Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Few Thoughts On The Secret Life of the American Musical

Confession time: I love musicals. Always have. I think they are a vastly underrated part of the literary canon. As both a pseudo-alpha male and English teacher, musicals shouldn't matter nearly as much as they do to me, but I am unashamed of my love for them and a staunch defender of their importance. With the advent of HAMILTON into our collective consciousness, musicals are significant in many ways again. And I started thinking about how and why they work. I also wondered what could I learn about writing, especially my own, from musicals.

I've made no secret of my obsession with discovering, unpacking and analyzing the process, techniques, routines and rituals of writers. During my present reading tear, I devoured Stephen Sondheim's lyric books, FINISHING THE HAT and LOOK, I MADE A HAT. I became obsessed with Sondheim a few years back when HBO played a documentary called SIX BY SONDHEIM and I was entranced not only by the man and his music, but the painstaking process of writing the songs that he was writing, the context of both the time and setting and his meticulous attention to detail. I also read the "Hamiltome" last year, fascinated by the genius that is Lin-Manuel Miranda and the work that he created. HAMILTON is my closing argument to the question of writing an epic fantasy musical. It can be done. (And I believe that eventually I am the guy to write it...but not now!) So, poking around for more books about musicals I found THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel and checked it out of the library. It was enlightening to say the least.

The book is split into parts, discussing and dissecting the component parts of the American musical. Structure is a big deal in writing. I've always thought of myself as a structure guy but I've spent a lot of time in the last few months studying writing and noticing that maybe I'm not as structured as I think I am. I just finished research projects with my seniors and tried to instill this new found belief in structure to them since they often ramble and wander in their essays, and while it is true not all that wander are lost, my students are in their research papers. But I'm not here to talk about that, I'm here to talk about the structure of the American musical and what it has to do with my writing.

Viertel stipulates that American musicals follow a formula and his analysis, with great examples, proves this to be true. The parts are:

  1. The Overture
  2. Opening Number
  3. The I Want Song
  4. Conditional Love Song
  5. The Noise
  6. Bushwhacking 1: Second Couples
  7. Bushwhacking 2: Villians
  8. Bushwhacking 3: The Multiplot and How It Thickens
  9. Stars
  10. Tent Poles
  11. Curtain Act 1
  12. Curtain Up on Act 2
  13. The Candy Dish
  14. Beginning To Pack
  15. The Main Event
  16. The Next-to-Last Scene
  17. The End
Viertel's explanations of each and how they fit into the story reminded me a bit of Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT. They work when you apply them but you can't help but wonder if it's intentional or something deeper. There's a very Joseph Campbellian slant to many of these studies of narrative structure that I understand because of my personal acclimation to Campbell's ideas. When applied to the American musical, they work. So, how can the apply to fiction. I don't know, but I'm going to see if it does as I write this.

The Overture: Doesn't apply to story structure, more about tone.

Opening Number: If I get nothing else out of this book, the opening lines of the chapter on Opening Numbers will stick with me forever as a writer: THE AUDIENCE IS IN TROUBLE. Nothing else could possible encapsulate what a writer needs to understand in the opening pages of your book or story. The audience is lost and clueless. They need to be saved and it's up to us, as writers, to save them. 

The I Want Song: Reminds me instantly of Snyder's Theme Stated. It's the part of the musical that rather heavy handedly tells us what the protagonist(s) are thriving for.

Conditional Love Song: There's a lot in here about the idea of the love story, but it's not just a love story in the sense of romantic love as we've come to understand it. It's talking about any relationship that seems necessary in stories, whether that's a romance between two characters or the relationship between companions and friends (a familiar concept within my work). Again, there is a parallel between this and Snyder's "Love Story."

The Noise: An inverted version of Snyder's Fun and Games. A burst of energy in the middle of the first act to give the audience a break from the work they've had to do so far and something they don't have to think to hard about, just listen to the noise and enjoy. Big chunks of narrative in a novel are the "noise."

Bushwhacking 1-3: This is subplots that are woven together...we know how important subplots are to a good story. Meeting are villain is important as are secondary characters, especially giving them something to do and adding some depth to the story. Again, I go back to Snyder and his "B Story," which by his reckoning is often the "love story." A lot of these concepts are slower to develop in a narrative work where in a musical there is the finite space of one song per concept.

Stars: This is about the star of the musical, where they are given a song to shine based on their particular talent. There's a place for this in narrative, how do we make our MC sparkle and shine. This is where you would do that.

Tent Poles: A high energy number that helps the audience reach the big finale of Act One. Really it's sort of the opening number of what would be Act Two of a Three Act structure.This sort of blends into Fun & Games/ The Noise for most narrative, though an event happening in the narrative might be just what a reader needs to.

Curtain Act 1: The big closing number of the first act. Defying Gravity. Non-Stop. La Vie Boheme. A mini-peak in the narrative, I find it's more of a musical thing as it's often the most memorable number of the musical and one of the most important. I'm not sure how I could get this to work in a novel, it'd be sort of the Mid-Point in Snyder's Save the Cat structure.

Curtain Up Act 2: Action plunging us back into the story. Often time has passed. Intermission doesn't exist in novels, though I could see a tipping point happening in a novel that sets the entire second half of the story in motion.

The Candy Dish: A problematic part of musicals...and novels. How do we get from the midpoint to the beginning of the end. How do we get there? What can we do that is going to keep the reader interested in what happens next? Are there too many threads to tie up? We've addressed so much, what else can we address without adding too much new to confuse the reader? This is character development and plot thickening time. In a narrative, I think this is longer than one number in a musical.

Beginning to Pack: This start happening. Someone's pulled the drain. Snyder's Black Moment. Pretty obvious this is a necessity in novels.

The Main Event: The big moment. Everything had led to this. The battle. The showdown. The big game.

The Next-To-Last Scene:The resolution. The hobbits seeing the decrepit Bilbo again. Sam returning to the Shire.

The End: Duh.

So, can we structure an entire novel this way? Not entirely, but there are things to use. As I said, the book was worth the read if for no other reason that reading the line THE AUDIENCE IS IN TROUBLE. That is a quote I will think about every time I write a novel from now on.

I'm going to do a follow up post on this looking at one of my novels that I've written to see what applies and how. I have a feeling it's going to be a stretch, but we'll see.

For now, keep your eyes out for the epic fantasy grunge rock opera THE GRUNGE LORDS coming to Broadway in the next ten years!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Few Thoughts On: Daily Rituals: How Artists Work

I'm on a monster reading tear since giving up social media for Lent and I finished the book DAILY RITUALS: HOW ARTISTS WORK by Mason Currey. It was a fascinating book and I have some thoughts about it.

I've been reading more writing books than usual this year as I'm trying to nail down what I need to fix in my own writing. I'm going to try and take notes as I read then put them together into something that's a coherent discussion. This is the first of those books.

Creative people are fascinating creatures with even more fascinating habits and rituals. I study them, dreaming of a day when I can have my own writing rituals as a full time writer. As it stands now, my ritual is sporadic and streaky at best. But I've lamented about this before and I won't do so now. I want to make some comments about reading this book and what it left me feeling about creative people and their rituals while comparing them to mine.

A quick note: if I have a gripe against this book it's that there is very little in the way of contemporary writers. Most of the writers in the book are long gone and come from a different time. A time when there was either a patronage for the arts or you could actually make something of a living from working as a writer. So, anyway, some thoughts.

  • Lots of smoking and coffee. I mean a lot of smoking and drinking. It made me feel like I should be doing a lot more of both. I do drink chai lattes from my Kuerig (Dunkin Donuts on occasion), but no coffee for me. 
  • Benzedrine too. Every other entry seemed to mention the almost necessity of drugs to help fuel their creativity. I am not interested in drugs to fuel my creativity. As I'm typing this, I'm getting over some major dental work while refusing anything heavier than Advil. 
  • Many worked for short periods of time, 2-4 hours maximum. This was surprising. There were writers that worked for longer periods of time, but for the most part, they'd work for only a few hours a day. There is an massive expenditure of energy that comes with being a creative person and the more I think about it the more I realize that it makes sense because even on a good day, I might spend a grand total of four hours on a good day of writing. So I got that going for me. 
  • Morning work time, often 5-6 am or at dawn. Many writers stuck to working in the early AM before they had to work OR that was just when they wrote, often finishing up before noon and having the rest of the day to do whatever. I'd love to do this and tried to this weekend, but for some reason I just couldn't get out of bed earlier than 8 am. And weekdays, I get up between 6 and 6:30 for work. I just don't think I can get up earlier than that. And I mean physically. The interesting thing about this is that where it didn't make sense to me when I was younger, now that I'm in my mid forties I totally get it. I used to be a write at night kind of guy, but the energy isn't there anymore. After everyone goes to bed at night (an ordeal in and of itself), my brain just doesn't want to write. It wants to watch stupid videos, catch whatever movie is on HBO, TCM or whatever and just cycle down for the night. It's something I think I have to change.
  • Naps. Lots of naps. I can get on board with this, if I could convince my wife I would become a famous writer. This might help with the brain at night, but again, without a note from the home office, I don't see this one floating.
  • Did I mention coffee and cigarettes? Good God, the amount of coffee and cigarettes consumed by authors of some repute is just astonishing. 
  • Exercise. This doesn't surprise me in the least. I see a difference in my writing when I'm exercising then when I'm not. From a simple afternoon walk (which I intend to start doing when the weather gets a little nicer) to swimming (another one that makes perfect sense to me) to gym workouts (my preferred source of exercise when my not 21 year old body isn't betraying me). I've been doing better with this and I'm hoping it reflects in my writing in the coming months. 
  • Solitude and assistants. I can clear the air about assistants. I'll never have one. I'll never be that successful. But the importance of assistants to some writers is fascinating. Many writers never typed, leaving that up to assistants. Yet, despite this reliance on them, writing is a solitary affair. Actually, most creative endeavors require a soul crushing amount of solitude...and most dealt with it my including massive amounts of social time in their day, whether that was with their families, contemporaries or friends. It's a weakness I have and I recognize. I've become, as was recently reported online, one of those middle aged men without close friends. I'm trying though, reconnecting with old friends and trying to make new ones. I often wonder if I have developed a sort of social anxiety disorder. I've made some great friends over the last few years through school and my writing, but I often find myself completely unable and unwilling to meet them in person because I just can't manage it. I've been trying to fix this, but it's hard to change, there's a lot of code to rewrite.
  • Coping with jobs and families. Again, there was some of this, but I think that since many of the examples written in the book were from days gone by, a lot of them were dated. I certainly spend more time and doing more stuff with my kids than I remember my dad growing up and the book supports this, especially since many of the writers were from the 20s to the 60s, when gender roles were very different than today. To be honest, I found more in common with some of the women writers that were mothers than the male writers that were fathers. 
  • Architects are some weird people. More so than painters, composers and writers. I'm talking weird stuff like nudity, sexual depravity and general weirdness. 
  • Coffee and cigarettes. If I got one thing from this books it's that most of the creative works people love owe a lot to coffee and cigarettes. 
The book left me with some interesting ideas that I think I realize that I'll never implement. I'd like to, but it won't happen. Maybe slowly over time. I think the first one I want to do is waking up earlier. Baby steps. 

The next writing book I'm going to talk about: THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL. No, seriously. See you then.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Muse, She Calls

God, what a pretentious and cliched title for a blog. But it happened that way. Seriously.

I'm in the middle of a requested revise and rewrite for WINTER'S DISCORD that put my 90s ski epic on hold for a bit. I'm not saying more so not to jinx it. Perfect timing as Mid-Winter break was on the horizon. As is often the case, however, when I'm given something to do, especially related to my writing, I find the polar opposite of said task and do that instead. So naturally in the three weeks since the request, I've done things around my house, caught up on school work and made countless (and equally useless) playlists on Spotify that I'm realizing now I'm going to have to use on later drafts. But I'm now elbows deep into the rewrite and making progress. The suggestions weren't heavy lifting changes, but heavy enough.

I'm grooving away, fixing what needs to be fixed. I can see the hourglass though, knowing that how long I work on it might be a test too. Then, last night, as I'm driving my daughter to ice skating lessons, something hits me right in the face. Not literally but figuratively. I came up with a new opening for the 90s ski epic. I fumbled with it in my mind as I watched my daughter learn to skate then last night I tried to commit it to the computer, but as with everything in my life, I couldn't quite wrangle it down. Maybe it was the 4 year old trying to get comfortable sitting next to me on the couch and fighting sleep at the same time. Maybe it was watching Cleopatra on TCM last night (and not Tweeting about it since I've given that up for Lent!). Maybe it was that the muse wasn't fully ready to give me what I needed. But I was getting nagged about it. It wanted to be worked on, even though WINTER is the priority. I tried to ignore it, but stared at the open file on my desk top (students are working on research projects). Now my muse decides to kick in and I couldn't ignore it anymore. And I wrote and wrote, in my notebook. And I'm very happy with it. It'll still be there when I get back to the ski epic and I think the story will be better for it.

Back to WINTER for now.

(Because of my Lenten promise, mostly to my daughter, I can't link this from any of my social networks, but I needed to say something about it.)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Little Barrel Maker

A few years back I participated in the Seven Valley's Writing Project, a high intensive writing program for teachers, and it's left an indelible mark on me as a teacher and as a writer. I wish there were more opportunities to participate in things like it and maybe something I do in 2017 is make more time for things like it. One of the things that we picked up was the concept of a found poem. A found poem is taking a line or two from something you've read and turning it into a poem. That year I did a found poem with my students while doing the play Fences. You all know my love of the play, so this was an important assignment. I'm telling you this for a reason.

Today is February 18th. It's my son's 4th birthday. At 2:20 on February 18, 2013, Cooper John Zeleznik was plucked into the world much the same as MacBeth. A few years later the line "I don't want him to be like me. I want him to move as far away from my life as he can get" was striking a serious chord with me and I wrote this poem about my son:

The day he was born was cold,
But he was warm like the spring.

Cool gray eyes in a tiny pink body
That shivered in the winter air.

Forty hid around the corner from me,
Yet this little barrel maker was fresh and new.

Well worn and weary,
I looked down at him
Feeling old, tired,
Filled with paths not taken.

Anger and
Smoldering in my chest.

But that is not the path for him.

I wonder if my father thought the same thing,
Forty years earlier,
Looking down at my cherubic face
On a snowy eve in Astoria, Queens.

My path was different than his,
But not as much as I'd like to think.
And that makes me sad.

As I look down at my little barrel maker
I say, "I don't want you to be like me.
I want you to move
As far away from my life as you can get."

Then I wonder if saying it out loud is enough.

With a heavy sigh,
I stroke the soft cheek with an ashy knuckle
And whisper "I love you" to a fuzzy ear.

Happy birthday Cooper, Daddy loves you. (That's not part of the poem.)

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The State of Z

I'm feeling reflective this afternoon. Things are heavy on my mind. The hangover-esque haze of 2016 still hasn't worn off and on the eve of the Inauguration, I find myself listless. I swore I wasn't going to let it affect me, but it has and I'm sort bummed about it all. I'm trying to fight it but it's difficult to do so in light of all that's going on around me. Social networks haven't helped. But I'm trying and for the first time in a few months, writing has helped.

I set out to write 350k words this year. So far, not including today, I've written 17,811 words in 2017. I'm very happy about this. I'm clearly on pace to hit that mark and then some. Part of the plan was to average 1,000 words a day and factor 15 non-writing days in there. I've written 17 out of the 18 days this year. I already wrote a little today and will write more later with a vague goal of hitting 20k by tonight. We'll see. I'm not panicked about not hitting it, but we'll see. I'm happy with the writing even though it's not writing I'm going to be able to do anything with it.

What does that mean, you ask? Well, I'll tell you.

This project I'm working on started life as a novelette. But as I wrote, it demanded to do things with the story and, as I'm wont to do, I listened to the story. And it's turned into something entirely different. I've been tweeting a lot about it and how frustrated I am by what it is doing and the fact that it is highly unlikely I'll ever be able to do anything with it. I toyed with the idea of making it middle grade, but I don't know if that's the answer. It might require a little padding to get it closer to a 45-50k word count. As of right now, it should clock in about the 31-33k word count. Not quite long enough for a MG novel and far closer to a novella in length.

If anything ever comes of THE LOST SCIONS, it could be a prequel novella, which is what it started out as in the first place. If I had an agent, I probably could submit it to, but I don't, so that's not on the table. I just don't know. But I'm sort of okay with it. I found my mojo again. I'm being disciplined about writing again. And it feels good. Not the false feeling of good that I had with my many failed starts from last year, but a feeling of genuine accomplishment in writing. And it's something I can build on.

I've got two ideas in the hopper for "what's next" and I'm actually going to commit some time to planning them along with a couple of loose ends here and there. The plan is to be able to dive into one of the new projects right away. One is a Harry Potter/Great Gatsby, roaring 20s set fantasy and the other is a coming of age story set in the 1990s to the drop back of skiing and stand up comedy. The former is a recent project and the latter is a project that's been kicking around forever that I think I'm getting my legs under me.

As for what's done, THE LOST SCIONS didn't get the traction I would've liked. It's still out in a few places, but I think that it may still be a little too traditional right now. I'm not sure. I'll revisit it again. I have to, I'm writing the prequel novella and I have about 10k of the sequel written.

WINTER'S DISCORD is still breathing. I'd say more, but not now. Maybe later I'll be able to celebrate it. But not yet. There's actually a few potential things I could be celebrating about, but, again, I don't want to talk about it yet.

I'm doing some research reading for HP/GG (no title yet, but I'm leaning towards something with MARVELOUS in the title) and plodding through THE DIVINERS with a few other books involving magic and the 1920s. The problem I'm having is do I make MARVELOUS YA or adult. I'm leaning towards adult, but we'll see. This is where not having an agent is really bad. I'm then wading back into some heavy fantasy work since down the line I want to return to the genre I love with a new project, which means I'll be worldbuilding a lot in the coming months. My friend Neil and I are talking about doing a Wheel of Time blogfest or something like that. I'm one book behind him and y'all know how big those books are, so stay tuned for that.

I've even managed to carve out some gym time. I'm going to do a blog post on this in a few weeks because I'm on a new program that is completely outside my comfort zone. I've felt really, really, really weak for a long time and decided that I wanted to do some old school strength training. I did my research and settled on the StrongLifts 5x5 program. And I love it. I'll talk more about this in a month when I've been doing it for that long.

School is school. We've entered project season for my seniors. It's good writing time for me....until projects are due, which is next week for the first batch!

So, that's the State of Z as of right now. I'll leave you with this: write like you are running out of time and remember to love one another.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

A Few Thoughts On Fences

I've been teaching for twelve years now, teaching every grade level from 9 to 12. Some of my favorite experiences have been teaching the plays of August Wilson. His stories are moving and epic in scope in a way that kind of sneaks up on you. When I read that Denzel Washington had acquired the rights to produce Wilson's work for the large and small screen, I was stoked. FENCES was the obvious first choice because it is such an important part of the American canon and Denzel had a successful run on Broadway with it. And the film was terrific.

As someone that's taught (and read FENCES) dozens of times, seeing the lines from the play on screen were terrific and moving, especially when comparing them to the way that I imagined them. It's interesting to see just how different the story plays out in the film compared to the way that I imagined it. The big difference was in the level of intensity of particular scenes and how they played out in Denzel's version of the play. (Have never seen any actual performances of the play other than this and my class reading it out loud, this is my only experience with it.)

Denzel and Viola Davis OWN Troy and Rose. Denzel's physical transformation into Troy for the film was astonishing. There was never a doubt that he had the chops to embody the character of Troy Maxon, but physically he became the character. And you can just feel through all the emotions that Rose is feeling in every scene just from a look. She captures the complexity of the character of Rose and delivers all the feels from a gut wrenching, broken hearted speech when she finds out about Troy's infidelity to a quiet, four minute rebuke that made me literally say, "OH SHIT!" out loud. But it's the quiet understanding that no matter what, she is Troy's woman. Stephen McKinley Henderson (who has been in a million things) plays his role as Bono perfectly, actually elevating the role from my expectation.

The film was slightly padded, not entirely in a bad way and kept the staging simple focusing on a more theater style (reminded me of the Dustin Hoffman DEATH OF A SALESMAN but in an actual yard) as opposed to a cinematic one. But the way the film was shot added to the film in so many ways, moving in ways you couldn't on a stage and playing to Troy's wild story telling and the almost claustrophobia of the neighborhood where they live.

A few notes:

  • One of my favorite scenes in any play/film ever is the "How come you never liked me?" scene. The two most well known versions of it are the original James Earl Jones one and the Denzel one from the Broadway revival. Jones's version is thick, tense and intimidation while Denzel's is lighter, funnier and more playful. In the film, Denzel practically did the Jones version beat for beat. I gasped when he was doing it and had to explain to my wife why I reacted that way. 
  • Denzel did some of his best work when he wasn't talking. Troy is a talker, but the quiet moments were where Denzel shined. The desperation and frustration in Troy's face and body when confronted by Gabe, not only what was wrong with Gabe but what Gabe's injuries provided for the Maxon family that Troy could not, was palpable. The heartbreaking reaction to Rose's "You are a womanless man" line is just stunning. 
  • The kid playing Cory was overwhelmed. Seriously. He was good, but when sharing the screen with this cast, the kid just couldn't hang, which may have been the thought when casting him. 
  • The relationship between Bono and Troy is so incredibly well played and way better than the way that I've read in class. I'd always seen Bono as the Chester to Troy's Spike (Looney Toons reference), but it isn't played that way at all. They are equals and one of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when Bono calls Troy on his BS and living up to his threat. 
  • The play also contains one of my favorite lines in the English language. Troy is talking about his son and says, "I want him to move as far away from my life as he can." As a father (especially as the father of a son), this line is everything. I wrote a found poem using it about my own son. It just hits me right in the chest and did so when Denzel said it. I'm pretty sure my wife didn't notice me getting the dust out of my eye.