Saturday, October 30, 2010

Some Short Fiction

A few years ago, Ryan North of Dinosaur comics wrote a comic about a machine that could tell you how you were going to die. Not when or where, but just the manner of your eventual demise.

People liked the idea, so Ryan North, along with David Malki and Matthew Bennardo solicited short stories from their readers, picked the best ones and released them as a collection on October 27th. It spent two days in the number one spot on the best seller list.

Unfortunately, I was a little late to the game (by a matter of a couple of years), but after reading the preview (and ordering the book), I was intrigued by the idea and decided to write a story of my own.

So here it is, my thousand word wonder, written over the course of a feverish hour. I hope you enjoy it:

The Truth Will Set you Free?

“I’ve decided.” Said Sally.

To Peter, the declaration sounded like a tombstone falling on granite.


“I’m getting tested tomorrow.” She said. “I have to know.”

Peter walked like a zombie across the room and slowly sat down on the armchair. He removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose

After an eternity had passed, he looked up at her and asked, simply: “Why?”

“I have to know.” She said, launching into the argument she’d been preparing for days. “Everyone I know has been tested. It’s not a big deal! I don’t understand why you have such a problem with the machine…”

“You don’t know!?” Shouted Peter, exploding out of the armchair. “That thing’s evil, Sally. The knowledge that that…thing gives you is a curse! Can’t you see it?” He paced up and down the room, his arms gesticulating wildly. “They have them in Goddamn malls now! People line up in front of them like they’re Goddamn carnival attractions.” He took on the voice of a cheery infomercial pitchman. “Roll up! Roll up! Ladies and Gentlemen! You too can destroy your life for the low, low price of twenty dollars plus tax! No more Doctor’s Offices! Just put your finger in the magical Machine of Death and a drop of blood is all it takes!”

He paced the length of the room and few times before collapsing back into the chair. As quickly as it had come, his fury subsided and after burying his face in his hands, he started to silently sob.

“We’re all going to die, Peter.” Said Sally, softly. “You, me…everyone… Knowing how it’s going to happen isn’t a curse.” She paused. “The Machine’s not evil..the guy on TV said it can even help people live longer, or enjoy life more.”

“Oh, the guy on TV said it?” Said Peter, looking up, his eyes red and puffy. “The one who sells the damn things? Well, that’s different. Let’s all get tested! We’ll take the dog as well, see if he’s going to get run over or choke on his chew toy.”

“I’m being serious, Peter.” Said Sally. “The Machine is a blessing! Sandra’s slip said she was going to die of a congenital heart problem she didn’t even know she had! By finding out about it now, before it develops, she’s added years to her life! And it’s not just telling you the way you’re going to die, it’s ruling out all the ways you’re not going to die. Think of all the things people love but don’t do because it’s bad for them. You went through hell giving up smoking, and I know you miss it…if you found out you were going to die from old age, you could smoke sixty a day for the rest of your life!”

“It’d be nice if that’s how it worked, but that thing has a twisted sense of humor.” Said Peter, with a laugh that didn’t contain one ounce of humor. “Old age? One of the guys I used to work with got ‘old age’, so he started taking stupid risks, safe in the knowledge he was invulnerable…right up until his 87 year old flight instructor conked out at fifteen thousand feet during his first flying lesson.”

“Well, that's a one in a million…”

“You know the worst part?” Interrupted Peter. “He was wearing a parachute. Could have got out of the plane at any time. You know what his last words were? ‘I’m gonna die of old age, Ground Control, you think I’m gonna jump and miss seeing how I’m going to survive this?’

“Well he lived more in those last few years than he had in his entire life!” Shouted Sally. “The machine is never wrong! He was always going to die in that plane crash, but the machine freed him to do what he wanted! That’s what the machine gives us. FREEDOM!”

She dropped down onto the couch and crossed her arms, her face set in grim defiance. After a few moments, Peter stood up, and soundlessly walked out of the room. He returned a few minutes later and tossed that day’s newspaper at her.

“Read it.” He said. “If you think the machine gives your freedom, read it.”

“I don’t need to.” Said Sally. “My mind’s made up.”

Peter picked up the paper and held it in front of her face. The headline said “TEENAGER FACES CHARGES OVER UNDERAGE MACHINE ACCESS”.

“So what?” Said Sally with a laugh. “That happens all the time. A kid turns sixteen, his parents won’t give him permission to get tested, so he finds an unattended machine and does it anyway.” She let out a laugh. “That’s hardly news, Peter. What difference do a few years make? You can get tested at 18 without consent anyway.”

Peter looked at her, sadly. “That’s not what this is.” He said.

“So what is it?” Said Sally with a mocking tone in her voice. She was enjoying herself now. Peter was clutching at straws and his melodrama wasn’t going to win him the argument.

“You’re right it involved a sixteen year old kid.” Said Peter, after a long moment. “But he had his parent’s permission. In fact, they all went to get tested as a family.”

“If you’ve got a point to make, Peter, make it. You’re boring me.”

“Well, the Mom was going to die of Natural Causes, the Dad from a Massive Coronary, and the kid got Natural Causes as well.”


“Well, after this kid got his prediction, he thought it would be funny to grab his six year old sister’s hand and force it into the machine.” He held the paper out to her. “You can read the prediction for yourself. There’s a picture of the Machine printout on page two.”

Sally snatched the paper away from him, and in a fit of anger almost tore the paper in half as she turned the page with a swipe of her hand. There, in the center of the page, in the unmistakable, clinical script of the machine were the words:


An eternity passed as Sally stared at the page..

“You talk about freedom?” He spat. “What kind of freedom does that little girl have?”

Sally's mouth opened and closed.

“That girl has no freedom. No freedom at all. Without this prediction, maybe she would have grown up normally, got married and had children of her own. Maybe her attack was only going to happen when she’d reached a ripe old age… Not that it matters anymore, because now we’ll never know.” He paused to let his words sink in. “She’s going to spend her childhood wondering why her parents won’t let her out of their sight, and her adulthood terrified of anyone who looks at her twice.

Her idiot brother took away the life that could have been happy, albeit with a horrific end, and replaced it with one of terror. Not just for her, but her whole family.”

“Peter.” Said Sally. “I’m sorry.”

“Not as sorry as that poor girl’s family…and I think that’s the worst thing about the Machine.” He Said. “It doesn’t just tell you how you’re going to die. It tells the people who care about you how they’re going to lose you.”


“Ask yourself a question. Think of all the horrific ways a person can die and ask yourself one simple question: Do I really want to know?”

Another eternity passed before Sally found her voice. It came as a whisper…


Friday, October 29, 2010

That's your angle? Really?

Dear Mainstream Media,

Can you please stop with the ridiculous bullshit?

I just read this story which had the simply awesome headline ‘Mom Kills Baby over Farmville’:

“A Jacksonville mother charged with shaking her baby to death has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.

Alexandra V. Tobias, 22, was arrested after the January death of 3-month-old Dylan Lee Edmondson. She told investigators she became angry because the baby was crying while she was playing a computer game called FarmVille on the Facebook social-networking website.

Tobias entered her plea Wednesday before Circuit Judge Adrian G. Soud. A second-degree murder charge is punishable by up to life in prison.

Prosecutor Richard Mantei said Tobias’ sentence could be less because of state guidelines that call for 25 to 50 years. Soud offered no promises on what he’ll order during a sentencing hearing scheduled for December.

Tobias told investigators that she shook the baby, smoked a cigarette to compose herself and then shook him again. She said the baby may have hit his head during the shaking.”

Okay, let me be absolutely clear here. I fucking hate Farmville, and this woman is obviously a complete and total monster who deserves to be locked up for the rest of her life. But why was Farmville even mentioned? It hardly seems pertinent does it?

If this Alexandra bitch had been watching TV, would you have titled this something like “Mom Kills Baby over TV Show”?

No, you wouldn’t. For some reason a woman killing her baby isn’t ‘spicy’ enough for you, is it? So you’ve show-horned in a social media/gaming reference to cash in on a moral panic.

You see, I’m a gamer. I love videogames, and it really pisses me off when you write bullshit like this trying to infer that a stupid browser game about farming somehow drove this psycho to murder.

I remember reading a new story a few years ago about a husband who snapped and stabbed his wife to death because she put the mustard jar on the wrong side of his plate. In that story, the emphasis was on what a completely unbalanced, violent fuck the husband was…and amazingly, no newspaper tried to work the angle that mustard consumption somehow drove him to murder.

You know, I bet this Alexandra psycho was probably drinking a soft-drink at the time, or was smoking a cigarette or had some music playing in the background…why didn’t you mention that?

Basically, quit with the bullshit, lazy journalism and trying to get more exposure by riding the coat-tails of the latest bullshit moral panic.

For fuck’s sake, over 80 million people play Farmville, so even if this woman actually did kill her baby because of Farmville, that means Farmville causes murderous feelings in 0.00000125% of people who play it. That’s hardly a compelling statistic.

Anyway, not that it matters much. Newspapers will be dead within the next few years, and as far as I’m concerned, you lying manipulative bastards are getting exactly what you deserve.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Inside the (crappy) Actor's Studio

Early last year, I remember listening to a podcast where Mike and Jerry from Penny Arcade were discussing the ads for the then brand-new Guitar Hero World Tour.

The ads featured people like Tony Hawk and Paula Abdul and were generally terrible. At one point in the discussion, Jerry said:

“What these people never realize is that we’re our own specific sub-culture. We have our own celebrities…and Paula Abdul is not among them.”

I think Jerry was exactly right. If I had to write a list of the ten famous people I’d like to meet, the only people on that list the average person would probably have heard of is Adam Savage from Mythbusters and Wil Wheaton.

The main thing you’d notice is that the majority of people on my list aren’t on TV or in movies…the vast majority are only famous on the internet…and probably don’t count as ‘famous’ in the traditional sense of the word.

This was brought home to me a couple days ago when I got to be on ‘Tweet Me Harder’.

Ok, so TMH is a podcast hosted by Kris Straub and David Malki who are best known for their popular webcomics. Malki is the artist behind Wondermark, and Kris is the artist behind Starslip, Chainsaw Suit as well as the ‘Blamimations’ he makes with Scott Kurtz over on the Penny Arcade site.

These guys are my celebrities. In my ‘Dream Dinner Party’, Kris and Malki win out over any tv or movie star you can name…which was why it was a massive thrill when I got to be on an episode.

Before I make this sound any grander than it is, let me explain the circumstances.

TMH is a comedy podcast, and for the past month, Kris has been away on vacation travelling around Europe. Rather than just say Kris is away, they cooked up a storyline where Kris had been kidnapped, playing pre-recorded ‘phone messages’ from him…there’s more to it than that, but it’s absolutely hilarious. I highly suggest you go listen to it.

Well, anyway, with Kris’s return from his trip, Malki ran a contest where you could call into the show and leave a message with your plan to rescue Kris, and the three winners would get to ‘help Malki on the rescue mission.’

Well, I called in, left my message…and I was disappointed when the three winners were announced and I wasn’t among them. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to win. TMH has an audience of thousands and they must have got hundreds and hundreds of calls.

Then I jumped out of my chair and did a happy dance when a few minutes later, the following tweet arrived:

“@Tweethard: And I have a SPECIAL ROLE for @Paulius1981 if he's interested.”

Interested? Are you kidding me? I didn’t care what the ‘special role’ was. It meant I got to be on my favorite podcast with two creators that I’ve been a fan of for the better part of a decade.

A short while later, I got an email from Malki with the script for the part I’d be playing and a time he’d call me on Skype to record…if I wanted the part.

Let me explain this to the non-geeks. To me, this was the equivalent of the star of your favorite TV show giving you a call and saying “Hey, we’re doing a special episode and we need someone to play this character, let me know if you’d like to be in the show.”

I couldn’t have been happier with the part. Firstly, I got to play a bad guy. The story’s ‘big bad’ had already been established, but I got to play his ‘head agent’, a shadowy, deeply evil guy who does some awesomely evil things I don’t want to spoil before the episode comes out. I will say I got to use my evil laugh, which I was quite proud of.

…and yes, I’m deeply aware that I probably only got this part because of my English accent…the big bad guy is a Brit as well.

The funny thing was, while I was sitting at the computer, waiting for Malki to call…it suddenly dawned on me that it was Saturday, and that’s the day I usually talk to my parents over Skype. I knew that with my luck, my parents would call right in the middle…and as I mentioned in my last post, when one of your favorite creators calls you to give you an opportunity to appear on your favorite podcast that’s going to go out to thousands and thousands of people…the last thing you want to do is put them on hold.

Don’t get me wrong, Malki wouldn’t have complained, while I consider him a celebrity, I think he thinks of himself as a perfectly regular guy who does stuff on the internet.

But just to be sure, I dropped my parents a quick email explaining the situation and telling them not to call if they see me on Skype. I’ll completely honest, I also just wanted to tell them I was going to be on a really popular podcast. Yeah, I totally regressed. I was like a 10 year old with straight A’s on my report card.

15 minutes later I got a reply. It said “Don’t worry, we’re not going to be on Skype anyway today. Talk to you sometime this week.”

That’s what made me think of Jerry Holkins’ quote that we have our own celebrities. My parents didn’t even mention my ‘news’, and it got me thinking.

If I’d emailed my parents and told them I was going to be on a crappy local radio station at 3am, they’d have got excited for me. The fact I was going to be on a podcast, which was the internet, even though the show has a listenership of thousands…I don’t think it was ‘real’ to them. Hell, I think they’d have been more impressed if I’d been in the background of a news report.

I’m not complaining. As I’ve said, my celebrities aren’t their celebrities. If I’d told some people attending a comic convention or PAX, they’d have understood my level of excitement…my parents? Not so much.

But, anyway, the recording session went as well as I could have hoped for. As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m not an actor. I think acting is one of those things everyone thinks they’re good at…but when you’re playing an actual character and having to say someone else’s words, it’s a whole different thing.

It never really occurred to me the sheer number of different ways there are to say a simple line of dialogue. For example, one really simple line was ‘let go of him’.

It seems really simple, but how do you say it? In that scene, a fight’s broken out and Malki’s just grabbed my boss. Do I growl it like I’m in control and threatening him? Do I shout like I’m really angry? Am I scared that everything’s just gone wrong?

That’s just four words. When I have a full on speech…well, let’s just say I suddenly know why directors are the most important people on a set. You really can say the exact same words five times on the run and end up with five entirely different scenes.

Malki was awesome, though and gave me some great tips. For example, one of my lines was “Oh, and by the way? You owe the military half a billion dollars for a new hyperjet.” And after a few attempts where I was basically just reading from the page, he said “Ok, so I’ve just got in this jet, messed around with the controls, it’s gone through a wall and I’ve spread it all over the airstrip doing a ton of damage along the way. The audience doesn’t know any of that and we’re never going to explicitly tell them, but your character does know that, so try and get it across in the line…I know that sounds impossible, but just keep that in your head while you read.”

It sounds odd, but it made perfect sense. Suddenly I knew exactly how I’d deliver it. This guy just destroyed something of mine that was very valuable. I would be angry and really hate the guy…and it really effected how I delivered the line.

In fact, that same line also showed how awesome Malki was at letting me interpret the script myself. After saying it a few times, almost spitting the words at him, I thought it might be a little funnier if I just tossed the line out really matter-of-factly. I thought the character would see Malki as almost beneath his notice….and rather than be angry, he’d enjoying knowing that Malki was in deep shit…he’d feign indifference and take a sadistic pleasure in watching him suffer. So I tried the line once in a way that was more like “Oh, and by the way? The cat’s out of food, you need to stop by the store.” I knew I’d hit it when Malki laughed and asked me to do it again, even more indifferently.

The other big factor was that I only had about five minutes to read the script before recording. As I mentioned in my last post, time was a huge factor so I didn’t feel right asking for half an hour to actually learn my lines. In fact, after recording, and sitting down and properly reading the script, I got a much better feel for what was going on and wished I’d done a lot differently…but then again, who am I kidding? On a scale of one to ten, I’d rate my performance at about a three. If I’d had a few days with the script, I probably could have got it up to a three and a half… maybe.

Well, anyway, the whole experience was awesome, even if only because I got to talk to someone who’s work I really admire for half an hour.

I’ll tell you one thing though…it really gave me a new found respect for actors, acting really is a hundred times more difficult than you think.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Equal Amounts Suck and Awesome

Well, today has been one hell of a day.

It started out awesome. Tomorrow, I’m going to be on an episode of the awesome ‘Tweet me Harder’ (The World’s First Best Only and Last Talkback Enabled Interactive Audio Podblast) and we did the pre-record today.

I have to say that David Malki is the man. I recorded my part over Skype (It was awesome, I get to play one of the main villains, say some truly ridiculous lines and die a spectacular death), but I make no bones about it, I’m a fucking awful actor…which wasn’t helped by the fact I got the script literally minutes before recording…but Malki was really patient and encouraging, offering advice without ever telling me that I was sucking out loud.

Acting is one of those things that sounds really easy until you try it. I think I did okay, but I mean ‘okay’ as in ‘okay for a complete and total amateur’.

What wasn’t helpful was that Sunny left just before I started recording and was stopped by her mother on the way out of the drive because her mom wanted to borrow some garden loppers from us…so Sunny told her that I was going to be busy recording for the podcast, that it was super important and that I couldn’t be disturbed…so she could run back to the house and get the loppers for her before she left. Her mom said that, no, it was fine, there was no rush, so she’d get them when Sunny got back.

Ten minutes later, Malki calls me on Skype, we start recording and there’s a knock on the door. It’s Sunny’s mom. Figuring she’d just go away when I didn’t answer, I ignore it and keep reading my lines. You see, time was a huge factor and Sunny’s mom never just comes and goes, she’d have been here for fifteen minutes… and when a very popular podcaster/cartoonist that you’ve never spoken to before gives you the opportunity to appear on his highly popular podcast, you don’t put him on hold.

…but when I didn’t answer she started hammering on the door…for five minutes straight. When that didn’t work, she called the housephone.

I swear, she does it on purpose. There’s no other explanation. Why else would you hammer on the door of someone you’ve just been told is busy with something important?

Oh, and when you know someone is home, but they don’t answer the door…take the hint.

Anyway, after trying to concentrate with the door being hammered on, I got through the script, which was a hell of a lot of fun. Looking back, there’s a lot of things I’d have done differently, but like I said, time was a major factor and if Malki was happy, I was happy.

Then tonight, it was time to record our podcast. We’ve been crazy busy and stressed out with Visa stuff all week, but it was super important that we got an episode out because we’d already missed last week’s. So we record, the show goes much better than expected, considering we didn’t have time to do any prep work…and then my laptop crashes when I try to save.

Oh, Audacity saves your recording alright…but for some unknown reason, it saves temporary files in six second chunks.

Have you any idea how long it takes to put 70 minutes of audio back together manually in six second pieces?

I’ll tell you, a long fucking time.

Well, once I’d done that, I played the audio, only to find everything had been slowed down by about 15 percent. I have no idea why. So then I got to speed the audio a little, listen to it, and repeat ten or twenty times, speeding it up and slowing it down until we sounded normal.

Now it’s 1am, I’ve been up since 6am…and this episode is supposed to have been up this afternoon.

It’s gonna be late.

Friday, October 22, 2010

'Sharkey' can kiss my ass

Today, after Sunny left for work, I decided the watch ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ for the fifteenth or sixteenth time.

As you can probably guess, The Lord of the Rings movies are some of my favorites of all time…but it suddenly struck me as I was watching that the Lord of the Rings movies are unique in that they are the only movies I’ve ever preferred over the books.

There’s a reason the books are always better. When you read a story, you’re getting the version that’s been made specifically for you by your own brain. It’s one of the things I remember from my writing classes at university, don’t be too specific with your descriptions so the reader can fill in the blanks.

For example, if I read a book where the main character is described as a stunningly beautiful brunette, my imagination creates that character to fit my definition of beauty. You could read exactly the same book and have a totally different idea of what that character looks like.

Then the movie comes out, and that character is played by Megan Fox who, in my opinion, looks like a total skank, and has all the acting ability of a breeze block.

Long story short, you have a picture in your head that is your ‘perfect’ version of the story, which means you’re going to spend the movie picking out the differences between the version in your head and the version on the screen.

So what makes The Lord of the Rings movies different?

I’ll tell you, and I’m sure I’m going to enrage a lot of geeks by saying this…but the Lord of the Rings books pretty much sucked.

J.R.R. Tolkien is one of those writers who is incredibly creative, has amazing ideas and the actual plot to The Lord of the Rings trilogy is awesome…but he is one fucking awful storyteller. You get the feeling he just sat behind his typewriter and made up the story as he went along, and never went back and changed or removed anything, regardless of how irrelevant anything became. It’s a weird, meandering read where thousands of words of exposition come to complete dead ends, and you have to wade through pages and pages of irrelevant and pointless information when all you want to do is get back to the main plot.

He starts the Fellowship of the Ring with a 10 page treatise of Hobbits, including the types of homes they live in, their farming habits and tons of other stuff we just don’t need to know. All I need to know about Hobbits is they’re a small, peaceful people who dislike excitement and change, that make’s Frodo’s journey much more interesting as we know he’s not a stereotypical adventurer. What I don’t need to know is their entire history, including their architecture style and farming habits.

I wish I was joking about that. Despite the fact he already covered it in ‘The Hobbit’, he spends around 15 pages at the start of Fellowship of the Ring going into excruciating detail about Hobbit Culture.

Later on, he spends God knows how many pages introducing Tom Bombadil, a character who talks like a lunatic, serves no purpose and then vanishes completely from the story.

Imagine reading a novelization of The Matrix, only just after Morpheus contacts Neo, Neo goes to visit his neighbor who talks about his planned fishing trip for thirty pages and the girl he wants to ask out…and then is never mentioned again.

Remember the Battle of Minas Tirith? The epic battle at the end of The Return of the King? He spent maybe three pages on the battle, then 20 or 30 describing Aragorn running around the woods to find some Kingsfoil plant to help heal someone’s wounds.

However, my favorite part was after the battle, after the One Ring is cast into the fires of Mount Doom and Sauron is destroyed once and for all, the Hobbits return to the Shire. End of story, right?

Well, no. we get about another 30-40 more pages of bullshit where it turns out Saruman has changed his name to ‘Sharkey’ and has hired some thugs to terrorize the Shire…and then gets defeated in an extremely boring and anti-climactic way. Not only is this pointless fluff, but we’ve spent three books hearing about what an all-powerful badass Saruman is. It’s like adding an extra 40 minute scene at the end of Return of the Jedi where we discoverer the Emperor survived and has taken up shoplifting.

Basically, The Lord of the Rings movies were great because they weren’t like the books.

I won’t deny that Tolkien is a genius. The guy basically invented the fantasy genre…he’s just an awful storyteller.