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Annotation Alcatraz Chapter Two


I’m a writer.

In making this book first person, I gained one thing that is really cool. I was able to write the book such that the method of writing it proves–or tries to prove–what Alcatraz is trying to get people to believe about him. He says in the prologue that he’s not a nice person. Then he proves that by being mean to the reader through the way he writes the narrative.

I really like the way this works in the book. It’s much better than the joke of having the third-person narrator actually be the subject of the novel. My literary love of postmodernism and self-awareness tingles marvelously at this aspect of the book. (And I do something similar in the sequel, which I’ve finished writing.) The book itself is a form of proof of what the character in the book claims.

Authorial Interruptions

The style of these interruptions–we’ve got one at the beginning of each chapter–is intentional. I’m not shooting for brilliant humor, most of the time. I am the type of person who likes dumb humor. Groaners, you might say. That’s why I post Amphigory comics on my site. Bad puns, jokes that deserve rimshots, that kind of thing.

So, what I tried to do with a lot of these inserts was have a final “pow” of a line that creates a jarring gap between the last bit of the humor and the reintroduction of the story. Instead of a smooth transition, in other words, I wanted a harsh one.

I can’t quite explain why I like this so much in mixture with the humor. For one thing, I think it lets the reader keep the commentary and the story straight from one another. Also, I think it gives a stronger emphasis to the jokes–which, like the aforementioned rimshot, gives an unconscious clue to the reader that yes indeed, that was a joke. A lot of the humor in this book has to do with non sequiturs and the like, so making them stand out more seemed like a good instinct.

Alcatraz, my boy!

Here we get Grandpa Smedry, introduced for the first time. As I believe I mentioned earlier, I wanted this book to be a subtle satire of some of the books on the market in fantasy. Not a full-blown satire, of course–I don’t tend to like books like that. They’re forgettable. Instead, I wanted something that had its own world, magic, characters, and story–but something that also occasionally took a subtle shot at the fantasy establishment (of which my other books are a part).

I love fantasy. However, what I loved about writing these books was that I could strip away some of the self-importance and seriousness. Standard epic fantasy, as a necessity of the genre, takes itself very seriously. These books don’t. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want the stories to have structural integrity or good storytelling; it just means that they can be a little more silly at times.

All of this leads to why I wrote Grandpa Smedry the way I did. I wanted a wise old mentor character. We’ve seen plenty of the type–Belgarath, Gandalf, Dumbledore. However, I wanted to make him a total spaz. Hence Grandpa Smedry, who’s a great Oculator and a very competent person–but who is also a complete spaz, and who is sometimes his own worst enemy.

His curses, by the way, are all the names of my favorite fantasy and science fiction authors. (In no particular order.) So, in this chapter he curses by Melanie Rawn’s name and Robin Hobb’s name, I believe. That’s only the beginning. [Assistant’s note: Terry Brooks and David Gemmell are also sworn by in this chapter.]

The Simpsons Did It

I worried a little bit about having Grandpa Smedry and the other Free Kingdomers misunderstand American culture so much. They don’t quite get it. This is a fun plotting element, and it gives explanation for some of Alcatraz’s past (you’ll get this later) but it’s also worrying because it’s similar to something that was done in Harry Potter. (The Weasley father tries to do things like Muggles, but doesn’t ever quite get it right.)

I almost cut this element from the book because of the similarity. Those of you who know me and my work probably already understand how much of a “Don’t do what I’ve seen done” reaction I have. If another author has done it, and I’m not parodying it or changing it enough to be unrecognizable, then I don’t want to put it in my books. Even if I knew nothing of the other author and their work.

In this case, I didn’t cut it. I do happen to like Harry Potter, and have read all of the books, and so I was even more tempted to edit this out. However, in contemplating it, a certain episode of South Park came to mind. In the episode, one of the characters is constantly crying out “Simpsons did it!” to plot elements or ideas that the characters tried.

The point in the episode was that the characters kept getting frustrated because all of their great ideas are things that the show The Simpsons had already done in one of their episodes. I can see the writers of South Park and their frustration in this episode, and see it as a reaction to times when people emailed them and posted on forums, chastising them for copying The Simpsons. The problem is, as the show points out, The Simpsons has pretty much done everything. The writers couldn’t afford to undermine their own show by trying to cut out every little thing they thought of that happened to be similar to something in another show.

Harry Potter dominates the market right now. And the thing is, a lot of the things in Harry Potter weren’t invented first by Rowling. They’re staples of the genre, or ideas that have been done other times by other books. Rowling does them very well. However, if you try to cut out anything from your books that might hint at being similar to Harry Potter, you’re going to have a frustrating time.

Yes, we need to innovate. Yes, I prefer books that are original. However, I’m already writing a book about a cult of evil librarians that rule the world and a boy with the magical power to break things. Neither are ideas I’ve ever seen before. I didn’t feel I needed to expunge everything that might reference another work. If I did, I worry that my novels would be so original that they’re inaccessible.

Just my thoughts on the matter. Wow, that turned into an essay. I didn’t mean it to be one–it was more for my own benefit than for yours. But that’s what you have to deal with in these annotations. I’m even more free than I am in my books to write whatever the heck I want.

Favorite Joke

By the way, favorite joke this chapter: “In that way, grandfathers are kind of like kangaroos.”

See the published version.
Compare the early first-person draft.


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