Category Archives: Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts
This is the miscellaneous category, covering whatever happens to be prancing about in my mind at the time.
My wife and I just finished watching the first season of Fargo (the TV series). I enjoyed it immensely, especially the spine-chilling portrayal of assassin Lorne Malvo by Billy Bob Thornton. Much like in the Coen brothers’ film of the same name, the show juxtaposes the wide-eyed provincial innocence and “folksiness” of the people of North Dakota and Minnesota with the absolute horrors humanity is capable of. One thing I enjoyed about the show, though, was how much more thoroughly the series was able to explore this theme. (Spoilers below, obviously)
The central antagonist of the plot is the aforementioned Malvo, who moves through the small cities and towns of the frozen north with terrifying impunity. He can kill who he likes, he can do as he likes, and nobody is able to stop him. These back-country yokels are wildly unprepared to combat a menace of his dimensions. They can’t even imagine him in any real way – he is the boogey man, Lucifer, and Death astride the Pale Horse. Malvo’s every utterance is filled with malice and threat, to the point where everyone in Bemidji instinctually recoils from him.
This appears to give Malvo power. Likewise, those who Malvo corrupts also are afforded a measure of perceived power. Herein lies the tale of Lester Nygaard, hen-pecked loser turned murderer and alpha-male. Lester’s chance meeting with Malvo in the hospital changes him; Malvo demonstrates how the world as we know it – the world of rules and morals and laws – is an illusion. You can have what you want, Malvo implies, by just reaching out and taking it. Malvo even demonstrates how this is done by going out and killing Lester’s high school bully. Lester, taking these lessons to heart, kills his wife, covers it up, frames his own brother, and goes on to find himself a better wife, professional success, a bigger house, and his own name on a salesman of the year award. By leaving the rules of society behind, Lester achieves everything he ever wanted.
Molly Solverson – the only competent officer on the Bemidji police force – knows what Lester has done and even has almost enough evidence to convict him, but the bull-headed, dull, and plain old sexist police chief will not listen. His world is the traditional one, based upon commonly accepted values. He cannot accept Lester’s guilt because the crime exceeds his own limited imagination and won’t listen to Molly because of her status as a woman and as his inferior. This is all against “the rules;” things like this don’t happen in Bemidji.
One of the brilliant aspects of this show is that it makes you yell at the screen a lot. You are howling for Molly to press her case. You are terrified at the threat Malvo represents and so, so anxious that these people – these poor, good, stupid, guileless people – are totally, completely at his mercy. When Molly backs down and walks away from her poster board of evidence, it feels like a defeat. But then the show pulls another turnaround on us: it isn’t a defeat. It’s a victory. Molly made the right choice.
Fargo is playing upon our expectations as people living in an increasingly individualistic world. We see Malvo’s skill and Lester’s cunning and we think we have identified the true power in the story. But we’re wrong! This becomes clear when Malvo follows Gus Grimley home from his aimless investigation and sits in his car outside Gus’s apartment building, where he and his adolescent daughter sleep. They are in grave, grave danger, yes? Then there’s a knock on Malvo’s window – it’s the neighborhood watch. No one of great authority, no one of any actual power – just a concerned neighbor. He sees Malvo. He knows he’s up to no good. I half expected Malvo to kill him right through the door of the car, but he doesn’t. He growls something antisemitic, but he leaves and never comes back, warded away as surely as Dracula from a church.
And that is the true power in Fargo. Community, family, society – these things are juggernaut like powers in this film. Those who remain within the safe confines of a caring community are safe, immune from Malvo’s power. Those who choose to step outside the bounds of the “normal” are doomed. When the Supermarket King digs that money up and uses it to build his business, he is in metaphysical trouble. This trouble, however, grows exponentially worse as he gets further and further from the caring bosom of family and small town life. Isolated and wealthy, he is cosmically punished for his hubris and greed. As for Lester, his end – riding a snowmobile across cracking winter ice – is preordained the moment he refuses to accept responsibility for his actions. Indeed, when he denies the existence of any such responsibility. There is no one to save him not because those people don’t exist (Hell, the cops chasing him are yelling for him regarding his safety! “Come back,” they yell, “it’s not safe!”), but because Lester has left the fold and will not return.
Malvo, then, for all his pretensions, is not the powerful one in the story. It’s Molly, and always has been Molly. It’s Molly because she recognizes that going it alone leads nowhere good. No matter how stupid the chief is, he’s the chief. She gets married, has a family, moves on. When she tells Lester the story about the man running for the train and losing one glove and then dropping the second, in that metaphor she is the passenger and Lester is the gloves. She is saying “I cannot save you; you have killed yourself.” The arc of justice in Fargo is long, but it is inexorable. Those lone wolves? Those dashing villains and dramatic scoundrels? They die, are destroyed, and are forgotten. And Molly?
She gets to be chief.
When I teach my expository writing students to do research, I usually tell them something along the lines of this:
Do not enter a research project with preconceived notions of what you will know when you are done. The point of doing research is to learn. It is your duty to read widely and get as full a picture of what you are studying in order to formulate an opinion about that topic. Your thesis (your argued point) comes after the research is done, not before.
This, I think, is good advice for scholarly research of all stripes. Don’t go in with preconceived ideas. Keep an open mind. Read deeply and widely.
Then, when I write novels, I don’t do anything of the kind.
I hasten to note that I’m not writing historical fiction, here – I’m writing speculative fiction. Scifi, fantasy, time travel – stuff like that. Everything I’m writing is, on some level, verifiably false. I’m making shit up all the time. So, the extent that I’m interested at all in actual facts – whether historical or scientific – is somewhat limited. That limit is the very low bar that is suspended disbelief.
Basically, if I can fudge some actual aspect of history without knocking the audience out of the story by violating their suspension of disbelief, then I can totally get away with it. Because, sure, they didn’t have potatoes in medieval Europe. But they also didn’t have magic or elves or gnomes. And this also isn’t medieval Europe. So what’s it matter, anyway? They’ve got potatoes in their stew – deal with it.
Now, of course, some audiences are going to be more sensitive towards this stuff than others and, furthermore, certain kinds of stories are going to require you to meet a higher standard of suspension of disbelief than others. For instance, I’m currently writing a time travel novel and, since it involves my character traveling back to actual places and times in actual Earth’s history, I have had to do a variety of research to make those places seem authentic. I’ve done research on 18th century American currency, military honors of the Roman Empire, card games played in Port Royal Jamaica in 1670, and who the Lakers were playing on December 8th, 1976 (the Pacers – the Lakers lost).
This research, though, takes a different form than what I would call actual academic research. I don’t need my answers to be correct, exactly – I just need them to be plausible. Furthermore, when I’m doing research like this, it’s to establish a very specific effect in a very specific scene that often happens only once in the whole book. I do some research online for a little while and, if I can’t find an answer that looks suitable, I change the scene so that I no longer need that specific answer anymore. I’m not going to sit down and read a whole book on the urban development of South Boston in the 1950s just so two paragraphs in the novel are 100% accurate, nor am I about to subscribe to a special research service or trek to some distant library just to know what color Ben Franklin preferred to wear when out about town. It just isn’t that important, ultimately.
So, in other words, I do research for books like this in the exact wrong way – the way I tell my students not to. I go in with a preconceived goal in mind (“I need a cool card game for my protagonist to play against pirates”), I do the barest minimum of responsible research (YAAAAY Wikipedia!), and I glean just enough information to make it look like I know what I’m talking about without, you know, actually knowing what I’m talking about.
I am bringing this up mostly because, in the last few weeks I’ve asked some people some relatively minor historical questions and received, well, rather extensive details that, while appreciated, aren’t really necessary. This has been from friends of mine who are academics and librarians and historians for whom I have the greatest respect, and therefore I kinda feel bad telling them “well…actually…I really don’t care what the answer is anymore. I’ve changed my mind.” Because I’m not really an academic or a librarian or a historian. I’m a showman. All writers are, ultimately. And while we might enjoy doing research about this or that, the research is not the end we seek. We’re telling a story. And story always, always comes first.
I have a hard time with alternate history as a genre. It isn’t that I mind entertaining the idea of alternate realities, but rather that I more broadly dislike what alternate history most commonly means: it means that the Nazis won the war.
And yes, I know it’s not always the Nazis. Sometimes it’s the Confederacy. Or the Soviets. Or the Romans conquering the Earth. Sometimes Nixon is still president. But you know what it almost never is? JFK eluding assassination (Stephen King’s novel excepted, I guess). It’s never women getting the right to vote in 1812 (or always having the right to vote!). It’s never the Native Americans kicking out European settlers right from the get-go and continuing their civilization uninterrupted. And sure, sure – just by writing this, people are going to start pointing out novels where all of these things have happened, but you know what I mean, right? They aren’t the majority. They don’t attract much attention.
No, it’s usually the Nazis. Look, I know they make good bad guys, but there’s lots of ways to have Nazis running around without invalidating the hard-won victories of the Allies in WW2. Guys, that war wasn’t close – the Allies didn’t win that thing by the skin of their teeth. We freaking murdered those goose-stepping shits. We ground their fucking army into dust. We filled their hateful ruler with so much despair, he shot himself in a bunker rather than be taken alive. And it was glorious – evil was not just beaten back, it was utterly, completely vanquished. Sure, sure – we’ve got Nazis goosestepping around all over the place today (hell, look at the current US administration!), but the cold hard fact is that they lost big time last time they tried this shit and I have always taken comfort in that.
So when a book or show or movie comes along and decides to chuck that out the window for the sake of a metaphor, I get uncomfortable. I just don’t like it. I guess maybe I’m just not a fan of dystopias. There’s more to it than just that: I also know that there are people out there – real, actual, living people – who deep down wish the South had won the Civil War and insist to themselves that the CSA would have freed their slaves eventually anyway and so on and so forth and these dystopias aren’t so much dystopian to them as utopian.
And that turns my stomach.
There are people out there watching Man in the High Castle and admiring Rufus Sewell’s uniform and fuck that. His character is a goddamned Nazi. He isn’t cool. He isn’t someone we can or should identify with. He’s the closest thing to the embodiment of pure evil we have on this planet and he isn’t even entirely fictional. People like him do exist and did exist and will exist again and maybe this is very close-minded of me, but I don’t want to sympathize with them. Not ever. It creeps me out how hard people want to try.
And then there’s another level to it, too.
As a white American male, I have a certain comfort with the arc of history as it has played out. History, after all, has been very good to people like me. It is an aspect of my privilege that I can look back on history and feel like the good guys have won. I know that I’m wrong, by the way – white men have been the villains more often than they’ve been the heroes, on balance – but I think there’s a deep-seeded level at which monkeying with the timeline makes me feel insecure and uncertain and afraid. And I guess that only means that it makes me feel as vulnerable as everyone else always has felt. This is not a pleasant feeling, as much as I recognize the importance of me feeling it. It’s just that I’m not going to actively seek out this feeling as part of my entertainment.
Furthermore, this is probably why the white men who dominate the alternate history genre are so often resurrecting the boogey-men of Western Euro-centric history – because fighting those old battles over again make them feel more comfortable than figuring out their place in the new battles that are brewing. And, of course, some percentage of those white dudes ultimately sympathize with the side that was wrong.
So go on and enjoy your Nazi dystopias and modern day confederacies. Just leave me the hell out of it.
Astute eyes may have noted that Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed has been pushed back to release in March. Sorry, sorry – things have been crazy at my publisher and they had to push it back. I expect to be finishing up edits on the book in the next week or two and will have a whole pre-order teaser/back copy reveal soon, so watch this channel! Thanks to everyone for your patience!
You will be rejected if you write.
Yes, even if it’s brilliant.
Yes, even if you know the editor and are the bestest friends.
Yes, even if you work really hard.
Yes, even if you have published before.
You will be rejected if you do anything.
Apply to school.
Ask someone out.
Apply for a loan.
Try to get a job.
Are a scientist…
…a parent, a teacher…
You will get rejected even if you get back up again, over and over and over, until your bones hurt and your heart feels hollow and you doubt your very soul.
You will be rejected now. And in the future. You will realize that scraps of hope you have clung to are just so much flotsam marking the place of past rejections you refused to see.
It will hurt. Perhaps less and less after time, but still some new rejection can be sharp enough to draw blood.
So maybe you can quit, you think. Escape the rejection.
But it’s still there. Always there. You can’t quit the world, and the world is made of the word No.
But not just No,
there is Yes, too. Atop the mountainous rubble of No, the towers of Yes stand.
I’m in the middle of reading The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French. I’ll hold off on a full review right now, as I’m not quite halfway through the book, but there is one thing that I keep noticing: the book is averaging a naked woman every chapter.
Now, I’m not offended by this inherently. I like a naked woman as much as the next guy, I suppose. But these naked women…these are not love scenes we’re getting here. This is just pure sex, edging towards the pornographic. The women are described as sexual objects for the purpose of arousal. To be fair to French, he does the exact same thing to the male characters, too – lingering on descriptions of their muscular backs, their strong arms, and the rough dimensions of their penises.
French is not alone here. This kind of writing is fairly common in fantasy as a genre and in literature as a whole, and the purpose of this post is not to call out French as doing something wrong specifically so much as it is for me to wonder aloud why it’s being done at all.
Because, I kinda feel like those scenes – the graphic, sexually charged descriptive passages about breasts and buttocks and genitals – are totally superfluous to the story. Here I am, in the middle of a intrigue laden plot in a harsh land full of half-orcs and we have, suddenly and for no reason, a naked elf maiden hanging from the ceiling or the main character fondling some muscular half-orc female’s boobs. These moments are clearly intended to arouse but…like…why?
I dunno. Maybe I’m getting old or something.
I remember being sixteen or so and reading The Far Kingdoms by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch. The opening scene had the main character – the dashing, fit, and charismatic Amalric – having sex with an incredibly gorgeous woman. This scene was described in deliberate detail and, as an adolescent in the pre-internet era, it was possibly the most erotic thing I’d ever experienced. I confess to reading that specific passage over and over again. But it had nothing to do with the story and in no way advanced or improved the scene beyond giving a teenager an erection.
And, like, what the fuck is going on with that, anyway? Why do that? I’m picking up this novel for a solid adventure story – I want excitement and danger and mystery and, yes, even romance. But I’m not looking to be aroused. In fact, it’s damned distracting when a novel is trying to turn me on in the midst of what is otherwise a tense and gritty tale of survival and gore. Maybe I’m alone here, but those are totally different channels for me. I’m so concerned about man-eating centaurs showing up or giant oozes dissolving the protagonists that time spent lingering on the curve of some female character’s ass is, like, really weird.
This is not to say that sex scenes – even graphic sex scenes – don’t have their place in this genre (or any genre). I’m not even going to sit here and tell you that sex scenes should be restricted to those who are in love. What I am saying is that a sex scene needs to serve the plot somehow – it needs to be important and consequential or even just thematically related. In Neuromancer, Molly is clearly sexualized, but Gibson is making a deliberate point with that sexualization – she is a woman trying to reclaim her agency. When she has sex with Case (and yeah, that’s a pretty graphic sex scene), she is firmly in control, telling Case exactly what to do and not to do. He is powerless to resist her, physically or otherwise. That scene, and how Molly is presented in it, is immediately relevant to the characters’ relationship, to the plot, and to the broader themes Gibson is exploring. So, in other words, it works.
In general, the same rules that make a fight scene work apply to the sex scene. Random, gratuitous violence that fails to advance the plot or affect the main character is boring. The reader is not invested in the battle and vaguely wondering why and, in the worst cases, ends up skimming ahead a bit. The stakes are not clear and the relevance is not established. Same goes for sex: if two characters are screwing for no reason other than to describe how their genitals are currently in use and how much they enjoy that, then the reader is going to feel like we just took a little side trip into some weird little fantasy inside the fantasy we were already reading.
And this doesn’t even touch upon the whole male gaze/patriarchal thing we have going on, too, that is driving and underpinning the whole affair. That is arguably even more problematic and is in large part responsible for this kind of thing much of the time anyway. But that’s both a huge issue and somewhat parallel to what I’m saying here – I’ll save it for a post for another day.
In general, my point is this: go ahead and write boobs and penises! Just make sure the boobs and penises are on topic, writers!
I’ve got another op-ed piece up on Stupefying Stories’s blog this week! In it, I chat about how to write interesting, compelling, engaging heroes instead of villains (as I did last time). This is a slightly more complex issue, so it’s a slightly longer article (and leaves a LOT open to interpretation), but I think it’s a succinct list that I pretty much use in my own writing, as well.
See the article here.
Read it, comment, and, if so inclined, buy some of my books to see how I do it myself (and see if you agree!).
Talk to you all soon!
I’m good at starting short stories. Really good, I’d say. I have snappy first paragraphs, cool set-ups, neat ideas and then…
Then they tend to stall.
I never seem to know where these damned stories are going. So what if there’s a T-rex loose in the mall? Who gives a crap, anyway, and isn’t that just going to wind up being the same as the plot of the latest Jurrasic Park movie? After that occurs to me, I get disenchanted and then stop because, well, I don’t want to be derivative. I want to be original.
Maybe I’m expecting too much out of myself in the first draft. I want the story to be brilliant. I want it to sell to the best markets and get all the praise from (whoever) and win all the awards and make me the guy who is known for writing brilliant, well-selling, praiseworthy, award winning stories. And, of course, that’s a huuge amount of pressure.
But that can’t be it, because I try to do the same thing with novels and I have no problem diving into writing a novel. I just sit my ass in my chair and start churning out words, day by day, bit by bit, until a draft is done. Even revision in novels seems easier – there are so many moving parts, so many modular pieces, that altering it seems almost intuitive. Well, at least compared to short stories.
The source of all this whining is that I just finished a novel draft and now it’s an opportunity to write some more short fiction and get it out the door before the semester begins and all my writing time pretty much vanishes. I mean, how long can it take to write a 4000-6000 word story, right? I cover that in about two days while writing novels – no sweat!
I sit down, crack the knuckles (not really – just a metaphor) and start typing and I get about 500-1000 words in and…
I feel like I should be able to write a draft of 2 short stories per week. The reality is that a single one takes me weeks, sometimes months, sometimes goddamned years to see through.
Right now I have seven or eight stories with openings and no middle or end. I’m stalled on all of them. I’d call it writer’s block, but I don’t really believe in writer’s block. It’s not that I don’t have ideas, it’s that I just don’t think any of my ideas are any good. I find them boring. I don’t want to write boring stories.
I guess that’s what people mean when they say “writer’s block.” I should just put my head down and power through. That’s what I do in novels. Why is it any different for short work?
Well, it’s short – there’s no time to waste, no room to spare. I can’t dick around for twenty pages and then go back and cut it out. Well, no wait – I can dick around for twenty pages and then cut it out, but I don’t want to. I want short fiction to be a faster process than the longer stuff. I want to churn out stories every week. But writing short fiction is work every bit as much as writing long fiction is – more, if you ask me. People ask how long it took to build Notre Dame Cathedral, but do they ever ask how long it took to perfect the wheel? Sure, it’s smaller. But smaller doesn’t mean easier.
So, I’m going to go back and read the start of a bunch of stories now, see if any new ideas have developed. See if I can get these things through to the end.
Don’t hold your breath.
The release date of Book 4 of The Saga of the Redeemed, The Far Far Better Thing, has been pushed back to November 20th. Though a copy of the text has been on my editor’s desk since March, he’s swamped with work, it seems, and I’m pushed back in the queue. We thank you for your patience.