Category Archives: Writing

If Trees Could Scream

So far parenthood isn’t all that different from non-parenthood. I still eat at the same five restaurants and drink myself to sleep at night and occasionally get peed on. I just now have a car seat wedged into an upside-down highchair, am less discriminating about my liquor choices, and try not to let “careless urination” incidents turn into fistfights.

Jack Handey once Deep Thought,

If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.

I suspect that Handey had an infant in or near his life when he came up with the preceding. Baby Madeline doesn’t necessarily scream all the time, but quite often she has no good reason.

Or possibly it’s just that her reasons are so opaque. The scream for “I’m starving” sounds a lot like the scream for “I couldn’t eat another drop.” The scream for “I have soiled myself. How embarrassing.” is pretty indistinguishable from the scream for “if you remove my diaper, I’ll pee all over you.” And the scream for “please bring me my Sophie the giraffe” is quite similar to the scream for “I hate Sophie the giraffe, and if you squeak her one more time I’m going scream (which you might not be able to distinguish from this scream, but so be it).”

When she’s not screaming, she’s pretty delightful, although so far she’s shown no interest in Hilbert spaces, Objectivism, the Priory of Sion, or any of the other myriad topics I’ve tried to teach her about.

For entertainment she mostly enjoys being sung the “Where’s the Tiger?” song, which seems to be the Indian version of “Frère Jacques,” which (I figure) gives me license to sometimes sing it as “Where’s the Cobra?” or “Where is Gandhi?” or “What is Dharma?”

I also downloaded a bunch of rock-songs-as-lullabyes compilations, but once she realized the Dark Side of the Moon ones didn’t sync with The Wizard of Oz, we both lost interest and abandoned the project.

Anyway, she is a funny kid, and grooming her to take over the world someday really cuts into my writing and blogging time. (Also, not sleeping on account of her screaming really cuts into my writing and blogging energy.) But I now have a good idea for a parenting book, and an auto-repair manual, and a short story about a kid who likes baseball but is no good at it, so I’ll try to ease myself back into writing. Also, I’ve been criminally neglecting promotion for the spreadsheet book, so if you want to push a few copies of that on your friends, that would be kind.

Spreadsheet Book Now Available

One reason I haven’t been posting here very much is that I’ve been scrambling to put the finishing touches on my spreadsheet manifesto. I’m pleased to announce that it’s now available:

I’m hoping this means more time to write about non-spreadsheet-related topics.

Fiction: Dribman’s Army

Every few months NPR has a Three-Minute Fiction short story contest. The “Three-Minute” really means “600 words,” and each contest consists of one or more constraints that the story has to satisfy.

The October contest (which was the first I heard about) specified the first and last sentences of the story: “Some people swore that the house was haunted.” and “Nothing was ever the same again after that.” The first is fine and easy to work with, but the last caused me no end of trouble. Also, 600 words is really, really hard. Somehow I produced a 750-word story, and then I spent several days rewriting all of my sentences just to make them shorter.

However, my story did not win. Most of the finalists (as well as the winner) bored me pretty severely, although I did enjoy this one. Since the winner has been announced and it’s not me, I’m suddenly free to post the story for your reading pleasure and/or displeasure. Enjoy!

Dribman’s Army

Some people swore that the house was haunted. Certainly by movie rules it should have been. It was built on an Indian burial ground. In 1966 the infamous “LSD Babysitter” cooked and ate her charges in its kitchen. In the 1970′s it was home to a coven of witches, in the 1980′s to a Crüe of Satanists, and in the 1990′s to a cult of UFO-worshippers. The only thing it lacked was, well, a ghost.

Ignoring this deficiency, Jake Henson bought the place to fleece superstitious tourists. He served “Eggs and Ectoplasm” breakfasts every morning, conducted “Ghost Tours” every afternoon, and rented out the house for Goth weddings as many evenings as he could.

He made up names and stories for its spectral residents: Matchitehew, an Algonquin chief, objected to breakfasters disturbing his eternal slumber. Sandra, eaten by her babysitter, sought revenge against drug users. Aaron was a churchgoing teen whose ritual sacrifice by the Satanists kept his soul from ascending to heaven, while Heather was spiritually stuck on earth after committing suicide to board a nonexistent spaceship supposedly hiding inside a comet.

Each spirit got its own room, rigged with sound effects, period props, and theatrical lighting. Thanks to Jake’s showmanship, the ghosts soon became de facto members of the community. Parents abandoned “users are losers” anti-drug pamphlets in favor of scary stories about Sandra. Ms. Wickman, the Social Studies teacher, made Matchitehew the focal point of her “what we owe the Native Americans” lesson. Reverend Wallingham frequently used Aaron to demonstrate the “reality” of Satan. Even the head of the local “skeptics” organization referenced Heather when discussing the improbability of alien visitation.

Jake’s troubles began when he caught the attention of “Ghost Debunkers,” a cable television show devoted to gonzo exposition of supernatural claims. Its host, Warren Dribman, was a champion skateboarder turned prank-caller turned investigative journalist. Every day he chose a new disguise and tried sneaking a hidden camera into the house. Some days he succeeded, and some days he got caught, but every day Jake felt pressure to make his spirits harder to debunk. Bedsheets with holes were replaced with tissue paper then with flickering lights. Ghostly howls were replaced with electrical crackling then with wind noise. Detailed biographies were replaced with three-sentence blurbs then with first names and generic details.

Dribman, in turn, asked his Internet fans for help. Soon “Dribman’s Army” accounted for a majority of visitors to the house. They harassed tour guides. They staged phony weddings as distractions and searched rooms marked “NO ENTRY.” And in the process they bought lots of tickets.

Finally, a stressed-out Jake asked Dribman to meet. Dribman arrived early one morning and found Jake in the “Sandra” room clutching a ledger.

“You’re making me a ton of money right now.” Jake showed him the figures. “But your minions are eventually going to shut me down! Can’t we reach some sort of agreement?”

“You want me to sell out Dribman’s Army?”

“No more than you sold out Dribman’s Skaterats or Dribman’s Dialers!” Jake was turning red.

“I suppose half of the profits might do it.”

“Half? There’s no way you’re getting…” Jake clutched his chest and collapsed.

Dribman picked up the ledger and studied it greedily. After a minute, he fished in his pocket, found a joint, and dropped it next to Jake’s body. He flipped on his camera, positioned it to capture both Jake and the “Sandra hates it when you do drugs” sign, and narrated, “This is Dribman, and I’m shocked to inform you that ghosts are real!”

Nothing was ever the same again after that.

Political Satire

Once I left Microsoft I joined a Daytime Writing Group meetup, mostly as an excuse to get out of the house. Every week I’d go and share the latest chapter of my “Ayn Rand meets J.K. Rowling meets Joseph Heller meets Tom Wolfe” novel-in-progress and listen to everyone else’s latest vampire romance (the genre, not the band*).

While most of the participants were pleasant and helpful, after a few weeks we were joined by an extremely unpleasant woman who angrily criticized my story for not being set in the “country” of Timbuktu and for not acknowledging the accomplishments of “shamanic healers.” After a couple of weeks I decided that the positive interactions with the rest of the group weren’t enough to compensate for the aggravation of dealing with Large Miss Unpleasant, and I stopped attending.

But I’m still on the mailing list, which is how I learned that Daily-Show co-founder Lizz Winstead was conducting a “Political Satire Writing Workshop.” Of course there’s nothing I like better than writing political satire, unless it’s writing religious satire or spreadsheet how-to books or short stories about a boy who likes to play baseball but is no good at it.

Being Seattle, it ended up being more of a “Left-Wing Political Satire Writing Workshop,” with a collective glee focused on the comedic potential of Dick Cheney’s lack of pulse, Dick Cheney’s daughter’s self-hating lesbianness, something else Dick Cheney, and the word “teabagger.”

Still, we had a valuable discussion about comedy writing and the creative process, and I bit my tongue whenever people mocked a candidate’s dabbling in “witchcraft” as if its beliefs were prima facie more ludicrous than the beliefs of Catholicism or Judaism.

Since we were in the International (i.e. East Asian) District, we took a break for bubble tea, after which we divided into groups to bang out some political satire projects.

Most of the suggestions were things I couldn’t in good conscience write about (“teabaggers,” disparaging the Second Amendment, etc…), but one of my workshopmates suggested a news item about a Republican Senator who gave a somewhat oblivious speech assuming that his audience (being good Americans) all earned over $250,000K a year.

The truth, when we Googled it, was slightly less damning (the audience consisted of Chamber of Commerce members), but “Senator lives in insular world, assumes everyone is rich like him” was something I could work with. It was a group effort, so there are ideas in it that I wouldn’t have put in myself, but — for a political satire piece written collaboratively with other Seattleites — it’s actually not bad.

You can see it (along with the other groups’ pieces — ours is the one that’s not about Glenn Beck or “Teabaggers”) here, first in an edited-by-Lizz version, then in the original. I like the edited version better in some ways, worse in others, and I’d probably like some compromise version the best.

At the end I gifted Lizz with a copy of my book, which I predict she enjoys all the way up to the “Environmentalism is false” chapter.

* My fact-checker tells me there’s no such band as Vampire Romance. Well, there should be!

Using Statistics to Coddle Vagrants

I left Microsoft at the end of May, largely so that I could write my opus magnum book on Excel. At the time I set a September 1 deadline for having the first draft done. That seemed like the right amount of time, but I failed to predict that I’d spend a substantial chunk of August doing consulting work, and so I slipped the deadline.

I shifted it two weeks later, to September 15, which I slipped again due to unavoidable commitments like going to the Puyallup Fair and drinking beer and napping. Finally I pushed it to September 17, which I met by arbitrarily deciding that several components of the book were “not part of the first draft.” Right now I’m letting people read it for feedback, after which I’ll revise it, beg famous authors for blurbs (*cough* Philip Roth *cough*), and start selling the heck out of it.

While the book is out for alpha testing, I’ve shifted gears for several days to focus on other things like fiction-writing contests and shaving and working on an Ignite Seattle talk.

Ignite Seattle is a 4-times-a-year collection of 5-minute talks. As best I can tell, you submit a proposal, and “they” choose their favorites to actually give the talks. I attended the last one, and a surprising number of the speakers were introduced as “my longtime friend” or “my frat brother from college” or “my concubine,” which makes me suspect there’s a cronyism element involved. There also appears to be some sort of sex-quotaism, as they back-patted themselves for exceeding the (presumably court-imposed) 40%-female-speakers requirement.

I didn’t get the sense that the people picking the talks were demographically identical to the people listening to the talks, which sets up something of a political-primary dynamic: play to the base to get through the first round then pivot back to the center.

In any event, I think I need a more congenial title than “How Do You Like Obama Now, You Kitchen-Composting, Vagrant-Coddling, Prius-Driving Useful Idiots?” Maybe something more geek-friendly like “ Using Statistics to Model Elections in Washington State” or Seattle-friendly like “Home Composting Projects That Also Help Vagrants” or even a mixture of the two like “Using Statistics To Coddle Vagrants.” [Insert your own p-value joke here.]

Fiction, Non-fiction, Humor, and Religion

Occasionally someone will express to me a desire like “I want to climb Mount Rainier” or “I want to be a guest on ‘The Price Is Right’” or “I want to record a swing-band cover version of REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’,” and then when I ask them why they say, “just so I can say I did it.”

To which I always point out that you don’t have to do something in order to say you did it. Then it’s usually clarified that the desire isn’t just to “say I did it,” it’s to “truthfully say I did it,” at which point I suggest that I can give better advice when people are more forthcoming about their motivations.

For the past several weeks I’ve been introducing myself to people as “a writer,” which is really a lot of fun. If not for the preceding “truthfulness” hang-up, I’d suggest you’d try it. People seem to react much more positively to “writer” than they ever did to “data analyst” or “quantitative analyst” or “corporate stooge” or “fareologist.”

Most of the time they’ll get this really interested look on their faces and ask, “fiction or non-fiction?” as if a writer somehow has to choose between the two. Right now, for instance, I’m working on one fiction book (Untitled Joel Grus Fiction Project) and one non-fiction book (Untitled Joel Grus Non-Fiction Project), so I usually smile and answer, “yes,” and then when they change their really interested look to a really confused look, I continue, “both,” and then they change back to an interested look.

It was a little bit tougher when I only had the religion book. A good half of it is true (mostly the parts involving Scott Baio and the parts involving Thomas Kinkade), and the rest of it is made-up (especially all the parts about “god”). Does that make it “fiction”? “Non-fiction”? I prefer to describe it as a “humor” book, but no one ever asks “fiction, non-fiction, or humor?” or even “fiction, non-fiction, or religion?”

Along similar lines, people often ask me if I’m writing any more books about religion. I currently don’t have any plans to, for the simple reason that I feel like I’ve said everything I need to say on the topic.

(I sometimes toy with the idea of writing a kids’ version, although my friends with kids seem pretty convinced that the “Santa Claus is false” chapter would earn me some sort of fatwa and that the smart move would be to focus on other topics.)

I have a variety of interests, and why would I want to rehash the same book *cough* Dawkins *cough* over and over when I could branch out and write about Reptilians, about how public-sector unions caused the fall of Rome, or about a boy who likes to play baseball but is no good at it.

The most compelling argument they make is that readers tend to have topical interests, and that fans of a book called Your Religion Is False would be much more likely to buy Your Religion Is Still False than The Boy Who Likes To Play Baseball But Is No Good At It. If I ever get fans, I suppose I’ll have to take this into consideration.

How I Became a Published Author, Part 1

Once upon a time I wasn’t much of a writer. In high school I wrote crappy requisite five-paragraph essays about T.S. Eliot and F. Scott Fitzgerald and The War Against Northern Aggression, but they were unimaginative and mostly aimed at satisfying the teachers’ expectations.

In college I went out of my way to avoid writing-heavy classes, although for distributional reasons I had to take a few. In each case I produced passable-but-unexceptional term papers. I’m sure if I dug them up today I’d find them terrifically embarrassing, on account of both style and content. (Also, I’m sure I printed them using really ugly fonts that were popular back in the 90′s.)

Many years later I found myself full of opinions, and so (as was the fashion) I started a blog to force my poorly written harangues on the world. Eventually I became aware of its poorly written nature, and I deleted it. I repeated this harangue-awareness-deletion cycle several times. (One could plausibly argue that I’m currently in the “harangue” step of another go-round, but if one is polite one won’t.)

In addition, approximately 10 (!) years ago I started a LiveJournal. Although today people think of LiveJournal and picture a bunch of Russians and 15-year-old emo kids, back then LiveJournal actually consisted mostly of 15-year-old emo kids. My LiveJournal at first was terrible, really terrible, which you’d be able to see if I hadn’t at some point become aware of how terrible it was and deleted most of it.

Over time, though, I sort of “found my voice,” and I started getting fewer and fewer “please become aware of the poorly-written nature of your journal and delete it!” comments and more and more “please tell us more humiliating stories about your social life!” comments. All the while I became practiced in the twin literary techniques of making stuff up and referencing things that had happened on “Charles in Charge” as if they’d actually happened in real life.

Eventually I went out and took a UCLA Extension “Introduction to Fiction Writing” class, taught by Noel Alumit, who writes acclaimed novels about being gay and Filipino. “Where better,” I asked myself, “to learn how to write acclaimed novels about being gay and Filipino?” I had few expectations for the class, but Noel was an excellent teacher, and I ended up enjoying the class quite a bit. I produced a mawkish short story about a boy who likes to play baseball but is no good at it, which my classmates all seemed to enjoy. (My girlfriend at the time initially refused to believe I was the author of something so sickeningly earnest.)

After I moved to Seattle, I took a Hugo House “Improv for Writers” course, which launched me on a 2-year detour away from writing, during which I performed a lot of really bad improv and also tricked my friends into watching a lot of really bad improv.

Eventually I realized that I wasn’t enjoying doing improv, and I walked away. (I took the rule of three with me.) This left me with a bunch of spare time, which I immediately filled with books. Every time someone mentioned a book to me, every time I read an interesting book review, every time a blog I read endorsed a book, I’d go online and add it to my library queue.

Once a week or so, I’d go to the library with huge shopping bags full of overdue books, and I’d come home with a dozen or so new ones. I never ended up reading most of these, of course, but it kept me entertained. And then one day I read The Book That Changed My Life.

This was John Hodgman’s The Areas of My Expertise. I don’t know that anyone else can make such a claim, except maybe Hodgman himself. As I mentioned last time, my literary arsenal consisted mostly of the “writing factually about things that didn’t actually happen” trick. Before The Areas of My Expertise, it never occurred to me that one could squeeze an entire book out of this trick. After The Areas of My Expertise, I knew that I had to.

But still I needed something to write about. I had a half-finished novel about religion sitting on my hard drive, so it seemed the natural choice. Also, I liked to tell myself, it was a subject I knew plenty about, and whatever I didn’t know I could figure out from the internet.

I started out by writing the Preface. I wrote it, and edited it, and wrote some more, and edited some more, and eventually (maybe around the time I came up with Nancy Drew Blood) I realized I had something that I thought was really, really funny. And at that point I had no choice but to finish the book.

Historically I haven’t been good at finishing things. I’m fantastic at starting things, but I usually lack sticktoitiveness. Fortunately, it was a really slow time at work, and rather than worrying that someone might realize I was unnecessary (which is what I probably would have done if I hadn’t had a side project to work on), I just spent a lot of days going home early and writing. (After a while I became necessary again, and after that the writing proceeded much more slowly.)

I came up with a pretty good outline, based largely on the related principles that (1) unexpected categories are funny, and (2) mutually non-exclusive categories are funny. At that point it became a matter of just putting flesh on the bones.

That makes it sound easy, but coming up with 258 pages of mockery and Scott Baio references is hard. I spent most of my free time working on the thing for months and months and months. And finally, when the book was about 75% done, I decided I was ready to unleash it on the world.

Some friends of mine were organizing the BIL conference and asked if I wanted to give a talk. This seemed like a great time to unveil the book. (It would have been better if the book were finished and for sale at that point, but you have to work with what you have.)

The problem was that the talk was only supposed to be 15 minutes. My first version of the talk involved about 100 slides, which I decided was about 6x too many to fit into 15 minutes. I triaged my jokes and used all my Presentation Zen skills and somehow got down to about 75 slides, and then I just spent the entire plane ride practicing talking really, really fast.

The talk itself seemed well received, and I got lots of questions about when the book would be available. So I set myself to finishing it.

At the same time, I realized that I should start thinking about how to get it published. I searched the web for “how to write a book proposal” instructions, which I used to craft a proposal and send it to various literary agents whom I also found by searching the web. I never got a response from any of them.

Also whurley put me in touch with a literary agent he knew. Since this was a friend-of-a-friend introduction, I got responses to my emails, although they revolved around the theme of “yeah, I can’t sell this book.”

Finally, I emailed a bunch of ought-to-be-sympathetic authors asking if they could help. The only one who responded was Michael Shermer, who opined that I’d never get my book published by a “reputable publisher.” Times were tough for publishers, he pointed out, and their willingness to take a chance on an unknown first-time author in a saturated genre was pretty nonexistent.

This all left me sort of in a jam. I had a mostly-finished book that I thought was pretty damn good. And yet I couldn’t get anyone in the publishing industry to even respond to my mail.

(To be continued.)

Big Change

Today is my last day at Microsoft, as I will be leaving to pursue my boyhood dream of eating the world’s biggest hoagie becoming a famous author someday. I’m sure you have many questions about this move, many of which I’ve preemptively answered below:

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Really?
A: Really.

Q: Aren’t you already a famous author?
A: While I do get famous-author levels of hate mail, I fall short by most other metrics.

Q: Do famous authors even make enough money to survive?
A: Not unless they write about love triangles involving vampires and werewolves.

Q: What’s your next book about?
A: I’m thinking a love triangle involving a vampire and a werewolf.

Q: Isn’t that market kind of saturated?
A: That’s why my book is going to be in 3-D.

Q: You mean like a pop-up book?
A: No, although that’s not a bad idea.

Q: How can a book be in 3-D?
A: We’re still figuring that part out.

Q: Well, what can I do to help?
A: If you buy a copy of my first book, that would help me afford food for my kids.

Q: You have kids?
A: For my metaphorical kids, I mean.

Q: What’s a “metaphorical kid”?
A: This interview is over!

Anyway, exciting times are ahead, and I plan to chronicle them right here, so stay tuned!