I apologize to everyone hoping for my latest novel that I’m not going to participate in National Novel-Writing Month except to reassure friends that it’s fine they missed the 6th, the 9th, and the 14th through 29th except for that time on the 22nd that they realized that a whole page was garbage and they made negative 620 words progress and then finished the 30th at 2,055 words. But I’ve given the world plenty of evidence of what happens when I think of stories. I like to believe I stay on the “kind of charming through enthusiasm” side of things, but, who can tell from inside their own narrative? Anyway it’s all good, the triumph is in trying and if it doesn’t work this time, that doesn’t mean it can’t work.
But to also kind of support folks without doing anything may I offer my guide from a couple years ago, a novel-writing walkthrough? If not, just let it pass and it won’t hurt anyone.
So before you go ahead and take my Urban-Fantasy writing group’s side in throwing me out into the mall food court by the Chinese food stand with the unsettlingly outgoing staff let me explain my work-in-progress. The important thing is the premise. If you don’t have a premise all you have is a bunch of characters milling around. I’m going ahead and assuming that’s literary fiction. I don’t know, I can’t be bothered reading stuff.
So here in this story that’s just on the edge of tomorrow and the limits of possibility, how about a story built around the new digital genie of tomorrow? And it’s a digital genie based on the Freemium model. Yeah, don’t your eyes light up at this prospect? Because you can already hear the digital genie reporting, “You can modify the results of your last wish in 23 hours 58 minutes! Or you can hurry that up by spending 10 Sigloi. Did you want to buy a small bag of Sigloi, a medium bag of Sigloi, or a large bag of Sigloi?”
And I wasn’t even done cackling at my genius when some spoilsport asked, “Sigloi? Really? You can’t just say a bag of coins like every other stupid game like this ever?” and someone else asked, “What is your problem? Are you just in this to research … freaking ancient Persian coins? Is ‘Sigloi’ even plural or is it supposed to be ‘Siglois’ and it doesn’t look any more like a real word the more we look at it”. The person who brings windmill cookies to all the meetings asked whether I see writing as anything but an excuse to do weirdly specific bits of research. “And it’s not even deep research,” she pointed out. “You just put ‘ancient Persian coin’ into Google.” I explained how I did not: I use DuckDuckGo. The conversation was not productive.
My scene speculating this would come to the genie saying, “You don’t have to buy Sigloi! You can earn them by completing a quest! Your first quest: match these advertising slogans up to the fast-food companies that use them and share the results on Facebook!” before four of the group flopped over and played dead until the bookstore sent the Children’s Books section manager around with a push broom to nudge them.
I was barely through describing the central conflict of the book. It’s one of the digital genies coming face-to-face with the partially developed open-source clone digital genie project. There’s all kinds of deep philosophical questions about identity that raises if you don’t actually think very hard about deep philosophical questions. So it’s perfect for my kind of writing! I especially liked the scene where developers complain about people reverting the open-source genie back to the first wish. They say “it screws up the machine-learning routines plus we all see what you’re trying to do there”.
This prompted a customer to quit his project of reorganizing the books in the Computers section to fit his tastes and berate my failure to have the faintest idea of how revision control works. I pointed out that I could well learn plenty about how revision control works except it’s too boring. And the head of the writing group said, “How can a person who owns multiple books about the history of containerized cargo and has opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of them call the center of your own book too boring to learn about?”. Plus the bookstore café people came over to ask what all the shouting was about.
So just before they threw me out the group organizer asked, “Do you have even the slightest idea of what Urban Fantasy is?” No, I do not. I guessed it’s, like, the protagonist is coming to terms with learning she’s part-Billiken while she teaches English as a Second Language classes to zombies in-between her relationship troubles with Bigfoot, who’s always being called off for some crisis at his tech startup company.
They picked me up to evict me more effectively.
Oh but if Bigfoot’s tech startup is involved in the digital genie project then it all counts, right? They have to let me back in now, the rules say!
I had gotten nearly one-third of the way through the logline for my next book before the reading group tackled me, sending the manuscript flying into the air and threatening a turnover and significant loss of yardage. But I reached up mightily and regained possession and while it didn’t help me gain the down any, I was able to eventually make my voice heard over the howls of preemptive and I think unjustified pain.
So it starts with ancient alien astronauts and see that’s about where my group started to scream. I didn’t even get to explain how I didn’t mean this in the racist way where we suppose that, like, the Egyptians of thousands of years ago couldn’t think of “pyramids” without help. I don’t see why anyone figures ancient peoples needed help thinking of the idea of “build stuff using stones”. It’s not like they had a stone shortage.
Anyway, my premise — stop tackling! — is how what if ancient astronauts did come to visit the Egyptians in the era of the great pyramid-building phase? Only the aliens don’t use their advanced technology to help the Egyptians build pyramids. Instead the Egyptians are able to use their pyramid-building skills to give the aliens much-needed guidance on how to get their advanced technology to actually work? And then came another round of tackling and a question about “the heck are you thinking” and “even if there is some non-offensive way to do this” and I know, I know. But I’m willing to do the work to treat this material responsibly. I’m like this close to looking up like what millennium was the great pyramid-building boom and getting a book about what Egypt was like as close to then as the branch library has, so you know my sociology would be not provably wrong and that demonstrates my story to be worth telling!
And I can answer questions about how the pyramid-building era of Egyptians could have stuff to tell alien astronauts about their technology. Who are we to figure that they wouldn’t have stuff to teach the other thems? I mean at a responsible, appropriate tutoring rate. I figure any species sophisticated enough to traverse the stars is too ethical to take someone’s consulting advice without fair compensation. If they don’t I don’t want them in my creative universe anyway.
So what do the aliens need help on? Oh, heck, I don’t know. It’s alien technology. It’d be futuristic even today. How am I supposed to go into details? Maybe something about sphere-packing. That’s a mathematics problem about how you can stack together balls of the same size so there’s the least possible wasted space between them. And the best way to do this turns out to imagine you’re the grocer seen in the comedy putting oranges out on a huge stack for the hero to send the villain crashing into. That is, make pyramids.
Now obviously I don’t mean to say the Ancient Egyptians had some supernatural powers of pyramid-building. I think we’ve got a decent idea of roughly how they went about pyramid-building. But imagine you’re an ancient astronaut and you’re put down somewhere with a big pile of stones and a sense that it’s important to start making pyramids. What would you start out by doing? Exactly. There’s all these little skills that you pick up by practice. You don’t just start out at the top of your thing-stacking game. You start out with what seems obvious and you share tips with outer people who want to do this stuff well, and you try some of what they do, and you get it a little wrong and maybe it works out all right. Eventually, you’re a master of the thing.
And that’s what I figure the Ancient Egyptians would be giving in this cultural exchange that I’m sure can be written up into a culturally sensitive and not at all insulting novel. I’m saying I think that issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine was premature in leaping off the shelves and slapping me senseless and into a balled-up mound of flesh over by the board games. I bet my next draft changes everything.
Is this even secret history? I don’t know what to call it. I just mean stuff we don’t realize happened because there was a lot of stuff that happened and we can’t hear about it all.
And as with my other low-daisy-content story strip reviews, this one might be out of date. This post should be good for explaining plot developments in the couple of months before late May of 2017. If it’s later than, oh, August 2017 when you read this, then if all’s gone to plan I have a new post updating things further. My most recent Gasoline Alley posts should be at the top of this link. Thanks for reading and I’ll do my best to be not too wrong in describing the goings-on.
Gasoline Alley, 27 February – 26 May 2017.
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley has four major kinds of storyline, with many variations possible in those types. Three have been seen since late February. The missing one is the magical-fantasy storyline, wherein Walt Wallet or crew visit the Old Comics Home or something similar. The kind of story that just warps what reality could be. That hasn’t been around the last few months.
The second time is your classic old-style sitcom, ah, situation. The kind where one of the main cast has some scheme that gets advanced and then falls apart. You know, every sitcom from the 50s and 60s, and many of the radio sitcoms from the 40s. It’s an old-fashioned format but it’s still a perfectly workable one. Last time we looked at Gasoline Alley they were coming near the end of one of these. Walt Wallet had been invited to the TV show Shark Bait to pitch inventors his idea: put every household appliance together in one big raging appliance monster. The millionaire or billionaires (the strip made a point of raising confusion about this) don’t see how it would work, and one of them finds that exactly this idea was patented by the Hotenkold Appliance Company in 1935 and still makes the things. As predicted by everyone who’s encountered stories before, Walt Wallet does not go home wealthy. (The strip didn’t pay off the millionaire-or-billionaire question.)
The strip passed things off to Hoogy Skinner and her kids Boog and Aubee, for a medical check. This led a couple of weeks of pediatrician jokes and let us follow the Physician Assistant, Chipper Wallet, into the third of the stock Gasoline Alley plot kinds. And I’d like to mention the smoothness of the segue: we followed Walt Wallet out of the TV show plot, passed off by switching from one car to the next with characters that brought us to Chipper Wallet, and from that into his story. It’s all smoothly done; I wonder if daily readers even notice they’re being passed on like that.
Anyway, this third kind of storyline is the public service announcement. Chipper Wallet leaves the office to drive to Durham, North Carolina, where he’s to speak at the dedication of the Veteran’s Memorial Garden of the Physician Assistant Society. Wallet gets waylaid by some car trouble and meets Reverend Neil Enpray and mechanic Don Yonder whom I’m just going to assume are from the Earth-2 Gasoline Alley. They gave me the vibe of being established characters but I don’t know the canon nearly well enough to guess. But it’s mostly a chance for the characters to explain to the reader about what they are, what they do, why they’re important. The story ends with Wallet being reunited with a woman he, as a Navy Hospital Corpsman in Vietnam, helped deliver a child. As I say, a bit of story and a good bit of public service announcement. It’s also a chance to fundraise for the historical society.
And this led into the current storyline, one of the fourth type. It’s the weepy melodrama. It stars Joel and Rufus, two of the (bluntly) stupider adults in the strip. They’re usually busy with more outlandish hijinks and misunderstandings. (The segue for this story was Rufus bringing his cat in to see Chipper Wallet on the grounds that of course he’s a vet; he served in the Coast Guard.) Rufus has just met Scruffy, a kid whose family just moved into the abandoned old grist mill and is so poor they can only use parts of the Walt Kelly Pogofenokee comic-strip-southern dialect. The story’s in its earliest days so not much has been established past that the family’s desperately poor. I expect this is going to lead Rufus and Joel in a story in which they make some grand and slightly overcomplicated gesture to help that which misfires but still results in their being a little better off. (At this stage it’s playing Santa Claus Running Late. This may evolve.) That’s the kind of story Gasoline Alley does.
The Sunday strips have all been one-off jokes, mostly characters setting up and delivering corny old gags well, and not part of any continuing storylines. That’s fine and pleasant but there’s no context I can usefully give to them. They’re whole on their own.
Another Blog, Meanwhile Index
The index rose eleven points as everyone was relieved to learn everyone else had clicked on that silly clickbait ad about ten ways to earn money from your hobby and there was no reason everyone should feel ashamed that, like, apparently there’s people whose hobby is investing in real estate? I mean, come on. Anyway the index is at 210 and that’s not even an all-time high and isn’t that amazing too? It’s amazing, yes.
Last week I outlined the loose plot threads, as best I remembered them. Most are centered around Margo, who’s spent the past week suddenly waking from her coma, again and again. But some involve Tommie or other people in the comic strip. I thought it might be possible to get at least the most important, Margo-centric, threads resolved, if the comic strip used its time efficiently to wrap up storylines.
But it’s gone for a loop instead. Eric, Margo’s fiancé who died in the Himalayas and came back as a needlessly elliptical speaker, would seem to be acceptable as a final boyfriend for the strip. He sat up at Margo’s side through her unconsciousness, and so, why not settle with them rekindling their romance and declare that a happy, or at least any, ending?
And instead he seems to be getting out of the fading, increasingly-poorly-drawn picture in favor of Greg. Greg was another of Margo’s former boyfriends. He’s an actor who in-universe is the new James Bond, and Margo was his publicist until she broke up with him and left publicity behind in favor of wedding planning. Why should he come back now, and why should Eric bow out of the picture, without ever having a conversation with a conscious Margo, in his favor? Other than that Eric’s a ghost, I mean. I don’t know, and this would be a good plot for a comic strip that had no particular limits on its time. For one that has sixteen panels left to wrap stuff up, plus a seven-panel Sunday? That’s just weird.
I must admit, this refusal to wrap up storylines is intriguing. I don’t see how they can get to a satisfying conclusion from here. I’m just worried they’re not going to get to one at all. Could it be coincidence that the story lurched out of its nothingness to some shambling resemblance of action just as the cancellation decision must have been made?
If I’ve learned anything from 1950s science fiction it was entirely my own doing. Back then science fiction was a literature of ideas, not this wishy-washy learning stuff. There’s no place in learning for ideas, and who wants to come out of a story having figured out something about people or situations or stuff like that? I don’t mean to sound defensive here, I just want to warn serious science fiction fans that I know this is all on me, not on the genre. By “serious science fiction fans” I mean “people who know Robert Heinlein’s middle name and will work it in at least once out of every four times they try to complete a sentence”.
The most important is about plotting. If I’m ever stuck for getting a story started, now I know what to do. Start out with a stuffy scientist type. Then introduce the kind of character that gets called a tough. He should sound kind of like what you get from listening to a radio show adaptation of a Damon Runyon story. The tough can then talk slang in front of the professor. The professor will put that as talking “slang” in front of him. And the scenes just write themselves. The professor type can view the “slang” in the same way he might examine an exotic insect that turned up in his lunch. His lunch comprises 375 grams of iceberg lettuce pressed flat and cut into regular hexagons, and a dessert of melting ice served with vitamin pills, surely sufficient for all nutritional demands. As a bonus the story can end when the tough or the scientist double-crosses the other and then finds out he’s helpless, which is a good punchy conclusion.
Then there’s characters. Interstellar spaceship crews on voyages of discovery are a neat bunch, since they’re all grumbling and surly and none of them want to know a thing about where they’re going. Get one out in front of a wonder of the universe and they’ll only look up if it’s got that hook you use to pry open a beer. They’ll do their best exploratory work around a hotel room’s bathroom sink.
Computers make for good characters. They’re surly genies who don’t bother talking down to you because that might break their uniform line reads. I like to think in text this means they write in all-caps. Maybe the newer, more human, ones just capitalize the start of every word. (At the risk of peeking ahead: in the 60s they become relentlessly chipper, helpful genies. In the 70s they become mopey and introspective genies, while in the 80s they split between being comic pals and Seven of Nine.)
The tough and the scientist are good to have around, of course. A woman can be a nice character in 50s science fiction, although if she already knows things that’s because she’s waiting for a man to be submissive to. I guess she might get through the whole story knowing stuff as long as there’s the promise she’s going to find one soon. It’s great to have an advertising executive and a tycoon around, because they can yell into telephones and demand that money be put into stuff without having to think about where it comes from or why. Advertising executives are really good to have because they’ll never ever wonder why they’re taking the “alien invasion of Earth” contract.
Then there’s some things about scenarios. For example, if you’ve got a time machine cluttering up your story you might be worried about the contingencies of the universe and whether your grandfather has enough existence insurance. Turns out there’s no time-travel method known that can alter the course of history. This is because of a rule put in place by the people who’re on top of history and don’t see any reason that needs to change.
Wherever a character is and whatever he’s doing, if he needs a weapon, he just needs to reach into any drawer anywhere to pull out a loaded revolver. I don’t know who’s putting them there. The evidence suggests the Space Gideons have gone somewhat awry.
Every rocket, including the little bitty one used to ferry people from Jersey City to the Port Authority in Manhattan, has enough fuel to break the speed of light and go rocketing past the universe if someone just accidentally leaves their foot on the accelerator pedal.
If you’re part of a colonial force there might be natives on the planet and the characters are expected to be total jerkfaces to them. That’s all right. The natives have ways of turning the characters into space cows, so it all balances out.
It turns out there’s no problem a man can have — poor job prospects caused by the aliens’ invasion ad campaign, an annoying mother-in-law, getting stuck on an interplanetary spaceship in a different century — that can’t be solved by the man standing up to his wife. If he doesn’t have a wife he should go looking for the nearest woman who knows stuff. She’ll be about ready to be stood up to.
People say “robot” any way except correctly.
I’m sure I learned other things, but I forgot to jot down just what.
Unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be much more latest to report. The comic strip has, reportedly, been cancelled, and the last new strip is to appear the weekend of the 21st-22nd. Rumor is that vintage (rerun) strips will be appearing at least on the Comics Kingdom web site after that. Whether they’ll be distributed to newspapers that want reruns of a soap opera strip I don’t know. Whether they will finish off the current story before ending … I don’t know, but I am skeptical they even could. I’m sorry not to have better information.
I have noticed the recent surge in people searching for Apartment 3-G information. I’ve written about the comic strip a couple of times, because it’s been going through a stage of fantastic quantities of nothing happening lately. But it’s been getting worse, or at least more baffling. Yes, worse than the stretch where artist Frank Bolle and writer Margaret Shulock spent without exaggeration six weeks of nothing but shots of two people talking about how they had to talk with no relief or any actual subject in mind except for the world’s most hideously deformed kangaroo-deer-night terror.
So to answer the question of what’s going on in Apartment 3-G as sincerely and honestly as I can: nothing comprehensible. No. Not anything.
The overarching plot as it stumbled into the year, back around February or so, was that Margo’s father and the woman she’d always thought was the maid but was in fact her biological mother were finally getting married. Margo had been hired to organize their wedding, but was emotionally confused and furious that her biological mother had been taking advice from some kind of psychic who’s warning about evil at their (planned? considered?) wedding location. That takes us to about February.
Since then, Margo has been wandering around what are allegedly spots in alleged Manhattan, shouting at people that I guess we’re supposed to conclude are her friends. Meanwhile, she’s being haunted by people who seem to know her, but that she doesn’t recognize. Some of them she drives away; some of them just vanish on their own. These haunting people don’t look like the same person, but given the shakiness of Apartment 3-G lately it’s not possible to say whether that’s intentionally unclear. I suspect that these are meant to be the ghosts of boyfriends or male entanglements of the past. However, none of that has been established on-screen, and nobody who’s read the strip has popped up with any identifications of, oh, “the guy haunting her in April was her fiancee from the 1984-86 story they were talking about that one Golden Girls episode”.
And about two weeks ago Lu Ann declared that she was fed up with everything, and she was quitting the gallery and selling her third-share in Apartment 3-G’s building. Also she worked at a gallery, and owned a third-share in Apartment 3-G’s building. The only reason that’s been given for this is that she wants to get out of Manhattan and see the big time. This seems to be correlated to a Mister Clean cosplayer named Mike Downey apologizing I guess for something he maybe did at some point, but how has not been said.
No, none of what motivates any of this has been clarified. Believe me. I have been reading the strip daily, and I have gone back reading it weeks and months at a time to see if it connects more clearly when you look at a block of story at once. There is no story here. There are a couple of plot points — Margo is distressed by her parents’ wedding, Margo is haunted by familiar but unidentifiable figures, Lu Ann wants to change her life — but they exist in island universes, separated from one another and receding ever-faster. And after nothing happened between February and June, then the third of those plot points was dropped into this shapeless melange. You are not missing something, dear confused reader.
I know it’s always easy to make fun of the story strips, since they usually don’t do story well and they’re never funny on purpose. But something seriously bad has happend with Apartment 3-G the past several years. What plotting and narrative the strip used to have has evaporated, and the artwork has collapsed. The only thing I can compare it to is the last years of Dick Locher’s run on Dick Tracy. At that point all narrative collapsed. What few things happened were repeated over and over, as far as you could make out from the artwork. Without exaggeration it was possible to take a week’s worth of panels, scramble them, and read exactly as coherent a story.
That’s fine for some ironic thrills, for a while. Truly incompetent storytelling carries this exciting, outsider-art appeal. But it’s an unhealthy diet. It’s especially so for syndicated newspaper comic strips, an already sickly relative of the pop culture; and it’s extremely dangerous for the syndicated story strip, which might be the most endangered part of the newspaper.
I would like to think there’s hope. After a seemingly endless mess of nothing Dick Locher retired from Dick Tracy. The new team — Joe Staton and Mike Curtis — brought to it fresh artwork and exciting plots carried out with energy and direction. While the strip is flawed (there’s a lot of fanboyish determination to reference and cross-reference everything, and plots have rarely required Dick Tracy to do actual detective work), it’s recovered to being a good story strip again. While I wish no harm to Margaret Shulock or Frank Bolle, I do hope the strip can regenerate. It would be terrible if this is the long sad prelude to cancellation.
I don’t want to worry too much about the minor peculiarities of the Peanuts universe but something came up while watching the truncated little bits of You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown that they show so they can pad out It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown to an hour long. The problem is that as the story goes, Charlie Brown never even runs for school president, so, yes, “You’re Not Elected” is a literally true summary of what happens over the course of the story. But since he didn’t have a chance of being elected it would be no less incorrect if the special had any of these titles instead:
You’re Not Named Deputy Ambassador to the Netherlands, Charlie Brown
You’re Not The New County Commissioner of Drains, Charlie Brown
You’re Not Part Of A Hipster Cover Band Called “Charles Brownies”, Charlie Brown
You Don’t Go Swimming Right After Eating, Charlie Brown
You Don’t Make A Spectacle Of Yourself In A Humiliatingly Bad Pricing Game On The Price Is Right, Charlie Brown
You’re Not The 43rd Person To Walk On The Moon, Charlie Brown
You’re Not In A Shockingly Bitter Blog Fight With A Guy Who Writes Star Trek Novels, Charlie Brown
You’re Not A Kangaroo, Charlie Brown
I’m sorry to harp on this point. It’s just that the logical vapidity of the title turned the seven-year-old me into a little quivering ball of young Peanuts fanboy outrage and I have absolutely no useful way of dealing with that.