Archive for the ‘Random crap’ Category

Division by Zero

23/10

In 1993 I had an amazing opportunity. I connected online with another area writer named John Passarella to develop an idea of mine for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Working through his agent at the time, we submitted our spec script and were invited in to pitch to then-story editor Robert Hewitt Wolf.

We never did manage to sell a pitch to DS9 (although one of our “B” plots eventually formed the basis for the seventh season story Take Me Out to the Holosuite) but we were both given an open-ended invitation to pitch to both DS9 and Voyager, which was in development at the time. (I’ll talk about my Voyager experiences later on, if you ask really nicely.)

Although I’ve held on to the second (and I think better) spec script that we collaborated on, as well as a copy of John’s own solo spec script for DS9, I had thought that the script that had gotten us through the door was forever lost.

Until I started trying to recover some of my old floppies this week.

At the time I was actually still writing on an Atari 130XE. My PC days were months away, and I went through hell trying to convert files back and forth between Atari’s own proprietary data format and something readable by Jack’s PC. To facilitate the conversion process, I dumped the script as a generic text file onto a PC-formatted floppy disc using a kludge program to let Atari users read and write DOS floppies. I forgot about that backup copy, and ended up dumping it into a box with other floppies that I never bothered to look at.

Today, I found it.

The date on the disc is August 21, 1993, and while the label says “Acts 1-4,” it also included a copy of the full merged script, revised on August 27, 1993. I can’t remember which one of us did the last revision: Jack or I. In any case, I’m reasonably sure that was the version that we submitted, and since neither of us can profit off of it, I’ve decided to put it out into the wilds for those who might be curious.

I had the story concept in the early days of DS9’s first season, and Jack and I wrote it during the closing days of that season before we even had a chance to look at the series bible. A lot of things we touched on were eventually negated, retconned, or even ignored as the series continued. (The main story comes from facts about Trill physiology from TNG.) We got the news that our script had been formally rejected but we had been invited to pitch, oddly enough, a week before one of the episodes doing those retcons actually aired.

So if you can ignore the fact that this was written before most of what we now know about the characters of DS9 was firmly established, and that we wanted a chance to do some of that character development, go ahead and read it. But don’t be surprised if it doesn’t feel like the DS9 you remember; you probably aren’t thinking about what the first season felt like.

You can read the script by clicking here.

Once again, people don’t learn.

23/10

Another school shooting brings out the same old tired mantras. “Motive unclear.” “Heroic blah blah.” “Crazed gunman.”

For those of us who actually give a shit, there was no mystery about the case of Sparks Middle School. Just as there was no mystery about Lanier High or Carver High or Taft Union. Or Paducah, or Jonesboro, or (despite the best efforts of historical revisionists to change the narrative) Columbine.

Eventually, the truth will out. And it finally has once again in the case of Sparks Middle School. It was a bullying victim who felt no other option but to take matters into his own hands.

The problem with school shootings, at heart, is one of denial. As I wrote in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine:

“By all rights, Columbine should have gotten the message across loud and clear to kids across the country: don’t fuck with the wrong people or you will end up dead. It didn’t, though, and neither did the killings that came later, because people love victims. Because a couple of kids who were sick of being kicked around killed their oppressors, they wound up making themselves into the bad guys, and made the bad guys into victims in everyone’s eyes. People were too overcome with grief over the senseless bloodshed to think about what had driven the two shooters to do what they did. And for those jocks, having their blood spilled wound up washing away their sins as far as everyone was concerned. Don’t think about what they were really like, turn them into perfect little angels in everyone’s eyes. And, personally, I am not really in favor of giving the world of jocks any new martyrs.”

In Americans’ minds, being shot makes you the victim. Never the oppressor. No parent wants to consider that their kid brought on their own demise through their actions. No one wants to say, in effect, that they got what they deserved. We’re too busy grieving and wringing our hands to actually think about what happened.

We keep having school shootings simply because we don’t make a real effort to stop them. We add security checkpoints and metal detectors and spot inspections but we never address the underlying cause.

I’ve said before that if I’d had easy access to a gun when I was in High School, I would have wound up like one of these shooters. I was a victim of bullying just like so many others. I carry the scars to this day, even as some of the people who bullied me now try to pretend that they’re my friends.

Are we finally going to get serious about ending school shootings? If so, we need to get down to the root cause of so many of them: bullying. And I mean a real effort, not the eyewash that we’re trying to pass off as an effort now. Here’s a start.

END “ZERO TOLERANCE” AS WE NOW KNOW IT.

Our current “zero tolerance” policies only aggravate the problem. If a kid tries to defend himself against a physical attack, he gets suspended or expelled. If a kid complains about bullying to administrators, their hands are tied because it becomes a “your word against mine” situation so the bully gets away with it.

We need to change zero tolerance so there’s zero tolerance against the aggressors only. We need to start suspending and expelling bullies, not their victims. We need to have administrators respond when complaints about bullying are made, not brush them off.

We need to show kids that their problems can be solved another way, through a system that works.

Because if we don’t, more and more kids are going to feel they have no other option to end their suffering than to kill their oppressors and then themselves.

…Only to Find Gideon’s Bible

22/10

 

…Only to Find Gideon’s Bible

 

A Short Story by

Pab Sungenis

 

Inspired by Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by

Cory Doctorow

 

I will never forget the look on the first guy to realize what a mistake had been made. And when I say “never,” I really mean never. When you have all of eternity to look forward to, you don’t throw words like that around lightly.

“But I don’t understand,” he sputtered in disbelief, “we cured death!”

* * *

I was running intake that day at the Gates. In the early days, the traffic was light enough that one guy alone could do the job, so Peter took it upon himself to greet every newcomer. But the humans felt the need to take “be fruitful and multiply” a bit too literally, so we ended up needing a team to process everyone who had shuffled off their mortal coil so to speak. That day it was my job to oversee the operation, and within seconds of starting this one’s entrance interview, I knew we were in for big trouble.

“You can’t cure death,” I explained with a sigh. “Everything dies. It’s the nature of being.”

“Yeah, but our scientists took care of that. Backup and restore, you know? Retire the body, and restore the mind from its backup.”

I vaguely remembered seeing a memo about this. “The Bitchun Society,” the humans called it. It seemed that over the previous few decades they’d been busy dirtside. They’d discovered the secrets of free energy (or at least something they called that). They’d managed to do away with scarcity. They’d replaced money with some abstract concept they called “Whuffie” which no one up here had managed to figure out; heck, most of us had barely come to understand money! Finally some particularly bright human had come up with the idea of copying all the data stored in a human brain into electronic data, then implanting it into another brain.

“The cure for death” they called it. They were so, so wrong.

“Let me see if I can explain.” I motioned to a chair. I didn’t really need to sit, since I don’t get tired, and neither do the spirits of dead humans for that matter. Still, we had been told that it was a good idea to get them to sit when we delivered bad news, since it tended to make them calm. “Your scientists really didn’t understand the true nature of human life. You were concentrating on the biotech side and didn’t think much about the supernatural side, so to speak.”

The guy looked back at me like I’d told him that he was secretly born a giraffe. I knew I would have to take a different tack. “I’m sorry,” I said in an attempt to rewind the conversation, “what did you say your name was?”

“Gideon.”

“Nice name.” I didn’t tell him it was mine, too. Didn’t want to get too connected to the clients. “What was it you did while you were alive?”

“I was a computer engineer.”

Perfect. I had just the metaphor I needed. “Then you know how a computer is really the sum of a number of component parts. Hardware, firmware, software?”

“That’s a little simplistic isn’t it?”

“Oh, what I’m comparing computers to is even more complicated, but it’s still the best way for you to see where I’m coming from. Stay with me now.”

“Okay.”

“Now let’s say that a human being is like a computer. Humans have hardware, which they call bodies, and they have software, which they call the mind. Do you understand so far?”

“I think so.”

“Good. What you call the ‘cure for death’ is roughly equivalent to backing up all of the software from one computer, and installing it onto a different computer.”

“But the same computer! An identical one! And we dispose of the old computer afterward.”

“That doesn’t matter. The two aren’t completely identical. Your motherboard, processor, all that sort of thing, are they going to have the same serial numbers?”

“Of course not. How else are we going to tell parts apart?”

“Precisely. Every piece of computer hardware has a Globally Unique Identifier, or GUID. Correct?”

“Yes.”

“Well, so do humans.”

The giraffe look came back so I tried to sum up. “What do you know about the soul?”

“You mean like Stevie Wonder?”

I shook my head. What were they teaching these creatures dirtside? “No. Every human being has a unique bit of firmware, I guess you would call it. This is that human’s soul. It’s eternal, indestructible, and sorry to say non-transferrable. When you copy a person’s mind into a force-grown clone, what you are doing is creating a brand-new human being with their own individual soul. You are giving that new person all the memories and personality of the first person, so they think that they’re the same, but they’re not. The soul is different. And when the old body is ‘retired,’ its soul is released and comes here.”

“So, I’m dead, and there’s a new guy down on Earth who thinks he’s me?”

“As far as everyone on Earth is concerned, he is you. Up here, however, it’s a different story.”

Gideon still didn’t seem to have a handle on the matter, so I kept trying to find some metaphor that would make sense to him. I had no idea how long I’d actually been trying to shed light on the subject until I heard a knock on the door.

“Uh, boss?” One of the lesser angels was standing there with a look I hadn’t seen since shortly after the Crusades. “I think you’d better take a look at this.”

He gestured behind him and opened the doorway wide enough for another dead human to enter.

It was Gideon. Or, at least, another Gideon. They looked nearly identical both in body and in spirit. It was a toss-up as to which of them had a goofier look on their face upon learning their fate.

“I was out skydiving. Celebrating my recovery from my first death, and….” The newcomer Gideon looked at the first Gideon.

“Who are you?”

“Who am I? Who are you?”

“Or should I say ‘who am me?”’”

“I am me, and you are me, and we are me.”

“And we are all together,” I sighed. “Goo goo ga joob.”

* * *

Things did not get much better over the next few years. More and more people showing up at the entrance were so confused at the thought that they had actually died that we had to triple our intake staff to handle the processing delays caused by talks like I’d suffered through with Gideon.

Eventually, someone came up with the idea of creating a new orientation film of sorts, which would be presented to new arrivals from the Bitchun Society, outlining their misconceptions and how things really worked. I tried to get the Gideons (there were twelve of him by that point) to help me put one together, but it proved to be more trouble than it was worth.

“I don’t understand why we have to show it to everyone,” one of the Gideons said. “We could flash-bake this whole thing as they come through the doors, and….”

“Wait,” another one piped up, “’flash-bake?’ What are you talking about?”

“You know,” a third offered, “direct mental implantation of memories and experiences.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Come on,” yelled a fourth. “Iwe invented flash-baking when iwe worked at Disneyland Beijing!”

“I’ve never been to Beijing!” protested a fifth.

“Yes, iwe have!”

I was truly frightened by this point. It had gotten so bad that they were inventing their own grammar. I quietly snuck out while they were arguing about which of he had done what and decided to offer the task to a half-dozen author who might do a better job of getting the idea across.

* * *

Before long, the situation had gotten completely out of control. The overcrowding situation on this plane of existence was threatening to become as dire as it had been dirtside. Eventually it would probably be worse since the birth rate on Earth had slowed to a trickle, but the manufacture of unique souls through the restore-from-backup process was actually accelerating as humans became more and more irresponsible as death became little more than an inconvenience as far as they were concerned.

Before long, we had to expand our operation. We briefly considered a merger with Hell, but it turned out that conditions were even worse for them. We tried to purchase room from a number of different planes that hadn’t seen as much of an increase in traffic as we had (practically no one had gone to Valhalla or Hades for centuries, for example). Finally, after a land-for-peace swap with the Islamic Paradise and a hostile takeover of the Planet Kolob, we managed to stabilize our expansion at a sustainable rate.

I breathed a sigh of relief as room was finally located for the last of our overcrowded souls and space was anticipated for what had become the new normal arrival rate. I had hoped to settle down for a couple of centuries, maybe enjoy a cup of tea or two, when a new knock came at the door.

“A new problem, Boss,” the minor angel moaned as he came in. He was holding an object in his hand which he laid on my deak. It resembled an old computer floppy disk.

“Deleted backups have started to arrive.”

I folded my head into my wings. The heat death of the Universe couldn’t come soon enough.

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The War on (Fictional) Marriage

12/09

It seems like one can’t type the words “DC Comics” without having to use the words “stupid idea” close by. But the latest stupid idea from DC is getting media attention for all the wrong reasons.

This morning the two writers on DC’s Batwoman book announced they were leaving the title because the editorial staff forbade the title character from marrying her female lover (the much more interesting character, Maggie Sawyer). The revelation of this decision by the Powers that Be has started the predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth, but the majority of complainers have it all wrong. Homophobia didn’t enter into it. DC Comics is just against marriage.

All marriage.

Before the series of reboots, starting in 2005 with Infinite Crisis and culminating two years ago with the “New 52” the DC Universe was full of happily married people. Superman finally married Lois Lane in the late 1990’s. Three generations of Flashes all had wives to whom they were devoted. Ralph and Sue Dibney were a comics version of Nick and Nora Charles: a married couple who solved mysteries together. True, there were some exceptions. Batman showed no interest in getting hitched to anyone but that’s just the way Bats is, and Green Lanterns in particular had less than spectacular histories with loved ones but at least they made an attempt.

No longer. With history wiped (almost) clean in this last reboot, Clark and Lois are no longer together. Barry (Flash) Allen is not married to Iris West. Every long-standing romantic relationship is turned on its head unnecessarily. And DC hardly deserves all the blame for this trend. After all, Marvel started it.

But comics aren’t the only culprits in this war on fictional marriage. I myself have been a willing participant.

When Sidekick was picked up by its wonderful publisher editorial changes were obviously going to follow, and the first change that was made by mutual agreement was that of Bobby’s marital status. The original ending to the book included Sarah accepting a marriage proposal from Bobby, and the epilogue showed them almost a year later as a married couple. When the publisher told me they wanted a sequel to be published a year after Sidekick hit the shelves, I immediately told my editor that I wanted to rewrite the last two chapters to take out the marriage so I could keep the romantic entanglement between the two characters as a plot thread in later books.

Imagine my surprise when I found out the marriage was at the top of the lists the publisher wanted changed, but for different reasons. Their argument was that teens would have a hard time identifying with a married character. I truly had never thought of that, and I don’t necessarily agree with the idea. If it hadn’t been for the needs of a second book in the series (which also led to the decision to de-age Bobby by a year) I might have fought the decision. In the end, it was the right choice, and it did open up new avenues for the characters as the story continues.

But now I wonder what if I hadn’t made the decision, or agreed with an editorial change, to wipe out Bobby’s marriage? True, most of the plot of Brothers in Arms (no spoilers) would have worked out differently but I couldn’t honestly say it wouldn’t have been possible. The plot complications that I threw into their romance wouldn’t have been as simple but married couples have complications all their own. In literary terms, it’s no more a challenge to have a married couple cope with challenges in their home life than to have two lovers face romantic entanglements. And it would probably involve fewer sex scenes, which would keep the books from getting banned as often.

It’s not even just a question of YA characters marrying, proposing, or even considering marriage. My buddy over at The YA Dogtown recently had a great article about how YA really gives parents the shaft. The YA landscape is littered with the remains of divorces, dead parents, or absent parents. There are logical reasons for not featuring parents too prominently in YA literature, but at least their presence should be acknowledged. And there’s no reason why a YA protagonist should be automatically be excluded from having two parents (of either gender, I’m not picky) in a happy, or at least functional, marriage.

No, as far as my own decision to keep Bobby single, je ne regrette rien. It was right for the character and it made for a better story. But looking at a larger picture, I do have to wonder what kind of message are we sending to teens about the institution of marriage? When people are fighting for the right to get married, are we perhaps discouraging teens from even thinking about making their relationships permanent somewhere down the road?

Something to think about.

Staging the Catcher

21/08

As I set out to direct another play, my mind has been drawn to the concept of reimagining and re-envisioning previous works. I’ve long felt that the main problem with a lot of older works is not in the original source material but in the cruft that they’ve had piled on top of them over years or even decades: stuff left over from previous interpretations that people nowadays feel must be part of every subsequent version, even though they were part of a particular adapter’s vision and not the original creator’s.

My taste for reinterpreting and reimagining works occasionally makes me want to tackle works that were previously considered “unstageable;” that were considered too vast or too complex to be brought to fruition on the live stage. Most of the time I can’t do it, but sometimes I’m blessed with a Eureka moment that makes the impossible seem ridiculously easy, and will make me regret that most likely I will never be able to see my vision through.

That’s what happened this time, and since I will probably never get to put it forth live on stage I’ve decided to share that vision here.

I have figured out how to pull off a successful stage adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye.”

The Unadaptable Holden

J.D. Salinger was famously put off from adaptations of his work because of one disastrous move by Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn bought the rights to one of Salinger’s Nine Stories, specifically Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut, which he made into a film called My Foolish Heart. Other than a simple framing device, nothing of Salinger’s story remained in the film. Feeling very much slighted and protective of his creations, Salinger basically turned his back on any further adaptations. Especially when the first person to approach his agents about adapting Catcher was none other than Sam Goldwyn. It could be said that the disaster of My Foolish Heart led directly to the creation of Holden and his hatred of all things “phoney,” including Hollywood movies.

One serious attempt was made at bringing Holden to the stage. Elia Kazan began work on a version and approached Salinger, who rejected it out of hand. He would later say that he didn’t think the story could successfully be adapted to the stage or film and rejected every offer that came his way while leaving it open to his heirs whether or not to ever offer the rights.

My opinions of Catcher are well-known, but most of what I think makes it a worn-out piece of written literature today would actually make it well suited to the stage. A properly written stage adaptation could tame the beast, solve most of the problems that have made the book less impressive today than when it was first published, and sweep aside a lot of the interpreting and “changed-my-lifeism” and antihero worship that has grown up around the book. Basically, take the story back to Salinger’s original material.

Taming the Beast

One thing that has made people think that Catcher is unstageable is the sheer scope of the book. It starts in rural Pennsylvania at a boarding school and then takes in about half of Manhattan. You obviously can’t pull all of this off on the modern stage unless you had a lot of tech behind you, which would limit the number of places where the play could be performed. The most likely place for this play to be produced (once it had finished its first professional productions and amateur rights became available) would be high schools and colleges, where the source material is well known and still revered, and community theaters looking for a big name title to produce.

The answer to this problem is surprisingly simple. And as with any good reimagining, it’s solved by going back to the source material.

Salinger said one of his major objections to bringing Catcher to the screen is that he thought that having Holden’s narration as voice-over or put into dialogue wouldn’t work. Fine. So we don’t do that. Instead, we put on stage what Salinger did on the page.

Holden is sitting (or occasionally standing) there telling us a story.

Holden would be on stage all the time. He would narrate the entire work as he tells us the story of what has happened to him over the past several days. From time to time we would drift into scenes with dialogue and other actors, and as each of these vignettes ends (or he feels the need to expound on something), Holden would literally step out of the scene, face the audience, and start telling his story again until the time came for him to drift back into the action.

And where would we set these vignettes? Despite the scope of the story, all of the real character development for Holden (and thus all the important action) takes place in one of three rooms. Specifically, three bedrooms.

A Play in Three Bedrooms

Each act of the stage adaptation of Catcher would take place in a different bedroom. This would allow small scale productions to simply redress the set at each intermission with different bedclothes, wall hangings, etc., while large scale productions could rotate a different set into place for each of the acts. The play is set in December of 1951, and is done as a period piece with appropriate costumes and props.

Act One opens with Holden sitting in his dorm room at Pencey Prep, which is where he starts telling us his story. He has just found out that he has been expelled and brings us up to speed on recent events. The scene with Mr. Spencer could be moved here, or shown with different lighting on the same plane as Holden. The bulk of the act would be his conversations with Stradlater and Ackley and the fight that ensues. At the end, Holden leaves for Manhattan. Curtain.

Act Two would be set in Holden’s hotel room. His experiences with the tourist women could either be cut or (if needed for timing purposes) told in flashback with different lighting. The first scene with Sunny, the prostitute, would come next. After she leaves, Holden would call Sally Hayes from the phone in his room and leave to see Romeo and Juliet with her. They would come back to the hotel room slightly tipsy, and that would be when Holden invites her to run away with him and she rebuffs him. Shortly after she leaves there is a knock on the door. Holden, hoping it’s her, finds Sunny and her pimp Maurice, who beats Holden up again and robs him. Curtain.

Act Three is entirely set in Phoebe’s bedroom, late that night when Holden’s parents are asleep. There is a model of the Central Park carousel on one of her shelves. The two have their long conversation, with Holden telling her some of the parts that are show in the book (like the ducks in Central Park) that we would have to have take place offstage. We would jettison the part with Mr. Antolini, and concentrate on his relationship with Phoebe for the entire act. At the end, she talks him into not leaving, and he agrees to accompany her to the zoo.

Phoebe exits and Holden takes down the model of the carousel, telling us about how he enjoyed watching Phoebe ride it in the rain. He brings us up to date on getting sick and going to the hospital in California, and how he will be attending a new school that September. He then says he doesn’t want to tell us any more because it makes him think of how much he misses all those people in his life: Ackley, Stradlater, and especially Phoebe, who he will always remember riding that carousel. He spins the model as the curtain falls.

Simplicity

The advantages of this approach are obvious. The three rooms not only provide for easy staging but also bring a thematic link to the three acts, something the novel notoriously lacks in structure. The parts of the story that are best left to internal monologue are presented through storytelling. The inconsequential portions are disposed of. The nonsense about Jane Gallagher (except for one aborted phone call from the hotel room) is left in Act One where it belongs. Holden is no longer ineffectual and do-nothing; he drives the story. Best of all, it preserves the main structure of the novel by having it be about Holden telling us a story.

This version of The Catcher in the Rye will never be produced. Salinger’s estate has shown no interest in authorizing any adaptations and even if they were interested I would never have the money to option the rights let alone produce a show. But this little exercise should show that with enough time, courage, and faith in the material, it can be possible to adapt almost anything to the stage.

The Fine Art of the Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope

14/07

I originally wrote this essay for a now-defunct blog. I’ve updated it with new links and information and am reposting it here.

Most people in their late 30’s and early 40’s learned “say-zee” as their first real acronym. For that, we have the TV show ZOOM to thank. ZOOM was designed as a highly interactive program, something almost unheard of in 1972, and encouraged kids to write to the show with their stories and ideas. Everyone who wrote was told to include a SASE. “What’s a ’say-zee?’” “It stands for Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.”

(And thanks to the program being produced in Boston, I also have that show to thank for my pronouncing that word ON-vel-ope while most people here in South Jersey pronounce it EN-vel-ope.)

The SASE is a must for a would-be writer. It’s the most reliable way for a prospective agent, editor, or publisher to get in touch with you. There are some people who will use your SASE to say “yes” or “maybe,” so don’t think that they’re always negative when they show up in your mailbox.

Back when I was a kid, I had to write my SASE’s by hand. By the time I got to college, I started using pre-printed labels. But when I finally got truly serious about trying to make it as a writer, I needed my SASE’s mass produced. Once again, the wonders of modern technology.

Here’s how to produce a SASE in Microsoft Word (2007 and 2010). Other programs will use similar techniques.

  1. Click on the “Mailings” tab at the top of the window.
  2. Pick “Envelope.” It’s the left-most icon in the ribbon.
  3. Type your address in both the “return address” and “delivery address” fields.
  4. If you have Stamps.com internet postage installed, make sure that the “add electronic postage” box is not checked. More on this later.
  5. Save your file. You’ll need it later when you run out of printed SASE’s.

A few notes on addressing:

  • Make sure your SASE’s are clear and easy to read. I like to use “Arial Narrow” 12 point for my return addresses and “Arial Black” 14 point for my “To” addresses. Easy to read, easy to scan.
  • If your software lets you include “POSTNET” or “Intelligent Mail” barcodes (like Wordperfect does), then use them, at least for now. They’re easier for the post office’s scanners to read than most written ZIP codes and speed up the automation. The Post Office started phasing out POSTNET in 2011 for the new Intelligent Mail Barcode, but POSTNET is still used..
  • Always use your ZIP+4 code. If you don’t know your ZIP+4, then look it up.

Now we come to the most important part of the self-addressed stamped envelope: the stamp. While you could use any old stamp, or even the “netstamps” spit out by stamps.com (but not the postmarked ones printed right on an envelope!), your best bet is the little wonder called the “Forever” stamp.

Image

Not only can “Forever” stamps save you money in the long run if you buy buttloads of them right before a postage rate increase, their magical staying power serves a more important purpose. One thing to remember is that you have no guarantee how long it’s going to take for an agent, editor, or publisher to respond to you. My personal record at the moment is eleven months, but longer waits are not unheard of. Rate increases come with horribly little warning. There is a fair chance that between the time your prospective agent gets your SASE and when they get around to mailing it back to you, the rate will have gone up.

What happens when your SASE sits in a slushpile while the rates change is as variable as everything else in this game. Some agents will be nice and stick an extra 1 or 2 cent stamp on it and send it out. Some will just send it to you, running the risk of it arriving postage due. Some will just throw it out. Never leave it up to chance. By using a “forever” stamp you ensure that no matter when it gets dropped in the outgoing post, it will have sufficient postage on it. Pick up a pack of “forevers” at your post office or, if you’re agoraphobic, buy them online.

This brings up another point: if the agent asks for a partial with your query, don’t bother sending oversized SASE’s with sufficient postage to cover sending the partial back to you. It’s easier for the agent to just send communication in a normal #10 than to repack everything for you. You’ll also spend more in return postage than it will cost you in paper and toner to just run off another copy. Rejection letters rarely run more than one page, anyhow, so one stamp on a #10 is sufficient; if the agent really needs to tell you more than they can in a single page letter, they’ll probably contact you anyhow.

Another great thing is that SASE’s printed this way are wonderfully lightweight things. My handy postage scale here tells me that my standard SASE weighs less than one tenth of an ounce. If you’re sending out snail mail queries without partials (like most queries are supposed to be), then a single sheet of paper and a SASE will still weigh less than one ounce, sufficient for a single 46 cent (or whatever the current rate is) stamp. Just fold your SASE in thirds as you fold your query, put them both in an envelope with a single stamp on it, and you’re good to go.

Last but by no means least, every snail mail query and every piece of requested material (partial or full) should have a SASE in it. The easier you make an agent’s life, the happier they are.

De Re Fututa

12/07

First, please don’t say “fuck” so often. It kind of loses its impact that way.
– Andy Borman, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine

It’s been a dilemma in Young Adult literature for decades: to ‘fuck’ or not to ‘fuck.’

No, not whether or not to have sex scenes. That’s an even thornier debate and one that cannot be done justice in a blog entry. What I’m talking about is the debate over the use of “foul language” in Young Adult literature with an emphasis on the word “fuck.”

No “bad words!” Bad thoughts! Bad intentions! And words.
– George Carlin

“Fuck” is probably a thorny word because of its many different connotations. It’s always been considered vulgar. It’s extremely aggressive; “fuck you!” can actually be seen as wishing rape upon someone. And probably worst of all in the eyes of parents, “to fuck” literally means to have sex.

The dilemma over the word in YA is rooted in two facts that some people don’t want to accept. Teenagers say ‘fuck,’ and teenagers do fuck.

In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine, I used the word “fuck” (and varaitions on it like “fucked” and “fucker”) 55 times. One out of every 914 words in the book was a variation of “fuck.” This might seem excessive to some people, and it probably is, but there were reasons for it. First off, I wrote Columbine for adults, not “young” adults. It only got classified as YA because of the industry’s need to ghettoize anything with protagonists under 25 as “for kids.” Second, my narrator and his friends are angry, bitter boys and their anger manifested itself in their word use.

Perhaps in overreaction, I took a different tack in Go To Hell. In the entire book, the f word is only used three times, in very specific context. Two of them are from one of the book’s primary antagonists, who is a very unsavory character and uses the word in unsavory circumstances. When my hero, Ryan, turns around and uses it, it’s meant to show that he’s sinking to the bad guy’s level. Plus, he’s despondent and angry and less likely to censor himself at that point.

When the time came to write Sidekick,I made a vow to myself. I was going to watch my characters’ language. Since the story is set in, essentially, a comic-book universe modeled after the old DC multiverse under the Comics Code Authority a plethora of “fucks” would have seemed out of place. I still used the “s” word because I wanted my kids to sound somewhat authentic (one of my favorite lines is still “because she’s all supernatural and shit”) but limited the number of its appearances. One of my critique partners actually said they thought Bobby was too much of a goody-goody because he didn’t use profanity that often!

Still, Sidekick found a publisher where Go To Hell and Columbine had to be self-published for Kindle, so the lesson is not entirely lost on me.

834,620 x 375,002 = who really gives a fuck
– Will Grayson #2, Will Grayson Will Grayson

One major issue in the question of whether or not to use the word “fuck” has to come down to whether it fits the character and the plot. A great example is Will Grayson Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan. In Green’s chapters, the straight Will Grayson and his friends use the F word, but sparingly. Some of the places where another character would be called a “fucker” instead use the running gag of “bitchsquealer.” (I won’t ruin the running gag for you by explaining it here, but the more it gets used, the funnier it becomes). In Levithan’s chapters, however, the gay Will Grayson uses it constantly to the point of almost being annoying. But it’s appropriate for Will #2. The anger and resentment he feels, augmented by his clinical depression, are better expressed with vulgar and aggressive language. It feels right, and draws a distinction between the two Wills.

Another one is to what effect is the word used? Is there a purpose to it? In Will Grayson Will Grayson it defines the difference between the two characters, so even if some of it is gratuitous it is there for a reason. Another great example is Dale Peck’s Sprout, where the lack of profanity and teases at the seven deadly words becomes a running gag. It keeps up until Sprout finally uses the F word at exactly the wrong moment and in the wrong circumstances. I really don’t want to go into too much detail over the use of the word because I think everyone should read the book and the use of the word is key to the climax. Suffice it to say that I think it was the most effective use of “fuck” in literature and no other word would ever do.

But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written “Fuck you” on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them – all cockeyed, naturally – what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.

– Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye

One of my major problems with The Catcher in the Rye (as I once expounded upon at length elsewhere) is how the book’s use of language makes it archaic. Part of that is probably due to the fact that in respectable books back then the word just was not used. The same case can be made for Robert Cormier’s outstanding The Chocolate War, the book that (along with Judy Blume) really defined the genre of Young Adult as it was coming into being. Cormier’s kids can sound like goody-goodies to today’s readers because of a relative lack of profanity, but his bad guys are some of the most disgusting people in the literary universe. The book is full of violence, sex, and bad intentions, and yet it can come across as overly santized to today’s kids.

If characters in YA don’t act like “real” teenagers do today, they’re going to come across as fake and unbelievable. It’s the same thing with the way characters sound. When adults aren’t listening (and sometimes when they are), kids use profanity. They hear it from others all the time so it feels natural to them. And the “forbidden fruit” aspects of those words make them even more appealing. When a teenager tells his friend to “fuck off,” there’s a thrill of using a word he is “not supposed to” use. It’s a tiny little form of rebellion, and rebellion is the entire underpinning of adolescence. To avoid the word entirely is unnatural.

“Did I just write that? So much for this book ending up in a high school library.”
– Sprout Bradford, Sprout

I think that some of the resistance to the use of the word “fuck” in YA has come from the fear that it will lead to the book being “banned” from schools. But let’s face it, what high school kid actually uses a high school library for anything other than schoolwork? They know that the stuff they find there is going to be Sanitized For Your Protection™. If they want to read something for pleasure they are going to (a) buy the book, (b) borrow the book from a friend who read it, (c) go to the “real” municipal or county library, or increasingly (d) download a PDF or audiobook of it through Bittorrent. At the YA level (compared to the Middle-Grade or younger levels) the school library isn’t really the factor it once was.

In the end, it comes down to the story, the characters, and the way the words are used. If “fuck” is thrown around gratuitously it loses its effectiveness and becomes a distraction. If a character is perfectly straight laced (and nowadays that would have to either be a supporting character or central to the plot) it seems unnatural and would be inappropriate. But if one of your teen characters occasionally drops the F-bomb at appropriate points and uses it in the proper context, it can probably help a certain number of your readers identify with the kids they are reading about.

So if you think it’s right for you, go ahead and “fuck” your readers.

Don’t “flatter” yourself

10/07

The other day I came across a blog entry from author P.T. Dilloway which all but accused me of plagiarism because I called my hero the Scarlet Knight, and so did he.

Basing the title for his entry on the old chestnut that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” he proceeds to tear Sidekick a new one essentially because he’s annoyed that I dared use the same hero name as he.

“Anyway,” Dilloway gripes, “I think what annoyed me the most by the end is there’s no fucking reason he had to call his character the Scarlet Knight.”

Actually, yes, there was. I’ve discussed that before. The “Scarlet Knight” is an homage to a failed sitcom project I undertook with Kris Leeds back in 2004. When I started writing the book I knew I wanted Bobby’s powers to be technology based and not a result of mutation, meta-genetics, or some other weird origin. I wanted his powers to be relatively believable for a teenager. Plus I wanted him to have a big, honking sword. So I took a name that I’d used before for a hero.

My manuscript (then called Squire) was finished on November 29, 2009. Draft manuscript was picked up by my publisher in March, 2012. Final edits were done in the summer of that same year, long before Dilloway’s book hit the shelves. The appearance of both of our books in that short space of time is nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence. And had mine hit the bookshelves before you, I wouldn’t have any right to gripe, either, because it’s a coincidence.

He continues: “[T]he name was just some random name the author picked that could have come from some superhero name generator.”

Not really. For this one you have to blame my buddy Jeffe Boats. When he read and critiqued our spec script in 2004, he suggested changing the hero’s name to “Scarlet Knight” from the original “White Knight,” because otherwise people might think he was a Klansman.

Anyway, the only people who have a right to bitch about either of us using that name are the Rutgers Athletic Department. They predate both of us.

Next: “It is slightly gratifying in an evil way to see it only has 1 Amazon review and a lower rating on Goodreads than mine.”

Well, I hate to say this, but Goodreads (while a wonderful social forum for book lovers) is not a way to judge quality. It’s too easy for someone to game ratings there. I’ve seen ratings for books that haven’t even been published yet, so it’s quite obvious that those ratings aren’t actually from readers. Goodreads can help you find your next book by helping you find people with similar tastes and seeing what they said about what’s out there, but you can’t go by star ratings.

As for Amazon, in the end it’s not reviews that matter but the bottom line. As of this writing, Dilloway’s A Hero’s Journey is ranked #416,374 in the Kindle store. Sidekick is at #158,487. I also have A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Columbine ranking in at #197,265. The only book of mine that Dilloway is currently outselling is the three year old Go To Hell. Those numbers will change and fluctuate, of course. But do not count number of reviews as the end-all-be-all.

Moving on, Dilloway says “Like pretty much all other superhero novels I’ve read, his is aimed at the mainstream people who still associate superheroes with Adam West’s Batman. He’s the Joel Schumacher to my Christopher Nolan in that I tend to take a grittier take on it.”

Actually, I prefer to think of myself as more Denny O’Neill to his Grant Morrison, but I’ll take the comparison as read.

The main problem with this comparison is one basic fact that too many writers overlook.

“Superhero” is not a genre!

It’s a character type. At best it’s it’s a category. Batman stories are not the same type of stories as Green Lantern stories, or Hulk stories, or Legion of Superheroes stories. They are aimed at different readers, different audiences, and different tones.

Sidekick is not a superhero story. It’s a young adult coming of age story where a boy finds his place in the adult world and tries to juggle responsibilities. Bobby’s being a superhero is secondary. That was just how I chose to develop the story. And Brothers in Arms is a young adult story about coping with loss and adjusting to fatherhood. It’s just that this new father wears high-tech longjohns and fights crime.

Dilloway’s A Hero’s Journey is an adult noir thriller with urban fantasy overtones. There is nothing wrong with that. But it’s a completely different type of story from the one I told. The two can’t be compared. Sidekick could not have been written as an adult thriller. The story would not work. And A Hero’s Journey could not have worked as a young adult novel as written. The two books deserve to be judged on separate terms.

One last topic to touch on, and while I’ve saved it for last it’s the first paragraph in Dilloway’s article. “There are a lot of books out there where I read them and say, ‘Jeez, how did this ever get published?’ Followed closely by ‘How did this [expletives deleted] get published and my book can’t?!’ There is a somewhat similar form of professional jealousy when you read a book that involves similar material to yours and while that book might be more popular you can’t help thinking, ‘OMG, this sucks!'”

I often feel the same way. I felt it myself recently. But the basic question of “how did this ever get published?” I’ll tell you in one word. Persistence. Okay, a second word. Synchronicity.

I spent over two years shopping Sidekick. I sent out 112 queries during that time. This was the nicest response I got:

I think you have a fun premise, but I’m afraid I didn’t quite find myself connecting with the narrative as I would have liked, and I’m just not confident enough that I’m the one to make this stand out in such a competitive marketplace.

What happened is that along the way I’d done some networking. I worked with my friends at YALitchat to fine tune the query and pass it past a couple of agents there. When Month9Books was just starting up, one of the founders remembered my discussion of the manuscript and asked for it. That led to the sale and publication.

Publishing is a very competitive business, and a lot of it is timing. Sometimes good manuscripts get squeezed out by the success of something else. If I’d written Mall Bats a year before Stephanie Meyer published Twilight instead of a year after, for example, I might have had a better chance of selling it. Instead, Meyer’s creations saturated the market for vampire novels and a quirky one like mine just didn’t fit in. So Mall Bats will probably sit in the bottom of my virtual desk drawer forever because the timing was wrong.

To be honest, Dilloway’s A Hero’s Journey is not a bad book. He’s a good writer. And if he tries his hand at Young Adult I will happily refer him to my publisher. But the lesson is not to wallow in professional jealousy. Keep writing, keep pitching, keep networking. The cream really does rise to the top, although sometimes it takes longer than we would like.

Something I never could throw away

28/06

The concept that became my novel Go To Hell took 19 years to reach fruition. It started as a TV sitcom idea thrown out over Italian food with three friends during my senior year at college, morphed into a screenplay, then a novel, then a stage musical, before settling down as a YA novel when I needed a concept I could develop fast.

The first time I tried Go To Hell as a novel, it was going to be a very different story from the final product. Instead of a teenager, the protagonist was going to be an advertising copywriter in Manhattan. I wrote four pages before I shelved the project once again.

But I could never bring myself to throw out those four pages because I loved the way I tried to channel Douglas Adams in my hubris. I thought I might find a place to use some of the description again, but it never really presented itself.

So here, for those who are curious, are what almost became the first four pages of Go To Hell.

 


 

It was your typical summer day in New York City, which is to say it was hellish.

During the weeks that fall somewhere between Memorial Day and the Autumnal Equinox, creation makes its annual attempt at getting it right this time. Around the first of June, a thick haze will gather over the city which (if one could view it from the proper perspective) would resemble the primordial ooze from which all life sprang billions of years ago when a bolt of lightning stuck two amino acids and formed the first protein. Some misguided people believe that smog, carbon dioxide, and other signs of pollution are manmade things. Untrue. They are nothing more than nature looking humanity in the face and saying “go away.”

Unfortunately, since the construction of the Empire State Building, lightning has found much too easy a path to ground to have much of a chance of striking the proper chemicals. As a result, around August the magic moment is gone, the haze disappears, and everyone gets really, really, hostile.

In short, New York City gets its period.

Add to that chemical stew the hopes and dreams of the City’s inhabitants. Add every baby’s cry and every corpse’s death rattle. Add the bride’s giggle and the battered wife’s scream. Throw in the child’s laugh and the gunshot. Stir in Rush Limbaugh and Al Sharpton. Top it all off with irony, and when the summer breeze plots a southward course through Jersey, New York becomes a city smothering itself.

* * *

If New York City is hell, the Long Island Expressway is the River Styx. While the aptly-named LIE does not contain some of the Transportation Gods’ more interesting gifts (such as bridges that terminate in parking lots or exits that feed back on themselves) it is still probably their greatest practical joke. That is, of course, if it can even be attributed to them. Some modern metatheologians have theorized that the Transportation Gods cannot be involved in the design and maintenance of the LIE, since ‘transport’ implies movement along a route, which the LIE does not achieve of its own free will.

Driving along the LIE anywhere between 6:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m. on a given day is much like wading through a swimming pool filled with catseye marbles; you can do it but it takes a lot of patience, much more effort than it is worth, and you won’t want to look at yourself in the mirror when you are done. Those who have come to know and respect this roadway will often opt for paying the ferryman Charon, disguised as the tolltaker on the nearby mass-transit system, to escort them instead.

This would be a perfect analogy if it were not for two problems. First, New York City is not hell any more than California is Los Angeles. The latter is only the best known division of the former. Second, one creature knew and respected the LIE more than anyone else, and as a result decided to use it that day. As a result, he was late.

Basil was starting to regret spending the weekend in the Hamptons. Granted, his job description pretty much called for regrets to be sidelined, but sometimes you just can’t control it. Sure, he had a wonderful time at the beach and had caught up on some sorely-needed relaxation, but now he was going to be late for work. He knew the system, but foolishly he thought he could beat it. He had woken early, gotten dressed, climbed into his car, and pulled onto the LIE at precisely 5:59 a.m.. Fate, however, was having none of it. One minute later, the little toggle switch at Expressway Control was thrown, and every vehicle and living being on the road ground to an immediate, unforgiving halt.
Damn it, damn it, damn it, he muttered in the literal sense, but it was no good. Despite his best efforts, inertia ruled the day. It was nearly forty five minutes until the traffic started to move, and then it crept along at a snail’s pace.

* * *

Those who live within the City have developed a more sophisticated (the anthropologist within us would call it “civilized,” the genius “insane,” and the lunatic “still insane, yet aesthetically pleasing”) technique of getting from one place to another. Those of you who are curious may want to give it a try, but should not. It is, in fact, quite dangerous for novices, much like learning how to suck a brick through a straw without taking the time to contemplate what will happen when it pops out the other end.

But for the endlessly curious, I will give you a sample illustration. Take a piece of paper. Mark a point in the lower left-hand corner. Now mark a point in the upper right-hand corner. Finally, take your pencil and draw a line from the first point, and do your level best to not make it reach the second point. When you have finally reached the second point in less time than it would have taken you to get a ruler and draw a line straight through them, you will be ready to navigate in New York City. Until then, leave it to the professionals.

New York hath no fury like a map maker scorned.

“Boys Don’t Read.”

31/03

My name is Pab Sungenis, and I write books for boys.

That may surprise you. If you look at the “young adult” shelves at your local bookstore, how many books do you see there that are aimed at boys?

Not many, I’ll bet.

You know why that is? Because boys don’t read.

Stop laughing.

I’m serious. Stop laughing.

I know that for a fact because I’ve been told it on good authority by people who supposedly know. I’ve been told it by a number of literary agents (including one who once signed me, then told me she couldn’t sell one of my novels because, and I quote exactly, “boys don’t read”) and at least one editor from a major publishing house.

That’s why all you see on shelves are romances with female protagonists. Or if there’s one with a male protagonist it’s actually a male that’s designed to be cuddly and non-threatening because they want girls to read it and fall in love with the boy. They do this because, of course, “boys don’t read.”

Never mind that the first young adult novel ever, The Catcher in the Rye, featured a male protagonist, was written by a man, and has a reader base that is largely male. Then there’s The Chocolate War, where you can count the female characters on one hand. Critically acclaimed novels that created modern young adult literature.

And neither would get published today, because “boys don’t read.”

Of course boys read. But they don’t read young adult literature. And do you know why?

Because no one will take a chance on books for boys. Because “boys don’t read.”

This is called a vicious circle. If you’ve never heard it before go look it up.

Boys don’t read YA because there’s almost no YA published for them. So publishers look at the sales charts of YA titles and see title after title all aimed at girls. So why aren’t there any titles for boys on the charts? They don’t think it’s because they don’t publish any books that boys want to read. It’s easier for them to assume that boys don’t read.

Even when a publisher takes a chance on a book for boys, guess what happens then? Bookstores don’t stock it. Libraries don’t order it. No one gets a chance to buy it. Why don’t they order it and stock it?

Because “boys don’t read.”

Well, guess what? Boys do read! I used to be a boy (back in the dark ages before the internet) and I read everything I could get my hands on. There are boys out there right now who love to read, but their choices are limited because agents, publishers, and bookstores have all bought into the stereotype that boys don’t read.

So how do we break them of this misconception? We have to show them the uncomfortable truth they refuse to accept: that boys do read.

First, let’s give them some visual evidence. If you’re a boy who reads, and are between the ages of 12 and 17 (the target audience for young adult literature) I want you to to snap a photo of yourself holding whatever book you’re reading at the moment. If you’re reading it on a Kindle or Nook, photograph yourself with the title page on the screen. Then post it to Facebook, or anywhere else you hang out on-line with the caption “I’M A BOY AND I READ.” Feel free to E-mail it to me here or post it as a comment, too. Let the publishers and agents know that you want them to give you something to read.

Then we need to give them something even harder to deny. On Saturday, April 27, 2013, I want every boy who reads to descend upon the nearest bookstore at 1 PM local time. You don’t have to buy anything (although it might help our argument if you do) but I want you to make an appearance. If you can make yourself a T-shirt that says “I READ” to wear while there, all the better. Let those bookstores see that you want them to stock books for you, too.

Reading is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not something to hide away from everyone else. And until all you book-reading boys come out and show your faces, your reading options will continue to be severely limited. So show your pride. Shout it out loud.

Just don’t shout it while in the library, please.