Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Marvel Cinematic Universe Redux

Back in June 2015 I did a ranking of all the Marvel movies. I'm now caught up all the way through GOTG Vol 2, so I thought that I'd update my list since I moved some around and ranked the new ones. So, in reverse order:

15. IRON MAN 2: The movie is a mess. It has moments but it's the weakest MCU movie.

14. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON: Another mess of a movie. How can one movie (Winter Soldier) get Black Widow so right while this one gets her so wrong? I mean the Hulkbuster was awesome, the party scene was fun and Ultron was a worthy opponent, but the character stuff fell short when it was good and was offensive when it was bad. It feels like some of the worthy human opponents of the Avengers got cast aside in favor of the big baddies.

13. THE INCREDIBLE HULK: See my previous post.

Again, if this were a race, these would be way behind.

12. THOR
11. IRON MAN 3
10. THE AVENGERS
9. IRON MAN
 (See previous post, but IRON MAN and THE AVENGERS both moved down a slot.)

8. ANT-MAN: Marvel's attempt to do a heist movie with a lighter tone...and it works in spades. It helps that Paul Rudd is charming as hell and the rest of the cast is pitch perfect, which is something you could say about every one of these movies. The movie balances the comedy perfectly with the action of a Marvel movie while building on the mythology of the universe, which is important at this point in the MCU. And yes, I think it's a better movie than all those other one, mostly because I think that Marvel's really good at doing these films at this point, so it's a sharper product this time around.

7. DOCTOR STRANGE: A terrific and exciting introduction of the mystic side of the MCU. Benedict Cumberbatch oozes charm and brings a character I knew very little about to the forefront, instantly making him a major player in the MCU. His mention in Winter Soldier helped, which makes me want to look up a MCU timeline to see where these movies take place in relation to one another. But that's a question for another time. I liked Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One a lot. I know that's an unpopular opinion, but the hand waved explanation worked for me and it fit the story. The supporting cast was terrific as well, which is just as important as anything else in the MCU. My only gripe with the movie is that they completely wasted Rachel McAdams.

Back to the race analogy: movies 7-12 would be in a pack, close together and sometimes switching order, depending on my mood at the time. The next set is a little bit ahead but in a close pack as well.

6. THOR: THE DARK WORLD: See my original post, but this one dropped a bit because of some additions and a promotion of another.

5. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: See original post, but I moved this up substantially because, really, the Captain America movies are so much better than the rest and this one really is well done, so I felt it deserved the promotion.

4. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2: I really, really liked this movie. I don't know why people didn't like this movie. I thought it was a great continuation of the first movie that expanded on the idea of family in so many ways while adding depth. I love the whole father/son theme that ran through the entire film and the terrific shout outs (as a film buff, English teacher and 80s nostalgia buff) that the movie makes. The continuing fleshing out of the galactic side of the MCU is important to the upcoming Infinity Wars while giving inspiration for the forthcoming THOR: RAGNAROK. It also kept the same tone as the first movie, which I thought was incredibly important, while upping the stakes, another incredibly important part of this universe.

3.CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR: Really the best Avengers movie made. It had everything you'd want and built on everything that happened in WINTER SOLDIER while effectively poaching what actually worked in AGE OF ULTRON. The movie had me on the edge of my seat for almost the entire movie and the quiet moments were just as good as the loud moments. And the loud moments were amazing, visually, story wise and emotionally. Every aspect of it was damn near perfect but it's only 3 because while I think it's a better movie than my number 2, I thought number 2 was even more entertaining and did more.

2. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: See my original post. If I was ranking these movies as the BEST, this would slide down to 3, but it's so entertaining that it's still my 2.

Okay, the race analogy still stands. 2-6 are a close cluster, but number 1 is far and away ahead. The right balance of a great movie and an entertaining movie. I just rewatched it this weekend and man, it was amazing, so number one:

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Missing the Sense of Awe

I had a thought last week while writing. It was sort of out of the blue and it brought my writing to a screeching halt. It's not a bad thing. I was at the end of a chapter and really happy with the progress I. I made. I still don't know exactly what this book is, but I'm very happy with it and I'm already thinking of ways to fix it in the next draft. It needs a heavy rewrite and is definitely not ready for eyes other than my own. It's very much a zero draft.

When I write, I usually multitask, so I had a couple of browser windows open and was moving back and forth between school stuff, my writing and some good old fashioned book browsing over on Goodreads, seeing if there was any good epic fantasies I was missing. I'm thinking a little bit ahead and have some ideas of what I want to write in the coming months. One of the things I want to do is go back to my roots and write a new spin on an old school epic fantasy. I want to sort of go back to school and study some of those kinds of books to see how I can spin them. As I was looking at some of the Goodreads lists and I was overcome with a sense of melancholy about some of the books I was seeing. Let me explain.

I cut my teeth on LORD OF THE RINGS, DRAGONLANCE and DRIZZT. That was my early education in fantasy. It's a pretty good list, nothing to shake a stick at. I learned a lot from them and they are formative parts of who I am as a person and a writer. But as I was looking at these lists that people made or added to, I was overcome with a degree of sadness at all the things that I missed as a young reader. I didn't read Lloyd Alexander, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, Tamora Pierce, Robert Jordan, Tad Williams, Robin McKinley, Guy Gavriel Kay, Diana Wynne Jones, David Gemmel or Melanie Rawn as a teen, and I can't help but feel like I missed out on something.

Now, don't get me wrong, I've read many of these authors and their work over the years, but I think there is something that I'm missing by reading them as an adult. And that something keeps getting more and more distant the older I get. When I read LOTR or DRAGONLANCE as a middle schooler, there was a sense of whimsy, of awe at the work I was reading. The characters. The world. The intricate plots. There was something to that feeling. There was some weight to it that has stuck with me all these years later. And as I've gotten older, that feeling isn't there as much anymore. And that struck me with a deep sense of sadness.

There are still books that move me, don't get me wrong. There are books that as soon as I start reading them put me in that right state of mind that is close to that feeling. A GAME OF THRONES did it when I first read it in December of 2000 in Oswego, That one changed my life. NY. SHIP BREAKER did it when I read it a few years back. Most recently MYSTIC RIVER really wowed me. But it's not the same as the sense of wonder and awe I got as I read about Boromir's death or the Battle of Helm's Deep or the Ride of the Rorhirrim. I know this is fact because I recently reread the DRAGONLANCE books and the Battle of the High Clerist's Tower fell flat. And that made me sad. The wonder was gone.

Was it me? Or was it the work? Or was it a combination?

Had I become so angry, so jaded that these things of wonder didn't register with me anymore? The HARRY POTTER books came close, but not nearly close to the memory of the way I felt reading LOTR or DRAGONLANCE.

Was it the romance of the experience? The days of bookstores is nearly over. I can remember vividly buying the DRAGONLANCE books at an independent bookstore in the local mall. I remember obsessing over them and devouring them. The entire experience was romantic, I suppose. I can remember the cold and snow as I bought them. I remember what they meant to a giant, awkward me in the halls of Soule Road Middle School. I remember being more comfortable with those worlds than my own.

And maybe that's enough. Maybe that memory is enough. But there's still an underlying sadness in that I'll never experience that again.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Romantic Notion

Thursday night, I did something I view as "romantic." I wrote by candlelight.

We had a power outage. A big storm came blowing through (a motif this Summer) and after a few hiccups with the power, it eventually decided to crap out on us, leaving us without lights, television and the blessed Internet. It was just about dusk, so there was still some light out but it was just dark enough to not be completely comfortable. Both of my kids were a little freaked out about it, especially my son Cooper.

Cooper can be skittish when presented with things that aren't routine or normal. A power outage at dusk is something that clearly falls into those parameters. He curled up on to my lap only the way a tiny skittish boy of four can, begging me to turn the lights back on. I often say that if I could I would move Heaven and Earth for my children but the laws of physics dictate that I can't. (Reason 437 why my wife things I'm annoying.) I soothed him as best I could, assuring him that everything was alright and I was right there with him (albeit playing a rousing game of Candy Crush on my phone) as I held him.

Cooper is a cuddler and has a thing for ears (that's going to be a fun middle school phone call, isn't it?), so as we sat curled into a ball of Zeleznik crammed into an oversized leather chair, he rubbed my ear like a well worn worry stone. Luckily, Cooper has been attending a summer camp at his daycare and was particularly tired. I also took him swimming at my in-laws, so with no electronics to overstimulate him, sleep came quickly in the dark. It was a relief.

Across the room, my wife Kim complained that she was going to have to sit in her car to charge her phone because she was under 10 %. My phone wasn't much better at just south of 30%. (Admittedly, Candy Crush wasn't helping.) We are staying in a rental place while repairs are taking place at the house, so we do not have a land line. Our cell phones are necessities, so keeping them charged is a must. Kim suggested taking a ride to see how many people didn't have power. I was all for it except for the bundle of nervous four year old curled beside me. I suggested that she, Natalie and my mother take a ride and leave me at home. I was afraid that if Cooper woke up and I wasn't there, he'd be even more skittish than usual. So they left, taking my phone (now under 20%) with them to charge and leaving me with my mother's phone, just in case.

As the sun waned, I noticed some candles on the hutch in the dining room. I also had my trusty writer's notebook. I could write. I might as well right since I had nothing going on, so I set Coop down on the chair and set about hunting for a lighter or match or something. It took about fifteen minutes to find a match and it took two matches to light the candle. (I am not a smoker and my pyromania ended in my mid-twenties.) It created a lot more light than I expected and I set about working. I wrote most of this in that time period and also worked on a section of THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE, which I started to feel like I was stalling and decided to charge through it and fix what I'm seeing as glaring issues in the rewrite. It was the right decision.

As I was writing, I began to wonder if this is what writing was like for the writers of yore. There was a notion of romanticism in it, like I was somehow writing something of great importance. Something that had some weight to it. (It's neither of those things.) I liked the way it felt. I mean, sure, I was using a Pilot G2 pen, not a fountain pen or a quill. I was writing in an old school composition notebook, not on parchment or in some fancy notebook. (I still hold out hope that one day I will upgrade myself to a fancy notebook though I'm still a fan of the durability and versatility of the composition notebook.) I don't know how long I wrote for, but the session ended when I got a text message from Kim that she wanted me to open the garage door. And like a dope, I tried to do it, forgetting there was no power. As the girls entered the house, Kim and I laughing about how we were both idiots about the garage door. the power popped on. Just in time for Natalie and I to catch our Thursday night tradition of watching the Gong Show together.

Maybe I'll write by candlelight some more in the future. Maybe not.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

So That Was July

Whenever I make ambitious plans for my life, I find that they almost always collapse under the weight of my expectation and reality. And that'exactly what happened in July. I had ambitious plans and just couldn't exactly hit the marks I wanted to hit. I still did okay, but not as well as I'd wished. But I'm actually okay with it and that's as important as part of the process as doing the writing sometimes.

I didn't blog as much as I'd liked. Summer school has kept me busier than I thought as I work at making sure the kids have enough work to do...not that they are doing it, but I want to make sure there isn't idle time beyond when they decide they aren't doing the work. It's kind of a wasted expenditure of energy but a necessary one. It's mildly soul crushing because most of these kids just don't care but are showing up every day to just hang out in my room, watch videos and shoot the shit. And comically I think most of them think they are passing....but I promised that I wasn't going to spend a lot of space talking about my job on this blog so I won't. I still blogged more than I have at other times. I blogged more than I have since I first came over to Blogger from LiveJournal.

I've got some ideas for blogs I want to write, including one on how the quality of the Vacation movies are entirely dependent on the quality of the Audrey and Rusty.

Life has been busy, as it usually is. Between what I'll call "fire business" to general tiredness from school, I've found myself back into a cycle of doing mindless stuff when I've gone home when I'm not busy with actual things to do like doctor's appointments, stuff with the kids and other errands that need to be done. It always disappoints me that I fall into this cycle but I have to learn to stop beating myself up over this. I'm learning but it's hard.

My Harry Potter read is moving along, slower than I want. I'm on Prisoner of Azkaban and I have some thoughts about how it might've been the one that "grew the beard" for the HP series. I'm going to add that to the blog idea list as well, plus an explanation of that specific trope. I'm itching for some big book epic fantasy and plan on using the later Potter books as a primer for that.

Finished 11 books for the month including a fun book about Godzilla and a few YA books that really surprised me. I'm listening to The Well's End by Seth Fishman (a literary agent that I would love to work with) in the car (it's a little tropey but really, really good) and still plodding through Alexander Hamilton. I'm well on my way to finishing 120 books for the year.

As for the reason you all came here, the writing. I only got about 10,000 words, which is way below what I was hoping for. However, I'm very happy with those words. This story is really something and it's moving along nicely. The issue I'm having with it is that I've been pantsing it, so the narrative can me a little muddled and I'm letting things surprise me as I find them in the writing. I've been tempted to do what I call half-drafting it. What that means in terms of me is stopping the draft where it is and starting over, cleaning up what I already wrote to get the ending right. I call it halving because I create a new file and give it a .5 designation. That means this would be saved as Picture1.5. I'm not sure if I'm there yet, but I know there's things I want to add to the story from where I am now, but part of me wants to just get through it and then fix it later. I will let you all know. The word count stands at just north of 45k. I'd like to make a run at finishing it this month and that's very doable.

My other works kind of fizzled. I did some stuff on the next epic fantasy I want to write and messed around with my Instagram fiction idea a little, but I'm not locked into it yet.

I'm not making plans for August. Maybe that'll help me actually do all the things that I want to do.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Despite All My Rage

I have an anger problem. If you've spent any time with me outside of the digital world, you know this already. Maybe you don't. But I do and I was thinking about this a lot this week. But to tell you this story, I have to tell you a story first.

The other day I was driving around doing errands. I canceled my satellite radio recently and I am stuck with local radio again. So as I'm scanning the channels, I find myself completely alarmed at the number of Inspirational music channels there are in the Syracuse area. Seriously. Something you need to know about me is that I have an almost perverse, obsessive, intense disdain for the music. So this means that I actively listen to it just to be angry at it. This is a sickness.

Now I'm not going to go into my own issues with faith and religion. If you didn't know, I am a practicing Catholic. But I have questions and issues with the Church that I'm going to leave between me, the Church and the Almighty, So I have a hard time in believing that someone believes in something that much that they sing about it. It's unreasonable for me to feel this way. It could come to my own issues with faith, it could come from the hypocrisy I see in Christianity as a whole, I'm not quite sure. If someone believes in something and it makes them feel good, good for them. But it seems that I draw the line at Inspirational music. I find it false, sappy and disingenuous. Are people in such a need to be told they are special and they are loved that they find solace in this garbage? And I am (probably wrongfully) judging you for listening to it.

So I'm hate listening to one of the numerous stations broadcasting this crap and flipping between the station (that I do not remember) and KROCK Syracuse (one of two "modern" rock stations in town, though modern rock now is more like classic rock when I was a kid...but this is a discussion for another post). On the inspirational channel was a song called "Live Like You Are Loved." That I remember the song bothers me so much. It's sung by a group called Hawk Nelson. No, seriously. That's their name. I was relieved when I found out it was a band not a single singer. According to Wikipedia (dubious, I know) they are a "pop punk" band. I'm sorry, excuse me while I pee my pants laughing. They were nominated in the Alternative Rock category for some Christian music award show. Oops, sorry I peed my pants.

There is NOTHING "alternative" about these guys. Anyway, back to my story....KROCK on the other hand was playing "The Vengeful One" by Disturbed. I was obviously drawn to this. Then I began to question why. What was it about the Disturbed song that drew me where the Hawk Nel....I almost made it through that without laughing....son song didn't. What about one made sense to me and the other didn't? I'm not a dark guy. I'm not drawn to darkness. But if you listen to Disturbed there is a rage there...and I can relate to that. I can access rage and work with it. I feel it almost constantly, just under the surface of my being, like a coiled spring. And sometimes I let it get the better of me. And when it's over, I feel small and empty. Until it builds back up in me. It's one of the reasons the Hulk has always been one of my favorite superheroes. And people that know me a little can see it in me I think. It's probably the reason that I hate listen to inspirational music. I need something to focus my rage on and it's as good a place as any.

I don't have an ending for this. Some wise comment, some connection to my writing. I think if I wrote angry it would be very Overlook Hotel-ish, but I've discussed how writing makes me feel when I'm doing it. So know that if you see me, much like the Hulk, I am always angry.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

About The Ed Sheeran Thing

If you're living under a rock somewhere and didn't realize it, Sunday night was the season premier of Game of Thrones. Now I could do an entire episode rundown discussing how I thought it was damn near perfect. I could talk about that great opening (which despite being completely telegraphed was awesome), Cersei's descent into insanity, the Euron/Jaime snark fight, Jon/Sansa, Lyanna Mormont (do we not all love her?) or the gorgeous shots of the castles and keeps of Westeros. But I'm not going to do that

I love a good table setting and seeing the pieces being moved into place. This episode did that just brilliantly. My former agent used to say the opening chapter of the "next" book always should have some summary to catch the reader up. Well D&D did that perfectly, giving us tastes of what was going to happen. There were some great moments in the episode, including a few that I seemed to like more than a lot of people on the interwebs. No, I'm not going to talk about Sam's shit duty (see what I did there), though technically it was a brilliant piece of technical film making. I'm talking about a certain cameo.

The interwebs went crazy at the inclusion of pop/rock star Ed Sheeran. People really seem to hate Ed. I don't. I kind of dig his music. I've reached that age where I'm kind of stuck in the loop of the same music over and over and Ed kind of fits in there. And the producers put him in what I thought was a great scene, one that did so much (besides featuring him singing) to make Arya's murder tour that much more difficult as we met what appeared to be a decent bunch of Lannister soldiers sharing a meal and offering Arya a seat and the first bite. You can see the doubt in Arya that the ideas of good and evil aren't do simple. But people didn't seem to notice that. They noticed poor Ed Sheeran. I guess that the heat got so bad, he had to delete his Twitter account.

I don't understand the hate for this. If you don't like his music or whatever, then good for you. But to hate him for doing a cameo on your favorite show then you are a petty, jealous little troll. I'm serious. We all wish that we had that level of fame where we could appear on our favorite shows or movies. Who cares that he did this? I've also heard that Mets pitcher Noah "Thor" Syndergaard  put in a cameo this season as well. How is this a big deal when it's been going on forever?

Star Trek has done celebrity cameos for years and years. And I'm not talking about guest stars...I'm talking background cameos. Freaking Iggy Pop, one of the coolest humans of all time, got put in make up to play a Vorta on DS9. (Okay, maybe that was an extended cameo, but you get my meaning.) There are whole websites dedicated to famous cameos in Star Trek shows and movies (not to mention the "before they were famous" appearances). Star Wars has done the same thing. There was a similar outcry when there was a rumor that George Lucas put N*Sync in Star Wars and even then I felt it was much ado about nothing. There have been senators in Batman movies, athletes in comedies (and tons of scifi) and even royalty playing starship crewmen.

We've become a society that does nothing but hate. We take our personal bitterness, anger and jealousy and blast it out into the ether. We aren't allowed to love the things we love anymore, just defend them. We want to tell people that they aren't allowed to love what we love because they aren't "real" fans. And I'm growing tired of it.

So, Ed Sheeran, if you read this. Welcome to the fandom. I'd suggest checking out Ran's board, creating an account and joining the conversation, we'd love to hear your insights, even if you're just a TV watcher. And if you'll indulge me...was the Lannister armor as uncomfortable as it looked? Thanks.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Thoughts On Harry Potter, Part 2: The Sorcerer's Stone

Man, I forgot how great a book that The Sorcerer's Stone was. Every choice that Rowling makes is the right one, even the one at the beginning I disagree with. She's truly a master and I can't figure out what the editors that passed on it were thinking. I'm sure many of them are thinking the same thing. 

The first book was a study in economy. Both of words and plot points. Rowling doesn't waste a single thing. They all serve some purpose to the story and she doesn't waste them. She includes the things that are important to the story and doesn't belabor it. It's refreshing that every minute detail isn't described in every minute detail. We don't need to see example after example of how Snape hates Harry, she establishes it, revisits it only when it's absolutely necessary. It's really brilliant. 

The book is filled with terrific whimsy too and moments that just reverberate when they happen, especially on the reread. When Harry, Ron and Hermione become the Harry, Ron and Hermione we all know and love, it's magical. (It's always three isn't it?) Neville is so much more special than I remember him and feel there's a terrific sidestory there. I had forgotten about the fight they get into with Malfoy, Crabbe and Goyle during the Quidditch match (that wasn't in the movie). It's a pivotal moment, because Ron wades in because Ron is Ron, but terminal coward Neville adopts an "ahh, f-it" attitude and charges into battle. No questions. No prodding. Just a straight up "these are my boys." It's terrific foreshadowing of the hero Neville becomes. 

We get more of the world and it's wonderful, but you can tell there's a curtain to pull back and that's just what makes it so special. Rowling's tone is terrific and it still feels appropriately middle reader, but the books grew up with the readers and I'm looking forward to see how the tone changes as Rowling recognizes her audience. 

Now, on to The Chamber of Secrets.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Thoughts On Harry Potter, Part 1

Well, this whole blogging every day had fizzled for a bit but I am still writing. Not exactly the pace I want, but I've been expending a lot of energy on summer school. I'm disappointed in myself, but here I go dipping my toe back into the blogging water.

I began my reread of Harry Potter yesterday obviously starting with Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's Stone. I forgot how genuinely genius these books were and Rowling's mastery. I had the book on my nightstand for a few weeks and I picked it up just to peruse the opening, then I looked up and it was 20 minutes later, so I had to force myself to put it aside, I had to bring my daughter to lacrosse practice. It's really amazing and draws you right in. You are transported to that alternate 1991. I'm about a third of the way through and love being fully immersed in the world for the first time in many, many years.

Rowling is a master worldbuilder and probably doesn't get the credit in the fantasy lit world for being so. Her magical world is just so well thought out. And she doles it out in nice bite sized portions for us to learn about without it being overbearing. The interesting part is that, as I remember them, the early books are very middle reader and as they go on they become very young adult then transfigures into something that borders on epic fantasy. And all along, she follows the rules she establishes early on with just the right amount of wiggle room where it doesn't matter.

Anyway, there's something I do want to address that was pointed out a few weeks back in a Twitter discussion I was having with Brianna Shrum. She had postulated that Dumbledore was a selfish dick for what he did. At first when she put this out on social media, I argued against it. But as I'm rereading it now, I kind of agree with her.

Dumbledore dropped Harry with his only blood relatives. Relatives that aren't wizards. I know that's what Campbell says is supposed to happen and it's handwaved away by Dumbledore with some excuse of him being raised an ego maniac or something to that effect. The only reason he would choose to do this was so that he could show up and be the big hero to Harry and therefore the world since Harry is literally a living weapon since he is the only thing that was able to stop Voldemort, a Voldemort that was banished (or something) but not gone. How Dumbledore, a schoolmaster, managed to smuggle away the only weapon they had against the Dark Lord for some ego trip is quite fascinating on some level.

Now the story teller in me instantly started assembling the story of the time period. The war is over thanks to an improbable victory that no one witnessed. They've figured out that Harry is the key, yet somehow Dumbledore talks the governing body to hide him with Muggles that have no hope of protecting him. There were other options. Lots of wizards and witches died in the war, there had to be lots of orphans, it would be easy to move him to another family as an orphan. who could abuse him not knowing who he is and you'd still be able to tell the story. (Already my brain is working out the story of a "working class wizard" or something like that.) Or a young, trusted, lesser branch of a powerful wizarding family could've spirited him away far from the wizarding world and raised him as a wizardHagrid. Yes, you'd lose some of the wonder of Harry discovering he's a wizard, but Rowling's talented enough that she could work around that. Or you could ship him off to America with an "uncle." There were options that Dumbledore ignored...cause he was kind of a dick.

A story I want to see/write myself: the post wizards war world. The wizarding world is in tatters. A generation of wizards and witches lost. Shattered families reunite Death Eaters with their Ministry siblings. The Ministry tries to reassemble the world that was destroyed while the specter of the Dark Lord skulks in the shadows of everyone's fragile minds, all while one of the most famous wizards in the world secretly spirits away the only reason the war is over: a living weapon swaddled in a baby's blanket.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Working Out/ Writing Correlation

I'm obese. A little over five years ago I had weight loss surgery and went from around 360 pounds down to about 275 pounds. I've ballooned up, but I'm still nowhere near as big as I was. I'm working on it and I've lost about 20 of the 30ish I've gained back since, but I still don't feel as good as I did, so I'm making changes and they are going well. I've always wanted to be strong. Like unreasonably strong. It's a character motif in my writing because it's something I'm impressed with, so I've been following a strength training program called StrongLifts and I'm signing up for a beginner strongman class at the end of this month, I'll update the progress as I make it. I've been doing great so far. Almost all my lifts have doubled and I'm very happy with it. As I've been doing this, I've noticed there is a correlation between the two. Let me explain.

It is in my nature to be lazy. Lazy and scatterbrained. Great combination for a writer and a teacher, right? This is why I have four tabs open in Chrome and five documents open in MS Word. My wife is out grocery shopping, my daughter is with her cousins and my son is enraptured by people opening and playing with toys on YouTube. So I have some work time. My notebook open to the page where I've scribbled some plans for the first three days of summer school, an open bottle of Snapple Diet Peach Tea and two printed out Summer School calendars for planning. And I'm kind of happy. At least I'm writing.

Finding excuses not to write is an easier activity than writing. And I noticed the same is true with working out. It's often easier to say, "Oh, I have to do THIS" instead and skip a workout. However, I don't feel better about it. I actually feel better when I decide to workout. And I've noticed the same thing about writing. I feel better when or as I'm doing it than I would otherwise. There's a GAME OF THRONES marathon on HBO right now. Cooper is uninterested in the TV and I could sit down at watch it. Or try to write while it's on...but we all know how that's going to go. I mean WINTER IS COMING and all. (And that makes me think of my epic fantasy project WINTER'S DISCORD and I don't want to be sad, so I'm moving along.)

Maybe that's the lesson I need to learn. I'm happier and in a healthier state of mind when I'm working. They'll be time enough to lay about and do mindless things. You need mindless things sometimes, right now isn't one of those times for me right now. Right now, I've got to write like I'm running out of time.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Running Out Of Time: Plans for July

If you follow me in any capacity, you know my unhealthy obsession with HAMILTON. One of my favorite quotes from the musical is from the song "Non-Stop" when Aaron Burr asks in an aside "Write day and night like you're running out of time?" It's become a mantra to me because it's hard to feel like I'm running out of time as a writer. So, I've decided I'm going to work doubly...no triply hard to write more than I usually can in the month of July. It's not going to be easy, but I think I can do it if I set my mind to it. So, as Ben Franklin used to say (who as I'm reading more and more about the founding fathers was kind of a dick), "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." So, I'm thinking about what I have to do. I usually write this in my notebook and leave it at that, but one of the things I'm setting out to do is try and blog every day. (I'm taking requests!) So here goes.

First, what am I working on? Well, here's a list of things I'm working on/ thinking about working on:

  1. Writing THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE. Okay, let me talk about this. I have no idea what this project is. I can't exactly describe it but I'm completely in love with the project and it's drawn me in. It's unlike anything I've ever written before. And I think it's pretty decent. It's based on a story in the news a few months back that drew me right in and I just started writing the story on the last day of May. It's a possibly supernatural thriller, though I go back and forth about actually doing that. As of now, it's got supernatural elements in it, but I'm not married to it and some of my closest advisers are suggesting I keep it supernatural, so we'll see. I'm about 34k in (no, seriously) and I'm making a run at finishing it by the end of the month.
  2. Blog every day.
  3. Planning the next original fiction project: a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY flavored epic fantasy. I've got some notes on it along with some ideas about the world and plot, but it's early. We'll see. I don't know what it's going to be, audience wise, but we'll see.
  4. THE STORY OF AN UNNAMED APOCALYPSE. I came up with this nutty idea for an Instagram account in the same vein as the Bladerunner Reality account. I want to take pictures of things I see in public, interesting Internet pictures or pictures that people send me of images that could be seen as post-apocalyptic in nature with a 250-300 word excerpt from a post-apocalyptic novel I'll probably never write. 
Now, factor in the fact that I have summer school this year starting on July 5th from 8-12 every morning, I think doing this is plausible. So, what's my plan?
  1. GIRL: One of the weirder parts of this book is that I'm pantsing it for the most part, though I've been planning more and more now that I'm further in. As I see it, based on an exercise I did using a writing book I was reading, it's going to be anywhere from 75-85k words, meaning I have about 40-50k to write, meaning I'd have to do a NANO. Very doable considering my schedule. 
  2. Blog every day: I can manage that, though I'm looking for things my audience wants me to talk about. 
  3. GOTG Fantasy: Plan for an hour or so once a week in my notebook. 
  4. Instagram Fiction: 2-3 entries a week. 
  5. Plan WEEKLY for school. Take one day a week and plan out everything I'm doing with my students so I can maximize writing time. 
  6. WAKE UP EARLIER: Ugh, I'm dreading this one, but I need to maximize my writing time. 
I can do this. I just have to write day and night like I'm running out of time.

Wish me luck. (And if you see me in public with a notebook in hand or headphones on and I don't say hi, please understand this is why.)

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Half Year Review

Instead of a monthly recap, I decided to do a check in half way through the year. So, here's the what I've been up to in 2017 thus far.

READING
I've killed it in the reading department in 2017. Taking Lent off from social media helped, but I've crushed reading in 2017 and I intend to continue that trend. I've read 84 books so far this year. That's more than I've read in any year in my life. Seriously. And I'm reading more pages per book than I have in years past. Here's the breakdown of what I've read this year so far:

  • 40 graphic novel collections
  • 28 novels
  • 8 writing books
  • 3 nonfiction books
  • 3 movie/tv show art books
  • 2 memoirs/autobiographies/biographies
Sure, you could look at it that I've padded my numbers with graphic novel collections but I do enjoy them. I'm hoping to finish out the year with 120 books. I'm hoping to delve into some of my epic fantasies I've wanted to "study" do a while and I've got a drawer full of potential books. I still want to make a run at finishing WHEEL OF TIME. I want to dip my toe into some Rothfuss and maybe give Tad Williams a run. But I've got about seven books I want to finish first, between ARCs and library books. Now, what you're more interested in. What are the best books I've read so far in 2017 and why. So, here we go:

  • ROYAL BASTARDS by Andrew Shvarts: A great example of what a good YA fantasy is and helped see some of the mistakes I made in some of my attempts. 
  • THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP by Katie Nelson: A terrific retelling of Gatsby without being just a retelling of Gatsby. 
  • THE SECRET LIFE OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL by Jack Viertel: An interesting look at the structure of a musical and how to use that as a writing model. 
  • THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS by Jason Rekulak: A nostalgic look back at a time when "pornography" came wrapped in cellophane not accessible to anyone with a phone.
  • THE REST OF US JUST LIVE HERE by Patrick Ness: Not from 2017, but a near perfect execution of a perfect premise: what happens in the "Chosen One" stories when the characters aren't the chosen one? 
  • WHITE TRASH by Nancy Isenberg: The entire last election cycle explained. 
  • LUSTLOCKED by Matt Wallace: The wedding of the year goes awry and only a magical catering company can stop it. 
  • MYSTIC RIVER by Dennis Lehane: Another older book that is just a master class in novel writing. 
Honorable mentions: SEARCHING FOR JOHN HUGHES, RETURN OF THE JEDI: BEWARE THE POWER OF THE DARK SIDE, THE SCORPIO RACES, THE STORYTELLER.

Disappointments: THE INDIGO KING, THE OTHER NORMALS, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: SO YOU WANT TO BE A JEDI?

It's been a good year of reading so far. 

WRITING

I've had a decent year writing. Looking at my goals, I scrapped almost all of my writing plans. I hit a wall, unable to decide on a project. I think I became disenchanted with fantasy because I was failing so miserably at finding something that was noteworthy. I think what I wrote was good, but I don't know if it was outstanding. Or at least that it stood out. I set out to write around 350k words for the year. So what have I written so far?

  • Finished first draft of THE PENSIONER'S BROOCH (34k)
  • Finished a requested rewrite of WINTER'S DISCORD (135k)
  • Working on first draft of THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE (34k)
So that puts me at about 203k for the year. Well on pace. Just have to keep it up. I'm really excited about the new project and I'm hoping to finish it before the end of July. I'm intending to work on some planning for the next project after that as well during the month. So, I'm happy in that regard. 

I've gotten some requests from agents to look at some of my work, including a project that I didn't think would get the traction that it's getting but it is. We'll see how that plays out. 

OTHER

School is over, so that's good.

Summer school starts in a week, so that's meh. But there's still time to write.

Still recovering from the fire, which I'll talk about at some point but not now. I'll have time to write, which is good, but I'll have other things to do.

I'm working out again, getting stronger. I'm signing up for a strongman class. I've lamented I don't have a hobby...I'm hoping I can make this my hobby. 

I'm planning on trying to really step up all my writing in the coming months. I'm going to give a run at blogging every day. I'll talk more about it on July 1. 

Alright. Let's roll. 


Monday, June 12, 2017

An Addendum About Dreams

I thought a lot about my post over the last 24 hours and I almost made this addendum on in the post, but I decided to keep the post as is, but decided I needed to address something that was bothering me about it.

I am in no way, shape and form unhappy in the way my life has turned out. I have an amazing wife that I love more today than when we first fell in love twenty years ago. I have two amazing children that fill my heart and soul to bursting. If you've met me in person for five minutes, you know how much my family means to me. I have a decent job that I like and could see loving under the right circumstances, but I'm not as miserable as some people are at what they do for a living. I'm still writing. I haven't given up that chase in the least. I've just have different priorities now.

Had the older me come to talk to the younger me about taking my writing a little more serious, I wouldn't have the life I have now. And seriously, is that the life worth living?

Hey, maybe the older me did have the opportunity to go back and tell the younger me what to do. He just knew better.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On Fathers, Dreams and Regret

This past weekend I took a road trip alone with my father from my home in Liverpool, New York to a piece of property in Delaware. Twelve hours in a car with my father. We're both talkers, so lack of conversation wasn't going to be a problem. Conversation wandered from the sordid hillbilly epic of my father and his Delaware neighbors that was the reason we were going down there (my father has a friend named Snake and it wasn't the guy from the Simpsons) to how he believes that Donald Trump will make America great again (that wasn't a great conversation and was changed quickly) to how he thinks people that hate Muslims are morons (my father is a paradox). After taking care of everything and headed home, we talked some more. It was mellower and somehow deeper conversation.

Now, first let me add some brief context to this. While we were in Delaware and my father was conducting the business he needed to, I managed to finish read Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER. My God, if you haven't read this book, it is a master class in novel writing. I can't think of a book that moved me this much since maybe GAME OF THRONES. No, really, That level. Anyway, there is a great passage in that novel that I read while at my daughter's lacrosse practice that made me gasp so loud that I was afraid the people around me thought I was having a heart attack or something. It was a short, two sentence paragraph that just blew me away:

"It seemed to Sean-sometimes-that he and his father may have once talked about more than just incidental things, but for the life of him, Sean couldn't remember what those things may have been. In the fog that was his remembrance of being young, he feared he'd invented intimacies and moments of clear communication between his father and him that, while they'd achieved a mythic stature over the years, never happened."

There are many sons out there that read that right now and probably had the same reaction. There are many sons out that that read that paragraph and shook your head because you have no idea what that's like. I think most of us sons fall into one of those two categories. I fall into the former not the latter. And I'm okay with that. But as my father and I talked in the car, I talked about dreams.

One of my students' favorite questions is what would I have told the high school me if I could go back in time. I tell them that I would've told 16 year old me to take his writing a little more serious than I did. I follow that up by telling my students then they would've never met me. When asked why, I tell them that'd I'd probably be writing televisions shows instead. When I told my father this, he said what a lot of people do: it's not too late. I laughed.

I'm a 44 year old father of two. I have responsibilities that supersede my dreams. My father scoffed at this. This is a sticking point between the two of us that I won't discuss here. I'll save that for the therapist. As selfish as I think I am sometimes, I don't have that in me. My whole job now is to do the best job to provide for my kids, emotionally and financially. I can't follow some whim that I dream of being a writer so I'm just going to quit working to go follow some dream. I said that I missed my shot. My shot now (writing novels and such) is down the priority list and my father again scoffed. Then I said my sole job was to do everything I could to make sure my kids could achieve their dreams. It was at that moment that I realized I had kind of unconsciously taken a swipe at my old man. And that was not my intent. I'm uncomfortable blaming my parents for any of my errors, habits, mistakes, psychosis and hang-ups,

This was a good time to shut up. But you know how that goes. So, I kept talking and I mentioned regret. I don't have a ton. I really don't, but I recognized an aspect of my personality that may have held me back. First, I don't take risks. My father agreed with that. I always took the safe, comfortable route. Comfort being the key word. The path of least resistance. There was so much I should've done, moved outside what I was comfortable doing and take a risk. Why did I stay working at Wegmans when I could've lived with my dad in Queens and experienced New York City? Why didn't me and my friends leave to go southwest or to Florida? Why didn't I just pack my car up and go somewhere? Because those were risks and I didn't like taking a risk. And I was never willing to sacrifice that comfort to take a risk.

So, now here I sit. A weary high school English teacher that secretly dreams of being a television show writer. Maybe I'm the paradox.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Book Review: Royal Bastards

If you read my reviews/blog, you know how much I love tropes. And I love the skill it takes to weave these tropes into a good story without sounding derivative. The YA dystopia thing has hit that level since everything just kind of sounds like everything else. I finished a book today that is the very definition of the Exactly What It Says On The Tin trope: Royal Bastards by Andrew Shvarts. And it was terrific.

Royal Bastards is described as "Game of Thrones meets the Breakfast Club" and it is literally exactly what it says on the tin. It's damn near perfect and s thoroughly enjoyable YA fantasy adventure that plays with the tropes of epic fantasy with a terrific YA voice. And that's one of the many things that blew me away about this book. It takes tons of elements from the GOT show/book while blending them into that '80s aesthetic of THE BREAKFAST CLUB....he even pulls off a training montage in the middle of the book that I literally could hear HEARTS OF FIRE playing in the background.  

If you've followed my blog, you know that I've crafted my own YA Game of Thrones book, but this book really made me sort of realized where I had failed. Shvart's voice is just amazing. From the opening page, you are just drawn in with the way he's telling this massive tale. I'll often complain about 1st person POV in a book like this, but Tilla's voice in the story was well drawn, inclusive and just very...well, Tilla. 

The worldbuilding is stellar. He paints a clear picture of the world (since I had an eARC, I didn't get a map and according to the author, it's spectacular!) and the people in it without overwhelming you with it. Shvarts uses every tool to do so and does it really, really well, including a brilliant use of the "useful idiot" narrative tool. My former agent introduced me to this concept, the useful idiot is a character used to explain something the reader doesn't know without just info dumping it in the narrative. From the individual provinces, of which we only see a sliver, to the Zitochi tribesmen, a well-drawn, just complex enough group that could have easily turned into the stereotypical savaged but come across more like "Aiel Lite" (and I mean that as a compliment). Using the Avatar: The Last Airbender method, he fills the world around him with wildlife dangers that sound familiar but just different enough that we know we aren't in Kansas anymore I'm eager to see how the rest of this world is introduced to us.

The plot is stellar. Familiar enough but written with skill and panache. (Wow, I just used panache in a review.) It moves quickly, just one the edge of breakneck and it's one of the things I liked most about the book. Shvart's pacing is terrific and he gives you just enough moments to catch your narrative breath (and these are the perfects spots that he injects his outstanding worldbuilding) between the moments of high tension that rely on the craftiness and skills of the said bastards to get out of the various sticky situations that arise as they run to save their world. The twists and turns are great and while I predicted some, it didn't diminish my enjoyment of them in the least. Shvart's skill shows through. He sets up the next book almost brilliantly with his wildly satisfying solution that seems to take parts of bunches of other things and blends them together into a nice smoothie.

I really loved this book and it's another book that I'm jealous of because it's so similar to what I wrote and shopped but didn't quite stick the way that I'd hoped. It showed some of my story's shortcomings and things I could probably improve on when I give it a shot again. I can't rave about this book enough. It's easily on my Best of 2017 list and it'll be a contender for the top book of 2017. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Book Review: The Duke of Bannerman Prep

As an English teacher, I'm always curious with retellings/reimaginings of the classics. It's one of my standard "creative" projects I give at the end of a book or unit. (I usually give one traditional essay and one creative writing project.)  I even drove a co-teacher crazy as we did the whole "rewrite Romeo and Juliet" assignment. Every year it feels like these reimaginings go through cycles: Shakespeare, American lit then Victorian age then myths then back to Shakes. Gatsby was inevitable after the flashy Baz Luhrman/ Leo DiCaprio extravaganza from a few years back (that I thought was quite excellent) and THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP is one of those books. And it's an excellent book. I ALMOST single served it (according to Z's Review Glossary: SINGLE SERVED: Reading a book in one "sitting," almost always in a single day), having read the first quarter of the book over a few days then finishing the rest in one day. It kept me riveted, wanting to find out next, which is what you really want a book to do as a reader and a writer.

Nelson does a terrific job of retelling the Gatsby without making it a beat for beat rewrite of Gatsby. It's clever and helps the story stand on it's own two legs while clearly being a giant nod to the source material. She takes the big pieces from Gatsby, reshapes them into what she wants them to do and, most importantly, leaves out the things she doesn't need to tell her story. Where Gatsby is clearly Gatsby's story and Nick is our eyes and ears, DUKE isn't necessarily The Duke's story but Tanner's story. And it's one of the reasons the story really worked for me. I understood Tanner. In a way, I could've been Tanner.

Tanner isn't a Nick Carraway rehash, he's a kid from "the other side of the tracks." It's a well-worn trope that goes back since the cavemen were telling stories around the campfire and Nelson uses it well. She shines the trope up, giving us a different spin on the character, making us yell at the book for the way he's acting while completely understanding that in the same circumstance we would ignore the screaming reader that was reading our story yelling at us. The Duke is closer to the source material and that works, the mysteries are slowly unraveled throughout the story without clunking us on the head too much, though there are a few heavy handed moment that don't detract from the enjoyment of the story in the least. The other characters are a little cardboardy in spots, more out of necessity than any reflection on Nelson. They just don't have a lot to do except be there, but Nelson gives them enough to do so that they are more like colored in paper dolls where Tanner, The Duke, Kelsey and Abby are much more well-rounded.

As much as people are comparing this to Gatsby, I think that it owes just as much to the television show GLEE, but instead of show choir it's debate team. Nelson knows her stuff and doesn't crush you with jargon. I still had to Google a few things and that isn't always bad. The world of debate teams, in this day and age, deserved a book and it got a darn good one.

My only gripe, more to do with me the reader than the book, is why are we falling back on the steroid laced jock a-hole trope as the bad guys again. Jocks are just as well rounded as debate team members and theater kids and skateboarders. Nelson does address this, putting a-hole characters in these cliques. I also understood the type of character Nelson was writing, but at times it fell way to into cliche for me. But there seems to be a resurgence of the "Johnny Lawrence" character lately and we're more complex than that now.

THE DUKE OF BANNERMAN PREP is a fantastic book. A complex story but a quick read with just enough twists and turns to keep you wanting to find out what's next in the story. Definitely going to make the Best of 2017 list.

(An ARC was provided by the publisher through a contest.)

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
Frustration
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 Tor.com, 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.