“They don’t blame you — so long as you’re funny!” –Jack Point, in The Yeomen of the Guard, by W.S. Gilbert.

One of the most interesting beta reader comments on my new novel was “Why don’t you make it funnier?”

This one stuck with me, because I already had a sneaking suspicion that the book was too humorless. Paul Graham’s point about good design sticks in my head: “Good design may not have to be funny, but it’s hard to imagine something that could be called humorless also being good design.”

I’ve struggled with this quite a bit. The book isn’t a comedy by any means—it deals with some very dark subjects. And yet… that doesn’t seem like a valid excuse. For example, racism, murder, and rape are all major elements in the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird, and yet it still has plenty of extremely humorous moments as well.

I read somewhere that a novel is supposed to capture “the totality of life”. If so, then it makes sense that it needs to have both the dark and the light moments—after all, real life has both.

But how do you put humor into a serious story? You can’t just put in a slapstick comedy routine for characters who are struggling with matters of life and death. It would seem out of place.

This is the problem that so-called “comic relief” characters were created to solve. And sometimes, that can work. But it’s easy for it to go wrong, and then you get something like Jar Jar Binks—a character whose antics clash with the main narrative and annoy the audience.

A better route is to have characters who are well-rounded enough to be both funny and serious. And actually, having funny characters is probably helpful in terms of the larger goal of making the reader care about them. Funny characters are more likeable.

One of the complaints I got about The Start of the Majestic World was the lack of banter between the two protagonists. This was because I just generally don’t like banter—it comes across as too forced to me. But I wonder now if this was really about an overall lack of humor in the book. (I did try to make some of the supporting characters entertaining, if not exactly comic.)

It’s tricky to find the right point to insert humor in a non-humor book.  At any given moment, the characters are dealing with serious problems, and so there never seems to be any specific point where it makes sense to insert comedy, even though the overall vibe is that the book needs more of it.

Another way is to put humor in the descriptions. The difficulty here is that my book is set in the distant future, and as such requires a fair amount of world-building and information about how the futuristic society works. And it’s tough to give the reader that information, much of which will ultimately be relevant to the plot, and be funny at the same time.

Even more importantly, humor relies on a shared frame of reference, so it’s hard to come up with really funny things to say in a futuristic society. Humor also involves playing with social norms, and when dealing with unfamiliar social norms, it doesn’t seem funny when they get violated. It just seems confusing.

This still doesn’t justify a lack of humor, though. Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke infused their science fiction stories with wit. What it comes down to is being able to write plausibly human and relatable characters in a futuristic and/or alien setting.  That’s what I’m trying to do, anyway—write characters with both serious and silly sides to them, and then put them in situations where the different aspects of their personalities can appear.

Sometimes you have story ideas that don’t work out. They seem like brilliant ideas at first, but then they just slowly die.  It can take a while to even realize your story has died–I know I’ve kept working on some long after they’ve passed on.

Last month, the Economic Security Project had a contest to write a short story about Universal Basic Income. I tried my hand at it, but didn’t get far. I thought readers might be interested in seeing an example of a story that died.

(more…)

14 year-old me
14 year-old me (R, w/fangs)

For the last month, I’ve been looking through a lot of old family pictures to get good Halloween stuff to post on Twitter. I got plenty of that, but I also found lots of pictures of myself as a teenager that set me thinking about some things.

What struck me was how, in certain ways, I’m a lot like that younger version of me. He wanted to be a writer, he was interested in politics, he loved Halloween and ghost stories… If someone met 14-year-old me, and then was transported instantly through time to meet present-day me, they would recognize a lot of commonalities.

At least, in terms of raw interests, there are a lot similarities. The differences come in terms of things like skill-level. (I’m a much better poet now than when I was 14, for example.) And, I now have a lot more first-hand knowledge about how the world actually works, as opposed to teen-aged me, who just had a theoretical model based on stuff he’d read or seen on TV.

What bothers me, looking back, is all the stuff teenage me should have taken advantage of, if he had only been willing to. But he didn’t know what would happen, and so just sort of kept his head down, reading books and writing stuff that only he read.

Basically, he wasted a lot of time. And it occurs to me that somewhere out there, there are probably lots of other teenagers and young adults now in the same boat as I was, who vaguely know they want to be writers, but don’t know how to go about doing it.

My hope is that they’ll read this, and maybe it will help them avoid wasting time like I did.

If you’re interested in writing, do lots of it.

Teenage me thought the key to being a great writer was to read a lot of books, and then the idea for a great novel/essay/poem would eventually come to him. Not really. Reading is great and important, but if you want to be a writer, you have to write what you want, not what you think you should write based on some books you read.

The easiest way to do this is figure out what kind of book you’d like to read, and then go write it. (That’s a cliche, I know.)

Bottom line: if you have read enough to decide you’d like to be a writer (and let’s face it, few people who don’t like to read want to be writers), then it’s time to start writing.

Don’t be afraid to publish.

In the old days, before the internet, it was hard to get anything published. But now, anyone can do it. And it’s been that way since I was a teenager. But for a long time, I still was hesitant to publish anything for other people to read.

Why? I was scared. Of what? I’m not even sure. That people would sue me, or make fun of me, or that my ideas or stories would seem stupid.

Basically, I was afraid people would laugh at me. Looking back, this was a hugely irrational fear. The big problem I face is not ridicule or lack of privacy, but getting people to read anything I write. Getting an audience is the hard part–it takes years of publishing your work before it starts to happen. So the sooner you start, the better.

When you’re a kid, you assume that the world is full of bullies who will mock your work, like the ones in school. And sure, the internet has lots of that, although good publishing platforms provide safeguards against it. But the point is, unless you publish it, no one will see your work. And who is hurt by that? Well, you, for starters. But also the people all across the world who have similar interests to yours, for whom you have written the perfect thing, but who don’t get to read it because you didn’t publish it.

It doesn’t matter if what you write is bad

In the beginning, I was worried that my blogs on politics were facile, that my poems were awkward and pretentious, that my stories were incoherent and vague. In short, I worried that my work was bad.

I don’t worry about that any more. I know when I’m doing good work or not.

How do I know? Well, simply put, I wrote a lot of stuff that was in fact awful. I wince when I read some of my old blog posts from 2009 or ’10. What was I thinking?, I ask myself.

What’s funny is that at the time, I was so concerned with not writing bad stuff, and yet I managed to do it anyway.

Writing is like anything; you get better at it by doing more of it. What I know now is that I’ve written a lot of stuff that’s pretty bad–but I’ve also written a few things I’m very proud of. And I couldn’t have done the latter without doing a lot of the former. As such, I’m not even really ashamed of lousy poems or blog posts from my past–I look at them as a cost of doing business.

Remember: if you manage to write one really great essay, or novel, or poem, it will more than offset however many failed drafts and ill-advised scribblings you had to generate in order to do it. And there will be a lot of those.

In the last year and a half, two things happened to that made me understand calories better. The first was that I started doing cardio workouts and monitoring the calorie counts on the machines.

A half-hour of jogging burns about 300 calories. (The machine estimates a bit more, but I’ve heard these things tend to add about 15%-20% over the true amount) Then with a bit of time on a machine called “Jacob’s Ladder”, I can usually add another 100.

On my best day of cardio ever, I got to 500 calories. I was exhausted and sweaty, but it still felt good. 500 calories! I thought that was pretty awesome.

The second thing that happened was that I started following author Carrie Rubin on Twitter. She frequently discusses health/nutrition issues, and specifically menu-labeling. I never thought about it until I read what she has written, and after that I started paying attention to calorie counts on restaurant menus and food labels.

What I saw was horrifying. There’s no other word for it. For example, the typical plain bagel with cream cheese at most restaurants seems to be about 450 calories.

Before working out using calorie counts, I had no frame of reference to tell me whether that was good or bad. But now, I can roughly translate the number on the menu to how hard I have to exercise to burn that any calories. And the results aren’t pretty: I have to do my maximum cardio workout just to negate the calories from one bagel.

Once you see things in these terms, you take a whole different attitude towards food. When you see a delicious thing that contains 1000s of calories, you don’t think: “Yum! I want that.” You think: “My god, I’m already tired from all the running that’s going to require.”

Many food sellers are, naturally, reluctant to do menu-labeling, precisely because they know that people will see those calorie counts and change their purchase decisions accordingly. The good news is that they are–or at least, will be–required to do so.

(My fear is that restaurants will raise prices to make up for it. This leads to an even bigger problem: The fact the healthy food is also more expensive. It already seems like only the middle-class and above can afford to eat healthy, and the poor are stuck eating junk food because it’s cheaper.)

But menu-labeling is only half of the battle. The other half is for the consumer to be able to translate the calorie counts on those menus into something meaningful—specifically, the amount of effort it costs to burn those calories later on.

It’s a very interesting spot. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas for my writing here, including this poem and one of the stories in this book.

These pictures don’t do it justice. Even video wouldn’t do it justice. It’s very peaceful, standing here and feeling the wind rustling the leaves and listening to the creaking of the trees.

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Blade_Runner_2049_logo
Poster for “Blade Runner 2049”. Image via Wikipedia.

*WARNING: SPOILERS!*

The movie’s title is misleading. The term “runner” is way too fast-paced for this 2.75 hour science fiction slog. It’s much more of a “Blade Walker” or even a “Blade Crawler”. Scenes drag on, and the camera lingers on things like trees, ruined cityscapes, and statues of naked women long after the viewer has gotten the idea.

The film follows officer K (Ryan Gosling), an LAPD officer in the year 2049. His job is to “retire” (that is, kill) obsolete replicants–synthetic humans created by the Wallace corporation. The older models, leftovers from the Tyrell corporation, which Niander Wallace purchased, have no built-in expiration date, unlike the newer versions–which is what K himself is.

In the opening sequence, K retires a rebellious replicant farmer, after getting into a ridiculous fistfight with him. The director and choreographer really should learn that people can’t get punched in the face repeatedly and then thrown through a wall and just walk it off. (There’s an even more egregious example later.) Also, the whole fight happened because K inexplicably set his gun aside. Very odd.

Anyway, after K kills the replicant, he finds a box buried in the yard outside his house, beside a lone dead tree. This allows for some nice shots of K standing around in his coat, looking contemplative and brooding. Get used to this.

K then goes home to his apartment, to install some upgrades on Joi (Ana de Armas), his holographic companion, who he apparently has set on “sexy over-solicitous housewife” mode. She makes him an artificial dinner, instantly switches her appearance from among a variety of revealing outfits, suggests various things they can do for fun, and in general behaves like a parody of what 13-year-old boys imagine a girlfriend is like. It’s cringe-worthy.

The new upgrade allows Joi to accompany him outside–so now, rather than just being his sexy overeager housewife, she can be his sexy, overeager constant companion. They are celebrating this by pretending to kiss while frolicking in the rain when they are interrupted by a call from K’s boss, Lt. Joshi. (Robin Wright)  She tells him to come to the police station, where they are examining the contents of the box he discovered–the skeleton of a female replicant that died in childbirth.

I was really annoyed by this scene. Basically, it was the standard police procedural trope of “the forensic lab”–except it was Officer K who spotted all the key clues! He kept telling the forensic analyst to zoom in on stuff, and figuring out what had happened to the remains himself. It seemed hard to believe that he, an average replicant rent-a-cop, would pick up on clues the forensics person missed.

At any rate, this is an alarming discovery, as replicants are not supposed to be able to reproduce, and they fear that the discovery of one who did will lead to a replicant rebellion. Joshi orders K to destroy all evidence of this replicant and her child.

This leads K to the Wallace Corporation headquarters–a strange, extremely orange building that reminded me of some of the sets from The Mummy, except with shimmering water shadows on the wall for some reason.

The corporation seems to consist of just two people: Niander Wallace (Jared Leto)–a strange, monk-like character who speaks in nonsensel sentences that are possibly supposed to make him sound smart, but in fact make him a comically obtuse guru–and his replicant secretary, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a femme fatale. It reminds me of a story I heard once about a company that employed only a lawyer and a secretary–their only job was to sue any companies who infringed on their corporation’s patents.

I frankly don’t know how the Wallace Corporation stays in business, with only two employees and a product line that exists solely to destroy other parts of the product line. Well, I guess there’s also a third product line designed to provide female companionship to the the main product line.

I’ve heard of niche markets, but this is ridiculous.

Anyway, Officer K finds out from Luv that the bones are the remains of a replicant named Rachael, and hears some recordings showing she was once involved with another LAPD cop, Rick Deckard, the protagonist of the original Blade Runner movie. (That last part wasn’t included in the script, though I half-expected it would be, since this movie insists on spelling things out for the audience.)

At some point around here, K leaves the Wallace Corp. headquarters and gets approached by a prostitute, who has been sent to spy on him by a mysterious woman. It doesn’t mean anything at the time, but it will be important later on, so file that away. Also ponder this: why are there always so many prostitutes in these sci-fi and fantasy worlds? Seriously, it feels like one-third of every fictional economy is hooker-based.

Luv is sent by Wallace to destroy the bones and to follow K as he searches for Rachael’s child. The former she does with incredible ease, considering it means murdering the forensics expert in the middle of the police station.

Meanwhile, K is telling a (somewhat tipsy) Lt. Joshi about his childhood memories. They aren’t, of course, real childhood memories–he’s a replicant, after all, but he has implanted memories. He tells Joshi about one of the most vivid–a story in which he is hiding a small wooden toy horse from some other children. We flashback to scenes of him being pursued through a dark industrial maze, and carefully securing the toy in some shelves.

This scene–not the flashback itself, but the scene where K recounts it to Joshi–was one of the best in the film. Wright was terrific as the foul-mouthed and heavy-drinking but warmhearted Lieutenant. In this scene, she’s almost flirtatious, and has far better chemistry with Gosling than his holographic love interest ever does. It’s a pity she doesn’t have a larger role.

K returns to the scene where he first found the box of remains, and finds a date carved on the dead tree beside the grave–6/10/21, which was also carved on the toy horse he remembers from his childhood. He begins to suspect (bolstered by Joi’s reassurances) that he is Rachael’s child. He checks the birth records and learns that two children were born on that date with identical DNA–a boy and a girl. The girl died, but the boy was sent to an orphanage.

This was another scene that annoyed me. As they are looking at the strings of DNA, the various combinations of “G” “T” “C” and “A” are displayed and Joi comments that these four elements make up human beings’ “code”, whereas she only has two elements to hers. I liked this line, but I didn’t like that she then had to spell it out: “1 and 0”, she says, for the benefit of everyone who doesn’t know what binary code is. I suppose there are such people, but I doubt any of them would go to see this movie.

K (along with Joi, for no reason I can discern) decides to go to the orphanage, which is located in some sort of massive junkyard, where K’s flying police car is shot down by some group of bandits–who these bandits are is never explained. K fights them off and finds his way into the orphanage–a neo-Dickensian sweatshop of sorts, where he forces the cruel overseer to show him to an abandoned area that matches his childhood memory. There, he discovers the horse in exactly the place he remembers hiding it.

 

Somehow–it was not clear how, since we last saw his flying car being shot down–he makes his way back to his apartment, and from there finds Dr. Ana Stelline, a woman with a condition that forces her to live inside a glass chamber so as to be protected from all contaminants. She designs false memories for the Wallace Corporation to implant in replicants. She is a talented designer of memories, and on inspecting his (how she did this, I have no idea) indicates that it is real.

K then becomes inexplicably angry and consequently fails the replicant behavior test that they apparently give him after every mission. He tells Joshi this is because he successfully found and killed Rachael’s child. Joshi gives him 48 hours to either flee or try to pass the test again. So he…

He, um…

Ok, this is really kind of bizarre…

He goes back to his apartment, where Joi has brought in the prostitute from earlier. She has done this because she knows that he’s been wanting to sleep with her (Joi, that is). But, since she’s a hologram and all, it doesn’t go very well. So she sort of superimposes herself over the prostitute.

Except the superimposition doesn’t totally work, so there’s this bizarre blurring effect., kind of like when you watch a 3-D movie without the glasses on.

It’s creepy and hilariously bad and stupid and probably one of the worst romantic scenes ever filmed. And it’s worse when you put it in context. I mean, I get annoyed enough when my computer installs updates without asking my permission. If it started letting prostitutes into my apartment while I was gone, I would be even more upset. And then when you add in that K has just been given 48 hours to run away from the authorities, it seems even more absurd that he would spend 8 of them making love to his virtual assistant.

Ok, looking at K, it was probably more like 10 minutes, but still.

Oh, and the morning after, as she’s leaving, the prostitute makes a catty remark to Joi. That was stupid too.

K has the toy horse analyzed by some random character who exists only to advance the plot but still manages to be vaguely offensive during his brief screen time. The levels of radiation found in the horse lead K (and Joi, natch) to the blindingly orange ruins of Las Vegas.

After finding an abandoned beekeeper’s station and some statues of naked women in high heels–just another day at the office!–K finds his way to an abandoned hotel and casino, where he meets Deckard (Harrison Ford)

Deckard enters with one of the best lines in the movie: “You mightn’t happen to have a piece of cheese about you, now?” This is a quote from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, as K helpfully informs us, thus weakening the line immensely.

Deckard and K then engage in another ridiculous comic-book fistfight that serves no purpose to the story, but takes place in a casino lounge with various holograms of famous performers flickering on and off. It’s kind of cool, but it was done better in Dead Money.

After this is over with, they talk, and Deckard explains he left the pregnant Rachael behind and scrambled police records so they could not track the child.

This scene was another one of the film’s high points, thanks entirely to Ford’s acting. The dialogue is still awkward, and Gosling is pretty wooden throughout, but the gruff tones of the veteran actor make it compelling. As he was when reprising another of his most famous roles, Ford is the one of the few bright spots.

Meanwhile, Luv–remember her?–has killed Joshi and tracked K to Las Vegas. She and her men attack, capturing Deckard and badly injuring K. She also destroys the small device in which the Joi program is stored, effectively “killing” her.

Luv takes Deckard to speak with Wallace. And by speak with him, I mean have Wallace recite bunch of gobbledygook at Deckard in a dull, awkward monotone before finally producing a replicant of Rachael. Deckard gruffly responds that “her eyes were green.” I would say it’s absurd that they could get such an obvious detail wrong, but given the Wallace Corporation’s general ineptitude, it seems almost plausible.

Meanwhile, K has been rescued by some pro-Replicant freedom fighters–one of whom is the prostitute from earlier. They want K to kill Deckard before he can lead the Wallace corporation to his daughter. From this, K realizes he is not the child after all, and that Deckard falsified the records.

After a brief interlude with a giant pink naked holographic girl–just don’t even ask, ok?–K intercepts Luv and her men as they are transporting Deckard to… someplace… and, in a rather anti-climactic battle, K kills Luv and rescues Deckard. This scene takes place at night and underwater, so it’s not really a fest for the eyes.

Finally, K takes Deckard back to meet his daughter–Ana Stelline. K has realized that the memory was actually hers–she designed it and the Wallace Corporation put it in his brain. Deckard greets his daughter in her isolation chamber while K collapses in the snow outside and the credits roll.

It’s not a bad little plot, and might have made quite a good 90 minute or two hour movie. But the pacing is absolutely bad; not merely because it is slow–although it is definitely that–but also just because even with all that build-up, the final battle still seems rushed, confusing and unsatisfying. And we never see what becomes of Wallace himself, who is the main villain of the piece.

“But it’s not about the story!” say the fans. “It’s about the atmosphere! The cinematography!”

Ok, sure; but the atmosphere isn’t that great. It’s nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before in other films influenced by the original Blade Runner. I was struck, again and again, by how ordinary all of it felt.

As for the cinematography: it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as great as I expected from all the hype. That large parts of the film take place at night and in the rain doesn’t help–and frankly, as rainy noir-cinematography goes, there are much better examples.

The poster tells the story. Remember that article a few years ago about orange and blue in Hollywood movies? Well, those colors are out in force here–everything is bluish except Vegas, which is orange. (Compare the poster for 2049 above to the one for the original.)

And in the end, movies aren’t about cinematography. It’s just one tool that the filmmaker uses in service of the ultimate goal: telling a good story with good characters.

The story, as I have said, is not bad but it is also not remarkable, and certainly shouldn’t take this long to tell. And the characters? Well, there are a few good ones. Joshi and Deckard are standouts–I wish we could have had a film about the two of them working together instead.

K is probably the least interesting character in the whole thing, and that’s saying something. Joi–who is the de facto love interest–is also quite dull, since she exists entirely to serve K.

This brings me to another point: the film’s sexism. As I have said, there’s plenty of “male gaze”–besides the statues and holograms, there is a horrible scene where the camera focuses on a naked, newly-created female replicant who is immediately killed for no reason. (This should have been cut, not only because of the gratuitous nudity and violence, but also because it added nothing to the story and made the already overlong picture drag more.)

But even more significant than the sexist imagery is the fact that the women’s roles in the story are all secondary. Even Stelline, who is in a sense the central driving force of the whole plot, is shunted to the side to focus on the unremarkable officer K.

The irony is, it’s clearly a dystopian story, and the world they present could indeed be described as a dreadful dystopia for women in particular, where they are treated, with a few exceptions, as commodities. But the writers seem not to be aware of this. If they were, they could have explored that, rather than the story of officer K, the second-rate cop who wanted to bed his virtual assistant.

Blade Runner 2049 is the second cyberpunk film I’ve seen this year. The other was Ghost in the Shell. See that instead–it’s much better. You can even watch it twice in the time it takes to watch 2049.

lorem ipsum
Need extra words? Here are some random ones!

If you follow me on Twitter, you probably know that I’ve been working on a new novel for the last two months. My goal at the outset was 100,000 words, and I’ve been keeping a running update of my progress. Here’s my latest:

I re-read it, and I think the story has a pretty decent pace overall. It may be a little too brisk (it turns out these things seem much faster when you’re reading them than when you’re writing them), but I think I have the central plot arc in place. And there’s just no way to pad it out to 100,000 words, which is bad, because it’s a sci-fi novel, and those are generally “supposed” to be at least 80,000 words.

I can and probably will throw in some additional world-building detail and “local flavor”, tie up a few minor loose ends in the plot, and add some more description of scenes and characters. (Description, as long-time readers know, has always been my weak point.) But even all that will probably bring it to around 60,000 words, at the maximum.

Personally, I have never been a fan of arbitrary word counts for a genre. A story should be told in the number of words that make it most powerful for the reader–no more, no less. Too many words, and they get bored. Too few, and they won’t get drawn into it.

But of course, the publishers don’t see it that way. They have certain rules for word count by genre. In my opinion, this “quantity over quality” approach encourages overly-long books, but then again, when you have to review thousands of manuscripts, it helps to have some rules that let you automatically eliminate some of them. (This article summarizes it well.)

The key question here is; what do readers like? Assuming the two books are equal in price, does the typical reader prefer to have a longer one to a shorter one? Do they want to maximize the number of words they get for their money? Or do other considerations take precedence?

For myself, I generally make decisions based on other factors. I read the synopsis to see if it sounds like an interesting premise, then I flip through the book a little and see if I like the author’s style. Cover art also makes a difference to me, even though we all know we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

What about you? What factors most heavily influence your book-buying decisions? How much do you care about the length of a book?