real idea what it is. That worries me.
Mysteries are double-edged swords. They draw the reader in and are also key to creating suspense. The longer the mystery draws out, the more intriguing the solution seems to be. However mysteries, once revealed, lose their magic. There is a danger, therefore, that the longer you draw out the mystery without revealing it, the more disappointing the reveal will be (or the more difficult it becomes to create a satisfying reveal).
There is a clip from Weird Al’s UHF that always comes to mind when I think about this problem:
Weaver, the contestant, is drawn in by the mystery of the box. Indeed, we all are – that’s why the mystery box is a thing in game shows – but the box, in this case, contains nothing at all. The reveal is a let-down and what makes it funny is that it is a deliberate one. UHF is mocking television conceits – it’s the crux of the whole film’s humor – but I also think the warning here is weirdly instructive: just because it’s mysterious, doesn’t mean it’s worth discovering.
So, back to The Night Circus and, by extension, writing in general. The thing that worries me about the central mystery of The Night Circus is that, once I get the reveal, it won’t end up being very interesting at all. It will break the magic that the rest of the book has worked so hard to construct. Now, part of me thinks that maybe this is intentional – the book is all about a magical circus that creates an artificial environment through mystery and subtlety – and that maybe Morgenstern is setting the reader up to have their illusions crushed (and no spoilers, please). However, even if so, that means Morgenstern is deliberately mining the precise pitfall I’m trying to elaborate, here.
Perhaps some more instructive examples will help explain what I mean. The two most obvious ones are the two mega-hit shows The X-Files and LOST. In The X-Files, we are introduced to the idea that there is some global secret conspiracy to conceal the existence of aliens to the public. This is central to the show, and drives it through most of the run. However, every time Mulder gets close to the truth, it gets stolen away again. This works to create great drama through the early part of the run. However, at some point it lost steam. We kept wondering what was in the box so long that, once the box was opened and we looked inside, we just saw a bunch of old, nebulously rich dudes and, well…it was a let down.
The trouble was, ultimately, that Chris Carter (show creator) let the mystery drag out for too long. So long, in fact, that there was no possible reveal that could justify the delay. Instead of having a revelation that rocked our world, we instead just shrugged. That was it?
LOST sought to sidestep this problem by solving mysteries only to lead to larger mysteries. So, yes, they opened the box (literally, in the case of the Hatch) only to reveal another box. This was pretty brilliant, by the way. However, this was ultimately just an act of grand misdirection: the show got most of us to stop asking “what’s with all these boxes” and instead trust that newer and more interesting mysteries would keep revealing themselves until it all made sense.
Of course, the creators of LOST never actually planned to or cared to connect or make sense of all their mysteries. They just kept showing us more and more boxes until the whole thing refused to make any sense and then expected us to just shrug and accept that “life is a mystery.” Yeah, no – if The X-Files disappointed its audience, LOST deliberately cheated it. I still enjoyed that last season, mind you (the character arcs were perfect), but the mystery aspect of the show was a grand betrayal of everything much of the audience had invested.
So, okay – mystery is hard to balance. How, then, do you do it well? I can’t claim to be an expert, myself (though I do try), but generally think the key is that you have to reveal your mysteries before the payoff is eclipsed by the build-up. You can either do this by having a very subtle build-up (The Usual Suspects) or by revealing the great mystery about halfway through (the original Star Wars trilogy). You could even, perhaps, do what LOST was doing, except instead of throwing up your hands and not solving anything, you could roll up your sleeves and try to come up with the most God-awmighty big reveal in the history of storytelling.
But yeah, good luck with that one. No, “they’re all in heaven” isn’t an acceptable plot twist. Nor is a glowing Jacuzzi.
When you are a small-time published author (such as myself) or an aspiring published author (such as myself as of a couple years back), you are constantly thinking about how little old you could, somehow, make the big-time. Now, obviously, the immediate answer would seem to be “write a kick-ass book.” Thing is, though, you’ve done that. You know you have. You know you’ve written books better than (insert name of best-selling author of choice here) and nobody noticed or cared. How is that possible, you wonder? How can there be books out in the world no better than my own that sell millions while mine languishes in obscurity?
So, that’s when you set upon an insidious idea: There must be some trick. Some eldritch formula. A secret handshake at a dark doorway.
All that remains, then, is for you to use the secret catchphrase in a query letter or, perhaps, make allies with somebody powerful and influential, and then the money will rain from above!
Case in point: Just at the end of last week, my publishing imprint signed Wesley Snipes to a book deal. Not only my publisher, mind you, but my specific editor at said publisher is going to be working with Mr. Snipes. Cool, right? And of course, my initial thought was this:
Boy, I hope they plug my book inside the back cover!
Because Snipes is going to sell a lot of books. A lot more than me, at any rate, and this is regardless of how good his book actually is (which, mind you, it may be quite good – I know nothing of Mr. Snipes’s talent as an author). Snipes has fans everywhere. They will buy. If it’s a good book in its own right, and one assumes it is (my editor has good taste), it will sell mountains of copies.
I and my friends over at Harper Voyager had our own private little freak-out over the opportunity having a big-name Person Of Note in our imprint might represent. Would there be group signing events? Could we get Snipes to blurb our books? Might there be Harper Voyager panels? We were literally falling over one another with ideas, partially in jest, but also partially because we, as low-end to mid-list authors, savor any possible way to make ourselves known. We are hoping for some magic escalator to the bestseller list.
You run into the same thing, sometimes, at cons. People see a successful author, they want to talk to them, and as much as they know they’re a person with thoughts and feelings and likes and so on, the primary motivator for wanting to talk to them is the desperate, slim hope that they might hit it off and become friends and then your good buddy (insert name of best-selling author here) will introduce them to their mega-agent and then super-stardom is not far behind.
But it doesn’t work that way. Well, not exactly. Yeah, networking is important – it’s always good to be a familiar face – but having a five minute chat with somebody from Locus on an escalator once does not get you some kind of magic ticket. Even supposing, by some miracle, I happen to run into Wesley Snipes at a convention and we are sitting next to each other at a signing table and we realize we like the same movies for the same reason and we hit it off and hang out all night and become best buddies, that does not equate to my books riding that magic escalator. That’s just not how the business works. Your book sells or does not sell thanks to often unpredictable market forces over which you have very limited control. Granted, there are ways you can improve the odds in the margins (to paraphrase Chuck Wendig: you can, through great personal effort, move hundreds of books, but only the big publishers can move thousands, and only the public at large can move millions), and networking is one of those ways. Riding coattails, though, is not a guarantee of success.
And this is even without considering the fact that trying to befriend people just because of how they might assist your career is a shitty thing to do. Those are called “false friends” and they suck. Don’t be that person. Don’t aspire to be that person. You should befriend other authors (successful or otherwise) because they are nice people that you like and admire, not because you hope by clinging to them you might scrabble to the top of some heap. Besides, even if that is your goal, being genuine friends is vastly more likely to achieve it. That, of course, means you can’t fake it – which means it can’t be a stratagem or a ploy, and therefore is not something you can consciously employ for your own gain.
So, yeah, it’s really cool that Wesley Snipes and I share an editor. I hope I get to meet him someday. But I’m not planning on riding his coattails. I’ve got too many of my own books to write.
It’s release day! My friend Zach Chapman has just put together a ripping collection of Time Travel Tales, just in time for the holidays, and it is now available in both paperback and e-book.
But don’t just take my word for it! Consult with your FUTURE SELF who is, right at this moment, emerging from my time machine. Here we go…
Just some…well…technical difficulties. I’m sure you’ll be fine. That you probably wasn’t even from this timeline. Right.
Ahem. Also included are such luminary authors as Sean Williams, Robert Silverberg, Martin Shoemaker, Stuart C Baker, SL Huang, David Steffen, and many, many more!
So go and get it! Go! Time is wasting!
Well, unless you have a time machine, in which case you can get it now whenever you like.