Thursday, August 9, 2018

Genetic Predisposition

Sunday was a typically hot, nasty, muggy August day in Syracuse, which means I shuffled the kids off to my inlaws, threw them in the pool to burn off some energy and NOT stare at a screen while sucking in air conditioned air. I ensconced myself, somewhat comfortably, in my usual place beneath the gazebo reading and staying hydrated. I managed to even finish the book I was reading, the novelization of THE LAST JEDI (it's amazing, but I'll talk about that later) as I alternated between the gazebo and some much needed vitamin D therapy. As I sat there, I kept on eye on the kids, listening to them play and it got me thinking about writing. (What doesn't at this point?)

My daughter brought an entire retinue of Barbie dolls with her. My son brought several action figures as well (there's a blog post in me about the difference between dolls and action figures-you know but I still might write about it) to go along with the dolls and playsets at my inlaws. For a good half hour, the kids have played a pretty epic sounding melodrama involving mermaids, supermodels, naked princes and Imperial Stormtroopers. I listened as carefully as I could, making sure they didn't notice I was paying attention and scribbled some notes. They had, in a very short time, created a pretty coherent, complex and interesting story. It had a decent plot (we're talking 5 to 10 year olds), solid world building and good characterization. It followed narrative rules and had a very clear structure, even though it was open ended since they were playing. It made me wonder, "How did they know how to do all of this?"

Campbell tells us that story telling is a deeply human, psychological thing that is ingrained in our very DNA. I don't entirely disagree with this, but it can't be that simple. Or can it?



I've told this story before. Six years ago, our local public broadcasting channel, WCNY, broadcast the most recent performance of WAGNER'S RING CYCLE from the Met. I stayed up watching it. During the performance, my then four year old daughter came downstairs and watched it with me. She proceeded to come up with her own version of the story based on what she observed and the little in interpretation I could offer via the Internet. Her version was pretty entertaining and spot on, with some interesting variation. It made me think that story telling is ingrained in our psyche because, as a four year old, she didn't have a lot consumed information at that point and it had to come from somewhere. But it can't be that simple.

We consume a lot of information in our lifetime: books, television programs, movies, comic books, cartoons, our parents' stories, the Internet and video games. We process that information and it shapes the way we think. I wouldn't be the writer I am if not for things like STAR WARS, LORD OF THE RINGS, DUNGEONS or A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. These are things that inspired me, moved me to make things like it. I have a list of my "99 Inspirations" that I keep (another series of blog posts) and I know for a fact that my stories come from those things. The first step in learning writing is emulating what you see. I wouldn't know about writing if I didn't try mimicking LOTR as a sixth graders or GOR as a middle schooler (don't judge me, my dad got them at a garage sale) or A GAME OF THRONES as a twentysomething. But I also know that I always told stories. I came up with the stories when we played in the neighborhood (I'm going to write about that because I realized a few months back, my neighbors and I were literally the kids from STRANGER THINGS). I was always the scientist. Weird huh?

I guess it comes from both, but some of us are compelled to put words onto paper, into magic boxes or sit around at lunch telling about the time our wives caught us doing something we shouldn't have been doing. 

For now, I'm planning my mermaid/supermodel/Imperial storm trooper fantasy melodrama...my only question is, do I give my kids a co-author credit?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A Half Year In Review: Summer's Here

It's July 1st, meaning half of 2018 is gone, like half the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It certainly feels like it was just a snap, doesn't it. It's been a pretty crappy six months too. Our country hurtles towards fascism and a large percentage of the population seems okay with that. The Mets started out looking invincible only to fall back not only to earth, but in the words of the alway erudite Keith Hernandez, but to the darkest depths of Mordor. I didn't get summer school, but that's not all bad. It just means money's a little tighter than it would be if I'd gotten summer school. It does give me more time for important things like hanging out with my kids, reading and writing. I got some positive feedback on my end of year reflection at work that made me feel valued and appreciated. We got an adorable new puppy named Rocco. But you don't come here to listen to me go on and on about the real world. You come here for other reasons. So it's time for my annual half year review.



READING

I've read 47 book so far in 2018. Not quite the pace I set last year, but with a strong July and August I could push towards 100 books for the year. I've missed most of the reading goals I set for 2018, but I'm okay with it. I've listened to a ton of audio books in the car while kind of plodding through other books at night or in my free time. The highlights this year:


  • CARDBOARD KINGDOM by Chad Sell: A brilliant young reader graphic novel that exceeded my high expectations and captured not only my imagination but my daughter's as well. 
  • ACE OF SHADES by Amanda Foody: A contemporary, second-world pseudo-fantasy that was terrific. The ending was a little rushed and too easy, but it's still one of the best books of 2018 for me. 
  • THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers: A thrilling space opera that depicts a universe that isn't a grimdark, everyone is trying to kill you and we're all gonna die view kind of place. 
  • SHOW YOUR WORK/ STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST by Austin Kleon: Guidebooks for my writing and my classroom from now on.
  • HILLBILLY ELEGY by JD Vance: This autobiography was terrific, well-written and insightful but (and it's a big but) I am just exhausted from the "understanding Trump voters" narrative that this get clumped into. I don't need anymore think pieces on it. I understand it. See my opening paragraph. 
Disppointments: THE STAR-TOUCHED QUEEN, A CLOSED AND COMMON ORBIT, SPACE OPERA. 

I have one general comment about something I noticed in some of the fiction I read so far this year. There is a narrative technique that had become prevalent, not just in written fiction but in television and movie writing, where the only way the plot can move forward is by a character making a monumentally stupid decision that completely defies their previous characterization. It's lazy writing and I'm seeing more and more of it. 

I'm going to step up my reading. I've got a stack of books from the library, not to mention a drawer full of books I want to read in my night stand. I'm also on the hunt for three series of books I read as a kid about the Vietnam War. I'm going to blog about them this week I think, but I'm curious to see what my views on them now are. 

WRITING

The first three months were great as I finished GIRL IN THE PICTURE, my YA creepypasta inspired paranormal thriller. I'm happy with it as a whole, but it needs a lot of work before it's ready for anything. After finishing it, I languished a bit as I tried to force something that wasn't going to work into working. (I should've listened to my buddy Mike Winchell on this one.) My town-wide, last person standing tag game story never found it's legs. I think there's something there, I just can't find it now. I kind of square peg, round holed it and tried some different things to get it to work. And it didn't. I lost almost 2 months in that process. 

I've since recovered, returning to my fantasy roots with a twist. It's an epic fantasy that I'm writing from a 1st person POV. This is the first time I'm writing a fantasy from that POV and it's kind of fun. It's not a long project, think THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner by way of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY in tone. Talk to me in August to see how I'm doing. 

I'm really happy with the blogging I've been doing. I think it's some of the best work I've been doing and a lot of it has been inspired by my good friend Brian Fay. If you aren't reading his blog and subscribing to his newsletter, well you should. 

OTHER

Been watching way too much TV. RICK AND MORTY still satisfies. PICKLE RICK will get nods as the highlight of season 3, but THE RICKLANTIS MIXUP is maybe the best episode of the series so far. 

SOLO didn't get a fair shake at the box office. It's fun and everything that a Han Solo movie should be. It also has the best soundtrack since RETURN OF THE JEDI. 

I've discovered BOB'S BURGERS. It does what THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY does, but better.

I don't know if it's because the US and Italy aren't in it, but the World Cup has been less compelling this time around. 

I'm obsessed with my lawn and making it look nice. That happens to us at some point, doesn't it?

I'm trying to get back into the gym after 9 months and a slipped disc later. I'll let you know. 

Keep watching this space for entries on a wide variety of subjects and updates to how my new project is going. 

What have you been up to?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Far Behind Your Failure At The Cave

Because of a screw up on my part, I've had to drive my wife's car to work. This is a bonus because the car has satellite radio in it, thus multiplying my music choices about a hundredfold. One of my favorite channels on SiriusXM is Lithium, the 90s grunge/alternative rock station. I love that music. It's my personal soundtrack and formative to me, so listening to it has been a treat. And a jog down memory lane.

I've talked about trips down memory lane before. Sometimes they are good. Sometimes they aren't. A song came on yesterday morning that sent me down the tree on Dagobah type of memory lane, remembering my failures. The song was "Far Behind" by Candlebox. In an instant, I was transported to 1994 and it wasn't good.



I don't think I need to go into a long spiel about the importance of music and how one song can often put us in a time and place while evoking very specific emotions and vivid memories of who we were and what we were doing at the time. This song did that and it shook me.

Now, Candlebox wasn't Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots, the sort of four pillars of 90s alt rock/Grunge. They were part of the "post Grunge" movement, a sort of second generation of alt rockers kind of mixing Grunge with a more mainstream sound. And I liked it. I'm a guy that writes YA Game of Thrones or GOT Lite, so this was right up my alley. My beloved Foo Fighters are considered part of this movement, by the way, as was Nickelback. Candlebox could be considered a guilty pleasure because they weren't as lauded and respected as Nirvana or STP. When I think of this I think of Austin Kleon quoting Dave Grohl, of my beloved Foos and one of my artistic idols, "I don't believe in guilty pleasures. If you f**king like something, like it." This is so true. (There's a blog in me about music snobs, but that's for another time.) Judge me for my love of Candlebox, the Monkees, Tom Jones and Halsey all you want.

The song dredged up a lot of memories in just under 5 minutes of drive time. And driving is the best/worst time for thinking. I've talked before how that time in my life '94-'96 weren't a good time for me. I still have dark revelations and bad memories of a bad time in my life, perhaps the lowest. These revelations makes me relive and dwell on bad choice after bad choice I was making. Choices that made no sense and make me realize how lucky I am to have wound up where I am. I know why I wound up where I did and it rhymes with Rimberly. But still, I found myself in the dark cave underneath the tree again remembering how I told people I'd be on the New York Times Bestseller list by the time I was 26. I wasn't. I wanted to be a writer, but didn't put any of the work in. I didn't work on my craft. I just screwed around. I was listless. I thought I was better than I was, both as a writer and who I was at the time. I had no reason not to write, yet I didn't. I chose excuses and sloth instead.

I often joke that all my stories, especially the fantasies, take place in the 90s because I want to tap into the anger I have in myself over that period of my life. Looking at my character play lists I create for my multi-POV epics, much of it is music from the 90s. Music that reminds me of those dark times and I rely on that nostalgia to tell the stories I tell. The melancholy of that time period is held at bay because I am in my "story world" and it becomes almost therapeutic situation where I tackle who I was and what I was doing.

The next song was "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" by another of my favorite bands, The Smashing Pumpkins (who have kind of gone off the deep end lately). It didn't move me the way "Far Behind" did and I was left rolling over those old memories around in my head. I worked my way out of that cave, partially by writing this.

So, thanks Candlebox for creating an important piece of art. I listened to your first album while making dinner for my family last night after finishing a draft of this piece. I was feeling better, refreshed. And filled with some good memories of that time in my life and what I've managed to do with my failures.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Patience You Must Have



After a nearly two month, unintentional writing hiatus, I'm writing again. Good news, right? Kind of. The problem is that I'm stressing about it. Sounds weird, right? Especially from someone that calls himself a writer. It should be the one thing that doesn't stress me out. But it's different this time. I'm trying something new and different that I find very intimidating and time consuming.

About a year ago, I borrowed a book from the library called THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby and thought it had some good insights into storytelling. I've vowed to work on the craft and I think that I get too wrapped up in writing a book when I should be focusing on the story. The book had some interesting ideas on story so recently I decided to buy it and give it a whirl while writing my new project. I'm finding it incredibly frustrating in spots. So frustrating that I've shut it, cast it aside and muttered my personal mantra of "F**k it" before wading back into it to give it a shot again. It's working, but it's taking longer than I was hoping it would.

The frustrating part has to do with the pace that I'm working. It doesn't feel like I'm writing because I'm not writing in the traditional sense. I'm planning. To my mind, that's not writing. It's different. Right? Or am I actually writing, just doing a different kind of writing. I need to reconcile that. It's important to remember that writing a process not a product. Planning is part of the process, so therefore it is writing.

I always plan when I write. I've talked about that before but I never considered it writing. I'm planning for this new untitled project (I mean I have a title but I'm not ready to share it until I check it's viability as a project) using Truby's painstaking and thorough method of planning. It makes you think from the very premise to the execution of the plot. This method is making me ask questions I never thought of in my writing. It has me wondering if this is part of the problem in my fiction. Am I in such a rush to finish that I don't consider every aspect of the story and it lacks the punch I need to get the attention of agents or editors. But it's time consuming and I still feel like I'm not writing.

My hope is that the time I'm taking now is mostly because this is my first time through this process. I'm also hoping that all this planning will increase my output once I start writing the actual book.

For now, I guess I'm going to have to heed the words of two great (actually pretty shitty but that's another blog post) Jedi masters and have some patience.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

And In The Darkness Bind Them

Early Sunday morning I finished writing a book. It is the eighth book I've finished. It's kind of a sad number, but I'm not going to dwell on that because I'm really happy with this book.



I don't put much in the concepts of destiny or fate, but something pointed out to me about today has me a little weirded out. Today is March 25th. So what, right? The 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Palm Sunday to us Catholics. It's also Tolkien Reading Day. I never knew why it was Tolkien Reading Day until I woke up this morning.

I'll confess my knowledge of the Tolkien Legendarium isn't as encyclopedic as some and I was informed that March 25th is the day that (SPOILER ALERT) Frodo completed his quest to destroy the One Ring. Well, he didn't really complete it did he? Gollum bit his finger off and in his ecstasy fell into the Crack of Doom, destroying not only the One Ring but ending Sauron.

LORD OF THE RINGS are a formative part of my life as a writer and person. Without the adventures of a couple of hobbits, I might have become a different writer, heck, a different person. And it shows up in the weirdest places.

When I started GIRL IN THE PICTURE in last May, it started as a creepyish procedural thriller like MYSTIC RIVER or the movie SEVEN. I decided to do some things differently and it did things I wasn't expecting. A manuscript is a living, breathing thing and it grew in ways I wasn't expecting. I also pantsed the book. For the uninitiated, pantsing is writing without a plan. Usually, I am an ardent outliner, but I decided to try something new. Writing a procedural without a plan proved to be difficult, as I discovered when I temporarily shelved the project in August. Things were happening in the story that I didn't expect and it ground me to a halt. Normally this doesn't happen. I expect to deviate from an outline, but it wasn't working for me. It required a plan as the story went from a procedural to a monster story.

I cleverly called it the make out monster because it only showed up when my main character was kissing a girl and it is described as looking both like Sauron's red eye and the Balrog. THE LORD OF THE RINGS allusions then just began to flow (along with Harry Potter, Scooby Doo and Indiana Jones references). The characters even noticed, chiding me for the references as they work their way through the double mystery of the identity of the girl in the picture and how to stop the monster. I won't spoil my own movie, just in case I clean it up enough for you to read it someday, but this brings me back to my original point.

Early Sunday morning I was finishing up the final chapters of GIRL IN THE PICTURE. The scenes are meant to parrot the destruction of the One Ring. I was too bleary eyed and tired to notice the date or the significance of that date. I was wrapping up the destruction of my One Ring analogue on the same day that the same thing was happening in the original book. That made me kind of creeped out but excited.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this. But, maybe, y'know, fate.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Sunday Paper: In Three Parts

Part I: The News
The Sunday before last, I woke up earlier than usual, especially considering it was Daylight Savings. While my morning chai brewed in the machine, I went out, all Tony Soprano style in my robe and slippers, to get the morning paper. Thankfully, no one was there to whack me and I was able to retrieve my tea from the machine then shuffle over to the kitchen table to read the paper. I repeated the same steps this past weekend, though it was much later. I'm thinking Daylight Savings might have caught up with me.

I still enjoy reading the Sunday paper. Sure, the news is rarely good and our local paper's Sunday edition isn't what it used to be, but there is still something about sitting down with a cup of chai (or coffee if that's your poison) and dissecting it part by part, from the hard news of the day to checking if someone has lamb chops on sale this week. Regretfully, there are no lamb chops on sale this week and the beast that was the Sunday paper once is now a mere pamphlet by comparison. I wonder, though, if that is more my own sense of romance affecting the memory of the experience, as is that case with many of things I reflect back on with only my memories to remember them by. There was a magic to the Sunday paper that just isn't there anymore. I can't determine if that's because of my own memories, my present perspective, the changing way that we consume news or the physical changes to the paper itself.

The Sunday paper wasn't just a report on what happened the day before, but a review and a preview. A look back at the week that was and a look forward to the week that will be. IN a day and age of instant information access, I understand that it might be hard for someone to see the appeal of reading the Sunday paper. I was so struck by the memories, I wrote down what I was thinking.

Part II: The Insterts
Okay, this is the get off my lawn section.

Growing up, I was a paper boy. (For this I am using the masculine with apologies. I know there were paper girls but I was a paper boy.)

It was a largely thankless job where the money didn't match the effort. The adults I trusted took advantage of the cheap, willing labor, nickel and diming us every chance they got like modern day versions of Fagin, relying on us to not only deliver the papers but act as bill collectors on "collecting night." What twelve year old is ready for a career in bill collection? Seriously, we would've made piss poor loan sharks. I was thinking about this as I read the paper. Not the loan shark part. That's all handled by computers now and the paper is now delivered by adults in cars. What got me thinking about my former career was this:


This would've been unacceptable. Like phone call from our Fagin unacceptable.

Three parts. Unassembled. And wrong.

We had to put the paper together. If you were smart, you did the inserts on Saturday because the Saturday paper was the smallest paper. The inserts were the ads and preprinted parts of the paper that you had to put into the Sunday paper. It involved your paper bag, a huge cart and endless prayers to the gods of wind, rain and snow. Then delivered to the front door between the storm door and main door. Locked storm doors or no storm doors were a nightmare. That's not the case anymore. Instead the paper is stuffed into my mailbox in three parts. Meaning I have to shuffle to the mailbox to get the paper. I'm too lazy to complain about it, but it's vexing. I think of all the tips I missed because a storm door didn't close right and a paper blew away. Or a dog got to it. Or it got wet on a porch with no door. At least my paper is dry, I suppose.

Part III: The Sports Section
Growing up, my father had a rule about the Sunday paper: no one was allowed to read it until he was done with it. He didn't like it out of order.

It was such a weird, random thing. If you've ever seen his workbench or any of the garages he's had in his life, you would know that this was the most out of character thing ever. This was frustrating because the only sections I ever read were the ones he didn't: the sports section and the Stars (books and movies, right?). He never relented. He studied the comics like there was going to be a test and endlessly scanned the classifieds for garage sales to peruse. So, I would wait.

I don't read the sports section anymore. I'm not sure why. Is it that, like so many others, I can get any sports related information I want when I want it? As I was writing this, I checked the score of Bournemouth-Tottenham soccer match several times on my phone. Or is it that, like the paper, the sports section isn't what it used to be. I had a whole section of this about box scores, but I've decided to save it for another blog post.

Writing about sports takes a skill that eludes me. In another universe, I am a famous sports pundit pontificating about the underappreciated greatness of LeBron James, Doug Gottlieb's petty and intense dislike of Syracuse University basketball or the sham that is the NCAA. But we aren't in that universe. My deleted sports blog is proof of that elusive skill. Some of the best writing out there right now is sports writing. Deadspin, Bleacher Report, Yahoo Sports and even the Four Letter are doing amazing things these days. But not so much on the local level.

I criticize my local paper a lot. They've fallen into the trend of fishing for clicks rather than good reporting. I was shocked to find out that reporters load stories online almost exactly the way that I load this blog. No editorial oversight. Just write it and put it out. That's dangerous. Then there's SLOW news days.

Slow news days means rolling out the overpaid teacher narrative. It never fails. It gets clicks. Lots and lots of clicks. The basement crowd loves the overpaid teacher narrative. Because, y'know, we do this for the money. Ah, I'm ranting about the job. I'll stop here. If you need me, I'll be double checking the ads to see if someone has lamb chops on sale.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Pocketful of Hope And a Smidge of Talent.

Why write?

The question was first posed to me a few years back. Now that I think about it, it was many years back, when we first started doing the now regretfully discontinued summer writing institute at school. We developed the simple but thoughtful essential question of "Why write?" It is a question I am thinking about this morning. The thought is so important that despite setting a goal of surpassing 70k on GIRL IN THE PICTURE today (I'm presently at 67,776 words), I'm writing this instead. The catalyst for all the thought was another terrific blog post by my friend Brian Fay (If you aren't reading his blog, you are doing it wrong. All of it wrong!) about the occasional (or chronic) feeling of futility in hope and the overwhelming disappointment we feel when what we are hoping for doesn't work out.

I'm going to admit that I was kind of bummed for Brian when I read his post. Brian is a beacon. I find his posts inspiring. We are birds of a feather, in many ways, having many of the same thoughts, struggles feelings and frustrations. I have no idea what the thing he was hoping for was, but I was crushed for him, but I've been there.

If you follow me on social networks (especially Twitter), you know that I am one for throwing myself a good old fashioned pity party. You also know that I am an avid fan of show RICK AND MORTY and on of my favorite things that came from that show is the phrase, "WUBBALUBBADUBDUB!"


It's one of Rick's catch phrases and said in times when Rick is trying to break tension or express that he's having a good time. We came to find out from Rick's best friend Birdperson (it's a batshit crazy show if you aren't familiar with it) that it actually means, "I am in great pain, please help me." I understand Rick, especially in moments when writing let's me down. And I find myself asking that essential question from the writing institute: "Why write?"

Well, it's a simple answer: I write because I can't not write.

I've tried not writing. The summer I met my wife was a tumultuous summer. It was as close to the lowest I've ever been. I decided sometime in the late spring that I wasn't going to write for a while. I was frustrated with writing. With life. With myself. I needed to clear my head. This was a massive mistake. I should've been using writing to get me through what I was going through, working on my craft and getting better at what I was doing. It took months to get back into it and the lack of discipline still impedes me to this day. But in the end, I couldn't not write.

I've been told that rejection is part of the publishing/writing game. And it can be pretty hopeless sometimes. When the rejections pile up, it's almost easy to put on a smiling face, brush it off to the "business of writing" and cry out "WUBBALUBBADUBDUB!" I have to reset myself. Find the hope again.

JK Rowling was told not to quit her day job.

LORD OF THE FLIES was rejected 20 times.

John LeCarre was told he doesn't have a future as a writer.

A WRINKLE IN TIME was passed on 26 times.

Stephen King saw 30 plus rejection slips before CARRIE came out.

Am I any different from them?

No. And I get back on the horse. Like many things in life, things come in waves. Ebbs and flows. Pools and eddies. Of joy and pain. Of hope and disappointment. I refuse to let it break me. In the end, the only things I have is my talent and a pocket full of hope.

It might just be enough.