Archive for ‘Writing’

Writing Writing

NaNoWriMo Coming! (Your help needed)

October 9th, 2013
A little help, anyone?

Yep, November is barreling down upon us, and it’s time to write another crappy novel in 30 days. I don’t think I’ve ever needed it more. I’ve also never felt less inspired. Those two facts are, of course, related.

Usually by this time I have ideas fighting in my head to become The One. This year, cue the crickets chirping. I have never felt so empty of ideas.

Which brings me to any readers who might happen by here. (Yeah, I know I haven’t given people a reason to be regulars lately.) Leave a suggestion in the comments. Don’t be afraid to be outrageous, or silly, or deep and heavy if you want. If anyone posts a suggestion, I WILL WRITE IT. Just like that. If more than one person leaves a suggestion we can have a quick vote, or I’ll let an impartial third party decide, or maybe I’ll just mash them together if the result would be amusing.

I’ll let the person with the winning suggestion read the result, though it’s NaNoWriMo — that may not be much of a prize.

Writing Writing

Breakfast in Kansas

June 16th, 2013

Twenty-four hours now I’ve been in the artificial world of the Repeat Offenders writing workshop in Lawrence, Kansas. Time is funny here, though; when I lay down to sleep last night it seemed strange — how could this still only be my first night here?

Technically, the workshop hasn’t started yet; the weekend is devoted to a conference and awards ceremony celebrating Science Fiction. The Saturday night reception is one of my favorite events, in which a mix of interesting people is stirred with alcohol. The last couple of years the reception has been at a nice venue with a cash bar, rather than in a university dorm with smuggled-in booze. While this leads to far less stress (and fewer laws broken), people are much more restrained when they have to buy their own beer.

Still, a good time. I spent a lot more time listening than talking. People now think either that I’m wise or that I’m boring.

I missed the event that preceded that; a premier of Destination: Planet Negro!, a sci-fi film by some local guys that, I’m told, does not pull its punches, yet remains fun. I was napping instead. You snooze, you lose.

Now it’s morning, and I’ve walked over to downtown Lawrence to break my fast. The air has a scent that reminds me of visits to Grandma’s in Arkansas many years gone by. A heavy scent, earthy, with a tang of something I can’t pinpoint but I know is there.

I passed by the completely mediocre Fuzzy’s Cantina, which was sure to have the cheesy gooey food I craved, but it’s, well, completely mediocre. On Fuzzy’s patio, patrons were settling in with their first pitchers of Pabst Blue Ribbon to celebrate Sunday morning.

The obviously-breakfasty places are filed with (I assume) the after-church crowd, but I found a sandwich shop called Pickelman’s that was just opening. While a vegetarian sandwich on whole wheat is far from the cheesy home fries I was craving, it will sustain me, with the help of some tomato bisque. It was adequate, but I won’t be dragging my fellow writers here.

Now it’s time to take a breath and dive back into the Workshop Artificial Universe.

Writing Writing

Time to Let Hunter Run Free

May 27th, 2013
Because it's better to die out there than to never live at all.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing a novel called The Monster Within. If you ask me, the thing’s pretty damn good. While I may not be the most unbiased judge of the story’s merit, I have to say that even after spending countless hours honing it, I still enjoy sitting back and reading it.

The thing is, I suck at selling stuff. I sent the novel off to some of the top agents in the biz, and got kind rejections. Almost universally the rejections actually contained specific commentary, which is unusual. The main message: We like the writing but way too many pages. The length is a problem because a) there are a lot of 300-page stories trapped in 700-page manuscripts out there, and b) the book would have taken too much physical space in a rack (can’t fit in as many copies), and would cost more to print.

As to a) above, I had completely failed to convey the complexity of the story. I kept trimming the message to the agents, smallifying the synopsis to fit submission requirements, but in the process losing so many elements of the story that of course the agent would say, “125k words for this little story? *Yawn*” The navel-gazing preamble did nothing to reassure the reader that a tight story was to follow.

Regarding b), Monster is a fantasy novel, and readers these days expect them to run fat. That doesn’t change the economics of cutting down extra trees for a guy no one has ever heard of before.

In the end, my poor sales skills and lack of perseverance led to my failure to form a partnership with someone trained in exactly those qualities, and Monster rests idle.

Since those failures, the Kindle came out, and Amazon stabbed the already-wounded bookstore chains in the soul. Nook and iBookstore followed. Books aren’t necessarily made of paper anymore. A fat novel costs the same to distribute as a pamphlet. (Well, almost.) I could publish Monster myself. Charge a lot less yet put more money per book into my own pocket.

That’s great, right? Stick it to the man! Who needs all those editors in their New York offices?

Actually, the reading public owes those guys quite a lot. The stuff the big publishers put out falls into two categories: good writing and crap that will sell anyway. In the Kindle bookstore, there is a frothing cauldron of sewage with a few choice works bubbling to the top. When you pick up a book made of paper, at least someone somewhere thought it was worth cutting down a tree. If that book has a name on it and it turns out to be a worthless piece of shit, you know to avoid that name (and perhaps that publisher), and to disregard all the glowing reviews by people who don’t actually read the books. Eventually you will find those you do trust, and by letting them screen the novels before they reach you, they protect you from a lot of crap.

Unless you get caught in a spiraling disaster like Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, which doesn’t fall so much into the ‘crap that will sell anyway’ category as it does in the “remember the good old days at the start of this series when Bob had an editor?” bin. I suspect the publisher would have loved to help him tighten his story, only Jordan, as a self-proclaimed genius (I heard him proclaim it), would have none of it. The only people reading the series by then were the people with so much invested in the roughly ten bazillion pages that had already gone by that they were willing to tough it out just to get to the end.

Um… I’m drifting off-point here. I started to say that editors helped readers with a major signal-to-noise problem and then I provided two concrete counterexamples. I think in debate class this was a frowned-upon tactic.

But, signal-to-noise. That’s the key here. Editors and agents are filters, reducing but not eliminating the noise. If I self-publish Monster, I will be living in the realm of pure noise. As bad as it is in the dead-tree publishing world, it’s far, far worse in the self-publish world. There’s a lot of really bad fiction out there.

So how does one float to the top of the cesspool? How do I separate myself from the blather and unmitigated horribleness? How do I convince people who have never heard my name to spend a couple of bucks on my book?

There are two things I must do:

  • Have a great cover.
  • Make a lot of noise.

Yep, to overcome the signal-to-noise problem, I have to make more noise. It’s like being at one of those parties where everyone is talking really loudly and you realize that nobody would have to shout if everyone would just stop shouting. But to sell this book, I’ll be calling on all of you to amplify my voice. I will be resuming my podcasts. I’ll probably fire up a Web site for the book. And I will relentlessly bug everyone I know to buy the damn thing, and if they liked it to leave reviews on Amazon and iBookstore. I’ll be emptying out my address book on this one. Just tellin’ you now, so you can be ready for the awkward conversation later.

First, however, is the cover. I’ve had the cover in my mind for a long time, and one thing about self-publishing is that no joker who’s never read the story is going to put some generic “insert standard hero here” shot on the cover. (Hunter is a non-standard hero.) The biggest problem with my vision is that it will be both difficult to pull off and not especially powerful when viewed as wee icon in the bookstore. So you all have a reprieve while I get that into place.

Writing Writing

Reading some Grimm

April 19th, 2013
Times have changed, all right.

Most mornings, I spend my first waking half-hour slogging on an exercise machine. For the first two-thirds of the workout I’m able to read, as long as the story does not require intense concentration. I’m also a cheap bastard, so I gravitate toward e-publications that are free.

Lately as I’ve slaved over the machine, I’ve been reading stories translated from the original texts of the Brothers Grimm. Honestly, they’re not that compelling. They’re like pop songs; each story has a hook and some are more successful than others. If there’s one thing the stories do well, it’s repetition. Escalating cycles. Humility and standing up to your word are paramount.

As I was pumping the exercise machine the other day, appreciating the closure of a particularly contrived parable, I asked myself, “Is this how short stories worked back then?”

In fact, that is how short stories worked back then. The whole idea of ‘short story’ as we think of it today had not been defined. And while we credit Poe and Doyle with inventing the short story, we have to give a respectful nod to Wilhelm Grimm as a progenitor of the form.

I’m smiling as I picture poor Wilhelm in a modern writers’ workshop. “So,” the perceptive critic starts, “the cat has sleeves.” The critic raises exactly one eyebrow as she pins her gaze on the writer. Wilhelm smiles sheepishly. “When you have sleeves it changes you,” he says. He’s right, but the helpful critic never buys it. The problem isn’t really the sleeves, it’s the structure.

Willy Grimm wrote stories, and they are short, but they are by no approximation short stories as we understand the form today. Mostly they are shaggy dog stories. There’s a cadence to the stories, complete with rhymes, as folks who do the right thing are rewarded, as long as they don’t get uppity afterward. But lacking is the development of an idea. Short stories today are the retroviruses of ideas. Somehow what you read injects itself into who you are.

The ideas in Bros. Grimm’s tales are pretty simple, if you can call them ideas at all. “You shouldn’t be greedy because greed is bad, m-kay?”

There are some points of interest. Many of the stories as we know them have been pretty seriously watered down from the original. The princess and the frog? Not the story I was given as a kid. The bitch makes a promise to a frog just to get her ball back, with no intention whatsoever of honoring her word. Later the frog shows up on her doorstep and her dad the king forced her to live up to her word. She resists the frog and makes a liar of herself all the way, until he turns into a handsome prince of some sort. Then she’s all over him. If I’m the prince getting my body back after all those years, I’m saying, “seeya, gold digger, you lied and whined and now suddenly you’re my friend? Methinks not.” and finding my own happy pond. Probably a reflection of the times, but women in these stories are rewards. Do right, you get yourself a hot princess. Her opinion doesn’t matter much, because obviously to get to that position where you deserve the reward you are a virtuous prince, and she’s not going to argue with that.

OK, so modern ideas of sexual roles in society can’t be used to indict Msrs. Grimm. How were they to know that women were relevant unto themselves? But still, the stories come off as clumsy. Not really stories at all, but anecdotes which sometimes have a conclusion but just as often don’t. The characters go through a series of events and at the end, they are finished with those events, and life goes on.

Which makes these fantastic tales surprisingly realistic.

Writing Writing

Munchies Update

February 20th, 2013

So there’s this novel I’m working on, called Munchies. It’s about a weed-smoking, mom’s-basement-dwelling, motivationally-deficient young man named Deek who finds himself dealing with immortal humanoid monsters that hunt and eat people. (They are not vampires. Just ask them.)

It’s a comedy, with dismemberment, cannibalism, and hot vamposters of every gender.

One of the key things about this story, a facet that will likely lead a small few to love it while others use it as a shining example of the decline of western civilization is that, every once in a while, I go there. I cross the line. (The line, it seems, is the border between “here” and “there”.) I know I’ve got the scene right when a reader laughs with a hand over her mouth.

So I was tightening up the first act, getting things shipshape for my final assault on the end, when I got an Idea. Yep, a big ol’ capital-I Idea. A you-can’t-even-see-the-line-in-the-rearview-mirror idea. It turns out we’re not done with Bill’s penis yet. Oh, no. It has work to do.

This sequence must be in the story. Simply no choice. The only problem is, it’s a major change to act two. There’s the big everyone-in-the-room scene that puts the good guys on the run. After discussion with my wise and noble friends in the Kansas Bunch, I concluded that the good guys could not return to the scene. I wrote the novel accordingly. Now Advika and Deek will go back to the basement. It’s a pretty big change.

I thought I was on the home stretch with this adventure. I’ve been planning what next I might inflict on the Kansas Bunch when it comes time for summer camp, but now I’m not nearly as close to done with this draft as I thought. But damn, it’s going to be funny when I get it right.

Writing Writing

Oh, Yeah, that NaNoWriMo Thing

December 3rd, 2012
Another win, but success is measured differently.

Welp, it’s December, and that means another NaNoWriMo under my belt. It was pretty obvious early on that my goal was simply getting my butt into a chair and writing every day, rather than entertain any hope of creating something worth reading. I thought it might also be a chance to interact with some like-minded folk here in the South Bay, and I did a little of that, but not much.

There might be a writing group coming out of it, however. I got a few people worked up on the local message board before I vanished from sight. I need to follow up on that.

I averaged 2500 words a day while I vomited up my November novel. The paragraph that took me over 50K was one in which Cliff Brooks fell from an improbable height, bounced once, and lay still. Killing Cliff Brooks is a local tradition. Before his body was even cold I had turned my attention back to Munchies, and a 600-word-per-day productivity.

Last few days, I haven’t been executing on that. Tonight I’m dedicating my hours to the written word, and I’m still not making progress. But as soon as I’m done with this episode, I’m on it. Really.

Writing Writing

Progress Report from the Pits of NaNoWriMo

November 17th, 2012

I had set a goal for myself to cross the fifty-thousand line tomorrow. It’s going to take some serious typing to make that happen. I’m not optimistic. A couple of days ago I told the light of my life that when I crossed the 50K threshold I’d drop this steamer in mid-sentence and get back to what I should be working on.

My pace has slowed the last couple of days, and it’s a good news/bad news situation. The bad news is that this is still a steaming pile of verbiage and I should be dedicating myself to words elsewhere. Slowing down means another day or two writing words that no one will ever read. The good news is that I finally wrote a scene that measures up to the opening. It needs to be tightened, but I like it.

If you read the little starter bit I posted some time ago, you will recall a character who is lost and alone, known only as Jane Doe. She has no memory of who she is or how she came to be in the hospital. All she knows is that she’s somehow different than the people around her, although common sense dictates that she’s not all that different.

One thing I surprised myself with was how little of the story I’ve told through her point of view. I think the alien is sometimes best expressed through other’s eyes. By moving the frame of reference she becomes more of an enigma. (I don’t think this applies so much in movies; in film we are always observing from outside.)

A couple of nights ago I grew tired of the blah blah blah as people yapped about what to get at the store tomorrow just in case the spinach wasn’t satisfactory (not really but close enough), and I thought about the key moment of the story, when our strange specimen must make a choice. It turns out she was the architect of her own dislocation, so she could be bait and trap both to kill the Really Bad Guy.

But like all elaborate plans, this one doesn’t work out quite the way is was drawn on the chalkboard, even as she must admit that the Really Bad Guy has some valid points. So the other night as I grew weary of steamy Angel-on-Demon sex (actually, there is none of that, despite my best intentions – and now I think I need to have ADD sex and cut away in the middle) and thought about just how this choice Jane must make would manifest. I got an idea that made me happy (it takes about 60 seconds to fall 14,000 feet) an off I went, writing (at last) a scene I could be proud of.

There’s a pretty major gap in the narrative right now, what with them being imprisoned in a house in a nice suburb of Hoboken one moment and falling to their deaths the next, but that’s how things go sometimes. Oh, yeah, there was a dead body on the floor back in Hoboken.

Now I just have to wrap it up with a sweet metaphor and go back in and add 7000 words of steamy sex (or grocery shopping) and 50K is in the bag. Maybe not by tomorrow, though.

Writing Writing

The Attraction of the Procedural

November 11th, 2012
I have realized that there are writers who get paid to write filler.

There’s a general rule in writing, one that probably should go without saying but it is violated regularly. It’s simply this: Everything you write should advance the plot and build your characters. When I criticize my own writing on this metric (which I should do more often), I chunk things by paragraph. Did that paragraph move the plot AND develop character? No? That paragraph’s not working hard enough then.

If Robert Jordan had had a decent editor or some ability to see his own work objectively, his Wheel of Time series might not have spiraled into unreadable disaster, filled with entire chapters of fluff. As the books got thicker, the number of things that actually happened decreased.

Of course, during NaNoWriMo, that metric is thrown out the window. This is about quantity, not quality. It’s perfectly all right to have non-performing paragraphs in a first draft; that’s what revisions are for. Over the last week and a half, I’ve written a lot of non-performing paragraphs. I’m even giving Jordan a run for his money.

I had no intention of writing a procedural, but it turns out I’m writing a lot of scenes that fall into that category. In a procedural, the author liberally sprinkles long passages through the book that are merely lists of things people did. In my case, the procedures are usually medical. First the doctor did this thing, then that thing, then another thing. It’s all very technical and makes the author sound like an expert, but it doesn’t move the story. It’s filler. Filler that procedural fans may enjoy if done well, but the only thing the story would lack without all that detail is page count.

(I’m pretty sure my long scene in which the doctor inserts a tube into the lung of a pneumonia sufferer is ludicrously inaccurate.)

In my limited exposure to procedurals (mostly on TV), all that stuff is used to make a story fit in the expected size. A novella becomes a novel (with a novella-sized plot), a 30-minute drama becomes a 44-minute drama (with 14 minutes of test tubes and music).

Or, in the case of my NaNoWriMo effort this year, 10% plot, 30% procedures, and 60% aimless drifting and tedious conversations about things not germane to the story. (Some of the conversations are interesting, I think, they just aren’t connected to anything.) Not my best November effort. Not by a long shot.

Writing Writing

Hey! I Know Her!

November 8th, 2012
Yeah, I'm name dropping.

I popped over to the Science Fiction Writers Association site ( because my link to the Turkey City Lexicon was out of date, and there was my pal Kij Johnson right in the banner! A fun way to start the day.

Then I typed Kij into the Goog and after I typed the ‘j’ the second suggestion was ‘kij johnson ponies’ and I had to laugh. That story is messed up. And also a Nebula Winner, so there you go.

Writing Writing

NaNoWriMo Update

November 4th, 2012
Off to a start.

Lately it’s been a tradition for me to post the first batch of words I excrete in pursuit of NaNoWriMo glory. I don’t think I’m going to do that this year. For one thing, there’s already a similar story beginning in these pages (although I rewrote it), and, well, it’s just not gaining traction.

I had decided to do Topstar, a lo-tech adventure on an exotic planet, but at the last moment I switched to Gravity, the story of a woman with no past, who just knows she is not like the people around her. At 11:59 Halloween night, it just resonated better. So off I went. The problem with the latter, however, is that although it’s got one really good character, that’s all it has. I’m ahead on word count, but I’m still circling the plot like a prizefighter who has yet throw a punch. Not so great for the audience. So far I’ve been making up characters and throwing them in there to see if magic happens. Nurse: nope. Team of three doctors: nope, nope, nope. Private investigator: nope. There’s still an outside chance for the quiet and thoughtful latino gang leader, but in the end all hope rests on the Biker Cliché Who is Not What He Seems. Because there’s never been an urban fantasy with that guy before.

Words are flowing, however, at a pretty good rate, and that’s the point of this exercise. Get writing momentum back and turn it on Munchies. I’m writing scenes I normally would have trashed mentally before committing them, with a “see what happens, you can always delete it later” attitude. So after 50,000 words I can set this jumble aside and turn my new-found energy back onto the target that really deserves it.

Last night the beer was flowing as well, and I realized at the end of the night that my stacking instincts had kicked in. This photograph may be the most artistic thing I did last night, though the placement of the bottles is too symmetrical for my taste.

Perhaps the most artistic result of NaNoWriMo so far.

Writing Writing

Here Comes November

October 11th, 2012
And we all know what that means...

My current novel is stalled, overwhelmed by the domestic upheaval caused by the loss and reconstruction of a kitchen, a work crunch, and, coming off the crunch, spending too much time playing a computer game that has grabbed my brain.

November is drop-everything-and-write-something month. The timing is either perfect (regaining the write-every-day habit) or terrible (another thing between me and finishing Munchies). I’m taking the optimistic view; at this time last year I was seriously considering bagging NaNoWriMo. It seemed more like a chore than an opportunity, and let’s face it, although there are few out there with longer winning streaks at NaNoWriMo than mine, ultimately it’s not that important.

This year, though, I’m really looking forward to it. I need to get back in the habit, and I need to loosen the hell up and just let the words flow. I need November.

My employer has generously added three paid days off in November, making Thanksgiving holiday an entire week. It’s tempting to travel that week, but really all I want is to bunker in our (hopefully by then) reconstructed house, without construction guys (however friendly) visiting every day, without planning how to shift all the stuff from one room to the next, without having rain change dinner plans, because right now our stove is the barbecue in the backyard. Note that all these inconveniences affect my sweetie much more than they do me, so I can only imagine how frazzled she’s feeling. So, probably ‘no’ to the traveling.

Which means, instead, perfect timing for going 100% literary. Getting my head into story-space, developing characters and maybe even coming up with a plot. And then throwing the fruits of November away and taking that momentum back to Munchies.

I have two ideas tickling my brain, both extensions of little pieces I’ve posted here. Two story seeds. The first is a more developed idea, a solid foundation for an action-adventure yarn on an interesting world. The second is little more than a character sketch, but in my head she could be a really empathetic character. While I have pretty much no idea how the story would go, I do know the final decision she must make.

Both have room for compelling bad guys, which is always a plus. They both have world-building; the first is on a planet entirely unlike our own, while the second would present our world through different eyes. One is about survival and doing what is right, the other is about identity and the nature of good and evil.

Dang! I can’t decide. I don’t have to make up my mind just yet, and it’s a nice problem to have. Last time I had this problem I ended up choosing option three, something that hit me just as October faded into November.

But I’m curious what you guys think. Did either of those two snippets resonate? I read the ‘Gravity’ bit now and mostly see missed opportunities, but the soul of the thing is there.

Writing Writing

22 Rules of Storytelling According to Emma Coates

September 27th, 2012
A few nuggets to think about when building a story.

Emma Coates is a storyboard artist for Pixar. This is a list of storytelling rules and tips she has shared with the world via Twitter. Some of them may seem pretty obvious, but when you take the list as a whole, chances are you’re going to find ways to make your current creative project better.

Here we go!

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

I think the one that I have to watch for more than any other (that’s not to diminish any of them) is #18. I can fuss over a stretch of prose indefinitely. One of the reasons I created Jer’s Novel Writer was to easily mark places where I felt the need to fuss, so I could fuss over them later, and get on with writing. The confidence that I can fuss later allows me to move on.

I also like #9, about making a list of what would not happen next.

I came across this list via a commercial email that credited io9 for collecting the tweets. io9 doesn’t credit anyone else for doing it, so we’ll give them a hearty thumbs-up for the actual labor required to make this list happen.

Writing Writing

Noises Off!

July 20th, 2012
A good movie, with spectacular writing.

I don’t venture into the world of cinema criticism in these muddled pages very often, but a couple of days ago I saw a movie that had me laughing hard even as my brain was expanding outwards at the speed of light from the brilliance of the writing.

It all started when I was advised that a particular scene (or series of scenes) in Munchies needs to be a “Noises Off!” scene. And what is that? It’s a bedroom farce, one of those comedy devices where a small space is filled with a lot of people who don’t know the others are there, going in and out with crackerjack timing. Hilarity ensues. Mel Brooks has made a career off these things. I confessed I had not seen Noises Off!. My peers resolved to remedy that situation.

“Look at all the doors,” someone near me said at the start of the play-within-a-movie. Indeed, there were a lot of doors, and when things are going according to script one door will open the instant another closes, as people come and go through the central room in a spiral of confusion that ends, of course, with ridiculous calamity. We are first introduced to the actors and the play during a very shaky dress rehearsal, and we learn the play (or at least act one), and appreciate the crackling timing of the cast — made especially clear when the timing breaks down.

“Leave the sardines, take the newspaper!” Bellows director Michael Caine at a weary Carol Burnett. Does it really matter that much? I asked myself. But yes it did. The movement of every piece is critical as sardines appear and disappear, suitcases vanish, and confusion escalates. “But why do I take the groceries into the study?” asks an insecure Christopher Reeve. The correct answer is, of course, “it’s a farce and sometimes you skate fast over stuff like that.” But that doesn’t satisfy our actor, and his director must invent some other preposterous motivation. Rehearsal continues.

So by the end of the film’s act one we’ve met a complicated bedroom farce that’s pretty funny on its own. That’s what I’m shooting for in Munchies (substituting lawyer’s office for bedroom, and honestly I don’t know if I have enough moving parts). But here’s where Noises Off really launches. The cast has a lot of drama going on between them offstage, and during one performance the jealousies and misunderstandings lead to utter chaos backstage. There is a second farce, far more complex, with (almost) no dialog at all, since they must be silent backstage. Because they can’t speak, physical situations are misinterpreted and things just get worse. Throw in a bottle of whiskey, a fire axe, bouquets of flowers of steadily diminishing size, and a cactus, all moving from person to person in a tightly choreographed silent movie that matches the beats of the play onstage, overlapping and constrained by which of the many doors people have to go through at a given time, and on top of that create characters that are funny and engaging, and you’ve got my undying admiration.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the next performance doesn’t go as well as that one did. We have a third farce, funny for its complete departure from the original.

The movie was adapted from a stage production, and I’d really like to see that. I think my head would explode watching that whole thing performed in a single take.

Which reminds me that the editor of this film had no room for error, either.

If you’re one of the few English-speaking inhabitants of our fair world who has not seen this flick, give it a go! If you’ve seen it before, you might enjoy it a second time, just to appreciate the brilliant layering of farce upon farce.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a Colombian Emerald and Diamond Ring in 18kt yellow gold), I get a kickback.

Writing Writing

Yes, I’m Still Alive

July 13th, 2012
And kickin'!

Haven’t been posting here for a bit, but it’s for the best possible reason. I’m writing!

I’ve been waking up with my head so filled with my story that I haven’t had the space to record here how much fun I’m having with the Kansas Bunch this summer. I’ll try to catch up with tales of my road trip with the Round Mound of Hound before I forget the little details, but don’t hold your breath.

back to work!

Writing Writing

Pretty Sure the Cyberspace Open is Dead

June 2nd, 2012

It’s too bad; the contest had a lot going for it. One of those things that worked great in theory but not in practice. It’s easy to calculate the cash the organizers reaped (rather a lot), but even though the contest was about meeting deadlines, they could not hit their own.

I once ran a contest at, and as with Cyberspace Open, I promised a thoughtful review to each entrant. Let me tell you, that’s not trivial. Though my reviews were much more detailed, I still only had to do a few of them, and it took forever.

I bitched about the contest even as I participated, but I’m sorry to see it gone. It really was a fun challenge that helped me develop as a writer.

Cyberspace Open had a good run for a few years, before getting crushed by its own popularity. The organizers then added a new marketing element—they got mediocre actors to read the top three entries and let the public vote. Perhaps the contest was already doomed, but that killed it sure. That, and a failure to enforce adherence to their own rules.

I miss the contest. It was right for me. Should it come back, I’d jump in in a heartbeat.