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. 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

WHAT IT IS, week ending 4.14.2019

School vacation week is upon us, for my little guy, and in a couple days we'll be winging our way to NYC, from Maine, with a trio of friends.  Sox @ Yanks one night, Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" the next, with some walking exploration of the city, including stops at the Public Library and MoMA (to see Van Gogh's "Starry Night," as requested by our son), among other hotspots, this should be a fun, if quick, time away.  I can't wait!

But, for now, it's time to look back at the week that was.  Let's have at it!


Space Crusaders #1: Rex Dexter of Mars, by Christopher Mills & Peter Grau:

Christopher Mills (Leonard Nimoy's Primortals; Femme Noir) has been working in comics for a couple of decades now, and he's finally taken his sensibilities and overlaying them onto older, public-domain characters, in order to create and "Atomic Pulp" universe filled with exciting adventures stories in a hybridization of 1970s comics and classic pulp magazines.  His initial foray is a 40-page space extravaganza, with art from Peter Grau (Valiant's original run of "Magnus Robot Fighter" and "Solar, Man of the Atom," among others), starring Rex Dexter of Mars, and it's wonderful!

This is what an adventure comic should be!  The first thing you notice is the art from Grau.  His linework is sharp and uncluttered, reminiscent of classic comic illustrators like George Pérez or Jim Aparo, and his storytelling is clear while also being dramatic.  The guy can draw, and you never feel lost.  There's definitely something to be said for classic panel layouts with clear delineation.  And the writing--it's top-notch.  Mills gives us all the information we need without it feeling forced or stilted, and the narrative zips along at a crisp pace, providing plenty of action interspersed with just enough downtime to allow readers a quick breather before being propelled along to the next bit of adventure.  Comics can be fun and exciting and engaging without being angsty or overly serious, and Mills understands this fully.  (Not that we need to get rid of these modern approaches, it would just be nice to have more variety.)

If you enjoy fun comics and have a soft spot for adventure, you should definitely check this out.  And keep an eye out for Mills's future offerings from Atomic Pulp, I expect they will be just as enjoyable, too.


Alex de Campi is a music video director and writer, whose comic work includes SMOKE and NO MERCY, both of which are great books.  Check them out. 
Also, you should check out de Campi on twitter where she dispenses writing advice all the time, and it's always good.  This week was another case in point, regarding this.  I shared some screenshots of what she had to say.  You can check it out here . . . or probably just scroll down to the next post, where you should find it. 


Vivaldi's Four Seasons:

Specifically, his Concerto No. 4 in F Minor, "Winter."  I actually came to this work through Netflix's original series, Chef's Table, which is a wonderful docuseries that isn't only about food and food preparation by some of the world's greatest chefs, but it's also a travel show, as the focus is on the chef and their surroundings and life as much as it is about the food.  One of mine and my wife's favorite shows, this piece is the theme music opening every episode.  Its vibrant tempo really enlivens me, helping me to write, but its association with Chef's Table also makes me happy, invigorating my fingers as they skip across the keyboard.  Just brilliant!


Made my way through chapter 9, in the revision of the novel, which dropped me below 400 pages on the first draft that are left to rework, which means I have revised 130 pages, translating them into 113.  From a word-count standpoint, I've taken 38,000 words and boiled them down to just under 30,000.  At this rate, I should have a 2nd draft that comes in around 110,000 words.  Not bad, but not exactly where I want to land.  It would be nice to dip below 100K.  With roughly that many words to work with, as I push toward the end, it shouldn't be too difficult to get to where I need to be.  We'll see, maybe those final 10,000 will have to be sheared off with the 3rd draft.

Friday, April 12, 2019

ON WRITING, Alex de Campi with some writing advice

Alex de Campi is a music video director and comic writer whose work includes the mini-series SMOKE, with art by Igor Kordey, and the Image series NO MERCY, with art by Carla Speed McNeil, both of which are great reads.  She regularly offers fantastic writing advice on twitter.  You can follow her @alexdecampi.

Last week, she responded to a tweet from screenwriter/novelist C. Robert Cargill, seen below:

Spurred by this, she offered this great bit of advice:

I am always on the lookout for great advice to help me with my writing.  De Campi has a wealth of knowledge that she freely offers, like that above.  If you're in the same boat as me, I would highly recommend jumping on twitter and following her.  And hopefully, the above was also helpful.  Or, at least interesting.


Wednesday, April 10, 2019

BLOODLINE -- How Bingeing Leaches a Narrative of Tension

Bloodline Season 2:

The slow fuse lit in the first season of the Netflix series Bloodline, which finally exploded in that final episode, has branched off to another fuse and continues to burn, threatening to destroy the Rayburn family.  With the second season, it inches closer to entrapping John in the skein of lies that surrounds him, as the ghost of their brother, Danny, hangs over all their heads.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this season.  The writing has been top-notch, the acting, especially from Chandler and Mendelsohn and Spacek, stellar, and the setting is still spectacular, while also moody at just the right moments.  But that doesn't mean there aren't things that leave something to be desired.  In one aspect, the series has come to feel formulaic--though not lazily formulaic.

With John's decision to run for sheriff, it has thrust him and his family even more into the spotlight, and his opponent, incumbent sheriff Aguirre, wants to dig more deeply into the events surrounding Danny's death.  This means going back to re-question John and his family.  So now, their initial lies are compounded, because of some experiences in the interim, and Meg and Kevin, especially, find it necessary to add to the list of their lies.  Lies that begin to unravel as Marco, one of John's closest friends in the sheriff's department and his sister's former fiancé, becomes suspicious, thanks to his close relationship with the family.

All of this, from a writing standpoint, is great.  All the tension and drama, subterfuge and deception stems from character and is smartly done.  The formulaic aspect comes when the Rayburns, and others, are confronted with their lies.  Or, more specifically, when they are confronted with questions--from the police, from Sally Rayburn (their mother, played by Sissy Spacek), from Diana, John's wife--who suspect something is wrong and call them on it.  At each point, it seems as if there's nothing for the confronted party to do but admit to the deceit, and many times John or his siblings, Kevin and Meg, will preface a response with something to the effect of:  "I've been holding this in for a long time," or "I can't live like this anymore."  It feels very much like they will confess.  But in the end, they confess to something different.  As examples:  John tells his mother that he knew of Danny's son well before they brought it to her attention; Kevin tells Marco, the sheriff's deputy, that he didn't come clean about the burnt-out boat because he recognized it as one his cocaine dealer had docked at his marina.  Every time, they squeak out from beneath the specter of the big lie.

It's smart, and it speaks to how fully realized these characters have become, and how earlier scenes that had one intent are able to be repurposed for these later scenes.  But, you quickly come to realize that when confronted with suspicion by someone in a position of authority--even Kevin, the drug-addled alcoholic who has been frantic about Danny's death and always seemed the one who would crack under the pressure--the Rayburns will play as if they are going to confess and then swerve to offer something just as juicy and legitimately plausible, in order to deflect that suspicion.  It happens multiple times in the show, and it's meant to heighten the tension within the drama.

Which, again, isn't to say that it isn't done well.  All the swerves are quite plausible, coming from character and from their backstories, and they never feel forced (though the ease with which these characters sometimes offer up "second options" can sometimes feel inauthentic, but not enough to pull you out of the show).  It's just, once you know the pattern it does sap a bit of the dramatic tension from events.  Maybe that's due to the way we watch these shows now, one episode after another after another, with no time in between to mull over what happened and contemplate the consequences.  It is possible that the old pattern, from network days, of watching an episode a week, with regular breaks during production resulting in weeks without a new episode, might have hidden this pattern, at least a little while longer than an episode or two.

Ultimately, though, there's plenty to learn, here, as far as writing engaging narratives.  The big takeaway for me, from watching season 2 of Bloodline, is to try and have multiple narrative threads for characters, whether those threads are just family backstory or a drug problem that remains in the background or something else, because these are the things the writers of the show utilized for these swerves.  I suppose it's the same as stating one should create complex characters with full lives for your fiction, because, when all is said and done, that is what this is.  The writers seeded the show with these glimpses into the personal lives of the characters, including the messed up family dynamic of the Rayburns, and the drug issues for Kevin, and once those were established, they were able to pull on these threads to not only push the narrative forward but ratchet up the tension in the process.  It's certainly made for an entertaining series, thus far.  And maybe, if I weren't so addicted that I need to watch the next episode now, I wouldn't have gleaned the pattern so quickly.