I listen to music basically whenever I write, often as a simple practical matter (I have a wife, a barky-bary-bark, two school-age kids at home, and a house that backs up to an apartment parking lot). What I’m listening to during a given period often seeps into what I’m writing. I listened to Steely Dan’s “Fire in the Hole” every morning while working on the middle section of this novel—both the longest and darkest (“Where There is Nothing, There is God”—itself a title stolen from William Butler Yeats.) At some point, I’d gotten the notion in my head that the narrator of the song was a waiter/actor, which is why the protagonist is a waiter/actor. Looking at the lyrics now, I have no idea where I got that impression. (I’m told Fagen—who co-wrote the song—said in an interview that it was about dodging the draft during the Vietnam War, which makes a lot more sense than my interpretation of the song.) Doesn’t really matter; it was always the piano that caught my mind. It’s the piano, more than the words, that seeped into that story.
OK, I need a headcheck, folks. It looks an awful lot like http://GOPhouse.org/
- Is the (semi-)official website for Michigan House Republicans (for example, their official Facebook page links to “MiHouseRepublicans.com” which currently redirects to “GOPhouse.org”)
- Is shilling for a term paper mill:
Is there something really obvious going on here, like my local DNS being poisoned? Or does the MI House GOP just have a really crappy web hosting situation? Or deeply untrustworthy staff? Or a deeper commitment to the free market and entrepreneurship than I’d previously imagined?
Who do I even call to ask about this? ’cause I’ve gotta believe that the MI House GOP has a better fundraising model than this.
Lil help, Internet?
[UPDATE 2019-11-25: I just saw Paul Di Filippo’s review of this antho for Locus, and so added a snippet of that below, because it’s insanely kind and flattering and I wanna crow about it.]
It feels a little odd to be a “new voice” in anything with so little hair atop my head and so much grey in my beard—but I’ll take it! The publisher has been kind enough to include a section of my story “In the Sharing Place” to whet your appetite (here’s a link to all five previews stories). Enjoy!
The New Voices of Science Fiction (from Tachyon Press)
“Reminiscent of the weirdness of Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, “In the Sharing Place” by David Erik Nelson chronicles in vivid surreal fashion a post-invasion, post-collapse world where psychological counseling takes on dire new facets.…this is a killer collection, full of top-notch stories beautifully written and invested with much care, compassion and thought …Deploying the toolkit and concerns bequeathed by their literary ancestors, they are extending the reach of the genre not by plowing under everything that was built before and salting the earth, but by erecting new superstructures on old foundations—or perhaps new eco-communes in the shadow of dinosaur cities. It’s the way the field has always moved forward, and this volume gives plenty of hope that the future of future fiction is in good hands.”—Paul Di Filippo, Locus Magazine
“While readers may be familiar with many of the names and individual works here, having them together in one volume creates a stunning set of sf shorts. Highly recommended for all collections.“—Library Journal
“There are also stories that present unique dystopias such as the mist-haunted New York in Jason Sanford’s ‘Toppers’ or the mysterious outside world in David Erik Nelson’s ‘In the Sharing Place.’”—Booklist
“After some kind of alien invasion/apocalypse, children try to come to terms with the loss of their families ‘In The Sharing Place’, a thoughtful and ultimately a chilling story by David Erik Nelson. Much of the narrative takes place in the therapy sessions that happen in the Sharing Place and only slowly are details of the apocalypse revealed. It’s a very effective tale.” SF Crowsnest
This video is mostly narrated by Dr. Robert Cialdini, who’s most famous for his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (where he first presented most of the ideas seen here). This is a text book—if not the Bible—on how to talk to people about things that you really care about, and get them to see your perspective.
Cialdini started out as a research psychologist, and my understanding (which fits the tone of the book) is that he began working on the book—which catalogues and examines several categories of sales/influence tricks and techniques—as a sort of warning to lay folks. After its first publication, it became enormously influential among marketers, copywriters, businessfolk, and all manner of modern propogandists. If you write for any purpose (e.g., speechs, op-ed, news, fiction, non-fiction, persuading folks on the fence to vote for this or that) or run any sort of business, you need to read this book. For that matter, even if you don’t seek to persuade anyone of anything, I still strongly recommend every adult in America read this book, in order to better understand how it is you’ve come to believe what you believe, embrace what you embrace, and reject what “just isn’t your thing.”
(While we’re on the topic, you really should also read Darrell Huff’s HOW TO LIE WITH STATISTICS; the black arts outlined in these two books cover the two major toolsets that the politically and economically motivated are using to manipulate you and your loved ones every single day. Get your hands on Master’s tools; consider their possible applications in tearing down Master’s house*.)
Caveat: Yes, some of the hard data and studies in the original Influence haven’t aged well, but the bold strokes—about how people behave and how our minds get changed without our realizing it—is still rock solid.
BONUS: Check out this analysis of Oprah, and compare it with what Cialdini describes above:
Been casting around for a short-n-sweet Halloween read? The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine has just released their audiobook of my story “The Slender Men”—free download awaits!
(here’s a direct download of the MP3, if you prefer)
Rish Outfield—who produced this audio—was also the voice actor for the last story I sold to PseudoPod, “Whatever Comes After Calcutta.” I love what Rish does for horror stories; it’s just so spot on. This is basically as close as you can expect to get to what I hear in my head when I revisit “The Slender Men.”
The annual “spooky” issue of ASIMOV’S Science Fiction (Sept/Oct 2918) has hit newstands, and includes my apocalyptic sf/horror story “In the Sharing Place.” Enjoy!
Dove into the new issue of @Asimovs_SF last night, and read “The Sharing Place” – an absolutely heart-stopping and eye-opening (in more than one way…) #scifi/ #horror story by @SquiDaveo. I blame any weird dreams I had last night on this story… https://t.co/mkvR7UDeSlpic.twitter.com/MiJH6Q6RB6
— Maria Haskins (@MariaHaskins) August 25, 2018
If anyone’s got any ideas for additional challenges, let me know.
— Ben Brainerd (@ben_brainerd) May 24, 2018
Hey Ben (and the rest of the world),
Sorry this took so long to put together. Life happened. Here goes:
- “There is a corpse in the barn!!!” X finds a corpse in the barn. S/he needs to go tell Y about this, but doesn’t want Z (who is in the same room) to grok the situation. (Back when I used to teach high school, we’d frame this exercise like so: “You have found a corpse in the barn; alert your sister to this fact. You may not use the words ‘body,’ ‘dead,’ ‘corpse,’ or ‘barn.’ Go!”) Who are X, Y, and Z to each other? Why must X inform Y of this situation? Why doesn’t X (or Y or both) want Z to know? What happens if (when?) Z figures it out?
- Eschew the Voodoo We all have voodoo around our creative processes: We only work in Scrivener or with this font in Word or using that pen or writing in a Moleskine or before 8am or whatever. For your next project eschew your usually voodoo and replace it with a totally foreign “habit.” Write the story entirely on 3×5 cards, or in the “Stickies” app on your computer, or in emails sent to yourself from your phone, or on a piece of crap 99-cent notebook from the drug store or in Comic Sans or only working before getting out of bed or after brushing your teeth for the night or whatever. Feel how changing tools changes the feel of writing and the piece itself–but also see how little difference it can make, how your good work is still good scrawled on a Post-It note stuck to your kitchen table, and how lazy hackwork is still just that, even when you’ve used your favorite pen in the prettiest journal anyone ever gave you for Xmas.
- Write in Freddish: Write your next story in a style that is a. highly constrained and b. very different from your “default” voice—for example, borrow the voice of an autoclave installation manual, or a EMT handbook, or extremely constrained vocabulary (see, for example, any early-reader children’s book, of Randall Munroe’s Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words Hardcover). My absolute favorite recent fiction application of this technique has to be Greg van Eekhout’s “Will You Be an Astronaut?“ That story fucking crushes my heart every time.
- Rewrite What Vexes You: Take some story that recently annoyed you by not living up to your expectations and rewrite it the right way. (I just found myself doing this the other day via text message with my Mom and sister after we all separately saw, and were annoyed by, Solo—a film that I desperately wanted to love, but could not; it has some good gags, but a thin plot that is massively overburdened by something-for-everyone, “fan service,” and box ticking. Something thats for everyone is for no one, and box ticking us inherently boring. Most annoyingly: You can actually make Solo into a really good movie purely through cuts; it’s a good, lean story buried in flab.)
- Write to the Formula: I usually use the 45/45/10 Formula as a tool for revising—I have something roughed out and now it’s time to make it run smooth—but you can use it to build a story from scratch. Outline it in three sections (I. is the Setup, II. is the Tangle, and III. is the Resolution). Flesh out each section, noting that I. and II. need to have about equal amounts of material, while section III. has only about a quarter as much stuff. Draft from there.
At its core, this writer advice is a variation of the One True and Eternal Law:
Always take the path that leads to writing and editing more
This should be painfully obvious—wanna swim faster? swim more! wanna play piano better? play piano more! wanna draw better? draw more!
In truth, the secret isn’t the strategy (“write more!”); that’s self-evident. The tricks are the tactics that folks who excel use to make it a tad easier to get their shoulders to the wheel. Wanna write more? Here’s a tactic…
Advice for Writers: Use Annoyance to Fuel More Scribbling
It is very common for artists to spend a lot of time annoyed: You love a thing so much that you want to create more of that thing, and thus invest a lot of energy in honing skills at creating that thing. Meanwhile, since you love the thing, you keep seeking the thing out. As your skills improve—and noting the immutability of Sturgeon’s Law—you’re bound to come across plenty of examples of imperfect executions of that thing you live. Profound, near-constant annoyance is the natural consequence of this.
You can do two things with that annoyance:
- You can kvetch about it (e.g., preaching to your choir on social media)
- You can rewrite it the way you would have written it (i.e., the Right Way, Dammit!™)
PRO-TIP: Almost every working artist I’ve asked about this has landed squarely in Group #2.
Advice in Action: Fixing a Broken SNL Skit
Consider this SNL skit—which comes very, very close to being The Best Twilight Zone Episode Never Written:
This piece could be great, but it falls flat and is unsatisfying. Why? What went wrong?
The problem is in the Resolution (that’s the final 10% of the piece — for an overview of my 45/45/10 Formula for narrative, check out this blog post or this one). In any piece the Setup creates series of “open loops“ that need to be closed in the Resolution in order for the piece to feel satisfied. The open loops here include social isolation (which is introduced by Danny almost from go, and keyed to his goofy dream of singing his “I wish” songs with friends), a Twilight Zone leitmotif (evoked by the musical cues, camera work, and acting style, especially with He-Man and Lion-o), and also elements of sexual frustration. This last item is lightly implied by mother’s nap, but really explicitly introduced by He-Man—and this is crucial—at around the 2min10sec mark, when he punches through a wall out of sexual frustration. The 2:10 mark puts this bit of stage business at about 45% of the way through the piece, where it naturally transitions from the Setup to the Tangle (no clue what these terms mean? Check the bulleted 45/45/10 Formula overview here). Given both the timing in the narrative and the drama of having a character punch through wall out of sexual frustration, you’re making this issue seem really, really important.
And then you introduced She-Ra—already a sorta-kinda sexually charged nostalgia callback—being played by Arianna Grande.
So, to recap, here are the unresolved open loops:
- Social Isolation
- Sexual Frustration
And we’ve just brought Arianna Grande onstage: a very gregarious and sexually attractive young woman with a stunning singing voice. The audience is gonna have certain sorta obvious expectations of the basic outline of how these loops should be Resolved.
So let’s look at the Resolution: Sexual frustration is sorta addressed (but not for the primary character, just for side-characters mom, Lion-o, and He-Man). But, social isolation and the Twilight Zone aesthetic go entirely unaddressed. Watch that final scene again: It seems almost like the actor is expressing his frustration at the skit more than Danny is expressing his frustration at the fictional situation.
As an audience member, I’m kinda let down. As a writer, I’m almost fatally annoyed because they were so close to knocking this out of the damned park!
How would I fix it? It’s so simple: First, keep the Setup unchanged (that’s the first two minutes or so). It’s a fine Setup, really. In the Tangle (that’s the next two-ish minutes), I would keep almost everything the same as well, but would strike the birthday hug gag between Danny and She-ra. (Don’t worry; we are still going to use this gag, just later, to close the skit.)
Let’s run through what we’ve got now: Same Setup (with Twilight Zone look-n-feel and Danny’s social isolation). We introduce sexual frustration. He-Man busts through the wall after Sister. He brings back She-ra. The three toys-come-alive all start trashing the joint. Mom comes in, chemistry sparks with her and the hunks. Those three leave for the hot tub. Now Danny asks She-ra for his birthday hug. We keep She-ra’s reply as written—she doesn’t like hugs; she likes to smash!—and Danny announces: “Well, I like singing songs with my friends—even if that means singing by myself!” Unashamed, he begins belting out his “I wish” song. She-ra (who, you’ll recall, is being played by a goddamned operatic pop star) is taken by Danny’s heartfelt song; she’s a warrior princess, and has never before heard the beauty of song. She begins to sing along with him—and then returns to smashing, never flagging in her song. Danny, thrilled to have a friend, keeps singing and he starts smashing the joint up, too.
The camera pulls back, swivels, and reveals a black-&-white Rod Serling impersonator (everything else is still in color). Cue Twilight Zone bongos. Rod Serling looks dead into the camera, puffs cigarette, and delivers a Twilight Zone-style summary outro:
“A lonely young boy. A savage warrior princess. An unlikely birthday wish—and an unlikely duet that could only happen … in mom’s hot tub”—Serling stomps out his cigarette and races out the door to join the hot tub orgy.
Boom. That’s the skit this skit clearly wants to be.
The 45/45/10 Formula for narrative/argument is one of the perpetual bees bumbling around my bonnet. This video for this song is such a stone cold perfect example (and, subsequently, so rhetorically devastating) that I just had to share. PRO-TIP: The first two-and-a-half minutes will likely be almost unbearable to watch for most white Americans. If it helps, know that Joyner Lucas (the musician and the voice you hear throughout the song) is black (although not the black guy in the video).
At any rate, to review my 45/45/10 Formula:
- The first 45% of a piece is the Setup: Characters/concepts/situations/dynamics are presented and relationships among these made clear
- The next 45% is the Tangle: Complication(s) disrupt (or at least complicate) the situation laid out in the Setup
- The last 10% is the Resolution: The knot is Untangled, for better or worse
In the case of this track, the Setup runs from the open to ~2:50. The Tangle then runs to ~5:50, and from that point to the cut to black is the Resolution. What especially thrills me here—beyond the hard body impact of the rhetoric itself and the lean power of the videography—is how shifts in the music mark out the transitions between stages in the argument: Each section break is marked out be an abrupt shift in the tone and mood of the backing track.
This is a wonderful primer on how to structure an narrative argument to hold an audience and not persuade them, per se—because that’s not the goal—but rather to enduringly stick in their craw, so they keep troubling over your argument long after they’re done with the piece of entertainment. This is how you write moral fiction. This is how you plant the seeds that grow the trees that, indefatigably and seemingly effortlessly, bend the arc of that moral universe back toward justice.
And that, kids, is our business. Go, watch … and learn.