Shazam and the Hollywood Obsession with Backstory

So I watched the first 40 minutes of Shazam this weekend after dropping my son at another movie. My wife laughed at me. Which is fine. And I would have stayed longer, but the movie fell victim to a really annoying trend out in the Hollywood writing world: A growing obsession with backstory.

In that critical first chunk of the film, we’re subjected to multiple backstories. The primary villain. His monstrous sidekicks. A weird wizard. And, finally, the main character. His story is a good one, and it’s not delivered in a clunky fashion. It comes through in the natural flow of the main story. All those other backstories? It almost feels like the movie is telling us to wait, and be patient, it just needs to tell us one or two more things before the story can move forward. And so the story doesn’t move forward…and this fun little superhero flick feels weirdly slow.

Anyway, it’s not just Shazam. Black Panther was guilty of this at the start, but at least the filmmakers jammed their Wakandan cosmology crash course into a short timeframe. Wonder Woman had that weird, and weirdly long, bit on the gods. And Justice League treated us to a really long introduction to our primary villain that featured none of the heroes anyone went to the movie to see.

A nice counterexample is the first episode of the first season of Stranger Things. We get zero backstory. Everything just moves forward. Quickly. And yet as the story races ahead, we learn that Will’s dad, Lonnie, lives elsewhere, that Hopper lost his child, etc. Backstory emerges in the flow of the story, through natural conversations or scenes or turns in the plot. But the story is always moving.

Let’s have more of that, please.

Are You Going to Write Jack and the Geniuses 4?

This question has been popping up quite a bit lately. Kids are wondering if Bill Nye the Science Guy and I are going to write a fourth novel in the Jack and the Geniuses series. The short answer? Maybe. A very strong maybe. But not right now. Currently we’re busy working on a gigantic nonfiction kids science book that covers everything from quarks to galaxies. Evolution, zoology, tribology – it’s all in there.

As a result, Jack and the Geniuses 4 is on hold. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about the crew and where they’re going next. Or what SNOT is really up to. (Is it actually a division of NASA? Or is something more nefarious at work?) And the lack of a definite plan doesn’t mean we don’t care about you, reader. Of course not.

In the meantime, let me know if you have any ideas about where the next mystery should take place. Or better yet: Write a sequel yourself! It is #NanoWriMo after all.

New Books!

I’m working on three new books, with much excitement. They are about:

  1. Science (a big nonfiction book with Bill Nye)
  2. Bugs (an awesome little nonfiction picture book with the photographer Levon Biss)
  3. A technologically advanced civilization hidden beneath the ocean (a new series of sci-fi adventure novels, written with me and my voices.)

More official-type details to follow.

Do Books Deserve Birthdays? On the Similarities Between Book and Human Production

IMG_1825So my first novel with Bill Nye, Jack and the Geniuses: At the Bottom of the World, just came out. Apparently this is known as your book’s birthday. People send you emojis with birthday cakes and candles. Authors get kids to sing “Happy Birthday” to their new books. Maybe it’s just me, but the whole thing feels a little off. Sure, there are some similarities between making a book and creating a person. The conceiving phase is thrilling, the gestation difficult and the production or publication both terrifying and amazing.

But do books really deserve birthdays?

Let’s skip the initial creative phase – my favorite part of writing a book. The truly difficult business is molding that initial idea, which seems so shiny and brilliant, but often has the structural integrity of yogurt, into something that actually makes sense. Rewriting and revising and all that hair-pulling, coffee-fueled, wrist-cracking madness. It’s difficult. Absolutely.

But it’s not even close to growing a baby inside you. Obviously I haven’t done this myself, but I watched my wife go through it, and I saw Schwarzenegger’s struggles in the classic film Junior. I don’t think I could finish a magazine article, let alone a book, if I was restless all night, throwing up every morning and limited to one cup of coffee at most.

What about the next phase? Assuming all goes well, mothers immediately get to see the product of all their hard work in the form of a newborn baby. Instantly, all that pain and suffering is replaced (momentarily, at least) with joy.

With a book, the moment of completion isn’t quite so well defined. First of all, you don’t always know when you’re done. You think you’re done, but then your publisher informs you of a problem or inconsistency or general weakness. This can be disheartening. Imagine a doctor inspecting a newborn and, after a thorough evaluation, long enough for the mother to feel relief, handing it back and saying, “Let’s shove him back in there for a few weeks. I don’t love the nose.”

When you do finally finish your revisions, and the nose passes inspection, the book disappears. For nine or maybe twelve months, your story wanders across numerous desks, hikes to a far away land to be printed and bound, then returns to the publisher. Eventually, a copy of your finished book arrives in the mail. But you’ve been working on new stories in the interim, so instead of being overwhelmed with elation, you hold it, turn it around a few times, and think, “Huh. What’s this one about again?”

The advantage is that unlike new mothers, who are immediately thrust into a whole new phase of ridiculously hard work, the author’s job is mostly done. Sure, you’re supposed to market the book, but you can only guilt your mom into buying so many copies.

I’ve written a few books now, and to me, publication day isn’t so much a birthday as it is a reunion with an old friend. Sometimes you realize that old friend is the dude you probably shouldn’t have spent time with in the first place. Sometimes you realize your old friend looks or maybe smells funny. But then there are those books that remind you why you started writing in the first place.

Thankfully, Jack and the Geniuses falls into that latter category. The book smells delightful, and I really do like it. When Bill and I talked originally about creating a few science-driven, mystery-filled adventure novels, I wasn’t sure a series would hold my
interest. Then the opposite proved true. We’ve finished two books already and we’re already working on another.

But a birthday? No. I prefer “launch” – and not just because Bill Nye is involved. Rocket launches, like book launches, are simultaneously exciting and terrifying. The initial flight can be beautiful, then end in a tragic, explosive disaster. Or maybe the books or spacecraft soar through those initial phases and then disappear completely, never to be heard from again, like ESA’s failed Schiaparelli lander or my second book, The Truth About Santa.

Hopefully, Jack and the Geniuses sticks closer to the script laid out by the Mars Exploration Rovers. Years after their launch, they continue to capture our imaginations, and Bill and I hope that Jack and crew will do the same.



What’s Wrong With Saul’s Office?

Most people aren’t very impressed when you tell them you work in the back of a nail salon. Not when you’re a writer, anyway. My friends assume I’m joking. My dad approves, because he figures I’m getting a deal. My mom says I should get my nails done during my breaks. A few others suggested opening a window because of the fumes. The most common reaction? More than a few people have compared me to Jimmy, the shady lawyer in the television series Better Call Saul.

At first this meant nothing to me. I didn’t really know the show. But after a little digging, I learned that this office is meant to demonstrate the disastrous state of this attorney’s career. Really, who would rent space behind a nail salon — even at a discount? Only a failed lawyer, businessperson, or writer, obviously.

So now I feel the need to defend myself, and my office.

The Treat Yourself nail salon and spa is a lovely little spot with ample parking. It’s only a few steps from downtown Oak Bluffs, on the reportedly magical isle of Martha’s Vineyard. There’s a bowling alley down the street. An art gallery, too. Need a pair of pink pants? Maybe a new tie with some whales on it? No need to worry. A Vineyard Vines store awaits you up the block.

The salon is on the second floor of an office building, above an insurance agency. My room is at the back. After saying hello to the receptionist, I walk through the small waiting area, turn left, pass the tanning booths on my left, the massage cave to the right, and hold my laptop bag against my hip, careful to avoid knocking over any of the hundreds of bottles of nail polish lining the hallway walls. Then I enter my little sanctuary.

My office is roughly square, with a single tall window and two large fluorescent ceiling lights that hum slightly. Books line the shelves and the floor, too, because I ran out of space. Dos Passos and Tolstoy and all the good ones live in the bookcases; my own novels and nonfiction works are stacked on the carpet. There’s a small black vacuum, but I don’t know if it works, and a tall black filing cabinet that’s definitely broken.

When I first started working as a writer, I had more romantic visions of my eventual workspace. I pictured huge windows with views of still ponds or roaring ocean waves, a wide wooden desk. Great light. High ceilings. Wide-plank flooring. A barn? Yes, absolutely. A rustic barn with enough room inside for a basketball hoop at one end. And an espresso machine with sufficient pressure. Maybe one of those flume-powered pools, too.

Instead, in the years I’ve been working as a novelist and science writer, I’ve logged time in kitchens, spare bedrooms with low ceilings, an unfurnished basement that required a hat and gloves in the winter, a shared office, dozens of coffee shops, and a nice little room within a small technology company in downtown Canton.

That was my favorite workspace. Instead of the ocean, I looked out on a convenience store parking lot. If my writing took a dreary turn in those years, blame it on all the sad souls who frantically and hopefully scratched their lotto tickets in their cars, then drove off depressed when they failed to win.

But honestly, that was a great spot. I shared the office with a few good friends, and I could close my door and focus. A huge pear tree hung over the back fence, which inspired a song-poem called Office Pears. Which, in a roundabout way, brings me back to the nail salon.

A writer doesn’t need an ocean view to be inspired or productive. That sort of thing comes from within. What you need is a place to shut out the world and get the work done, and for that, a view of a blank wall is much better than one of rolling waves. So, in my office, when I’m not staring at a page or a screen, I gave upon chipped paint and wallboard, and I work for hours straight, disappearing into whatever story I happen to be writing that day.

Look, I get why that office wasn’t good for Saul. As a lawyer, he needs to meet with people and convince them he’s a professional. Me? I just need to write decent books and articles. Sure, it’s a little awkward to step through my door and make eye contact with a woman having her toenails sanded and clipped, but it’s kind of funny, too. I like my nail salon.

That said, if any Vineyard residents out there want to rent a barn with a basketball hoop to a writer of children’s adventure stories and sci-tech journalism, send me a note.


Wow. It’s very disappointing to see that I haven’t written a post for more than a year. And that the last one was about a Netflix series…

Anyway, I’ve been busy. Honestly. Check  the books page for the latest project, which is coming out in April 2017.

More details soon.



An incredible scene in the final episode of the Netflix series Daredevil has stuck with me since I watched it a few weeks back. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here, but if you’re terrified of spoilers, I guess you could stop reading. So. Anyway. The chief villain, Wilson Fisk, is being transported inside a police van, handcuffed and under the watch of two heavily armed guards. A little way into the journey he starts to tell a story. A long story, which the viewer quickly recognizes as the tale of the Good Samaritan. He speaks of a man traveling on a road, and how this man “is set upon by men of ill intent.” Then he goes on to talk about the different people who passed him by as he lies there, nearly dead, until the good Samaritan finally stops and helps.

When the story is finished, Fisk says that he’d always thought of himself as the Samaritan. Yet he has come to realize he’s not the good man, and that he’s not any of the others who pass the traveler on the side of the road, either. (The writing here is great, drawn-out, allowing the suspense to build, and the actor Vincent D’Onofrio really works his breaths and pauses.) Then he delivers the killer line: “I am the ill intent.”

He’s not one of the men of ill intent. No, he’s the very spirit of evil. I love that idea for a character, and yet it only really works because the writers spent so much time developing Fisk as a person through all the episodes. He’s not a spirit. He’s flesh and blood and bones, and he sort of has a heart. Yet through the course of the story he finally comes to accept that he is the embodiment of evil, of ill intent. With that one line he moves beyond the confines of a single character and transforms into a kind of force hovering around the entire world of the story.

The Fisk character also reminds me of a line in one of Hemingway’s letters. In the note, he’s offering advice to Fitzgerald about a book in progress:

“Now watch one thing…don’t let yourself slop and get any perfect characters in…Keep them people, people, people and don’t let them be symbols.”

The writers establish Fisk as a human, then let him bloom into a symbol. But he’s not perfectly evil. He’s in love. And the hero, Daredevil, isn’t perfectly good or noble. He has a vindictive, brutal side. Neither main character is close to perfect.

The good guys have a little bad in them and the bad guys have a little good in them. To me, that’s great writing.

And now for something completely different. Recently I wrote a story about machine translation – how technologies like Google Translate and Skype Translator transform spoken or written words from one language into another. It’s here. Then I read this today, from the great Russian translator Larissa Volokhonsky, in the Paris Review, as she recalled an early experience working on this technology:

“…it was then that I understood that machine translation is not possible. I can formalize all these syntactic connections and relationships until I’m blue and gray and dead in my grave, and still I will never convey the taste, the flavor, the rhythm, the smell, the music that I hear.”

She said this, too, which has nothing to do with translation, but made me laugh out loud:

“We were allowed to hunt, you see. They were very wild places. But I didn’t hunt. I could have told you I did, but I didn’t.”

I could have told you I did, but I didn’t. Maybe that’s the difference between a translator and a storyteller.