Thursday, September 29, 2011

Give Us Someone to Root For

So I've been watching the show "Revenge" on ABC. The second episode aired last night, and I have to say, though it looked preposterously stupid from the advertisements, I've been pleasantly surprised at the high level of storytelling going on. And the acting ain't half bad either. There's only one problem: everyone sucks.

Let me explain.

The premise is simple: twenty or so years ago, a little girl named Amanda Clarke, who lived an idyllic life couched in the lap of Hampton's luxury, watched as the feds raided their beachfront home and dragged her father to jail. He was hung out to dry by powerful friends, dying a solitary death in prison. Now, his grown-up little girl, who re-named herself Emily Thorne (an excellent Emily VanCamp), has returned to the Hamptons to exact revenge on the gang of super-wealthy elites who robbed her of her father.

Her dad left her a fortune somehow or other (details are slowly being revealed each episode), and she's just closed on a beach house situated next door to the richest of the rich, the queen bee-ist of the queen bees of Hamptons society, Victoria Grayson (a steely Madeleine Stowe). All sorts of strange and slick characters cross in and out of Emily's days in the beachfront town, most of whom are on her blacklist. At least once per episode so far, she has begun destroying her enemies in spectacular fashion.

The only problem I have with the show (besides the fact that we don't really have time to become acquainted with characters before she starts ruining their lives (an exigency required by TV audience attention-spans no doubt)) is that there's no one to root for. We see all of the town's residents--nice and swarthy alike--as Emily sees them: as chess pieces to be manipulated.

You want Emily to get her revenge on the mega-billionaires, of course, because we all want to watch billionaires squirm a little these days. And added to that, they threw her dad under about five double-decker buses. And sure, it would be nice if she and the little boy she used to pal around with as a kid who grew up to be an honest, blue collar restaurant owner's son (Nick Wechsler) got together, and if the guy could save his dad's restaurant from bankruptcy.

But honestly, I hate just about everyone on the show.

And this brings up an important lesson for writers. You can do anything you want, it's a free country, but when I'm reading a book, I need someone to root for. I have to like them, and my values have to be aligned with theirs on some level, and they have to be fairly central to the book/story.

Otherwise, why am I reading the book? I don't think I have much to learn much from, say, oh I don't know, a person hell-bent on excoriating everyone who ever looked at her the wrong way. It's the same question I'm asking right now about "Revenge": do I really, in the end, care if this woman ruins a bunch of people's lives and careers? It won't bring her dad back, and it will probably feel hollow to her, having wreaked so much havoc. Or maybe not, but should she be admired if she actually enjoys stepping on people's jugulars?

Part of what the producers are banking on, I'm guessing, is that people are so sick of Wall Street that they'll love watching investment bankers and high-society floozies get what's coming to them. Meh. I don't obsess about the idiots in the Battery any more than I obsess about an asteroid someday hitting the Earth. Sure, I hate them on the same level, but whatever.

At any rate, my advice to you is to not make your main characters so destructive that they have very little room for humanity. Emily looked on as a group of bullies eviscerated her father. I wish she'd grown up to found a charity in her father's name and tried to make his legacy a positive one. I know that doesn't make for riveting drama, but at least I could get behind her motives.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


As a tireless advocate for spam, I've grown tired of watching spam get smeared in the press, sick to death of the awful things people say about it every day. I know there are lots of you out there who'd never admit it to friends, or maybe even to yourself, but deep down, you know that spam is beautiful. You know that without it, the sun wouldn't shine as bright. The colors of the rainbow would turn from red and yellow to gray.

It's time to come out of the shadows. It's time to fight the good fight.

Yes, that's right: I'm starting a Spam Political Action Committee (SPAMPAC).

Think about the manifold good spam has brought into our lives. Spam keeps us grounded. When we bloggers have had a run of great comments on a particular post, our heads inflate. We think we're awesome and will soon overtake Arianna Huffington's empire.

Not so, says the spam. Case in point: you see that you've got a fresh new comment. Your hands shiver with anticipation as you click on the link to open it, only to find this:

Hi there there! This publish couldn’t be created any far better! Reading through by means of this publish reminds me of my prior space mate! He constantly stored discussing this.

Ah, I see, spam. Your space mate was constantly stored discussing this, eh? Please, tell me more.

I’ll ahead this short article to him. Rather certain he’ll have a very very good go through. Thanks for sharing

Nice words, but obviously computer-generated. You see? Spambots keep you from getting too big for your britches. And this is where spam's value is underrated. I have decided to stand up for this underrepresented group because our Constitution guarantees them certain inalienable rights, and I'll be God darned if I let anyone trample on their liberty anymore! I'm taking my country back!

Will you join me? If so, call your senator and tell him/her, "If you vote against spam again, if you chip away any more at their hard-won freedoms"--after all, spam fought honorably in the Civil War and in every conflict since then (except Korea, where they abstained and were thrown into jail for their acts of civil disobedience)--"if you stamp out their sweet light forever from this Earth, I will never vote for you again!"

Come on, everyone! Let's link arms and fight for spam before it's too late!

*Paid for by SPAMPAC and SPAMPAC's sponsors (who include mainly spambots)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Commuter Salute

Hi all, I've decided to do something new on Fridays. Every Friday (if I'm able) I'll salute my fellow commuters who made my hour-plus commute to work particularly interesting that week. Not a week goes by that someone doesn't do something either impossibly dumb or unexpectedly kind on the subway/buses (yes, that's plural) that I take to work. This week was a bad one for commuting, for some reason. Anyway, please raise your glass with me as we toast D.C.-area commuters:

-To the persnickety a-hole in the stupid Greg Norman straw hat with the wide brim who said, "I guess you don't believe in standing in line" when I attempted to join a line of zombies going up the escalator and, unbeknownst to me, cut him off: I salute you.

-To the woman with the fanny pack who wouldn't stop holding onto the balancing bar even when the train was stopped, forcing me to awkwardly duck around you instead of you, you know, just stepping the hell out of my way: I salute you.

-To the giant man with gangly limbs who, though he could've stood anywhere on the train, decided to stand right up close to me so I had trouble writing in my notebook: I salute you.

-To the man-child leaning into me in an overwrought attempt to stay balanced on a barely-swaying subway car: I salute you.

-To the bus driver who leaves the bus turned off while we all pile in, thereby leaving the A/C off and allowing us to baste in our own juices: I salute you.

-To the woman basically sitting in my lap who only covered her mouth every fourth time she coughed while filling out a soduko...sudoko...sunoco...oh, whatever: I salute you.

-To the girl with the hunted eyes who, even though she's sitting two rows back and who got on the bus way after me, leaps up before the bus has even stopped just so she can get off the bus first, showing no appreciation for the coveted "I was here first" rule: I salute you.

Honorable mention goes to the lady with the wheely luggage who never fails to ditch the line leading onto the bus: I salute you.

That's it for this week. I'm sure there were some acts of kindness, but honestly, I can't remember any. Anyway, as they say on the Continent: salud!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stop Trying to Justify Yourself

If I could go back and say one thing to my 25-year-old self, it would be this: stop worrying about what people think of you. Everyone else is not you. You have needs that the vast majority of them don't. You need to fill yourself up with words and then write them out. You need the ocean. You need the open sky and you need people to be nice to you. You need to feel the brush gliding across the canvas. Stop worrying about what other people think you need.

And for cripes sake, stop trying to justify your life to everyone!

Because they'll never get it. They're not you. All they need to be happy is a job that makes them feel special. A nice car. An XBOX and golf every other Sunday. A big title; a fat raise.

Your needs are important, despite what they may say. They'll call you flaky. They'll say you have no drive, no plan for life. How wrong they are. You know exactly what you need, and you must banish any guilt you feel for needing it. You need to express yourself. Why? Who the hell cares why? You need it, OK? Stop trying to explain the unexplainable. Just do.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

This Video Makes Me Happy

I love the Pacific Northwest. Wish I could visit more often.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Books Will Write Themselves

In the not-too-distant future -- maybe after you and I are gone, but maybe not -- I predict that books will write themselves. Not all books will be automatically written, but lots of them will be. I'm not big on predictions, but it's just the way I see things going. Not to worry you, but, you know...prepare yourself.

Over the weekend, I was discussing this idea with a friend, and they practically punched me in the face. "What a stupid thing to say!" my friend chided. "And how depressing!" See, I don't think it's that depressing a notion. It could be seen as a negative thing, obviously, or it could be seen as an opportunity.

The vast majority of people who read in this country (which is not all that many, anymore) probably read books that they feel won't demand much mental energy. It's hard to blame them; with folks working longer hours these days, most are fried by the end of the day. They don't want to come off working the late shift at Denny's and dive into "War and Peace." I get that. No arguments here.

But what this means is that more books will be produced to suit their low-bar needs. After a while, if you take this line of thinking to its logical end, formulas and algorithms will be devised so that a weary soul will be able to sit at a computer, type in their favorite book titles and authors, their genre of choice, a few themes they want to read about, and maybe a time period, the computer will do the math, and then it will export an instantly-written book to their e-reader. The whole thing would take less than five minutes and they'd get a book custom-written to their preferences.

This is where we're headed. Heck, James Patterson doesn't even write his own books anymore. In this new era of high-speed digital customization, I can't imagine the market dictating anything else; it's the most convenient process in the world for readers.

Of course, there will still be people who want to read books written by actual human beings. Though there may come a time when computers out-pace humans at piquing reader's imaginations (I cringe just writing that), I have to believe a cadre of hard-core readers will remain who will want to go the traditional route. So it's important to establish yourself as an author who can deliver consitently good, thoroughly-edited books. Because you can bet the book writing programs of the future won't make typos, and you'll be competing with a smaller pool of writers for this sought-after audience.

(Note: I say "you" here, but it may be your grandchildren who have to worry more about this.)

Look: it's fine to want to write books in order to get rich. This is a free country. But I write because I want to communicate and I want to increase my ability to have empathy for people. Because reading is all about building our capacity to feel empathy toward others. This should not come with a price tag. You can write for lots of reasons, but to me, the best reason of all is to make the world an easier place for people to love each other.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How to Beat the Apathy Monster

Hey all, I've been unplugged for the past few days. It was nice to take a break, but I'm happy to be back. While I was away, working hard on my WIP every free second I got, I was thinking about how there's nothing worse as an author than to be unpublished. I know this feeling first-hand because, well...I'm unpublished (outside of a few magazine articles). Telling people you're working on a WIP doesn't cut the butter. People want results. They don't think you're a "real" writer unless you've put yourself out there and published.

Which I get. Fine. You can talk about Emily Dickinson all you want (the great American poet had less than a dozen poems published in her lifetime, and yet she's been hugely influential), but no one is going to think you're the next Emily Dickinson. This is America, baby. We want results.

Enter: the Apathy Monster. Unpublished authors are stalked by this blood-thirsty predator. Some published writers are as well, but not as many. The beast is mostly bred from within: it's fertilized by self-imposed, unrealistic expectations, grows in the womb of our self-doubt, and comes to term when we most need to keep faith in ourselves. Thinking that all our hard work might go unnoticed is one of the most desolate feelings in the world. It derails people for years, making them question why they continue to put themselves through this.

The monster scares us so badly that we forget all the great lines we've written, all the wondrous forms we've painted, and worry only that people--if they notice us at all--will only notice our flaws.

Not that I'm a successful artist (yet), but my sense of this is that successful artists know they can't eradicate this hopeless feeling. So they don't even try. My guess is that they accommodate this emptiness, even use it to inform their work. Because I don't care who you are, whether you're the MVP of the Super Bowl or a window washer working up on the thirtieth floor, you have self-doubts. The wise artist understands this common human thread and weaves it into their work. In doing so, people recognize themselves in the work and connect with it.

Don't dismiss your doubts. Don't bury your fear of the Apathy Monster. Don't judge your feelings while you create because you can't allow your focus to waver. If you can befriend the monster, build him a little efficiency suite in your heart, then we'll all be better for it.

I'm here to tell you that you can succeed. I have crushing self-doubt sometimes, too. Don't worry. In fact, this past week there were a few moments where I felt like quitting. But we can't ever quit. There are too few of us artists to begin with.

You can do it.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Creator's Manifesto

I've added a new page up above in the menu there. It's called "The Creator's Manifesto." As I say on the page, I don't much care for the word "manifesto", given its connection to politics, but it's a useful shorthand so I'll go with it.

I felt the need to outline some of my reasons for staying creative even when the world seems hell-bent on derailing you. Often times, when I feel like throwing in the towel, it's because I feel like I'm never going to be successful and make tons of money and prove to the naysayers that I'm a brilliant thinker.

But then I have to check myself. Success and failure seems like too rough an equation when it comes to art. The real reason we should make art is for others, not because we seek riches for ourselves. We should want to impart our wisdom/sense of humor/insights to other people so that they can become better people.

Usually, this does the trick for me.

Do you have core reasons for being an artist that you grapple onto for support when you're feeling down? Let me know.

Update: I wrote this manifesto late last night, and in retrospect, I think a lot of it had to do with my reflections on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 being today. In listening to the radio all morning and re-watching old footage of the attacks taking place, I'm reminded of how utterly hopeless and sad I felt that day, and in the months afterwards.

I was living nearly 2000 miles away from Ground Zero at the time, so obviously I wasn't directly impacted by the events. So I'm only speaking for myself here and not anyone who was directly affected. In my opinion, the only appropriate response to acts of horror like Sept. 11th is love. Do what you love every day. Be nice to everyone. Create art for the benefit of others, so that your love will spread around the world.

Some people think they can't do anything in response to 9/11. They feel weak, even ten years on. But the truth is, we can do something. We have the strength to drown out the sadness. We must align ourselves so that we project love into the world through our art. Unhesitating love is the best response to hate. We have to trust each other again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Passionate and Humble Defense of Spam

Spam is stupid. This much everyone knows. We all try to police it, but somehow, no matter how many hurdles we place in its way, it still sneaks through. Bots are like your Uncle Richard who only knows how to talk about his uninteresting life ("I got two pounds of salmon for $8 at Piggly Wiggly last night--you shoulda seen the look on my face! What a deal!"), ignoring any attempt on your part to get a word in edge-wise: both are impervious to your efforts to shut them out. Listen, it's just life: Uncle Rich will keep coming over for Thanksgiving dinner even if you have it in the tool shed out back with the lights turned out on the second Tuesday of November. He will find you.

But looked at the right way, spam can also be fun, provided it's not some mashup of words devoid of prepositions or definite articles like some Djuna Barnes nightmare. The ones that highlight male enhancement I can do without (which I've been getting a lot of lately, and which are making me feel like someone out there knows something I don't). But beyond that, I've been seeing some funny ones of late.

And by funny, I mean lazy. Whoever dreamed up this spam is a mental midget. Or I don't even know how it works--does some software program generate spam it thinks will lure people in? If so, James Cameron can rest easy--I don't think we have to worry about computers taking over the world anytime soon. Not when you see messages like this:

Hahah. Totally! That so true. Hilarious stuff. I bookmark your page and show all my friends. My website: _______.

That one was left in the comment section of a post I wrote about how life is fragile and we all could die at any moment. That's what I mean: lazy. Know your audience, spambots! Here's another left on a post I did where I photoshopped Teddy Roosevelt's head onto Edvard Munch's painting "The Scream":

Oh wow! Your post really made me stop and think. Your words are so deep and meaningful. You capture exactly my life. Here's my website: ____________________

Well, at least someone knows I exist on the internet. Which is a comfort, I guess. And apparently their first language is not English! At least spam keeps things interesting, with their silly pidgin-speak and ballsy pronouncements to "Visit me website!" We should all be so bold.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Value of Toothless Tonya

Being a hard worker does not make one great. After all, Mao Tse-Tung loved to roll up his sleeves and get to work, and Josef Stalin -- a busy beaver if ever there was one -- was a renowned workaholic. But there is something to be said for the art of work. Hard work gives us writers the opportunity to come out of our shells, to understand how real people really talk, to get a sense of their aspirations and their misery. And it humbles us, showing us that we must put in the hours day in and day out, that what we accomplished yesterday matters little next to the demands of the present.

These days, though, our society's reverence for hard work has waned, even as people are working more hours. I heard an NPR segment on Monday about meaning of Labor Day, and something clicked. E.J. Dionne, the writer and guest who'd written a Washington Post article on which the segment was based, argued that we no longer praise workers for their hard work, but instead we deify capital, i.e. money.

And I realized that's true. And also that it's sad and stupid, because people are working their ever-loving asses off right now and that wealth is being transferred to the super-wealthy, and if that keeps up, things will get bad. But I also realized it's stupid because, from the persepective of a writer, so much great literature has come out of examining the lives of workers: "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" (if you haven't read this book, please do), the U.S.A. trilogy by Dos Passos, "The Jungle." And it's enduring literature, because almost everyone can relate to the characters in these books, regardless of time period or geography.

And anyway, like I was saying before, working hard -- whether that be at a minumum wage job or as an engineer -- gives us writers a window into how the world actually works. Hedge fund managers may think they understand how the world works, but they don't. They're up too high. No, that's not real life. Who would want to be way up there where the air is so thin?

I've worked a trillion minimum-wage jobs in my lifetime: bag boy, administrative assistant, waiter, bus boy, front desk worker at a hotel, mowing lawns, flipping pizzas -- you name it, I've done it. Once, in college, I worked as a bouncer (which is hilarious if you know how non-confrontational I am) and at the end of each shift, it was my job to clean the vomit out of a huge, trough-shaped urinal with a mop. Yes folks, that's how I paid for books and rent my senior year of college. The crowning glory of my four years in higher ed. Cleaning puke.

But what's interesting is that, at the time, my friends (all of whom also had crap jobs while working their way through school) and I looked at our jobs as badges of honor. We inevitably worked beside "townies" (people who'd spent their whole lives in the tiny town where our college was located), and we all wanted not to seem like jack-asses to them. So we tried our best to fit in, enduring last-minute schedule changes to give Toothless Tonya more hours, putting up with derisive laughs from folks who'd been making pizzas since age 9.

But all of this worked to my advantage. I now know how people other than myself think and feel, I know their hopes and aspirations and I know how they can suck sometimes. Which helps me when creating realistic characters. Because if you don't have the ability to deeply empathize with someone who's completely different from you, then you cannot create rounded, interesting characters.

So if you're stuck in a dead-end job or if you're a recent graduate, and if you like to write, try (I know it's hard and it sucks, but try) to see your current situation positively. Because who knows? Your boss Bernie McBastard may find his way into your book someday.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Keep It Simple

Lots of people want to rule the world. They want to be the most influential person on the block, the mogul, the alpha dog. They make dozens of podcasts to support their blog, tweet fifty times a day to win people over to their cause, shoot and edit enough videos to put Spencer Gordon Bennett to shame. This is great if you have a trust fund and can afford sinking huge chunks of time into what, in the end, can only be described as a monumental project in self-absorption.

I think you see where I'm going with this.

I just read Konrath's latest blog entry, and it resonated with me. Those people who Spielberg-up the place always seem like dogs chasing their own tail to me. It's amusing to watch for a while, but pretty soon you start getting dizzy just watching them go, go, go. And I start to wonder: how much time are they really spending on the product that all of these props are meant to promote?

To me, the simplest advice is the best advice: stay focused. If you have a product to sell that lends itself to a massive world-building effort, then (judgmental?) people like me will be more forgiving. But I have yet to read the book description that warrants an all-out sensory assault.

Not having published a single book, I realize my advice holds about as much weight as a rice cake being eaten by a ghost in a zero-gravity chamber. But seriously, please concentrate on writing good books. If done right, a book will do the job of launching us into another world. You won't need smoke and mirrors to do that. Trust that your audience will appreciate your words and not need an IMAX experience to bring them back wanting more.