In P.G. Wodehouse’s 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters, there’s a great character called Roderick Spode. A parody of Sir Oswald Mosley, Spode is the dictatorial leader of a fascistic group called “The Black Shorts”. Bertie Wooster, the protagonist, describes his appearance “as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.”

Ultimately, Spode is thwarted when Bertie’s valet Jeeves reveals that he knows about “Eulalie”–which Bertie learns later is a ladies’ lingerie shop called Eulalie Soeurs that Spode operates. Spode fears that he will lose face if this becomes known to the other members of the Black Shorts.

Wodehouse was one of the greatest humorous writers of all-time, but Spode was a rare instance when he satirized a particular public figure. And a clever satire it was too; suggesting that a would-be dictator moonlights as an underwear designer instantly reduces them to figures of fun.

Of course, even in Wodehouse’s comic world, he still assumed that such people could be cowed by such basic things as shame. It was a more genteel universe that Wodehouse imagined, in which even the villains played by the rules.

For April Fools’ Day, I had a little fun over on my Twitter account, tweeting as my “assistant”/evil cousin “Waberthold Gambrel”. (I based the name on the Nintendo character, Waluigi, rival of Luigi.) I also tweaked my profile picture a little.

I’ve deleted the tweets now, but I saved a screenshot so Waberthold’s brief-but-spectacular (some would say Scaramucci-esque) career can be commemorated.

wabertholds tweets

Happy April Fools’ Day!

SCENE: INT.–OFFICE–DAY. I am discovered sitting at my computer, eating a granola bar, with an unopened box of cookies on my desk.

(Enter INTERN)

INTERN

Can I have a cookie?

ME

Sure.

(He opens the box and takes a cookie. Enter CO-WORKER)

CO-WORKER (to ME)

Can I look through your files?

ME

Yeah.

(CO-WORKER turns back to door, looks through file cabinet. Exit INTERN.)

CO-WORKER

All these files are a mess! It’s never been cleaned up since the guy who used to have your job. It was in great shape before he came.

(Enter INTERN, unseen by CO-WORKER)

CO-WORKER (Cont’d)

That idiot who was in here was so stupid.

INTERN

Hey, I’m right here!

ME

No, not you–he means the guy who used to have my job.

INTERN

Oh. (pause) Can I have another cookie?

ME

Sure.

CO-WORKER

These files are such a mess!

INTERN

Why do you have these cookies? You don’t eat food.

ME

I’m eating granola right now.

INTERN

I mean not this kind of food.

CO-WORKER (who has been grumbling about files the entire time)

You should have seen what it used to be like!

INTERN (To ME)

Oh, yeah, you did say you used to be fat.

ME

No, no–he means what the file system used to be like!

INTERN

Oh.

(Exit CO-WORKER, still grumbling, having apparently not found the file. Pause.)

INTERN

Can I have another cookie?

(Curtain.)

<RUSH TRANSCRIPT>

Honorable readers, distinguished authors, and fellow bloggers:

Tonight, it is my honor and privilege to appear before you to mark the 9th anniversary of this blog. I can think of no date more fitting for me to make such an address.

(laughter, boos from the opposition)

I’m pleased to report that the state of the blog is strong, thanks in part to wonderful authors and interviewees like Carrie Rubin and Audrey Driscoll, who have kindly allowed me to post their insightful and thoughtful answers to my questions here.

(applause)

I’m grateful also to readers like Eurobrat, l33tminion and Phillip McCollum,

(applause)

…who have contributed to the discussions on this blog on a number of topics, from politics to the craft of writing.

Now, while the blog is stronger than ever, I recognize that there are still improvements to make. And that’s why I’m glad to have input from Pat Prescott, Mark Paxson, and Barb Knowles

(applause)

…on how to better the site. I am therefore launching an Executive Initiative to improve the readability and layout of the site, some elements of which have already been implemented. It has, in my opinion, certainly gone no worse than any such initiative can be expected to, in that it at least vaguely resembles what the people have asked for.

(laughter, boos from the opposition)

With all this in mind, and most of all, with the insightful attention and comments of readers like you, I will continue to preserve, protect, and to post on this blog, to the best of my ability.

Thank you.

<END TRANSCRIPT>

Many moons ago, when I was in college, I had to take what they called a “writing course”, which was a class designed specifically to teach writing, but about subjects in our chosen major. (Mine was Econ.) I think the point was to prevent a bunch of mathematics geniuses from taking over the field with equations and graphs strung together by incoherent babble.

It doesn’t seem to have worked.

Anyway, the section I was in was unpopular, because the professor assigned not one, not two, not three, but four books. Now, they were all short books, and one of them (The Ghost Map) actually became one of my favorites. But that’s not the one I want to talk about here. I want to talk about the first one we had to read: The Doctors’ Plague.

The book is about Ignaz Semmelweis, a Hungarian doctor who, in the 1840s, tried to reduce the so-called “childbed fever” then prevalent in the hospital where he worked. Germ theory was not widely understood at the time, and Semmelweis’s radical proposal was that doctors and nurses who treated infants and mothers should wash their hands.

This sounds absurdly obvious to us modern readers, but at the time it was heretical, and indeed, Semmelweis wasn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. Whether due to his difficult temper, some unknown mental disorder, or possibly a language barrier, Semmelweis failed to prevail upon the medical community to adopt hand-washing as a regular practice. He died in an insane asylum, and his work was not recognized until long after his death.

Naturally, we Econ students were all puzzled by this. (Those of us that read it, that is. I suspect a quarter of the class just looked up the book’s synopsis online, and another quarter didn’t even do that.) What on God’s Green Earth does this have to do with Supply and Demand?

After the week or whatever our allotted time to read the book was, the professor started the class by giving his summary of the book–I assume for the benefit of the ones who didn’t read it. He finished up by raising the question we were asking ourselves: why did he assign this?

The point of the book, he said, was that Semmelweis couldn’t communicate his ideas to his colleagues. “So,” he concluded, “You have to learn to write well! It doesn’t matter if you discover something great if no one can understand you.”

I think he intended this as a carpe diem moment, but most of the class felt like they’d just been told the world’s longest shaggy dog story. But he was right; you do have to be able to write well, no matter how good your underlying point is.

I’m not even sure if that was really the main lesson of the Semmelweis story, but nevertheless, it’s true. And regardless of whether writing well has anything to do with Semmelweis or not, the professor created a helpful mnemonic: writing well is as important as good hygiene in a hospital.

[The other day I came across this unfinished humor novel I wrote when I was sixteen. I hadn’t looked at it for over a decade. Parts of it are funny. Most of it is stupid.  What follows are a few of the highlights–I left out the really lame bits. For background: it was intended as a satire of spy/thriller  stories, as well as poking fun at my favorite target, government bureaucracies. Teen-aged me was an ardent libertarian, so take all of it with a generous helping of salt. Also don’t miss my juvenile attempt at Gilbertian wordplay at the end. Enjoy!–BG]

NOTICE FROM THE FEDERAL BUREAU OF STORIES

The following story is true.

(Note: This story is not actually true. That was a literary device.)

The following story is in compliance with section V, article xii of the drama treaty of English-speaking nations. By reading this story, you certify that you are (a) literate and (b) not visually impaired in any way that would prevent reading. If you are found to be in violation of either or both of these conditions you may or may not be penalized. Before reading the story that follows, you must take out all your identification and read it aloud. If any or all of your identification papers are expired, you must renew them before reading this story. Reading of this story without proper and up to date identification is punishable by fine or imprisonment under article xii, section V of the California—Maine Fiction Code. No person or persons under the age of 21 may take away a moral from this story without filling out a moral-requisition form in compliance with article xvii of the Alaska state constitution. If multiple morals are taken away, a requisition form must be filled out for each moral. Any and all themes, motifs, etc. in this story are in compliance with article cvvxxi, section C of the American Motif Code. The character(s) in this story is/are certified and in compliance with all regulations regarding character(s) in English fiction. (English fiction referring to all fiction written in English by persons of any nationality.)

Reading of this story out loud is strictly prohibited.

(more…)

 

“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.

For the last five years, I’ve been in a friendly fantasy football league. Fantasy football works like this: you have a team of a few players–my league’s format is 1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, 1  tight end, 1 kicker and 1 defense. Each week, players at those positions accrue points for what they do in the real-life NFL games.  My league is head-to-head, so my goal is for my players to score more combined points than the team I’m matched up against each week.

It’s a lot of fun.  It’s mostly luck, but there is a little skill involved–or at least, I’ll claim there is, because I won my league a few years ago, and it’s more fun to brag if I can say it was because I am a football expert.

So, I started thinking: for what other activities could you make up this sort of game? And I ultimately settled on movies.

Like many people, I like to imagine my “dream all-star cast” for movies. But anyone can do that. Fantasy film-making needs to have an element of strategy and resource management.  So, I came up with some rules.

The format of the Fantasy Movie Cast/Crew is as follows:

  • 1 Director
  • 1 Lead Actor
  • 1 Lead Actress
  • 1 Supporting Actor
  • 1 Supporting Actress
  • 1 Screenwriter
  • 1 Cinematographer
  • 1 Composer

Yes, I realize it takes a lot more people to make a movie, but as with Fantasy sports, there have to be some constraints.

Another constraint: you are only allowed to have two Academy Award-nominees per “team”.  That is what brings out the strategic element–it forces players to prioritize where they want the proven talent.  That’s not to say only Academy Award nominees are any good, but again, as with fantasy sports, you have to know how to find under-valued talent to succeed.

Also, you can’t cheat and use one nominee in multiple slots–no written by/directed by/starring the same person.

Finally, the selection is limited to living people–so no building All-Time teams with Stanley Kubrick directing Peter O’Toole or something.

So, here’s my team:

Director: Mike Leigh. Using one of my two Oscar slots right off the bat.  I figured having an established presence at the helm would be important. He also has experience directing in theater as well as film, and I think that versatility would be useful.

Others I considered: Sir Kenneth Branagh, Rian Johnson.

Lead Actor:  Roger Guenveur Smith. This is what I mean about under-valued talent.  I have seen Smith perform live in his one-man show Juan and John, and he is a marvelous actor. Why isn’t he more widely known?  Beats me.  He is excellent at cycling through a huge range of emotions, and can create all different kinds of characters–often in the space of a few minutes.  He also has a distinctive voice and memorable presence.

Others I considered: Ewan McGregor, Joel Edgerton, Ralph Fiennes

Lead Actress: Natalie Portman. Yeah, yeah; long-time readers probably knew I would pick her the minute they read the description of the game.  Well, she’s a great actress with a wide range, and a particular knack for dark or tragic roles.  Besides which, for a movie to succeed, it helps to have at least one big-name lead.

Others I considered: Rachel Weisz, Sigourney Weaver, Felicia Day

Supporting Actor: Stephen Colbert. People know him mainly as a talk-show host, but he does have a background in acting, which you could see sometimes on The Colbert Report when he would really dial up the crazy.  I read once that he said he always wanted to play Richard in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. Just the fact that he said that earns him some acting credit, in my book.

Others I considered: Jeff Lewis, Hugh Laurie

Supporting Actress: Sara Kestelman. Like Smith, I first heard of Kestelman when she was voice acting in the game Knights of the Old Republic II. Since then, I’ve seen her perform in all sorts of things.  But it’s still her KotOR II role that best showcases what a terrific actress she is. While the writing is terrific, I think  Kestelman’s acting also made Kreia into one of the greatest characters in gaming history.

Others I considered: Rashida Jones, Tina Fey

Screenwriter: Anthony Tambakis. His work on Jane Got a Gun and his novel Swimming with Bridgeport Girls impressed me enough to take a chance on someone with a relatively small body of work.

Others I considered: None. There aren’t too many active screenwriters whose work I like.

Cinematographer: Steve Yedlin. I’ve only seen one movie on which he served as cinematographer: The Brothers Bloom. But it had something I really, really liked: color. Not just muted greens and greys and browns, but honest-to-goodness colors. This has fallen out of fashion for some reason, and it’s annoying. So, on the basis of his willingness to accommodate the full spectrum of colors, I choose him.

Others I considered: Dick Pope.

Composer: Lisa Gerrard. Another talent I first discovered in Jane Got a Gun. Since then, I’ve heard her work in the band Dead Can Dance, and I was hooked.

Others I considered: Clint Mansell

As for what the movie would be about–well, we can sort those details out later! That’s how the big studio producers do it, after all. As for scoring and head-to-head competitions, those also can be determined later.

How would you build your ideal movie cast and crew?

[Inspired by (but not exactly a parody of) Tom Lehrer’s “Elements” song, which is itself a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Modern Major General” song.]

Since the Cleveland Browns came back to the NFL in ’99
The quarterbacks who’ve played for them form a very long depressing line–
There was a lot of optimism (I myself can vouch for it)
When the Brownies first came back into town and got Tim Couch for it.
Ty Detmer was a back-up that they had hired just to mentor him,
And Doug Pederson and Spergon Wynn, they both sometimes went in for him.
Kelly Holcomb got the job, then Garcia, Dilfer, and McCown
And before you knew it, Akron’s Charlie Frye was the newest Cleveland Brown.

But Charlie Frye was out and in his stead was Derek Anderson
Who briefly held off second-stringer Brady Quinn (Ohio’s native son.)
Both Bruce Gradkowski and Ken Doresy brief QB careers did enjoy
And then the job came down to either Jake Delhomme or Colt McCoy.
Wallace, Weeden and Thaddeus Lewis, they all came and went as well,
And then the starting job to veteran Jason Campbell fell.
But Campbell might as well have left his luggage packed up in the foyer
For soon, the Cleveland quarterback was a chap called Brian Hoyer.

Brian Hoyer didn’t last, and soon the Browns fans began to call
For the gridiron magician who was known as “Johnny Football”
But what worked at A&M doesn’t really work beside the lake–
And after starting Connor Shaw, the Browns admitted their mistake.
Josh McCown was signed, but he didn’t play for them for very long,
And Davis, RG III and Kessler form the coda of this song.
Kizer’s next to be the starter–a rookie out of Notre Dame,
And now we’ll sit and wait to find out who’s in after next week’s game!