2016: A Retrospective

If it tells you anything about 2016, here are the two highlights:

  1. Receiving the galleys from Asimov’s for the story I wrote and sold this year, “Night Fever.” Yes, that’s right: THE story I wrote. One. Though it’s definitely one of my best.

  2. Being licked by a strange dog at Necronomicon.

That’s pretty much it. I also ran about 800 miles and participated in twelve organized races. Everything else was pretty much a shitshow.

Will’s Christmas Buying Guide 2016: Television!

I’m not sure you can exactly “buy” my picks for great television this year, but you can subscribe to their services or whatever.

I find I’m enjoying TV much more than movies these days. Who’s with me?

Stranger Things, Netflix

stThe big surprise was Stranger Things, though it shouldn’t have been. Kids in the 80s discovering terrible secrets in their little town after one of their own goes missing? Filmed with a Spielberg/King sensibility and 80s visual style? Sign me up!

It’s not a perfect show but a very good one, and I find these days I’m more interested in what stories can help me experience than what ideas they introduce. Stranger Things doesn’t deliver earth-shattering, game-changing revelations or advancements in the genre, but it expertly places you back in a specific time and place and — most importantly — feeling of being young in a world of dangerous possibility.

Like Mad Men, it’s a time machine that consistently placed me in a fugue state of imagination, and that’s not something most shows even bother to try.

Westworld, HBO

Big flagship cable dramas these days have to be ambitious and sprawling and full of mystery, and it’s this latter part that most fuck up. A “mystery” isn’t simply the audience asking, “What the fuck is that about?” or, worse, “What the fuck is going on?” or, worst, “Who the fuck are they going to kill off next?”; it’s a matter of meaning.westworld-poster

What do these answers mean?

Smart-ish writers raise questions. Dumb Hollywood execs and writers’ rooms contrive answers. Smarter writers make the answers into better questions.

Westworld does an extraordinary job of cultivating an atmosphere of mystery while also actually, you know, solving some. A question raised in one episode usually gets answered two episodes later, and that’s fine because each answer implies a bigger and more interesting question.

I find I’m less interested in the corporate intrigue and more interested in the rising consciousness of the “hosts,” but it never seems to overwhelm the story.

The risk for the show’s future is overcomplicating the mystery, especially if it experiments with time frames and which people are “real” or not — mystery for mystery’s sake. They’ve done an excellent job so far with imbuing the twists with meaning, and I hope that stays the norm.

The show is also beautifully shot and written, and almost every performer is extraordinary — Anthony Hopkins, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Jimmi Simpson. Jesus. They’re all good.

Aquarius, NBC

aqYou’d think Aquarius would be right up my alley, and you’d be right. We’ve got the 60s and Charles Manson and David Duchovny and crime, and the show scratches all those itches. I’m surprised by how much more I enjoy the non-Manson crimes in the show, but they’re excellent snapshots of the era.

A great crime story often addresses what about its time and place makes a certain action a crime. Aquarius does that well.

I find some of the liberties taken with the Manson story a little jarring (especially the casting of an actor who is WAY more polished than the real Manson), and I hate being the person with his arms folded who says, “That’s not where the bodies were found on Cielo Drive.” But I am.

Still, I enjoy the show immensely and the performances are excellent.

Will’s Christmas Buying Guide 2016: A Late Entry in Books!

Burnt Offerings, by Robert Marasco

About an hour after writing yesterday’s post about the best books I’ve read this year, I finished Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings via Audible in the car. It was an excellent book, well worth your time if you enjoy the slow simmer of human weakness in a crucible of supernatural threat.

This great cover is from the recent Valancourt re-released.

This great cover is from the recent Valancourt re-released.

A family in the 1970s (the glorious 1970s!) agrees to take care of a vast beautiful house in the country on Long Island (one of the ways you know it’s the 70s), and there’s a small catch: they have to take care of a reclusive elderly woman who never emerges from her bedroom. Of course, there are Reasons and of course there are Mysteries and in the end, the book doesn’t shrink from the consequences.

[The 70s are perfect for horror. I know because I was there: cynicism, mistrust, a sense of decay, graffiti on the subways and scowling people at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Everybody seemed to be asking, “Is God dead or did He just leave us for another woman?”]

Will’s Christmas Buying Guide 2016: Books!

Each year, I do a little retrospective of what I’ve enjoyed that year (even if it was produced earlier), and this year I’m doing it a little early in case you want to buy gifts for that special person in your life who is exactly like me.

Let’s start with the books!

The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King

gsThis year, I listened to the entire Dark Tower series on Audible and it was wonderfully strange and moving — a beautiful combination of medieval, post-apocalyptic, and Western sensibility with complex heroism and difficult consequences. I loved it as a story of a man learning how to reconcile his life’s obsession with the safety of the people with him on the journey — which, of course I did, given my personal history.

All seven books are odd and I’ll admit some parts are better than others. I especially enjoyed Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, but there are beautiful moments spread through every one.

As a writer, I’m fascinated by the obviously intuitive nature of these stories: it’s hard to believe King planned them very deeply, and they seem to be the result of him listening more than writing. That means that certain things get more attention than they should and others get less, and sometimes the endings seem a little ill-fitting. It doesn’t really bother me, though; it’s a roughly-hewn story like a canoe you’d chop with a hatchet from a fallen tree — somehow richly connected to reality. 

Various titles, by John D. MacDonald

I promise I’m not obsessed by Stephen King, BUT ol’ SK has mentioned more than once how much he admires John D. MacDonald’s work. If you wonder where King learned his trick of capturing the delicious gossipy detail that makes his characters seem real, it’s all in MacDonald’s stories.bc

My favorite so far is Murder in the Wind about people with deadly secrets who hole up in an abandoned house as a hurricane passes over. I also like the Travis McGee novels about the beach bum private fixer who does weird investigatory favors for people from time to time, but fair warning: they’ve got a mid-century sensibility.

I Am Providence, by Nick Mamatas

pYou know that old quotation “If you can’t say something good about someone, come sit right here by me?” This book is like sitting at the far corner of a Lovecraftian convention ballroom with someone who has the same entirely appropriate affection/disdain for it that you do. Yes, it’s a murder mystery that takes place at such a convention, but it’s also a purified sample of everything good (10%) and awful (90%) about the “community.”

It’s like Catch-22 but for Lovecraft fandom instead of the Army.

The Fisherman, by John Langanf

One of the things I found disappointing about Boy Scouts was that I never got a cool sublime experience of awe and horror in the woods. John takes care of that here with a man who goes into the wild for answers he doesn’t expect. It’s a beautifully lyrical book and it will make you wonder if you’re missing something by not going fishing. Then you’ll come back to your senses.

The Glittering World, by Robert Levy

gwThis book is a lot like Robert himself: cool, sophisticated, perceptive, funny, and just credulous enough to see the fey lurking on the edge of your summer retreat. I love the slow creeping intrusion of the strange here, and Robert never forgets how people are still people (troubled, petty, jealous, feebly and selfishly heroic) even in the presence of the wondrous.

What You Should Work On Next

I’m finding that the older I get, the harder it is to dive into a new creative project with the same enthusiasm.

“Enthusiasm,” if you don’t know, comes from a Latin root meaning “too dumb (willfully or not) to know how much shit is ahead,” and the sad thing about experience is that it gnaws away at enthusiasm like a heartworm. I miss the heady, ignorant days when I could say like an idiot, “Fuck yeah, the world needs a story about monsters who live in milk trucks!”

The world has made abundantly clear that it needs none of my shit, even the really good shit that I felt deeply.

I’m more okay with that than I thought I’d be, but it still means that it’s hard to choose what to work on next. Sometimes an idea grabs me and won’t leave until I do something with it, but more often, I have to commit to hacking away at something I choose.

So here’s the patented Will Ludwigsen Writing Priority Grid(tm).

What you do is list all of the things you could be working on in a column on the far left side. Then, in the other columns, you rate the story idea in several categories, like so:

priority-grid

Now, if you want to get fancy, you can weight the numbers as I have here. Maybe the saleability of a story is more important than, say, how interesting it is to you (though I rather hope not). In that case, the maximum score for interesting might be a three or a four instead of a five for saleability.

(You’ll notice that most of the numbers don’t go above three even in the heavier columns. Well, that’s depression for you. Also, I grayed saleability because that’s the one that seems hardest to gauge.)

But what if you add up the totals and you’re not happy with the result? Well, that tells you something, too: there’s a story you WANT to work on despite the cold numbers and you should chase after that.

You can add other columns depending on your priorities.Possibilities might be “How long has it been lurking in my mind?” or “How eager is my audience to read it?” or “How important is the editor expecting it?” I considered “How likely is it to fuck over Trump,” but I figured that one would be depressing, but hey, maybe you want to consider the social impact of your work.

This would be a good place to write something encouraging about the choice you’ve made, but all I’ve got is this:

You should probably weight that “fun” column pretty heavily because that’s the fall back when all else fails. If you change nothing but yourself with your work, that’s a lot more than most people do.

How to Talk to Your Children about Donald Trump

A lot of people are wondering what to tell their children about the Donald Trump victory in the election.

stun

While we’re all grateful that I have none, here’s what I’d tell mine:

Merricat, Roland, come here and sit with your old man a minute before we all go down to the bunker.

You’re too young to read most of my work yet, but I pretty much express its main theme in everything else I say and do, so you may have picked it up by now. That theme is this:

Decent people live outnumbered among legions of willfully oblivious idiots who rationalize their selfishness as “human nature.” Like saboteurs in enemy country, it is our duty to confound their ends with orchestrated humor and weirdness.

There’s a reason your mom and I named you after dangerously obsessive delusional psychopaths, and it’s because we want you to be the kind of terrifying oddballs who never give up their own visions of what’s right for what’s socially acceptable. If caving to social proof is a bug in our evolutionary software, I hope that you remain forever crazy enough to fight it.

Sometimes that means fighting alone or in a tiny group, and sometimes it means adding your voice to a crowd that accidentally happens to be right.

Your revolution may never extend further than the length of your arms, but there’s so much you can do there. Being nice is a revolutionary act. Sticking up for someone is a revolutionary act. Listening and observing for yourself are revolutionary acts.

So is speaking up. So is being quiet when it suits you.

The whole world wants you to be crazy like them, but my hope is that you’ll be crazy like you.

Wait, “The Leaning Lincoln” is Based on a True Story?

I’m pleased that my story “The Leaning Lincoln” is now available in this month’s “slightly spooky” double-issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, though it’s origin is more than slightly spooky.

It’s based on a true event from my life.

In 1983, my father almost certainly wound up an emotionally-troubled man into a shooting spree to kill their mutual enemies — creditors, bankers, and a lawyer. asimovs1016

The man started by fatally shooting his own lawyer (whom he saw as “mishandling” an inheritance case) and was luckily stopped there, but when he was arrested, he was found with a list of other victims not obviously connected to him. He never admitted they were connected to my father.

[I won’t comment on the specifics of the real case out of respect for the victim and his family. I hope I fictionalized it enough not to be offensive, and I hope that though I humanized the killer, I didn’t absolve him of his crime. He was definitely responsible for his own deranged reasons, but there’s a truth most people didn’t know which is that my father helped derange him.]

The man — fictionalized as “Henry” in the story — was kinder and more understanding to me and my family than my father ever was. He took us to the movies and talked about Dungeons and Dragons with me, and yes, he did make me a lead Abraham Lincoln figurine that seemed to bring me bad luck.

As a kid playing with action figures on the back patio, I heard my dad rant to “Henry” about his enemies while “Henry” quietly listened, and in the decades since, I’ve wondered what I should have done or whom I could have told. “Henry” was convicted and died in prison while my father went on to other crimes. He’s dead now, too.

The speculation in this story is the idea that a kid like me, weird and dreamy and superstitious, could find a way to use that to do good in the real world.

I wanted to talk about where magic came from with other readers like me who I know wonder that for themselves. I wanted to talk about how our books and comics and movies and action figures saved a lot of us from terrible things, and I wanted to talk about what we should do with that to pass it on, how we should add science fiction and fantasy to the world instead of just hiding there.

That’s what Scott does in the story, and it’s what I couldn’t quite manage when I was ten. I had to go back in time for another shot at putting my father on trial and convicting him with magic.

 

Mr. Trump, Two Minutes for Your Opening Remarks

[After writing the speech for Hillary, it’s only fair to write one for Trump. I think this could turn his whole campaign around. ]

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Photo by Gage Skidmore

(Trump ascends to the stage holding up a small plastic aquarium.)

Can you see that? I’m not sure you can get that on camera. If you look real close, you’ll see there’s a thing swimming around in there about the width of my thumb and maybe, what, a foot long? Something like that.

Anyway, me and the family went on vacation a couple of years ago to Bali — beautiful place, by the way, the best service on the planet — and while I was practicing some dives off a rock cliff, the larvae of this little guy wormed its way into a scrape on my knee from the gilded coffee table in my office.

Turns out that this is the Greater Balinese Brain Fluke, a trematode that laps up cerebrospinal fluid like a deer at a mountain stream. Loves it. Loves it so much that sometimes it makes a comfortable little nest in the brain of a human host. Kind of like that thing from that Star Trek movie. Beautiful movie, by the way. “Khaaannnn!” I love that part.

Anyway, this little fella set up shop near the amygdala on the left hemisphere of my brain and just started pumping away, kind of like a little fist. Like this. Just squeezing away, drinking and growing and secreting like all God’s creatures.

Wait, wait. Don’t get up. I’m getting to the point.

The amygdala, as we all know, is the breaker switch for decision making and emotional reaction, and, well, you might have noticed something a little strange about me lately. Still, it wasn’t until I started getting the migraines and those weird sniffles that my doctor ordered a CT scan that found my little friend curled up in my skull like a puppy.

Long story short, we had a surgery yesterday and this was pulled from my nasal cavity by a very nice Indian doctor. His name’s Doctor Srivastava, and I can’t recommend him enough. He’s great for all kinds of things, not just brain flukes.

And then my staff showed me the tapes of what I’ve been saying and, holy shit, I owe all of you a huge apology. Huuggge. Women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims…Jesus Christ. It’s like this thing just rings the primal bell of tribal thinking over and over.

I’m truly sorry for everything I’ve said. Yeah, that Billy Bush thing happened before the fluke was frolicking in my brain folds, but that was some bullshit, too. I was just trying to look cool.

So anyway, I’m back and ready to talk about the issues. I’ll admit it kinda worries me that nobody really picked up on something being wrong with me, and I wonder what I’d have to have said or done for someone to say, “Holy shit, you think he’s got a Greater Balinese Brain Fluke up there in his noggin?”

That’s what this pale-veined satin ribbon on my lapel signifies: GBBF awareness. I hope the next time that I or one of your loved ones starts showing obvious signs of being crazy as a shithouse rat that you’ll get us the help we need.

There’s a difference between politics-level crazy and brain-fluke-level crazy.

Secretary Clinton, Two Minutes for Your Closing Remarks

[If the enjoyment I get from it is anything to go by, I’d probably be a better speechwriter than the fiction kind. Sometimes I write things that other people could say to better make a point, but I don’t often share them. Here’s one for Hillary’s closing debate remarks.]

Photo by Lorie Shaull

Photo by Lorie Shaull

Like many of you, I’ve spent the last ninety minutes wondering why anybody would vote for this gibbering lunatic.

It can’t be because he’s got the best ideas for moving America forward; all he has are plans to come up with those ideas. It can’t be because of his great business acumen; he makes it a business practice to stiff countless vendors and employees. It can’t be because he’s a patriot; he’s proud of not paying his fair share of the taxes that keep our soldiers equipped and our kids educated. It certainly can’t be for his empathy or his eloquence.

The only reason I can imagine to vote for Donald Trump is because many of you just really, really hate me.

Of course, I wish you didn’t. Or if you have to, I wish you’d hate me for the right reasons.

For decades, some of you have seen me as a Machiavellian figure in some paneled room with her fingers tented, cackling as my plans come together. You see me as a puppet master, pulling the strings of some sinister agenda for power.

I’ve spent my adult life around power, and I can tell you it’s easy to come by and virtually useless by itself. If I really wanted power and only power, if I really wanted to be a demagogue and rule the country by my egotistical whim…well, I’d look a lot more like Donald Trump. And I’d have done it better, too.

Here’s the prosaic truth. I don’t want your guns, though I wish there were fewer of them. I don’t want a one-world government. I don’t want white people to disappear from the Earth. I don’t want to tax all your money to pay for forced abortions.

You know who I am? I’m the vaguely annoying student government geek from your high school who used to stay late in the gym painting the homecoming float by herself.

When I brush my teeth in the morning, I’m not thinking of ways to rule with an iron fist. I’m thinking of what I need to do, who I need to talk to, so we can fix something broken that day.   

All I want is for the roads to be a little better and for college to be a little cheaper. I’d like to keep America secure not so much through force of arms but by diplomacy. I’m hoping we can be welcoming to more of our people, and it’d be great if we weren’t lighting the planet on fire.

Like my opponent, I’ve made mistakes, sometimes with dire consequences. But the ones I’ve made haven’t been about grabbing power or making me look better, that’s for sure. They’ve come from tunnel vision: I sometimes forget that even the greatest ends are made of up small actions, and I’m counting on all of you to remind me that good is done one small step at a time, not all at once whatever the cost. 

Here’s what I’m asking. If you believe in Donald Trump’s character or policies — whatever they are — then vote for him. If you believe in Jill Stein’s or Gary Johnson’s policies, then vote for one of them.

But don’t vote for anyone simply because you hate me. That’s not the way to choose a president. At least, it shouldn’t be.

Vote because of what you believe, not because of what you hate.

Then work for it.

Will Ludwigsen’s 36 Questions for Intimacy

This is old news, but apparently there are thirty-six questions you can ask someone new to your life to build a foundation of personal intimacy, and they’re…okay. They’re better than the usual ones you stammer out in a bar or on your online dating profile or across the Pokemon table at the local game store.

But they’re not as good as mine. I guarantee that if you sit across from someone and ask/answer these questions, you will know the depths of each other’s hearts by the final one.

  1. The three required elements of a perfect day are: ______, ______, and _____.
  2. People who don’t use the Oxford comma are _____.
  3. People who use two spaces after a period are _____.
  4. The optimum place to live is close to the beach | the mountains.
  5. When you are debriefed in the afterlife, what truth do you most want to know?
  6. Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not?
  7. What do you wish you had told someone before they died?
  8. What do you wish someone had told YOU before they died?
  9. What song would you send to space as the perfect representation of humanity?
  10. What book most changed your life?
  11. What movie most changed your life?
  12. If you could travel in time and stop one book from being written, which would it be?
  13. What day would you erase from your memory?
  14. What message of ten words or less would you send back to yourself in time?
  15. To what historical era do you think your personality is best suited?
  16. What is your go-to Freudian defense mechanism (repression | regression | reaction formation | projection | sublimation)?
  17. What does everyone else think is a flaw in someone’s appearance that you actually like?
  18. What does everyone else think is a flaw in someone’s personality that you actually like?
  19. You have thirty seconds to name a baby, a kitten, an infectious disease, and a battleship. What names do you choose?
  20. Which convicted member of the Manson family is LEAST morally culpable? Why?
  21. Who is the most overrated serial killer in history? Why?
  22. Lee Harvey Oswald did | did not act alone.
  23. D.B. Cooper did | did not survive his jump.
  24. What three convictions (historical or contemporary) would you pardon with executive power?
  25. After the collapse of society, what is your chosen weapon?
  26. Who was (or would have been) America’s greatest president?
  27. What amendment would you add to the constitution?
  28. What burning cultural question of the day do you truly not give a shit about?
  29. If you could design a recreational drug, what would it do?
  30. What is the worst decision you ever made?
  31. What is the best decision you ever made?
  32. Who has paid the highest cost for your success?
  33. What profession would have been perfect for you?
  34. What do you believe to be true without evidence?
  35. What is the least redeemable sin?
  36. What is the greatest possible virtue?
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