The key to the geekdom.

Posted: January 27, 2012 in Uncategorized

After having a long, involved conversation the other day with a coworker about the advantages of shield-and-sword versus two-weapon combat and the sometimes-infuriating mechanics of rover-based planetary exploration, the pleasure I derived from this particularly geeky chat made me very aware that I have an extraordinary dearth of nerdy friends which share my interests.

Sure, in college I knew a few bonafide nerds, but they were of the more scholarly sort – the underground audiophile, the emotionally conflicted and incohesive poet/anarchist, the manic, cheerfully artistic Casanova. But now that I’m out in the “real world”, I find myself wishing that I knew more people who thought of fighting with foam swords as a fun time, who think that making a fool of yourself with Guitar Hero is a heroic endeavor, people that can define “woot” and who think think arguing the virtues of Star Wars against Star Trek is not an unworthy pursuit. I want to know people who think dressing up and going to conventions is *fun*.

Because the truth is, I’m sort of a closeted geek. I think all of these things – Dungeons and Dragons, cosplay, LARPing, etc… - look like a ridiculously good time, but as a writer the friends I’ve attracted over the years have been pretty weighty in their pursuits, which is okay until your entire life becomes a neverending stream of cynicism and politically-aware snark. My one foray into true geek territory was a solo quest that I made into my local video gaming club a few years back, since I knew not a single soul who would be willing to go with me. I actually recognized several people I went to high school with, watched some anime (which I am on the fence about, depending on what the series is) and battled my way to victory in a vicious Mortal Kombat tournament, even managing to beat the club’s leader, who was flabbergasted to be laid low by a female gamer. I should have warned him that I never enter contests I don’t intend to win. I never went back, but I do remember the evening fondly.

Playstation like a boss.

I need to find more people like that. But in my current line of work, things tend to be on a much more serious bend, and as an extreme introvert it’s difficult for me to push myself into extracirricular activities which earn me the key to the geekdom.

Looks like I’ll have to try harder.

Anyone who has spent any time on any sort of fandom knows that there is a dark side to fans that emerges whenever people come around to try and breathe new life into any given genre or universe.

We’ll call one side of this fandom Ennui, also known as the “OMG-another-one-we’ve-seen-this-done-a-million-times!” faction. These are the people whose resounding battle cry is, “Let it DIE ALREADY.” They are the ones who say, “Ugh, another MMO? We already have WoW, why are you even trying to compete?” They bitch about tired character archetypes and recycled level design maps.

Lest I seem too scathing of this side of the house, let me be the first to say that as soul-sucking as some of this criticism can seem, it serves a valuable purpose in the creation of fictional worlds. Storytelling is a sort of enchantment, really one of the only spell bindings modern man has left (I’d nominate good cooking as a distant second).

One of the reasons that tired writing is dangerous and draws the attention of the Ennui hordes is because it destroys suspension of disbelief. On the one hand, character archetypes are extremely useful for writers – they touch something subconscious in our psyches, if you believe the likes of Jung and Joseph Campbell. Take, for example, the orphan/bastard king (think Alistair Theirin, Aragorn of Arathorn, and Luke Skywalker, to name a few). If it wasn’t a well-loved trope, the theme of everyman rising from obscurity to celebrity would never have survived as long as it has. But in order for it to work, any writer striving to use an archetype or an established setting/character must seek ways to make his character archetypes into real people.

Alistair, Aragorn, and Luke don’t resonate with people because they’re bastard kings – I mean, who can actually relate to that particular life experience? – but because they have been shaped into people who are as real to fans as many of the people who are walking around alive. Luke is the son of an Imperial overlord, but he’s also just a bored teenager who feels trapped in the boondocks of the galaxy – every too-smart kid from BFE, Montana or One-Horse-Town, Alabama can relate. Aragorn is afraid to turn into his father. This strikes a chord with anyone who has ever had a parent who failed them in some vital way, everyone from children of divorce to children of drug addicts. Alistair is afraid of the responsibility that is being asked of him, and doesn’t feel like he is good enough to shoulder the roles that he is expected to uptake. Speaking from personal experience, every English major who has spent years walking in the shadows of the likes of Hemingway and Faulkner and is then thrust into a world after graduation where they may or may not spend the next few years living in a cardboard box or working at Target to pay rent can relate to a heavy legacy that one may or may not be able to take on.

In short, the best antidote for fan ennui is realism. Your characters cannot feel like cardboard standups and your settings cannot feel like Hollywood sets. They must have backstory, historical significance, favorite foods, popular culture, and – most importantly – a universe-specific conflict which drives them to continue the hero’s journey through whatever landscape they happen to be traversing, preferably with some moral ambiguity thrown in for good measure. Every hero must have moments of weakness, every villain moments of grace. These are the things that turn good stories into legendary ones.

The other side of this fandom equation is the people who believe that the universe was just fine the way it was, thankyouverymuch, and any attempts to extrapolate are akin to heresy. We’ll call these folks Purists, for lack of a more politically correct term. For these people, every Star Wars movie past the first three are blasphemy, no Lord of the Rings movie should ever have been made without mention of Tom Bombadil, and heaven forbid you ever write a sentence which might be either scientifically unsound or unbacked by wheelbarrows of lore-based research, because if you publish that sentence you’re getting a letter about it, by-gods.

These people also have their purpose, because for better or worse, these are your Die Hard Fans(tm). The folks who will stand outside a theater for days to get tickets, the ones who can give you the planetary specs of every sky-ball Shepard ever visited in Mass Effect, and could give an hour lecture on the genealogy of Westeros nobility. These folks will be buying your story when Ennui kids have already gotten bored and went home to play Call of Duty.

Purists are the antidotes to your plot holes and your deux ex machinas. Purists will not let you cheat, you dirty bird, and in that regard, they will make your writing better if you let them. They force you to go back to your backstory, searching for ways that you can make it deeper, and as a result, bring even more emotional resonance and realism to your story. They are the driving force behind worldbuilding. And if you spellbind them, they will be reading your stories and preaching – at length – about the glories of the world you built long after those driven by novelty have forgotten what made your world so great in the first place.

1. When someone in Mexico asks you if you want some tequila, the answer is always a resounding, “Si.”
2. Iguanas are much better behaved as handbags.
3. Just because a buffet is “all you can eat” does not mean that you should do it. Americans, put down the fork, for the love of God.
4. If I could pick a superpower, it would be to have gills and live underwater.
5. The most introverted person in the room will always be the person singled out for entertainment of the masses in audience participation scenarios.
6. Just because gratuity is only “encouraged” doesn’t give you the license to be a cheapass motherf*cker .
7. Sunsets and sunrises are much more picturesque over the open sea.
8. An elevator that says it has an 18 person capacity is only talking about people from the land of Oz. Not your average great white American tourist. Of that sort, it will probably fit six.
9. All-inclusive beach resorts are the shit. As is any magical location where you can swim up to the bar and order free shots from hot Latin cabana boys.
10. It is always Halloween in the French Quarter. No exceptions.
11. NOPD will hand-deliver your lost wallet if you were smart enough to put your hotel key in it. Po-po, you’re A-OK in my book.
12. Some drunk people are incredibly fun. Some drunk people are incredibly annoying. As most of the people on a cruiseliner are somewhere on the line between buzzed and shellacked a majority of the time, you’ll run into a delightful mixture of both types.
13. Do not write fiction on a cruise ship unless you want several people coming up to you asking you why you’re doing your homework on vacation.
14. Milk + Malibu rum = the most delicious White Russian ever. Chocolate milk and Malibu? Devastatingly good.
15. Customs brings out everyone’s inner smuggler.
16. Doing the Cha Cha Slide on the dance floor in stiletto hooker boots is difficult, but impressive if you can manage to pull it off.
17. Ugly crossdressing men will always win Halloween costume contests. The more ridiculous looking the better. Always. And I support them, because that shit is hilarious.
18. Pack light. No, seriously. Like, 75% less than you would otherwise anticipate wearing.
19. If you are the brother of the president in Honduras, you can probably get your own village.
20. If you insist on haggling in Honduras, you must do so completely naked.*
21. The more fancy the food, the less of it you’re going to get.
22. Twenty people learning the dance moves from Thriller has the capacity to entertain an auditorium of two hundred people for an hour.
23. Always opt for a balcony – it’s the best part.
24. Talk of sinking ships, disappearing ships, or the Bermuda Triangle (especially if one finds oneself in the middle of said area) makes people on a ship uncomfortable, even when the talk is hypothetical.
25. Get up off of that thing, and dance ‘til you feel better. 

*  Note: Indecent exposure is a crime in Honduras.

Alrighty, I’m battening down the hatches and getting ready to leave the country, but I thought I’d leave a new chapter up on We are the Weapon first, seeing as I’m going to be incommunicado for the rest of the month. It’s an especially long one, so hopefully it’ll suck you in/hold you guys over until I get back.

Here’s the link to the new chapter, “glitterland”: We Are The Weapon, Chapter 4: glitterland

See you in November!

Yeah, sorry for the long time between posts, real life intruded and I’m a lazy attention-deficit bastard. My sincerest apologies. But here’s the updates that have gone down in my absence:

- I’m now publishing a serial horror novella called Everybody But Lazarus in the online literary magazine Tales of the Zombie War, which recently posted my intro to that story here: Everybody But Lazarus – Living Dead Girl. If you’re into horror, zombies, etc…you might want to check that one out. I’m in revisions on the second chapter, which I thought had been lost to hand-scribbled oblivion in the span of time it took TotZW to post the first chapter, but thankfully I DID end up typing the second chapter out and backing it up online. Yay for technology. And zombies.

- I’m going to be out of the country from 22 October through 2 November, so I’m about to drop off the face of the planet again, at least for a little while, so I can drink some mai tais and generally recover from life. Hopefully when I get back I will be able to get into some kind of a more regular weekly posting schedule. I’m thinking one Weapon post a week and at least one Salt over Shoulder post, probably an essay about the publication business or a movie review or whatever other rave du jour I can come up with.

That’s all I got for now folks. Hopefully I’ll be able to get a few more good posts up on here this week, as well as catch up on some of the writer/literary blogs I’ve been neglecting on my to-read list. ‘Til next time!

I was googling Stephenie Meyer and bad writer (don’t ask me why) and came across a question on Yahoo Questions where someone had asked why Meyer was considered a bad writer by some people, and that the questioner considered her to be amazingly talented, brilliant, blah blah blah. A responder (known only to me as the mysterious Una M) stated it perfectly in her rebuttal - if you can’t look at an excerpt from Dickens and an excerpt from Meyer and see the difference, you’re part of the problem.

‘I sat frozen in my seat, staring blankly after him. He was so mean. It wasn’t fair. I began gathering up my things slowly, trying to block the anger that filled me, for fear my eyes would tear up. For some reason, my temper was hardwired to my tear ducts. I usually cried when I was angry, a humiliating tendency.’ (Twilight)

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’ (A Tale of Two Cities)

Can everyone write like Dickens? Of course not. Should they aspire to? Fuck yes they should. That is the point.

Speaking of points…

If it isn’t blatantly obvious by the title of this post, I’m going to get on my soapbox for a bit on why I am so totally appalled and mind-boggled by the Twilight phenomenon. (Disclaimer: If you are a rabid Twilight fan incapable of discussing the novels in any kind of objective fashion, leave now before you’re traumatized. You have been warned.)

If you have been living under a rock on the other side of the Milky Way, you might be unacquainted with this particular work of fiction. If so, I’m going to assume you have access to Google just like everyone else. I’ll wait.

*waits*

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, here are my biggest issues with Meyer’s series:

The writing is bad, okay? It’s just bad. But Kellye! I can hear you say. A gazillion readers can’t be wrong! And anyway, there are tons of books out there that are just as badly written as Twilight, and you don’t hold them to some ridiculous standard of competent writing! 

A: Actually, as an editor I do hold authors to high standards of literary competence (and maybe unfairly so – when you spend ten plus years of your life studying literature, it kind of ruins pulp fiction for you). While there are thousands of books out there that are published and poorly written, they typically languish in the midlists or on remainder tables. As Twilight, by all sane accounts, should have, because that is the level of competency it hits, both in terms of prose and the power of the story itself. But it didn’t – it became a blockbuster breakout smash with a multi-movie deal and a comic book and the hits just keep on coming. As such, I keep expecting the dead to rise from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria.

Also, there is something to be said for building on the canon that other writers have set up in genre fiction. (There is also something to be said for breaking out of that canon, but that’s the subject for another post.) Meyer does do something unique with her vampires and werewolves who captivated the imagination of millions – unfortunately, her “new take” on vampires missed the mark for me. This is probably more of a personal issue than anything else, because I’m a horror writer and because I have been reading vampire fiction for a long time. Meyer’s take on vampires and werewolves is overwhelmingly juvenile and unrealistic, given the canon. In any case, I do not associate “sparkly” with vampires, and am offended in the name of all the ravenous undead for their depiction in this manner. When I think of vampires, I think of bloodthirsty demons of the night. I want John Steakley and Stephen King. Hell, if I want my vampires a little…well…gay, I’ll go to Anne Rice or Poppy Z. Brite. But I do not want a sparkly, sniping uber-teen who is a “vegetarian”. Thirteen-year-old girls may prefer the Prince Charming version of the vampire tale, but luckily they don’t set the bar for what makes good literature – they just (apparently) set the bar for what gets published and consumed by the masses.

^ Reasonable portrayal of vampire. Notice lack of sparkles and foot-like countenance (I’m looking at you, Pattinson).

Finally, speaking of suspension of disbelief, Bella and Edward are two of the worst protagonists I have seen in a novel in a long time. Bella is underdeveloped, basically acting as a shell for the reader to project on (which works really well to emotionally manipulate romantics and thirteen-year-old girls). She’s obnoxiously dependent on Edward, even though he spends half his time being cruel or distant towards her (that’s a really good message to push on our impressionable young women). She is the epitome of a Mary Sue, which is (via Wikipedia) a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. Why is this important? Because Meyer wrote a novel with a wish-fulfillment protagonist in a really grim, harrowing time period for people across the world (and for Americans in particular). As such, Americans are especially susceptible to “wish-fulfillment” fantasy these days, as the runaway success of several escapist narratives lately will tell you. What does that say? It says that Twilight might not be the best book around (might being a laughable understatement) but it is filling an emotional want for a lot of people.

I just happen to be of the opinion that what you want and what you need are two different things.

Basically, in a nutshell, I blame Twilight for the death of Michael Jackson, the recession, and the devolution of literature at large. However, here are a couple of vampire stories I would recommend:

Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. Hamilton (and her other Anita Blake novels)
Lost Souls by Poppy Z. Brite
Five of Cups by Caitlin R. Kiernan
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Vampire$: A Novel by John Steakley
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice
30 Days of Night by Steve Niles

^ Out of this list, I’d have to say Five of Cups and Lost Souls are the best of the lot, even beating out my beloved King. And that’s saying a lot. 

PS: Team Jacob.


#1:
groves
genie
drunk
greedy
merrier
menthol
dream
roof

#2:
beanies
gentle
alienate
gauges
bohemian
fedora
raison
froze
dozer
wild
jibed
facet
antsy
saith
tweak
cup
tide
door
lope

#3:
divines
wrest
bagger
enable
intuit
falcon
healer
thunk
about
merry
joust
opposite
raze
oxen
towed 
add
ire
anime
abuse
qui
fled

#4:
crag
bray
punk
idle
thaw
howl
pates
petunia
daze
nieve
lait
fobs
pi
ole

qi
coaxes
brays
idle
jinxes
to

I could teach you, but I must levy a fee.

People have eyes of a tongue, is the observation times for the sake of talking.

My writer-friend and roommate Roy Dequeant just found out that most of the comments he has been receiving on his poetry blog over at Blogspot are, for better or worse, Asian robots. This revelation both amused and saddened me, for a couple of reasons:

1) Dequeant is a talented poet who deserves actual literary-minded people reading and commenting on his work.

2) The comments the Asian spam-bots are leaving, once translated, are very fortune-cookie-esque, things like: “Maturity is the ability to adapt to life in the vague.” This pleases me. What was even funnier about this was that we have been trying to apply these comments to the poetry and figure out what the commenters were trying to say.

3) In my head, all of these Chinese commenters were hackers from Beyond The Great Cyber-Wall, braving labor camps and Communist oppression to read my buddy’s free verse. It was very romantic and intriguing and goddamnit, I still haven’t given up on this premise yet.

In any case, here is one of Dequeant’s most recent poems, conceived on a cross-country Greyhound trip a few weeks back:

“Preaching Appreciation”

She grew up in the Congo, man
She like to get naked
And fuck
On baseball fields
Or the side of the road
Anywhere really
I loved that girl
His glazed over eyes
From recent encounters
With the local kids
Filled with tears
That fled to the corners
And dribbled down
A stubbled mess
Quiet and man-like
Like the men that wrote
The book in my hand
While cowering in foxholes
Go home, man
And hug your mama
Tell her you love her
That’s all there is
Love, man
Love 

(See more of Dequeant’s prolific work and comment here at The Musings of an Alabaman Barista – http://pissibaobao.blogspot.com/)

 

Me and the roomie started watching The Matrix this morning, and man has it been a long time since I’ve seen this film. I only got to watch part of it before leaving for work, but I’ll go ahead and post my literary-related notes from this morning with regards to the movie. (NOTE: There might be spoilers in this review – fair warning. This movie came out over ten years ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, you probably aren’t going to.)

Notes:

- The Matrix starts out in media res – for those of you who don’t know what that means, it’s Latin for “in the middle”, and frankly, it’s the perfect literary technique for our spastic ADD generation, many of whom have the attention span of a ferret on crack. In media res is a quick way to hook your readers in with a quickly laid sense of setting and an introductory shot of suspense and/or conflict before they’ve had a chance to bond with the main character (or lose interest).

- Trinity is, from the get-go, a strong female character, which I really like. Some writers have the tendency to cast their main characters as strong, self-confident men and their secondary female characters as weak or dependent. (If you want a good example of this obnoxious phenomenon, see Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom or any of several different police and medical dramas on cable.)

- The movie starts out at a high octane pace and keeps it up. Action is very important in fiction, even if it’s not physical action. From the very first line and the very first scene, conflict should be high – if there is no physical action, the character’s mind should be taking great bounds on the page.

- Introduce your villains quickly, and build them up from the beginning. Lots of writers suffer from the syndrome of having a hero that has been lovingly built up and an underwritten villain. Let the protagonist and antagonist grow and develop alongside each other in a narrative, so that your villain feels like just as much of a real person as your hero does. Otherwise, you are damaging your suspension of disbelief. To have bigger-than-life characters, you must maintain suspension of disbelief.

- Disorientation: Neo as the main character is jerked very abruptly out of his normal world. With regard to Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, this would be considered The Ordinary World/Hero at Home act of a classic literary quest. Even after several frightening encounters with the alternative world of the Matrix and the Agents who guard it, Neo is very resistant to the idea that he is a messiah, which correlates well with the next phase of the Hero’s Journey, Refusal of the Call.

- Neo is very defiant towards authority. Personally, that’s a trait I love in heroes, and it’s a good one to have, as it brings with it an inherent amount of conflict right from the start.

- I would almost consider The Matrix to be a Lovecraftian techno-thriller. Why?
   a) Its obsession with semi-gelatinous textures as a horror trope.
   b) Neo is a detached and intelligent hero.
   c) Helplessness. The entire situation that humanity faces in the premise of The Matrix is fairly hopeless – the battle against artificial intelligence is all but lost, and remaining humanity is down to relying on prophecy for their salvation. However, in fiction this kind of hopeless situation is useful, because it locks in your main character. After leaving the Matrix, Neo has no choice but to come to terms with the “world behind the world”…
    d) Mystery – Neo spends the entire first part of this movie just trying to figure out what’s going on – his unanswered questions are a steady driving force within the story. The knowledge he gains is also forbidden knowledge, which is even more interesting to the audience, as is the suggestion that “some people just aren’t ready to be unplugged” and the implication that they would go insane if they were stripped from the Matrix improperly. 

- In relation to d) of the previous note, somebody knows what’s going on. This is nice – it is a promise to the audience that they will get this information soon. They look forward to hearing more about the Matrix. This is the suspense people.

- Intense secondary characters: Your main character needs a foil; secondary characters are great for providing humor (in the form of banter), conflict (in the form of arguments), information exchanged in dialogue, and physical/emotional support to the beleaguered hero. Everyone needs a sidekick or two.

Verdict: Five out of five salt shakes, I’m not going to even pretend impartiality on this one – definitely one of my favorite movies of the last twenty years.