Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

Random Rambling & Questionable Commentary

What Is a Novel, That Thou Art Mindful of It?

Posted by midiguru on January 27, 2015

Being a literary agent has to be a tough gig. For starters, it’s 100% commission. If you take on a book but can’t find a publisher, you’ve wasted whole days of effort, with not a cent to show for it.

I can understand that agents want to represent books that will sell — and the more copies they sell the better. Not just because of the up-front payback, but because the agent will continue to pick up 10% or 15% of the author’s royalty, perhaps for years, with little or no further work.

Publishers have statistics on what’s selling and what isn’t, so they have some kind of basis on which to make a choice between manuscripts A and B. But so many factors come into play in the marketing and sales figures for a book that, in the end, there’s a lot of voodoo in trying to guess what will sell. Was the cover badly designed? Did the right reviewers like the book? Is the author attractive and personable on talk shows? Did we have enough budget for bookstore placement on the front tables, or did the book languish on the shelves, unseen by browsers? Does the topic tie in with a hot news story? Voodoo.

A couple of days ago, moved by some obscure impulse, I thought I’d try reading Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope. I’ve never tried Trollope. Rather to my surprise, I quite like it. Trollope was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, but seems to have been far less concerned with social issues. The characters in Barchester Towers are genteel. The servants are nameless and faceless; no working-class issues intrude in the lives of the main characters. And yet the book is both humorous and insightful.

It has been in print for 150 years, so clearly it has what a marketing consultant would call “legs.” Given that fact, and given as well the sharp differences between Trollope’s approach to the presentation of a story and the approach of almost any modern writer whose work is in print, the observer of the modern publishing industry may perhaps be forgiven for inquiring as to how much of the received wisdom that is today rampant among publishers and literary agents concerning the sales potential of works of fiction enjoys no firmer foundation than the Ptolemaic theory of the organization of the celestial spheres. (And that’s a thoroughly Trollopian sentence, if I do say so.)

Today, authors are sternly admonished to “show, don’t tell.” Yet Trollope not infrequently spends pages telling before he consents to show a brief scene. The scene itself may, in fact, be told rather than shown, with indirect and summarized dialog and not a direct quotation or a glimpse of facial expression anywhere in it.

Today, the authorial intrusion is considered anathema. Pausing in the narrative to address the reader directly will get your manuscript tossed into the out basket in a trice. (Kurt Vonnegut got away with addressing the reader directly. I can’t think offhand of another modern author who has done it.) Yet Trollope intrudes in the story, not often but often enough to deeply offend the sensibilities of any modern editor. After introducing two unsatisfactory suitors to Eleanor Bold, a young widow who has a bit of money, Trollope steps out from behind the curtain to reassure the reader that she isn’t going to marry either of them. And he tells us why: because that kind of suspense is a cheap effect, and he doesn’t want to indulge in cheap effects.

Can any of us imagining a contemporary author doing anything of the sort?

Reading Trollope has forced, or allowed, or encouraged me to reconsider what it is in a novel that is important. I’m pretty sure the current crop of literary agents doesn’t know. They may know what will sell (though they may be wrong about that too), but do they know what’s important? Or even what forms of alleged novelistic malpractice would impede the sales of a book?

To be specific, would a modern reader truly object to a well-placed authorial intrusion? How would we be able to find that out? We can’t do a scientific experiment, because we don’t have a sampling of novels with authorial intrusions whose sales figures we can tally up. There aren’t any new novels like that. We can’t know whether a fine job of telling is actually just as effective as a fine job of showing, or would sell just as many books, because so few modern novels engage in telling to the exclusion of showing.

What’s important in a novel, it seems to me, is not how closely it hews to the conventional wisdom concerning what will sell. Any number of things can be important, but that isn’t one of them. A novel can deeply explore character and the human condition. It can provide page after page of breathtakingly beautiful prose. It can concern itself with important social issues. It can innovate in form, style, or genre. It can be fast-paced and thrilling to read. But a single novel can’t very well do all of those things. So the writer has to make choices about what will be the most important ingredients in a given novel, and what will be set aside.

Quite possibly, a return to the broader, more generous literary style of the 19th century would be the best thing that could happen to a book-length manuscript. Convincing an agent to take on such a manuscript, though — good luck with that.

Posted in fiction, writing | 1 Comment »

The Perils of Publishing

Posted by midiguru on January 26, 2015

As noted a few weeks ago, I have a long list of literary agents. At present, I’m going down the list and sending out query emails, trying to find an agent who is willing — no, not just willing, excited — to market a multi-volume fantasy epic that I’m writing. So far, it’s not working. Some agents don’t respond at all to a query. Others send you their standard “sorry, not interested, best of luck” reply.

In essence, then, trying to find an agent is a little like standing on a street corner shouting, “Please, everybody — ignore me! Reject me! Ignore me! Reject me!” If that’s the response you’re hoping for, you’ll be pleased to know that the process works just fine. But if you have, let’s say, any lingering abandonment issues dating back to early childhood, trying to find an agent is likely to take an emotional toll.

This week I haven’t been working on the project at all. After drafting five chapters of Book II, I started thinking, “Why bother? What’s the point? Until I find an agent, this is a waste of time.” I’m not going to try to defend this unproductive attitude — just saying, that’s how I’ve been feeling.

I really would like to go on telling the story. I quite like the story. In order to get back to work on it, I need to engage in a little psychological subterfuge. A creative self-deception, if you like. What if 50 agents in a row aren’t interested? (That’s what it feels like already, after queries to only eight of them.) In order to move forward, I need to develop Plan B.

I’ve always rejected the idea of self-publishing. My idea of how being a writer works is, my job is to write stuff. Marketing the stuff is somebody else’s job. I know what I’m good at, and I know what I’m not good at. But alas, the world doesn’t always arrange itself so neatly.

Self-publishing can take many forms. At its simplest, you turn your word processor file into a PDF and upload it somewhere. Then maybe you give the download link to your friends on Facebook, and you’re done. No money changes hands, and maybe one or two people read what you’ve written. Or maybe nobody does.

At the other extreme, you can spend a couple of thousand bucks on a professionally designed website for your fiction. You can prepare your files for printing on paper by one of the print-on-demand (POD) services. When you receive your box of sparkling shiny new books from the POD people, you can mail copies off to the list of book reviewers you’ve carefully researched. You can become active on a variety of social media, engage in conversations on forums, and politely make sure everyone has a link to your website. Oh, did I mention the website will need an e-commerce page where people can buy the book through PayPal? You can make sure Amazon has a Kindle edition of the book. You can attend conventions that cater to fans of your genre, set up a card table with an attractive cardboard display of your book cover, and autograph copies for whoever wanders by and betrays an interest.

While engaged in these estimable activities, you will not, of course, be writing. What’s worse, you will be embroiled in pretty much the same psychological process that transpires as you try to find an agent. You’ll be trudging out into the world and beseeching people to like you. Most of them won’t. Most of them will ignore you. A few of them will take an extra minute or two to insult you and your work.

That’s Plan B. Doesn’t sound so spiffy, does it? Plan C is, you just write what you want to write, tuck it away in a shoebox, and don’t even think about getting published. Other than Emily Dickinson, Plan C hasn’t worked out too well for a lot of writers. I don’t think it would work for me. I seem to need some sort of recognition or support from the universe, some sort of feedback to the effect that I’m doing something that is, in some modest way, appreciated. A check in the mail is nice, but I don’t insist on it. Just some sort of acknowledgment that somebody cares about my wonderful characters, my lapidary prose, and my fingernail-biting, edge-of-the-seat plot.

Quite aside from the emotional barrenness of Plan C, I have a sense of responsibility for my work. If I think it has some value (and from time to time I do think that), I feel an obligation to make it available in some form. And be it noted, Emily Dickinson had severely reclusive tendencies. When her father died and family and friends gathered in the big house for a reception after the funeral, she didn’t even come downstairs. She sat at the top of the stairs and listened. Most of us are more engaged with our fellows.

As for Plan D, at the moment I have no inkling what that would be.

Posted in fiction, writing | 1 Comment »


Posted by midiguru on January 9, 2015

I’m not a philosopher. The contortions of academic philosophy as a discipline leave me, alternately, gasping for breath or rolling on the floor laughing. I’m just a reasonably bright guy who likes to think about stuff.

Lately I’ve been thinking about things that happen (occasionally) in my life that seem to have no detectable cause. I’m pretty sure most people encounter these odd events from time to time. One popular term for them is “coincidences.”

The notion behind the word “coincidence” is that when two events happen in conjunction with one another for no detectable reason, it was just pure dumb luck. Randomness in action. In the course of your daily life, thousands and thousands of events will occur; the probability that a few of the concidences will seem meaningful is actually quite high.

My own experience, however, suggests that meaningful coincidences seem to occur preferentially (though not reliably) at moments of heightened emotional significance. I’m driving along a road, thinking profound thoughts about the nature of the universe, stumble upon an especially pregnant insight — and at that moment I pull up at a stop light behind a car whose license plate comments in a very specific and personal way on my insight.

That actually happened to me, by the way. Such things — all different, all unlikely, all meaningful — have happened half a dozen times in my life that I can recall offhand.

One essential point to understand about such moments is that they cannot be investigated scientifically. They can’t be taken into a laboratory. You can’t run a double-blind study while repeating them with controls. They’re essentially one-off events.

Here’s the big question: Is it possible that the universe occasionally produces meaningful constellations of events for which there is no cause? Or rather, for which there is no cause other than the fact that the events are being experienced together by somebody who finds them meaningful?

The reductionist physicist view of this idea is that of course it’s nonsense. Events cluster at random, that’s all. Each individual event is caused by simple physical processes involving molecules, and that’s the whole story. Sometimes we perceive meaningful connections between events, but the meaningful connections exist only in our minds.

The difficulty with the reductionist explanation is that it presupposes that all events in the physical universe have physical causes, and that the physical causes are entirely sufficient to explain why a given event occurs. This is a form of the First Cause argument in philosophy — a thoroughly pondered but quite silly argument for the existence of God. The First Cause argument starts with the thesis, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause.”

That thesis is suspect on at least two grounds that I can summon up without being a philosopher. First, physicists assure us that matter and energy can be neither created nor destroyed. So in fact nothing ever “begins to exist.” It’s all already in existence. Second, and perhaps more alarmingly for the philosopher in his ivory tower, how do we know that that statement is true? What if it’s not true? What if there are millions of uncaused events going on around us all the time?

The human brain likes to find causes, and there are profound evolutionary reasons for that. If your ancestors heard a rustling in the bushes, it was darn well important for their brains to jump (and quickly) to the conclusion that something was hiding in the bushes. Could be a lion, could be something tasty — but if they didn’t think about the cause of the rustling, they were a lot less likely to pass on their genes to the next generation.

The fact that we’re hard-wired to look for causes does not imply that everything in the universe necessarily has a cause.

The universe doesn’t know the difference between male and female. The universe doesn’t even know the difference between 1 and 2. (Conjoined twins are a fine example of this fact. Not one baby, and not two babies. 1-1/3 babies, or 1-5/6 babies.) The universe, I would argue, is not bound for a moment by human ideas of logic or causation. Those are just human ideas.

Think about electrons for a moment. There are untold trillions of electrons whizzing around in your body at this very moment. The physicists will assure us that all electrons are identical. They all obey the same simple set of physical laws. But why? Well, because they do, that’s all. There is no outside force compelling electrons to interact with other particles the way they do. If there were such a force, the same question would have to be asked of it: Why does this force behave the way it does?

The short answer, as unsettling as it may be, is that there is no cause. Electrons just do what they do, that’s all we can say about it. We can investigate their behavior, but we can’t explain it. If we try to explain it, we’ll find ourselves hunting for the philosophers’ elusive First Cause. We’ll tumble down the rabbit hole into an infinite regression.

Maybe electrons are like mushrooms. They just pop up. (Yes, I understand that mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of mycelium. I’m using a metaphor here. Cut me some slack.) And maybe larger events, events that we can observe with the naked eye, sometimes just pop up too, without being caused.

The universe doesn’t know about logic. It doesn’t know about the difference between 1 and 2, or between true and false. It just is. We only expect it to adhere to the “laws” of causation because evolution trained us to look for causes. Sometimes there are causes, yes. Sometimes it’s the mycelium creeping along under the ground. But what outside agency would force the universe to always have causes for things?

Posted in random musings | 2 Comments »

Religion and Banjo Playing

Posted by midiguru on January 8, 2015

I’m sure the banjo is a wonderful musical instrument. I’m not tempted to take it up, but I’m pretty sure the world is a better place because there are banjo players in it.

Banjo players don’t get a lot of respect, though. The banjo is on the short list of musical instruments that people like to make jokes about. Banjo, viola, trombone, accordion, and bagpipes — they all get abused from time to time.

Q: What’s the range of the viola? A: About 50 yards, if you have a good arm.

Q: What’s the difference between a chicken crossing the road and a trombone player crossing the road? A: The chicken is on his way to a gig.

I happen to play the cello. I only know one cello joke. (Q: What’s the difference between a cello and a coffin? A: The coffin has the dead guy on the inside.) There aren’t a lot of cello jokes, because the cello just happens to be widely admired.

Nonetheless, my enjoyment of playing the cello is, I’m sure, no different qualitatively from the enjoyment felt by a banjo player or an accordion player. It’s all good.

Here’s the terrible secret that makes a lot of people very uncomfortable: Religion is no different from playing the banjo or the accordion.

If it pleases you to paint yourself blue and dance naked around an oak tree, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to mumble phrases in Latin while sitting in a building with lots of stained glass windows, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to bow down toward Mecca five times a day while reciting phrases in Arabic, that’s terrific. If it pleases you to take peyote and sit in a sweat lodge hallucinating all night long, that’s terrific.

And it’s nobody’s business but your own. If you get tired of taking peyote and decide to start mumbling phrases in Latin, go for it.

If a banjo player got mad and started hitting people when they made banjo jokes, what would we call him? We’d call him an asshole. No matter what your lifestyle choice, you have to expect to get lampooned once in a while. If you’re a mature adult, you roll with it. You force yourself to chuckle politely, even if you think the joke wasn’t very funny.

Anyone who thinks their religion should never be criticized or ridiculed is an asshole. If they try to shut off the criticism, that’s a lot worse — but if you even think for a moment that your religion is so wonderful and admirable that it should be exempt from criticism or lampooning, you’re an asshole.

It’s gonna happen. Deal with it.

Posted in religion, society & culture | 13 Comments »

Writing about Writing

Posted by midiguru on January 4, 2015

I’ve noticed that every time I post a blob/g about writing, I get a few likes and maybe even a follower. This doesn’t seem to happen with my other assorted mumblings. Because I’m tiptoeing back into the fiction-writing maelstrom, maybe I should turn this into a fiction-writing blog.

“April 23: Wrote another 1,800 words!” Zzzzz. Maybe not.

I do think the process of writing fiction is interesting, and worth conversing about with other writers. On the other hand, I’m leery of discussing a work-in-progress. Early on, while reading how-to-write-fiction books (this was in the 1980s), I ran into the observation that if you talk about the story you’re writing, your unconscious mind equates the talking — sharing the story with other people — with writing. Your unconscious will start to think you’ve already told the story, so why bother to write it down? That advice stuck with me.

Also, I’m nervous about looking foolish if I talk about a project and then don’t finish it for whatever reason (like, the plot sinks like a lead coffin to the bottom of the pond, and can’t be lifted out even with grappling hooks).

On the other hand, I love it when I read what other writers say about writing. Holly Black offers some great advice in her blog, for example.

To oil the hinges, here’s a bit of advice for aspiring (or struggling) writers.

While working on my first novel (Walk the Moons Road, long out of print), I had a 3×5 card thumb-tacked to the wall above the typewriter. (Remember typewriters?) The card had two admonitions: (1) Tell a good story. (2) Put the reader in the scene.

That’s the whole secret. If you can do that, you may well have a publishable novel. You’ll certainly have a novel you can be proud of. What constitutes a “good story” — well, that’s a topic for another time.

Putting the reader in the scene is, first and foremost, about remembering to include sensory detail. To do that, you need to immerse yourself in the scene, while writing, deeply enough that you notice those details. Picking the right details, the ones that will evoke the emotion you want the scene to convey, is of course vital.

On a purely mechanical level, if you’re writing a long dialog, and especially a dialog scene where more than two characters are present, it can also mean inserting bits of “stage business” in and around the dialog. If you fail to do this, readers will get confused about who is talking. My rule of thumb is, a minimum of one dialog tag or bit of stage business for every three or four dialog paragraphs. If the dialog paragraphs are short and the characters are arguing, I might stretch to five or six paragraphs, because the attentive reader should certainly be able to pick up which character is arguing what. But if they’re in a heated discussion, they’ll be doing or experiencing things — the fist pounding the table, the grimace of distaste, the sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach. Tell the reader about those things! That’s what puts the reader in the scene.

Posted in fiction, writing | Leave a Comment »

The Literary Jungle

Posted by midiguru on January 3, 2015

Moved, no doubt, by some forlorn quixotic impulse, last summer I hauled out a ten-year-old fantasy epic that was, in its original incarnation, quite hopeless. I put new tires on it, reupholstered the interior, considered but rejected dual carburetors, checked the fan belts and the transmission, tightened the bolts on the suspension … and now I have the first volume of a Young Adult fantasy epic ready for submission to publishers.

I happen to like this story a lot. Don’t know if anyone else will. I’m not in control of that.

The thing is, the book business is (a) a business, and (b) extraordinarily competitive. To find a publisher, you need an agent. And literary agents are frankly inundated with queries from wanna-be authors. Those who are not yet blind from reading submissions are lined up to buy flame throwers so they won’t have to.

The good news is, I do actually know how to write. This puts me in the top 10% of aspiring YA fantasy authors. Quite possibly I’ll be able to find a literary agent who is naive or desperate enough to sign on to represent this project. All I have to do (aside from working on the rough draft of Book II) is hide in the duck blind with a great big butterfly net and make noises like a best seller.

Or, I could be a little more scientific. Online I found a long list of websites of agents who sometimes represent children’s or YA fiction. A really long list. I had no idea there are so many literary agents! Plodding through the list, I’ve been weeding out the duds and noting the names of individual agents who might be right for this project. I now have my own researched list of more than 30 possible or likely agents … and I’m only up to the letter H in the scatter-shot list I downloaded.

The average response time for an agent these days is somewhere between 4 weeks and forever. Forever as in, “If we don’t respond, you may take it that we’re not interested.” That being the case, it would be foolish indeed to query one agent at a time. On the other hand, I don’t want to slam all 30 (or 50) of them at once. That would create layers of confusion. It might lead to bad feelings and ill will. And what if three of them all say “yes” on the same day?

Based on their web presentations, I need to go back through my list of possible agents (more days of research) and sift the list into categories A, B, and C.

Alternatively, I could self-publish. But that route has never appealed to me. I know it’s a lot easier these days than it was 25 years ago. I know that if you’re relentless in your self-promotion (and have a good book) you can make just as much money while selling far fewer copies, because you don’t have to cut up the pie, feed the big slice to the publisher, and set aside another slice for your agent.

Possibly my thinking is too negative (it often is), but it seems to me that if 50 publishing professionals think there’s no market for your book, maybe they’re right. So before I contemplate self-publishing, I have to head out into the jungle with my big butterfly net and make noises like a best seller.


Posted in fiction, writing | 1 Comment »

Food for Worms

Posted by midiguru on December 14, 2014

In the course of prepping a couple of obsolete computers for recycling, I discovered I have CD and DVD copies of the entire Myst series games. Unfortunately, I’m unable to play the later ones, because Windows has moved on. I’ve got realMyst (an enhanced version of the original), and for some reason Myst III: Exile runs fine under Windows 8. But IV and V are toast. Or coasters, I suppose.

The sad part about this is that in some sense these games are digital art. And they’re gone. Okay, maybe not as great art as Beethoven’s Third or a Van Gogh painting, but Myst had a real visual style. Arguably, the games have a narrative theme too — or several themes, actually. That the world is vast, lonely, and mysterious. That there are places you may want to visit that are not accessible to you. That you may need to explore hidden places and find unlikely connections in order to solve the basic problems of existence. That the Creator has moved on and left you behind to deal with his inconvenient handiwork in whatever way you can manage.

I happen to have a Windows XP laptop, which is on its way to recycling in a day or two. I hauled it out of the trunk of the car and installed Myst IV. Unfortunately, it’s a MusicXPC machine, built for dedicated audio professionals. As such, it has no soundcard. None. Myst needs a soundcard to run.

So I plug in an M-Audio Fast Track Pro that I happen to have lying around. It’s class-compliant. Windows XP likes it fine — system sounds play. But Myst IV still isn’t happy. It complains that the desktop isn’t in 32-bit mode, even though it is in 32-bit mode.


Posted in random musings, technology | Leave a Comment »

What’s in the Cards

Posted by midiguru on December 14, 2014

Playing cards seem to have been invented near the end of the 14th century. In addition to the precursors of the four suits that we know and love, the earliest decks had a variety of additional picture-cards. Today’s Tarot cards are a systematization of those early decks.

As a hardcore atheist, I don’t have much patience with the idea that if you lay out a spread of Tarot cards for the purpose of divination, the universe will somehow produce a meaningful spread. What cards show up in a spread — that’s random.

Nonetheless, the symbolism found in the Tarot is fascinating. The images on the cards have very little to do with any scientific description of the world, except accidentally. But they have everything to do with human perceptions and human psychology.

The meanings of the images on the cards are anything but cut-and-dried. Some are simply vague and open to interpretation. Others are close to what Jung called archetypes: They represent deeply unconscious tendencies in the human brain. Your interpretations may not be at all like mine, and either of us can change our interpretation from day to day. On Monday, The Fool may represent the Eternal Now. On Wednesday, it may depict childish impulsiveness. And so on.

Once you know the basic (and multi-faceted) meanings of the cards, if you lay out a spread in a calm, attentive manner your intuition may be prompted toward a new realization with respect to whatever concerns you. The cards are not going to give you advice, but your unconscious may give you a nudge that’s prompted by whatever random cards show up in the spread. Or not. No guarantees.

Lots of artists today are designing, printing, and selling Tarot cards. Some hew closely to the set of images in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, which has been around for a hundred years now. Others offer radical reinterpretations. Some are visual feasts; others are regrettably amateurish in execution.

One of the things that I like about the Tarot is this cultural free-for-all. The cards seem to satisfy some of the same human cravings as religion, but unlike the Bible or the Koran, the cards are almost entirely wordless. The very few words that are associated with the Major Arcana (The Tower, The Emperor, The Star, and so on) are not infrequently redacted by card designers who prefer other terms, due either to the needs of a new deck with a particular theme or to simple squeamishness. Sometimes the Death card becomes “Transformation.” In a Celtic-themed deck, The Devil is transformed into Cernunnos, the horned god.

I also like the idea that you can carry 78 beautiful paintings around in a small box.

If you’re curious to see what the card designers are up to, a good site to visit is Aeclectic Tarot. You’ll find decks depicting everything from Egyptian mysticism to cats.

Posted in random musings | Leave a Comment »

The Rot Starts at the Top

Posted by midiguru on December 5, 2014

According to a Huffington Post story this morning, President Obama’s response to yesterday’s widespread protest marches was this:

“President Barack Obama also weighed in, saying one of the chief issues at stake is ‘making sure that people have confidence that police and law enforcement and prosecutors are serving everybody equally.'”

No, Mr. President. People having confidence is not the issue. The issue is, the police are killing unarmed citizens (most of them African-American) as a result of minor infractions or for no reason at all — and getting away with it. That is the issue.

We can read Obama’s comment one of two ways. Possibly he doesn’t even know what the real issue is — but I doubt that. I think he knows. The problem is that he can’t say it out loud. He’s so embedded in the structure of wantonly brutal power in this country that he feels he has no alternative but to support that power structure by consciously, publicly, and cravenly misrepresenting what’s going on.

How can people have confidence in something that isn’t the case? They’ll have confidence only if they’re deluded and benumbed by a barrage of propaganda. What Obama is saying boils down to, “Our propaganda isn’t working.” Well, yeah, it isn’t. You got that right, dude.

What he conspicuously isn’t saying is, “The protesters are right. The system is fucked up, and we need to change it.”

Posted in politics, society & culture | 1 Comment »

Imaginary Games

Posted by midiguru on November 25, 2014

Last night I had a dream about playing contract bridge using Tarot cards. For the rest of the night (mostly while asleep) I was musing about how such a game might actually be played. I have no definite proposal for the rules, just a lot of mildly interesting speculations.

The Tarot deck has 14 cards per suit rather than 13. That’s a fairly trivial difference, although (if there were no other considerations) it would give you 14 tricks per hand, which would allow the bidding to go up to the level of 8 rather than 7. But wait: The Tarot deck also has a set of 22 extra cards called the Major Arcana. The deck as a whole has 78 cards.

The Major Arcana cards (MA for short) could be used as trumps, but that would make the process of bidding fairly pointless. One simple possibility would be to make them “sub-trumps.” One of the 22 could be used to trump a trick in the usual way, but would be over-ruffed by any card in the contracted trump suit. If a MA card is led, the MA would have to be considered a fifth suit, and maybe that’s a better idea. Some special rules would have to apply to this fifth suit, since it has so many cards.

Speaking of which, we’re going to need five players at the table rather than four. Each player is dealt 15 cards, and three are left over. The three extra cards are placed face down on the table. One is turned face up before bidding begins, the other two when bidding ends and play begins. These three cards obviously have some special meaning or utility, but I have no idea what it might be. Certain of the Major Arcana, if they appear, might change the rules for a given hand. The declarer might have the option of swapping one or more of the three cards into the dummy, replacing existing dummy cards.

The fifth player is called the spoiler. She is nobody’s partner. The position of spoiler rotates around the table, which means that the partnerships will also change from one hand to the next. Given five players — A, B, C, D, and E — when A is the spoiler, B and D are partners, as are C and E. In the next hand, B is the spoiler; C and E are still partners, but now A and D are partners. When C becomes the spoiler, A and D are still partners, but now B and E are partners. One easy way to think about this is that in a given hand, the two players to the left and right of the spoiler are never partners. (They will be partners in a later hand.)

Why “spoiler”? One idea (and remember, I was asleep) is that when this player takes a trick, she can choose to give it to the declarer, or to the defenders, or she could keep it. That makes it awfully easy for the spoiler to play favorites, tilting the game in favor of one player or another, but because the position of spoiler rotates, maybe it would all balance out in the end. Even if the spoiler keeps all her tricks, she could still play favorites by deliberately avoiding taking a trick that she could win, in order to give the trick to either the declarer or the defenders.

What role the spoiler would play in bidding, I don’t know. If the spoiler bids and everybody passes, she will have to play against four opponents, and with no dummy, which would make it difficult to make the contract unless she has a boatload of high cards. Maybe a spoiler who wins the contract could choose either of the two players sitting opposite her as the dummy.

Whatever. We can speculate endlessly. Nobody will ever play this game — it’s too cumbersome. But it might show up in a fantasy story sometime. Maybe this is how the gods play bridge.

Posted in random musings | 1 Comment »


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