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

Bonehead

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:
EVERY ENCOUNTER MUST:

·         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
ONE PHYSICAL CONFRONTATION
ONE REVELATION/MAGUFFIN/RED HERRING


Going down the board, we continue to Part II:

+ 15,000 WORDS
+ 1 MAGUFFIN/RED HERRING
+ 1 PHYSICAL CONFRONTATION
+ 1 REVERSAL OF FORTUNE
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
ONE REVELATION
ONE TRIUMPH
ONE SNAPPER
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

S-M-R-T

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.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Routine

There’s a catchphrase I picked up from Alfred Bester (by way of Gene Wolfe):  “The book is the boss.” Meaning that every book, every story, teaches you how to write it as you go along.

That makes sense to me; so when I write, I try to listen to the book. The Honeythief wanted to be written outside, in the summertime, scratched out longhand in volumes of matching notebooks — and it enhances the effect. The method of composition both suits and informs the elevated, formal tone of the prose. I can’t really say which came first, and in the end it doesn’t matter. All I know is that cracking open another black-bound Moleskine, ritualistically numbering each page, ruling out my charts and tables — these things helped me to slip into the writer’s trance, so that when I sat down in the handmade Adirondack chair on my front porch, I was ready to go to that world and talk with those people.
Judy Obscure will be for a younger audience, more vernacular, more conversational in tone. And to my surprise, it wants to be said aloud — a whim told me to slip my little digital recorder into my pocket, and the pitch came to me in a rush as I walked the dog one night; I talked it as I walked it.

The Orphan Asylum books, I think, want to be banged out fast, straight to the keyboard, single-spaced, with big band swing on the stereo. (I suspect that given their druthers, they would really prefer to be typed, on an Underwood manual, and that I should be wearing a tie and smoking Luckies as I did it.)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Bullets

This is tacked up on the bulletin board above my work desk, right at eye level, where I cannot help but see it every time I stop writing and glance up.


 
(Individual items gleaned from many sources, including the Pixar Writers’ Guide and essays by Gene Wolfe, Charlie Jane Anders, Lester Dent, Umberto Eco, and Michael Moorcock, among others.)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I Ain't Dead...

...I ain't in jail, and I'm still married, so I must be doing something right.

That being said: I am going to be devilishly hard to get ahold of for a while. Forget about phoning me for the foreseeable future, and forget any email address you may have on file.

The best way to get vital correspondence, paying propositions, and serious queries to my attention is via [jack dot feerick dot says at gmail dot com].

Idle or fatuous inquiries, as always, will be ignored.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Don’t Give a Damn About a Greenback Dollar

The annual Popdose Labor Day Mix for 2013 is now live, with a selection of work songs and economic rabble-rousing hand-selected by yours truly, all in one seamless hour-plus-long MP3. Features hard-to-find recordings and remixes from Kilby Snow, Devo, Shaking Family, MIA, Johnny Clegg, and the Raymond Scott Quintette, plus a homebrewed Jethro Tull track that you won’t hear anywhere else. That’s a promise.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

No Sell Out


The worst sin in Hollywood is not to make a movie that people dislike; it’s to make a movie that they don’t understand. A British cult classic shows us how to entertain an audience without dumbing down, in this installment of PopSmarts.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Notes on a New Heroic Pulp

As I was pondering genre tropes, thinking about trying my hand at the Lester Dent Master Pulp Plot, I started (quite naturally) looking at Dent’s most famous creation, the Doc Savage series, and thinking about what made it distinctive — about what was worth keeping from his formula, and what I wanted to break.

Looking around, it occurs to me that there’s actually quite a bit of heroic pulp still being published. The stuff that identifies itself as such hangs out mostly on the Internet, and it tends to be pastiche — glorified fan fiction, some of it, usually with a 1930s setting. I could see the appeal of that — not only is that kind of time period an immediate and identifiable signifier placing you’re your stories in the pulp tradition, but the world of the ‘30s was a perfect place for an adventurer. For one thing, there were still new frontiers, new places to explore. The idea of stumbling across a lost civilization hidden somewhere in a remote jungle — a staple of pulp stories — seems somehow faintly ridiculous in a world with GPS and satellite imagery. You’d have so much explaining to do.
But I rejected the period setting. I wanted something that lived in today’s world. Now, the pulp spirit lives on in the contemporary best-seller lists, in the many formulaic action-thriller series. And in larger-than-life figures like Jack Reacher we see a debased version of Doc Savage, with all of his natural ability but none of his refinement, and none of his extravagant altruism. Doc spends his downtime between missions performing neurosurgery and inventing new kinds of scuba gear; Reacher spends his digging swimming pools. If Clark Savage, Jr. had been allowed to go feral, instead of receiving intensive training in all the arts and sciences, he might have become a psychologically-aberrant superman like Reacher, whose abilities are nigh-supernatural, but whose social conscience is nearly nonexistent.
Reacher is presented as an aspirational figure — women want him! men want to be him! — but it’s a solipsistic, libertarian aspiration. Reacher has no ties to anyone or anything, he’s a badass, he doesn’t get hassled by The Man. He’s got no interest in actually making the world better or fairer; his moral sense, inasmuch as it exists, extends to personal vengeance and a general sympathy for the underdog. Doc Savage aimed higher than that, and following his lead I wanted my pulp heroes to be, well, heroes — thoroughly modern figures, not just aspirational but inspirational.
You wouldn’t think that characters like that would even be plausible in today’s world, but I found one — on a TV show about fishing, of all places…

And the wheels, they keep on grinding...

Thursday, July 25, 2013

I Didn’t Know It Even Had Words


Before it was a dance, it was a song. In this installment of PopSmarts, some thoughts on “Macarena,” twenty years after its original release. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder why anybody ever thought it was a good idea to play this at a wedding.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Water Water

If you follow my Twitter feed — and really, why wouldn’t you? — then you might have seen this dispatch from the corner of gratitude and horror:


That note of panic is only partly for comedic effect. I’m trying to get at something that is, for me, the central and ongoing crisis of the writing life: How to respond when confronted with an Idea.
“Where do you get your ideas?” is every writer’s least-favorite question — not because it’s a dumb question, but because it’s the wrong question. Ideas are everywhere, as cheap and plentiful as water. And they are, in themselves, quite useless. A man with a bomb in his head; that’s an idea. A painting of a street scene that acts as a spatial portal to that street; that’s another idea. But they’re not stories, either of them.

Ideas, like water, are the river flowing beneath our fictions, the current moving them along. What makes a story is what we construct on top of that flowing stream. It might be a raft or a ship to follow the current where it leads, or it may be a water wheel or mill to capture the force of the flow and turn it to other ends.

If the idea is very strong, or the story is very short, or both, your contruction may be almost insubstantial. Look at Hemingway’s famous six-word story:

FOR SALE: Baby shoes, never worn.
Or Alan Moore’s:
time machine. Somehow, I’d invented a


Or a story by Larry Niven, which read in its entirety:

There are some things that man was not meant to know.
Or the famous
The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door.

In all of these, the writer’s construction is like a cunningly-folded origami boat; tiny, perfect, delicate. The care and craft are apparent, but they were never built to last.

So the right question is, “How do you decide what to do with an idea?” And for that, there’s no one answer. Sometimes the form of the structure is implicit in the idea itself, and with practice, I think, you get better at recognizing which ideas are waterfalls and which one are raindrops.

But you can’t always tell at first. And free-writing, interrogation of concept, research — these are all tools to help you. They’re nothing cunning or crafted, in themselves: Notionally speaking, they are nothing but a stick that you use to poke your idea.

Poking your idea with a stick can give you some idea of how deep it is, of how strong its currents might be. And just as when you put your straight stick in water it appears crooked and distorted, the process of inquiry tells you how and in what interesting directions your story might bend and break.

And that’s when things get really interesting.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Defining the Definitive

In which I pursue the fool’s errand of trying to extrapolate a meaningful aesthetic theory from superhero comics — specifically, early-1980s Marvel.

I contend that if there was ever a time and place in commercial comics storytelling where you could smell the cordite from the medium’s shotgun marriage of art and commerce, it was the Paul Smith X-Men.
See me lay out my argument — and maybe start another one — in this installment of PopSmarts.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Face Front, True Believers!

One of the things I miss about message-board culture, since my withdrawal from it, is the sense of play — the writing prompts and games that were such sterling triggers for creativity, or at least reliable distractions from what I was supposed to be writing, and which gave the scene (at its best) the aura of a genuine literary salon.

Esteemed Internet chum Andrew Weiss has been aiming to bring some of that spirit back, with the Ultimate Powers Jam feature on his blog Armagideon Time. Participating writers and artists receive from Andrew a set of statistics, generated at random from an old Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game rulebook, and use them to create a comic-book style character, complete with backstory.
The results — some of pro-quality, some amateurish, all imbued with an unhinged enthusiasm — have been glorious. The random element produces some weird combinations of abilities and weaknesses, and making all those aspects work together has a surreal aspect. It’s the superhero equivalent of the Comte de Lautr√©amont’s “chance meeting, on the dissection table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” These are comic books I’d like to read — certainly moreso than anything that Marvel is actually publishing, these days. Naturally, I wanted in.
Now, I can draw, just a little, and if worse came to worst I figured I could dash off a sketch of my character myself; but I’d been casting about for a some collaborative project to do with my elder child — a fabulous artist whose natural habitat is Tumblr, and who has done enough round-robins and fan-community art challenges to know how this stuff works.
This is the prompt that Andrew gave us, in its entirety:
The character comes from a race of mutants whose powers manifest during childhood.
He/she has the ability to shape and control light across the spectrum as well as the power to make stuff blow up by obliterating its molecular bonds. These powers require quite of bit of energy to use, and overexertion could lead to a period of "mandatory cooldown."
The character is a poor combatant, despite being superhumanly strong and tough. He/she is also extremely intelligent, with intuitive thinking skills to match.

What’s been interesting about the Jam is how the participants use or do not use the existing Marvel Universe elements. The company’s cosmology, its roster of secret societies, alien species, and super-science think tanks, can be a great time-saver. And had I looked at that “race of mutants” line and thought, “Oh, right, the Inhumans or whatever,” my jam piece would have taken about ten minutes to write.
Instead, I disregarded the Marvel Universe elements entirely and started creating a world and a backstory from scratch. When I was done, I had something that looked like a pitch document for a series of Young Adult books, and to my delight Claire illustrated it in a style to match.
 
You think there is only one world, and you think you know your place in it.

You think your name is Judy Hatch, and that you’re a normal middle-school girl — quiet, a bit big for your age, not particularly athletic. You live with your family in a boring suburb. You like to read about science, you take piano lessons, you bicker with your brother. You’re smart; you suspect you may be a genius. You notice things that others don’t, and occasionally it gets you into trouble. But mostly you do not think of yourself as anything but ordinary.

Occasionally you daydream — as children do — that your parents are not your parents, and that you have a destiny Somewhere Else. Not that you are a princess, or anything (don’t be stupid, that stuff is for babies), but that you are in some way extraordinary, and that one day your real parents will take you away from the drab sameness of your little town and off to a new world of magic and danger and excitement, where you will be understood and appreciated, and where you will never, ever be bored.

You know that this is only a daydream, though. Until the day that it isn’t.

It’s summer — just before your eleventh birthday — and you’re camping with your family at the dumb state park, like always. It’s not like you’ve been fighting with them, really; but the weather is lousy and you’ve been cooped up in the tent with your brother, who is annoying as only a 14-year old boy can be. And it’s not like you’re running away when you leave camp and hide in one of the caves that dot the hillside just off the trail. You just want some time to yourself. And to let your family realize how much they’d miss you, if you were gone.

But of course your parents freak. You’re barely settled before they’re running around, calling your name, like it’s a rescue mission. Then your dad’s outside the cave, and it’s so unfair. You’re not ready to be found. Not just yet.

But when he looks into the cave, his eyes just ... look past you.
And when he shines his flashlight into the darkness, its beam sort of ... slides around you, somehow.

And he moves off to look elsewhere, calling your name again.


You reflect on the oddness of this, and you’re thinking it’s a good time to go back to camp. It’s getting late, and the cave is uncomfortably hot, and you think you may be coming down with something (and you never get sick). But before you can make your way out, something shifts in the slope above the cave entrance, and a half-ton of rocks slide down, blocking the exit. Suddenly you are very scared, trapped in darkness, wishing you had a light, even the spark of a match.

As you wish this, tiny dots of pure white light crackle from your body, coalescing into a luminous globe that lights up the cave. You would marvel at your newfound ability to manipulate light and darkness, but you are still trapped, and feeling feverish. You run your hand over the debris blocking your path. Solid. Too heavy to shift. 



You remember reading something about dark matter — how it makes up 85% of the mass of everything. If you could light up that darkness, you could clear away 85% of the rockpile in front of you. Impossible. And as you think this, the wall in front of you dissolves into atoms, its very substance disassembled on a molecular level.

You stumble out of the cave into the night, thirsty and burning with fever. And waiting for you is a stranger, elegant Edwardian-style suit somehow seeming not at all out-of-place in the forest twilight. His name, he tells you, is Alleyn Adargi, and he has something to tell you that will change your life forever.


The world you thought you knew, he tells you, is false. There is not one human species, but two, one hidden from the other. For living alongside Homo sapiens is the secret race Homo obscura. They call themselves Cryptothropes. Alleyn Adargi is one of them.

And so are you.
And he has come to restore you to your long-lost heritage.

The rest of the story — well, that’s the next next book.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

With Apologies to Rob Schneider

Pop stars are just like all other writers, in that you can usually tell who they’ve been reading by the way they’ve been writing — that is, the ones who read at all. This week’s PopSmarts takes a look at the bookshelf of the most ostentatiously well-read rocker of ‘em all.

For the record, there was a picture that I wanted to include — a hilarious promotional poster for the American Library Association, featuring Sting, costumed for his role as Dr. Frankenstein in The Bride in self-important Byronic blouse and greatcoat, golden locks a-flopping, backdropped by picturesque ruins — but although the sight is branded into my memory, I could not find a decent image of it online.
All that aside, the header image — a photo-d√©tournement that I threw together in about three minutes — is one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Follow the Recipe for Licorice Pizza

New article up at Popdose. It’s a listicle, so consider it my audition piece for Buzzfeed, I guess?
Every year, Record Store Day brings us new musical releases to surprise and delight. One of the most delightful surprises this year was a live recording by onetime Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus, performing Can’s 1973 album Ege Bamyasi in its entirety. It wasn’t an entirely unexpected move for Malkmus — he has long spoken of his love for the German experimental scene, and Can in particular — but still, it led us to wonder: When did this become a thing? ....

It’s a relatively recent innovation for one act to roll tape and recreate another act’s album start to finish. (Malkmus breaks slightly from tradition by performing Ege Bamyasi’s tracks out of their original sequence.) That noted musical omnivore Beck has made it something of a hobby, establishing a side project called
the Record Club for that very purpose; but for most groups that turn their hand to it, the full-album cover is a one-off, even a holiday. Here are our picks for five of the best — and strangest — single-artist full-album covers.

The funny thing is that I’ve been acquainted with the music editor of Buzzfeed for years, and he’s still producing and facilitating the same level of smart coverage and analysis that he has ever done, even as he serves the site’s need for clickbait. He’s navigating a very fine line, and doing it far more skillfully than ever I could.
It may have something to do with the difference in our ages — he’s a digital native, while I am a naturalized citizen. And no matter how enthusiastically I may wave the flag, I’m always going to speak the language with an accent. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Trouble With Classicists

The PopSmarts column continues its mission of yoking together culture both academic and popular, with an installment exploring the intersection of highbrow classics, Stephen King, and The Simpsons Movie. Your English Lit professor would call it a “motif,” kids.

It’s that old semantic versatility again, basically. It’s the Democracy of Ideas. When there’s a good hook or a resonant symbol, everybody wants to play with it, whether or not they have the stamp of approval from the Great English Departments of America.
And the dirty secret is that the academic outsiders — the cartoonists, the pulp hacks, the grindhouse movie makers — might be the ones to find new meanings in the device, simply because they haven’t had the “right” meanings beaten into their heads so many times.
John Cale once sang, channeling Andy Warhol:
I think sometimes it hurts you when you stay too long in school;
I think sometimes it hurts you when you’re afraid to be called a fool.


Truer words. Especially since it’s bound to happen at some point; so why be afraid of it?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Hitting An All-Time Low

This week at Popdose, the Like, Omigod! Digging Through the ‘80s Pop Culture Box series — an epic trawl through the seven-disc set from Rhino — reaches its halfway point. Now, it’s no secret that I’ve had a lead role on this project. The columns are in a round-table format, and are credited to the staff collectively, but I’ve been taking point on these pieces.

In fact, I can now reveal that Jon Cummings, Dw. Dunphy, and Dave Lifton have no independent existence, and that they are in fact pseudonyms that I have been employing for years. (I’m still not sure about Dan Wiencek. Sometimes I think he’s real, but I might have made him up, too, and then forgotten about him.)

Well, no. But I have been doing the work of compiling and formatting the discourse, which take place via an email list — taking a series of monologues and stitching them into something that resembles an actual conversation. Some of the hard work is done in the email threads themselves, shaping the flow and direction of the conversation as it happens, but a lot of it is done afterward, in the edits. Minor stuff, mostly. I find that creating a conversational flow is less about what gets said, and more about placement; tweaks to play up callbacks to earlier comments, positioning interjections and interruptions, inserting running jokes and leading questions.

I’ve always got a lot to say — no surprise there — but I try not to dominate the discourse. Which is why, at the last minute, I ended up cutting a long chunk from this week’s discussion of “Major Tom (Coming Home).” I want to run it here, though; in part because if I didn’t run it somewhere, I would be second-guessing myself — Did I really cut this for space, or because it made me uncomfortable to put it out there? — and in part because I still think it’s hilariously wrong-headed. And 100% true.
Holy mackerel, you guys, I’ve been doing this critic bullshit for a long time. I kept a journal when I was a teenager, and I dimly remembered writing something about this song; I thought the notebook must be long gone, but no — I just found it in a box in the basement, having survived thirty years and six times moving house. Let’s have a look...

Oh, God. I actually write about it as the capstone of The Major Tom Trilogy. 700+ words. I just typed it all out and I think my eyes are bleeding, and I can’t feel my legs. Guys, are you still there? I feel cold... so very cold...
The name of Major Tom is well-known to hard-core David Bowie connoisseurs, and now to fans of “New Music.” The unfortunate astronaut was Bowie’s first “persona,” the subject of his first success in 1969. before the Thin White Duke, before the Man who Sold the World — even before Ziggy Stardust — there was Major Tom.

….Although the first two chronicles of the luckless spaceman were created entirely by Bowie, and haven’t been played on mainstream radio for years, the third and most recent was conceived independently of Bowie’s guidance and approval, and can be heard by any casual listener to “New Music.” The song is “Major Tom (Coming Home),” and it was created by a German named Peter Schilling. It recounts the events of “Space Oddity,” but is an incredible leap from it stylistically. Whereas Bowie’s trip is a rambling composition, held together by wild guitar as spacey as its subject, Schilling’s version is a tight rhythmic package, a nervous, twangy high-speed musical piece. It hums with synthesizers. Its deft, terse lyrics are delivered with a cockeyed nervous energy that swells towards the end into a glorious release — but when the release comes it is not in a rush of pent-up violence, but in a beautiful promise of peace.

....Schilling, though working with an established subject, has made his work more touching than the original: his viewpoint lets us get into Major Tom’s head, and to sympathize with him. He doubts his mission: “Starting to collect requested data / What will it effect, when all is done? / thinks Major Tom.” Bowie’s cerebral detached viewpoint stresses the alienation of humans in space, but Schilling remembers that it is humans in space.

....“Major Tom (Coming Home)” is gloriously triumphant, while “Space Oddity” is ultimately depressing. Let’s face it, you’d rather hear about becoming more than human than about deep-space death, thus, Schilling’s piece is that rarity of rarities: the remake better than the original.
...

You know, if I had a spaceship, I would fly it faster than the speed of light, just so I could go back in time and punch my teenaged self right in the fucking face.
And that’s that. Just be grateful that I spared you all my utterly clueless “interpretation” of “Ashes To Ashes.” There’s a lot I’ll do for a laugh, but I still have some sense of shame.

In the meantime, rejoice in the news that Lego has released a David Bowie minifig. At least, I'm pretending it's Bowie.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Gun To A Knife-Fight

A new market for me today. The good folks at Bluffer’s set up an online debate between Brian Joseph Davis and myself. The proposition before us; “Is Dan Brown a terrible writer?” If you’ve read any of my previous columns on the topic, you can probably guess which side I was arguing.

The “debate” itself is done in quasi-Oxford style, with no rebuttals; Brian and I never interacted, the whole thing having been organized remotely by our editor and new pal Emma Smith. And while it is perhaps inappropriate for me, as an interested party, to venture an opinion as to winners and losers, I dare say that while Brian’s defense was admirably succinct, mine was, let’s say, rather more … spirited. Or maybe “excitable” is a better word. (Hey, like the scorpion in the parable, you knew what I was when you picked me up.)

It’s an interesting mode for me to write in. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve always loved almanacs, books of trivia, factoids. I recently had the opportunity to do some work for Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers (you can buy that book now, if you're so inclined), which are very much in that spirit. Bluffer’s has something of the same “hot,” hyper-compressed style. The articles are all quite short, and informationally-dense. And they demand a singular discipline.

Here’s a dirty little secret of writing; short articles are much harder to write than long ones. It’s a relatively simple matter for me to unload a big bucket o’ hate on Dan Brown, but something else again to boil that bucket down into five poisonous mouthfuls. They call them “bullet points” — but with a limit of one hundred words to back up each assertion, any damage you do must come not from massive kinetic impact, but from precision and incisiveness. Not a bullet, but a stiletto.