Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Encouraged

A few days ago, I wrote about being discouraged and how my daughter's attitude moved me to try and be more encouraged. Time has passed. My students' project deadline looms and I see the work they are doing. It's not good. (Let's just say the phrase "when did I teach you that" has been used a lot this week.) I received two impersonal rejections on a project that really, really stung. There's no amount of Natalie chutzpah that's going to fix the overwhelming feeling of discouragement sliding towards complete and total worthlessness I'm now feeling. . But I've had some moments in the last few weeks that are at least helping.

On New Years' Eve, my wife and I bought a new car. It's a long story for another time, but for much of the afternoon of the last day of the sort of crappy year that 2018 was, we spent it in and out of our new car, doing paperwork and learning about the car. As I was standing in the cold afternoon air, a silver sedan came down the aisle and stopped suddenly. Out of the driver's seat jumped a well-dressed, handsome young man with a smile that could light up a room shouting, "Z!" My former student Lossine embraced me and I him. We talked for a few minutes and he said he'd be right back. We talked for a bit before he had to go back to work, but similar to what he said on Twitter, I knew 2019 was going to be good since I ran into him.

Lossine and his twin brother Abu are two of my favorite former students. Bright, friendly, hardworking, joyous young men, they've transcended being former students and I consider them friends. The mere mention of the "Twins" can instantly make me smile. Fast forward to a few nights ago at Natalie's lacrosse game. Before Liverpool took the field, there was a soccer game finishing up. As they left the field, I noticed their coach. It was Abu. I was overjoyed that within a short period of time I got to see the both of them and seeing them thriving makes me feel that maybe I shouldn't be so discouraged by what's happening now.



The Twins are refugees from Liberia. They became American citizens in 2014 and I was honored when they asked me to attend the ceremony. It was moving. When you ask why am I so against the wall and the ban or anything against immigration, the Twins are why. These two amazing young men are now part of the tapestry of our country and part of what makes this country already great.

The final moment is perhaps one of the most humbling experiences in my life. It really is amazing what a few words can do to a person. To my fellow Liverpudlians, we all could name someone at LHS that left an indelible mark on who you are as a person. For me (and for many of you I'd imagine) that teacher was Steven Garraffo. Like me to the Twins, Mr. Garraffo was and always will be known by the single letter moniker of "G." Last Monday, while the kids were at religious ed, my wife and I went to Panera for dinner. Mondays during religion are "date night" for us and usually involve Twin Trees chicken wings, but I was winged out from the weekend, requiring a change of venue.

G was having dinner with his family. While we waited for our order, I went over to say hello, shake his hand and share a "bro" hug. He turned and introduced me to his family.

"This is John Zeleznik, a teacher and writer...and one of my favorite former students."

I was humbled.

I was moved.

For once, I stammered and was momentarily speechless.

To hear that from someone I respected and looked up to thought of me as one of their favorites? I'm not crying, you're crying. I recovered and told his family how important G was to a listless teenager and later to a listless adult considering a career change. Armed with honest advice that sometimes I didn't want to hear and encouragement, G's influence helped make me who I am today. I think it was his turn for me crying not him.

So, gentlemen, thank you for being three encouraging and important figures in my life. You are what I aspire to be and helped form who I am. So, when I'm having a dodgy week, not only can I look to my kids, but I can remember the three of you to encourage me to be and do better.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Discouraged

Friday night my daughter resumed indoor lacrosse. She's been playing steadily since first grade (she's in fifth now) and has gotten better each year. As is often the case, though, some of her teammates have gotten better than her, passing her by. But this hasn't discouraged her from playing the game. She has fun and still wants to get better. This year she noticed that she hadn't been asked to do any tournaments or play in the indoor championship game. She recognizes the gaps in her game and want to improve so she gets invited to tournaments for the summer and fall seasons. The coaches have been great, encouraging and teaching her while giving me some guidance on how to build up the deficiencies in her game. However, during Friday's game I thought I noticed a change in her body language that led me to believe she was discouraged. I want to go out on to the field and hug her, I knew what she was feeling.

I had a dodgy week at school. My nightmare study hall was more nightmarish than usual but it was my regular classes that had me questioning my own worth. All week it felt as if there was no point to the work I put in and by Friday, I was down, really down, and feeling incredibly discouraged. Like Natalie, my body language showed it. I was questioning why was I bothering. My discouragement ground down my resolve. Being told by students I'm not teaching them because I'm unwilling or frustrated that they want me to reteach an entire lesson because they couldn't be bothered to look up from their phones the first time I taught the lesson. It sometimes feels like I'm not there at all and my efforts are pointless. I am pointless. Feeling pointless is the ultimate discouraging feeling.

After the game, Natalie was gassed. She stepped up and played well. Got a few ground balls. Made a crisp pass that set up a teammate to score a goal. Threw some elbows and dug in deep on defense. We talked in the car, as we always do after a game, telling me that she had fun (the most important part of sports in my opinion). She played to her strengths and hustled a little more than usual. We talked about things she should improve on and agreed we'd work some this week. She also said she was tired. It had been a month since she last played and her body needed to catch up. I smiled to myself. I realized she hadn't been discouraged at all. She was just tired. I'd misinterpreted her signals, transposing my own feeling on her. And I'm glad for that. She wasn't disappointed. She's ready to play and get it done.





But I still am. And I'm tired too. But I look to my daughter for inspiration. Maybe I need to let my body catch up. Maybe I need to play to my strengths. Maybe I need to hustle a little more and think about this things I need to improve on.

And maybe, in the end, I just remember I'm doing all of this for Natalie. (And Cooper.)

Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018: A Year In Review: The Reading

Not much of a preamble here. For the second year in a row I read over 100 books (YAY audiobooks!). I'm aiming for another 100 this year. I'm going to try to take notes on what I read this year and talk more about it. I don't want this to turn into a review site and doing a review site isn't something I'm particularly interested in doing, but I feel like I should do a better job of noting important things I can or won't use as a writer in everything I read. So, get out your Amazon/Barnes & Noble gift cards, cause here's my best & not so best of 2018. First the top book(s) of the year:

  • 1a. FOOTBALL FOR A BUCK by Jeff Pearlman: I've raved about this book a lot because it's that good. I reviewed it here and it moved me to create some different kind of fiction, though I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it. When I know, believe me, I'll let you know. I loved the USFL when it was around and reading about its wild ride was amazing. Pearlman paints a terrific picture and his passion for the subject just oozes in every word. The parallels the book makes to what's going on in the country today, inadvertent or not, make the book more timely than ever.
  • 1b. THE POPPY WAR by RF Kuang: This book was a close second to FOOTBALL, so close that I'm calling it 1b since it was by far the best fantasy book I read in 2018. It was everything an epic fantasy should be and more. Huge, tragic, beautiful, savage and breathtaking, it reminded me a lot of Ken Liu's THE GRACE OF KINGS but using a more traditional narrative style. 
The rest of the Best of 2018:
  • KNIGHTS VS DINOSAURS by Matt Phelan: Exactly what it says on the cover and it's as fun as it sounds. Along the way there are some interesting twists and turns but in the end it's a fun story about knights taking on dinosaurs. It's a SYFY movie waiting to happen. And I mean that as a compliment.
  • DON'T MAKE ME PULL OVER by Richard Ratay: This book was a total surprise to me. I blogged about it here. A great read that is part personal narrative about the author's own experiences and part history of road trips in this country. A fun read. 
  • STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI by Jason Fry: A perfect adaptation of a difficult movie to adapt. It does what a good adaptation does: fills in the gaps and adds depth to the narrative. Fry fills it to the brim with nods and references to other SW works that are borderline inside jokes. 
  • CADDYSHACK: THE MAKING OF A HOLLYWOOD CINDERELLA STORY by Chris Nashawaty: The story of a comedy classic that is as much a history of modern comedy as it is a story of the movie. 
  • THE CARDBOARD KINGDOM by Chad Sell: This book was in the running for best read of the year. A fun story filled with great messages for young and old. It was my daughter's favorite book of the year and it shows in her art. 
  • THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers: Firefly with a solarpunk flare. Fun, unique and amazing. 
  • STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST/SHOW YOUR WORK by Austin Kleon: I'm late to these. My friend Brian Fay turned me on to them and they are game changers for me. You'll find them to be the same for you. 
Honorable Mention: TRANSFORMERS: ALL HAIL MEGATRON, CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD ORGINAL SCREENPLAY, DC MEETS LOONEY TUNES, ACE OF SHADES and HILLBILLY ELEGY (would've been Best of but I'm weary of the Trump voter narrative). 

Disappointments: THE STAR TOUCHED QUEEN, A CLOSE AND COMMON ORBIT and SPACE OPERA.

So, bring on 2019. I'm ready. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

2018: A Year In Review: The Writing

Well, barring an unprecedented run, I will likely not be finishing anything in the next few days, so it's as good a time as any for everyone's favorite time of year: my review of my writing failures and successes.



Looking back at my end of 2017/looking forward to 2018 post, I read that my goal was to basically work on craft instead of some unobtainable word count for the year.  So, I reached my goal. I worked on my craft, not only working on big writing projects like novels but smaller ones like this blog. I'm happy with the work that I've done this year. I wrote enough to just about fill this year's writer's notebook, which has never happened before. What else did I actually accomplish this year? Let's see.


  1. Finished THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE: I'm really happy with this book. It turned out better than I expected, especially considering it was like nothing else I'd ever written. I think this has a ton of potential, but it needs a pretty thorough once over before it's ready for even a beta read. 
  2. Started and shelved LAST PERSON STANDING: My attempt at a town wide game of tag while trying to cash in on the FORTNITE/PUBG craze didn't quite catch for me. I still believe in the idea, I'm just not ready to write it. 
  3. Rewrote THE LOST SCIONS: I wrote about this before. I'm still waiting to hear back from the agents but these are the waters. 
  4. Started RETURN OF THE PRINCE: I hate the title of this. It will change once I figure out a new one, but as a placeholder, it's okay for now. I like this story and it's moving forward. 
All told, I wrote a little over 200k words, not including blogging. It's not as much as I've written in other years, but I really worked on my craft this year, so I wasn't going to have a massive volume of writing either. The disaster that was LAST PERSON STANDING took up a huge chunk of post-GIRL IN THE PICTURE time. I should've listened to my buddy Mike on this one. I did blog quite a bit but not as much as other years. I think, again, it was quality over volume.

I'm really proud of what I've written in the blog this year. It's some of the best personal writing I've been doing and I'd like to do more. My favorite pieces from this year were:
  1. EARNING TURNS
  2. A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
  3. THE SUNDAY PAPER: IN THREE PARTS
  4. PAPERBACK READER
  5. WHERE'S MY BARRY MANILOW WARDROBE?
What about 2019? Every year I talk about my plans and intentions, so why should this year be any different? Instead of worrying about word counts this year, I'm going to measure the amount of time I spend writing. Another writer I met through Twitter, Mike Headley, uses a spreadsheet to track his time and productivity. It's a terrific system that I'm going to use this year. I'm not going to worry about word counts. I need to think about time spent writing. And that means ANYTHING to do with writing, including editing, planning, rewriting...EVERYTHING...even daydreaming about a project.

First, let's address the elephant in the room: the BIG DAMN BOOK I talked about. I want to write it, the plot has gotten a little clearer in my head. I'm not putting a hard start date on it. I feel like that's too much pressure. Plus, there are other things I want to work on. Things that are more plausible and salable for an unpublished author. But the BDB isn't going quietly into the night. It's niggling. What DO I want to work on? It's a mixed bag.

  • Finish RETURN OF THE PRINCE
  • Rewrite GIRL IN THE PICTURE
  • Rewrite THE SEVEN LABORS OF NICK JABLONSKY
  • Write BDB
  • Blog more
There are other ideas, nebulous right now, that I'd like to do, but for now this is what I want to concentrate on. 

As I said, instead of worrying about word count, I'm going to concentrate on time spent writing. I'd like to average one hour a day writing. That's doable. But what about BDB? In that post I said that even if I spend a half an hour a day on it, I could reach a pretty high volume of words/pages. That would leave me with a half an hour a day for other projects. That doesn't make sense to me. Instead, I've decided that I want to average 90 minutes of writing a day. One hour for the "main project" and thirty minutes for the BDB. I have some other thoughts on how to keep up with the BDB, but I'll talk about them when I get to it. 

These are the things I can control in 2019. Everything else related to writing is out of my hands. So bring it 2019, I'm ready. 





Thursday, December 20, 2018

Nothing Says Christmas More Than A Good Purge

I love email.

I hate email.

Email is too easy...to ignore.

Stand up comedian Jim Gaffigan has a great line about email: Send me an email so I can ignore it.

I understand the feeling. I've even half-jokingly said it to people. But to be honest, I'm kind of OCD about email. I loathe unopened email. It's not hard to delete and/or read email. It's so easy in this day and age to do so. I despise that little red circle on my phone's email app. I attack it like a video game, deleting what needs deleting and reading what needs reading. I can't fathom people that don't do this. My mother-in-law has thousands of unopened emails. So does one of my uncles. I joke with them that I'm offended. Hell, the first thing I do in the morning when I wake up is clean up my email. I'm borderline obsessed with my emails. But I know how easy it is to ignore.

Today is the second to last day before Christmas break, so everything is a little wonky. We're already losing the battle over the halls and kids are shutting down. Hell, so am I.

I've had my students working on research the last two weeks. It's been a mixed bag of success. When not putting out fires, I've managed to fit in a little writing. I've realized that what I've written of my present WIP needs a good editorial scrubbing. I've started the initial thoughts/ideas about the epic project I wrote about, including the kernel of a plot idea.

The first thing I do when I log on to my work computer is open two browsers: Firefox and Chrome. Firefox is for attendance and grades (the site we use works better in Firefox). Chrome is for email and everything else. When  I opened my email page, I was appalled that I had 1300 plus unopened emails. The program we use doesn't make it easy to mass delete them, so I played my favorite video game: email purge. It took the better part of two forty-eight minute class periods to accomplish, but I did it. 1300 unread emails, gone into the ether.





I feel good. I feel accomplished. Let's see how long that lasts.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Epic Tale of the Epic Fantasy I Wasn't Going to Write

A few weeks back I wrote a long piece in my notebook about the hankering to write a big, thick, heavy, weighty, old school, doorstopping epic fantasy. Part of it was what I think is a really terrific introduction that captured how and why I was feeling that way, touching on how the weather stoked the always smoldering nostalgia I feel about reading epic fantasy and how I always viewed the fall as the time for reading them. But it doesn't exactly work right now. We had a blizzard. I've written some other things. My Christmas lights are up. The mood is different. (You can read it here if you like.) But I'm still feeling the hankering though and I've been thinking about it a lot, the idea gestating and growing in my mind.

I've always wanted to write an old school, 90s style, epic high fantasy book. We're talking a doorstopper where the word count is expressed in fractions of millions and requires at least two reams of paper to properly print out in double spaced Times New Roman, 12 point font.


I've tried it before and never quite got there. My first completed novel, THE FALLING DARK, was an attempt at this. Interestingly, this time of year always makes me think of that book because about fifteen years ago, my wife's cousin challenged me to complete the book by Christmas Eve or I couldn't eat at our family celebration. I finished it and it was a mess. A glorious 172k word, 575 manuscript paged mess. And I'm damned proud of it. It's the textbook example of a trunk novel. I actually just spent about 20 minutes cycling through several thumb drives I own to confirm word counts and pages. It was on an old 128MB PNY stick.

My next attempt were the SEASONS book. They came in at 135k (WINTER) and 131k (SPRING) with a lost "working draft" of a few dozen thousand words (SUMMER). Interestingly enough, the word counts of those two books are comparable to the word counts of my beloved Dragonlance books. But the SEASONS books were YA books, not traditional epic fantasy. My former agent had even suggested shopping them as adult with crossover YA potential. I don't know if he ever did, hence the reason he's my former agent....but that's a discussion for another time.

THE LOST SCIONS has epic elements though I don't fully think of it as epic fantasy. I always intended it to be more fantasy adventure than epic fantasy, but I definitely blurred lines with it. It's also YA and topped out at about 108k. So as you can see, I never quite reached my loft aspirations. In retrospect, it's probably a good thing. I don't think I could've actually handled it twenty years ago. And I still don't know if I can handle it now.

This really all started a few months back. I was hanging out with my kids, niece and nephew. They wanted to color. My daughter asked me to draw pictures for them. She thinks that I can draw. I can't.  I printed out some figure drawing templates, traced over them and added details and embellishments for the kids, creating a slew of knights, princesses, sorceresses and one midriff bearing Aiel knock-off that was Natalie's favorite. I joked that they were characters from the "epic fantasy I'm never going to write." I couldn't leave it alone though. The drawings became the grain of sand that gets stuck in the oyster. A pearl started to form, agitating me to the point of ignoring my WIP (a YA fantasy inspired by THE THIEF by Megan Turner Whalen) and spending energy on a project that doesn't exist.



The pearl has grown, grinding bit by bit. It's mostly little character vignettes or fragments of ideas, some based on the pictures I drew others just ones that have popped in or I've thought about before that could fit into a story that size. I contemplated integrating some of these elements into the world and story of my SEASONS book making it a more traditional epic fantasy, kind of like he who shall not be named suggested, but I decided against that because I still believe in that story. No, this has to be a wholly original concept. And that's scary.

The logistics alone could be alarming. The longest thing I've ever written is 172k and it was garbage. Looking back, I've written as many as 440k in one year. A lot of those words were part of rewrites. Still though, I can write that much. I've talked about this before. Even if I were to go the length of a middle WHEEL OF TIME book, between 226k and 315k, that's less than a thousand words a day. That's about three pages a day. About an hour of writing. I feel like my friend Brian Fay would find that interesting. However, logistics aren't the problem. The story is. It's a problem because I don't have one.And that's a major problem.

You can't write a story without a story. Okay, sorry, I'm mixing up my terms. I don't have a plot. I have some nice elements that could make up an epic fantasy story: characters, settings and even vague notions of a protagonist. But I don't know how they come together. And that has to be the first step if I'm going to write the epic fantasy I wasn't going to write. I have to sate this hunger somehow and it can't just be a mashing together of tropes (and cliches) associated with epic fantasy. I was reminded of this last night watching an old episode of Family Guy:



This year I've been joking around with students that if they wrote for 30 minutes a day they could write a book length piece. It makes sense, honestly. I've seen that advice in a lot of places. Even if they eek out 100 words a day, that's still over 35k for the year, a midsized novella. I'm better writers than them and vastly more passionate about it, I could easily bang out three pages a day. But I've said this before. Many times. But I'll address this in the end of year review. For now, I'm off on a quest to find a plot. I'll come back to process when I find that. I have some ideas of how I'm going to go about this and work on other things as well.

I talk a lot about epic on this blog. It probably gets weary to my readers. This entry rambled a bit and was kind of a pain in the butt to put together from the various fragments of it I wrote over the last few weeks. I wonder if that might be portentous. It went from three pages to six pages to a full nine pages of madness, including little vignettes of characters, vague plot points and setting ideas. For now, I'm on an epic quest of my own to find a plot for this epic fantasy I wasn't going to write.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Still Not As Creepy As Overboard

Baby, it's cold outside.

These seemingly innocuous words have ignited hostilities in the yearly tradition of faux rage concerning the perceived war on Christmas. As usual, I have thoughts.

Let me get this out of the way first. I loath hearing people decry political correctness, wielding that derision like a club, bludgeoning anyone that doesn't share their world view as a snowflake or a social justice warrior. Once I hear or read someone say something like "political correctness run amok" my brain is already judging that you're kind of a dick. Someone is uncomfortable with an offensive joke, the club comes out. Anytime you do something they don't like or feel threatened by, they pull out their PC Run Amok Club and start swinging. Gender swap a character (Dr. Who) or cast a POC in a traditionally white role (pretty much anything Idris Elba does) and the clubs come out. But that's a discussion for another time, if ever. I want to talk a little about this latest nonsensical controversy where both sides think they other is wrong.

Can I let you guys know something?

You're both right. Sort of.

Like any piece of writing or art, there is room for interpretation. You may disagree with me, but you're wrong. I could go into some long semantic diatribe about it, but like the discussion above, this isn't the time for that. I'm writing about the wide assortment of interpretations of the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" (BICO). These interpretations are stoking the flames of this latest flare up and people are getting all kinds of salty.

I've long held the opinion, well before it was "cool," that BICO is kind of rapey. It's hard not to see this when you actually listen to the lyrics of the song. He's not concerned for her safety just that she's kind of leaving him hanging. Without much in the way of interpretation, he has no respect for her boundaries and refuses to accept her rebuffs. It's heavily implied that he's doctored her drink in some way. His advances match the intensity of her refusals. It's all at the very least creepy and borderline rapey.

I love the movie ELF and found out tonight that one of the reasons it's not in heavy rotation is because of the song. And the setting of the song. It's kind of creepy. Elves have genders. Buddy knew better and went into the women's room. He didn't respect a woman's boundaries. Not cool Buddy. It just reinforces the consent theme, in a very indirect way.



The popular counterclaim (shout out to the ELA!) is that the song was written in a more "innocent" time and that applying to an older song like BICO is unfair. It's not an awful point, though I'm not a huge fan of the "product of the time" excuse. According to Wikipedia, BICO was written in 1944. But were the late 40s and 50s all that innocent? If you study history a little bit, a lot of problems we're still paying for as a society can be traced back to this time period of American history. I think the better word is that the song came from a more naive time. We've been taught to view that time period as some "great" time for the country (I think we all know what "great" has become code for),so many people want to go back to that "innocent" version of America that they crave, even though, in the words of Stephen King, "the world has moved on" and they haven't moved with it.

I've also noticed the "Fifty Shades" argument. Y'know, a book that explicitly makes consent a major part of the plot. It's a terrible argument, but I thought I'd mention it.

The lines of consent are thankfully becoming less gray than they were, especially during that "innocent" time. Because of this, BICO is something of a relic of that time where the lyrics mean something entirely different. The same could be said about dozens and dozens and dozens of things. To be honest, BICO is no less rapey/creepy than any 80s romcom (go watch the movie OVERBOARD and tell me how offensive this song is) and far less offensive on any level than almost anything that my students listen to when they should be watching my modeling of writing techniques.  Someone pointed out the absurdity of the offense over this song from people taking their kids to a concert featuring Cardi B talking about her private parts. (TBH, though, they are HER parts and she's allowed to talk about them.)

I like the song, but that varies from version to version. I still think it's creepy, but I don't think it deserves to be banned. That's just an overreaction, which is the right move. Two of my favorite versions are the Lady Gaga/Joseph Gordon Levitt (a gender swapped version that embraces the creepiness of the song in a comical way) and the Indina Menzel/Michael Buble (perfectly playful and there's no doubt that Indina's not putting up with his bullshit).

Despite all this, I am firmly in the playful camp when it comes to this song. But I get that it bothers you, that's fine. I'm not here to be a goalie to your happiness. Maybe the rest of you should think about that too. You don't like the song? It offends you? Okay, let me change the station or hit the next button. Not being a dick is that easy. If you're offended that others are offended and want to make a point of it...you're being a dick. Don't be a dick.

Merry Christmas. (I have thoughts on this too that I'll share later.)