Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Little Barrel Maker

A few years back I participated in the Seven Valley's Writing Project, a high intensive writing program for teachers, and it's left an indelible mark on me as a teacher and as a writer. I wish there were more opportunities to participate in things like it and maybe something I do in 2017 is make more time for things like it. One of the things that we picked up was the concept of a found poem. A found poem is taking a line or two from something you've read and turning it into a poem. That year I did a found poem with my students while doing the play Fences. You all know my love of the play, so this was an important assignment. I'm telling you this for a reason.

Today is February 18th. It's my son's 4th birthday. At 2:20 on February 18, 2013, Cooper John Zeleznik was plucked into the world much the same as MacBeth. A few years later the line "I don't want him to be like me. I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get" was striking a serious chord with me and I wrote this poem about my son:

The day he was born was cold,
But he was warm like the spring.

Cool gray eyes in a tiny pink body
That shivered in the winter air.

Forty hid around the corner from me,
Yet this little barrel maker was fresh and new.

Well worn and weary,
I looked down at him
Feeling old, tired,
Filled with paths not taken.

Anger and
Frustration
Smoldering in my chest.

But that is not the path for him.

I wonder if my father thought the same thing,
Forty years earlier,
Looking down at my cherubic face
On a snowy eve in Astoria, Queens.

My path was different than his,
But not as much as I'd like to think.
And that makes me sad.

As I look down at my little barrel maker
I say, "I don't want you to be like me.
I want you to move
As far away from my life as you can get."

Then I wonder if saying it out loud is enough.

With a heavy sigh,
I stroke the soft cheek with an ashy knuckle
And whisper "I love you" to a fuzzy ear.

Happy birthday Cooper, Daddy loves you. (That's not part of the poem.)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The State of Z

I'm feeling reflective this afternoon. Things are heavy on my mind. The hangover-esque haze of 2016 still hasn't worn off and on the eve of the Inauguration, I find myself listless. I swore I wasn't going to let it affect me, but it has and I'm sort bummed about it all. I'm trying to fight it but it's difficult to do so in light of all that's going on around me. Social networks haven't helped. But I'm trying and for the first time in a few months, writing has helped.

I set out to write 350k words this year. So far, not including today, I've written 17,811 words in 2017. I'm very happy about this. I'm clearly on pace to hit that mark and then some. Part of the plan was to average 1,000 words a day and factor 15 non-writing days in there. I've written 17 out of the 18 days this year. I already wrote a little today and will write more later with a vague goal of hitting 20k by tonight. We'll see. I'm not panicked about not hitting it, but we'll see. I'm happy with the writing even though it's not writing I'm going to be able to do anything with it.

What does that mean, you ask? Well, I'll tell you.

This project I'm working on started life as a novelette. But as I wrote, it demanded to do things with the story and, as I'm wont to do, I listened to the story. And it's turned into something entirely different. I've been tweeting a lot about it and how frustrated I am by what it is doing and the fact that it is highly unlikely I'll ever be able to do anything with it. I toyed with the idea of making it middle grade, but I don't know if that's the answer. It might require a little padding to get it closer to a 45-50k word count. As of right now, it should clock in about the 31-33k word count. Not quite long enough for a MG novel and far closer to a novella in length.

If anything ever comes of THE LOST SCIONS, it could be a prequel novella, which is what it started out as in the first place. If I had an agent, I probably could submit it to Tor.com, but I don't, so that's not on the table. I just don't know. But I'm sort of okay with it. I found my mojo again. I'm being disciplined about writing again. And it feels good. Not the false feeling of good that I had with my many failed starts from last year, but a feeling of genuine accomplishment in writing. And it's something I can build on.

I've got two ideas in the hopper for "what's next" and I'm actually going to commit some time to planning them along with a couple of loose ends here and there. The plan is to be able to dive into one of the new projects right away. One is a Harry Potter/Great Gatsby, roaring 20s set fantasy and the other is a coming of age story set in the 1990s to the drop back of skiing and stand up comedy. The former is a recent project and the latter is a project that's been kicking around forever that I think I'm getting my legs under me.

As for what's done, THE LOST SCIONS didn't get the traction I would've liked. It's still out in a few places, but I think that it may still be a little too traditional right now. I'm not sure. I'll revisit it again. I have to, I'm writing the prequel novella and I have about 10k of the sequel written.

WINTER'S DISCORD is still breathing. I'd say more, but not now. Maybe later I'll be able to celebrate it. But not yet. There's actually a few potential things I could be celebrating about, but, again, I don't want to talk about it yet.

I'm doing some research reading for HP/GG (no title yet, but I'm leaning towards something with MARVELOUS in the title) and plodding through THE DIVINERS with a few other books involving magic and the 1920s. The problem I'm having is do I make MARVELOUS YA or adult. I'm leaning towards adult, but we'll see. This is where not having an agent is really bad. I'm then wading back into some heavy fantasy work since down the line I want to return to the genre I love with a new project, which means I'll be worldbuilding a lot in the coming months. My friend Neil and I are talking about doing a Wheel of Time blogfest or something like that. I'm one book behind him and y'all know how big those books are, so stay tuned for that.

I've even managed to carve out some gym time. I'm going to do a blog post on this in a few weeks because I'm on a new program that is completely outside my comfort zone. I've felt really, really, really weak for a long time and decided that I wanted to do some old school strength training. I did my research and settled on the StrongLifts 5x5 program. And I love it. I'll talk more about this in a month when I've been doing it for that long.

School is school. We've entered project season for my seniors. It's good writing time for me....until projects are due, which is next week for the first batch!

So, that's the State of Z as of right now. I'll leave you with this: write like you are running out of time and remember to love one another.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Few Thoughts On Fences

I've been teaching for twelve years now, teaching every grade level from 9 to 12. Some of my favorite experiences have been teaching the plays of August Wilson. His stories are moving and epic in scope in a way that kind of sneaks up on you. When I read that Denzel Washington had acquired the rights to produce Wilson's work for the large and small screen, I was stoked. FENCES was the obvious first choice because it is such an important part of the American canon and Denzel had a successful run on Broadway with it. And the film was terrific.

As someone that's taught (and read FENCES) dozens of times, seeing the lines from the play on screen were terrific and moving, especially when comparing them to the way that I imagined them. It's interesting to see just how different the story plays out in the film compared to the way that I imagined it. The big difference was in the level of intensity of particular scenes and how they played out in Denzel's version of the play. (Have never seen any actual performances of the play other than this and my class reading it out loud, this is my only experience with it.)

Denzel and Viola Davis OWN Troy and Rose. Denzel's physical transformation into Troy for the film was astonishing. There was never a doubt that he had the chops to embody the character of Troy Maxon, but physically he became the character. And you can just feel through all the emotions that Rose is feeling in every scene just from a look. She captures the complexity of the character of Rose and delivers all the feels from a gut wrenching, broken hearted speech when she finds out about Troy's infidelity to a quiet, four minute rebuke that made me literally say, "OH SHIT!" out loud. But it's the quiet understanding that no matter what, she is Troy's woman. Stephen McKinley Henderson (who has been in a million things) plays his role as Bono perfectly, actually elevating the role from my expectation.

The film was slightly padded, not entirely in a bad way and kept the staging simple focusing on a more theater style (reminded me of the Dustin Hoffman DEATH OF A SALESMAN but in an actual yard) as opposed to a cinematic one. But the way the film was shot added to the film in so many ways, moving in ways you couldn't on a stage and playing to Troy's wild story telling and the almost claustrophobia of the neighborhood where they live.

A few notes:

  • One of my favorite scenes in any play/film ever is the "How come you never liked me?" scene. The two most well known versions of it are the original James Earl Jones one and the Denzel one from the Broadway revival. Jones's version is thick, tense and intimidation while Denzel's is lighter, funnier and more playful. In the film, Denzel practically did the Jones version beat for beat. I gasped when he was doing it and had to explain to my wife why I reacted that way. 
  • Denzel did some of his best work when he wasn't talking. Troy is a talker, but the quiet moments were where Denzel shined. The desperation and frustration in Troy's face and body when confronted by Gabe, not only what was wrong with Gabe but what Gabe's injuries provided for the Maxon family that Troy could not, was palpable. The heartbreaking reaction to Rose's "You are a womanless man" line is just stunning. 
  • The kid playing Cory was overwhelmed. Seriously. He was good, but when sharing the screen with this cast, the kid just couldn't hang, which may have been the thought when casting him. 
  • The relationship between Bono and Troy is so incredibly well played and way better than the way that I've read in class. I'd always seen Bono as the Chester to Troy's Spike (Looney Toons reference), but it isn't played that way at all. They are equals and one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when Bono calls Troy on his BS and living up to his threat. 
  • The play also contains one of my favorite lines in the English language. Troy is talking about his son and says, "I want him to move as far away from my life as he can." As a father (especially as the father of a son), this line is everything. I wrote a found poem using it about my own son. It just hits me right in the chest and did so when Denzel said it. I'm pretty sure my wife didn't notice me getting the dust out of my eye. 



Friday, December 30, 2016

2016: A Year In Review: The Writing

2016 was a weird writing year. I started the year with an agent, a new project ready to send out to editors and two other projects in the can ready for his approval. As readers of this blog know, that collapsed some time in April as I left my agent and re-entered the query world. And it's been pretty bleak since then. I fell into a dark place where I began to question everything I was doing. The typical collection of rejections from potential agents hasn't helped and the election crushed productivity. The summer was nothing but wasted opportunity and I've spent more energy trying to find a groove than actually writing. And it sucks.


So, what were my goals for 2016?
  • Finish the first draft of FALCON.
  • Finish a second draft of LABORS.
  • Finish a first draft of FROM THE DEEP or NORTHPOINTE
  • Work on SUMMER'S GLORY/SACRIFICE/STRIFE/whatever the hell I'm going to call it.
What I actually did:
  • Finished first draft of FALCON (73k)
  • Finished a second draft of FALCON (73k)
  • Finished a second drat of LABORS (64k)
  • Started and backburnered THE GREAT NORTHPOINTE-SILVER PINES WAR (10k)
  • Started and backburnered THE LAST MAGESMITH (2k)
  • Started and backburnered THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD (5k)
  • Started and backburnered EPIC SUMMER (5k)
  • Started and backburnered HEART OF ICE (12k)
  • Started THE PENSIONER'S BROOCH (11k)
So that puts my year at a very schitzo 255k words. It was the least productive year I've had in a while. I was really spinning my wheels, as you can see, in the second half of the year. There were some good concepts there, but my confidence was shot as I moved on and I found myself questioning what I was doing. It's not a good thing. 

That being said, I got a little confidence back writing BROOCH. Granted it's a novella (started as a novelette) and I have no idea what I'm going to do with it, but I'm feeling something as I'm writing it. I get lost in the story and that's always a good sign for me. 

It's not all bad news. I've got two of my finished projects under submission with editors and I'm very hopeful at least one of them will get picked up. 

So, how do I move forward? What do I do in 2017? It's all about goals, right. So here are my writing goals:
  • Finish THE PENSIONER'S BROOCH
  • Write the first draft of MAGICAL GATSBY
  • Finish THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD
  • Write the GENDER SWAPPED ARAGORN epic fantasy.
I frequently talk about establishing a routine and I need to start living that. I need to sit down and no matter what I need to carve out at least an hour of my day to write. I have to stick to it. If I write at least 1k a day, I'll have 365k, subtract birthdays, holidays and random days off and we're looking at 350k. That's 4 books, like I have listed above (or one novella and three novels). I can do this. Now I'm not factoring in something happening with an agent that still has SCIONS or an editor that has SEASONS, but that would be a positive development, not a negative one. 

It's ambitious, but as the musical HAMILTON says, I need to "write like I'm running out of time."

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Some Thoughts On Rogue One (SPOILERS)

I was going to do my 2016 writing post, but I went to see ROGUE ONE tonight and I have some thoughts that I want to get off my chest about it. I didn't do that with THE FORCE AWAKENS last year and I regretted it because STAR WARS is such an important part of me as a creative person. So, here are some thoughts about the latest entry into the franchise.

At it's core, STAR WARS is mythology. It's the stories the old men told around the fire and now tell on a giant screen in a dark room filling us with hopes and dreams. The seven movies up to this point have been that: grand epics that tell us the sweeping story of one dynasty and it's influence over a Galaxy Far, Far Away. And that's the first break that ROGUE ONE makes and it works, because it's not trying to be epic, in the literary sense. It hints at the epic-ness of the "universe" (and I don't mean the Galaxy Far, Far Away) without trying to get into the epic structure that we are familiar with. It does something else and that's where it appears to struggle with early on the the story and comes to a nice head in the movie's action filled, tense and incredibly satisfying climax.

And as much as STAR WARS is about mythology, it's about what came before. The Original Trilogy is a million homages, from the works of Kurosawa to the movie serials of the 50s to Westerns and the Prequels aspired to be Shakespearean tragedies (obviously falling short) and ROGUE ONE is no different and that is where I had a problem, because early on it feels like it didn't know which of the homages they were going for: was it going to be a heist movie or a war movie? And that indecision led to some of the choppiness people complained about, but it follows the tropes of both of them. When it decides it wants to be a war movie (which is what it is), it becomes a better movie. Sure, we'd love to find out more about the characters we meet, but we get enough of them that it's effective. I was disappointed that we don't find out more about the soldiers that volunteer to go with Jyn and her team, because they are great.

Are there plot holes? Is it a STAR WARS movie? And as with every Star Wars movie, they are all forgivable.

The movie is really good, a little slow at the start, but not any slower than any other war movie I've ever seen and a really good and different STAR WARS movie.

Some random thoughts:

  • VADER. We finally get to see Vader as a bad ass. I mean from the castle scenes to the boarding scene. I mean when that saber lit up, I gasped. Vader has been maligned lately and it's good to see he's getting his mojo back.
  • CGI Characters: I know that lots and lots of people had issues with it. I found myself not minding it as much as others did. I mean seeing the dripping evil of Tarkin was great and chilling. And Leia at the end, considering Carrie Fisher's passing, I found something in my eye and a gasp in my throat as she uttered her lines. 
  • Putting the War In STAR WARS: ROTJ gets a bum wrap, giving us the best space battle in the trilogy. Well, ROGUE ONE topped it by far. The space battle was amazing and intense while the ground battle almost makes you forget about ewoks and gungans by giving us real action. Like I said, I wish I knew more about the soldiers and pilots, but obviously there isn't the space for it. 
  • If you aren't shipping Chirrut and Baze you are doing it wrong. Wikipedia calls them best friends....can we edit that to make them partners/husbands/whatever. 
  • GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY took a ton of cues from the Original Trilogy and without a doubt, ROGUE ONE took a cue from GOTG with the planet name cards. It's a little thing, but it was noticeable.
  • Some depth to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. No Jedi. Limited reference to the Skywalkers. 
Highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016: A Year In Review: The Reading

Well, I think the vast majority of us can agree that 2016 was a shit year. Like a really shit year that even in it's waning days seems to want to keep dumping on us relentlessly. A lot of us are still reeling from November, trying to sort out what, if anything, we can do in the next four years. But I'm not here to do this, I'm here to review what happened to me in 2016. I spent most of the year doing monthly reviews of what I did each month but I stopped for reasons I'll get to in my writing post. So, what did I read?

I managed to read 81 books this year. That was 21 more than I intended and abandoned my "Epic" notions early on. I may try to wedge in a few more graphic novels (which accounted for the majority of my reading this year) in before the end of the year, so we'll see what my final total is. So, here's my Best Of 2016 list:

  • AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir: Everything that good YA fantasy can be and a cracking good epic fantasy that'll never get the credit it deserves for telling a great story. It relies on a lot of the same tropes we've seen before, but Tahir's execution is damn near flawless. The sequel is high on my 2017 list. 
  • SAGA, VOLUMES 3-6 by Brian K. Vaughan: A stunning science fantasy that is already a modern classic. A star spanning story that at its core is about family. 
  • BINTI by Nnedi Okorafor: What a beautiful, lyrical story. I was drawn into the world Okorafor built and the character she created in Binti, who reminded me of many of the students I teach.
  • THE FORGETTING MOON by Brian Lee Durfee: In a year where I said I was going to focus on reading epic fantasy where I didn't read as much epic fantasy as I wanted, this was an epic fantasy I not only read but loved. Durfee created a vivid world that was familiar and new at the same time.
  • PAPER GIRLS, VOL 1 by Brian K. Vaughan: Brilliant. That's all I can say about it. It's one of those things that I love because I feel like it's something I could've come up with. Great science fictiony fun. 
  • GI JOE: COBRA: THE LAST LAUGH by Mike Costa and Christos Gage: A GI Joe story that wasn't like any GI Joe story ever. Outstanding Bourne-esque spy action. 
  • HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda: What kind of Best of 2016 list would it be if Lin-Manuel weren't on it. I love Hamilton and the story behind the story is fascinating on it's own. Seeing how Miranda crafted this story helped me understand so much about telling a story. 
  • HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD PARTS ONE AND TWO by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling: It felt good to be back in Potterland but as good as it was it missed Rowling's voice. Still one of the year's best though. 
  • THE SERPENT KING by Jeff Zenter: I single served this book in August and I'm still dealing with aspects of that book. Great characters, terrific voice and a well-developed setting make this easily one of my top two or three for the year. 
  • THE WOODS, VOL. 1-4 by James Tynion: Probably my favorite of the year. A mind blowing concept (and another one I feel like I could and should have come up with) about a high school getting transported to another planet. I could not get enough of this series and it's intensely well done. Brilliant characters and world building combine with brilliant storytelling to make it something special. 
  • ENVY OF ANGELS by Matt Wallace: Brilliant modern fantasy fun involving monster chickens, fast food and a Guy Fieri expy that I don't want to punch. 
HONORABLE MENTION: DREAM LAND by Sam Quinones; AMERICAN NATIONS by Colin Woodard; BIRTHRIGHT VOL 1-3 by Joshua Williamson; STAR WARS: CATALYST by James Luceno.

DISAPPOINTMENTS: INSURGENT and ALLEGIANT by Veronica Roth; STEELHEART by Brandon Sanderson; THE IRON TRIAL by Holly Black and Cassandra Claire; THE DRAGONLANCE TRILOGY VOL. 2 & 3; RED QUEEN by Veronica Aveyard.

This year, I'm plotting about 70 books, trying to focus on epics to deconstruct them so I can get back into writing them. But I have some books I'm really looking forward to reading in 2017, here are three that I'm really stoked about reading sooner than later:

  • ROYAL BASTARDS by Andrew Shvarts: A book not unlike my SEASONS books, I'm really looking forward to see what this book does that mine didn't. Already have an ARC locked and loaded for 2017. 
  • THE WALL OF STORMS by Ken Liu: I already read a version of it but not for review and I didn't get a chance to read it this year, so I'll be reading it early 2017. 
  • THE THORN OF EMBERLAIN by Scott Lynch
  • PAPER GIRLS VOL. 2 by Brian K. Vaughn
  • THE WOODS VOL 5 by James Tynion
  • SEARCHING FOR JOHN HUGHES by Jason Diamond
  • THE SHADOW THAT WAS LOST by James Islington
  • RIVER OF TEETH by Sarah Gailey

I didn't include obvious ones like the next ICE AND FIRE book (and I know that including Lynch in the list above is dicey, but I wanted to include it) but that's where I stand. 

Tomorrow, I'll talk about Writing in 2016 and what I'm planning in 2017. 



Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Steering the Craft: Part Three: Short And Long

This section of the book was all about sentences. I think this is actually a strength in my writing. i think I'm pretty good at varying sentences. It didn't stop me from reading the section and reading the samples. I've decided to continue the skiing narrative from the first exercise in one of these exercises and do something new in the other.

Part One: Write a paragraph of narrative, 100-150 words, in sentences of seven or fewer words. No sentence fragments. Each must have a subject and a verb. (This is the continuation of my skiing narrative where I'm messing around with present tense too.)

            The lights above cast bluish light. They weave. They bob. Gravity does most of the work. Something else does the rest. He smiles. So does she. They reach the bottom. They say nothing. It’s a moment. It hangs between them. They smile again but say nothing. He follows her. The lift clatters in the distance. They waddle and shimmy. The chair makes the turn. It scoops them up. He wants to talk. The words fail him. They rarely do. His mouth opens, then stops. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to notice. She talks first. He listens. It’s a new thing for him. She tells him about skiing. She’s been to Vail and Killington. He hasn’t. The thing between tries to change. It can’t. It doesn’t matter. They don’t care. The lift buckles. The bump together. Instead, the thing draws them nearer. 

Part Two: Write a half page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, that is all one sentence. (This was tough!)

            Beams of white light cast long shadows of varying sizes across the room as Jaiman, sword drawn and mind open, entered the room with his steps echoing off what remained of the ceilings above him, each step sending tiny puffs of dust up as he crossed the threshold of the doorway and swirling in the shadows that pooled and eddied around him like the power that flowed in this place-a place revered by his father’s people- like the very shadows that clung to the alcove; alcoves that once contained the captured treasures the False Lords had claimed as their own, from the simple rose gold tiara of the Ibyara Empress to the club of the Grand Vrang of Golgaatha and the twin swords of the Tsarian champion Goyas alongside the hammer and tongs of the mighty swordsmith Trunce Wenway-or so Jaiman had read-lined the walls that slowly narrowed to another doorway, a doorway that led into the main room and Jaiman felt the power coming from the room and it stopped him in his tracks for a moment before moving into the guttering light of a thousand candles that caused dozens and dozens of jumping shadows-except for the one at the end of the massive room that retreated as Jaiman entered and light gathered at the opposite end revealing the last things Jaiman wanted to see even though he suspected it and felt it as soon as he saw the temple-the looming figure in the gathering light looked down at him, returning Jaiman’s exact smile as he said, “Hello, son.”