Monday, June 12, 2017

An Addendum About Dreams

I thought a lot about my post over the last 24 hours and I almost made this addendum on in the post, but I decided to keep the post as is, but decided I needed to address something that was bothering me about it.

I am in no way, shape and form unhappy in the way my life has turned out. I have an amazing wife that I love more today than when we first fell in love twenty years ago. I have two amazing children that fill my heart and soul to bursting. If you've met me in person for five minutes, you know how much my family means to me. I have a decent job that I like and could see loving under the right circumstances, but I'm not as miserable as some people are at what they do for a living. I'm still writing. I haven't given up that chase in the least. I've just have different priorities now.

Had the older me come to talk to the younger me about taking my writing a little more serious, I wouldn't have the life I have now. And seriously, is that the life worth living?

Hey, maybe the older me did have the opportunity to go back and tell the younger me what to do. He just knew better.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On Fathers, Dreams and Regret

This past weekend I took a road trip alone with my father from my home in Liverpool, New York to a piece of property in Delaware. Twelve hours in a car with my father. We're both talkers, so lack of conversation wasn't going to be a problem. Conversation wandered from the sordid hillbilly epic of my father and his Delaware neighbors that was the reason we were going down there (my father has a friend named Snake and it wasn't the guy from the Simpsons) to how he believes that Donald Trump will make America great again (that wasn't a great conversation and was changed quickly) to how he thinks people that hate Muslims are morons (my father is a paradox). After taking care of everything and headed home, we talked some more. It was mellower and somehow deeper conversation.

Now, first let me add some brief context to this. While we were in Delaware and my father was conducting the business he needed to, I managed to finish read Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER. My God, if you haven't read this book, it is a master class in novel writing. I can't think of a book that moved me this much since maybe GAME OF THRONES. No, really, That level. Anyway, there is a great passage in that novel that I read while at my daughter's lacrosse practice that made me gasp so loud that I was afraid the people around me thought I was having a heart attack or something. It was a short, two sentence paragraph that just blew me away:

"It seemed to Sean-sometimes-that he and his father may have once talked about more than just incidental things, but for the life of him, Sean couldn't remember what those things may have been. In the fog that was his remembrance of being young, he feared he'd invented intimacies and moments of clear communication between his father and him that, while they'd achieved a mythic stature over the years, never happened."

There are many sons out there that read that right now and probably had the same reaction. There are many sons out that that read that paragraph and shook your head because you have no idea what that's like. I think most of us sons fall into one of those two categories. I fall into the former not the latter. And I'm okay with that. But as my father and I talked in the car, I talked about dreams.

One of my students' favorite questions is what would I have told the high school me if I could go back in time. I tell them that I would've told 16 year old me to take his writing a little more serious than I did. I follow that up by telling my students then they would've never met me. When asked why, I tell them that'd I'd probably be writing televisions shows instead. When I told my father this, he said what a lot of people do: it's not too late. I laughed.

I'm a 44 year old father of two. I have responsibilities that supersede my dreams. My father scoffed at this. This is a sticking point between the two of us that I won't discuss here. I'll save that for the therapist. As selfish as I think I am sometimes, I don't have that in me. My whole job now is to do the best job to provide for my kids, emotionally and financially. I can't follow some whim that I dream of being a writer so I'm just going to quit working to go follow some dream. I said that I missed my shot. My shot now (writing novels and such) is down the priority list and my father again scoffed. Then I said my sole job was to do everything I could to make sure my kids could achieve their dreams. It was at that moment that I realized I had kind of unconsciously taken a swipe at my old man. And that was not my intent. I'm uncomfortable blaming my parents for any of my errors, habits, mistakes, psychosis and hang-ups,

This was a good time to shut up. But you know how that goes. So, I kept talking and I mentioned regret. I don't have a ton. I really don't, but I recognized an aspect of my personality that may have held me back. First, I don't take risks. My father agreed with that. I always took the safe, comfortable route. Comfort being the key word. The path of least resistance. There was so much I should've done, moved outside what I was comfortable doing and take a risk. Why did I stay working at Wegmans when I could've lived with my dad in Queens and experienced New York City? Why didn't me and my friends leave to go southwest or to Florida? Why didn't I just pack my car up and go somewhere? Because those were risks and I didn't like taking a risk. And I was never willing to sacrifice that comfort to take a risk.

So, now here I sit. A weary high school English teacher that secretly dreams of being a television show writer. Maybe I'm the paradox.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: Royal Bastards

If you read my reviews/blog, you know how much I love tropes. And I love the skill it takes to weave these tropes into a good story without sounding derivative. The YA dystopia thing has hit that level since everything just kind of sounds like everything else. I finished a book today that is the very definition of the Exactly What It Says On The Tin trope: Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts. And it was terrific.

Royal Bastards is described as "Game of Thrones meets the Breakfast Club" and it is literally exactly what it says on the tin. It's damn near perfect and s thoroughly enjoyable YA fantasy adventure that plays with the tropes of epic fantasy with a terrific YA voice. And that's one of the many things that blew me away about this book. It takes tons of elements from the GOT show/book while blending them into that '80s aesthetic of THE BREAKFAST CLUB....he even pulls off a training montage in the middle of the book that I literally could hear HEARTS OF FIRE playing in the background.  

If you've followed my blog, you know that I've crafted my own YA Game of Thrones book, but this book really made me sort of realized where I had failed. Shvart's voice is just amazing. From the opening page, you are just drawn in with the way he's telling this massive tale. I'll often complain about 1st person POV in a book like this, but Tilla's voice in the story was well drawn, inclusive and just very...well, Tilla. 

The worldbuilding is stellar. He paints a clear picture of the world (since I had an eARC, I didn't get a map and according to the author, it's spectacular!) and the people in it without overwhelming you with it. Shvarts uses every tool to do so and does it really, really well, including a brilliant use of the "useful idiot" narrative tool. My former agent introduced me to this concept, the useful idiot is a character used to explain something the reader doesn't know without just info dumping it in the narrative. From the individual provinces, of which we only see a sliver, to the Zitochi tribesmen, a well-drawn, just complex enough group that could have easily turned into the stereotypical savaged but come across more like "Aiel Lite" (and I mean that as a compliment). Using the Avatar: The Last Airbender method, he fills the world around him with wildlife dangers that sound familiar but just different enough that we know we aren't in Kansas anymore I'm eager to see how the rest of this world is introduced to us.

The plot is stellar. Familiar enough but written with skill and panache. (Wow, I just used panache in a review.) It moves quickly, just one the edge of breakneck and it's one of the things I liked most about the book. Shvart's pacing is terrific and he gives you just enough moments to catch your narrative breath (and these are the perfects spots that he injects his outstanding worldbuilding) between the moments of high tension that rely on the craftiness and skills of the said bastards to get out of the various sticky situations that arise as they run to save their world. The twists and turns are great and while I predicted some, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of them in the least. Shvart's skill shows through. He sets up the next book almost brilliantly with his wildly satisfying solution that seems to take parts of bunches of other things and blends them together into a nice smoothie.

I really loved this book and it's another book that I'm jealous of because it's so similar to what I wrote and shopped but didn't quite stick the way that I'd hoped. It showed some of my story's shortcomings and things I could probably improve on when I give it a shot again. I can't rave about this book enough. It's easily on my Best of 2017 list and it'll be a contender for the top book of 2017. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review: The Duke of Bannerman Prep

As an English teacher, I'm always curious with retellings/reimaginings of the classics. It's one of my standard "creative" projects I give at the end of a book or unit. (I usually give one traditional essay and one creative writing project.)  I even drove a co-teacher crazy as we did the whole "rewrite Romeo and Juliet" assignment. Every year it feels like these reimaginings go through cycles: Shakespeare, American lit then Victorian age then myths then back to Shakes. Gatsby was inevitable after the flashy Baz Luhrman/ Leo DiCaprio extravaganza from a few years back (that I thought was quite excellent) and THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP is one of those books. And it's an excellent book. I ALMOST single served it (according to Z's Review Glossary: SINGLE SERVED: Reading a book in one "sitting," almost always in a single day), having read the first quarter of the book over a few days then finishing the rest in one day. It kept me riveted, wanting to find out next, which is what you really want a book to do as a reader and a writer.

Nelson does a terrific job of retelling the Gatsby without making it a beat for beat rewrite of Gatsby. It's clever and helps the story stand on it's own two legs while clearly being a giant nod to the source material. She takes the big pieces from Gatsby, reshapes them into what she wants them to do and, most importantly, leaves out the things she doesn't need to tell her story. Where Gatsby is clearly Gatsby's story and Nick is our eyes and ears, DUKE isn't necessarily The Duke's story but Tanner's story. And it's one of the reasons the story really worked for me. I understood Tanner. In a way, I could've been Tanner.

Tanner isn't a Nick Carraway rehash, he's a kid from "the other side of the tracks." It's a well-worn trope that goes back since the cavemen were telling stories around the campfire and Nelson uses it well. She shines the trope up, giving us a different spin on the character, making us yell at the book for the way he's acting while completely understanding that in the same circumstance we would ignore the screaming reader that was reading our story yelling at us. The Duke is closer to the source material and that works, the mysteries are slowly unraveled throughout the story without clunking us on the head too much, though there are a few heavy handed moment that don't detract from the enjoyment of the story in the least. The other characters are a little cardboardy in spots, more out of necessity than any reflection on Nelson. They just don't have a lot to do except be there, but Nelson gives them enough to do so that they are more like colored in paper dolls where Tanner, The Duke, Kelsey and Abby are much more well-rounded.

As much as people are comparing this to Gatsby, I think that it owes just as much to the television show GLEE, but instead of show choir it's debate team. Nelson knows her stuff and doesn't crush you with jargon. I still had to Google a few things and that isn't always bad. The world of debate teams, in this day and age, deserved a book and it got a darn good one.

My only gripe, more to do with me the reader than the book, is why are we falling back on the steroid laced jock a-hole trope as the bad guys again. Jocks are just as well rounded as debate team members and theater kids and skateboarders. Nelson does address this, putting a-hole characters in these cliques. I also understood the type of character Nelson was writing, but at times it fell way to into cliche for me. But there seems to be a resurgence of the "Johnny Lawrence" character lately and we're more complex than that now.

THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP is a fantastic book. A complex story but a quick read with just enough twists and turns to keep you wanting to find out what's next in the story. Definitely going to make the Best of 2017 list.

(An ARC was provided by the publisher through a contest.)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Few Thoughts On The Secret Life of the American Musical

Confession time: I love musicals. Always have. I think they are a vastly underrated part of the literary canon. As both a pseudo-alpha male and English teacher, musicals shouldn't matter nearly as much as they do to me, but I am unashamed of my love for them and a staunch defender of their importance. With the advent of HAMILTON into our collective consciousness, musicals are significant in many ways again. And I started thinking about how and why they work. I also wondered what could I learn about writing, especially my own, from musicals.

I've made no secret of my obsession with discovering, unpacking and analyzing the process, techniques, routines and rituals of writers. During my present reading tear, I devoured Stephen Sondheim's lyric books, FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT. I became obsessed with Sondheim a few years back when HBO played a documentary called SIX BY SONDHEIM and I was entranced not only by the man and his music, but the painstaking process of writing the songs that he was writing, the context of both the time and setting and his meticulous attention to detail. I also read the "Hamiltome" last year, fascinated by the genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda and the work that he created. HAMILTON is my closing argument to the question of writing an epic fantasy musical. It can be done. (And I believe that eventually I am the guy to write it...but not now!) So, poking around for more books about musicals I found THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel and checked it out of the library. It was enlightening to say the least.

The book is split into parts, discussing and dissecting the component parts of the American musical. Structure is a big deal in writing. I've always thought of myself as a structure guy but I've spent a lot of time in the last few months studying writing and noticing that maybe I'm not as structured as I think I am. I just finished research projects with my seniors and tried to instill this new found belief in structure to them since they often ramble and wander in their essays, and while it is true not all that wander are lost, my students are in their research papers. But I'm not here to talk about that, I'm here to talk about the structure of the American musical and what it has to do with my writing.

Viertel stipulates that American musicals follow a formula and his analysis, with great examples, proves this to be true. The parts are:

  1. The Overture
  2. Opening Number
  3. The I Want Song
  4. Conditional Love Song
  5. The Noise
  6. Bushwhacking 1: Second Couples
  7. Bushwhacking 2: Villians
  8. Bushwhacking 3: The Multiplot and How It Thickens
  9. Stars
  10. Tent Poles
  11. Curtain Act 1
  12. Curtain Up on Act 2
  13. The Candy Dish
  14. Beginning To Pack
  15. The Main Event
  16. The Next-to-Last Scene
  17. The End
Viertel's explanations of each and how they fit into the story reminded me a bit of Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT. They work when you apply them but you can't help but wonder if it's intentional or something deeper. There's a very Joseph Campbellian slant to many of these studies of narrative structure that I understand because of my personal acclimation to Campbell's ideas. When applied to the American musical, they work. So, how can the apply to fiction. I don't know, but I'm going to see if it does as I write this.

The Overture: Doesn't apply to story structure, more about tone.

Opening Number: If I get nothing else out of this book, the opening lines of the chapter on Opening Numbers will stick with me forever as a writer: THE AUDIENCE IS IN TROUBLE. Nothing else could possible encapsulate what a writer needs to understand in the opening pages of your book or story. The audience is lost and clueless. They need to be saved and it's up to us, as writers, to save them. 

The I Want Song: Reminds me instantly of Snyder's Theme Stated. It's the part of the musical that rather heavy handedly tells us what the protagonist(s) are thriving for.

Conditional Love Song: There's a lot in here about the idea of the love story, but it's not just a love story in the sense of romantic love as we've come to understand it. It's talking about any relationship that seems necessary in stories, whether that's a romance between two characters or the relationship between companions and friends (a familiar concept within my work). Again, there is a parallel between this and Snyder's "Love Story."

The Noise: An inverted version of Snyder's Fun and Games. A burst of energy in the middle of the first act to give the audience a break from the work they've had to do so far and something they don't have to think to hard about, just listen to the noise and enjoy. Big chunks of narrative in a novel are the "noise."

Bushwhacking 1-3: This is subplots that are woven together...we know how important subplots are to a good story. Meeting are villain is important as are secondary characters, especially giving them something to do and adding some depth to the story. Again, I go back to Snyder and his "B Story," which by his reckoning is often the "love story." A lot of these concepts are slower to develop in a narrative work where in a musical there is the finite space of one song per concept.

Stars: This is about the star of the musical, where they are given a song to shine based on their particular talent. There's a place for this in narrative, how do we make our MC sparkle and shine. This is where you would do that.

Tent Poles: A high energy number that helps the audience reach the big finale of Act One. Really it's sort of the opening number of what would be Act Two of a Three Act structure.This sort of blends into Fun & Games/ The Noise for most narrative, though an event happening in the narrative might be just what a reader needs to.

Curtain Act 1: The big closing number of the first act. Defying Gravity. Non-Stop. La Vie Boheme. A mini-peak in the narrative, I find it's more of a musical thing as it's often the most memorable number of the musical and one of the most important. I'm not sure how I could get this to work in a novel, it'd be sort of the Mid-Point in Snyder's Save the Cat structure.

Curtain Up Act 2: Action plunging us back into the story. Often time has passed. Intermission doesn't exist in novels, though I could see a tipping point happening in a novel that sets the entire second half of the story in motion.

The Candy Dish: A problematic part of musicals...and novels. How do we get from the midpoint to the beginning of the end. How do we get there? What can we do that is going to keep the reader interested in what happens next? Are there too many threads to tie up? We've addressed so much, what else can we address without adding too much new to confuse the reader? This is character development and plot thickening time. In a narrative, I think this is longer than one number in a musical.

Beginning to Pack: This start happening. Someone's pulled the drain. Snyder's Black Moment. Pretty obvious this is a necessity in novels.

The Main Event: The big moment. Everything had led to this. The battle. The showdown. The big game.

The Next-To-Last Scene:The resolution. The hobbits seeing the decrepit Bilbo again. Sam returning to the Shire.

The End: Duh.

So, can we structure an entire novel this way? Not entirely, but there are things to use. As I said, the book was worth the read if for no other reason that reading the line THE AUDIENCE IS IN TROUBLE. That is a quote I will think about every time I write a novel from now on.

I'm going to do a follow up post on this looking at one of my novels that I've written to see what applies and how. I have a feeling it's going to be a stretch, but we'll see.

For now, keep your eyes out for the epic fantasy grunge rock opera THE GRUNGE LORDS coming to Broadway in the next ten years!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Few Thoughts On: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

I'm on a monster reading tear since giving up social media for Lent and I finished the book DAILY RITUALS: HOW ARTISTS WORK by Mason Currey. It was a fascinating book and I have some thoughts about it.

I've been reading more writing books than usual this year as I'm trying to nail down what I need to fix in my own writing. I'm going to try and take notes as I read then put them together into something that's a coherent discussion. This is the first of those books.

Creative people are fascinating creatures with even more fascinating habits and rituals. I study them, dreaming of a day when I can have my own writing rituals as a full time writer. As it stands now, my ritual is sporadic and streaky at best. But I've lamented about this before and I won't do so now. I want to make some comments about reading this book and what it left me feeling about creative people and their rituals while comparing them to mine.

A quick note: if I have a gripe against this book it's that there is very little in the way of contemporary writers. Most of the writers in the book are long gone and come from a different time. A time when there was either a patronage for the arts or you could actually make something of a living from working as a writer. So, anyway, some thoughts.

  • Lots of smoking and coffee. I mean a lot of smoking and drinking. It made me feel like I should be doing a lot more of both. I do drink chai lattes from my Kuerig (Dunkin Donuts on occasion), but no coffee for me. 
  • Benzedrine too. Every other entry seemed to mention the almost necessity of drugs to help fuel their creativity. I am not interested in drugs to fuel my creativity. As I'm typing this, I'm getting over some major dental work while refusing anything heavier than Advil. 
  • Many worked for short periods of time, 2-4 hours maximum. This was surprising. There were writers that worked for longer periods of time, but for the most part, they'd work for only a few hours a day. There is an massive expenditure of energy that comes with being a creative person and the more I think about it the more I realize that it makes sense because even on a good day, I might spend a grand total of four hours on a good day of writing. So I got that going for me. 
  • Morning work time, often 5-6 am or at dawn. Many writers stuck to working in the early AM before they had to work OR that was just when they wrote, often finishing up before noon and having the rest of the day to do whatever. I'd love to do this and tried to this weekend, but for some reason I just couldn't get out of bed earlier than 8 am. And weekdays, I get up between 6 and 6:30 for work. I just don't think I can get up earlier than that. And I mean physically. The interesting thing about this is that where it didn't make sense to me when I was younger, now that I'm in my mid forties I totally get it. I used to be a write at night kind of guy, but the energy isn't there anymore. After everyone goes to bed at night (an ordeal in and of itself), my brain just doesn't want to write. It wants to watch stupid videos, catch whatever movie is on HBO, TCM or whatever and just cycle down for the night. It's something I think I have to change.
  • Naps. Lots of naps. I can get on board with this, if I could convince my wife I would become a famous writer. This might help with the brain at night, but again, without a note from the home office, I don't see this one floating.
  • Did I mention coffee and cigarettes? Good God, the amount of coffee and cigarettes consumed by authors of some repute is just astonishing. 
  • Exercise. This doesn't surprise me in the least. I see a difference in my writing when I'm exercising then when I'm not. From a simple afternoon walk (which I intend to start doing when the weather gets a little nicer) to swimming (another one that makes perfect sense to me) to gym workouts (my preferred source of exercise when my not 21 year old body isn't betraying me). I've been doing better with this and I'm hoping it reflects in my writing in the coming months. 
  • Solitude and assistants. I can clear the air about assistants. I'll never have one. I'll never be that successful. But the importance of assistants to some writers is fascinating. Many writers never typed, leaving that up to assistants. Yet, despite this reliance on them, writing is a solitary affair. Actually, most creative endeavors require a soul crushing amount of solitude...and most dealt with it my including massive amounts of social time in their day, whether that was with their families, contemporaries or friends. It's a weakness I have and I recognize. I've become, as was recently reported online, one of those middle aged men without close friends. I'm trying though, reconnecting with old friends and trying to make new ones. I often wonder if I have developed a sort of social anxiety disorder. I've made some great friends over the last few years through school and my writing, but I often find myself completely unable and unwilling to meet them in person because I just can't manage it. I've been trying to fix this, but it's hard to change, there's a lot of code to rewrite.
  • Coping with jobs and families. Again, there was some of this, but I think that since many of the examples written in the book were from days gone by, a lot of them were dated. I certainly spend more time and doing more stuff with my kids than I remember my dad growing up and the book supports this, especially since many of the writers were from the 20s to the 60s, when gender roles were very different than today. To be honest, I found more in common with some of the women writers that were mothers than the male writers that were fathers. 
  • Architects are some weird people. More so than painters, composers and writers. I'm talking weird stuff like nudity, sexual depravity and general weirdness. 
  • Coffee and cigarettes. If I got one thing from this books it's that most of the creative works people love owe a lot to coffee and cigarettes. 
The book left me with some interesting ideas that I think I realize that I'll never implement. I'd like to, but it won't happen. Maybe slowly over time. I think the first one I want to do is waking up earlier. Baby steps. 

The next writing book I'm going to talk about: THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL. No, seriously. See you then.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Muse, She Calls

God, what a pretentious and cliched title for a blog. But it happened that way. Seriously.

I'm in the middle of a requested revise and rewrite for WINTER'S DISCORD that put my 90s ski epic on hold for a bit. I'm not saying more so not to jinx it. Perfect timing as Mid-Winter break was on the horizon. As is often the case, however, when I'm given something to do, especially related to my writing, I find the polar opposite of said task and do that instead. So naturally in the three weeks since the request, I've done things around my house, caught up on school work and made countless (and equally useless) playlists on Spotify that I'm realizing now I'm going to have to use on later drafts. But I'm now elbows deep into the rewrite and making progress. The suggestions weren't heavy lifting changes, but heavy enough.

I'm grooving away, fixing what needs to be fixed. I can see the hourglass though, knowing that how long I work on it might be a test too. Then, last night, as I'm driving my daughter to ice skating lessons, something hits me right in the face. Not literally but figuratively. I came up with a new opening for the 90s ski epic. I fumbled with it in my mind as I watched my daughter learn to skate then last night I tried to commit it to the computer, but as with everything in my life, I couldn't quite wrangle it down. Maybe it was the 4 year old trying to get comfortable sitting next to me on the couch and fighting sleep at the same time. Maybe it was watching Cleopatra on TCM last night (and not Tweeting about it since I've given that up for Lent!). Maybe it was that the muse wasn't fully ready to give me what I needed. But I was getting nagged about it. It wanted to be worked on, even though WINTER is the priority. I tried to ignore it, but stared at the open file on my desk top (students are working on research projects). Now my muse decides to kick in and I couldn't ignore it anymore. And I wrote and wrote, in my notebook. And I'm very happy with it. It'll still be there when I get back to the ski epic and I think the story will be better for it.

Back to WINTER for now.

(Because of my Lenten promise, mostly to my daughter, I can't link this from any of my social networks, but I needed to say something about it.)