Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 In Review: Reading and Writing

Here we are, the end of December 2014. Feels like it was just yesterday we were at the End of December 2013. Now we're moving into 2015. The midpoint of the second decade of the 21st century. Let's look at what happened.

WRITING: I don't have much to say about my writing. I wrote a lot. In bits and pieces. Really, this year could have been called the "Year of the Back Burner." Here's a review:

  • WINTER'S DISCORD, YA fantasy, 10th rewrite (131k)
  • THE SEVEN LABORS OF NICK JOBLONSKY, YA contemporary (38K), set aside for a rewrite.
  • SISTERS OF KHODA, YA fantasy, 3rd rewrite (87k written, ~25k left to write). Project backburnered to rethink about what I intend to do with it.
  • Various short works that will lead to bigger projects including a horror idea for kids about a baby monster. (~5k)
  • SPRING'S TEMPEST, YA fantasy, sequel to WINTER, 3rd rewrite (132k).
Based on this, puts me at about 393k for the year. A little more than last year, even though it doesn't seem like it. 

For 2015? Here's what I'm thinking in the immediacy:
  • Finish first draft of LABORS.
  • Complete a super detailed outline of the NEW SUMMER'S GLORY (SACRIFICE?), the last book in the SEASONS series.
  • Write my short (story/novelette) THE OFFICIAL VISIT.
  • Finish FRESH TRACKS.
  • Write some shorter works.
READING: Read 63 books by my count last year. My top five were hard to pick, but here goes:
  • Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith: A book about the monster apocalypse loaded with the realism of being a teenager. Probably my favorite read of the year.  
  • The Riverman by Aaron Starmer: A mythic story combined with the fear of a child's abduction through the eyes of a child. Just brilliant. 
  • The Winner's Curse by Maria Rutkoski: One of the best YA attempts are writing something "Game of Thrones-esque." Brilliant worldbuilding and story.
  • Dare Me by Eric Devine: The tragic tale of male bravado, the dangers of the anonymity of the Internet and the seductive power of easy money. Brilliant and believable. 
  • Frostborn by Lou Anders: This was a tough call. I read Frostborn and Half A King back to back and they were both brilliant, but Lou Anders's debut wins out because it was more "fun" than Once A King. 
Honorable Mentions: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie. Andre The Giant by Box Brown. Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas. Shield and Crocus by Michael Underwood. Under The Never Sky by Veronica Rossi.

No major disappointments this year.

As for 2015...what am I looking forward to?

I'm going to trying picking up Wheel of Time again. I'm going to read the third Sarah J Mass book, The Throne of Fire. As for the rest, I'm going to wing it. I'm aiming for 75 books this year again...however Wheel of Time may hinder that.

Happy New Year everyone! 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Legend of Suzy 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. (2019 EDIT: After a brief Facebook discussion with my mother, the preschool was in fact a LUTHERAN 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 Suzy 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 does a Christmas song get better than the Dude and Cookie Monste

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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Soundtrack of Writing

Well, Summer is here, which means I'm writing. I'm spinning a lot of plates thanks to a unique opportunity afforded to me by my employer. I am a teacher consultant at the Seven Valleys Writing Program's Summer Institute at SUNY Cortland in Cortland, NY. (For the visual learners, picture the Carrier Dome, turn south, drive for about 45 minutes and you are in Cortland.) The 7VWP is part of the National Writing Project and I am now a member of the family. (It's like the Mafia, without the RICO laws.) This program has me spinning dozens of metaphorical plates in my writing world. Part of the program is a very sizable chunk of writing time each day to work on any number of projects, which I have gleefully done. It's been amazing and I can feel my batteries recharging about not only my writing but school.

About my writing, I was chugging along at the contemporary YA, THE SEVEN LABORS, and making good time on it actually breaking past what I imagined the half way point to be when I shipped it off to a beta to just sort of skim and tell me what they thought of what I was doing with something that was making me uncomfortable. Well, I was okay, but said beta made me realize that this was a good place to stop and do a rewrite of the first half. I had some ideas for the second half that would completely botch the first half, so for continuity's sake, I stopped and boxed it for a few weeks. I'm not quitting, I'm just putting it aside to let it marinate.

I've got a new idea that I'm working on that has me excited. I'm not sure what it is yet...a novella, a MG book or a chapter book. I'm hazy on the title so don't ask, but I can describe it best as being "a more malicious version of E.T but from the ocean." I can't go further into it because, as I said, I'm still not sure what it is.

But this blog post is about soundtrack because music has been driving a lot of the writing I've been doing. This writing institute has been a breeding ground for my writing since I'm spending a lot of time looking back to my youth and in trying to capture that by choosing music to get me into that thought process. Since I was looking back I had decided that my story was going to be set in Queens, NY in the late 80s. My soundtrack? Billy Joel, focusing on the live album recorded at Shea Stadium with some other songs thrown in there, all by Billy Joel. It's fueled my writing, which really is what music should be doing when you are writing. It can't get in the way and it can't necessarily completely drive the writing, but it has to provide the energy for writing.

I'd love to finish this up by the end of July. Like I said, it's not going to be one of my epics (more on that in a sec), but we'll see what I can wedge in. Hopefully, I'll have a title.

I've got to be honest though, I kind of missing writing one of my big, epic pieces. I'm going to return to SISTERS OF KHODA soon because I think I have a solution to my problems with that book and how to fix it. (More epic.)

So back to the writing.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review: Frostborn

It's really unusual that the two most recent books I read and am reviewing this summer have been two Nordic inspired books filled with snow and ice considering the oppressive heat that had settled over Central New York for the last two weeks. And both books have been phenomenal for different reasons.

It would be safe to say that reading Lou Anders' Frostborn after reading Abercrombie's Half A King could be considered unfair, but Anders has written a completely different kind of book that does what it does really, really well. Labeled by some as middle grade, it's hard to argue, but it reads "older" and more like a RPG tie in novel. (More on that later.)

Frostborn is a fantasy adventure told through the POV of two young people (one of my favorite methods of telling a story), a female giantess of mixed heritage and a young boy more interested in playing games than learning how to run his father's farm. The two characters meet and embark on a dangerous adventure with both of their families lives hanging in the balance.

 Anders captures the awkwardness of adolescence brilliantly in this story while not hitting you over the head with it. One of the issues I have with YA/MG right now is that author's focus so much on how much of a schlub our hero/protagonist is. I love that while both characters are awkward in their own way, they are capable and confident in others. That is something that is so overlooked in so much YA that I'm reading these days. Karn and Thianna are great characters, especially Thianna....a strong female character as a lead...just what we need in fantasy these days.

The plot is snappy. Not as grim as Abercrombie (big shocker there), it's more of a romp with just the right number of hints that there is a much bigger picture than we are seeing about these characters. It's a real skill to pull this off and Anders does it well. In this day and age of grimdark, fantasy is missing the fun and Frostborn provides that in spades without diminishing the risk and tension of what the characters are going through. It's a classic, well done chase book with all the tropes of a chase book executed brilliantly. I'm looking forward to the next step of what these characters are going through, how they are going to grow and how it fits in the world at large.

Let's talk a little about the world...I know, having talked to Lou via social networking, that there is a larger world and a setting guide/RPG created for the world of Frostborn. I have something of a fetish (maybe not the right word, but it's the best I can do right now) for setting guides and if I had extra money kicking around, there would be a shelf of these sitting in my imaginary office somewhere. I know that Lou and I share this fetish (again, I make it seem salacious) and his world building is brilliant. It's a very real and fascinating world that he's created that fits what I think that he might be doing. He mixes the right real world cultural and historical references together to build a terrific world. I'm eager to see how these pieces fit together in the next volume. It's a pretty darn good study in world building and how to introduce a world without a lot of exposition.

Lou Anders is one of the good guys in fantasy publishing right now. About a year ago, he did me a solid that I will always appreciate. As an editor, he's putting out some of the best new voices out there. I have a dream list of editors that I'd love to work with some day and he's among them. He's written a terrific fantasy novel for all ages. Don't let the whole middle grade thing throw you, any fantasy fans will enjoy his book.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: Half A King by Joe Abercrombie

Look at me, I'm on a bit of a roll. Spending some time in hospital waiting rooms and next to a sleeping wife really helps get some reading done. (All is well, nothing to worry about!)

I've been looking forward to this one for a while and when it came up in Net Galley, I thought I'd give it a try. I'm glad I did. I'm not the biggest Abercrombie fan...I know, I should have my epic fantasy fan/writer card taken away for saying that. I started The Blade Itself, couldn't get into it and put it aside. Several years later, I picked it back up and started to get into it and it disappeared on me. (I think a certain little girl might have put it somewhere on me and I just have to find it again.) But I was eager to see what "Lord Grimdark's" take on "young adult" was like and it's quite stellar. It reminds me, in many ways, of a slightly more grown up version of the Ranger's Apprentice series, which I loved. (I'm only on book 5 and that's in my queue.)

Yarvi is an unlikely king. Born crippled but with a keen mind (a rather timeless trope really), he reminds me of a much more innocent and altruistic Tyrion Lannister. The parallels to ASOIAF are well done...is anyone writing a YA fantasy that isn't filled with nods and allusions to Martin now? That's not a critique, just a comment, because God knows I'm guilty of that as a writer. He's a great character that develops and changes over time. His naivete is hardened as his world crumbles around him from not becoming a minister (think Hand of the King) to losing his kingship and trying to regain it while plotting revenge against those who stole it from him.

The plot is pure Abercrombie. It snappy, filled with tense action and thrills. It moves and there is little in the way of slowing down with just enough places for the reader to catch their breath. His action scenes are second to none. I see the great appeal of his writing to so many people in the way that he draws these scene with words. I'm usually terrible at "seeing" these things, but Abercrombie makes it work. I wonder if studying the entire Abercrombie catalog might help my action scene writing.

His world building is sharp. I can imagine this place in my mind and the culture he's built. Inspired by Viking culture, there's a bigger world around them and Ambercrombie gives us some hints of that without overwhelming the reader. The analogous conversion to Christianity is a big idea in the story that I feel might show up in later volumes and make for a really interesting book.

Where this book shines is the characters. Yarvi is sympathetic from the outset. He's a hero worth rooting for and when things start to click for him about half way through the book, he wears the mantle well, very similar to the way Tyrion does in ASOIAF. His mates are well drawn and become the rag tag group of "brothers" that a book like this needs, especially in YA. The mystery of the character named Nothing, the grizzled Rulf, the obvious crush Sumael, the big guy Jaud and the heel turn face Ankran could easily become little more than the tropes that the embody, but they are deeper than that and become important to the story and integral in Yarvi's growth as a character. His antagonists, for the most part, aren't one-dimensional and have depth and layers. Even background characters have a little depth to them that make you feel like they are real people.

Ambercrombie knows the tropes and, like a good author should, knows how to play with them. I think using tropes properly and in the right way is the sign of a good fantasy writer. You can't avoid the tropes, you just have to learn how to play with them. Half A King is a great place to look at the right way to play with the tropes of fantasy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Book Review: The Riverman by Aaron Starmer

Every culture, nation, people, town, city, village, school and even neighborhood has it's own myths, legends and folklore. I firmly believe that it comes from our base need, as a species, to tell stories to explain the things about the world around us that scare us. Starmer explores both of these ideas in this brilliantly written book that brings me back to my youth while keeping me grounded in who I am today.

Childhood abduction/disappearance is a terrifying thing, both as an adult and as a child. As a child, from early on, we fear being taken from our parents. One of my earliest memories is being lost in the woods when I was a kid on vacation with my grandparents. It still kind of makes me chilly thinking about it. As an adult, the fear is amplified and much more intense as we think about our own children. Starmer tackles this difficult subject by wrapping it in a mythic story that uses just the right level of intensity, suspense and just plain weirdness as Alistair Cleary (interesting choice of name, BTW) is asked by his quirky neighbor Fiona Loomis to write her biography. The tale she weaves is mythic and Cleary tries to apply common sense to something that doesn't seem to require any sense at all.

As Alistair spends time with Fiona, he is left with more questions than answers...but the one answer he gets is the one that changes him the most. He develops feelings for Fiona that are deftly handled in a great series of scenes that lampshade the tropes that this book could have very easily fallen into. For all the mythic elements of the story, in a lot of ways this is as much Alistair's story of growth as it is a record of Fiona's story of fantasy.

Starmer blurs the line between reality and fantasy quite brilliantly. I'm still not sure if Fiona's whole story is real or just what she imagined. It's a testament to Starmer as a writer that I'm still not sure even a day after finishing the book AND reading several other reviews whether or not the Riverman is "real."

Now, to be fair, Aaron Starmer and I grew up under very similar circumstances in the same area of upstate New York at about the same time, so I like him already. I've gotten to know him a little, well as much as you can via social media, and I like him even more, so it was easy to root for this book and that fact that it is so good makes me even happier. He peppers the book with references to the late 80s that a kid reading this book probably wouldn't get and Central New York that someone not from this area would completely miss. I completely enjoyed them.

The Riverman is listed as a MG book, but I'd recommend it for anyone. It's a quick read that does a nice job of balancing mystery and suspense with the themes of the importance of stories to people. And that is what I can take from it as a writer.

In the contemporary YA I've been sort of chiseling away at, the main character is a writer. I'm drawn to stories like that. Grasshopper Jungle was about a writer and I loved that. The movie Almost Famous was about a writer and is one of my favorite movies of all time. People love stories, even stories about stories.

Also, Starmer makes setting as much a part of the story as any writer I've seen. His world building (and yes, even in contemp stories, world building is important) is brilliant. As I said, it's easy to see his inspiration and it works in this story. I've often said that you can tell a story is mine when the setting is very similar to Central New York...even if it takes place in a fantasy world with knights and wizards and dragons. \

Starmer also makes nostalgia viable in this. Sure, most of the 80s references will go over the kids heads, but that doesn't distract from the story. Aaron and I had a Twitter conversation about my desire to write an epic CNY skiing story that takes place in the early 90s. Aaron challenged me to write it. I actually set some planning notes in my notebook for it, but I'm also going to go in a bit of a different direction. After reading this book, it makes me think that it's possible. Fresh off of finishing this and Grasshopper Jungle, I also started writing a very weird story, that like these two books, are going to do two things at once: be a coming of age story and a monster story at the same time. Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Reviewing Books

For a long time I was hesitant to review books on my blogs. Who am I to judge someone else's work, especially critique it for some sort of merit. I was always afraid that any review that I would write would almost immediately come across as sour grapes and jealousy.

A few months ago, I amended that a little bit by joining the group blog Guys Lit Wire to do a monthly review of a book. I also went out of my way to write longform reviews on Goodreads and Amazon of books that I really liked, because that's the best way to support an author you like: review and recommend.

I've also discovered Net Galley and decided that I wanted to add an element to my blog (mostly in an attempt to increase my blogging) where I review books. I'm pretty much only going to review books I like and they'll be pretty much copy and paste jobs for my Goodreads/Amazon reviews. But for the purposes of this blog, I'm going to add a section of where I discuss what I've learned/what I can steal from that book....because good writers borrow and great writers steal.

Also, I've decided I'm going to restart my DRAGONLANCE re-read and blog this summer, so keep an eye out for that.

Monday, June 16, 2014

How Did It Get To This?

Being a writer can be vexing even in the best of times. I'm in a bit of a crunch right now and I'm trying to figure out how I got here. I don't know how to end this rewrite. My confidence is shaken. Seriously. Between reading amazing books recently and remembering how awesome GRRM, I'm really scrabbling here.

It's baffling to me that I got this far. I've rewritten/revised/edited this thing about three and a half times. As I'm working through this rewrite, I'm realizing that I don't have a good ending. The end of this book is a freaking mess and I have no idea how to fix it. I'm happy with what I've written thus far. The story up to this point is pretty good. It's going to need one more pass before it's "ready, ready" but I think the story is in good order...needs one more good polish and there are parts that I know I can still fix. But I'm not going to get there until I figure out this ending.

I have the set pieces and a vague notion of what I want to do....I just can't seem to grasp how to fix it.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Little Change Is Good

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
                                                                                                      -Jojen Reed, A Dance With Dragons

It's no secret that George RR Martin is one of my literary idols. I worship the man's words. So today I was thinking about my writing. I was also thinking about my reading. This quote was sort of rolling around in my head and considering how important GRRM is to me as both a reader and a writer, I thought that this was appropriate change. I have lived a thousand lives as a reader, but I've also lived a thousand as a writer as well. And that is exciting to me. So, I decided to change the blog title to reflect that...and let's be honest, "Pantless Writer" for a YA writer was a little creepy.

 I have been cruising along on a rewrite of my YA fantasy adventure The Sisters of Khoda. It's the end of the year and my students are working on projects, so I've been chugging away, putting in 5-7 hours a day of writing, so I've gotten through about 290 pages of the rewrite. But the last quarter of the book needs to pretty much be written from scratch. I'm sort of treating it like writing a novella to move forward. When I finish that, I'm going back to the contemp I was working. The hope is that I can continue the groove I was on with it and make short order of it. Then the scifi project is up next, I think.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Most Marky Mark Thing Ever

This has been cracking me up for days...enjoy the most Marky Mark thing ever:

Monday, May 12, 2014

World Building Part I

I write primarily fantasy. Second world fantasy. What does that mean? Well from what I can gather, and curse me for not taking some time to find an accurate and succinct definition to put up, it is any fantasy that takes place in another world that isn't our own. Now, it's a gray area distinction at best and we certainly can get muddled a bit over what it actually means, but I was thinking what it means today and if it really has to mean as we understand it. As a fantasy writer, one of the primary focuses of my writing, as loathe I am to say it, is worldbuilding.

It's easy to say "build the world as you build the story," but it's really not. Not if you want to create an effective and memorable world for your story to happen in. And since history and legend and myth are so important to fantasy as a genre, it's almost impossible to ignore world building.

I working a couple of angles here when it comes to world building, let me explain the first one and I'll go from there. I had an idea pop into my head. This happens all the time, especially in the most inconvenient places, so it wasn't anything unusual. Often they are fleeting ideas that come in partial bursts and get me interested enough to listen. Only the ones most noteworthy make it to the page of my writer's notebook, where I'll jot down the gist of what I was thinking to look back later to see if there was actually something there. Dozens of these pages litter the last four years worth of notebooks and few make beyond that, but they are there. Well, the idea that popped into my head this weekend was noteworthy enough and the thought led to another one that reminded me of something else. (Look, writer's brains work differently than everyone else's.) Let me explain.

A few months back (it may have been longer, I'm a little hazy on the specifics and I'm hoping the original person will see this and comment on it), someone on Twitter or Facebook or the blogsphere posited the question "Can anyone name a contemporary story that takes place in a secondary world?" (To be fair, I'm paraphrasing this because I don't remember how it was exactly phrased.) My answer at the time was Caprica and the Twelve Colonies of Kobol in the Battlestar: Galactica reboot. It was the best example I could think of, but even that could come into some debate as eventually the remaining colonists come to Earth and have heard of Earth (even though it's a legend), so it wasn't a perfect answer.

So, I started thinking about this as I thought about my new idea. It was a contemporary idea. It took place in a world I knew and I initially thought of making it a straight contemporary story. But that was boring to me and that wasn't exactly the book that I wanted to write. I knew that I didn't want it to take place on Earth. I wanted it to take place on a secondary world, like Middle Earth (stow the prehistoric Earth talk) or Westeros but with recognizable, modern technology. (Sort of.) But I didn't want it to be a lost colony/Firefly set up. I'm using that idea already and I'll talk about that in another post. So I wracked my brain trying to think of examples from literature and pop culture. Here's the list I came up with:
  • Sanderson's Alloy of Law: a pseudo-Western taking place in his Mistborn world.
  • Streets of Fire: a movie from the 80s set in an ambiguous, unnamed city with elements of the 50s and the 80s.
  • Caprica: the prequel to BSG was obviously set in a "second world" and combined the style of the 1950s with a new millennium tech level.
  • Abercrombie's Red Country: essentially a Western set in his First Law world. 
  • Kings: The short lived NBC show about a contemporary royal family. 
 Can any of you think of others?

What would a second world non-fantasy need? What should be my guidelines as I move forward on this project? When I actually start assembling this world for my story, I will share my thoughts, but I'm open to suggestions.

Up Next: World Building Part 2: Spackling: Fixing A Broken World.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Owning May

For the past few months I have been in an epic funk. I think that I've mentioned it a few times, but I'm really spinning wheels at this point. It's an unlucky confluence of things that are really darkening my mood, attitude, teaching and writing. I'd get into the specifics, but what would be the point? I'd be reminded of my failures and dredging up all the negativity that initiated the funk in the first place.

Instead of dwelling on this funk, I've decided to give it a go and grab the bull by the horns.. I'm setting clear goals and I'm going to really try and crank. I'm cutting way back on social media so I can use that time more constructively to read and write. So, here's my plan:

  1. Finish THE SEVEN LABORS OF NICK JABLONSKY. I've been toiling on this since last Summer and made negligible progress. It'll take a NANOWRIMO-esque effort to finish it, but I think I can manage it. I've read some books that have similar concepts/themes and I think I have my mind set on how to tackle it. And even if I don't, it's a first draft! 
  2. Do an editorial pass and rewrite on SISTERS OF KHODA. This isn't as much heavy lifting as I thought it might be. I have some ideas of how to fix this and it shouldn't be backbreaking to do it, so I should be able to work concurrently with LABORS. This will probably take a little longer than just May if I'm serious about finishing LABORS, but that's fine by me. It's the what I'm doing with it that is the mystery. (That's for a later blog post and part of the negativity that I spoke, so that's all I'll mention for now.)
  3. Plan A TOURNAMENT OF PRINCES. I've written about this before and think I have a good grasp of how to do this, but I'm an architect and I need to sort of build the "universe" and plot out the story. It's really kind of become "TAMING OF THE SHREW in space." I hope to have a solid plan in place so I can dive into this by June 1.
  4. While I've sworn to cut back on my Facebooking and tweeting, I want to increase my blogging. I've started a sports blog that I want to update regularly. Go check it out for the first entry if you are so inclined. I'd like to update that at least once a week. I've got some ideas for my "essays," so we'll see how it plays out. I also want to post more here. Get back to my "Trope of the Week" and do more movie reviews. I also have an idea, that I talked about in my Godzilla post about my "99 Inspirations."
  5. Read more. I'm definitely going to ramp up my reading. I've just started the ponderously long LORD OF CHAOS in the mythic WHEEL OF TIME series and I'm enjoying it. But I'm reading several books at once too. I've rediscovered the library and I'm taking books out as quickly as they come in. (Presently, I' have GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE and it's outstanding...like questioning my own ability as a writer good!) I'd love to be able to read 12 books this month, but that's a high goal. 
  6. Get my house in order. Yes, I know it's not writing related, but I need to do something. It's distracting at this point. We're not talking Horders level, but it's getting there. If I can get some order to my home, I'll have more time for all the other things on this list.
  7. Keep on top of school work. Nuff said there.
 The hope is that I'll get on a roll and as the calendar turns to the "Summer season" I can concentrate on TOURNAMENT and maybe transition into something else as the summer moves forward.

So that's my plan. We'll see how it goes. I'll keep you updated.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Becuase It's GODzilla...

One of my favorite websites to get my daily intake of nerdery/geekery is io9. If you've never been there and you make some claim to be interested in all things geek, then you are doing it wrong. Every once in a while they throw out a question for the audience to answer in the comments sections. I usually don't respond, mostly because time is at a premium for me right now, but they asked a question that I felt deserved a long form response.

Why does Godzilla continue to fascinate us?

Now, there's part of me that was actually kind of mad about this because....really?? Really? The preeminent website for nerdery on the entire Al Gore interweb actually has to ask that question? He's f**king GODZILLA?

Then I relaxed and thought about it a bit. Then I read some of the comments and almost blew a gasket at the trolls. That's when I decided I was going to write this blog entry.

A few weeks ago a writer (and ex-CNYer) Aaron Starmer started a hashtag called #99inspirations on Twitter. I totally loved this and decided to steal the idea for my blog, but I'm holding off until something happens in my writing career. But in preparation for it, I started a Word document called 99 Inspirations and started listing the things that inspired my writing. I was surprised the first few things that made it on to that list, though I shouldn't have been. The first things I typed were: Star Wars, A Song of Ice and Fire, Pro Wrestling and Godzilla. Seriously. In pretty much that order.

Now, if you didn't know I started a sports blog where I'm going to pontificate about sports in the way I know how and I'm going to post a pro wrestling long form over there. I decided to answer io9's question over here on this blog.

So why Godzilla?

The most obvious answer: Because he's GOD-f**king-zilla. He's an enormous monster that kicks everything's ass and lays waste to everything in his way. Plus, it's in his name. God implies the most powerful and that's really what Godzilla is. He's an unstoppable, nuclear powered, flame throwing, mutant T-rex (in some versions, but more on that later) that equally loves and hates the Japanese people.

I was weaned on Godzilla in the pre-cable days of the late 70s and early 80s, when WWOR in NYC would run "monster week" during the summers sometimes for their midday movies and every post Thanksgiving Friday (not to mention the King Kong marathons on Thanksgiving with fond memories of my Uncle Joe's wooden paneled rec room). It was always potluck and I can remember hoping and praying that it was going to be monster week when I would spend weeks at a time at my grandparent's three bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queens. I'm sure the countless war films and courtroom dramas had some influence too, though not as indelible as Godzilla. But I remember those memories with the fondest of memories and for that alone is enough. Even sittting here in my darkened classroom while my students are watching the final act of Romeo and Juliet, I'm seven again, staring at the television in the cramped living room as the Godzilla movie comes on the TV and the excitement I felt then is as fresh as ever. The nostalgia alone is why he matters.

If we've learned anything about our sort of pop cultural zeitgeist it's that we love the destruction of the things that our society has built up, especially the things that have come to visually represent us as a society I suppose. We are the ultimate consumers of disaster porn and, when you think about it, Godzilla is the ultimate disaster porn, unlike the standard issue natural disasters (earthquake, meteor, tidal wave, rouge ice age, sharknado). There is an undeniable appeal to watching an enormous monster with firebreath wreaking havok on a city and at the same time an undenaible relief that it is not an American city.

We are also fascinated as humans with monsters, real and imagined. Always have been, going back to when we were sitting around the fire telling stories. Monsters have changed and transformed over the centuries, especially in the last one hundred years.  Think of ancient mythology, Gothic literature, pop culture and even kids entertainment like Pokemon and Digimon. We love our monsters. Think about it, right now zombies are the monster du jour. Why do you think the CDC actually has a zombie preparedness page on their website? Because even regular folk are watching The Walking Dead and zombies are now part of everyday pop culture, but really when you think about it, Godzilla is still the alpha monster even 60 years later. No one's been able to come up with something better than Godzilla since he first graced film screens in 1954.

We've tried to supplant the big guy several times and none of them stuck. We tried an Americanized Godzilla and that was a joke at best. Cloverfield was a joke, let's be honest. Yeah, we love destroying NY, but Clover isn't Godzilla, sorry JJ but Big Green would've made short work of Clover and his little ticks. The closest we've come, in my humble opinion has been Pacific Rim. It was awesome when it was robot on monster action and some of the moster brain stuff was fun, but the whole alien invasion thing kind of bored me a bit, even though it was a relatively clever take on monster origin that we've seen before. The thing I appreciated about PR was that it was giving a nod to Godzilla.

 Godzilla is the king of the monsters and always will be. A thousand years from now, I firmly believe that kids will study Godzilla in school the way we studied the stories of the Grendel, the Behemoth, the Hydra or the Dragon are today.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Moment of Doubt Turns Into Inspiration

If you haven't figured it out yet reading this blog, you need to know that I am an unabashed George RR Martin fan and sycophantic apologist. I love just about everything the man writes, especially in Westeros, and will defend him with vigor. I fear the day that I will get to meet him (if ever) because I really have no idea what my reaction will be. Seriously.

For those of you not in the know, today GRRM released another chapter (I'd link but the traffic pretty much crashed his site) of the penultimate book in the classic A Song of Ice and Fire series. And yes, #1 it's classic...say all you want about delays and the mediocrity that was FEAST, it's still one of the most important pieces of literature of my generation...I said it, frakking deal with it...and #2: I won't call it by it's HBO name, that's something completely different! It's a chapter titled Mercy but we all know who it really is...don't worry, I won't spoiler it. And it is intense. And creepy. And squicky. It's everything that Ice and Fire is. And it's brilliant. And it's visceral. And in that moment, it made me completely and totally question my ability as a writer. I mean seriously, pack it in John. Game over, man. Game over. You don't stand a chance at ever being good. My mind goes panic/dark too quick.

I'm overreacting, of course. I know that's a shocking to those of you that know me on a personal level beyond the confines of the World Wide Web! I tweeted something to that effect and was talked down a bit by my friend Mark Hoover who directed me in the way that I should be: inspired, moved, so get freaking writing. And that's just what I am going to do. I've been in a rut lately and I need to correct that ricky tick. Maybe this was that moment of doubt that I needed to spark me into action. I think that it might be. GRRM did it to me once, way back when in 2000 when I first bought my copy of A Game of Thrones and never looked at fantasy again. It's like he's done it to me again. Kicked me in that ass. I've been thinking about writing all afternoon (well, at least since my students left my classroom) and I can't wait to wade back in!

Tonight, words on the contemporary project I'm working on and a serious focus on a "writing plan" for the Spring and Summer. Lots of spinning plates and I want to dedicate a serious chunk of time this summer to working parallel: writing a fresh project while working on rewrites. I'll talk more about that in another post...once I get my writing plan down!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Movie Review: Frozen

So I finally saw FROZEN and I freaking loved it. Just spectacular.

Now, I know there are plenty of people that go hot and cold with the Disney Princesses, but as I know I've said before, my daughter adores them, so for no other reason that will make me love them.

FROZEN is the best Disney movie in a long, long time, probably since THE LION KING. (I'm not including the Pixar movies for this review.) Now I loved TANGLED and think that movie is vastly underrated not just as a "Disney" movie but as a fantasy adventure, but it's not even close to this movie. They had a chance to do something really good with BRAVE but that was mediocre with a few shiny spots along the way. I think they really return to form with FROZEN in a big way. So, on with the review, I'm going with my original format on this, so here we go:

What I Liked:
In all honest, just about everything, but let me address a few things:

  1. Grimdark Junior: Grimdark. That ambiguous term that is all the rage in fantasy right now. Martin. Abercrombie. Lawrence. Weeks. Brett. Morgan. FROZEN is the closest thing that we'll see to a grimdark musical. No, I mean it. A good, functional definition that I found for grimdark, for those not in the know is (according to Sam Sykes) when a story’s setting, mood or theme is one of relentless violence, despair and grit, usually to a degree that some would find excessive to the point of absurdity. FROZEN doesn't quite reach that point, but damn it's close. (That's why I used Junior.) I think the writers definitely knew what they were doing and it hooked me right away. Sure, most of this will go over most little kids heads, but older kids and adults will clearly see it. The tone and the twists and turns in this are Westerosi in level (the duke of Weselton sending assassins to kill Elsa, Prince Hans' schemes, etc.).
  2. Two Strong Female Leads: Now, I know that this immediately discounts the movie from being considered for a Hugo Long Form award....cause, y'know, girls are icky. And we know how the entertainment industry feels about female leads. I loved the two female leads in this for various reasons, especially the voice actresses. Was there anyone else that could have played Elsa other than Idina Menzel? (I'm going to get to the song in a minute.) Surprisingly, Kristen Bell more than holds her own when she shares scenes with her. I thought it was great how they flipped the normal roles in a story like this. Elsa was far more complex than most antagonists are (I refuse to call her a villian...and I'll get to that in a minute as well) and it directed the conflict of the story. Ana is spunky, adventurous and more than a little naive, which she needs to be for the story but do not mistake this for not being a strong female lead. She's brave, resourceful and a little bit reckless, which she, again, needs to be for the story. 
  3. The Song: Alright, let's address the elephant in the room a little bit. FROZEN is just WICKED Lite (I mean that as a compliment), it deals with a lot of the same themes and is really written more as a Broadway musical and that really helps the movie work. "Let It Go" joins the Disney canon very high. It's the closest to "Defying Gravity" that we'll ever get on the big screen and it owns the screen. 
  4. World Building: I write big, huge epic fantasies, so when world building is in a movie like this, I jump on it. If I had the time or gumption, I'd love to do a giant world book on the Disney canon. Now, the world of FROZEN alone is complicated: Arendelle, Weselton, the Southern Isles, etc. I imagine Disney canon turning into some kind of second world, fantasy version of our Earth (kind of like any number we've seen out there: Mark Lawrence, Jaqueline Carey, Scott Westerfield) where technology levels vary (more on that in a minute). FROZEN not only reveals the world around Arendelle but gives us tastes of the wider world: there's a Spanish analogue and a Germanic one as well plus we see Flynn Ryder and Rapunzel show up to the coronation, so there's the unnamed kingdom from TANGLED as well. It's just stellar....I'd love to have seen some other peoples represented as well and if they were really smart they could have rolled in some of their stuff from SOFIA THE FIRST into it to really tie the canons together. See Disney, you need to hire me to work on your world book.
  5. Anachronism Stew: Fantasy fans often have a problem with this one. If you aren't sure what I mean, here's a link to TV Tropes to give you a little help. Go read it. I'll wait. Let me editorialize for a minute. I love this trope and it is one that I use constantly. Is there no reason why a civilization has to follow the same path that ours did? Is there no reason that ships of the Age of Sail couldn't have happened earlier in a fantasy world where there are large seas? What about some steampunk elements in a fantasy setting? Dwarves and orcs are industrial, right....what if they kicked off an early Industrial Revolution of sorts. If you can have it make sense with some intelligent world building, why not. Now, the folks at Disney have said that FROZEN takes place in the equivalent of the 1840s, but there's a mix of stuff from the 1900s to the 1500s in it. And why not? There's magic in this world and trolls and magic. The repeater/easy to load crossbows are genius (used in this and TANGLED). Why couldn't they exist? Maybe they were troll created and can be mass produced? Who knows? I really like that the Disney movies (and TV shows) are taking this approach because it makes for a better story. We don't get bogged down in the idea that something can't exist because in our world it wasn't that way. 
  6. Intelligent Animals: Another aspect of fantasy that seems to chafe some people. I love that some of the animals in the Disneyverse are semi-sentient and can communicate with humans on a similar level as a dog. Max in TANGLED and Sven in FROZEN are cut from the same cloth and it works for me.
  7. Alan Tudyk: I really love that Alan Tudyk has become something of a Disney/Pixar darling. I mean this is the guy that was so awesome as Wat in A KNIGHT'S TALE that people in England were shocked to find out that he's from Texas. That NEVER HAPPENS! The only thing it does is make me sad that Wash is dead.
 What I Didn't Like:
There was very little I didn't like, but there were a few things I wasn't sure about:
  1. Olaf's Sacrifice: I thought he was going to be the annoying Jar Jar Binks, but he wasn't at all. He was masterfully done actually, but I have to ask: why wasn't the fact that he was willing to melt to keep Ana an act of true love? It's a minor quibble that has been refuted by others, but that's still the way that I see it but then the movie wouldn't have been as exciting, I guess.
  2. Trade-able Goods: What exactly were the goods that Weselton wanted? It's an interesting plot point that could've been explored more. Maybe in the extended edition.
  3. Trolls: I feel like the trolls were underutilized though I'm not sure how else you could have used them. 
What Can I Take Away As A Writer?
Anachronism stew is doable and when it's done right, it works really well like it did in FROZEN. Also, world building is important. It needs to be consistent and work for your story not have the story work for it.  Now, if I can figure out a way to get a show stopping musical number into my book, then I'd be set.