Friday, January 17, 2014

Glutton For Punishment

Back for the New Year, it's PopSmarts all over again, this time taking a look at the history of gimmickry in film — and the underlying idea of cinema as an incomplete artform. Featuring William Castle, Professor Layton, Madeleine Kahn, and Smell-O-Vision!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Every Yuletide Carol Needs a Troll

Dropping a turd in your holiday punchbowl, PopSmarts is back to kick it old-school — 1834-style in fact, as we take a look at the historical legislation that prompted the writing of A Christmas Carol, and how the assumptions behind those laws are still relevant in our own more-enlightened time.
It's a long read, but if you retain only a single line of it, let it be this one:
The stone truth is that people on government assistance earn every goddam penny.
Come for the history lesson; stay for the outrage!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wake the Snake

The new Popdose Conceptual Theater of the Airwaves has gone live — an eighty-minute-plus seamless MP3 mix curated by yours truly, free for download, featuring an imaginary soundtrack to Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. With PJ Harvey, the Smiths, Imogen Heap, Judas Priest, and the Kronos Quartet, plus rare (-ish) tracks from Daniel Johnston, Alan Moore, Television Personalities, and the colloquial many more. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Beaver Has Landed


My comp copies of Weird Canada have arrived! The book itself is a monster — almost 400 pages of strange and unlikely facts and trivia about America’s Hat — and it’s the perfect present for the expatriate or Canuckophile on your Christmas list.

The books arrived less than 24 hours ago and, as predicted, I cannot pry the Boy’s copy from his hands.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

But I Know What I Am

Sometimes a song expresses your political beliefs; sometimes it helps you to form them. This time around at PopSmarts, a personal reflection on identity, presentation, and the hunger for authenticity, and how even a jokey song can exercise a profound effect.

Friday, November 22, 2013


This time, PopSmarts thinks wa-a-a-ay too hard about management theory and decision-making bias as they apply to casual gaming, as I subject a prime slice of mid-90s shareware to far more thorough consideration than its own creator ever did.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Dig the Streets of Life! Dig the Chinamen!

To pay dubious honor to the centenary of Fu Manchu, PopSmarts considers one of the best-loved but seldom-seen comicbooks of the Marvel Age, Master of Kung Fu — and the ways in which it both depended upon and interrogated racial stereotypes.

Set aside some time for this one. At 3,500 words, and with a boatload of images, it’s exactly the sort of in-depth pop-culture delve that my sainted editor Jeff Giles was asking for when he greenlit this column, the poor dope. He asked for it, and now he’s getting it, good and hard.

And for no particular reason but that I love you, here’s a bonus panel of Shang-Chi straight-up karate-chopping a goddamned alligator:

(from Master of Kung Fu #23, art by Al Milgrom and Klaus Janson)

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Seeing It, Seeing It Through

A writer is a person who must think in words so as to be able to talk in pictures. And before I can bridge that gap — the gap between the visual and the verbal — for the reader, I must bridge it for myself. My strategies, my solutions for doing so, rely on elements from both sides of the equation. So when I’m planning out a novel, I rely on what we in the magazine trade call infographics — maps, charts, graphs, and tables.
The specifics are different for every project. (The book, as you may remember, is the boss.) The Honeythief is essentially a picaresque, not particularly tightly plotted, and I knew the temptation would be to get myself into blind alleys, exploring the nooks and corners of this world I’d created. So early on in the writing process, I came up with a table to help me keep on track — to make sure that the color was always serving the story, rather than the other way around. Here’s the top part of it:

Deciphering that scorpion-track, you can see that the header reads:

·         Move the Narrative Forward
·         Advance Character Development
·         Build Up a Picture of the World

Listed down the left-hand edge are the “encounters” — the vital events of the story, listed by location. These are “the cool parts,” the big thrill moments, mostly in the form of action set-pieces; I identified ten of them in the initial rough outline. As the story grew longer and marginally more complex, I expanded the list downward to encompass more encounters. It was the looseness of the plotting that allowed for the expansion of the story. As long as each additional encounter satisfied all three criteria — that it advanced the central conflict, while adding to our understanding of both the characters and the setting — the road-trip structure could be made to accommodate it. But if it failed in any of those three areas, it was self-indulgence, and out it went.
The new pulp project is written according to a fairly strict formula, incorporating elements of the Lester Dent Pulp Master Plot, and is therefore structured rather differently. Here’s the Big Board I’m using to help me along:

The white posterboard on the right has some notes on the Orphan Asylum series as a whole, and also some details about the book I’m writing now — which will establish the formula — currently titled “Full Fathom Five.” This was put together slapdash, working quickly, primarily just to get something down on paper to make this project real for myself. There’s a list of characters at bottom right; headings for MOTIVE, SETTING, and SECRET OBJECTIVE, for MURDER METHOD, TICKING CLOCK, and COMEUPPANCE, among others; and a few questions that I must ask myself as I write.
The neon-green sheet to the left is where the framework is laid bare. The book will be 60,000 words — a trifle longer than the longest Doc Savage story, The Man of Bronze — and divided into four roughly equal parts, as per the Dent Master Plot. Each part has its own agenda, its own formula. Here’s the brief for Part I, the opening section:

15,000 WORDS

Going down the board, we continue to Part II:

+ 15,000 WORDS
Part III continues the pattern — another 15k, another puzzle piece, another punch-up or shootout, another setback or reveraal — escalating the stakes, twisting the screws, until Part IV wraps it up:

+ 15,000 WORDS
Along the bottom, there are three lists: CONFRONTATIONS (e.g., “speedboat chase”), MAGUFFINS (e.g., “Scientist identifies toxin”), and REVERSALS (e.g., “Hero falsely accused”).

Each part is subdivided into six short chapters of 2500 words or so, each with the usual requirements of a chapter — a vivid and unified scene, moving the narrative along.
This is a sturdy framework, but it is also pretty unforgiving. To make this machine work, I can’t just start writing and see what happens, as is my wont — I’ve got to have the whole thing mapped out, beginning to end. Which is what I’ve done in the right-hand column, labeled BEATS:

Writing this document, just jotting down the What Happens of the story, beat by beat, was simultaneously one of the most frightening and most revelatory processes of my writing life. I usually begin writing with at least an ending in mind — but just like the characters, I must discover along the way just how I’m going to get there. Not with this book, though. I had to go straight through from Point A to Point Z, touching every point in between, and I had to know everything that happens. There would be no “Then they somehow get back to the boat,” there would be no “I’ll figure this out later.” I had to know.

And if I didn’t know, I had to make something up. Which is, of course, what writers do anyway. Even when we journey long with our characters, we’re making it all up; it only feels like we’re discovering it. It’s just a little weird and scary to have one’s own imaginative process laid so bare like this.

But it’s freeing, also — because just as I must serve the structure, so too the structure serves me. I wrote my beats at a white heat, plowing straight through ‘til the end. If I felt any moment of hesitation, I would glance to the left, see approximately where I was in the story, and see what I was missing: Hey, it’s time for a gunfight! Let’s drop a clue in here! We’re about due for a hostage crisis!
Once the beats were down, I added ‘em up and looked ‘em over, and the patterns started emerging. Two or three would seem to fit together into something that looked like a chapter; the rhythm of the book started to emerge. In short order I had a full chapter-by-chapter breakdown.

And there it was. I felt like the narrator of the Stan Ridgway song:
I’ve been everywhere around this world
I fly on the edge of the ball
I got the numbers all up here
I just read the map and steer, that’s all

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Ever watch a movie that everyone raves about as being super-clever and hard-to-follow, but you followed it quite easily? Me neither — until this week. This time in PopSmarts, find out what makes me think I’m so goddam smart anyway.