Friday, December 30, 2016

2016: A Year In Review: The Writing

2016 was a weird writing year. I started the year with an agent, a new project ready to send out to editors and two other projects in the can ready for his approval. As readers of this blog know, that collapsed some time in April as I left my agent and re-entered the query world. And it's been pretty bleak since then. I fell into a dark place where I began to question everything I was doing. The typical collection of rejections from potential agents hasn't helped and the election crushed productivity. The summer was nothing but wasted opportunity and I've spent more energy trying to find a groove than actually writing. And it sucks.

So, what were my goals for 2016?
  • Finish the first draft of FALCON.
  • Finish a second draft of LABORS.
  • Finish a first draft of FROM THE DEEP or NORTHPOINTE
  • Work on SUMMER'S GLORY/SACRIFICE/STRIFE/whatever the hell I'm going to call it.
What I actually did:
  • Finished first draft of FALCON (73k)
  • Finished a second draft of FALCON (73k)
  • Finished a second drat of LABORS (64k)
  • Started and backburnered THE GREAT NORTHPOINTE-SILVER PINES WAR (10k)
  • Started and backburnered THE LAST MAGESMITH (2k)
  • Started and backburnered THE CAPTAIN OF THE GUARD (5k)
  • Started and backburnered EPIC SUMMER (5k)
  • Started and backburnered HEART OF ICE (12k)
  • Started THE PENSIONER'S BROOCH (11k)
So that puts my year at a very schitzo 255k words. It was the least productive year I've had in a while. I was really spinning my wheels, as you can see, in the second half of the year. There were some good concepts there, but my confidence was shot as I moved on and I found myself questioning what I was doing. It's not a good thing. 

That being said, I got a little confidence back writing BROOCH. Granted it's a novella (started as a novelette) and I have no idea what I'm going to do with it, but I'm feeling something as I'm writing it. I get lost in the story and that's always a good sign for me. 

It's not all bad news. I've got two of my finished projects under submission with editors and I'm very hopeful at least one of them will get picked up. 

So, how do I move forward? What do I do in 2017? It's all about goals, right. So here are my writing goals:
  • Write the first draft of MAGICAL GATSBY
  • Write the GENDER SWAPPED ARAGORN epic fantasy.
I frequently talk about establishing a routine and I need to start living that. I need to sit down and no matter what I need to carve out at least an hour of my day to write. I have to stick to it. If I write at least 1k a day, I'll have 365k, subtract birthdays, holidays and random days off and we're looking at 350k. That's 4 books, like I have listed above (or one novella and three novels). I can do this. Now I'm not factoring in something happening with an agent that still has SCIONS or an editor that has SEASONS, but that would be a positive development, not a negative one. 

It's ambitious, but as the musical HAMILTON says, I need to "write like I'm running out of time."

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Some Thoughts On Rogue One (SPOILERS)

I was going to do my 2016 writing post, but I went to see ROGUE ONE tonight and I have some thoughts that I want to get off my chest about it. I didn't do that with THE FORCE AWAKENS last year and I regretted it because STAR WARS is such an important part of me as a creative person. So, here are some thoughts about the latest entry into the franchise.

At it's core, STAR WARS is mythology. It's the stories the old men told around the fire and now tell on a giant screen in a dark room filling us with hopes and dreams. The seven movies up to this point have been that: grand epics that tell us the sweeping story of one dynasty and it's influence over a Galaxy Far, Far Away. And that's the first break that ROGUE ONE makes and it works, because it's not trying to be epic, in the literary sense. It hints at the epic-ness of the "universe" (and I don't mean the Galaxy Far, Far Away) without trying to get into the epic structure that we are familiar with. It does something else and that's where it appears to struggle with early on the the story and comes to a nice head in the movie's action filled, tense and incredibly satisfying climax.

And as much as STAR WARS is about mythology, it's about what came before. The Original Trilogy is a million homages, from the works of Kurosawa to the movie serials of the 50s to Westerns and the Prequels aspired to be Shakespearean tragedies (obviously falling short) and ROGUE ONE is no different and that is where I had a problem, because early on it feels like it didn't know which of the homages they were going for: was it going to be a heist movie or a war movie? And that indecision led to some of the choppiness people complained about, but it follows the tropes of both of them. When it decides it wants to be a war movie (which is what it is), it becomes a better movie. Sure, we'd love to find out more about the characters we meet, but we get enough of them that it's effective. I was disappointed that we don't find out more about the soldiers that volunteer to go with Jyn and her team, because they are great.

Are there plot holes? Is it a STAR WARS movie? And as with every Star Wars movie, they are all forgivable.

The movie is really good, a little slow at the start, but not any slower than any other war movie I've ever seen and a really good and different STAR WARS movie.

Some random thoughts:

  • VADER. We finally get to see Vader as a bad ass. I mean from the castle scenes to the boarding scene. I mean when that saber lit up, I gasped. Vader has been maligned lately and it's good to see he's getting his mojo back.
  • CGI Characters: I know that lots and lots of people had issues with it. I found myself not minding it as much as others did. I mean seeing the dripping evil of Tarkin was great and chilling. And Leia at the end, considering Carrie Fisher's passing, I found something in my eye and a gasp in my throat as she uttered her lines. 
  • Putting the War In STAR WARS: ROTJ gets a bum wrap, giving us the best space battle in the trilogy. Well, ROGUE ONE topped it by far. The space battle was amazing and intense while the ground battle almost makes you forget about ewoks and gungans by giving us real action. Like I said, I wish I knew more about the soldiers and pilots, but obviously there isn't the space for it. 
  • If you aren't shipping Chirrut and Baze you are doing it wrong. Wikipedia calls them best friends....can we edit that to make them partners/husbands/whatever. 
  • GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY took a ton of cues from the Original Trilogy and without a doubt, ROGUE ONE took a cue from GOTG with the planet name cards. It's a little thing, but it was noticeable.
  • Some depth to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. No Jedi. Limited reference to the Skywalkers. 
Highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016: A Year In Review: The Reading

Well, I think the vast majority of us can agree that 2016 was a shit year. Like a really shit year that even in it's waning days seems to want to keep dumping on us relentlessly. A lot of us are still reeling from November, trying to sort out what, if anything, we can do in the next four years. But I'm not here to do this, I'm here to review what happened to me in 2016. I spent most of the year doing monthly reviews of what I did each month but I stopped for reasons I'll get to in my writing post. So, what did I read?

I managed to read 81 books this year. That was 21 more than I intended and abandoned my "Epic" notions early on. I may try to wedge in a few more graphic novels (which accounted for the majority of my reading this year) in before the end of the year, so we'll see what my final total is. So, here's my Best Of 2016 list:

  • AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir: Everything that good YA fantasy can be and a cracking good epic fantasy that'll never get the credit it deserves for telling a great story. It relies on a lot of the same tropes we've seen before, but Tahir's execution is damn near flawless. The sequel is high on my 2017 list. 
  • SAGA, VOLUMES 3-6 by Brian K. Vaughan: A stunning science fantasy that is already a modern classic. A star spanning story that at its core is about family. 
  • BINTI by Nnedi Okorafor: What a beautiful, lyrical story. I was drawn into the world Okorafor built and the character she created in Binti, who reminded me of many of the students I teach.
  • THE FORGETTING MOON by Brian Lee Durfee: In a year where I said I was going to focus on reading epic fantasy where I didn't read as much epic fantasy as I wanted, this was an epic fantasy I not only read but loved. Durfee created a vivid world that was familiar and new at the same time.
  • PAPER GIRLS, VOL 1 by Brian K. Vaughan: Brilliant. That's all I can say about it. It's one of those things that I love because I feel like it's something I could've come up with. Great science fictiony fun. 
  • GI JOE: COBRA: THE LAST LAUGH by Mike Costa and Christos Gage: A GI Joe story that wasn't like any GI Joe story ever. Outstanding Bourne-esque spy action. 
  • HAMILTON: THE REVOLUTION by Lin-Manuel Miranda: What kind of Best of 2016 list would it be if Lin-Manuel weren't on it. I love Hamilton and the story behind the story is fascinating on it's own. Seeing how Miranda crafted this story helped me understand so much about telling a story. 
  • HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD PARTS ONE AND TWO by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne and J.K. Rowling: It felt good to be back in Potterland but as good as it was it missed Rowling's voice. Still one of the year's best though. 
  • THE SERPENT KING by Jeff Zenter: I single served this book in August and I'm still dealing with aspects of that book. Great characters, terrific voice and a well-developed setting make this easily one of my top two or three for the year. 
  • THE WOODS, VOL. 1-4 by James Tynion: Probably my favorite of the year. A mind blowing concept (and another one I feel like I could and should have come up with) about a high school getting transported to another planet. I could not get enough of this series and it's intensely well done. Brilliant characters and world building combine with brilliant storytelling to make it something special. 
  • ENVY OF ANGELS by Matt Wallace: Brilliant modern fantasy fun involving monster chickens, fast food and a Guy Fieri expy that I don't want to punch. 
HONORABLE MENTION: DREAM LAND by Sam Quinones; AMERICAN NATIONS by Colin Woodard; BIRTHRIGHT VOL 1-3 by Joshua Williamson; STAR WARS: CATALYST by James Luceno.

DISAPPOINTMENTS: INSURGENT and ALLEGIANT by Veronica Roth; STEELHEART by Brandon Sanderson; THE IRON TRIAL by Holly Black and Cassandra Claire; THE DRAGONLANCE TRILOGY VOL. 2 & 3; RED QUEEN by Veronica Aveyard.

This year, I'm plotting about 70 books, trying to focus on epics to deconstruct them so I can get back into writing them. But I have some books I'm really looking forward to reading in 2017, here are three that I'm really stoked about reading sooner than later:

  • ROYAL BASTARDS by Andrew Shvarts: A book not unlike my SEASONS books, I'm really looking forward to see what this book does that mine didn't. Already have an ARC locked and loaded for 2017. 
  • THE WALL OF STORMS by Ken Liu: I already read a version of it but not for review and I didn't get a chance to read it this year, so I'll be reading it early 2017. 
  • PAPER GIRLS VOL. 2 by Brian K. Vaughn
  • THE WOODS VOL 5 by James Tynion
  • THE SHADOW THAT WAS LOST by James Islington
  • RIVER OF TEETH by Sarah Gailey

I didn't include obvious ones like the next ICE AND FIRE book (and I know that including Lynch in the list above is dicey, but I wanted to include it) but that's where I stand. 

Tomorrow, I'll talk about Writing in 2016 and what I'm planning in 2017. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Steering the Craft: Part Three: Short And Long

This section of the book was all about sentences. I think this is actually a strength in my writing. i think I'm pretty good at varying sentences. It didn't stop me from reading the section and reading the samples. I've decided to continue the skiing narrative from the first exercise in one of these exercises and do something new in the other.

Part One: Write a paragraph of narrative, 100-150 words, in sentences of seven or fewer words. No sentence fragments. Each must have a subject and a verb. (This is the continuation of my skiing narrative where I'm messing around with present tense too.)

            The lights above cast bluish light. They weave. They bob. Gravity does most of the work. Something else does the rest. He smiles. So does she. They reach the bottom. They say nothing. It’s a moment. It hangs between them. They smile again but say nothing. He follows her. The lift clatters in the distance. They waddle and shimmy. The chair makes the turn. It scoops them up. He wants to talk. The words fail him. They rarely do. His mouth opens, then stops. Thankfully, she doesn’t seem to notice. She talks first. He listens. It’s a new thing for him. She tells him about skiing. She’s been to Vail and Killington. He hasn’t. The thing between tries to change. It can’t. It doesn’t matter. They don’t care. The lift buckles. The bump together. Instead, the thing draws them nearer. 

Part Two: Write a half page to a page of narrative, up to 350 words, that is all one sentence. (This was tough!)

            Beams of white light cast long shadows of varying sizes across the room as Jaiman, sword drawn and mind open, entered the room with his steps echoing off what remained of the ceilings above him, each step sending tiny puffs of dust up as he crossed the threshold of the doorway and swirling in the shadows that pooled and eddied around him like the power that flowed in this place-a place revered by his father’s people- like the very shadows that clung to the alcove; alcoves that once contained the captured treasures the False Lords had claimed as their own, from the simple rose gold tiara of the Ibyara Empress to the club of the Grand Vrang of Golgaatha and the twin swords of the Tsarian champion Goyas alongside the hammer and tongs of the mighty swordsmith Trunce Wenway-or so Jaiman had read-lined the walls that slowly narrowed to another doorway, a doorway that led into the main room and Jaiman felt the power coming from the room and it stopped him in his tracks for a moment before moving into the guttering light of a thousand candles that caused dozens and dozens of jumping shadows-except for the one at the end of the massive room that retreated as Jaiman entered and light gathered at the opposite end revealing the last things Jaiman wanted to see even though he suspected it and felt it as soon as he saw the temple-the looming figure in the gathering light looked down at him, returning Jaiman’s exact smile as he said, “Hello, son.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Steering The Craft: Part Two: Am I Saramago

So this part is all about punctuation. I found this difficult to do while trying to do something clever. I don't know if I succeeded, so here goes:

Exercise Two; Am I Saramago: Write a paragraph of narrative with NO punctuation (and no paragraphs or other breaking devices).

            Staring down at the smoldering wreckage hissing in the intersection he tried to think of what to say but nothing came to mind thoughts raced by faster than the cars slowly passing the dented smoking mess of his father’s car crossing his heavy arms across his chest the streetlights casting unnatural shadows followed by the red flashing lights of the cop car barreling towards them he watched as the cops parked putting out flares and putting each of the accident participants in the back seats of their car in turns all he could think is what would his father do when he found out the scenarios played out in his mind from the absurd mundane with everything in between his mind wondered what was happening next numbly he handed his insurance cards as the cop scribbled in a pad his eyes going to his friends on the side of the road watching with glazed abject horror at the scene the smell of burning radiator fluid would stay with him for the rest of his life the cop asked if there was somewhere he wanted to go and the image of his father’s contorted fury he answered Madagascar

Now, the plan is to review this piece in a week and punctuate it. Feel free to give it a shot yourself if you are so inclined. Enjoy. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Steering the Craft: Part One: Being Gorgeous

If you've been paying attention to this space at all in the last 6 months or so, you know that I've been in something of writing rut. I've got good concepts I just can't get traction. I hit the same wall on my NANO project that I was very excited about (think the geo-political fallout of the movie FROZEN) and stalled at around 15k words. It's the lower end of my threshold to project commitment. Once I get over the 15-20k mark, a project becomes real. So, none of my projects have cross that threshold since the Spring.

A few months back someone online suggested I read a book called Save The Cat! and it was enlightening. Helped me think of the story as a whole and made me think about planning a little more than I already did. Then I started looking at things that were being said about my writing and decided that maybe I needed to work a little on my craft, so I started checking out writing books. I usually loathe these books because they cater to a lot of writers that are beginners or, quite frankly, people that have no idea what writing is or how to do it. When I discovered that the great Ursula LeGuin had written a book called STEERING THE CRAFT, I got excited...because URSULA LEGUIN. When I found out it was a book not for beginners but more experienced writers, I was stoked. I started reading it and found out there were exercises for writers to practice and improve upon the craft,

As I started doing the exercises, I decided that maybe sharing these exercises in a public space might be just the thing to jump start my writing, so here's part one.

Exercise One, Part One: Write a paragraph to a page of narrative that's meant to be read aloud. Use onomatopoeia, alliteration, repition, rhythmic effects, made-up words or names, dialect, but NOT rhyme or meter. Here's my attempt:

            The chairlift clanks and rattles as it raises up into the night. A gentle breeze blows followed by a squeak. She smiles. He smiles. It’s a moment. The moment you seen in movies. The moment you read about in books. Skin prickles, more from the moment than the air. Neither says a thing, letting the moment hang in the air between them. They look up at the white pinpricked blanket of night just in time to see a loop of white light streaking across the black from left to right, swallowed by the bony fingers of the woods.
            “Make a wish,” he says.
            “Like the song?” she asks.
            “Yes,” he says. She does.
            “Can I tell you?”
            “I don’t know the rules.”
            “You seem like the kind of guy that knows all the rules.”
            He says nothing in response. The cable whinneys as the ground swoons up, the vague rhythm of music coming from the attendant’s cabin matched the chug-a-chug of the spinning mechanism that returns the empty chairs to the mountain base. The night becomes a hum and they rise as one, their skis scraping the packed snow of the ramp. He adjusts his goggles. She jostles into her poles. The chair kathumps into the backs of their thighs, sending them swooshing down ramp, looping around the attendant’s cabin to the top of the trail.
            She adjusts her googles.
            He jostles into his poles.

            Skis splunk and scratch as they push off in unison, like awkward newborns. Gravity takes over. Feet slide together, skis sliding closer as they separate, two dark loops streaking across the white.

Exercise One, Part Two: In a paragraph or so, describe an action, or a person feeling a strong emotion-joy, fear, grief. Try to make the rhythm and movement of the sentences embody or represent the physical reality. Here's my attempt:

            It starts with the ears. The wooshing. The heat. Rushing up my neck from deep inside my core. My vision: red. My fists: clenched. The tremble comes next. It’s not visible. You wouldn’t notice it by looking at me, but I feel it. A twist of the stomach, a knot of my own making. My teeth grind as I stare at her, her words still rolling around in my head, seeking purchase that never comes. The knot writhes. More heat, in my neck and cheeks this time as her mouth moves and her eyes roll. The words die in the air. They mean nothing because I know, in the end, I am powerless. The rage subsides, dying embers that remind me of my weakness.  
Critique. Comment. I'm eager to see what your thoughts are. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Dragonlance Chronicles: Tarnished Nostalgia

A few months back, inspired by Aaron Starmer, I began compiling a list of my "99 Inspirations" in a file on my desktop. My initial list was pretty large, hitting the mid-60s before I ran out. I've added to the list in the last few years with plans of blogging about them leading up to the release of my book. Obviously I don't have a book deal, so there is nothing to blog about yet. As I started the list the first three things that I wrote were: Star Wars, A Song of Ice and Fire and Dragonlance. (Followed by pro wrestling, but that is a separate blog post!)

I've often said that DRAGONLANCE is probably more influential to people of my generation than even Tolkien. I have vivid memories of it from middle school (junior high to some of you) and remember the giant, chubby thirteen year old obsessing over them, staring at them on the book shelf at the independent books store in Seneca Mall in Liverpool, NY. Salivating over the modules at Economy Books and pouring through the ones I was lucky enough to save up and purchase, even though I didn't have friends that wanted to play D&D. Larry Elmore was amazing. The character cards were an obsession. (There's a blog post in me about this too because of my obsession with the GI Joe character cards.) Without DRAGONLANCE, there isn't much of me as a writer.

About three years ago, I started a reread on my blog....BEFORE decided to do their part of my "Reading the Fantasy Canon" idea that I drummed up. At best, the series got a lukewarm reaction and I decided to shelf it in favor of other books. When started their reread, I participated then sort of ran out of steam on it, mostly because I found my interest floundering. In and of itself, that was kind of depressing.

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It colors our memory. I've dealt with some of this in the first of my "Oral History" blog posts and will continue to do so as I write those (I've begun another a while ago and will post it when it is done!), but I've discovered that the glasses that we look back on the things we love are indeed rose colored. A part of me wishes that I hadn't done this reread, because then I could still love these books for what they were: a treasured and formative part of my education as a fantasy writer. But that is what made me undertake this journey in the first place. So, what happened is that now my memories of them are tarnished.  Why? Well, first off...they aren't very good. And in and of itself, that is sort of soul crushing.

I did most of a full reread of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT on the blog earlier, but I found myself underwhelmed by the ending. It became a motif of my reading. The two things that are obvious walking away from the series was that Weis and Hickman were definitely first time writers AND that they were under tremendous pressure to finish this ambitious project. It's that pressure shows in the pace of the book.

Don't get me wrong, I like a fast paced book but not at the sacrifice of the narrative, which is what happens here. They miss sweeping details and chunks of details for the sake of "getting it done." The ending was okay but, as I said, underwhelming. I read it on a flight from Syracuse to Tampa back in the summer of 2015 and remember thinking, "That was it?" It made me a little sad.

So, I'll move on to DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT. To me (and I'm sure other readers) this was the "Empire" of the series. It was the one that defied what we knew about heroic fantasy and made us question what we were reading in the first place. It's the best of the three books, sort of, and has parts that are really good, but again, underwhelming. The book introduces and wraps up whole plot lines in 1 or 2 chapters, plot lines that deserved richer stories. (I'm presently reading the "Lost Chronicles" based on what happened in WINTER NIGHT and it's filling in some of the blanks, but still the flaws are glaring.) It abandons the game mechanics and that's the biggest improvement of the book by far and increases the drama. But again, Weis and Hickman's inexperience shows with underdeveloped characters and glossed over plot points. (I mean you could fill an entire book with the political drama of the Knights of Solamnia for crying out loud.)

What they do right, they do right. Sturm's death was still as heartbreaking now as it was when I was a kid. "Sturm's sun shattered" was such a great line and expressed so much in one simple line. The battle was a mess but it was done well enough that I still enjoyed it. Tanis's whole storyline with Kitiara was just as incredible as it was when I was a kid, though less salacious.

WINTER NIGHT was a missed opportunity. It wasn't as great as I remembered and that made me sad.

I remember not liking DRAGONS OF SPRING DAWNING as much as the other two books and I really didn't like it this time through. It was a mess. It felt like Weis and Hickman knew they could get another trilogy out of TSR and left giant chunks of things out of the book to cover later. Again, countless missed opportunity: I mean dragon fighting! By Paladine....knights on dragons fighting dark knights on dragons and we get one measly chapter of slapstick of a dwarf and a hobbit with ADD capturing the second in command of the Blue Dragonarmy. The "war" wraps up in one chapter that reads like a Wikipedia entry on the subject. The mission to discover the metallic dragon eggs left to be told as second hand story but we get slapstick and Lord Soth (I know people love him, but he was boring) instead. I want to understand the thinking, but I don't. It feels cheap. That being said, the ending was better than I though it was going to be despite my issue with the pace of the war. It kept me turning the page to find out what happened next. And it turned into a mess, cramming in half a dozen new elements that weren't there before, poorly using tired tropes and leaving countless loose ends instead of wrapping it up. It felt like they got to the ending. had to come up with something and this was the best they could come up with. It was all baffling.

This reread doesn't make me love the series less, but it certainly tarnishes my view of it as a whole. It's disappointing that something I loved so much, doesn't hold up. There's still a lot to love and admire in the book. It was ambitious for it's time and wanted to be so much more but ultimately it fails. That being said, I still love them for what they mean to me and it's still one of the most important pieces of literature for me as a writer.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Month In Review: September 2016

Ah, September. Dancing in September. Wake me up when September ends. You get what I'm talking about,right. September, the end of summer and the start of school for many of us. And the real ramp up to this damned, stupid election that I hate if for no other reason than sullying my opinions of people that I know. Anyway, how was September. That depends.

WRITING: September is a light writing month for me anyway as I re-acclimate to life as a teacher, so I had no expectations of my productivity and, that being said, I didn't write a word this month that wasn't related to lesson plans. Sorry to disappoint. This dry spell/funk that I'm in continues. I'm just struggling. I've got some ideas down and I'm starting the preliminary plans on something new, but we'll see. I could rewrite/revise something, but I'm just stuck and that seems like it might be a bad idea. I need to find something I am passionate about and fully engage with it. I'm going to play around with this new idea ad we'll see how it turns out.

READING: Seven books. Not bad for the first month of school, but a 7 day respite in the middle of that helped. So here's the best of what I read:
  • The Dragonlance Chronicles Books 2 & 3: I'm going to longform this later in the week. Let's just say I was a little disappointed by them.
  • The Black Dahlia: God this was so good. I'm in the early stages of planning a scifi version of this. 
I'm in the process of reading one of the "Lost Dragonlance Chronicles" and it's marginally better and listening to THE FELL SWORD in the car. I'm plugging away at another writing book as well. The plan for the rest of the year is to really ingest some epics to see what I can see about them.

WATCHING: Again, school started and I didn't watch as much as I have in the past. Lots of college football and baseball. (PLAYOFFS BABY! LET'S GO METS!) Anyway, a few noteworthies:

  • ESPN's 30for30: 9.79: I'm fascinated with human speed and this show about Ben Johnson was just brilliant.
  • Lord of the Rings: Surprisingly these movies hold up despite their flaws. And watching them planted the seed for a great fantasy idea.
  • The Battle at Bristol: a college football game on the infield of a NASCAR race course. It was amazing and a spectacle. 
  • The Force Awakens: So good. I'm going to blog about this at some point. 
  • Dancing With The Stars: Am I the only one that assumes the partners are schtupping? And if Laurie Hernandez were a D&D character, she'd have a Charisma score of 25, right?
  • Never Been Kissed: Quintessential 90s movie or overrated Drew Barrymore crap? I say something in between. It has moments where it's smart and moments where it's creepy. 
  • Caddyshack: I want to write a YA book in the same tone as the movie. 
DID: Went to Disney World and had a riot. 

So, October. I'm going to write...if it kills me I'm going to write. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Writing As A Career

Over on Facebook, a friend put up this post and it got me thinking about my "career" (laugh) as a writer, both in its present state and in the future. Could I do that? Could I be a full time writer. I dream of it, like all of us that write do, but reality is a different beast all together.

Now, a few things to note. I am not published. I'm inching closer, I think, and believe in my heart of hearts that one day you will be able to go to your bookstore or click on to Amazon and find my books their, but for now I still proudly bare the banner of "aspiring author." But I'm not approaching it from the angle of a NAIVE aspiring author.

I've always approached the business rather pragmatically and think that I understand parts of it...and other parts I don't, but still I don't get all ruffled over form rejections or nonresponses they way some do. I understand that this is part of the game, but when you enter the game all bets are off. The publishing world is a brutal one and I've been through the grind. I've talked about the "upheaval" for the last few months and while I'm not ready to talk in great detail about it, I left my agent in April. It's left me borderline crushed and I've been in a malaise ever since. But that's not the purpose of this post, I want to talk about my career. Leaving my agent is a story for another time.

I have a pretty good gig as a teacher right now. For the second year in a row I am teaching nothing but seniors. It's a different beast, but one that I think I've managed to wrangle in, but no matter what, it's not a bad gig. I make decent money, I have decent benefits, good hours and I even get to teach creative writing this year. But as with all teachers, there is the feeling of "the call" when it comes to our jobs. I'll admit that the last few years have been trying on my sense of "the call" but even at its darkest, I love what I do. That moment when you see a kid "get it" or when you teach them something that they've never learned before. This year I had to teach a senior how to write a signature. Those are the things that don't show up on any teaching evaluation and the reason I do the job. I have said more than once that I can't imagine not teaching. Plus, I've worked at least one job or another since I was in middle school. I don't know what it's like not to go to a job.

That being said, the fantasy of being a full time writer is appealing but, as I see it right now, a complete and total fantasy that I don't think I could indulge right now or any time in the near future. I grew up understanding the stress of "money" and more to the point not having a lot. And that understanding drives me and my "dream" of being a full time writer. I know the nature of the business and understand that it is highly unlikely that I'll ever be successful enough to not work as a teacher. It's a reality that isn't a reflection of what I believe my talent level is, (One of the great nuggets my former agent gave me was to never doubt you or insult the work. You are great) it's just an understanding that my name isn't Rowling, King, Patterson or some celebrity writing the memoir of my years before I became a viral YouTube sensation.

This doesn't mean I've completely given up the fantasy. Who knows, maybe SEASONS OF DESTINY or THE FALCON & THE CROW or THE LOST SCIONS will hit huge, get me a deal for a second rate movie that will fail miserably at the box office while I'm sitting in my custom made writing shed writing and tooling around town in my matte black Dodge Challenger. But I know this is an extreme fantasy. I'll be honest, I'd be ridiculously satisfied if I made enough money so I could take an early retirement in ten years or my wife could quit working full time. Ah, this is the stuff of fantasies. I need to write for now. I can feel the gears turning a little and the rust falling off. I've got ideas to flesh out and try to make work in my notebook. Wish me luck.

And look for that matte black Dodge Challenger in your neighborhood.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Month In Review: August 2016

August was August. The Dog Days of Summer. The countdown to the return to school. The end of summer school and more often than not a mad scramble to finish whatever it is that I was trying to accomplish. But this summer was different. It's been a weird summer, as I've documented in these Month In Review posts. So what about August?

WRITING: Another miserable month. I scrapped another project, the prank war novel. I couldn't get the voice or story down. It wasn't working for me. As my friend Mike Winchell says a writer has to write, but I've been stagnant this summer. I can't get a groove on any of these projects. I've got some ideas of how to shake this, but we'll see if I can pull it off. I've been doing a lot of "studying" lately and reading some good writing books that I hope will help me moving forward. I know how to write, that's pretty obvious but I need to figure out some things about what's wrong with what I'm writing that it's not catching on. I'll get there, I know I will. I agree with Mike that a writer has to write, but sometimes you need to clean the machine and I'm doing that now. I started a "Abandoned Project" blog that I may or may not get around to because I have some ideas that can work, including one that I could never do but I really love enough that I may do it anyway, just to practice and another that I may be able to modify to work for me. I also came up with another big book fantasy idea that I'm not rushing into yet because I have some actual research and prep to do before writing it.

For now though, I'm studying. I'll find the words at some point.

READING: I had a heck of a reading month. I finished 11 books and I'm working on a few more. The interesting thing is between the end of July and most of August, I read 7 books in a row that all are pretty much going to make my best of the year list. So, here's the highlights:

  • The Forgetting Moon: Long formed this on the blog. Heavy metal epic fantasy. Great book, loved it.
  • Paper Girls, Volume One: A brilliant graphic novel about a group of paper girls that get caught up in some strange events involved in some crazy supernatural adventures the day after Halloween. 
  • Hamilton: The Revolution: I love stories of stories and this is THE story right now in pop culture. I loved reading the inspiration behind the music and the story. The Chernow book that inspired the musical is high on the reading queue as part of my "research" and it was brilliant. 
  • Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: It was nice to be in Potterland again and it was a highly entertaining story that I breezed through. The one thing that it was missing though was JK Rowling's voice. It just lacked her...heart? But still a cracking good HP story.
  • The Serpent King: I single served this book, reading it in one day and it was brilliant. I long formed it on Goodreads and may longform it here on the blog.
  • Save the Cat: A writing book that was recommended to me by someone. It was interesting and eye opening to an extent that it has me rethinking some of my writing enough that I want to revisit it. 
Read a couple of graphic novels, some good, some not so good, but enjoyable. I'm presently engaged (once again) with some Dragonlance and then going to move into some more epic fantasies for my "study."

I'm on pace, as of today, to read 78 books this year. I haven't read as much epic fantasy as I initially planned, but I'm making progress. I'm singled out some books to read in the coming weeks and we'll see how it plays out. 

WATCHING: A lot of watching too.
  • THE OLYMPICS: I watched a ton of this, even while I was at work. I love the Olympics despite the usual political turmoil that surrounds them. If you follow me on Twitter, you know how much I love the Olympics. 
  • THE HUGO AWARDS: I live streamed them and tweeted as I watched. I'm not going to get into great detail about my feelings about the Hugos, but if you've gotten to know me via social networks, I think you can figure it out. 
  • JAMES BOND: It's been a Jame Bond summer for me and I'll be long forming my Bond thoughts at some point in the next few weeks. 
  • ANT-MAN: I need to redo my Marvel Cinematic Universe ranking sheet. This is a fun movie. 
  • 30 for 30: Pony Excess: Another of the 30 for 30s that I love. It's just so good and there's something that's so satisfying knowing that smug prick Craig James eventually falls flat on his face. 
DID: Lifting. Planned the first two months of school

So, with the sun setting on Summer 2016, I have nothing to show for it. But here's to the beginning of the school year and the hope that I find a groove. 

Friday, August 12, 2016

Book Review: The Forgetting Moon

The Forgetting Moon by Brian Lee Durfee is a big book. The ARC I read weighed in at 777 pages. Massive. Been a while since I've toted a book around with that much heft. I drove my wife crazy shoving it into the swim bag en route to her dad's house with the kids. Being an titanic epic fantasy, I read at a slower pace, to make sure I didn't miss anything and got everything I could out of it. One of the things I "do wrong" as a reader is reading too fast sometimes and missing important details.  I didn't want to do that with this book. The Forgetting Moon is a great throwback to the late 80s/early 90s brand of fantasy while appealing to the ever present grimdark aesthetic that is so popular these days. It's like Durfee used the spices of 80s/90s fantasy while cooking something decidedly contemporary. It made the book infinitely enjoyable and when I sat down to read it, I read it in big sweeping chunks.

The Forgetting Moon starts with a familiar story: an orphan with a mysterious background raised by a grumpy mentor type in a backwater town then expands to a wider, vastly more complicated world. Durfee navigated this better than it sounds as there is some purpose to this other than strict adherence to the tried and true rules of fantasy writing. Durfee mixes the typical hero's journey story with the political intrigue that we've come to expect from our modern epics and he does it well. There are parts in the plot that get herky-jerky, almost like the idea came up all of a sudden in the writing and he couldn't ignore what he was doing, but it doesn't slow down the story at all. (I'm going to talk about this a little later on because of a very specific reason.)

The world building is amazing in this book. Durfee nails it on so many levels. The names alone worked on multiple levels for me. Names are important to me. They have to make sense and the names in Durfee's world make sense, The Five Isles is a living breathing world that is simple and complex at the same time. I'm guessing there are some roots in RPG settings in this world. His world is small despite the largeness that he's created and the constructs of that world work well. Orders of knighthood, secret societies and an terrifying order of assassins mingle together in a dangerous world that isn't specifically like anything we've seen before but is familiar enough that we're comfortable with it. In a lot of ways, his world is very old school and it worked for me. I wanted more of the world at large since the Five Isles seemed very, very isolated despite the implied epicness of the world.

Durfee's done something in the world building that's at the core of the basic conflict in the story that I adored. He's created an pseudo-Christian fantasy religion that works so well. It drives massive portions of the plot and is somehow appropriate in this day and age. I'm not a big religion in fantasy guy. I despise the "God/s on Speed Dial" method of story telling that is so prevalent in epic fantasy and Durfee avoids that while really driving home some thematic concepts about religion, faith and even Christianity. (Yeah, I'm as surprised as you are that this is coming up in this review.)

Durfee's characters are typical of epic fantasies, but well drawn and interesting interpretations of the tropes we know and love. (If you've read my reviews, and why haven't you, you know that I am a huge fan of using tropes!) But the interesting thing he does is talk, outright, about the roles these characters have to play in the story. I love this and think it's an interesting way to go. Our main characters aren't confined by the tropes that define them but they are comfortable in them and Durfee is deft as using them. (Tell me Prince Jovan isn't a combination of Derek Crownguard and every douchy 80s movie rich kid villain.) Some of the secondary and tertiary characters are a little cardboardy, but that's more out of necessity of the narrative than Durfee's skill as a writer. There are some character wobbles that frustrated me and occasional inconsistencies that were noteworthy, but not distracting.

The plot moves along, clicking into place along the way as we begin to see how these different threads weave together into one tapestry (if you'll pardon the metaphor.) There are a few places where I needed to review something from a previous POV chapter, but that's more me than the story. The end comes in a torrent where I was scratching my head at some of the twists and turns that occurred. I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about that method of story telling, but it works for the story and what Durfee tries to do. And let me say, these did not diminish my enjoyment of the book at all. I loved it.

Durfee oscillates between different voices too that help make the story move along. The Tala POV reads like an intense YA book while Nail reads like a typical epic fantasy narrative and the soldier POVs are as good as anything out there. The only POV I found troubling was Jondralyn. It felt kind of all over the place, but I kind of chalked that up to the way her character was.

My only "complaint," and it's a funny one (trust me, you'll laugh), is how many elements of my own book, WINTER'S DISCORD, this shares. Orders of knights, a nation of refugees, archetypes and secret societies all play major roles in my book. It gives me some optimistic in that I must be close. I believe that Brian (I'm be conversational here) has described his book as heavy metal fantasy and I'd say that's accurate. Well if I can indulge, using Metallica, THE FORGETTING MOON is MASTER OF PUPPETS then WINTER'S DISCORD is THE BLACK ALBUM. Anyway.

THE FORGETTING MOON is a terrific, throwback debut epic fantasy that doesn't reinvent the wheel but rather gives it an electric guitar and pound drums soundtrack. It's clearly going to wind up in my end of year Best Of list. I'm looking forward to THE BLACKEST HEART.

(An ARC was provided by the author.)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Month In Review: July 2016

The summer of 2016 has been pretty darn good in some ways and pretty miserable in others. That conflict is driving me crazy. It's been good in that I haven't had to worry too much about any of my financial responsibilities. We set up a separate account for all of our bills, put my summer check in their and now all we have to worry about is little things. It's been a relief. I also am working summer school, which is basically four hours a day for me to write and plan for the coming school year. However that's been the stress. But let's break it down.

WRITING: July was a miserable month for writing for a wide arrangement of reasons. I've been struggling to find something I'm passionate enough to write about. I've written before about how I'm a streaky writer at times but for some reason I haven't been able to engage in much. The epic fantasy I was planning wasn't working for me. The contemporary fantasy that wasn't sure what it wanted to be that I came up with next fizzled.  I tried revisiting a novelette I had started, but decided not to do it. I was floundering a bit. Then my buddy Mike Winchell slapped some sense into me, getting me back in the game. I decided to scrap all the fantasy I was working on. I don't want to build another world right now. So, with some inspiration from STRANGER THINGS (see WATCHING), I decided to work on the late 80s prank war story I had been toying with. It's another story that isn't sure what it wants to be, but I'm going to just get a draft on paper. The interesting thing is that I had a great idea pop into my head for later that I'm very excited about and another idea that I'm thinking about starting the world building on for much later. It's a big book political fantasy and unlike my previous efforts I'm going to take some time to build the geopolitical world. But for now, I'm focusing on the prank war story, per Mike's very good advice.

READING: I had a great reading month. I'm still working on THE FORGETTING MOON and it's terrific despite my pace. I'm really focusing on the book and reading massive swaths of it one of two days a week. It's a 777 page book. I keep promising to have my review up "this week" and it keeps getting pushed back. I'm making a run tonight. I've only got about 140 pages left then I'll do a long form review here, on Goodreads and Amazing. That being said, I read/listened to 6 books and there were some good ones in there, so here are the highlights:

  • SAGA Volume 6: If you are a fantasy or scifi or comic book fan and you aren't reading Saga, then you are doing it wrong. Everything about it is amazingly epic and beautiful. 
  • BIRTHRIGHT Volume 3: The direct inspiration for my contemporary fantasy that I didn't know what it was. Volume 3 was better than the first two and it was just a terrific story that I wound up loving more than I thought I would. 
  • GI JOE/COBRA: The Last Laugh: Way better than a GI Joe comic should have ever been. A great spy story that I couldn't stop reading. 
  • BINTI: Holy Christ on a Popsicle stick. Sharpie this in for my year end best of list. Amazing language and voice combined with a stunning story of war, peace and one woman's desire to live. I loved it. 
So for August, with school looming, I'm going to finish MOON then I'm planning to read the new Harry Potter book. My school librarian already had a copy and I started reading during summer school one morning, got 15 pages in and put it down because I knew that I would've lost about 3 hours of my life and couldn't afford to do so at the time. So there's that and I also got a copy of the HAMILTOME from the library, so I'm going to plow forward. Hoping to hit 6 books again this month, but we'll see.

WATCHING: Again, probably a little too much television watching (Mike called me on this), but here's what moved me:

  • James Bond Movies: Starz has been playing all the James Bond movies and I'm like the 11 year old me watching them in the summer in my parent's living room, which might be a good thing since I'm writing a story that takes place in the 80s. I'm going to long form James Bond movies at some point. I feel like I need to watch them all, including the "reboot" movies. I watched SPECTRE and liked it was better than people said it was. 
  • STARCHASER: I participated in an event on Twitter called Saturday Night SciFi and this was another thing from my childhood that I remember. (I need to rewatch Warriors of the Wind too.) It was fun, silly and a pretty terrible movie. 
  • PING PONG SUMMER: I caught this movie by accident and I still don't know what to think of it. I needed a movie about a "summer adventure" and this seemed to fit the bill, but I was confused by it. Set in 1985, it focused on a break dancing, ping pong obsessed teenager and the summer that changes everything (I stole this from IMDB). I couldn't tell if it was "serious" (for a comedy) or a farce. In the end I liked but didn't love it. It had moments that were really good: Susan Sarandon as a ping-pong Yoda, the town bully and toady (as every good 80s movie has to have) that drives an IROC blaring "Broken Wings" by Mr. Mister, a training montage and break dancing. It's better than I'm describing it and I'm better prepared for my 80s book having watched it. 
  • SEVEN DAYS IN HELL: A hilarious mockumentary featuring Jon Snow and Andy Samberg...sorry Kit Harrington and Andy Samberg. While Samberg is the comedian, Jon...I mean Harrington steals the movie from him by playing the dense tennis prodigy 
  • 30 for 30: THE BEST THAT NEVER WAS: Marcus Dupree's story is a YA/NA book waiting to happen. 30 for 30 is the best thing next to play by play that ESPN does. 
  • THE RNC/THE DNC: Just follow my Twitter feed. 
  • STRANGER THINGS: I'm not going to link this because if you don't know what it is, you are probably hiding under a table with a paper bag on your head. I've only watched the first two episodes and I'm hooked. I just haven't had time to commit to sitting down and finishing it, partially because I hooked my daughter on the show and partially because like THE FORGETTING MOON, I need to pay attention to it. All I can say is that I want to write something just like it AND I am firmly TEAM BARB.
  • ELENA OF AVALOR: I am a fan of the Disney Princess universe and would jump at the chance to write YA books in it. A great addition to the same universe as Sofia the First, ELENA seems to geared to a slightly older audience but still a well done series with great world building and characters. One of my dream projects would be to get on the Disney Princess story canon writing team. 
DID: Spent some great time with my family outside at the pool, Water Safari and some day trips here and there. Getting back into lifting after some injuries (back, knee, getting old sucks) and trying to eat better. 

So, July was mostly great with some bad spots. My writing career has been a dark cloud for me lately and it's been hard not to let that affect my mood. I'm working on it. Anyway, August will be better, despite the end of summer clock ticking away on the wall in front of me.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

Month In Review: June 2016

2016 is half over. I thought about making this a Half Year in review, but decided against it, sticking to monthly reviews. The hope in this is that when I am a marginally famous writer, I'll keep my fans updated in a general sense. Pretty arrogant....but that's me. June was a meh month but with good reason.

WRITING: I pulled a little bit of a Hamlet this month. I couldn't make up my mind. I had a few projects in the chamber, but couldn't pull the trigger on any of them. I talked a little bit about this last month and settled on a completely different project than I intended. After talking to a handful of trusted friends, I've narrowed the idea down. I started sketching out some things, scrapping them, sketching out some more, then scrapping that...I rudimentarily built two worlds before settling on the one I'm setting this story in. I'm not in the outlining stage quite yet but I've sort of fumbled out some words on it. Not many, but enough that I have the framework for a story. So starting July 1, I'm diving back into the story and running with it. I'm teaching summer school this year and I'm creating a writing and workout schedule revolving around summer school. I'm very excited. I'm not going to set a word count goal for the month, but I've got a number in my head. By the end of July, I will have a robust word count and new YA epic fantasy to talk about.

READING: Four books this month, including one that is clearly going to be on my Best of for 2016. You can read my review of AN EMBER IN THE ASHES from earlier this month. It's spectacular and one of the best YA fantasies I've read in the last few years. Other things I read this month:

  • Oyster War: a mythically infused historical graphic novel about the Chesapeake Bay. Entertaining and well done. Liked it a lot.
  • Zodiac: Having watched the movie, I became consumed with the story of the Zodiac Killer. I listed to the audiobook in my car and walked away wondering if I was the Zodiac Killer. In all seriousness, I think I got a story idea from this. It just needs some time in the seed vault.
  • Rat Queens, Volume 2: Fun with some interesting spins on the tropes of fantasy, but a little kitschy at times. There are a lot of people that rave about this online and I can see why, but I have to admit that it feels a little overrated to me. 
For now, I've got a stack of summer reading I want to do. I got an ARC of THE FORGETTING MOON , a book I am loving for the nostalgic late 80s vibe I'm getting from it. I've also got 2 or 3 contemporaries from the library I want to read and my crisp new book that's all about everyone's favorite "bastard, orphan, son of whore and a Scotsman dropped in the middle of in the Caribbean by providence impoverished in squalor" ALEXANDER HAMILTON by Ron Chernow. There's a fantasy novel buried in there too. But we'll talk about that more later. 

WATCHING: Lots to talk about here. Maybe too much TV watching, but I watched a lot;

  • Game of Thrones: Let's get it out of the way. The last two episodes of this show were the best television of the last thirty years. I can't think of what was better than that. The Sopranos, maybe. It's actually the best epic fantasy we may have ever seen. Say what you will about the Battle of Helm's Deep or Pelennor Field. this topped it in a way that we have never seen. The deep, terrifying beauty of "The Battle of the Bastards" was everything that an massive battle like that should be and the epic ending that was "The Winds of Winter" was the perfect ending to what the previous episode had done. And guys....Lyanna Mormont.....just Lyanna Mormont.
  • Finding Dory: Cute, funny and smarter in a way you wouldn't expect. It's basically Slumdog Millionaire but with CGI fishes. 
  • The Thing: Masterful suspense and horror in the pre-CGI days. 
  • Conan The Barbarian/Conan The Destroyer: The first was actually less formative than the second. Destroyer was on HBO all the time growing up and it became the template for a fantasy adventure in my mind. And that Atlantean sword. No sword has ever been cooler.
  • The Tony Award: Because Hamilton. Just Hamilton. 
  • American Ninja Warrior: Research for the new project. This is so going to be part of that story.
  • Transformers: Age of Extinction: Guilty pleasure. I loved Revenge of the Fallen even though I knew it sucked and the same thing with this movie. 
  • Terminator: Genesys: I didn't hate it as much as I thought I would. I mean it doesn't hold a candle to the original and Judgement Day, but it was kind of enjoyable in dumb way. 
  • Empire of the Ants: Watched this late on a Saturday night and I was a little kid again. An old school, schlocky horror movie about giant, mutant ants. So formative. 
  • John Carter: Again, another movie that wasn't as horrible as people initially said it was. It slows down a little in the middle but it's still much better than people said it was. 
So, June was okay. July will be better. 


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Irrational Fears

When I was a child growing up in Astoria, Queens, New York in the shadow of the Queenboro Bridge, I was terrified of army ants and one that seemed viable to the young me despite my very urban surroundings. I was reminded of this last night as I watched the movie San Andreas on television last night with my daughter and wife.

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with reading and animals. I spent hours reading. Back in the late 70s/early 80s every supermarket had some kind of encyclopedia tie in. Each month or week a new volume would come out and I would eagerly await it's arrival. The one I was most obsessed with was The Funk And Wagnall's Wildlife Encyclopedia. I read them from cover to cover, imagining myself an intrepid explorer finding these animals. (I was also obsessed with atlases, but that's another blog entry.) When you think about the natural world, it's a terrifying place. Especially to a kid that grew up in a blue collar neighborhood of Queens, New York. And my hot button animal that terrified me? Army ants. I was genuinely terrified of being slowly and painfully consumed and stripped to the bone by millions of ants. It kept me up at night in a way that I cannot express in words. Completely and totally irrational, right? Not to the five or six or seven year old me though and I was faced with something similar last night.

My wife turned on San Andreas, the Rock-fueled disaster film about an earthquake destroying much of California. I didn't really watch and was starting to fall asleep anyway. I'm not so into disaster porn anymore and think that the 1974 movie Earthquake already did this better with really bad special effects and Charlton Heston telling the earthquake to get its filthy paws off of him. As we were watching, there was a scene where the Hoover Dam collapses and kills a man, among others. My daughter was sort of freaked out about this.

She started asking questions about disasters like earthquakes and tornadoes because she is a lot like me and has an active imagination, the kind of imagination that can put herself in the middle of an earthquake. To most of us, this is absurd, but to an eight year old with an active imagination, it's very real. So we had a very brief and quiet conversation about it so we didn't distract my wife who was watching the movie. (My wife has a practical mind that finds this line of thought absurd.)

I explained to my daughter that we don't get a lot of tornadoes because there are too many hills around us and they need mostly flat surroundings. I know this isn't scientifically accurate, but for the moment it was what I needed to say. Then I explains that occasionally we may get an earthquake, nothing like the movie would probably happen where we live (Syracuse) and the worse we would feel would be like a big truck driving by the house. I told her about the last earthquake I remember a few years back and that's exactly what it felt like. She seemed satisfied with this and went to sleep.

But as I sit here today, I wonder if that's how we're somehow we're wired as some kind of survival mechanism. Or is it some gene that I passed down to my daughter. I still have some irrational fears as a 43 year old man. When I hear a noise outside, I assume one of three things: zombies, Bigfoot or a baby kaiju. I am terrified of moths. Seriously. When my son says there's a monster behind me, I take that seriously. And I'm terrified of being eaten alive. These are irrational fears. I'm old enough to recognize that and maybe that makes them infinitely more irrational than my fear of army ants. Is it hardwired? Is it learned? Is it the product of an overactive imagination? I don't know.

And just so you know, I will will obliterate any sign of ants in my life to this day.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review: An Ember In The Ashes

I haven't been doing many long form reviews lately, instead choosing to do book reviews on a smaller scale in my monthly reviews, but I thought this one deserved a longform. (They'll be a few more of these as I have about 4 ARCs that I need to work through in the coming weeks!) As always, spoilers abound. 

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir is one of those books that I was interested in but was a little worried about it because it looked and sounded a lot like another YA fantasy that I had high hopes for and just fizzled for me, but it came up in my library queue and I thought I'd give it a shot. And I'm glad I did. This book was phenomenal on so many levels that it's clearly going to wind up in my Best of list at the end of the year.

There was so much I liked about this book and, as I read, realized it shared with my own writing. Great characters, well thought out but not overly complex worldbuilding (I mean that as a compliment and I'll get to that in a minute) and a snappy plot that keeps things small within the larger story. 

One of the things I've noticed about YA fantasy is the desire to kind of make everything about these giant stakes, this does that but on a vastly smaller scale, so to speak. As much as the competition between the Masks to be the next Emperor is a driving force of the narrative, the reason everything happens in this story is because Laia wants to rescue her brother. This is the engine that makes the story move and it's well done. Laia doesn't want to topple and empire, she wants to live her life and when that is thrown into chaos with the capture of her brother, she makes desperate agreements with the rebellion, a group she's never really wanted a part of. And Elias just wants to leave the empire. He wants no part of it, even though he is integral to it in every way. It's a huge way this story works. As epic as the stakes are in what is happening, that's actually secondary to what's happening. In the smaller story, Tahir makes it about the character's motivations not the world shaking events that surround them. It was actually somewhat refreshing. 

The characters make this book move. Laia and Elias are great characters. Hurt, wounded and damaged, they figure out what they need to do to survive the brutality of their existence. Elias's mother, the Commandant, is chillingly rendered and his best friend, Helene, is a young adult version of Brienne of Tarth but Tahir has the skill not to just make her a shade of that great character but breathe a whole other life into her. Elias's antagonists, the twins Marcus and Zac, are thinly made, almost caricatures, though I wished there was a little more Zac as I feel he was underused in the story. Many of the background characters in the Elias thread are stock characters, almost necessary in a cast this size, but they work well, filling the roles they need to fill when they do. 

In the Laia thread, from the moment we meet them, the members of the Rebellion are all menace. As a reader, you aren't to trust them from moment one and that is a real strength. The idea that the rebels aren't these righteous warriors of truth has been put forth before, but is often ignored. Tahir does a great job with it. Laia's interactions with the Commandant are cringe worthy and I mean that in the nicest way possible and the mystery of Cook has me wondering if that's a question that will ever get answered. 

The romantic elements were well done, though the Keenan/Laia pairing seemed forced at times. The tension between Elias and Helene is just taut and well written. It's not so much a love triangle as it is a love dodecahedron, so to speak. And it doesn't get in the way of the story.

The world building is sound and simple. I don't mean this in a bad way. Fantasy writers have a million different directions to go in when building a world, some create vast histories of their worlds and can tell you who ruled an empire three thousand years ago then will make sure you know that they know that which then distracts from the story. Others are sparse, concentrating on the action within their book then they wind up with dozens of inconsistencies and holes that can also distract from the story.  There's a balance and Tahir nails it. Others still fill their world up with complicated names and ideas that can confuse the heck out of a reader or hit us with the Our Elves Are Better trope too many times. Tahir doesn't do this, instead calling her people Martials and Scholars and Mariners. Makes sense right? The history is there, but it's not relevant to the story, so we don't need to know it.  She tells us what we needed to know about the Empire and the Blackcliff school, which were important to the story, without sounding infodumpy. It's really well done and I liked it.

The one aspect of the book that really struck me was the relationship between the commandant of the Blackcliff school and Elias. (SPOILER: She's his mother.) I love a well done, complex child-parent relationship, especially in a fantasy book. I love writing them and think that when I get back into a rewrite on my SCIONS book, I'm going to make the parental issues with the book more apparent. That being said, the thing that struck me about this the most was that is was a son and mother. It's just not one you see a lot of in YA fantasy. The Commandant is just terrific. She's chilling and cold and amazingly diabolical. The chapter when she finally explains herself to Elias is just some of the best writing I've ever read in this genre or any other.

My only complaint, and this is strickly a personal thing and it has no bearing on the quality of this book, is that I wish it were 3rd person close and not 1st person. Seriously. That's my only gripe. And it's just a me not you thing.

AN EMBER IN THE ASHES is one of those rare books that can sate both the YA fan and the epic fantasy fan in me. It does what it does incredibly well and is a joy to read. It's intense and unputdownable. It's definitely going to be on my Best of 2016 list. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

The History Of John: June 17, 1994

We Muricans love fallen idols. We love when the people we love, especially celebrities of any sort, fall from grace in an epic fashion and no celebrity ever had a greater fall from grace than Orrenthal James Simpson. OJ was a cultural icon that crossed barriers that few had ever done before. And his epic fall (you all know how I love the word epic and what it implies) changed our society forever and ushered in this day and age of reality television.

Now, I'm not going to go into every detail of what happened, just the events of June 17, 1994 for me and what I remember. The day the OJ and his friend Al Cowlings fled the police in his white Bronco. An event watched by millions live on television all over the country. It was riveting and something you couldn't turn away from. I know, because I was one of the people that couldn't turn away from it. For years, if asked, I could tell you exactly where I was and what I was doing. I remembered it vividly. Most people my age could as well. It became on of the hallmarks of our generation, a single shared event that any of us could bond over in a moment.

We don't have many moments like that anymore. Information is so immediate and accessible in this day and age, it's hard to express the "I remember it..." story. Today, we live tweet events as they happen. And I recognize the irony of me talking about live tweeting something. If there was such a thing as Twitter when I got married, I'd have live tweeted it.

As I remembered that night for years, I was at Club 37 in North Syracuse, New York. Club 37, for those of you that don't know, was a dance club located along a main drag in a suburb a few miles north of the city of Syracuse. Friday nights was Ladies Night, maybe, and my friends and I would go their often. It was a typical club with a large dance floor, lots of black lights, crappy carpeting, thumping music and a balcony that overlooked the dance floor. Club 37 was also notorious because it was where professional wrestler Shawn Michaels got his ass kicked by a couple of US Marines. Seriously, look it up.

I had gone to Club 37 with my friend Brian with our friends Andy and Steve in tow. I have vivid memories of watching the Knicks and Rockets on the TV in the lounge area. I was still pining for a girl that had just broken up with me, so I was kind of standoffish, watching the game. Well, they kept going to the OJ chase and eventually the dance floor emptied and we were all watching OJ. For twenty plus years, this was as I remembered June 17, 1994: watching it on TV while some dance music thumped in the background.

My group of friends was amorphous at the time, as most groups of friends are. We moved in and out of different circles, depending on what was going on, where we were going and who wanted to go. But there was also a separation between my groups that was pretty clear and I have different memories of each. If I was at the center, Brett and Brian would always be around me. Looking back on it, my relationship with the two was very different. Not in a bad way, but Brett and I were always partners, in a way, more Captain American and Iron Man. I always felt like Brian's sidekick, very Batman and (Fat) Robin. Again, not in a negative way, just from my perspective that was the way I always felt. People came in and out of our lives and we into their's, as a duo or alone, as such groups of friends frequently do. The flow chart would be astounding. But Brett and Brian were more often than not separate from one another. They brought out two different parts of me and got different versions of me. Our groups bled together more often than not. With Brett it was my oldest friends: Adam, Nickerson, Finochs...with Brian it was Andy and Steve. For example, Steve crossed over to the Brett side when he started dating our friend Nickerson, who is almost part of a third group that blurred the lines between both of these groups. (For those not in the know, Nickerson is a woman and as I write more of these oral histories, you'll hear more about her.) These complex relationships are things I try to duplicate in my writing. Groups of friends are often not as clear cut and simple as they are in fiction. Maybe one of these days I'll do a long form on that with a flow chart. But that's not the purpose of this piece. I remember being at Club 37 with the Brian side of my friend flow chart that night. At least that's the way I remember it.

Then, this past year FX played their The People vs. OJ Simpson, which was a riveting show. My friend Sharon sent me a message on Facebook saying that she remembered being at Hungry Chuck's with me and Brett celebrating his 21st birthday. She was Brett's girlfriend at the time and the two of them were inseparable. Hungry Chucks was a dive in the basement of the building that wasn't air conditioned. (A few years ago they moved Chuck's upstairs and now it's a nice bar. It's not the same. It's closed now.) And I loved it. This sent me into a tizzy, sending messages on Facebook and my phone. I followed some leads and shook some trees to find out if I misremembered it.

I came to a conclusion: I didn't misremember it. Sharon was correct that she was at Chuck's with Brett, but my location was still in flux. I've confirmed it, with Brett even remembering the detail of yelling "Run OJ, run" as they watched on the big screen TV at Chuck's, which is the most Brett thing ever. It makes complete sense that Brett and I would've been together for his 21st birthday. But I know I was at Club 37. Now, why was I at Club 37 and not out celebrating my best friend's 21st birthday? It makes no sense.  This became a vastly more interesting question and I tried to figure it out. I narrowed down my varying theories to one of three;

  1. Brian and crew went to Club 37 then met up with Brett and crew. Plausible, though I don't remember it that way. This was pre-cell phone 1994. That level of coordination would be unprecedented, especially knowing us as a group. 
  2. I had gone to Club 37 in pursuit of my ex. This would fit my personality and the emotions I would've been feeling at the time. Having asked her, she doesn't remember if we'd hung out or seen each other that night. It's plausible, though she doesn't remember being there that night. 
  3. Brettand I were in a snit. Yes, guys can get into snits and we all know what most of those were about. With apologies to Sharon, who will likely read this, our group of friends weren't crazy about her at this time. This was no reflection on her. It wouldn't of mattered who Brett was with, we would've had a problem with them. We were still young enough then that we still lived by the code of "bros before hoes." (I was 21 and such misogynistic code has been mostly written out of my program by now.) The reality is that we were all subconsciously jealous that Brett had found someone to love him and we hadn't. 
With apologies (on many levels) to Sharon, I was at Club 37 that night. The reasons being? I'm still not sure. Of the scenarios listed above, I'm thinking it's a combination of 2 and 3. Twenty-two years is a long time and I can't say with any certainty which story is completely correct.

1994 was the start of a pretty dark time for me. 21-23 weren't good years. I was broke, directionless and maybe even borderline depressed. I had made every mistake that someone with boundless opportunities could make and instead of rising, I dug deeper with an almost deliberate intent. Thinking about it now, I wonder if my suddenly hazy memory of that time is directly linked to the way I feel about that time in my life. There are things I vividly remember about that time in my life and things that I've effectively blocked out. (Nothing too terrible in the grand scheme of the world, mostly white person problems, but you get my drift.) The spring/summer of 1994 was particularly difficult, coming off the end of my first real relationship. I was immature and reeling from it. It was not a good time, though there were good times in there and the vast majority of them were because of friends like Brett and Brian.

Time moves on. I always try to live by a credo of never looking back, but sometimes it's hard to ignore the real pull of nostalgia. As much as I lament my life back then, there was a lot that happened that formed me into who I am today. There are a load of stories, good and bad, to tell and this Oral History series is part of that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Month In Review: May 2016

Come what May, thank goodness April was over. May was definitely a better month than April and I gained back some productivity and a slight nudge in a newish direction for me and my writing. So, here's what I did:

WRITING: After the disaster that was April, I found a pretty good groove in May. I finished the first draft of THE FALCON AND THE CROW and I'm very happy with it. But more on that in a minute. I finished that up and then dove into a rewrite of THE SEVEN LABORS OF NICK JABLONSKY. And I discovered that LABORS was better than I thought.

The story made a lot more sense than I remember and only needed a few tweaks and cuts along the way. I blogged a little bit about some major changes I contemplated making to the story but decided against because of the fundamental changes it would make to the story. In the end, I told the story I wanted to tell and wound up coming up with a great narrative concept for another project. I was so happy with the rewrite that I decided to just send two "Aw, what the hell" queries out into the world. I don't know if LABORS is completely indicative of me as a writer, but who knows what'll happen.

After finishing LABORS, I reengaged FALCON and I'll be honest, it's good. Really good. I'm cruising through a revision because it doesn't need a major rewrite. It needed some fixes here, mostly continuity for the "McGuffin" and a few other tweaks here and there, then I'm going to work on a synopsis and the query letter to see what it can do in the world.

As for what's next, I'm kind of grasping right now. I had a great conversation with someone I trust a great deal about my writing and it has me thinking about what I do. I need to think about what is going to make my writing stand apart from everything else, make it distinctive. It was a great point that should've been made to me years ago, but that's a gripe for another time. For my next project I have to think distinct, which has me questioning my YA fantasy I was contemplating and has me thinking of how to make it distinct. Or do I try another project to see what makes sense.

READING: Another slowish month of reading. I finished four books and I'm in the process of reading two more. It was a pretty good month. I'm moving through DRAGONS OF WINTER'S NIGHT slower than I want and I can see the flaws in it as much as I can the things I loved. But I'll get to that in a separate entry. (Plus, we did a massive housecleaning and I have no idea where my wife put the book.) I'm about half way done with AN EMBER IN THE ASHES and adoring it. It's really good. I have a stack of library books out that I'm going to tackle for June. I'm aiming for at least six books this month. So, here's what I've read:

  • The Iron Trial: I'm all for putting your own spin on an idea, especially when it comes to genre. I mean I put my eggs in the "YA Game of Thrones" basket from day one. But there are two things that drive me crazy: someone trying to hitch to a trend where you can tell the author didn't really read the inspiration and one where they are so in love with the inspiration they make minimal changes. The Iron Trial is the latter and it ruined the book for me. It had some nice moments but the twist was obvious,but I wonder if that was more of a middle reader thing than bad writing. It uses the tropes all wrong and felt rote and formulaic. 
  • Better Days and Other Stories: A Firefly comic collection. Very good. Nice to be among friends. 
  • Birthright Volumes 1 & 2: A fantastic graphic novel that taps into some great and timely things right now in a lot of ways. It seems like returned missing children is a hot topic in pop culture right now and this plays right into it as a little boy goes missing in the park while playing ball with his father. His family falls apart and just as they reach the tipping point a grizzled man in armor and carrying a kingdom's arsenal with him is detained by police, claiming to be the missing boy having returned after growing up the Chosen One in a fantasy kingdom. The PTSD portal story is another story that's gaining traction and this one starts off this way before veering in a different, satisfying direction that I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I was, giving some great insight into some of my own writing. (Related to directly to my rant about "distinct.")
WATCHING: All over the place this month, but here's a sampling of things I watched:
  • Game of Thrones: Wow, seem to be gaining back some of their first few seasons form this season. I mean the Tower of Joy, Coldhands, Hodor....poor, sweet Hodor. 
  • NBA Playoffs: Steph Curry....just remember, a clown sports commentator that once tried to get people on Twitter to get me fired compare him to Carrot Top. And Fox Sports 1 pays him 6 millions dollars a year to do this. I can do the same for 2% of that. Call me.
  • Castle Series Finale: I adored this show, but the final season was lazy, rehashing old plots and turning the best comedy flavored crime procedural since Moonlighting into a conspiracy thoery mess. The finale was a disaster with a trick ending that tried to do one thing but did something else and failed miserably at it. 
  • The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?: Wanted to be Jodoroesky's Dune but it wasn't. Still enjoyable. I'm all for more Kevin Smith talking movies. 
  • A League of their Own: The second best baseball movie ever made. Fight me about it, Field of Dreams people, I'm ready. 
  • Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Fire: The last of the Potter movies I actually watched and pretty much the EMPIRE of the series. I forget how well done these movies are. They are the best book to movie adaptations I can think of. I'm going to do a blog post on this at some point...I may even reread the books. There are a lot of parallels between Rowling and Martin that deserve some conversation.
  • Rick and Morty: I have a blog post in my about things that I love mostly because I feel like I could've written them. This is one of those things. 
What's in store for June? End of the school year and I've adopted a motto from HAMILTON, I'm going to write like I'm running out of time. I'm also going to read. Lift some weights in earnest. Ride my bike with my daughter and try not to kill myself doing it. Blog a little bit more. Read some books.

What about you?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Captain Amerika? Huh? (SPOILERS)

Captain America has become one of my favorite superheroes, mostly due to the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has handled his character. They've done an amazing job in making this character into a very compelling character that has managed to become the moral compass of the MCU. It's not the only reason I am drawn to the character. I have a thing for "super soldiers." The trope is one I use in almost all of my fantasy and science fiction work. With that in mind, I've delved deeper into the character, reading several collections about him over the last few years. While most of my opinions are based on what was done in the movies, I'm aware of other aspects of the character as well. (Brubaker did probably the best Cap work, IMHO.) But Marvel did something pretty controversial that kind of set me off into a tizzy, so much so that I felt a blog post was necessary.

I'm going to avoid some of the political wrangling of CIVIL WAR (the movie and comic arc) for a moment. There's some interesting paradoxes that happen as I think about it, especially the #teamcap/#teamironman hashtag wars, because while I am firmly on #teamcap, my actual politics are closer to #teamironman. Anyway, I digress. Back to the original argument.

I should also mention that I am not a regular comic reader. It's not that I don't enjoy them, it's just a space/time/cost issue. I catch up on most comic book via collections at the public library. That being said, I am aware of what's going on in the world of comics. I was among the excited that Steve Rogers passed the mantle of Captain America to his good friend Sam Wilson (Falcon) and thought it was a great move. It changed character dynamics without changing the characters themselves. But I can't help but feel like Marvel really dropped the ball on their latest arc.

For those of you that don't know, and how could you not, here's a link:

Now, I railed pretty hard about this yesterday on Twitter and said something on Facebook as well. One of my friends made a comment about "letting the story play out," and normally I'd be with him, especially as a writer. I mean most of us honestly had all kinds of questions about Snape, didn't we? This is an effective trope, especially in comic books. But it doesn't feel this way, it feels all wrong. And Marvel has made it clear that this isn't some use of popular comic book tropes. This is a retcon that shakes the entire Marvel Universe. It's misuse of tropes on an almost grand scale, all for the sake of mentions on social networks. In that way, it worked. But as a story, it doesn't.

Making Captain America a Hydra agent is just lazy writing. You've retconned a story that didn't need retconning and did it for one reason: shock value, a pointless reason to change a story. Part of the character is who is he and where he came from. The sacrifices that he made to get where he is. In a few panels, Marvel has undone that for no reason other than that they wanted to make a change that was going to get people talking about it. There were a million different directions you could have taken the character. This isn't the direction you take it. Ever. This isn't some simple mind control or clone of Steve Rogers gimmick either (and the writer and editor have confirmed this), this is taking a character and changing his fundamental nature....for no other reason than being shocking.

Captain America was created by two Jewish men as a symbol against the Nazis and the geniuses at Marvel decide to MAKE Cap a Nazi. (Don't make the argument that Hydra isn't Nazis either.) I mean at least wait until Trump wins the election to make Cap a Nazi for crying out loud. He didn't need fixing. His conflict was always going to be him being a man out of time and someone with a rigid set of beliefs that were unwavering despite the things that surrounded him. Some of the best Cap stories were the ones that tackled this head on.

Change is a good thing. I get it, moving a character into a new direction is important, but this wasn't the change that Cap needed. I can think of at least a dozen different directions you could have taken the character and the arc you could have given him. I think the "Give Cap A Boyfriend" angle is far more interesting and compelling. Let me just sidebar this by saying that I was firmly against the Cap/Bucky shipping for a long time. The exploration of platonic male relationships is a motif in my own writing and there was a lot to study in Cap/Buck, so I always felt that they needed to be bros, but I have a better understanding of the reason people ship them now. It gives the character a new angle while not changing who they are, fundamentally. I also feel this way about a lot of other comic characters. Making Peter Parker African-American doesn't change his character in the least but making The Black Panther or Luke Cage white would. (I'm not discussing the Miles Morales Spider Man for this piece for a few reasons, my lack of knowledge about him as a character being one of them.) As a matter of fact it adds layers to the character, which would be a welcome change.

Lazy writing drives me nuts. It's everywhere these days as writers look for the most shocking ways to get our attention. One of the reasons I hatewatch the movie Prometheus so much is that I hope that this time the SCIENTISTS make decisions like SCIENTISTS not surfer dudes that found the Tiki Cave. The reason I can't engage in The Walking Dead is that having characters make stupid decisions for the sake of the story is lazy. It does nothing for the actual story except put characters into the situations you want them to be in for the consumers (viewer/readers) to be "shocked" when what happens to them happens.

The writers of Game of Thrones, a book series and TV show I adore, have been lazy at times, but they nailed it this last weekend with the Hodor revelation. In a powerful moment of what good writing can do, they unraveled one of the great mysteries of the series in one of the most emotionally fraught sequences in recent television. This wasn't fundamentally changing a character for the sake of change. This was unraveling a mystery in a completely satisfying but emotionally draining scenes that I can remember.

If you want to "fix" Captain America (not that he needs it), hire Myke Cole to write him. Myke Cole, with only a little hyperbole, is Captain America and can get inside Steve Rogers's head like few writers would be able to while staying completely true to the character. I've said that I don't read comics on a regular basis. Marvel, you get Cole to write him, I'm going to my comic store once a month to buy his iteration of Cap. Seriously.

Why am I so passionate about this? I'm a writer. I see things a certain way and this bothers me. These are our myths and legends. A long time ago, people sat around a fire and told stories as away to explain what was going on around them. We still do it today: in books, on the television, movie theaters, comic books, video games and the performing arts. These things matter to me.

Monday, May 23, 2016

A Fine Line

One of the greatest pieces of advice I've seen concerning being a writer is "never insult the work." I had a bad habit of referring to my works as "turds" and I was admonished not to do that. It made me think of something about being a writer.

I'm in a bit of a rough patch as far as my writing is concerned. I've teased it quite a bit lately but I'm still not ready to talk about it. But I'm reentered that self doubt stage of being a writer, questioning everything. I started to think what happened that's making me think that.

As writers, we ride a fine line between arrogance, humility and hopelessness that I still haven't been able to balance.

Hopelessness is common. Writing is mostly rejection and it can be soul crushing. Even if you get an agent, it doesn't mean that it's all milk and honey. It just usually means more rejection, there's just someone there that believes in you as a writer so much that they are staking their economic well-being on it. I'm in that stage of staring at my work and wondering if I'm good enough. Or is it just that the publishing industry is highly subjective, and as I was also told once, on that given moment, I wasn't what the person reading my work was looking for.

Arrogance is almost as common. Read some of the comments on QueryTracker. People are angry when they are told they aren't good enough. They feel entitled to unconditional love for their ability and are angry when a busy industry professional can't tell them they are a special little snowflake. You can see the paradox, can't you? I wonder if paragraphs like my previous one come across as me being arrogant or bitter. You have to believe in your work and your ability, but is there a threshold for being too arrogant? Am I being arrogant by believing that my books WINTER'S DISCORD or THE LOST SCIONS are at least as good as some of the YA fantasy that's being lauded over right now? Am I arrogant that I believe it's better than some of the stuff? I don't feel that way. But maybe I am.

I like to think that I'm humble while still being confident in my work. But sometimes, and I've talked about before, I get wrapped up in feeling negative, like I do right now.

So, I'm going to continue walking that fine line and not sound like I'm griping.