Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018: A Year In Review: The Reading

Not much of a preamble here. For the second year in a row I read over 100 books (YAY audiobooks!). I'm aiming for another 100 this year. I'm going to try to take notes on what I read this year and talk more about it. I don't want this to turn into a review site and doing a review site isn't something I'm particularly interested in doing, but I feel like I should do a better job of noting important things I can or won't use as a writer in everything I read. So, get out your Amazon/Barnes & Noble gift cards, cause here's my best & not so best of 2018. First the top book(s) of the year:

  • 1a. FOOTBALL FOR A BUCK by Jeff Pearlman: I've raved about this book a lot because it's that good. I reviewed it here and it moved me to create some different kind of fiction, though I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it. When I know, believe me, I'll let you know. I loved the USFL when it was around and reading about its wild ride was amazing. Pearlman paints a terrific picture and his passion for the subject just oozes in every word. The parallels the book makes to what's going on in the country today, inadvertent or not, make the book more timely than ever.
  • 1b. THE POPPY WAR by RF Kuang: This book was a close second to FOOTBALL, so close that I'm calling it 1b since it was by far the best fantasy book I read in 2018. It was everything an epic fantasy should be and more. Huge, tragic, beautiful, savage and breathtaking, it reminded me a lot of Ken Liu's THE GRACE OF KINGS but using a more traditional narrative style. 
The rest of the Best of 2018:
  • KNIGHTS VS DINOSAURS by Matt Phelan: Exactly what it says on the cover and it's as fun as it sounds. Along the way there are some interesting twists and turns but in the end it's a fun story about knights taking on dinosaurs. It's a SYFY movie waiting to happen. And I mean that as a compliment.
  • DON'T MAKE ME PULL OVER by Richard Ratay: This book was a total surprise to me. I blogged about it here. A great read that is part personal narrative about the author's own experiences and part history of road trips in this country. A fun read. 
  • STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI by Jason Fry: A perfect adaptation of a difficult movie to adapt. It does what a good adaptation does: fills in the gaps and adds depth to the narrative. Fry fills it to the brim with nods and references to other SW works that are borderline inside jokes. 
  • CADDYSHACK: THE MAKING OF A HOLLYWOOD CINDERELLA STORY by Chris Nashawaty: The story of a comedy classic that is as much a history of modern comedy as it is a story of the movie. 
  • THE CARDBOARD KINGDOM by Chad Sell: This book was in the running for best read of the year. A fun story filled with great messages for young and old. It was my daughter's favorite book of the year and it shows in her art. 
  • THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers: Firefly with a solarpunk flare. Fun, unique and amazing. 
  • STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST/SHOW YOUR WORK by Austin Kleon: I'm late to these. My friend Brian Fay turned me on to them and they are game changers for me. You'll find them to be the same for you. 


So, bring on 2019. I'm ready. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

2018: A Year In Review: The Writing

Well, barring an unprecedented run, I will likely not be finishing anything in the next few days, so it's as good a time as any for everyone's favorite time of year: my review of my writing failures and successes.

Looking back at my end of 2017/looking forward to 2018 post, I read that my goal was to basically work on craft instead of some unobtainable word count for the year.  So, I reached my goal. I worked on my craft, not only working on big writing projects like novels but smaller ones like this blog. I'm happy with the work that I've done this year. I wrote enough to just about fill this year's writer's notebook, which has never happened before. What else did I actually accomplish this year? Let's see.

  1. Finished THE GIRL IN THE PICTURE: I'm really happy with this book. It turned out better than I expected, especially considering it was like nothing else I'd ever written. I think this has a ton of potential, but it needs a pretty thorough once over before it's ready for even a beta read. 
  2. Started and shelved LAST PERSON STANDING: My attempt at a town wide game of tag while trying to cash in on the FORTNITE/PUBG craze didn't quite catch for me. I still believe in the idea, I'm just not ready to write it. 
  3. Rewrote THE LOST SCIONS: I wrote about this before. I'm still waiting to hear back from the agents but these are the waters. 
  4. Started RETURN OF THE PRINCE: I hate the title of this. It will change once I figure out a new one, but as a placeholder, it's okay for now. I like this story and it's moving forward. 
All told, I wrote a little over 200k words, not including blogging. It's not as much as I've written in other years, but I really worked on my craft this year, so I wasn't going to have a massive volume of writing either. The disaster that was LAST PERSON STANDING took up a huge chunk of post-GIRL IN THE PICTURE time. I should've listened to my buddy Mike on this one. I did blog quite a bit but not as much as other years. I think, again, it was quality over volume.

I'm really proud of what I've written in the blog this year. It's some of the best personal writing I've been doing and I'd like to do more. My favorite pieces from this year were:
What about 2019? Every year I talk about my plans and intentions, so why should this year be any different? Instead of worrying about word counts this year, I'm going to measure the amount of time I spend writing. Another writer I met through Twitter, Mike Headley, uses a spreadsheet to track his time and productivity. It's a terrific system that I'm going to use this year. I'm not going to worry about word counts. I need to think about time spent writing. And that means ANYTHING to do with writing, including editing, planning, rewriting...EVERYTHING...even daydreaming about a project.

First, let's address the elephant in the room: the BIG DAMN BOOK I talked about. I want to write it, the plot has gotten a little clearer in my head. I'm not putting a hard start date on it. I feel like that's too much pressure. Plus, there are other things I want to work on. Things that are more plausible and salable for an unpublished author. But the BDB isn't going quietly into the night. It's niggling. What DO I want to work on? It's a mixed bag.

  • Write BDB
  • Blog more
There are other ideas, nebulous right now, that I'd like to do, but for now this is what I want to concentrate on. 

As I said, instead of worrying about word count, I'm going to concentrate on time spent writing. I'd like to average one hour a day writing. That's doable. But what about BDB? In that post I said that even if I spend a half an hour a day on it, I could reach a pretty high volume of words/pages. That would leave me with a half an hour a day for other projects. That doesn't make sense to me. Instead, I've decided that I want to average 90 minutes of writing a day. One hour for the "main project" and thirty minutes for the BDB. I have some other thoughts on how to keep up with the BDB, but I'll talk about them when I get to it. 

These are the things I can control in 2019. Everything else related to writing is out of my hands. So bring it 2019, I'm ready. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Nothing Says Christmas More Than A Good Purge

I love email.

I hate email.

Email is too ignore.

Stand up comedian Jim Gaffigan has a great line about email: Send me an email so I can ignore it.

I understand the feeling. I've even half-jokingly said it to people. But to be honest, I'm kind of OCD about email. I loathe unopened email. It's not hard to delete and/or read email. It's so easy in this day and age to do so. I despise that little red circle on my phone's email app. I attack it like a video game, deleting what needs deleting and reading what needs reading. I can't fathom people that don't do this. My mother-in-law has thousands of unopened emails. So does one of my uncles. I joke with them that I'm offended. Hell, the first thing I do in the morning when I wake up is clean up my email. I'm borderline obsessed with my emails. But I know how easy it is to ignore.

Today is the second to last day before Christmas break, so everything is a little wonky. We're already losing the battle over the halls and kids are shutting down. Hell, so am I.

I've had my students working on research the last two weeks. It's been a mixed bag of success. When not putting out fires, I've managed to fit in a little writing. I've realized that what I've written of my present WIP needs a good editorial scrubbing. I've started the initial thoughts/ideas about the epic project I wrote about, including the kernel of a plot idea.

The first thing I do when I log on to my work computer is open two browsers: Firefox and Chrome. Firefox is for attendance and grades (the site we use works better in Firefox). Chrome is for email and everything else. When  I opened my email page, I was appalled that I had 1300 plus unopened emails. The program we use doesn't make it easy to mass delete them, so I played my favorite video game: email purge. It took the better part of two forty-eight minute class periods to accomplish, but I did it. 1300 unread emails, gone into the ether.

I feel good. I feel accomplished. Let's see how long that lasts.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Epic Tale of the Epic Fantasy I Wasn't Going to Write

A few weeks back I wrote a long piece in my notebook about the hankering to write a big, thick, heavy, weighty, old school, doorstopping epic fantasy. Part of it was what I think is a really terrific introduction that captured how and why I was feeling that way, touching on how the weather stoked the always smoldering nostalgia I feel about reading epic fantasy and how I always viewed the fall as the time for reading them. But it doesn't exactly work right now. We had a blizzard. I've written some other things. My Christmas lights are up. The mood is different. (You can read it here if you like.) But I'm still feeling the hankering though and I've been thinking about it a lot, the idea gestating and growing in my mind.

I've always wanted to write an old school, 90s style, epic high fantasy book. We're talking a doorstopper where the word count is expressed in fractions of millions and requires at least two reams of paper to properly print out in double spaced Times New Roman, 12 point font.

I've tried it before and never quite got there. My first completed novel, THE FALLING DARK, was an attempt at this. Interestingly, this time of year always makes me think of that book because about fifteen years ago, my wife's cousin challenged me to complete the book by Christmas Eve or I couldn't eat at our family celebration. I finished it and it was a mess. A glorious 172k word, 575 manuscript paged mess. And I'm damned proud of it. It's the textbook example of a trunk novel. I actually just spent about 20 minutes cycling through several thumb drives I own to confirm word counts and pages. It was on an old 128MB PNY stick.

My next attempt were the SEASONS book. They came in at 135k (WINTER) and 131k (SPRING) with a lost "working draft" of a few dozen thousand words (SUMMER). Interestingly enough, the word counts of those two books are comparable to the word counts of my beloved Dragonlance books. But the SEASONS books were YA books, not traditional epic fantasy. My former agent had even suggested shopping them as adult with crossover YA potential. I don't know if he ever did, hence the reason he's my former agent....but that's a discussion for another time.

THE LOST SCIONS has epic elements though I don't fully think of it as epic fantasy. I always intended it to be more fantasy adventure than epic fantasy, but I definitely blurred lines with it. It's also YA and topped out at about 108k. So as you can see, I never quite reached my loft aspirations. In retrospect, it's probably a good thing. I don't think I could've actually handled it twenty years ago. And I still don't know if I can handle it now.

This really all started a few months back. I was hanging out with my kids, niece and nephew. They wanted to color. My daughter asked me to draw pictures for them. She thinks that I can draw. I can't.  I printed out some figure drawing templates, traced over them and added details and embellishments for the kids, creating a slew of knights, princesses, sorceresses and one midriff bearing Aiel knock-off that was Natalie's favorite. I joked that they were characters from the "epic fantasy I'm never going to write." I couldn't leave it alone though. The drawings became the grain of sand that gets stuck in the oyster. A pearl started to form, agitating me to the point of ignoring my WIP (a YA fantasy inspired by THE THIEF by Megan Turner Whalen) and spending energy on a project that doesn't exist.

The pearl has grown, grinding bit by bit. It's mostly little character vignettes or fragments of ideas, some based on the pictures I drew others just ones that have popped in or I've thought about before that could fit into a story that size. I contemplated integrating some of these elements into the world and story of my SEASONS book making it a more traditional epic fantasy, kind of like he who shall not be named suggested, but I decided against that because I still believe in that story. No, this has to be a wholly original concept. And that's scary.

The logistics alone could be alarming. The longest thing I've ever written is 172k and it was garbage. Looking back, I've written as many as 440k in one year. A lot of those words were part of rewrites. Still though, I can write that much. I've talked about this before. Even if I were to go the length of a middle WHEEL OF TIME book, between 226k and 315k, that's less than a thousand words a day. That's about three pages a day. About an hour of writing. I feel like my friend Brian Fay would find that interesting. However, logistics aren't the problem. The story is. It's a problem because I don't have one.And that's a major problem.

You can't write a story without a story. Okay, sorry, I'm mixing up my terms. I don't have a plot. I have some nice elements that could make up an epic fantasy story: characters, settings and even vague notions of a protagonist. But I don't know how they come together. And that has to be the first step if I'm going to write the epic fantasy I wasn't going to write. I have to sate this hunger somehow and it can't just be a mashing together of tropes (and cliches) associated with epic fantasy. I was reminded of this last night watching an old episode of Family Guy:

This year I've been joking around with students that if they wrote for 30 minutes a day they could write a book length piece. It makes sense, honestly. I've seen that advice in a lot of places. Even if they eek out 100 words a day, that's still over 35k for the year, a midsized novella. I'm better writers than them and vastly more passionate about it, I could easily bang out three pages a day. But I've said this before. Many times. But I'll address this in the end of year review. For now, I'm off on a quest to find a plot. I'll come back to process when I find that. I have some ideas of how I'm going to go about this and work on other things as well.

I talk a lot about epic on this blog. It probably gets weary to my readers. This entry rambled a bit and was kind of a pain in the butt to put together from the various fragments of it I wrote over the last few weeks. I wonder if that might be portentous. It went from three pages to six pages to a full nine pages of madness, including little vignettes of characters, vague plot points and setting ideas. For now, I'm on an epic quest of my own to find a plot for this epic fantasy I wasn't going to write.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Still Not As Creepy As Overboard

Baby, it's cold outside.

These seemingly innocuous words have ignited hostilities in the yearly tradition of faux rage concerning the perceived war on Christmas. As usual, I have thoughts.

Let me get this out of the way first. I loath hearing people decry political correctness, wielding that derision like a club, bludgeoning anyone that doesn't share their world view as a snowflake or a social justice warrior. Once I hear or read someone say something like "political correctness run amok" my brain is already judging that you're kind of a dick. Someone is uncomfortable with an offensive joke, the club comes out. Anytime you do something they don't like or feel threatened by, they pull out their PC Run Amok Club and start swinging. Gender swap a character (Dr. Who) or cast a POC in a traditionally white role (pretty much anything Idris Elba does) and the clubs come out. But that's a discussion for another time, if ever. I want to talk a little about this latest nonsensical controversy where both sides think they other is wrong.

Can I let you guys know something?

You're both right. Sort of.

Like any piece of writing or art, there is room for interpretation. You may disagree with me, but you're wrong. I could go into some long semantic diatribe about it, but like the discussion above, this isn't the time for that. I'm writing about the wide assortment of interpretations of the song "Baby It's Cold Outside" (BICO). These interpretations are stoking the flames of this latest flare up and people are getting all kinds of salty.

I've long held the opinion, well before it was "cool," that BICO is kind of rapey. It's hard not to see this when you actually listen to the lyrics of the song. He's not concerned for her safety just that she's kind of leaving him hanging. Without much in the way of interpretation, he has no respect for her boundaries and refuses to accept her rebuffs. It's heavily implied that he's doctored her drink in some way. His advances match the intensity of her refusals. It's all at the very least creepy and borderline rapey.

I love the movie ELF and found out tonight that one of the reasons it's not in heavy rotation is because of the song. And the setting of the song. It's kind of creepy. Elves have genders. Buddy knew better and went into the women's room. He didn't respect a woman's boundaries. Not cool Buddy. It just reinforces the consent theme, in a very indirect way.

The popular counterclaim (shout out to the ELA!) is that the song was written in a more "innocent" time and that applying to an older song like BICO is unfair. It's not an awful point, though I'm not a huge fan of the "product of the time" excuse. According to Wikipedia, BICO was written in 1944. But were the late 40s and 50s all that innocent? If you study history a little bit, a lot of problems we're still paying for as a society can be traced back to this time period of American history. I think the better word is that the song came from a more naive time. We've been taught to view that time period as some "great" time for the country (I think we all know what "great" has become code for),so many people want to go back to that "innocent" version of America that they crave, even though, in the words of Stephen King, "the world has moved on" and they haven't moved with it.

I've also noticed the "Fifty Shades" argument. Y'know, a book that explicitly makes consent a major part of the plot. It's a terrible argument, but I thought I'd mention it.

The lines of consent are thankfully becoming less gray than they were, especially during that "innocent" time. Because of this, BICO is something of a relic of that time where the lyrics mean something entirely different. The same could be said about dozens and dozens and dozens of things. To be honest, BICO is no less rapey/creepy than any 80s romcom (go watch the movie OVERBOARD and tell me how offensive this song is) and far less offensive on any level than almost anything that my students listen to when they should be watching my modeling of writing techniques.  Someone pointed out the absurdity of the offense over this song from people taking their kids to a concert featuring Cardi B talking about her private parts. (TBH, though, they are HER parts and she's allowed to talk about them.)

I like the song, but that varies from version to version. I still think it's creepy, but I don't think it deserves to be banned. That's just an overreaction, which is the right move. Two of my favorite versions are the Lady Gaga/Joseph Gordon Levitt (a gender swapped version that embraces the creepiness of the song in a comical way) and the Indina Menzel/Michael Buble (perfectly playful and there's no doubt that Indina's not putting up with his bullshit).

Despite all this, I am firmly in the playful camp when it comes to this song. But I get that it bothers you, that's fine. I'm not here to be a goalie to your happiness. Maybe the rest of you should think about that too. You don't like the song? It offends you? Okay, let me change the station or hit the next button. Not being a dick is that easy. If you're offended that others are offended and want to make a point of're being a dick. Don't be a dick.

Merry Christmas. (I have thoughts on this too that I'll share later.)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

What's Good For Buddy Isn't For Eric

I've been home today with Cooper as he recovers from some pretty major dental work. Earlier, as he was watching some inane YouTube videos, I started watching ERIC CLAPTON: A LIFE IN 12 BARS. We've since switched over to old Tom and Jerry cartoons, which I don't object to in the least, but my thoughts keep lingering back to the movie.

If you know anything about me, you know that Eric Clapton is one of my top five favorite musicians. The biography is riveting and informative (though an ailing 5 year old takes precedent over what I want to watch) even if you aren't a Clapton fan like me. The film relies on photos, grainy home movies and concert footage of varying quality with a heavy dose of voice overs to piece together the narrative. I really like documentaries like this. There's a visual element while still relying heavily on words to tell the story. (Someday I will write about ESPN's 30 FOR 30: JUNE 17th, 1994 and THE KID STAYS IN THE PICTURE!) There was one thing that really struck me while watching the movie. Eric Clapton NEVER smiles. Not in photos. Not during concerts. Not while he's playing. Not even in home movies with friends and family.

Okay, NEVER is a hyperbolic absolute. Footage of Clapton smiling is so rare that it's jarring when there is evidence of him smiling. One sequence where he smiles a lot in the film is used to punctuate his complete surrender to addiction. Was that the only time he smiled? Why? Here is one of the greatest musicians of all time, an, a god of rock and roll...and he never seemed happy. Ever.  My other musical idols smile. Dave Grohl smiles. Dave Matthews smiles. Both have made a career out of being known as kind of happy go lucky, good guys. But Eric doesn't.

Like so many artists before him, Clapton was haunted by demons and seemed set on destroying himself bit by bit. (Why is it always the great ones?) Drugs, alcohol and infidelity plagued Clapton. Did this rob Clapton of the sheer joy that comes from creating? You never get the impression that he felt burdened or frustrated by his greatness when you hear him talk. There is no doubt he loves the music and is passionate about it. But there's never a sense of fun that should come with rock music. Maybe that's not it.

Is it the content of what he's singing about? I thought about what he sings about. Forbidden and unattainable love. Loss. The dangers of addiction. Grief. Unrequited love. Both Daves write and sing about those. You can't compete with Pink Floyd when it comes to heavy subject matter in their material, can you? (They wrote a whole album about one of the founding members literally going insane.) But there are smiles. Maybe not during the performances, but after there's a sense of pride, happiness and even relief that they played a song that addressed that serious issue. I don't expect my rock stars to be Buddy the Elf, but there's a limit. I don't think that's it. But that video may contain the answer.

The manager tells the overly cheerful Buddy to make work his favorite. Maybe that it. Maybe the happiness comes from the work itself. Clapton worked at his craft. He loved his craft when people didn't view the craft with the same love he did. They viewed it as a job, not work. The documentary shows his frustration at the way the recording process became stagnant, lacking innovation to achieve the right sound. He was never interested in being popular, just creating great music. Perhaps Eric Clapton was just so focused on making great music there wasn't room for smiling.

I wonder, do I smile while I'm writing? I enjoy it. I love it. I don't think I'm great at it yet. But I'm pretty sure I don't smile...not until I'm done. Then I smile. A lot. Because I like smiling. Smiling's my favorite.

For now, I'll leave you with this video. While LAYLA will get the lions share of praise for being Clapton's opus for it's mastery and epicness, my favorite will always be WONDERFUL TONIGHT. Perfect in its simplicity, this version, recorded live at Prince Albert Hall, is a haunting masterpiece. Maybe it'll make you smile a bit.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

To Hell With Your Pumpkin Spice Lattes

Today, November 1st, is my favorite part of Halloween.

It's over.

I don't like Halloween.

Easy. I know there are many of you that absolutely LIVE for Halloween. Good for you. I'm not a goalie. I'm not going to stand in the way of you enjoying it. I just don't . I'm not sure when that happened, because what kid doesn't like Halloween? Somewhere along the way, I soured on it.

Maybe it's that I don't like pranks. Never have. I don't think that's it. I've never been a fan of the horror genre. What about the candy, you ask. Growing up with a peanut allergy in the pre-safe room 70s and 80s meant that easily half my candy was inedible to me. It sucked.

Really, it's none of those things. The truth is that they don't exactly make costumes for fat kids. I mean you can only dress as a ghost or newspaper stuffed scarecrow so many times. Even today, I find costumes, masks and wigs hot and confining. I was fortunate that my mother was pretty handy with the sewing machine. This meant that every so often I could be creative and come up with a fat kid costume, though I'll never top the year I dressed as TJ Big Boy and people literally thought I was the official mascot.

I don't completely hate Halloween. I love seeing kids in costume, especially really clever ones that they obviously put time in or are really passionate about. Being a parent also changes your perspective a bit. Costumes are more inclusive and accessible. And my kids love costumes. My son runs around in his fireman or police or army uniform all the time. He had a ninja costume for a while too.

My kids know my disdain for Halloween. It's not a secret. The night before Halloween, my daughter expressed her excitement over and over. I listened, smiling dutifully but clearly artificially. She's too smart to fool. She looked over to me and said, "Daddy, I know you hate Halloween, but just for tomorrow, could you love it?"

Ugh. Talk about crushing devastation. My kid knows me. She knows how to play me.

So, yesterday, I loved Halloween. For Natalie.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Return of the NAFL, Part 1: Football For A Buck

When I was in junior high, I created and ran my own football league. Seriously. Games, box scores, stats, poorly drawn logos, team colors and uniforms, everything. This was the pre-Internet days where I chose my teams by using an atlas I got for Christmas (I'm going to write about my map fetish someday, seriously, what kid asks for an atlas for Christmas?) My library register in the mid to late 80s would be little more than an endless list of Dungeons and Dragons guides, The Lord of the Rings books, a professional football register (think of it as a print version of Pro Football Reference) and The Sporting News Guide and Registers for the NFL and USFL. The USFL was the most frequently checked out. I was obsessed with it. I was new to football and became obsessed with it.

My dad isn't a sports guy. I'm convinced part of my teenage rebellion was my obsession with sports. My connections to sports came geographically not passed down from generation to generation. I was born in Queens, which meant I was a Mets fan. My mom says she's a Mets fan, so I guess maybe that's the generational fandom. Being raised on Long Island in the early 80s meant that I was all about the Islanders. Football wasn't on my radar. (And forget basketball!) When I moved to Syracuse, football became my thing. And why wouldn't it? I was a 6'1" and 220 pound 6th grader. Unfortunately most of that 220 pounds came in the shape of a bag of pizza dough shaped like a person. I was (still am mostly) slow, clumsy and weak. And lazy. But I loved box scores.

I was a baseball guy and box scores told a story. I've opined in other places, maybe even this blog. One thing I sorely miss about daily newpapers is the box scores, whether the full page of baseball scores during the summer, the tiny, incomplete college football boxes on Sunday mornings, the rigidly structured NFL scores or complex NHL boxes with their plus/minus and penalty minutes, I would absorb them all. Don't ask me the quadratic formula, but dammit I could break down a box score. It was this obsession that led to me creating my own football league. But it was also my obsession with alternative football leagues. It was such an obsession that I created my own league based on box scores.

 I would spend hours working on my fictional league, named the North American Football League, crafting it into something, though I couldn't say what. These were hours I should've been writing or doing school work. Instead I was creating accounts of fictional games with fictional players. My friends knew about it. Mocked me for it. But they did that with most of my creative endeavors. (Lesson of my blog lately: teenagers are shitheads.) I was recently reminded of all of this reading Jeff Pearlman's outstanding Football for a Buck.

From the moment I first heard about the book, I was excited. I was a fan of the USFL from the moment I heard about it. A spring football league meant as an alternative to the stodgy NFL. I only vaguely knew about football then, but this alternative league was exciting to me. I love alternative football to the NFL and will always watch when I can. I loved the ESPN 30 for 30 about the USFL and couldn't wait to read this book. And it doesn't disappoint. 

Born of a high school English project (thanks Jeff for inspiring me as a teacher with this since now my students are going to do a similar project as Mr, Height, maybe in 20 years they'll be an anecdote about Mr. Zeleznik in someone's book) and a genuine obsession with the USFL, Pearlman's passion was pretty parallel to my own. The uniforms, the nicknames, the stories, the personalities...these were the things pro sports should be about. Pearlman's book perfectly and fairly accounts for the rise and fall of the spring football league from it's earliest gestation to birth, stumbling start, early successes and, ultimately, its hastened failure at the hands of a egomaniacal huckster desperate to get his own NFL team. Honestly, if you want to know what the anthem controversy is all about, this is it. 

Pearlman's book is terrifically written, light, entertaining and incredibly informative. It feels like you're just shooting the shit and sharing stories about this crazy league. A lazy writer would've really ratcheted up the parallels between what happened in the USFL to what is happening in our country at present, but Pearlman deftly integrates it. It's an important part of the story and you can see the skill in the presentation of facts in the book about a good idea that went bad mostly because of a snake oil salesman. 

It's the stories about the USFL, the owners, players and fans, that really makes the book so fun. It was insane. The 80s were insane and a "rebel" football league looking to buck tradition was even more insane. Never mind that this book is a harbinger of what we are experiencing now, it's a fun, amazing read. Jeff Pearlman's other books have moved up my queue and maybe they'll inspire me to write something thought I don't exactly know what it will be. I know that I'm inspired to do something with my old league. The North American Football league lives again and I'll talk about that in my next blog post.

Football for a Buck is the clubhouse leader for best book of the year for me. I loved it that much.

In the meantime, go buy Football for a Buck, check out Jeff''s terrific podcast Two Writers Slinging Yang and keep your eyes on this space for more on whatever the North American Football League is going to be. I don't know if I can create a character as vivid and incredible as Paper Fields for my league. But let's see what happens.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Where's My Barry Manilow Wardrobe?

I don't write about school often. I don't want to gripe, complain or harangue about my job. I've worked enough shitty jobs to know that as shitty a job that teaching can be sometimes, I've got a pretty good gig. This week I had something happen in Study Hall of all places that got me thinking about who we are in the stories of the people around us.

A little backstory. I have a spinal condition called Scheurmann's kyphosis. In short, I'm hunchbacked. It's not aesthetically pleasing to look at, especially if I'm tired and/or wearing something that is a little more form fitting than I normally would. Such was the case in junior high when the head cheerleader, who sat across from me in art class, loudly asked about the hump in my sweater. That afternoon I asked my mother to take me to the doctor because of it and was given a name while showing me the sheer power of being the head cheerleader. In the pre-Internet days of the late-80s, I was left with a cheery description from the doctor: a rounding of the spine, a wedging of the vertebrae and a larger lung capacity (not that it helped when I had to run the mile), so take that head cheerleader. (If you happen to read this since we are friends on Facebook, there is honestly no hard feelings for this despite the tone that it may have.) Over the years, the back has caused many levels of pain, from slight discomfort to Crooks from OF MICE AND MEN level body repositioning including the fracturing of several vertebrae while taking a jump I had no business jumping while skiing to impress a girl when I was seventeen.

I'm self deprecating about it for the most part, dressing as the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" one year by wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt. The degree of my "hump" depends on my weight, if I'm lifting, what I'm wearing and how tired I am. It oscillates from full on Quasimodo to slightly slumped.

For the last few weeks I've been  finishing a tough rewrite (it's done and delivered), so I've been working after the kids go to bed, staying up past midnight while still waking up at 6-6:30. So, by the time I get to study hall 9th period (out of 10), I'm gassed.

I must have been sitting more slumped than usual (the sweater I wore didn't help) and one of the precocious ninth graders noticed my severely slumped posture, loudly pointing it out to his boys, who then spent the rest of study hall mocking me with banal attempts at cruelty without actually saying it to my face. (They're ALWAYS cowards.) One (at least) took a picture, posting it or sending it out to their friends. That bothered me. I don't want to be a meme or go viral. It was the reason I didn't engage when I had every right to. If I were to engage them (with no physical proof), then I'm the crazy white teacher that goes viral. As I so often do, I absorbed the hits. Luckily, the next period two of my seniors both told me they liked the way the sweater looked on me. So, obviously we are dealing with some real a-holes.

This rolled around in my head for the rest of the afternoon and for a while after. Why were the opinions of some highly immature 9th graders affecting me like this? As I often do, I tried to frame it beyond simple cruelty and I couldn't. It also made me think of Richard Vernon.

Yes, THAT Richard Vernon. The quintessential dickhead 80s principal ( Ed Rooney is an acceptable equivalent) played by quintessential dickhead 80s actor Paul Gleeson. To be fair, I have no idea if he was actually a dickhead, but he made a career out of playing them. (There's a later post about my dream 80s movie called The Dickheads.) Richard Vernon was one of our generations great villains. Darth Vader, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Steff, Doug Neidermeyer, Johnny Lawrence (though there's a perfectly valid argument to be made that Daniel LaRusso is actually the villain in THE KARATE KID) then Vernon. When Gleeson played the irascible Vernon, he was forty-five. I am presently the same age. It dawned on me in that moment, to these kids, I'm the Richard Vernon to their John Bender in the story of their lives. Suddenly, it put everything into perspective.

To this day, Vernon is still one of the great villains to many. but in the proper context, especially considering my age compared to his, he's a vastly more interesting and sympathetic character than he was when I was younger. Could you imagine having to come into school on a Saturday morning to oversee detention? I'd be salty too. There's also a great but brief scene in THE BREAKFAST CLUB that sheds new light on Vernon and his Barry Manilow wardrobe. He's alone in the hall and there's a close up on his face. Instead of the smarmy, cruel Vernon we get a weary, lonely middle aged man. We learn nothing else about his character beyond what we need to know about him as the protagonist to our intrepid band of heroes. At this stage of my life, I find him a far more sympathetic character that I have more in common with and maybe I always did. And maybe that's the way these kids saw me and reacted in the limited way they could. (Barry Manilow wardrobe would be far above their pay grade.)

While I don't think I'm Vernon-level of cruel despite the reactions of a few fallow freshman, I see where I might fit in their stories, though I like to think that I'm more of a benignly, blundering Mr. Belding instead.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Holiday Ro-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oad

My public library as a table in the front as soon as you walk in called the "Luck Day Display." On the table are a bunch of "hot" books that have a limited check-out time (7 days with one 7 day renewal). A few weeks back I went to pick up some holds that I had and my eye caught a book on the table. Usually I ignore the table because of the prevalence of books about the present situation we find ourselves in thanks to a duped working class, but this time, I was  stopped cold in my tracks. The book had the eye grabbing title DON'T MAKE ME PULL OVER by Richard Ratay. How could I not stop with a title like that? I literally said. "Ooooh" when I saw it. (Honestly.) I grabbed it, checked it out with the other books I'd reserved and went on my way. It is easily one of the best reads of 2018 for me. (2018 has been an interesting reading year for me and the number of non-fiction books that will make my best of list is going to be interesting.)

The book chronicles the history of that grand American tradition: the road trip. It is a terrific combination of an informational, historical account of our culture's obsession with cars and the importance of infrastructure to the growth of our nation and a narrative reflection of the experience of the road trip. Filled with loads of amazing contemporary American history, I found myself googling things every three to four pages for more information on a person, place or thing mentioned in the book. Not for a lack of information but because some of the things mentioned could easily fill books of their own and Ratay doesn't overwhelm you with too much info, instead parsing it out in perfect portions for you to enjoy. From the very history of our highway system to the ancestors to places like The Great Wolf Lodge, the Holidome, the book is an informative but light read.

Where the book really shines though, is the narrative sections, where Ratay takes us along on a road trip with his family. I smiled until my face hurt. We didn't take a lot of long road trips like the ones Ratay describes in his book, but what he describes is still comically relatable. I spent weeks at a time with my grandparents in the summer and they took me all over the Northeast. I have fond memories of the beaches of Maine, hunting for Champy on Lake Champlain and visiting old relatives I didn't know in Wilkes-Barre. Reading this book made me wish that I'd embraced my writing earlier and kept journals or notebooks in my youth.

One of the things in the book that really struck a chord was Ratay's obsession with "making time." My father was obsessed with "making time" while driving too, whether it was from Syracuse to Long Island or our house to Wegmans. I discovered this weekend that he is still obsessed with making time as we drove from Spring Hill, Florida to Syracuse this past weekend. I'm more of a "journey not destination" guy, part of my continued rebellion I suppose, and where I hoped for a leisurely drive, he clearly set the tone. And I didn't like it.

We left in the early evening and chugged along all night. No stops for food. Minimum bathroom or stretch breaks. No time for anything slightly equating sightseeing (to be fair, it was night) or souvenir shopping. Factor in the fatigue I was feeling from getting up early and taking the flight down, it was a difficult trip. It was a trip I always wanted to take, but my father's obsession with "making time," finding the cheapest possible gas and obsessively tracking our gas and mileage made it less fun than I hoped. I don't know if I'd ever do it again. Not that I could, since both my kids tend to get violently ill in the car.

I think road trip movies have also colored our view of the road trip. Those experiences are as ingrained in our collective memories as actual road trips we took. NATIONAL LAMPOON'S VACATION kind of romanticized the road trip for my generation. (There's an essay in me about how when we first watched the Vacation movies, we were Rusty and now we're Clark.) (There's also a second essay in me about my theory that the quality of a Vacation movie is in direct correlation to the quality of the Audrey actress.) Movies like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT and CANNONBALL RUN added to the mystique of the road trip too. We all pretended we were Bandit or JJ McClure racing to outrun Sheriff Buford T. Justice or trick the nebbish AF Foyt, even if it was our parents driving.

For now, I'll stick with the short road trips we take now. Maybe, eventually, my kids won't get sick when we are in the car for long periods of time. They are getting better, but it looms every time we get in the car for a trip longer than a few hours. The book certainly got me thinking about it again, despite the trip last weekend. It also gave me two solid book ideas that I wrote in my notebook. If you've taken a road trip as a kid, as a parent, as a couple or are thinking of taking one, this book is a lot of fun.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Situation Normal: Stressed & Behind

I'm stressed.

I'm behind.

As usual.

This is a common lament. That first sentence is a little melodramatic. I'm definitely feeling some pressure and suffering the ill-effects. We're not talking huge, the world is going to Hell, an immature, likely alcoholic dudebro douchbag having his life "ruined" by getting a lifetime appointment job while a credible (though "uncorroborated") victim has to live with death threats and public shame that will likely cause more victims not to come forward kind of stress, but stress nonetheless.

(I have thoughts on the mistakes we've made in the past that I may write and possibly, though not likely, share publicly. I've made plenty that I'm ashamed of but I'm not trying to take a lifetime appointment that will affect millions of lives.)

This year, I've made some major changes in the way I so things in the classroom. I'm a writer, right? So this year, I made my class into a writing class. Focusing on writing, drafting, feedback, conferencing and modelling in a likely futile attempt to prepare my seniors for the rigors of college writing. Or whatever is next for them. I've vowed to keep up on work, giving timely feedback for students. And I've fallen woefully behind on that vow.

There's an assortment of reasons why. Sheer numbers is one.It's a lot to work through and give meaningful feedback to every student. Granted, my numbers aren't horrible as some of my colleagues, so I'm probably whining a bit. I'm also struggling with a more thorough approach this year to the feedback I give. I'm spending more time going line by line than I have in years past. That has me questioning myself a lot because I'm grappling with the question of does the work stop being their voice and become mine with the feedback I'm giving? It's an issue I've always struggled with when it comes to feedback and modeling. It's a razor's edge that I'm walking and it's adding to the stress.

Compounding that is that my "professional" writing life has hit an uptick in the last two weeks. I've been getting attention from two projects and it's been a pleasant surprise. One that I sort of cast aside into a "need to rewrite/polish" pile that I was going to tackle this fall. First, I decided to work on something new, blending my "epic fantasy" mind with the YA "voice" that I've been working on with my contemporary stuff, think Megan Whalen Turner's THE THIEF meets "Guardians of the Galaxy", to sort of clean the palate before tackling three rewrites before thinking about satisfying the "old school, doorstopping epic fantasy" itch I've had lately. I worked through the first "act" of the first rewrite, making it more concise by cutting and moving about 12k of garbage. As I was doing that, I used that part for some Hail Mary queries of the project when an agent was asking for YA epic fantasy. Well, to my surprise, a few of them were the Gerald Phelan to my Doug Flutie. I knew the project still needed polish, so I went to it, giving myself four to five days to bang out the revision. That has turned into eleven days as I realized that the third act is kind of a mess. God damned previous representation....never mind, that's a private rant for another time. Thankfully, one of the requests was for a partial that I'd already complete the number of requested pages.

I've been slugging away for eleven days, staying up later and later, neglecting some school stuff, fitting in writing everywhere and any way I can. (Reading a really good book that I'm going to blog about when I finish has taken away writing time, too.) Yesterday I got to a particular snared mess that needed some high explosives to fix. Naturally, I worked myself into a migraine over it. (I'm assuming that a rash of migraines is related to this.) So, I'm super behind today.

In addition to that project, another has gotten interest from agents, including a R&R from one a few months back. Regretfully, her agency dissolved over terrible circumstances. I put that further down the queue and actually kind of "put it in a drawer." Well, happily, she's back in business, so I have to put it in the on-deck circle. Then yesterday I received a request for it from another agent (when it rains it pours, in a good way) that I kind of Hail Mary-ed on this one (the David Tyree to my Eli Manning). I sent it out without the rewrite. I didn't want to leave another agent twisting in the wind. Hopefully, he'll find it as strong as she did.

In the end, being busy is good. I have to go out of town for the weekend, so it feels like there's a ticking clock. It always feels like thaat when I hit one of my hot streaks like this. Kind of like "Non-Stop" in HAMILTON: "Write day and night like you're running out of time."

I just have to manage the stress, I guess. Writing this made me feel better even if I'm a little further behind.

As usual.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Paperback Reader

As part of our continuing efforts to put our house back in order after the fire that gutted it, I put together my side of the new study that was our former dining room. I discovered the top shelf was the perfect fit for my collection of Game of Thrones beers from Ommegang Brewery and that the bottom two shelves were just right for paperbacks and hardcovers, respectively. I'm very happy with the way it came out.

In addition to the beer bottles, two Coke bottles (I'd prefer Pepsi) emblazoned with my childrens' names occupy the second shelf along with my paperbacks. Yes, my two favorite Jedi Masters: Obi-Wan and Luke overlook my workspace, acting as sentinels for my collection.While my book collection pales to others (granted, I lost a ton of books in the fire), I'm happy with it. I also noticed my propensity to mass market paperbacks. There's something about them that still make me smile when I look at them.

I love mass market paperbacks. Long the realm of beach reads, media tie-ins, romances with covers featuring buxom, bodice ripped women hanging from shirtless, well-proportioned men, binding stretching epics and countless westerns and "men's action" novels, the mass-market paperback was where I cut my teeth as a reader. Until recently, hardcovers were too expensive and too bulky. A mass market paperback was affordable and mobile. One could be easily shoved in a backpack, pocket or Wegmans apron. I still love them today, even though I own a Kindle and prefer hardcovers. There's still an appeal though to the mass market paperback. The smell. The feel. The off-white/gray, newsprint like pages. The flexibility of the cover and the spine. The tiny maps and pages of character lists or glossaries. It still thrills me a little bit. And the covers. They had weight.

The almost always garish covers meant to grab the attention of the budget minded consumer, giving you just enough of a glimpse of what to expect between those flimsy, cardstock covers for a mere $3.99. Between those covers I felt the angst of the tortured Tanis Half-Elven as he led the companions to defeat Takhsis, followed a hobbit out of his hole where he found a magic ring and more than once found myself drawn to the salacious pairing of a wealthy man's lonely wife and the mysterious, handsome stranger there to buy horses from her husband. These were my classics (except for To Kill A Mockingbird and Gatsby), my literary canon. And I don't regret the education in the slightest.

From the countless Forgotten Realms tie-in novels to the pulpy crap my father picked up at garage sales (Gor. Don't get me started on Gor), these books were formative parts of my development as both a reader and a writer. Dragonlance and A Game of Thrones were both mass market paperbacks and their influence on me is marked in every word I write and every page I read. I dreamed, still dream, of seeing the unwieldy ZELEZNIK taking up the spine of one of these books.

Mass market paperbacks are often the realm of the midlist or the little known debut author. There are gems to be found. I implore you to go find them. Go out and buy a mass market paperback. Even if you're a hardcover or Kindle reader. Sure, they aren't $3.99 anymore, but they're still easier to carry than a hardcover, you don't need to charge them or shield them from the sun.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Genetic Predisposition

Sunday was a typically hot, nasty, muggy August day in Syracuse, which means I shuffled the kids off to my inlaws, threw them in the pool to burn off some energy and NOT stare at a screen while sucking in air conditioned air. I ensconced myself, somewhat comfortably, in my usual place beneath the gazebo reading and staying hydrated. I managed to even finish the book I was reading, the novelization of THE LAST JEDI (it's amazing, but I'll talk about that later) as I alternated between the gazebo and some much needed vitamin D therapy. As I sat there, I kept on eye on the kids, listening to them play and it got me thinking about writing. (What doesn't at this point?)

My daughter brought an entire retinue of Barbie dolls with her. My son brought several action figures as well (there's a blog post in me about the difference between dolls and action figures-you know but I still might write about it) to go along with the dolls and playsets at my inlaws. For a good half hour, the kids have played a pretty epic sounding melodrama involving mermaids, supermodels, naked princes and Imperial Stormtroopers. I listened as carefully as I could, making sure they didn't notice I was paying attention and scribbled some notes. They had, in a very short time, created a pretty coherent, complex and interesting story. It had a decent plot (we're talking 5 to 10 year olds), solid world building and good characterization. It followed narrative rules and had a very clear structure, even though it was open ended since they were playing. It made me wonder, "How did they know how to do all of this?"

Campbell tells us that story telling is a deeply human, psychological thing that is ingrained in our very DNA. I don't entirely disagree with this, but it can't be that simple. Or can it?

I've told this story before. Six years ago, our local public broadcasting channel, WCNY, broadcast the most recent performance of WAGNER'S RING CYCLE from the Met. I stayed up watching it. During the performance, my then four year old daughter came downstairs and watched it with me. She proceeded to come up with her own version of the story based on what she observed and the little in interpretation I could offer via the Internet. Her version was pretty entertaining and spot on, with some interesting variation. It made me think that story telling is ingrained in our psyche because, as a four year old, she didn't have a lot consumed information at that point and it had to come from somewhere. But it can't be that simple.

We consume a lot of information in our lifetime: books, television programs, movies, comic books, cartoons, our parents' stories, the Internet and video games. We process that information and it shapes the way we think. I wouldn't be the writer I am if not for things like STAR WARS, LORD OF THE RINGS, DUNGEONS or A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. These are things that inspired me, moved me to make things like it. I have a list of my "99 Inspirations" that I keep (another series of blog posts) and I know for a fact that my stories come from those things. The first step in learning writing is emulating what you see. I wouldn't know about writing if I didn't try mimicking LOTR as a sixth graders or GOR as a middle schooler (don't judge me, my dad got them at a garage sale) or A GAME OF THRONES as a twentysomething. But I also know that I always told stories. I came up with the stories when we played in the neighborhood (I'm going to write about that because I realized a few months back, my neighbors and I were literally the kids from STRANGER THINGS). I was always the scientist. Weird huh?

I guess it comes from both, but some of us are compelled to put words onto paper, into magic boxes or sit around at lunch telling about the time our wives caught us doing something we shouldn't have been doing. 

For now, I'm planning my mermaid/supermodel/Imperial storm trooper fantasy only question is, do I give my kids a co-author credit?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

A Half Year In Review: Summer's Here

It's July 1st, meaning half of 2018 is gone, like half the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It certainly feels like it was just a snap, doesn't it. It's been a pretty crappy six months too. Our country hurtles towards fascism and a large percentage of the population seems okay with that. The Mets started out looking invincible only to fall back not only to earth, but in the words of the alway erudite Keith Hernandez, but to the darkest depths of Mordor. I didn't get summer school, but that's not all bad. It just means money's a little tighter than it would be if I'd gotten summer school. It does give me more time for important things like hanging out with my kids, reading and writing. I got some positive feedback on my end of year reflection at work that made me feel valued and appreciated. We got an adorable new puppy named Rocco. But you don't come here to listen to me go on and on about the real world. You come here for other reasons. So it's time for my annual half year review.


I've read 47 book so far in 2018. Not quite the pace I set last year, but with a strong July and August I could push towards 100 books for the year. I've missed most of the reading goals I set for 2018, but I'm okay with it. I've listened to a ton of audio books in the car while kind of plodding through other books at night or in my free time. The highlights this year:

  • CARDBOARD KINGDOM by Chad Sell: A brilliant young reader graphic novel that exceeded my high expectations and captured not only my imagination but my daughter's as well. 
  • ACE OF SHADES by Amanda Foody: A contemporary, second-world pseudo-fantasy that was terrific. The ending was a little rushed and too easy, but it's still one of the best books of 2018 for me. 
  • THE LONG WAY TO A SMALL, ANGRY PLANET by Becky Chambers: A thrilling space opera that depicts a universe that isn't a grimdark, everyone is trying to kill you and we're all gonna die view kind of place. 
  • SHOW YOUR WORK/ STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST by Austin Kleon: Guidebooks for my writing and my classroom from now on.
  • HILLBILLY ELEGY by JD Vance: This autobiography was terrific, well-written and insightful but (and it's a big but) I am just exhausted from the "understanding Trump voters" narrative that this get clumped into. I don't need anymore think pieces on it. I understand it. See my opening paragraph. 

I have one general comment about something I noticed in some of the fiction I read so far this year. There is a narrative technique that had become prevalent, not just in written fiction but in television and movie writing, where the only way the plot can move forward is by a character making a monumentally stupid decision that completely defies their previous characterization. It's lazy writing and I'm seeing more and more of it. 

I'm going to step up my reading. I've got a stack of books from the library, not to mention a drawer full of books I want to read in my night stand. I'm also on the hunt for three series of books I read as a kid about the Vietnam War. I'm going to blog about them this week I think, but I'm curious to see what my views on them now are. 


The first three months were great as I finished GIRL IN THE PICTURE, my YA creepypasta inspired paranormal thriller. I'm happy with it as a whole, but it needs a lot of work before it's ready for anything. After finishing it, I languished a bit as I tried to force something that wasn't going to work into working. (I should've listened to my buddy Mike Winchell on this one.) My town-wide, last person standing tag game story never found it's legs. I think there's something there, I just can't find it now. I kind of square peg, round holed it and tried some different things to get it to work. And it didn't. I lost almost 2 months in that process. 

I've since recovered, returning to my fantasy roots with a twist. It's an epic fantasy that I'm writing from a 1st person POV. This is the first time I'm writing a fantasy from that POV and it's kind of fun. It's not a long project, think THE THIEF by Megan Whalen Turner by way of GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY in tone. Talk to me in August to see how I'm doing. 

I'm really happy with the blogging I've been doing. I think it's some of the best work I've been doing and a lot of it has been inspired by my good friend Brian Fay. If you aren't reading his blog and subscribing to his newsletter, well you should. 


Been watching way too much TV. RICK AND MORTY still satisfies. PICKLE RICK will get nods as the highlight of season 3, but THE RICKLANTIS MIXUP is maybe the best episode of the series so far. 

SOLO didn't get a fair shake at the box office. It's fun and everything that a Han Solo movie should be. It also has the best soundtrack since RETURN OF THE JEDI. 

I've discovered BOB'S BURGERS. It does what THE SIMPSONS and FAMILY GUY does, but better.

I don't know if it's because the US and Italy aren't in it, but the World Cup has been less compelling this time around. 

I'm obsessed with my lawn and making it look nice. That happens to us at some point, doesn't it?

I'm trying to get back into the gym after 9 months and a slipped disc later. I'll let you know. 

Keep watching this space for entries on a wide variety of subjects and updates to how my new project is going. 

What have you been up to?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Far Behind Your Failure At The Cave

Because of a screw up on my part, I've had to drive my wife's car to work. This is a bonus because the car has satellite radio in it, thus multiplying my music choices about a hundredfold. One of my favorite channels on SiriusXM is Lithium, the 90s grunge/alternative rock station. I love that music. It's my personal soundtrack and formative to me, so listening to it has been a treat. And a jog down memory lane.

I've talked about trips down memory lane before. Sometimes they are good. Sometimes they aren't. A song came on yesterday morning that sent me down the tree on Dagobah type of memory lane, remembering my failures. The song was "Far Behind" by Candlebox. In an instant, I was transported to 1994 and it wasn't good.

I don't think I need to go into a long spiel about the importance of music and how one song can often put us in a time and place while evoking very specific emotions and vivid memories of who we were and what we were doing at the time. This song did that and it shook me.

Now, Candlebox wasn't Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam or Stone Temple Pilots, the sort of four pillars of 90s alt rock/Grunge. They were part of the "post Grunge" movement, a sort of second generation of alt rockers kind of mixing Grunge with a more mainstream sound. And I liked it. I'm a guy that writes YA Game of Thrones or GOT Lite, so this was right up my alley. My beloved Foo Fighters are considered part of this movement, by the way, as was Nickelback. Candlebox could be considered a guilty pleasure because they weren't as lauded and respected as Nirvana or STP. When I think of this I think of Austin Kleon quoting Dave Grohl, of my beloved Foos and one of my artistic idols, "I don't believe in guilty pleasures. If you f**king like something, like it." This is so true. (There's a blog in me about music snobs, but that's for another time.) Judge me for my love of Candlebox, the Monkees, Tom Jones and Halsey all you want.

The song dredged up a lot of memories in just under 5 minutes of drive time. And driving is the best/worst time for thinking. I've talked before how that time in my life '94-'96 weren't a good time for me. I still have dark revelations and bad memories of a bad time in my life, perhaps the lowest. These revelations makes me relive and dwell on bad choice after bad choice I was making. Choices that made no sense and make me realize how lucky I am to have wound up where I am. I know why I wound up where I did and it rhymes with Rimberly. But still, I found myself in the dark cave underneath the tree again remembering how I told people I'd be on the New York Times Bestseller list by the time I was 26. I wasn't. I wanted to be a writer, but didn't put any of the work in. I didn't work on my craft. I just screwed around. I was listless. I thought I was better than I was, both as a writer and who I was at the time. I had no reason not to write, yet I didn't. I chose excuses and sloth instead.

I often joke that all my stories, especially the fantasies, take place in the 90s because I want to tap into the anger I have in myself over that period of my life. Looking at my character play lists I create for my multi-POV epics, much of it is music from the 90s. Music that reminds me of those dark times and I rely on that nostalgia to tell the stories I tell. The melancholy of that time period is held at bay because I am in my "story world" and it becomes almost therapeutic situation where I tackle who I was and what I was doing.

The next song was "Bullet with Butterfly Wings" by another of my favorite bands, The Smashing Pumpkins (who have kind of gone off the deep end lately). It didn't move me the way "Far Behind" did and I was left rolling over those old memories around in my head. I worked my way out of that cave, partially by writing this.

So, thanks Candlebox for creating an important piece of art. I listened to your first album while making dinner for my family last night after finishing a draft of this piece. I was feeling better, refreshed. And filled with some good memories of that time in my life and what I've managed to do with my failures.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Patience You Must Have

After a nearly two month, unintentional writing hiatus, I'm writing again. Good news, right? Kind of. The problem is that I'm stressing about it. Sounds weird, right? Especially from someone that calls himself a writer. It should be the one thing that doesn't stress me out. But it's different this time. I'm trying something new and different that I find very intimidating and time consuming.

About a year ago, I borrowed a book from the library called THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby and thought it had some good insights into storytelling. I've vowed to work on the craft and I think that I get too wrapped up in writing a book when I should be focusing on the story. The book had some interesting ideas on story so recently I decided to buy it and give it a whirl while writing my new project. I'm finding it incredibly frustrating in spots. So frustrating that I've shut it, cast it aside and muttered my personal mantra of "F**k it" before wading back into it to give it a shot again. It's working, but it's taking longer than I was hoping it would.

The frustrating part has to do with the pace that I'm working. It doesn't feel like I'm writing because I'm not writing in the traditional sense. I'm planning. To my mind, that's not writing. It's different. Right? Or am I actually writing, just doing a different kind of writing. I need to reconcile that. It's important to remember that writing a process not a product. Planning is part of the process, so therefore it is writing.

I always plan when I write. I've talked about that before but I never considered it writing. I'm planning for this new untitled project (I mean I have a title but I'm not ready to share it until I check it's viability as a project) using Truby's painstaking and thorough method of planning. It makes you think from the very premise to the execution of the plot. This method is making me ask questions I never thought of in my writing. It has me wondering if this is part of the problem in my fiction. Am I in such a rush to finish that I don't consider every aspect of the story and it lacks the punch I need to get the attention of agents or editors. But it's time consuming and I still feel like I'm not writing.

My hope is that the time I'm taking now is mostly because this is my first time through this process. I'm also hoping that all this planning will increase my output once I start writing the actual book.

For now, I guess I'm going to have to heed the words of two great (actually pretty shitty but that's another blog post) Jedi masters and have some patience.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

And In The Darkness Bind Them

Early Sunday morning I finished writing a book. It is the eighth book I've finished. It's kind of a sad number, but I'm not going to dwell on that because I'm really happy with this book.

I don't put much in the concepts of destiny or fate, but something pointed out to me about today has me a little weirded out. Today is March 25th. So what, right? The 107th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. Palm Sunday to us Catholics. It's also Tolkien Reading Day. I never knew why it was Tolkien Reading Day until I woke up this morning.

I'll confess my knowledge of the Tolkien Legendarium isn't as encyclopedic as some and I was informed that March 25th is the day that (SPOILER ALERT) Frodo completed his quest to destroy the One Ring. Well, he didn't really complete it did he? Gollum bit his finger off and in his ecstasy fell into the Crack of Doom, destroying not only the One Ring but ending Sauron.

LORD OF THE RINGS are a formative part of my life as a writer and person. Without the adventures of a couple of hobbits, I might have become a different writer, heck, a different person. And it shows up in the weirdest places.

When I started GIRL IN THE PICTURE in last May, it started as a creepyish procedural thriller like MYSTIC RIVER or the movie SEVEN. I decided to do some things differently and it did things I wasn't expecting. A manuscript is a living, breathing thing and it grew in ways I wasn't expecting. I also pantsed the book. For the uninitiated, pantsing is writing without a plan. Usually, I am an ardent outliner, but I decided to try something new. Writing a procedural without a plan proved to be difficult, as I discovered when I temporarily shelved the project in August. Things were happening in the story that I didn't expect and it ground me to a halt. Normally this doesn't happen. I expect to deviate from an outline, but it wasn't working for me. It required a plan as the story went from a procedural to a monster story.

I cleverly called it the make out monster because it only showed up when my main character was kissing a girl and it is described as looking both like Sauron's red eye and the Balrog. THE LORD OF THE RINGS allusions then just began to flow (along with Harry Potter, Scooby Doo and Indiana Jones references). The characters even noticed, chiding me for the references as they work their way through the double mystery of the identity of the girl in the picture and how to stop the monster. I won't spoil my own movie, just in case I clean it up enough for you to read it someday, but this brings me back to my original point.

Early Sunday morning I was finishing up the final chapters of GIRL IN THE PICTURE. The scenes are meant to parrot the destruction of the One Ring. I was too bleary eyed and tired to notice the date or the significance of that date. I was wrapping up the destruction of my One Ring analogue on the same day that the same thing was happening in the original book. That made me kind of creeped out but excited.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this. But, maybe, y'know, fate.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Sunday Paper: In Three Parts

Part I: The News
The Sunday before last, I woke up earlier than usual, especially considering it was Daylight Savings. While my morning chai brewed in the machine, I went out, all Tony Soprano style in my robe and slippers, to get the morning paper. Thankfully, no one was there to whack me and I was able to retrieve my tea from the machine then shuffle over to the kitchen table to read the paper. I repeated the same steps this past weekend, though it was much later. I'm thinking Daylight Savings might have caught up with me.

I still enjoy reading the Sunday paper. Sure, the news is rarely good and our local paper's Sunday edition isn't what it used to be, but there is still something about sitting down with a cup of chai (or coffee if that's your poison) and dissecting it part by part, from the hard news of the day to checking if someone has lamb chops on sale this week. Regretfully, there are no lamb chops on sale this week and the beast that was the Sunday paper once is now a mere pamphlet by comparison. I wonder, though, if that is more my own sense of romance affecting the memory of the experience, as is that case with many of things I reflect back on with only my memories to remember them by. There was a magic to the Sunday paper that just isn't there anymore. I can't determine if that's because of my own memories, my present perspective, the changing way that we consume news or the physical changes to the paper itself.

The Sunday paper wasn't just a report on what happened the day before, but a review and a preview. A look back at the week that was and a look forward to the week that will be. IN a day and age of instant information access, I understand that it might be hard for someone to see the appeal of reading the Sunday paper. I was so struck by the memories, I wrote down what I was thinking.

Part II: The Insterts
Okay, this is the get off my lawn section.

Growing up, I was a paper boy. (For this I am using the masculine with apologies. I know there were paper girls but I was a paper boy.)

It was a largely thankless job where the money didn't match the effort. The adults I trusted took advantage of the cheap, willing labor, nickel and diming us every chance they got like modern day versions of Fagin, relying on us to not only deliver the papers but act as bill collectors on "collecting night." What twelve year old is ready for a career in bill collection? Seriously, we would've made piss poor loan sharks. I was thinking about this as I read the paper. Not the loan shark part. That's all handled by computers now and the paper is now delivered by adults in cars. What got me thinking about my former career was this:

This would've been unacceptable. Like phone call from our Fagin unacceptable.

Three parts. Unassembled. And wrong.

We had to put the paper together. If you were smart, you did the inserts on Saturday because the Saturday paper was the smallest paper. The inserts were the ads and preprinted parts of the paper that you had to put into the Sunday paper. It involved your paper bag, a huge cart and endless prayers to the gods of wind, rain and snow. Then delivered to the front door between the storm door and main door. Locked storm doors or no storm doors were a nightmare. That's not the case anymore. Instead the paper is stuffed into my mailbox in three parts. Meaning I have to shuffle to the mailbox to get the paper. I'm too lazy to complain about it, but it's vexing. I think of all the tips I missed because a storm door didn't close right and a paper blew away. Or a dog got to it. Or it got wet on a porch with no door. At least my paper is dry, I suppose.

Part III: The Sports Section
Growing up, my father had a rule about the Sunday paper: no one was allowed to read it until he was done with it. He didn't like it out of order.

It was such a weird, random thing. If you've ever seen his workbench or any of the garages he's had in his life, you would know that this was the most out of character thing ever. This was frustrating because the only sections I ever read were the ones he didn't: the sports section and the Stars (books and movies, right?). He never relented. He studied the comics like there was going to be a test and endlessly scanned the classifieds for garage sales to peruse. So, I would wait.

I don't read the sports section anymore. I'm not sure why. Is it that, like so many others, I can get any sports related information I want when I want it? As I was writing this, I checked the score of Bournemouth-Tottenham soccer match several times on my phone. Or is it that, like the paper, the sports section isn't what it used to be. I had a whole section of this about box scores, but I've decided to save it for another blog post.

Writing about sports takes a skill that eludes me. In another universe, I am a famous sports pundit pontificating about the underappreciated greatness of LeBron James, Doug Gottlieb's petty and intense dislike of Syracuse University basketball or the sham that is the NCAA. But we aren't in that universe. My deleted sports blog is proof of that elusive skill. Some of the best writing out there right now is sports writing. Deadspin, Bleacher Report, Yahoo Sports and even the Four Letter are doing amazing things these days. But not so much on the local level.

I criticize my local paper a lot. They've fallen into the trend of fishing for clicks rather than good reporting. I was shocked to find out that reporters load stories online almost exactly the way that I load this blog. No editorial oversight. Just write it and put it out. That's dangerous. Then there's SLOW news days.

Slow news days means rolling out the overpaid teacher narrative. It never fails. It gets clicks. Lots and lots of clicks. The basement crowd loves the overpaid teacher narrative. Because, y'know, we do this for the money. Ah, I'm ranting about the job. I'll stop here. If you need me, I'll be double checking the ads to see if someone has lamb chops on sale.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

A Pocketful of Hope And a Smidge of Talent.

Why write?

The question was first posed to me a few years back. Now that I think about it, it was many years back, when we first started doing the now regretfully discontinued summer writing institute at school. We developed the simple but thoughtful essential question of "Why write?" It is a question I am thinking about this morning. The thought is so important that despite setting a goal of surpassing 70k on GIRL IN THE PICTURE today (I'm presently at 67,776 words), I'm writing this instead. The catalyst for all the thought was another terrific blog post by my friend Brian Fay (If you aren't reading his blog, you are doing it wrong. All of it wrong!) about the occasional (or chronic) feeling of futility in hope and the overwhelming disappointment we feel when what we are hoping for doesn't work out.

I'm going to admit that I was kind of bummed for Brian when I read his post. Brian is a beacon. I find his posts inspiring. We are birds of a feather, in many ways, having many of the same thoughts, struggles feelings and frustrations. I have no idea what the thing he was hoping for was, but I was crushed for him, but I've been there.

If you follow me on social networks (especially Twitter), you know that I am one for throwing myself a good old fashioned pity party. You also know that I am an avid fan of show RICK AND MORTY and on of my favorite things that came from that show is the phrase, "WUBBALUBBADUBDUB!"

It's one of Rick's catch phrases and said in times when Rick is trying to break tension or express that he's having a good time. We came to find out from Rick's best friend Birdperson (it's a batshit crazy show if you aren't familiar with it) that it actually means, "I am in great pain, please help me." I understand Rick, especially in moments when writing let's me down. And I find myself asking that essential question from the writing institute: "Why write?"

Well, it's a simple answer: I write because I can't not write.

I've tried not writing. The summer I met my wife was a tumultuous summer. It was as close to the lowest I've ever been. I decided sometime in the late spring that I wasn't going to write for a while. I was frustrated with writing. With life. With myself. I needed to clear my head. This was a massive mistake. I should've been using writing to get me through what I was going through, working on my craft and getting better at what I was doing. It took months to get back into it and the lack of discipline still impedes me to this day. But in the end, I couldn't not write.

I've been told that rejection is part of the publishing/writing game. And it can be pretty hopeless sometimes. When the rejections pile up, it's almost easy to put on a smiling face, brush it off to the "business of writing" and cry out "WUBBALUBBADUBDUB!" I have to reset myself. Find the hope again.

JK Rowling was told not to quit her day job.

LORD OF THE FLIES was rejected 20 times.

John LeCarre was told he doesn't have a future as a writer.

A WRINKLE IN TIME was passed on 26 times.

Stephen King saw 30 plus rejection slips before CARRIE came out.

Am I any different from them?

No. And I get back on the horse. Like many things in life, things come in waves. Ebbs and flows. Pools and eddies. Of joy and pain. Of hope and disappointment. I refuse to let it break me. In the end, the only things I have is my talent and a pocket full of hope.

It might just be enough.