Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Has Benedict Cumberbatch...

A)...been typecast?

2)...revealed a lack of range as an actor?

C)...been in a number of similar roles that directly appeal to my sensibilities?

Four) None of the above.

And, really, what does it matter that I've had some insight as to the oeuvre of Benedict Cumberbatch that (most likely) hundreds of thousands of fans have come to previously, most likely years before this?  Not one whit.  But, this is a place for me to ramble on about unimportant things, and a clearing house for thoughts that get stuck in my head, which I am unable to be rid of until I have written them down.  So, if you choose to read further, you're stuck (nothing like trying to sell you on this, eh?) 

So, the answer to the above:  probably number four, but that's no fun . . . so, on with the show. 

My wife and I recently watched the broadcast of the National Theater's production of Danny Boyle's FRANKENSTEIN, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.  What made this presentation of the play noteworthy was the fact that Cumberbatch and Miller traded roles, between Victor Frankenstein and the monster, on alternating nights.  The National Theater provided both presentations, and it was fascinating how different they were, despite not only the same script being utilized, but what would appear to be the same direction from Boyle for the two main characters. 

The first night we watched Miller as the monster and Cumberbatch as Frankenstein.  It was a wonderful experience, one I wish I could have seen in the theater.  Cumberbatch was superb as the arrogant scientist, while Miller's monster was not only intimidating but also incredibly sympathetic.  I felt horribly for what he went through, in those two hours.  But, upon finishing it -- and being a huge fan of Cumberbatch -- I was anxious to see how he would tackle the role of the monster, as that was the primary role, as far as I was concerned.  Put simply, and stated succinctly by my wife when we discussed it, Cumberbatch did not lend himself as well to the character of the monster, even as Miller's Frankenstein left something to be desired.  Without having a far better understanding of the theater, as well as access to these presentations so that I might watch them multiple times, I can't put my finger on what, exactly, it was that made one production far exceed that of the other.  My guess isn't that it was one or the other of the actors who did poorly in the roles, but most likely the amalgamation of the two playing off one another in the roles, and working far better in the initial viewing we had, that lent itself so well to the production my wife and I deemed superior. 

It was my wife, noting how well suited Cumberbatch was to the role of Frankenstein, that cut to the heart of why that rendition seemed to work so well.  After that, I started thinking about Cumberbatch as an actor -- of whom, as I state above, I am a huge fan.  Has he been typecast?  Or is he just attracted to a specific type of role -- the hyper-intelligent, overly arrogant, emotionally distanced (verging from indifference almost to neglect) character?  Let's roll the tape. 

We had also recently watched PATRICK MELROSE, the Showtime series based on the novels of Edward St. Aubyn.  Lightly based on St. Aubyn's life, it follows the deterioration of Melrose into the abyss of drugs, as he deals, or mostly avoids, the abuse of his childhood, while trying to find his way in the world.  Coming from a noteworthy British family, Melrose is a supremely intelligent man who finds it challenging to get out of his own way, as the traumas of his youth continue to haunt him, even as he goes from one relationship and one drug cocktail to the next, with no regard for how he treats people or what he's doing to himself.  Self-destructive, even while holding onto the knowledge of what he's doing, to himself and to his young family, as we progress through the narrative, Melrose does eventually come through it, but not without a wealth of assistance from those around him, those he has pushed away.  This was a tour-de-force of acting on the part of Cumberbatch and a riveting mini-series that kept one engaged and sympathetic of Melrose, even as his actions continually undermined any good he might try to do.  Truly, an amazing bit of acting in a story that, though familiar to some extent, was a stellar dramatic presentation.  Now, I need to seek out the books and read them. 

Then there's DR. STRANGE:  Similarly arrogant, a physician who has people's lives in his hands, The God in his own mind, and, once again, emotionally distant because people are not on his level of intellect and importance, not unlike Patrick Melrose, not unlike Victor Frankenstein. Strange loses it all, must work to regain his life and fight to become a better person, not unlike Patrick Melrose (Frankenstein does not come through the haze of arrogance and superiority that plagues him). 

There are, of course, the tragedies of Julian Assange (from a certain point of view) and Alan Turing (from everyone's point of view, I would hope) as portrayed by Cumberbatch in THE FIFTH ESTATE and THE IMITATION GAME, respectively.  Again, Cumberbatch dives into characters whose intellect sets them apart from "regular" people.  He is emotionally distant, finds it challenging to make friends, either through a heightened caution mixed with disdain, or a lack of common interests.  It's interesting that Cumberbatch seems attracted to these roles, and even more interesting that I'd not seen the connection before.  But it's there, definitely. 

Which brings us to the role that put Benedict Cumberbatch into the greater cultural consciousness, which could be seen as the ur-text for the characters he would take on, SHERLOCK.  His definition of this well-known fictional detective has become the definitive characterization of Sherlock Holmes, for many, despite its shift in setting to present-day London.  The quick thinking, sharp speaking, highly observant, extremely emotionally distant Sherlock is engaging and sympathetic, even while being a thoughtless ass on many occasions, due in no small part to Sherlock's own perceived elevation above the rest of society.  This was the performance that put Cumberbatch on the map, and it seems to have been the template with which he's chosen to craft a body of work as an actor. 

All of these roles have afforded Cumberbatch the opportunity to expand his ability as an actor while telling stories that, one would hope and assume, mean a lot to him.  It would be nice to see him reach beyond the type that seems to pervade his work, and I have little doubt he could be successful in that, but there's also the question of whether his audience will be able to accept him in roles other than the similar ones he has so far engaged with. 

Monday, May 4, 2020

Comic Book Making: Lettering & Art working together

With relatively few exceptions, the creation of a comic book is a collaborative effort, especially when discussing work from the larger publishers, Marvel and DC.  Much of their output consists of color comics, and much of it is published on a monthly basis.  For a standard 20-24 page comic, that's a lot of work to get done in a short amount of time.  Which is why a division of labor was formed:  writing, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering.  Parsing out these various aspects of a comic to different specialists allowed the schedules to remain intact, for the most part.  And, though all parts of the comic need to come together in order for it to work, there is an obvious hierarchy, with writing and art at the top and, more so now than ever, the writers even getting higher billing than the artists. 

Anyway, preamble aside, I've been reading some older comics recently and came across examples of "unorthodox" panel layouts in two different issues -- one that didn't work and one that did.  The former was from the Wally West era Flash series, issue #201, and the latter was in Saga of the Swamp Thing annual #2. 


Now, comparing anyone's work to that of Alan Moore and his collaborators is almost always a losing proposition and terribly unfair.  But if you want to learn how to do things well, you need to learn from the best, so let's get on with it.  

First, let's look at the page that didn't work.  The issue was published in 2003, written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Alberto Dose, with lettering from Kurt Hathaway.  

An important thing to remember, when dealing with a page layout that does not adhere to any recognizable grid (such as a 2 x 2 panel grid like Kirby would utilize or a 3 x 3 panel grid that epitomized Ditko's Spider-Man and Moore & Gibbons's Watchmen) is that there need to be some way for the reader's eye to smoothly follow the storytelling -- because our natural progression, in western comic and reading in general, is to go left to right, top to bottom; anything outside that norm will necessitate hard work on the part of the creators, to get it right.  That doesn't happen in the above page. 

Looking at that page from the Flash, we start in the upper left corner, obviously, as Wally steps from his car, which is hanging in midair (due to Wally's sped up perceptions as he goes into superspeed mode).  This follows to the tall rectangular panel just to the right, overlapping with the initial panel.  Now, this middle panel at the top also heavily overlaps with the larger panel in the upper right.  Our eyes naturally move in that direction, with nothing to hinder our reading progress . . . BUT this would be wrong.  That "third" panel has Wally already on the ground, looking into the vehicle beneath his own.  We only discover is it the wrong order, though, when we shift our eyes back to the left and find a panel that, in time, falls between that second panel and that large one in the upper right.  The caption box:  "My car's floating in midair." also indicates this panel comes before the one where he sees the driver in the neighboring car.   Nothing -- in the art or the lettering (since that caption box appeared not to be attached to that second panel) -- showed readers they needed to move downward rather than to the right.  So, in reading it out of order first, followed by a need to go back and re-read it correctly, the creators have taken the audience out of the story and any emotional response they may have been attempting to spur in the readership is lost. 

Now, let's look at a less hectic but still unorthodox panel layout in the Swamp Thing annual.   This comic was published in 1985, written by Alan Moore, with art from Stephen Bissette & John Totleben, and lettering by John Costanza. 

In this issue, and all the issues to date that I've re-read, the lettering and art come together in a near perfect harmony to bring these stories to life in a way that few comics, even today, are able to achieve.  There's a reason these comics are stone cold classics, part of that's the writing, part of that is the art, including coloring from Tatjana Wood, and part of that is the lettering. 

On this page, we start, as we always do, in the upper left corner.  Deadman is hovering above Swamp Thing as they talk.  This panel leads into the tall panel at the right, which overlaps the first and third.  Of course, our eye naturally moves this way, but just to emphasize the reading of this page, Deadman's hand leaks into that second panel.  There, we have a double-image, wherein we see Deadman and Swampy walking through the nether-realm as a ghost-image of Deadman's face looms above them, speaking.  His word balloons wrap through the image of the two characters, leading directly to the third panel, where Swamp Thing's speech balloons lead directly off from Deadman's in panel two.  Note that, in these first three panels, not only have the word balloons directed our eyes through the reading order of these panels, but the figures also snake through in the direction we should be reading.  Deadman's response in this panel falls outside that "arrow" but, again, we have the art to lead us into the next panel, which is the tall, rectangular one at the lower left.  Not only does Deadman's arm once again point us to the next panel to be read, but the slight overlap of that panel into the third one also pulls us toward it.  And then, once again, we have the characters turned around, facing toward the right, which leads us into the final panel. 

Certainly, this page wasn't as complex as the Flash panel, but it adhered to some fairly "unspoken rules" about comic art, which is to have the images in the panels leading readers in the correct reading order, and adding to this clarity of expression is the lettering from Costanza, who masterfully weaves the word balloons through this page, and other similarly expressive pages, to keep the audience engaged with the story and not having to pause and think about which panel they need to go to next. 

And if you're looking for another example of masterful art and lettering that provides a clarify of expression in an unorthodox panel layout, check out my earlier post on Sam Kieth's Aliens work, here.  It's pretty interesting (the page layout if not the explanation from me), in my opinion.

Friday, August 23, 2019

ON WRITING: Keeping your characters in character

Interesting fiction involves interactions with multiple characters, all of whom need to be individualized, to feel true, to be distinct from one another.  Crafting compelling characters (what is going on with all this alliteration?) is a big challenge, maybe the big challenge, of any writing endeavor.  They are the engine that propels your narrative, the choices made and the conflicts that arise are what create the ebb and flow of the drama, ratcheting up the tension with an unexpected decision that cascades through a dramatic turn of events, pulling along the reader to see what happens next.  Characters are the lifeblood of your story. 

But, keeping your characters consistent (more alliteration?!?) can be difficult, especially if you're in the opening pages of your first draft.  At that point, you're still trying to figure out who these people are, trying different things, pushing them into situations, feeling them out, learning about them.  Eventually, they do become more solidified, more real, and, at times, as you're writing you'll find the choices made by your characters come almost naturally, as if they are writing themselves.  It's a pretty cool feeling when you get to that point where the people on the page act as naturally as your neighbor or your family.  But you need to write a bit to get to that point. 

Which brings me to a recent example.  My buddy, Dan (his name's up there, to the right), and I are currently writing the first draft of a YA horror novel.  I'm currently in the middle of chapter 6, and though we have pretty good descriptions for our main characters, they're still evolving and I am still not at a point where the characterizations are lodged in my brain.  I'm still learning they are while trying to remember, fully, who they've been up to now. 

A bit of context:  The setting is a small string of three islands, off the coast of Maine.  The island population barely boasts a couple hundred people, between the three.  Our main characters are two 12-year-olds, one from away, one a local.  The one from away has gone to the library to try and find some information.  He gets there, and the librarian is busy with a family, so his friend takes him to the second floor to look around, while they wait.  This second floor is surround, all the way around without a break, with windows, allowing for a 360 degree view around the building, including a straight shot to the harbor, which is about a half-mile away. 
End contextual infodump

So, our protagonist walks over to the window looking out to the harbor.  It's a pretty amazing view, and I wanted to get this across in the scene, so I had our main character thinking about what a cool view it was from there. 
And all was good, I thought.  I'd described the interior of the library fairly well, and I'd gotten some cool aspects included, with the view of the harbor from the second floor as the big piece. 

Except, our protagonist, Jim, wouldn't react this way.  (something I figured out later, while lying in bed)  He was brought to this island by his father, even though he didn't want to move.  His father has been gone for a couple of weeks, at this point, in order to work on a big fishing vessel so that they can make ends meet.  Add to this all the anxiety and frustration that comes from moving to a new place and starting at a new school, and you can imagine how much pent-up anger Jim has inside.  He's mad.  He doesn't care about some great view from the library.  He wants to go back home, where he grew up.  He wants his father back.  He wants to be anywhere but here. 

So, why would he react in such a positive, almost awestruck fashion?  Answer:  he wouldn't. 

The next day, I rewrote the end of that scene.  I had Carrie, our other main character, remark on how cool a view it was to Jim, and then he turned away, saying, "Yeah, sure," and commented on how it only made him think of how small this island was and how far away home was.  It was a good rewrite that evoked what epitomizes each of these characters.  And it felt good to catch that and keep these two people consistent. 


Monday, July 29, 2019

ON WRITING: Finding Luck (hint--you need to write)

There are a few things you need, in order to find some success writing (or with any creative endeavor):  talent, perseverance, and luck. 

One of the earliest pieces of advice that I took to heart, when I finally began to take my writing seriously, was to seek out any venue for publication of my (your) work, even if said venue might not be within the genre or format to which one aspires, i.e. if you want to write novels you may need to start small--write short stories and try to get them published, or you could even try to write a regular column for an online or print publication.  In 2007, I did the latter and landed a weekly column for a now-defunct online pop culture and comic book website, The Pulse.  I wanted to write fiction, at the time focusing on short stories with a plan to move up to novels eventually, but I also took to heart the advice above, understanding that seeing my words in print would allow me to view them differently, hopefully leading to an improvement in my writing, while also knowing the more I wrote, the better I would get, as well. 

For the next year, I wrote my column, "For Your Consideration," which offered a quick synopsis and analysis of a recent(ish) comic not published by the larger entities--Marvel or DC, as examples--along with a short Q&A with the creator(s) or other involved party, such as an editor or publisher.  Each column ran about 2,000 words, and having a weekly deadline really pushed me to ramp up my writing and get past the need for inspiration to strike, because your editor doesn't care if you were inspired or not, they just need the work at the time you promised it.  I also got to interview a number amazing creators:  Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, Jason, Gilbert Hernandez, Paul Pope, Steve Rude, and P. Craig Russell, among others [and I still lament the fact that my assumptions led to Matt Fraction, rightfully, chewing me out over email, after I held onto a "Casanova" FYC too long].  I wrote a lot for the Pulse that year, and it was a good time.

I have also sought out a variety of avenues for publication of my short stories, while managing to land a few with various anthologies.  But, as I seem to harp on about, you have to do the work.  Not just the writing, though that should be obvious, but also the work in finding places where your stories can be published, landing at these publications during an open submissions window, then following the guidelines needed to get your story in front of the reader who will ultimately accept or reject your story.

Do.  The.  Work.

Of course, there are plenty who don't do the work and don't appear to want to do the work.  They just drop into comments sections to make themselves known.  [attention:  Pet Peeve (TM) territory ahead, proceed with caution]  On more than one occasion, I've discovered either a call for writers (at CBR, another comic-centric site) or found a call for submissions of short fiction (Needle: a Magazine of Noir, for one) and discovered a bunch of comments, in the thread that followed, that made me bristle.  Maybe that was too strong a reaction, but what can I say, I'm human, and I've been working at this writing thing for quite some time, so I was irritated with the responses and the respondents.

In the first instance, there were a number of people proclaiming how excited they would be to have the opportunity to write for CBR . . . if only they had some writing to share . . . and why did you need examples, anyway?  (I had examples -- over 50 -- which could demonstrate how I would approach the subject matter upon which CBR focused; and as an aside, when I applied to the UMaine magazine for a writing position, I wrote a mock article to include with my application, as an example of what they could expect from me ---- do the work!

In the latter instance, I found comments left after submissions had closed, asking for the editor to contact them when the next submission window came open.  What?!?  (Needle was a magazine I greatly wanted to be a part of, and eventually was, so I regularly checked in at the website to see if submissions were open.  I also had a story ready and waiting, for when submissions did become open.  Going further, I had a short story rejected by Needle, but Steve Weddle [the editor] included comments stating there was a lot to like in my story, but that maybe I should consider expanding it to take away any of the coincidental aspects of the narrative.  I not only took his advice, but I also signed up for an online class about writing and submitting short stories through LitReactor, which Weddle moderated, so that I could not only learn more about my craft but also get my name in front of Weddle again.  In the end, that expanded story was published in the last issue of Needle.   Do. The. Damn. Work!

This is what people mean when they say you need to "make your own luck."  Sitting around, hoping that luck will strike (or inspiration, as I note in this previous piece), takes all the agency, all the responsibility, out of your hands.  It's nice in that relying on luck, a capricious facet of the universe, absolves you of any of the responsibility for your shortcomings or your rejections.  Hell, you won't even get rejected, because you won't send anything in, because you won't have done the work . . . but at least you can ponder how sorry they must be that they didn't get a story from you, because that would have been the best and could have really helped the publication with the popularity it would have generated.  Not writing means no rejections, and it also means you're allowed to continue to live in your fantasy world, where, if only luck had fallen your way, you would have been the greatest. 

Yeah, I'm harping on this one thing:  Do The Work.  But it's important.  And just stating it once certainly won't -- for most people -- allow it to stick in the front of your brain, festering there until you accept its inherent truth.  So, I harp, like the harpingest harpy that ever harped.

  • I wrote a story specifically for Needle.  I submitted it.  It was rejected, but with some insightful notes.  I went back.  Rewrote it.  Re-submitted it.  It was published in Needle #10.  
  • I wrote a comic review column for a fledgling site -- Independent Propaganda.  It went under, but I had examples to share with Jen Contino at the Pulse.  She allowed me to write a weekly comic review/interview column for the Pulse, for a year.  
  • I saw a call for submissions to a steampunk anthology, centered around Civil War-era New Orleans.  I read up on steampunk.  I wrote a story.  I submitted it.  It was published in New Orleans by Gaslight.  
  • There was a call for comic stories based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  I read Frankenstein.  I made notes.  I conceived a story.  Wrote an outline.  Wrote a script.  Took the editor's suggestions and incorporated them into a revised script.  It was accepted and published in Unfashioned Creatures.

I've done the work.  I've had some small bit of success in getting things published [to this point I've had 20 accepted pieces (some of which were not published due to funds dissolving or other aspects out of my control), I've withdrawn 25 submissions for a variety of reasons, and I've been rejected 224 times].  I've gotten lucky.  But that luck would not have materialized had I not already been doing the work, doing the writing, doing the revising, doing the daily grind of sitting at a computer and typing away at the keyboard.  Luck has a lot to do with how successful you might be as a writer, but you'll never find that luck if you don't first work hard.


Tuesday, July 23, 2019

ON WRITING: Luring the Muse (hint--make it a habit)

Luck.  Inspiration.  The Muse.

When discussing writing . . . it's all drivel.  An anthropomorphizing of human ideas that romanticizes writing to an almost divine plane, while also diminishing it by ignoring the amount of work that goes into the act of writing.  You can wait until inspiration strikes.  Wait for the muse to land on your shoulder.  Hope for a lucky break.  But if you're focusing on this, you're probably not writing, and that's the key to it all.

The biggest problem with this romanticization is the fact that it takes a writer's success out of their hands, relegating it to some outside force.  Now, this may be well and good if the writer in question wants to deflect the harsh feeling of rejection away from themselves--it can be a coping mechanism, sure.  But it also means they needn't take any responsibility for their shortcomings (and all of us who write have those; it's just a matter of being self-reflective enough to recognize them).  You have to be proactive if you want to write and be successful.  You need to put in the work.  You need to read.  You need to analyze.  You need to write.  And you need to submit.  Do the damn work, if you want to be a writer.

And even then, there's no guarantee you will find success.

If you want The Muse (TM) to visit, to inspire you, to make the words flow from your fingers like golden skeins of thread being woven by the ancient Gods, there is something you can do.  Make your writing a habit.

It's not an easy thing to sit down with a blank page and start to write.  It takes a bit of ego, a bit of talent, a bit of delusion.  Most importantly, though, it takes persistence.  So, make writing a habit, and make it as regular a thing as you can.  When you sit to write (especially if you're starting out), do it at the same time of day, in the same spot, with (as near as possible) the same circumstances, every single day.  Writing is like working out, except it's using different muscles--if we want to think of the brain as a muscle, especially.  And, like working out or practicing with your teammates, you can develop a muscle memory with writing, as well.  Writing at the same time of day in the same place allows it to become familiar, taking away some of the anxiety that can cause writer's block.  Eventually, it just becomes part of your routine.  It will feel natural to sit down and write, something as familiar as brushing your teeth when you wake in the morning or slipping on your silk pajamas before watching "This Is Us" (because we all have silk PJs, right?).

Once you're comfortably in the habit, you'll be less anxious about it, just a natural part of your day.  And, you'll find that the words come to you more easily, that inspiration arrives more often and without as much struggle, that your fingers just seem to get away from you, racing to keep up with your imagination.  Keep in mind, also, that it behooves you to set a daily goal for your writing, so that you're always moving forward.  This can be whatever works best for you--a timed goal like an hour of writing, or a quantifiable word count: 500, 1000, 3000.  We're all different, so we have to find what's most comfortable for us.  But having that daily goal allows you to achieve one of the most important rules of writing I can think of, as stated by Neil Gaiman, "finish what you're writing."

And if you finish what you write, then you can begin to make your own luck, which, as with The Muse (TM), comes with making your writing a habit.  

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

ON WRITING: working up to "That Scene" (and does it fit?)

My writing hero - Harlan Ellison, at his typewriter

There are myriad catalysts for writing a story -- one being a scene that you just have to write and crafting a narrative, sometimes a novel-length narrative, around that, in order to have the opportunity to write it.  This was one of the prime motivators, for me, for the novel I am currently revising.  There were two scenes, actually, that spurred me to write 140,000 words on a first draft, and without those there would have been no reason for me to write that story.  There would have been no story.

When a scene or two is your inspiration, it most likely will be the aspect of the story you think about most.  That's natural.  You may go so far as to write that scene out of order, just because it is so prominent in that part of your brain working on the story.   But even if you do tackle your story from the beginning, and save "that scene" as a reward for getting through the tough work of setting it all up, you're still going to direct a lot of your brain toward it, working it and reworking it over and over, as you write the previous sections, until it's almost a foregone conclusion of how the scene will play out, once you reach that point in the narrative where it belongs.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it can be problematic. 

The thing is, when you write a first draft, of anything, it, by default, has to be garbage.  A writer is discovering the story as they write it, discovering the characters, the setting, the actions (and reactions) taken, the bends in the road navigated deftly (or horribly).  It's a first draft, and it should be ugly.  Revising, as Greg Rucka has stated (and, no doubt, many other authors), is where the real heavy lifting happens.  And roughly 105,000 words into my first draft (which has translated to around 77,000 words on the 2nd draft), I've hit the heavy lifting part, having foolishly thought it all had been heavy lifting.  Ha!  Joke's on me. 

The story I'm currently revising revolves around two couples -- their history (three of them are old friends), their jealousies, their aspirations, and their betrayals, and the secrets each is keeping from the other, all leading to a tragic end, natch.  There's been a murder.  A police detective we followed in a tangential storyline earlier, but who also dealt with one of the couples involved in all this, has the murder drop in her lap.  She and her partner discover two women (the wives) dead.  They go to speak with the husbands, and then take them down to the station to question them -- not only to get information on the victims, but to see if they might be suspects.  This interrogation scene was one of the main impetuses for this story.  I thought about it a lot, and in reading the first draft of the whole thing, I can see it was obviously modeled on the interrogation scene from L.A. Confidential.  And the way I wrote it was all wrong. 

Initially, I had the detectives keep the fact that the wives had been murdered from the men, wanting them to come to the police station on their own, so the detectives could use the men's ignorance (or possibly their knowledge, if either or both were the murderer) against them.  But, as I got to this point in my revising, I realized it made no sense at all, to me, to have things happen this way.  Not only did it feel unrealistic, it also felt out of character.  That meant going back and tweaking the lead-up to the detectives confronting the men, and having Detective Ames tell them their wives have been killed, and it also means I need to completely rework the interrogation scene.  These men will be distraught, they won't be ignorant of what has happened, the dynamic will be a 180 degree shift.  That's exciting, because I know this will be far better than the original scene, but it is also daunting because it means I am back to square one with the pivotal scene, and it's been nice having a solid framework to play off of, as I write this second draft.  Not that I'm complaining, it's just a bit more of that heavy lifting. 

And, though I'm loathe to utilize this cliche (it's true):  when you're writing, you have to be willing to kill your darlings. 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

WHAT IT IS -- week ending 5.12.2019

Two weeks have passed since I offered up one of these week-ending roundups.  I'm not happy about missing the past two weekends, but I'm not going to beat myself up too much.  I was still working on my writing through revising the novel and/or reading.  So, without further ado, let's see what's what.


Avengers: Endgame

Caught Endgame last week and really enjoyed it.  Be aware, SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW.  

I can't say it was a great film--cards on the table, I've found most of the Marvel films I've watched enjoyable, if forgettable.  Read that as a criticism if you want, but I'm more than happy to be entertained for a couple hours by the MCU without needing to ruminate on it after I walk out of the theater.  This was a similar experience, a good way to spend three hours with my youngest son.

There were moments, certainly, that stayed with me.  I really enjoyed "Professor Hulk," and though I'm uncomfortable with the Thor fatsuit (they could have easily gotten across Thor's frame of mind without humor at the expense of overweight people), I appreciated his character arc.  Captain America wielding Mjolnir--that was fun!  I also appreciated the fact that the creators utilized Jim Starlin's idea of Thanos becoming a farmer, with a major swerve as Thor decapitated the Titan, in the opening of the film.  That was a great move.  And finally, I have to applaud the writers and directors for managing to juggle so many characters so well.  For the most part, it felt natural, the way they managed to get most everyone a chance to shine, even if for only a quick moment.  

Ultimately, though, I do have trouble with the finale of Steve Rogers's character arc, from a logical, character-driven standpoint.  Steve would never stay on the sidelines.  And, despite the Russo Brothers' arguments for that ending, their explanation that Steve went into a different timeline to live out his life is not evident in the film they made, so it just doesn't work for me.  It betrays the character, as a number of people have noted online with far better werdz than me.

That said . . . I have to admit that, on possibly the most important level, the emotional level, it works.  Allowing Steve to have lived the life he lost, to have been given a second chance, to have had that time with the woman he loved is incredibly cathartic for fans of Cap.  And I felt that too, even without being too invested in the MCU.  It's the Romantic ending that I love, and the one that I work hard to veer away from with my own writing.  It's a fitting reminder that, if done well, emotion trumps logic, in writing, almost every time.  

Columbo: By Dawn’s Early Light

The Commandant of a military academy, Colonel Rumford (played by Patrick McGoohan), is unhappy with the school's chairman of the board, the grandson of its founder, who wants to make the school into a coed institution.  The colonel manipulates the chairman into declaring he will fire the ceremonial cannon for the Founder's Day celebration, which has been loaded with a charge the colonel filled with gelignite, while also stuffing the barrel with a cleaning rag, which is intended to put suspicion onto one of the cadets with a poor disciplinary record.  Everything would have gone as planned, if it weren't for the fact that Lt. Columbo is in charge of the investigation.

As Columbo digs into the case, he's bothered by the fact that the cadet who is implicated, because he was the one in charge of cleaning the cannon and who has such a poor disciplinary record, would have been given the job of cleaning the cannon, since it is considered as more of an honor and reward than a punishment.  It doesn't sit well with the lieutenant.  Asking more questions ("Ah, just one more thing, sir"), Columbo uncovers the fact that the school was going to be shifted to a coed facility.  Now, he just needs to be able to tie the colonel to the crime, because he knew (as we all knew, watching) from very early on that it was murder rather than an accident, and that the colonel was involved.

In the end, it comes around to the fact of a separate investigation put forth by Colonel Rumford, into the fermenting of hard cider by the cadets--something he discovered the morning he stuffed the cleaning rag in the barrel of the cannon. Columbo does his own investigation of the hard cider, finds out the small window of time when the colonel could have seen it (because this is how he's aware of the infraction) and then determines the only spot form which he could have caught sight of the jug, as it hung in one of the dorm room windows . . . he could only have seen it BEFORE the time he says he awoke, and he could only have seen it from a spot beside the cannon.  He was the killer, and his testimony unwittingly put him at the scene of the crime.

The biggest lesson to take from this is a reiteration of an important writing idea:  all characters, even the villains, think they are the hero of their own story.  This not only speaks to the selfishness and ego we all possess, thus making even a villain a little more human for that, but it also speaks to something more important.  When writing, you want to try and craft complex characters.  One way to do that is to give your characters, all your characters, motivations that are altruistic or laudable.  In this example, the colonel worried about the military readiness of America and did not wish to see a decline in that respect, by making the academy coed.  But, just because a character is doing something for what he or she contends are the "right reasons," does not mean their actions are necessarily laudable or good.  The villainy comes in the form of misconstrued values or, more often than not, in bad deeds and bad actions done in the name of their personal good, which, when viewed from a wider lens, is obviously an act that can only lead to prosecution in a court of law, or some other, more dire, consequence.


Nexus Archives, volume 1, by Mike Baron & Steve Rude ---

Sometimes you just need to read a stone-cold classic of the medium, and this book is one of those.  Horatio Hellpop, known as Nexus, dreams of serial killers and mass murderers, many of them in some type of governmental or military position somewhere in the galaxy.  With his near-limitless power, at least as far as we can tell from these early stories, he goes out and executes them, balancing the galactic scales and ridding himself of the nightmares.

The beauty of the character of Nexus isn't just the sense that he's doing what we all would like to do, meting out justice in a way that we don't experience in real life, i.e. even those with power and money get their come-uppance from Nexus, its beauty comes from the fact that here we have a Superman-level hero, whose power seems able to defeat any threat or obstacle, and yet, Baron, with Rude, makes him a compelling character.  The problem with Superman, as many put it, is that he's too powerful.  The same could be said of Nexus, but Baron & Rude don't necessarily focus on that, they focus on the inner turmoil he experiences, not only from these nightmares but from the responsibility he feels in doling out justice.  By weighing Nexus down with this heavy responsibility of balancing the scales of justice on a galactic scale and making him the sole judge, we get an interesting character with interesting tales, and the "explodo" is merely the cherry on top of the sundae.

And the rest of that bowl of cherries would be the art from Steve Rude.  His sleek linework is just incredible.  He infuses the best of Jack Kirby and Alex Toth and Saturday morning cartoons (Surprise!  Both Kirby & Toth worked in Saturday morning cartoons.), with a flair for inventive and thoughtful panel layouts, that makes this one of the best looking comics out there, even today.  Very few artists can match Rude, even this early in his career.  Just magnificent!

Hellboy: the Complete Short Stories, vol. 1, by Mike Mignola, et al. ---

I've also gone back to this classic, as well.  The stories of Hellboy aren't as complex as those of Nexus, but they're just as enjoyable.  Mignola throws ghost circuses and werewolves and luchadors and demons into these stories, among very many other things from mythologies across the globe, and there is a wonder and horror to them that I find magical.  Hellboy is a character who continually moves forward, even in the face of impossible odds, and that is to be commended.  Many times the stories end simply, in an almost banal manner, but that's okay, because the point of these stories isn't necessarily to tell tales with a surprising twist as much as they're intended to add to the mythology and the history of this strange creature who looks like the devil but is on the side of the angels.

The real star here, as with Nexus, above, is the artwork.  Mignola is the master of drawing Hellboy, and his facility with spotting blacks coupled with the sharp, angular linework that epitomizes his style, is just wonderful to behold.  But we also have Duncan Fegredo, whose work never looked as good as when he does Hellboy, Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá, master illustrator Richard Corben, among a few others.  If you're a fan of comics, and, particularly, a fan of comic art, then this is a book you will thoroughly enjoy.  I can't wait to move onto the next volume.

Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus and the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,
by William T. Vollman --- 

This was an intriguing book, and, if I'm being honest, one that got away from me, at times.  Some of the arguments put forth by Vollman, including much of the mathematical representations he offered from Copernicus and Ptolemy and other ancient astronomers, was often above my head, which is not a bad thing.  Indeed, I wish I could have absorbed it all in a fashion that I fully understood it, but, in the end, I was able to comprehend the major themes and insights of the book.

Ultimately, Vollman's case, which is supported within the book, is that Copernicus is a more nuanced cat than we've been led to believe (surprise!).  Certainly, he put forth the idea of a heliocentric universe, though he was not the first to do so, and it was done at a time when the tools of the astronomic trade were primitive, to say the least (no telescopes!), but the way he got to many of his conclusions involved faulty calculations or faulty premises.  And yet, he somehow managed to calculate many things, such as the distances of certain planets or the durations of certain orbits, to a relative precision that is astounding.  And though he was more indebted to the ideas of Ptolemy than might be generally known, and despite the problems inherent in a world where scripture still won out over science, for fear of being persecute and prosecuted for heresy, Copernicus managed to hold fast to his conclusions.  It's an interesting book for the broader understanding it gave, of Copernicus and of the time, and I would certainly recommend it if you have an affinity for the topic.


Alex Ross! 


Tori Amos, To Venus and Back ---

I love the swelling piano and the driving beat of Amos's songs on this double album, and, most importantly, I love the live songs on the second part of the album.  Live music almost always trumps studio music, for me, and this is no exception.  Amos has been part of my writing repertoire since very early on, back around 2000.  It helps that my brain has trouble processing lyrics and focuses, mainly, on the musicality of an album.  Having listened to this so many times, while writing, I've gleaned many of the lyrics, at this point, but I have now passed through that to a point where the lyrics fall into the back of my brain, and I'm able to focus on the music, only, once again.  These songs infuse me with a vigor and excitement that helps propel me through whatever bit I may be writing, at the time, and it also achieves something else I've been feeling lately -- taking me back to an earlier point in my life and wrapping me in a warm blanket of nostalgia.
This is good music.


If you want to be a writer, habits are incredibly important -- specifically (maybe obviously) the habit of actually writing on a regular basis.

Writing, like many creative endeavors, is too often romanticized.  Ideas of The Muse coming down from on high to bless the author with Divine Inspiration (TM), allowing her or him to pluck a beautiful string of words from thin air and put them to paper (digital or otherwise).  Sometimes, quite rarely, this occurs -- or seems to occur, because there's still a lot of work that went into the apparent unconscious ease with which the words came out, on the page -- but for the most part, writing is work.  And forming good habits can help that work move forward . . . with slightly more ease.

The best thing to do is to make a habit of your writing.  When you sit to write, do it at the same time of day, in the same spot, with (as near as possible) the same circumstances.  For example, Saturday and Sunday, when I don't have to worry about getting to work in the morning, I get up around 6:00, make the coffee, quickly check email and FB, pour my coffee, then get to work writing, and go for an hour and a half or so before wrapping it up.  It may sound odd to set things up this way, but like practicing your jump shot or getting in the batting cages, setting up your writing time in this way will help it to become something like a muscle memory.  After you've done it a few days or a week, it will become part of your daily routine, you'll feel natural sitting down to write, it will grow into something as familiar as brushing your teeth after waking or slipping on your silk pajamas before watching "This Is Us" (because we all have silk PJs, right?).  Now, of course, your mileage may vary (YMMV) as to how long it takes to get into this habit, maybe it's longer than a week, but, realistically, it shouldn't be too long, and if it is, maybe it's not the thing for you.

Anyway, once you get this habit going, you'll find it much easier to get your daily writing in.  It's just a natural part of your day.  And, once it starts to feel comfortable within your schedule, you'll find that the words come more easily, that inspiration arrives more often and without as much struggle.  "Chance (or inspiration) favors the prepared mind."  It's kind of like good luck, it's not something dictated randomly by the universe or God, it's something that comes from all the work and experiences you've had prior, without all the time spent writing and researching and thinking (or throwing and working out and batting), you would never be able to achieve what you're hoping to.

And, conversely, as noted at the top of this post, it is quite easy to fall out of these habits.  I did it the last few weeks, and unlike the few days it takes to get into one, it only takes a single missed day to fall out of your habits.  For me, once it happened that first week it was far easier to skip the second week.  But I made myself sit down again, at the laptop, and type away this weekend.  So, we'll see if I'm back in the habit (of this weekly roundup, at least; I'm still pushing forward on the novel, fast approaching the halfway point) when there's either a post, or no post, next week.  'Til then . . .


Sunday, April 21, 2019

WHAT IT IS -- week ending 4.21.2019

This past week, I was in New York City.  Not the entire week, but my wife and youngest son and three of our closest friends packed a lot in for three days (much of that being driving, for days one and three, but that's how it goes when you live in Maine).  It was an amazing, and tiring, trip, but incredibly worth it. 

DAY 1: 

Baseball.  Perhaps the greatest sport ever.  Played on a field of green, with boundaries that have stood the test of time and the advancement of athletes' physicality (even today, 150 years after the first professional baseball team was formed, the difference between an infield hit and an out is the thinnest of margins), lacking a time clock, a game of patience, of long, quiet moments, where one must be prepared to react in a split-second with a burst of speed.  It's a game of mental toughness, where one player tries to outthink another, where, if you fail 7 out of 10 times at the plate or if your team loses 1/3 of its games, you're a success.  It starts with the words, "Play ball," and the objective is to get home safely.  It's a beautiful game, full of grace and athleticism, and it is wonderful.  And, if you're in New York City, you go to a ballgame.  (In this case, we went to Yankee Stadium, because our Red Sox were playing the hated evil empire) 

The game . . . was a blowout, and not for the good guys.  (Though my son will argue the point, being a Yankess fan . . . and a Blue Jays fan . . . and a Cubs fan . . . why not my beloved Sox????)  Chris Sale was starting -- that puts me at 4-for-4 with attending Red Sox games and having their #1 starter on the mound (3 times in the early 90s I saw Clemens pitch in Fenway; those were good times) -- and while we stood in line to get in, he breezed through the first two innings like a champ.  As we were finally entering, things began to unravel.  2 Yanks scored.  The next inning 2 more scored.  We left men on base, when they got on base.  Pinstripe flyballs went over the fence.  Red Sox flies dropped into the Yankees' gloves.  In the end, we went down 8-0.  The Yanks had 3 dingers.  And it was time to head back on the subway, to where we were staying. 

DAY 2:

This was the big day for us.  The one where we got to spend the whole day in the city.  The one we would end with a Broadway show. 

After getting coffee and bagels at the deli just down from where we were staying in Brooklyn -- some of the best coffee I've ever had from a small shop; it didn't even need sugar, just creamer -- we took the train into the city and stopped at a food truck to grab something to drink, as well as a sweet to top off the impromptu breakfast, for our walk around the city.  First stop was the tram ride to Roosevelt Island.  Only a few minutes, it provided an interesting view of Midtown Manhattan and was a good start to our day.  Then we found a Nike Town for our boy, and he spent his money on a new pair of kicks.  They're definitely cool, since they're nothing I would ever wear.  At that point, he was happy, and the day could progress nicely. 

From there, we headed to the Argosy bookstore (they had some amazing, old maps, but the price tag was far out of range), and then went to the New York Public Library, one of the places we absolutely had to see.  It was magnificent.  The architecture, from the marble railings inside, to the woodwork and paintings in the rotundas, and everything else about the place was just amazing.  Plus, I got a PB&J at the food counter to share with my little man, along with a couple of Boylan Bottling Co. sodas, so that was the bee's knees, yo. 

We continued heading downtown and checked out a couple more book places -- Forbidden Planet for comics and collectibles, and the Strand, for boooooooooks.  (you might be noticing a theme with this trip)  These were great, especially the Strand:  so many books, so many levels, and not enough time in the day or money in the pocket to do it justice.  Forbidden Planet could have been cooler, for me, if there were boxes and boxes of old back issues to dig through, but they, smartly, have transitioned to selling collections and original graphic novels, and their selection was fabulous, including a great manga section and areas organized by creator, so you can go directly to the Alan Moore or Grant Morrison spot and grab some of the best comics ever published. 

After all that walking, it was definitely time to relax.  We found a pub near the Strand and Forbidden Planet, Old Town Bar on 18th Street, where we could sit down, have a drink, eat something, and just let our bodies recuperate a bit.  It was a well-earned rest, and we (the boys) got to partake of the 110-year-old urinals, as advertised outside the men's room, which, when you stood in front of them looked as if you could possibly fall in and never be found -- they were something else.  Once we'd spent enough time there we went in search of dessert, found something that satisfied that craving, and then headed back uptown for . . .


Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, starring Jeff Daniels, directed by Bartlett Sher, at the Shubert Theatre.  

Sorkin manages to rework Harper Lee's masterpiece and give audiences a fresh perspective on "Mockingbird," while highlighting its relevance for the divided America, and divided world, we live in today.  Certainly, Sorkin retains much of the scaffolding and details of Harper Lee's novel, but the changes he incorporates into this adaptation, though often relatively small, are quite significant. 

As the play opens, you know something is different.  Scout's narration begins at the end, rolling over the question of how one could possibly fall on one's own knife, and leads into the initial legal proceedings of Tom Robinson.  This is Sorkin's biggest change, telling the story with a non-linear approach.  He intersperses scenes of the trial with those in Maycomb, giving us the lead-up to Tom Robinson's accusation while revealing the testimony of the witnesses, such as Sheriff Tate, Bob Ewell, and Mayella Ewell.  But within those trial scenes, we also get one between Atticus and his client, Tom, offering audiences a deeper, in relative terms, understanding of Tom Robinson as a person.  It's effective, and poignant, especially when, toward the end of the trial, the advice Atticus offers during their first meeting -- for Tom not to say he helped Mayella Ewell with her chores because he felt sorry for her, a sentiment a black person should never have for a white person, even a poor, white woman -- is ignored by Tom, as the prosecutor badgers him, and he admits to why he helped her, revealing the honorable character of this black man.  It provides for a powerful moment in the play and informs Atticus's closing argument to the jury. 

Another major change is the underlying tension between Calpurnia and Atticus.  During their interactions throughout the play, Atticus continually asks Calpurnia what he's done to make her angry with him.  She denies it, and Atticus notes an article he'd recently read citing passive aggression as a newly understood form of anger.  Calpurnia is steadfast, though, pushing aside the idea of passive-aggressiveness and going about her work in the Finch house.  In the end, we finally discover what it is that has put a bee in her bonnet.  She tells Atticus that she heard him, heard him say, "You're welcome," under his breath when he revealed to Calpurnia that he was going to take on Tom Robinson's defense, as if he, a white man, were doing the black populace of Maycomb a favor.  It's a sentiment not found in the book or the film, and some might argue it goes against the characterization of Atticus Finch, but to my mind, this humanized Atticus in a way that he'd not been before.  Though he is acting honorably, doing the right thing in defending Tom Robinson, he is still a white man in Depression-era Alabama, and despite his high moral aptitude, Atticus Finch is still a human being, with all the flaws concomitant that truth.  And to have a chink revealed in his armor makes Atticus not only more real, but also more relatable.  Though we may try, it is impossible to do the right thing all the time.  This bit of characterization may be new, but it feel true, none the less. 

My biggest takeaway from watching this play, even with the above mentioned changes that, in my opinion, added much to the story, was how funny it was.  Genuinely funny.  So many lines in this play got a laugh, and none of them felt forced.  While discussing it later, my 11-year-old son made a comment about what a dark story "Mockingbird" is, and yet, as I noted, it was really funny.  It's a writing maxim that drama should be laced with humor and vice versa, but I've rarely seen it utilized to such an accomplished level.  The humor came from character -- primarily from the narration of the three children, Scout, Jem, and Dill, all of whom switched from speaking at a point roughly twenty years into the future of the play to that of its present.  Dill, especially, provided a goodly number of laughs, through his commentary and interaction with others.  And again, it never felt forced, everything flowed naturally, and people reacted accordingly.  To have this levity in the midst of an ugly tale certainly helped to keep the audience engaged without overly burdening them with the weight of the primary narrative.  This, more than anything else, is what I will take with me into my own writing.  If I can even approach the level of Sorkin's craft, I'll be doing well. 

This was a phenomenal experience.  The Shubert theatre is a classic building, from 1913, which has staged many notable Broadway productions, and it was beautiful, inside and out.  The writing, as noted above, was exceptional.  The acting, superb.  And the play's relevance makes it an important event, today, right now.  Overall, I could not have hoped for anything better. 


This was our getaway day, but we still had one place we'd not visited that had been on our itinerary.  MoMA.  Since the museum didn't open until 10:30, we slept in a little and took our time getting into the city.  Once we got breakfast at a Greek Diner, Astro Diner, we headed to the MoMA.  It was packed, naturally.  We got tickets rather quickly, but then discovered the major impediment to seeing the artwork, checking our bags.  We were a half hour getting through the line -- duly noted for next time.  Once we got through, though, and knowing we had 8+ hours of driving ahead of us, we went directly to level 5, where the classic artwork is on display. 

Van Gogh's Starry Night.  Monet's Water Lilies.  Picasso.  Jackson Pollock.  Matisse.  And so many more.  It was wonderful.  Even though we were quick, I got to discover a handful of new artists and works I'd never seen before, while also reveling in the works I came to enjoy.  Another great experience, but one that was too short.  Someday, I would love to come and spend an entire day, or at least a few hours, slowly moving through the galleries.  That would be amazing. 


You see the bulk of the writing I did this week, right here.  I knew I wouldn't have the time to put toward a proper revising of the novel, so I set that aside for the week.  The two mornings in New York, I did work on another piece I'm writing for the W27 blog, but it's not coming together the way I'd like (might have something to do with the physical toll I put my aging body through this past week . . . ah, well).  And the last couple of days have been used for recuperating.  But tomorrow I jump back on that horse and start the push to revise the 100,000 words left on the novel.  I'm looking forward to it.