In poor faith

I recently took an online IQ test.  It was actually pretty interesting, with some of the questions being absurdly easy and others being absurdly difficult.  After a good half hour or so spent staring at puzzles, trying to find patterns, with varying degrees of success, I got to the end page and was informed that they now had my IQ.

And it would only cost me ten bucks to get it from them.

Now, here’s the thing, I don’t really have ten dollars to spare.  Let’s be honest, I don’t have five bucks to spare.  I mean, I’ve got a little bit of money here and a little bit there, but none of it is free.  I’ve got bills.  I’ve got lots of bills and very little money coming in.  I need that cash.

But after half an hour of work, i was invested in it.  I wanted that damned score!  So I used money that was supposed be set aside for bills.

Honestly, if those assholes took off a few points for everyone who agreed to pay for their score, I wouldn’t blame them.

But the thing that bothers me is that it was a move made in bad faith.  And it’s so common that I feel a little silly having been taken in by it.

I remember an episode of Southpark where the parents get suckered into a ‘free weekend’ at an Aspen resort, in exchange for listening to a thirty minute seminar.  The thirty minute seminar turns into days trapped in a room being advertised at.

Essentially, this happens all the time.  We’re tricked into investing our time and energy, our hopes and dreams, a little piece of ourselves into something with the understanding that we’ll get something pleasant in return.  Then, after we’re invested, they add on the monetary price tag.  So you’re faced with the frustrating decision of declaring what you’ve already put into it as wasted, or investing just a little bit more.  And let’s face it, money doesn’t FEEL like it’s as valuable as time.  Sure, when you get a job you sell off your hours, and sometimes you sell them for what feels like a rather steep discount, but emotionally, when you hold up a ten dollar bill and compare that to, say, half an hour of your time, the money SEEMS like it should be worth less.

Part of me feels like this is a lesson in sales tactics.  Perhaps I should find a way to use this knowledge to trick people into buying my books.  But a larger part of me is just offended that trickery is used in this way.  It’s an asshole move, and everyone involved knows it.  But dammit, it gets the job done.

After all, I spent ten dollars to find out that I have an approximate IQ of 129.  I’d hoped it was higher, but, let’s be honest here, if I was smarter I wouldn’t have taken the damned thing to begin with.


Thanks for sharing, now please stop

The other day an older relative of mine came up to me and told me that he had an idea for a book.

I smiled politely, listened to the idea, and tried to give him the impression that I appreciated the idea and would certainly keep it in mind for the future.

I’ve already forgotten the idea.

I’m sure that it happens in all of the arts, people coming up and telling you what you should do next, but I honestly think that it’s worse for the storytellers.  Whether you write books, plays, movies, commercials… whatever it is that you do, everybody, an I mean everybody, has at least one idea for that medium that they think is pure gold.

Here’s the thing people: your idea might very well be brilliant!  It might be the greatest story idea that anybody has ever come up with in the history of mankind.  It doesn’t matter.  I don’t want to write your story for you.  In a few select cases, for very close friends or people in the industry, I might be willing to try writing a story with you, but by god, I’m not going to make that journey on my own.


Because the idea is the easy part!

Yes, you heard me right, the idea is the easy part.  I know you’re skeptical.  You’ve read books based on stupid ideas, you’ve watched movies where the plot is so thin it would fall apart if you blew your nose on it.  There are plenty of terrible ideas that somehow come into the light of day.  Given.

But it’s still the easiest part of the process.

I’ve got plenty of ideas.  I could spend the rest of my life writing the books that are currently sitting in my mental queue.  Okay, maybe not the rest of my life, but well over a decade, trust me on this.

The hard part of telling a story isn’t the idea, it’s bringing the idea to life.  The reason writers go to conferences and read books and join critique groups and hire editors has nothing to do with fixing our ideas or making them better: It’s all about getting what’s in our head onto the page in such a way that somebody else can appreciate it!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that my relative knows that I’m a writer and wants to talk to me about the things that I’m interested in.  I’m happy that when he thinks about books and stories he thinks about me and wants to be included in that part of my life.

But I do rather wish that every time we talked he wasn’t trying to put a new project on my plate.

A little game…

A few years back I was at a writer’s conference.  One of the local writers got up on stage and started talking about how awesome our speaker was, great person, etc etc, amazing writer, etc etc.  Finally she introduced the author, ‘so and so smith, author of X,Y, and Z.’

As I listened, it occurred to me that if one were a little bit creative, an author might manage to put together a portfolio to make their introduction all the more entertaining.

My first idea was to write a couple of novellas or short stories that i could entitle, ‘the only book that matters,’ and ‘Other works of genius.’

If I ever do write those stories and publish them, even if they’re the least popular things I ever put out in my life, you can be damned sure that I’m going to insist on being identified by those books when I get introduced.

What about you?  Any ideas on what works would make for a great introduction for you?

The art of the Short Story

For years I struggled, and failed, to write short stories.  I’d come up with a good idea (well, they sure seemed like good ideas at the time), I’d start writing, and suddenly I’d realize that I had another novel on my hand.  I mean, I never finished them, but my difficulties with finishing books are for another day.  Let’s try to stay on point here, people.

Basically, I’d start writing the story, and suddenly I’d realize that I was ten pages in and I hadn’t even gotten to the story, yet, I was still basically just describing the ‘ordinary world.’  Or, if I did manage to get right into the actual meat of the story, I’d realize that the really interesting bit was what happened after the story that I wanted to tell.  Or I’d fall in love with a character and want to tell all about them….

It wasn’t actually a problem, at the time, I was still in grade school at the time, even if I had managed to finish a short story, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it, and it sure as hell wouldn’t have been accepted anywhere.

I’m not going to claim that I’ve perfected the art of writing short stories since then, but I am happy to say that I’ve gotten a lot better at it over the years.  I’ve written around sixty short stories in the past couple of years, and I’ve published about a dozen of them, which isn’t an earth shattering number, obviously, but I’m proud to have gotten that done.

I don’t know how common this problem is, being unable to limit yourself to a short story when you know that you have so much to write, but I have talked to a couple of people who’ve been through it as well, so I’d like to share a couple of things that have worked for me in the past.

The first trick I’ve found involves writing about characters that I have in other books.  One of the big problems for me is that, when I start a short story, I often find that I create a huge world behind it.  In order to make the characters ‘on screen’ three dimensional, I give them backstories, reasons for their insanities, and I want to explain that.  If I have a book, or a series of books in the works with those same characters in them, then I can set aside the unnecessary explanations.  I don’t need to introduce all of the people in their life, or all of their idiosyncracies.  The character is fixed in my head the universe is established, and I can focus on the story.

The second trick I use is what I call the trick trick.  I take an idea, some sort of kooky, off the wall  writing style idea, and I write it like that.  My favorite example is writing the entire story as a one sided dialogue.  I’ve read it a couple of times, and I love it.  It’s tricky to do, because you have to phrase things in such a way that you convey what was said, or what just happened.  But that’s the point.  Writing everything as one side of a conversation, and creating a meaningful story out of that takes concentration and energy, so you find yourself needing to close up the story sooner.  It has the added benefit of stretching you as a writer, and helping you figure out how to pull off similar things on a smaller scale when you’re writing a novel.

The third trick is the emotion trick.  Basically, for me, these stories are about finding a specific instant within a story, and focusing on the emotion of it.  Whether it’s a soldier who is about to sacrifice himself to save his platoon, or a victim who has just discovered that he is in the clutches of a serial killer, or an old woman with dementia who is trying to figure out why she’s in a house with all of these unknown, but kind people, the point of the writing isn’t to tell a story, it’s to evoke a reaction in the reader.  In the course of creating that emotion, you do in fact tell a story, but the story is incidental to the emotion.  And since, in longer works, you have to have rising and falling emotions, you find yourself limited in how long you can make this particular work.


Okay, I kind of meandered away from what I really wanted to talk about in my last post.  The thing that really and truly and honestly bothers me when I’m watching Humans on AMC is the sexual prudishness.

Let me start by saying, once you install an artificial intelligence into a machine, yes, that thing should have rights, it should be treated with respect, that’s a given.

But here’s the thing: in the show, the vast majority of humanity believes, and rightly so, that the synths are just machines.  As such, there is no reason to afford them any kind of respect.  So when somebody who owns a sex sets it on ‘adult mode,’ I fail to see how that is any different than using a sex toy.

Similarly, when a bunch of idiots get together and smash synths, as long as they own the synths, it shouldn’t be illegal.  That being said, I think that getting together to break and destroy things that look like people might be a good indicator of a mental problem, and I will agree that children using synths in a sexual way is inappropriate and should not be allowed.

My problem is basically that the tone the show seems to take is that people are abusing these poor synths, when in point of fact, this is only the case when they are interacting with one of the synths who happens to be aware, and as those synths are in hiding, it’s hard to get too mad at people for that.

Similarly, I recall the scene in the robot brothel where the guy wants Niska to act afraid of him, he wants to abuse her.  Again, there is little doubt that the man has issues, but let’s face it, I’d rather him going to brothels inhabited by non-human, non-feeling entities to get off than taking his fantasies into the real world.  Admittedly, it might be part of a progression on his part, he might be a few days away from moving out into the real world for a bigger thrill, but that’s not the point right now.  The point is that giving rights and whatnot to an AI because it is intelligent, capable of feeling, capable of learning, etc, is a VERY DIFFERENT THING than giving rights to a machine because it happens to look like us.  that’s what’s driving me nuts.

Annoyed by a theme

I’ve been watching the AMC series Humans, and, for the most part, I’m enjoying it a great deal.  There are a few things that I wish that they would do differently, and a few things which see to come up quite often in this genre that kind of annoy me.

So one of the big things that seems to come up in stories like these is that the creation of things that look convincingly human is associated with the creation of things that are essentially self aware.  This bothers me for a number of reasons, the most pressing of which is that the two are completely unrelated.  I understand that this is something being explored in the series in question.  But what bothers me is how common this is.  Somebody makes a lifelike machine, which acts like people do, and suddenly it starts thinking for itself.  It’s like people think that behavior precedes reason, and once it matches its behavior to us, inevitably its mind will start to be shaped by that.

I also am frustrated by the fact that in so many of these stories, once they start to think for themselves and reason for themselves, they become so very much like us.  It’s true, in trying to create an artificial consciousness we will inevitably base its reasoning patterns on our own, but given the fact that it is, on a fundamental level, not the same as us, I think it’s also inevitable that it would not function the same way we do.  Getting angry about the same things that would anger us if we experienced them, and viewing our behavior by the same standards that we use is, I think fundamentally flawed.

I guess what I’m saying is that, someday, I want to write a story where artificial humans are created but have absolutely nothing in their programming which makes them more than utilities, while vast and powerful artificial intelligences are running the world based on guidelines and reasoning that is so foreign to us as to be virtually incomprehensible.  Chances are good that somebody has already written that book, but I haven’t read it yet.

How much realism is too much realism?

So there’s a science fiction story that I kind of want to work on that involves a crew living in a stellar system where a large number of the planets and moons have been terraformed.

Brief sidenote, I found out recently, the reason our solar system is a solar system is because our sun’s name is sol.  So if you’re in another stellar system you apparently either have to call it a stellar system, or use whatever name it has.  I’m currently planning on their sun Luyt, thus making it a luytar system, but I digress.

Anyhow, one of the things that’s frustrating me is determining the weather on these worlds.  I mean, in order to have them survivable I’m just basically going to pretend like humans come up with some kind of system of custom building atmospheres so if you live closer to the sun, it reflects and refracts a lot of the light, and if you live a long way off, they build up the greenhouse gasses to keep as much heat as possible in the atmosphere.  I’m willing to make that leap, or more accurately I’m wiling to assume that my readers will take that leap of faith with me.  But even so,there are questions that need to be answered, like what would the sky look like on a world that has to block out that much sunlight?  Probably opaque and light colored?

But let’s forget about that, the big question, the one that’s driving me nuts, is what life would be like on a moon.  First off, it’s going to spend half its time behind the planet it’s orbiting.  It won’t necessarily be hidden from the sun for all of that, but for some of it, certainly.  Especially if it’s orbiting, let’s say, a gas giant.  And what would the weather and seasons be like?  The earth tilts back and forth creating the seasons, right?  So what would a moon do?  it would tilt even more because of its planet, but it would also be moving closer and farther from the sun as it circles the planet.  Would that make it notably hotter and notably colder, or is the only important question how much sunlight it’s getting?

Part of me wants to ignore these things.  I certainly haven’t read anything about it in any other books I’ve come across, and even if i do figure this out, I’m honestly not sure if it will play a part in the story i want to write, but dammit, it could be incredibly important!  And how the hell do you find something like that out?!

The unreliable narrator

In my ‘Corpse-Eater Saga,’ I wanted to push myself a bit with my writing.  I try to do that as often as I can.  In this case I did a couple of things that I don’t normally do.  The first thing I did was give myself a narrator who relies less on his eyesight than the rest of us.  That has actually been much harder for me to handle than you’d think.  Recently i went back over book one and I found several things I should have done differently if I really wanted to make that detail stick.

But the other thing I did, the thing that I want to contemplate right now, is use an unreliable narrator.

As a rule, the unreliable narrator is not my favorite tool.  Mostly it goes back to my own gullibility.  As a rule, when somebody tells me something, my first instinct is to believe them.  Even after having been lied to many times, and having discovered that I was given an obscenely one-sided story, when I talk to people and they tell something, I have to make a concerted effort not to assume that their recitation is the literal truth.

I have used unreliable narrators before, particularly in short stories.  Having someone who is misinformed or unable to perceive the truth of a particular situation is quite useful for twist endings.  But in ‘Awfully Appetizing,’ I am trying for something a bit subtler with my character.  I’m trying to write the story of somebody who is dishonest with himself.  Giving quiet hints that his perception of the world is skewed has proven more difficult than I anticipated.

Part of the problem may be that I’m going for something a little bit too subtle.  Or maybe he’s not dishonest enough with himself.  Is he really an unreliable narrator, or is he just uncertain?

Maybe I failed to make him unreliable and only made him conflicted.

One of the tricky things when you’re looking at writing a series is that it’s hard to maintain what you perceive as a flaw in your narrator over the course of years and years, and books and books.  You see the flaws in them so clearly, you can’t imagine how they could completely miss it in themselves.

Well, if that’s the case, at least he should pick up some of my own personal flaws, the ones that I’m blind to.

Starting at Zero

Have you ever gone to a movie and realized about halfway through that the jackass who made the trailer for it spoiled one of the major plot points?  One of my favorite examples is The Sixth Sense, where the creepy kid confides ‘I see dead people,’ in the trailer, a very important plot twist that doesn’t come until about halfway through the movie.

Well, the same sort of thing can happen in books.  I’ve had, on multiple occasions, found myself a chapter or two into a book when I suddenly realize that the author wanted to spring something on me that I knew going in.  Perhaps it’s the fact that the novel is set on a spaceship traveling to a new solar system.  The first few chapters take place on a farm, so when we get to the end of a chapter and the boy is peering through the glass dome and realizes that he’s out amongst the stars, it’s supposed to take our breath away.

It’s a little hard to be surprised by that revelation, though, when the cover of the book shows a spaceship that happens to have a giant dome on its back and what appears to be a continent within it.

Similarly, the scene where the kindly old professor reveals himself to be a bloodthirsty vampire is just a bit less of a shocker when the cover shows me an old man grinning to reveal two impressive fangs.

Not to mention everything that a back cover can give away.

Part of the problem is where the control over these things lies.  If a writer has final say on a book cover and jacket blurb, he’s got a good chance of getting out ahead of these problems.  But if the publisher isn’t interested in feedback and just wants to rush the manuscript through their machine and get it out in the world, things can be a bit more complicated.

But even if the writer does have control over these things, it can be tricky figuring out how to market certain stories without giving things away.  Take that story about the farmer who discovers he isn’t on a world, but on a spaceship.  If that revelation is in chapter two, then presumably most of the book is a science fiction story.  How do you hide what it’s about, while making certain that the appropriate audience reads your book?

It’s a conundrum.  And something to think about.

The price of power

So, I think that one of the problems that I have with so many books and movies and television shows these days is that the writers often forget that power should always come with some kind of price tag.  More than that, though, that the price should be, both related to the power it accompanies, and somehow similar in scale.

One of the most annoying things I find in vampire literature is when the only downside to becoming a vampire is that you get all whiny.  I’ve read a few books like that.  The main character bemoans his status and considers himself damned, but has a totally manageable bloodlust, a slight aversion to sunlight, and is completely unaffected by articles of faith.

One of my favorite examples of the cost of power properly associated with the degree of power is in Firefly.  You have the Captain, whose skill and resolve are the result of having the joy and hope beaten out of him over the course of a long and miserable war.  Zoe, the consummate soldier, is incapable of shedding her attachment to military formality.  She MUST obey her captain.  She MUST hide her emotions.  Then there’s the doctor, who has dedicated himself so fully to his practice that he is barely functional outside of a hospital.  He is constantly putting his foot in his mouth, constantly unable to relate, but dammit he’s brilliant.

You can go down the list, and each and every character has a greatness associated with them, that has also cost them in some way.  And the most powerful character, River, is also the most flawed, being, depending on how you view her, either completely nuts, or one hundred percent sane.  Either way it amounts to the same thing, and makes her as much of a liability is she is an asset.