Feb 28, 2013

Influence, Anxiety, Fame: Where is your Oil-of-Bob? Why should you care?

Do you believe that you've been chasing success for too long? Would you say that it has eluded you so far?

Let's discuss Edgar Allan Poe for a second, because he knew well the art of writing without someone to hold your hand from the first tentative line to that final, heavenly draft you ship off to print.

In "Literary Life of Thingumbob, Esq." Poe introduces the reader to young Thingum, son to a merchant-barber who had invented a delectable salve, the Oil-of-Bob. You never find out precisely what it is or what it does, but that's neither here nor there.

Thingum wishes to follow the Orphic path and write paeans to the Oil-of-Bob, so his father, with unimpeachable generosity, sets him up in a garret with voluminous reams of paper, bottles upon bottles of ink, and a copy of the Gad-fly, one of the periodicals where Thingum will pursue publication.

Orpheus was killed and eaten by women in a Bacchic frenzy.
This is a snap from Gregorio Lazzarini's instagram.

"In my first attempts at composition," says Thingumbob, "I found the stanzas to "The Oil-of-Bob" rather a drawback than otherwise. Their splendor more dazzled than enlightened me. The contemplation of their excellence tended, naturally, to discourage me by comparison with my own abortions; so that for a long time I labored in vain. At length there came into my head one of those exquisitely original ideas which now and then will permeate the brain of a man of genius. (...)
"From the rubbish of an old book-stall, in a very remote corner of the town, I got together several antique and altogether unknown or forgotten volumes. The bookseller sold them to me for a song. From one of these, which purported to be a translation of one Dante's "Inferno," I copied with remarkable neatness a long passage about a man named Ugolino, who had a parcel of brats."
[emphases mine]

So Thingumbob hacks together these horrible mashups of ancient poems and, with supreme confidence, sends them out to any literary journal he can think of.

The editors of said journals waste no time. In modern parlance, they tear him a new one. Their knee-jerk reaction is to pillory our poor Thingumbob, but the way they criticize Thingum's lines show that they are just as ignorant as he is. Not one accuses him of plagiarism.

"'Oppodeldoc?' [Thingumbob's pen name] is respectfully informed that there is not a printer's devil in our office who is not in the daily habit of composing better lines," wrote the editor of the Lollipop.

Better lines than

"Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring"

from the Iliad.

Thingumbob doesn't accomplish anything until he gives up copying others and pens a two-line poem of his own about the Oil-of-Bob. The poem itself is meaningless and, having realized that 'Oppodeldoc' dug his own grave, Thingum now signs his composition 'Snob.'

To cut a long story short, 'Snob' goes places. People want to shake his hand. Editors fawn over his mediocrity.

What does Poe's condensed bildungsroman mean to you, writing today?

For one, that people of discerning taste are few and far between. You don't have to spend your entire career in obscurity, but there's no guarantee of a breakout. Thingumbob only gets the kind of attention he was looking for when he decides to be himself. No matter the outcome.

At least partially aware of his failings, the young Thingum no longer hides his lack of talent. The poets of the past overshadow him and he suspects it, except he won't confess it.*

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the ones who came before us. Virgil, Homer, Seneca, Aeschylus, Euripides, Pope, de Troyes, and so many others — they survived because — and I'm pretty sure of this — they wrote from the heart. I'm not saying that they despised convention but saw it as the framework into which they could pour their personal imaginarium.**

I'm not telling you to write crap. There are enough people making enough noise right now — just adding to the noise, nothing special about the particular frequencies they produce. But this cloud of static has one good thing about it, in that it gives you an horizon and the freedom to look up at the stars.

“Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will, childhood equipped now with man's physical means to express itself, and with the analytic mind that enables it to bring order into the sum of experience, involuntarily amassed.”
—Charles Baudelaire

*Thingumbob is one of the most unreliable narrators in the history of western fiction.
*In line with continental philosophical tradition, I use this word idiosyncratically. If the French gentleman with the funny glasses can use aporia to mention the logical limits of language, then I get to use imaginarium as I see fit. So there.  

Feb 27, 2013

The Traveling Feast Where All the Ants Are Crushed

On my first trip I took my bedroom with me. On the second trip I took half my apartment. At my arrival in 1985 the blast toppled the building I would live in.

I vanished from under the rubble and manifested in 1979 -- me and four city blocks.

Poster for George Pal's The Time Machine (1960)

What if you were forced to travel in time against your will, having no say over your destination or the time of departure? What if someone were pulling your strings -- maybe as an experiment?

Marionettes have been around for a long time. The ancient Egyptians made them. Aristotle compares animal motion to the movements of a string puppet.

Marionettes don't know someone controls them; they lack the necessary biological equipment to think. Likewise, characters in a story won't recognize they're part of a creative fiction. Postmodern authors have explored this notion of who's in control -- I'm thinking of The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spar, specifically. Spark's main character makes seemingly random decisions, but she is in fact drawing attention to herself and trying to send a message about the inevitability of her fate. (I won't spoil the book for you.)

Protagonists meeting their authors:

Agatha Christie inserted herself into Poirot's last tale so she could kill him.
Neo in The Matrix encounters the Architect,* who seems to be a proxy for the Wachowski Brothers.
Lanark meets Alasdair Gray a number of times.
Philip K. Dick meets himself as Horselover Fat in VALIS.

Marionette Girl
by YK Kim

*The Architect: His superior intellect is mostly an informed ability; pay attention to what he says and you will find a ream of hollow statements lurking in his cloudy language. Cod philosophy is cheap. Tergiversation is a ten-dollar word, but the strategy it names can be used for nothing.

Feb 22, 2013

From the Grave to the Cradle

Must you wake up?, she asked me, Wake up and leave us? Now that I finally read her vacant eyes, now that her blank, gypsum face reddened with the color of her words.
"Pantheopolis," I said, "will be fine without me."
I didn't believe it.

by Shaun Tan

Fear of waking up: People talk about it.

Fear of long words: There's a long word for it.

The prompt above was motivated by a dream of sparsely-furnished white rooms inhabited by silent people made of cold, living clay.

Feb 20, 2013

And You Call Yourself a Machine

I love all the humans I supervise; they do their best to talk like me, walk like me, act like me. They want to be me. I love and despise them.

“Gunnar,” I said to human employee 0ax0060106-HVHY, “this past quarter you have not taken advantage of multiple opportunities to synergize with your Field Sales customers in order to improve supply chain response time viz. leveraging our superior scheduling methods through the OFA approach. Please explain.”
(I like to see them sweat. The little darlings.)


I couldn't parody corporate language in under 50 words. That is to say, I could, but I wouldn't meet my strategic goals for this prompt.

For all their efficiency, plenty of large organizations make their people stumble around picking words out of a haze of mycotic acronyms and quasi-magical phrases. Ritual without spirit.

Devoted bureaucrats thrive on obfuscation and they work hard to justify their status/keep their jobs. Bureaucracy tends to the esoteric; if you can convince others that nobody else understands High Hocus Pocus the way you do, it is in your best interest to hide in a fog of ambiguous writing which only you can decipher.

And if by any chance you think that Forbes 500 companies always operate at top efficiency, there's an article I'd recommend to you (but, woe is me, I have no bridge to sell).

A young management consultant reflects on the outcome of his skull-cracking at an unnamed company: "Similar results could have been achieved by having four monkeys throw darts at a few matrices."

If you'd like to learn a little more about how corporations work, and how their modus operandi affects people, I suggest that you check out The Corporation, a canny documentary on the role and status of corporations in the world today. Watch it over the weekend. What's the worst that can happen? Have your perspective challenged? It'll do you good.

Feb 15, 2013

The Nodyssey: Too Many Mermaids, Too Little Time

1. Have you been pining for the lobster violin you treasured as a child? Well, look no further.

2. Quickly, which of the two is the strangest webcomic out there? O V O Y Y A M A R, or Forming?

Four panels from O V O Y Y A M A R
The story begins here.

3. Homages, Ripoffs, and Coincidences is almost entirely devoted to side-by-side comparisons of shots in movies.

4. The first new NASA spacesuit in decades. That's right, decades. Astronauts have been wearing 30-year-old designs, mostly. Do you keep any of your 30-year-old clothes? I do, but I can't squeeze myself into my favorite plaid dungarees anymore.

5. Want to lose weight? Master a foreign language? Stop ogling baboons in estrus? HabitRPG turns your life into a role-playing game.  Me, I'd probably just open the developer console and type in tgm. I'm coded that way.

6. What if the known universe were an open-source simulation running on a peer-to-peer network?

7. Remember the invisible gorilla? Its powers strike fear into one's heart; now we know the beast can fool trained observers as well. Like these radiologists.


Without further ado, I give you your prompt.

A long time the manxome foe he sought, no GPS to guide him, no comms, no combat rations, stranded on the wreck of a trans-plutonian station. Twelve hundred miles across, shaped like a turtle's egg.

For six orbits of the gas giant he tracked the jabberwock, vorpal implants clicking and buzzing with anticipation.

"So many AIs in my body," he confessed one night to an empty mess hall, "and I can't find a single meta-beast in this damn theme park."

Feb 13, 2013

All the Pretty Codfish, Swimming in the Trees

It hasn't rained in weeks — that means no fish. The clouds are hoarding them. We must burn at least six homes to get the Fishmaster's attention.

I ache to imagine what we must do for his forgiveness.

"Someone committed a great sin two seven-nights ago," I told the council. "I spoke with the Fishmaster."

I pointed at my uncle's brother-in-law's nephew's cousin, Vurk. "He told me it was your third wife, Vurk. She salts your neighbor's garden out of spite, because his daughters are all beautiful. She blames his good fortune for your ugly daughters."

"Alas," said Vurk. "Fnigurda was born in a year of no mirrors. I can't help that."

"We must put your house to the torch, Vurk," I said.

"Aye," said Vurk, "though I have a request."


"Let me first consult with the Fishmaster," said Vurk.

"Impossible," I said. "Only confirmed meshmen may speak with the Fishmaster. He ignores everybody else."

"Really?" said Vurk. "Because a little fish whispered in my ear last night and my ear felt very holy when I woke up. Also wet, as if someone had drooled over it."

Murmurs among the council. The small clownfish of omen swam from shoulder to shoulder, opening and closing its tiny mouth, dripping with doubt and almost-blessings.

"What are you trying to say?" I asked.

"The whisperer said your wife salts your neighbor's garden," said Vurk. "What do you say to that?"

by Slava Triptih
Yes, I went way over budget with this prompt. More than 200 words up there, but it's still a prompt. Use it as you see fit.


Are you in the mood for some hard-hitting rock 'n' roll by female-fronted bands? Because I am. This is the kind of music that keeps me up at night.

The Detroit Cobras - Midnight Blues

The Bellrays - Black Lightning

Devil Doll - Man in Black

Remember, it's always hunting season on YouTube, so these videos may not be there tomorrow. Go on, they're not going to watch themselves.

Because that would be solipsistic.

Feb 12, 2013

Captain Worrywarts and his Gloomy Band of Pirates

The ocean was all ghost ships that morning. Worrywarts could picture the investors sharpening their knives back home — if the promised bacon never came, they'd settle for Worrywarts on a stick.

Wait! A plume of smoke in the west! A steamer, perhaps? No, they hadn't been invented yet.

Ghost Ship
by Joshua Kemble

Also check out his FDR. You won't regret it.

Abandon Ship
by Niel Quisaba

Abandon Ship
by Gianfranco Cioffi

Feb 8, 2013

She Kept Her Head in a Closet and My Heart in the Fridge

I'm too afraid to go to bed at night and even more afraid of getting up in the morning. My wife's double is everywhere I turn.

Only I seem to know her smiles are fake. So too her loving words. A perfect copy of Yolanda, right down to the pores.

Spirit of the Vale of Neath
by Thomas Hornor
via BibliOdyssey

You could go two separate ways with this premise:

Either a)

The narrator's wife is a doppelgänger of the real wife, in which case you'd have a supernatural story

or b)

You could use this premise to explore that strange neurological disorder (its name eludes me right now) where people believe that they are still human but everyone else around them has been replaced by, um, working copies. Fakes. Naturally, there's option c), where you blow the competition out of the water by writing a story that breaks the mold -- these two molds, the supernatural and the psychological.

[As expected, Wikipedia maintains an extensive list of neurological disorders. Speaking of the Wiki, they're conducting a fundraiser. If you believe what they're doing, donate a little something today. What's Wikipedia worth to you? A $5 album from bandcamp? The price of a macchiato?]

An interesting kind of doppelgänger exists in Scandinavian folklore, the vardøger -- a "spiritual predecessor," i.e., a double who shows up before you and... does things on your behalf, I suppose. Richard Gere's character John Klein in The Mothman Prophecies (one of the best supernatural/ghost stories ever told on film) is preceded in Point Pleasant by his vardøger.

When the real John Klein shows up, he nearly gets shot in the face.

I love the scenes where Klein talks to Indrid Cold on the phone. Hmm. Must watch the movie again. Some movies are like novels, others like poems or songs. The latter kind you can just savor over and over again, because the story doesn't matter so much. It's the music, the diction.

John Klein's loss of his beloved Mary resonates with me. So does his willingness to get to the bottom of a profound mystery.

Time to wrap this up.
Beat-maker Jon McIntosh, who goes by the pseudonym Plains Druid, has decided to follow me on Twitter. Which is great, because I might not have found his music otherwise. Here's a taste of arizonacore.

This song started playing immediately afterwards. Suffice it to say: Somebody should use this in their arthouse movie. It's beautiful and evocative.

Feb 6, 2013

A Pox on Your Bottom, Mah Boy

The old bat who lived in the basement with her troop of stuffed birds and weasels had it in for me. All because I didn't like her milksop nephew and shoved him around a little. Well, I didn't like his face, so.

The itch began in May.


When do you know that a story is going to sink? When does a story premise reveal that you can't make it work?

You can do better than "trust your gut." All you have to do is think a little:

Some ideas are indeed too radical for

a) your target readership
b) your chosen genre

Not every premise will give you a viable story. Cartoonist Nathan Bulmer of Eat More Bikes knows that.

If you need a dramatic situation to get the ball rolling but your premise gets in the way, let the premise go. Some of them, as illustrated in the comic above, aren't actually premises but mini-stories that have had their denouement. They're finished. Maybe even stillborn.

(Unless you're working on some extreme, postmodern satire, in which case ignore what I just said.)

How-to books tell you it's OK to break the rules once in a while. What they don't tell you is that you must mean something by breaking the rules, otherwise you're just posturing/acting clever.

That's the literary equivalent of 'acting cool' when you don't feel it.

Feb 1, 2013

I Asked my Home Star for a Penny and it Gave Me a Symphony Instead

I saw a twelve-story building pitch forward like a drunk and slam into the building across the street. And I saw it happen twice.

Her terror sang out and it found me. I didn't know who she was, but I rushed into the cloud of dust and debris anyway.

by Budi Satria Kwan

There are two ways to do indie. Two different approaches.

One consists in following the mainstream and working your ass off to break into traditional publishing, major news features, bestseller lists, what-have-you. I would call this "indie in name only." Not a criticism, but if you're looking for a patronus like, I don't know, Picador, then maybe you should avoid the "indie" label. For the sake of coherence. 

The other approach is all about swimming to the margins and blazing a new trail.

Comics in America have long demonstrated this dichotomy, so they will serve as illustration. You have your big players, like Marvel and DC, then the serious contenders, like Dark Horse and Image, who all fight nonstop for a slice of the superhero/movie franchise pie. 

Hot on their heels come smaller publishing houses who flood[1] the market with oversexed, hyper-muscled fare; heavy with sensational visuals, light on plot. To make myself clear, I'm thinking of  Avengelyne, Lady Death, or Pitt -- to name but three.

This is Lady Death. You may gasp.

Nothing set these titles apart because their creators were far more interested in pandering to (unintelligent) 12-year-old boys than they were in telling stories.

Image Comics, born of an exodus from Marvel, found itself in a position where it had to make a lot of money really fast, so they pandered, too. It doesn't take insider knowledge to realize this. Just flip through any early issue of WildC.A.T.S. or Ripclaw. Image Comics have now found greater prestige thanks to properties like The Walking Dead, but long before that comic came to the small screen, they had already begun to diversify. Among other things, they started publishing Jeff Smith's outstanding series, Bone.[2]

from Bone

Elsewhere, houses like Tundra Publishing, Fantagraphics or Kitchen Sink Press provided venues for challenging, experimental storytelling. A comic like Dave McKean's Cages, a supernatural/surreal mystery about cats and the true nature of the universe, wouldn't be at home with Marvel Comics circa 1993. 

from Cages

Rick Veitch's The Maximortal, a weird, psychedelic take on Superman, clearly did not appeal to mainstream audiences.

Cover to The Maximortal TPB

And then, lest I forget, there's the Flaming Carrot. Hard to define a target market for that one.

I know people on both sides of the fluid divide -- those who pursue mass, and those who'd rather lead a tribe. They are all doing what they know and what they believe in.[3]

My point is, visual artists (including comic-book creators) take advantage of creative independence -- their indie status -- to push back the boundaries of artistic achievement. They play with form and aesthetics; they find and develop new themes. What are you doing to break new ground? Can you still claim that a romance between a vampire and a werewolf who go to high school together is a deeply personal story you needed to tell? Are you writing "dystopian" YA because you felt it would be a good move, commercially speaking? Do you see yourself as a "content producer"? [4]

You, the indie author, you have no master. No need to beg for a stamp of approval. Are you writing as courageously as you can?

three meditations on pioneering work
(and the work of pioneering)

John Frame discusses what art means to him and the three pillars of artistic creation, head, heart and hand. You'll have to watch the video to learn what he's talking about

Three Fragments of a Lost Tale, stop-motion animation by John Frame (he also wrote the music for it)

Using the Sun to Make Music: An experiment in data sonification.

[1] I used to subscribe to a pre-order catalog. "Flood" is a gentle sort of word. Woody.
[2] Disney meets Lord of the Rings on acid. Read the color version if you want, but by all means, read Bone in the original black & white first.
[3] Whenever I get the urge to condemn someone for churning out garbage, I remind myself that we all need to make a living. And that I don't need to pay attention to crap. 
[4] In which case, go away.