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Tag: interview (page 2 of 8)

Susan Spann: The Terribleminds Interview

When it comes time to ask if you can have an interview up at this blog, there’s a few surefire ways to get in, but one of them I didn’t expect: apparently, all you have to do is say the phrase “ninja detective,” and I’m all in. As such, please to meet Susan Spann, author of Claws of the Cat: a Shinobi Mystery, coming in June. Find her at or @SusanSpann!

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

A year ago, I was ambushed by ninjas while standing in my bathroom. Well, maybe it was just one ninja. An imaginary ninja. Who solves murders instead of committing them. Then he disappeared, leaving me holding an eyeliner pen and the basis for an awesome mystery series.

Ninjas are sneaky that way.

Why do you tell stories?

To silence the voices in my head. Sometimes it works.

When it doesn’t, I murder my imaginary friends.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

“Never give up, never surrender.”

Writing is a long game, not a sprint, and only the dedicated prevail.

Since I’m an attorney, and therefore genetically incapable of giving a short answer to any question, I’ll add that it’s impossible to stay in the game without keeping your butt in the chair and your fingers on the keys. Writers write. We make the time, we steal the time. We puts the words on the page, precious.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

For almost a decade, I told myself “don’t worry, you’re busy with law practice, family and (insert excuse du jour), you’ll find time to write when things ease up.”


Things never ease up. Writing time does not appear like a sparkling wish-fairy riding a rainbow unicorn. Writers are born of stolen minutes, pigheaded determination and a katana-wielding conscience that orders us to put down the remote and turn off TOP CHEF until we put words on the page or fix the dog’s breakfast we made of the manuscript yesterday.

Everyone is always too busy to write. The difference is that writers do it anyway.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

For me, character building flows from world building. It’s much easier to write strong characters when I’m inserting them into a three-dimensional, fully developed environment. Knowing the layout of a character’s bedroom, house, and neighborhood makes it easier to understand what kind of person would inhabit that space.

Once the world is built, I write an outline for the novel itself and then journal entries in the voice of each character in the story – including the corpse. Letting the character speak – about anything that character deems important – is a great way to get a handle on voice and character quirks. Sometimes the information gets into the novel, sometimes not, but knowing what the character thinks is important helps me develop a layered personality (and backstory) that makes each character feel much more real when I let them all loose together.

That’s when they start killing each other.

As far as examples go, I’ll offer Ender Wiggin (from Ender’s Game). Orson Scott Card developed a fully-realized world with history, backstory and details, and then told us only the portions necessary to the tale. The reader has a sense that Ender really lived six years in that world before the novel begins, and that he’s a fully-developed person rather than an automaton who behaves as he does merely because Card “needed him to” for plot purposes. I don’t know whether Card goes in for journal entries, but he certainly understands character development.

World-building before character-building. Oooh. Tell me more: how long do you spend world-building? How do you know enough is enough and it’s time for the character to occupy that space?

I’ll tell you a secret about my world building process: I cheat by using history when I can.

The Shinobi series is set in Kyoto in 1565, just before the assassination of the Shogun. At that time, the Japanese capitol was a stunning, dangerous city filled with samurai and real-life ninjas and weapons and geishas and sake bars. I wanted the reader to walk the muddy streets, see the buildings, and smell the blood and hydrangeas at the teahouse where the samurai victim died. I studied medieval Japan in college (many years ago) and spent six full months in additional research to build the version of 16th century Kyoto that serves as a backdrop for the Shinobi novels.

But the truth is, I’ve never finished the process and probably never will. Each novel involves a different aspect of Japanese culture, a different victim, a different setting – and all of that requires additional world-building.

In terms of “enough is enough” – for me, the process has two stages. The first stage ends when I know enough about the physical “sets” for the characters to move around without knocking over the scenery (unless it’s called for). I create an architectural layout for every location the characters visit, place it on a map of medieval Kyoto and fill in details to make the location “real.” (This often involves writing backstory, most of which will never appear in the novels.) Then I develop characters to inhabit those spaces.

Phase 2 is the other half of the chicken-and-egg problem: final world building can only take place once I know about the characters themselves. This includes the characters’ individual histories (again, almost all for offstage use) and fine details – things like “what type of flowers would be displayed in a Kyoto teahouse in May of 1565?”

So: Phase 1 is macro level: historical, physical, architectural. Phase 2 is micro-scale: all the fine details.

Sometimes a plot point or major edit requires taking the phases out of order, but for the most part that’s how it works in my writing world.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

My all-time favorite comic book was Star Wars #1 (The original, from the ‘70s, and I’ll date myself by saying I bought it new. Sadly, I don’t have it any more.)

When it comes to film, I’m a fan of explosions and special effects. My favorites range from LORD OF THE RINGS to STAR WARS (Episodes 4/5/6), RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and the original DIE HARD.

If we’re talking video games, it’s World of Warcraft. I raid as a level 85 holy priest & boomkin, Feathermoon server. (Your MMO-geek readers are smiling…and everyone else is now thoroughly confused.)

And since we’re talking story, the novel of choice is ENDER’S GAME (big surprise). After that one, my favorites will have to resolve it by author-on-author death match.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Favorite word? No question: DEFENESTRATE.

Favorite curse word: “Bother.” I’m familiar with plenty of others (including the ones most people actually consider “real” cursing), but “bother” raises the most eyebrows when I use it in public.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

The last time I drank alcohol, I ended up singing show tunes under the table. (True story…and one that makes me glad for the days before YouTube.)

Favorite beverage: coffee, in copious quantities. Hot or iced. No sugar, but lots of cream. Lots. In fact, just leave the cow.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

I raise seahorses and rare corals, so I’m thinking we can use my tank to distract the robots long enough to make a getaway. If we can keep them watching long enough they’ll corrode and we can turn them into giant coffee makers.

Mmmm…. Coffee.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I recently signed a three-book contract with St.Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne books for the Shinobi mystery series. The first novel, CLAWS OF THE CAT, is scheduled for release in Spring 2013, and I’m currently editing the second installment, outlining the third, and developing ideas for additional books. The series could run substantially more than three novels if readers like ninja detectives as much as I do.

I’m kicking around a few other ideas, both long-form and short-form – one of which involves pirates. Because pirates versus ninjas is the ultimate dilemma.

Okay, you just said “ninja detective.” Please tell us about this ninja detective right now before we all explode from urgency.

The Shinobi Mysteries feature the ongoing adventures of Hiro Hattori, ninja assassin-turned-bodyguard-turned-16th century detective. In Claws of the Cat, a samurai is brutally murdered in a Kyoto teahouse and Hiro has three days to find the killer in order to save the beautiful geisha accused of the crime and prevent the dead man’s vengeful son from executing the Portuguese Jesuit Hiro is sworn to protect.

It’s a book about ninjas, bloody crime scenes, teahouses and geishas and swords, with a Portuguese priest, a weapons dealer, a female samurai and an unruly kitten thrown in for good measure.

Because every ninja book needs a kitten.

Hiro is everything I love in a detective – he’s smart, sardonic, and generally uncooperative. Best of all – he’s a ninja – and that’s central to the way he solves each crime. His worldview doesn’t always mesh well with that of his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, but they make a surprisingly good investigative team.

Why ninjas? (Or is the plural of ninja just “ninja?”)

Actually, I think the plural of “ninja” is “awesome.”

I’ve had a fascination with ninjas since college, where I majored in Asian studies. Medieval Japan was brutal and dangerous but also intriguing and beautiful.

Ninjas moved in the mainstream but didn’t follow normal social rules. They were highly trained spies and strategists as well as assassins. A ninja’s understanding of anatomy, weapons and poisons made him essentially a medieval forensics expert. I couldn’t think of a better detective. Plus … ninjas. Is there a better writing gig?

You wrote a mystery series: what’s the trick to writing a good mystery? What do some authors get wrong?

The key to mystery writing is the detective. The murder is important (and the gorier the better) but all the poisonings and exsanguinations in the world won’t save a novel if the detective is as boring as watching paint dry. It’s not our love of the corpse that keeps us reading – that guy was dead on page 1 and nobody cares about fictitious corpses. We read because the detective is fun, or cool (or sometimes even annoying) and we want to be there with him when he finally solves the crime. (Note: I use the all-inclusive “he” because it’s easy but I use it without prejudice – I’ve read some smashing female detective stories too.)

So, like everything else, mystery comes down to compelling characters and good writing. Neither is negotiable.

If you could be a ninja, what would your ninja-weapon-of-choice be?

I have enough experience with shuriken (throwing stars) to know that (a) I love throwing them, and (b) if my ninja-life depended on my aim I wouldn’t survive very long. Since I’m female, they’d probably want me to specialize in neko-te (cat’s claws), and though that weapon does appear in the novel my personal weapon of choice (and experience) is a sword.

In the immortal words of Solo-san: Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good katana at your side.

Dylan Brody: The Terribleminds Interview

I love me some stand-up comedy. My own writing voice is shot through with a distinct DNA thread from various stand-up comedians, from Bill Hicks to George Carlin to Jake Johannsen to — well, the list would crash the blog. I think humor is an essential component to storytelling, so it is with great pleasure that I introduce the first interview here with stand-up comedian, humorist and storyteller, Dylan Brody. Brody, like with my most favoritest comics, knows not only how to be funny, but also how to tell a right good tale. Find him at and on the Twittertubes @dylanbrody.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

I’ve been very excited about these stories I’ve been writing. The idea of nesting stories within stories to give me two or more angles on a single theme seemed like a new approach to explore. I felt as though I was moving beyond my days as a stand-up comic, evolving as a writer and a performer, boldly exploring my craft in new and innovative ways.

I realized recently, though, that both the nested stories and the idea of time-travel of the mind have fascinated me for decades. The stories are not new. The structure is not new. The concept is not new. They are the current evolution of ideas that have been developing since I first began exploring my perception of the world around me.

In the late eighties I wrote LAUGHS LAST*, my first dramatic screenplay. I’d written screenplays before but they had all been light science fiction and fantasy pieces. This one was the first to really deal with people in this world doing things that did not require fictional technology. I suppose the piece was loosely autobiographical, though I didn’t think of it that way at the time. It was about a guy who was both a writer and a comic as was I at that time and it was about the way his life and relationships are influenced by his relationship with his dead grandfather, who approved of his work even when his parents didn’t.

The story set in the present was designed as a series of seemingly disjointed events – a death in the family, a comedy gig, moving from one apartment to another, proposing to a girlfriend, an argumentative phone call, a trip to visit Mom, an appearance on television, the birth of a child, the publication of a first novel – the sort of things that happen in a person’s life and feel, because life is not fiction, somewhat random and unplotted. Each scene, though, was interrupted by a flashback – sometimes the flashbacks themselves were interrupted by further flashbacks so the script would have to leap back to the first flashback and then to the present before life could move on. These flashbacks would be bits of images and stories from the lead character’s life that informed and affected him in his current situation. As new things happened, more of these historical stories came to be revealed. The film actually told several stories, a bit at a time, as nested flashbacks. As time passed, things we saw happening in the present near the beginning of the film found resolution in flashback, as they became part of the character’s history, the passage of time giving them context and completion.

The present is this incomprehensible rush of events. In retrospect, though, themes and patterns begin to emerge. Stories get told in full. Close up, the tapestry is just a jumble of colored stitches. Only with a bit of distance can the image be viewed clearly.

Because it was not science fiction or fantasy, this was the first thing I ever wrote that my father really liked at all. He said very complimentary and supportive things about the script on the phone. The next time I visited him after that, he gave me his old, hardcover edition of Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past. He said, “I know you probably had to read this in college, but now I think you’re really ready to understand it. You should read it again.”

The truth was, I had not read it in college. It had been assigned, but one of my gifts is the ability to absorb through conversational osmosis enough information about any book – fiction or non-fiction – to fake my way through classroom discussion and tests, even essay tests. I would often create the illusion of a real working comprehension of the material by devising casual jokes that revolved around the central themes of the book and offering them up as off-handed wit. In high school I forgot to bring my copy of Moby Dick to class. When asked why, I said that the book had had a profound effect on me but I had lost it long ago and had been searching for it ever since. The teacher chuckled and assumed I’d not only read the book but had a firm grasp on the story. I hadn’t read the book, but now as class discussion continued and the teacher made an effort to involve those students he feared were less-than-comprehending of the story and its implications, I was free to doodle abstract line drawings in my note book and jot down catchy turns of phrase I might later use in heartfelt poems about relationships I had never actually had.

I didn’t tell my father that I hadn’t read Proust, though. I accepted the intimidating multi-volume set and thanked him. I implied, though I did not promise, that I would read it soon. And I implied that I would be re-reading when I did so. The books still sit on my shelf where I can see them now as I write these words.

LAUGHS LAST was not my first exploration of psychological time-travel either, though. To find that, I have to look all the way back to my childhood.

Walking to and from school each day I had much time alone to think. I devised a little internal game. I didn’t think of it as a game, though. I thought of it as important investigation and experimentation in the building of time bridges. As I walked along Pearl Street I would imagine myself the next day at lunch. I would imagine a particular seat in the cafeteria. I would try to inhabit my future body, to see what I would be seeing, hear what I would be hearing. Being a clever kid with a natural understanding of language, I called this “premembering.” I would set it in my mind to remember this moment tomorrow and to think back on what I was seeing and hearing now.

Some days I would remember at the appropriate moment, reaching a day into the past to re-inhabit my body as I walked home from school a day younger. Other days I would forget until hours later, until I was again walking home from school. On those occasions I would complete the bridge from where I was at the moment of remembering, accepting that some of the bridges would be a little lopsided, reaching forward only two-thirds of the way across the expanse and back from a bit further on. At some point it occurred to me that I could take a moment to revisit the moment at lunch when some unforeseen distraction had prevented the timely completion of the bridge I’d designed. Thus I could retrofit the time bridge so that it spanned the distance from yesterday to today in two joined sections becoming a success despite its imperfection.

On other occasions I would remember at some odd moment, as I was going to sleep or as I was eating breakfast, that I was in the middle of a time bridge. I had set the start in the afternoon and would have to remember a few hours hence to complete it. When that happened, I would take the moment to remind myself of the minor obligation but I would also set a second marker, sometime between that moment and the end of the bridge, when I would have to look back on this moment and build a smaller bridge within the bridge.

I was too young to have much of a history to inform my present experience but I was already playing with the idea of nested time spans.

One afternoon, I reached farther into the future. I tried to imagine what I would be like as an adult. I imagined myself in a house somewhere with a dog. I imagined myself drinking coffee because that was what grown-ups did. I tried to plant the idea that I should think back, once I was grown, to this moment with the sun on my face and my lunch box in my hand and complete a long, long bridge in time.

When I wrote LAUGHS LAST I didn’t recognize it as being in any way connected to these games I played as a child. I was wrapped up in early adulthood, desperate to find success, to sell a movie. The script just seemed like another event in the confusing jumble of incidents and activities that made up my life.

I began sending out copies and trying to get meetings. The project, while funny and touching, had the kind of intellectual, artsy feel that made it far more suitable for independent production than a studio sale. I began learning about how to raise money for an independent film. People kept telling me that I needed a name actor attached.

At a charity gig, I worked with an aging comic whose work I had admired for years. I’m not going to give his name because I am going to say that he turned out to be sort of stupid. Back stage I told him that I’d written this script and it had a terrific role in it for him. I told him the role was the grandfather of the lead character, the most influential person in a young man’s life. He was interested. He asked me to get him a copy of the script. I sent it off to him.

I took some more meetings about the script. A month or two went past. I got a job writing on a pilot for a local, late night television show. I came home to a message on my answering machine from the aging comic. He said, “Dylan. I read your script. I can’t give you a letter of intent on this thing. It’s crazy. I don’t understand it. He’s old, he’s young, he’s a kid, he’s a grown-up. The grandfather’s dead, the grandfather’s alive, the grandfather’s dying, the grandfather’s alive, there’s a funeral. Whattaya, need a time machine to make this movie? Good luck, kid. Why dontcha try writing something with a normal story?”

It was sad to hear the script dismissed that way but by then I was involved in moving from one apartment to another and didn’t have time to wallow much in the disappointment.

So I’ve been writing these nested stories to read on the radio, completely unaware that they were really only the latest round of experiments in an intellectual investigation that started when I was eight years old. Then I realized that the pieces are similar in structure to this movie script that I wrote eighteen years ago. Then I remembered the time bridges I’d built as a child.

I took the opportunity to fulfill an obligation. I reached back to the sidewalk in 1975 and walked home again, hearing the drone of a lawnmower and the occasional whoosh of a passing car. I walked home again in my little shoes with my mind reaching forward and for just a moment allowed myself to remember what it was like not to know that I would have a computer, not to know that I would move to L.A. and write screenplays nobody would understand, not to know that it would be a hard, long, sometimes sad series of incomprehensibly disjointed events. Sitting at my desk, sipping coffee, with my dog snoring beside me, I whispered across the expanse, letting my voice echo softly down the bridge, over the gulf of time. I said, “I remember you. You created me”

Occasionally, I think I really ought to read Remembrance of Things Past. I take the first volume down from the shelf and feel the rough surface of the old-fashioned hard-cover. If, in a moment of reverie and contemplation, I hold it to my lips before putting it back, the smell of dust and binding glue takes me back to the moment that my father handed it to me, proud of my writing at last, certain that I was ready. It makes me think, for no reason I can imagine, of a weird little seashell-shaped cookie I once ate, dunking to soften it a bite at a time with a cup of English Breakfast tea which is odd as it’s not something I usually drink.

*in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that, since writing this story that you are reading, I’ve revisited LAUGHS LAST and turned it into a novel. I’m currently shopping it. I say this partly because I feel as though there’s another time-nesting to get out of that somehow, but also because if any of you readers is a powerful figure in the publishing industry, it doesn’t hurt to mention it. I have great blurbs on it from Paul Krassner, Carl Reiner and Budd Friedman.

Why do you tell stories?

If I’m really being honest and not glib, I think I tell stories because I love the feeling when a room full of people comes with me, silently, into my own narrative. There’s a level of narcissism in it, sure. Also, there’s a sense, sometimes, that by baring my soul I make others feel safer and less shameful in their own lives. But none of that is really it. It’s about the sense of acceptance I feel when I express my own experiences, share my hidden self, and feel the support and the interest and the engagement and the acceptance of a roomful of other humans. Also, I’m not convinced that I have any other marketable skills.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

If you’re going to talk or write for strangers, have something to say. Share your truth. Screw the facts. Use the story to make the point that matters to you.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

“You should try to write more like {insert name of successful writer or performer here}”

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

A strong character is one who has both an internal and an external life. That is to say, any character who deals with his world – work, love interest, kids, what-have-you – AND has to grapple at the same time with his or her psyche — personal history, quirks, a moral compass — holds an audience’s interest and sympathy.

The character Louis CK has created for himself on his current TV series leaps to mind. There’s a rich human being there, striving to be a good dad, facing personal insecurity, living in a city with his daughters but also wrestling with his own questions about how he’s doing.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

Local Hero, the William Forsyth film is one of my favorites. The story is brilliantly small and structured in a way that masks the devices at work. For a straight-up lesson in how to write page-turning story, check out the Harry Dresden chronicles by Jim Butcher. They’re good silly fun and Butcher’s ability to keep you rapt is truly a wonder.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

My favorite word, I think, is Moribund, though I don’t know that I’ve ever found an excuse to use it in anything. I just love the sound and the feel of it.

Favorite curse word is probably “fuck,” but I shy away from the use of curse words in my professional life except under certain, very fucking specific circumstances.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Scotch. Johnny Walker Gold Label is probably my favorite, even though Blue is more expensive and real connoisseurs would probably say that a single malt is fancier.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

I can provide linguistic conundrums that will cause the robots to repeat “does not compute” until their voice modules give out and then slow down like a record player set to the wrong speed. After a few moments their heads will smoke and then they will collapse. Also, I make a pretty good spaghetti with meat sauce.

So, how does comedy tell a story?

Ultimately, every joke tells a story that either illuminates a topic by providing new insight or perpetuates a take on a topic by reinforcing a previously held belief. Whether it’s a street joke about two guys who walk into a bar or a one-liner, a story is always told that is more complex and nuanced than the words of the joke itself. “Take my wife. Please.” This joke has lost almost all meaning now, because comics no longer regularly say, “Take the butcher . . .” and then do a joke about handling meat, or “Take my son. . .” and then do a joke about moochers or generational differences and so on. At the time that Henny Youngman started with this joke, though, it was common idiomatically. So, the actual joke lies in the literal use of the common idiom. Easy. But the story it tells is implied. It is a story of an unhappy marriage, a desperate man, a hostile woman, a tense home. One has, almost, the sense that the performer sneaks out a message, pleading for help, through the masking fabric of the humor.

Different — and harder, and probably impossible to answer — question: how do you “be funny?”

What makes a joke work, in almost every case, is the suspension of bits of information that can only fall into place when the audient (the singular of audience), adds a crucial bit of his/her own knowledge to the mix. Often this bit of knowledge is purely linguistic – “it’s funny ‘cause that word sounds like that other word!” – or cultural – “Hey! George Wendt is too BIG to be a successful jockey!” The real key to humor lies in the ability to trust and elevate the listener. The more sophisticated the nature of the connections the audience must make, the more satisfying the laugh.

One of my favorite jokes from my own repertoire revolves around Stephen Hawking. I talk about the scientist doing the lead in a musical theater production — “The singing wasn’t great, but the choreography was innovative. Some people are uncomfortable laughing at that joke, but I think that’s ridiculous. Professor Hawking himself has heard me do that joke and he tells me I am a very funny man. Although, in fairness, it’s impossible to tell when he’s being sarcastic.”

Now, to break it down, the initial joke here about the show relies on the image of a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic being utilized in dance sequences. I never say that he is a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic. That piece of information must be inserted by the audience. There’s a naughtiness about joking about someone’s disability, so some people really are too uncomfortable to laugh and that feeds the rest of the joke, but there’s more in that first bit, as well. There is, very subtly and as what seems like off-handed set-up, a reminder that he speaks through a computerized voice synthesizer. “the singing wasn’t great . . .” This reminder ensures that Hawking’s weirdness of speech is floating somewhere near the surface of the consciousness of everyone who knows who he is. Even people who don’t know him right away by name, if they have some awareness of him, are up to speed by the time I’m talking about the audience discomfort in the room. Then, I call them on their squeamishness about the joke, show that I can respect the man even while making a joke about the disability by calling him “Professor Hawking” and by the time I get to “impossible to tell when he’s being sarcastic,” people who might not ordinarily get that as a stand-alone joke are equipped to drop all the pieces into place and the joke always gets a great laugh and sometimes an applause break.

I’m proud of the piece because it is, in its way, a small text-book lesson in how to be funny:

1) Offer up unexpected juxtapositions and images

2) Keep the audience up to speed without condescending

3) Put the audience at ease

4) Let the audience provide the key elements on their own

Part of what makes it work so well is that I remind the audience of everything it needs to know in what seems like the main joke and then allow it to pay off fully in what seems like a tag when they get to put those pieces of information in place all on their own after they think I’m done messing with them.

Comedy is really a process of taking an audience by surprise with the same set of tricks several times in a row. This is why comics used to be known for saying, “but seriously, folks.” Any tool one can use to allow the audience a momentary suspension of disbelief, a moment of genuine commitment to the idea that what is being said right now is different and not part of a joke will allow the joke to play far better.

I hope I didn’t just ruin a good joke for anyone by breaking it down that way. I really do think about this stuff an awful lot. I might have to write a “How Funny Works” book soon.

What’s the source of humor? Can you mine it? Extract it? Cultivate and craft it?

The source of humor is the shared nature of the human experience. Yes, yes and yes.

Favorite three comedians: go.

Carlin, Pryor, Cosby, Newhart, those guys don’t need my approval or to have their names mentioned or their greatness further acknowledged. My current favorites are Marc Maron, Lee Camp and Maria Bamford.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I would very much like to take my THINKING ALLOWED show to radio. There are some terrific story-tellers and spoken-word artists around whose work I would like to introduce to a larger audience. If I could, I would be next in line to pick up Garrison Keillor’s mantle on NPR. In the short term, I’ll be recording my fifth CD for Stand Up! Records at some point in the next several months for release in 2013 and travelling the East Coast for a while this fall.


Gareth Powell: The Terribleminds Interview

Gareth Powell is a gentleman and a scholar, and he’s also a fine purveyor of what one might call “ape-pulp,” what with his upcoming novel, Ack-Ack Macaque. As a fan (and writer) of ape-pulp myself, it is only proper that he is here today, submitting to the electrodes. I mean, “interview questions.” You can find Gareth at and on the Twitters @garethlpowell.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

After dinner, we bought a bottle of wine and took a taxi back to her flat. The fire escape opened onto a flat section of roof, still warm from the day’s heat.

“Sit down, make yourself comfortable,” Nina said. She smelled of patchouli. She wore a black cocktail dress and had her hair chopped into a platinum Warhol mop. She had a silver pendant around her neck and – when she finally took the dress off – a vertical scar between her breasts. She saw me looking at it and touched it with her fingers. It made her uncomfortable.

“I once lost my heart,” she explained.

Why do you tell stories?

Writing is a compulsion I’ve had for as long as I can remember. As a child, I used to fill notebooks with endless, rambling stories. I always loved to read, of course, and would spend my weekends reading novels from the library; so later, writing seemed a very natural way to express myself. After all that reading, I guess my brain was attuned to the rhythm of the words.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

The first draft of your story or novel is likely to be a bit rough and ragged, and that’s okay. You won’t hit perfection first time. Write as well as you possibly can, but don’t get hung up trying to perfect every sentence as you go along. If you do, you won’t get anywhere. Just get the story down as quickly as you can, and then worry about editing it. Do the difficult part first, and then you’ll have something to work with.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

I don’t think I’ve ever received a bad piece of advice. Granted, some were less useful than others, but all were (as far as I can tell) meant well, and given with the best of intentions. That said, I did find that when I left education, I had to re-learn how to write. The English courses I’d taken at school seemed to encourage florid, pretentious and verbose language, and it took a while to strip some of that out and concentrate on producing lean, descriptive and active prose.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

For me, a strong character is one who isn’t necessarily strong morally or physically, but one who is presented as a fully-rounded individual, with all the flaws and foibles that make us human. Somebody I can relate to and root for, or despise and wish ill upon. And in order to write somebody like that, you really need to know people, and what makes them tick. Very few people in the real world are exclusively good or evil; very few think of themselves as the bad guy; and they’re all carrying around a lifetime of good and bad memories, and acquired habits and quirks. A strong character is one who stands out as a living, breathing individual, rather than a cookie cutter cipher from central casting.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

My favourite book has long been Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. I’ve loved it since I first read it as a teenager. It might not have a particularly structured plot, but it is a masterpiece of storytelling. Here is this writer pouring the experiences of his life onto the page as quickly as he can, drawing us into his world and making us care about the aimless dashing around in which he and his friends indulge in the name of art and kicks.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

My favourite word is “iktsuarpok”, which is an Inuit word describing the type of impatience you feel when waiting for a guest to arrive, which causes you to keep going outside to see if you can see them approaching. As a writer who hates sitting by his inbox awaiting replies to email submissions, this struck a chord. So now, I use iktsuarpok to describe that mood where all I can do is sit there hitting “refresh” every twenty seconds, waiting for an editor to respond.

When it comes to a favourite curse word, I guess the one I use most often is “fuck”, in all its various forms. It’s short, classic, expressive and satisfying, and can be inserted into almost any sentence.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Beer. And lots of it.

Okay, c’mon: what beer? GIVE US DETAILS, MAN.

I like something cold and crisp, like Amstel. As Guinness is to Dublin, so Amstel is to Amsterdam. I’ve been to the city a few times, and they serve it everywhere. You can sit outside almost any café with a tall frosty glass of Amstel and watch the world go by: the trams snaking through the streets; the boats nosing their way up and down the canals, and the locals cutting past on their mopeds, their girls clinging side-saddle to the parcel rack, their tyres going pap pap pap on the cobble stones.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

Technology does seem to have a habit of malfunctioning around me, so perhaps I have this aura of electrical entropy that will slowly render the robot armies useless as they succumb to a thousand annoying little malfunctions.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

I’ve just finished the first draft of my next novel, Ack-Ack Macaque, which will be published by Solaris Books in January next year (although you can already pre-order it on Amazon, should you want to); so my next task will be to edit and submit that over the coming weeks. After that, I have ideas for a couple of series, and I’m working with my agent to decide which to concentrate on first.

You’re all over the genre map in terms of writing. What’s your favorite thing to write? And, anything you haven’t written yet that you want to?

My short stories are mostly set in the near-future, whereas my first two novels (Silversands and The Recollection) were both space opera. I don’t know why; I guess maybe it’s a question of length. With a short story, it’s easier to set it close to the present, with only a few obvious changes; whereas with a novel, you have much more room to describe and bring to life a setting far removed from the here-and-now.

My latest novel (Ack-Ack Macaque) is an alt-history cyberpunk romp featuring a cigar-chomping monkey and a whole lot of zeppelins, and it’s set in 2059; so in that respect, it has more in common with my short stories than my first two novels. But then, that’s not so surprising, because it was inspired by one of my short stories, also called Ack-Ack Macaque, which Interzone readers voted as their favourite story of 2007.

When I’ve finished the final edits on Ack-Ack Macaque, I hope to write another space opera. For me, space opera has always been the heart of the genre.

What’s it take to write good pulp?

To write good pulp (although I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with that description. “I’m writing art, dah-ling!”), you need three things: an involving, fast-moving plot; a tight, lucid writing style; and larger-than-life characters. Throw them all in the mix, and you’ll come out with something pretty special.

New question: as a writer of “ape pulp” myself, what’s it take to write good pulp featuring gun-toting primates?

For me, when I was writing Ack-Ack Macaque, I tried to bear in mind that the monkey (he is a monkey, not an ape) wasn’t simply a man in a monkey suit. If you’re going to write “ape pulp” or “monkeypunk”, you have to make sure the animal is an animal, and therefore subject to different behaviours and responses, and capable of moving around in different ways, such as through the trees or on all fours. I guess this was especially true in the second chapter of the book, where he warns a new recruit to his squadron to avoid staring at him because, as a male macaque, he’s likely to take eye contact as a direct physical challenge.

Matt Ruff: The Terribleminds Interview

Mister Matt Ruff and I were like two ships passing in the night. He did an event at Mysterious Galaxy I believe the night before I did — and at that time, someone was talking to me about his new novel, Mirage, which basically flipped the events of 9/11 around in a fascinating alt-world switch-up. So, when it came time to host him here for an interview, well, uhh, hell yeah. I’ll let him tell the rest. Meanwhile, find him at and on the Twittertubes @bymattruff.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

I’ll tell you about the time when I was twelve and I nearly killed myself.

The neighborhood where I grew up in Queens had a freight line running through it, and if you followed the tracks and were careful not to let the cops see you, you could get onto other parts of the rail network that stretched for miles and miles all over the borough. So when we were kids, my friends and I used to go exploring on the railroad tracks.

One night after dark we were walking along a stretch of the Long Island commuter rail in Rego Park. The tracks ran along the top of a ridge; off to our right was a line of apartment buildings, and in between us and the apartments was this gulley. The bottom of the gulley was pitch dark, so we couldn’t tell how deep it was or what was at the bottom, but the slope down into it was pretty shallow.

We stayed on the tracks, and a bit further along we came to this funny little retaining wall that somebody had built along the edge of the gulley. I jumped up onto it and started walking along it with my arms stretched out, like an acrobat doing a high-wire act. I was clowning, pretending to lose my balance and then catching myself at the last second. I walked the whole length of the wall that way.

Then I came to the end and it was time to jump down, and I had to decide, which way do I jump? To the left was the track bed. To the right, all I could see was blackness—but I assumed it was that same shallow slope, so, about a foot-and-a-half drop onto slightly uneven ground.

I chose left. Later I tried to convince myself there was some sort of logic behind this decision—like, maybe I was worried about twisting my ankle on the slope in the dark—but the truth is, it was a random impulse. I could just as easily have jumped right, and if I had, I wouldn’t be here now telling you this.

About a week later I went back out there in daylight, and that’s when I found out that at that point along the LIRR, an abandoned spur of track passed underneath the main line. The retaining wall wasn’t a retaining wall, it was the top of a tunnel mouth. I’d been dancing on the edge of a 25-foot cliff.

It gets better. The residents of the apartment buildings had taken to dumping their trash in the gulley and on the abandoned track: refrigerators, stoves, stuff like that. Directly beneath the tunnel arch, right where I would have landed, there was this old black iron bedframe. The mattress had long since disintegrated, but the thing still had a full set of bedsprings, which, from above, looked more like a set of coiled, rusty daggers. So if I’d jumped right that night, I wouldn’t have just fallen and broken my neck, I’d have been impaled.

The thing that really freaked me out about this was not the fact that I’d almost died, because I’d had close calls before. What got to me was the realization of just how much could ride on a seemingly trivial decision. Jump one way, you get to grow up and maybe have that writing career you’ve been dreaming about. Jump the other, and you’re nothing but somebody else’s cautionary tale: “Don’t screw around on the railroad tracks or you’ll end up like that kid.”

Like most people who are happy with the way their lives turned out, I want to believe that my good fortune was preordained—that plus or minus a few details, things were meant to turn out this way. But there’s a hardheaded rational part of me that knows that that’s bullshit. I am where I am in large part because of a series of lucky accidents, and every time life has presented me with a chance to leap blindly off a cliff, I’ve just happened to jump the other way. So far.

“So far.” That is, unless I’m actually interviewing Matt Ruff, the ghost. Were you a specter, what would be the first thing you’d do on the other side of the veil?

A victory dance, or the spectral equivalent, to celebrate the fact that there really is something beyond this life and that I hadn’t just ceased to exist. Next would come a long series of practical questions—What did I leave undone, and can I still do any of it? Can I contact my wife somehow? Is there a way to rearrange this death scene so my corpse looks a little more dignified for the paramedics?—followed by another round of celebration: Whoo-hoo! Still here!

What happens after that would depend on whether dead people can get hungry, and if so, what sort of sandwiches are available.

Why do you tell stories?

It’s the way I came wired from the factory. I’ve wanted to be a novelist for as long as I can remember. Anytime I’m alone, or when I’m with other people but there’s a lull in the conversation, my brain flips into this default daydreaming mode that my wife calls “bookhead.” That’s where I do all my first drafts, in bookhead.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

One of the most important lessons to learn is that you’re allowed to get things wrong. Fiction, even the stuff that’s categorized as “realism,” is, by definition, make-believe. The characters don’t exist. The dialogue is invented. Cause and effect is an illusion: Everything that happens in a story happens for the same reason, because the storyteller says it does.

So if it suits your purposes to have the sun go around the earth, or to put the March of Dimes secretly in league with the American Nazi Party, you can do that. Your readers may not all love you for it, but you can do it.

The key is to make deliberate decisions and know what your reasons are. When I wrote Set This House in Order, which is about a relationship between two people with multiple personality disorder, I knew I was stepping into a controversy. There are a lot of skeptics who think MPD isn’t real, and among those psychiatrists who do believe in it, opinions vary as to the exact nature of the condition, how common it is, and how it ought to be treated. I decided up front not to worry about who was right. I picked a model of MPD that made sense to me and focused on telling a believable, engaging story using that model. The end result may or may not be true to life, but I think it’s a really good novel, and that’s what matters.

With my most recent novel, The Mirage, I set different standards of accuracy for different elements of the story. In dealing with theology, especially Islamic theology, I tried to be careful to get things right. With the action sequences, on the other hand, I opted for Hollywood physics—so long as the car chase is cool and exciting, I’m OK with it not being entirely realistic.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

“You should be more practical.”

Actually I’m not sure if that’s the worst advice or just the most futile. I’ve been getting different versions of it for my entire life, and even when I agree, I can never seem to follow it.

When I was a kid, my parents were very supportive of my ambition to be a writer, but occasionally some other well-meaning adult would try to talk me into considering a more sensible career goal. They never got anywhere. I knew I was going to be a writer, and even if you could have gotten me to admit that I might fail, I’d have argued that it was better to proceed on the assumption that I wouldn’t.

Later, after I’d been published, I started getting advice on how to more practically manage my career: How I should stick to this or that genre, or at least make my next novel enough like my last novel so that marketers and reviewers would know what to do with me. The trouble is, the way I write, in order to successfully finish a book, I have to be obsessed with finishing it—to feel like I need to finish it. And while I’m trying to become more flexible in my obsessions, it seems as though at any given time, there’s only one novel that really fills that sense of need, and it’s rarely the novel a practical author would choose to work on.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

I’m not sure I can articulate exactly how I go about it, but my goal in character creation is to get enough of a sense of the character’s psychology that I can easily intuit how they would behave in a wide variety of situations.

Present the character with a problem—let’s say they need to get across town in a hurry, but they’ve got no ride and no money. What do they do?

Using myself as an example, in an emergency I’d be perfectly willing to steal a car, but it’d have to be an unoccupied car with the keys in it. I don’t know how to hotwire an ignition, and as for carjacking, even if I convinced myself it was morally justified—which I might or might not be able to do, depending on the circumstances—I suck at threatening people. Even if I had a gun, there’s a good chance the driver would laugh in my face and go “Screw you! You’re not going to shoot anybody!” (At which point I’d lower the gun and say, “Yeah, you’re right, and I’m really, really sorry, but if I don’t get to Tenth and Main in fifteen minutes, this whole city is going to be engulfed in a nuclear fireball. Can you please help me?”)

That’s the mark of a strong character, when you not only know what they will do and won’t do, you know what they think they’re capable of—and how they react when they find out they’re wrong.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

I’m generally unimpressed by the storytelling in videogames, in part because the game and the narrative are so often at odds with one another. If I’m having fun playing, I don’t want to stop and watch a cutscene—or, God help me, read a wall of text—and if I’m really into a story, I don’t want to have to pass a hand-eye coordination test to find out what happens next.

One of the rare exceptions is Valve’s Portal series, which integrates the story into the play in a way that is seamless, so I never get the sense of being pulled in two directions at once. And the writing is fantastic! GLaDOS is one of the best villains ever, and the supporting characters in Portal 2 are hilarious.

You’re a man of many books — which, of the novels you’ve penned, is your favorite?

It’s a toss-up between Set This House in Order and The Mirage.

There’s a line John Crowley uses in describing his novel Little, Big, where he says it’s the book in which he discovered the extent of his powers as a writer. For me, Set This House is that book: my first fully mature work, and one that really raised the bar on what I thought that I could do.

I think The Mirage may be another milestone book, but I’m still too close to it to say for sure. There’s a sense in which my most recent novel is always my favorite, because it’s the one I’ve been thinking about nonstop for the last few years. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel once I’ve had time to get some distance from it.

Where did The Mirage come from? How is it a book only Matt Ruff could’ve written?

The Mirage grew out of a desire to tell a 9/11 story that wasn’t like other 9/11 stories. I’d noticed that American novelists and screenwriters were focusing almost exclusively on what 9/11 had done to us, while ignoring the people who were bearing the brunt of the War on Terror—the innocents on the ground in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I thought it might be interesting to give those folks a turn in the spotlight, so I hit on this idea of taking a 9/11 thriller and setting it in an alternate reality where the U.S. and the Middle East had traded places. In The Mirage, the world superpower is a liberal democracy called the United Arab States and the terrorists are Christian fundamentalists from a fragmented North America. The heroes of the story are a trio of Iraqi Muslims who work for Arab Homeland Security.

The basic concept of The Mirage is one I think other authors might have come up with, but I’m probably one of the few crazy enough to actually try to write it, especially while the Iraq War was still going on. I also think most authors would have opted for either a purely plot-driven story or something with a heavy-handed Message. I’m a fan of tight plotting, but plot without character is hollow, and much of my storytelling effort is devoted to making sure I’ve got well-developed protagonists you care about. As for Messages, I’m very wary of them, because they tend to force both the characters and the plot to go in unnatural—and uninteresting—directions.

The other distinctly Ruffian touch is that I have knack for handling dark subject matter in a way that doesn’t make you want to slit your wrists. The Mirage is about terrorism and war and religiously inspired mass murder, and it takes those things seriously, but at the same time it’s a funny and ultimately hopeful story.

The Mirage turns the events of 9/11 into an alt-reality parable — did you intend for this to be politically subversive, or is this just the tale that came to be told? What is the value of subversion?

Well, given the basic setup, I knew it would be politically subversive, but I wouldn’t say that was the sole or the main objective. The point of creating a looking-glass world is to get a reverse-angle perspective on everything—politics, yes, but also history and society and religion and morality. The value comes from how that novel vantage point allows you to see things, even very obvious things, that you somehow never noticed before. One of the great powers of fiction is that it lets you try out different perspectives, different sets of eyes, and be entertained while you’re doing it.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

“Uranus,” with the American pronunciation. And “cocksucker.”

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

Kahlúa. Alcohol, caffeine, and extra sugar: Yes, please!

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

Like a lot of lateral-thinking creative types, I have the power of the non sequitur. While the robots’ logic circuits are paralyzed, trying to figure out how the hell I got from topic A to topic B, I’ll be pulling wires and yanking batteries.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

Unless some other object of obsession presents itself soon, my next project will probably be a novel called Lovecraft Country. It’s set in the Jim Crow era, and the protagonist is an African-American named Atticus Turner. Atticus is a field researcher for The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a publication that reviews hotels and restaurants that accept black customers. He’s also a pulp- and science-fiction geek, and as he drives around the country he gets caught up in a series of supernatural adventures. The joke in the novel’s title is that the biggest threat to Atticus’s safety and sanity isn’t some Lovecraftian monster, it’s America itself.

John Anealio: The Terribleminds Interview

Continuing the tradition here of posting interviews with storytellers of all stripes and polka dots, we’ve got Geek Bard John Anealio, also of the Functional Nerds podcast. He’s a funny dude, a smart man, and a kick-ass musician — fan of Jonathan Coulton? Do check out Mister Anealio’s work at where you can download some free awesome music. Find him on the Twitters: @JohnAnealio. Oh, uhhh, also? JOHN TOTALLY DID A TERRIBLEMINDS SONG. You’ll find it in the interview, below.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

I’ve been a music performer for 20 years now.  I’ve played every type of venue that you can imagine: bars, coffee shops, restaurants, ice cream parlors, churches, VFW halls, hookah bars, book stores, libraries and more.  The most memorable gig that I ever played was with a cover band at a strip club.  Now, that sounds awesome, but it was actually horrible.  First off, the name of the band was “Hoosier Daddy”.  Second, we weren’t performing for the dancers, we were performing instead of the dancers.  The owner of this club thought it was a great idea to give the dancers a night off and hire our crappy college cover band to perform as a substitute.  We proceeded to play the pop hits of the day (we did a mean version of “Breakfast At Tiffanies”) to a never-ending stream of horny dudes who walked in the door and were wildly disappointed to discover that the regular entertainment was replaced by a quartet of flannel clad douche bags playing Goo Goo Dolls songs.  By the end of our set, all four of us were hammered… and shirtless.

The capper to this story is that the gig was on the Saturday night before Easter and it was Daylight Savings Time Weekend.  Oh, and I had to play guitar for a children’s choir mass the next day.  Being sleep deprived, hungover and covered in glitter is no way to accompany children singing “We Gather Together”.

Why do you tell stories?

Lessons are learned through stories.  A good storyteller not only entertains, but educates.  I’ve been a teacher for almost as long as I’ve been a musician and students learn best through stories, even inane ones.
When performing, I like to tell little stories that help to give my songs context.  A song can have a much greater impact if you prime the audience with a relevant story first.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Write with all five senses.  A lot of songs, even great ones, are “feeling” songs.  You know: “I love you baby”, “I need you”, “I want you”, “I can’t live without you”.  This is fine, but there are a ga-zillion songs like this.  I think one of the most powerful songwriting techniques is to describe the situation to the listener with all five senses.  Even if it’s a straight up love song, describe what’s going on.  Where are you?  What do you see?  What does she look like?  What is she wearing?  What do you hear?  Cars in the street?  Boardwalk creaking?  A song on the radio?  What do you smell?  Salt water?  Gasoline?  What do you taste?  What are you touching?

I think you can really take a listener on a journey if you do this.  Ironically, I think the listener can feel so much more if you describe in sensory detail what’s going on, rather than just saying: “I feel like my  heart is breaking”.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

I was in a band with a drummer who was the primary songwriter.  While discussing songwriting one day, he told me that: “real songwriters don’t use rhyming dictionaries”.  Besides being an incredibly arrogant statement, that is truly horrible advice.  Rhyming dictionaries not only help you construct better rhymes, they help you write better stories.  They may reveal a word that can send the story of your song into a completely different direction that can make your tune much deeper and more memorable.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

Flaws.  Vulnerability.  Ironically, a character’s weakness will reveal their strength.  How someone deals with adversity and how they overcome their weaknesses ultimately proves how strong they are.
So many strong characters, but I’m going to go with Arlen from Peter V. Brett’s THE WARDED MAN.  Such a relatable character that develops into an utter badass.

What’s the secret to storytelling in songs?

Sequence.  If you take a song and put the second verse first and the first verse second, and it doesn’t really make a difference, then there’s no story.  Each verse, each line should develop the characters and story.  The first verse should introduce the situation and character(s).  The subsequent verses should move the action forward.  The bridge or break should present new information or look at the situation from a different point of view.  Otherwise, it’s better to not have a bridge at all.

Favorite songs that tell stories. Pick three. Go.

1.  “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” by Richard Thompson
2.  “Red Barchetta” by Rush
3.  “Another Auld Lang Syne” by Dan Fogelberg

What’s a musical artist we should all be listening to but aren’t?

There are so many amazing singer/songwriters out there that most people have never heard of.  I can’t pick just one.  Here are three:

1.  Kelly Joe Phelps
2.  Peter Mulvey
3.  Jeffrey Foucault

In my opinion, these are the three best singer/songwriter/guitarists performing folk music these days.  They all had a profound impact on my own writing, guitar playing and performing.  If you like literate story songs, soulful singing and stunning acoustic guitar work, then you can’t go wrong with any of these guys.  Pop their names into YouTube and prepare to kill a few hours.

What geek topic or pop culture property deserves a song that doesn’t yet have one?

All of them.  Let me clarify.  Back in the day, TV shows used to have theme songs that would really lay out the story behind the show.  Nowadays, songs are put into movies to evoke a feeling.  Lyrically, they usually have very little to do with the source material.  “Live to Rise” by Soundgarden was the theme song to The Avengers movie.  It has nothing to do with The Avengers!  Hey Marvel, why not hire Jonathan Coulton, Kirby Krackle or me to write a song that is actually about The Avengers?  I work cheap.

What’s an average day like in life of John Anealio, Geek Bard?

Wake up at 5:30am.  Get to the day job (elementary school music teacher) at 6:30am.  Do my creative work from 6:30am to 8:30am before my students and co-workers arrive.  During this two hour period, I’ll work on recording and editing whatever my latest song is.  Fortunately, we live in a world where you can make a pretty professional recording with a good mic, audio interface and laptop.  I teach my morning classes from 8:30am to 11:30am.  I continue working on my song during my lunch hour.  I get home at around 4pm and take care of my son until about 6:30.  After dinner, I do about an hour at the gym.  I usually try to put another hour of work on the song in before I go to bed.

If you had to write a song about terribleminds, what would the chorus be?

I actually wrote a tune and recorded it.  Here’s the link: Terrible Mind Song If you are so inclined, you can click the share/embed button to get the code to embed the player widget within the blog post.

If you look inside his terrible mind
You’re bound to be offended
So don’t look inside the terrible mind
Of the man they call Chuck Wendig

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

CONTROL POINT by Myke Cole.  Blackhawk Down meets the X-Men.  If you dig military sci-fi, D&D and the afformentioned X-Men then you will love this book.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Appoggiatura: which is a type of musical grace note.  I just like the way it sounds.
Cock-wad: I find myself yelling this when I get angry these days.  Sometimes I shorten it to wad, which seems even more vulgar for some reason.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I’m a beer and wine kind of guy.  If I want to catch a buzz quicker, than I’d say red wine.  If I had to pick a favorite based on taste, I’d go with a nice beer like a Blue Moon or a Sam Adams.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

The ability to bore the robots to death with my endless, narcissistic blathering.  I’m also an excellent swing dancer.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

Good question.  I want to continue churning out good songs and releasing singles, albums and E.P.s.  I have lots of awesome spec-fic author friends.  It makes me want to do more collaborative work.  Perhaps a concept album tied to a novel, like what Rush just did with Kevin J. Anderson for CLOCKWORK ANGELS.  Maybe some sort of trans-media thing.  I don’t know.  I’m excited to have the opportunity to work on any of it.

Doyce Testerman: The Terribleminds Interview

Okay, so, I’ve had the pleasure of Doyce’s Internet Acquaintance (also the name of a dashing new cocktail, which you should create a recipe for in the comments), and the guy’s — well, you know how you just connect with some people? You just grok the cut of the jib or whatever? That’s Doyce. He’s a great blogger. A great writer. I’ve had the pleasure of reading his newest, Hidden Things, and I blurbed the shit out of it because it’s a book right up my alley. I said, “This world of wizened wizard-men and demon clowns will lure you into the shadows, and once you meet the characters who live in those dark strange places you’ll never want to leave. The magic matters here, but it’s the human touch that really brings the book to life.” It’s a super-fun book, so go find it. Then sashay over to, and follow Herr Doktor Doyce on the Twitters @doycet.

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

Once upon a time, on the edge of the Slowing Lands, there lived a widower with his only son. The boy was very lonely (as was the widower), for his father worked many hours every day, and the boy was often alone. To keep both his loneliness and boredom at bay, he often went exploring in the Forest of Anything.

In all of his wandering, he eventually came upon a road; long and broad and straight as an arrow (you can find anything in the Forest of Anything, after all). He walked along the road for many hours until he came to an enormous house on an enormous hill; it was obviously the home of a giant.

Now, the boy was no fool; he knew as well as anyone that magical journeys that lead to a giant’s front step tend to end at a giant’s front step. But he was brave and curious, and while he knew he had to be careful, he also knew he had to get inside and see what he could.

So up he climbed along a trellis on the side of the great house (he was very good at many things that young boys are good at, and climbing was one of them), and clambered into an open window on the third floor. He found himself in a closet big enough to hold his father’s entire house.

Amazing as it was, the closet was still the most boring thing the boy would see that day…

[Read the rest of this story at Doyce’s site! DO IT OR YOU GET THE WATER CANNON.]

Why do you tell stories?

So this is my family during the holidays. Let’s say it’s Thanksgiving, and everyone’s already ate and had seconds and thirds and they’re waiting for that to settle down a bit before they get out the pies and ice cream. The game’s over, so the TV’s not showing much, and everyone’s got some time to kill.

I wander into the living room, and the men — my uncles, my dad and grandpa — have set up a card table, dumped the change out of their pockets and piled it up next to each of them. The cards are out and they’re playing something called ‘rap rummy’ for nickle and penny antes.

And they’re telling stories; trading them back and forth like they do the cards, hardly making eye contact except for the punchlines at the end, voices low and rumbling and just a hint of a smirk or a gravelly chuckle. I watch them, rapt, trying to make sense of the rules behind any of it (the cards or the stories), and I’ll keep trying for probably the next ten or twenty years. Today at least I give up and head into the kitchen.

My mom’s there, with my aunts and grandma. The dishes are cleared and cleaned, and they’re having coffee and ‘visiting’, which is just another way of saying they’re telling stories too. These aren’t the same — it’s not about hunting, or some farm accident that could have been horrible and turned out funny — they’re about their kids, or their family, or their husbands, or (very rarely) themselves, and it’s all a little gentler, a little kinder and nostalgic and sweet. (But still funny.)

And I listen. I soak it up. This is how my family communicates. Never answer a question straight out if you can tell a story that does it instead. Never mind if someone tells you a story you’ve already heard, because they’ve probably told it a few times since the last time you’ve heard it, and it’ll have gotten better.

I tell stories because I want to touch the world and change it. And because that’s what you do for the people you love. Or the people you like.

Or (I found out later, in a different place) even the people you don’t like, because telling a story’s better than having to actually talk to em.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

It’s great that writing is a thing you love, but you also have to treat it like a job, because it is that, if you’re ever going to be successful at it. It’s helped me to have written as part of my boring old day job for years, because I get towrite, but also have to rub some of the pixie dust and unicorn gloss off “the process” and see it for what it is. It’s a job. it’s maybe the best job, if you love it enough, but still. Jobs need you working and producing even on the days where you don’t have a deadline — not as dramatic as last-minute cram sessions, but otherwise better in all respects.

So every day, you write, and when you sit down to write, you have to put down at least less than three sentences before you’re allowed to get all precious and artistic and say “Nope, it’s not working for me right now. I’m not feeling it.”

Do that do that four times every day.

That way, even if you have a shitty, non-productive day (where none of those three-sentence groups takes off and turns into a couple thousand words), at least you got one page down.

I’m totally stealing this from Roger Zelazny, by the way, because he’s a hero of mine, and because it’s a damned good practical bit of craft.

What’s the worst piece of writing/storytelling advice you’ve ever received?

“You’ve got to feel it before you write it.”

What utter horseshit. Take the story in your head, write down the Things That Happen. Try not to suck at it, yes, but mostly just get the story out there where you can work through it until it’s right.

You can’t wait for “the right mood for this scene”; if you do, you ultimately won’t write much, and most of it will be something useless that doesn’t make any sense to anyone who isn’t feeling exactly the same way you did when you wrote it. Like poetry.

What goes into writing a strong character? Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

A good character — main character, supporting character, bad guy, whatever — has to want stuff. Not need: needing something is really kind of a passive thing — they must want, and then they have to act to get what they want in a way that’s right in tune with their nature (whatever that is).

Do that, and your hero is going to be someone people believe — someone they think about even when they aren’t reading about them. Do that, and your supporting characters will make people crazy with the way they keep complicating things. Do that, and you’re going to find yourself with a bad guy that you like almost better than anyone else in the story.

Do that, and you’ll always know what the next thing to write about is going to be, because those characters will goddamn tell you.

Bonus round: Haymitch Abernathy (or really anyone), from the Hunger Games trilogy. I think one of the best things about those books is the fact that it never feels like “Katniss’s Story” as much as it feels like “the story, told from Katniss’s point of view.” The difference between the two is simply that everyone makes decisions about what they want, then acting on them, without so much as a by-your-leave from the protagonist. Kat’s POV is limited, and we’re reminded of this every time she has to deal directly with another character, because – frankly – they’ve got their own shit going on, and aren’t afraid to let her know it.

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

I really like Midnight Nation, by Joe Straczynski. It’s not a perfect story, but it’s a fun read, has a twist or two that I liked, and comes to a satisfying conclusion. It’s fair to say that it shares a bit of DNA with Hidden Things, in terms of the tone, and themes, and the “weirdness in the background”, so there’s that, too.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

Oh come on!

… okay, fine: since I did the thing with the kid and the giant, let’s go with spindle. Check this out:

Spin-dle (spndl)n.


1. A rod or pin, tapered at one end and usually weighted at the other, on which fibers are spun by hand into thread and then wound.

2. A similar rod or pin used for spinning on a spinning wheel.

2. Any of various mechanical parts that revolve or serve as axes for larger revolving parts, as in a lock, axle, phonograph turntable, or lathe.

3. Any of various long thin stationary rods, as:

1. A spike on which papers may be impaled.

2. A baluster.

4. Coastal New Jersey. See dragonfly.

v. tr.: spin-dled, spin-dling, spin-dles

1. To impale or perforate on a spindle.

v. intr.: spindle

To grow into a thin, elongated, or weak form.

That’s pretty much a whole story outline, right there.

Favorite curse word?

I’m going to have to go with “horseshit”, because I don’t use it often, and when I do, it imparts a very specific value judgement.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

If it’s just casual backyard grilling time, I’d prefer a Magner’s Irish Cider, please. If we’re mixing drinks, then a rum and coke (hard for anyone to mess up) or a vodka gimlet (if you know how to make them worth a damn, which I don’t).

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable war against the robots?

Robots? Shit, I’ve been training for zombies…

I’ve written or rewritten dozens if not hundreds of technical manuals since I left college, so odds are good I have the original schematics for SkyNet saved somewhere on my harddrive, from back when it was a lowly Point Of Sale kiosk at your local Diamond Shamrock.

Also, if you need a guy who can ask one of those logicboard-frying paradox questions? Well… I’m no good at that, but I know people who are, and I’ll take you to them if you let me live.

Your name sounds like it belongs to a secret agent. Were you a secret agent (and I bet you are, but we’ll pretend you’re not), what would your favorite spy gadget be?

Without a doubt, I have to go with airboat. I mean, have you seen Gator? I know it’s not technically a spy movie, and a lot of people seem to dismiss it as nothing more than a sequel, but in all honesty I really think it was the stronger film in a lot of significant ways.

Anyway. Airboat.

Or maybe one of those pens that write upside down.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

Hidden Things comes out August 21st (details on my website (, or just look it up with the bookseller of your choice), so obviously that’s taking a lot of my attention right now. Between then and now I’ll be at San Diego ComicCon to do signings and talk on a panel about writing The Funny in fantasy and science fiction. I’m also “doing something” at LeakyCon in Chicago (mid-August) and visiting indy bookseller locations in Colorado for signings and readings.

In terms of the next thing after Hidden Things, there’s quite a few ways that could go, and some of that depends on conversations with my editor, so in the meantime I’m just writing for the same reasons I always have — I want to make my friends and family laugh, and I want to know how it ends.

So, then: how is Hidden Things a book only Doyce Testerman could write?

As a whole, the story comes out of a place where I’ve spent a lot of time. Not the Midwest, but the spot in your heart and your head where you think about the people you love and wonder how you will carry on if you lose them.

That sounds pretty grim, but when I wrote the first draft of the story I could look around and say “I haven’t lost anyone close to me over 20 years,” and rather than being a comfort, what came back to me was the thought that the odds I’d keep that streak going were getting smaller and smaller the longer it went on. I suppose I felt a kind of morbid fascination — first knowing that getting a tooth drilled is going to hurt, and then wondering how much.

A lot of people reading and reviewing Hidden Things talk about how it’s a mystery, or a road-trip fairy tale, or a noir-magical yarn, or a lot of other things, and they aren’t wrong — the way I see it, the reader is always going to right when they tell you what they thought a story was about — but for me, it’s a story about losing people you love (through death, estrangement, whatever) and how you deal with it (or how you don’t). That’s the stuff that’s all me.

That, and the thing with the chicken bone actually happened.

Calliope Jenkins, the protagonist of Hidden Things: she’s a tough, whip-smart protagonist. And she connects. What’s the key to making a character connect with the audience? And Calliope in particular?

You need to let character’s live. No matter how tightly-paced a story is, characters need some time to be still and be themselves if they’re ever going to be come real people to your readers. They aren’t just there to deliver clever dialogue, or ask the right questions at the right time, or die during an emotionally significant scene. Sometimes, the tough, whip-smart protagonist eat cheerios for supper and watches the travel channel. Sometimes the affable, retired homunculous pads around in old slippers and saggy pajama pants because it doesn’t feel like getting dressed yet.

The best music improv teacher I ever had used to tell me “Don’t be afraid of rests. A few beats of silence is just as important as the notes you play.” That’s pretty good advice, really, for anything.

(You didn’t ask, but Stephen King is, for my money, one of the great living masters when it comes to this — I’m not ashamed to admit that when it comes to portraying characters that feel like someone you could (and would want to) meet, he sets the bar I try to reach.)

Anyway, the point is: give your characters room and time to reveal themselves – to become whole. I know I’m getting there when I stop thinking “this character is like that person I know in real life” and find myself thinking “that person kind of reminds me of this character.”

Hidden Things borrows from several fairy tales and mythologies to form a quilt of the modern fantastic: what’s your favorite creature from myth or fairy tales?

How could I say anything but dragons? They can be anything from bestial to nigh-omnipotent — range from foolish and comical to pure, terrifying forces of nature. Any mythical creature is really just another way for humans to look at ourselves in a mirror, and dragons are wonderful because they can reflect the absolute best or the absolute worst in us, depending on how they’re used.

Like us, they can be fearsome and arrogant and horrible and destructive, but also a source of incredible wonder and joy.

Like us, their weaknesses are born out of their secrets. I love dragons.

What are your thoughts on how an author writes and handles magic in a story?

My point of view is that when it comes to magic, there pretty much two ways you can handle magic as a writer.

The first way is what I think of as the straight fantasy method. The basic approach in straight fantasy is that magic happens, it’s different than what we think of as “the normal way to do things”, but it’s basically a quantifiable thing. If the main character in The Dying Earth does a spell, it will work thusly, every time, having basically the same effect, and the person casting that spell will be x tired for y hours thereafter, or whatever. There will be some wonder and mystery to the whole thing at the beginning of the story, but over the course of the book (or book series) pretty much everything gets spelled out to the point where magic is essentially just a second set of Physics laws that only a few people know, but which everyone has to obey.

The second way is what I used to call “fairy-tale-style magic” and have since started referring to as magical realism, because it’s a poncy literary term that nevertheless seems to fit. The basic approach in this style of writing is that you don’t get the “how” behind weird stuff that happens. Why does cold iron hurt faeries? Who cares? It does, so let’s just move on. I think one of the key elements of this kind of story is that a lot of the ‘natives’ in a story like this — the Hidden Things, I guess — don’t think of magic as being anything other than The Way Things Are, and constant questions about the Hows and the Whys make them roll their eyes like you’re a kid who keeps asking why grass is green and the sky is blue. It just is, kid; shut up and eat your ice cream. More importantly — maybe most importantly — is the idea that explaining the magic takes away the magic.

As a reader, I like both approaches. If you need examples, Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series is a contemporary example of straight fantasy in a modern setting, and it appeals to a lot of people, including me, if I’m in the right mood; most of the stuff Neil Gaiman writes follows the second style.

As a writer, I’m very strongly drawn to the second style.

Some of my friends have said that this is at least partly because I have a long history of playing role-playing games, and if I want to tell a story where the rules are all laid out and specific and clear, I’ll sit down with some friends and play a game, rather than write a book. I see no reason to argue with that; they know me pretty well.