Tuesday, December 31, 2019

2019: The Year In Review: The Reading

So here we are, on the precipice of a new year. Leftovers from Christmas are eaten, most of the mess of 5 minutes of joy has been cleaned up and put away. The last week I've been ridiculously unmotivated in my efforts to do just about anything. I had loads of plans, all of which were abandoned for lazily sitting around doing nothing constructive. I still have some time for this (writing) and that (reading and binging TV shows) and the other thing (school planning and an audit of some of my grades), but today is all about reflecting on the year that was. I've filled an entire composition notebook with my random ramblings. I'm pretty proud of that. I decided to save my writing post for the new notebook and post it tomorrow. For now, let's talk about what I read this year, so get out your Amazon gift cards and get ready to do some ordering.

As the year comes to a close, I've read 155 books. That's the most ever in a year. Thank audiobooks for a lot of that. I'm setting a goal of 120 for 2020, though I'm sure reading with Cooper and my string of graphic novels will bulk that number up. I'm going to start working through my bookshelf and knock out some of my epic fantasy series as I prep for my year of writing....but I'll get to that in my next post. This is about the reading.

Top read of 2019:

THE LIBRARY BOOK by Susan Orlean: This book was incredible. After hearing Jeff Pearlman talk with Orlean on his podcast, I checked the book out of the library. It blew me away. I couldn't put it down. (I read it on the beach in Maryland.) Part true crime, part history of the LA library system, part love letter to libraries, it is all amazing. The chapter where Orlean describes the process of burning a book is truly one of the most amazing things I've ever read.


Other best reads of 2019:

  • WHY THEY CAN'T WRITE by John Warner: Holy crap, what a game changer. This book has completely changed the way that I look at the way I approach teaching. It's really made me rethink so much of what I'm doing in my classroom. 
  • THE ELECTRIC WAR by Mike Winchell: Mike is a friend and long time supporter. Even if he weren't, this book is outstanding. Mike takes a difficult and complicated time in history and weaves it into an actual story. Reminded me of Sheinken. I can't wait for the follow up. 
  • THE RISE AND FALL OF THE DINOSAURS by Stephen Brusatte: I can't believe that three of my best of books are non-fiction, but it was a weird year. This book was amazing. It turned millions of years of natural history into an exciting narrative. I was my 6 year old self seeing the T-Rex skeleton at the Museum of Natural History. 
  • FIRE AND BLOOD by George RR Martin: Not non-fiction but it read like non-fiction. It really showed the depth of the world that GRRM created for his classic novels. 
  • FOR THE KILLING OF KINGS by Howard Andrew Jones: My favorite fantasy of the year. A throwback to the 90s, this book was a rollicking, fun adventure that reminded me of my own writing. It's pretty easy to see why we were agent mates for a while considering the similarities in our work. 

Disappointments: THE EYES OF THE DRAGON, THE SONG OF SUSANNAH, DRAGONS OF THE HIGHLORD SKIES. THERE WILL COME A DARKNESS (to be fair, I thought this was good but I had extremely high expectations that it didn't meet).

Series I Finished:
  • THE DARK TOWER by Stephen King: Long, meandering and equal parts masterpiece and piece of garbage. At a get together this past November I had a long conversation with a super fan of the series that was thrilled to talk about it with me. I'm glad I finished it and experienced it. 
  • THE WINNER'S TRILOGY by Marie Rutkoski: Satisfying but flat ending to a series I really enjoyed. Relied a little too much on the "characters making stupid decisions for the sake of plot" trope at times, but it's still worth the read. 
  • THRONES AND BONES by Lou Anders: I wish that this series wasn't over because it's really great. I'd love to see the world book that I KNOW Anders has for it. 
  • SIN DU JOUR by Matt Wallace: A classic fantasy series that grew in epic-ness as it went on. Side note, the final three books of this series I read while sitting in the hospital with my dad as he had a growth moved from his brain. It helped, so thanks Matt. 
So that was 2019 in reading. Tomorrow I'll likely talk about my writing. 

Friday, December 20, 2019

A Few Thoughts On The Rise of Skywalker (SPOILERS)

Excuse my language, but I FUCKING loved it. Ignore the critics and the trolls, and there are plenty of them out there, They either want clicks or have an axe to grind. It was a huge, glorious, fun epic that doesn't stop moving and ends in a fairly satisfactory manner. I'm still thinking about it almost sixteen hours later, rolling things over in my head and smiling at some of them. There's a lot to unpack and I feel like I'm going to write another entry when I go see it a second time over break.

The movie isn't perfect, but what STAR WARS movie is perfect. There are legit criticisms you can make about it, but I will not accept any variation of the following three:

  • Rey is too powerful/Rey is a Mary Sue.
  • The plot was too convoluted. (Especially if you raved about ENDGAME)
  • Too much fanservice/ It was fan fiction. It's a fucking Star Wars movie for Chrissakes. 
As I said, the movie truly is an epic. The run time is listed as two hours and twenty-one minutes. It felt like they could've spent another hour telling the story to flesh a few things out. It suffers, a little, from the "traveling at the speed of plot" trope, but if you know me at all, this isn't much of an issue. I can see how that could bother someone, though.

JJ Abrams catches a lot of shit, but he made some interesting choices for this movie, especially when it came to the structure. He leaned heavily into the things that inspired it, like epic fantasies. It was interesting to see. The film starts with a clear prologue that basically sets up the plot of the rest of the film while resetting a lot of what we've seen so far. (They leave PLENTY of blanks for the EU to fill in and I actually appreciate that!) The story starts en media res and never really stops rolling. And that's a good thing. It plays with the epic framework quite deftly. The beginning re-establishes our characters while briefly (maybe too briefly) fleshes out some changes in their relationships. The plot hits all the beats (or "checks boxes) as our heroes go on a good, old fashioned quest. It's a lot of jumping around and feels a little disjointed in spots, but it works well. I didn't see how it was "slow" the way some critics described it. The story transitions from the quest narrative into the "final battle" beats, from gathering the team to the final assault. It works and it a thrilling action sequence that steals from all sorts of sources (including an outstanding nod to ENDGAME). The conclusion is satisfying enough, with all the hallmark STAR WARS notes and the story is bookended with a beautiful, poignant epilogue.

In the end this was fun, and we're missing fun in today's epics. I've written about this before. Everything is grim and dark and gritty. There were sacrifices and stakes and risk without all the GAME OF THRONES grimdarkness. And that made it vastly more entertaining.

A few thoughts:

  • Ben Solo's redemptive arc: I was hesitant to embrace this, considering what he did to his father, but in the end it worked in no small part to the performance of Adam Driver. Of all the roles, he had the most difficult. We needed to hate him and sort of understand him at the same time. Driver NAILS it. 
  • Rey Palpatine: I loved this entire arc. His resurrection is unsurprising and has been hinted at in the EU since Disney reset the canon. It actually goes all the way back to ROTJ and it makes sense that he really was the "phantom menace" the entire time. (I can't believe I typed that either.) The revelation about his relationship to Rey is downright biblical. She was created for the sole purpose of creating a vessel for his soul. That's some real Old Testament shit. It's also creepy, evil and shows how Palpatine really was looking at the long game.
  • The scene that absolutely destroyed me was after the duel in the ruins of the Death Star. Ben Solo, having abandoned the Kylo Ren identity, is faced with his father's spirit in the "Force zone" (I'll talk about that in a minute) and that helps him turn to the light. I wept when I saw it, I sobbed in the car thinking about it after and I'm a little misty right now writing about it. It's got a lot to do with what's going on with my dad. Couple that with the fact that I think there's a passing resemblance between Han and my dad and it was over for me. 
  • The supposed LAST JEDI blowback was such clickbait bullshit. So much of what Abrams did in this movie was clearly connected to TLJ, either explaining it or supporting it. Any explanation was done with what felt like no disrespect or attempt to undo what Johnson tried to do. The only gripe I had about the Rey revelation was that it undid the idea that ANYONE can be a Force user. (Where's the kid with the broom?) Is there going to be a new Jedi order? Are Finn and Jannah going to become Jedi?
  • Speaking of Finn, I enjoyed his character arc, but what did he have to say to Rey? I'm glad they left it out in the end. Are him and Rose still a thing? Or is she with Merry now. I am here for an EU book featuring the four of them in a real love dodecahedron. (Hey Disney/Del Rey, I'm available if you need me to write it!) 
  • I thought Rose was criminally underused and I really, really missed Phasma.
  • A friend on Facebook made a point about all the Sith in the Temple. He asked if that meant that everyone knew about the Sith. But that's not the case. I don't remember any of the Resistance mentioning the Sith, only the First Order and that was after they met Palpatine. The Sith are an accepted part of the canon, so people would know about them. I believe some of this has been addressed in the EU (in particular Chuck Wendig's books). I liked it because it showed the power of a few cultists to blindly follow a selfish, out-for-himself madman. 
  • Threepio's arc was really cool. Goldenrod gets to be the dashing hero. His actual enthusiasm and willingness to go was a great little change. His "goodbye to my friends" scene teared me up. His willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good is a long way from the droid calling R2 a "overweight glob of grease." It was a beautiful moment, completely undone by having his memory restored. I felt it robbed him of that moment. 
  • The Rey/Kylo duels were amazing. The use of the "Force plane" was really cool and became a really fun little wrinkle. The dyad line in the hangar was really, really powerful.
  • I thought the space battle was a little underwhelming but it did the job it was supposed to. 
  • Hux's arc was pitch perfect: an entitled, petulant little prick. His line that he didn't care who won as long as Ren lost was so good. 
So, ignore the critics and trolls. It was a thrilling ride that had me smiling. 


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Why We Do It

I haven't written much about school this year because  haven't had much to say. (When coupled with my recent writing struggles it's called a motif in the literature world.) But last week, some things stood out and I wrote about it.

The worst days on the job are the ones where you find yourself stuck in the doldrums that only get worse when ideas start rolling around in your head because the job numbs the mind and soul. The best days are the ones where you walk away feeling like you did something important for someone and that they are buying the soup you are selling.

Last week, coming back from Thanksgiving break, I wasn't at my best. I didn't feel good. I had a busy week planned and we were already a day behind. But something happened along the way. My students were a little more attentive and engaged, despite a dry, lecture based lesson plan. I connected with some difficult students about their reluctance to finish a major assignment that ended with me extending a deadline for them. It was turning into a good day.

I went downstairs to check my mailbox and wound up in the main hall with the athletic director just as two of my students were walking down the hall. One is an athlete and the AD asked her how her college essay was coming along. My jaw damn near dropped and I put up a full-court, "I'm offended" attitude. I did this because her college essay was moving. So moving I posted about it on Facebook.

Her essay was beautiful and devastating and emotional, so I told her that. She blushed and was awkwardly silent for a long time. I told her to come see me and that we could fix it. It was too long and needed about 200 words culled from it. She shuffled away and agree to meet me the next day during my planning period. To my surprise, she came and I was elated.

She's a tough cookie. A quiet tomboy that gives out a heavy "don't F with me vibe." She's got a smile that lights up a room, though, and it has to be earned, which is what makes it so powerful when she does smile. She not mean but serious, two attributes easy to confuse, and guarded. That she trusted me this much meant so much to me. She's also a talented writer, though I don't think she knows this being shackled by our five paragraph form essay. But that's another blog post.

What happened in the next hour or so was nothing short of remarkable. We pulled up her paper, making a duplicate to work with because I felt that the entire essay needed to be saved. She wanted to know why and I told her, very frankly, that her essay was important and there were a lot of young people that need to read it so they would know that they are not alone in the world. She blushed furiously when I said that. I might have too. This wasn't pandering, this was the truth.

We pared the essay down to a tight 590 words and she thanked me for the help. It felt amazing, this is what teaching should be. It was a two way street. She trusted me and was willing to go along with what I was telling her. A lot of students wouldn't have gone along with me, feeling their work was adequate enough. But she wanted to get better and know why we were doing what we did.

I want more days like this at school. This is why we do what we do. Here's a young woman with an important story to tell and she tells it well. I was able to help her, encourage her and tell her how important her words were. Maybe I don't present myself as the ally I should in moments like this. My relationship with students can be antagonistic much of the time. Maybe that can change just a little.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Fruitless Endeavor

Sunday morning I woke up obscenely early for me. I started laundry, cleaned the kitchen then went and got the paper. I was going to do some writing after I read the paper and had my chai, but I turned on the TV and watched the first few episodes of Netflix's THE DRAGON PRINCE. It shook me. It's that good. Like really good. Boneshakingly good. It's everything that epic fantasy should be. Thrilling, exciting, loaded with incredible characters you care about, rich world building, muddled conflicts and a sliding scale of right and wrong. As a fan and creator of epic fantasy, I was deflated. Crushed. How the hell could I possibly exist in the same genre? I was a fraud. I was a phony.

So, I did what you do: I got up, put my laptop away and went to Marie Kondoize my closet and dresser instead. The thought of writing seemed absurd and a downright fruitless endeavor. Reorganizing my closet seemed like the saner thing to do than attempting to write. This is a rare occurrence. I'm pretty confident in my writing ability. I don't usually react this way when reading or watching something. Usually, I have one of two reactions in moments like this: "I can do this" and "What the f**k?"

The first one is "I can do this." It's not an insult to the piece or a dismissal. As a matter of fact, it's almost the opposite. I get inspired and moved to action. STRANGER THINGS, THE WINNER'S CURSE, MYSTIC RIVER, THE VENTURE BROTHERS, RICK & MORTY, etc. I've read/watched/consumed these things and loved them so much that I created something inspired by it. (Wait for my 99 Inspirations posts!) That's the real power of art. When you see something, it moves you to do something like it or close to it or nothing like it at all. It teaches you something about the art that you want to duplicate or use. It presents a theme or concept that you want to take in a different direction or expand upon. These are the best.

The second, "What the f**k?" may be the worst. They are poison and rot. When you read or see something that makes you think "I'm at least as good if not better than this crap." Sure, a lot of this thought is pure ego, but I feel that way. I'm a pretty decent writer and I believe in my heart of hearts that I'm at least as good as anything out there. You have to believe that as an artist, because if you don't, who will? But there's the rub. Thoughts like, "Why did this writer get the break and not me?" fester and rot. They consume you, inch by inch, moment by moment. Your brain stops creating and allows that self-loathing voice to gurgle up like a bad Gollum pastiche. You have to fight those urges and some days it can be really hard. As Big Willy Shakes once said, "O, beware my lord, of jealousy; it is the green-eyed monster which doth mock the meat it feeds on." That can be crippling but you can work around it, either through spite or determination. (I prefer spite, but I'm petty like that.)

But every so often, rarely in fact, something comes along that just makes me question everything I do. Trying to write something that could even stand in the shadows of something that great seems impossible. This was how I felt Sunday morning. How could I possibly thing I could be a writer when something like this is out there? It's almost not fair. The novel A GAME OF THRONES shook me to my core and made me rethink everything that I did as a write, but whenever GRRM releases new material or sample chapters from the next book, I feel that same futile feeling. Why bother? THE DRAGON PRINCE made me feel that way too. I can't remember the last time I felt this way. So, organizing my closet seemed suddenly less daunting and a more efficient way to spend my afternoon.

Okay, I'm being a little melodramatic. I'm still writing. I can't not write. It's impossible. Hell, I'm writing this, right? I'll get back on the horse. I've been back on the horse. I'm going to finish November strong and the year even stronger. To hit my "hours written" goal for 2020, I need an especially strong December. I can do this. So, maybe my third, rarest reaction of "Oh, shit, I can't do this" to art is one that nudges me in the direction I need to go too. I think it was Meat Loaf that said two out of three ain't bad.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Green Is The Color Of Hope

I should be writing my NANO project, but I'm not. There is something more important that I need to write about right now, something that required my immediate attention. Something I'm obsessed with and you should be too....BABY YODA!

Drink in that cuteness...that adorableness. EAT. IT. UP.

A few days ago, someone on one of my social network feeds made a comment about how they disliked things like Baby Yoda, calling it a short cut for creating empathy without any story telling. I disagreed, mostly because Baby Yoda is just coyingly cute. But that's a weak argument that holds no water, so I thought about it. And I figured it out.

Baby Yoda works not because is cuteness is a shortcut to empathy, but that he is a symbol. This tiny, green bundle of adorability is a symbol of the power of hope. In this day and age of grimdark fantasy and gritty reboots, we need a little hope in our lives. And Baby Yoda symbolizes that. It's not simple, there's work to be done by us the viewer and that's always an issue with today's audiences. (Look at THE LAST JEDI kerfuffle, but that's a different blog post.)

We know that Yoda is perhaps the most powerful Jedi master of his era and it's implied that the Force runs strong through his species. At one point, Baby Yoda saves the Mandalorian's life by using the Force with relative ease. Still a toddler, it's obvious that Baby Yoda is strong with the force, even though the maneuver exhausts him. But it cements his position as a being of power. And as a symbol of hope.

When you work out the timeline, Baby Yoda's appearance coincides with the end of the Empire (there's some wonkiness in this because while Jon Faverau has said the show takes place 5 years after Jedi, I've read other sources that place it ten) and the beginning of the Republic. But when you do a little math (and I'm not doing it here, but trust me I did it) by the time we get to THE FORCE AWAKENS, Baby Yoda will be about the same age as a Youngling in the Prequels, around the time that a being can begin to be trained in the use of the Force. Or when it awakens.When hope rises again to face the darkness. Snoke says it at some point in THE LAST JEDI too.

We're all cynics at this point in our lives, beaten by the world around us. I mean look at poor Yoda. I don't think the 900 years was all that made him look as old as he did. Baby Yoda sees the world through the clear, unburdened eyes of an innocent. He sees things that we can't see anymore or refuse to look for. It also reveals more about the titular character than anything else, making him even more significant part of the story.

The Mandalorian is a character that is willing to kill, murder and freeze targets in carbonite, yet Baby Yoda sees him as something else, something worth saving. It tells us there is something special about the Mandalorian, though we aren't sure why yet. It's not creating empathy, but more questions. If you're willing to do a little work sprinkled with some green flakes of hope.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Process: Live and On Stage

One of my primary focuses this year in my classroom is the writing process. I want my students to know and understand that writing is a process not a product. And it's driving many of them crazy. Some don't see the point. Some are just lazy. Some truly believe that they are talented enough writers that they don't need planning or editing or revisions or rewrites. It's the Dunning Kruger Effect come to life. It's vexing. But that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this because of what I did over the weekend.

On Saturday night, Kim and I went to see stand-up comedian Sebastian Maniscalco. He was hilarious. My face and gut hurt from laughing so much.

Something you need to know about me if you didn't already know, I love stand-up comedy. I have since I was a kid. My epic ski club novel that I've been planning for years had a character that dreams of being a stand-up comedian. I've been in love with stand-up comedy since the first time I saw Bill Cosby: Himself. I spent hours watching late night comedy specials on HBO and looked forward to the Young Comedian's Specials. I listened to albums and tapes: Eddie Murphy's "Cookout" and "Hamburger" bits were formative. Underrated classics such as Bob Nelson's "All-American Football Team"  and John Fox's hysterical "Archibald Berisol" (which I would do on the ski club bus). I love the routines of Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, George Carlin, pre-disgraced Louis CK, Bill Engvall, etc. Their brilliant writing is clearly an inspiration. (Yes, I've dreamed of becoming a stand-up, but, well, that's for another time.) And you can add Maniscalco to that list.

But the coolest part of the show was the last bit of the night. It was hilarious and some of the biggest belly laughs of the night were during the bit, but that wasn't what made it so cool. What made it cool was that I was watching the writing process live and on stage.

You could tell that the bit wasn't complete. A terrific bit about growing up and how dating was different back then. It was sweet, just the right bit of nostalgia not to be ponderous and without a single taste of "get off my lawn" griping that is so easy to fall into when talking about nostalgia. It was still hilarious but there were some lulls in Maniscalco's manic delivery, as if he wasn't quite sure what he should be doing at that moment, and it was choppy in spots. It needed work and I think he knew it. He was trying it out to see what worked and what didn't work. Kind of like you do in the drafting process. We, the audience, were his beta readers and our reactions were his feedback. It was truly amazing to witness first hand. You always hear stories about how comedians will go to a small, hole-in-the-wall club to try out new material. That's what we were doing, but where the hole-in-the-wall denizens were getting an early draft, we got a more polished but incomplete one that still needed work. I was thrilled having watched it.

Walking back to the car with my wife (we skipped a late dinner downtown to avoid the crowds), I couldn't withhold my excitement over the last bit. She listened, because she's good at that and commented that it was still funny. I agreed, but the writer and writing teacher in my was still thrilled having gotten to witness the writing process live. What he was doing was no different than what I might do (or try to get my students to do) when revising or rewriting.

Sometimes it's finding a different word or reorganizing the words in a different sequence. Sometimes it's taking certain words out or leaving others in. Maybe it's moving entire sections from the beginning to the end or starting in a different place. It might be the need to quicken the pace here while slowing it there. It was the writing process, live and on stage.

Sunday, October 27, 2019


If you haven't noticed, I haven't been sharing much of my personal writing lately. Who am I kidding, I haven't been doing much personal writing in the last two months. The beginning of the school year can do that to you. Plus, I really haven't had much to say. I've written some things here and there, but it's nothing worth sharing. (There's a post about that in me, I just haven't written it yet.) I've been writing a lot for the last six weeks despite school, but nothing coherent or unified. It's stuff I never thought I could or would write...and no, I'm not telling you. In that time, some of the threads that will make up "The Epic Fantasy I Wasn't Going To Write" came into view along with some new, very different ideas.

I don't have a solid project here, just ideas floating around that need some structure. My MG story is stuck and stalled. I just can't get it moving. It could be the sense of urgency I feel about the story. That should motivate me and it's not. I want to try NANOWRIMO again, but I don't know what project I want to do. But that's not really what I wanted to write about.

I wanted to write about brooding.

Last week was a shit week. Not worth getting into specifics, but it put me in a weird, miserable place. I stopped listening to the book I was listening to and tried to find an appropriate soundtrack to accompany my brooding. I settled on the new album by Tool. It's fantastic (Pink Floyd and Zeppelin had a baby that was raised by Metallica). And it was perfect music for brooding.

When you think about it, brooding is just a quieter, cooler sounding way of saying whining quietly. It's actually kind of considerate when you think about it. I was having a conversation with someone this week and said, "I'm given for dark moods." It was something cool I used to say when I was younger to sound mysterious. ("Why is everything a shade of gray?" was another popular one from me.) There's some truth to it. I get stuck in my own head, letting things roll around like the sand in the oyster until there's a giant pearl rolling around, distracting me from almost all thoughts. It's been like that for a few days now. It can be dangerous, like the Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" says, "Or does it explode?" (I know he was talking about something very different, but it still means something to me.) And somehow,  despite all this brooding, writing is happening.

Yesterday, I was sitting on the porch watching the kids (we call that a motif in the literature business), writing. I had written seven pages in my notebook in the previous day and a half. That was more than I'd written in a long time. Granted most of it is garbage and the meandering ramblings of a maniac, but you know what they say about "Shitty First Drafts."

I wound up writing a few pages of the MG project. Plus I wrote a few pages of the thing that will never see the light of day. Some of the nebulous "epic fantasy" ideas are becoming clearer while I'm developing some ideas of how to fix an old story that had its chances and failed to garner attention. I'm contemplating doing something I didn't think I'd do with something else. It's kind of exciting. Not like "whoo-hoo" exciting...I'm brooding, remember?

Maybe accessing the darkness is what I needed to jump start what I'm doing. I don't write "dark." Sure, GIRL IN THE PICTURE is kind of dark and some of my other work has dark moments, but I wouldn't call anything I write "dark." I've always run from the dark, avoiding it. I've stepped away from writing when I've felt my life was entering a dark place because I didn't want it reflected in what I was doing. Maybe that's been a mistake. Maybe I needed to embrace those dark moods and brood a bit. Let that pearl grow and grow.

Plenty of authors talk about the darkness and how they use it to write. King, Murakami, Pratchett, Gaiman, Whedon, Twain.

Maybe in that darkness and brooding, when quiet and not distracted by all the noise, you can find the things buried deepest in you and bring them out. They aren't always what you want to see, but sometimes they are what you need to see and that's when you can turn that into what you need.

Friday, August 16, 2019


If you weren't on social media last week, and why would you since it's the waning days of summer, you may have missed the latest pop culture dust up. One that really has come to represent what pop culture fandom has become these days. It all started with this tweet:

Mikey/Samwise/Rudy/Bob and an otter? This might be my closing argument.
Almost immediately Pop Culture Twitter went into crisis mode. Asses were in the air and lots of salt was thrown in the air. People were furious. And initially, I was one of them.

This isn't Sean Astin from Stranger Things you sweet summer child, this is Mikey From Goonies. How dare you? You are ruining my childhood...wait, what?

I despise the weaponization of that phrase by fandom. And it's only a small part of the growing problem of fandom in general. Fandom has become a toxic entity. What used to be a warm, comfortable place where you could hang out and interact with people that love the same things you do has become a place where you have to defend what you love, why you love it and if you deserve to love it at all. There's a dangerous degree of curation in every fandom that is slowly but surely turning back the clock to the days when you couldn't say out loud that you loved Star Wars without derision and scorn. (There seems to be a small, but very loud contingency of people that deplorably want the clock turned back on everything, but this isn't a political blog, so I'll just leave it at that.)

Too many people in fandom seem to want their respective fandoms to be insular and consolidated. There should be tests and requirements to "join" a fandom, like we're all joining the Water Buffalo Lodge with Fred and Barney. You have to be a "real" fan, something I've never understood and is annoying. (Ask cosplayers, especially female cosplayers, about that.) Don't you want a wide, all encompassing group? Don't you want lots of people to interact with and talk about the thing you love? I do. It doesn't seem people want to do that. (There's also a long planned post on ownership coming from me soon that's been rekindled by the dust up from the Wheel of Time TV show cast announcements.) Fans want to curate. Fans want to gatekeep. Fans want to keep people out and it makes no sense to me.

I understand that to a lot of fans, being a fan of something frequently meant that you were an outcast and that fandom gave you a comfy place. Those fans around my age led a relatively isolated life within our fandom. If someone said they liked something that was "geeky," you were on guard. Were they mocking you? Were they going to turn this around and make fun of you? This was my entire teenaged years and even now to some extent. If you told me that I'd be at a bar with friends talking about a dragon queen and a night king, I'd stare at you as if I had no idea what you were talking about out of fear of being made fun of. Few things on social media have floored me than the head cheerleader from my high school liking several of my Star Wars posts on Facebook. Did that mean she liked it all along or is she a recent convert? Frankly, I don't care. Welcome. And that's the way it should be.

Fandom shouldn't be insular. It shouldn't be curated. If you love something, love it. And we, as fans, should be welcoming. There are no "fake" fans, we're all real fans. I've been guilty of this. I've side eyed the kids with New York Met hats and Matt Harvey jerseys in 2015-16. I've rolled eyes at young folk that talk about the Prequels with a degree of reverence. But at some point, I stopped. I want more fans to join my fandom. Come on over. Ask me questions. I'll do my best. I became the Game of Thrones expert at work, posting on Facebook that I'd be holding office hours the Monday after episodes to talk. (The Red Wedding was a big day for me as a counselor.) To the head cheerleader, if you have questions about some of the minutiae of Star Wars fandom, let me know. Or maybe you can tell me something I didn't know.

As for Sean Astin, fans, can't we just recognize him as a possibly under-the-radar pop culture icon for almost forty years? He's played FOUR iconic film characters....FOUR. How many actors can say that? We're talking characters that their fans LOVE, that are all phenomenal performances that impacted countless creatives like myself. True, Sean Astin will always be Mikey from Goonies (LFGM, by the way), an iconic character that most of us wanted to be when we were kids (though I was more a "Chunk" than Mikey). But to a lot of others, he's Rudy, a tough as nails, hardworking kid that followed his dreams. To a large majority, he's most remembered as the resilient, brave and loyal Samwise Gamgee, who really was the hero of the saga of the One Ring. And now, to a new generation he's known as Bob Newby, a kind, decent and generous man that was the original "nerd" in his hometown that became a hero in his own right for the woman that he loved. That's a pretty good resume for an icon. If you aren't tearing up at half of those videos, I contend that you may be one of the lizard people. I didn't mention his long career as a voice actor or his performances in notable films like Toy Soldiers, Encino Man or 50 First Dates. From everything I've read, Sean Astin is a decent family man, hard working actor and enthusiastic labor rights activist. He and I share the same birthday, two years apart.  There are worse things to be than a part of his fandom, no matter what the entry point.

So, look, fans, be more open to "new" fans. Stop curating. Welcome people into the fold, because as Samwise Gamgee said, "...there's still some good in the world and it's worth fighting for."

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

G.I. Joe: A Real Literary Hero

Writing really is like playing with your G.I.Joes.

Or your Barbies.

Or your Star Wars figures.

Or your Disney Princess dolls.

Pick your property, it's all the same.

Reading Keep Going got me thinking about this. One of the key ideas that Austin Kleon states is that "your real work is play." I've said this before and it got me thinking about G.I. Joes.

Growing up I was obsessed with G.I. Joe. I collected the figures, calling KayBee Toys after KayBee Toys to make sure they had the latest figures or vehicles. I would wait excitedly for the third Friday of the month when my dad would bring home the latest issue of the GI JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO that my grandfather had bought for me at the corner store. I've recently been rereading the collections of the original Marvel run. One of my earliest influences was the Marvel run. There's a post about the nostalgia of it, but I may save that for one of my 99 Inspirations posts or the nostalgia posts I've been talking about for months now. This is where I learned the importance of plot, characterization and conflict. The little plastic recipe card holder filled with the file cards went everywhere my figures went. I'd plot out the latest missions, sticking close as I could to what the file cards described. I was a stickler too. I was a big believer in sticking to the canon. I still am as a matter of fact.

Roadblock would've been amazing on Chopped.

From those Joes, I moved to live action role playing as we navigated the woods and vacant lots of Shirley, New York. Usually playing war, mimicking what we'd done with the Joes earlier. Looking back, considering our proximity to Brookhaven Labs, it's a wonder that I didn't come up with Stranger Things. I was the scenario creator. (Any friends reading this, feel free to refute this. Memory is a funny thing.) I assigned roles. I created basic plots and let the story where it went, taking input from everyone. (I think I would've done well in a writer's room.) I always remember playing the scientist. Or the heavy machine gunner. Or the ranger. And in the end, that's what we do as writers. That's all creating fiction is: playing with action figures.

I've talked about how in a lot of ways, telling stories might be embedded in our DNA while watching my kids playing. It really doesn't matter the genre, from action/adventure to romance, all we are doing is playing with imaginary people, just like we did when we were kids with articulated 1:18 or 1:6 scaled human shaped pieces of plastic. The only difference is that we are using our own, custom made figures that inhabit our endless mindscapes.

Stories are important. Isn't that one of the things we learned in the final season of Game of Thrones? The Night King wanted to kill Bran because he had become the Three-Eyed Raven, the collector of all the stories of humanity. Without those stories, there is no humanity.

So keep playing with those action figures/dolls, humanity is depending on it.

Go Joe!

Monday, July 29, 2019

It's A Process

Sunday, I wrote this in my notebook:

I shouldn't be writing right now. There's a thousand things I need to be doing. So, I'm going to do them for a bit.

I wrote this Monday morning:

That was a mistake. I had an idea for something I wanted to write, sat down to write it and wrote what I wrote above instead. I don't know if it was a complete mistake to do this, but I did. Were the two or three of the thousand things that needed doing that I got done more important than the fleeting idea that was lost in time, like tears in the rain? It doesn't feel that way.

I've spent much of the morning trying to mentally recreate that moment from yesterday afternoon so I can try to piece together what I wanted to write, but it's not happening. I'm frustrated.

It's not that far from the truth.
It could be the venue. Yesterday, I was at my house, starting in the study before working myself to the front window to watch the kids outside. This morning I'm watching different kids, in summer school. I'm perched on an uncomfortable steel stool behind a long science table in front of the room. One students is demanding that another "Shut the f**k up and stop talking s**t about me" while another, having walked in an hour late, answers an important phone call and can't understand why I've asked him to leave.

It could be the action. I was reading Austin Kleon's Keep Going and had just finished the chapter titled FORGET THE NOUN, DO THE VERB. I've reread the chapter, twice, and nothing's clicking into place yet. It's frustrating because the idea was good enough for me to be thinking about it in the abstract nearly 24 hours later. But instead of writing it down when it was fresh in my mind, I went and cleaned the kitchen instead. A kitchen I'm going to have to clean again when I get home from school this afternoon.

Was what I wanted to write a reaction to the opening paragraph of the chapter? "Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work."

No. I don't think that's it. It's a thought I've had. It's a thought I lived. I always think of the character Lyons from Fences. August Wilson describes him as being more caught up in the idea of being a musician that in the actual practice of the music. I think I was stuck in that for a long time. I talked about being a writer, but wrote very little. But I don't think that was what I wanted to write. It was something else.

Did I want to talk about doing things in my notebook that aren't for public consumption?

No, I do a lot of that. It's something I do want to talk about, but that's not it either. That's been in my head long enough that  it's little more than a cool ember. It's not something that's burning or scratching to get out of my brain. They'll be time enough later for that.

Was it something about the quote "Your real work is play?"

 Wait, the threads are weaving together. Something about my dreams of doing tie-in or adaptation work. Star Wars. Dungeons and Dragons (though they don't do novels anymore). Any TV or movie expanded universe. Comics (I not so secretly dream of getting to do the novelization for the recent WAR OF THE REALMS Marvel event.) It'd be just like playing with my Star War or G.I. Joe figures.

Ahhh, there it is. I've got it now. I'll be back with that post. I wrote this sentence down in my notebook, it's likely the first sentence of my next blog post:

Writing is a lot like playing with your G.I. Joes when you were a kid.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Hide And Seek But Not Hide And Seek

Once again I found myself outside with my kids, observing them play. I'd rather have them playing outside than glued to a screen inside. And I've been loving it. Kids should run, scream and laugh. And the kids in my neighborhood are doing just that.

They've been playing a wide assortment of games, including one called "murder mystery." I prefer to be the observer rather than any kind of participant, so I don't interact at all. I sit in my chair on the porch and read. Or pretend to read and listen. So I haven't asked them the details, but as far as I can tell it's a fascinating variation of hide and seek, not unlike the game we played when I was a kid called jailbreak.

We all know what hide and seek is, right? I don't need to go over that one. Do I? I mean it's in the freaking name. It's simple. Basic. But we aren't all simple and basic. We want variety.

Where are the kids? Hiding, of course

Growing up we played a version called "jailbreak." It was team hide and seek. One team of hiders, one team of seekers. If I remember right (if you're reading this and remember, please feel free to chime in), there were more hiders than seekers. One central location was the "jail" where those caught were held. It was a porch, a street light or one of those big green phone company boxes. (Those were the best.) Those caught could be rescued if one of the hiders rushed the "jail" and yelled, "Jailbreak." Then everyone would run. This meant one "seeker" wasn't a seeker at all, they were a guard. That was the worst job. I was the fat kid that couldn't run. Guess who was the guard?

Before the game started, specific boundaries were established. Boundaries often depended on how many players there were. I can never remember a game of less than fifteen kids. We recruited younger brothers and sisters and drew from the entire surrounding neighborhoods. We had epic games of several dozen kids that spread over the entire development. Our games were often centered around the Tugaw house. It made a perfect jail because they had a relatively large, wide open back yard. It was hard to jailbreak that back porch.

I was a better hider than seeker. I could hide for a big kid. No way I could outrun anyone.I can remember hiding in the bushes of someone's house and them coming out on to the porch and not getting caught by the hiders or the homeowner. I can remember people getting caught by surprise because they were too busy making out to notice someone catching them. (I was especially jealous of them!) I can remember almost suicidal, bold bum rushes to free teammates.

Flash forward to the other night. My kids are playing the latest iteration of "hide and seek." They call it "murder mystery" and, as far as I can tell, it's an interesting game. Not quite as expansive as our "jailbreak" their twist is vastly different, no one knows who is "it." In their version, there's a "game master" who picks who is it, though they worked around this by putting slips of paper in a pail and picking them out, not telling what the paper says. One person is the "murderer," one person is a "detective" and the rest are "innocents." (I love that they are called "innocents.") I couldn't quite figure out what the "detective" did in the game besides hunt the "murderer." The "innocents" just had to hide from the "murderer" while trying to convince the "detective" they weren't the "murderer." This is complex stuff for kids aged 6-12. I couldn't follow all the nuances of the game and I don't want to ask out of fear of them being aware that I'm watching them.

Do we need all these additional rules and variations? I don't know. Maybe it's part of our need to tell complex stories and it's just inherent in our genes. Whatever it is, it's better than sitting in front of a screen.

At one point while they were playing, I was doing something that required going into the shed. Yes, that shed.  The kids were arguing about who was the "murderer" and mischief got the better of me. I turned the corner and bellowed, "I'm the murderer!" while brandishing a hatchet. They squealed in terror and delight.

I hope their parents don't think I'm a serial killer like my students.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

June Got Away

It was Sunday morning. I just finished breakfast, switched over the laundry to the dryer and put a new load in the washer. The lawn needed to be mowed and Cooper had a baseball game later in the day. Natalie had a birthday party. It was a pretty typical Sunday in our house. As I sat at the dinner table, sipping my chai with Cooper at my side, I pulled out my notebook and wrote. I intended to blog more, but somehow the month got away from me and there was only one entry. I tried to figure it out.

Seniors began their yearly, "Oh shit, I need to make up 9 months of school work in 17 days!" mode. I went to three Syracuse Mets games. Yellowstone started on TV and I'm complete obsessed with "Netflix" Good Omens. I'm finishing up Stephen King's The Dark Tower, which I have many, many thoughts about. (To be fair, I'm listening to the audiobooks in the car.) I'm plugging away on The Blackest Heart, a terrific epic fantasy that is just as dense as it is huge. I'm also reading a fascinating book about dinosaurs. I worked a lot on a requested rewrite, so that took up a massive amount of time. I started a new project while sending another to a few trusted readers, including one that described the book as "miles ahead" of anything I've written before. (I'm kind of freaking out about it.) I'm clocking in about an hour and a half of writing a day. I want to get that to two. I've also actually written every day. 

This is where I stopped to mow the lawn. I like mowing my lawn. I bust my father-in-law's chops about his obsession with mowing his lawn ("Nick only mows his lawn on days that end with Y."), but I understand it. It's the same with snowblowing. I like putting in my earbuds, listening to music and just doing something mindless. It's good thinking time. Ways to untie narrative knots, think of new story ideas or think through an idea that was merely in early gestation. 

I finished the front lawn. I can remember breezing through this lawn and the neighbor's lawn with no trouble. Now I'm sucking down a Gatorade after doing half the lawn. To be fair to myself, Cooper had a baseball game and needed lunch. Kim had taken Nat to her birthday party. I listened to my late 80s/early 90s ski club book writing mix. I was a sappy, borderline melancholy teen.

I have some ideas about what I want to put in this space. I have an essay about fan entitlement that I'm not ready to write yet. I want to write about The Dark Tower, but I have to finish it first. I have a few ideas I want to write about summer, including a post on "Summer" songs and one that focuses on one of those blue-light bug zappers that still hasn't solidified into something worth putting into words. I've been looking back and reading the The Legend of Drizzt books by R.A. Salvatore so I can write about nostalgia (there's a great passage I copied from one of the books that is a perfectly amazing point about nostalgia) and compare it to the way I felt about my Dragonlance re-read a few years back. That's not ready yet either. I have some reading to do. I copied a few passages from William Golding's writing books and I want to talk about those too. He has some great thoughts on writing. (No, duh.)

A writer in the wild.

Now, it's Wednesday and I'm done with school. Grades are done. Keys are handed in. Reflection is written. (One of my good friends at school thought it was amusing that I take writing the reflection so seriously.) I'm writing this entry having completed all necessary end-of-the-year tasks. Tomorrow and Friday I have professional development to replace two of the snow days we missed. I'm okay with that. It sucks that it'll be two days away from my kids, but I think they'll live since they'll be poolside while I'm learning next gen ELA standards. 

I don't have a conclusion. I'm terrible at endings. It could be why I have so much trouble finishing a project. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Driveways: The One Time Social Center Of The Universe

Earlier this week, my son asked me to go outside with him and play catch. So we did. Except for the creaky knees, throbbing veins in my ankles and inability to bend on my part, it was all very Norman Rockwell. After we tossed the ball around, he decided he was bored and wanted to ride his scooter instead. I sat on the porch watching him and the neighborhood around him. A little backstory is necessary.

About a year and half ago I bought the house I grew up in from my parents, so I'm raising my family in the house where I was raised. Not much has changed about the neighborhood. A lot of the same neighbors still live here so it's probably weird for them to see the same kid that was always in trouble or up to some shenanigans is now playing the part of parent. 

So, I'm sitting on the porch watching my son and the neighborhood, three cars cars came down the street. One right after another followed a little later on by a third. This is unusual because our street is at the end of the development and isn't a thoroughfare. All three cars had the same destination, across the street and a few houses down. The house where my friend John Anzalone used to live. When the third car showed up, someone came out from inside as the driver got out. They were both young men. (I assume, I've reached the age where anyone under the age of 35 looks 17 to me)  And they just were hanging out, talking, one leaning against the back of his car. I didn't eavesdrop, but I've been where they are. Standing in the driveway, talking about what young men talk about: girls, cars, music, sports, where they were going that night or over the weekend. I've been there. We've all been there. It's just a different driveway.

Not bad for stock photography. 

The Tenshaws. The LaDukes. The Cases. The Hartmans. The Kellys. The Wolffs. The Montos. Grandma Toni's. The names change. The driveways change. The years change. The topics don't.

I can in my mind's eye remember conversations, scenarios and crises created and averted in those driveways. When we were younger, games were created and played. Pictures drawn with chalk. It was often our first boundary. As we got older, the driveway became more. It was neutral ground. It was the starting point and the ending point. There were first kisses. Last kisses. Questionable make-out sessions and the inevitable getting caught. Things thrown at one another, both physical items (my legendary "Z" hat was flung at me several times) and verbal grenades. Break-up. Questions asked and answered. New cars admired. Old cars complained about. Everything. And sometimes nothing at all. And that was the beauty of it. And the power of it. No text messages. No phone calls. Just showing up to shoot the shit with another person about what's going on in their lives. And my neighbors were fully engrossed in it. For a moment, there was a 90s vibe to my neighborhood and it made me happy.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sticking The Landing

Well, it's over. One of the most significant epic fantasies/ television shows/ pop culture phenomenons has ended. (Okay, look, I know there are prequels and spinoffs and all the stuff, but let's stay focused people!) Endings are hard. Really hard. And it did so in a way that many of its predecessors has done before: filled with controversy and disappointment. Think about how many shows haven't quite stuck the landing. (Aren't we still a little salty over THE SOPRANOS?) Before I discuss my opinions, which is why you came here, let me get something off my chest.

As someone else suggested, Sam should've looked at the camera like Jim Halpert.

You don't get to write the ending.

You can hate the ending. You can love the ending. Worst of all, you could "meh" the ending. But you aren't allowed to write it.

If you could, I'd be writing about it and we likely wouldn't know one another.

There's a fine line in this rant. We've reach the point in this society that you aren't allowed to love something, just defend it. Everyone feels they are the righteous one and their opinion should be the prevailing one. Don't believe me? Search THE LAST JEDI on YouTube. There are some people that have entirely too much time on their hands. (Says the guy writing a blog post about GOT that tweets almost incessantly.) There are a lot of manbabies still stewing about that. (There's a forthcoming blog from me about the idea of the "Mary Sue.") Anyway, I'm digressing. Back to my point. Just because you don't like something, doesn't mean I am wrong. And just because I love something doesn't mean you are wrong. That's something we're all getting wrong.

I'm not saying we shouldn't critique or criticize. I would encourage it in fact. But don't plant an implacable flag in a hill. It's rarely worth dying for, trust me. There's plenty of things I don't like and I try not to criticize. Don't get me started on THIS IS US. Or A MILLION LITTLE THINGS. Or anything that Rachel Hollis or Nicholas Sparks writes. Most "bro" country? TEEN MOM? My wife is glaring, I'm sure. But I try not to die on that hill anymore. It's a vicious cycle.

In preparation for writing this, I put up a Facebook post asking people what they didn't like about the finale. I'm not going to refute to the ones I disagreed. Almost all of it is legitimate criticism and it's the way they felt. I had some suspicions and some theories, some were proven correct, others not.

Let's address one thing first about the whole season. And last season too. The pacing was terrible. If anything ruined the ending, that would be it. D&D were done with this. I know this feeling as a writer. It's not an excuse, it's just reality. And it sucks for us. Everything felt rushed, causing a serious drop-off in quality. (I'm not going to go through a recap of previous seasons where the writing was atrocious!) It felt like these episodes were written hastily with very little story editing. It was almost like someone was doing an adaptation of an adaptation. But there were enough shiny moments for this season that I can sort of...sort of....forgive them.

So, I liked the episode. A lot. It did a lot of things I like to see in an ending. Things I think are important to endings. It tied off loose ends. It left us with a bittersweet sense of hope. That things, in general were going to be okay. Was it perfect? I don't know if that's the word I'd use but it worked really well. I predicted the time jump, though we get no sense of how long that time is. Enough for Jon Snow's hair to get all frizzy I guess. So, some comments:

  • I like clean endings and this was clean. It was fast and more than a little sloppy but in the end it did what it was supposed to do.
  • The noble's council was equal parts fun and frustrating. The exchanges between the characters is brilliant. I liked Tyrion's speech. It made sense that he got the speech. He's your best character, you give him that speech. The laughter at Sam's suggestion of democracy was appropriate and he sort of got his way as Westeros moved towards a Holy Roman Empire/Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth/Ventian/Dutch model of monarchy. (One I've used in my own writing.)
  • Sansa shutting down Edmure. Just a great moment that felt very "down with patriarchy" moment. A mediocre white dude being told to sit down by a strong woman was great. (Granted they undid that by letting Sansa's pot smoking brother take the throne.)
  • The entire Small Council meeting was great. It gave every character a chance to shine and, as Patton Oswald said, it was the most hopeful thing that this show has truly given us. Yah, Bronn wants more brothels, but he also wants to see the budget that Davos wants to spend. They all agree for the need for clean water and are ready to work to that goal. And every character is something that hasn't been before: most are from humble backgrounds. A sell sword. A smuggler. A female knight. The only (and disgraced) son of an ancient house is the Hand and has defied the odds. 
  •  There was a lot that didn't make sense at times and I think that there were things that got cast aside or honestly forgotten (there's a great series of memes about this very thing) but there was nothing monumentally out of character or inconsistent. Except for the one thing that mattered. 
  • Let address it since I haven't. Yes, Dany had to die. Again, pacing. If we'd seen the descent over a period of time, I think a lot of people wouldn't have felt strongly about this. Her idea of "freedom" had obviously become about her ruling the entire world and being the "mother of the world." We've heard this from tyrants before. 
  • Jon Snowgaryen's action was the just right thing for him to do. Yes, it's out of no where and somewhat out of character but I had no issue with it. It does some things that are noteworthy and important that goes back to that prickly Stark honor. Between him doing something a son of Ned Stark would never do to Drogon's reaction to Dany's death. Makes you wonder how intelligent is a dragon? Can he tell that Jon is the last Tarygaryen? Is that why he doesn't kill him and melt the Iron Throne down into slag? 
  • And yes, I know, Gray Worm vs. Jon Snow trail by combat would've been awesome, but neither character worshipped the Seven, so it wouldn't work-a small consistency that people miss. 
  • Jon going to the Wall was a cheap out. The Unsullied were going away and were there enough Dothraki in Westeros to make that a big deal about it? He could've served on the Small Council. Or was their a concern about him being Targaryen?
  • Why didn't Dorne or the Iron Islands declare independence too? One of the frustrating inconsistencies in the episode. 
These are one man's thoughts. I'd encourage you over to The Wertzone that did a great job of making a lot of really good point about this entire season. I thought this seasons was rushed and imperfect but it did a lot of the things I wanted the final season to do. 

Now here's where I'd encourage you to check out my epic fantasy series SEASONS OF DESTINY, which should be on the second even third book by now. But I can't. Because I made a bad decision. But that's a story for another time.

Monday, May 13, 2019

So, That Was...Something

As the resident "expert" Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire expert to some people in my life, the last 24 hours has been a little like the brilliant "Election of 1800" from Hamilton as people seem to be waiting for me to weigh in on "The Bells." It's likely me overestimating the importance of my opinions to the people that agreed to be my friend on Facebook. So, here's my Royal penny.

First, let's get this out of the way....it's highly unlikely there is going to be any kind of universally satisfying ending to the show, even if the writing was a little sharper than it is. There are too many fan theories and wannabe fantasy writers out there trying to second guess that nothing is going to be as fulfilling as the ending we have in out own mind. I am one of these wannabes, but I've gone into the last two seasons with a complete open mind without trying to figure it out. I want to be surprised and then, maybe, think about how I'd try to do it.

Initially, I wasn't sure what to think about the episode last night. Both this week and last week's episodes made me feel this way. I wasn't sure how I felt, going back and forth on how I felt about the episodes. I know that I was stoked and it was some spectacle with some amazing moments in it and some real head scratching moments. For this post, I'm going to focus on "The Bells," which I think I liked more than a lot of people did, especially now with some distance from it.

I was critical last night of the writing , but there were some things, upon reflection that actually make a little more sense now and are pretty consistent with what has happened so far. (I'll openly admit that I read a few online reviews and discussions that helped me with this. io9's is pretty good.) There were some tweaks that could've been made in the writing that wouldn't have made Dany the monster she became, but it's pretty clear now that was the intent all along was to show that she was in fact a monster. At first, it felt like this was another example of the writers choosing to have a character do something incredibly out of character for the sake of plot. (I'm looking at you WALKING DEAD.) But looking at it a little more carefully, Dany's reaction is perfectly in character. This was her plan from day one. The throne isn't hers because she deserves it, it's hers because IT IS HERS. I think the issue is that for a long time now we've viewed this as Dany the "good guy" vs. Cersei the "bad guy" and this is the root of the problem. We assume her behavior is inconsistent because we've been rooting for her to succeed for a while. The problem arises in the pacing. The last two seasons have moved too quick and take away the impact of all the things that got Dany where she is now: driven completely mad.

Not to say all the writing was consistent. The opening of the battle was a prime example. That literally should've been done last week. It was too easy and almost an afterthought. Dany shredded the scorpions and the Iron Fleet in under five minutes.  All that rigmarole over the Golden Company and it all meant nothing, though Drogon blasting through the gates was incredible. Why did she wait? It undid everything that was done last week and not in a good way. There was no tension. No purpose to it other than to maybe show off something cool then "fridge" a significant character of color. That was really lazy writing. There was some decent writing too, and some of these opinions might not be well received but I stick by them.

Let's talk about Jon Snowgaryen, because I think there are some consistent things happening here. He's the best candidate for being king for one real reason: he's a pretty mediocre white dude and he has no ambition whatsoever, which is what seems to work best in Westeros. He's proven to be a good leader. He's got enough charisma for people to follow and he knows when he can and can't handle things beyond his scope. He is a shit general. But that's consistent too and that goes all the way back to the premier. Jaime tells Ned that he was raised to be the warrior, not the lord of Winterfell. When his brother dies, Ned has to fill that role but never seems comfortable with it, which is why the north kind of flourishes with him as its lord instead of the "lusty" Brandon Stark. Jon was raised as the bastard son of a lord. He was never going to be a lord but was always going to be a warrior, whether that was with the Night's Watch or standing by Robb's side. Mormont saw his charisma and ability to lead from the front as a warrior, so made him a steward, which helps him in the logistics of preparing for the Long Night. His being so overwhelmed in the city is completely consistent.

The razing of the city was a terrific callback and reminder from whence Dany came including the flashes of green wildfire that was Aerys's "nuclear" option during Robert's Rebellion.

Now comes the aftermath and how they are going to wrap this up. I have no guesses, but I'm imagining Sansa figures significantly.

One more thing before I do some random thoughts. If this entire season isn't an indictment of the "pantsing" school of writing, I'm not sure what is. A few days ago, someone posted a long Twitter thread about how this was all caused by GRRM's "gardener" approach of writing. The pantsers, many of whom go long times between writing projects, were up in arms over the accusation. I'm the first to admit there's more than one way to cook a goose, but if you're writing a massive, multi-volume epic fantasy, I think some kind of plan helps.

So, random thoughts:

  • I thought the Hound-Arya scenes were just right. Again, they were scenes I was a little peeved at about at first, but then thinking about them, it was the last bit of decency left in Sandor Clegane: he saw what could happen to this young woman, the person that she could become and decided that he was the one who had to stop her from doing it because he is what she would've become. And deep down inside, in the end, the Hound was a victim of abuse. It did nothing to diminish what Arya has managed to do, it just turned her from what would have been a life that was not meant for her. (I for one can't wait for the all female Westerosi senatorial guards, called the She-Wolves)
  • Good, God, if NOTHING else, the CLEGANE BOWL was totally worth it, from beginning to end it was just savagely beautiful. And I mean beautiful. 
  • Jaime Lannister really is the "stupidest Lannister." He's the rich jock that made good because of Daddy's connections. And his ending was just as fitting, buried under tons of rock. 
  • As much as I wanted Cersei to "get it," there was something appropriate about the way she got it. Almost like this wasn't her story to begin with.
  • Grey Worm: another example of decent writing, but not on the surface. He's a disciplined soldier that follows orders. He's also a character that found something he never thought possible: love. And lost it. Again, we go back to fridging as a story device. 
  • One major issue: funny how the Dothraki were almost all wiped out until they needed someone to show "savages" in the capital. Again, this show does people of color so wrong. 
Upon review, this was better than I thought. Agree? Disagree? 

As for me, I'm starting the bones of my Epic Fantasy I Wasn't Going To Write and let's see if I can plan something decent, learning lessons from this. 

One of those lessons? I don't think anyone really wins the game of thrones. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Where Was My Friend With The Selectric Typewriter?

A few months back I got on a podcast kick and listened to a lot of Jeff Pearlman's TWO WRITER'S SLINGING YANG and Marc Maron's WTF PODCAST, focusing on writers. I love listening to writers talking about writing. I don't care what kind of writing, it's just great listening to people talk about their process and insightful. But I also get bummed out. One of Maron's podcasts is still sticking with me: his interview with Aaron Sorkin.

Sorkin is a writer I admire a great deal. I've had some of my dialogue compared to his. The interview was riveting, yet I walked away with a vague melancholy that's been gumming up the works for weeks. (It's not the only reason this is happening but it's nothing I want to write about publicly right now.) Sorkin told a story how he was a struggling actor in New York City and a friend asked him to hold on to his IBM Selectric typewriter while he went out of town. In a moment of loneliness, Sorking started typing dialogue and never looked back. It's a great story, especially the way he tells it. But I'm still thinking one thing all these weeks later:


Success is heavily reliant on the support we get. Sorkin talked about his friendship with William Goldman, who became a mentor. I didn't have one of those. I listened to another WTF Podcast where Seth McFarlane talked about his career and how so much of it hinged on the support of his parents and the people around him.

I thought back to when I was younger and the support that I received. It didn't feel like it was much, but memory plays tricks on us, altering things, moving them around for new information while repressing other things only to have them bubble up on a random February car ride home from work. Yet I still don't remember a lot of support. I didn't have a mentor. I didn't know a lot of writers around me. (Much of this was during the pre-Internet days.) I knew that my closest friend fully supported me, yet he didn't have a Selectric kicking around. I had a few ex-girlfriends that saw my writing as a waste of time. (Hence the reason they are exes, I suppose.) Kim doesn't entirely understand this writing thing, but she supports it and that's all I need.

I've talked about things like this before. I've made my own decisions and I'm where I am because of me. And I like where I am. I look at the two men I wrote about and the lives they have. Financials aside, I'm not sure. Sorkin's divorced with one kid. McFarlane is a notorious bachelor. I love what I have. I think of the SIMPSONS episode where Homer gets our of debt and quits the nuclear plant to become a pin jockey at the bowling alley, complete with him burning a bridge. When things fall apart with the arrival of Maggie, Mr. Burns puts up a sign that Homer turns from "Don't forget, you're here forever" into "Do it for her." It's a touching moment and one that I live every day. I don't know if I'd trade all the days I've had with my family for a modicum of success that either of those gentlemen did. I'm lucky that I have the support that I have now and maybe this was the path I needed to take to get there.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A Few Thoughts on AVENGERS: ENDGAME (Spoilers)

What a week for nerds, huh? "The Long Night" and AVENGERS: ENDGAME in one weekend. It's pretty amazing. I wrote about "The Long Night" already and that was important enough, especially for me, considering how important the novels GAME OF THRONES is based on are to me. Last night I went to see ENDGAME and it was phenomenal. Not perfect, but pretty darn close.

Let me preface what I'm going to say here with this, I didn't particularly care for INFINITY WAR. I know I'm in the minority and I didn't hate it, but I didn't think it was as good as other people thought it was. It was a terrific spectacle, but that was all it was. I mean there were moments, but for the most part it just didn't land the way I hoped that it would. ENDGAME more than made up for it, in the opening scenes alone.

I mean, who didn't want to climb into the screen and hug Hawkeye?

As a guy that loves epic, this was terrifically epic while staying personal on so many levels. Scott Lang wanting to do what was right. Tony Stark reluctant to change because he basically got everything he wanted but realizing that it wasn't going to be that simple. Natasha Romanov becoming the leader she always was. Steve Rogers being Steve Rogers. Bruce Banner coming to peace with the monster. And Thor properly mourning his mother while crumbling under the burden of failure. I thought they spent just the right amount of time with each character and finishing their arc.

There were hiccups, though I thought the seeming disregard of the standard time-travel movie tropes was brilliant. The references to every time travel movies were funny, well-times and completely deconstructed. "So Back To The Future is a buncha bullshit" is such a terrific line and only Paul Rudd could deliver it that well. And actually Rudd is a highlight of the first half of the film. Scott Lang is the heart of the film and Rudd's frenetic, over his head  performance adds a level we haven't seen in these movies. The Avengers are highly trained and/or talented people. Ant-man isn't. In many ways, he's us. And that's why his character works. He's clever enough to figure out how to fix what's going on, but knows he's in over his head. I only hope I'd be wise enough to do what he did.

Banner and Rocket nearly steal the movie, especially in the first half. (Really the two halves are two different movies and work so well.) Professor Hulk is outstanding and Ruffalo really has been and always will be the best Banner. Rocket it Rocket and there's a really weird (and good) chemistry between he and Nebula in the film as they basically become one half of the "galactic Avengers." And I loved the Nebula arc.

I really thought Nebula was betraying the group, but was thrilled to see that it was nothing but network problems. Nebula had a nice arc and Karen Gillian was terrific at playing the two aspects of the character.

The "Time Heist" section of the movie was just brilliant. It was everything that it was supposed to be, from Natasha's sacrifice (I'll get to that in a minute) to how awry things go for each of the characters. Seeing Professor Hulk "smash" was hilarious and the whole "America's ass" bit made me laugh out loud. (It was equally important to Cap's characterization...that's not something he would've said pre-snap.) DadThor was amazing and, as someone said out on the Internet, will be the hot adult male costume of the year. Again, I don't care about how fast and loose they played with the traditional time-travel "rules." There was enough hand-waving for my concerns to go away. (I'll get to that in a minute.)

As usual with the Avenger movies, the handling of female characters was an issue, though seeing Pepper Potts as "Rescue" was bad ass. Captain Marvel was criminally underused and I had wanted her to be a bigger part of the resolution.

The final battle was amazing. Just pitch perfect, frantically kinetic and thrilling from beginning to end, it was thrilling. If you didn't get chills when you heard Sam's voice in Cap's ear, I weep for you. If you didn't feel something when Cap picked up Mjolnir, I have no time for you. Thor's genuine thrill that Cap was "worthy" was moving. Then came the moment we've been waiting for since we first heard of the Avengers Initiative, Cap's announcement of "Avengers...(pregnant pause)Assemble" was climactic.

Running the Gauntlet through the gauntlet was incredible. From T'challa to Spider Man to Captain Marvel and her personal Amazon guard, the sequence killed it. Tony' sacrifice was foretold but it was pulled off perfectly. Steve, seeing the happiness that Tony got with his post-snap life defies it all and stays in the past with Peggy. He got his happy ending. (Knowing that Bucky had Falcon helped.) Really, just a classic that rivals JEDI for the best conclusion ever.

A few random notes:

  • Doesn't it feel like the movie could've been four hours longer? I mean I want to see Nebula and Rocket as the Galactic Avengers and Okoye basically running Africa would be amazing. Rhodey chasing down Clint? A buddy comedy with ThorDad, Korg and Miek as Valkyrie basically runs New Asgard (that'd be a great story...who'd they convince to allow that?). We could do three movies (and I hope that's what they do) of what Captain Marvel's doing. 
  • You can't help but feel like the folks at Marvel wasted Bradley Cooper, though he's amazing as Rocket. 
  • Let's talk a sec about Rocket...what a great character. The loss of his "family" shakes him to the core and he's all business while retaining some of his Rocket ways. Like I said, the chemistry between he and Nebula is great, though he has great rapport with Professor Hulk too. 
  • RDJ is amazing. He's broken in this movie and looks sickly. And I think that's a wise decision. He should be broken. And it's his family that redeems him. The funeral is heartbreaking and is loaded with some of the best callbacks in the movie.
  • They've set up about 20 alternate universes, haven't they. Okay, maybe not that many, but enough: Loki with the Tesseract and Cap's life with Peggy. Can you say X-Men? Miles Morales? Fantastic Four? (Denzel Washington as Reed Richards...please, please, please) Next Phase here we come. Or at least the animated WHAT IF? show (please use the animation style of the STAR WARS shorts!!!)
  • When OldCap gave Sam the shield, I literally squealed. Loud. I can't wait for the Winter Soldier and Falcon television show. It's going to be amazing! 
  • You can't help but wonder if the director of "The Long Night" could've learned something about a battle scene from this movie. 
Marvel has mastered the "shared universe" concept and this was the pinnacle. It's going to be hard for anything to top this movie in that regard. I almost feel bad for the rest of the "Summer blockbusters" at this point.

Monday, April 29, 2019

A Few Thoughts On "The Long Night" (SPOILERS)

Almost twenty years of fandom came down to one 80 minute episode of television. An episode that has had people gnawing fingernails and nervously fretting over the fates of their favorite characters since the episode was announced in early March. This was going to be THE episode. And I don't think it let down in the least. It wasn't perfect, but damn it was well executed and something of a masterpiece. It's the afternoon after now and I wrote the bulk of this in the morning, having separated myself from what I watched and read a few well-done reviews of the episode to add my two cents, which, let's be honest, it about what my thoughts are worth.

First, on Facebook last night, I made seven predictions. I'd love to say that was by design since we're dealing with the Seven Kingdoms, but it was nothing more than a lucky coincidence. Here were my predictions, which I'll deal with at the end:

  • I think the "dead are already here"/crypts concern is a feint. Something happens in the crypts, but I don't think it's what we're all think it is.
  • I don't think as many people are going to die as we think. I think they'll be a gratuitous death of Stark Soldier 1 or Eryie Soldier 2. 
  • Arya's up to something. 
  • I think Pod or Brienne die, but not both.
  • I can't help but feel like Melisandre plays a role in the battle. 
  • I can't help but feel like we get an unclean resolution to this plotline.
  • Cersei is involved somehow.
As for the episode itself (which I was 45 minutes behind on because my son wouldn't sleep...sorry Mara for shushing you via text meassage!), it was intense and brilliantly executed. I know that it was dark and difficult to see. I wound up turning off all the lights to watch it. But in the end, it didn't bother me at all. I think the lighting was a deliberate choice. We saw what was important when we needed to see it. Everything else was shown exactly the way we needed to see it: confusing chaos. It was actually pretty consistent with the way the show has approached other huge battles like this one. 

The writing, directing and editing were really good. Like I said, this wasn't flawless, but it was damn good. I'd love to see the script for this episode. Dialogue was sparse (30-40 lines, maybe?) but when there was dialogue, it was punctuated the importance of what was being said while more than occasionally offering us a respite from what was going on. Clegane's complete meltdown was terrific and a shout out to Hudson's "Game over man" and Sansa and Tyrion's conversation in the crypt were a sweet juxtaposition to the carnage happening above them. But as was a motif in this episode, Arya stole the dialogue cake with her "Stick them with the pointy end." I literally Horshacked when she said it.

Starting the episode from Sam's perspective was brilliant. In a lot of ways, he's our surrogate. We know where he's coming from. Most of us aren't soldiers or great fighters and I'd like to think most of us would stand in line to face the enemy. Sam is one of the best written characters on the show and John Bradley was made for the role. I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Sam (for obvious reasons) and I still do now. 

The charge of the Dothraki with the fiery swords winking out one by one was just stellar. The whole scene was visually stunning. It was such an obvious choice and just ramped up the tension as each light winks out one by one until we are all just Jaime staring in disbelief. 

There's some justified criticism over the way the Dothraki and Unsullied were handled in this episode. It's bothersome to see the only characters of color sacrificed in the manner they were, especially considering the way they were treated by the Notherners in previous episodes. I suppose there's an argument to be made that it made sense for them to be where they were on the battlefield and the Unsullied were the only ones with any coherent battle plan that worked, but in the end they were little more than fodder and sacrificed for the sake of the "good" white people.

And to that end, Jon Snowgaryen is a SHIT general and he better find some help for the next 3 episodes. (What did Robb Stark say about winning battles but losing the war?)

The scenes with the dead wandering Winterfell were amazing. You go from this massive, epic fantasy battle scene of carnage and destruction to a quiet, delicate game of cat and mouse in the suddenly claustrophobic halls. The use of horror film conventions continued when the Night King raised the dead while stalking Bran. This was straight out of The Walking Dead or World War Z and it was creepy as hell as it extinguished all hope we may have been feeling. 

A note on some of the deaths:
  • Dolorous Edd: Bummer but I wasn't shocked. Sam's reaction was perfect.
  • Lyanna Mormont: We all wanted this little spitfire to survive and she was the first real "Nooooo" of the night. She was such a revelation and a brilliant character. The story of Lyanna the Giantslayer will be told every night to the Briemund babies for generations to come. 
  • Jorah Mormont:Totally expected, even money bet. As Vanity Fair (!) pointed out, the Mormont words are "Here we stand." Both deaths fits that. 
  • Theon Greyjoy: In fitting with the theme of redemption that has become a prevalent part of the show at this point, Theon arc has been such and important part of the show, the ending was both sad and satisfying. 
So, my predictions? Let's see how I did:
  • I was wrong about the crypts, but it was cheesy. There was enough tension in the crypts and they accomplished enough with the sounds of the battle above and the soldiers pounding on the door telling them to open up was more than enough. 
  • I was dead on about character deaths. It was just a gut feeling that this was going to be intense enough without characters we love dying. 
  • Arya wasn't initially up to something, but she came up in the end, didn't she? (What are the odds that she winds up on the Throne with Gendry, a Baratheon, at her side?)
  • Pod and Brienne both made it. 
  • Let me come back to the resolution.
  • Okay, all Cersei wanted was elephants and even the Night King couldn't provide those!
As for the unclear resolution, I still think it's unclear. Sure, the previews seem to imply there's some rebuilding and celebrating, though Sansa seems to be doing a lot of glaring in the preview. There seems to be a remnant of sorts of the army (Maybe Jon is off recruiting help...the Dornish? The Ironborn? The Manderlys in White Harbor?) There has to be more to Bran's arc. We've spent so much time talking about the Three-Eyed Raven, why would we just abandon that? 

I was so jacked, that I didn't wind up going to bed until almost 2 this morning. I was literally shaking during portions of the episode. I also walked away pretty bummed. I fancy myself a writer of epic fantasy. There's no way I could write a battle that amazing. (I still have to finish Wheel of Time, where the final battle took 81k words to tell.) I've got time though. I can work on that skill, right?

Anyway, it was another iconic episode to an iconic show. It doesn't seem that long ago that talking about epic fantasy in public earned long side-eyes and people taking three steps back from you.

As for things I never thought you'd be able to talk about in public without scorn, I'm going to see Endgame Tuesday, so I'll have thoughts about that then.

In the mean time, there's only 3 episodes left. And I think I know the title of one of them...THE CLEGANE BOWL!