January 26, 2016

The cast of THE DIVINE CITIES!

I’m doing an extremely fun project with artist Chanh Quach – she’ll be creating images of the cast of THE DIVINE CITIES series! And for our first installment, here’s General Turyin Mulaghesh, protagonist of CITY OF BLADES!

Mulaghesh03-web

Next is Ashara (or just “Shara” to her friends) Komayd, protagonist of CITY OF STAIRS!

Ashara01-web

More will be coming out in the weeks ahead. Stay tuned! I’ll keep updating this post with recent arrivals.

UPDATE: Pretty pleased to show you the next two – Sigrud and Signe!

Sigurd02-web

Signe01-webBiswal01-web

Pandey01-web

Vinya02-web

Nokov01-wip04

 

January 25, 2016

so hey maybe you should buy my book

So man. It’s been, like, a while since I finished this sucker – literally almost a year since I was pretty much done with it – but hey, the time is here, the time is now, it’s party time, and let’s get ready for this.

That’s right, folks. CITY OF BLADES is coming out tomorrow.

City_of_Blades_cover

(It looks like this.)

OR, if you’re in the UK, it looks like this:

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You should buy it because I’m me, the guy who is writing this, and also wrote these, both of them, right up above here. I look like this:

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(Please note that in this photo the author is exhausted from ConFusion in Detroit and also the scratch on his head is from when he was walking across a parking lot at night with John Hornor Jacobs looking to buy beer and walked into a tree.)

Why would you do a buyifying procedure for my embookens, which I wrotified? Well here are some reasons.

Publishers Weekly called it “astonishingly good.”

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Kirkus called it “a grand entertainment.”

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Fantasy literature called it “heartbreaking and inspiring.”

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The Barnes & Noble SFF Blog called it “masterful”.

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Books, Bones, and Buffy called THE DIVINE CITIES “one of the best fantasy series out there.”

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It was an Amazon Book of the Month Pick

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And it is doing pretty dang well over at Goodreads.

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And there are bunches of other reviews out there. Check em out.

I’ll be at Hastings in San Marcos tomorrow night at 7 PM, if you’d like to swing by and get a book signed.

And I’ll be at Book People on Wednesday night with good ol’ Kevin Hearne, whose STAKED is coming out the same day, and which you should also absolutely buy.

Kevin Hearne looks like this.

this is not actually what he looks like

Respected and well-liked author Kevin Hearne.

If you are unsure of how or where to buy CITY OF BLADES, I recommend using this website.

If you are unsure of how or where to buy STAKED, I recommend using this totally different website.

And on that note, I am back to editing the final installment in THE DIVINE CITIES – the third book CITY OF MIRACLES, which will star everyone’s favorite murderous Dreyling, Sigrud.

That or maybe I will take a nap.

Maybe nap. Yes.

January 6, 2016

ConFusion 2016 schedule

I’ll be at the upcoming ConFusion convention in Detroit later this month, January 21-24. If you’d like to come by and see me, my schedule is as follows:

Friday 6:00:00 PM SFF Debates 2016!
Six of your favorite SFF personalities debate the issues of our time in this live debate, moderated by Robert Jackson Bennett.
Diana Rowland, John Scalzi, Wesley Chu, Delilah S. Dawson, Robert Jackson Bennett (M), Mark Oshiro, Brent Weeks

Friday 7:00:00 PM Pitch Me Your Elevator
The panel, using their wit and guile, will craft elevator pitches on the spot for classic novels and films. Bonus points will be awarded for style points. Who will take home the title of Elevator Pitch Champion?
Laura Resnick, Mari Brighe, Robert Jackson Bennett (M), Mur Lafferty, Pablo Vazquez

Saturday 9:00:00 AM Author RPG: Planet Mercenary!
Authors from across the genre spectrum come together to put Howard Tayler’s new game, Planet Mercenary, to the test. Come watch these exceptional creatives put on a show and enjoy some laughs. Please remember to give the players their space.
Howard Tayler (M), Brian McClellan (M), Delilah S. Dawson, Cherie Priest, Mur Lafferty, Robert Jackson Bennett, Saladin Ahmed, Brent Weeks

Saturday 1:00:00 PM Women Made of Chrome
Women older than thirty and short of being a grandmother, are rarely seen in gene fiction. There are a few exceptions to the rule, but these types of characters often fade into the background scenery, and very few are protagonists. Why is this? What has been lost as a result? What books have handled vigorous, gray haired, women well?
Kristine Smith, Catherine Shaffer (M), Cherie Priest, Jen Talley, Robert Jackson Bennett

Saturday 4:00:00 PM Autograph Session 1

Saturday 9:00:00 PM Explaining Social Media: Robert Jackson Bennett
Writing wunderkind, Robert Jackson Bennett, presents his social media strategy and how it impacts his authorial career. He’ll take us through the history of the Internet, the emergence of social media, and demonstrate the process he goes through to execute his well thought out strategy.
Warning: Adult content.
Warning: Does not constitute actual advice.
Robert Jackson Bennett (M)

The best words I can put together for my last session – Explaining Social Media – would be “a nihilistic, belligerent orgy of stock art and fonts.” You have been duly warned.

Also, make sure to swing by Hastings in San Marcos on 1/26 to see me on the release day for CITY OF BLADES! And the next day, I’ll be at Book People with Kevin Hearne.

This month is gonna be nuts.

January 4, 2016

Some advice to aspiring writers who wish to make a living off of writing

I finished CITY OF MIRACLES last night, the third and last installment in the DIVINE CITIES series – preceded, as I’m sure (or at least hope) you’re aware, by CITY OF STAIRS and CITY OF BLADES (which I am legally obligated to say will be out January 26).

It’s a weird feeling. Finishing a book is one thing, but finishing a series is another. It’s a little like moving out of a house you’ve lived in for a long time. One book is a house you build. A series is one you have to stay inside for a long time, continually working on it.

And you’re not alone in there, either. There are people in the house with you. As THE DIVINE CITIES takes place over the course of about twenty years, that’s a lot of living for them to do – you get to see their triumphs and their tragedies, their children and their losses. You get to see their dreams and hopes get adjusted, sometimes brutally, to the necessities of reality. It’s an odd thing to wrap up with a ribbon and walk away from.

Anyways, while I’m at this odd reflective period (my son also starts Pre-K tomorrow, that probably has something to do with it), I thought I’d write a short bit of advice for aspiring writers who want to be full-time writers.

I usually do not have much advice for How to Be a Writer. I think most of the learning is done on the job. It is a bit like running an obstacle course in the dark – I can try and describe to you what it’s going to be like, but all my advice and words won’t educate you nearly as much as the first time you catch a metal pole in the face.

However, there is some general career advice I can give to you. Specifically to those wishing to make a sufficient living off of writing.

As I get older – and I know I’m not old, but I am approaching middle age – I’m growing increasingly aware that so much of your future career rests upon the decisions you make in your twenties, when you are likely at your stupidest and horniest. When I was in my twenties, I thought I would just work crappy jobs and keep writing until I was successful.

I made that decision a decade ago. I moved from job to job based on whether or not it paid a dollar an hour more. There were a lot of call centers. I wasn’t on the fast track to big career success by a long shot.

Then I got lucky. I met the right person, who helped me get a decent job that made me actually think and work. If I had not known that person, I would not have gotten that job.

To my surprise, I found it stimulating. I found it meaningful. And I did well at it. A good job, I found, made me feel better and write better. It’s like exercise – the more your blood’s moving, the better everything works.

But as I did this and settled down into the career path before me, I started wondering what else I could have been. What else I could have done.

Publishing tends to be, I think, a weirdly unsatisfying career. I’ve written about why. The entire structure of publishing, even for successful writers, starts and ends with the writer alone in a room. It’s not like music or performance, where you can have an audience or bandmates or other stage players. You’re alone.

This is one reason why I think it’s unwise to begin your young life with writing as the sole goal for your career. It is smart to diversify, for a number of reasons.

As I said above, it’s nice to have a job or a focus or some kind of life goal that you can invest yourself in besides writing. It’s energizing, educational, gives you value, and helps you keep perspective. Staying around other people and working with them is probably good for you, and good for your writing. It can be volunteer work or family or gardening, perhaps, but it helps if it’s a job – because writing, on its own, will almost certainly not be able to comfortably sustain you. Certainly not if you also have a spouse and a child or two.

And this is one reason why it really is very helpful to have marketable skills. Because someone who has always been Just a Writer will likely have very few of these.

Proficiency with Word and Excel and basic online marketing (social media et al) are things nearly any college graduate can do. And the ability to articulate complicated, abstract ideas, surprisingly, is not a terribly marketable skill on its own.

Combined with other things, this ability might go a long way – if you can articulate complicated, abstract ideas as well as write software, design buildings or machines, create market forecasts, file a lawsuit, or negotiate loans, that can be quite valuable. But simply being able to articulate complicated, abstract ideas, and only being able to do that, means that your resume will be rather sparse.

And some will say – I don’t need to worry about that! My ideas are good and great! My ideas are phenomenal! My writing will be successful enough that I’ll be more than able to provide for myself and those I love!

This was me about ten years ago. I was wrong.

I got lucky, and dodged those consequences – but not everyone will.

Here is the truth of Writing as a Career:

Writing is a longterm investment. It is not one big idea, and then payday for life. It’s countless, countless big and little ideas, all carefully crafted and positioned, like investments made in a 401k. (Or at least, that’s what I hope 401ks are like. Probably not today.)

This is not going to be you leaping on a stage with the audience in wonder. This is going to be you carefully building the audience and the stage over years, if not decades, and then, if you’re lucky, climbing on top.

If you are looking for a career in writing, you are not looking for that one big payday, because even if you do find it, it’s deeply unlikely that this will last you for the rest of your life. A bestseller, by itself, won’t be there when you’re fifty, or when your kids are off to college, unless it’s a mega huge super blockbuster bestseller – and if this is what you’re waiting on, then you are essentially playing the lottery for a career.

If you are looking for a career in writing, what you want is a nice backlist of books that have earned out their advances and are making royalties. This gives you moderately steady, dependable income. A goodish amount every two or three months or so. That is, for most writers, a very good situation.

Is it enough to retire on comfortably for the rest of your life? Probably not. Almost certainly not. Will it be something you can achieve in 2-3 years? No. It will probably take a decade or more.

So you will almost certainly need something else. Some other way to get affordable healthcare, some other way to make your mortgage or car payments, some other way to pay for preschool or a college fund. Some other way, in other words, to finance the grand adventure that is Being a Fucking Adult.

Most young people might not want to do this. There is a vast preponderance of art and literature and pop culture that casts the twenty-something wandering artist as figure to aspire to, perhaps not so much a career as a lifestyle choice. It seems like a lot of these figures, when I see them in movies or in commercials (mostly clothes commercials, it seems), are pretty well-off, in good health, and with good teeth. I suspect they have someone bankrolling them. (Perhaps Patreon and the like is a solution to this – but what are the odds that Patreon will be around in 2025, or 2030?)

And then there is the response that doing this, Being an Adult and finding a Real Job, would compromise your dream of being a writer.

To which I say – if having a real job is going to keep you from writing, odds are you were never going to be a real writer – by which I mean someone who finishes work, edits it, and submits it for publication, and does so ad infinitum.

If you want to write, you’re going to write. Writing is actually an incredibly easy thing to do. You just sit down at a computer and hit keys for a while. People do it all day long without even thinking about it. (Fun fact: I’m doing it right now.)

If your ideas are compelling enough, if the work is compelling enough for you, then you can do it an hour or two a day or even every other day, even with a real job, or a spouse and kids. And even if you fail, if you really want to do this, you will keep trying to do it. Over and over and over again.

If you want to do this, you will make time to do it. You can make time while you work and sustain yourself comfortably, along with those you love. It is mostly a matter of you wanting to do it.

So, while you are young and fresh and have money and time to spend, while you are dreaming of your future as a writer or artist or whatever you’d like to be – also spare a thought for, say, taking those software or design classes, or getting that accounting or business degree, or maybe even that law degree.

Your twenties are the best opportunity to do this. And though it pains me to say this, since it makes me sound like a god damned college pamphlet, it’s a good investment in your future.

The fact of the matter is, you are almost definitely going to have to have a dayjob. The word “dayjob” implies drudgery and boredom, an obligation one has to go through while secretly pursuing the life of a writer. But if you’re going to have to have one of these, why not try and make it one you actually like doing, keeps you fed, and is good for your brain?

Writing, as a career, as a business, is an investment. To steal unrepentantly from business lingo – diversify your portfolio. Who knows what the future will hold?

November 24, 2015

Some thoughts about Worldbuilding

I recently read an interesting essay by M. John Harrison about the damaging value of worldbuilding in fiction – specifically SFF fiction. You can read the whole essay here, but the important quotes are:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unneccessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically neccessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.

This is interesting to me because what he described here is, to me, not worldbuilding: it is bad worldbuilding. It is the sort of worldbuilding you see from time to time where a writer obviously thought that if they put enough complicated gilding on a story, it would distract from all the shit underneath. Such types of worldbuilding often surface as:

  • Descriptions of fashion
  • Descriptions of food, drink, or tobacco (ESPECIALLY feasts)
  • Descriptions of international relations and history
  • Descriptions of songs and customs
  • Descriptions of domestic or municipal laws
  • Descriptions of weaponry, usually the implausible kind

These are usually bad, in that they do not often contribute to or shape the handful of conflicts and tension that form the story – which is what worldbuilding (and, in my opinion, everything in the story, really) should do. Stating that worldbuilding is what saves a bad story sounds to my ears like, “What do you mean, I’ve got a serious heart condition? I’M WEARING A REAL FANCY ROBE. I’M FINE.”

But not all worldbuilding is bad. And not all worldbuilding occurs in fantasy or science fiction. Nor does all worldbuilding occur in fiction, really.

There are tons of longform nonfiction pieces that utilize worldbuilding to great effect. Take this excerpt, from David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets:

West Baltimore. You sit on your stoop, you drink Colt 45 from a brown paper bag and you watch the radio car roll slowly around the corner. You see the gunman, you hear the shots, you gather on the far corner to watch the paramedics load what remains of a police officer into the rear of an ambulance. Then you go back to your rowhouse, open another can, and settle in front of the television to watch the replay on the eleven o’clock news. Then you go back to the stoop.

Or this passage:

The Midnight Dance of the Universal Desk Sergeant, a performance that is somehow the same whether the precinct house is in Boston or Biloxi. Was there ever a desk sergeant who didn’t peer out over reading glasses? Was there ever a desk man who wanted to be bothered with police work at three in the morning? Was any station house desk ever manned by anything but aging civil servants, six months from their pensions, whose every movement seemed slower than death itself?

Or take this exchange, from the classic Frank Sinatra Has a Cold profile by Gay Talese, in which Sinatra attempts to intimidate, improbably enough, a very young Harlan Ellison, who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time:

The room cracked with the clack of billiard balls. There were about a dozen spectators in the room, most of them young men who were watching Leo Durocher shoot against two other aspiring hustlers who were not very good. This private drinking club has among its membership many actors, directors, writers, models, nearly all of them a good deal younger than Sinatra or Durocher and much more casual in the way they dress for the evening. Many of the young women, their long hair flowing loosely below their shoulders, wore tight, fanny-fitting Jax pants and very expensive sweaters; and a few of the young men wore blue or green velour shirts with high collars and narrow tight pants, and Italian loafers.

It was obvious from the way Sinatra looked at these people in the poolroom that they were not his style, but he leaned back against a high stool that was against the wall, holding his drink in his right hand, and said nothing, just watched Durocher slam the billiard balls back and forth. The younger men in the room, accustomed to seeing Sinatra at this club, treated him without deference, although they said nothing offensive. They were a cool young group, very California-cool and casual, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, blondish hair, and squared eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60.

Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, The Oscar.

Finally Sinatra could not contain himself.

“Hey,” he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. “Those Italian boots?”

A lot of this doesn’t seem necessary. In the Simon excerpts, he speaks in broad terms about theoretical characters: the person on the stoop, the desk sergeant. From the Talese excerpt, he describes clothing – fashion, in other words, one of the problematic instances of worldbuilding I mentioned above.

Now, just because these things are real, describing real places and real events, that doesn’t mean they’re not worldbuilding: the authors could have theoretically included every piece of fact about the surroundings and the events of that day, from the type of carpet to the architecture on the building facades. Or they could have included none of these facts, and wrote a stripped down version of the events, with the descriptions of the surroundings intruding only when it directly affected the action, like a military intelligence report.

But stories, nonfiction or fiction, take place within a mental space for the reader, a space that readers dream up using the words on the page. And worldbuilding is not the process of telling everyone what the local laws are, or what sort of shoes everyone wears, or the history of that nation’s or wars. It is the process of shaping and curating the reader’s mental space.

Real worldbuilding is when you pick the two or three tiny little tidbits that can do the most to help readers create that mental space. You’re not weaving them a tapestry, you’re giving them perspective. Think of it as an aquarium, and the writer is adjusting the ph balance in the water, or the temperature, or other chemicals: by adding a teeny little bit in the background and letting it permeate, it can substantially change how the contents grow or thrive.

So, like most writing devices, if you do it bad, yes, it breaks the reader’s contract. Do it right, though, and the story can sing.

November 23, 2015

the robert hates television post

I’m pretty sure that everyone’s sick of me talking about television and story – but I’m not! And I’m here to prove that I never will be, ever, and just like the Judge at the end of Blood Meridian, I will forever be talking about television too much, forever and ever.

Anyways, here are my various hitjobs on:

Jessica Jones

Hannibal (which I originally really liked, but eventually had problems with)

The Legend of Korra

Korra, the character herself 

Downton Abbey (with a lil bit of Korra thrown in there for fun)

And there’s probably more but my list of posts only goes back so far.

So yeah, I think about television way too much.

November 22, 2015

Jessica Jones and the problem of forward momentum – or, Marvel needs a goddamn editor

When I sat down to watch the new Marvel show Jessica Jones, I was incredibly excited. It had everything I wanted in a television show.

A cynical superhero working as a PI? Awesome. I love mystery formats in my genre. That’s my thang.

The promise of exploring such heady social topics as PTSD, surviving abuse, and misogyny? Great. I love when superhero stories examine human failings, especially ones as important as this.

And also it had terrific actors. Krysten Ritter was a god damned genius on the canceled-before-its-time Don’t Trust the B in Apartment 23. And Mike Colter was basically charm incarnate on The Good Wife, playing the nicest and most charismatic drug dealer ever. And David Tennant as a monstrous psychopath with mind control powers? Wow. Fucking sold. Just give it to me already!

My excitement grew even more acute as the radiant reviews came out. The best thing Marvel’s ever done on television? An instant classic? Holy shit, I was going to love this.

So when I sat down to watch it with my (pregnant, ill-feeling) wife, I had the highest of hopes. I turned on the pilot, and sat back, waiting to be wowed.

And then I started… frowning a bit. I had the urge to look at my phone once or twice.

Then my wife said, “This show isn’t that compelling.”

“It’s the first episode,” I said, defensively. First episodes are usually pretty rocky. It takes a while for shows to find their feet.

So then we watched the next episode. And then the next episode. And then, finally, the first half of the season.

And that was when I realized this show has absolutely no idea what in the hell it’s doing.

THE ISSUE OF QUESTIONS

When I describe the novel writing process to budding writers – something I’ve only done once or twice, mind – I usually frame the discussion around a series of questions.

Books set out to explore the unknown. The unknown could be something literal – “Who killed this person?” Or, it can be something circumstantial – “Can this character go to war and return unscathed?” Or it can be something incredibly abstract – “Is true connection even possible in the modern American marriage?”

But in general, most novels and most stories explore something that is not immediately known. The story is a vehicle for the process of discovery.

And this is usually framed around a series of questions. You start with one unknown, and in trying to understand it, it raises more questions, hinting at larger unknowns.

Let’s look at the murder mystery plot structure:

The duchess has been killed. The detective sets off to find the killer.

About a fifth of the way into the book, the detective suspects the butler.

About a third of the way into the book, the detective confirms it was the butler – but, the butler gets murdered, and the detective finds evidence of some kind of death cult in the butler’s room.

Reports start coming in of the duchess making payments to a sinister man who would meet her at her estate gates on moonlit nights.

The detective tracks down a witness to the butler’s murder – and the killer they describe has a birthmark just like the duchess’s long-passed half-brother, who died under strange circumstances years ago in a fire at an abbey.

The detective goes to the ruins of the abbey and finds a secret underground chamber – and on the wall of the chamber is the symbol of the death cult…

And so on, and so on, and so on. This is all quite rote, but you get the idea – one question (“Who killed the duchess?”) has now lead to a series of larger questions, setting off a chain reaction of sorts.

That raising and answering of questions creates a feeling of plot progress – there is a goal (“We must find out who killed the duchess!”), and by exploring these unknowns, were are getting closer to reaching that goal.

Or (UPDATE) let’s try a literary approach to how plotting is about the placement and exploration of unknowns. Let’s say it’s a book about the failing marriage.

You could stage it so that the book alternates between a week in the life of this advanced middle aged couple in the present and the early years of their marriage well in the past.

So in the present, you see the couple fighting and reacting to seemingly innocuous things: the way the husband masks his face with cloth when mowing the lawn, the way the wife refuses to cook anymore but is adamant about driving the book mobile for the local library. You’re not sure why they’re having these issues, until the book flashes back to the past and you see that the couple had a son, who liked mowing the grass with the dad, but died of leukemia. In their grief, they realized their marriage was based on roleplaying more than emotional reliance, and they were unable to cope with it.

So that’s one unknown that’s explored. But you can tell there’s more out there – the cooking, the book mobile. There are more and more questions. It makes you keep reading.

You find out then that the dad had an affair after the death of their son, and fathered a child out of wedlock, and on the day the wife found out, she found the husband and his mistress were sharing leftover of a dish she spent the whole day making. Since then, she can’t bring herself to cook for him anymore.

But you then find out that the wife has been having contact with the illegitimate child, bringing the little girl books on the book mobile – and of course they’re the books her dead son read when he was little. And so the story ends with the wife sharing an emotional connection with this child who doesn’t know or even wonder why this woman is so involved with her – and you realize that this emotional connection, this honesty, is deeper than anything the husband can offer the wife anymore.

Again, this is pretty contrived, but you get the idea.

You can see how the progress of exploring unknowns not only forms a tension that makes you keep reading, but it also challenges the status quo of the story’s central conflict. What you first thought was just a simple murder, or a spat over a meal, turns out to have really been so much more. This is because each scene and each discovery adds something new to the story’s experience. We learn more about the characters, and this informs their past actions and their future actions.

The problem with Jessica Jones is that it doesn’t do any of that, at least for the first half of the show – which is a severe failing. Maybe there’s something phenomenal in the second half of the show – but at this point, I don’t really have any desire to find out. The show is not sure how to progress its plot or how to change its status quo.

Spoilers follow.

WHEN WILL THINGS START HAPPENING?

The pilot of Jessica Jones establishes the show’s status quo quite well. I pretty much knew what the show was about, and the pilot confirmed all of those expectations, but it did a good job in building the central conceit.

The show’s status quo is:

Jessica Jones is a cynical, traumatized superhero being harassed and threatened by the incredibly powerful mind-controller Kilgrave, who can strike at her at any moment.

The show made it clear from the get-go that Kilgrave has been and still is a very dangerous person: tricking a girl into murdering her parents is goddamn intense, especially since he did it more or less to screw with Jessica. And while I knew that Kilgrave had abused Jessica as well going into the show, the pilot did a good enough job establishing that in its own right.

And then… not much happens in the next episode. Jessica convinces her attorney friend Hogarth (expertly played by Carrie-Anne Moss) to take on the girl who killed her parents as a client. Jessica finds out that Kilgrave can’t use his mind control powers while under anesthesia – but she doesn’t make any decisions to something with that yet.

However, does any of this change the status quo of the show at all? Which was:

Jessica Jones is a cynical, traumatized superhero being harassed and threatened by the incredibly powerful mind-controller Kilgrave, who can strike at her at any moment.

No. Jessica is still traumatized, she’s still being threatened by Kilgrave. The state is the same.

In the third episode, Jessica’s friend Trish makes the incredibly bad decision of publicly slandering Kilgrave on the radio. Kilgrave predictably reacts, Jessica saves her friend and confirms that Kilgrave is alive, still obsessed with her, and is still incredibly dangerous.

But – we knew that already. The first episode did that for us! He made a girl kill her parents just to fuck with Jessica! We know it’s him, we know he’s alive, we know he’s bad news, and we know he’s obsessed with Jessica! Does any of this change the status quo of the show? Let’s check:

Jessica Jones is a cynical, traumatized superhero being harassed and threatened by the incredibly powerful mind-controller Kilgrave, who can strike at her at any moment.

No. Jessica is still the cynical, traumatized superhero. We know why she’s traumatized now – she was coerced into killing Luke Cage’s girlfriend, and is now sleeping with the man himself, unbeknownst to the fact that he’s sleeping with his girlfriend’s murderer – but has anything changed in the central conflict between Jessica and Kilgrave? Not really. It’s all still the same.

Then in the fourth episode… not much happens. Jessica takes a case that winds up being wholly unrelated and inconsequential to the central Jessica/Kilgrave dynamic. Trish bonds with her coerced assassin, Simpson, a standard cop character. Hogarth cheats on her wife.

It was around this point in the show that I started getting worried. This was around the end of the first act, by normal story standards. But the show hadn’t made any movements to start looking at the next thing. At the end of this episode, my wife turned to me and said, “Can you name one thing that happened in that episode that actually mattered?” And I really couldn’t.

Then in the fifth episode, Jessica and her motley gang finally, finally do something about Kilgrave – who, despite being more or less all powerful, has yet to actually do, uh, anything. Except respond to some slander and monitor Jessica, that is.

The gang gets a dart gun, follows Kilgrave, tranquilizes him, and tries to take him back to their safehouse. This plan is underwhelming to say the least, but hey, at least it’s a plan – it’s action, which is something that hasn’t happened much on the show yet.

But is it a plan? What they intend to do after capturing him isn’t clear. Jessica intends to use him to clear the name of the girl who killed her parents. But how do you coerce a confession out of a guy whose every word could rewrite your brain? How, exactly, does she intend to make a coerced confession legal? Why not just cut his throat or smash his skull or, I dunno, perform a lobotomy on him or something? The show doesn’t do a terrific job of making the “next steps” very clear.

But it turns out, it doesn’t matter. Kilgrave’s got a tracking device on him, and about 20 seconds after taking Kilgrave, some goons show up, use cattle prods on Jessica and the gang, and take Kilgrave back to safety.

And then we’re back to square one again. No one has lost or gained much ground. The goons intentionally didn’t hurt any of them. No one suffered too much – we really didn’t have too many consequences at all, and we really didn’t learn anything new about Jessica and Kilgrave’s conflict. Sure, Jessica is now trying to save her junkie friend that Kilgrave was using to spy on her, but there hasn’t been much change to the status quo yet, which is, let’s remember:

Jessica Jones is a cynical, traumatized superhero being harassed and threatened by the incredibly powerful mind-controller Kilgrave, who can strike at her at any moment.

 Yeah this all checks out. This is still basically what’s going on in the show, and we’re very close to the halfway mark now. The state of show still has yet to change.

That’s bad. By the end of the first third, a story should be examining something beyond what was established at the beginning. And Jessica Jones is not doing that.

JUST SHIT OR GET OFF THE POT ALREADY

The problem with Jessica Jones is one of potential.

Jessica is a superpowered person. She can do lots of things that we can’t. And though she is traumatized, and is now spiritually and mentally weakened, it’s clear she’s a strong character who can still take action.

Except, it takes five episodes for her to do that – four whole goddamn hours from the pilot, where the stakes are made clear. And then all that work gets flushed down the toilet.

Worse, the progress she makes – tracking down Kilgrave, attempting to kidnap him – doesn’t happen because of her own persistent efforts. Rather, she kind of falls backassward into them. Her attorney makes a bunch of noise about mind control alibis on the radio, a bunch of people show up claiming to have been coerced by him, Jessica reluctantly forms a support group, and one of them mentions offhandedly that, hey, I was Kilgrave’s driver for a while, and he made me keep driving back to meet this one dude, who turns out to be Jessica’s neighbor.

That’s not quite the fruits of Jessica’s labor. That’s a circumstantial gift. One that she didn’t totally work for, one that the show immediately squanders by having a bunch of random goons with cattle prods take Kilgrave back the second Jessica kidnaps him. So it’s a somewhat unsatisfying, passive turning point that the show then immediately renders inconsequential. “Hey, you thought we were going to do something? Well, here are some guys to make sure we actually can’t do something, so let’s start all over again.”

Then there’s Kilgrave himself. We’re halfway through the show and the entirety of the action has taken place within this character’s shadow – but we still don’t know anything about him. I know he’s mean and he makes kids pee on the floor and shopkeeps throw hot coffee in their own faces – I get that he’s bad, he makes a girl kill her parents in the first goddamn episode! But I don’t really know who he is. The show is almost halfway over and he’s remained an enigma throughout.

As Kilgrave is the guy generating almost 100% of the show’s conflict, that’s bad. It’s bad if the engine of all the show’s drama is an absent non-entity.

Also, Kilgrave is super-powerful, but besides the action in the pilot, he hasn’t really done much that we can see. He’s just kind of hanging around, controlling people, getting photos of Jessica, but not much else. The one time he does something it’s because he’s (very, very stupidly) provoked.

I mean, this guy can make a whole roomful of people kill themselves, right? He can do anything, right? But he’s done jack shit since the pilot. He hasn’t surprised us or made us think differently about him.

So basically this show is about two superpowered people who don’t really do much with those powers. That’s frustrating to watch.

Some other issues with the characters:

  •  The show takes its sweet time on Jessica and Luke’s relationship. They have sex once, she sees the photo of Luke’s girlfriend (whom she killed), and she wigs out a bit. By this point we, The Audience, have gotten it. But then they figure out each other superpowers, they have sex again, and we’re again reminded that Jessica killed his girlfriend. We get it! Move on! Complicate this further, or something!
  • I’m not sure what to do with Trish. Trish is Jessica’s rich, famous, radio-show friend, who has some kind of troubled past due to her safe room and security measures. (I think it has to do with Kilgrave, or her mother? It didn’t seem clear.) Trish knows that Kilgrave can control other people, yet when a cop comes to her reinforced door for some Obviously Incredibly Sketchy Reasons and asks to come in without a warrant, Trish frowns for a bit, then opens the door, and he of course tries to kill her. (Cue my wife yelling, “WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?”) None of this is particularly intelligent – it is unwise to fuck with telepaths, then doubly unwise to open your door to anyone. She and the cop later bond over the incident, and hook up, but it’s not clear what she adds to the central conflict between Kilgrave and Jessica. She’s just kind of there.
  • Also, as nice as it is to see Carrie-Anne Moss on TV, and to see two married gay women past their 40’s, I’m not yet sure what she’s adding to the plot. She’s cheating on her wife, sure, and then splits up with her wife… but, I mean, okay? So what? I suspect the show will do something with this later – but it’s taking its sweet time doing this. Right now we’re stepping away from a superpowered stalker story to deal with some not-quite-fleshed-out matrimonial issues. For significant minutes at a time. It’s not like things were moving slow enough already.
  • And not to get too uber nerdy, but how is it that Jessica has the strength and the physical durability to stop a speeding car in its tracks, yet can also cut her fingers on glass and get shot and wounded like any other person? How is it that her ankles and legs can take the punishment of jumping on and off skyscrapers, yet a punch to the face still jacks her up? If she punches someone in the chest hard enough to kill them, shouldn’t her fist basically explode under the strain, if it isn’t superhumanly durable? The show hasn’t made the rules there quite clear.

THIS IS NOT JUST JESSICA JONES’S PROBLEM

Lest we forget, Daredevil, Marvel’s other Netflix show, had lots of these problems too.

Daredevil was a mightily wheel-spinny show. There were a lot of plots toward the middle that just felt like they weren’t pertinent to some degree. Lots of talk about journalism and corporate embezzlement and vague real estate deals that frankly just seemed to suck up time and not matter much, especially when there were fucking ninjas going to town on each other in the background.

The difference with DD was that it had three advantages:

  • It was terribly derivative: it played the vigilante superhero origin story completely straight, right down to the grim monologues about “My City.” But while this would ordinarily be a weakness (and it still kind of is), because it’s such a familiar story model, we kind of knew what’s going to happen. That meant that the show’s choices and development were sort of preordained. There was always movement in one direction – the creation of Daredevil – and though the show sometimes took its sweet fucking time in getting there, we and everyone in the cast knew it was going to get there eventually.
  • It had Wilson Fisk. He was probably everyone’s favorite thing on the show. We got to know him right about at the 1/3 mark of the show (See?? See how that can help structure things?) and from there on out it was about watching him and DD collide with each other. This formed a structure that gave the story events a feeling of momentum (even when the show struggled to deliver on that momentum).
  • The show had Lesser Goons that DD would inevitably meet, almost always leading to a Beatdown of the Week. Jessica Jones has no per-episode conflict. No mystery or monster or phenomenon to form the conflict of that one episode. That leaves the show feeling weirdly unmoored and unfocused.

Between these three elements, the show was given a sense of structure and momentum. Sure, it frequently overplayed the grimness (Beheading a dude with a car door? Voluntarily impaling your own skull on a spike? Come the fuck on) and it made some weirdo doofy racial choices, but at the end it stacked up to be a solidly decent, if somewhat derivative, television show.

Yet it still obviously had the same issues as Jessica Jones, the same hesitancy as to how to advance its own plot.

It’s worth noting that these are two Netflix shows, developed beyond the confines of regular television. But for funsies, let’s compare Jessica Jones to another show about a female abuse survivor who tries to strike out in New York and make a living for herself all in the shadow of a sinister, controlling man who can make other people do what he wants.

I’m talking here, of course, about The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

OTHER SHOWS HAVE DONE THIS BETTER

Kimmy Schmidt was an exuberant story about someone doing her absolute best not to let her own victimhood define her. It was a story about someone who actively challenged herself: Kimmy got an apartment, a job, tried to get her diploma, tried to throw a party, and though some episodes were hit and misses (and though the show also made its own wackadoo racial choices), the show did a good job of interrogating victimhood. Kimmy Schmidt is a show about the choice to live in fear and delusion, and how sometimes people can make those choices for themselves, and sometimes they can’t.

From what I’ve seen thus far – and I feel like 5 whole hours is a good enough sample of a story – Kimmy Schmidt is a far more disciplined show than Jessica Jones is. Kimmy Schmidt knows what it wants to do, how it wants to galvanize its characters, and then it goes out and does it.

And I wonder – is this because Kimmy Schmidt was originally made for network television, by some old school NBC comedy vets? Would Kimmy Schmidt be as good as it is if it was made for binge-watching, made to be consumed in one weekend? (Is this even possible for a sitcom, though? Sitcoms are some of the most highly structured pieces of comedy out there.)

Let’s look at another dark, pulpy, feminist show with a female anti-hero: Orphan Black. Is there a show with a stronger first few episodes than that one? Sarah’s goals are laid clear from the get-go: she needs money, and she needs to find and protect her daughter, so she begins impersonating a well-off woman she saw kill herself – a woman with a striking physical resemblance to Sarah.

But then the show keeps changing the stakes on her, bringing up unknowns that Sarah can’t help but look into: she realizes she’s impersonating a police detective (which she has no idea how to be), and then it turns out this police detective is under investigation, and then it turns out this detective was investigating a series of murders… of women who look exactly like Sarah. This happens within the first three episodes.

Do you see how this show, unlike Jessica Jones, keeps upping the questions and complicating the plot, while making the goals clear? And how Sarah is always given a very specific objective, which she smartly and practically pursues, despite her murky circumstances?

But, again, this is a cable TV show. This was made to fit within strict boundaries. I wonder if we can say the same of Jessica Jones. 

It’s a weird situation. I feel like DD and JJ (and oh my god that sounds like the names of two bratty twin girls) are both TV shows that would have been vastly improved if they’d had 1/3 less episodes to work in. Rather than a season of 13 episodes, it should have been maybe 8 or 9. That would have forced the writers and showrunners to cut to the goddamn point already, and stop wandering around in the weeds, making their characters bump into things like dolts.

And this could be done, right? Since this is all just on Netflix, can’t they rightsize their seasons? Can’t they make the episodes fit the contour of the story? Can’t they get rid of the stretch episodes, and make the season fit the story?

If so, they aren’t doing it yet. And they need to.

November 18, 2015

What are you doing January 26?

The correct answer would normally be buying and reading CITY OF BLADES (which comes out January 26 – did you know that?), but there are now some excellent new alternatives.

For one thing, if you’re in the Central Texas area, I’ll be at Hastings in San Marcos at 7:00 PM on January 26 to sign copies, do a talkings, and perhaps readify the words I wroted on the booklings known as CITY OF BLADES.

But for ANOTHER thing, the next day on January 27th, author and Known Good Person Kevin Hearne has invited me to hang out at his Book People event for his new book Staked here in Austin. If you’re not reading his Iron Druid books, you’re missing out on some extremely entertaining urban fantasy.

capture

An excerpt from Hounded, concerning a magically-bound invisible cloak:

What sealed the deal for me was that the cloak wouldn’t come off without a generous donation of my tears. Those used to be almost impossible for me to summon, I admit, until I watched Field of Dreams. When Kevin Costner asks his dad at the end if he’d like to have a catch, I just completely lose my shit.

The official link for the Book People event is here.

You know what to do!

November 17, 2015

Starred Publishers Weekly review for CITY OF BLADES

I don’t really blog about anything and everything that happens to my books on the internet, because that’s what social media is for. If I did, I’d mention that American Elsewhere was apparently on the front page of Reddit the other day. But I don’t. So there.

Anyways, the real reason for this here blog post is to celebrate that CITY OF BLADES got a starred review from Publishers Weekly. Good stuff! Check it out.

Capture

November 16, 2015

On risk

This morning, I put my four year old son at risk.

I did so by taking his person and strapping him into his car seat. I then pulled the car out of the driveway, and – it was also a very foggy morning, one must note – I piloted this car out onto the nearest highway, where any number of horrible things could have happened.

We were exposed to the very decent chance that any one of the countless drivers we passed on the highway – all fallible humans, and some more fallible than others – could have driven their car into ours at upwards of 65 miles an hour, sending us hurtling into cement walls, or other cars, or off one of the two bridges we drove over.

There is also the chance that I myself could have failed, becoming distracted or perhaps having a coughing fit or maybe just hitting a particularly wet spot in the road. We could have died that way, too.

There was a not insubstantial chance these things could have happened. It happens to a lot of people – 30,000 Americans die in car accidents every year.

But I did it anyway.

Why? Because the risks were acceptable. The convenience of delivering my child to his education of choice is one I value very highly. It is also convenient that his preschool is close to my office. I like having him near me.

In fact, I tolerate this substantial risk multiple times every day, thousands of times a year, because the convenience and freedom is too difficult to turn down. I am willing to tolerate participating in a frequently lethal system in order to reap the considerable benefits it offers me. I want to drive to nice restaurants, to drive to other states, to drive to scenic views, and to see my family and friends. I like these things enough that I am willing to risk injury and death, simply because this system has made it so convenient.

Risk is a hard thing to think about. Frequently it goes unseen. It’s built into the walls of our lives, where we can pleasantly ignore it. But it’s still there.

There are risks to living in a free society, an open society, a liberal society that empowers the individual. And a lot of those risks have become very apparent recently.

Today, the governor of my state, along with many others, said he would refuse to offer safe harbor to the millions of international refugees pouring out of the Middle East, fleeing rampant death, rape, and destruction. The risks were just too great, he said. Even though this is the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, even though women and children are living in fear and hunger and dying miserable deaths, even though Syria has had the equivalent of a Paris attack every single day for years on end – despite all this, the risks are simply too great. If just one of these millions of people is a terrorist, a warmaker, a servant of harm, that is too many.

Now, just like over a decade ago, we are being tested. What happened in Paris and Beirut, and what has been happening across the Middle East for a decade now, is an undeniable tragedy. But a free society, a liberal society, an open society, would undoubtedly extend aid to these refugees.

Yet are we willing to do so despite these new risks? Are we willing to continue being what we are? Or do we wish to alter the structure that’s given us so much for so long, due to a slightly higher chance of death and injury?

And it is slight. Here is a list of the highest causes of death in the UK, which is comparable to America:

CaptureTerrorism doesn’t show up on the list. For something that so thoroughly dominates our fears and rhetoric, it’s not what’s killing us.

This is a defining moment that many people will remember in the years to come. To withdraw our hands, and banish these people to a stateless world of agony and abuse – this will surely have repercussions down the line.

And if we extend aid to them and let them in, as a free society surely would, it may have repercussions as well. Maybe. Maybe bad ones.

Perhaps it could kill me. Perhaps it could kill my son, or my wife, or my unborn child.

But these are the costs. These are the costs of a free, open, and liberal society. And that is the society I would prefer to live in.

I will think about these costs the next time I climb into my car, shut the door, buckle my seat belt, and start the engine.

 

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