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Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Unreliable and Unpredictable Narrator

One of literature's best-known and most-used devices is the unreliable narrator. The term seems to have been coined in 1961 by critic Wayne C. Booth, if we're to believe Wikipedia (that ultimate midwife of unreliable narrations), but the technique itself is as old as literature.

Think how dreadfully flat and meaningless Fight Club would be were Jack to prove a clearheaded, trustworthy stenographer of personal history. Ditto for Patrick Bateman of American Psycho. Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Nothing complexifies a story like having your reader realize, partway through the story, that objects in the rearview mirror may be less real than they appear.


The narrator doesn't have to be certifiably insane for the technique to work, of course, because selective modification of the truth (let's be honest for a moment) is endemic among the sanest of the sane. Lying is so common, it's hard to get an experimental handle on it. And who lies more than anyone? A storyteller! For a storyteller to embellish a story is not only not unusual, it's expected.

Mark Twain exploits this fact at the beginning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, when he talks (via the Huck character) about the earlier Adventures of Tom Sawyer: "That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth." This statement, made in the guise of full disclosure (honesty), frames the entire Huck narrative as unreliable
a brilliant device.
Was Patrick Bateman insane? Or just
crazy enough to believe he killed people?

The takeaway for fiction authors is obvious: If your narrator is unflaggingly honest, you've created a rather unrealistic super-mortal (and more than likely, a dull story).

But there's another kind of narrator unreliability that can be incredibly useful and entertaining, and that's the unpredictable  narrator—a narrator who's apt to go in unusual directions without warning. One of the things that made Psycho  so jarring for so many viewers, when in came out in 1960, was Hitchcock's decision to kill the film's main character a third of the way into the story, disrupting the unspoken contract between director and movie-watcher (a contract that says the main character normally lives through most or all of a film). Suddenly the viewer was aware that the director could not be counted on to tether the story to this or that familiar handrail; all bets were off.

"All bets are off" is a rather extreme place to leave the viewer or reader, unless you're writing horror or psychological drama. Unpredictability can and often should come in smaller doses. The protagonist might be prone to sudden daredevil acts; or maybe just daydreams. (Lapsing into a dream sequence is a familiar—and some would say, overworked—"unpredictable narrator" ploy.)

Here's an unpredictability writing prompt for you: Have a character begin a turn of dialog by saying to his/her partner "Did you ever [do/think/see/say/wonder][something really odd]?" For example, two friends are driving somewhere. There's a lull in the conversation. Suddenly the driver says to his buddy/sister/GF/BF: "Did you ever want to do something totally random?" The other persons says: "Like what?" "Oh, I don't know, like, paint a watermelon blue and leave it on someone's front porch."

Maybe that's a lame example. The best example of randomness I ever heard (the person who told me this swore it was true) involved some college students in the Sixties—fraternity pledges, allegedly—who got a jackhammer from somewhere, donned construction-worker clothes, set up traffic cones at a random street corner, torn up a section of asphalt, and left.

The point is, whatever random idea your character comes up with, even if he/she doesn't act on it, reveals something about the character. If you want, it can provide a metaphor that characters can return to again and again throughout the story.

Unpredictability opens the door to humor as well. In Joseph Heller's Catch-22, Yossarian tells of the hospital patient in full body cast with tubes going in and tubes going out. The tubes going in start from a jar of yellow fluid and the tubes going out lead to another jar, also of yellow fluid. When the top jar runs low and the bottom jar is full, a nurse exchanges the top and bottom jars. This is not only an unpredictable and unexpected occurrence but marks Yossarian as an unreliable narrator, because anybody knows urine would never be administered intravenously to a patient in a hospital. On the other hand, Yossarian has been trying to suggest that everyone around him is insane, and maybe they are. Such an anecdote makes you wonder.

Unpredictability is not only a gateway to humor, it's a good way to get unblocked (if you're writing fiction) when you reach a scene or section of dialog where you're not sure how to begin.

In the comic romance I'm writing, the two lead characters, Tyler Schremp and his new girlfriend Molly Ledbetter, accompanied by their puppets, mini-Schremp and mini-Molly, are out on a date (their first "real" date since their puppets met a week earlier). They've decided to meet at a Chinese restaurant in Santa Clara, CA called Wu Wu. The two stare at each other googly-eyed, holding hands across the table, while the waitress reels off her Spiel. When the waitress leaves, mini-Schremp asks mini-Molly "Did you get all that?" "All what?" "What the waitress just said?" "Um, no, actually. What did she say?"

At this point, Schremp (speaking through his puppet) explains that the waitress said she just finished sacrificing a duck in their honor, in order to make the "duck sauce" sitting in front of them. Molly dips a fried noodle in the sauce, tastes it, whispers something in her puppet's ear. Then her puppet says: "She said it tastes a lot like apricot jam with water."

Mini-Schremp: "Exactly! See, that's the miraculous thing. When prepared properly, according to the five-hundred-year old recipe, the pineal gland of the mallard tastes sweet and fruity, like apricot, with hints of ginger and vinegar..."

Mini-Schremp then goes on to tell how the waitress's name badge says "Aimee" but in fact she's known in Beijing as Dong Sue. She was brought to the U.S. two years ago, after being sold into sexual slavery in Redwood City. But she managed to kill her captors, and now she works for "that big huge guy in the kitchen, right there—the guy with the missing fingertip, see him? His name is Saki Tumi, a.k.a. Wei Wei Fat; he's actually Japanese, a former Yakuza hit man. This is his territory, we're safe here. He opened this restaurant ten years ago, after making a fortune filming snuff movies in Fukushima. Born-again Christian. Nicest guy you'll ever want to meet."

Absurdity, in this case, proves to be a great ice-breaker. The characters go on to have a great time, the reader (I hope) has a great time, the puppets get naughty, a big secret gets revealed, the main character has a realization, and the relationship goes to the next level.

The novel, by the way, is called B.A.T.T.Y., and I hope you'll buy it when it comes out. (I've got to finish writing it first.)

Unpredictable/unreliable narrators are, let's face it, a lot more entertaining than guileless, truth-obsessed court reporters. Have fun with your narrator. Let him or her go a little crazy. It's what the reader wants.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tolstoy's Kingdom of God

Late in life, Tolstoy wrote a number of non-fiction works having to do with spirituality and Christian morality. These books eventually got him excommunicated from the Orthodox Church (in 1901). Probably no single work sums up the beliefs that got him excommunicated better than The Kingdom of God is Within You (available online free, in several formats, here).

What are these radical beliefs? Tolstoy insisted on a literal interpretation of Jesus's moral teachings (the Sermon on the Mount, in particular), specifically Jesus's injunction against the use of violence even in the face of evil. Tolstoy believed that when Jesus said "resist not evil" and "turn the other cheek" (Matthew 5:38–5:42 KJV) he literally meant to practice love even against those who come at you with evil intent. This, of course, has far-reaching consequences; it means no military service, for one thing. Tolstoy was convinced that only through the practice of non-violence can the tide of violence in human affairs be ended.


Tolstoy at work in his study, by
Ilya Efimovich Repin (Илья́ Ефи́мович Ре́пин).
Mohandas Gandhi was profoundly influenced by Tolstoy's writings (he read The Kingdom of God is Within You when it came out in 1894 and again, in South African jails, in the early 1900s). Indeed, Gandhi listed Tolstoy's book, as well as John Ruskin's Unto This Last and the poet Shrimad Rajchandra (Raychandbhai), as the three most important influences in his life. When Gandhi opened an ashram in South Africa to house the families of imprisoned Indian workers, he named it Tolstoy Farm.

The Kingdom of God is Within You is Tolstoy's definitive statement of his understanding of Christian moral teachings. It is a shocking book, even today, for many Christians in that it paints the overwhelming majority of Christians (and Christian leaders) as hypocrites and perverters of God's word. It raises many interesting questions, such as: Who is the "better Christian," one who believes in the virgin birth (and Jesus's resurrection) but doesn't practice non-violence, or one who rejects the miraculous events surrounding Jesus but accepts his moral teachings without modification?

The Kingdom of God is Within You will stir an inner dialog in anyone who reads it. And on that basis alone, I recommend it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

At the End of Gravity's Rainbow

After six weeks of determined struggle, I've finally made it to the end of Gravity's Dictionary (the Pynchon postmodern classic, known to most as Gravity's Rainbow). It's one of those books that you don't read so much as live through (or survive), your friends and family meanwhile asking "Where's he been? Oh, wait, right; he was reading that Pynchon thing . . ." and then you emerge from the study door, like Rod Taylor in The Time Machine (1960 George Pal version), wheezing and hypoxic—in tatters, sartorially and psychologically—every brain cell screaming to its neighbors: "I've got blisters on my fingers!"
Rod Taylor (as H.G. Wells) enters the dining
room after returning from the year 802,701,
in The Time Machine (1960).

Certainly one of the more challenging works of English I've ever read (even admirers of the novel have been known to say reading it is "admittedly a slog . . ."; see a book excerpt here), Gravity's Rainbow sets a high water mark for inscrutability, at least among American authors. (We must give a nod to Joyce here.) Pynchon's style is unrelentingly baroque and macaronic, truncheoning the reader alternately with French, German, and English, layering engineering concepts atop scatological neologisms atop organic chemistry references atop acronyms, with frequent (and annoying) recourse to made-up song lyrics (please, Mr. Pynchon, curb your doggerel), switching from mimesis to diegesis the way Lady Gaga changes stage outfits. Of course, it's all good clean fun until someone loses a mind. Some idea of the vexation the book provokes can be inferred from the fact that despite a unanimous recommendation by the Fiction Jury (consisting of Benjamin DeMott, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Alfred Kazin) to award the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction to Pynchon, the larger Pulitzer committee overruled its own fiction judges and gave the 1974 fiction prize to—no one.

Whether Gravity's Rainbow deserves to be ranked among the greatest novels ever written (it has made more than one reviewer's "Top 100" list) is certainly open to debate. Whether it can even properly be called a novel is open to debate. (Well-known NYC book editor Gerald Howard once said of the putative classic it is "not a novel in the generally accepted sense—it is a text, intended for moral instruction.") If you come looking for a plot, you won't find one. There are bits and pieces of story, but in the end, Gravity's Rainbow is about as much an example of storytelling as head cheese is an example of meat. It's more of an accretion of vignettes and daydreams held together with digressions and song lyrics. Should we even bring up the matter of character arc? The main character (the bumbling, oversexed polymath, Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop) simply vanishes around 50 pages from the end of the 776-page book.

Pynchon's classic is not without its serious detractors. One reviewer, Walter Kirn, writing for Slate, took up
. . . the question of whether Pynchon's writings are intended for normal human beings. I don't think they are. They partake of what the Elizabethans called "euphuism"—the pursuit of linguistic complexity for its own sake. As such, they're intended for literary monastics, for the tenured priesthood of paid interpreters that sprang up in colleges after World War II with the help of massive public funding from schemes such as the GI Bill and Pell grants. This professional audience for difficult "texts" created the demand that Pynchon first filled with V. and Gravity's Rainbow, the semiotic monoliths whose mix of scientific imagery, Cold War absurdity, and Joycean allusion provided a kind of full-employment program for a generation of rising postdocs.
One can't help but hear in such shrill attacks the voice of the learned classical-music critic trying to come to grips with modern jazz. Would someone who has known only Haydn and Beethoven be competent to pass judgment on an Ella Fitzgerald scat, or a Keith Jarrett Köln Concert? Shall we criticize Miles Davis for not knowing how to carry a melody? Bill Evans for not knowing how to root a chord?

One critic (Dan Schneider) slammed Gravity's Rainbow for its lack of emotional impact, stating "it’s remarkable to think how utterly emotionally unaffecting the book is." This comes much closer to the mark, I think, because it's hard, actually, to recall a novel in which there are so many sex scenes, with so little passion in any of them. Indeed, Pynchon has a curious gift for creating colorful characters that lack life. The villains are flimsy (and of course it's perfectly okay that we make them sexual deviants, since they are Nazis, after all), the sympathetic characters conspicuously unsympathetic; the hero himself unremittingly bland. Slothrop, Pointsman, Eventyr, Tchitcherine, Mucker-Maffick, and the rest are all not just cardboard characters, but soggy, pissed-on cardboard. They materialize and dematerialize throughout the story like apparitions, wearing their affectations like paper armbands, making the masked extras in Eyes Wide Shut seem complex in comparison. (It's telling, I think, that as celebrated an epic as Gravity's Rainbow is, no attempt has ever been made to bring it to the big screen.)

Ostensibly, this is a book about war (World War II), and yet there are no battle scenes (only a hint of a firefight late in the book, amounting to nothing). All of the personnel are stationed in the rearmost of rear areas, Lieutenant Slothrop's most daring venture being a jaunt through Switzerland in the spring of 1945 (followed by a riverboat adventure that brings him, rather late, to Peenemünde). The V-2 rocket, and Slothrop's allusory erections, are the star of the show. We get to hear a great deal about guidance systems, Poisson distributions, dyes and propellants, the incestuous pre-war relationship between American and European industrial conglomerates; we even get Pynchon's charming account (via a parable involving one Byron the Light Bulb) of how incandescent filament life was balanced against the cartel-set price of tungsten and electric power company economic reality. But we see precious little of the human emotional toll of war that, for example, Tolstoy would have shown us. Even Vonnegut and Heller (with all their hyperbolic, tragicomic absurdism) were able to paint a more vivid, lasting, high-emotional-impact picture of World War II than Pynchon has managed to do in Gravity's Rainbow.

The inevitable comeback is "Well but you see now, that's just the point, isn't it? War is a dehumanizingly banal enterprise, in the end; the bureacratic machinery of armed conflict is fundamentally numbing to the spirit, and you can't really expect . . ."

Oh, but we can expect. Slaughterhouse Five. Catch-22. War and Peace. (Dare I say it? M*A*S*H.) We can expect more, much more, from a war story, even a humorously told one, I'm afraid.

Criticisms aside, Gravity's Rainbow will always have a special place in my heart, if for no other reason than its success in refuting the iron-clad dicta of the NYC publishing elite, who demand that a novel have compelling characters with well-defined character arcs, strong plot and subplots (with well-timed reversals), a timely theme, a well-defined genre, and all the rest—all hog-swill, basically. Somehow, Thomas Pynchon gave the finger to all that, and got away with it. No doubt there are other Pynchons out there right now, nascent meisters of the written word struggling to be heard above the white noise of Amazon ratings, Goodreads reviews, Bookbub "featured book" placements, und so weiter. We can only hope some of them will be discovered—and properly celebrated—while there are still those of us who remember how to read more than 140 characters at a time.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Unusual Words from Gravity's Rainbow

Here and there around the Web you'll find lists of vocabulary words culled from Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon's epic postmodern novel about the deployment of the V-2 rocket in World War II. I couldn't resist compiling such a list myself. I've been a professional writer, a student of the English language, for almost 40 years, and like Thomas Pynchon himself, I spent a good deal of time employed as a technical writer. It's not often I come across a word in English I've never seen before, but in reading Gravity's Rainbow, one finds oneself accosted by such words with metronomic regularity; which (if you're a student of the language) is a pleasant surprise indeed.

In the table further below are a few English words I'd not seen used in any novel before. (I've omitted words relating to architecture and fabrics, two areas where Pynchon seems to have developed a fetishistic devotion to lexical obscurata. Likewise, I make no attempt to list engineering terms, which are legion in Gravity's Rainbow.)

In case you want to try to catch a feel for the actual prose whence these words came, a Chinese site has the entire text of Gravity's Rainbow online, as follows:

CONTENTS:






I don't advocate attempting to read the entire book online, nor do I believe anyone would be so foolhardy as to try to do so. (I do strongly advocate buying the book or obtaining it from the library.) These links are meant as sample entry points.

Here, then, without further ado, are a few words I encountered in Gravity's Rainbow that I cannot recall encountering in any other novel in English:

antinomian
Of or relating to the view that Christians are released by grace from the obligation of observing the moral law.
bedizen
(verb) To decorate tastelessly.
dishabille
The state of being only partly or scantily clothed.
doss
(verb) To sleep in a usually uncomfortable place that does not have a bed.
emprise
An adventurous, daring, or chivalric enterprise
firth
Coastal waters in Scotland and England.
gloze
(verb) Make excuses for.
gunsel
A criminal carrying a gun.
nacre, nacreous
Nacre is mother-of-pearl, nacreous is thus a pearlescent or lustrous and iridescent white sheen.
oneiric
Of or relating to dreams or dreaming.
pantechnicon
1. A large van, esp one used for furniture removals. 2. A warehouse where furniture is stored.
passementerie
Ornamental trimming for a garment, as braid, lace, or metallic beads.
preterition
1. The action of passing over or disregarding a matter, esp. the rhetorical technique of making summary mention of something by professing to omit it. 2. (in Calvinist theology) Omission from God's elect; nonelection to salvation.
quai
A wharf or reinforced bank where ships are loaded or unloaded.
rachitic
Of or relating to ricketts, the vitamin-deficiency disease.
sastrugi
Wind erodes snow from the windward side of an obstacle and deposits it on the lee side. Sastrugi are the ridge-like formations of snow thus produced.
scombroid
Bony fish (such as tuna, swordfish) are scombroid fish. May also refer to illness (poisoning) from eating tainted fish of this general category.
spicule
Any of many needle-like crystalline structures that provide skeletal support in marine invertebrates.
talion
A punishment identical to the offense (eye for an eye).
velleity
A wish or inclination not strong enough to lead to action, e.g. "the notion intrigued me, but remained a velleity."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Scene from B.A.T.T.Y.

Yesterday I showed how I handled the problem of noise description in a scene from a comedic novella (code name B.A.T.T.Y.) I'm working on. I thought today I'd present the entire scene (free book sample!) along with an explanation of what the scene does and why it's constructed the way it is.

I wanted to accomplish a number of goals with this scene. The main character, Tyler Schremp, has been talked into having a quick drink at Joy Joy (a fictional restaurant/bar in Palo Alto) on the way home from work. Schremp has group therapy at seven, so the drink has to be a quickie. Both Schremp and his buddy Matt Dixon are young engineers working for a hot toy-company startup in Silicon Valley (called HoityToyty). They have a love-hate relationship with their jobs. They love creating high-tech toys, but their boss (an insufferable ass) has them working on such idiotic projects as a scent-emitting unicorn doll (Fresh Scent Cornelia). You put Glade scent-packs in the unicorn's ass, and then, assuming the batteries are fully charged, the doll spurts air freshener (in microprocessor-controlled bursts) out its anus all day.


The goals for the scene are:
  • Show that Schremp and Dixon are best buds of long standing. Male bonding.
  • Show their dissatisfaction with work, their eagerness to go into business for themselves.
  • Have them talk about Schremp's main problem, which (at the moment) is how to reconnect with the beautiful and mysterious puppet-toting redhead he met a few nights ago.
  • Do all this in a lighthearted way.
The entire scene is a segue from an office scene to a group-therapy scene. It has to cap off a lousy day at the office while paving the way for group therapy. (The redhead will show up at group therapy.) Here's the whole scene:
     The crescendo of cacophony at Joy Joy hadn't yet reached full-on Happy Hour earbleed level, but the din was prodigious -- so much so that Dixon had to go back out the front door to the sidewalk to check his voicemail while Schremp, securing the last empty stools at the bar, fetched two tall glasses of Buttface Amber (one of the featured microbrews-of-the-day) from the red-suspendered, all too jolly bartender-du-jour.
     As Dixon finally shuffled back inside, tucking his iPhone in his pocket, Schremp asked: "Anything important?"
     Dixon, accepting a beer from Schremp: "Hitler called, he wants his youth back. Other than that --"
     Schremp raised his glass, said a "Heil Mary," and took a sip. Dixon did likewise.
     Dixon: "What about you,? Any word from --"
     "Not a peep. Beginning to think I popped the clutch." Schremp licked foam off his upper lip and looked in vain for a coaster on which to see his beer, finding, instead, only a soggy cocktail napkin. "You know, maybe I just --"
     "I wouldn't worry about it," Dixon said, with a dismissive flip of the hand. "It's only been, what, a week?"
     "Yeah. Not even." Schremp was having to speak loudly now, to be heard over the background noise.
     "But you called her, right?"
     Schremp nodded as he drank. "I don't feel right leaving, you know, a hundred messages or something, though. Don't want to come across as a stalker . . ."
     "How many times have you called her?"
     "Twice. Plus one text message."
     "Pffah. Dude. That's not stalking. Take it from someone who knows." Dixon held his glass up and admired the three concentric rings of foam in the empty upper third. "Look, chug lines . . ."
     Schremp sighted across the chug lines and down the crowded bar, taking in the pot-luck assortment of helter-skelter hairdos, the predominantly northern European profiles (punctuated by the occasional soft/rounded Oriental face), checking, meanwhile, for redheads with puppets, drooping parallel e-cigs, some hint of a chocolate-suede Sole Society ankle boot. But alas, no joy, as the fighter jocks say.
     "I mean, sometimes I think maybe I am a bit obsessed with her, in a way," Schremp said, fiddling with his glass. "I keep replaying that night over and over in my mind . . . The flashbacks are on a tape loop sometimes, like when you can't get a song out of your head?"
     Dixon nodded. "Earworm. Very dangerous. One time I got Devo stuck in my head for two days . . ."
     "That happened to me with Bryan Ferry's 'Boys and Girls.'"
     "Don't know that one."
     "Well, do NOT listen to it, my friend. Understand? You'll go insane . . ."
     "Like that movie -- what's it called? -- where there's this videotape, and if you watch it, you'll die seven days later."
     Schremp nodded before making concentric Chug Line No. 7 in his glass. "The Ring. That's exactly it, that's what's happening to me. And it's been almost seven days . . ."
     "Yeah, but you're not going to die just because Marcy didn't call you back."
     "Molly. Not Marcy."
     "What's that? I can't hear you . . ."
     Joy Joy was fast approaching the Fire Marshall's room-capacity limit (or so Schremp supposed), the place packed now with clamorous roisterers intent on pushing the decibel envelope beyond airline baggage-handler recommended maximums. Cocktail glasses (three in a waitress's hands at once) clinked and clacked, cash register slamming shut as someone's stool-leg stuttered across the floor nearby ("What can I getcha?"), burly guffaws competing with soprano laughter, a sudden swoosh of street noise as fresh celebrants burst through the main entry door, wine cork's thoppp! providing a grace-note to a distant woman's rising arpeggio of giggles -- the thrum of a vox humana orchestra tuning up.
     Schremp swirled the remaining two ounces of beer in his glass. He scanned the crowd, eyes finally falling on Dixon. At the first lull in the background noise he said: "We could fix the noise problem, you know."
     "Yeah, we could go outside . . ."
     "No, I mean we could fix it. With technology."
     Dixon was game. "Go on."
     "An array of microphones in that wall over there" -- Schremp motioned with his head -- "and an array of speakers in this wall over here. Right? Invert the signal, drive the anti-noise through the speakers, time it so the noise gets canceled for these people right over here . . ."
     Dixon mused on it, nodding, far-away stare, feigning comprehension. "Interesting idea..."
     "See, if you have enough microphones, you can triangulate the origin of any individual sound in this room . . . or all of the various sounds --"
     Dixon's brows unfurled, an Aha moment slowly washing across his face.
     "-- and likewise, with an array of speakers, you can focus calibrated anti-noise on any location in the room . . ."
     "Barroom active noise suppression. BANS."
     "Exactly."
    Dixon slapped the side of Schremp's shoulder. "Freakin' brilliant. Dude, you're a genius, you know that?"
     The two clinked glasses and then knocked back the rest of their beers.
     Dixon grabbed a half-soaked cocktail napkin from the bar and used it to wipe his mouth. "This," he said, "is exactly the kind of stuff we ought to be working on. Instead of unicorns with April-fresh anal glands."
     Schremp nodded, half-smiling. "Yep. It's just about that time."
     Dixon glanced at his watch. "Group therapy?"
     "No. I mean, yeah, that too. But what I meant was, it's just about time . . . for us to turn the page. You know? Put HoityToyty behind us."
     Dixon smiled. "Ordinarily, the last thing I want to put behind me is a herd of unicorns. But in this case, my man, you're absolutely right. I'm with you. All the way."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Painting a Picture of Noise

Yesterday, I gave a high-level overview of some of the tools available, in the English language, for describing noise. Now comes more of a practical exercise: how to portray a noisy-crowd scene in a novel or short story (or other narrative account)? 

In the comic novella I'm writing, I have a scene that takes place in a crowded restaurant bar. (The restaurant is a fictional place called Joy Joy in Palo Alto, California.) The main character's last name is Schremp. The setup: Schremp and his office mate (Dixon) have decided to hit Joy Joy for a drink on their way home from work. But it's happy hour. The place is bustling. It's loud and getting louder. The question is how to indicate that, convincingly, in the narrative.

The obvious way is to have one character say to another: "Boy it's loud in here!" (And maybe, just to emphasize the point, have the other character cup his ear and say: "What?") Nothing wrong with that, actually, except that it has only momentary impact. It's using noise as a prop. I want the noise to be more than a prop; I want it to be an integral part of the ambiance of the scene, a kind of additional main character, if you will, palpable, always lurking, ready to intrude.


In the scene's opening line, I begin with quickly telling, rather than showing, the atmosphere:

    The crescendo of cacophony at Joy Joy hadn't yet reached full-on Happy Hour earbleed level, but the din was prodigious; so much so that Dixon had to go back out the front door to the sidewalk to check his voicemail while Schremp, securing the last empty stools at the bar, fetched two tall glasses of Buttface Amber (one of the featured microbrews-of-the-day) from the red-suspendered, all too jolly bartender-du-jour.
This is both a tell and a show. The "show" part is Dixon having to go back outside to check his voicemail because it's too loud inside. Note, incidentally, the use of a musical term ("crescendo"), which sets up additional music vocabulary later.

A bit further on, which is to say after a few lines of dialog, I explain in the narrative that the background noise has become so excessive, Schremp is having to raise his voice to be heard. So, another tell. (Maybe not the best solution.)

Schremp, at one point, scans the bar looking for signs of his new girlfriend. This is a good chance to underscore the crowded nature of the place; hinting (through visuals) at the potential for noise. 

Fast-forward past another half-page of dialog. I have Dixon asking Schremp to repeat himself ("What did you say? I can't hear you..."): Back to show rather than tell. 

At this point, I immediately break off into some exposition about the noise situation. (I don't claim this is the optimal thing to do. It's what I'm happiest with at the moment.) Here's what I finally came up with:
     Joy Joy was fast approaching the Fire Marshall's room-capacity limit (or so Schremp supposed), the place packed now with clamorous roisterers intent on pushing the decibel envelope beyond airline baggage-handler recommended maximums. Cocktail glasses (three in a waitress's hands at once) clinked and clacked, cash register slamming shut as someone's stool-leg stuttered across the floor nearby ("What can I getcha?"), burly guffaws competing with soprano laughter, a sudden swoosh of street noise as fresh celebrants burst through the main entry door, wine cork's thoppp! providing a grace-note to a distant woman's rising arpeggio of giggles—the thrum of a vox humana orchestra tuning up. 
So again, a mix of tell and show. Talk of decibel limits (these two guys are engineers, BTW) and clamorous roisterers, followed by examples of some noise-sources, with recourse to musical terminology (soprano, grace-note, arpeggio), culminating in the suggestion of an orchestra tuning up. The scene ends with Schremp and Dixon discussing the noise situation and how they would fix it with technology: barroom active noise suppression (BANS). 

How would you describe a noisy bar in a restaurant? Feel free to leave a comment below.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Describing Noise

Today and tomorrow I want to talk about noise and how to describe it in prose, in case you reach a point in the writing of your novel (or short story or essay or other piece of writing) where you need to describe a noisy scene with some word (or words) other than noisy.

You can come at the problem of describing a noisy scene in various ways. Using a broad brush, you can apply words like noisy, cacophonous, and so on (see below). Using a finer brush, you can particularize the noise, describing it as clangorous or sonorous or whatever  (see further below), perhaps even going as far as inventing a noise-word to describe an actual instance of a sound, such as a huge cork coming out of an empty barrel with a SHBUNNKKK!

Another thing you can do is devote word-power to describing the effect(s) of a noise, rather than concentrating on describing the actual noise (e.g., a car stereo with chest-thumping hip-hop). Describing the effect of a noise puts you a little further down the road of showing rather than telling.

But you can also bend imagery to your purpose (something I'll try to show in tomorrow's post) and try to reconstruct sounds using non-sound words. This takes a bit of ingenuity, but it can be well worth the headache.

Let's take a quick look at the vocabulary of noise (in English).

Noise Words
English words that can be used to indicate noise include babel, ballyhoo, bedlam, clamor, commotion, din, discord, fracas, hubbub, hullabalou, outcry, pandemonium, racket, ruckus, tumult, turmoil, uproar, vociferation.

Characterizing Noise
The word "noise" is rather generic (and thus vague) because it can refer to so many kinds of sounds. Sometimes you want a word that can put more specificity on the noise. Consider the following words:
  • obstreperous—unruly noisiness (usually implies difficult to control).
  • cacophonous—harsh sounding, grating.
  • clamorous—marked by confused din or outcry.
  • clangorous—noise characterized by clanging.
  • plangent—loud, resounding, and often melancholy.
  • sonorous—a sound that's full, deep, rich.
  • stentorious or stentorian—loud (usually used in reference to a person's voice, in honor of the herald, Stentor, in Homer's Iliad). 
  • strident—loud, harsh,  grating.
  • stridulous—implies a shrill creaking sound, as of floorboards being being torn up, a creaking door, or possibly the death-gasp of some person or animal. Many insects have special adaptations that allow them to emit stridulatory sounds (e.g., crickets, grasshoppers).

Words Indirectly Suggestive of Noise
Words that can be used to suggest noise include unruly, riotous, rampageous, pandemonic. These words imply chaotic behavior, rather than audible sound per se. They can be bent (through synesthesic metaphor) to other semantic scopes; for example, "neon lights in riotous colors."

Individual Types of Noises
The list here is endless: bang, boom, buzz, growl, hiss, jingle, pop, screech, squeal, tinkle, whimper, whine, yelp, etc. (All of these can serve either as verb or noun.) Many sounds are associated with particular sources (e.g., the caterwaul of a cat). I don't know of a book that catalogs every conceivable type of noise (although J.I. Rodale's Synonym Finder is a good place to start). I'm sure there are hundreds of such words.

Noises can be further characterized by auxiliary words (adjectives) that describe a sound's unique characteristics (e.g. the staccato clack-clack-clack of a stick along a picket fence).

With all these tools in your toolbag, you'd think it would be easy (or straightforward, at least) to describe a noisy subway station, or crowd noise at a rally. It's actually harder than you might think, unless you simply want to say "the crowd was noisy" and be done with it. Tomorrow, I'll show an example of how I handled a noisy bar/restaurant scene in a piece of fiction I'm working on. Bring your ear-plugs.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Script-Doctoring The Station Agent

Thomas McCarthy's offbeat, low-budget (under $500,000) drama, The Station Agent, is a bit of an enigma. The 2003 film won numerous awards (critics and judges lavished praise on it), 90% of people on rottentomatoes.com liked it (average rating 3.9/5), and yet I didn't find it to be all that magical; I give it three stars, tops. Does it exude charm? Most definitely. Are the performances good? Hell yes, they're better than good. (So is the cinematography.) But somehow, long portions of the movie seemed to drag; the funny parts weren't laugh-out-loud funny; the plot was threadbare; my thoughts wandered as I watched. I wanted to come away laughing or crying or moved in some way. But it's not that kind of story.

What kind of story is it? The logline is suitably quirky: Two loners (Joe and Olivia) try to befriend an antisocial dwarf (Finbar McBride, sensitively played by Peter Dinklage) who has inherited an abandoned train station in Newfoundland, New Jersey.

Joe, Olivia, and Fin watch a movie in The Station Agent.
Bitter and reclusive, tired of living the wee life in a world of Big People, four-foot-five-inch Finbar moves into the ramshackle station, making it his own special locomotive-geek bachelor pad. But he can't get away from the young Cuban-American man, Joe (played by Bobby Cannavale), who operates a hot dog truck near the abandoned station. (We're never told how it is a person can make a living operating a lunch truck at an abandoned station where no train ever stops.)

While walking to town, Finbar almost gets struck by a swerving Jeep; he thus meets Olivia Harris (played by Patricia Clarkson), a thirty-something woman who lost her only child in a playground accident two years ago and is now separated from her husband.

For a while, it seems as if Fin and Olivia will hit it off and become An Item, but they never do. Instead, she wants to reconcile with her husband (but finds out much later that he's already impregnated his girlfriend). Fin also meets a young librarian, and has a tender moment with her; but alas, she's pregnant by her redneck boyfriend, and she goes back to him (or disappears from the film, at least).

There's a bit of bonding between Fin and Joe, but frankly the Joe character is mostly an irritation (to Fin and the moviegoer) and only barely attains "true friend" status at the end of the story. He's good-natured; you want to like him; but he's extraordinarily immature for a grown man. He makes the characters in Saturday Night Fever seem complex, multidimensional.

What the movie needs is a good train wreck, whether kinetic (i.e., literal) or metaphorical. (I'd take either.) Joe's life is mysteriously thin (he's as complex, emotionally, as a 10-year-old boy); apparently he has no college loans to pay, no wife or child to feed, nothing to do with his time but hang out at the station all day. Olivia's life is full of pathos, but it's latent, rarely overt. Who are these people? Where are the raging crises in their lives? Olivia lost her son two full years ago; it's in the past; her husband is not the kind of husband any sane woman would want to reconcile with. Where's the tension? There isn't any. I'm sorry.

The main character's arc takes him from bitter and antisocial to less bitter and quasi-social (but still without a love life). That's hardly a satisfying journey.

How to fix this mess? First, make all three main characters' lives train wrecks. Not only that, actually have Joe hang his head at one point and call his life a train wreck so that Fin (the locomotive-history uber-nerd and consummate train-lover) can say: "Please don't ever say that in my presence."

Joe: "What? What'd I say? You mean . . . train wreck??"

Fin: "Please. It's . . . repugnant."

Joe (whose first language is Spanish) gives a no-comprende shrug.

"Re-pug-nant. It means repulsive. Extremely distressing."

This sets up "train wreck" as a metaphor that can be used throughout the movie, while also potentially setting up a funny moment some time later on, when Olivia can slip "train wreck" into conversation (innocently), whereupon both Joe and Fin stare at her and simultaneously say: "Don't ever say that." (Then Joe, on his own: "It's repugnant.")

Writer-director McCarthy took pains to show a scene in which the local-store cashier/owner whips her cell phone out to take a picture of Fin while he's walking around in the store (because apparently, this 50-year-old woman has never seen a dwarf before, in her entire life). Okay, we get it, people treat dwarves like freaks. Unfortunately, McCarthy misses a great opportunity to lend resonance to the store scene later on, when Fin, in a drunken rage, stands on a bar stool in a crowded saloon and yells at people to "Go ahead, look at me." What he should, of course, have done is yell: "Get your camera out, okay? Take a goddam picture." At first, no one moves, but Fin (in my rewrite; if I were script-doctoring this thing) shames the crowd into actually getting their cell phones out. He forces them to take actual pictures of him.

That's not all. Bear in mind, there's a hugely important redemption scene near the end of the movie when Fin, glad to be alive after a near-death experience, finds the nerve to stand in front of an elementary-school class (one kid asks how tall he is) to give a talk about trains. The barroom scene could have given the classroom scene a bit of much-needed resonance if it (the bar scene) had ended with Fin (duly photographed by the shamed saloon crowd) stepping down from the bar stool and saying (angrily, of course) "Thank you. Class dismissed . . ." as he storms out of the bar. Later on, during the classroom scene, we could have Fin allow a local newspaper reporter (newspapers being a symbol, incidentally, for well-past-their-glory-days 19th-century technology, like trains) to take a picture of him with kids gathered around him. The next day, Joe, Olivia, and Fin (or any combination of two of them) could be looking at the picture in the morning paper, commenting positively on it, etc. 


Note: The camera is a potentially powerful metaphor in any movie; it's the physical incarnation of voyeurism (which in turn is a powerful motif in cinema).

Fin's closeness with Olivia could have been better exploited. They could have cuddled/rubbed faces, on the bed, fully clothed; then CUT TO an outdoor scene (continuous, night) looking at the bedroom window from outside; we see the light go out (suggesting that more may have then happened on the bed). But we FADE TO a morning indoor scene where we see the two spooning, still fully clothed, atop the still-undisturbed bed, Fin looking like a pearl inside an oyster with Olivia holding him from behind.

I can think of a lot of seemingly little (but potentially important in the aggregate) fluorishes that would have made us care more about the characters (without resorting to the cheap tactic of making them have sex with each other)—quite possibly making for a more satisfying (for me, anyway) film experience. With a little work, The Station Agent could have been even better than it is already. That's not to take credit away from Thomas McCarthy, however. Few people these days can shoot an award-winning, highly profitable (well over $8 million gross) drama for under half a million dollars. That's magic of a pretty high order. Far be it for me to suggest otherwise.

Friday, December 13, 2013

What I Do When I'm Blocked

My good friend Jeff e-mailed me the other day to ask how the book is coming. (I'm 25,000 words into a comedic novella.) He knows I've run into problems with it here and there (I won't call it writer's block) as I try to work out the story line and keep numerous balls in the air at the same time. He asked what I do when I get bogged down. Watch a movie, perhaps?

This is what I wrote back to him (in stalled-writer mode):
Correct, sir. To combat blockage, I do resort to movies, books, diversions (Twitter, LinkedIn, long e-mails to friends), more coffee, a few minutes on the porch while the dogs take their potty break, basically anything but exercise (not counting sex as exercise, in this case). Last night I watched half a movie. May or may not watch the rest.  A story about some people who try to befriend an antisocial dwarf who has inherited a broken-down train depot. I am not kidding. That's the premise. I thought I might get some ideas while watching it. But it's kinda slow. Yet it got great reviews. It's called "The Station Agent."

I also continue to read Gravity's Rainbow. The story is starting to pick up a little (p. 270 now, near the end of Part 2 out of 4) although the book can't, in all seriousness, be said to have a plot. I do admit to being fascinated by Pynchon's writing style. Mystified and fascinated. How did he get this thing published? First of all, what English-speaking reader is going to know all the French and Latin and German terms? What kind of audience knows even the English words he uses? words like palimpsest, scombroid, nacreous, velleity. Who said it's okay to have a 700-page novel without a plot? etc. etc.
The reason I read it is that the command of language is unbelievable. And the damn fool knows his writing is ace, because he delights in throwing in the occasional "sez" (for "says") and other irritations just for fun! Reading it is a kind of Zen challenge. I deconstruct as I go; I look at what he's describing, and compare it with HOW he's describing it, and it's quite educational. The dialog is just as infuriating as the narrative: characters speaking in half-sentences, two chars engaging in parallel soliloquys rather than replying to each other, punctuation all over the place. Someone in a forum excerpted a 100-word sentence and called it a "cluster-fuck of words." That's about right.

Still, there's a certain logic behind it (I can see the Boeing tech writer in him), and it's endearing to go from a sadomasochism scene to differential equations in the space of a few pages. He actually cites a few equations here and there (Poisson's formula, plus an equation for yaw stability of a rocket).

The love scenes lack passion -- which I have to conclude must be deliberate on Pynchon's part -- and the story, overall, lacks heart, but I think (not to belabor the obvious) there's a certain attempt here to render the story that way intentionally, yes? because it's a war story, and war (with its debasement of life and monstrous bureaucracy) is a sterile and heartless business by its very nature. So again, Pynchon gets away with things that would not work in other stories; this "story" (if it can be properly so called) works well with the kind of approach he uses, whereas I don't think it would work for a wide range of settings and themes. The meta-theme here is death, war, destruction, paranoia, the culture of war-engineering; the (quick, quick, Mr. Pynchon, what's the German word?) Sinnlosigkeit, the meaninglessness, of all the above. The tale is told in suitably parallel style, aggregating seemingly pointless vignettes into a strenuously lifeless non-story about characters who come, go, eat, fuck, talk, all the while never quite interacting with each other in any kind of meaningful way. A remarkable synthesis, really.

Reading Pynchon, I feel like I'm on a grand journey of some kind, and having been liberated from the tyranny of plot and climax and denouement, I'm at leisure to enjoy the journey for its own sake with no obligation to care about the destination or route. If the journey should end with disorienting, unfulfilling suddenness (as the war in Europe did, Hitler vanishing into the aether...), I'll disembark none the worse for wear.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Adventures in Book Publishing

I had a lot to learn about publishing, when I was in my twenties. As luck would have it, I had some pretty good teachers. And I learned plenty.

My first hard cover book deal came about by accident. In 1978, through my friend George C. Larson (who went on to become the editor of Smithsonian's Air & Space magazine), I happened to meet Robert B. Parke, the recently retired publisher of Flying magazine. Parke was looking to sign up authors for a series of aviation books he was editing for Doubleday. Larson put us in touch and we met face to face.

Parke explained that an author of a book on dirigibles had bowed out of the Doubleday series; he was looking for someone to take over the project and bring it to fruition. At first, I thought "Good God, who the hell wants to read a book about dirigibles?" Then Parke mentioned the $10,000 advance. I began to levitate.

While thinking the matter over, I started to have other ideas. My recent maintenance experiences with an airplane I'd bought from a Delta Air Lines pilot (a nine-year-old Cessna 182) had left me with a considerable amount of frustration, but I had also acquired quite a bit of knowledge on things like brake-pad replacement, magneto timing, carburetor adjustment, and whatnot. I thought: "Surely I can't be the only private pilot who needs to know some of this stuff. If there's a market for books about dirigibles, there has to be a market for books about aircraft maintenance."

I still self-publish this book.
I decided that before I'd sign up to do a dirigible book, I'd query Doubleday on an aircraft maintenance title. To make a long story short, I decided not to go with Parke's offer to become an author in his series of books, because Doubleday, as it happened, was only too happy to consider my other idea.

When a contract arrived by mail from Doubleday, promising a $10,000 advance on a how-to book for aircraft owners interested in doing their own maintenance, I was ecstatic, of course. For most first-time authors, this would have been the endgame. Most authors would have signed the Doubleday contract right away and started writing. Not me.

I reasoned: "If Doubleday's willing to buy this idea, surely other major publishers who do aviation books will want to consider it too."

I staged my own book auction. (For an as-yet unwritten book.) Within a month, I had physical contracts in hand from Van Nostrand, McGraw-Hill, and Doubleday.

Comparing the contracts was an interesting exercise. Some promised to leave the copyright in the author's name; one had it in the publisher's name. Each contract varied as to the royalty percentage and payout schedule. Doubleday was offering a flat 10% royalty against all sales. The other two publishers paid a certain percentage that grew with each sales step; for example, 10% on the first 1,500 copies sold, then 12% on the next 1,500, and 15% on subsequent sales. Payment milestones varied. One contract was set up in such a way that the author would get a certain amount just for signing the contract, then another chunk of money when the manuscript was finished, then a third piece when the book went to press. In another case, it was half the advance up front, half when the manuscript was finished. In one case it was everything up front.

The number of "authors' copies" varied. One publisher would give you 25 free copies and the right to buy more at 30% off. Another gave you 50 copies and the right to buy at 40% off. And so on.

I argued for better terms on each contract, figuring if any one publisher got tired of haggling with me, I'd at least have one or two other contracts to fall back on. No one dropped out. Each publisher sent a followup contract with better terms! In some cases, a particular term was scratched out (in ink) and initialed, awaiting my counter-initial. In other cases, the new terms magically appeared in the fine print of the (typset, lithographed) contract. (This was before laser printers.) I had several "Aha!" moments where I said to myself: "Look at this, they've got two printed contracts, with two different sets of terms. Obviously they send the lowball version out first . . ."

There are lots of lessons here, one of them being, simply: You don't get what you don't ask for. Another being: Publishers don't shy away from auctions. It's what they do.  

I eventually went with McGraw-Hill, based on a step contract I was sure would have me making more money than with the other two publishers. ("Heck," I thought, "this thing is going to sell thousands and thousands of copies. I'll hit those steps in no time.")

As it turned out, I would have been better off going with the Doubleday contract (which had no steps), but it would take me years to figure that out. McGraw-Hill knew what I didn't, which is that the only step that counts is the first one, because most books don't make it to the next level.

Over the years, I'd write more books—and make more mistakes. In one instance, a publisher allowed a second publisher (TAB Books) to bring out another edition of a work I'd done. (I'd signed a contract that allowed this.) The second publisher had well-established mail order and other sales channels, with the result that the book sold much better through the sub-publisher than through my original publisher. The two publishers got into a dispute over something (I can't even remember what) and TAB ended up not paying my original publisher, and I stopped getting royalties on the book. The dispute was never resolved (and I certainly wasn't making the kind of money that would allow me to go to court over a dispute that wasn't mine to begin with), so I ended up making nothing, essentially, on the one edition of that particular title that sold well.

Ultimately, I started self-publishing my aviation titles, and that's when the real money showed up. (When I say self-publishing, this was circa 1993, before print-on-demand.) I had a newsletter audience to whom I could sell books, and I was doing a lot of speaking (at aviation conferences) for a while. At speaking engagements, I often sold 40 or 50 books, on the spot, making $25 (net) per book.

I still keep one title in print, with Lulu.com. If you know anyone who flies small planes, check it out.

Publishing has changed a lot over the years, but some lessons stay the same.
  • Publishers promote winners; they never promote slow-selling titles (see yesterday's post). 
  • Most new authors vastly overestimate the number of copies that'll be sold. 
  • Most titles do not sell well enough to offset the advance. 
  • You can get badly burned on subsidiary rights.
But I can also say, based on personal experience: If you truly do have a ready market for your book (and sales channels you can exploit yourself), you can make money in self-publishing.

And by the way? If Doubleday ever offers you $10,000 up front for a yet-to-be-written book? Take it.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How Publishing Really Works

Back in the late 1970s, when $10,000 was a lot of money, I scored a five-figure book advance on a hard cover book with a major New York publisher. (The story of how that came about is kind of interesting, but I'll save it for another day.) I thought, at the time, I had really hit it big. The day I signed the contract was the happiest day of my young life (up to that point). "It doesn't get any better than this," I thought.

There would be many more "happiest day of my life" experiences, I hasten to add, none involving publishing.

But then came an educational process (right there is your clue: "educational process" being code language for painful experience), which most authors go through, wherein I learned how the publishing business actually works. (More code language.) I was disabused of certain myths.

Like all wet-behind-the-ears young authors, I thought my big-name publisher would put some bigtime marketing resources behind my book. It was a specialty book, so I wasn't completely unrealistic about what might happen (I didn't expect to see it in Macy's window), but still, I thought "Surely, they'll promote the heck out of this thing, make it visible to my target audience with magazine ads and whatnot."

Yeah, that's really what I thought. Instead . . . 

[Insert sound of crickets chirping.]

What I learned, of course, is that how the world works and how you think it should work are two different things. Authors think "Okay, if you publish a thousand titles, and there's a marketing budget of X, surely you spend roughly 0.1% of X on each book; maybe a little more for books with special potential, and a little less for books that sell themselves, like bestsellers."

Completely wrong.

Let me tell you how it works. If you're a publisher, you pump marketing money into your winners in hopes of making them even bigger winners. The stragglers, the losers, the backlist stuff, the specialty items (obscure titles only a few customers will buy)—those are the titles you don't lavish money on, because no amount of marketing is going to make a slow seller pay for itself; you'll only make a slow seller less profitable by spending money on it. What you do is promote your winners, and with any luck, they'll make enough money to carry the rest of the catalog for the rest of the sales year.

I suspect the music business works pretty much the same way. Because really, all businesses work this way. If you're a company (of any kind: toy company, restaurant, shoe company, you name it) and you have ten different product lines, one of which is consistently profitable, 5 of which break even, and 4 of which lose money, which products are you going to promote? Think of the product lines as individual businesses of their own. Do you invest money in a profitable company, or an unprofitable one? Turn the question around and the answer's even easier. Which product line do you get rid of, if you're forced to get rid of one? Answer: the one that's least likely to make money.

When you truly understand the foregoing principle in all its ramifications, you're ready to open a lemonade stand. Until then, don't go into business. 

My book (an aviation title) ended up doing reasonably well for a book of its kind (a specialty book). It got chosen as the Main Selection by two aviation book clubs and went into a foreign edition. It fell short of paying back the advance, however, and when the first printing finally hit an inventory level of zero, the publisher chose not to do a second printing. They sold the rights to me for one dollar, and said (not in these exact words): "Here you go, you can publish it yourself now. Go crazy with it."

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

If the Apocalypse Comes, Will Anyone Notice?

Not long ago (on 26 November) I ran an excerpt, here, from Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon's brilliantly eccentric postmodern classic about the V-2 missile bombing of England in late 1944. I also tweeted about it and mentioned the book in an e-mail to a friend (and looked it up in a Google search once).

On 7 December, I got an e-mail from Amazon with a Subject Heading of "Gravity's Rainbow." The first part of the e-mail looks like this:


I was startled to see "Gravity's Rainbow" (just those two words) as the Subject of an e-mail from Amazon, although I guess by now I shouldn't have been. (The real question is: Does Amazon know that the copy of Pynchon I'm now reading is from the library?) Google and Amazon have been tracking our behavior, our reading preferences, our buying habits, for quite some time; and they'll only get better at refining their models, perhaps to the point where they can tell I'm about to commit a crime, before I commit it (a la Minority Report). How Pynchon would that be? (Gravity's Rainbow is all about the limits of causation and prediction; it explores the inversion of cause and effect, a theme deriving from the fact that the sound of a V-2 missile's approach is preceded by the actual explosion, due to the missile arriving faster than Mach 1.)

In its almost psychotic paranoia and unrelenting preoccupation with government research into the limits of predictability, much of Philip K. Dick's work anticipates (or does it merely echo, ahead of time?) Pynchon's landmark book—the same way daily news headlines seem to offer a plangent, time-inverted reverberation from some terrible dystopian future whose recent past we now reenact. Perhaps, as I tweeted not long ago, NSA + Google + Amazon are properly considered one entity, the data-ingestion "front end" for the coming dronepocalypse.

I recently remarked on Twitter:


I was being completely serious, because today's bizarro reality is so monstrously outrageous (our every reading habit cached in a silicon hash-tree forest, our future purchasing decisions e-mailed to us, but of course we can still opt out of a given purchasing decision should we wish to retain the illusion of free will; even so, you might want to wait, first, for Klout to finish generating your influencers; no sense going off half-cocked, old boy . . .) it would have beggared Pynchon's imagination, even if he was dreaming of Philip K. Dick reading Kafka.

Before you write dystopian fiction, do a reality check. That is to say: Make sure present-day reality doesn't already have you trumped. Broadband Bizarro is streaming live, already. Have you checked your inbox?

Monday, December 09, 2013

Please Dear God Don't Let My Influencers Be Cached

Screenshot from Klout.com showing my influencers being generated.

So I was checking my Moments Interactors on Klout.com the other day, just like every normal person does every day, okay, when a wait-message happened to catch my eye: "Influencers are being generated."

"Wait," I said to myself, confused. "LinkedIn pre-generates my influencers; they show me my influencers every day. This must mean Klout instantiates influencers lazily, just in time."

Which is probably the way it should be, because if there's one thing you don't want in your life, at this point, it's day-old influencers. Damn straight I want lazily generated influencers!

So what if you have to wait a few seconds for your influencers to be generated? That can actually be a handy thing, because (think about it) if Jehovah's Witnesses suddenly arrive at your door, you can just say: "I'd love to talk to you right now, but Klout's almost done generating my influencers."

They'll understand. I know they will.



Sunday, December 08, 2013

The True Cost of Minimum Wage

Burger-flipping as a career option is the topic of a lot of jokes in America, but it's no joke to those who actually work in the fast food industry.

The following stats, from a recent report by the U.C. Berkeley Labor Center, highlight the true costs to society of keeping wages low in the fast-food sector:
Figure 1: Participation in Public Programs
  • More than half (52 percent) of the families of front-line fast-food workers are enrolled in one or more public programs, compared to 25 percent of the workforce as a whole. (See graphic.) This is true even when the workers in question are working 40 hours a week.
  • The cost of public assistance to families of workers in the fast-food industry is nearly $7 billion per year.
  • At an average of $3.9 billion per year, spending on Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) accounts for more than half of these costs.
  • Due to low earnings, fast-food workers' families also receive an annual average of $1.04 billion in food stamp benefits and $1.91 billion in Earned Income Tax Credit payments.
  • People working in fast-food jobs are more likely to live in or near poverty. One in five families with a member holding a fast-food job has an income below the poverty line, and 43 percent have an income two times the federal poverty level or less.
For more stats, see this Mother Jones piece.

Of course, low wages are a problem throughout the restaurant industry, not just the fast-food piece. The problem extends to retail as well. A Walmart in Ohio recently made news when it held a food drive—for its own employees.

Industry apologists will argue, of course, that if Walmart or McDonalds had to pay $12/hr starting pay, they would go out of business. That's complete nonsense. U.C. Berkeley's Labor Center researchers have already done the arithmetic for Walmart: If Walmart were to set a pay floor of $12/hr, the average net cost increase to shoppers would be 46 cents per store visit. A similar calculation for McDonalds comes to much the same answer. (McDonalds serves 69 million orders a day through 34,000 restaurants. Figure 300 minimum-wage-hours worked per restaurant per day. Every extra dollar an hour in wages comes to 15 cents extra per customer order.)

So McDonalds, if you're listening, what's your response to this? I'd like to know. Leave a comment below.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Interesting Twitter Stats

I've looked at a few stats on my 200,000+ Twitter followers, and some of them are kind of interesting.

I've always wondered how often my people are actually online, using Twitter. This is a difficult thing to quantify, but thanks to tweepi.com, I now know:
  • 1,080 people (out of 207,000) tweeted in the last minute
  • 2,690 tweeted in the last 5 minutes
  • 104,400 in the last day
  • 164,980 in the last month
The numbers are tricky, because we can't simply say that in any given 5-minute period, about 2,700 people (1.3% of 207,000 total followers) will be online, because there might be users online who don't tweet in those 5 minutes. The "online" part is suspect, too, since many people set their tweets for scheduled/automated push offline. Nevertheless, in a rough qualitative sense I think it's clear that only a very small percentage of users can be found online at a given moment. This is consistent with half my followers tweeting in a given 24-hour period (an implied average rate of 2.1% per hour; 50% divided by 24).

How many followers do my followers have?
  • 36620 (18%) have less than 200 followers
  • 79050 (39%) have less than 500 followers
  • 119165 (59%) have fewer than 1000 followers
  • median 725 followers
If you have 7,500 followers or more, you're in the 90th percentile. I don't know if my followers are representative of Twitter as a whole, but it sounds about right to me that 90% of Twitter users have fewer than 7,500 followers.

So, but. Twitter users tend to follow more people than they have following them. The median number of followees is 1,328. Thus, it's not atypical that a person has 725 followers, but follows 1,328 people. This, again, squares with everyday observation.

Who are my top followers in terms of Follower Count? Here are the top ten:

Twitter Name
Followers
Who is this?
@BarackObama
40324316
President, U.S.
@hootsuite
5528380
Twitter app.
@yokoono
4681884
The one and only.
@tonyhsieh
2842895
CEO of Zappos.
@Number10gov
2508900
David Cameron, UK Prime Minister.
@TweetDeck
2485270
Twitter app.
@firefox
2260635
The browser I use most.
@ElNacionalWeb
1767016
Venezuelan newspaper.
@thebenlandis
1657789
Songwriter.
@leopoldolopez
1614579
Leopoldo López, Venezuelan politician and economist.

Of these, I was surprised to find I actually follow only four myself.

I took a look at the Twitter users with whom I have a "mutual" relationship (i.e., where we both follow each other). Recall that Twitter relationships can be outbound, inbound, or mutual.

I have around 97,000 mutuals. To get an idea of who they are, I did some keyword searches on the user's bios. Here are the (interesting, I think) results:

Keyword in Bio
Number of People
writer
19822
author
16725
music[ian]
10560
market[er,ing]
7800
blogg[er,ing]
5421
photograph[er,y]
4813
editor
3712
actor
3064
coach
2899
Christ[ian]
2383
CEO
2067
coffee
1622
comedian
1538
junkie
1522
actress
1201
comedy
1083
novelist
978
EMPTY (no bio)
952
screenwriter
973
chocolate
790
literary agent
71

The tricky thing here is that people don't always state their occupation (nor their interests) in their bios. For example, comedians' bios are often one-liners. (Wait. This is Twitter. Every bio is a one-liner. Never mind . . .) An actor might give the name of a show, or an imdb.com URL, or just leave the bio blank. An editor might say "I work with words" or "I translate English into English." Thus the above numbers shouldn't be taken too literally.

Why do I follow so many people? Isn't it hard to keep track of their tweets? I use lists a lot, in order to see just what comedians are tweeting, just what authors are tweeting, etc. Still, it's a lot to keep track of. On the other hand, when major news hits, I often learn about it in seconds. If Fukushima melts down, I'll know right away.

Conversely, if I need advice on something, or a research tip, I get it instantly. Once, I was trying to find out what some of the worst/funniest, most poorly conceived children's toys are. I posted a tweet asking for help. Within seconds, I got the info I was looking for. 

But the real reason I follow so many people is, I consider my Twitter contacts to be a much more valuable Rolodex than, say, my LinkedIn contact list. I'm not in constant contact with my 500+ "contacts" on LinkedIn. Most of them, I haven't touched base with in years. Some are dead. My Twitter followers are very much alive (I routinely purge accounts that haven't tweeted in the last 90 days), and there for me. Many of them have reached out to me with a request; I always try to help. When I reach out, they help. It's a great system. I have thousands of people I can reach either via a public tweet, or via an e-mail that begins with "We follow each other on Twitter."

Recently, one of my followers (a movie producer) asked to see a copy of my screenplay. She read it, liked it, and is now anxious to show it to a colleague who executive-produced a recent major (well over $150 million box office gross) motion picture. This is the kind of thing that would not have happened for me without following a great many people on Twitter.

That's my excuse. What's yours?