Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Chasing The Buzz

A few Fridays ago my kids came home from school, as they do and, like a good parent, I waited until Sunday night to go through their bags. I waded through graded worksheets and school notices that I already read online. At the bottom of the pile was something that sent my heart racing and filled me with warm, fuzzy feelings of joyous nostalgia. The Scholastic Book Catalog. Never has a half dozen or so stapled sheets of colored newsprint brought so much joy.

I get high just smelling the newsprint and ink.
There's a great meme making the rounds about how we're all just chasing the buzz of the Scholastic Book Fair. And it's true. How many great books did we discover thanks to those brightly colored pages, not to mention the hundreds of different ways we learned to make paper airplanes, much to the chagrin of our teachers. The thing was there was no judgement, no shame in what you liked. There was nothing like ordering the books, bringing the money back in sealed envelopes and then waiting weeks for the books to arrive. The excitement of being called up to the front of the class to get them and the triumph you felt bringing them back to your desk. We really are still hunting that high, aren't we?

For a long time I sat at my kitchen counter, thumbing through the catalog, seeing what my kids marked. Then I looked for what I wanted. It was still kind of exciting. Cooper wanted lots of stuff, including things that are a little over his head. But we've started reading chapter books at night now because he wants to read. Natalie is Harry Potter obsessed and her markings were all over the place, still heavy on graphic novels and books that bordered on young adult. There's a conversation to be had about "older" middle grade and "younger" young adult but now's not the time to have that conversation and I may not be the one to start it. Another thought danced with the nostalgia I was feeling. A dark feeling. Why weren't any of my books in there?

It's a terrible feeling to have. But that's all bitterness and nothing else. I decided to enjoy the buzz. I spend too much time in Dante Hicks mode, lamenting the bad luck and decisions I've made. I'm writing, working through ideas. One day, kids will catch a buzz off of one of my books in the Scholastic Book Catalog.

Friday, January 3, 2020

2019: The Year In Review (Sort Of): The Writing

It's the start of a new year and that means it's time for a new notebook and a fresh start. This time of year always makes me think of the last Calvin and Hobbes comic strip ever.

I wrote a long, meandering draft in my notebook looking back at what I wrote in 2019, but that's not making a fresh start. That's looking back and it's certainly not what a boy and his tiger are telling us to do, is it. So instead, let's look forward to 2020.

I'm excited about this year, as far as writing is concerned. 2020 is going to be all about ambition. I feel energized, excited and focused about what I want to do. I'm not setting goals the way I used to...I've learned that's not the best way for me to accomplish anything. Last year, I discovered a new metric to measure my writing. Time not words. I can't thanks Mike Headley for that! I wrote for a total of 342 hours. That's a little less than an hour a day. That's not too bad. But I can do better. I need to do better.

I've thought a lot about how I want to approach writing in the coming year. It's not as simple as saying I want to write X number of hours. It's more than that. I need to think about logistics first. I had a great conversation last weekend with my friend Brian and I told him that I need to set aside a time, each day, dedicated to just writing. Brian wakes every morning and does three pages, every day. He doesn't measure in time. I do. I need at least an hour a day, so that's a goal I'm, setting.

I'd love to sit here and say that it doesn't matter the hour, but I already know that's bullshit. If I don't tell myself that I need to write from 10-11 every night (I'm not a morning guy, so don't suggest 5am), I'm going to put it off and ignore it. So I need to dedicate that time. I don't know if it'll be 10-11, but we'll see. I do know that it's got to be a solid hour. Add that to random times when I can find time to write (students working, after the kids go to bed, volleyball clinics, etc.), I should be able to hit 500 hours this coming year. But that's not all I need to do this year when it comes to my writing time.

In years past I've made lists of what I'd like to write and that hasn't served me in the least. I'm not going to share it here. These will be my "main" projects while I'm going to "schedule" additional projects as well. I've recently become enamored with AO3. I have a complicated history with fancfic but I've been won over by AO3 and decided to use that site to sort of stretch my writing legs a bit. This last year, I also wrote some stuff that never really saw the light of day and I want to continuing to do that along with a few other smaller projects that I've discussed with a few people. I also want to blog more.

For now, 2020 writing goals are to write at least 500 hours in 2020, try to write every day, set up a dedicated time each day to write and set aside certain times during the week to work on AO3 projects, my never seeing the light project and my blog while working on main projects.

Let's roll 2020.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019: The Year In Review: The Reading

So here we are, on the precipice of a new year. Leftovers from Christmas are eaten, most of the mess of 5 minutes of joy has been cleaned up and put away. The last week I've been ridiculously unmotivated in my efforts to do just about anything. I had loads of plans, all of which were abandoned for lazily sitting around doing nothing constructive. I still have some time for this (writing) and that (reading and binging TV shows) and the other thing (school planning and an audit of some of my grades), but today is all about reflecting on the year that was. I've filled an entire composition notebook with my random ramblings. I'm pretty proud of that. I decided to save my writing post for the new notebook and post it tomorrow. For now, let's talk about what I read this year, so get out your Amazon gift cards and get ready to do some ordering.

As the year comes to a close, I've read 155 books. That's the most ever in a year. Thank audiobooks for a lot of that. I'm setting a goal of 120 for 2020, though I'm sure reading with Cooper and my string of graphic novels will bulk that number up. I'm going to start working through my bookshelf and knock out some of my epic fantasy series as I prep for my year of writing....but I'll get to that in my next post. This is about the reading.

Top read of 2019:

THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean: This book was incredible. After hearing Jeff Pearlman talk with Orlean on his podcast, I checked the book out of the library. It blew me away. I couldn't put it down. (I read it on the beach in Maryland.) Part true crime, part history of the LA library system, part love letter to libraries, it is all amazing. The chapter where Orlean describes the process of burning a book is truly one of the most amazing things I've ever read.


Other best reads of 2019:

  • WHY THEY CAN'T WRITE by John Warner: Holy crap, what a game changer. This book has completely changed the way that I look at the way I approach teaching. It's really made me rethink so much of what I'm doing in my classroom. 
  • THE ELECTRIC WAR by Mike Winchell: Mike is a friend and long time supporter. Even if he weren't, this book is outstanding. Mike takes a difficult and complicated time in history and weaves it into an actual story. Reminded me of Sheinken. I can't wait for the follow up. 
  • THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DINOSAURS by Stephen Brusatte: I can't believe that three of my best of books are non-fiction, but it was a weird year. This book was amazing. It turned millions of years of natural history into an exciting narrative. I was my 6 year old self seeing the T-Rex skeleton at the Museum of Natural History. 
  • FIRE AND BLOOD by George RR Martin: Not non-fiction but it read like non-fiction. It really showed the depth of the world that GRRM created for his classic novels. 
  • FOR THE KILLING OF KINGS by Howard Andrew Jones: My favorite fantasy of the year. A throwback to the 90s, this book was a rollicking, fun adventure that reminded me of my own writing. It's pretty easy to see why we were agent mates for a while considering the similarities in our work. 

Disappointments: THE EYES OF THE DRAGON, THE SONG OF SUSANNAH, DRAGONS OF THE HIGHLORD SKIES. THERE WILL COME A DARKNESS (to be fair, I thought this was good but I had extremely high expectations that it didn't meet).

Series I Finished:
  • THE DARK TOWER by Stephen King: Long, meandering and equal parts masterpiece and piece of garbage. At a get together this past November I had a long conversation with a super fan of the series that was thrilled to talk about it with me. I'm glad I finished it and experienced it. 
  • THE WINNER'S TRILOGY by Marie Rutkoski: Satisfying but flat ending to a series I really enjoyed. Relied a little too much on the "characters making stupid decisions for the sake of plot" trope at times, but it's still worth the read. 
  • THRONES AND BONES by Lou Anders: I wish that this series wasn't over because it's really great. I'd love to see the world book that I KNOW Anders has for it. 
  • SIN DU JOUR by Matt Wallace: A classic fantasy series that grew in epic-ness as it went on. Side note, the final three books of this series I read while sitting in the hospital with my dad as he had a growth moved from his brain. It helped, so thanks Matt. 
So that was 2019 in reading. Tomorrow I'll likely talk about my writing. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Few Thoughts On The Rise of Skywalker (SPOILERS)

Excuse my language, but I FUCKING loved it. Ignore the critics and the trolls, and there are plenty of them out there, They either want clicks or have an axe to grind. It was a huge, glorious, fun epic that doesn't stop moving and ends in a fairly satisfactory manner. I'm still thinking about it almost sixteen hours later, rolling things over in my head and smiling at some of them. There's a lot to unpack and I feel like I'm going to write another entry when I go see it a second time over break.

The movie isn't perfect, but what STAR WARS movie is perfect. There are legit criticisms you can make about it, but I will not accept any variation of the following three:

  • Rey is too powerful/Rey is a Mary Sue.
  • The plot was too convoluted. (Especially if you raved about ENDGAME)
  • Too much fanservice/ It was fan fiction. It's a fucking Star Wars movie for Chrissakes. 
As I said, the movie truly is an epic. The run time is listed as two hours and twenty-one minutes. It felt like they could've spent another hour telling the story to flesh a few things out. It suffers, a little, from the "traveling at the speed of plot" trope, but if you know me at all, this isn't much of an issue. I can see how that could bother someone, though.

JJ Abrams catches a lot of shit, but he made some interesting choices for this movie, especially when it came to the structure. He leaned heavily into the things that inspired it, like epic fantasies. It was interesting to see. The film starts with a clear prologue that basically sets up the plot of the rest of the film while resetting a lot of what we've seen so far. (They leave PLENTY of blanks for the EU to fill in and I actually appreciate that!) The story starts en media res and never really stops rolling. And that's a good thing. It plays with the epic framework quite deftly. The beginning re-establishes our characters while briefly (maybe too briefly) fleshes out some changes in their relationships. The plot hits all the beats (or "checks boxes) as our heroes go on a good, old fashioned quest. It's a lot of jumping around and feels a little disjointed in spots, but it works well. I didn't see how it was "slow" the way some critics described it. The story transitions from the quest narrative into the "final battle" beats, from gathering the team to the final assault. It works and it a thrilling action sequence that steals from all sorts of sources (including an outstanding nod to ENDGAME). The conclusion is satisfying enough, with all the hallmark STAR WARS notes and the story is bookended with a beautiful, poignant epilogue.

In the end this was fun, and we're missing fun in today's epics. I've written about this before. Everything is grim and dark and gritty. There were sacrifices and stakes and risk without all the GAME OF THRONES grimdarkness. And that made it vastly more entertaining.

A few thoughts:

  • Ben Solo's redemptive arc: I was hesitant to embrace this, considering what he did to his father, but in the end it worked in no small part to the performance of Adam Driver. Of all the roles, he had the most difficult. We needed to hate him and sort of understand him at the same time. Driver NAILS it. 
  • Rey Palpatine: I loved this entire arc. His resurrection is unsurprising and has been hinted at in the EU since Disney reset the canon. It actually goes all the way back to ROTJ and it makes sense that he really was the "phantom menace" the entire time. (I can't believe I typed that either.) The revelation about his relationship to Rey is downright biblical. She was created for the sole purpose of creating a vessel for his soul. That's some real Old Testament shit. It's also creepy, evil and shows how Palpatine really was looking at the long game.
  • The scene that absolutely destroyed me was after the duel in the ruins of the Death Star. Ben Solo, having abandoned the Kylo Ren identity, is faced with his father's spirit in the "Force zone" (I'll talk about that in a minute) and that helps him turn to the light. I wept when I saw it, I sobbed in the car thinking about it after and I'm a little misty right now writing about it. It's got a lot to do with what's going on with my dad. Couple that with the fact that I think there's a passing resemblance between Han and my dad and it was over for me. 
  • The supposed LAST JEDI blowback was such clickbait bullshit. So much of what Abrams did in this movie was clearly connected to TLJ, either explaining it or supporting it. Any explanation was done with what felt like no disrespect or attempt to undo what Johnson tried to do. The only gripe I had about the Rey revelation was that it undid the idea that ANYONE can be a Force user. (Where's the kid with the broom?) Is there going to be a new Jedi order? Are Finn and Jannah going to become Jedi?
  • Speaking of Finn, I enjoyed his character arc, but what did he have to say to Rey? I'm glad they left it out in the end. Are him and Rose still a thing? Or is she with Merry now. I am here for an EU book featuring the four of them in a real love dodecahedron. (Hey Disney/Del Rey, I'm available if you need me to write it!) 
  • I thought Rose was criminally underused and I really, really missed Phasma.
  • A friend on Facebook made a point about all the Sith in the Temple. He asked if that meant that everyone knew about the Sith. But that's not the case. I don't remember any of the Resistance mentioning the Sith, only the First Order and that was after they met Palpatine. The Sith are an accepted part of the canon, so people would know about them. I believe some of this has been addressed in the EU (in particular Chuck Wendig's books). I liked it because it showed the power of a few cultists to blindly follow a selfish, out-for-himself madman. 
  • Threepio's arc was really cool. Goldenrod gets to be the dashing hero. His actual enthusiasm and willingness to go was a great little change. His "goodbye to my friends" scene teared me up. His willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good is a long way from the droid calling R2 a "overweight glob of grease." It was a beautiful moment, completely undone by having his memory restored. I felt it robbed him of that moment. 
  • The Rey/Kylo duels were amazing. The use of the "Force plane" was really cool and became a really fun little wrinkle. The dyad line in the hangar was really, really powerful.
  • I thought the space battle was a little underwhelming but it did the job it was supposed to. 
  • Hux's arc was pitch perfect: an entitled, petulant little prick. His line that he didn't care who won as long as Ren lost was so good. 
So, ignore the critics and trolls. It was a thrilling ride that had me smiling. 


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Why We Do It

I haven't written much about school this year because  haven't had much to say. (When coupled with my recent writing struggles it's called a motif in the literature world.) But last week, some things stood out and I wrote about it.

The worst days on the job are the ones where you find yourself stuck in the doldrums that only get worse when ideas start rolling around in your head because the job numbs the mind and soul. The best days are the ones where you walk away feeling like you did something important for someone and that they are buying the soup you are selling.

Last week, coming back from Thanksgiving break, I wasn't at my best. I didn't feel good. I had a busy week planned and we were already a day behind. But something happened along the way. My students were a little more attentive and engaged, despite a dry, lecture based lesson plan. I connected with some difficult students about their reluctance to finish a major assignment that ended with me extending a deadline for them. It was turning into a good day.

I went downstairs to check my mailbox and wound up in the main hall with the athletic director just as two of my students were walking down the hall. One is an athlete and the AD asked her how her college essay was coming along. My jaw damn near dropped and I put up a full-court, "I'm offended" attitude. I did this because her college essay was moving. So moving I posted about it on Facebook.

Her essay was beautiful and devastating and emotional, so I told her that. She blushed and was awkwardly silent for a long time. I told her to come see me and that we could fix it. It was too long and needed about 200 words culled from it. She shuffled away and agree to meet me the next day during my planning period. To my surprise, she came and I was elated.

She's a tough cookie. A quiet tomboy that gives out a heavy "don't F with me vibe." She's got a smile that lights up a room, though, and it has to be earned, which is what makes it so powerful when she does smile. She not mean but serious, two attributes easy to confuse, and guarded. That she trusted me this much meant so much to me. She's also a talented writer, though I don't think she knows this being shackled by our five paragraph form essay. But that's another blog post.

What happened in the next hour or so was nothing short of remarkable. We pulled up her paper, making a duplicate to work with because I felt that the entire essay needed to be saved. She wanted to know why and I told her, very frankly, that her essay was important and there were a lot of young people that need to read it so they would know that they are not alone in the world. She blushed furiously when I said that. I might have too. This wasn't pandering, this was the truth.

We pared the essay down to a tight 590 words and she thanked me for the help. It felt amazing, this is what teaching should be. It was a two way street. She trusted me and was willing to go along with what I was telling her. A lot of students wouldn't have gone along with me, feeling their work was adequate enough. But she wanted to get better and know why we were doing what we did.

I want more days like this at school. This is why we do what we do. Here's a young woman with an important story to tell and she tells it well. I was able to help her, encourage her and tell her how important her words were. Maybe I don't present myself as the ally I should in moments like this. My relationship with students can be antagonistic much of the time. Maybe that can change just a little.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Fruitless Endeavor

Sunday morning I woke up obscenely early for me. I started laundry, cleaned the kitchen then went and got the paper. I was going to do some writing after I read the paper and had my chai, but I turned on the TV and watched the first few episodes of Netflix's THE DRAGON PRINCE. It shook me. It's that good. Like really good. Boneshakingly good. It's everything that epic fantasy should be. Thrilling, exciting, loaded with incredible characters you care about, rich world building, muddled conflicts and a sliding scale of right and wrong. As a fan and creator of epic fantasy, I was deflated. Crushed. How the hell could I possibly exist in the same genre? I was a fraud. I was a phony.

So, I did what you do: I got up, put my laptop away and went to Marie Kondoize my closet and dresser instead. The thought of writing seemed absurd and a downright fruitless endeavor. Reorganizing my closet seemed like the saner thing to do than attempting to write. This is a rare occurrence. I'm pretty confident in my writing ability. I don't usually react this way when reading or watching something. Usually, I have one of two reactions in moments like this: "I can do this" and "What the f**k?"

The first one is "I can do this." It's not an insult to the piece or a dismissal. As a matter of fact, it's almost the opposite. I get inspired and moved to action. STRANGER THINGS, THE WINNER'S CURSE, MYSTIC RIVER, THE VENTURE BROTHERS, RICK & MORTY, etc. I've read/watched/consumed these things and loved them so much that I created something inspired by it. (Wait for my 99 Inspirations posts!) That's the real power of art. When you see something, it moves you to do something like it or close to it or nothing like it at all. It teaches you something about the art that you want to duplicate or use. It presents a theme or concept that you want to take in a different direction or expand upon. These are the best.

The second, "What the f**k?" may be the worst. They are poison and rot. When you read or see something that makes you think "I'm at least as good if not better than this crap." Sure, a lot of this thought is pure ego, but I feel that way. I'm a pretty decent writer and I believe in my heart of hearts that I'm at least as good as anything out there. You have to believe that as an artist, because if you don't, who will? But there's the rub. Thoughts like, "Why did this writer get the break and not me?" fester and rot. They consume you, inch by inch, moment by moment. Your brain stops creating and allows that self-loathing voice to gurgle up like a bad Gollum pastiche. You have to fight those urges and some days it can be really hard. As Big Willy Shakes once said, "O, beware my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on." That can be crippling but you can work around it, either through spite or determination. (I prefer spite, but I'm petty like that.)

But every so often, rarely in fact, something comes along that just makes me question everything I do. Trying to write something that could even stand in the shadows of something that great seems impossible. This was how I felt Sunday morning. How could I possibly thing I could be a writer when something like this is out there? It's almost not fair. The novel A GAME OF THRONES shook me to my core and made me rethink everything that I did as a write, but whenever GRRM releases new material or sample chapters from the next book, I feel that same futile feeling. Why bother? THE DRAGON PRINCE made me feel that way too. I can't remember the last time I felt this way. So, organizing my closet seemed suddenly less daunting and a more efficient way to spend my afternoon.

Okay, I'm being a little melodramatic. I'm still writing. I can't not write. It's impossible. Hell, I'm writing this, right? I'll get back on the horse. I've been back on the horse. I'm going to finish November strong and the year even stronger. To hit my "hours written" goal for 2020, I need an especially strong December. I can do this. So, maybe my third, rarest reaction of "Oh, shit, I can't do this" to art is one that nudges me in the direction I need to go too. I think it was Meat Loaf that said two out of three ain't bad.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Green Is The Color Of Hope

I should be writing my NANO project, but I'm not. There is something more important that I need to write about right now, something that required my immediate attention. Something I'm obsessed with and you should be too....BABY YODA!

Drink in that cuteness...that adorableness. EAT. IT. UP.

A few days ago, someone on one of my social network feeds made a comment about how they disliked things like Baby Yoda, calling it a short cut for creating empathy without any story telling. I disagreed, mostly because Baby Yoda is just coyingly cute. But that's a weak argument that holds no water, so I thought about it. And I figured it out.

Baby Yoda works not because is cuteness is a shortcut to empathy, but that he is a symbol. This tiny, green bundle of adorability is a symbol of the power of hope. In this day and age of grimdark fantasy and gritty reboots, we need a little hope in our lives. And Baby Yoda symbolizes that. It's not simple, there's work to be done by us the viewer and that's always an issue with today's audiences. (Look at THE LAST JEDI kerfuffle, but that's a different blog post.)

We know that Yoda is perhaps the most powerful Jedi master of his era and it's implied that the Force runs strong through his species. At one point, Baby Yoda saves the Mandalorian's life by using the Force with relative ease. Still a toddler, it's obvious that Baby Yoda is strong with the force, even though the maneuver exhausts him. But it cements his position as a being of power. And as a symbol of hope.

When you work out the timeline, Baby Yoda's appearance coincides with the end of the Empire (there's some wonkiness in this because while Jon Faverau has said the show takes place 5 years after Jedi, I've read other sources that place it ten) and the beginning of the Republic. But when you do a little math (and I'm not doing it here, but trust me I did it) by the time we get to THE FORCE AWAKENS, Baby Yoda will be about the same age as a Youngling in the Prequels, around the time that a being can begin to be trained in the use of the Force. Or when it awakens.When hope rises again to face the darkness. Snoke says it at some point in THE LAST JEDI too.

We're all cynics at this point in our lives, beaten by the world around us. I mean look at poor Yoda. I don't think the 900 years was all that made him look as old as he did. Baby Yoda sees the world through the clear, unburdened eyes of an innocent. He sees things that we can't see anymore or refuse to look for. It also reveals more about the titular character than anything else, making him even more significant part of the story.

The Mandalorian is a character that is willing to kill, murder and freeze targets in carbonite, yet Baby Yoda sees him as something else, something worth saving. It tells us there is something special about the Mandalorian, though we aren't sure why yet. It's not creating empathy, but more questions. If you're willing to do a little work sprinkled with some green flakes of hope.