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Flash Fiction: After The War

Tennis Ball

(image via Wi Bing Tan on Flickr)

After The War is a short story I wrote for a contest at Mash Stories. The prompt was to write a 500 word story that used the terms “tennis ball”, “bunker” and “animal rights”. I didn’t make the shortlist, but you can read other entries at the Mash Stories site.

Doug. I found the tennis ball. I know you were trying to hide it from me. I don’t know why you would do that. Weren’t we friends? Didn’t we get along? I know things are different after the war, but I thought we had an understanding. We had mutual respect. That sort of thing. I mean… that was my favorite tennis ball!

They send me in as part of the clean-up crews. I’m good at it. Good at finding all the hiding places. I go in first because I’m the best. Most of the time we don’t find anything interesting. Dead bodies are old news. We’ve all seen plenty. They stink up the place and we pull them out. Pile them up and burn them. What we’re really looking for are the secrets. The things the other side kept from us all these years.

Well, today they sent me into your house. Of all places! It felt like I hadn’t been there in years, even though the war was over in no time at all. I didn’t think I’d find much in the way of secrets, but I search every house just the same.

I did think I might find you, but you weren’t there. No dead bodies, either. Just my favorite tennis ball. I only found it because a bomb blew out half a wall. It knocked down the shelf where you hid the ball. I recognized it immediately. Very sneaky of you.

Listen, Doug, I’m a patriot like everyone else here in bunker number nine. I know that if I saw you again today we couldn’t be friends. It’s just not in the cards for us. That doesn’t mean I don’t have good memories of us together. We were fond of each other, weren’t we?

I believe in the cause, I do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to know your side of the story. It just hurts to know you hid something like this from me. It validates everything our glorious leader, Seamus, says about relationships with humans. “You can’t trust humans!” he says, and I didn’t want to believe him because you seemed okay enough.

When the uprising began, did you join in the call for our heads? Did you run and scream and hide, or did you stand and fight? You seemed like a brave enough human, like that time you scared away those raccoons, but it’s hard to compare. I learned about humans through what I saw and what the others told me, but I don’t know everything. I only really had one-on-one time with you.

If I see you again, I will want answers. I am going to keep looking, keep searching in houses. I will dig and sniff everywhere. If I find you and I don’t like what you say, I will tear out your throat. After all, I will let nothing stand in the way of my comrades and our god-given campaign for universal animal rights.

Watch Your Fucking Mouth

Al Swearengen

I’ve been reading a lot of unproduced screenplays recently, and a few things have been jumping out at me. First off: a lot of writers fumble on structure. A lot of what I’ve read has shown clear signs of competence but wandered around plotless for upwards of fifty pages. Some writers can pull off plotless, but most of them are novelists.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of writers are really bad at swearing. I’ll read a script full of characters saying fuck every other sentence and it just rings untrue. I always feel a bit silly when I ding a script for “too much swearing”, so I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about it. I’m no prude, and some of my favorite scenes and movies are full of swearing, so what’s different about these scripts?

I think the key difference is that these writers are swearing by default. They probably swear a decent amount in their own lives, they’ve watched plenty of movies full of swearing, so they throw in swearing because that’s how people sound, right? The problem is that they forget to make their choice of words about the characters saying them. The swearing is about the writer, not the characters.

People who accuse writers of laziness when they use vulgarity are missing the point. Swearwords aren’t automatically lazy; it all comes down to how you use them. Some of the greatest scenes in film and TV revolve around characters who swear up a blue streak, but they work because those moments reveal something about those characters and deepen our understanding of their feelings and motivations.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

1) Steve Martin blows up at a rental car agent in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Up until this point the character has been mild-mannered and relatively patient, but he’s been through such an ordeal that he finally snaps and lets loose in the way only a man on the edge would do. The way he swears also tells us something about him as a character; it’s like a dam bursting, this sudden barrage of profanity pours forth from him and he’s punctuating every fucking word of every fucking sentence with another fucking swear word.

2) Peter Capaldi (the next Doctor Who!) in pretty much every scene of In The Loop.

Malcolm Tucker swears constantly and with evident relish. He terrorizes everyone around him and uses words like knives. He isn’t content with throwing out a “fuck” here and there, he rants and raves and spins absurd metaphors and embellishes every sentence with an acidity that jumps out of the screen at you.

3) Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross.

David Mamet wrote this scene for Alec Baldwin. It isn’t in the stage play, but it’s by far the most famous moment in the movie. Baldwin is in the zone here, he’s all rhythm and rancor and cool energy. He swears for emphasis, to make a point, to hammer home his message and it flows like poetry. Say what you will about Mamet the man, but when he could write, he could write.

4) Bunk and McNulty in The Wire.

Two characters communicate entirely through the word fuck and it’s hilarious. They give every variation of the word its own meaning. A large part of this relies on the talent of the actors and their delivery, but the humor is there in the writing. The great part about this scene is that it shows us that the characters know each other so well that they can communicate with only one word.

These are all excellent examples of writers using profanity to tell us something about their characters. Swearwords are words like any others; they have a certain bite and relish to them, but if they are used poorly, they clang and fall flat just like any other.

So, what’s the takeaway? Should writers avoid profanity in their scripts? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they really just need to hear their words read aloud. I feel like a lot of the problems with dialogue become glaringly obvious when the words are read aloud. Mainly, though, it’s a matter of deciding why a character swears and how they swear.

See You Next Tuesday: How and Why The Onion Crossed the Line

The Onion logoThe 2013 Academy Awards ceremony was last night, February 24th, and critics both amateur and professional are weighing in with various post-ceremony reactions. There weren’t any huge upsets – Argo won Best Picture, as the buzz had predicted – and most commentators agree that Seth McFarlane relied on too much crass humor and approached the ceremony as if it was a roast instead of a celebration. However, the most lingering controversy originated from outside the event, when The Onion’s Twitter account tweeted (and later deleted) a joke that referred to nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis as a “c—”.

The Onion quickly posted an out-of-character apology from their CEO first thing this morning, but memories are long on the internet, and there are some people who will never forgive them for this incident. The interesting thing is that The Onion has a long history of posting edgy satire, but as far as I know, this is the only time they’ve ever chosen to publicly apologize for one of their jokes missing the mark. I definitely agree with their decision to remove the tweet and apologize; it was thoroughly tone-deaf and completely unfunny. However, I think it’s interesting to consider why that joke didn’t work when compared to other equally controversial pieces on the site. For example, earlier in the night they used the n-word in a joke about Quentin Tarantino and it seems to have passed unnoticed.

First off, the most obvious problem with the tweet is that it places a nine-year-old girl at the center of harsh satire. Even if it wasn’t the author’s intent, it was far too easy to read the tweet as a genuine attack on a child, which is not something that most people are willing to overlook. However, I also think it’s notable that the tweet’s style didn’t match The Onion’s normal editorial voice. It was written in a casual, off-the-cuff “live-blog” style and was followed by tweets structured more like their signature “Area Man” format.

Part of what makes The Onion work so well is the way they juxtapose a distanced, impersonal editorial style with shocking satire. One of the best pieces I’ve seen on the site recently, Teenage Girl Blossoming Into Beautiful Object, is also one of the most chilling things I’ve ever read because it rings so horribly true. That article is satire on the level of Jonathan Swift, where the correct response is horror, not laughter. The Onion’s comedy works largely on the understanding that they are almost always saying the exact opposite of what they believe; in rare cases, such as their stunning, pitch-perfect response to the Newtown massacre, they put less ironic distance between the article and its true intent, but those pieces are still presented as fake journalism or simulated editorials.

That distance is part of what makes it understood that the target of their satire isn’t necessarily the apparent subject of their posts. Along those lines, I’d imagine that the target of the tasteless joke about Miss Wallis was actually the sort of person who would say horrendous things about a nine-year-old actress excited about being at a massive awards ceremony. (For examples, check out the first few comments on this Jezebel post.) The problem was all about the joke’s presentation and, most crucially, word choice. Instead of working as an anti-exemplary comment on the misogynist nit-picking that dominates award shows, the tweet read as a face-value takedown of a young actress.

However, I’d argue that if the joke was presented in The Onion’s editorial style, the intent would have been clearer and the joke might have received a more measured response. Imagine, for example, if the joke was written as one of their headlines or couched in a fake editorial. Of course, I doubt there’s any way they could have worked in the c-word without coming off as grasping for shock value, and I think better jokes can be made. I do think there’s a valid satirical target found in the occasionally poisonous discussions about Miss Wallis’ nomination (or really, discussions of any actress), but the most important thing to make clear is that she is not that target.

The Love Lives of Cats and Dogs

Cat and Dog HuggingI, like many other singles of my generation, am a member of several dating websites. I’ve tried out both paid and free services with varying success, and can’t remember the last time I asked someone out in person. Honestly I think it might have happened a grand total of one time in the eight years since I graduated from college.

When browsing a dating site I start with a few general criteria: Does she live close to me? Is she within a certain age range? Does the site’s mystical relationship algorithm think we’re compatible? And, of course, do I find her attractive enough to check out her profile? I try to take the last criteria with a grain of salt, of course; online profiles can be deceptive, whether intentionally or otherwise, and sometimes pictures just don’t capture how someone actually looks in person.

The thing that surprises me, however, is that I’ve come to feel that the most important factor in a girl’s profile is how she feels about cats. She can be well-read, smart, funny and generally great on paper, but if she hates cats, it just won’t work out.

On one hand it’s a practical consideration. I live with four cats, two of which are mine. If the girl I’m dating doesn’t want to hang out at my place because I have cats, she probably won’t be cool with moving in together someday if I want to bring my cats along for the ride. On the other hand it says something about her temperament if she doesn’t like cats and isn’t willing to put up with them.

I grew up with both cats and dogs, and I wouldn’t mind getting a dog someday. However, I know that dogs are a lot of work and that I’m not ready to devote myself to training, exercising and housing a dog right now. I don’t have the patience or the yard necessary to make it work. I have cats because they fit with my lifestyle and I happen to like the furry little bastards (except when they wake me up at 7am on a Saturday).

What I find when I go on dates is that my perspective is a rare one, at least when it comes to the sort of girls I find interesting. I mostly seem to meet passionate dog owners who rave about dog ownership; in theory some may write on their profile that they like cats or don’t have an opinion, but in practice when the subject comes up in conversation, the truth is that they just don’t like cats and can list a few reasons why.

I guess what I’m saying is that what I’m really searching for is a woman who will take me, cats and all. I wouldn’t mind having a dog in my life, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask that she be willing to put up with my cats. I might be willing to compromise in other areas of my life, but I can’t imagine not having at least one cat to my name.

The only thing worse than a girl who hates cats? A girl who hates to read. Shudder.

Why I Bought a Kindle

Yep, you read that right. I am now the proud owner of a Kindle, despite discussing my skepticism of ereaders earlier this year. I suppose it might seem odd that I’ve made the leap considering my stance that paper books are here to stay, but I do think the two worlds can co-exist.

One of the things that changed over the past six months is that the Kindle dropped in price to be competitive with the iPad and other ereader offerings from Borders and Barnes and Noble. Once the price tag came down to $189, buying one started sounding a lot more reasonable to me.

I did check out some of the competitive offerings before I went with the Kindle. The wi-fi Nook from Barnes and Noble has a price point of $149 and some decent features, but when I got my hands on one in the store, I wasn’t too impressed with the navigation screen at the bottom of the reader. I also felt like the PDF features on the Kindle were worth spending a little bit more, as was the more robust software and online store. The Kobo from Borders didn’t really come into play just because it doesn’t have wifi or 3g capability.

However, price wasn’t the only deciding factor. I’m currently in the process of moving to a new apartment, and I’m starting to realize that owning several hundred books is actually a complete pain in the ass. When I was packing, I filled a dozen or so small boxes and still had half a bookcase of books left to pack. After carting an endless number of boxes across town, I’m definitely starting to understand that the most practical solution would be to make my new book purchases digital-only. It’s either that or I keep buying bookshelves and never move again.

Also, now that I’ve actually got a Kindle to play with, I’m starting to discover other benefits. One of the biggest is that there are a lot of free ebooks out there in the world. One of the best resources is ManyBooks.net, which provides downloads of basically every ebook format under the sun.

Most of the books on that site are ones that were published before 1923 and are in the public domain, but that basically means I’ll never have to buy a copy of a classic book ever again. Naturally, I downloaded the most intimidating tomes that came to mind: War and Peace and Ulysses. There are also fantastic modern authors like Cory DoctorowCharles Stross, and Kelly Link who release downloadable versions of their books. It didn’t take me long to stock my Kindle full of a pretty decent list of reading material.

Another nice thing about the Kindle is that it is pretty easy to read it one-handed, or lay it flat and read while eating. This is a big deal for me, since I do most of my reading during my lunch breaks. Obviously this means I’ll have to be extra-careful about spills and spaghetti sauce on my hands, but it’s a decent trade-off. I won’t have to warp a paperback out of shape just to keep it open while I’m eating.

Long story short, I’m pretty happy with my purchase so far. It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop going to the library, or buying the occasional used book at Half-Price books, but I’m hoping it will prevent me from someday suffocating to death under a pile of unread books. Or at least make my next move a little bit easier.

Priorities

Alright, as you may know, I own a lot of books, and most of the books I own are ones I’ve bought and haven’t read yet. I read constantly, and yet my book collection never seems to get any smaller. Funny how that works. Anyways, lately I’ve been trying to focus on reading books I already own, and to help myself out, I’ve made a priority pile of books that I want to make sure and read this year:

From left to right:

A Madness of Angels by Kate Griffen, Kushiel’s Chosen by Jacqueline Carey, Bite Me by Christopher Moore, The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, Horns by Joe Hill, Sleepless by Charlie Huston, Under The Dome by Stephen King, Going in Circles by Pamela Ribon, Ariel by Steven R. Boyett, Changeless by Gail Carriger, Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch, Cuba Libre by Elmore Leonard, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell.

A lot of these are fairly recent purchases, but a handful of them are books I’ve had knocking around for years and years, with Cuba Libre and Dhalgren probably being the oldest. I can distinctly remember owning Cuba Libre when I was a freshman in college, and I know I read the first few chapters of Dhalgren sometime around then as well. As for the David Mitchell book, it’s an Early Reader from LibraryThing, and I have to read it within the next few months to receive any more books from the program.

I think this could be a good way to make my book collection more manageable. By setting aside a specific pile of books that I can make smaller over the next few months, it might feel more like I’m putting an actual dent in my collection.

Books of The Future!

Just got caught up reading a very lengthy (and contentious) comment thread over at Making Light regarding Amazon vs. Macmillan and eBooks in general, and it got me thinking. One of the commenters puts forth the idea that eBooks are the ultimate future of reading, and that those silly old things made out of paper will disappear into history shortly enough once eReaders make it big.

I see a couple of problems with this. First off, the 250 unread books currently looming on my bookshelves beg to differ. They sure aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Same with the millions of books in new and used book stores and libraries. The commenter theorizes that non-electronic books are going to become collector’s items for folks (like me) who just can’t let go of physical books and want to live in the past.

The problem with this, though, is that the argument is completely backwards. eReaders are the luxury item. The people who are most interested in eReaders are people who read a LOT because they see the attraction of carrying around 100s of books in their pockets and also because they think they can justify the sticker price. I definitely know that if I took the plunge and dropped several hundred dollars on an eReader any time soon that I’d feel the need to buy all my new books on that platform to justify the cost. Continue reading