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 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 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.