Squeezing Things In

Time management is the bane of most authors I know. In fact, it’s a real challenge for most people I know but authors have their own particular issues, which is what I’m going to talk at today. You see, writing eats up time. You can sit down with one good idea that you’re sure you can pound out in ten or fifteen minutes and an hour later realize you were planning to eat lunch in there at some point but now it’s time to get back to work (as in, your paying job). Even a writer in a full-blown spark induced fugue state can loose large chunks of time in exploring an idea, throwing out poor developments (or just poor word choices) and crosschecking ideas against other parts of the story.

As a result, many writers labor under the impression that writing anything is going to be a long and involved process and that they must set aside a large (sometimes an impractically large) chunk of time for in order to get anything done. I myself used to think of writing as a process involving five to ten minutes of focusing followed by an hour, minimum, of writing and twenty minutes of rough editing.

I can now confidently say that this was because I was a moron.

Not that I’m a whole lot better now, but I have at least reached the conclusion that the assumptions I had about the time required for writing were not true.

For example, at my job I receive two 15 minute breaks every day, in addition to my lunch break. I used to think that was too little time to do anything of value, writing-wise, and so that time was effectively lost to me. (Well, not entirely. I still used the time for reading, sketching and other activities that are good for me and/or ultimately inform my writing. But I wasn’t spending it on writing, which is the gold standard for being a, y’know, writer.)

Now, with a lot of focus and determination, I’ve managed to pull about ten minutes of writing out of that half hour of break time, at least when I’m planning to spend my free time at work writing. I still spend time at work doing those other things, because they’re good things, but I feel that getting another half hour to forty-five minutes of writing time a week is a good thing, too. If you’re prepared and ready to roll, even that little time spent writing can yield great results.

So what are some things you can do to get prepared and ready to roll? Well, here’s three suggestions:

1. Prime the pump. Think about what you want to write before you sit down to write it. Not just a little, a lot. If you have some sort of secretarial job or one of the dreaded customer service positions this may not always be practical for you, but try and find at least fifteen minutes a day, say on your drive to work or while you’re engaged in mindless lifting or filing, where you can think about something you want to write about. Turn it over and over in your mind, ask yourself questions about it, revise it and toy around with how it fits into the bigger picture. At the very least, you should be able to do this while lunch is in the microwave and while you’re eating.

2. Do some editing (but not a lot). When you open up your document or pull out the notebooks start by going back to the start of the last paragraph you wrote and rewrite it, focusing on clarity and word choice. Make bigger changes if you think they’re necessary. Hopefully that will get you in the mood to write and remind you of what you were saying when you left off. Sure, rereading does that too, but something about the act of writing things out really gets the neurons firing.

3. Bring the right tools. I didn’t really do a good job of writing on my break until I broke down and bought a tablet that I could easily take to work with me and cloudsync my files so that I didn’t have to be constantly retyping handwritten pages from work. I was very skeptical at first but the money invested was more than worthwhile. A corollary of this: Don’t use a Swiss Army Knife when what you need is an X-acto knife. If your tablet is a writing tool, don’t clutter it up with games and other distractions – keep it as a writing tool. With maybe e-mail and blog software on the side…

Hopefully you’ll be able to use the advice here to make some inroads into turning spare minutes into productive writing. Or maybe you already have. If so, by all means, please share! I know I’m always looking for more ways to squeeze writing into the cracks.

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Cool Things: Index (x2!)

Indexing is a new serial by Seanan McGuire, available from Amazon.com through the Kindle store. I discovered it because I made the mistake of reading one of those periodic e-mails Amazon sends out, you know the ones where they recommend things for you. They’re dangerous, dangerous things and my wallet doesn’t like them very much. In fact, they’re one of the prime reasons that I don’t let Amazon show me pictures in their e-mails.

But the name caught my eye. I’ve already mentioned one of McGuire’s works in this spot before, the very high quality October Daye novels. Indexing plays around in very different headspace, running with themes of self-generating narrative similar to Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms series. This is weird, very metanarrative stuff. As far as I know the idea first started with Terry Pratchett but has become more popular over time (or maybe just speaks to the breadth of Pratchett’s influence on modern fantasy). It may only appeal to the literary minded.

The basic idea of a self-generating narrative (or SGN from here on out) is that there are stories out there, and some unknown force causes them to play out over and over again, frequently bending or breaking the laws of nature to create the necessary circumstances. There’s problems with the concept of SGNs and the implications that most authors give to them that the more logically minded might question. But the whole point is not to think too logically and just enjoy the ride.

In short, SGNs offer a chance for fractured fairytales on a grand scale, giving the author license to mix, match, avert and otherwise put their own spin on classic tales. Indexing looks to be no exception. It focuses on members of a special government task force who’s job is to deal with SGNs before they get out of hand. However, since Ive only read the first few installments of the series, gauging it’s exact tone and the level of the story behind the stories, so to speak, is a pretty iffy game. Still, if you like the idea of story on top of stories, McGuire looks to be bringing a pretty good one to the table.

What’s really cool about this, at least to my mind, is the fact that Indexing is really taking advantage of changing technologies to bring readers a good experience. The serial will update every two weeks with a new installment, but you only have to pay for the book once. After that, each installment is synced to your Kindle (or iPad/desktop app) as soon as it comes out and you can pick up reading right where you left off. Neat! Plus, it looks like while it’s running as a serial you get a considerable discount on the final price. It’s worth talking a look at.

——–

Totally unrelated to the above: Indexed is a sort of webcomic, published on Tumblr by Jessica Hagy. It uses simple line graphs and Venn diagrams, and occasionally something a little more complicated, drawn on the back of index cards, to make humorous and sometimes insightful points. It updates most every weekday and is a lot of fun to read. Check it out!

#63 (Part One)

The last thing that Kevin Kirishima expected to find when he answered his door the day after the Stillwater Sound robbery was a set of leggy blonde twins. Certainly not blondes in featureless black suits flashing IDs that said they were a part of the Secret Service.

Sure, when your place of work has been robbed you expect to be interviewed by the police a couple of times, more if you were the inside man, but one doesn’t really expect the Secret Service to show up when a small technology company in the Midwest gets robbed. To say that Kevin hadn’t been expecting the visit would have been an exercise in understatement.

The blonde on the left cleared her throat. “Mr. Kirishima?”

So apparently this wasn’t a case of showing up at the wrong door. “That’s me.”

“Eyes up here, please,” said her twin.

Kevin did as asked, not that he had been looking at anything inappropriate. “There’s no name on your ID,” he said to her before taking a quick glance at her sister’s. “Either of yours, actually. I don’t suppose you’d care to tell me who I’m talking to?”

“Not just yet.” That came from a man standing behind them. Where the twins were blonde and blue-eyed enough they could have stared in Alfred Hitchcock films, he looked more like he should be the wise old janitor in a workplace drama. His hair was still fairly thick, but it was pure white. Lines of gray ran through a beard that looked like a goatee might if you suddenly stopped shaving and let it grow wild for a month or two. He leaned heavily on a metal cane and all in all looked decidedly unlike a Secret Service agent. “Mr. Kirishima, we need to come in and ask you a few questions.”

Kevin removed his glasses and polished them thoughtfully. “Maybe I don’t feel like letting people who won’t tell me their names into my apartment. And if I’ve got my U.S. Constitution worked out right, you can’t force your way in without a warrant.”

The janitor reached into his suit pocket and pulled out a sheet of paper, which he handed to Kevin wordlessly. It was a warrant, of course. What else would it be? Kevin adjusted his glasses once to hide his annoyance and handed the paper back. “Fine. Looks legit. Might as well come in.”

Without waiting for further invitation the twins barged through the door and into the apartment, crossing over each other’s paths as they did so. They took such care to do it while he was watching that it was an obvious ploy to confuse him about who was who. Kevin glared at their backs for just a moment before starting to close the door behind their older companion. He didn’t even get it halfway shut before stopping short.

There was a fourth member of their little group, a tall, thin man with a mournful expression, who looked like he was either Polynesian or perhaps Native American. He gave no indication that he realized he’d almost had the door slammed in his face, made no acknowledgement of Kevin at all, just squeezed his narrow frame through the door and started a long, slow circuit around the apartment, not seeming to pay any attention to what he saw. Kevin snorted and closed the door after making sure there weren’t any other weirdos waiting in the wings. Then he followed his visitors into the apartment’s living room.

Since he wasn’t in any mood to be hospitable there was no point in apologizing for the mess. Besides, on a normal day he was quite proud of his living room. It hadn’t been easy to find and collect all that video recording gear, and some of the older stuff was quite valuable. But with six different video cameras, three TVs, a wall of playback equipment and a nest of wires to connect it all, there wasn’t as much room for living as most people might expect to find in a “living” room.

But Kevin wasn’t most people and he had a feeling his guests weren’t either. The janitor had settled into the only chair, which just left the sofa. The twins had taken up flanking positions behind their boss, the old man, who was clearly in charge, and the quiet man was still blankly staring at the junk in the room, so Kevin took the seat on the sofa where he’d been sitting before company arrived, grabbed the remote and switched off the TVs.

“I’m sorry if we interrupted you,” the old man said in a pleasant tone. “But you understand we wanted to talk to you right away.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Kevin replied. “If I knew what you wanted to talk to me about.”

“A breaking and entering at the place you work,” one of the twins said. “Stillwater Sound.”

“Really.” He leaned back and settled into the sofa. For once he wished the battered furniture gave a little more support. Normally it was comfortable but now he was sinking so far he felt small. With an irate grunt he shoved himself forward to the edge of the couch and said, “I thought the police had that pretty well in hand last night. Why the sudden interest from the Secret Service?”

“We’ll get to that, depending on how things go,” the old man said. “How long have you worked for Stillwater Sound?”

“About three years,” Kevin said. “I started as an intern after college and I’ve been there part time ever since. I just made full time last summer.”

“What brought you to a sound studio?” That one of the twins. She casually waved her hand at his collection of video equipment. “This doesn’t look like recording gear.”

“It’s not. I studied communications but my real interest was production for TV and film. I did an internship with one of the local TV stations. When I graduated,” Kevin waved a hand in the general direction of his diploma, which sat on a shelf beside an old Super 8 video camera, “I went to a job fair where I met the Chief – that’s Mr. Griswald, the owner of Stillwater Sound.”

“And he hired you?” She asked. “Why does a sound studio need a TV technician?”

“Because film is an audiovisual medium,” Kevin said. “Adding a soundtrack, voice-overs, remastering sound, removing background noise, all that stuff is a part of film and TV. And when you’re working with a small budget or amateur stuff video and sound work tends to get done with one piece of software, instead of doing video editing with one program and audio editing with another. The Chief thought it would be nice if we could get a piece of that pie and help out amateur movie makers at the same time, so about six years ago he started recruiting people that knew that end of the business.” He shrugged. “It’s not Hollywood, but it’s a place to start.”

“According to the police report, the break-in at Stillwater was just after seven at night.” The old man flipped open a folder he’d brought with him, turning pages until he found the one he wanted. “Are you usually in the buildings that late at night?”

“Only the last couple of days.” Kevin let himself relax fractionally. The questions so far seemed fairly mundane. The whole set up was really weird, what with the Secret Service agents and the badges with no names, but even if these were just really ambitious reporters he couldn’t see any harm in answering their questions. “If you work for Stillwater you get a major discount on using the studio. A friend, Susan, and her husband have a little New Ageish kind of a band. They do recordings, I help out.”

The janitor made a quick note. “Tell me what you saw when you came out of the studio.”

“You been out to the studio yet?” The old man shook his head. Kevin held his hands up, his palms at a right angle to one another. “It’s like this. The parking lot is a square and the old building is down here.” Kevin wiggled the fingers of one hand. “The new building is over here.” He sketched a large rectangle by the opposite corner of the parking lot. Then he indicated the edges of the lot between the two buildings. “All this is some sort of high tech graywater treatment ponds. Four or five of ’em, to be exact. It’s all very eco-friendly stuff, Federally subsidized, we have it to help pay for the new building. And the Chief’s son is a big believer.”

“Sounds smelly,” one of the twins said.

“There’s something to deal with that, too, so you don’t really notice it except on really warm days.” Kevin dismissed the issue with a wave of his hand. “Anyways, I definitely wasn’t smelling anything, just looking around, you know? And I see someone walking through them.”

The white haired man scribbled a note. “That’s not normal?”

“No, it’s not. The only people I’ve ever seen out there are the people who make sure the whole mess isn’t about to wash away or something. They come out about once every three months, poke around the banks for an hour or so and leave. They’re always in teams, and they never come at night.”

“So this person was alone?”

“Yeah.” Kevin tapped his fingers on his chin for a minute. “Nice looking lady. African-American, about five foot six, dressed in gray coveralls. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman in the group before now that I think about it. That’s kind of strange.”

“And you were sure she wasn’t an employee?”

“Stillwater’s big for a sound studio in Indiana, but it’s still a small company. I know everyone working there now and most of the time we hear about new hires before they do.” Kevin shook his head. “She had no business being there after dark and we both knew it. And when you’ve got a stranger with a backpack prowling around buildings with hundreds of thousands of dollars of sound equipment in them you get suspicious fast.”

“According to the preliminary police report you were the one who called security,” the blonde on the left said. “What prompted that if she was just standing around outside the building?”

“Maybe she caught you staring at her chest and started to get mad?” Her sister asked, with a quirk of the eyebrow and the hint of a smile.

Kevin wavered a minute. A hard look confirmed that the one who was asking wasn’t the same one who’d called him out at the door. It was another mind game, not legit banter. Absently he pushed his glasses up his nose and shrugged. “She was a bit far away for that. Anyway, I have the security station at the gatehouse on speed dial and I let them know.”

“How many employees have the Stillwater security stations on speed dial?” The old man asked.

“How many Secret Service agents have no name on their IDs?” Kevin countered, folding his arms across his chest. “Look, I’ve answered your questions with pretty much the same answers I gave the cops-”

“You called security at 7:43 PM,” the old man said, ignoring him. “The initial break-in was at 7:09 PM, and the suspect left the building at 7:35 PM. There’s an eight minute window there that’s unaccounted for.”

“-and I think that’s who you need to talk to.” Two could play the ignorance is bliss card. Kevin went to reach for his wallet and jumped when the thin man materialized beside the couch and grabbed his arm. Kevin jerked away instinctively, startled by his sudden appearance. He’d been so quiet Kevin had almost forgotten there was a fifth person in the room. Best to try and calm things down. “I’m just going to give your boss the name of the detective I talked too after the robbery. I think you’d best come back with them if you want any more questions answered. This whole thing smells fishy and I don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t.”

The old man motioned for his gaunt friend to step back and he did. “Mr. Kirishima, do you know why the owner of Stillwater Sound is called Chief?”

“Well…” That was a matter of public record, so he didn’t see how answering could hurt. “He was in the Navy. Served in the Battle of the Atlantic and later Korea, I think.”

“That’s right. He was a Chief Sonarman when he retired.” The old man leaned back in his chair. “That doesn’t mean the Chief didn’t work for the U.S. Government anymore, though. There’s some jobs you don’t give up that easily. Chief Stillwater just changed job description. He doesn’t wear a uniform anymore and his assignments have more to do with research and development than intelligence gathering, but it’s important work and his talents make him a valuable asset. You might say he’s really made waves.”

Kevin frowned and absently started polishing his glasses again, giving the old man an appraising look. “Are you trying to tell me that Mr. Griswald is using Stillwater Sound as some kind of secret government testing site buried under one of the buildings?”

“Of course not,” the left twin said.

“It’s in the water pits,” her sister added. “He was a sonarman, not a nuclear physicist. He tests sonar equipment under something resembling real world conditions.”

“He what?” Kevin shook his head in bewilderment. “Why would anyone bother bringing sonar equipment this far inland when they could do those kinds of tests just as easily from a fishing trawler or something?” But even as he said it, his mind flashed back to the work crews he’d seen around the ponds every month. Not only were they all men as far as he could recall, but they came with buzz cuts and very good posture. Not typical for a company with a big focus on green technology.

“What’s more important,” the lead agent added, “is that, instead of just being a place to store wastewater, the ponds are actually a national security asset and are monitored as such. I want you to take a look at something.” He fished a set of papers out of one pocket and unfolded them. On the top was a grainy still taken from a security camera feed showing a woman approaching one of the wastewater ponds. From the angle Kevin decided it was probably mounted on one of the light poles in the parking lot. The quality wasn’t good and it had clearly been taken at night. Kevin felt his gut sink. “Is this the woman you saw last night?”

Kevin licked his lips and shrugged. “Hard to tell, as dark as it is.”

“Well, I suppose that’s entirely understandable. How about this one?” In the next photo the woman looked to be running towards the camera, the perspective suggesting it was mounted on the building. A bright beam of light illuminated her from the direction of the parking lot, which looked oddly dark.

Kevin grimaced. “Yeah, that’s her.”

“I see. And this one?” Now the woman scrambled frantically up the side of the new Stillwater building, somehow clinging to the rough concrete with her bare hands and feet.

“Now that looks a lot like someone’s idea of a bad joke.” Kevin shrugged. “I’m not an expert on Photoshop, but I’d guess it’s probably some kind of splice with a movie?”

The janitor raised an eyebrow. “You deny seeing anything like this last night?”

“Of course not. I like to shoot movies, not live in them.”

“I see. What about this?” The next picture wasn’t of a woman at all. It was Kevin, or rather Kevin as he might appear if he was looking at himself in a fun house mirror. His legs seemed to twist, his waist curved at an impossible angle and from the shoulders up he seemed to narrow until his head was half it’s normal size. It looked like he held some kind of portable floodlight in one hand, or at least a beam of light washed out most of the rest of the picture. Like the first, it was probably taken from a camera in the parking lot, although it was likely a different one.

Kevin tried to hide a wince, but the subtle change in expression on the faces of the agents facing him told him he hadn’t been successful. “I don’t suppose you’ll believe that’s another prank?”

“No, Mr. Kirishima, I’m afraid I won’t.” The old man shuffled away his photos and folded his hands in his lap. “Truth be told, I don’t blame you for hoping to convince me that you’ve been the victim of some sort of prank. But the photographic evidence,” he patted the folder, “along with the unusual way Stillwater Sound was robbed and the testimony and unique nature of your employer all point to one conclusion: That it is far more likely that your are an individual of unique talent. And if that is the case, then we have more to discuss than just your involvement in the robbery of a small recording studio and sound equipment dealer in the Midwest. But the fact is, there is more here than just a simple robbery. Even the Secret Service has it’s hands tied by competing jurisdictions, and there’s only so much we can do in this case. Aren’t you the least bit curious about why someone with the peculiar abilities like the Grappler would bother to rob Stillwater Sound?”

Kevin frowned. “Wait. It wasn’t for the sonar gear in the pond?”

“That may have just been a bonus.” The mighty janitor spread his hands. “Of course, a mere civilian couldn’t be briefed on any of the issues involved at all. But under the rules laid out by Project Sumter, people with talents like, say, Chief Stillwater, are entitled to know certain things before they plunge down the rabbit hole. Other agencies, like the Secret Service, aren’t allowed to go prowling around looking for new talents on their own, but oddly enough the Project’s rules don’t forbid us from briefing newly discovered talents we discover when the Project isn’t around. So you have a choice, Mr. Kirishima. Are you a person with unusual gifts, who’s interested in hearing what exactly happened last night, and why, or are you just a normal person who’s content to go back to work tomorrow and never know what happened? Which is it going to be?”

Fiction Index

A Brief Pause for Out-of-Townness

I will be out of town this week, and since it will make both updating this blog and writing new content more difficult I’ve decided to put it on hiatus until I return. If you’ve been looking forward to the Nate Chen Publications Short Story Extravaganza™ don’t fear! It will begin on Monday, June 24th.

See you then!

Genrely Speaking: Police Procedural

The police procedural is a close relative of the detective story and the thriller. It’s a variety of mystery that focuses more on following the day-to-day work of a low to mid ranked cop on the beat as they go about their business, solving cases with persistence, connections and shoe leather more that brilliant deductive logic and the power of observation.

These days the definitive police procedural is probably CSI, which focuses on crime scene forensics and, like many mysteries, it focuses heavily on the crime of murder. Other crimes are frequently involved, murder rarely happens without some serious prompting to encourage it, and that prompting isn’t always legal either. But the CSI franchise works with the premise that the best mystery stories always wind up with murder involved somehow.

This isn’t saying that all police procedurals work like that. Some of the definitive police procedural TV series such as CHiPs, Hawaii Five-O and of course Dragnet rarely involved homicide, perhaps in part because Homicide is it’s own division in most police departments and the star characters would probably get shut out of investigating homicides they uncovered. Also, those were all shows with a shorter running time, so there may not have been time to brew up a good murder mystery.

So, with those basic ideas in mind, what are the hallmarks of the police procedural?

1. It’s an ensemble cast. While one character inevitably takes the lead, because human nature demands a focal point, police investigations are major team efforts. The one character simply cannot be on point for everything. Rather than one incredibly brilliant character who is constantly leaps and bounds ahead of one or two sidekicks who help him with legwork, the typical police procedural features a medium to large group of equals, some of whom are semi-regulars rather than appearing in each episode or book, in cooperation and competition, sharing work and success.

2. Things are character driven. A police investigation is actually kind of repetitive. There’s lots of interviewing people over and over again, picking over paperwork and staring at crime scenes and photos of those crime scenes. Police procedurals rarely have complicated, locked-room puzzles to crack, that’s not the strength of an investigation unit, but with less bizarre crimes to track it falls to the actual investigators and their personalities to keep us interested. Not that that’s a bad thing.

3. The rule of “fair play” cannot always be honored. Fair play is the idea that mysteries exist as much for the readers intellectual stimulation as their diversion. Some people feel that all the clues the brilliant detective uses to unravel a puzzle should be offered to the reader before the parlor scene reveals whodunnit, so the reader can have the satisfaction of seeing if he was right or wrong. But, of course, police procedurals don’t always have brilliant detectives or ingenious crimes. Sometimes all it takes to catch the crook is turning over the right rock and finding a document that makes everything as clear as day. Sometimes it’s obvious who’s guilty from minute one, it’s just a question of proving it to a judge. And frequently authors will hold facts back from the audience to help build suspense. As with the point above, that’s neither good or bad, that’s just they way the genre works.

What are the weaknesses of this genre? Police procedurals aren’t great at building longterm plots. While TV series can often get away with leaving one major, open-ended case as a running plot element the audience often gets frustrated if there is no real progress over the course of many seasons, or the larger case has no real bearing on most of the episodes, making it largely superfluous. This is because the status quo is god in many TV series, and the writers don’t want to mess with a working dynamic. If a major, overarching case is solved it tends to lead directly to an even bigger mystery to keep things moving along, which can quickly grow tiresome and unbelievable.

Written stories in this genre go to audiences who have an expectation of finding most things wrapped up by the end of the story. That leaves the characters themselves to creating large story arcs through their evolution and growth. However this also runs up against the wall of status quo – if you have a series going already, you and/or your publisher are probably going to be wary of tinkering with something that’s already working well. Striking a balance there requires a great deal of skill.

What are the strengths of this genre? Probably the greatest strength of the police procedural is character growth – yes, it’s very hard to do right and is frequently done badly. But if you do it right, the result is incredibly satisfying.

Also, the genre’s solid grounding in reality let you use a number of popular, believable and likeable archetypes to quickly draw in your audience. The naive rookie, the jaded cynic (with a heart of gold), the cranky doctor and the almighty janitor are all examples of the kinds of characters you might expect to find in a police procedural and, no matter how many times we’ve seen them before we’re likely to wind up rooting for them all over again.

Police procedurals are a kind of variation of the workplace comedy/drama that follow a simple formula: show us a bunch of strange, quirky people doing their jobs and let us build up a real affection for who they are and what they do. The addition of crime solving makes it easier to root for them and creates a thousand natural story hooks. It may not be your cup of tea, but at the very least the genre is a great example of how the basics of storytelling will always pay out. Worth looking at for the character building, if nothing else.

A Letter, From Open Circuit to His Colleagues in the IRS

Gentlemen,

I am distressed to see the way your organization has taken such a pounding among the media and news pundits in the last few weeks. Undoubtedly all this has done a great deal of damage to an otherwise sterling reputation for solid, respectable work among the people of our community. It is disappointing to see a group once the first weapon of war in the arsenal of the iron first reduced to blathering about Easter egg rolls on the White House lawn. There were such hopes for the place you could have in the new order. But perhaps the IRS can still make an impact on the future.

I have taken the liberty of applying my unique talents to borrowing this modest media platform and contacting you (knowing, of course, that people of your resources cannot possibly overlook it.) Please do not be dismayed, the normal blather usually posted in this section will be resumed next week and none of the so-called content will be lost, although I doubt that will make an impact on your work in any way, as it certainly wasn’t creating revenue.

In the mean time, I present you with a few suggestions as to how you might regain the initiative in the battle for public opinion and restore your reputation for ruthless efficiency in the face of the protests of the populace.

  1. Remind Congress who’s in charge. They don’t have the power of the purse unless you fill it, but you can’t go around not collecting taxes because then people will forget who you are. So you should audit all those who have been asking questions. The best part about this is that, with all the free stuff they get from lobbyists there’s bound to be something, and probably a lot of somethings, you can charge them with. It takes one to know one, especially where corruption is concerned, so if Congress wants to go there, go right there with them.

  2. While you’re at it, remind the accountants who’s in charge. If anyone tries to dispute your findings while you’re carrying out step one, remind them you can always start playing hardball with all their clients. You’re publicly funded, so bankrupting a few private accountancy firms through litigation is child’s play.

  3. Audit the president. Figureheads are only so useful, sooner or later they outlive their usefulness and you’ll need to have distance between you when that happens. It might be time to take a few steps away.

  4. Pull out all the stops on the media obfuscation campaign. Harassing Apple about using tax shelters was a good start but too many people love that company for it to work well. Time to pick some new targets. Might I suggest GE, Microsoft, Ford or perhaps Warren Buffett? That last comes with the added bonuses of working against the ideological demagoguery people are using against you and, since he already says he doesn’t pay enough taxes, he won’t fight you!

  5. Weigh in on issues that have nothing to do with your normal sphere of influence. The EPA does this all the time, and you should study their recommendations to developing nations for further insight. Just to give one example, you could offer to help build third world tax systems from something that crushes the population into poverty into something that confuses them into paying others to help the process along! (This also proves you’re playing hardball with American accountants only because you have to, not because there’s some kind of personal or political grudge in play.)

  6. Begin mandating some kind of distinctive identifying mark or piece of clothing for your agents. Armbands were popular last century, hats for a while before that. Perhaps a particular style of glasses or a unique cut of suit jacket, something that will make your agents highly visible to the public so that they become more aware of your constant and invasive presence in their lives.

  7. Set visible, incremental objectives to expand your influence and be seen doing it. Taking over healthcare the Department of Education “to ensure fair treatment of all parties” would be a good place to start. A national tax on income from the Internet would also work well!

  8. Most importantly, stop apologizing. No one will ever bend the knee to a government who apologized for something in recent memory. Own that policy with a scowl and they’ll back away. Then you can take all you want.

In short, with a few simple steps that I know are well within your abilities and temperament to execute you can quickly solidify your position and stand ready to quash dreams like never before. The IRS has been a powerful force of confusion and oppression for over one hundred years, and I have high hopes of working with you personally in the future. I look forward to your good work,

Open Circuit 

Heat Wave: Afterwords

Early comic books have been described as assimilationist fantasies. That’s really not a bad summation of the era that brought us the catch phrase “truth, justice and the American Way.”

Many of the early comic book artists and writers were Jews, struggling to make ends meet and find acceptance in a country and in an era that were not particularly hospitable to outsiders. So it’s not surprising that the idea of being different permeates the early and middle era of superheroes. Superman and Wonder Woman were the ultimate outsiders, coming from totally alien cultures. Later, Marvel’s X-Men would take the idea of outsiders and move it to a slightly more human level. Of course, this tradition before the Second World War and the civil rights movement came along and changed many people’s perspectives on ethnicity and culture.

Now, everything is better, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, one of the things that was emphasized, and became overemphasized, in these assimilationist morality tales was that we are all the same. That’s a great sentiment, and on one level it’s certainly true. What makes us human or not human is not a matter of skin tone, culture or social standing. The problem is, while we’re quite confident about what doesn’t define humanity, we’re a lot sketchier on what does. Most people don’t give the whole issue a lot of thought and a lot of very smart people argue about it but it sometimes seems like today’s culture has chosen sameness as our defining characteristic. We’re all human after all, right?

So there’s a lot of hand wringing over making people “equal” where equal equates to us all having the same experiences. We want everyone to go to the same kinds of schools with the same ethnic mixes, get the same higher education and have all the same opportunities. The problem is, that kind of lifestyle is not very… shall we say, ergonomic?

From the moment kids arrive at school they’re presented with a number of boxes. Square classroom, square desk, square meals. Pile it all up for twelve years and you can move up to square cubicles in square buildings belonging to square corporations. And this might even be a great thing if people were invertebrates that could readily conform themselves to whatever environment they were put in. They could have total security and contentment for their entire lives. The problem is, people are individuals with very significant differences of circumstance and personality. Perhaps most importantly, they want to be different. It’s even possible that they were meant to be different, so that they could grow by understanding each other.

Some people will fit nicely into the square lifestyle our culture offers them. Some will be a tad cramped, but they’ll learn to adapt. However, there’s evidence of an ever-growing body of people who just can’t or don’t want to adapt to what culture offers them. They can’t keep up with it, or aren’t motivated by it and want to find meaning outside the existing structure. Once upon a time, that was fine. Many different kinds of societies flourished in America, from the Quakers and Shakers to various communes and the Moravians, all different kinds of social structures used to exist in America with little comment. Sure, they were ethnically similar and based primarily on European culture, but they lived and thought in very different ways.

In contrast, modern education places an emphasis not on giving people ideas to think about, but rather teaching them how to think. People from outside the cultural status quo, who don’t accept the ways they’re told to think, receive a kind of polite condescension, assuming they’re not view as outright freaks. (As a homeschooler I know of which I speak – people always seem so surprised to find I’m not a total social misfit or some kind of raving lunatic who’s trying to restore feudalism. “Homeschooled? But you seem so normal!” At first it was funny. Then it got annoying. I’m starting to worry that it’s a sign of serious cultural closed-mindedness.)

If you can’t hack it in school, you must need medication or new parents. If you don’t care to work for the corporations or the unions, if you want to work for yourself, then obviously you’re an antisocial isolationist. Herbal medicine instead of pharmaceuticals? How unscientific! And on and on it goes.

There could be, are being and have been many books on the subjects of education, business and culture, how the pendulum has swung so far away from individual thought and so far towards mandating a single culture of uniformity. Heat Wave is not one of those books.

Rather, Heat Wave is a dissimilationist fantasy – it creates a world where people are different in a culture much like our own. When they try to use their differences, they run smack into a world that doesn’t want them there. Some will try to change it slowly. Some will try to ruin it. And some will try to change it unilaterally, regardless of the consequences.

But all of them struggle with the same idea. The world they live in wants them to be the same. It needs them to be different; as much as they themselves need to be different. Of course, being different isn’t always a good thing, sometimes those different people will cause harm to themselves and others.

So there are people who are different. The society we have created doesn’t suit them, and sooner or later their incompatibility with it is going to cause problems. What do we do about it?

Well that, my friend, is a whole different story altogether…