Yesterday, after my lunch but before theirs, I interviewed Droqen (i.e., Alexander Martin) and Ryan Roth, the developer and sound designer of Starseed Pilgrim, a beautiful, mysterious game about “tending a symphonic garden, exploring space, and embracing fate.” It’s six dollars and I am extremely confident your computer can run it. I was kind of awkward and shy, predictably, but the two of them did great. We did it as a video because that was expedient, but if I were you I would treat it like a podcast — listen to the audio; don’t feel like you’ve got to watch. We talked mostly about video games – Starseed Pilgrim, Droqen’s other games, stuff we had all played and enjoyed, and things we didn’t like so much. But I don’t think you have to like video games very much to find a lot of what they said interesting. I made some annotations (indexed by time code) to provide context and further information for the things we discussed; click past the fold to see them. READ MORE >
This is a post about Seth Oelbaum, and I wish that it wasn’t.
I got my copy of the keys to this blog while I was unemployed. I had just quit a job not because I hated it, and not because I didn’t like the people there, but because I wasn’t very good at it. This was hard for me because I am the sort of person who needs to believe he is the best at basically everything. I am a teacher’s pet, a perfectionist, a people-pleaser, a needy pile of nerves, sometimes. The way I started writing here is this: I had written at the blog for my magazine for a while, and some people here had liked some of the posts. Roxane Gay was one of those people. She told me she had suggested to Blake Butler that I be invited to post here. Blake seemed receptive, but nothing happened, and meanwhile I was looking for work but not finding any and I spent most of the day sitting on my couch reading job listings and feeling my heart hurt. I needed to feel like I was succeeding in something. I thought that one way I could feel like I was succeeding would be to write for this blog, which had been a comfort to me in grad school, where two different instructors made me openly cry by telling me that I was no good at fiction. I liked to tell myself that the sort of people who read this blog would like what I was writing, and in fact had liked it in the past, as evidenced by certain posts and discussions, and that there were a lot of people who read this blog, and so I couldn’t be all bad. Now, unemployed, heart aching, I thought that writing things here might help me feel better again, and that it might advance my writing career in some way, which is important to me, because of said personality defects. So I sent Blake a gchat and asked him if I could please start writing here. I think I e-mailed him about it too. He said yes. And so I did.
So for a while I posted a lot, and I watched my posts closely to see how they did in terms of traffic and comments, especially as compared to other posts by other, more popular writers, to the extent that the WordPress back end would let me discern that. It made me feel productive. My heart hurt a little less.
My posting slowed to a trickle when I found new (and very stressful) work. I also had a super-long novel to finish, and a story in Best American Short Stories, which made me feel that I needed to do other things (like finish said super-long novel) in order to capitalize on this success, for the sake of the aforementioned writing career. For a while, I didn’t read this blog, except very occasionally when I saw that A D Jameson had written something especially geeky, which is basically my jam. When I started reading again, I saw that Seth Oelbaum was posting with some regularity. And that made me want to never write here again. It made me want to stay away. READ MORE >
Dear Narrative Magazine,
Recently, I began to receive e-mails promoting your publication, in spite of the fact that I have never in any way expressed interest in you or what you do. I have never submitted to your magazine (because you are clearly a scam operation) and I have never given you any reason to believe I might do so in the future. I have never read anything in your pages, because I detest you. There is simply no ethical means by which you could have obtained my e-mail.
When you began sending me spam, I attempted to unsubscribe from your mailing list. I spoke to other writers who hold you in similar disregard, and they said that they had been trying to unsubscribe from your mailing list for months, and that it was impossible. You wouldn’t leave them alone. I sent you several hateful tweets (because I hate you). I unsubscribed again just to make sure. Maybe I unsubscribed a third time? I don’t remember.
Today I received another spam e-mail from you. I do not admire your tenacity. You are pond scum. I can ignore this fact when you aren’t spamming me but I can’t when you are. My e-mail address is mike(d0t)meginnis(at)gmail(dot)com. Take it off your mailing list immediately. (I mean it. This is not optional. You are going to do this now.)
I invite anyone else who would like Narrative Magazine to stop e-mailing them to post about it in the comments. (Dear Narrative: These other e-mails won’t be optional either.)
With All My Contempt,
When people use social media to promote their books, that is their way of saying that they can’t be bothered to figure out how to actually promote their books. When people tell you to use Facebook to promote your book, what they are doing is giving you a way to keep very busy while no one at all reads you.
It seems perhaps in poor taste to post today with all of Sandy’s madness, but the way people talk about genre fiction and literary fiction has long been a sore subject for me. In graduate school (though not in my undergraduate program, where the faculty were both more open-minded and more emotionally mature), I struggled with instructors and students for reasons relating to this limp distinction. As a writer trying to make a career for himself, I struggled for a long time to find venues that would not reject my blended approach out of hand, and sometimes I still do.
Don’t cry for me, Argentina: I’m doing just fine, and in the long term I expect to do better. But it never feels good to see the things you love to make, and the things you often love to read, dismissed out of hand. Arthur Krystal thinks he’s being a brave truth-teller when he takes to The New Yorker to restate his opposition to including genre fiction in the category of literature, but he’s not being brave. Instead, he comes off as weirdly incapable of reflection. There have been a thousand articles like Krystal’s, and they always make the same very basic mistake: their conclusion (genre fiction’s inferiority to literary fiction) is also their premise. That is to say, they are begging the question. Click below the fold to see what I mean! READ MORE >
Why don’t all our turn signals blink at the same rate?
That moment when I am waiting to turn left at the intersection and so are two cars in front of mine and three cars behind and all our signals are flaring and dying. I have terrible astigmatism, which smears the light across my vision. This effect is exaggerated by my dirty windshield. My light blinks and your light blinks and this light blinks and my light blinks and this light blinks and your light blinks. 1, 2, 3, 1, 3, 2, 3, 1, 2. What I mean to say is that the order changes. The relationship shifts. Some lights are faster than others. Say yours is faster than mine. So there is a time where we blink in alternating shifts. And then there is a time where we are blinking together. And then we slowly shift apart again, back to the time where we are blinking separately. This makes me feel a little ill.
It’s bad enough they blink at different times. They should at least keep the same rhythm. If we knew, at the intersection, that mine would go and then yours would go and then hers would go and then his and then we would do it all again then I could prepare myself for the sensation. What I can’t live with is what we have now, where everyone is blinking to a similar but very slightly different rhythm, so I never know what’s coming next, or where, only that it’s coming.
But it would be best if all our signals could signal at once. “Left,” they would say. “Left, left, left.” And then these others, at the same time, on the same beats, would say “Right, right, right, right.” The ideal tempo is something for the Congress to determine. What we can do is we can build a little device into every car that receives a signal from say a network of radio antennae. Or possibly this could be piggybacked through cellular towers, GPS satellite signals, or etc. What the signal will say is, “Now, now, now, now,” forever. What the device in our cars will do is it will tell our signals when to flare. “Now, now, now, now,” they will say. When you flick the switch that activates your car’s turn signal there will be a very slight delay as said car, listening to said transmission, waits for the next beat. “…now, now, now, now.” And so the chaos at the intersection will end, and I won’t feel so much like throwing up when I drive. And consider, as an additional benefit, how beautiful this will look from the sky: the USA, as seen from above, will be bright, and then a little brighter, as collectively we signal. Left, right, now, left, right, now, now, now. Bright, and then a little brighter.
HTMLGiant’s Superhero week has, like a day-glo-green mutagenic ooze, spilled over into an additional week, and may continue for all of the weeks to come, forever. In this post, I construct some (let’s call it) free-verse poetry from more Superhero Wikipedia pages, this time focusing on some of the Hulk characters. My feeling isn’t that the language of these things is beautiful, though it is sometimes what I would call incredible. What I find continually hypnotic is their dedication to story above all. CLICK BEYOND THE FOLD TO LEARN THEIR EPIC STORIES!
When presented with bad design, I often become irrationally, almost violently angry. The first time I was exposed to the class registration system at NMSU, I was seated at a university computer, in a public place, with my wife. None of these things stopped me from thumping the desk with my fist after twenty minutes of trying and failing to make the goddamn thing do what I wanted. I have said that bad design actually makes me more angry than the Holocaust; this is true. Obviously the Holocaust was worse than bad design, but I have no direct experience of its horrors. Bad design is with us every day, corroding us inside and out. It feels more immediate, to me. It feels oppressive.
Bad design makes me so angry because it is a message from the world, a whisper. It says: “No one cares about you. No one knows that you exist. No one knows what you are like. No one has taken the time to imagine you. No one wants to think about what you need or want. You are profoundly unimportant.”
Why? Because they’re awesome. Because they are crash courses in thrilling storytelling. Because they are almost incomprehensible enough to be published by a hip indie lit journal. Because they save me the time and money required to read actual superhero comics, which are mostly garbage anyway (with all due love and respect to their creators: I know you guys are mostly doing your best with a ludicrously difficult format and schedule). Because I have a lot of fondness for characters I enjoyed as a child. Because they are so bad and so beautiful. (I’m also in it for the pouches.)
Superhero Wikipedia pages are insane because hero comics are insane. Understanding the conditions and constraints under which any story is produced will of course help you better appreciate said story, but in the case of hero comics it’s really the only way to understand most of what happens. Here are the key facts: 1) Hero comics are published on a monthly schedule. 2) Hero comics serve two consumer bases: teenage boys, who remember nothing, and nostalgic adults, who remember everything. 3) Hero comics almost always take place on what seems to be a present-day Earth. 4) Though comic book movies have never been bigger business, actual comic book sales seem always to be on the verge of collapse.
I am a largely self-trained book designer. I hope to someday have the time to take formal courses in design, but for now I do my learning by studying the books I read. This means that often I will come across a convention in book design that I simply do not understand. These conventions are not universal, but they are common. Indie and major presses seem to agree, for instance, that text should be blocky. In fact, the text of this website is mostly blocky.
What I am talking about is justification. At some point, nearly all the book designers in the US got together and decided that the proper alignment for prose was left-justified. What does a left-justified paragraph look like? Well you are reading one now. The left edge of the paragraph is aligned with the left margin, and the right edge of the paragraph is aligned with the right margin. The last line of the paragraph breaks this rule, because it would require extreme distortion of the text to ensure it met the right edge (the last line might be, after all, just one word long, and we don’t want to see that stretched all the way from left to right). But here’s the thing: essentially every line has to be distorted at least a little to make the edges match up right, and once you see this, it can be very hard to un-see it. The spaces between words and individual characters swell and shrink according to the needs of the line. You may find yourself struggling to read an especially crowded line; you may find yourself wondering why the spaces between the letters in the word “between” are so big. Words that disrupt the shape of the text too much become hyphenated in order to stop them from causing trouble. Sometimes they even split across two facing pages. Sometimes this is not disruptive. But sometimes it gets very ugly. READ MORE >
1. There have been a hundred things that I’ve wanted to tell you in the time since I last wrote here. 2. I have a new job. 3. I was sick for a week. 4. I was busy playing text adventures with strangers and friends. 5. I was reading. 6. Here is a list of what I’ve read since AWP, mostly over lunch: Amazing Adult Fantasy by A D Jameson, Motorman by David Ohle, Theater State by Jack Boettcher, RASL 3 by Jeff Smith, Adventure Time issues 1 & 2 by Ryan North and pals, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting, The Next Right Thing by Dan Barden, My Only Wife by Jac Jemc, some of Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby, some of Humboldt’s Gift. 7. If you would like to say something about one of these books then I would like to hear it. I have enjoyed them all a lot. (Well, I had my issues with RASL.) (I am trying to withhold judgment on RASL.) 8. I wanted to tell you about Brian Oliu’s Level End, which is stranded at my in-laws’ home because of a Paypal snafu, and which has an actual Gold Edition, supplies limited, with video, audio, glorious NES-style art, etc. 9. My friend Carrie Murphy has a book coming too. It is made of fun, pretty, sticky, weird, nervy, sexy poems; some of them I have known and loved for a long time. 10. My wife and I saw H. Jon Benjamin and David Cross from a distance at a bar during the Mission Creek festival. (We were selling magazines and toy snakes. We were eating chicken salad and fish sandwiches.) My wife couldn’t stop smiling. We have spent a lot of time listening to H. Jon Benjamin’s voice. 11. When you come to this blog do you sometimes feel stressed out and angry about how much time everyone else is finding to read? Sometimes I feel that way when I come here. 12. And sometimes I am glad. 13. I’ve been playing lots of Dark Souls. We could talk about that too. So far there is nothing in it as strange as the best parts of the first game. Unlike the rest of the world, it seems, I am a little disappointed. 14. There is nothing more humbling in its arbitrariness than truly good news. 15. Soon I will write here about the handful of design mistakes that every press, yours probably included, is making. 16. Sometimes waiting to hear back about a book I am submitting feels like waiting to find out if I am dead or alive.
So I hesitate to use this space to self-promote, but in this case I will make an exception, for a number of reasons, beginning with the fact that the project is online and free.
Exits Are is a series of collaborative stories that are also games. The games borrow their format and many of their conventions from text adventures (“interactive fiction”). From the about page: “A text adventure is a game that takes place in prose. The computer describes a world to you one room at a time, writing in the second person. ‘You stand in the center of a cool, dark cave,’ says the computer. ‘Exits are north, south, east, and west.’ The computer waits for you to tell it what you want to do. ‘Go east,’ you might say. Or if there is a key, you might say ‘take key.’ The computer parses your commands as best it can and tells you what happens next. . . . love text adventures, but they usually disappoint me. I wanted a way to make them more open-ended, less about puzzle-solving and more about language: its weirdness, its beauty. So I started playing a game with some of the writers I knew. Using gchat, I pretend to be a text adventure. The other writer is the player. We use the form of the text adventure to collaborate on some kind of strange, fun narrative. The only rule is that we take turns typing. We never discuss what we’re going to do in advance, so the results are improvisational and surprising/exciting/stressful/upsetting for both participants. Every time, the player does things I never could have seen coming.” READ MORE >
Narrative is rarely any fun without mystery. You can get mystery in a lot of ways. In a creative writing class my senior year at Butler, my teacher Susan Neville passed a story around the room. I don’t remember what the story was. I think it was about two people in a car. I think they were young people. Susan pointed out that though the characters were taking turns speaking, neither one was responding to what the other person had to say. She said that if you listened to the way people really speak to each other, this turned out to be mostly true. We don’t listen: we wait for our turn to speak. What she didn’t point out was that this stood in stark contrast to the way college students tend to write, wherein a pair of extremely attentive conversationalists trade ideas and information in the collaborative pursuit of synthesis, consensus, etc. What she also didn’t point out was the way that this corrodes the mystery of the story: when two characters with ostensibly different interests agree completely on the direction of a conversation (or even on the terms of their own disagreement), the writer’s intent becomes glaringly obvious. So there is one way of creating mystery. Make your characters talk past each other.
Another way is to present an image so breathtaking, so rich with implications, and yet so beyond our grasp, that mystery can’t help but form. Another way is to create a character who makes interesting decisions that make us wonder why they made the decisions. Another way is to make thoughtful, sublime choices in language. Another way is to make thoughtless, sublime choices in language. And so on. Another way, but often a rather blunt instrument, is simply to withhold information. If your reader doesn’t know what’s going on, who’s doing it, or why, that counts as mystery, right? Well, sure. But maybe not the good kind.
The old Nintendo games tended to be naturally mysterious. There were many reasons for this. One is the graphical limitation of the system. NES games could only display a small number of colors with limited animation. It didn’t have a lot of pixels to work with, either — it was a very low-res system. This made the system’s representations abstracted, and, as such, a little mysterious. Sometimes (often) you literally couldn’t tell what you were looking at. READ MORE >
Roxane recently mentioned one of those weird, unspoken things about writers: we are constantly pretending to buy and read each other’s books. Publish something yourself and you’ll quickly see what I mean. You get an e-mail every time someone makes an order. The e-mail tells you the buyer’s name and even where he or she lives. So when someone says on Facebook, “I can’t wait to get this book!” and they tag you in the post so you’ll definitely see it, you get really excited about the order and you look forward to mailing them the book that you’re sure they’ll enjoy, and you wait and you wait for that e-mail with the person’s name and address, but the order never comes, and because you want to stay friendly with the person you tell yourself that it wasn’t a lie, that they probably just forgot. And sometimes they really did forget.
Sometimes they say, “I just ordered this book, you should too!” and you can plainly see that they haven’t ordered the book, and this is harder to forgive, but really, who cares? Why should anybody care?
I am going to write some numbered paragraphs and then I am going to ask for your input. The numbers are there to create the illusion of motion and clarity of purpose. I am thinking out loud.
1. I was homeschooled. There are many ways to do this. I lived in Indiana, where you don’t even have to register your children with the state as being homeschooled (so that the school system first discovered I existed when I signed up for the draft). Some parents hire tutors for their children. Other parents send them to school for some courses (usually the technical ones they aren’t qualified to teach, and those with lab components) and keep them home for others. Some of them use this opportunity to control all cultural consumption by the child so that the child will have no choice to be religious and clean-mouthed and good, as well as probably emotionally crippled and totally incapable of making friends or otherwise enjoying life.
2. For my part, I was allowed to study pretty much whatever I wanted in pretty much whatever way I wanted, meaning that my math is poor but I did spend quite a lot of time reading and writing. I am used to teaching myself by following the examples of the things and people I respect and admire. (As to the questions of my emotional health and facility with personal interactions, well, I’ll let you be the judge.) READ MORE >
About 1.5 months ago you realized that you had to quit your job. You had been excited about the job — it seemed like a good fit, and for the first time in your life you were making enough money that you didn’t have to worry. But it wasn’t a good fit, for a lot of reasons that we won’t go into now. (It seemed designed to stress you out. It was the first job you’ve ever not enjoyed.) For the purposes of this post, “you” are me. So here is what you do.
1. Look for work. Constantly. Write and rewrite your cover letters. Despair on days where no suitable openings appear on the job sites. You are limited to one small city because that’s where your wife works and your wife has a good job, so you’re not going anywhere for probably a long time. Your next job is somewhere in this city.
2. Write that novel. The one about super heroes. Double its considerable length in your first month of unemployment. You don’t write that much more on a day-by-day basis when you’re out of work (you average 1,000-1,200 words, rather than 700-1,000) but it adds up fast. Think about what you will write when the novel is over. It will have to be short stories. This is novel #7, it’s time to get published (this one, and/or #6) or admit that it’s not going to happen.
3. But it has to happen. READ MORE >