Writing practice 10/23/2022 – “Do it again…”

Do it again because you did it wrong the first time. Correct the mistake, as much as you can, and attempt to avoid making that same mistake again.

Do it again because you did it right the first time, and yet despite your efforts, the results were not as you wished. Perhaps there were external forces. Perhaps there was a chaotic winds inpired by a toucan flapping its wings inopportunately in the Amazon basin. Perhaps an unforseen tragic cosmic event happened just at the critical moment, a sunspot or a radiation burst from a far galaxy finally reaching us, and the neutrons and photons and neutrinos reacted in the one in ten trillion ways they needed to in order to somehow subvert your efforts, and as a result, reduced your outcome to something unanticipated, undesired, unacceptable.

Do it again because you did everything right and got the results you wanted. It worked, didn’t it? You got what you wanted – the date, the publication, the promotion – and so why should you stop there? Do you have a vision for the next avenue of approach? Pursue then. Are you interested in seeking out alternatives, [illegible], accelerations of what you just achieved? Do those too, building on your success as what you have to make it more special.

But don’t forget, in the real thing in the first time, to celebrate what you have achieved. Do not assume that it is what is not; you wanted that – Do not dismiss it so cavalierly as unacceptable or unfortunate. There is no way to arrange your world in which you are both always leveling up and ever satisfied with your achievements. So take the time, now to celebrate, to bask in the glory of what you have done, to see yourself as an accomplisher of things, of good things, of the ways you attempt and compete for being something valuable in your life. There is more to be done, yes. There is an infinite amount. And thus it is worthwhile to stop and accept your accomplishments as a validation, a positive, a good thing that you have completed.

And then, when you have satisfied that itch for confirmation and endearment…

Do it again.

The Problem With Readers

The problem with readers is that they are not you. They have different backgrounds, different experiences, different ways they see the world now, different hopes for what the future could, should, or will bring.

All of this means that, generally, they won’t see your story in the same way that you will when you wrote it, or edited it, or published it.

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

What I’m saying is that I know there’s a story that the writer is trying to tell, and that it is very likely that what I read is not that story.

And that’s the problem that we have. We have several translation issues, where we play fiction telephone, in that we have a story in our heads. (For nonfiction, we have a message we wish to convey.) It’s up there. We, as authors, and that story, are the most intimate of partners. It literally lives inside our brain. Almost like we are symbiotic. It’s fully coalesced, fully baked. We know every nook and cranny, every nuance, every little corner behind the elbow that if our partner kisses it just right we fucking crumble.

And, just like the AI from the movie Her, we can have several of these relationships at once, with our several works that we have once created, are currently creating, or are just gestating, awaiting their own future moments of birth and emergence and maturity within our mind, to join the created and creative community­­­­. It’s not required to be monogamous for us.

Anyway – we have all these stories in our head, and then we must force them to go through the first adaptation: from our brain, to the words on the page. Here, we are so clouded by our own experience, which is obviously unique from every other person in the world, and so influenced by our own perspective and desires and fears, that it becomes virtually impossible that the magnificent, fantastic, groundbreaking, earth-shattering, award-worthy, inevitably-bestselling story survive that adaptation intact.

It can’t. There’s too much. From the limits of our vocabulary to the inability of language in general to express the nuances of emotion, something, many things, several elements of the story, will get lost or modified or perturbed in the first offload from our brain to the text. We may hope that it remains intact, whole, surviving, but invariably there is a loss of fidelity, sometimes slight, sometimes great, and this is just the first step.

Next, we have the medium. There certainly are differences between how users take in an experience when it’s delivered via hardcover, paperback, e-reader, serial email, audiobook, podcast, or web browser. The differences in these formats are vast, and bring with them several connotations about the work itself, which can vary reader to reader, culture to culture, and even when consumed at various times of day. All of which means that your readers who take in the first adapted story in the morning, on their tiny phone screen, as they’re jostled along by the mass transit commute, may have a wildly different experience from those who listen to it in their headphones while they work in the garden in the heat of the afternoon.

Finally, there is the translation from the medium back to the reader. She doesn’t have the same background as the writer, or the publisher, so what makes its way through her experience filters certainly impacts how she perceives the story. She may have good memories of owning a pet as a child, so my story of pet ownership evokes warm fuzzies. Whereas I was trying to express my disgust at the many ways that humans subjugate those pets to seek resolution of their own emotional insufficiencies.

Basically, the long and short of it is, you and I don’t see the same story. Whether it’s one that I write and you read, or one that you write and I read, it’s never the same. Sometimes it’s better on the reader’s end. Usually not. The process has morphed it, transformed it, sculpted it slightly or majorly from how it began. And that’s okay.

We shouldn’t be trying to be all things to all readers. We shouldn’t have this idea that we have to satisfy all sensibilities, all experiences, all backgrounds. And we shouldn’t expect that just because we wrote something poetic, or upbeat, or subversive, that our audience is destined to have the same feeling about it after finishing as we do. The only thing we can do is to craft the best story in our head. And then do what we can to minimize the translation errors in the first step. It is our authorial responsibility to make sure what’s on the page is as close as possible to the masterpiece inside our brain.

Because that’s storytelling. It’s part of the process. I think we in the audience have a subconscious understanding of this corruptive process. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Which is why I usually end my critiques to other writers like this:

“May the story in your reader’s mind be as wonderful as it is in yours.”


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Story published!

Hey! So my story “Death at the Door” is now available in this anthology from Cloaked Press:

Here’s just a preview of the story:

There was someone at his door.

No, something.

Some thing.

It looked to be at least a foot taller than him, wearing a hooded dark brown robe. And was that one of those farm tools with the ridiculously long handle and curved blade slung over its shoulder?

Was that Death at the door to his apartment?

Waiting?

Waiting for him?

It stood, staring at the number 17 bolted to the frame. It raised an arm. A hand, with skin on the fingers and actual flesh at the wrist, knocked. It stepped forward and grasped the handle of the – what – sickle? No. Scythe? Yeah, that was it.

It put two hands on the scythe and waited. Nothing happened. Why would it? Marcus wasn’t in his apartment, though he should have been for at least the last hour. Normally he would be sitting on his couch in his underwear, second drink in hand, mourning all that had been taken from him, television droning on unattended.

Death in a black hoodie and with a scythe in the dark misty forest. Horror style, fear, spooky demon

Want to read the rest? Of course you do! Head over to Amazon and pick up a copy. Hell, I don’t care whether it’s the Kindle or paperback version, just toss a few bucks towards the good folks at Cloaked Press and they’ll continue to do good work, and you’ll get to enjoy great writing.

Cheers!

Extremely Bad Advice: Booger Bandit

Dear SJ:

My partner has recently developed a disgusting habit, what do I do?

My partner lately has been picking his nose and eating his boogers and whenever I see him do it out of the corner of my eye I want to throw up. We’ve been together over 5 years and it’s something he’s only started doing recently. I’ve been too grossed out and honestly kind of shocked to say anything about it, what should I do/how should I talk to him about it?

— Can’t Remove the Mental Image

Portrait of a boy picking his nose

Dear Mental,

Is this really a problem? How infantile has our society gotten where adults don’t even have the wherewithal to engage in a reasonable conversation with someone they’re apparently sharing your life with?

How hard is this? “Hey, Jack, I saw you pick your nose and eat it the other day. Are you eight? Knock that shit off! At least, when I’m around. And if you do it before you get near me, please have the decency to give the ol’ Listerine bottle a once-over before you toss my salad.”

Good lord. It’s like we’ve created a whole community of seven-year-olds in thirty-year-old bodies with jobs and responsibilities and shit. If I were in charge, first thing I’d do is institute a “Breeding License” test. We start with a simple operation on every boy and girl beginning at about age seven. Then, in order to get your license, you must first demonstrate that you can perform such simple societally-beneficial functions like self-management and having a reasonable conversation with another human being before you could get your tubes un-tied.

Maybe that way we’d give ourselves a bit of time to grow the fuck up and realize that conflict, especially emotional confrontation, is not a catastrophe to be avoided at all costs. In fact, those smaller, seemingly unimportant conversations are actually like an emotional vaccine, strengthening our systems for the harder work that we’ll have to do in the future.

read the rest on Patreon

These Five Little Words Launched Me Into My Mid-Life Crisis

note – this was originally published on the Trailhead Conference blog, which has since gone bye-bye. I subsequently published it on an also-bye-bye Medium.com page (link for teh googlez).

May, 2014. Interior, downtown Indianapolis branch of a large national bank. One personal banker seated across from me in a standard bank chair. One person, me, seated in my standard bank chair, listening to her speak.

The personal banker was, at best 26 years old. She had no clue what was happening in my life. She had no idea what had been transpiring the last six months, or the last six years. And because of that ignorance, what she said next devastated me.

She put her hands together, index fingers and thumbs touching, as if she were about to play a quick rhythm on a small drum. “So,” she said, and as she started to separate her hands (like Moses parting a bowl of soup), the next five words destroyed my life as I knew it and launched me full-blown into my “mid-life crisis”.

I have stated for the record my opinion that the term mid-life crisis is inappropriate, but since it’s still a fairly common term I’m going to continue to use it here. Plus we have the pejorative expectation that if you’re going through your mid-life crisis, that this is some kind of failure of your character. That you are somehow weak because you can’t stand up to the demands of life, and you’re seeking an easy way out.

Well, let me tell you, my mid-life crisis was certainly not a failure of my character. I don’t think anyone who saw me go through that would have said I was weak. That I had failed. That I had given up and was looking for a shortcut or a way out.

No, what happened to me was, essentially, a combination of multiple storms all hitting within a six-month period. And, to be honest, only one of those could be considered my fault.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. Your mid-life crisis happens to you, it does not happen because of you. Most often this is a period of searching, of introspection, of exploration, and usually they’re set off by some inciting incident. Mine lasted about two years, kicked off by four different major events all coming together in a pretty short time frame.

Within six months: my car died on the highway; my faith died in the pew; my career died in the cubicle; and my marriage died in a nursing home. I only noticed this was happening, though, when that personal banker spoke five short, simple words.

But…

Before I tell you what those words were…

Allow me to back up a little. I think it’s important you know some of what was going on at the time.

In the fall of 2013 I was 36 years old.

I’d been married for 14 years, and my wife and I had four children. I had a stable job at an insurance company, a reasonable group of friends at church, and some neighbors who knew a bit of what we were going through.

One cold Thursday evening in November, on the way home from work, I was driving down I-70 out of Indianapolis. My 1999 Toyota Corolla was flowing along like normal when, all of a sudden, it wasn’t. I managed to avoid getting squished by the passing 18-wheelers and get it off to the side of the road, and then to a gas station, through a clever system of keeping my foot on the accelerator just enough to keep the engine on, but not so much that I sped up and needed to hit the brakes, because every time I did that it stalled out again.

Five hours later, after a tow truck wait and a phone call to my mother-in-law to ask for an emergency run to take care of my kids, I got home with my never-to-run-again vehicle. For some guys, this could be the thing that starts them questioning, “Hey, what’s going on here?”

One of them might take a few days, decide that the repair would be worth more than the car, and just junk it. When he comes back from the dealership with an impractical new sports car, all the neighbors look at him funny. Classic symptom of the mid-life crisis, and the associated judgment, because all they see is indulgence.

What he was thinking, though, could have been just about anything. From “I’ve never had something that’s just for me” to “It’s my last chance before I have to get another minivan,” his thoughts could have been anywhere. Too bad we often judge those who are in the middle of this so quickly.

For me, it wasn’t that momentous on its own. But a flood was building, a silent accumulation of nature’s power that soon I would be unable to ignore. The car, though, was just the start. Strike one.

A couple of months later, around February of 2014,

I realized I wasn’t enjoying my work any longer. Sure, I was productive, as I needed to be. But I was also spending excessive amounts of time browsing the internet at work, doing side projects that made it “look” like I was working, and just getting the minimum done. I guess, since everyone essentially knew my home situation, they gave me some slack.

Yet as I looked to the future, I could see that my heart just wasn’t in it. I couldn’t imagine pushing spreadsheets and databases for the next 30 years. It wasn’t in me to just keep doing a job for that long, and then retire to say, “Now what?”

It would be another year before I actually quit, but that intervening time I was actually dead in the office, just walking around and doing enough to not get fired. Strike two.

A few weeks after that, all of my spiritual questions began to come to a head. I’d been dealing with these issues for nearly a year, ever since God made a promise that did not come true, and I finally could not accept the absolutism, the short-sightedness, the irrationality, and the hypocrisy of my church any longer.

It’s not like there were any big scandals. (Those are often inciting incidents in and of themselves.) It was just that I started to see that for many of the congregants, their professed faith and their actions did not jive.

I saw countless instances of prayer for “a miracle” healing for someone who, frankly, would have been better off dead. And if, as they said they believed, that the home of the soul was in Heaven, why in Hell would they be striving so hard to keep such a soul imprisoned in this sinful, cursed, pained body? It didn’t make sense. That, and dozens of other questions and concerns came together to make me finally say, “You know, I don’t know whether there really is a God or not.”

When I could finally call myself an agnostic, that signified the death of my faith.

Strike three.

Unfortunately, I was so oblivious to it all that I didn’t yet see the writing on the wall. I ignored the incredible tidal wave of change looming, and I continued to push on harder and harder in the things I was doing, to make it seem like I was “okay”.

Finally, in May of 2014, the dam burst.

That young, naïve personal banker put her hands together and spread them apart. “So,” she said, and that was all right. Nothing wrong with that. “If you’re separating your finances…”

And the bell tolled for my marriage.

One more flashback may be in order.

In March of 2013, my wife was admitted to a rehabilitation facility, in order to supplement the stem cell treatment she’d recently received in India. She was having neurological degeneration, causing balance problems, emotional problems, and keeping her from caring for herself. We had spent two months in India for the treatment, and had been home for a month with little progress. The thought was, go live in the rehab facility and get help daily, to get back on track.

Eight months later, without any progress to show for the time, it was necessary to have her admitted to Medicaid, so we didn’t have to exhaust my financial resources to pay for her care.

After admission, the State of Indiana gives you 6 months to get the Medicaid recipient’s name off of all the accounts. Which I did, leading to me in a Bank of America office downtown Indianapolis. I explained the situation, and what I was doing, and how I needed new accounts that were just me and not joint accounts any longer. She said, “So, if you’re separating your finances-” and I didn’t hear a word after that.

I didn’t cry, then, but that was the moment that I lost my marriage. It was at that point that I realized we were separated. As much as I’d tried to fight it, as much as I’d denied the fact that we hadn’t had any kind of relationship for over a year, my marriage was done. We were separated, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and, now, financially. My marriage had died in that nursing home, and I had only just realized it while sitting in a bank.

Strike four.

Four momentous, life-changing, potentially tragic events 

that, yeah, reasonably would make one stand up and ask, “What in the world am I doing here? What does this mean for me? Where do I go? How do I move forward, when everything that I used to know just keeps changing on me?”

With all of those things coming at me, who’s to say that I was weak? That I was a poor judge of character? That I was at fault for any of that? Perhaps you can perhaps blame the religion thing on me. Maybe I didn’t have enough faith. But isn’t that just a demonstration of actual faith, that it’s not something imparted upon a soul, but it is an actual article of belief, that you choose to believe or not? And if I was finding more information that contradicted my original belief, do I not owe it to myself to at least consider that maybe my beliefs are wrong, and that I would do well to reconsider?

So… that’s how I came to my mid-life crisis. My journey out from that bottom took about two years. Lots of introspection. Lots of crying in the car, questioning and yelling and singing silly songs because I just didn’t know what else to do. Lots of long walks by myself, talking to myself, talking to the voices in my head, talking to the geese on the side of the path. Did those things make me weak? Did those things make me a bad person?

No.

And they are not for any other person who’s going through similar, or even very different, circumstances. There’s a real good reason why, even without major inciting incidents, that a mid-life crisis happens to good people, even if your car is still running and your faith is still flowing and your job is still reasonable and your marriage is still intact.

For the rest of us? Those who had some big “F you” from the universe that kicked us out of our comfort zones? We know better. We know we were actually doing a lot. We know we were sometimes doing much, much more than those who looked down their noses at us for being weak or self-indulgent. We know that we knew better than they did just what, exactly, was going on inside our own heads. And our results afterwards showed.

Experience. Transformation. Growth. We did these things and we came out of our mid-life crises set up for great things in the future.

It turns out this post was not about my mid-life crisis at all.

I’ve said that mine was all four of those things falling apart all at once, but, really, it’s probably more the two years that came after that were the crisis itself. Those events were just instigators.

And the straw that broke the camel’s back was, after all, really simple. Just 5 little words: “If you’re separating your finances.”

Be careful with your words, friends. You never know when they’ll have the power to change lives.

I don’t have space here for a full discussion of all that went on in my head (and in my house) over those subsequent months, but I probably will write about that in the future. For now, though, I just have a couple of take-aways.

For someone going through it right now: Keep going. You are the only one who knows everything that’s going on. And, yeah, it probably feels like you’re inadequate to the task, and that you are an impostor, and that you really just wish everyone else would shut up about it and let you get on with your life. You’re right. They should. But they’re probably not going to, so you’ll just continue on faking it, hoping to outlast the crisis as it blows itself out. You can do it.

And for those who are watching someone go through it, whether that be a family member, friend, or co-worker: Cut them a little slack, please. Let’s not pretend like you have any clue what’s going on inside that head, or inside their house, or inside their church, or inside their body. Let’s also stop with the hollow attempts at encouragements like “I can’t imagine what you’re going through! You must be so strong!” You’re right, you can’t imagine it. And I, while I’m in it, don’t feel that strong. I mostly feel like a fake, and if I really let down my guard and showed you the terrible thoughts inside my head, I imagine you’d run away screaming.

So let’s stop with the empty gestures, huh? Just be real, and give people some space and time to explore. You might not like where they’re going, but, hey, you don’t have to live their lives.

Writing Practice – If you need something to write about

August 27, 2022 – If you ever need something to write about:

If you ever need something to write about, just write a list of writing topics. Can be simple, or complex, just let your hand and your mind go. don’t worry about being real, or likely, or even good. Just write.

Write about a bird that won’t shut up.

Write about that same bird eating a cicada.

Write about the cicada attacked, yet escaping, and going off to live in the city with its cousin.

Write about that cousin resenting the cicada for coming and bringing his country ways with him, and having to put up with him, but not having the courage to stand up and make the first cicada mad, so it develops a complex and begins to go to therapy.

Write about the insect therapist, how they didn’t really want to do the job but they’re so indebted to their degree program that were they to take a pay cut and change careers, they would have to sell their house and live in a van down by the river.

Write about that van, and how it’s had several occupants over the years, and the whole community knows that it’s just a place for deadbeats to live out the remaining days of their spiral into oblivion, but the city Council won’t bother removing it, because, hey, at least if it’s there they know to go check on it every couple of days and maybe they’ll find someone there, someone that may need a little hand up, so they can offer that but if the van’s gone then those people who may have been helped out of a desperate situation could just be wandering the streets aimlessly and it would be so much more unlikely that they’d find those people and intervene in their lives to get them the help they need.

Write about the halfway house that those people / bugs / whatever are taken to, and how it’s okay, the good part is that there’s structure and a bed and a library and some counseling on how to get moving again. The bad part is that there’s really no privacy and it always smells like stinky feet and the books in the library have all become so old and worn that you can barely tell what the cover says and they’re all from like 50 years ago anyway, so to read them now, feels a bit like time-traveling back to another era when different sensibilities ruled and different views on the ways to interact in society dominated everything, just just the popular media.

Write about the rug on the rec room floor of that halfway house, how one time there was a fire and someone grabbed the rug on her way out of the building because she liked it more than anything that was in her room and if she was going to lose everything but one thing she wanted that rug to be the one thing.

Write about the boyfriend of that girl, who watched her spiral down and down, helplessly, as she got more and more addicted to booze and dangerous sex, so that he eventually realized that though he loved her, he had to let her go or, like a drowning swimmer, she would have pulled him under, too.

Write about how, when that boyfriend got a new girlfriend years later, he didn’t even mention the one who’d lost herself, but he did check up on her from time to time by calling her mother, once every six months or so, and how they would have a lovely chat and how she would promise to keep secret that he was checking up on the daughter and she knew she would keep that promise, but he was always like 5 percent skeptical.

If that doesn’t give you enough for a story, start again. You can do it. I believe in you.

Books Are Dead! Long Live Books!

The early 2000s saw revolutions in several technologies. There was the rapid expansion of internet access, the development of eInk and ePaper, and the rise of self-publishing tools such as blogging (WordPress, Blogger, and now OnlyFans and Patreon).

This perfect storm of technological advancements was supposed to be sounding the death knell for the publishing industry. Now that we’ve had eReaders like the Kindle, the Kobo, the nook, and even apps for our iPads and other phones for fifteen years, we’re all supposed to be reading everything electronically, instantly, wherever we go.

Books are supposed to be dead. Dead as the trees that make them. Deader than doornails. The publishing industry is supposed to be gutted, relegated to a slag-heap of has-been technologies like horse-draw carriages and the telegraph.

Yet books persist. Libraries still exist. People still read: old people, middle-agers like me, and even younger generations still read. They pick up two covers with a few hundred pages in between, sit down and stare in the general direction of their crotch for a few minutes or an hour, and then get up and go on their way.

Photo by Masjid Pogung Dalangan on Unsplash

Books are clearly not dead. Publishing is not dead. Books and eReaders and online blogs have somehow managed to find a sort of equilibrium of market share, wherein some people read only physical books, some read both physical and electronic (and audio) books, and some don’t read at all. But eBooks have clearly not eviscerated the market for paper books, much to the surprise of all those circa-2005 prognosticators.

Everybody’s got their own theories as to why publishing and books just won’t die. The cynics say it’s because there’s so much money invested in advertising that we just can’t help ourselves but to buy books. Others say it’s because we’re too old and set in our ways that we can’t adapt to the newer ways of life that would be better for us (more convenient! cheaper! faster!).

I don’t think those are the only reasons. I think there are several forces underlying our continued engagement with dead trees. Here are a few.

Books are tangible things. eBooks are not.

Sure, an eReader is itself tangible. But the book is a physical object. When you pick it up, you feel the weight and heft of it. You touch its pages. You smell the aroma of the ink, the faint tinge of memory that lingers on the pages. It’s something.

eBooks on your reader, on the other hand, are very fragile. Nebulous. They can come, and therefore go, with just a click. It’s almost like they’re not really there. When you have 1,000 books on your bookshelf, you can humblebrag to your neighbors about how hard it was to move last time, when in reality you’re swelling with pride that you’re so smart that you’ve read some of the titles that are on your shelf! When you have 1,000 eBooks, nobody knows. They’re all within that little half-inch slab on your desk, and you’ve got to do a hell of a lot more work to brag about that.

With a book, you can physically see and feel your progress through the experience. Your bookmark travels with you as you navigate the story. As you notice the end approaching, it’s unignorable how much is left because of how little is held in one hand and how much is in the other, and you can do the internal math to say, “Hey, this story isn’t going to finish in these pages,” or “Oh good! I’m almost done!” Can’t do that with eBooks. Sure, there’s that little slider sometimes at the bottom of the page or the side of the screen, but it’s not the same. You can see it, but you can’t feel it.

Books are real. eBooks just aren’t.

Books are permanent. eBooks are ephemeral and fleeting.

When you have a book on your shelf, it’s not going to change next week, next month, or next year, when the author suddenly gets cancelled for things she said twenty years ago. eBooks, blogs, tweets, and other “new media” are quite vulnerable to the tides of social sentiment, in several directions. Someone doesn’t approve of a chapter? Maybe it gets deleted or changed! Other people have asked for more on a certain topic? Well, just hit [update post] and now we’re exploiting the algorithms even more efficiently!

Books don’t have that vulnerability to changing externality. (Unless you’re in Oceania, of course.) They are what they were when they were printed, nothing more, nothing less. Yes, interpretations may change over time, but at least we have some permanent record of what was posited, and when, so that we can always have a fixed reference point to come back to.

That sort of permanence of idea means we don’t have to question what the author really thinks. We can just look at her words, and know.

Books are robust. eBooks are vulnerable.

In complement to the contents of our books being consistent, the physical thing of a book is also persistent. I can go to my library and read the exact same thing that my neighbor did a week ago, or the Mayor did a month ago, or my grandmother did fifty years ago. Physical books deliver a communal experience spanning space and time that you don’t get with eBooks. An eBook is a singular thing, a one-off instance, that disappears as soon as it is deleted. And it requires an external, electrical source to be able to access it. Sure, the content may be recreated, but it’s not the same thing. It’s a different thing. It didn’t exist before, and it won’t persist after you’re gone.

You can’t write a note in the margin or on a cover of an eBook that can be discovered by future generations and relate to. You can’t take an eBook with you on a hike on the Ozark Trail and trade it with someone you meet along the way, mingling ideas and their expression for a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience that parallels how swapping DNA beyond a limited gene pool benefits future generations.

In short, eBooks are for the right here, right now experience. If you want to have any kind of relationship with your ancestors, or your descendants, in your own family, tribe, nation, or even across the world, you’ll read books and you will tell others about that experience. You will listen as others tell you of their reading, and you will commune with them when your fingertips touch the pages that theirs did not that long ago.

And these are all good reasons that books will stick around. The biggest, though, may have to do with signaling.

Physical book publishing send a vastly stronger signal than eBook publishing.

Publishing a physical book requires vastly more investment than publishing an eBook. With both, it starts with writing up a manuscript. The similarities end there.

If you’re publishing a physical book, there are many next steps: finding a publishing company, which may take finding an agent or going through the never-ending saga of queries and rejections; editing; typesetting; cover design; interior design; paper selection; print schedule; marketing plan; and more.

It can be anywhere from a few months to a few years from the time the author types THE END to the day that a reader first sets eyes up Once upon a time

For the eBook, though, it’s almost nothing. They can push [PUBLISH] and it’s done, whether that’s hosted on their own website or even a marketplace. There’s very little barrier to entry.

And yes, I know that many well-produced eBooks are clones of the physically-printed books. The publishers do all the work up front for the physical book, and then just port it over to eBook format.

See, the thing is, readers aren’t stupid. They know that there’s such a low bar for many eBooks that they lump those well-produced volumes in with the slipshod ones, and taint the whole format with their simplicity.

I don’t mind. It creates, in the mind of the reader, a much higher barrier to entry to be able to publish a physical book than an electronic one. Which means that the readers care much more about physical books than electronic books. They know the signal that publishing a physical book sends, and they respect that commitment to the cause.

Because they also know, even if it’s only subconsciously, that the author must have a stronger conviction of their message, if they’re willing to go through all that effort for something that cannot be changed later, cannot be rescinded, and will potentially (hopefully!) last for hundreds or thousands of years. The author’s belief, and the parallel commitment from the publisher, signal to the reader that, “Hey, this is something you really should pay attention to.”

Yes, some of that higher barrier to entry is being lowered every day, through print-on-demand capabilities, freelance cover and interior design, and the opportunity to self-promote through social media. Instead of reducing the signal for physical books, I think such ease of use contributes to the greater differential signal between externally-published and self-published volumes.

The vast outweighing of signals between physical books and eBooks persists. I’m confident that physical books will never go away, because readers don’t want them to. They want someone to be able to sort through all the multitude of potential messages on their behalf and tell them which ones are more likely to be good. That’s what the physical book does. That’s why we will continue to see them as so valuable. That’s why we’ll never, ever, ever give them up. And that’s why, in a hundred years, physical books are likely to echo Mark Twain’s apt quote:

The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.

The Hardcover, the Paperback, and Mark Twain

Book Review: The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

by Mark Manson

Premise

Too many people care about too many things. This is a self-help book for those who wish to learn how to care about fewer things, about better things when they do, and how to appreciate them more.

Inside, Manson says that far too many people spend too much of their emotional energy on meaningless priorities, and they therefore don’t have enough left over to actually care about things that should matter. He points out that there are better values for one to live one’s life by than simply consumerism and seeking success and validation. Because those are, simply put, rather shallow goals. If your metric is success, what happens when it goes away?

Manson outlines why not giving a f*ck is essential, illustrates some shitty values, gives principles on what make some good values, and then lists five such “good” values.

The ideas parallel many those from A Guide to the Good Life, by William Irvine. Unlike that volume, though, this one suffers from an astounding lack of self-awareness that plagues the entire self-help genre. The essence of any such message is, generally, “Here’s all the mistakes I made. Buy this book so you don’t have to make them and you can have the success I now enjoy without wasting so much time.”

The problem with this message, though, is that the struggle is what creates the success. There would be no book of however many lessons without having gone through that development process, and trying to short-circuit it is, essentially, trying to have the result without the work. It just doesn’t happen. And to say that there is a way around the struggle is deluded, at best, and intentionally deceptive and exploitative at worst. The best thing about this book, though, is that it did help me to codify this criticism of the entire genre.

What It Says

This is a self-help book. That is, it is a book designed to lead people through a process of helping themselves to a better life. It provides an explanation of what it means to stop caring about so many unimportant things and stop feeding the “feedback loop from hell”.

It essentially goes like this: when we wonder why we’re not happy, it makes us unhappy. When we feel unhappy, we wonder why we’re not happy. This creates a negative, rather than positive, cycle. I will quote Manson here, because it is a good reminder:

Ironically, this fixation on the positive – on what’s better, what’s superior – only serves to remind us over and over again of what we are not, of what we lack, of what we should have been but failed to be. After all, no truly happy person feels the need to stand in front of a mirror and recite that she’s happy. She just is. (page 4)

And this, then, is the (I hope unintentional) logical fallacy of the book. Manson actually gives a lot of f*cks about this issue. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t have written a book, wouldn’t have solicited an agent, wouldn’t have solicited a publisher, wouldn’t have sold the rights for millions of dollars, wouldn’t have collected additional royalties on top of the advance when sales went through the roof, wouldn’t have gone on a signing tour, and on and on and on.

And why does he give a f*ck? Because people pay him to. It’s the same with people who buy t-shirts that vividly proclaim how little they care. To be frank, though, if you actually didn’t care, you would have a blank t-shirt. The fact that you promote your beliefs on your chest indicates that, ironically, you do care what I, and the rest of your audience, think of you.

Similarly, this is my criticism of the self-help genre in general. The message seems to be, “You’re awesome! You really are!” Which, instead of inspiring and motivating towards betterment through personal development, portrays the idea that there is no additional value that can be obtained. Hell, Manson says this himself.

You are great. Already. Whether you realize it or not. Whether anybody else realizes it or not. And it’s not because you launched an iPhone app, or finished school a year early, or bought yourself a sweet-ass boat. These things do not define greatness.

You are already great because in the face of endless confusion and certain death, you continue to choose what to give a f*ck about and what not to.

Can you see the logical fallacy? If people are already great, then there is nothing more for them to do. They’ve arrived, so they’re not going to actually go out and make themselves better. But they won’t actually be better, they’ll still feel pretty terrible, so as soon as another book comes out next year they’ll throw another $25 at that. They’ll sign up for the next $250 seminar, they’ll max out their credit cards on the $25,000 retreat to “find wellness and wholeness inside”.

And the authors and practitioners in the self-help movement continue to prey on their immature sensibilities. I can’t help but feel like this whole genre is a scam, and the people who support it are suckers who deserve to get taken for a ride each and every time.

Because the fact is, Manson so very much does give a f*ck, and he panders to low-brow sensibilities by filling the first chapter with more swear words than a sailor on shore leave at a whorehouse.

Regardless, the book does have a few reasonable points. For example, he lists four “shitty” values. I very much agree on this point. Those shitty values are Pleasure, Material Success, Always Being Right, and Staying Positive. These are shitty in that pursuing these values does not satisfy, one often must achieve them by depriving others of their value, and they can be downright delusional.

Good values have some notable characteristics: they’re reality-based, they’re socially constructive, and they’re immediate and controllable. I agree with this list as well, because having such values means much more of your life is in your control, rather than out of it.

Manson then describes some of his own experiences that have led him to develop five “good” values. And those are Taking responsibility for everything that occurs in your life; Acknowledgment of your own ignorance; Willingness to discover your own flaws and mistakes; Ability to both say and hear “no”; and Acceptance of one’s own mortality.

As mentioned before, much of this is parallel to both Buddhism and Stoicism, as outlined in A Guide to the Good Life, but listed here in a much more juvenile way. I don’t recommend this book over that one because, again, this one has a significant self-awareness problem that A Guide to the Good Life does not. In The Subtle Art Manson succumbs to the temptation to exploit the shallow, gratification-seeking desires of the mass audience, expecting (and rightly so) that they will not have the personal sensibility to see through the ruse, put down the book, and go learn such lessons for themselves.

Which is great for him, his agent, and his publisher, but makes me feel just a little bit sad for those who can’t see it. But only a little bit.

Who It’s Appropriate For

Anyone who wishes to see self-delusion in action and to feed the ego of a person who vehemently proclaims that he doesn’t have an ego. It’s appropriate for those who want to be better in their life, but they don’t want to get better. This book won’t make them be better, and it actually won’t inspire them to get better, but at least they’ll think they’re doing something about it. Which just may stave off the impending personal crisis of purpose for another three or four months.

Who It’s Not Appropriate For

Those who actually wish to improve their own lives. If you do, you’ll go out and live your damn life¸ you won’t spend time reading silly self-help books.

How To Use It

  1. Don’t read it.
  2. Starting tomorrow, go for a walk every day for an hour for a year. Think about yourself on that walk, and when you’re done with that walk write down a few notes in a notebook. Consider this an investment in yourself.
  3. Do some hard things. Try a new social activity. Sign up for a marathon. Take that new job. Push yourself. See where you end up.
  4. Appreciate the journey. It’s not the destination (“success”), it’s the process. And recognize that there is no magic bullet to get you past that process without creating a few scars along the way. Embrace them. Earning them today will pay off tomorrow.

Composing a story, part 5 of 6 (hopefully!)

In Parts 1-3, I described the drafting and revision processes.

In Part 4, I laid out what happens during the submission process.

Now, about 3.5 years on from that update, I make a further update.


So, way back then I had the following list of markets I was going to submit to:

  • Writers of the Future Contest
  • Clarkesworld
  • New Myths
  • Uncanny
  • Phantaxis
  • Beneath Ceaseless Skies
  • Abyss & Apex
  • Giganotosaurus
  • Fantasy & Science Fiction
  • Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show
  • Lightspeed
  • Apex
  • Strange Horizons
  • Leading Edge
  • T Gene Davis’ Speculative Blog
  • Outposts of Beyond

Of those (and others, in italics), I have, as of this time, submitted to and received rejections from the following markets:

  • Writers of the Future Contest
  • Clarkesworld
  • New Myths
  • Fantasy & Science Fiction
  • Abyss & Apex
  • Asimov’s
  • PULP Literature
  • Andromeda Spaceways
  • Giganotosaurus
  • Metaphorosis
  • The Colored Lens
  • Society of Misfit Stories
  • Summer of Speculation

So, why the difference? Why are there some on the original plan that don’t appear on the actual list? And why some new ones not listed before? And why does it take nearly 4 years to rack up a dozen rejections? Several reasons.

Some magazines just stop publication, like the T Gene Davis Speculative Blog and Intergalactic Medicine Show. Some stop accepting new submissions for a period, or are only open for a short window, like Strange Horizons. In order to meet those windows, several stars have to align. Sometimes, when I’ve received a rejection from a prior submission and am ready to send it back out again, the market is closed. So I (as any other author does) have to go down the list and search for a place to submit, make sure I’ve met all the guidelines, formatted correctly, addressed it to the right place and right person or used the right “author’s biography” paragraph, attached the right file, and so on.

The amount of administrative overhead to submit a story can be intimidating, slowing the process for those who aren’t diligent about keeping stories out on submission as much as possible. I’ve gotten better at this in the past year. Currently I have over a dozen stories and essays out. However, for a while, it was not uncommon for me to have none at all, delaying the process.

Plus some markets change their focus or put additional restrictions on author demographics. For example, I don’t qualify for several markets any longer because I’m white, male, and heterosexual, and they already have enough of those in their backlog so they don’t need another.

Taken all together, this means the submission process often drags, and drags, and drags. I don’t think this story is bad, in any way. It is, though, not good enough for those markets. Or, a better way of saying it would be, It’s not right for that market at that time with those editors.

Because, ultimately, publishing is an incredibly subjective exercise in itself. You must be able to have a story which not only meets various editorial benchmarks, but it must also fit with any “theme” that the publishers are interested in presenting, as well as playing nicely with all the other stories by all the other writers who are also submitting to that journal at that time with those same criteria.

It can feel like a crapshoot. Or a lottery. Yet we continue to do it, because we can’t not write, and the external validation feels nice.

However, I do have some news. I have tentative acceptance from my most recent submission, and I must wait for them to close their submission period and send a final notice. When this completes, I believe the target publication date is in the fall of this year. As that goes through, I will certainly brag and update here with Part 6 of, we hope, only 6 in total.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Top Gun: Maverick is Terrible

And I’m Ecstatic it Exists

This is a 2-part post/essay/rant. Part 1, which is here, is the first installment: Top Gun: Maverick is terrible.

Part 2, And I’m Ecstatic it Exists, which I have written in my head but not with the keyboard, will follow. is now written. Link at the end.

Top Gun: Maverick was a terrible movie.

Straight. Up. Terrible.

“But SJ,” you’ll say, “It made 700 million dollars at the box office in the first couple of weeks alone! It can’t be that bad!”

And you’re exactly right! Maverick is great business. What it’s terrible at is art, and storytelling, and all the little things that endear us to movies and books and poems and the stage and the microphone, encourage us to embed them in our memory, and want to have them in our lives for years to come. Maverick is a one-hit wonder. It’s pandering to the nostalgia and good memories that its target audience (35-55 year-old males) is still carrying forty years after the first Top Gun infiltrated all our lives and left an permanent impression.

I have a lot of problems with Maverick, and you people are gonna hear about ‘em! And then I’m going to offer some thoughts on why, despite the problems, I still think Maverick was totally fine to make. Why it was totally fine to earn $700,000,000 in the first couple of weeks. And why the overall results would be substantially the same, even if the producers had fixed all the “problems” I’m identifying.

So what’s wrong with it? Let me count the ways. But before I do, let me start with what I liked:

0. THE GOOD

There were only two scene that were very well done. The first was after Maverick’s first crash, when he asked the stunned diner’s patrons, “Where am I?” The little boy who replied, “Earth,” said so much in just one simple word. Awesome. Would that more of the movie had been like this.

Second, we have Rooster and Maverick are on the ground behind enemy lines. Maverick: “What the hell were you thinking?” Rooster: “You told me not to think.” Not only is it funny, it’s a compelling throwback to earlier in the movie, when Maverick had, in fact, told Rooster and the other trainees not to think. That’s the kind of tight dialogue that made Top Gun excellent. It’s raw. It’s real. It sounds like it’s coming from people actually in the situation they’re supposed to be in. And I loved it.

What else was there to like? Well, as you’re about to see, almost nothing.

1. PLOT

Right from the start, I’m not interested at all. Sure, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is still somewhat “stuck” in a test pilot role, and there’s someone coming to shut down his training program, and he’s supposed to eventually get to Mach 10, but I don’t care about those issues one bit.

So what if he gets to Mach 10? So what if he gets shut down beforehand? I don’t care because the story isn’t compelling at all.

Good stories start with a character who has a problem. A Real Problem. Like, in Harry Potter, Harry’s problem is that he’s constantly being turded upon by the Dursleys, and then even as he succeeds in getting away from them he’s now got an even greater evil to deal with in Voldemort. Who has put out a contract on his life. So he’s got 99 problems, and that bitch Voldemort is all of them. That’s a Problem in the purest sense of the word.

What kind of Problem does Maverick have? None. At all. Budget cuts are not A Problem. The Big Fancy Boss showing up two months early to cancel a program is not A Problem. And even when he’s hauled before some super-secret agency and presented with an opportunity to fly a secret mission, he still doesn’t have A Problem. A power plant coming on-line in some nebulous future isn’t a problem for Maverick.

Who has the problem? The super-secret agency. They are threatened by this power plant, and they’re the ones who want something done about it.

At least in Top Gun Maverick and Goose had significant problems in the form of an enemy they could see and who might, at the flick of a button, end their lives. They also had emotional problems of the needing to prove yourself as better than your old man variety, which drive the internal conflict of the whole first movie. What’s the internal conflict in Maverick? As far as I can tell, the biggest problem is the desire to get back with an old flame who’s doing just fine by herself, thank you very much. Not that compelling, frankly.

If you want a real problem for Maverick, Tom “Iceman” Kaczansky hit it dead on during his conversation with Maverick. He wrote, “It’s time to let go.” Honestly, that’s the real problem and the story that would have been fantastic here. How does Maverick move out of the way for the next generation? How does he check his arrogance, reduce his identity being tied to his position of status, and develop new friendships along the way, while still allowing Rooster et. al. to take the reins and become the hero who saves the day? (While, incidentally, Maverick knows he is the true hero because he, like Mick in Rocky, is the one who actually got him there; even if nobody else realizes it.)

That story, at least, would have been honest with the character and his likely progression from young, arrogant flyboy to washed-out hack. Instead, what we got was a direct rehash of the original Top Gun plot: Maverick does something stupid, screws up, yet still gets rewarded for it and, in the end, saves the day.

Yawn. Wake me up when you’ve actually put some effort into it.

Plus, the whole time it was very on-the-nose. Goose’s son is named “Rooster”. Come on, you couldn’t do any better than that? At least give the kid a reasonable backstory for how he got that call sign, like how Ice Man and Maverick got theirs, or give him a decent call sign that fits with his orphan status, like “Jump Shot”. (Because orphans are bad at playing baseball [they can’t find home], so he has to pick some other sport instead.)

As for the conflict between Maverick and Rooster, apparently Maverick interfered with Rooster’s paperwork for the academy. And that’s why Rooster hates him. Seriously? That’s the best you got? Paperwork? We’re talking about goddamn administrative delays as some kind of motivation for disrespect and disgust? At least give me “You killed my father, you son of a bitch!” That would be believable as a reason. And to completely gloss over that aspect of what should be an incredibly powerful part of their relationship is, frankly, rather disingenuous.

And, finally, um, plot hole: if the aircraft carrier has Tomahawk missiles that can hit an enemy airport, why can’t those same missiles hit the “target” that’s just a few more miles inland? Why can’t the unmanned drones that these trainees have been piloting do this work? Why does this mission need manned aircraft in the first place? Never understood that point. Unless the movie was just a weak-ass excuse to get Tom Cruise back into an airplane and onto a motorbike and onto the beach so that he can proclaim how relevant he still is in Hollywood.

Oh, right, that’s exactly what it was.

2. CINEMATOGRAPHY

Maybe I missed it, but when did the action movie standard become 117 minutes of close-ups of character faces with a few scenes of dogfights splashed around haphazardly?

Honestly, this felt like a drama. Most of the conversations weren’t between two people, they were between two talking heads floating in space. Real people have bodies and exist in some physical space and move. They pick up objects. They stalk through a room. They stand up and sit down. Because they’re nervous, or happy, or frustrated. In Maverick, that’s virtually nonexistent.

At one point I thought, “Does this director have a nostril fetish?”

Plus, there were several scenes that were either reshoots (opening scene of planes launching) or homages (the double football as a throwback to the volleyball game, even down to Maverick stalking out of the game and sliding into a t-shirt). There was waaaay too much of this. One or two scenes would have been enough. This feels like this movie is trying to directly rip off the first, in an attempt to remind viewers exactly why they liked the first movie when they first saw it. It’s actually a very lazy, artistically weak choice.

3. CHARACTERS:   

I don’t believe anyone’s motivations. Penny, for instance. She and Maverick dated. He broke her heart when he left because he broke rules and was reassigned, I assume. Why in the world would she be so nice to him now? At least keep him at a distance, because he hasn’t done anything to earn her respect and care again. He’s done absolutely nothing to earn her feelings, except show up and be handsome. Or maybe, what, listen to her instructions while she’s captaining a sailboat? Which, if that’s all it takes, well, I’ll be at your doorstep tomorrow.

This is another of those “unbelievable” components of the movie that, were they just one or two throughout, would be overlooked. I’ll talk more about that later.

Another point: There are too many insignificant Top Gun trainees for the mission with too little time for backstory on all 12. Rooster, Phoenix, Payback, Bob, Fanboy, Hangman, Omaha, Fritz, Halo, Coyote, Harvard, Yale.

This dilutes the opportunity to understand why each one is there for the mission. Far better would have been to have something like 5 of them selected for this top-secret mission, and then we can get to know them and see them as they deal with the challenges of preparing for what is likely to be a suicide mission. As it is, we don’t really know anything about them at all, so we don’t care, so they just become filler. I guess that’s what was intended, though, since the movie was called Top Gun: Maverick, not Top Gun: The New Recruits.

The problem is, having so many minor characters means that none of them actually become real at all. They don’t start at one point and travel through their own development arcs to end up at another point by the end of the movie. They all remain in the background, supporting Maverick as he plays fast and loose with the rules and, somehow, manages to get away with it yet again.

And I get it, they want to have some kind of “competition” within the Top Gun academy, because that’s what was done the first time. However, it doesn’t make sense in this context at all.

The largest characterization problem exists, however, in the form (or, rather, un-form) of “the enemy”. At least in Top Gun we were fighting the Russians and their MiGs. In any story about the American Revolution you have the dreaded British monarchy and the corresponding Loyalists threatening to subvert the cause from the inside. In Maverick we have a nameless, faceless “enemy” that is just sort of there. They’re not a threat (see: power plant about to come on-line being the inciting incident).

Humans are a visual and auditory species. We believe what we hear and we see. When someone tells us “There’s an enemy over the hill!” we don’t really start running until we can actually see the enemy coming over the hill. We may hear something from another source, but we don’t trust or believe until we can experience it for ourselves.

Because we only have this nebulous “enemy” who doesn’t get a face and doesn’t get a name, it’s like they’re not real. And if they’re not real, they’re not a threat. Consider another 1980s movie, Enemy Mine. Here, it’s pretty clear who “the enemy” is – it’s the alien right in front of your face who’s trying to take your only source of sustenance and/or kill you. It’s pretty clear what you have to do. But in Maverick, we don’t get such tangibility. We don’t get any kind of immediate threat from the enemy. It’s three or four degrees away, filtered through the spy network / satellite photos, and then the mission commander, and then Maverick, to finally the trainees.

It’s no wonder they don’t feel any sense of urgency to actually push the envelope of their own capabilities to complete their flight training as they need to. They don’t care.

Consequently, neither do we.

4. ACTING

I don’t believe any of these people are in the Navy, or are even pilots. At least in Top Gun, I did believe that everyone, including Tom Cruise, was actually in the armed services. They walked like Navy men, stiff and straight. They talked like Navy men: short, clipped sentences and Yes sir!s that came straight off the assembly line. They smoked like Navy men. They swore like Navy men. And they peacocked like Navy men, always on the lookout for a way to one-up their competition.

The actors in Maverick, like John Hamm as Cyclone, may be great actors in dramatic roles. But this isn’t supposed to be a drama. It’s supposed to be action. Every single character looked like they were acting. Tom Cruise too. Look back at Cruise’s earlier work, like Top Gun, Rain Man, and Risky Business. You couldn’t tell it was the same person in all of those roles, because he was such a good actor that Cruise disappeared and the character took over.

Here, not only for Cruise’sMaverick, but for everyone else: Cyclone, Penny, Rooster, even the trainer Hondo, just looked like actors playing parts. I didn’t believe for a second that Penny had once had a relationship with Maverick. I didn’t believe for a second that Rooster knew how to fly a plane. I didn’t believe for a second that Hondo knew jack squat about training anyone for anything, much less preparing pilots for high-speed aerial dogfighting.

Because they look like actors, and not characters, I don’t believe in them and I don’t care.

5. DIALOGUE

Don’t get me started. This is more artificial than Simon Cowell’s jawline. None of what came out of their mouths sound real. Honestly, if you’re in the back of an airplane that’s going to get shot out of the sky if you don’t go faster, you won’t take the time to say: “If we don’t increase our speed, we’re going to miss our connection with the target.” It’s too many words, too slow, too weak. Instead, someone scared for his life in that moment would be shouting “Speed the fuck up!” or “Hit the goddam gas, man!”

Remember in Top Gun, that scene where Maverick has just gotten chewed out in one of the classes, and Slider is giving him shit for it? He walks by, leans down, and whispers “Slider… [sniffs] … you stink.”

Which is tight. Powerful. And exactly the kind of line an arrogant flyboy would say to put down another arrogant flyboy. Awesome consulting by whatever retired Top Gun pilots they’d recruited to help them with the authenticity.

Ultimately, the dialogue in Maverick sounds like it was carefully crafted by a team of scriptwriters who had a few times watched action movies, but never lived anything more challenging or threatening than a weekend camping trip. Which, in conjunction with the casting mentioned above, just makes this whole thing unappealing to watch.

6. RUNTIME

30 minutes too long. We did not need about 1/3 of the scenes that were included. Sailing a boat? Not necessary. The “training” flights where the pilots failed? Could have been a montage. Two downed pilots behind enemy lines? Didn’t need to happen. Virtually all of the conversations between Maverick and Cyclone… You guessed it, didn’t need to happen. Remember in Top Gun where Viper actually had something to say? Because he actually had some information to give to Maverick about Mav’s old man? There was a point to their antagonism, all the way through, even down to the period where after Maverick washes out and loses his confidence. Viper is there to not only encourage him, but to actually get him back up in the air. Because he needs Maverick, and he respects him. “Give me a call. I’d be proud to fly with you any time.”

Yeah, in this one, none of what Cyclone says or does with and to Maverick is necessary. It is, once again, a contorted effort to put Tom Cruise on the screen for longer and longer times, distorting the story and dragging it out way past what would have been necessary.

There’s an old adage that says, “The story should be as long as it needs to be, and no longer.” I guess the producers of Maverick never learned that one.

7. MUSIC

The soundtrack was scored by Hans Zimmer. And it shows. The original Top Gun soundtrack was all hard rock – Danger Zone and Take My Breath Away and all that. But this was a dramatic score, with sweeping orchestral movements and fade ins, fade outs, and so on. This is not the way to set the scene for action and violent conflict.

Zimmer is a great composer. I love his stuff for movies like Interstellar, The Dark Knight, and Pirates of the Caribbean. The thing is, in those situations, he’s writing for symphony, which is a different blend of sounds and emotions than rock and roll. How many Navy pilots get hyped up by a good violin solo? None. How many pump up with AC/DC, Kid Rock, or Marilyn Manson? Every one. So if we’re making movies with these pilots in it, shouldn’t we be matching the music to their emotional states? Which requires rock and roll – driving guitars, solid drums, consistent bass, and poignant vocals, not thirty-piece ensembles which lean only into “evocative” states.

Maverick would have been much better with a few rock and roll bands making the music. Hell, I bet there’s ten thousand who would have jumped at the chance to get the exposure that Kenny Loggins did with Top Gun. Zimmer doesn’t need more credits. This could have been a chance for the producers to reach back and give some up-and-coming artists a real shot at making something for themselves. As it was, they missed.

8. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF

One of the major requests that artists make of their audience is that we must ask you to not disbelieve the major premise of what we’re telling you. Honestly, we know that there’s no such thing as magical powers, and we know that you know this, too. But we ask you to suspend that disbelief for a few minutes or a few pages or a few chapters, so that we can tell you the story that we want to tell.

An element of good storytelling is to make the story compelling enough that we’re interested in finding out how everything resolves, but not so far out of the line of reason that we stop suspending that disbelief due to blatant incredulousity.

It starts with Maverick’s first crash of the test plane, while traveling Mach 10.2. Do you know what Mach 10.2 means? Nope, you don’t. Let’s back up.

Mach 1 is the speed of sound, or about 767 miles per hour. About twelve miles per minute, or one mile every six seconds.

Imagine – you’re inside your house, and a tornado is blowing on the walls at 767 miles per hour. Suppose that house disintegrates under the force of that wind. Don’t you think that some of those pieces of wall are going to be making their way in your general direction? And, if you were to somehow dodge all that potential decapitation-on-a-stick, don’t you think you’re going to be damaged just a little bit by that wind slamming into you at 767 miles per hour? Your internal organs would quickly become your external organs, a la the bug on a windshield. You ain’t surviving that, buddy.

Remember – that’s at Mach 1. Maverick was supposedly flying at more than Mach 10. Which means he was zooming along at upwards of 7,700 miles per hour, or more than two miles per second. When that plane cracks up, it’s disintegrating into a million little pieces, and so is Maverick.

To think that Maverick would survive intact is quite unbelievable. So we must suspend that disbelief in order to continue to participate in the show. And we do, for a while. One or two suspensions, we can get behind in order to stick with the story, especially if all the other parts (characters, dialogue, maybe a good sex scene) are worth sticking around for.

Unfortunately Maverick pushes the limits of our imaginations several times more than is feasible to expect. From the characters’ motivations to the fact that the US is launching a preemptive strike against an undeclared enemy to Maverick being able to steal a plane from a government facility to Maverick and Rooster escaping unharmed from their respective shoot-downs and then finding one another when they were miles apart, each piece stretches the bonds of credulity more and more.

Eventually those bonds break. We can suspend our disbelief. We cannot survive its wholesale disintegration.

9. THE STORY

Ultimately, a story is what the movie, or the book, or the song, is about. It’s what makes art art, beyond business or survival or reproduction. Top Gun had a story, a message: You must face your demons or they will destroy you. In doing so, they may still destroy you, or they will help you overcome whatever is threatening you.

Harry Potter had a story too: Despite your circumstances, you’re not that bad, and you’re not that good. You’ll need your friends around you to help defeat your enemies.

These stories are not the plot (see above). They are the reason for shooting the movie, or writing the book, or exhibiting the canvas. They are what the artist wants to say to the world. Even if the artist doesn’t know it. This is especially true if everyone who views the piece comes away with a different message. That’s when you know you’ve got a good story – it’s the reason for telling the story in the first place.

In one of my short stories, the message is even voiced blatantly by one of the characters: There is nothing proper about magic. But if you miss that one, you could still see that story as a conflict between old and new, between apprentice and master, or even between duty and freedom.

I don’t care what it is that you see. But I do care that you can take away some message, some story from the piece, that is separate from the plot.

Maverick had no story. What was the point of making this movie? What are we supposed to learn from this? Sure, you can argue that you don’t have to have a point. (My kids made this same argument after we watched Frozen.) Movies and music don’t have to have a point. But they do. The good ones even have multiple messages, based on who’s speaking and who’s listening. They are an inherent part of our storytelling species’ history, which means that we tend to seek out and value those experiences.

Since Maverick had no story at all other than a retelling of Top Gun (reckless, arrogant rule-breaker must break the rules to save the day), it missed. If you recall, under PLOT, I said that there was an opportunity for a good story. It would have centered around Maverick’s interactions with Iceman. When Ice tells him, “It’s time to let go,” that would have been a dead-on balls accurate perfect story to tell at this point in time. And I would be applauding Maverick rather than panning it.

Conclusion

Now – with all of that said – you’re probably going to think I’m about to say that Maverick shouldn’t have been made. That it was a waste of time and money. That it isn’t art. That it’s ridiculous, and nobody should go see it.

Unfortunately, if you bet like that, I’m taking your money. Because, in fact, while it may be terrible art, it is still art. And in the next installment, I’m going to tell you why I’m ecstatic that Maverick exists.


Part 2 – “I’m Ecstatic that “Bad” Art Like Top Gun: Maverick Exists”