Category Archives: Pembroke Hall Series

Piracy on the High E’s!

I’m not sure where you come down on the issue of piracy. Not the Somalis in a speedboat with some vintage Soviet RPG type. The new-fangled method of copying intellectual property that has been the bane of folks from the members of Metallica to J.K. Rowling.

And to show that nobody is safe, even I have been pirated. That’s right. No sooner were the Angel’s Luck novels in print over in Russia than somebody with a scanner and some OCR software gutted copies and converted them into files for the RocketBook – a late 1990’s eReader that is so vintage that there’s almost no information on them out in Internet land… not even on Wikipedia. All I could find is this rather odd video.1 Apparently it never took off here, but was popular in Europe, judging from the accents on the video (and the Russian piracy).

It’s probably also worth mentioning that if you’re Russian, you can also read the Pembroke Hall series online – here and here. More wonders from scannerland. I suppose if you’re a dab hand with cut and paste, you could bring up the pages and put them piecemeal into one of the many online translation apps out there and read yourself the books for free. Sorry, I can’t guarantee it’ll be an effective use of your time, but the many quirks of online translation are guaranteed to make the story more amusing than it already is.

So where do I come down on the side of such hijinks?

It doesn’t bother me. Maybe if I were an impoverished musician like the members of Metallica, I’d have a different attitude toward it – after all, what do you do when your “loyal” audience is cheating you out of the money you desperately need to feed your family? But in the case of a writer, the objective is to be read – and judging from the glowing reviews Ferman/Boddekker have gotten, Russians are reading the books.

Plus, to be honest, if I complain about this, shouldn’t I be complaining about that grandaddy of file sharing schemes, the public library system?2

Also, I have a day job that helps me feed my family. Maybe those tapped-out souls in Metallica should look into getting one themselves. Hey, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.

The Russian Cover for Harry Harrison's "Galaxy Hero Returns"

What’s particularly fascinating about piracy of intellectual property is how it seems so boundless. For example, here’s the cover of a Harry Harrison novel that was recently brought to my attention. It’s a version put out by a Russian publisher. Looks pretty exciting – but then notice the odd resemblance between Harry’s Russian cover and this American one by yours truly.

What’s interesting is that we’re getting into a whole different field of piracy here. I’m not sure it was out of laziness (although the artist did take the time to replace the green hologram on my cover with what looks like a full color holo of what might be a pole dancer – although that image might be nicked from somewhere, too.

While I find this amusing, I feel bad for David Mattingly, the artist who did the work on my original cover. Unfortunately, like the online version of Ferman’s Devils, there’s not a lot I can do about it were I so inclined. It’s what comes from dealing with countries with a more relaxed attitude towards intellectual property than ours.

Meantime, I guess we can take consolation in the fact that it ain’t just me and it ain’t just Russia. Witness this cover spotted by my son in a bookstore in Hangzhou, China:

Photo courtesy of my globe-hopping son.

It’s for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I suspect Harriet Beecher Stowe would be amused and even flattered by this whole thing, but no guesses where Mr. Freeman or Ms. Judd would come down on this whole thing.

Oh, and three words of advice for the malnourished members of Metallica: monster dot com.

  1. Although, admittedly, I only spent about five minutes looking.
  2. Which I once attempted to satirize here… but nobody got the joke.

A Chat About Place

I’m going to try something here. A few days ago, a friend of mine who has decided to try and write a novel popped up in my chat window to ask a couple of questions. Instead of writing at length about the subject, I’m going to just put the transcript here and see what happens. If you have any questions or followup on the subject, feel free to comment:

Brian: how much detail do you put in your environments?

Brian: I sprinkle some of it here and there, but don’t go overboard

me: depends on how important it is to the story

me: the next novel I’ll be converting for Kindle [The Mushroom Shift]

me: is set in Wyoming in the winter

me: and the setting and the weather play an important part of the story

me: it’s oppressive to characters in an already oppressive situation

Brian: how do you pick cities for your stories?

me: well

me: if you’re Stephen King you stick to places where you’ve lived

me: ; )

Brian: I am going to just use this area… I can change it later if I want

me: I tend to pick places that I think are interesting

Brian: there are a million of those types of areas

me: What suits the story? The Company Man and Drawing Down the Moon are both travelogues of sorts, bouncing around different versions of the US. The shifting locales helped shape the stories.

me: Sometimes the story dictates the location – Wyoming for The Mushroom Shift, New York for the Pembroke Hall novels.

me: Then sometimes it doesn’t matter. When I wrote A Death of Honor, I deliberately did NOT mention a specific city, and have had people assume it was New York, LA, etc.

me: There’s another book I’ve gotten a lot done on that is set in a Canton-like milieu, and needs to be that way for a couple of reasons. And the UFO novel has to take place in Gillette, Wyoming because Gillette is the perfect place for it to occur.

Brian: My story will take place in a canton like area.. more rural though…

me: See? Based on what you’ve told me, it needs to set there. It’s dictated by the story.

One thing I will add that I didn’t say in the chat is that sometimes Place can be as much a character as any of the people in your novel. I’m thinking of films like Body Heat, Do The Right Thing, and just about any movie by the Coen brothers, who have taken Place As Character to a whole new level.

Have I missed anything? Grab your atlas and check.

One eMail and Everything Changes

Okay, I’m going to admit something. I haven’t been straight with you all, because at the time a lot of this went down, it didn’t matter. Now, all of a sudden, it does.

At the end of last year, I was dropped by my agent. I can’t say that I blame him. I pretty much hadn’t written a word of use to him for at least three years, the time during which my mother lived with us. And for the two years before that, when my wife and I were checking on her at least twice a week. Add to that the fact that in the years before that, he was looking for thrillers to market at around 100k words, and I was wanting to genre bend a little, and the project I did it with, which he told me not to write, came in at 170k. Nothing personal, it was just business.

Now he was a good agent at a time when I needed one who did the kinds of things he did. And he got me into some good things. The ghostwriting gig that I still can’t talk about. The sale of the Pembroke Hall books to the Canadian film company that made my worst-selling novels my biggest moneymakers, even though nothing ever got filmed. The sales to Russia. But we had growing creative differences over the fact that he was trying to streamline the sales process by asking me to turn in 100,000 word thrillers and I was wanting to push myself as a writer and stretch out, poking and tweaking the conventions of genre.

I suppose if I have any regret about our nearly two-decade relationship is that I should have been the one to end it since I knew I was no longer of use to him. But in the context of taking care of my mother, it didn’t seem all that important.

So the end of 2008 was the end of an era, and frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. Over the last couple of years, writing had come to mean less to me than at any point in my adult life, and probably most of my adolescent life, too. I had other avenues of expression – writing and singing songs, which is confined mostly to my bedroom, and The Home World, the weekly webcomic I started in September of last year, and the plays I have been writing and directing for our church’s Vacation Bible School. I was too busy serving God to write much more than that.

Basically, writing career dead, stick a fork in it, it’s done. And I couldn’t have cared less. I had moved on. Other things in life were more important.

And then, two weeks ago, everything changed.

I opened my Gmail account to find a communique there with the subject line touching base re Film/TV rights. It was from a woman in Los Angeles, the sister of the woman who had bought the Pembroke Hall rights all those many years ago. She was looking for exciting new properties to represent, and her sister told her she ought to look into this guy named Joe Clifford Faust (okay, so his properties weren’t exactly new – but they were clever and innovative and unused).

This nice lady asked me about the Pembroke Hall novels and – surprise! – The Company Man, which hadn’t seen a movie nibble since my first agent tried to put a copy into the hands of Sir Ridley (only he wasn’t Sir back then, and he also didn’t want to get typed as an SF director, so his advance man took a pass on the book).

The next day we talked on the phone for 55 minutes. I mentioned A Death of Honor, along with a screenplay I’m starting to develop as a favor to a friend, and when the conversation was over, I had a new agent.

I also came away with an assignment: to write a bunch of synopses for the books she is going to try to convert to movies or TV series. Yeah, you read that right. She, like her sister, seems to think that the Pembroke Hall novels would make a good TV series.

While I was writing, I got on a roll and decided to send her a synopsis of the 170,000 word novel that my ex-agent didn’t want me to write that I need to whip into a final draft, just as a surprise bonus. To see what happens.

Funny thing. Reading the manuscript for that novel by way of getting the plot line in my head makes me realize that it’s my best novel ever, even a quantum leap over Pembroke Hall, which my ex-agent once said was a magnum opus for me.

Suddenly I want to finish that neglected manuscript.

Interestingly enough, all of this comes at a time when I can actually do it now, with my mother safe in God’s hands and the children having mostly flown the coop for college and points beyond.

When things like this happen, I prick up my ears and see if I can hear God laughing, because I know from events like this that he has a sense of humor. I’m reminded that his boy told us something about losing our life to gain it. Well, I gave up my writing life to essentially serve him, and now I seem to have gotten it back with a vengeance. I should also note that his boy could raise the dead, among other things. So resurrection of a career is a piece of cake.

Yeah, I got some work to do (on top of this year’s VBS play, a sci-fi extravaganza of sorts).

And that’s not the whole story, either.

Because yesterday I had a pretty remarkable day, too. But it’s late now (early, actually) – making that a story for another day.

Hopefully soon.

Dark Secrets of the Writer’s Heart

Does anyone else out there in the writing racket do this – when I get an idea for a new project that I think shows a lot of promise, I want to run out and buy a new pen and a new notebook or pad of paper and start writing immediately. Usually I calm down and a cooler head prevails – but on the other hand, I do have a lot of pens and notebooks floating around in my personal orbit.

I’m also going to confess a couple of related secrets. I have at least one novel I’m supposedly working on that I haven’t told you about. I’ve got it in my Palm and was supposed to be writing paragraphs in it here and there in stolen moments, and I was going to market it Not Under My Own Name and (gasp!) Not Through My Agent, just to see what would happen. Unfortunately, the nature of the project I picked seems to be so laden with detail that the Palm is not a good venue for it. What I need to be writing this way is a loose, rollicking literary-type novel that will only have one draft – but more on that in a moment.

Part of this behavior of mine is that I’m fascinated by the whole anonymity thing – like Thomas Pynchon, and until recently, Jandek – both of whom worked in a vacuum of publicity and no public appearances (and while Jandek has been performing live for two or three years now, he still remains an enigma).

I’m also fascinated by the genre of literary novels of the sort propagated by Vonnegut and Tom Robbins, the rollicking novel where anything goes whether it works or not, with a voice that gives you the impression it rolled directly out of the typewriter into the press, with no rewriting or intermediate drafts (I know that’s not the case with Vonnegut). So that’s one of the other things I’ve long wanted to try – writing a psychedelic kind of novel without much regard to structure or anything else, and send it off without revising it to see what happens (Not Under My Own Name and Not Through My Agent, of course). With my luck, I’d have an unintentional hit, and I’d have a lot of explaining to do with my agent.

Both of these add up to a long-held urge urges to write a sub rosa novel, not even telling my wife what I was doing.

Never managed to get anything to take off, though. There were always more pressing writing projects, never enough time.

Now I’m thinking about starting a secret writing project, but telling all of you about it (and considering the way my StatCounter and Bloglines numbers look, there aren’t all that many of you out there, anyway, so it’s practically – dare I say virtually? – a secret).

Here’s what happened.

I didn’t get to work on the play last night. Wednesdays are my Momsitting night so my wife and daughter can get to Church (I go to the Men’s Bible Study on Monday nights), and my mother was not having a good night. But I did have a very productive shower this morning, and realized that I sent the antagonist out onto a winter street dressed in nothing but his boxers. So I made a note in the manuscript (coincidentally, it was right at the point where I left off writing – or maybe it wasn’t a coincidence).

I also thought about what I wanted to do to And That’s the End of the News, electing to do major surgery on it, completely changing the motivating factor between K and her dead boyfriend from something icky to something much more dramatic. Also thought about whether I should edit that or finish the first draft of Deadline once I get the third draft of the play over to the Community Theater.

Then my mind drifted to a future post I want to do about how to avoid a visit from the Karma Police. I started thinking about one of the events from my past that I wanted to mention: how, when I was first married, I worked in a place that was permeated with evil. I mean, we’re all sinners, but at least I was trying to be good. Nobody else was. I was fired from this place, and within a year something bad happened to everyone else who still worked there.

Then I thought, I ought to have that happen in a novel.

Then I thought, that could be the theme of an entire novel; a guy comes in and is treated badly by a company with a corrupt corporate culture, and suddenly things begin going horribly, badly wrong for all of the miscreants.


Suddenly, a bunch of loose ends that I wanted to use converged onto this single notion and it became an idea:

  • The notion that one person walks into a new place and becomes, knowingly or un-, an agent of change,
  • the notion of telling a story in first person but not through the POV of the main character,
  • the notion of using an unreliable narrator to tell the story (maybe – the jury is still out on this one fitting in)
  • the chance to approach a novel as one that will be written in anonymity (well, relatively speaking, anyway…),
  • the chance to explore the idea of karma in a novel (I don’t believe in it, but the concept is fascinating, and it’s a handy bit of shorthand to use in explaining circumstance),
  • the chance to write a story about some of my experiences in corporate America,
  • the chance to tell a story in a looser, more rollicking style, as described above (but I’ll push it through several drafts, I promise),
  • the chance to tell a story with lots of allusions to Biblical events and/or pop culture that may or may not be symbolic,
  • the chance to write another “fun” novel like the Pembroke Hall books,
  • the chance to write in such a way as to show the power of writing only one page a day,
  • the chance to do something a little more useful with my lunch hours besides checking up on my blogroll or having my head handed to me during network games of Medal of Honor,
  • and of course, the chance to work on a secret project. Except all of you now now about it.

Scarily, all of this dumped itself into my head in the space of just a couple of minutes. After that one white moment, all of these pent up notions and bits from my writer’s wish list came rolling into my head like a dam had broken. My head instantly filled with pages and pages of notes that I have yet to write down (no doubt since I haven’t gone to the store to buy a new pen and notebook yet).

Now for those of you who are shaking your head and going, “Ah, Faust, not again, you poor, pathetic soul, you can’t just write a novel because some ideas fell into your lap,” I say, “Why not?” I’ve started novels with much less – one such notion, about an out-of-control law enforcement agency, became some scratchings on a yellow pad during a meeting, and those scratchings became the first chapter of The Mushroom Shift.

Besides, in a way, I hate it when this happens. It makes me feel like I have some form of creative ADD. On the other hand, this one comes in on the heels of something that I’ve always wanted for this blog but never quite gotten to do because of my long backlog of ideas. That is, to blog about a creative project from the time I get the idea until the time the last page of the final draft rolls out of the printer (and, perhaps even, ends up on the rack of the local book store).

So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll try and calm down about this whole thing and see if it’ll leave me alone for a while. I’m still zinging from the white moment right now. I’ll try to analytically look at the whole idea and try to see whether or not this will be another of my literary dead ends, or would be another really cool thing that I could do, both on the writing and on the blogging front (I can just see it – a secret notation on each post that gives the day’s progress, the translation of which is known only to regular readers – it’s better than saving up boxtops for a decoder ring!).

Okay. So a cooler head is going to prevail.

I hope.

taking all the pieces in the situation
hoping we can work it out
with fate on your side, luck and some pride
you are on the right line
it’ll be a sure sign
(via iTunes shuffle play)

1 Oh no… it’s a sign!

What’s in a Name?

A colleague of mine has decided to write a novel. He’s got a dandy plot lined up, he’s working on outlining it, but he’s hit a stopping spot. I recently got an e-mail from him asking, “what is a good way to come up with names for characters?”

What a great question.

Oft times we just look in the phone book and – voila! our character is named Herbert Marello. Or, if you want to be more subtle, take a first name from one page and a last name from another and… Richard Shockey. Hmmm, that one isn’t half bad.

It should be that easy, but most of the time, it isn’t. If you’re writing a novel about a two-fisted gumshoe, you don’t want to name him Peter Richard Swisher. You need to stick with rugged sounding, mostly monosyllabic names – James Bond, Jack Ryan, and Dirk Pitt, which I thought was a joke when I first heard it. But hey, folks I know swear by Clive Cussler, and he’s sold more books than I, so more power to him.

I know a writer who bases characters on people he knows, actually using their names in early drafts of his manuscripts. Then he goes back through with Search and Replace to change them out. You probably wouldn’t know the difference, but it’s kind of jarring to me, since I know a lot of his friends and his substitute names just don’t conjure the character for me like the originals do.

Romances have different naming conventions than Thrillers. You want to conjure up images of heaving bosoms and six-pack abs. A hero named Hank Finster isn’t going to work. Fantasy novels harken Medieval, so literal descriptive names can work – it wouldn’t be out of line to name a dwarf Orkin Footdragger. In science fiction, all bets are off. You could name a character Yggx Mmljkrets, and it would work – to a point. I had trouble reading Niven and Pournelle’s baby-elephants-invade-Earth novel, Footfall, because I had problems keeping their what’s-floating-in-my-alphabet-soup names straight. Not to mention if you name a character with a real ballet across the keyboard, you’re going to rue giving him/er/it that name halfway through your first draft.

Then there’s the convention of the torn-from-the-headlines potboiler. Let’s say you want to write a completely hypothetical fiction novel about an ex-running back who gets coked up one night, and, oh, let’s say he decides to hack an old girlfriend into little pieces. What to name him? Hmmm, I think something like “B.J. Henson” would send all the message you need. (Note to the literal minded: I’m kidding. Don’t do this. Don’t even write a torn-from-the-headlines potboiler. Not only is it the stuff of cliche – it’s also the stuff of lawsuits).

Here’s a look at some of my character names and the approaches I took when naming them – then I’ll finish up with some heavyweights to add more insight.

D.A. Payne (A Death of Honor) was inspired by actor E.G. Marshall. He was once asked in an interview what the “E.G.” stood for. He said, “Everyone’s guess.” I thought that was witty, and it said loads about Marshall’s personality. So I gave Payne the initials “D.A.” just so someone could ask what they stood for – and he could reply “Don’t ask.” He never told me what “D.A.” really stood for. It could be seen as a symbolic name, too, since his story begins with him being in a lot of psychological pain – although he doesn’t realize it until later.

Andy Birch (The Company Man) went through a couple of different names before I settled. One was Charlie Angeles – you can see that in the early draft of the manuscript, even. I later recycled that name in Ferman’s Devils. I don’t know how I hit on the name, but I liked it a lot once I hit on that combination. Could also be a symbolic name, since birch trees are known for bending under pressure. Don’t know if it fits The Company Man, though.

Just about every character in the Angel’s Luck trilogy is named after friends of mine from college. I either used their names literally, shortened them (May from Mainord, Vonn from Vaughan), or used some kind of nickname that pointed to them. Bear and Winters came from a couple of geeky 4-H kids I met after college – an odd Mutt and Jeff pair of friends, the idea of which translated rather oddly into a pair of bloodthirsty mercenaries.

The Pembroke Hall novels were different. Outside of the Devils, most of the characters worked at ad agency Pembroke Hall, and I wanted them to all have corporate sounding names. So while I was in the notes stage of the book, every time I read or heard a last name that sounded important and business-like, I jotted it down and then added it to my master list of names. Whenever a new character within the company came into play, I pulled one off the list and crossed it out. In a trick that harkened back to A Death of Honor, nobody at Pembroke Hall had first names except for the ill-fated Sylvester. A couple of other anomalies – director Charlie Angeles, a name booted from The Company Man, and the luscious Honnikker In Accounting, who is always, always, always referred to as Honnikker In Accounting (and that took a little work to keep the sentences from sounding clumsy when I did it).

Names can be chosen to impart an obvious meaning or to allude to something else. In the Pembroke Hall story, one of the replacement Devils was named Greg Samsa, after the protagonist in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. It’s not an accident that he has apples thrown at him by Ferman, nor that his street name becomes Cockroach. Jimmy Jazz was named in honor of the Clash song of the same title, which gave me his hobby (playing jazz on the saxophone), and even his real name, James Jasczek. I actually did name one of Ferman’s associates Peter Richard Swisher, to highlight the irony of using an intimidating street name. And poor old “Jet” Georgeson was named because it’s a spoonerism of the name of one of the stable of Hanna Barbera cartoon characters. I never actually say it – but Ferman sings the theme song at one point in the book.

And sometimes when you’ve just pulled a name out of thin air and run with it, serendipity sets in. In my story The Right Tools for the Job, I named the two protagonists Henning (the old master vampire hunter) and Gottleib (his journeyman assistant). I don’t think it was until after it was published that I saw a piece of symbolism in those names that would make an English major proud. Henning was the name of a popular magician in the 70’s (the late Doug Henning), while Gottleib translates out of German as “God love.” In the story, Henning (magic or trickery or sorcery) fails to destroy the evil, but Gottleib (God love, God’s love, Christ) does. At one point that is probably my favorite moment, Henning runs away from the evil vampire, crying out “Gottleib! Gottleib!” I’m not saying that’s what it all means, nor did I consciously put it there. But it’s kind of neat that it worked out that way.

Of course, an analysis of character names in an Adam Sandler film might yield the same results.

Enough about my tricks. What do some of the big timers do?

If you’re Stephen King, you throw your weight around, as he did when he named the protagonist of The Dead Zone Johnny Smith. No author in their right mind would name a character “John Smith,” but King did. Actually, his reasoning is kind of interesting – he says he wanted to show with that name that the kind of fate that befell Smith could happen to anyone – he was literally an everyman. I buy that, and respect the decision, as much as I razz King in these pages. Other King character names are unexceptional and unmemorable to me except, perhaps, Carrie White – another could-be-symbolic name since the purity of white is stained with blood (in at least three different ways) during the course of the eponymous novel.

Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is practically an encyclopedia unto itself of ways to name characters. There’s use of a foreign language (Lt. Scheisskopf, German for “sh*t eater”); slapstick (Major Major Major Major); vocabulary words (Popinjay, “a strutting, supercilious person”); character descriptions (General Peckem and Corporal Snark); euphonious nonsense syllables (General Dreedle); rhymes (Milo Minderbinder); comic effect (ex-PFC Wintergreen); plus names that reflect how we don’t always know somebody’s real name (Nately’s Whore, Nately’s Whore’s Kid Sister, the maid with the lime-colored panties, the Soldier Who Sees Everything Twice); and many others

I think Ian Fleming was great at naming characters. Forget the shameless double entendres that you see in all of the James Bond movies – Fleming had a real way with naming his Villains, his Henchmen (henchpersons?), and yes, his women. They all had names that reflected the right amount of larger-than-lifeness, toadyhood, or mystique as required by the plot: Monsieur Le Chiffre, Mr. Big, Sir Hugo Drax, Dr. Julius No, Auric Goldfinger, Emilio Largo, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Maria Freudenstein (villains); Quarrel, Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, Rufus B. Saye, Colonel Rosa Klebb, Sluggsy and Horror, Irma Bunt (henchpersons); and of course, the women – Vesper Lynd, Solitaire, Gala Brand, Tiffany Case, Corporal Tatiana Romanova, Judy Havelock, Dominetta “Domino” Vitali, Kissy Suzuki, and Mary Goodnight.

With names like Chemo and Shad, Carl Hiassen has a real way with the names of comic henchmen.

Finally, Elmore Leonard is good at naming characters because he’s got an ear for the names that average folks have. Names like… well, just read an Elmore Leonard novel. He’s brilliant, and when you read one of his novels, you’ll get a lot more out of it than just how to name a character.

Meantime, I call first dibs on Richard Shockey, Hank Finster, Orkin Footdragger, and Yggx Mmljkrets – even if I have to cram them all into the same novel. Feel free to use B.J. Henson at your own risk.

The sunlight dancing on your rocky shores
The moonlight playing upon the water
Your memory will stay with me forevermore
Wherever I may roam

(via iPod Shuffle)

What Makes Something Funny? (Part 3)

Ace of Spades HQ takes a break from political commentary to discuss the eternal question (and one that has brought many Googlers to these pages), “What makes something funny?”

Ace kicks off by discussing a formula for humor as set forth by Dilbert creator Scott Adams in his new blog. According to Adams, humor is created, Chinese menu style, by combining more than one of the following elements: Cute, Naughty, Bizarre, Clever, Recognizable, and Cruel. In his book, choose two and you have funny. Choose four and you’ve knocked the ball out of the park. Choose five and you have unapproachable genius, something that only Bill Watterson in Calvin and Hobbes has done.

No word on what six of six is. It’s either this Jandek album, or, more likely, the funniest joke in the world, as conceived by Monty Python.

To bolster his formula, Adams shows analyzes a couple of neophyte comic strips and discusses what made Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side so brilliant, in light of his formula. I should note here that I disagree with Adams’ feelings on Calvin and Hobbes. He contends that the strip fell flat when the gags centered around the parents. To my mind, some of the most memorable gags occurred when you realized how the parents had to connive and scheme in order to deal with Calvin. Plus, C & H was about more than just the humor. Yes, it was consistently funny, but it was also beautifully drawn and expertly paced and timed. There’s a reason why many, including myself, consider it to be the best comic strip of all time.

(And yes, I’ve told my family that the only thing I want for Christmas this year is The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Unless it’s that amber rosewood Nashville Telecaster that I played at the music store the other day…)

After discussing Adams/Dilbert, Ace provides us with a look at his own formula for writing humor. And what do you know, his thoughts work, too. Having read Ace for a while now, and having seen how he writes funny, I can see exactly how his formula applies. He calls it Premise and Tweak. You start with a mundane premise and then give it an out-of-left-field tweak that turns the premise on end. He gives a couple of examples that are good, albeit in a PG-13 sort of way.

What about me? This is my third outing writing about humor. I have two series of novels that are marked by their use of humor, have published one play that is a dark comedy, and am writing another that is carried along with humor. Surely I know something about the subject.

Well, the answer is that I know something is funny when I’m writing it. But I haven’t really analyzed it for what my formula is. Maybe later on down the road I’ll be able to tell you what my formula is.

In the meantime, here is what I do know about writing humor:

  1. Humor is one step away from horror and revulsion. Remember seeing Jaws for the first time? Remember how loud you screamed when the head rolled out of the wrecked boat? Remember how you laughed when it was over? You know how you laugh after someone gives you a good fright?

    Humor takes a lot of its effectiveness in the unexpected. Just like horror does. The only things that determine whether you scream or laugh are context and the other key to humor… timing.

    If you can combine the two – humor and revulsion – you get something that is unbearably funny, provided everything else works just right. There are only two movie moments in history where I was literally an inch from falling out of my seat because I was laughing so hard. One was the junction of these two elements.

    From Pee Wee’s Big Adventure: “And when they pulled the driver from the burning wreckage of the truck… he looked like THIS!”

  2. Another important factor in humor is incongruity. Hence, the reason why Ace’s humor formula works, along with a great many jokes – something comes along that doesn’t fit in, not really, but in an instant you realize it is appropriate and the surprise triggers a laugh. Such as in the joke that ends with Bill Clinton saying “Well there I was, sitting in this refrigerator, minding my own business…”

    Using incongruity is also tricky, but can pay off big time, too. The other cinematic moment that almost put me on the floor laughing uses it. That scene?

    From Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Right. One rabbit stew coming right up.”

  3. The rule of threes. Ever notice that it’s three nuns that walk into a bar? That the salesman tries three times to get into bed with the farmer’s daughter? That the penguin tries something three times before the punchline hits? That there are three guys standing in line to see St. Peter at the Pearly Gates?

    The rule of threes is important in terms of placing humor in context. In the case of the St. Peter joke, it gives you two perfectly rational explanations for why two men are waiting to get into heaven, setting you up for Bill Clinton’s story about sitting in the refrigerator. By pacing and timing the joke out, it sets you up for the incongruity.

  4. The power of humor mitigates grim circumstances. See again Jaws – the war stories sequence where three men on a boat compare scars. Right before the final battle with the shark. Or watch Robocop and think about what a grim, dark, unwatchable movie it would be if it wasn’t so bitingly funny. Incidentally, I had the idea for the Pembroke Hall novels for many years – but it wasn’t until I saw Robocop that I knew how to go about writing them. That film became my model for that project, using humor to disarm what was a very grim and unseemly premise.
  5. All the formulas work. Scott Adams’ is onto something with his formula. But so is Ace with his Premise and Tweak method. And so was Rowan Atkinson with the Rules of Comedy he gave in the PBS special Funny Business that I wish, I wish, I wish I could find on DVD.
  6. On the other hand, a lot of comedy seems to be instinctive. Some of us learn we can make people laugh and then we go back and analyze it. That’s what I’m doing in this series of posts. I suspect Ace was doing it before he realized he had a formula (if you see this, Ace, let me know). I would also bet that this is the case with Adams, too. Even Bob Hope had a formula (swiped by Woody Allen in his early, funny years).
  7. Edmund Keane was right: comedy is hard. Ask anyone that has done any theater. Which is why people who make it look so easy are gifted.
  8. For as powerful a tool as it is, humor is criminally undervalued. In my mind, two of the best film performances of 1984 were Steve Martin in All of Me and Robin Williams in Moscow on the Hudson. Both Oscar caliber performances, both ignored. George C. Scott was known for drama, but in my mind his best performance was brilliantly funny: as General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. And as much as I don’t care for him, it’s a shame that audiences rejected Sylvester Stallone as a comic actor. His performance in Oscar should have taken his career in another direction.

    It’s just a shame that much of the literati rejects humor of any kind unless it is, well, woebegone.

The question is which formula works for you? Or do you have a formula of your own? If it makes people laugh, it no doubt is a winner. And if it’s something different than what I’ve discussed here, why not drop me a line and tell me about it? There’s always room in these pages for a Part 4.

Listening: Dandy Warhols, “Everyone is Totally Insane” (via iPod Shuffle)

PS. Highway Star by Deep Purple turned up in iPod Shuffle rotation while I was writing this post. Okay, okay, it’s another sign. I promise I’ll carve out some time and work on my new play this weekend.

A Tale of Two Covers

On the top, the cover of the Russian paperback release of Ferman’s Devils. Looks a lot like the hardcover. In fact, it’s pretty much identical to the hardcover.

On the bottom, the same book, same format, with a different cover. Released at the same time as the one on the left.

What gives?

Marketing, that’s what. The Russian translation of the Pembroke Hall books were released under the “Alternative” imprint of publisher AST. That’s the one they use for experimental and off-the-wall types of books. Tom Robbins books get these covers, as did Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon.

But the other cover. This is from a separate imprint. It’s called “Classical and Modern Prose.”

Further investigation of this imprint on the AST web site led me to titles by Swift, Remarque, Pasternak, and Chekhov – along with Robin Cook, Arthur Hailey, and yes, Tom Robbins, whose work is undergoing the same kind of odd cross-pollenation.

Naturally, I’m wondering about all of this. Is it because of the critical review the books are getting there? There are a couple of other books about the advertising industry that were written by native writers, both of which seem to be oft-mentioned as minor classics – one of them, Generation P by Victor Pelevin (released in English as Babylon, I’m currently reading. And it seems that the Pembroke Hall duology precedes these books by at least four years (counting from Ferman’s Devils).

Perhaps the gurus at AST want to make sure that the book reaches out to the same audience that made Pelevin one of the most read authors in Russia. It could just be canny marketing, too. Two covers for two different audiences, both of whom would find something to amuse in the books. I’ve had experience in this area in a different way in the form of the oddly innocuous cover that the Science Fiction Book Club edition of A Death of Honor was given. I found out later that the book was crossed over to SFBC’s sister company, the Mystery Book Club. Had it been given a more SF-ish cover, it might not have sold in the latter venue.

There’s one more factor that might figure into all of this. Once upon a time, when I was busy filling out forms to pay for part of my son’s college education, I had to have my agent write a letter explaining that the sales I’d just made to Russia were a one-shot deal, and that he’d never, ever seen a Russian book deal that resulted in any income beyond the initial advance.

Well, a couple of months ago I got a check from my agent for over $100. A couple of dollars were residuals that had trickled in from sales of the e-book version of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. The rest was Russian money.

It wasn’t much, but it told me something important, especially in light of what’s going on with the books now – that the translation of Ferman’s Devils somehow got a toe-hold over there and made back its advance – and then some.

(Yeah, I realize it could be that the trilogy earned out a few bucks and they’re just really late in getting it to me – but with the timing of everything that’s happening with the Pembroke Hall books, this isn’t my preferred explanation.)

So if you’ve got a book that’s made some money for you, it’s getting good critical reviews, it pre-dates some native classics about the same subject – why not market it as a piece of… well, not Classical, but certainly Modern prose? And pushing it with two different covers appeal to the literati and those who like their fiction a little more experimental?

Hmmm. It’s a shame that my publishers here didn’t think of that.

Now I can make a confession: besides wanting the Pembroke Hall saga to be a single volume, I had always intended it to be a modern novel as opposed to an sf novel. It was to be set in current times, but because I was seeing some limited success in the SF arena, I filled it with SF tropes (many of which, a decade later, don’t seem so tropish) and passed it off on my agent and the public as an sf satire. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d followed my original vision – but on the other hand, if I had, I wouldn’t have given the world NanoKleen, which is one of my best ever SF ideas.

Perhaps it’s a good thing I wrote it the way that I did. As I said in an earlier post, the Russians got it – all the way around. They’ve got a long history of seeing SF as a special genre – it allowed criticism of the Soviet system that one couldn’t get away with in conventional literature (although the Russian reviews have yet to mention it as a piece of SF). They really seem to hit on the mentions of Russia that I make in the Pembroke Hall books, with all that talk about the Union of Mongol States and all of that. And they appear to have really connected with the whole concept of consumerism gone amok – something they certainly see first hand as a new, struggling capitalist nation.

Here the real irony. I grew up with the Russians as The Enemy. I even channeled those childhood fears into the nightmare scenario of A Death of Honor, where they were a few steps short of realizing their goal of a Communist world. But, as the years have gone by and the world has changed, I seem to have written something that is the perfect contemporary Russian novel.

What’s that sound? Do you hear it? Can it be that… God… is… laughing?

Listening: Eels, “Restraining Order Blues” (via iPod Shuffle)