Tag Archives: Popular Culture

Real or Fake?

jackalope1So I’m reading a Kindle sample of a novel and in the beginning pages a character is listening to a song on the radio. The singer’s name is made up, the popular song being sung is made up, as are the equally unimpressive lyrics1. Then I find out that the singer got famous when she was on a TV program called Popstar! and, well, that along with some of the other problems I felt the book had, it kind of did me in for wanting to read the rest. I mean, why not just say American Idol?2

Why not indeed? I mean, doesn’t Stephen King, who some people praise for his immersive style of writing, sometimes drown you in brand names – Louie sat in his La-Z-Boy recliner with a Budweiser and a bag of Doritos, and turned his Sony flatscreen on to ESPN, waiting to see the start of the Boston Red Sox game… I think King’s point is to have people believe his creepy stuff could happen in the real world, so he throws in real world stuff in the name of verisimilitude. And it works for a lot of readers.3

On the other hand, you have writers who throw in fakes, and, well, I can’t really explain why. Years ago I was really excited to start reading James A. Michener’s Space, his novel about the U.S. space program. But early on it described a character going outside to look at the night sky “in the state of Fremont” – and my suspension of disbelief came crashing down like a house of cards. I mean, yeah, it’s a novel, but it’s a novel about NASA, it takes place in the United States and some of the other characters are real people, like Werhner Von Braun and Lyndon Johnson… then why make up a state fercryinoutloud? Why not just say Kansas or Nebraska or Iowa?

Now there are times when you definitely want to fake it. If you’re an insider to history or popular culture and you want to vent your spleen on the subject from an insider’s point of view, the roman a clef is the way to do it. Just change the names and everything is good to go. And if you want to keep your job, better fake your name, too – Anonymous is very popular among this set, and you can join novels like Primary Colors and Elimination Night4, along with all the attendant “who wrote it?” publicity.

Unfortunately, to me novels like that become a jokey guessing game with no real point. Everyone knows which Presidential candidate is really Bill Clinton, which recently rehabbed rock star grasping for relevance is really Stephen Tyler. if you’re going to this, I have two pieces of advice: first, make sure you have a really good lawyer. Second, if you’re going to fake the names, go all the way. Don’t play the assonance game and make William Clinton into Wilson Fenton (Primary Colors makes him Jack Stanton). Doing that strikes me as being too cutesy and cloying. Make him Frank Stevens instead. And if you’re going to have a cameo by an iconic figure, you have to be consistent and play it out ’till the end, changing his/er name, too. Just don’t call him Rob Snopes.

In Science Fiction it’s easier to get away with fakery. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing about things that sound different in the future because, well, things will sound different in the future. Except when they stay pretty much the same, as evidenced by the brand names that pop up in films like 2001 and Blade Runner.

Still, when you’re in the future you need to play nice. While working on the Pembroke Hall novels, my editor asked me to change the way that I talked about Timex in the book. They were afraid the watchmakers would be offended by things and the lawyers would come out. I made the alteration because she had a point, it was an easy fix, and I didn’t really have anything against the company or their products.

If you’re writing Historical Fiction, then it’s probably best not to fake it at all. Readers of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist partly did so to watch how the characters interacted with a future President who at the time of the novel was Police Commissioner of New York City. They didn’t want to guess which leader Theophilus Rosenfeld turned out to be. The trick to not faking it here is use the real person’s character to enhance the goings-on – a recent episode of Downtown Abbey centered around a meeting with playboy Prince Edward, whose womanizing ways contributed to the plot in an ironic way.

So if you’re going to be real, play nice and be consistent. And if you’re going to fake it, well, go in all the way and don’t be ridiculous about it.

That concludes my thoughts. This is Joe Clifford Faust, signing off from the state of Midlandia.

  1. But then, I’m at the age where most of the lyrics I hear on the radio are unimpressive.
  2. And I have problems with ALL these shows that grind out cookie cutter singers, but I’m not going there today.
  3. See, I can write about King and not say anything nasty!
  4. Which I always thought was a really lame fake name for American Idol. Popstar! is much better.
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On Fan Fiction


Is this a sandbox that you really want to play in?

Okay, I’m going to do it. I’m going to discuss fan fiction. I’ve been avoiding the subject for many years because I don’t think much of it. To me it’s like cheating, playing in somebody else’s sandbox. I suppose it has its uses – supposedly some successful writers started out writing FF, and it let them cut their writing eye teeth. From my point of view though, writing FF, even if you’re going to go into “regular” fiction later, deprives you of the experience of developing characters and world building because you’re writing about Kirk and Spock or The Doctor or Harry Potter, ad nauseam.

Okay, so you can learn some of the basics of prose with FanFic. But what if you wrote something to that order, and you decided that it turned out pretty darn good, and instead of letting it languish in the fan community, which is the fate of most, you do a little Microsoft Word trickery and change “James T. Kirk” to “Dirk Manly” and “Yeoman Janice Rand” to “Honeysuckle Heartthrob” and “The Enterprise” to… okay, you get the idea. Then you take the resulting mess and pass it off as something original.

That couldn’t happen… could it?

Oh, yes, indeedy it could. And did. And not just with Fan Fic… but apparently with a particularly specialized kind of FF called Slash, in which the “Slash” indicates a certain form of congress between two characters who consent or otherwise during the plot. So you could have “Doctor/Sarah Jane” fanfic (pronounced “Doctor Slash Sarah Jane”) in which those two characters do the horizontal tango, or Neo/Trinity fan fic, or one particularly disturbing subset called “Kirk/Spock”, but we won’t go there. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

It seems a sharp-eyed reader on Goodreads discovered a very disturbing parallel between a piece of Edward/Bella fanfic called “Master of the Universe” and a certain bestselling piece of erotica.

That’s right, you’re already ahead of me. In “Master”, the Twilight characters get their freak on and it turns out that Edward is more of a freak than the original books hinted, but that’s okay because Bella seems to like it… and what do you know, after some Search and Replace and a little tweaking, Cullen becomes Grey, as in Fifty Shades of.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a link comparing the two. Just keep something in mind – I have not read the entire selection – I just looked at enough to convince me. I have no idea if this is from a particularly graphic part of the novel or not, and take no responsibility for content. This is the courtroom of the blog, and I’m presenting Exhibit A.

I’m not sure where to come down on this. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and have no plans to. If I’d been a fan of the series, I’m not sure what I would think. Probably that it was cool that somebody made it out of the bush league and was now swatting for the majors. But as a writer, I can’t help think that this is a huge swindle. When most of us pick up a novel, we expect it to be an original work, and while FSoG is self-plagiarism, it is plagiarism nonetheless, as devoid of originality as most movies coming out of Hollywood nowadays. Oh, wait a minute…

Anyway, there’s one other point that remains as Goodreads reviewer Alicia implies in her review/expose of the book: bad writing is always bad writing.

But on the other hand… the readers of Fifty Shades of Grey aren’t looking for Ernest Hemingway when they pick their copy up to read. And I to be honest, I don’t know what I’m worried about. I suspect it’s too much to ask for Erotica/Slash to have some kind of integrity.

Free Mushrooms

As promised, in honor of National Police Week (May 12-16) and Peace Officer Memorial Day (May 15), the Kindle version of The Mushroom Shift free from Amazon.com.

If you prefer paper and want to try your luck, 10 autographed copies of the trade paperback version are being given away through Goodreads.com.

Enjoy… and remember.

Looking Back at the Future

Sometime in 1989, Kurt Busiek, who had up until recently been my agent, called me from his new position at Marvel Comics. They were planning on taking another crack at a Science Fiction comic book, and they were going to put two twists on the genre. First, it was going to be written by real, professional, established Science Fiction writers. Second, it was going to be a shared universe – where all of the writers got to basically play in the same sandbox.

And he wanted me to write the opening story for the series.

Why me?

Open Space, Issue #1. Lead story by yours truly, set in a bleak near-future.

“Because you’re extraordinarily good at near futures,” he told me. And the near future is where Open Space, as the comic would come to be known, began.

By that point in my career I had published A Death of Honor and The Company Man, both of which posited rather gloomy near futures and skated near the thin ice that could plunge one into cyberpunk (although I never considered them that, many readers did – after I thought about it, I suppose they were pre-cyberpunk in a way).

So over the ensuing years, you might wonder how some of my near-future predictions came out, seeing as how we just passed the 25th anniversary of the publication of Honor. Answer is, there were some things here and there in both books that kind of hit near some marks if you stretched it a bit.

But nothing like what has been happening in the past few months with the Pembroke Hall novels.

It all started in December, when an article appeared in Forbes online, accompanied by a couple of remarkable videos. The title was “Nanotechnology May Lead To The End Of Laundry“, and I’m certain that a lot of people thought it was gosh-wow — except for the people who had read Ferman’s Devils and/or Boddekker’s Demons during the fifteen minutes they were in print.

One of the conceits in those novels was a laundry soap that used nanotechnology to not just ultra-clean clothing, but actually repaired it as well. It seems that by the time the author was writing those novels in the mid-1990s, he had seen a lot of preachifying about how nanotech was going to save the world by disassembling toxic chemicals at the molecular level and save lives by repairing heart valves without surgery, and so on. He realized these things were noble indeed, but that somebody was going to figure out how to make big bucks with the technology by making it do something mundane. And here we are:

 

And…

 

Now I had a friend who really needed a new heart valve a couple of years ago, and when local hospitals gave him the kiss off because he was self-insured, he went to India to have the retread work done. And I was left wondering, where was his nano-laced pill that would take care of that? Hmmm, seems the nano folks got to the making a buck part of the program before nobility could rear its head.

But I digress.

Back to the point. That was pretty strange, to see something like that happen, nearly a dozen years after the book came out. But then something else caught my eye yesterday – a story from the London Telegraph saying that Paul McCartney’s son James is mulling over putting a band together with the sons of the other Beatles. Hey, I can’t make this stuff up.

Nanos that do laundry, Beatles: The Next Generation, and a crumbling culture - they're all here.

Except that I did. It was kind of a running joke in the Pembroke Hall novels, a band constantly referred to as “The SOB’s” – and then you find out halfway through that it stands for “Sons of Beatles”, and that the band is made up of… yeah, you got it.

Was I trying to wishfully think when I wrote that into the novel? No. I was making fun of our popular culture. It was, after all, the beginning of an era when artists began keeping their moribund careers alive by releasing sequels to hit albums of the past (the latest? Ian Anderson’s Thick as a Brick 2. Seriously.). Maybe in retrospect I shouldn’t have done it. Pop culture is just too easy of a target. I don’t know.

Whether Beatles 2.0 comes off or not remains to be seen, but these things have made for a weird couple of months for me. Before you go calling me Nostradamus or anything like that, remember that there’s lots of other stuff in those two novels that hasn’t happened, like thugs becoming media stars. Everyone knows that commercial actors aren’t thugs. Those are all found in the NFL and NBA.

Seriously again, I don’t know what to make of this. They say things happen in threes, so maybe I will ignore this trend until one more thing like this pops up – when and if. So I guess I’ll try not to be too unnerved until the other other shoe drops.

Meantime, if you want to catch up on this tale, I’m scheduled to have the Author’s Intended Version of Ferman’s Devils – ready for release just over a year from now. Maybe sooner if I can get those pesky Angel’s Luck books out of the way. If you want to check them out sooner, check the used section of Amazon or on eBay.

And for you few who read the book, here’s something that may keep you up at night: According to my calculations, Boddekker is now an eight year-old.

Handwriting is on the Wall

I have just heard the news that cursive writing will no longer be taught in Ohio schools, making it the third state to abandon the skill (behind Indiana and Hawaii). The keyboard is king now, the thinking goes, making unnecessary a discipline that teaches manual dexterity at the fine motor level. In these modern times we live in, cursive is slowly being traded as a youth-learned skill in favor of manipulation of a joystick.

That’s pretty sad. We’re slowly losing something useful, something that was a rite of passage in our schooling, and something that serves as a unique identifier and perhaps even a mirror of our personality.

I say this in spite of my never having really gotten the hang of cursive. My penmanship was wobbly and inconsistent, and I always had to labor at it. Printing worked better for me, probably since I did an unusual amount of writing as a kid before the cursive lessons started. I was actually faster at printing, and over the years, my printing evolved into it’s own kind of cursive, though it doesn’t look anything like when I try to write in cursive. It’s neither writing nor printing, but it is distinctive.

Quality cursive is a subjective thing anyway. Two of my oldest friends vary widely in the quality of their penmanship. One has a tight, elegant, kind of writing that resembles a city skyline. It’s amazing looking and could be a font. The other writes in broad, palsied, wavy lines that look like Charles Schulz’s lettering in the last few years of his life. Even his printing is sad looking. But both are enormously successful in their respective fields.

What always amazed me was how cursive seemed to cookie cutter the handwriting of girls. Our cursive system turned out millions of girls who wrote with broad, loopy writing, the kind that seemed to encourage the dotting of “i’s” with tiny hearts or flowers. Being a callow youth, I immediately judged girls on this kind of penmanship, and I never dated anyone whose writing looked like that.

In fact, my wife has the most amazing handwriting I’ve ever seen. It took me a couple of years to be able to read it on the first pass. Her letters are long and thin and slant off to the right like a field of wheat bending in a breeze. The loops she pens are gracefully thin and tight, with just enough space inside to distinguish one letter from another. It’s graceful and compact and is as unique as she is.

My children, on the other hand, were educated during the ascendancy of the keyboard, and interestingly enough, they both lean more toward printing than any brand of cursive. Further, what training they did get in cursive managed to generify their penmanship, and their styles of printwriting are remarkably similar. Both have a practiced signature, but it consists mostly of straight lines occasionally interrupted by a loop. But as their father, I can tell them apart.

Perhaps it’s time for cursive to go, given how keyboards now dominate our lives. But that’s not a good thing. It was a good discipline to learn. It gave you a unique marker beyond the fingerprint. From personal experience, I can say that writing by hand gives you a more intimate connection with the words in your head. For most of the novels I’m working on or have planned, I already have opening scenes written by hand (including the soon-to-be-released The Mushroom Shift, which was the first time I wrote a first chapter by hand).

Time and progress leave things behind, and for better or worse cursive is looking more and more like a dinosaur. However, being modern has its price. I can’t imagine Sullivan Ballou’s letter or the train station scene in Casablanca being improved by a laser printed missive in perfect 12-point Times New Roman.

Oh, Fudge!

Where to come down on the idea of cussin’ in one’s books? I’ve gotten away from it for the most part, mostly because I’m a Christian and try hard not to use it myself. But I’ve also sat through enough TV versions of films where the language is softened, and for the most part the writing works without it (except for the moment in Heartbreak Ridge where Clint Eastwood refers to a compromised operation as a “cluster flop”).

If the profanity is taken out and not given a ridiculous substitute, most writing functions surprisingly well. I’ve gotten along without it nicely for a couple of novels now, although in Drawing Down the Moon I resorted to some comparatively minor epithets during a couple of moments when the emotional tension was ratcheted up so high that it seemed the scene couldn’t exist without the kind of expression that exists when you call someone a son-of-a-bitch.

One thing I don’t think most writers consider when using profanity is how it is perceived by the reader. Folks, most readers ain’t looking at it the way that a lot of us do. For example, John Grisham has been praised for years for “not using profanity” – but he does. The thing is, he uses it ever-so-sparingly.

This tells me that in minuscule amounts profanity becomes overlooked as part of the story and doesn’t even enter the reader’s consciousness. There’s not enough to alert the reader’s radar, so it flies under it naturally.

Unlike when I went to see Dog Day Afternoon once upon a time a long time ago. A bunch of us from college went, and one girl who was unenlightened about “cinema” (as opposed to “movies”) became bored with the plot early on and began to count out loud the number of F Bombs dropped by Al Pacino. And you know what? Thinking back on it, it was distracting. Not the girl’s count, but the fact that there were so many that it demanded counting. How else do you account for people tallying the number of F words in films like The Big Lebowski, or pretty much any movie in which Joe Pesci or Robert DeNiro are allowed to do some ad-libbing? It’s like there’s a saturation point for this particular epithet, and once you pass a certain number of uses, it pushes the meter from “Useful” to “Tolerable” to “Offensive” and into “Self Parody.”

Oddly enough, this didn’t seem to happen in The Commitments, but then the word wasn’t flowing exclusively from the mouth of one particular character – it same from everyone, as if it was a part of the street argot. And it worked that way.

My take is to use profanity infrequently and only when emphasis is needed somewhere. I’m not so sure I buy into the whole “it’s part of the character” thing anymore because it has become so over-used (see below for an exception).

While there was profanity in A Death of Honor, there were only two F-bombs – one in a confrontation with a jackbooted version of that universe’s police, and an expression of disgust and dismay near the book’s end. My editor called me up to talk about this since Del Rey wasn’t known for that kind of language, but what’s interesting is that she was concerned with the second instance of the word – almost as if the first hadn’t existed. I guessed that was a sign that it felt natural in the first application, and seemed gratuitous in the second – although I would have traded the first to keep the second, which is where I really felt it belonged.

Interestingly enough, there was almost no profanity in Honor – at least not in the traditional sense. When I initially wrote the first chapter, one of the things I postulated was that language would change in the future, so I used a different, odd word as a profane expression. However, since Honor was only the second novel I’d written, I lost my courage to see that part of the book through and used common contemporary cussin’ instead. But I kept the idea in the back of my mind… and when the time came to write Ferman’s Devils I had a lot more confidence… and that’s why the characters there say “ranking” all the ranking time. It’s up to readers to figure out why it’s a cussword (and no, I don’t give any clues – but it was accepted).

Incidentally, “ranking” is almost the only cussword in Ferman. There are two others, used only once each – “bastard” and “ass”. The only reason I used them is because I heard them used in actual TV commercials while I was writing the book, and put them into the advertising universe to make a point.

For the most part I think profanity is a spice where you err on the side of less is more. That said, there are exceptions. Right now I’m in the process of coding my unpublished police novel for the Kindle. It’s based on what I observed when I worked as a Sheriff’s Dispatcher, back during the Ice Age. It’s thick with creative profanity because that’s what I heard. Some time after I wrote it, in a moment of idealism I decided to rewrite it without the profanity. But when I started doing that it just wasn’t the same book. Taking the profanity out ruined the whole tone of things. So I decided to leave it in.

Ultimately, it’s the decision of each individual writer to make. Just keep in mind that your readers are more involved with the story than you think, and if you’re gratuitous with the language, it may push the aforementioned Profane-O-Meter into Self Parody faster than you think.

And be cautious when I finally release The Mushroom Shift for the Kindle. The language really is terrible, and some folks don’t ranking like that.

Wanted (No Questions Asked)

Have you seen me (in HTML or Plain Text)?

Walter Jon WIlliams is looking for pirated scans of his novels. In this article on Torrent Freak, he explains his rationale, and it’s a good one.

Having recently scanned and coded the forthcoming ebook issue of A Death of Honor, I can see the genius of this move. Why bother scanning when there’s someone out there who may have already done it? Or somebody who can be bribed with autographed books, a mention in the appropriate ebook edition, or perhaps even small amounts of cash to produce a new scan?1

So if any of you ace searchers out there can point me to a torrent where any of my titles (except A Death of Honor – done already) can be downloaded, let me know. Or if anyone out there is willing to do an OCR scan of one or more of my titles (preferably into html format), get in touch also.2

As I said, bribes are definitely in order. Although baked goods might be a bit hard to ship.

  1. Hey, we are in a recession, folks. If I were Stephen King, I’d be more generous. But then, if I were King, I wouldn’t have this issue.
  2. To answer an obvious question – I do have electronic copies of all my novels except Honor (which was written and edited entirely on an old device called a typewriter). The problem with these is twofold – one, they are all stored on 5 1/4″ floppies. Two, they are not the edited version as produced by the publishers.