Friday, September 12, 2014

Ten Things I Learned While Watching Every Simpsons Episode Ever

To be fair, I didn't watch every episode, but I watched a lot of them...in fact I got my 6 year old daughter hooked on the show to the point that she is angry that it is not on ALL the time like it was. So here's what I learned:

1. It's Still Getting It Done
I don't remember when I stopped watching the show on a regular basis. One of my local stations used to play the syndicated repeats along with "Family Guy" back to back when I first got married and I watched every day, but when they took it off, I stopped watching. But watching the marathon reminded me how funny a show it was and that even in later seasons as the quality diminished some, there was at least one laugh out loud moment in each episode. Whether it was a very smart allusion to a previous episode or some throw away gag that made me laugh (almost always involving Homer), it's still laugh out loud funny. I love Family Guy, but it's mostly background noise to me at this point and isn't nearly as funny.

2. It's Not Necessarily About The Actual Episodes
We were a Simpsons house from the outset. My dad loved the show, my friends loved the show and we talked about the show in school and at work. It was appointment TV at a time when that mattered. The funny thing about the marathon was the sense of nostalgia it stirred in me. I found myself remembering where I was when I saw a particular episode or what I was doing. "Bart Gets An Elephant" reminds me of St. Patrick's Day 1995. "$pringfield" reminds me of going to the casino for the first time. "Cape Feare" was my favorite single episode of a TV show for a long time. For a few days, I was thinking a lot of my early 20s and it was good and bad.

3. It Was A Dark Show
It's hard not to compare "The Simpsons" to "Family Guy" and the two shows took different paths to get where they are going tonally. At the beginning, "The Simpsons" was a dark, dark show. Even Marge was a dark character capable of some real nastiness. As seasons went on, it became more light hearted, though it wasn't afraid to get dark.

4. Speaking of Family Guy
I marvel at HOW much "Family Guy" just blatantly stole from "The Simpsons" early on. I've seen just about every episode of FG and about two thirds of "The Simpsons" and a lot of early FG episodes look like they just did a Replace All for each of the characters and slapped "Family Guy" on the cover. To be fair, I know that both shows are pastiches of family sitcoms in general, but the jokes are almost word for word in some cases.

5. Treehouse of Meh
I remember the Treehouse episodes being hit or miss with me when they were first on and I discovered that my opinion hadn't changed.

6. Flanders and Homer Are Best Friends
I like Flanders as a character and I think he's maybe the most important character in the show not named Simpson. I know that TV Tropes has an entire entry on his Flanderization as the seasons went on, but aside from the Simpson family, has there been a more dynamic and rounded character on the show (or even TV I'd argue). Flanders wouldn't be Flanders if it weren't for Homer and vice versa. Their relationship is one of the most complex on all of television and it has been fleshed out on so many levels that it's not unlike most friendships in the real world.

7. World Building and Canon Wobbliness
You say world building and you think instantly of epic fantasy, but world building is just important in any genre that you write. I discovered that this summer when I was writing my YA contemporary book. These characters occupy my version of our world and I need to build that world accordingly (I started a series of world building posts that I'll get back to). Like all animated shows, "The Simpsons" has created a vivid and vibrant world for their characters to occupy. Springfield is as significant and important as a world as Middle Earth, Westeros or the Four Nations of Avatar with as much development and backstory as those worlds. The thing a show like The Simpsons has to do (25 seasons) is be flexible with their world and "canon" when they need to be. Every episode is almost a retcon in and of it self...and that works. That being said, there are still little bits that thread the show over the course of 25 seasons.

8. I'm A Sideshowmaniac.
Through some weird cosmic convergence I managed to see every Sideshow Bob episode in the series. I did this without intent (I did DVR "Cape Feare" because it's one of my favorite episodes of all time) or planning. My daughter (who watched almost every episode with me) recognizes Sideshow Bob on sight now. He's my favorite character on the show. There may not be a more complex villain in the history of TV. Seriously. He rivals Zuko from Avatar. And he changes (an important motif of the show actually) from year to year.

9. It's About Characters
Obviously the members of the Simpson family are the focus, but "The Simpsons" rivals my beloved A Song of Ice and Fire for named characters...and not just named characters, but characters that are fully developed and even more real than some characters on most sitcoms today...I'm looking at you "Modern Family." From obvious characters like Moe and Barney to Duffman and Moleman, these are well rounded characters that even in minor moments get to shine. As a writer of big, sweeping epic fantasies, there's a lot to learn from what they do. I've talked about Ned Flanders earlier, but characters like Nelson, who evolved from a simple bully into a template to writing the complex bully that led to characters like Buford (Phineas & Ferb) and David Karofsky (Glee), Millhouse, the toede and lickspittle that was given ample opportunity to shine when the light was cast upon him, the aforementioned Moe, perhaps the most tragic character and maybe the show's moral compass, the codependent Principal Skinner, the acerbic Edna Krabapple and the underrated, apathetic Ms. Hoover just pop into my mind. As a writer, there's plenty to study while watching "The Simpsons."

10. Complex Character Relationships
Man, there were a ton and too many to list. From the familial relationship of the Simpsons to the dynamic friendships and interactions between the Simpson family to the external relationships between the denizens of Springfield. The first time through I never noticed how integral a part of the show they were, but as I watched as a writer, especially one that writes a lot about relationship dynamics, I noticed they were a major motif the writers played with. There were a few that struck me. Nelson (who became one of my favorite characters on the show) and Lisa's remarkably complex relationship is fascinating and well fleshed out on several levels and maintained consistently. Homer's relationship with Monty Burns always stands out. There are countless others that Burns could interact with, but their constant interplay often drives the plot of episodes. Lisa's solitude and isolation is done in varying degrees of success but it's never better than when she makes friends for an episode only to have them disappear. It's a nice touch that this mirror's Marge's own isolation and solitude and done in the same manner.  And there's an entire essay to be written about Carl and Lenny.

So, there it is. I'm sure that the Internet has done the whole Every Simpsons Ever thing to death and you know me, I'm a sheep, I follow the crowd.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

And Thus Ends Another Summer

Summer ended, officially, somewhere around 12:20am on the morning of Tuesday September 2, 2014. I can't be sure when exactly I finally slipped into sleep, but school started at 6:07 am the same day for me as I trudged from my bed into the shower. Summer, the sweetest of seasons for a teacher and the busiest as well sometimes.

The last week of August and the first week of September are one of the most stressful times for a teacher. I don't know how to articulate it to those of you that do something else. Do you remember the first time you started a new job and what the first two weeks were like...well imagine doing that every year. That's the best analogy I could come up with. And this year was even worse...it felt disjointed and jumbled then kids started showing up yesterday. I still don't know if I'm ready, but then again I don't know if I ever am ready for students when the school year starts. I'm optimistic so far...most of my classes seem decent, though I have one group of obvious devilspawn that I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to handle. If the first day was any indication, I'm going to have my hands full.

Anyway, you don't come here to listen to me lament my day job woes, you come here for the reading and the writing. (I am an English teacher, it all kind of interconnects actually.)

September 1 always has me looking back at the summer and thinking that I should have written more and I should have read more. It always bums me out at how little I feel I write given the time I had. Especially this summer doing a writing institute for teachers where I had time to write every day for three weeks. The thing is that my writer's mind was kind of schizophrenic this summer. I had one project that stalled when I realized that I didn't have an ending and the project needed a desperate rethinking, so I took a break from it. I was rolling on another project and hit the half way point when I sent it off to a beta reader for a very superficial read...that revealed I may need to take a break from it and rewrite the first half. It's a good decision and I need to rewrite the first half to make what I want to do with the second half to work. Then, during the writing institute, I discovered a story idea that I couldn't ignore. It wasn't a big enough project for a novel and I'm still not sure what it is/will become. Yet, I still can't get a full grip on it yet.

I planned a little novelette for the end of summer, but I failed my challenge. Too many things kept popping up and I found myself more than distracted by the Every Simpsons Ever marathon (there is a blog post coming about that). I want to write the novelette and some point because I think it's a strong story.Then the big project that has been the last 7 or 8 years of my life (SEASONS) that needs some attention. SPRING and SUMMER need some polishing before I can move away from them...I believe in my heart of hearts that something will happen with them sooner than later, so that's moved up in priority in my heart and mind. The funny thing is that as I'm reading SPRING is stronger than I thought and I'm looking forward to it. On top of that I am challenging almost all my classes to participate in NANOWRIMO and I am going to do it with them. I have a completely different project I have in mind for it but we'll see.

It's all about time and that's at a massive premium right now. And that's a little stressful, mostly because of the pressure I put on myself. I have to make realistic writing plans instead of grandiose ones where I imagine that somehow I am going to write 12,000 words over a weekend. That's just not plausible. My life is too hectic right now. I'm trying to work on my craft not just as a writer but as a teacher. I've decided that I want to really step up my game and that interferes (it's a bad word choice) with my writing. I have to be realistic. I know that I'm talented enough to be a published and successful writer, I'm just not there yet. I need to focus on what is paying the bills: teaching. I want to get better. I'm taking on more responsibilities at school this year: extra class in the afternoon after school, department liaison to the principal and acting as a mentor to young men in the building on top of trying to be more organized as an instructor and working on my student feedback. As I write this, my head spins.

The one benefit I have is that writing is integral to my job as an English teacher, so it makes sense for me to write. So, I'm going to pull out my writer's notebook and write out said plan and go from there. Hopefully I'll have something exciting to announce sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The End of Summer Novelette Challenge

Summer vacation is in its twilight and I have a ton of prep work to do for the coming school year in addition to catching up with some summer work that I fell behind on last week. That being said I've decided to level a writing challenge to myself in light of all of this.

School starts, officially on September 2. I intend to write a novelette in that time period. For those of you that aren't sure, a novelette, by the Hugo's definition, is a work of fiction between 7,500 and 17,500 words. As I have it planned right now, it should come in about 15k words and I have no idea what I'm going to do with it. The novelette's tentative title is "The Orphan's Brooch" and it's a prequel, of sorts, to my novel in progress The Sisters of Khoda. The basic story is that Jaiman, one of the MCs of Sisters, has a crush on a girl that just moved into his neighborhood. During a party, she has a valuable family heirloom stolen...a brooch with a big secret. Jaiman and his friends track down the brooch and discover the secret, leaving Jaiman with choice of what he has to do.

After I finish that and school settles down a bit, I'm going to make a run at finally finishing The Seven Labors of Nick Jablonsky, do a thorough rewrite of the aforementioned Sisters of Khoda and work on my MG horror book. I also want to do NANOWRIMO this year with something fresh.

I'm probably insane, but I had a lot of good ideas this summer and didn't do a good job of executing any of them.

I'll be posting updates, work counts, lines and passages, on Facebook and Twitter as I write.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood

The generally accepted definition of "high concept" is an artistic work that can be pitched with a simple but succinct premise. Some examples (from TV Tropes) to help you:

  • A 13-year old boy wishes he was a man. (BIG)  
  • A man is forced to live the same day over and over again. (GROUNDHOG DAY)
  • A man is forced to live the same alien invasion over and over again. (EDGE OF TOMORROW)
  • Aliens invade the Earth and ruin the 4th of July. (INDEPENDENCE DAY)
  • A group of roughnecks have to save the earth from a meteor. (ARMAGEDDON) 
  • Napoleanic Wars...but with dragons. (TEMERAIRE)
  • Boy wizards fights the evil wizard that killed his parents. (Do I really need to?)
You get the point.

Shield and Crocus is a high concept idea that is executed brilliantly and completely satisfying. A high fantasy team of super powered rebels fights for good in a strange city ruled by evil tyrants. There is so much I loved about this book that I'm really not sure where to start.

If you follow my reviews, you know that I love genre mash-ups and Underwood had crammed multiple genres into one volume. He most obviously plays with the massive moving pieces in the genres of high fantasy and superhero books. Imagine cramming the JLA/Avengers into Westeros and that's what we're talking about. I'm going to get into the world building in a minute, but he deftly handles the difficult job of managing to straddle these two genres with an amazing level of skill while also playing with several other genres a little smattering of horror, steampunk, gangster and suspense as well. Never once does any of it feel forced or cobbled together, it's a coherent story that works on it's own.

Playing with recognizable tropes made this a fun read as I tried to piece together the inspirations and allusions to the characters Underwood created and how he came to choose them. He managed to make the Green Lantern concept cool, something that DC still struggles with while injecting something different into the Batman archetype. His villains, the newsworthy named oligarchs (tyrants), are just as much fun to figure out as the heroes that extend beyond the epic fantasy genre into gangsters, artificial intelligence and even corporate intrigue. The Smiling King is appropriately creepy and brilliant and I wish there was more of him while COBALT makes Ultron look like a pussy cat. Our heroes, beyond The First Sentinel, a little cardboard-y at times, but they are all given enough to do and their own stories that shakes out by the end of the book they are starting to be recognizable beyond the archetypes that they represent.

The plot is tight and well planned. We're coming in to the story at just the right time when any story should be told: a tipping point. Underwood nails this feeling throughout the story and you can tell while this "rebellion" has been going on for a long time, there is something different when we pick up the story that is going to necessitate change in the world. A lot of authors don't make this a point and that often stops me from reading. I ask, "Why now?" and then get bored when there is no answer. Underwood implies a lot to keep a lot of the mysteries of the world mysteries which helps moves the story forward and leaves me with questions...good, important questions like "Now what?"

The world building is exquisite. Less Westeros and more the world of Locke Lamora, the enormous city of Audec-Hal is a fantasy version Coruscant and it's bloody brilliant. From the layout of the city to the hints of the greater world., Underwood has created a memorable world that breathes and demands a wider view of. The races are interesting and unique, if not a little confusing at times, but they all made sense in the context of the world. The threads concept of the Ikanollo got confusing at times and my ability to look up what the threads meant because of my eARC might have led to that since it was difficult for me to flip back to the glossary then back to the page I was on without losing my page.

This was another 5 star review for me and a fantastic and unique fantasy novel.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Soundtrack of Writing

Well, Summer is here, which means I'm writing. I'm spinning a lot of plates thanks to a unique opportunity afforded to me by my employer. I am a teacher consultant at the Seven Valleys Writing Program's Summer Institute at SUNY Cortland in Cortland, NY. (For the visual learners, picture the Carrier Dome, turn south, drive for about 45 minutes and you are in Cortland.) The 7VWP is part of the National Writing Project and I am now a member of the family. (It's like the Mafia, without the RICO laws.) This program has me spinning dozens of metaphorical plates in my writing world. Part of the program is a very sizable chunk of writing time each day to work on any number of projects, which I have gleefully done. It's been amazing and I can feel my batteries recharging about not only my writing but school.

About my writing, I was chugging along at the contemporary YA, THE SEVEN LABORS, and making good time on it actually breaking past what I imagined the half way point to be when I shipped it off to a beta to just sort of skim and tell me what they thought of what I was doing with something that was making me uncomfortable. Well, I was okay, but said beta made me realize that this was a good place to stop and do a rewrite of the first half. I had some ideas for the second half that would completely botch the first half, so for continuity's sake, I stopped and boxed it for a few weeks. I'm not quitting, I'm just putting it aside to let it marinate.

I've got a new idea that I'm working on that has me excited. I'm not sure what it is yet...a novella, a MG book or a chapter book. I'm hazy on the title so don't ask, but I can describe it best as being "a more malicious version of E.T but from the ocean." I can't go further into it because, as I said, I'm still not sure what it is.

But this blog post is about soundtrack because music has been driving a lot of the writing I've been doing. This writing institute has been a breeding ground for my writing since I'm spending a lot of time looking back to my youth and in trying to capture that by choosing music to get me into that thought process. Since I was looking back I had decided that my story was going to be set in Queens, NY in the late 80s. My soundtrack? Billy Joel, focusing on the live album recorded at Shea Stadium with some other songs thrown in there, all by Billy Joel. It's fueled my writing, which really is what music should be doing when you are writing. It can't get in the way and it can't necessarily completely drive the writing, but it has to provide the energy for writing.

I'd love to finish this up by the end of July. Like I said, it's not going to be one of my epics (more on that in a sec), but we'll see what I can wedge in. Hopefully, I'll have a title.

I've got to be honest though, I kind of missing writing one of my big, epic pieces. I'm going to return to SISTERS OF KHODA soon because I think I have a solution to my problems with that book and how to fix it. (More epic.)

So back to the writing.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: Frostborn

It's really unusual that the two most recent books I read and am reviewing this summer have been two Nordic inspired books filled with snow and ice considering the oppressive heat that had settled over Central New York for the last two weeks. And both books have been phenomenal for different reasons.

It would be safe to say that reading Lou Anders' Frostborn after reading Abercrombie's Half A King could be considered unfair, but Anders has written a completely different kind of book that does what it does really, really well. Labeled by some as middle grade, it's hard to argue, but it reads "older" and more like a RPG tie in novel. (More on that later.)

Frostborn is a fantasy adventure told through the POV of two young people (one of my favorite methods of telling a story), a female giantess of mixed heritage and a young boy more interested in playing games than learning how to run his father's farm. The two characters meet and embark on a dangerous adventure with both of their families lives hanging in the balance.

 Anders captures the awkwardness of adolescence brilliantly in this story while not hitting you over the head with it. One of the issues I have with YA/MG right now is that author's focus so much on how much of a schlub our hero/protagonist is. I love that while both characters are awkward in their own way, they are capable and confident in others. That is something that is so overlooked in so much YA that I'm reading these days. Karn and Thianna are great characters, especially Thianna....a strong female character as a lead...just what we need in fantasy these days.

The plot is snappy. Not as grim as Abercrombie (big shocker there), it's more of a romp with just the right number of hints that there is a much bigger picture than we are seeing about these characters. It's a real skill to pull this off and Anders does it well. In this day and age of grimdark, fantasy is missing the fun and Frostborn provides that in spades without diminishing the risk and tension of what the characters are going through. It's a classic, well done chase book with all the tropes of a chase book executed brilliantly. I'm looking forward to the next step of what these characters are going through, how they are going to grow and how it fits in the world at large.

Let's talk a little about the world...I know, having talked to Lou via social networking, that there is a larger world and a setting guide/RPG created for the world of Frostborn. I have something of a fetish (maybe not the right word, but it's the best I can do right now) for setting guides and if I had extra money kicking around, there would be a shelf of these sitting in my imaginary office somewhere. I know that Lou and I share this fetish (again, I make it seem salacious) and his world building is brilliant. It's a very real and fascinating world that he's created that fits what I think that he might be doing. He mixes the right real world cultural and historical references together to build a terrific world. I'm eager to see how these pieces fit together in the next volume. It's a pretty darn good study in world building and how to introduce a world without a lot of exposition.

Lou Anders is one of the good guys in fantasy publishing right now. About a year ago, he did me a solid that I will always appreciate. As an editor, he's putting out some of the best new voices out there. I have a dream list of editors that I'd love to work with some day and he's among them. He's written a terrific fantasy novel for all ages. Don't let the whole middle grade thing throw you, any fantasy fans will enjoy his book.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie

Look at me, I'm on a bit of a roll. Spending some time in hospital waiting rooms and next to a sleeping wife really helps get some reading done. (All is well, nothing to worry about!)

I've been looking forward to this one for a while and when it came up in Net Galley, I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did. I'm not the biggest Abercrombie fan...I know, I should have my epic fantasy fan/writer card taken away for saying that. I started The Blade Itself, couldn't get into it and put it aside. Several years later, I picked it back up and started to get into it and it disappeared on me. (I think a certain little girl might have put it somewhere on me and I just have to find it again.) But I was eager to see what "Lord Grimdark's" take on "young adult" was like and it's quite stellar. It reminds me, in many ways, of a slightly more grown up version of the Ranger's Apprentice series, which I loved. (I'm only on book 5 and that's in my queue.)

Yarvi is an unlikely king. Born crippled but with a keen mind (a rather timeless trope really), he reminds me of a much more innocent and altruistic Tyrion Lannister. The parallels to ASOIAF are well done...is anyone writing a YA fantasy that isn't filled with nods and allusions to Martin now? That's not a critique, just a comment, because God knows I'm guilty of that as a writer. He's a great character that develops and changes over time. His naivete is hardened as his world crumbles around him from not becoming a minister (think Hand of the King) to losing his kingship and trying to regain it while plotting revenge against those who stole it from him.

The plot is pure Abercrombie. It snappy, filled with tense action and thrills. It moves and there is little in the way of slowing down with just enough places for the reader to catch their breath. His action scenes are second to none. I see the great appeal of his writing to so many people in the way that he draws these scene with words. I'm usually terrible at "seeing" these things, but Abercrombie makes it work. I wonder if studying the entire Abercrombie catalog might help my action scene writing.

His world building is sharp. I can imagine this place in my mind and the culture he's built. Inspired by Viking culture, there's a bigger world around them and Ambercrombie gives us some hints of that without overwhelming the reader. The analogous conversion to Christianity is a big idea in the story that I feel might show up in later volumes and make for a really interesting book.

Where this book shines is the characters. Yarvi is sympathetic from the outset. He's a hero worth rooting for and when things start to click for him about half way through the book, he wears the mantle well, very similar to the way Tyrion does in ASOIAF. His mates are well drawn and become the rag tag group of "brothers" that a book like this needs, especially in YA. The mystery of the character named Nothing, the grizzled Rulf, the obvious crush Sumael, the big guy Jaud and the heel turn face Ankran could easily become little more than the tropes that the embody, but they are deeper than that and become important to the story and integral in Yarvi's growth as a character. His antagonists, for the most part, aren't one-dimensional and have depth and layers. Even background characters have a little depth to them that make you feel like they are real people.

Ambercrombie knows the tropes and, like a good author should, knows how to play with them. I think using tropes properly and in the right way is the sign of a good fantasy writer. You can't avoid the tropes, you just have to learn how to play with them. Half A King is a great place to look at the right way to play with the tropes of fantasy.