Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 – A Reckoning … of Writing

Last year was the first year I started tracking, through a simple spreadsheet, my writing progress.  Always, the goal has been to write every day.  Family, work, and life in general have hampered that goal, but it has always been something to which I aspired.  My daily goal is 1000 words – that can be “new words” of a first draft or “revised words” but only on a first revision because that second draft is almost always drastically different, and improved, from the initial draft, and “critiques” through my participation in the Comics Experience online workshop, where my critiquing of others’ scripts involves thinking long and hard about the craft of writing.  Those last two may seem like cheats, but I count them as a way to get past the psychological hurdle that kept me from revising stories (because I wasn’t “writing”). 

Before I began tracking my writing, I was sitting down at my laptop fairly regularly, but I am certain I was not as responsible about it as I am now.  With the spreadsheet looming in front of me, as well as a daily check-in thread at the above-mentioned Comics Experience workshop, I was kept more honest; I couldn’t allow the fickleness of memory to reconfigure the reality of not writing for a succession of days, it was there in front of me.  And it did make a difference.  I wrote more than I know I ever had before, in the course of a year – roughly 236,000 total words in 2013. 

This year, I was even more successful.  Writing on a daily basis has truly become a habit for me, one that I do not avoid like I used to (thinking I could do tomorrow what didn’t get done today).  There are many days – many, many days – when I’m just too tired at the end of the day to consider sitting down to write.  And every one of those days I think it won’t be a bad thing if I just take the one night off.  But invariably, I would sit down, and I would write, and I would feel good afterward.  I wrote roughly 315,000 words this year.  254,000 of those were “new words,” compared with just under 160,000 last year.  I’ve raised the bar pretty high going into 2015, but that’s a good thing.

Number one piece of advice every writer gives to those working to break in:  write.  It’s just that simple.  The more you write, the better you get.  Like any other profession, practice and experience is the only thing that can truly help you improve, not reading those self-help/instructional booklets.  They deride the muse – those people who believe, erroneously, that one should create art when the “moment” hits you.  There’s doing the work.  And there’s not.  But here’s a little secret.  If you are writing (or drawing, or playing music) regularly, preferably at a set time each day, then one’s access to The Muse becomes easier.  The habit of sitting down to write at 9:00 pm each night becomes a muscle memory, in the same way taking a hundred swings in the batting cage every day does, and it isn’t such a chore to get into the mood to write.  It sounds obvious, in hindsight, but this was something else I learned through this.  And it has borne out results for me.

This year was not only my most productive, as far as how much writing I did, but it was also my most successful as far as having stories accepted.  I’ve been writing for about fifteen years, but for at least those first ten I was not doing it in any kind of a serious fashion.  It was more a hobby that I would dabble in, when I felt like it, expecting that my genius would win out.  I didn’t take into account the fact that you have to work at it.  The last five years, I’ve been working at it, slowly ramping up my writing production, and it’s shown. 
  • In 2010 I had 2 stories published
  • In 2011 I had 1 story published
  • In 2012 I had 1 story published
  • In 2013 I had 2 stories published
  • In 2014 I had 4 stories accepted – two of which will have been published by year’s end, one that I am certain will be published in 2015, and one that is still up in the air, as the publisher seeks and artist for it.  

It’s been a great year.  And I hope 2015 will be even better.  I’ll continue working at this.  Goals include writing 1000 words each day – we’ll see if I can pass 315K next year – finishing and revising the current novel I’m working on, and doubling the number of submissions I send off.  This year I achieved my goal of one a week, and actually sent off 53 submission.  So next year, I need to have 106, at least.  We’ll see.  But, for now, Happy New Year!  And here’s to 2015.


Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014 – A Reckoning … of Books Read

This year I decided to track my reading, to look for patterns and to work toward broadening my horizons – specifically, to that final point, I wanted to read more non-fiction and to read more books written by women, and I think I achieved that.

Overall, I read 38 books this year – 12 novels, 13 works of non-fiction, and (if you’re doing the math at home) 13 books that fell under the “Other” category, which includes plays, books of poetry, short story collections, novellas, and anything else that did not fall neatly under the Novel and Non-fiction ones.  To be honest, I am surprised at how well it spread out.  I did not go into this trying to be so even, in the spread across these categories.  Must be my weird, subconscious “math-wired” brain at work. 

Anyway.  The novels were split evenly between male and female authors, with two of the best I read this year from women – Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, which defines lustrous prose for me, and Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet, which was a riveting, genuine, powerful coming of age story, something I am not attracted to, as a sub-genre.  Really powerful stuff.  Other notables would be my first Elmore Leonard novel, Road Dogs, Toni Morrison’s latest, Home, Country Hardball, by Steve Weddle, which is an amazing crime novel-as-collection-of-short-stories, and This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz, who is one of my favorite contemporary authors whose turns of phrase are beautiful and poetic and moving, all at once.  Great stuff.

Some of the notable non-fiction I read this year included Difficult Men, which looks at the shift in television brought about by HBO, FX, and similar cable stations, led by a vanguard of distinct and strong-willed showrunners like David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, and David (actually, Vince) Gilligan.  I also read Julius Caesar: the Life & Times of the People’s Dictator, which was interesting and allowed for a better understanding of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, when I read that directly after, and The New Middle East by Paul Danahar, which sheds light on what has actually been going on in the middle east from the BBC’s primary correspondent there the past few years, and Rez Life by David Treuer, which gives voice to the pain and injustices Native Americans have been forced to deal with ever since Europeans arrived here, centuries past.  It is a harrowing, disturbing, heartbreaking book, but one that everyone American should read (though I doubt half of those would take away any life lessons from it; yes, the half who thinks Fox News is actually news). 

I only got four of Shakespeare’s plays read this year – Julius Caesar, Antony & Cleopatra, Hamlet, and Macbeth – but they were a joy to read.  Looking forward to more Shakespeare in 2015, which is always inspirational, to me.  I also read four books from Harlan Ellison, my favorite author, including a collection of short stories, a collection of his teleplays (Brain Movies III), a re-read of Mefisto in Onyx, the novella that was my introduction to Ellison, and his first collection of essays on television from the 70s, The Glass Teat.  I’ve read a healthy number of his books, but I look forward to whittling away at the stack even more, in the coming year.  And I also read two Cormac McCarthy books, neither one of them novels – The Stonemason, a brilliant play that included some of the most insightful and brilliant prose I read this year, and his screenplay for The Counselor, which was interesting if a bit of a let-down.  This one felt more like an exercise in extremes rather than a desire to craft something of significance.  That said, the disappointment in the plot did not take away from the brilliance of the man’s prose and.  McCarthy is a singular talent.  Can’t wait to read more of his work.

And that’s that.  Hoping next year to expand the number of books I read, but that may be tough.  Because I need time for my family and time to write. 


Monday, December 29, 2014

2014 – a Reckoning … of comic collections read

This year I decided to start tracking my reading a bit more closely.  I wanted to be able to look at trends in my reading, and possibly identify deficiencies in my habits that I could work on.  For the year, I read 100 collections-slash-graphic novels.  Not a bad number.  But what did I read?

I finally got my hands on Bendis’s Alias, which was a great series.  It tapered off a bit at the end, but still, some really great writing, and I appreciated Andreyko’s art, which helped make this book stand out even more.  This led to me re-reading Bendis’s Daredevil run with Alex Maleev.  Not as great as I remember, from my first reading, but still a strong series of issues, made all the more impressive by the fact that, with rare instances and one fill-in storyline that I can remember, this creative team was on the book for a serious run.  Now I’m halfway through the Brubaker/Lark run, and though I’m not enjoying it as much, it’s still a solid read. 

I also dipped into the Geoff Johns Green Lantern mythos this year - and wrote about it here, here, and here.  I stopped after the Sinestro Corps War, relatively underwhelmed.  There was some nice art (when it was Ethan Van Sciver), and the stories were well done, but I think the facts that Hal Jordan is now a firm fixture in the DCU and that I knew some of the twists and turns coming is what killed it for me.  I may return to see how things lead up to Blackest Night, one of my favorite Flash stories of recent years, but probably not.

I also finished up Bakuman this year, reading the last 11 volumes over the entire course of 2014.  Great stuff.  As long as you can buy into the distinct tropes of manga, then you should enjoy this.  Great drama, great characters, some really funs scenarios, and beautiful art, all revolving around two school friends who decide they want to become the biggest manga creators on Weekly Shonen Jump.  The way the creators manage to imbue their stories with drama and tension, when it revolves around creating comics, is impressive.  Worth checking out. 

I also read the full Locke & Key this year, by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez.  One of the best comic stories in years.  Amazing.  If you haven’t read this series yet, and you call yourself a comic fan, get on it.  You will not regret it. 

Some other standouts from the past year also include:

  • Ant Colony by Michael DeForge – one of the most distinct and enjoyable artists currently working in comics
  • Family Ties by Eric Hobbs & Noel Tuazon – one of my favorite artists, who does not have enough work out there, but what Tuazon does have is all stellar
  • Bumperhead by Gilbert Hernandez – on my Rushmore of comic artists.
  • Nemo: Roses of Berlin by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill – Alan Moore, writing god, ‘nuff said.
  • The Red Diary by Steven Seagle & Teddy Kristiansen – an incredible creative team with yet another phenomenal book.  Check out anything from them.
  • NOAH by Darren Aronofsky & Niko Henrichon – gorgeous art, great story, and not what you expect.  Get it.
  • Hip Hop Family Tree v.1 by Ed Piskor – check this out, a history of hip hop told through comics by a guy who is a signature talent.

And there were a lot more.  Going into 2015, I’m going to read through all of Gotham Central, finally, and I also plan on doing a near-complete Frank Miller re-read – I don’t know if I can take Holy Terror! but I am excited to re-read DK2 and possibly writing about it.  And whatever other great titles come across my various social feeds.  If you’ve got something to recommend, let me know.  And thanks.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

What It Is – week ending 28 December [2014]

With apologies to Dave the Thune (as well as Mike Baron & Steve Rude).

Every day.  1000 words.  That’s the goal.
Christmas week.  That meant the writing got a backburner again – though I only missed one day of writing this week, but the amounts were all below 1000 – as I worked on wrapping gifts and writing out my boy’s letters from Santa.  Yes.  From Santa.  I stole this idea from Tolkien, who would craft these wonderful, illustrated letters to his own children from St. Nick.  This year they learned of Santa’s discovery of a group of ice dwarves who had been living in the North Pole for far longer than Santa has been there. When the North Polar Bear stumbled into their secret homes, they came out, finally, and offered their assistance to Santa.  It was a fun little story to conceive, and though the dip pen can be frustrating, I am always happy with the results.  And, overall, this was a great Christmas.  Our youngest is seven, at just the right age to enjoy Christmas and the magic of Santa, and he played Santa on Christmas morning, making sure others had gifts before he opened one of his.  That was pretty special.


Bakuman by Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata, published by Viz comics.
I finished reading this series.  20 volumes about two young creators – one a writer, one an artist – who come together in middle school and decide they want to pursue the dream of becoming famous manga artists in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine.  This was such a blast.  The art is wonderful, and the way these creators manage to continually infuse the narrative with tension and drama is a testament to their creativity.  Highly recommended.

Brain Movies III by Harlan Ellison
This collects a number of Ellison’s teleplays, in their original script form.  Ellison has never been one to leave things up to the directors and actors who envisioned his scripts for television.  These scripts are fully realized, with visual details that allow one to picture these stories quite easily, in one’s mind.  Plus, we get a few anecdotes from Ellison, at the beginning of each script, which are always entertaining.  This third volume is centered around Ellison’ full-length story “Cutter’s World.”  We get two iterations of this script – first, the TV-movie version, followed by the revised film version.  It was interesting to see how some things changed.  The first 100 pages were roughly the same, but then Ellison enhanced the story immensely, with stronger connections between the aliens and Cutter, the protagonist, that not only upped the emotional engagement for the audience, but also tied the entire narrative together far better, without it feeling forced.  Great stuff, and interesting from a process standpoint.

DD by Brubaker/Lark
Started reading this run, and it’s good (duh).  Not as engaging as the Bendis/Maleev run, but still some fantastic Daredevil stories.  I think one of the things that places this run beneath the Bendis run is the fact that Brubaker seems to stretch his narratives out more.  Where the Bendis stories seemed to run 5 issues, on average, Brubaker’s storylines all run to about 10 issues.  Not that it feels padded, but the emotional charge isn’t as immediate with the longer arcs, and it doesn’t impact me in as visceral a manner as those quicker, sharper Bendis narratives.  Which isn’t to say these aren’t some pretty great stories.  Just different.  And I can appreciate that.


Miracle on 34th Street
My favorite Christmas movie, hands down.  It evokes everything I love about this holiday, the lush decorations, the ideal of it being a season of giving, and the magic that surrounds it all, for me, embodied by the main character of Kris Kringle, the man hired to be a Santa at Macy’s department store who claims to be the one, actual Santa Claus (AGE: ‘As old as my tongue and slightly older than my teeth.’).  I haven’t watched this in a few years, and I decided to subject my seven-year-old to it, even though it was the black and white version (his lament, not mine).  Overly idealized with just the right amount of cynicism from Maureen O’Hara’s and HER NAME’s characters to make it too saccharine, in my opinion, I had forgotten how smartly written the script was.  The way it goes about “proving” Kris Kringle is the one and true Santa Claus in the court proceedings is worth the price of admission alone – especially the scene with the prosecutor’s son coming to the stand as a witness, which leads to the state of New York conceding that Santa Claus is a real person.  I loved rewatching this, and my son also enjoyed it, sitting for the entire movie without any complaints.  Win, win. 

Bladerunner – The Final Cut
Ridley Scott’s science fiction masterpiece (I view Alien as a horror masterpiece) has long been a favorite movie of mine, and when the “Final Cut” was released a few years back, I picked it up.  But I discovered, while watching it this past week, that I had never watched it; I’d only watched the “making of” documentary, apparently.  Man, is this final cut great!  It elevates the film so much, and it was great before.  Without the dopey voice-over, you really get to appreciate the musical score composed by Vangelis and better understand how much it adds to the overall film, evoking emotion without being soon the nose as some composers, aided quite a bit with the “electronica” approach he took.  Just brilliant.  The other major fix is that Scott excised the more upbeat ending by cutting the film at a point prior to that – a point that is more ambiguous while also being more bleak, matching more closely the overall thematic approach to the film.  I was surprised how much more I enjoyed this cut, and I look forward to watching it again. 

New Year’s Eve will see the release of the Winter issue of Needle: a magazine of noir.  And my story, “Silence,” will be included in there, along with some great crime fiction – having enjoyed previous issues, I believe I can say that without reservation.  I will have a link here when it goes live and also plan on writing a bit on how I managed to achieve this goal.  But that’s another post. 

And, as always, check out my friends – Brad & Matt and Don McMillan for their own weekly recaps on things comic-y and geeky, and we'll see what's what in seven.  


Friday, December 26, 2014

Comic of the Year [2014]: FRONTIER #6 by Emily Carroll

I was familiar with Emily Carroll’s name, but not with her work.  Until this year.  I read her collection, Through the Woods, and was terribly impressed with it.  So when I saw she had done the most recent issue of Youth in Decline’s quarterly monograph series, Frontier, with a story titled “Ann by the Bed,” I decided to check it out.  Am I ever glad I did.  This is easily my favorite comic of the year.

Since reading “Ann by the Bed” a few weeks back, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  Horror is tough to do in comic form.  There are no musical cues, as with film and television, to enhance one’s emotional reaction and add dread or discomfort to a scene.   Any use of gore within the comic medium can never be as visceral as that found in film, and the scare tactics utilized within those other visual media are almost impossible to replicate in comic form.  So, despite rare exceptions, horror doesn’t work in comics.  But if a creator chooses to attempt a horror comic, one is often left with creating a moody, atmospheric narrative as the best approach.  Emily Carroll achieves that brilliantly. 

“Ann by the Bed” revolves around the grisly murder of a young girl, Ann Herron, and her family in early twentieth-century Canada, and the urban myth that has come to surround this heinous act.  In later years, it has become a parlor game, of sorts, similar to the Candyman myth or a Ouija board, utilized by older children to scare themselves and their friends.  Carroll interweaves the “true” history of Ann Herron (I place the word true in quotes because I am uncertain about whether Carroll created the history of Ann Herron for this tale, or if it is, in actuality, a true historical happening) with various instances of children playing Ann by the Bed, and the odd happenings that follow these games – often embodied by Ann Herron’s spirit visiting them. 

Presenting these disparate scenarios – Herron’s history and the varied children playing Ann by the Bed –adds a sense of gravity to the tale that insinuates itself into your psyche, as you read, ratcheting up the tension slowly even as your mind shifts from reading this as fiction and begins treating it as non-fiction.  Carroll capitalizes on this shift in perspective with the final page, a full-page image that burns itself onto the back of your brain as it lurches the breath from your lungs, leaving you wondering:  Will Ann visit me tonight, or will I be able to avoid dying in my sleep?

Carroll’s art, and the way she deftly teases out the narrative in this story, is phenomenal.  She creates a looming sense of unease that it is hard to shake off.  This is one of the most successful horror comics I’ve ever read.  Not only has the impact of the narrative remained with me, but I have also been pondering the craft encompassed therein.  This is a book I want to study a bit more, to try and fully understand how she pulled off this amazing feat.  It’s a rare creator who can imbue a narrative full of static images with such emotion and dread, and Carroll needs to be applauded for that.  She is a serious talent, and one whose work you should seek out (I know I’m going to be keeping an eye out for her comics and do a little digging to find what she’s done before).  I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. 

Highest recommendation.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

What It Is – week ending 21 December [2014]

With apologies to Dave the Thune (as well as Mike Baron & Steve Rude).

Every day.  1000 words.  That’s the goal.

So, things are a bit slow in the writing department at this time of year.  We celebrate a purely secular Christmas here in the heart of Maine and there are presents to be wrapped, decorations to be hung (finally got the final bits up this week), and specials to watch.  This cuts into my writing, but I did manage to get some work done this week, padding out the 300K words for the year, which is going to make it difficult to equalize next year.  Sure, there’s some wiggle room, but not a lot, especially when one has a full-time job and a family that deserves one’s attention.  Plus there are all those good books and comics to read.  You need to feed the beast if you want to do this.  It’s good to have a bar to reach for, though. 

But, enough lamenting.  Here’s to the magic of Christmas!  When you can believe a man in a red suit can fly all around the world in one night to bring happiness to children at every corner of the Earth. 

The Wrenchies, by Farel Dalrymple, published by First Second Books.

I’d seen lots of headlines touting the wonder of Dalrymple’s book, and I am a fan of his art, so I figured I needed to check it out.  Sadly disappointed is how I might best sum up my reaction to this.  The settings and scenarios, the art and the color palette especially, the ideas surrounding a lot of this dystopian alternate-reality story are great.  But it was a slog to read, for me.  I don’t know.  It felt, a lot of times, like this should have been a novel.  Other than visualizing this dreary, sad world full of monsters and shadows, there’s no good reason why this was a comic.  Much of the dialogue revolves around explaining the history of the world or the scene on the page.  It’s full of expositional bits that could have been better realized through wordless pages of wonderful illustrations (if explanations were needed at all).  Writers like Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman can make text-heavy comics sing in a way few can, and Dalrymple is not one of those creators you come to for his deft hand with prose.  Maybe I missed the entire point of the book, and that’s wholly possible, but I did not enjoy this at all.  If not for the wonderful art, I probably would have returned it to the library without finishing it.

FRONTIER #6, “Ann by the Bed,” by Emily Carroll, published by Youth in Decline. 

Frontier is a quarterly series of art comics featuring a different artist with each new issue.  This most recent one, from Emily Carroll (whose Through the Woods has been getting much-deserved rave reviews), was amazing.  One of the best comics of the year.  In 32 pages, Carroll managed to infuse this short tale with enough atmosphere and dread that when I turned to the final page – which was one hell of an exclamation point – I worried, sans hyperbole, that I would be having nightmares about the main character of this short narrative.  Carroll builds the tension gradually and inventively throughout the course of this short comic and manages to tie it all up in a way that is chilling and brilliant.  Highest recommendation. 

Also jumped back into my pile of classic G.I. Joe comics.  I read issues 51-56 plus Yearbook #3.  These stories take place after the big anniversary issue, number 50, where the Joes attacked Springfield, home to Cobra, and were repelled by Cobra’s newest soldier, a composite from the DNA of the ten most acclaimed soldiers in history, Serpentor.  In these seven issues we see G.I. Joe disbanded, a full-out assault on the Pit by Serpentor, along with Cobra Commander, Destro, the Baroness, et al. that results in the decimation of the Joes’ secret headquarters, the reinstatement of the G.I. Joe team as a nimble, mobile unit with no set headquarter to help avoid future issues like this, Destro and Cobra Commander forced to work together to escape from beneath the rubble that is the Pit, and these two eventually discovering that Cobra Commander’s son, Billy, is not dead but in a coma, which causes CC to reevaluate his life, while back on Cobra Island Serpentor starts up a new plan to sell their Terror-Drome assault bases to third world, Communist countries like Sierra Gordo, in order to help finance Cobra’s plans and lead them to becoming a more above-ground and legal group, which comes with the new Cobra consulate building in Manhattan.  (*phew* … take a breath)  With the revelation of the new Terror-Drome, a disguised Snake-Eyes (in the guise of Flint) is dropped into Sierra Gordo with the plan of being captured so that he might infiltrate the base and learn more about it, which is followed by a rescue mission, led by Stalker, that goes wrong, leading to Scarlett seeking out Storm Shadow (who dropped into the Pit in one of these first issues and got the key to Snake-Eyes’s mountain cabin so that he could get away and contemplate his recent death and resurrection) for an infiltration of the consulate building to finally rescue Snake-Eyes from Cobra – a silent issue redux from Yearbook #3 that also introduced my favorite Joe artist, Ron Wagner, who will go on to draw most of the issues between #57 and 89.

These were some fun comics.  I continue to be impressed at how well they stand up, with thirty years of hindsight.  Larry Hama writes some exciting narratives and rushes through myriad plot point, churning through story in a way that would be unfathomable today, while also managing to include the exposition in a manner that does not bog down the story too much.  And his artistic collaborators in these issues, Rod Whigham and then Ron Wagner, with Andy Mushynsky doing most of the inks, provide imagery that is clear and well-delineated without being too flashy.  An all-around enjoyable experience.

Continuing with The Americans.  It’s still pretty great and well worth checking out if you’re a fan of exciting action/dramas or Cold War narratives.  Fun stuff.

If you’ve not checked out the ITDMODcast (the podcast from In The Mouth Of Dorkness), and you are a lover of movies, you are missing out.  These guys talk intelligently about all types of film, and it’s just like all those conversations you had with your friends while hanging out in the parking lot, or when you all got together at someone’s house.  It’s a blast, and if you don’t watch out you might end up learning something.  The latest one I listened to was their Christmas special focusing on Die Hard (oh, and those other die hard movies; yes, lower case is intentional).  I haven’t seen this film since it first hit theaters.  Like Matt (@TheOmegaDork), I was not a fan of Bruce Willis and having him in the movie turned me off a bit to it, and I never did go back.  But after listening to these guys, I now realize I definitely have to watch this again – if, for nothing else, the way it is structured as a story.  Sounds like there are a large number of lessons I can take away from Die Hard for my own writing. 

And, as always, check out Brad& Matt – mentioned above – and Don McMillan for their own weekly recaps on things comic-y and geeky, and we'll see what's what in seven.