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Mad Raving

What’s In A Name?

The novel that I’m shopping around right now has gone through a number of titles. GUNPOWDER FANTASY was the original working title, which is clear enough, but was obviously never going to be the final title. SINS OF THE FATHER was the first candidate for a real title, and I was happy enough with it, until I hit on one that should have been obvious: TO LIVE AND DIE IN DIXIE.

The novel is set in an alternate US Civil War, in a timeline where there’s magic. The main character is a northern boy who get dragged to the south by his mother before the war and ends up in the Confederate Army. There are plots within schemes and a high body count and all in all TO LIVE AND DIE IN DIXIE works pretty well. There’s just one problem.

Someone just looking at the title might think it’s one of those books that glorifies the Confederacy, which it most emphatically is not. It’s about loyalty in a complex world, among other things. But I didn’t want to give that impression so I did all the usual brainstorming and came up with IN THE HEART OF HELL. A little Milton reference.

Now I’ve gone back to DIXIE. If anyone gets the wrong idea, well, they’ll learn better if they read it. This week, at least, I’m going with the strongest title. Next week, we’ll see.


A friend recommended the other day that I watch SUCKER PUNCH. I’d mentioned how a certain violent nature in fictional women could make them more attractive (though even the violence in KILL BILL couldn’t do it for Uma Thurman) and he thought I might like it.

I only watched about the first fifteen minutes or so; just enough to see where the movie was going and decide that I didn’t like it. It was enough to make me curious how other people reacted to it, though, so I checked out quite a few reviews. The reactions to SUCKER PUNCH are actually more interesting to me than the movie itself.

My initial take on the movie, with its supposed overlapping layers of fantasy and reality, is that the last ‘real’ thing shown in the movie is when ‘Babydoll’ sits down in the lobotomist’s chair for her transorbital lobotomy. Everything shown after we see the orbitoclast (the pointy thing that looks like an ice pick) approaching her eye socket is her desperate fantasies in the few seconds before her higher brain functions are destroyed. It’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” with CGI and barely-legal barely-dressed girls.

Other interpretations are that the bordello/burlesque hall scenes and fight sequences are just metaphors for the real actions that the girls are taking for their escape. It’s not Babydoll’s story, it’s Sweet Pea’s. Some people even seem to think that the bordello scenes are ‘real’ and that the mental institution is just a front for high-class prostitution.

On reflection, all the various interpretations make an equal amount of sense, which is to say none. Even my own interpretation doesn’t make any sense. I found myself nitpicking the lobotomy scene, (The technique shown is wildly wrong; the orbitoclast was worked carefully between the eyeball and socket then given a gentle tap with a hammer to break through the thin bone at the back of the socket, not held inches from the eye and smacked like a railroad spike.) as well as its rationale, and just about everything else shown in the opening music videos. (There was no need for a massive bribe to get the girl lobotomized; in the 1950’s lobotomies were handed out like aspirin, if the girl is 20 and an adult, how come her stepfather can have her committed? Etc.) The bordello and fight scenes have been criticized as fantasies that few, if any, young women would have, but it’s even worse than that. The fight scenes are ones that no one in the 1950’s would have; they rely too much on 21st century memes.

The movie, in short, doesn’t many any sense at all, on any level. It really, truly, is a more-or-less random sequence of music videos and fight scenes. There’s no there there. It’s a 110 minute Rorschach test, a movie that’s so absolutely shallow, so utterly lacking in meaning, that nearly everyone is unconsciously compelled to create a structure for it, and fill that structure from their own imagination.

The people who don’t try to find any meaning in it, who just enjoy watching an hour and a half of hot girls fighting giant robot samurai and such, have the right idea. Alas, I found the fight scenes too emotionless, heavily processed, and CGI-dependent to even enjoy on that level, but it’s still a fascinating study in how our desire for story is so great that we will create one out of any raw material presented to us, no matter how nonsensical it may be.

Public Uneducation

Teaching to the test.

If, as a teacher, you want your students to do their best, you have to have them practice what is effectively bad writing— no introduction, no conclusion, just hit the points of the rubric and provide the necessary factual support.

Gift Ideas For The Suicidal

It would seem that, for some mysterious reason (probably starting with “Affiliate links”) Business Insider has published a list of gifts that men can buy for their wives or girlfriends. (Particularly, I suppose, if the lady in question works at Business Insider.)

They polled the ladies around the office for ideas, then expanded on them. (More affiliate links that way.) My wife and I got a good laugh out of them. Some of the ideas are okay, but some, well, let’s just say that if you follow BI’s advice, you may need a good proctologist to dispose of the Christmas tree this year.

  1. “We could go out to eat at a nice restaurant — the memory matters more than something material”

All right; that could work. But this:

A nice dinner is a sweet thought, but you can amp up that evening out by signing up for a cooking lesson or wine tasting class.

Is asking for trouble. Guys, do not, I say again, do NOT buy the woman in your life cooking lessons for Christmas. You might as well say, “You’re not a very good cook, but I expect a lot of good meals out of you, so here’s some lessons.” Buy her an exercise DVD while you’re at it. And a big stick, so she can beat your dumb ass.

  1. An overpriced expresso machine. How romantic. Okay, sure, if she likes expresso.

  2. Cute Shoes.”

Do not do this. You don’t know her shoe size, you don’t really know what style of shoes she likes, (No you don’t. No, don’t argue; women’s shoes are a mystery beyond male comprehension.) or what she needs or wants. This is very hazardous territory, like buying a gadget for a gadget-geek. You’re out of your depth and the recipient either already has it, or doesn’t want it.

  1. Some fun jewelry, but nothing too fancy. Solid suggestion. Go for something classy, not flashy.

  2. I’d love for him to plan a weekend away, since I’d never actually do that myself

My first thought was that this meant for the guy to go away and leave her alone for a weekend. That’s a better idea than the hideous bag they suggest you buy her (affiliate link!) to go with the trip.

  1. A classic Chanel purse that I can use until I’m in my 80s

Like the shoes, this is very hazardous territory. Do NOT use your own judgement in picking out a purse for your lady. Wait for her to subtly hint at which one she would like. (For example, if she shoves a purse in your face and says, “You should buy me this purse for Christmas,” takes a picture of it and emails it to you, you might want to consider adding it to your list.)

  1. Tickets to Broadway

Okay, sure, if you actually live somewhere vaguely near Broadway. If you’re in, say, California, not so much.

  1. A new wallet

Yeah, right. My wife laughed and rolled her eyes at this one. Not only that, but the wallet they suggest is a checkbook wallet. So, yeah, I guess if your wife or girlfriend is an AARP member and still writes checks at the grocery store, knock yourself out.

  1. Cozy Ugg slippers

Hard to go wrong with slippers. Solid, conservative suggestion.

  1. I’d like him to cook a romantic meal

Well, it beats a checkbook holder. If you want to really score points, though, cook the romantic dinner for no good reason at all. Just surprise her with one some night.

  1. Spa treatments

Make sure it’s a classy place and you’re golden.

  1. An iPad

No woman will turn up her nose at a nice, purse-sized, iPad Mini. Best idea yet.

So, out of twelve suggestions, what are we left with? A kitchen appliance, jewelry, slippers, a spa visit, or an iPad. Nothing terribly original, but I can say, speaking from the experience of my many thousands of years of marriage (give or take a few; it’s hard to keep track), that they work.

Just don’t be the guy who got his wife cooking lessons.

Modern Expressionism

So, an artist goes into an Apple store. . . .

No, it’s not a joke, and I don’t really care about the minor legal trouble this guy got into. What interests me about this article is that he seems to think he’s discovered something significant in the way people interact with computers. We’re all staring zombie-like at these screens and it’s turning us into zombies. Oh-noes!

Of course we have a blank expression most of the time we’re staring at a computer screen. What expression should you have? You also stare blankly at the TV, out the windshield of your car when driving, at the tile wall when showering. . . . Just about any time you’re not looking at another person, your expression is pretty blank. That’s because facial expressions are for other people, not for inanimate objects.

Don’t believe me? Open up a video chat with another person. You’ll smile, laugh, and frown, because you’re interacting with a person, not a screen, and that’s what facial expressions are wired for.

Putnnam’s Law: Conform or Else

Puttnam’s Law.

In the tech field we used to say, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.” (Now it’s Microsoft.)

No matter if it works out or not; if you follow the herd, you didn’t make a mistake and can’t be blamed. It’s only if you try something different that you can get in trouble.

Logic and Magic?

This article by N.K. Jemisin seems to have caused a minor kerfuffle. Some people agree: “Yes, it’s fercrissakes magic. It’s supposed to be all about wonder and stuff, not logic.” Some disagree: “Magic is energy and energy is physics and physics requires logical rules. Also, you can’t have a plot and character development without rules and logic.”

Clearly there are two very different schools of thought here. Both have good points, both are missing a point or two.

Jemisin makes some good points; magic is, well, magic. It’s anti-logic. That’s what makes it magic. (She’s dead wrong about the need some people have for rules and logic in magic coming from D&D; D&D got its magic system mostly from Jack Vance’s short stories. The plot-puzzle type of story, where each spell is a key that fits in a particular plot-keyhole predates D&D by decades.)

The other side has good arguments as well; if magic can do anything, how do you construct a plot that makes sense to the reader?

What a puzzle, eh? Perhaps an example will (magically) illuminate the subject.

The magic in LoTR is almost completely unexplained. What powers does Gandalf have? Elrond? The Nazgul? How does their magic work? We don’t know. It doesn’t matter. All we really know–all we need to know–is that Sauron’s power is tied to the One Ring, and the only way to destroy the Ring (and Sauron) is by tossing it into the fire where it was forged.

But Frodo doesn’t use magic to solve that problem. The magic in the Lord of The Rings is almost entirely in the background, not used to resolve plot problems, so it doesn’t need to be explained.

Here’s the real Important Rule of Fictional Magic Systems: The magic in your story-world requires rules and explanation in direct proportion to how much you’ll be using magic to solve plot problems.

This is a subset of a larger rule; the reader must be able to follow the plot-threads that you use to resolve the story conflicts. If you use magic to resolve the conflicts, the reader must be able to understand how magic works well enough to follow along, just as she would the science in a science fiction story, or the law in a legal thriller.

As with everything else in your story world, explain as much as the reader needs to know to follow along and don’t worry about the rest. No magic; just the basic rules of storytelling.

Seeing The Future

This started as a comment about the future of publishing on Billie Sue Mosiman’s Facebook page (nice lady; buy her books), and I thought it worth preserving here.

(Yes, I’m the sort of jerk who may drop a short essay into your Facebook comments. Writers, eh?)

Prediction Warning!

What I think is going to happen is that the mmpb is largely going to go away, replaced by electronic editions. (Within ten years, maybe five.) Hardcovers and trade paperbacks will be reduced, but still sell for the foreseeable future.

Most of us don’t remember it, but there was a time before mass market paperbacks. (The modern mmpb was introduced in the 1930s.) But when they were introduced as a low-cost alternative to hardcovers, hardcovers didn’t go away; some people have always been willing to may more for the nicer edition.

Publishers seem to be trying to position electronic editions as less-expensive alternatives to hardcovers, but readers see them as less expensive alternatives to mmpb. I don’t see how the publishers can win that one. I also don’t think it’s going to turn into a four-tiered market (hardcover/trade paper/mass market paper/electronic). That’s too much division in the market and I think readers will gravitate to one end or the other, squeezing the middle. It’s going to be hardcover/trade paper/electronic. Booksellers, plan accordingly.

Longer range, we may see bookstores make a comeback, in a somewhat different form. You could browse through the sections of display books, neatly organized. Select the books you want at one of the in-store terminals (maybe looking at a few reviews in the process), and decide which edition you want. Select an electronic edition, and sends you a digital copy. Select print, and a copy is printed up for you right there in the store for you to take home.

Perhaps that’s just wishful thinking, but there is no technical reason why it’s not possible.

Don’t Buy The Bullshit

I’ll be brief. PIPA/SOPA isn’t about ‘protecting intellectual property rights.’ It’s about censorship, and giving big media companies (through the efforts of their paid mouthpieces in Congress), the ability to control what people see on the wild Internet.

So, you know, fuck them.