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Craig Morrison: The Terribleminds Interview

So, this is an exciting flip here — the storyteller in today’s interview is none other than Funcom Montreal’s creative director, Craig Morrison. Surely by now you’ve heard of a not-so-little MMO called The Secret World? Anyway, he logged into the Giant Hallucinogenic MMO that is the terribleminds interview experience, and answered some question for us. Oh, and while you’re at it, check out this Gamasutra article where Craig talks about why MMO designers should be more concerned about the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what.’ Let the interview commence.

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.

Storytelling has always been inspiring for me because it is one of the most important things a culture can do, any culture …



Vishna stared into the flames, the embers drifted upwards at irregular speeds, like all the voices of the stories, and he knew more than most. Arcing and twisting, changing pace suddenly, taking new shapes and forming new tapestries, albeit far less lucidly than they once had. Some of their subtleties escaped him these days, a plot-point could burn out before he had committed it to memory, a side character may flash too quickly to be sufficiently defined for inclusion.

That came with age.

As he tried to untangle the similar, yet distinct, voices of two of the more capricious ancient sea-song merchants, another voice interrupted, one that should not be there, a younger voice.

Loud, wanting attention, using his name, not an ember voice …

Vishna turned from the flames and allowed his eyes to focus.

“Sar Vishan, would you tell me a story?”

The boy was clearly not yet of Ember, from one of the rising castes no doubt, those with aspirations above their station. Daring to approach the fireside of a Sar. The boldness of youth. The idea of it brought a smile to Vishan’s mind.

“I suppose it would be redundant to remark that you are not supposed to be here young emberling. These flames are not for those of your cycle.”

“I know,” head bowed, “but my caste came far for this telling, and then I wanted to hear more than the tales from the blue flame. I wanted to hear your tales.”

Vishan held his stern demeanor, “Lucius and Amanda are fine tellers, and the blue flames tell the stories for your cycle for a reason emberling.”

“… but Sar,” Vishan could tell the boy wanted to reply passionately, yet hesitated. Respecting the elder. Good. His youthful enthusiasm was at least tempered with some teaching it seemed.

“Speak freely emberling. You are, after all, already here. In the circle of flame no words should be resisted.”

“I do not offer offense,” the youth replied, eyes still to the floor, “it’s just I have heard all the blue flame tales, and most of their variants.”

“No two tellings are ever identical emberling.”

“I know Sar.” The boy nodded, recounting the same line taught to every emberling, “The voice of the tale forever flows.”

“So emberling, you claim you have heard every tale?”

“Yes Sar,” The boy looked up, forgetting, his pride empowering a little impertinence, “all three hundred and sixty two tellings across all three canon, and the five hundred titled lesser verse, with countless local variants and a few regional interpretations my kin deemed sufficiently neutral.”

“Impressive for an emberling of your years. No doubt …” Vishan had to admit, the boy reminded him more than a little of a certain emberling who had impertinently followed voices many year before, “however, you disrespect Lucius and Amanda. They are my voice in the circle of blue flame, and are fine tellers.”

“No Sar,” head bowed again, “I have already attended all their tellings.”

Vishan raised an eyebrow, “Already? This telling is but only three days old.”

“I slept only when they did. Now they repeat this cycle’s cannon, and I heard all their tellings.”

“So you come here. This circle is not usually for those of your cycle, as well you know.”

“I know Sar, but I can understand these tales, I really can, and I shall seek to learn the meaning of those I cannot not.”

Vishan laughed quietly, “You understand eh emberling? You will have to forgive an old Sar. The arrogance of youth may be but a long passed memory, but I vaguely recall what it was like to have no fear of that which you cannot yet appreciate. Still your tongue, this is not a rebuke. Just promise me that if I relate a telling, to you, when I should be resting no less, that you shall never close your mind to meaning. The tales relate meaning and perspective even to those of my cycle, or even when told by a different voice.”

“I promise Sar,” The boys eyes burnt almost as brightly as the embers from the flame.

“Then we have a story to tell, sit down and we shall begin …”

Why do you tell stories?

Because I am pretty sure they would find another, less enjoyable way to get out, if I didn’t. A way that would almost certainly involve mental health professionals.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Find someone to trust for feedback and advice. On one level writing is one of the most inherently insular things you can do. Those are your words, your thoughts, your stories coming to life on the page, but you can usually take things to another level, one you may have thought you weren’t capable of, if you can find it in yourself to share some of the creation process. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do, but one of the most rewarding once you find the right person, or people, to be able to bounce things off, or get feedback from.

I guess you could argue that it is natural for someone like me to feel that way, as I come from an inherently collaborative creative medium. Very little ends up in our games that isn’t a team effort, into which many wonderfully creative people have had input … so you get very used to bouncing ideas around, and letting them grow based on that back and forth.

Oh … and read your work aloud whenever you can … I always find it incredibly beneficial to read my work aloud. That’s usually some really useful self editing right there!

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

That I should check my imagination, and that somehow writing ‘serious’ literature would make me a ‘better’ writer. I don’t feel you should ever try and dictate to anyone that they are writing the ‘wrong’ types of stories. There is of course much to be said for broadening your scope as a writer, but for me, I would hate to ever push people away from what they enjoy writing. You can develop and improve as a writer, or as a storyteller, in many different ways.

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

For me it comes back to the old adage of ‘Show don’t tell’. If a writer feels the need to tell me every waking thought of a central character, or constantly ensure I know their opinions on the events of a tale, I feel that you miss out on part of the experience with a good character. The truly great characters for me are those that can draw you into a story, and create empathy, if not always sympathy, without the author having to force feed you their inner monologue.

A good character is an audiences bridge into settings that might not be familiar to you, allowing you to identify with characters that might otherwise have been totally alien to you. The readers imagination and life experience will always influence, even if it is subtly, their relationship with your characters. You need to give that room to flourish. You almost have to leave room for me, as your reader, to create an ever so slightly different version of your character than you did when writing it.

Strong characters? Wow, so many to chose from, so many have resonated down the years, for many different reasons. Then I also like to ask an awkward question – does a character have to be an actual person? Let me explain … when asked that question its hard for me not to jump straight to those characters that first inspired me to want to create real characters myself. For me that was those found in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, although with hindsight and re-reading I often feel the strongest character there is the setting and the atmosphere that he created so brilliantly for that hot summer of 1922. It was a world I had no relation to, and no knowledge of, yet I was immediately drawn in, and fell in love with those characters almost by proxy.

My father read me The Hobbit aloud when I was a child, and that imprinted the power of storytelling upon me, but it was Fitzgerald that made me think about characters and creating them for the first time.

More recently, Aomame, the central female character of Murakami’s 1Q84, was a wonderful character. She had me in the first chapter and never let go.

How does storytelling in games differ from more conventional types?

First and foremost it is an interactive medium. That in and of itself is a huge difference. The player generally gets to be involved in the storytelling, often making choices, or branching the narrative in different ways based upon how they want to play the game. In many genres of game that means that you are often writing or creating many, many different stories, or variations on a story, to account for the possible outcomes of the scenarios in the games. Now of course some games don’t provide any real choices at all, yet still benefit from the interactivity. A game like Journey is a great example there. It is completely linear, and in game-play terms, rather straight forward, yet the storytelling is still spectacular due to the atmosphere that the designers created, and then combine with what the audience bring to the experience. So games can have all kinds of different narratives, it is really no different than there being different styles and genres of literature. Games are like that as well, the type of game defines the type of narrative you might see … even when you don’t expect it. Some would argue that even a game like Angry Birds has a narrative, of sorts at least, that plays into the appeal. Just why are those birds so angry at the poor pigs? Ok, I’m not sure many would claim it is a serious narrative, and many within games would hurl rocks at me for suggesting it, but it fascinates me as a designer. There is often narrative where you least expect it.

What’s the trick then to carrying good story across to a massive multiplayer audience? What are the pitfalls?

That’s another hurdle altogether and really comes in two important parts. With our style of games, massively multi-player online games (which all the cool kids like to refer to as ‘MMO’), it is often more important to create a believable world, so you have these two very different pressures. The first regular one of having a narrative to your game-play, and then the second of having a believable and compelling world.

In narrative terms MMOs have struggled somewhat with the traditional ‘hero’s story’ as it were because, put simply, we create a world which thousands, often hundreds of thousands or millions, of players populate. Thus it’s hard for everyone to be ‘The Chosen One’. To be honest we probably haven’t yet found the best solution as a genre for that one, and different games try to handle it in different ways. A game like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic simply kind of ignore it and let everyone be the hero and have a world where all those players are simultaneously having the same experience. The next generation of tittles like our own The Secret World and Guild Wars 2 are trying some variations to try and make it feel more like a shared world, even if the issue is still there.

The holy grail of virtual world design would one day to be able to support player stories all being unique in a shared space, but the sheer amount of work and technology before we get there is daunting, and we aren’t there yet by a long shot. The again … I am writing this on my iPad … a device strangely like those Star trek wanted to convince me was science fiction just a few decades ago … so who knows?

Then you have more sandbox worlds, like that of EVE Online, where players make their own story-lines, but that is not so much creating a narrative as creating a situation where your players can create one. I think people can, and often do, argue about whether that really is a ‘created’ game narrative or not, as it is certainly not written by the developers, but is often totally compelling. So in those cases the storytelling comes from the players, because the developers created the possibility for that to happen, which brings us to the second important element

World building on the other hand often becomes more important than it can be in traditional literature, because with a game people can see … with their own eyes … what you create. It sounds simple, but it has a huge influence on the creative process. With books the audience is often ‘filling in the blanks’ as to background and how a place looks or feels. A game, like in television or movies, has to actually show the world. What’s more, is that in our genre, the camera isn’t as controlled or scripted as it might be in a movie, or even a mainstream computer game. The players are generally free to poke around and look behind stuff. Look behind stuff. It’s the stuff of artists nightmares! No getting away with the equivalent of a dressed movie set. That means that said stuff actually has to have a behind.

That can be extended on a kind of meta level too, in that players find these worlds more engaging if they can relate to the world you have created in different ways, and actually learn about it if they want to. What culture does it come from? What are the rules of this place? It’s actually a lot of fun, and part of the process I enjoy the most. You have to ask yourself questions, to figure out what something would look like in your setting. What would it sound like? How big would it be? Where would it be? You end up having to answer those questions and many more that you couldn’t have imagined before starting out. You find that as you answer all those questions you are slowly building up the world that you are creating, slowly but surely crafting same texture into things, and then starting to cast some shadows into the contours of your setting.

Recommend a game with your idea of killer storytelling:

The aforementioned Journey will pull at your heart strings better than most. It is an experience better left unspoiled until you play it, so just go try it! The entire game can be played inside four hours … four well spent hours.

In terms of more traditional narratives I am a sucker for the two Portal games. Valve have always done a great job with their narrative design, even if the silent protagonist thing isn’t to everyone’s tastes, and for me they really nailed it with the Portal games. People usually jump to mention a Bioware title, or the Rockstar games, when asked that question, but for me Valve are all too often unfairly overlooked in that regard. Those two games have such great voice acting, wonderful dialog, a twist or two before then end, are perfectly paced, never outstaying their welcome. They really are wonderful experiences from a narrative point of view. The writing merges perfectly with the game-play and the world design, and that is where the true genius lies. Nothing feels forced, and it all flows beautifully from start to finish … and at its center it has a wonderfully unhinged robotic AI with a wicked sense of humor … can you ask for more than that? Wait, yup, they thought of that too. The second game then ups the ante by adding a liberal dose of JK Simmons, I have yet to watch or play anything that wasn’t improved by a liberal dose of JK Simmons.

Sell us on The Secret World. Hell, even better, sell us on the game’s story. Why should we play? What will we see?

The team behind the game, lead by Ragnar Tørnquist, who is probably one of the best writers working in games, and has an insanely talented writing team, have crafted a fantastic world and mythos. It weaves modern myths, legends, and conspiracies into this amazing canvass that they have painted with some really memorable characters, plots and story-lines. The tag line we used to sell the concept from an early stage was ‘everything is true’, so in The Secret World you’ll find ghosts, zombies, werewolves, vampires, conspiracy theories, and it’s bursting at the seams with ancient secrets waiting to be revealed. This is a modern game inspired by modern storytelling, you are more likely to see a nod to Neil Gaiman or Josh Whedon than you are Tolkien in this one.

I am however completely and unashamedly biased, so best let someone else tell you! My favorite review so far has to be from the guys at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (great site by the way, if you follow games and don’t read them, correct that right now!) who said in opening “The Secret World is an excellent, intelligent and literate pop song with a thudding, repetitive ear-worm of a chorus”

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

1Q84 that I just mentioned, is a great read. One of my favorites in recent memory, closely followed by China Miéville’s Embassytown. With both I think I am giving away the fact that I am drawn to narratives that don’t rely on constant exposition to craft their worlds. I kind of like having to piece together the details myself as I go along, or get dragged along by a masterfully crafted narrative, slowly having things revealed to me, or even those that rely on the reader to pull some of it together.

Also, if anyone still wants, or needs, evidence that comics can tell stories quite unlike any other medium, you simply have to pick up Daytripper by by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. The most inventive piece of storytelling I have come across in some time. Even if you don’t ‘do’ comics, pick it up, trust me, you won’t regret it … not one little bit. Don’t read up on what it is about, just buy it, read it, treasure it, and you will, as I am doing here, evangelize the experience to others.

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

Just one? Hmmm, for some reason the word ornery got stuck in my mind when my wife challenged me to use it during a writing challenge some time back. It’s a good word. I almost seek out opportunities to use it now. Curse words? I am fascinated by curse words in languages other than my own for some reason, I tend to find myself swearing to myself in French rather than English, no idea why, maybe that’s my minds way of censoring itself, in the same way your mother might use the word ‘sugar’ rather than ‘shit’ when you were a child … or maybe that was just my mother …

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

An Irish Whiskey that goes by the name of Middleton, sweet, and all kinds of awesome.

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

I don’t know, depending on what we did to cause it, as it would invariably be our fault! I might be tempted to try and reason with the robots, and find some kind of logical loophole that would grant some of us amnesty from whatever wrath we had invoked. If working with software all this time has taught me anything, it’s that if humans originally made the robots, then there WILL be a logical loophole somewhere in the code!

If there really wasn’t, then I guess I would most likely be the annoyingly optimistic one with a plan. You know, the one that is invariably going to come to a foul, yet noble, end sometime before the third act.

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

The beauty of working with an online genre of games is that we are never done, and our medium is young! We get to create more stories, more characters, and even long term, more worlds. Ultimately I look forward to the next opportunity to create another world, and bring it to life for others to experience. With Age of Conan still rolling out new adventures, and The Secret World launching soon, we are also hard at work working on what kind of a world we create next. For me that is the best part of the process, creating game worlds. Whether it is deciding how to treat a license, as we do with Conan, or creating something from scratch, we get to build and create these incredibly visceral worlds. Worlds that hundreds of thousands (and occasionally millions if you are really lucky) of gamers get to experience, and they then bring their own stories to your world.

You almost feel a little like a proud parent in that regard. What we do is only part of the storytelling that takes place in these games, because each and every player is bringing in another chapter and character, anything from a would-be legend to a background character, they all contribute to the tapestry of stories that populate our worlds and make them unique. In many ways we provide an avenue through which others can tell stories, both intentionally and inadvertently.

I love the medium, and have faith that we have barely scratched the surface of its potential in terms of both telling stories, and empowering our players to tell theirs. It’s such a young medium, we still have much to learn.

Andrew Shaffer: The Terribleminds Interview

He’s Andrew Shaffer. And he’s EvilWylie. And Emperor Franzen, and Fanny Merkin, and Keyser Soze, and also, a sentient cloud of hilarious nano-particles. Under the pen name “Fanny Merkin,” Shaffer’s the dude behind the smash 50 Shades of Grey parody, Fifty Shames of Earl Grey. Here he sits for an interview at Jolly Old Terribleminds. Find him at his website,, or at Twitter as @andrewtshaffer.

Why do you tell stories?

To entertain. I’ve always been more of a court jester than a troubadour.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

I wrote for about ten years solid before I found my own voice. If I could go back in time, I might tell myself to stop pretending to be something I clearly wasn’t (a serious literary novelist), and write the kind of books I enjoyed reading (genre and nonfiction).

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

“Write what you know.” I think this advice works on some levels—it’s difficult to write convincingly about a breakup or a family death if you’ve never gone through those situations—but I’ve too often heard it used to steer a writer into writing something “personal” to them. “If you’re a truck driver, write fiction about truck drivers! Look at what Grisham did with his experience as a lawyer!” I think that’s kind of shit advice, at least for me. I like to write about things I have no clue about, because I enjoy the research. Writing is a wonderful way to expand your own worldview and experience life through other sets of eyes.

What goes into writing a strong character?

For a long time, I was stuck on the idea that a “strong character” meant a “flawed character.” Thus, I wrote several novels (all unpublished) with protagonists who were fucking crippled by their vices, criminal behavior, self-loathing, etc. My writing was weak, because the “heroes” were weak. Now, I’m more inclined to say that a strong character is simply one who acts. I could care less about how three-dimensional a character is these days. God, I sound like a television producer…

Bonus round: give an example of a strong character.

Buck Schatz in Daniel Friedman’s “Don’t Ever Get Old.” Buck is a foul-mouthed, 87-year-old ex-detective. Would I want to spend time with him in real life? No. Do I want Dan to write another Buck Schatz book? Absolutely.

The Fifty Shames Of Earl Grey has a… rather curious (and quick) path into existence. Tell us about it, or I will break your legs.

While I was live-tweeting a review of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I joked I would write a fanfic of the series. That turned into a parody that mashed up “Fifty Shades” and “Twilight.” At the time, “Fifty Shades” had only sold 100k copies–a nice number, but no one knew it would blow up to become the biggest book in the world. Still, after “Fifty Shades” sold to Random House, my agent asked if I could quickly finish the manuscript so she could shop it. I told her it was half finished, but I think I maybe only had 5k out of a proposed 40k words at that time. I told her I would have the entire thing in her inbox in a week. It was an ambitious schedule, but I was in the midst of a nonfiction book I’d been working on for over a year, so it was like a vacation of sorts. Fueled by Red Bull and angst, I wrote the book. My agent sold it. And then I spent two months editing it.

What’s the trick to writing satire/parody? (And, is there a difference between parody and satire as you see it?)

A parody (or spoof) usually lampoons a specific thing. The “Scary Movie” films mocking “Scream” and horror films are a great example. Satire, I think, uses humor to make constructive criticism of some aspect of society. Although “Fifty Shames of Earl Grey” is billed as a parody, it’s more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Underneath the “Fifty Shades” and “Twilight” gags is a very serious critique of the culture that gave birth to a bestselling fanfic starring a rich CEO and a submissive virgin.

The “trick” to writing a parody is to have some level of respect or interest in the underlying material. Although I didn’t like “Fifty Shades of Grey,” I read a lot of romance and erotica, which is what drew me to “Fifty Shades” in the first place. There are some other “Fifty Shades” parodies out there that seem to come from a very negative place that indicts all “dirty books” in a very mean-spirited way, and (at least according to Amazon and Goodreads reviews), those other parodies miss the mark badly. Likewise, a satire is best written by someone who is optimistic that society can improve.

Any thoughts on the existence and success of Fifty Shades of Grey? Good? Bad? Indifferent? Eff that ess in the bee?

As a critic, I was not impressed with “Fifty Shades of Grey” — if only because there are some fantastic erotica writers out there that’s been ignored by the mainstream for years. Having said that, it’s been great for erotica so far. There are some filthy books trickling into places like Walmart and Target, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. People who haven’t read books in years have also been picking the “Fifty Shades” books up, so who am I to tell them they’re picking up the “wrong” ones? I was very cautious not to mock “Fifty Shades” fans or readers in my parody. In fact, one of the central questions in the book is, “Why be ashamed of what we like?”

Speaking of satire/parody, you are a many with a couple-few parody Twitter accounts. EvilWylie, Emperor Franzen. Any we’re missing? Where’d these come from? And why?

Eh, there’s a few more (@ZombieFreeMom), but I tend to stop using an account if it doesn’t take off. Parody Twitter accounts are just a way to flex my writing muscles. The @EvilWylie account as a parody of agent Andrew Wylie, but now it’s just a place for me to say all the terrible things I want and pass them off as jokes. I think of Evil Wylie as the Loki of the publishing world: an agent of mischief.

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

Tiffany Reisz’s Original Sinners books (“The Siren” is out now) are ridiculously great. And I’m not just saying that because we’re dating. I recently finished reading the second book in her series, “The Angel,” and the way that she manipulates the reader is simply sadistic.

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

I recently came across the word, “la foutromanie,” a French word coined in the 18th century that translates as, “fuckomania.” I don’t know if it’s my “favorite” word, but it’s one I made a mental note of and return to from time-to-time. As for curse words, “fuck” is probably still my favorite. I use it sparingly in my writing, though — in “Fifty Shames of Earl Grey,” for instance, I use it just twice. I like to treat it as a sacred word.

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

This would have been an easy question if you had asked me a couple of years ago! I would have told you about the latest beer I’d fallen in love with (always a microbrew; usually a stout). Sadly, I’ve had to scale back my alcoholic consumption immensely. I still enjoy a glass of fine absinthe now and then, mostly as an aesthetic pretension.

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

I don’t know if I would necessarily side with humanity. My choice would depend on a number of factors. What’s the likelihood of robots winning this war? Does supporting the robot faction help avoid greater losses of life in the longrun? And how advanced and good-looking are female robots?

Regarding the Robot War, let’s assume that all robots hate all meatbags, and you are, unfortunately, a meatbag. Now what?

In the previous question about choosing sides, I was, of course, planning to defect to the side of humanity the entire time. My answer was part of a long con, but if you’re making me choose sides right now, you’ve ruined my status as a double-agent. If I was fighting on the sides of the meatbags, I could provide some comic relief in the trenches. “Q: Why did the robot cross the road? A: Because that’s how it was programmed.” Give me some time, I’ll come up with something better though.

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

My next project is a nonfiction book called “Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors” ( It traces the drunken, drugged-out author myth from Lord Byron to Hemingway to Hunter S. Thompson. I started working on the book nearly two years ago, and it will be published in February 2013 by Harper Perennial. I have a few more projects in progress, both fiction and nonfiction. They’re all at the single-cell stage right now.

J.C. Carleson: The Terribleminds Interview

Normally, I’m the one in control of these interviews. But when someone yanks you out of your Hyundai, throws a black bag over your head and drives you out to the middle of the desert so that you may interview someone, well, you do it. Not least because they’ve got a gun shoved up into your gonads. So! Here, then, is my interview with CIA spy and new author, J.C. Carleson, whose debut novel, Cloaks and Veils, is out now. You can find her at her website —

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 true, slightly embarrassing story about the relativity of language.

I moved to Spain right after the birth of my first child, and right when I decided to get serious about writing. Between moving to a new country where I didn’t know anyone, learning how to be a parent, and writing full time, I was pretty isolated. Okay, very isolated. My interactions tended to be limited – the cashier at the grocery store, the janitor in my apartment building, the nannies watching the other children in the park, etc.. In Spain, these jobs are held primarily by immigrants from South America – and so it was that I learned to speak a Latin American form of Spanish even though I was living in Spain. (The difference is akin to the difference between British and American English.)

I was also fortunate to have a lovely woman from Ecuador as a house cleaner – to this day I swear that I learned most of my Spanish from the endlessly patient Dolores. We quickly developed a method of communicating that involved short words and lots of elaborate body language. My husband couldn’t understand a word of what either of us was saying, but Dolores and I understood each other perfectly.

Once I mastered the basic vocabulary I asked Dolores to teach me all of the bad words. She’d only whisper the really bad ones, and would shriek, giggle, and go red in the face when I repeated them back. She preferred milder words, so among others she taught me “joder” (pronounced ho-dare). She assured me that it was a benign invective – along the lines of “darn” or “dang”. It has a satisfying, slightly guttural sound to it, so I tossed it into my daily vocabulary. Couldn’t find the right change while the taxi driver was waiting for me to pay? “Joder!” I’d mutter while rooting through my wallet. Ancient elevator in our building creaking and groaning more than usual? “Joder!” I’d say to the neighbor riding up with me. Particularly hot day out? “Joder!” I’d say to the person next to me on the metro while fanning my face.

I used the word a lot.

And then one day I was pushing my baby in a stroller behind a slow-moving gaggle of pre-teens in my neighborhood. Unable to get by them on the sidewalk, I perdona’d and por favor’ed several times to no avail before finally saying “joder, niños!” in a fairly loud voice.  Now, I thought that translated roughly into “geez, kids”, but the group went silent and turned on me with wide, shocked eyes. Several almost tripped in their hurry to get out of my way.

I began to suspect that joder did not mean what I thought it meant.

Later that day I asked a bilingual friend for help. Fuck. In Spain it basically translates into “Fuck” – both the act and the exclamation.

Dear Dolores hadn’t intentionally steered me wrong – in Ecuador and in some other South American countries, joder is apparently a mild term. Company appropriate, you could say. Not so in Spain. Which meant that I had spent more than a year generously tossing “fuck” into conversations with strangers, neighbors, my child’s daycare providers, my husband’s co-workers, etc…. Joder.

Lesson learned: The nuances of language matter. Sometimes a lot.

Why do you tell stories?

I got used to being paid to lie in my old career and I wanted the paychecks to continue.

More seriously, storytelling is a huge part of working undercover. Huge. You have to create a persona, live a cover story, and disguise your intentions – and you have to do it convincingly. I discovered that I was pretty good at storytelling while working for the CIA. I’m also a lifelong bookworm – a true book lover – so stepping into fiction after leaving the espionage business felt like the most natural thing in the world.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Finish something. A novel, a screenplay, whatever. But finish it. I could write opening chapters all day long. It’s only with the blood, sweat and tears of bringing something to The End, though, that you can truly learn about effective character development, plot coherence, and pacing.

Plus, everyone has an unfinished manuscript in their drawer. Harness your competitive streak and actually get yours done.

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

You’ll never make it as a writer without an MFA. Bollocks.

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

I may be the wrong person to ask, because I love a flawed character and I think that unreliable narrators tell the most interesting stories. Maybe I’m weird, but as a reader I’ve never felt the absolute need to side with or believe in the characters of books. I don’t even have to like them. I just want them to tell a damn good story, even if that story is full of lies. I am aware, however, that some editors don’t share this opinion. In fact, CLOAKS AND VEILS was rejected by several editors who felt that the protagonist of my book, a female CIA officer, was not convincing or likeable enough because she makes a few highly-consequential mistakes and has a tendency to let her personal life become intertwined with her professional life (to say more would be a spoiler). But as someone who spent nearly a decade as a CIA officer, I can tell you with absolute certainty that real-life spies are every bit as flawed as the rest of the world – and probably more so. They most certainly make mistakes, and they most certainly bring work problems home and personal problems to work. My protagonist is absolutely imperfect. She’s also absolutely realistic.

But if by “strong character” you mean “interesting, well-developed character”, then I think it’s all about the voice. I love a character who can tell me a story just in the unique way he or she walks down the street or reacts to a mundane situation. Does he pet the stray cat, or does he kick it? I want to like the character or hate the character by the end of the first page – even if that opinion changes later on. As long as I’m not indifferent, then character development is going well. A strong character transports readers in every scene just by walking and talking and reacting in a way that is intriguing, or different, or even shocking.

Bonus question: Gillian Flynn does an incredible job of telling a great story via a deeply flawed, highly unlikable character in DARK PLACES. Her protagonist, Libby Day, is lazy, selfish, mean-spirited…and utterly fascinating. As a reader you doubt half of what she says, but you can’t help but listen anyway. She may be weak in spirit and morals, but she’s sure as hell interesting. (Chuck do I get a bonus for my bonus question for coming up with a strongly written, weak character?)

You’re former CIA. What can you tell us about the CIA that most people don’t know or wouldn’t expect?

–      There’s a Starbucks inside CIA headquarters. And a Dunkin’ Donuts.

–      The CIA has a writers’ club. I was a member, but I traveled too much to make many of the meetings.

–      The CIA has a dedicated publication review board. Like all CIA officers, I’m required to submit my writing to them prior to publication for the rest of my life. (They even reviewed this blog interview!)

–      CIA officers hate being called spies. They’re not spies – spies are people who commit espionage against their own country. CIA officers RECRUIT spies.

–      The overwhelming majority of CIA employees are not undercover.

How did “telling stories” come in handy while at the CIA?

There is a great deal of motivation to develop excellent storytelling skills when angry and heavily armed men are asking you questions like: “What are you doing with this top secret file from our prime minister’s office?” or “What were you doing meeting with the president’s top aide at 3:00 a.m. in a deserted park?” or “Why are you sneaking across our border with $200,000 in cash and passports in three different names?”

Storytelling is a survival skill in the CIA.

What kind of person becomes a spy?

May I let one of my characters from CLOAKS AND VEILS answer that question? Here’s Caitlin (she has good reason to be cynical), on page 53:

“You know, the people who recruit CIA officers think that they’re looking for Boy Scouts. The perfect patriot who speaks four languages, ties sailor knots, jumps out of airplanes, and goes to church on Sundays. But you know what they really want? They want people who can cheat and lie and steal—and then go to church on Sundays without the least bit of remorse. They need people with a hidden dark side.”

Do you have bad-ass spy gear? Will you share?

Of course I do. But I’m not sharing. I’m saving it all for the zombie apocalypse.

What’s the strangest place you’ve been, and why?

In Kabul, Afghanistan, in the back of a jeep driven by a chain-smoking Afghan man, with my feet propped up on a Stinger missile. The missile was just slightly too long to fit, so I was holding the unlatched door to keep it from flying open. Every time we hit a big bump the driver would turn around, cigarette dangling out of his mouth, laugh hysterically, and say “Boom!”.

Why? Business as usual.

Sell us on Cloak and Veils. First, the 140-character Twitter pitch…

CLOAKS AND VEILS: A disturbingly authentic spy thriller about one CIA officer’s fight to survive after an operation goes terribly wrong.

And then by telling us exactly how this is a book only you could’ve written.

ER was a popular TV show when I was in high school, but my father had to leave the room every time I watched it. He was a doctor, and he used to get so upset about the technical errors that he would end up yelling at the TV set. “You don’t do that during open heart surgery!” “What kind of an idiot would give those medications at the same time?” “An ER doctor would never do that!”  These were things that most viewers would never notice, but were glaringly obvious to him.

I feel the same way about many spy thrillers — particularly when it comes to female protagonists. I just cannot bring myself to read a book in which the buxom stripper assassin pulls a throwing star from her cleavage and hurls it expertly at the Russian mafia thug at the same time as she detonates the explosive device hidden in her stiletto heel, all the while holding witty conversations in fluent Japanese and German. Just…no.

Please note that I’m not bashing the genre as a whole – there are many, many outstanding books, and I’m a huge fan of many authors in the field. But far too often, CIA officers are portrayed as invincible super-heroes. They have unlimited resources, they are experts at everything,  and they never, ever screw up. Personally, I find this level of perfection boring. I wanted to write a spy thriller in which the protagonist, a CIA officer, is a real person who makes real mistakes within a real, flawed organization, and then and has to use real skills to survive. Trust me – there’s nothing boring about authenticity when it comes to the CIA!

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

Jose Saramago’s BLINDNESS. (Do NOT judge it by the execrable movie.) It’s post-apocalyptic brought down to a personal level – everyone losing their vision, one person at a time. It shows the basest of human behavior right alongside the most heroic. It’s at times gruesome and at times poetic, and it makes you cringe and then turn the page anyway, over and over again. (It seriously makes you think about cleanliness and plumbing in a whole new way…not for the faint of heart.)

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

Favorite word? Mistral. As in le mistral. (Come on, try it. It totally sounds better with a French accent.) It’s the name of the strong, Mediterranean wind that blows through the south of France. It just sounds romantic, and maybe a bit spooky. It’s a word that transports.

Favorite curse word? As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m a sucker for learning curse words in foreign languages. But I always come home to good, old-fashioned “fuck” as my favorite. It’s just so damn versatile.

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

I’m a red wine gal. Big, full-bodied, grab-you-by-the-throat reds – you’ll win my friendship forever if you serve me a Cabernet from Heitz Cellar, for example.

Don’t ever serve me anything pink. If I ran the world I would banish Rosé  wines and pink cocktails. Blue cocktails too, come to think of it.

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

I worked for the CIA, remember? We’re the ones who built the evil robots. So I know where the secret off button is.  (Note to tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists: I’m joking. There is no off button.)

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

I’m taking a brief break from fiction for my next book, but storytelling is most definitely still involved. WORK LIKE A SPY: BUSINESS TIPS FROM THE CLANDESTINE WORLD is coming out in February 2013. It’s a leadership/management book in which I apply lessons learned from my CIA career to the business world. After that I think I’ll return to fiction, though I haven’t decided whether to write a sequel to CLOAKS AND VEILS or start something completely new.

Dan Goldman: The Terribleminds Interview

I met Dan a couple-few years ago at DIY Days in New York, and before I knew what was happening he was beaming high-grade hallucinogens into my heart using his laser-eyes, and then we spent the next 72 hours riding cloud dragons and fucking up corrupt politicians with robotic borer beetles and corn weevils. It’s also possible I just ate a bad salad and tripped balls in my own bedroom, but whatever. Dan’s an uber-creative, an artist and author, and he was kind enough to ingest a high-test dose of my interview nanites. Dan’s the man behind SHOOTING WAR and RED LIGHT PROPERTIES. His site: Him in the Twittertubes: @dan_goldman.

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.

“Where It Goes”

Spencer Tyrell was already late for work at the Cinnabon when he killed that pigeon.

His ratty Adidas pumped BMX pedals all the way up the boardwalk back to his old hood, now the upscale part of T-Beach. He squinted into the salty breeze, dodging open cracks where the sun baked open the asphalt like overdone cookies, bouncing his bike up onto sidewalk of The Promenade. Once it was Tanga Beach Drive, the street he used to live on, the street where he’d snapped the shinbone of Dana’s tequila-crazed hubby with a foot of steel pipe and he carried her upstairs into his crib, where she finally was his for a little while. Their run-down apartment building was bulldozed twelve days after his landlord evicted the last tenant, but Dana bulldozed him months before the real estate developers took a lucrative opportunity to re-zone T-Beach into gated communities. Dana followed her lucrative opportunity into some silver fox’s shiny BMW sedan and he never saw her again.

Now The Promenade was closed to cars to maximize commercial foot-traffic and tourists’ spendy-spendy. He whizzed past a NO BIKES sign under a NO SKATEBOARDS sign under a ZERO TOLERANCE FOR DRUGS sign. They liked to keep it perfect out here and not the scare the straights, pushing back the local T-Beach flavor of discarded needles and bloody condoms and stray puddles of bum-diarrhea another few blocks west, out of sight. Now this place had that generic glamour of California-as-seen-on-TV, stinking of fruitsy aromatherapy and uplifting-slash-oversincere rock ballads and perfectly-manifactured bedhead, that soft-focus lip-gloss American Dream.

The Cinnabon was eight blocks down The Promenade, a nice walk on foot but by bicycle a speedy tunnel-tour through most of America’s major mall-friendly brands of clothing, consumer electronics and chain restaurants. The Cinnabon sat at the ass end of it with the rest of the cheaper shit.

His phone beeped and it was Randy again, calling to see if he’d be coming into work at all today. This time he answered it: “Randy. I’m on my way, I’m passing The Cheesecake Factory right now.”

“Okay good; Michael already told me I have to fire you if you’re not here by nine-thirty on the dot. He means it this time.”

“I’ll see you in a minute.”

“Good… I also think maybe we should talk about–”

“I just passed the Pollos Hermanos now; can we do this in person?”

He hung up on Randy. Religious, naive, fat-assed Randy. If not for her giant white badunkadunk that made it impossible to pass her behind the Cinnabon counter without goosing it with a little dick-sauce, last night probably never would’ve happened. She’d declared herself a born-again virgin before taking the assistant manager position, but Spence remembered her when she was just another blunt-rolling easy beach chick. Whether she was totally against premarital sex now or just using it as another layer of professional makeup, she still grunted like a rutting sow last night after she tripped over the pallet-jack in the delivery truck and planted that oversized fuck-pillow right into his lap with a burning after-tremor of We Both Know What Happens Next. And for the record, she was the one who wanted it up the ass, which was surely what she needed to talk to Spence about. Spence grinned about it now, sniffed his fingers and spit on the sidewalk when a pigeon landed in front of him.

There were usually clouds of them in the thoroughfare, chittering underneath the café tables to catch falling muffin crumbs — filthy fucking things — but they always took off as he wheeled closer. Then this one stupid one landed directly in front of him, bobbed its retarded head a few times, looked up at Spence’s incoming front tire with just time enough for two red-eyed blinks. He tried to weave left around it but the dummy did the same and went right under the tire. He felt the bike bounce and the bird-bones crunch through the BMX’s frame, through the rubber-grip handles, and what was once a bird was now a broken tangle of still-lit life-systems now on nerve-fire, wrapped in feathers. The sound went up into his gut and down to his fingertips slow enough that by the time his fingers squeezed the handbrakes, the pigeon was smearing blood for a good two feet under his bike’s back wheel, the smell of burnt feathers and rubber back coming up over his shoulder.

Johnny Rockets diners dropped their burgers on either side of him, gasped in several languages, mommies covered their kids’ eyes. Spence stepped off the bike and let it coast past him a few feet before it clattered to the pavement. He went back to the bird. It was alive but in shock, cooing like nothing happened. A little blonde girl screamed and hid her face in her mother’s pushed-up cleavage.

A man in a polo shirt covered his cellhone and barked: “For God’s sake, put the thing out of its misery!” Spence glared at him and stepped over the bird, sinking to a squat over the twist of splayed feathers and splintered bone. The bird’s neck and head were untouched, bobbing back and forth above its ruined body, trying to understand.

The Promenade sounds dropped away until there was just the sea and the rustle of palm trees and the pigeon’s confused, frantic blinking. Spence leaned over it, blocking out the palm trees, blocking out the sun… blanketing the bird in his cooling shadow where it would die.

It locked its red-irised eyes with his as it shook, its gold-rimmed pupils dilated all the way. Without breaking his gaze, the pigeon slowly dipped its neck down until the tip of its beak tapped the sidewalk, a tiny red bubble inflating from its nostrils to the size of a grape before popping with a tiny mist. Its mouth opened and blood began to run out, pooling around its head. Spence leaned into closer, stared deeper into the black of the pigeon’s pupil and fell in.

There was wind on the backs of his legs as the sidewalk dropped away, the sun was swallowed, the California heat snuffed out. Wrapped in a blanket of cold black, Spence was there with the bird, was the bird, was a tired lick escaping his own ruined body to fall through a burning rollercoaster of sparks and stars and scars and hurt toward a faraway point of purple fire where there was music, a soft womblike music with notes made of cubes. It was almost as if-

Sun. Trees. A hand clapped on his shoulder, dark hairs sprouting off the knuckles. The bloop-squawk of a rentacop’s radio: “Sir, I’m gonna have to ask you to clear the Promenade thoroughfare; we’re sending maintenance over to clean up the bird.”

Spence stood up, sweating. His phone buzzed again in his pocket. He took it out, looked at the time (9:38) and the text message (DONT BOTHER COMING IN, FIRED). Picking up his bike, he wheeled it back around past the mangled pigeon, its black pupil now a dull, empty thing.

It was gone.

Why do you tell stories?

Probably as a survival instinct; growing up, everyday life was rarely as interesting as what was playing upstairs in my head, and even when it was, my thoughts and memories would spin around up there until they broke off from the reality and started to hop around on their own. I think I started “writing” by rolling around on the living room floor with He-Man toys: jumping off from the crappy cartoon’s mythology, I’d cooked up this single ongoing narrative that advanced itself one chapter every time I picked up the toys. When I finished my epic five years later with its inevitable cosmos-shattering conclusion, I packed up the toys and gave them to my younger cousin. That was my first THE END.

By default, my skull fills up with ideas and characters, especially when there’s some kind of water involved — washing dishes, taking showers, swimming, brushing teeth, sitting by the ocean — finished scenarios drop in from Nowhere to Right Here. Without the release of writing, these worlds don’t just magically dissolve just because I’m ignoring. I spent a few years here and there where I wasn’t ass-in-chair with any real discipline, and I started getting a bit koo-koo and had to write my way back out.

My undefinable “story-place” was always my favorite and unique part of myself, the part I wanted to show to other people, maybe even have them love me for it. As I got older, storytelling became a conscious choice, then a hobby, then a discipline, then a career… but in the end, this is how I want to do with my remaining time in this body.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Have receptive and genuinely-interested Someone with whom you can verbally stumble through your ideas with. I tend to go deep inside myself while doing the actual writing and don’t talk about it with anyone until there’s lots of pages to read, but in a project’s formative stages, I lay in a dark bedroom with my brain racing and just talk my poor wife’s ears off about the new thing. She’s very patient and a great listener because she’s lived with me long enough to understand that in the process of my explaning the story to her, I’m actually connecting its dots in way I haven’t done yet in my document. Talking the pieces through is a vomit-document edit for me, and if her eyes light up by the end of my babbling, I know I’m on the right track and it’s time to start writing for real. Conversely, if she just shrugs or nods her head or starts blinking slowly, I know I’ve just lobbed a total turd at her.

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

All of Hollywood seems to rabid to mold every single story into the shape of Joseph Campbell’s “Heroic Journey”, and with cinema’s influence is strongly felt in modern writing, gaming and comics, it’s having a seriously laming-down effect on what is recognized as “good” in a story. Stories are supposed to free people, and this practice is limiting people’s imaginations on what they can expect from a story, where it can take them; there’s a reason so many things feel samey nowadays, with so many people are working off the same blueprint. Any undergrad Lit major can find Campbell’s structure in anything with enough Red Bull, but there are literally memos circulating between Hollywood studios, breaking it down to an actual Hero’s Journey Formula (when people say sci-fi or action movies are formulaic, this is literally that formula), where the Wise Mentor inspires the hero by page 35, etc. Even knowing that formula exists has ruined the experience of going to popcorn movies for me; sweeping music practically telegraphs the page number of the script where the Hero recites his “Crossing the 1st threshold/leaving behind the known” dialogue near the end of Act One. Eye roll.

My own tastes lean way more towards the slow-burn, delayed-gratification flavors of stories. I like my sex scenes fully-dressed with no touching but the eyes, I like my actors lumpy and real with personalities reminiscent of jerks I’ve known in my life who surprised me by doing something that earned my respect, I like giant and seemingly-disconnected tapestries of plotlines that are slowly and expertly drawn together until it’s clear there can be only one ending for everyone involved. These kinds of stories don’t compute when they’re run through the Heroic Formula… because they’re not just for young boys with daddy issues.

Don’t even get me started on heroes with fucking daddy issues.

All right, loaded question but it’s a necessary one: what’s wrong with comics today? Particularly regarding the aspect of storytelling.

Man, don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with comics. Despite the all-rumbling all-media noise of Comic-Con, the actual comics industry is still barely one unto itself. In order to make a living doing comics in the US, you’re either doing work on corporate super-heroes you don’t own (really just IP-generators for media and merchandise) or creating issue-specific “literary graphic novels” for the book trade. Occasional phenomena like The Walking Dead or Scott Pilgrim aside, there’s no large publishing apparatus in place for creator-owned work that falls in-between those two poles. If you’re dubbed “too mainstream to be indy/literary and too indy/literary to be mainstream,” your publishing options instantly narrow to maybe four publishing houses that handle material in that middle space, but only one or two of them will pay you up front for it. Otherwise, you’re a bootstrapping DIY creator, self-publishing digitally and/or in print by whatever means necessary.

Back when you could buy comic books at the drugstore/7-11/supermarket, they were firmly part of the zeitgeist; now they’re only sold in specialty stores… which means that people who don’t go out of their way to comic shops won’t find your work unless it’s adapted into another medium. Going DIY on the web can make up for that in terms of audience, but it also means you’ve got to have that second business of selling t-shirts/posters/coffee mugs to stay afloat. Digital devices with comic storefront apps like Comixology are changing that, but not to the point where the digital sales alone sustain the indy creator (yet).

Regarding the visual storytelling part of the equation, there ain’t nothing broken about comics these days… the work is cooler today than ever. Some of the smartest visual storytellers working in comics are breaking new ground right now. That’s the fishhook in my lip that keeps me coming back: watching them all cross-pollinate and mutate and metastasize like techno genres. And with comics jumping from pages to screens, there’s innovative shit popping off in every direction, whether it’s in the comic shops (like the new Love & Rockets or Casanova), in bookstore graphic novels (Alison Bechdel or One Soul or King City), in web browsers (Thrillbent and Never Mind the Bullets) or on iPad screens (Operation Ajax and Bottom of the Ninth). Creatively, comics are exploding… and I’m with all my creator friends in the hope that when the dust settles, the new disrupted marketplace serves us cartoonists creating our own thing better than what came before.

What, then, is the trick to telling a good story in a comic medium?

Letting the script and the art tango until they become a single organism. That’s what you shoot for telling stories with words and pictures: that synthesis. That’s when the room around you drops away and you enter the comic’s own reality, when you literally hear the dialogue spoken, smell the rain, feel the impact… not from descriptions alone but how your brain synthesizes the other senses.

But there’s a balance in that tango too: don’t overwrite the script. Trust the artwork to carry its half of the equation and the script the other; they have to be equal halves for the story to come alive.

What is Red Light Properties and where does it come from?

RED LIGHT PROPERTIES is my comic series about haunted real estate, rocky marriage and the joyful middle finger that says “I told you so.” It comes from living in a few haunted apartments over the years and listening to my realtor mother narrate the implosion of the South Florida real estate market under the subprime mortgage bubble, and connecting those with a family-run Miami realty office. Clairvoyant Jude Tobin, both owner and exorcist, found his niche in selling “previously-haunted” houses. But in order to bump up his abilities enough to enter the spirit world and get those ghosts to fuck off, he has to ingest heroic amounts of hallucinogens daily so his wife Cecilia can list and sell the cleaned properties. This leaves him straddling the Membrane between life and death, riding a constant drug-induced fire-house of deceased peoples’ stories and regrets that has to stand between him and his family if he has any chance of keeping the bills paid and the lights on.

RLP is rooted in that ooooogy 4am feeling when you’re in your house and you just know you’re not alone. There’s someone standing right there in the doorway watching you sleep; you can still feel them but you can’t see them with your eyes. With this series, I get to experiment with digital comics while talking about life, death, America, consciousness and the modern family in dramatic horror stories that contain nuggets of my own life: growing up in Miami, experiments with drugs, broken relationships, all swirled together into a Ben & Jerry’s flavor all my own.

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

An understanding of failure. So few people in life get what they really want that how they wear their failure becomes the petri dish in which their stories grow. Of course, in order to write failure, you have to know desire… but the degree to which their desires keep slipping through a character’s fingers makes them so human to me.

A great example of a strong character is Walter Berglund, the husband in Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. He’s a mousy liberal intellectual who bore the burden of being the responsible son in family of alcoholic fuckups who needed him to survive. He met his wife in college, who loved his roommate and eventually warmed (or settled) for him, and he built his life around her and their kids according to his own principles. His whole existence becomes a chain of failures and opportunities to grow as Walter begins to break free of the family that doesn’t seem to respect the quiet strength of his intelligence or the anger at the core of his idea of what it is to be a Man.

Don’t get me wrong: he’s a total asshole too, pissy and judgmental and too tight-lipped to be any good at running a family of his own. But by the end of the novel, you’ve seen Walter through his own eyes and through his wife Patty’s, felt his frustrations and anger and tenderness for her, for their kids, their friends and neighbors, and his frustrations at ignorance of the the world around him that rejects intellectualism for instant gratification. I scoffed at Walter until I understood him, then I feared for him as he tore it all apart and sank, cheered for him when he seemed to figure it out again and I’m not gonna spoil anything here. He’s not even the most interesting person in the novel; it’s such a goddamn rich read, it deserves every drop of the praise it’s garnered.

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

Book: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

Comic: Orc Stain by James Stokoe (Image Comics)

Film: Never Let Me Go

Game: Red Dead Redemption

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

It varies, but today it’s “chirisosu.” I read this recently on a menu in a Japanese restaurant — it’s Nihongo-phonetics for “chili sauce” — but I just can’t stop saying it. At first I proclaimed it’d be my next DJ name, now it’ll probably the name of my next pet or child.

Not to discount the versatility of “fuck”… but there’s a raw power to “cunt” that remains unmatched in American English. You probably flinched as I typed it just now, because “cunt” still upsets most people when you say it in the States. You don’t just throw it around if you want to live amongst the normals without altering your reputation. Any 12 year-old kid can drop f-bombs that he learned from playing Grand Theft Auto IV.

Living in Brazil’s opened up a whole new universe of profanity; there are apparently 200+ slang terms for “vagina” in use in Brazil (but only ~60 for “penis” which tells you much about who’s doing the cussing). Of course, I’m not outside cursing in the street with the yahoos; I’m usually upstairs in my studio writing and cursing in English.

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

There’s a very serious Japanese cocktail bar that I love in New York City called Angel’s Share; it’s hidden behind on unmarked door in a casual izakaya, and they make a cocktail called an “Old Oak” (cask-aged Venezuelan rum, sherry, orange bitters, one large ice cube). It’s smooth and woody and tastes like The Gilded Age. If I was still living in NYC, that would be my yay-I-just-finished-another-project celebratory drink: an Old Oak in front of their big window, looking down at the city flowing by.

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

I’m a believer in the inevitable post-human future, so why would I fight the robots when I could score some upgrades for my monkey-meat instead?

For starters, I want memory upgrades and external data storage, replacement HD bionic eyes with 200X zoom and wider-spectrum vision that can record/upload video. Also definitely need replacement ankles (mine are shot to shit after years of skateboarding injuries). I also want one of those neck-ports where I can download new skills like languages and martial arts. And also a DVR for my subconscious to record my dreams; I could make some serious Robo-Duckets with that feature to buy more upgrades. Robo-Santa… are you listening?

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

Since January, I’ve been working with a screenwriting partner to develop my comic series RED LIGHT PROPERTIES as live-action TV show, which has been a full-on education for me as well as a lot of fun, but now it’s suddenly June and I haven’t drawn any new Red Light Properties comics yet this year. But before I start producing new RLP stories, I’m going to finish remastering the first two hundred pages that I originally produced for with an eye towards producing the hardcover print edition that everyone’s been asking for. After that, there will new RLP comics as my Scrivener binder is fit to burst with new stories of the Tobins, which will continue to be digital-first until I get a better offer. Right now the comics are published to iTunes, Kindle Fire and Comixology (and coming any minute to Nook, Kobo and Google Play).

I’ve also been serializing a non-fiction memoir about my move from New York City down to São Paulo, Brazil to take a stab at living as a “creative web node” called Toucannuí [read: toucan + ennui] that’s running on the Trip City website every Friday. It’s a blend of travel/food writing, family stories and memoir; I’m about halfway through the whole book now and it’ll be available as a physical/digital book when I’m done.

Also on my plate is my first novel, a story about a broken family that spans two contents and features an alien intelligence. It doesn’t have a title yet but I’m incredibly jazzed about it; my first love (even above comics) is writing prose, and this flower’s been threatening to bloom my entire life. More details when I can share them.

I’m also flexing my new TV/film muscles by writing screenplays and developing a handful new comics projects for other cool cat artists to draw.

Toucannui. How’s it feel to write prose? No visual? No image? What’s that transition like? Anything to do with your own geographical transitions?

Writing prose is actually my first love, and it’s always come easier for me than drawing comics. I still struggle daily to render my own scripts into artwork and being able to do that heavy lifting with just the words is a dream. I started writing short stories after my fifth-grade teacher gave me a dog-eared Bradbury paperback; making comics out of them was something I got into seriously in my mid-twenties.

As I started work on RED LIGHT PROPERTIES (it was originally commissioned by, I moved from New York City down to São Paulo, Brazil with my wife (her native city) in search of a different kind of life. There is nothing better than living abroad to jux your compass and drop your armor, re-mold yourself to fit a different cultural shape. Over the course of my time here, some of my artist pals back in Brooklyn started an online salon called Trip City and invited me to contribute; when I sat down to write, what came out of me was a memoir of my time living in Brazil called TOUCANNUÍ. I fantasized for many years about living abroad and working for the same clients in the US no matter where my laptop was plugged in; now I’m documenting the less-shiny realities of that dream as the backdrop of a travelogue through Brazilian culture.

Being in Brazil’s been inspiring as hell, especially getting outside of the city of São Paulo (which is surprisingly conservative for a megapolis of 20 million); it’s the big and unspeakably beautiful Brazilian nature that I prefer. It’s full of history and folktales and strange fruits and animals. I’ve unearthed a few large Brazil-based stories here that I’ve got in the rock tumbler now, one of them will be my first prose novel (for which I’ll be taking a slow boat up the Amazon soon for dirty-fingernails research).

Your work is both personal and political. Should writers be less afraid of doing that? Any dangers of going too personal or too political?

Of course; writers shouldn’t be afraid of anything but chirping crickets. As an artist, it’s your function in this world to reach in and pull out the oozing, beating Truth of Things that make a story worth reading. That pulsing Truth can be pulled from the outside world or from within you, it can be disguised with frilly fictions or naked and dimpled, but I just don’t connect to stories driven by high-concept plot instead of by the desires of its characters. To me, that’s the difference between art and product.

The danger in doing political work that I’ve faced in my own experience is the work’s shelf life. I did a black-hearted day-after-tomorrow graphic novel about the War on Terror called SHOOTING WAR that came out in 2007 and took place in a 2011 where John McCain was president. It was scary then, it’s a little funny now; going from “possible future” to “alternate history” definitely dulls the teeth. I think the book will grow more relevant the further away we get from “the moment” until it stands on its own as a time capsule of our Iraq War zeitgeist.

On the other hand, doing personal work (in the emotional sense) is only dangerous when people assume that everything you write is autobiographical — it’s the default setting now in our tweet-your-breakfast-and-Instagram-your-poops digital culture. I’ve always liked my work to speak for itself… but I still get readers asking me if I really donkey-punched my lovely wife (as one of my characters did to his lover) no matter how many times I have to flick them repeatedly in the nose and yell “FICTION! FICTION!”

Hornshaw & Hurwitch: The Terribleminds Interview

Behold! A two-fer! A BOGO! A real steal! Today in the electric chair we’ve got Phil Hornshaw and Nick Hurwitch, authors of the wildly hilarious and deeply irreverent So You Created A Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide To Time Travel. I met these two miscreants and deviants at the LA Book Festival, where they came tumbling out of a police box eating Sumerian churros. And I said, you must swing by and submit to an interview! And they said, “Not before we travel back in time to ensure that the aliens never enslaved us in 1832,” and I was like, “Right, like you can make that happen.” You can find these gents at, or at their individual Twitter locations — @PhilHornshaw and @heWIZARD.

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

“Winky Finger”

This time, when he came out the other side of the wormhole, Delbridge Langdon III found himself about 12 feet off the ground and whipping through the air. He landed on his back and slipped like a stone on a still pond across intermittent patches of snow and thin grass, coming to a stop a second later with a groan that rumbled in his lungs and pain that rippled across his limbs.

“Crap,” Langdon moaned, knowing that his high-velocity re-entry was 100 percent his own fault. When you jump through time, you leave a planet moving at around 30,000 kilometers per hour (a number he’d discovered by Googling it) – and so you are traveling at 30,000 kilmometers per hour. And then you have to land on a planet also traveling that speed, but of course, since you’re moving through time, the planet is obviously somewhere else: somewhere else in its orbit, somewhere else in its rotation, and generally just moving at a high rate of speed. He must have fudged the calculation on the last one – what was this, jump five? – and come out of the wormhole slightly at odds with the motion of the world beneath him. Now he had a bruised head and probably a paper mill’s load of slivers in his ass.

He brushed himself off and stood up. Hell, at least it was light out this time. But he still had no idea where he was, and he was running out of scratch paper to do calculations. Before long he wouldn’t be able to keep up this idea of searching for civilization to study through random acts of temporal dislocation.

Five jumps and he was nowhere nearer to figuring out the practicalities of time travel. Sure, he was time traveling, but all the issues he’d been warned about by the greater scientific community – displacement, temporal drift, planetary reciprocity (er, velocity), potential injury – were affecting him exactly as he had been warned. “Don’t time travel,” they’d said. “It’s incredibly stupid,” they’d said. “It’ll get you killed,” they’d said, “and there’s nothing much you could really learn anyway.”

And yet here he was.

Still, he hadn’t wound up in orbit yet, so at least the Googly information was accurate, Langdon thought.

He started walking. This was the second part of the routine: land first, walk second. The idea was to find a settlement, maybe meet some locals, maybe explore the past. Maybe trigger a paradox (Wouldn’t that be something, Langdon thought, giggling. Suck it, naysaying Science jerks!). So far he hadn’t found anything but trees and vegetation in various states of growth. One time he’d almost fallen over a desert cleft. While he wasn’t technically traveling through space, the movement of Earth beneath him made his landing locations haphazard at best.

This time, as he walked, Langdon’s face fell into a frown as he breasted a hill and found himself standing at the edge of a wooded valley. Pines or some approximation thereof formed a thick, endless army, standing at strict attention or chittering in the wind for miles in all directions. A steep drop waited ahead of him – nothing but forest in all directions.

Defeated, Langdon let himself drop like a moppet with cut strings. Nothing. Again. He figured if he could find a settlement, he could puzzle out an approximation of the year. As it was, with no point of reference, he had no real way of calculating the return trip back to his proper temporal casaba. Er, casa. Home.

That was weird, Langdon thought. Spanish? He didn’t even know Italian. He’d taken German in high school and they said that if you knew Latin you could speak all the Bromance languages, but even then, he’d only pulled down a C in Bromance anyway.

He shook it off. His brain was doing weird things, probably because he’d just jarred it (Next time, wear a helmet, Langdon thought. Ooh, a pink one with tassels.)

Pulling off his pack, he had another bite of the granola bar he’d been nibbling as slowly as possible for something like six hours. It tasted like cardboard and farts, which he imagined approximated hamster food, and in his frustration, Langdon threw it over the ridge. Littering somehow felt empowering, and he considered what else he could throw to soil the booty he was seeing before him as he pulled out the last of his notebook paper to make another set of jump calculations.

Langdon paused, lifting the pen off the paper and staring at the numbers. They looked all…wonky. As if there was something wrong with the way he was writing them. And the pen felt strange in his hand, now that he was thinking about it. Like it was smaller than he remembered.

Shifting the pen into his other hand (What was French for pen? Was it le pen? That sounded right…), Langdon held up his right hand in front of his face and spread his fingers. He eyed each digit carefully, looking for any abnormalities. Had be broken one of his fingers in the fall?

No…all six seemed straight as always, if a little try and cracked. Although his winky finger felt a little tingly.

He dropped his hand. What about that seemed strange?

Raising his other hand, Langdon looked first at one, then the other. No tumors that he could see, which was good – you never know what might give you a tumor while time trebling. Although, wait… something was off. Something about his winky finger.

Winky finger. What the hell is a winky finger?

It hit Langdon like a kick to the groin and he almost puked from the force of it. What the hell was a winky finger and why the hell did he have one on his right hand? Holy shit holy shit holy shit hol—

He leapt up, looking around frantically. Should he cut it off? Yes. Cut it the hell off. It was probably a tumor that just looked like a finger! Langdon grabbed it with his other hand to see if it felt gooey like he imagined a time travel-induced finger-like growth would probably feel, but it felt like a finger – which is exactly what a winky would want him to think, he thought.

Spinning around and attempting to dart away from the ridge in panic, Langdon ran himself straight into a tree. It was exceedingly helpful.

Lying on his back, for a second, the haze cleared from his mind. The bad calculations. The winky finger. The weird words darting through his mind. He had discovered something on this trip after all: some kind of chronological displacement that occurred among cells in his body. Probably his brain was all miswired just like his hand was. Who knows what had been duplicated or expanded or smashed together as he was hopping through wormholes; somehow, traversal from one time point to another was screwing him up at the molecular level.

Well then. Time to just relax a bit, Langdon told himself, somewhat self-satisfied with his successful time travel discovery, although the iron ‘e’ was not lost on him. No reason to be too hasty. He’d need time to work this out.

He wished he had his granola bar.

Someone offered him a hand and Langdon took it readily, pulling himself up. As he reached his feet, he was somewhat confused to see himself staring back at him. He looked back down at the ground where he’d lain – no, nobody there – and back at the face of the kind stranger, Langdon.

“Howdy,” Langdon chirped, grinning and offering a short wave. “How’s it going?”

Langdon’s brow furrowed as he offered a few tiny twitches of his wrist and palm in return.

“I feel weird.”

“Yeah, that’ll pass,” Langdon offered, squeezing Langdon’s shoulder. “It gets essayer.” Noticing the winky finger, Langdon offered a slanted smile. “We’re stuck with him, though, I think.”

“How’d you get here?” Langdon asked. “Did the winky send you?”

“In, like, 20 minutes, I decided to try jumping again, so try to remember what I say to you. Because you need to say it to you.”


“Or you could just stay,” said Langdon with a shrug. “I think we ought to build a criminalization. These woods kinda suck.”

“Yeah, okay,” Langdon replied, still a little confused. “Hey, isn’t that dangerous? With paradoxes or something?”

“Eh,” Langdon frowned back. “I don’t see any butterflies around.”

“I guess there’s a good pint,” Langdon said, scratching at his chin with his winky and looking down.

“Hey,” he piped up as a thought hit his brain like a bullet. “Do you have a granola bar?”

Langdon shook his head. “We threw it away, remember?”

“Oh,” returned Langdon, trying not to show his disappointment.

Why do you tell stories?

Phil: We all tell stories. Everything we do is about telling stories. When you think about it, all of human society is built on stories, from religion to law, culture and art, all of it is about sharing the experiences we have with others. Some of those stories are a little less interesting than others, but they all serve a purpose. Somebody needs to tell stories that include zombies, robots and insane machines. If we don’t step up, who will? Lots of people, that’s who, but they might not have enough zombies. But for me, it’s what being human is all about. I love hearing stories and I love telling them because it’s the most powerful way to connect with anything and anyone. Whenever I read something it just makes me want to write something, to keep pursuing that connection with other people.

Nick: If I’m being honest with myself? Because to be really good at something, you have to choose. Growing up I was a nerd, but loved and played sports. I could get lost in a book, or spend the weekend at the movie theater. I took every art class I could, but couldn’t get enough of AP Biology. Without getting all Wonder Years on you, Phil and I were editors in chief of our high school paper together. Our adviser, who had just had a baby, told me she hoped her son would be as “well rounded” as me. I wasn’t sure how to take that at the time, because well rounded might easily imply “good at many things, great at none.” I wanted to be great at something, dammit! Then I realized it was very much a compliment: I had the ability to choose. Eventually, you have to put your head down and dedicate yourself to something. Telling stories is the thing that affords me the greatest opportunity to combine all the things I love in any way I see fit. Brain magic!

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice.

Phil: There’s buckets of good writing advice out there; a lot of it can be found right here on this blog. The one thing that’s benefited me more than anything else I’ve ever been told about telling stories has boiled down to a simple axiom: show, don’t tell. It’s so stupidly simple that it’s kind of annoying, but in the years I spent as an editor, in the classes I took in college, it really was the one thing that the most writers I came across really needed to know. Don’t tell people what happened, show them. Play out those scenes you’re breezing past. Avoid summarizing. You’re a writer — so write.

Nick: The oldest one in the book is, “Write what you know.” But the flip side of that axiom is the more important one: “Know more about what you’re writing.” It’s one thing to set your story in the streets of 1920s London. It’s a much greater thing to actually know what those streets were like, geographically or otherwise. It’s one thing to write a story about computer hackers. It’s quite a different thing to know how computer hacking is done. Research can be daunting, but you know what’s worse? Presenting only the tip of the iceberg because that’s all you have, and your reader can seeing right through your melty facade.

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

Phil: We both are lucky enough to work as freelancers, and that means we both spend all day writing, every single day. That’s basically the dream — spending all day, every day, dumping out your brain onto a keyboard and rearranging it. Sometimes really amazing stuff comes out, even if you’re the only one who finds it amazing. All the time, though, it’s just about sitting around and playing pretend in some form or another, whether it’s imagining characters and then ruining their lives or trying to find the deeper meanings of the ending of Mass Effect 3. We’re professional thinkers, basically, and we get to constantly challenge ourselves to do it different, do it better. What’s a better job than thinking?

The very worst thing? It becomes mechanical. For a long time I worked as a copy editor for a real estate website, and it quickly became a mind-numbing exercise in discovering just how many times I could replace the same incorrect phrase. Writing for a living boxes you into a space where you either have to be clever on command, which is never easy, or in which you find yourself tapping out the words in the proper sequence without really giving it the portion of yourself that it deserves. Writing as a job can destroy itself if you’re not careful, and then everything great becomes terrible. It’s like being an architect who only designs prefabricated subdivisions. You need to explore when you write. It’s a must.

Nick: My favorite writing-related quote (with the exception of the contents of “500 Ways To Be A Better Writer”) comes from German writer, Thomas Mann: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” There are a lot of people who will just say (to writers in particular), “I can’t write.” But the truth is, neither can writers. The difference is that writers make themselves write. No matter how good, how bad, how successful, or how unheralded, all writers have this in common: they have to sit there and make the next word come. This sucks. It never gets any easier.

However, this is also great. Because eventually, those words become sentences and dialogue and books and scripts and then you have it there, projected onto the backs of eyelids and the insides of imaginations. Over and over again you get the satisfaction of making something that didn’t come easily. So if you happen to be a writer and someone ever tells you, “Oh, I can’t write,” say, “Neither can I. I just do.”

How’d you two find or know one another? Also: what is the secret to good collaboration with a creative partner?

Phil: Nick and I have been best friends since elementary school. We lived close by one another in the Metro Detroit area and we’ve been nerdy about all the same things, including writing, since roughly the third grade. So one secret to collaboration has been that we’re friends, we like the same things, we think similarly about a lot of things and we have a collective history that we can draw on of things we liked, things we’ve done, and so on. That makes writing a lot easier, because we’re often on the same page really early in whatever process were in.

The other secret, I’d say, is trust, We’ve been working together for so long now, on so many things, that I know I can bring an idea to Nick and find out if it’s actually a shit sandwich or not, and hopefully vice versa. I help Nick identify his latent reverse-racism and he helps me keep my crippling fear of pirate peg-legs from coloring everything we create. But more than that, I trust that if I really like something but it doesn’t work, Nick will let me know. He won’t pull any peg-legs. And then we can talk it out, fix it, throw it away, whatever — it helps not to be married to ideas, but more than anything, I think we do a good job making each of our ideas better. Even when we’re not collaborating, I run most everything I write past Nick and he brings me stuff for notes all the time.

It’s almost an extension of “Kill your darlings.” Collaboration means you’ve got to be willing to kill darlings, like, all the time. It’s a darling holocaust out there. Ideas are constantly getting aborted. But if you trust your collaborator, you know that they’re there to make the work better, and you can part with ideas, the result is always a genetically superior supersoldier.

Nick: Though I’m sure we knew each other beforehand, my first memory of Phil is from the 4th grade. We were walking down the hall with a mutual friend, and Phil was deriding me for my lack of knowledge regarding slang terms for “penis.” A lifelong friendship was forged (and I have long since surpassed him in this field). We once spent the summer between 8th and 9th grade writing a sci-fi/fantasy book, which we realized pretty quickly after completing was just an amalgamation of all the stuff we thought was cool at the time (Final Fantasy games played a big role.) We went on to become terribly well-behaved teenagers, were editors-in-chief of our high school newspaper together, and eventually I convinced him to follow me out to LA.

Writing partnerships are difficult. You can’t just throw any two creative people together and get a new, better result. It has to work. Even beyond the creative, the process of working with someone else whose ideas get equal weight requires deference, patience and an open mind. The writing process is almost by definition one of seclusion. Shutting out the world to make the voices in your head louder. People assume we sit in the same room and write together–we don’t. And in fact when we try we don’t get very far. We’ll have lunch or drinks and brainstorm, or outline, and from there it’s really about volleying things back and forth until one of us has set the other for a spike.

My favorite knowledge nugget about writing partnerships comes from Terry Rossio & Ted Elliot, the writers behind movies like Aladdin, Shrek and Deja Vu (sorry, guys). It’s something to the effect of, “For a writing partnership to work, both parties have to feel like they’re getting the better end of the deal.” It may be as simple as that.

Phil: I don’t remember that penis conversation.

Tell the world why everyone ever should buy So You Created A Wormhole. No modesty. Put your book-balls on the table and slap them mightily.

Nick: “The book is fucking funny.” –Chuck Wendig

But also–it is everything you think is cool wrapped into one book. As the first and only field manual for the intrepid time traveler on the go, So You Created A Wormhole will teach you everything you need to know to time travel. And even though the tone is zany and off-the-wall, we did do actual research about the science(iness) of time travel, wormholes, blackholes, potential paradoxes, making batteries that run on the electricity-producing microbes in dinosaur poo, etc. The parts of the book I’m most proud of are those that manage to take really out-there concepts, like special relativity, or paradoxes by inaction, and explain them in lay terms. And because you’ll be laughing the whole way, it doesn’t even feel like learning!

It’s also a book for the meme generation. We pull from and riff on the tropes of a lot of pop culture–pretty much anything that relates to time travel, space travel, mummy fighting and dino riding. Okay, one more pitch: It’s like The Zombie Survival Guide only it doesn’t take itself seriously and with time travel instead of zombies. And I don’t think need to tell any of your readers how much cooler time travel is than zombies.

Phil: Nick pretty much covered it, but allow me to add: it’s illustrated. Hilariously.

Nick: By Aled Lewis! Who is amazing. And British. Everyone should check him out.

The book *is* fucking funny. Forgive the impossible-to-answer question but, how the hell do you “be funny?”

Nick: Firstly, thank you. I means a lot to us whenever we hear that. And to your question: turn your filter way the fuck down. Better yet, turn it off–you can polish yourself back up to an acceptable level of decorum during editing. Or not. You may even surprise yourself. I think the thing that worked best for us was to just let go and be ourselves. The book has a very particular tone, but a lot of that was cultivated from two decades of friendship banter. The best part of writing this book was passing sections back and forth and making each other laugh. If we could do at least that much, we were on our way to making other people laugh, too. I think it’s a lot more difficult to say, “Man, we need a joke here, let’s be funnier here, hey, do you think other people are going to laugh at that?” When you let the humor flow naturally from the material, you’re going to have much more success.

Phil: I obsess over this all the time. When Nick says, “Try not to ask “Is this funny? We need a joke here,” that’s me, I’m the one who’s looking at it from a standpoint of needing to improve, be funnier, make better, and I’m constantly worried about it. Nick’s right, you need to just throw it all out there and let the editing cut back the things that don’t work, but for me, I find myself analyzing a lot. What makes this funny? What about it is unexpected?

Volume is definitely important, and self-censorship doesn’t help anything on the first pass. But I think the ability to analyze, to break down a joke or an idea and say, Here’s where it works, is really important for anyone who wants to do humor. I’ll readily admit I haven’t mastered it.

Make yourself laugh. Focus on that. Then see if it makes other people laugh. For comedy, I think, it’s about feedback.

Obligatory time travel question: if you could time travel, where would you go and what would you do there?

Nick: I would wake up, make myself a Dodo omelette, and sling myself back to the Late Cretaceous period. Then I’d make nice with some herbivores and ride a triceratops. We’d laugh, roll around in the grass, then fight a T-rex because we have horns and your arms are short, I don’t care how big your mean, razor-tooth face is. We’d grab a late lunch at Trike’s favorite grazing field, then we’d say our goodbyes and I would fling myself forward several million years to the year 3000 AD. I’m hoping that by then, if we haven’t all killed one another, humanity will be pretty well on its way to galavanting around the galaxy, and science will have solved the most trying issues of our times, like having sex in anti-gravity, and space suits that bend at the elbows. After a nice, long dinner on Kepler-22b, I’d come back to my own time–only, about 30 years earlier. See, I’ve got really curly hair, so I’ve always figured the fact that I didn’t live as an adult through the ‘80s was some kind of galactic miscalculation. Plus, I’m pretty sure I’d get a lot more writing done before the invention of the Internet.

Phil: First, to the future, where I would procure my free complimentary spaceship, since everyone from the future has one. Then, it’s time to form my ragtag team of heroes, aliens and robots from throughout time. Bill and Ted had the right idea, but they didn’t go far enough — first, you get Lincoln, Napoleon, Socrates, an assassin droid, an alien concubine, Billy the Kid and King Arthur together. Then, you fight evil. Naturally. Probably it would be us hunting down and stopping evil time travelers, but I’m not really willing to limit the scope. There are adventures to get into, and I want to get into them. Also space travel. That doesn’t really need to have an actual goal behind it. My life as Star Trek would be just fine.

Favorite word? And then follow up, favorite curse word?

Nick: Lately I’ve been combining fruit with well-known curse words. Asspineapple comes to mind. Cucumbernuts. Kumquattwat. Really, though, I doubt I’ll ever outgrown a good old “Fuck.”

As for favorite word, I think it’s hard to go wrong with cupcake. My guess is that most writers would go with something more descriptive, but there are few words that can be separated from their meaning completely and still remain sweetly satisfying. Go on, say it. Cupcake.

Phil: “Anthropomorphism.” Not only is it fun to write and to say, but it gives you an inflated sense of your intelligence in most situations. Plus the very concept is exciting — giving human traits to things — in this fantastical way. It always conjures up the idea of magic and hidden characteristics for me, the kinds of things that trigger your imagination when you’re a child and as you get older turn into the underpinnings of horror stories. I love the idea of fantasies turning to nightmares and vice versa.

Curse words are something else entirely. I can’t say I have much of a vocabulary in that department because I routinely circle back to old standbys. A biology teacher once told me I should use “cloaca” because in birds its a catch-all area that handles basically everything gross, but there’s no elegance in it. I think I prefer “shit.” It sounds as bad as it is in all cases. The more disgust you put into the word, the more disgusting the situation you’re describing. It’s not often that a word can reflect the exact amount of emotion you invest in it.

You said the magic word: Cupcake. What is your favorite kind of cupcake?

Phil: …Red. Brown. Red and…brown, I guess. I’m sort of unclear on the idea of “kinds” of cupcakes. A cupcake appears, I eat it. They are indistinguishable.

Nick: Yeah, same here. My entire life I have battled a devastating illness known as “a massive fucking sweet tooth.” But for the sake of affability, I’ll say red velvet. Oo! Or confetti! Or–

Phil: What the hell is a confetti cupcake?

Favorite alcoholic beverage?

Nick: I’m a whiskey guy. If I’m in a cocktail bar, I’ll treat myself to an old fashioned. Anywhere else, Jack & Ginger (Jack Daniels & Ginger Ale) is my standby.

Phil: I wish I could claim a favorite. Sadly, I know nothing of alcohol, having failed to use my college education to its fullest. Now I drink cheap things I mix with other cheap things. As I answer this, there happens to be Bacardi here, and Coke Zero, and thus that is my favorite drink until my next drink. Also whiskey is good.

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

Nick: I’m also [secretly] a filmmaker, so I’m gonna go ahead and recommend a film. This Argentinean movie that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film a couple years ago, The Secrets In Their Eyes, is one of the best movies to come out in the past decade in any country. It’s this epic, winding, well-structured, beautifully shot, dual storyline suckerpunch that manages to be utterly harrowing and funny at all the right moments. The soccer stadium scene will make you crap your pants. The rest will keep you trapped there in your own squish until the final frame. Watch it now.

Phil: I’ve been spending a lot of my time consuming time travel fiction over the last year, both as research and out of curiosity. There’s a film I stumbled on at one point, this horror movie called Triangle, that’s just dynamite. Everything else I’ve been into lately has been pretty mainstream; Triangle has a bit of a cult classic feel, it’s a little bit obscure, and it’s pretty mind-bendingly phenomenal.

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

Phil: Of course, a viable knowledge of zombie survival, having spent a vast amount of time considering the situation. Zombie survival situations inevitably break down out of issues of panic, ineptitude, or complacency. Your one true advantage over a zombie is your brain, so while others might have survival skills or impressive braun, we have the ability to know not to wander off alone, how to keep quiet in heavily populated areas, what kind of structures are best to reinforce, where the most viable locations for repopulating the planet will be, which other survivors are poisoning the group with their idiocy and so forth. We’re the guys who you can turn to when you’re wondering, “Should I throw a molotov cocktail into that crowd of undead?” We’re there to tell you, “No, jackass, zombies don’t feel pain and then they’re going to wander around aflame, setting everything on fire.” We’re integral to the winning of zombie wars.

Nick: I consider myself a pretty good judge of character, which means I’ll be the one deciding who lives and who dies. There will be no room for racists and narcissistic sociopaths with twitchy trigger fingers in the new zombie apocalyptic reality. You’re welcome.

You committed crimes against humanity. They’ve caught you. You get one last meal.

Nick: It would be some kind of coconut, olive and mushroom puree souffle, because I hate all of those things with a passion, and fuck the sadistic onlookers, that’s why. Also it would be pretty funny if I puked on the executioner’s kicks.

Phil: Something with a cyanide tablet. Or what was that drug McCoy gave Kirk so Spock would think he’d killed him? Whatever that was. Put it in a baked potato. Obviously we still have supervillainy to take care of, seeing as we’re all about committing crimes against humanity in this scenario, so staying captured is not an option. There’s no time for dinner!

What’s next for you guys as storytellers? What does the future hold?

Phil: There are plenty of half-formed ideas in test tubes right now, but so far we’re just riding the So You Created a Wormhole wave and trying to get the word out about the thing. We’re thinking about a couple of follow-up ideas — books seem to work well for us, so we’d like to keep at them — but really we’ve got ideas across lots of different media, and it’s not even all time travely. Although, admittedly, we do have a TV pilot draft we need to work on that is, in fact, all time travely. Also steampunkish. And gunslingeresque. On the whole, I think we’re both ready to do something more narrative than Wormhole. That book tells something of a meta story of time travel, but I for one am itchy to develop some characters and make them miserable.

Nick: I’ve got one short film under my belt (My Barista) and the trailer for Wormhole, too. I’d like to shoot another short by the end of the year and finish another feature script or two. We also have a 10-episode season of webisodes based on our book written, which we’d like to shoot once we get some financing. It’s sort of our take on the buddy comedy, set inside a secret time scientist laboratory at QUAN+UM (our fictional governing body of time travel). They’re tasked with sending regular dispatches to time travelers in the field, often with disastrous and hilarious results. Getting our first book published is a drunken conversation come true, but we’re always looking at new ways and different mediums to tell our tales. Hopefully in the future, we’ll be doing a lot more of that.

Lisa Cron: The Terribleminds Interview

Lisa Cron wants to help you write better not just by teaching you better skills but by cracking open your brain and showing you how it’s wired to tell those stories. Since I’m all about smashing open people’s heads with a rock (though Lisa assures me that’s not how it’s done), here she sits down for an interview. Wired for Story now available! Check out and seek her on Twitter (@LisaCron).

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.

Many years ago a friend of mine was traveling with a buddy. They were down on their luck, and often got so low on money that they only had enough for gas. They never went hungry though, thanks to a tip they got from an aging hobo. Every night they’d pull up behind a hotel banquet room at about ten and go into the kitchen. They’d say that they were on the road and had run out of dog food, and the stores were closed, and could they just have some scraps. It always worked. No one wants a dog to go hungry.

Why do you tell stories?

Because people listen to stories. They can choose whether or not to listen to facts or headlines or “truths” but stories? They can’t help it.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Remember, the reader believes that everything in your story is there on a need-to-know basis, so they assume that everything you tell them is critically important to their understanding of what’s going on. They trust you implicitly on this. That means that when you tell them things that they don’t actually need to know, they’re going to spend time inventing reasons why you might have told them, which means that pretty soon they’re reading an entirely different story than the one you’re writing. And as soon as they figure that out, they defenestrate* the book and go see what’s on TV.

* Oh, one more thing, the bigger the word, the less emotion it conveys — not to mention meaning. Handy case in point: defenesrate, otherwise known as “chucking something out of a window.” I always wanted a real reason to use that word. Thanks!

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

Don’t outline. If trust your muse and just write, the story will appear.

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

A strong character is a character who’s conflicted, which means you need to figure out what issue they’re struggling with, internally, before you begin writing. The goal is to dig deep in their backstory, but with the guidance of a treasure map, not by tearing up the whole damn yard. You’re looking for the specific issue that’s holding them back, not everything that’s ever happened to them.

You want to pinpoint two things: First, the event in their past that knocked their worldview out of alignment, triggering the internal issue that keeps them from achieving their goal. Second, the inception of their desire for the goal itself, which tells us what achieving it really means to them.

Only then can you construct a plot that will compel them to either deal with their issue, or give up. Which is why digging into their past is so important. After all, everything a character does is based on how they see the world (just like us, in real life). We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. So knowing how they see the world – and where and why their interpretation is off — not only allows you to write a strong character, but to create a compelling plot that will force said character to actually be strong.

And – this is the brilliant thing – it will tell you what it is they have to learn at the end in order to succeed. In other words, their “Aha!” moment – which is ultimately what the story is about.  As T.S. Eliot so elegantly said, “The end of our exploring will be to arrive at where we started, and to know the place for the first time.” A strong character learns to let go of how he or she saw things, and see it fresh, with new eyes.

A perfect example of a strong character who does exactly that, although he seems utterly genteel in present company, is George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life.

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

Books: The book I’ve read recently that grabbed me from the get-go and never let up is a debut novel called Cannibal Reign by Thomas Koloniar.  I loved it because beneath its pounding post-apocalyptic thriller heart, beats a nuanced novel about what it means to be human when all bets are off.  It’s a visceral ride, and one that allowed me to experience just how precarious our social contract really is.  It had never dawned on me that because men are physically bigger and stronger than women, should society collapse, women could easily become fair game.  Sure, I might have thought about it, but this novel made me feel it, and that made all the difference.  Yep, gonna finally take a self-defense class.

Movies suck. It’s been years since I saw a movie so absorbing that I forgot I was watching a movie. And DON’T get me started on The Avengers; there’s something scary afoot that such a ham-handed, story-less, pointless, ultimately bland-if-you-think-about-it movie would do so phenomenally well.  I’m really curious about it. It has no story. It’s about a bad guy who wants power – more power than anyone has ever had, we’re told. Power to do what? To what end? Why? No clue. And the so-called “Avengers”? They never risk anything, nothing ever costs them anything, they don’t learn anything, and everything always works out, so who cares? And the CGI? Sheesh. Half the time I thought I was watching an upgraded episode of The Power Rangers.

These days, I think the best visual storytelling around is in long form TV — The Sopranos in particular – it doesn’t get better than that. I watch it over and over, and every time I see something new.  The third and fourth seasons of The Wire are brilliant, (although you still have to watch it from the start for it to make sense).  The best current show, I think, is Homeland. Here’s hoping it has a long run.

You’ve been in publishing and in Hollywood: what’s the biggest thing that stories get wrong? What should stories do better?

The biggest thing writers get wrong is that they mistake the plot for the story. In other words, they believe that the external things that happen are what the story is about. The truth is that the external things only happen in order to force the protagonist to deal with an inner issue that’s keeping her from getting what she wants and thus solving the story problem. The moment of realization – the “aha” moment — is what the story is actually about.

I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read where if someone asked me what it was about, all I could say would be, “It’s about 300 pages.” Not to mention how many screenplays I’ve read where I’ve thought of the author, “Okay, this is the person who’s never seen a movie.” It goes back to Flannery O’Connor’s observation: “I find most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” My goal is to change that.

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

My favorite word is clobber. I just love how it sounds. Especially in this poem, which my best friend’s entire first grade class collectively wrote for their school paper, The Dixie Canyon Chronicle:

Coconuts, coconuts in a tree

One fell down and clobbered me

As for curse words, I love them all. I love swearing. My favorite? Is fuckfuckfuckfuckFUCK! a word?

And can I add that when used as a verb, fuck is also one of my favorite words? Substituting the phrase “make love” makes my skin crawl. Ditto using “passed away” for dead. Words pack power, to edge away from that power is to edge away from the really interesting part of life, the part we can’t really tame or domesticate. That’s why I don’t trust people who make a point of never swearing.

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

I love red wine best. But it can’t be sweet at all. I loathe sweet drinks, even a hint of sweet turns me off. Someone gave me a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue, and while it was real smooth, it had a slight underlying sweetness that made me crave rot gut (not that I’ve ever had rot gut, mind you, but I watched enough Westerns to know).

But when it comes to mood altering substances, my drink of choice is caffeine. I could easily give up alcohol, but I couldn’t live without coffee  — the darker the better.

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

I don’t rust.

Wired For Story attempts to train storytellers in “cognitive storytelling strategies” to help them tell better stories by essentially appealing to the crazy science of the brain. What drove you to dive deep into the gray matter of this topic?

Great question! I’d been working with writers for decades, formulating my theory about story, but back then I used “wired” as a metaphor. Sure, I believed it was fact, but I couldn’t prove it. Meanwhile, I’d always been interested in neuroscience, and then suddenly one day every article I read seemed to relate to what I’d always known about how story affects the brain – and even better, why. It was the biggest “aha” moment of my life. In one fell swoop the theory I’d spent years developing, honing and sharpening was revealed as fact.  We are wired for story. Understanding what a story actually is and why our brain evolved to respond to it is a game changer for writers.

After my epiphany, I dove into neuroscience in a big way, reading everything I could get my hands on.  It’s unbelievably fascinating because, as that movie producer at the beginning of Citizen Kane barks, “There’s nothing more interesting than finding out what makes people tick.” That’s exactly what neuroscience is doing. And you know the really crazy thing? Neuroscience is proving what writers have always known: that the pen is mightier than the sword. Writers are the most powerful people in the world.

What surprises you most about the human brain?

What surprised – and delighted — me most about the human brain is that feelings are physical, not ephemeral, and evolved as the basis of how we determine what things actually mean, and every action we take – “reason” then plays catch up. And here’s the kicker: this is a good thing, rather than what we’ve been taught to believe — that emotion undermines reason. As science writer Jonah Lehrer says, “If it weren’t for our emotions, reason wouldn’t exist at all.”

You can’t imagine the wild glee I felt when I learned this – especially given that our society was built on marginalizing women for being “emotional” whereas real men never let emotion cloud their rational, logical “accurate” judgment. Take that, boys!

And of course this brings us right back to story: just like life, all story is emotion based. Story is about what it costs the protagonist – emotionally – to overcome the internal issue that’s keeping her from attaining her goal, and not about the buildings and bridges she has to blow up to do it.

There exists a glut of writing advice books out there (I should know, having clogged the pipes with my own suspect opinions): why should writers take a second look at yours?

Oh what the hell, I might as well say it straight out: I think every writer should read my book first, before they read any other book. Why? Because it’s not about writing, it’s about story. The trouble with starting with any of the other writing books out there is they tend to focus in on the mechanics of language and writing, or the glory of unleashing your creativity, or both. There’s nothing wrong with that per se (I love your take on writing), but in so many of those books there’s the tacit implication that by learning to “write well” you’ll know how to write a story. It couldn’t be less true.

Sure, learning to write well is a good thing, but only once a writer really understands what a story is – I’m not talking story-structure, mind you – but story itself. Knowing what the reader’s brain is really responding to when they can’t put the book down, and how to craft a story that delivers it, is the most important thing a writer can learn. It’s also the first thing a writer should learn.

Right now, no one else is writing about what I do – in fact, on one else is teaching it. I just finished teaching a nine month master class in novel writing at UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program – these were accomplished writers who’d spent years studying writing, including one who’d just received an MFA from one of the country’s most prestigious universities – and the thing I heard most often was that they wished they’d read my book before they started writing. Especially the woman who’d just gotten an MFA.

Sheesh, self promotion has never come easily to me, and I’m not saying I’m brilliant or anything, just that I’ve stumbled onto something that no one else is talking about – and run with it.

Do you plan to take the storytelling lessons learned and apply them to your own work? Will we see a novel or a film from you?

Maybe! But for now, there’s nothing I love more than working with writers, and helping them wrestle the story in their head onto the page.

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

I want to take my message about how the brain processes story far and wide.  It’s such a game changer, and my goal is to help writers understand what story is before they start writing.  The scary thing is that right now, it’s advertisers, right wing politicians and televangelists who really understand the power of story, and how to wield it.  I want to change the equation, so that many more writers, the nonprofit world and politicians who need to learn how to use story (Democrats, are you listening?) have that same power.