Monday, January 22, 2018

Thoughts on 'Summit Fever'

Last week over at Writer Unboxed, Annie Neugebauer wrote about the perils of 'Summit Fever,' a condition in which mountaineers allow the desire to reach their goal--the top of the mountain--to supercede good judgement in getting there (and back down again) safely. If the mountaineers are lucky, they make it safe and sound and maybe have a good story to tell around the campfire that night. If they're not so lucky, they end up the objects of a search-and-rescue, end up in the hospital, or maybe even dead.

"It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a mountain climber or even a very intuitive group of writers to see where I’m going with this, does it?" Ms. Neugebauer said, and I nodded as I read, because I knew exactly where she was going. Or so I thought. Turns out, I was wrong, because Ms. Neugebauer took the discussion in a completely unexpected direction (for me), as she started talking about burnout, because, "right behind that peak you’ve been headed for is another one. It’s higher, prettier, and juuuuust out of reach."

It certainly makes sense, because we're always chasing peaks, aren't we? Writing the next story, landing the agent (for some), landing the publishing deal or publishing yourself--there is always another peak. I understand Ms. Neugebauer's point, and I agree, but it's still not what I was expecting, because for me, Summit Fever is something different.

As I came into December, I was working on a second draft of the WiP. I had hopes of finishing it by Christmas, in part so I could give it to my wife to read (though in that case I might not have taken all of Christmas week off, because it's still hard to be around when she's reading my work, I don't know why). But life and a troublesome spot in the manuscript got in the way. Between Christmas shopping and decoration and picking up the Catbird at school and Christmas itself, and a snag that I spent a good three days working through, I didn't get it done. But I got closer. And when I passed the 350-page mark (out of 470-something pages, and shrinking by the day), Summit Fever started kicking in. By the time I crossed page 400, the fever was raging.

What does Summit Fever look like? Well, think about that three-day delay in December while I worked out a problem in the page 100s. I went through it a bunch of times and, even after thinking I'd fixed it for good went back to it one more time and fixed it some more. But, when I added a few things in the page 380-range and made some not-insubstantial changes in the post-400 section, I barely took a second glance, even though I knew it would not be as polished as other parts of the manuscript, and might have some glaring errors as a result. Why? Summit Fever. As I got closer and closer to the end, like mountaineers pushing toward the summit long after they should have turned back, I got more and more careless. And last night, my wife told me, "You have the same scene in two different places." I gave myself a 'Gibbs slap.' Summit Fever had caught me again.

I know what the solution is, of course. Like any fever, a good cure for Summit Fever is bed rest. Let the manuscript sit, let the fever burn down, then take another look. But for me, at least, Summit Fever is almost irrestible. Maybe next time I'll beat it.

What about you? Do you suffer from Summit Fever? How do you cure it?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Godless: Opportunity Missed

A couple of months ago, The Wife made me and The Magpie watch a trailer for a new Netflix show that was soon to be airing. Pretend for a moment you have neither heard about nor seen trailer or the show itself, and watch the trailer (just under two minutes):

I'm not necessarily a "Western Guy," but this made me sit up and take notice. Not just because it's a well-crafted trailer (it is), but also the concept, as presented here. You'd be forgiven if you did what I did and thought, "Whoa, an Old West town full of nothing but women trying to hold back the world of men! Count me in!"

On the surface, that's exactly what it is. La Belle, New Mexico lost almost all of the town's men "in five minutes" as the trailer tells us, in a mining accident. Two years later, only a handful of men are left, and we see the women making decisions for the town and doing things like rebuilding the church, which burned down (La Belle had a run of bad luck, it would seem).

There are interesting women doing interesting things. Outside of town, there's Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery, and it took me a long time to realize she played Lady Mary on Downton Abbey), running her ranch with her Paiute mother-in-law and her teenage son (Alice's husband was one of the few who did not die in the mine; he was shot in the back on the streets of La Belle, so she is not exactly tight with the ladies of La Belle). There's Maggie MacNue (Merritt Wever), who now wears her dead husband's clothes, can outdraw the deputy, and thinks things are running just fine, thank you very much. There's the town whore turned schoolmarm (Tess Frazer), and the high society lady, Charlotte Temple (Samantha Soule), who hopes to turn the town's fortunes around. These are capable women who have endured a terrible tragedy, yet they stayed on when there was really nothing left for them to stay for.  They persist, and their stories are interesting and deserve to be told.

Yet, if you actually watched Godless, you'd know that the music that should have been playing during the trailer is James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World," because at it's heart, Godless is a story about men. Most specifically, it's about the relationship between the awful Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his wayward adopted son and protege, Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell), with a sidehelping of disgraced La Belle Sheriff Bill McNue trying to redeem himself. Seriously, at the outset, it looks like Bill's sister would make a better sheriff.

It's a good story, and it's (mostly) well-told, though there is an awful lot missing, and not just about the ladies. There's a lot of stuff dangled about Bill McNue that is never really resolved. The acting is high quality and the atmosphere is fantastic (though I will say some of the action in the climax looked a little cartoony and reminded me of some bad kung fu film I saw long ago. I also could have done without the obligatory romance between two characters, and the even more obligatory rape back story of one (of the characters). I enjoyed watching Godless overall, and would recommend it, though this is definitely a case where the trailer is misleading.

What about you? Did you watch Godless? What did you think?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Weekend Update: (Temporary) End of the Cold edition

Greetings, all. Woke up this day to a welcome sight: the mercury in our outdoor thermometer was above zero, which it hasn't been before sunrise in close to a week. Not that you can feel it, mind you; took the dog out and was surprised at how cold it felt, courtesy of a decent breeze coming up the hill. But I'm buoyed by high temperatures that, by Wednesday, are supposed to be pushing fifty. Unseasonably warm, as they say. I wonder if all the folks who have spent the last week sneering, "So much for global warming" will apply that same (flawed) logic to this week, or if they'll suddenly (correctly) say, "Don't confuse climate and weather."

I'm equipped to deal with this weather. This Christmas, I got a new hat to replace one I got probably our first Christmas in this house, since the fur was kind of falling out of the old one. When I put the hat on on Christmas morning, the Catbird said I looked like Vlad the Impaler. I'm not sure how I should take that.

"And who knows which is which, and who is who?"*

While I don't generally make resolutions (and didn't this year), I did want to get better about setting up blog posts ahead of time. When I expected to be done with the WiP by Christmas, I thought I'd be able to use writing time that week to get a head start on 2018 posts. Problem: I didn't get done with the WiP by Christmas, or by New Year's. In fact, I didn't get done with the WiP until this weekend (Yay, me!), though there are a couple of things bugging in the back of my head about the WiP, so I might need to go back and make some more changes before setting it sailing off to the Wonderful World of Betas. Back to the blog, though: I did start working on a post for today, but I fizzled out. Figuring I had enough of a base to be able to write on the fly this morning, I left it last night, but the brain power is a little low this morning, so you're getting yet another of these generic update posts. Maybe next week.

Last night, something unexpected appeared in my Facebook feed, a grant opportunity for New York state artists. They call it a fellowship, but it's basically a grant. No age requirements, no "Must have been/must not have been published" requirements, no requirement that you spend the money on an expensive retreat in the woods or anything. I can do this! It doesn't necessarily get me published, but it could get me a chunk of money ($7000), and that would certainly be nice and supportive. Deadline is January 24, so if you are living in the great state of New York and you're an artist, look into it, and good luck! Many of you live in other states (if not other countries!), but I expect your state (or province, or country) has something similar. Ever apply for one? Ever win one? 

Time for some music. Haven't  done this in a while. Bob Weir wrote a lot of weird songs with strange time signatures. This is one (two?) of them, written in 7/4 time. John Perry Barlow, Weir's primary songwriting partner, wrote a lot of songs about obsessive love--though when it comes to the point of obsession, you can argue that it's no longer love. "Lazy Lightning/Supplication," as performed at San Bernardino in January, 1978, will either wake you up or put you to sleep. Have a great week, all!

*From "Us and Them" by Roger Waters and Rick Wright

Monday, January 1, 2018

New Year and Old Business (Reading List, Part IV)

Well, good morning, and welcome to 2018, I hope it's a good one for you. Thank you to all of you who come by and spend a few minutes every week with me, and especially those of you who regularly have something to say. I always aim to give you something to come here for, and it's nice to know I'm not just shouting into the void (though I don't think I usually shout).

Speaking of that, early this morning, i.e., at the stroke of midnight, the Catbird and I continued what was a long tradition in my household. After saying "Happy New Year" and giving hugs and kisses, we stepped outside with a couple of pots and wooden spoons and bashed away. When my family did this back when I was a kid, we weren't the only ones to do it: we had a lot of Brooklyn and Queens people who had moved out to Long Island living around us, and it was fun to hear banging and clanging coming from up and down the block. I *think* I heard someone up hear do it once, some years ago, but it might have been the echo from me. Fun to do, even if it was really effing cold.

Took the dog out at 6 am into a morning that was like crystal. Navy blue sky. Lots of stars. Big, just-past-full moon low in the west. It was beautiful. I judged it to be about -14. The thermometer on the back of my house said -24. The National Weathe Service says -10, but their station is 20 miles away, and is at a lower elevation. Either way, it's effing cold. But still beautiful.

I've been off for the last week and a half, courtesy of excess vacation time, a holiday, and a boss who recognizes all the extra hours we put in throughout the year. It's been really nice to be home so much--and I've been hard at work on the WiP. I failed in my goal to have this draft done by Christmas, and I failed at having it done by the end of the year (holiday shopping/prep got in the way, as did a section or two that needed more work than I had initially thought). Right now, I stand at about 52 pages from the end. I don't know if I can make it today, but it should certainly be done by the end of the week. That's a good way to start off a new year!

And now, because this post is already longer than I expected, old business: I give to you the Reading List, Part IV:

Beauty Queens (2011), Libba Bray. Inspired to read this by the news of the all-female remake of Lord of the Flies. Fun at times, but a little heavy-handed in its messaging, and I'm not a fan of books that work at being overly-clever. Then again, I'm not the target audience. It was enjoyable.

Gerald's Game (1992), Stephen King. I haven't read this in a long time. Better than I remembered, though the link between it and Dolores Claiborne was just weird, man.

The Time Traveler's Wife (2003), Audrey Niefenegger. I wish I'd written that!

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995), Lt. Col. Dave Grossman. Research for the WiP. Probably should have picked something a little newer, but it was an impulse selection at the library.

Sleeping Beauties (2017), Stephen and Owen King. Heavy-handed in its messaging, overly-long, and I'm not sure it really did what the Kings wanted it to do...though, then again, maybe it did. I may have more to say on this in an upcoming post.

All Backs Were Turned (1965), Marek Hlasko, translated by Tomasz Mirkowicz. I think I came across this on some list like "20 Novels Everyone Should Read." Not sure I would agree with that assessment.

So, for the fourth quarter of 2017, I only read 6 books, which is a little low for me, but I was busy with revisions (RiP and WiP), holidays, etc. The total for the year: 31 books, total, down from 42 last year, and there were a lot of re-reads in there. I'll break down the list a little more in a future post, but it's safe to say, I'd like to up my reading.

That's it for me, hope you had a safe start to 2018 and that the year brings you good things!

Monday, December 18, 2017

Another lightweight post

"Gonna take two weeks, gonna have a vacation"--Summertime Blues, Eddie Cochran, Jerry Capehart

Last night, in the final hour or so before I went to bed, I was writing today's post in my head, a non-review review of Sleeping Beauties, a 700-plus page doorstopper from Stephen and Owen King. The super condensed review: I liked it. But. It's that 'but' that causes the problem, makes me want to write about it. It's also that 'but' that's going to stop me from writing about it today, because it's 6:36 in the morning, I'm not really awake, and I want to try to be in the office by 8. Rather than leave a half-assed 'review' that doesn't say what I want to say, I'm going to punt, and not just for this week. Next week's post (if there is one at all) will probably be nothing more than a 'Merry Christmas' message. The week after that will almost certainly be my last reading list for 2017, and then? Hopefully then I will have actually written the post about Sleeping Beauties that I want to write.

The quickie weekend update: The gang's all here, all the birds are again in the nest, and most of our Christmas shopping (at least for the wife and me) is done! Sweet!

There's a tree in the stand, but it's completely undecorated. If my children are nice (and they are), they will string the lights today while I'm at work, a job that I have grown to loathe over the years.

Had a good conversation with Agent Carrie over the weekend to talk 2018. We've got a plan in place, and we're both feeling optimistic.

I've been  busting a nut on the WiP. I have so far trimmed 5000(!) words and 30(!!) pages. A lot of the pages (well, a few) have been eliminated simply by killing the extra 1.15 pt space at the end of paragraphs that Word insists on putting in; I've got to change my default settings. The monster is still north of 130,000 words and I'm not quite halfway through. My goal was to be done with this pass by Christmas, but that may not be realistic. The end of the year is, however.

That's it for me, what's going on with all of you?

Monday, December 11, 2017

Weekend Update: Post-travel edition

This past weekend saw us travel for a funeral. On our return trip, we got hung up in the snow that came up the coast, which added an extra two hours--and an untold level of stress--to the drive. The weather reports gave no indication that the storm was going to impact as far as it did,  thanks, weather service models!

I need this today
As a result, yesterday was kind of a do-nothing day. Rather, it was a 'Write Like Hell' day, as I was able to put in a full day plus on my WiP, which helped offset the couple of days at the end of the week where I couldn't work on it. I'm roughly a quarter of the way through now, and, after a few days where my massive word count didn't seem to be going down at all, I have now chopped nearly 3000 words away. And a lot of these are from the front half (heck, quarter!) of the manuscript. I have a tendency to build too slowly, I think, and not leave enough room at the resolution end. I'm still excited about this project; whether or not I can get this draft completed in time for Christmas remains to be seen. If I do, then I'll be faced with a conundrum: let it sit, or go right back to the start and take another pass through? If I let it sit, then what do I work on? There's nothing really in the back room right now (as far as I know), and I hate to be not writing at all.

Not much else to report. I'm back on submission, so trying not to think about that, enjoying the Bruins' current surge that has seen them go 8-2 in their last ten, and trying to come to grips with the fact that we are just two weeks away from Christmas. And no, my shopping isn't done. Or started. But we do have lists going, so that's good.

Anyway, that's it for me, what's up with you all?

Monday, December 4, 2017

The struggle to keep current

In the Netflix comedy series, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Ellie Kemper plays Kimmy, a 29-year-old woman who spent literally half of her life imprisoned in an underground bunker with three other women, and the doomsday cultist who kidnapped her when she was 15. Upon being freed, Kimmy decides to move to New York and start fresh, hoping to avoid having to forever be one of the "Indiana Mole Women."

Part of the show's humor (and, despite what is Kimmy's horrific background, the show manages to be laugh out loud funny, which can be a little uncomfortable when you consider how many women have lived--and died--in such circumstances, and when you try not to wonder how many women might actually be living in similar circumstances right now) is how much of a "fish out of water" Kimmy is: small town girl trying to make it in the big city, which is compounded by the fact that a) though Kimmy turns 30 in season one, she really has the emotional development of a teenager (and a naive one at that), and b) the world has changed substantially in the fifteen years she was captive in the bunker. Kimmy dresses like a kid and often acts like a kid, and her speech is filled with references to people and things of the nineties, when she was a teenager and free, such as when she uses "Psych!" (does anyone do that anymore?), or describes brunch as being "Frasierfancy," or when she asks aspiring Broadway star Titus if he'll "...sing at the Grammys with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson?"
Her optimism is endearing

I like to tell my kids that I'm an incredibly hip, incredibly with it guy, that I have my finger on the pulse of society, that I know what's hot and what's not, and what all the cool kids like. They see right through it. The truth is, I'm a fifty-plus year-old man who grew up in the suburbs of Long Island and went to high school and college in the 80s. I hear music on the radio and I have no idea who the singer/band is; I see pictures of supposedly A-list actors and actresses and have no idea who they are, and on the rare occasions I move myself to find out, I tend to forget and have to ask again the next time I see/hear them. But I can still quote from Caddyshack, or Animal House, or The Terminator. When NBC hockey analyst, Ed Olczyk referred to a player getting caught in "a Malacchi Crunch," I knew exactly what he was talking about (and was then surprised to realize he and I are pretty much the same age).

The pop culture of my youth had a big impact on me, and does to this day. As a writer, this can create some interesting problems. In my first two manuscripts, my protagonists were man suspiciously close to my own age, who grew up in similar places to me. Easy enough to represent their similarities. In my now back-on-submission third attempt, two of the three POV characters are close to my age, while the third is a bit younger. In my WiP, my protagonist and her peers are squarely in the Millennial category. What's a borderline boomer/Gen Xer to do?

"Pond would be good for you."
Way back in 1999, Bill Murray guest-hosted Saturday Night Live and appeared in a sketch called that opened with this voiceover: "You're a white male between the ages of 15 and 41, chances are you love quote lines from Caddyshack." Later in the sketch, Murray says, "the secret language of American business is peppered with quotes from this classic 1980 comedy."

Saturday Night Live (original cast); Caddyshack. Animal House. National Lampoon's Vacation. Stripes. For better or worse, these films and TV shows are part of the lens that my world view is filtered through. So, it's no surprise that one of my characters, when faced with a difficult choice, might say "Sometimes, you gotta say 'What the fuck.'" And while that might be right for a fifty-year-old, is it right for a thirty-year-old? Or a twenty-two year-old?

Maybe it is. After all, it's entirely possible that my twenty-something character has seen--and loved--the old movies and TV shows, just as I watched I Love Lucy and could complete this run of dialogue that was old before I was born: "Who's on first?" "I don't know." "________"* While my twenty-something character might know "See the ball, Danny. Be the ball" would that be her 'go to' quote in the appropriate situation, or would she come up with something from, I don't know, Happy Gilmore or...or...I don't know. (I could write about hockey players. Hockey players all quote from Slap Shot.)

So, there's my question to you: if you are writing characters that are younger than you--a generation or two younger, in particular--how do you keep them from sounding like they just came out of a bunker after fifteen years?

*"Third base"