Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Legend of Susie Snowflake

I love Christmas.

There, I said it. Feels good.

It's my favorite holiday by far. And not for the reasons you think.

I love the presents. When I was younger I used to get so excited about Christmas when I was younger I would make myself throw up. Seriously. Ask my mom.

And it's because of my mother that I'm writing up this blog post instead of writing or finalizing tomorrow's lesson plans. I felt it was necessary to tell you all the Legend of Susie Snowflake. Like, all legends, there is some nugget of truth but the nugget of truth that my mother is basing her legend upon is in fact a lie. I've decided to tell this legend because it needs to be told properly because my mother isn't telling it right to the world and I've had enough. So thus begins the Legend of Suzy Snowflake.

I was born in Astoria, Queens, New York and lived there for most of my early life. I don't have much of a recollection of having lived there except in tiny flashes here and there. Most of those have more to do with the massive amount of time I spent with my grandparents there than when I actually lived there. My parents were blue collar, working class kinds of people, so we didn't have a lot of money, not that I noticed because I was treated like a prince. I was fortunate enough to go to a very exclusive, private Catholic preschool. I was able to attend because my best friend was the pastor's son and they found a way to keep me at the school. I have vague memories of that school. I remember a water table in the classroom. I remember the pastor's son being named Trevor. I remember a little Mexican boy named Marcello. I don't remember the name of the school, though. I'm sure I could ask my mother, but quite frankly I'm kind of hold a grudge about this Susie Snowflake thing.

As a Catholic school, Christmas is a big deal and like most private (and probably public considering this was the late 1970s and political correctness be damned) there was a Christmas pageant. Each class was assigned a song to perform. Now I don't know who was responsible for choosing the songs each class sang, whether it was the teacher or the pastor or the music teacher or whoever is lost to time. Our class's song was "Suzy Snowflake." A cheesy song that had nothing to do with the holiday. Quite frankly, we should've been doing a more religious song, but that wasn't for the little pre-K me to decide. To help you out, here's a YouTube video of said song:



As part of our performance, we were required to dress as Suzy Snowflake herself. The horror. I would love for this to have been for something more symbolic or metaphoric than it was. Being terrified at the prospect of the infinitesimally finite life of the average snowflake or the sheer creepiness of a winter themed creature tapping on a child's window being a nightmare for any child would fit my profile. But nope that's not it.

The five year old me was horrified. Terrified. Mortified. They wanted me...a little boy...to dress as a GIRL snowflake. This was the grandest of injustices. In my five year old mind, "playing" Suzy Snowflake was unacceptable. Don't judge me. Obviously 36 years later, I'm slightly more enlightened than I was then but this was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to me as a five year old boy. I did what any child would do when faced with having to do something that scared them. I pitched a fit.

I obviously don't have any memory of said fit though I have been led to believe that it was epic. It went everywhere: the classroom, the hall, the street, my bedroom, the living room, the foyer...you get the picture. There were phone calls home, concerned discussions between adults and I'm sure dinner table conversations of my classmates. The Zeleznik boy flipped his lid about being a girl snowflake. It sounds so ludicrous now, but it obviously left an indelible mark that I'm writing this now. I'd write some pieced together extrapolation of what I imagine the fit was like, but, unlike my mother, I don't want to further perpetuate the falsities that my mother gleefully (and, quite frankly, delusionally) has via social network for years.

A compromise was reached in time for the Christmas pageant by the adults in my life at the time. One that was acceptable to all parties and one that is the crux of the argument/grudge I presently have with my mother each and every year at Christmas time. I was moved all the way up to the first grade to be a Silver Bell. A vast improvement. A precious metal. A musical instrument. And, quite frankly, a better song. I mean take a listen:



Now for some reason (probably her advancing years), my mother is perpetually under the impression that I was Suzy Snowflake, as if she weren't there and integral into my metamorphosis from a female snowflake to a silver bell.

But to clarify: I was never Suzy Snowflake. I was a Silver Bell.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Not Quite So Daring

The other night, as I was working on a rewrite of something, I started writing a chapter from the POV of a particular character. He is a new POV for the book but not for the series. He's kind of my Jaime Lannister. Anyway, I established some things about him in previous books and started putting them on their head in this book. Then I came to the chapter I'm working on now. It's a pivotal chapter in a pivotal section. I'm sort of hastening the book a bit and moving things a little faster in this draft. And it's working. But I came to this chapter and it opens with said character in bed with someone else. And in that moment, I stopped writing because I had a thought. I was going to make the person in bed with him another male character. I didn't write another word the rest of the night.

The thing that bothered me was my reaction. Why was I suddenly squeamish about this? He's just another character, why am I struggling with this sudden inspiration to make him gay? Was I afraid to write a gay character because I'm a heterosexual male? Was I just trying to wedge in a gay character because I wanted to force some diversity into a story I felt that had very little? I didn't know what the answer was and it freaked me out a bit. All I knew was that it made me stop writing for the night. The simple words: "...[redacted] stretched and rose from the mess of a bed, trying not to rouse the sleeping form next to him." had ground me to a complete and total stop as I contemplated making this change to the character.

It didn't fundamentally change the character at all. He's still this smarmy, obnoxious jerk but now there was something that made him stand out a bit. It actually made him more interesting to write and may have added some depth to my story and world. But yet, I could not do it because, the more I thought about it, it did change the character in a fundamental change to the character. In the end, I decided not to change the character. I had laid a foundation in the plot of who that person in the bed with him is and it makes more sense for the story for the character to be the female character I intended it to be. However, looking back, I had a perfect opportunity to introduce a gay couple to the story in a meaningful way that actually works for the two characters.

I'm still a little bothered by this, though. I'm still questioning the why and I'm not sure I like the answer. I like to think of myself as daring, especially in my thinking and my writing, but I guess I'm not.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Plans and Plots and Schemes

So, September is almost over, meaning I can finally wake up a little. School is settling down and I'm starting to develop a very vague routine. I'm not going to turn this into another long post about my obsession with the routines of writers and my desire to have a routine that I'll never adhere to. Instead I'm going to make some minor announcements about my plans for the next few weeks, especially concerning my blog.


  1. I've decided to rekindle my reread and analysis of the classic Dragons of Autumn Twilight. I reading about a half a dozen books right now and since it is Autumn, I'm going to kind of work my way through this book. I'm thinking two posting a week (Wednesday and Friday maybe) like the ones I did before. I'll link to the prior episodes when I post it on Wednesday.
  2. I've got a few reviews that I need to write in the coming weeks: Eric Devine's Press Play and Chris Evans's Of Bone and Thunder.
  3. Try to work up to 1-2 entries a month on my sports blog. I have two posts in me that I know I want to write: one on Derek Jeter that will earn the scorn of every Yankee fan I know and another talking about the violence in the NFL. 
  4. Continue working on my own SEASONS OF DESTINY. I've just decided I'm going to polish the hell out of books 2 and 3, just so they are done. The series has had a rough stretch, some so close rejections that sting big time, but I'm really confident that something is going to happen to it. Book Two has changed so much that a rewrite of book three will almost be like writing fresh words. (And beta readers, fret not...SUMMER is just not ready for anyone's eyes. It's a gross skeleton of a novel that needs a ton of work.)
  5. NANOWRIMO. I'm doing this with my students and I have to decide which project I'm going to do. I'm leaning towards the contemporary project I'm calling (actually what Aaron Starmer called) FRESH TRACKS. 
  6. SISTERS OF KHODA needs a thorough working over. I'm seriously thinking about doing a "world guide" for this (I've talked about this before) and then going fresh at the book next year. Either way, KHODA doesn't get attention until 2015 anyway.
Anyway, that's the not so vague plan I have for the next few months. Actually it should take me through December if I adhere to it the way I intend. I won't stick to it, we all know that but sometimes writing it down makes me feel good.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ten Things I Learned While Watching Every Simpsons Episode Ever

To be fair, I didn't watch every episode, but I watched a lot of them...in fact I got my 6 year old daughter hooked on the show to the point that she is angry that it is not on ALL the time like it was. So here's what I learned:

1. It's Still Getting It Done
I don't remember when I stopped watching the show on a regular basis. One of my local stations used to play the syndicated repeats along with "Family Guy" back to back when I first got married and I watched every day, but when they took it off, I stopped watching. But watching the marathon reminded me how funny a show it was and that even in later seasons as the quality diminished some, there was at least one laugh out loud moment in each episode. Whether it was a very smart allusion to a previous episode or some throw away gag that made me laugh (almost always involving Homer), it's still laugh out loud funny. I love Family Guy, but it's mostly background noise to me at this point and isn't nearly as funny.

2. It's Not Necessarily About The Actual Episodes
We were a Simpsons house from the outset. My dad loved the show, my friends loved the show and we talked about the show in school and at work. It was appointment TV at a time when that mattered. The funny thing about the marathon was the sense of nostalgia it stirred in me. I found myself remembering where I was when I saw a particular episode or what I was doing. "Bart Gets An Elephant" reminds me of St. Patrick's Day 1995. "$pringfield" reminds me of going to the casino for the first time. "Cape Feare" was my favorite single episode of a TV show for a long time. For a few days, I was thinking a lot of my early 20s and it was good and bad.

3. It Was A Dark Show
It's hard not to compare "The Simpsons" to "Family Guy" and the two shows took different paths to get where they are going tonally. At the beginning, "The Simpsons" was a dark, dark show. Even Marge was a dark character capable of some real nastiness. As seasons went on, it became more light hearted, though it wasn't afraid to get dark.

4. Speaking of Family Guy
I marvel at HOW much "Family Guy" just blatantly stole from "The Simpsons" early on. I've seen just about every episode of FG and about two thirds of "The Simpsons" and a lot of early FG episodes look like they just did a Replace All for each of the characters and slapped "Family Guy" on the cover. To be fair, I know that both shows are pastiches of family sitcoms in general, but the jokes are almost word for word in some cases.

5. Treehouse of Meh
I remember the Treehouse episodes being hit or miss with me when they were first on and I discovered that my opinion hadn't changed.

6. Flanders and Homer Are Best Friends
I like Flanders as a character and I think he's maybe the most important character in the show not named Simpson. I know that TV Tropes has an entire entry on his Flanderization as the seasons went on, but aside from the Simpson family, has there been a more dynamic and rounded character on the show (or even TV I'd argue). Flanders wouldn't be Flanders if it weren't for Homer and vice versa. Their relationship is one of the most complex on all of television and it has been fleshed out on so many levels that it's not unlike most friendships in the real world.

7. World Building and Canon Wobbliness
You say world building and you think instantly of epic fantasy, but world building is just important in any genre that you write. I discovered that this summer when I was writing my YA contemporary book. These characters occupy my version of our world and I need to build that world accordingly (I started a series of world building posts that I'll get back to). Like all animated shows, "The Simpsons" has created a vivid and vibrant world for their characters to occupy. Springfield is as significant and important as a world as Middle Earth, Westeros or the Four Nations of Avatar with as much development and backstory as those worlds. The thing a show like The Simpsons has to do (25 seasons) is be flexible with their world and "canon" when they need to be. Every episode is almost a retcon in and of it self...and that works. That being said, there are still little bits that thread the show over the course of 25 seasons.

8. I'm A Sideshowmaniac.
Through some weird cosmic convergence I managed to see every Sideshow Bob episode in the series. I did this without intent (I did DVR "Cape Feare" because it's one of my favorite episodes of all time) or planning. My daughter (who watched almost every episode with me) recognizes Sideshow Bob on sight now. He's my favorite character on the show. There may not be a more complex villain in the history of TV. Seriously. He rivals Zuko from Avatar. And he changes (an important motif of the show actually) from year to year.

9. It's About Characters
Obviously the members of the Simpson family are the focus, but "The Simpsons" rivals my beloved A Song of Ice and Fire for named characters...and not just named characters, but characters that are fully developed and even more real than some characters on most sitcoms today...I'm looking at you "Modern Family." From obvious characters like Moe and Barney to Duffman and Moleman, these are well rounded characters that even in minor moments get to shine. As a writer of big, sweeping epic fantasies, there's a lot to learn from what they do. I've talked about Ned Flanders earlier, but characters like Nelson, who evolved from a simple bully into a template to writing the complex bully that led to characters like Buford (Phineas & Ferb) and David Karofsky (Glee), Millhouse, the toede and lickspittle that was given ample opportunity to shine when the light was cast upon him, the aforementioned Moe, perhaps the most tragic character and maybe the show's moral compass, the codependent Principal Skinner, the acerbic Edna Krabapple and the underrated, apathetic Ms. Hoover just pop into my mind. As a writer, there's plenty to study while watching "The Simpsons."

10. Complex Character Relationships
Man, there were a ton and too many to list. From the familial relationship of the Simpsons to the dynamic friendships and interactions between the Simpson family to the external relationships between the denizens of Springfield. The first time through I never noticed how integral a part of the show they were, but as I watched as a writer, especially one that writes a lot about relationship dynamics, I noticed they were a major motif the writers played with. There were a few that struck me. Nelson (who became one of my favorite characters on the show) and Lisa's remarkably complex relationship is fascinating and well fleshed out on several levels and maintained consistently. Homer's relationship with Monty Burns always stands out. There are countless others that Burns could interact with, but their constant interplay often drives the plot of episodes. Lisa's solitude and isolation is done in varying degrees of success but it's never better than when she makes friends for an episode only to have them disappear. It's a nice touch that this mirror's Marge's own isolation and solitude and done in the same manner.  And there's an entire essay to be written about Carl and Lenny.

So, there it is. I'm sure that the Internet has done the whole Every Simpsons Ever thing to death and you know me, I'm a sheep, I follow the crowd.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

And Thus Ends Another Summer

Summer ended, officially, somewhere around 12:20am on the morning of Tuesday September 2, 2014. I can't be sure when exactly I finally slipped into sleep, but school started at 6:07 am the same day for me as I trudged from my bed into the shower. Summer, the sweetest of seasons for a teacher and the busiest as well sometimes.

The last week of August and the first week of September are one of the most stressful times for a teacher. I don't know how to articulate it to those of you that do something else. Do you remember the first time you started a new job and what the first two weeks were like...well imagine doing that every year. That's the best analogy I could come up with. And this year was even worse...it felt disjointed and jumbled then kids started showing up yesterday. I still don't know if I'm ready, but then again I don't know if I ever am ready for students when the school year starts. I'm optimistic so far...most of my classes seem decent, though I have one group of obvious devilspawn that I'm not entirely sure how I'm going to handle. If the first day was any indication, I'm going to have my hands full.

Anyway, you don't come here to listen to me lament my day job woes, you come here for the reading and the writing. (I am an English teacher, it all kind of interconnects actually.)

September 1 always has me looking back at the summer and thinking that I should have written more and I should have read more. It always bums me out at how little I feel I write given the time I had. Especially this summer doing a writing institute for teachers where I had time to write every day for three weeks. The thing is that my writer's mind was kind of schizophrenic this summer. I had one project that stalled when I realized that I didn't have an ending and the project needed a desperate rethinking, so I took a break from it. I was rolling on another project and hit the half way point when I sent it off to a beta reader for a very superficial read...that revealed I may need to take a break from it and rewrite the first half. It's a good decision and I need to rewrite the first half to make what I want to do with the second half to work. Then, during the writing institute, I discovered a story idea that I couldn't ignore. It wasn't a big enough project for a novel and I'm still not sure what it is/will become. Yet, I still can't get a full grip on it yet.

I planned a little novelette for the end of summer, but I failed my challenge. Too many things kept popping up and I found myself more than distracted by the Every Simpsons Ever marathon (there is a blog post coming about that). I want to write the novelette and some point because I think it's a strong story.Then the big project that has been the last 7 or 8 years of my life (SEASONS) that needs some attention. SPRING and SUMMER need some polishing before I can move away from them...I believe in my heart of hearts that something will happen with them sooner than later, so that's moved up in priority in my heart and mind. The funny thing is that as I'm reading SPRING is stronger than I thought and I'm looking forward to it. On top of that I am challenging almost all my classes to participate in NANOWRIMO and I am going to do it with them. I have a completely different project I have in mind for it but we'll see.

It's all about time and that's at a massive premium right now. And that's a little stressful, mostly because of the pressure I put on myself. I have to make realistic writing plans instead of grandiose ones where I imagine that somehow I am going to write 12,000 words over a weekend. That's just not plausible. My life is too hectic right now. I'm trying to work on my craft not just as a writer but as a teacher. I've decided that I want to really step up my game and that interferes (it's a bad word choice) with my writing. I have to be realistic. I know that I'm talented enough to be a published and successful writer, I'm just not there yet. I need to focus on what is paying the bills: teaching. I want to get better. I'm taking on more responsibilities at school this year: extra class in the afternoon after school, department liaison to the principal and acting as a mentor to young men in the building on top of trying to be more organized as an instructor and working on my student feedback. As I write this, my head spins.

The one benefit I have is that writing is integral to my job as an English teacher, so it makes sense for me to write. So, I'm going to pull out my writer's notebook and write out said plan and go from there. Hopefully I'll have something exciting to announce sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The End of Summer Novelette Challenge

Summer vacation is in its twilight and I have a ton of prep work to do for the coming school year in addition to catching up with some summer work that I fell behind on last week. That being said I've decided to level a writing challenge to myself in light of all of this.

School starts, officially on September 2. I intend to write a novelette in that time period. For those of you that aren't sure, a novelette, by the Hugo's definition, is a work of fiction between 7,500 and 17,500 words. As I have it planned right now, it should come in about 15k words and I have no idea what I'm going to do with it. The novelette's tentative title is "The Orphan's Brooch" and it's a prequel, of sorts, to my novel in progress The Sisters of Khoda. The basic story is that Jaiman, one of the MCs of Sisters, has a crush on a girl that just moved into his neighborhood. During a party, she has a valuable family heirloom stolen...a brooch with a big secret. Jaiman and his friends track down the brooch and discover the secret, leaving Jaiman with choice of what he has to do.

After I finish that and school settles down a bit, I'm going to make a run at finally finishing The Seven Labors of Nick Jablonsky, do a thorough rewrite of the aforementioned Sisters of Khoda and work on my MG horror book. I also want to do NANOWRIMO this year with something fresh.

I'm probably insane, but I had a lot of good ideas this summer and didn't do a good job of executing any of them.

I'll be posting updates, work counts, lines and passages, on Facebook and Twitter as I write.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Book Review: Shield and Crocus by Michael R. Underwood

The generally accepted definition of "high concept" is an artistic work that can be pitched with a simple but succinct premise. Some examples (from TV Tropes) to help you:

  • A 13-year old boy wishes he was a man. (BIG)  
  • A man is forced to live the same day over and over again. (GROUNDHOG DAY)
  • A man is forced to live the same alien invasion over and over again. (EDGE OF TOMORROW)
  • Aliens invade the Earth and ruin the 4th of July. (INDEPENDENCE DAY)
  • A group of roughnecks have to save the earth from a meteor. (ARMAGEDDON) 
  • Napoleanic Wars...but with dragons. (TEMERAIRE)
  • Boy wizards fights the evil wizard that killed his parents. (Do I really need to?)
You get the point.

Shield and Crocus is a high concept idea that is executed brilliantly and completely satisfying. A high fantasy team of super powered rebels fights for good in a strange city ruled by evil tyrants. There is so much I loved about this book that I'm really not sure where to start.

If you follow my reviews, you know that I love genre mash-ups and Underwood had crammed multiple genres into one volume. He most obviously plays with the massive moving pieces in the genres of high fantasy and superhero books. Imagine cramming the JLA/Avengers into Westeros and that's what we're talking about. I'm going to get into the world building in a minute, but he deftly handles the difficult job of managing to straddle these two genres with an amazing level of skill while also playing with several other genres a little smattering of horror, steampunk, gangster and suspense as well. Never once does any of it feel forced or cobbled together, it's a coherent story that works on it's own.

Playing with recognizable tropes made this a fun read as I tried to piece together the inspirations and allusions to the characters Underwood created and how he came to choose them. He managed to make the Green Lantern concept cool, something that DC still struggles with while injecting something different into the Batman archetype. His villains, the newsworthy named oligarchs (tyrants), are just as much fun to figure out as the heroes that extend beyond the epic fantasy genre into gangsters, artificial intelligence and even corporate intrigue. The Smiling King is appropriately creepy and brilliant and I wish there was more of him while COBALT makes Ultron look like a pussy cat. Our heroes, beyond The First Sentinel, a little cardboard-y at times, but they are all given enough to do and their own stories that shakes out by the end of the book they are starting to be recognizable beyond the archetypes that they represent.

The plot is tight and well planned. We're coming in to the story at just the right time when any story should be told: a tipping point. Underwood nails this feeling throughout the story and you can tell while this "rebellion" has been going on for a long time, there is something different when we pick up the story that is going to necessitate change in the world. A lot of authors don't make this a point and that often stops me from reading. I ask, "Why now?" and then get bored when there is no answer. Underwood implies a lot to keep a lot of the mysteries of the world mysteries which helps moves the story forward and leaves me with questions...good, important questions like "Now what?"

The world building is exquisite. Less Westeros and more the world of Locke Lamora, the enormous city of Audec-Hal is a fantasy version Coruscant and it's bloody brilliant. From the layout of the city to the hints of the greater world., Underwood has created a memorable world that breathes and demands a wider view of. The races are interesting and unique, if not a little confusing at times, but they all made sense in the context of the world. The threads concept of the Ikanollo got confusing at times and my ability to look up what the threads meant because of my eARC might have led to that since it was difficult for me to flip back to the glossary then back to the page I was on without losing my page.

This was another 5 star review for me and a fantastic and unique fantasy novel.