Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Steering The Craft: Part Two: Am I Saramago

So this part is all about punctuation. I found this difficult to do while trying to do something clever. I don't know if I succeeded, so here goes:

Exercise Two; Am I Saramago: Write a paragraph of narrative with NO punctuation (and no paragraphs or other breaking devices).

            Staring down at the smoldering wreckage hissing in the intersection he tried to think of what to say but nothing came to mind thoughts raced by faster than the cars slowly passing the dented smoking mess of his father’s car crossing his heavy arms across his chest the streetlights casting unnatural shadows followed by the red flashing lights of the cop car barreling towards them he watched as the cops parked putting out flares and putting each of the accident participants in the back seats of their car in turns all he could think is what would his father do when he found out the scenarios played out in his mind from the absurd mundane with everything in between his mind wondered what was happening next numbly he handed his insurance cards as the cop scribbled in a pad his eyes going to his friends on the side of the road watching with glazed abject horror at the scene the smell of burning radiator fluid would stay with him for the rest of his life the cop asked if there was somewhere he wanted to go and the image of his father’s contorted fury he answered Madagascar

Now, the plan is to review this piece in a week and punctuate it. Feel free to give it a shot yourself if you are so inclined. Enjoy. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Steering the Craft: Part One: Being Gorgeous

If you've been paying attention to this space at all in the last 6 months or so, you know that I've been in something of writing rut. I've got good concepts I just can't get traction. I hit the same wall on my NANO project that I was very excited about (think the geo-political fallout of the movie FROZEN) and stalled at around 15k words. It's the lower end of my threshold to project commitment. Once I get over the 15-20k mark, a project becomes real. So, none of my projects have cross that threshold since the Spring.

A few months back someone online suggested I read a book called Save The Cat! and it was enlightening. Helped me think of the story as a whole and made me think about planning a little more than I already did. Then I started looking at things that were being said about my writing and decided that maybe I needed to work a little on my craft, so I started checking out writing books. I usually loathe these books because they cater to a lot of writers that are beginners or, quite frankly, people that have no idea what writing is or how to do it. When I discovered that the great Ursula LeGuin had written a book called STEERING THE CRAFT, I got excited...because URSULA LEGUIN. When I found out it was a book not for beginners but more experienced writers, I was stoked. I started reading it and found out there were exercises for writers to practice and improve upon the craft,

As I started doing the exercises, I decided that maybe sharing these exercises in a public space might be just the thing to jump start my writing, so here's part one.

Exercise One, Part One: Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect, but NOT rhyme or meter. Here's my attempt:

            The chairlift clanks and rattles as it raises up into the night. A gentle breeze blows followed by a squeak. She smiles. He smiles. It’s a moment. The moment you seen in movies. The moment you read about in books. Skin prickles, more from the moment than the air. Neither says a thing, letting the moment hang in the air between them. They look up at the white pinpricked blanket of night just in time to see a loop of white light streaking across the black from left to right, swallowed by the bony fingers of the woods.
            “Make a wish,” he says.
            “Like the song?” she asks.
            “Yes,” he says. She does.
            “Can I tell you?”
            “I don’t know the rules.”
            “You seem like the kind of guy that knows all the rules.”
            He says nothing in response. The cable whinneys as the ground swoons up, the vague rhythm of music coming from the attendant’s cabin matched the chug-a-chug of the spinning mechanism that returns the empty chairs to the mountain base. The night becomes a hum and they rise as one, their skis scraping the packed snow of the ramp. He adjusts his goggles. She jostles into her poles. The chair kathumps into the backs of their thighs, sending them swooshing down ramp, looping around the attendant’s cabin to the top of the trail.
            She adjusts her googles.
            He jostles into his poles.

            Skis splunk and scratch as they push off in unison, like awkward newborns. Gravity takes over. Feet slide together, skis sliding closer as they separate, two dark loops streaking across the white.

Exercise One, Part Two: In a paragraph or so, describe an action, or a person feeling a strong emotion-joy, fear, grief. Try to make the rhythm and movement of the sentences embody or represent the physical reality. Here's my attempt:

            It starts with the ears. The wooshing. The heat. Rushing up my neck from deep inside my core. My vision: red. My fists: clenched. The tremble comes next. It’s not visible. You wouldn’t notice it by looking at me, but I feel it. A twist of the stomach, a knot of my own making. My teeth grind as I stare at her, her words still rolling around in my head, seeking purchase that never comes. The knot writhes. More heat, in my neck and cheeks this time as her mouth moves and her eyes roll. The words die in the air. They mean nothing because I know, in the end, I am powerless. The rage subsides, dying embers that remind me of my weakness.  
Critique. Comment. I'm eager to see what your thoughts are. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Dragonlance Chronicles: Tarnished Nostalgia

A few months back, inspired by Aaron Starmer, I began compiling a list of my "99 Inspirations" in a file on my desktop. My initial list was pretty large, hitting the mid-60s before I ran out. I've added to the list in the last few years with plans of blogging about them leading up to the release of my book. Obviously I don't have a book deal, so there is nothing to blog about yet. As I started the list the first three things that I wrote were: Star Wars, A Song of Ice and Fire and Dragonlance. (Followed by pro wrestling, but that is a separate blog post!)

I've often said that DRAGONLANCE is probably more influential to people of my generation than even Tolkien. I have vivid memories of it from middle school (junior high to some of you) and remember the giant, chubby thirteen year old obsessing over them, staring at them on the book shelf at the independent books store in Seneca Mall in Liverpool, NY. Salivating over the modules at Economy Books and pouring through the ones I was lucky enough to save up and purchase, even though I didn't have friends that wanted to play D&D. Larry Elmore was amazing. The character cards were an obsession. (There's a blog post in me about this too because of my obsession with the GI Joe character cards.) Without DRAGONLANCE, there isn't much of me as a writer.

About three years ago, I started a reread on my blog....BEFORE Tor.com decided to do their reread...as part of my "Reading the Fantasy Canon" idea that I drummed up. At best, the series got a lukewarm reaction and I decided to shelf it in favor of other books. When Tor.com started their reread, I participated then sort of ran out of steam on it, mostly because I found my interest floundering. In and of itself, that was kind of depressing.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It colors our memory. I've dealt with some of this in the first of my "Oral History" blog posts and will continue to do so as I write those (I've begun another a while ago and will post it when it is done!), but I've discovered that the glasses that we look back on the things we love are indeed rose colored. A part of me wishes that I hadn't done this reread, because then I could still love these books for what they were: a treasured and formative part of my education as a fantasy writer. But that is what made me undertake this journey in the first place. So, what happened is that now my memories of them are tarnished.  Why? Well, first off...they aren't very good. And in and of itself, that is sort of soul crushing.

I did most of a full reread of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT on the blog earlier, but I found myself underwhelmed by the ending. It became a motif of my reading. The two things that are obvious walking away from the series was that Weis and Hickman were definitely first time writers AND that they were under tremendous pressure to finish this ambitious project. It's that pressure shows in the pace of the book.

Don't get me wrong, I like a fast paced book but not at the sacrifice of the narrative, which is what happens here. They miss sweeping details and chunks of details for the sake of "getting it done." The ending was okay but, as I said, underwhelming. I read it on a flight from Syracuse to Tampa back in the summer of 2015 and remember thinking, "That was it?" It made me a little sad.

So, I'll move on to DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT. To me (and I'm sure other readers) this was the "Empire" of the series. It was the one that defied what we knew about heroic fantasy and made us question what we were reading in the first place. It's the best of the three books, sort of, and has parts that are really good, but again, underwhelming. The book introduces and wraps up whole plot lines in 1 or 2 chapters, plot lines that deserved richer stories. (I'm presently reading the "Lost Chronicles" based on what happened in WINTER NIGHT and it's filling in some of the blanks, but still the flaws are glaring.) It abandons the game mechanics and that's the biggest improvement of the book by far and increases the drama. But again, Weis and Hickman's inexperience shows with underdeveloped characters and glossed over plot points. (I mean you could fill an entire book with the political drama of the Knights of Solamnia for crying out loud.)

What they do right, they do right. Sturm's death was still as heartbreaking now as it was when I was a kid. "Sturm's sun shattered" was such a great line and expressed so much in one simple line. The battle was a mess but it was done well enough that I still enjoyed it. Tanis's whole storyline with Kitiara was just as incredible as it was when I was a kid, though less salacious.

WINTER NIGHT was a missed opportunity. It wasn't as great as I remembered and that made me sad.

I remember not liking DRAGONS OF SPRING DAWNING as much as the other two books and I really didn't like it this time through. It was a mess. It felt like Weis and Hickman knew they could get another trilogy out of TSR and left giant chunks of things out of the book to cover later. Again, countless missed opportunity: I mean dragon fighting! By Paladine....knights on dragons fighting dark knights on dragons and we get one measly chapter of slapstick of a dwarf and a hobbit with ADD capturing the second in command of the Blue Dragonarmy. The "war" wraps up in one chapter that reads like a Wikipedia entry on the subject. The mission to discover the metallic dragon eggs left to be told as second hand story but we get slapstick and Lord Soth (I know people love him, but he was boring) instead. I want to understand the thinking, but I don't. It feels cheap. That being said, the ending was better than I though it was going to be despite my issue with the pace of the war. It kept me turning the page to find out what happened next. And it turned into a mess, cramming in half a dozen new elements that weren't there before, poorly using tired tropes and leaving countless loose ends instead of wrapping it up. It felt like they got to the ending. had to come up with something and this was the best they could come up with. It was all baffling.

This reread doesn't make me love the series less, but it certainly tarnishes my view of it as a whole. It's disappointing that something I loved so much, doesn't hold up. There's still a lot to love and admire in the book. It was ambitious for it's time and wanted to be so much more but ultimately it fails. That being said, I still love them for what they mean to me and it's still one of the most important pieces of literature for me as a writer.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Month In Review: September 2016

Ah, September. Dancing in September. Wake me up when September ends. You get what I'm talking about,right. September, the end of summer and the start of school for many of us. And the real ramp up to this damned, stupid election that I hate if for no other reason than sullying my opinions of people that I know. Anyway, how was September. That depends.

WRITING: September is a light writing month for me anyway as I re-acclimate to life as a teacher, so I had no expectations of my productivity and, that being said, I didn't write a word this month that wasn't related to lesson plans. Sorry to disappoint. This dry spell/funk that I'm in continues. I'm just struggling. I've got some ideas down and I'm starting the preliminary plans on something new, but we'll see. I could rewrite/revise something, but I'm just stuck and that seems like it might be a bad idea. I need to find something I am passionate about and fully engage with it. I'm going to play around with this new idea ad we'll see how it turns out.

READING: Seven books. Not bad for the first month of school, but a 7 day respite in the middle of that helped. So here's the best of what I read:
  • The Dragonlance Chronicles Books 2 & 3: I'm going to longform this later in the week. Let's just say I was a little disappointed by them.
  • The Black Dahlia: God this was so good. I'm in the early stages of planning a scifi version of this. 
I'm in the process of reading one of the "Lost Dragonlance Chronicles" and it's marginally better and listening to THE FELL SWORD in the car. I'm plugging away at another writing book as well. The plan for the rest of the year is to really ingest some epics to see what I can see about them.

WATCHING: Again, school started and I didn't watch as much as I have in the past. Lots of college football and baseball. (PLAYOFFS BABY! LET'S GO METS!) Anyway, a few noteworthies:

  • ESPN's 30for30: 9.79: I'm fascinated with human speed and this show about Ben Johnson was just brilliant.
  • Lord of the Rings: Surprisingly these movies hold up despite their flaws. And watching them planted the seed for a great fantasy idea.
  • The Battle at Bristol: a college football game on the infield of a NASCAR race course. It was amazing and a spectacle. 
  • The Force Awakens: So good. I'm going to blog about this at some point. 
  • Dancing With The Stars: Am I the only one that assumes the partners are schtupping? And if Laurie Hernandez were a D&D character, she'd have a Charisma score of 25, right?
  • Never Been Kissed: Quintessential 90s movie or overrated Drew Barrymore crap? I say something in between. It has moments where it's smart and moments where it's creepy. 
  • Caddyshack: I want to write a YA book in the same tone as the movie. 
DID: Went to Disney World and had a riot. 

So, October. I'm going to write...if it kills me I'm going to write. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Writing As A Career

Over on Facebook, a friend put up this post and it got me thinking about my "career" (laugh) as a writer, both in its present state and in the future. Could I do that? Could I be a full time writer. I dream of it, like all of us that write do, but reality is a different beast all together.

Now, a few things to note. I am not published. I'm inching closer, I think, and believe in my heart of hearts that one day you will be able to go to your bookstore or click on to Amazon and find my books their, but for now I still proudly bare the banner of "aspiring author." But I'm not approaching it from the angle of a NAIVE aspiring author.

I've always approached the business rather pragmatically and think that I understand parts of it...and other parts I don't, but still I don't get all ruffled over form rejections or nonresponses they way some do. I understand that this is part of the game, but when you enter the game all bets are off. The publishing world is a brutal one and I've been through the grind. I've talked about the "upheaval" for the last few months and while I'm not ready to talk in great detail about it, I left my agent in April. It's left me borderline crushed and I've been in a malaise ever since. But that's not the purpose of this post, I want to talk about my career. Leaving my agent is a story for another time.

I have a pretty good gig as a teacher right now. For the second year in a row I am teaching nothing but seniors. It's a different beast, but one that I think I've managed to wrangle in, but no matter what, it's not a bad gig. I make decent money, I have decent benefits, good hours and I even get to teach creative writing this year. But as with all teachers, there is the feeling of "the call" when it comes to our jobs. I'll admit that the last few years have been trying on my sense of "the call" but even at its darkest, I love what I do. That moment when you see a kid "get it" or when you teach them something that they've never learned before. This year I had to teach a senior how to write a signature. Those are the things that don't show up on any teaching evaluation and the reason I do the job. I have said more than once that I can't imagine not teaching. Plus, I've worked at least one job or another since I was in middle school. I don't know what it's like not to go to a job.

That being said, the fantasy of being a full time writer is appealing but, as I see it right now, a complete and total fantasy that I don't think I could indulge right now or any time in the near future. I grew up understanding the stress of "money" and more to the point not having a lot. And that understanding drives me and my "dream" of being a full time writer. I know the nature of the business and understand that it is highly unlikely that I'll ever be successful enough to not work as a teacher. It's a reality that isn't a reflection of what I believe my talent level is, (One of the great nuggets my former agent gave me was to never doubt you or insult the work. You are great) it's just an understanding that my name isn't Rowling, King, Patterson or some celebrity writing the memoir of my years before I became a viral YouTube sensation.

This doesn't mean I've completely given up the fantasy. Who knows, maybe SEASONS OF DESTINY or THE FALCON & THE CROW or THE LOST SCIONS will hit huge, get me a deal for a second rate movie that will fail miserably at the box office while I'm sitting in my custom made writing shed writing and tooling around town in my matte black Dodge Challenger. But I know this is an extreme fantasy. I'll be honest, I'd be ridiculously satisfied if I made enough money so I could take an early retirement in ten years or my wife could quit working full time. Ah, this is the stuff of fantasies. I need to write for now. I can feel the gears turning a little and the rust falling off. I've got ideas to flesh out and try to make work in my notebook. Wish me luck.

And look for that matte black Dodge Challenger in your neighborhood.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Month In Review: August 2016

August was August. The Dog Days of Summer. The countdown to the return to school. The end of summer school and more often than not a mad scramble to finish whatever it is that I was trying to accomplish. But this summer was different. It's been a weird summer, as I've documented in these Month In Review posts. So what about August?

WRITING: Another miserable month. I scrapped another project, the prank war novel. I couldn't get the voice or story down. It wasn't working for me. As my friend Mike Winchell says a writer has to write, but I've been stagnant this summer. I can't get a groove on any of these projects. I've got some ideas of how to shake this, but we'll see if I can pull it off. I've been doing a lot of "studying" lately and reading some good writing books that I hope will help me moving forward. I know how to write, that's pretty obvious but I need to figure out some things about what's wrong with what I'm writing that it's not catching on. I'll get there, I know I will. I agree with Mike that a writer has to write, but sometimes you need to clean the machine and I'm doing that now. I started a "Abandoned Project" blog that I may or may not get around to because I have some ideas that can work, including one that I could never do but I really love enough that I may do it anyway, just to practice and another that I may be able to modify to work for me. I also came up with another big book fantasy idea that I'm not rushing into yet because I have some actual research and prep to do before writing it.

For now though, I'm studying. I'll find the words at some point.

READING: I had a heck of a reading month. I finished 11 books and I'm working on a few more. The interesting thing is between the end of July and most of August, I read 7 books in a row that all are pretty much going to make my best of the year list. So, here's the highlights:

  • The Forgetting Moon: Long formed this on the blog. Heavy metal epic fantasy. Great book, loved it.
  • Paper Girls, Volume One: A brilliant graphic novel about a group of paper girls that get caught up in some strange events involved in some crazy supernatural adventures the day after Halloween. 
  • Hamilton: The Revolution: I love stories of stories and this is THE story right now in pop culture. I loved reading the inspiration behind the music and the story. The Chernow book that inspired the musical is high on the reading queue as part of my "research" and it was brilliant. 
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: It was nice to be in Potterland again and it was a highly entertaining story that I breezed through. The one thing that it was missing though was JK Rowling's voice. It just lacked her...heart? But still a cracking good HP story.
  • The Serpent King: I single served this book, reading it in one day and it was brilliant. I long formed it on Goodreads and may longform it here on the blog.
  • Save the Cat: A writing book that was recommended to me by someone. It was interesting and eye opening to an extent that it has me rethinking some of my writing enough that I want to revisit it. 
Read a couple of graphic novels, some good, some not so good, but enjoyable. I'm presently engaged (once again) with some Dragonlance and then going to move into some more epic fantasies for my "study."

I'm on pace, as of today, to read 78 books this year. I haven't read as much epic fantasy as I initially planned, but I'm making progress. I'm singled out some books to read in the coming weeks and we'll see how it plays out. 

WATCHING: A lot of watching too.
  • THE OLYMPICS: I watched a ton of this, even while I was at work. I love the Olympics despite the usual political turmoil that surrounds them. If you follow me on Twitter, you know how much I love the Olympics. 
  • THE HUGO AWARDS: I live streamed them and tweeted as I watched. I'm not going to get into great detail about my feelings about the Hugos, but if you've gotten to know me via social networks, I think you can figure it out. 
  • JAMES BOND: It's been a Jame Bond summer for me and I'll be long forming my Bond thoughts at some point in the next few weeks. 
  • ANT-MAN: I need to redo my Marvel Cinematic Universe ranking sheet. This is a fun movie. 
  • 30 for 30: Pony Excess: Another of the 30 for 30s that I love. It's just so good and there's something that's so satisfying knowing that smug prick Craig James eventually falls flat on his face. 
DID: Lifting. Planned the first two months of school

So, with the sun setting on Summer 2016, I have nothing to show for it. But here's to the beginning of the school year and the hope that I find a groove. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review: The Forgetting Moon

The Forgetting Moon by Brian Lee Durfee is a big book. The ARC I read weighed in at 777 pages. Massive. Been a while since I've toted a book around with that much heft. I drove my wife crazy shoving it into the swim bag en route to her dad's house with the kids. Being an titanic epic fantasy, I read at a slower pace, to make sure I didn't miss anything and got everything I could out of it. One of the things I "do wrong" as a reader is reading too fast sometimes and missing important details.  I didn't want to do that with this book. The Forgetting Moon is a great throwback to the late 80s/early 90s brand of fantasy while appealing to the ever present grimdark aesthetic that is so popular these days. It's like Durfee used the spices of 80s/90s fantasy while cooking something decidedly contemporary. It made the book infinitely enjoyable and when I sat down to read it, I read it in big sweeping chunks.

The Forgetting Moon starts with a familiar story: an orphan with a mysterious background raised by a grumpy mentor type in a backwater town then expands to a wider, vastly more complicated world. Durfee navigated this better than it sounds as there is some purpose to this other than strict adherence to the tried and true rules of fantasy writing. Durfee mixes the typical hero's journey story with the political intrigue that we've come to expect from our modern epics and he does it well. There are parts in the plot that get herky-jerky, almost like the idea came up all of a sudden in the writing and he couldn't ignore what he was doing, but it doesn't slow down the story at all. (I'm going to talk about this a little later on because of a very specific reason.)

The world building is amazing in this book. Durfee nails it on so many levels. The names alone worked on multiple levels for me. Names are important to me. They have to make sense and the names in Durfee's world make sense, The Five Isles is a living breathing world that is simple and complex at the same time. I'm guessing there are some roots in RPG settings in this world. His world is small despite the largeness that he's created and the constructs of that world work well. Orders of knighthood, secret societies and an terrifying order of assassins mingle together in a dangerous world that isn't specifically like anything we've seen before but is familiar enough that we're comfortable with it. In a lot of ways, his world is very old school and it worked for me. I wanted more of the world at large since the Five Isles seemed very, very isolated despite the implied epicness of the world.

Durfee's done something in the world building that's at the core of the basic conflict in the story that I adored. He's created an pseudo-Christian fantasy religion that works so well. It drives massive portions of the plot and is somehow appropriate in this day and age. I'm not a big religion in fantasy guy. I despise the "God/s on Speed Dial" method of story telling that is so prevalent in epic fantasy and Durfee avoids that while really driving home some thematic concepts about religion, faith and even Christianity. (Yeah, I'm as surprised as you are that this is coming up in this review.)

Durfee's characters are typical of epic fantasies, but well drawn and interesting interpretations of the tropes we know and love. (If you've read my reviews, and why haven't you, you know that I am a huge fan of using tropes!) But the interesting thing he does is talk, outright, about the roles these characters have to play in the story. I love this and think it's an interesting way to go. Our main characters aren't confined by the tropes that define them but they are comfortable in them and Durfee is deft as using them. (Tell me Prince Jovan isn't a combination of Derek Crownguard and every douchy 80s movie rich kid villain.) Some of the secondary and tertiary characters are a little cardboardy, but that's more out of necessity of the narrative than Durfee's skill as a writer. There are some character wobbles that frustrated me and occasional inconsistencies that were noteworthy, but not distracting.

The plot moves along, clicking into place along the way as we begin to see how these different threads weave together into one tapestry (if you'll pardon the metaphor.) There are a few places where I needed to review something from a previous POV chapter, but that's more me than the story. The end comes in a torrent where I was scratching my head at some of the twists and turns that occurred. I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about that method of story telling, but it works for the story and what Durfee tries to do. And let me say, these did not diminish my enjoyment of the book at all. I loved it.

Durfee oscillates between different voices too that help make the story move along. The Tala POV reads like an intense YA book while Nail reads like a typical epic fantasy narrative and the soldier POVs are as good as anything out there. The only POV I found troubling was Jondralyn. It felt kind of all over the place, but I kind of chalked that up to the way her character was.

My only "complaint," and it's a funny one (trust me, you'll laugh), is how many elements of my own book, WINTER'S DISCORD, this shares. Orders of knights, a nation of refugees, archetypes and secret societies all play major roles in my book. It gives me some optimistic in that I must be close. I believe that Brian (I'm be conversational here) has described his book as heavy metal fantasy and I'd say that's accurate. Well if I can indulge, using Metallica, THE FORGETTING MOON is MASTER OF PUPPETS then WINTER'S DISCORD is THE BLACK ALBUM. Anyway.

THE FORGETTING MOON is a terrific, throwback debut epic fantasy that doesn't reinvent the wheel but rather gives it an electric guitar and pound drums soundtrack. It's clearly going to wind up in my end of year Best Of list. I'm looking forward to THE BLACKEST HEART.

(An ARC was provided by the author.)