We lost a titan of writing today, friends, one of the greatest wordsmiths the world has ever known.
We lost Jim Steinman, whose songs have been the backbone of my life for more than 30 years. As a teen I played Bat Out of Hell over and over until the cassette broke. As a 20-something goth I flailed on dance floors to the bangers he produced with the Sisters of Mercy (‘This Corrosion’ and ‘Dominion/Mother Russia’, holy shit). As a 30/40-something… look, anyone who’s ever been in a karaoke bar with me knows that I will drop ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ at each and any and every opportunity, because that song fucking rules.
Some people think Steinman’s work is kitsch, or cheesy, or silly, or just over-the-top hair rock. Those people are cynical fools. His songs were a portal into an alternate world of operatic bombast, 80s excess, muscular melodrama, heroic fantasy, motorcycle culture, 1950s’ juvenile delinquent movies, American cliches, comic books, bodice-tearing romance, hair spray, leather jackets, puffy shirts, soap opera, Gothic novels, horror, camp, groin-watering sexual desire and a pure, absolute and never-ending love of rock n’ roll.
They were great works of narrative and emotive fiction, sonic movies full of romance, action, drama, wind machines and tight black jeans compressed into 4 (or 7) (or 12) minutes, and they were genius.
(Fortunately, most of his collaborators understood this. We’ve all seen the ‘Total Eclipse’ video, but if you’ve never seen the clip for ‘I Would Do Anything For Love (‘But I Won’t Do That)’, watch it now and get right with your God.)
Sure, there were stronger lyricists, cleverer lyricists, more polished lyricists, more personally meaningful lyricists; I mean, I have a tattoo of a Mountain Goats lyric, but I don’t have a ‘Bat Out of Hell’ tattoo. (Hmm. I should probably get one.) But Steinman’s lyrics had true power in their sincerity and imagery, in his ability to infuse cultural and pop cultural touchstones with bold, bright and immediate emotional weight. And damn, the man could write a killer line when he wanted.
You’ll never find your gold on a sandy beach You’ll never drill for oil on a city street I know you’re looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks But there ain’t no Coup de Ville hiding at the bottom Of a Cracker Jack box
‘Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad’
Tom Waits and John Darnielle are great, but they can keep their nuanced, contained examinations of the human condition – Jim Steinman demanded and delivered more, more, MORE.
Everything in a Steinman song is the most dramatic thing – the greatest, the worst, the most uplifting, the most devastating. No-one has ever loved with the heart-stopping intensity of a Steinman protagonist, no-one has ever needed to have sex with their partner so badly as a Steinman protagonist, and no-one else could be as miserable as a Steinman protagonist when his heart is broken. Everything in a Steinman song is louder than everything else.
And now he is gone. And we are the lesser for it.
But his songs remain, his lyrics remain; his legacy remains, towering over music, pop culture and literature like a monolith of Marshal speakers pounding out 40-minute guitar riffs during the biggest thunderstorm in history. I won’t ever forget Jim Steinman’s passion, his sincerity, his drama, his power, his words.
I would do anything for love. But I won’t do that.
I’m not going to spend any time talking about how or why it was shit, because we all know the answer, and we’re all going to see a thousand retrospectives and thinkpieces about it over the next few months. I got through it in fairly good shape, many people got through it in much worse shape, and far, far too many people didn’t get through it at all.
But even if I don’t want to write about it now, that doesn’t mean I – or indeed any creator – won’t want to write about it in the future. When we write fiction set in the modern day, we use contemporary shared knowledges, references and experiences as touchstones to anchor the fiction, and there ain’t nothing modern humanity has shared more than <gestures around helplessly> all of this.
So how can we do that? How do we reflect this year – this bloodstained mass grave fuckpig of a year – into our modern-day fiction in engaging and meaningful ways that aren’t just 20 pages of wordless keening?
(I should clarify that I’m speaking mostly of the pandemic and its related impacts. Bushfires, Black Lives Matter, presidential elections, government fuckery, JK Rowling preaching hate, Fast & Furious 9 being delayed – they all happened in 2020 as well, but the pandemic was more universal, and there’s only so much I can cover in one blog post.)
What are the options?
I can think of four distinct ways to cover the impact of the pandemic, in all its rich and shitty variety, in more-or-less-modern day stories:
Make it the focus: Alright, sure, let’s start on hard mode. Do you have something unique and powerful to say about the pandemic? Something that will help others to read/hear/watch – or that at least will feel real to them in ways that matter? If so, a) respect, you’re better at this than I am, and b) sure thing, go for it you mad bastard.
Treat it as a backdrop: However, I think this will be the more common approach – stories that acknowledge the pandemic is ongoing, but it’s an element that informs the story in some way rather than being what it’s about. These stories are already being created on TV – see recent Law & Order: I Dunno I Don’t Watch It episodes, with Cops 1 & 2 wearing masks and complaining about the ‘rona before solving this week’s appalling celebrity sex crime.
Make it part of the backstory: Or we can take a step further back and put the pandemic in the recent past (which will be a bit easier when it is in the recent past, amirite). That shared experience can shape story or character in interesting ways. ‘I’m like this because of 2020,’ the hero can say, and every reader will nod and feel a blast of sympathy as they go on a mass defenestration spree or whatevs.
Eh, just ignore it: Yeah, the pandemic is a touchstone for modern life, but so are, I dunno, Diet Coke and systemic racism. Use those instead, and set your story in an alternate world that avoided this particular bullet. (This is both Marvel and DC Comics did; the publishers just went, ‘yeah, it can’t happen here’ rather than get artists to draw superheroes wearing 2-4 masks at once.)
Me, I’m an options 3&4 guy; I got nothin’ to say about life during lockdown, or indeed life with background lockdown. While The Obituarist 3 came out last year, I wrote most of it before 2020, and very deliberately threw in a few 2019 markers to make it super-obvious that this is a story from The Before Times. As for my next novel project, a YA urban fantasy about teenage professional wrestlers (currently called The Squared Circle, even though I’m sure that won’t stick), the pandemic becomes a backstory element for almost every character, as well as an inciting incident – the impact of shutdowns and sickness on the pro wrestling industry opens up space for a new promotion to appear and try something different.
That’s my angle – what’s yours? How are you going to write your way through this?
Update your metaphors, folks
You may say, ‘I don’t have to, because my fiction is set in the distant past/far future/an Animal Crossing/Terminator crossover AU in which Arnold Schwarzenegger fights and then makes out with Hot Robot Tom Nook’, and friend, I am here for your choices.
Still, every story we write is about our world, our time, our lives, even if we use tropes and metaphors to disguise that to readers and/or ourselves. When we write about fictional disasters, we’re really writing about the stresses and dangers we see around us, and what we know of how things fall apart.
And we’ve all learned more lately about things fall apart.
When I think about the pandemic/disaster/apocalypse stories I’ve read, watched or written – such as LEVIATHAN, the science-horror pandemic-prevention campaign I co-created with Greg Stolze for the second edition of his Reign RPG, which should be out within a few months plug plug plug – I’m struck now by the ways in which some assumptions and metaphors might be flawed.
Disasters doesn’t have to be dramatic: Plague stories tend to have bodies in the street, and fictional apocalypses send firestorms into the sky. But you only need a 1% fatality rate, or a 2-3 degree increase in global temperatures, for the shit to hit the fan.
Or fast: Another aspect of drama is speed; stories shoot from normal to disaster within days or weeks. Back in March – fuckin’ March! – I called this a slowpocalypse, and nearly 9 months later we’re still in the thick of it. Our realities collapse slowly, like a punctured lung.
Some people are just fucked in the head: If your zombie apocalypse story doesn’t include Pete Evans telling libertarian QAnon cultists to collect 10 undead bite marks on their bleached anuses to protect them from George Soros’ 5G ghosts then you are an inauthentic scribe and I judge you.
But not all people: The notion that we’ll all accept the danger is just as flawed as the notion that everyone will turn on each other when things go south. 2020 has been a year of so many people doing what they can to help others in their families, communities, countries, anyone they can. There is kindness in humanity, more than perhaps we can bring ourselves to believe, and it brings light to the darkness.
Are there other ways we need to update our disaster stories? Leave a comment and tell me.
At last, the 2021 show
‘Years’ are a fake idea. Pope Gregory can try to impose whatever structure he wants on time, but time – and in this essay, ‘time’ is a metaphor for <gestures around helplessly> all of this – don’t give a shit. It may not be 2020 anymore, but we’re still in the middle of a disaster that’s only maybe starting to turn around.
But ‘maybe’ is enough to work with.
For the last few years, I’ve written a post about how the year was tough and my mental health wasn’t great, but I was optimistic that next year would be better. Well, I’m out of optimism – 2021 won’t be the same shitshow, but it’ll still be a shitshow, and it’s going to be a long time before the world recovers.
But at the same time, my mental health, creative energy and willingness to waste my life writing shit no-one will read are better today than they’ve been since, fuck, 2015 or so. I can’t explain it, except maybe to say that I made it through <gestures round helplessly> all of that in one piece. And I’m ready to push my luck to try another round.
I’m still here. We’re still here. And right now, maybe that’s enough.
This is a super-quick post just to note that last week I joined the #AuthorsforFireys program on Twitter, where authors auctioned off books, stories, naming rights, artwork, services and much more to raise money for bushfire relief charities and programs.
(Sure, in a perfect world the government would do that with our tax dollars, but hah hah hah well shit that ain’t this world)
Anyway, I didn’t have a huge amount of things to auction off, but I want to thank everyone who voted on my two offers, as well as the two stars who won:
Dave Versace, who donated $125 to charity in exchange for me using his name for the main bad guy in The Obituarist 3.
David Naylor of Faded Print Games, who donated $150 in exchange for me doing some editorial and development work on their forthcoming RPG Time Without Tide.
Both of these gentlemen are deadset legends, and I’m beyond grateful that they were willing to make the financial effort to help recovery efforts.
I’ve had something on my mind for a while now, but I didn’t feel like it was the right time to get into. It was too soon. Our wounds were still too raw.
But months have gone by, and it’s time to finally step up and admit it.
Avengers Endgame was kind of a mess, y’all.
I’M SORRY BUT YOU KNOW IT’S TRUE
Why was it a mess? Lots of reasons, but two in particular I want to talk about – plot holes and story flaws.
…wait, aren’t those kind of the same thing?
No! And that’s the thing that I actually want to discuss and unpack, using Avengers Endgame (and another piece of media that I’ll get to presently) as my go-to example.
Do I need to tell you that there will be spoilers? Oh my, so many spoilers. Read on at your own risk.
I mean, the film was fun. I liked most of it a lot! And I jumped up and down in my chair like a giddy child when – and here’s the first spoiler – Captain America picked up Mjolnir and used it to smack Thanos in the face. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was very satisfying.
But someone on Twitter said that Endgame was a better experience than it was a movie, and that’s about right. It was a movie terribly susceptible to fridge logic – those moments days or weeks later when you open the fridge, look inside and think ‘hey, wait, that thing in that movie didn’t make much sense!’
Those moments are usually the times when we notice plot holes – ways in which the logical flow of a plot fails. Plots need to have a flow from A to B to C, even if that flow is sometimes only visible when looking back from C. Is that obvious? Yeah, maybe, but this post is about how these terms get confused, so I might as well kick off with some definitions.
Let’s start with a little one – Rhodey changes War Machine armours between scenes without explanation, shifting from black-and-grey to big-bulky-red. Plot hole! And one that doesn’t matter! This kind of minor continuity error might bother a few people, but that portion of the plot flow isn’t too important in the overall scheme of things.
The hole that matters is a lot bigger. And that is – how the hell did Thanos and his army of minions time travel to fight the Avengers? You can’t time travel without a dose of Pym Particles, but the team have just enough to make their own round trips. There’s no scene where the bad guys get more, no explanation of how they break the rules the film spends aaaaaaages detailing, unpacking and using to propel the plot forward.
That, friends, is a bonafide, load-bearing plot hole. As is the question about how geriatric Steve Rogers popped up at the end of the film; once again, this breaks the rules the movie already established, which stated that going into the past created alternate timelines. He couldn’t have been there all along – so how did he get there?
The question is always ‘how’ with a plot hole. It’s mechanical, it’s about process; it’s linking up that chain of causality.
Now, in this case, the Russo brothers have apparently addressed these plot holes (and others) after the fact, saying ‘one of Thanos’ henchmen made some Pym Particles’ and ‘other timeline inventors came up with a way to get Steve across.’ It must be so liberating to just say, after the fact, ‘oh, there’s an explanation that makes sense if you accept that the movie has an objective reality outside what we filmed’ and to have (some) people accept it. Kind of makes you wonder why you’d bother with a plot at all, rather than just three hours of CGI explosions and then naked Stan Lee saying ‘A wizard did it!’ in the post-credits scene.
For the rest of us, plot holes need to be fixed before the book/movie/game is out in the world. Luckily, they usually aren’t that hard to fix. ‘How’ questions have fairly straightforward answers, because they’re (once again) about process. Just work out an explanation, then write a scene or two to insert that explanation and then smooth over the edges. It’s work, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly hard work. Logic can guide you.
Logic is your friend. It’s here for you. Even though you never call.
But it’s not always easy finding logic when you need it, because in these benighted end time, people – and I mean internet people – tend to slap the PLOT HOLE sticker onto anything that they don’t like or understand in a piece of media.
Case in point – I’m not linking to it, ’cause I forgot the address and also can’t be bothered, but there was a fansite that listed multiple instances of ‘The Avengers changed stuff in the past, but it didn’t cause a paradox!’ as plot holes in Endgame. And I’m like… buddy, work on your comprehension skills! That stuff was specifically called out within the film as not causing paradoxes! There were whole scenes devoted to explaining that changing the past actually just creates a new timeline – which, okay, is one of the things that set up that whole Old Steve thing I mentioned earlier.
But yeah – sometimes a ‘plot hole’ is just the audience missing something. And try as you might, you can’t make your plot points foolproof. You just gotta move on.
A much bigger point of confusion is when a ‘plot hole’ is actually a story flaw. And that’s a much more complex thing to unpack.
Quick question: what’s the difference between plot and story? Here’s my take:
Plot: a series of things happen
Story: a series of things happen for reasons
It’s super-reductive but it works – a story is a plot with purpose, rather than just a chain of events. A problem with the story is a problem with those reasons and purpose, not the chains of connection. The links are there – they just don’t feel right.
For me, the big story flaw in Endgame was Steve Rogers decided ‘fuck it, I’ve done enough, going back to the past to dance with my sweetheart for 60 years and retire’. That decision doesn’t click with what we’ve seen of him in the movies up to this point (and absolutely doesn’t work with the character as developed in the comics, but that’s a whole different nerd-argument). The story needed to provide the right context to underpin and justify that decision, which it didn’t; instead, it’s basically just waving it off and moving on.
A story flaw is a why question. Why did that happen? Why did this character make that decision? Why do I find this story emotionally unsatisfying? These are outcome questions, context questions; they’re harder to pin down than how questions, and the answers are murky and unreliable. A fix for one reader/viewer may not work for another, and definitely won’t work for a third. But still, they need to be addressed – if only to the point where you’re happy with your solution and think it makes emotional sense.
The other issue with story flaws is that, well, sometimes they say less about your work and more about your audience. Which is where we turn to our second example piece of media – Game of Thrones.
I’ll be honest up front – haven’t watched it. Haven’t watched any of it. Never plan to, either! But I am aware of its details through geek osmosis and the omnipresent discourse. And thus I am aware that its ending was… controversial? Many people on the ‘webs thought that the ruler of Westeros should have been someone other than Boy Who Looks Like an Sleepy Ferret. To me, that sounds like a story flaw.
Meanwhile, some of the other commentary around that last season was ‘How is Arya Stark so competent, given that she’s a girl and therefore sucks?’ Which sounds like someone’s prejudices dangling in their face like a flaccid dick flopping down from their forehead. And also sounds like about 75% of online geek discussion.
And it can be hard to tell the difference (sometimes) between ‘this doesn’t make sense to me for valid reasons’ and ‘this doesn’t make sense to me because women/PoC/LGBT folks/I-dunno-Norwegians shouldn’t have agency’. Because both those statements are framed the same way, and both get stated (or shouted) a lot in these dying days of human civilisation. So we need to bear that in mind when hearing criticism that speaks to whether something ‘makes sense’.
When presented with a how problem, you get to work. When presented with a why question, you need to dig deeper and decide whether you agree before you try to fix things – or not.
So… why go into this in so much depth? Or at least length? Well, because ‘plot hole’ gets bandied around far too much, and I think it’s good to distinguish between problems. And because the Endgame thing was nagging at me, and I needed to find a way to unpack that.
And maybe because this year’s batch of Seasonal Affective Disorder is finally wearing off, and I wanted to write something for a change.
And I did.
Anyway. Fix the things that need fixing. Be clear about which things don’t need fixing, and which audience members can be ignored and ideally jettisoned. Don’t sign over your kingdom to Baby Liam Gallagher.
And remember to include the goddamn Pym Particle scene next time. I swear to god.
I’m making kind of a habit of disappearing for long periods.
Maybe you thought I was dead.
Nah. My computer was, though, for close to three months, during which time I shelled out a bunch of money to get files recovered, Googled every step required to take the PC apart and put it back together, made lists of all the software I needed to installed and generally got no writing done.
And while all that was happening, my day job went through a big shake up and a bunch of people got laid off. I didn’t, and my job changed to have more of a writing focus, which is a plus – but my workload went through the roof, and it hasn’t stopped climbing yet. Which explains why I spent my entire weekend in the office, shooting videos and developing content, and don’t have any downtime scheduled until maybe next weekend. If I’m lucky.
So I’ve had no time, energy or spoons for writing. Or blogging. Or doing much more than sleeping of late. And I’m not getting enough of that.
Still. I ain’t dead yet. And after I nursemaid four textbooks off to print in the next three weeks, I’ll hopefully get a chance to fall down, go boom, get back up again and revise my writing plans for the year.
I’ll tell you about that when it happens.
But right now it’s nearly 6.30pm and I’m stuffed. Time for another early night.
When last we spoke, I was getting ready for a February of working towards solid yet achievable goals, culminating in a finished Obituarist III draft.
Then on Saturday, this happened.
Yep, my PCs went from useful implement to oversized paperweight, and no amount of cajoling or crying has fixed it. Or (so far) allowed me to retrieve any of the files on it, which include not just the O3 MS but every document, video, photo and piece of music I own.
I should be freaking out. Good thing I’ve started taking meds.
So in the short term, February is going to involve talking to IT people, trying various solutions, writing what I can on my wife’s old laptop and generally cursing fate.
Oh, and writing occasional posts from work while on my lunch break.
Okay, it’s the end of January and approximately a hundred degrees in my office, so it’s time to knock out a blog update before my brainmeats sizzle and fry within my melting skullfat.
At the end of 2017 I talked about depression and recovery, and wanting – needing – to put in the work to make 2018 less godawful and more worthwhile. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do the last few weeks – put in the work.
I’ve been aided in this by starting a course of anti-depressants. Well, I think I’ve been helped; it’s hard to quantify the effects, and nothing dramatic has happened. The key thing is that I don’t feel… overwhelmed all the time. Which is something.
(Mind you, I don’t love the side effects, which including gaining weight, getting dizzy-drunk on two beers and becoming reeeeaaalllly gassy, but I guess you take the rough with the smooth.)
Work has to have direction and purpose, of course, and so I set myself a slew of goals on January 1st while still bleary and hungover from a big NYE involving dogsitting and beer. (It’s important to start as you mean to continue, after all.)
Obviously, my main goals are writing goals:
finishing, revising and publishing Obituarist III by the end of March
doing a new set of revisions on Raven’s Blood by May and getting it back out to agents
starting my new YA-wrestling-horror-mystery-romance novel, Piledriver, and getting it about 75% finished by the end of the year
On top of that, I have reading goals, gaming goals, blogging goals, social goals, health goals, sleep goals, emotional goals… I’m basically entirely comprised of goals at this point, like some kind of sports-themed Voltron.
The next step (according to all the advice books) is making things concrete, so I broke down a set of tasks for each goal and peppered them throughout my January calendars and to-do lists.
Now, at the end of the month, I can go through, check myself against all my milestones and mini-goals, and see how well I did.
How did I do?
Not that well.
Setting goals is easy, but when it comes to kicking them, I’m not exactly Pele or David Beckham or, um… Serena Williams? Look, I don’t understand sports, you know that.
Ultimately I took on too many things to handle in one month (especially one heat-wave heavy month), and with the best intentions, I was still only able to achieve a few of the tasks I’d laid out.
What that tells me, though, is that my problem isn’t that I can’t do these things, it’s that I can’t do all of these things. Not yet, and not all at once. Not while my mental health is recovering and my writing muscles are atrophied.
But muscles get better through use. And I’m not giving up on using them.
So for February, I’m setting a smaller, more controlled set of goals, focusing on just a few of the big picture plans rather than everything in a blender. Will that work better? It should do, if I stick at it.
I plan to stick at it.
One of those goals is getting back into a more regular, more interesting blogging routine, where I write about more than just not writing. At this point I’m aiming for at least one post per month, at around this time, looking at what I’ve achieved and what comes next. If I can, I’ll try to get a second one in there every month about something engaging that I can talk about in a fun, useful way.
Let me know how I go with that.
Huh. It got cooler in here since I started working on this blog post.
Worse for a lot of people, in a lot of ways – and yes, there were some high points and victories in there, but not enough.
For me, it was a year of poor physical health, poor mental health and zero creative health, which I’m pretty sure is a thing. A year when I couldn’t see any point or purpose in writing.
Will 2018 be better? If it is, it’ll only be because we work at it – if we turn the anger and sadness and helplessness of this year into fuel for making change and building something better.
So that’s what I want to focus on from this point – putting the work in. On my health, on my mood, on my writing, on my professionalism, on my drive, on my projects. Less pie in the sky, less survival thinking; more getting shit done, more setting and (important) working towards goals.
But first I’m going to get drunk and celebrate 2017 dying in a fucking fire.