Thursday, December 30, 2021

Delicious Christmas Treacle  

As I sit here, at the end of another holiday season, I find myself in a food coma, full of eggnog and cocoa. In a daze, I grope for the Roku remote. There are literally thousands of options to choose from! But, choice requires thought and thought is in short supply right now. So, since it is a day between Halloween and New Years, I find myself drifting over to the Hallmark Channel to watch another one of their sugary sweet Christmas movie confections. 

This year, the countdown started before Halloween. 


To be as charitable as possible, the Christmas romance films on Hallmark are, overall, not great. They are almost entirely made of tropes, to the point where everyone knows the rhythms and beats even if they’ve never seen one. Linda Holmes, a pop-culture writer for NPR, does an annual round-up of all the many holiday movies on Hallmark, Netflix, and Lifetime where she helpfully puts the tropes in bold face. There is a lot of bold face in that article.


In case you’ve been in a cocoa and cheese coma as well and are unfamiliar with the tropes of your typical Hallmark plot, let’s do a brief rundown. 


A BUSY CAREER WOMAN (played by a sitcom actress you kind of recognize)  is focused on her big city job. She has no time for Christmas! But, she has to travel to a QUAINT SMALL TOWN (either to go home to family or because her big deal job sent her there to buy out an old inn or a cookie store). There, she meets HUNKY GUY IN FLANNEL (either an old flame from her youth or a stranger who appears out of nowhere to give her assistance,) Hunky Guy has either an adorable dog or adorable child. There is a HOLIDAY CRISIS (Family bakery might close! Town’s Christmas celebration is in peril!) that will only be solved if the Busy Career Woman and the Hunky Guy work together. Will Busy Career Woman learn to love Christmas? Will they spark a romance? WIll they exchange a chaste kiss as the screen fades to the end credits?



Look, sometimes the guy wears red, and sometimes the girl wears red! Totally different!


To be clear, my younger self would be appalled that I like these. I can recite a litany of problems with them. They are overwhelmingly white. It’s gotten better in recent years, but these are mostly whiter than an LL Bean sale in a blizzard. They are mostly extremely heteronormative, aside from a couple of token Gay Best Friends. They are casually sexist, slipping into gender roles that were outdated when I Love Lucy was on the air. (The career woman needs to relax and slow down and find a good man! The man is seldom asked to do anything like move to the big city and support his woman.) And Younger Me was HELLA EDGY!!! HARDCORE!!! (Younger me was a little much at times.)


So why do I like these silly things so much?


They are not pretentious. They know exactly what they are. There is a rhythm to them that is so exact and precise you can tune in anytime and know exactly what is about to happen. 


And, most importantly, there are no stakes. Which means I don’t ever worry about the characters.


By this I mean, there are no world-shattering consequences here. The Avengers don’t need to show up and restore half the galaxy. Dragons are not about to turn King’s Landing to ash. The worst thing that could happen in a Hallmark movie is that a Christmas themed hat store could close or some cookies could get burnt.


And to clarify further, I don’t mean that the folksy family losing their livelihood would have no consequence to those characters, just that it would be appropriate in scale to the story. (Not that they ever would, mind you, I am not tuning in for a transgressive hallmark experience.)


Which is damned refreshing. As a writer, I always feel the need to raise the stakes. The main character has to mount bigger and more difficult obstacles and fight tougher foes as the book goes on. Sometimes though, more plot comes at the expense of more character. And it’s nice to see characters work through things without machine guns and zombies.


Cooookieees....


“But Victor!” I hear you say. “What about drama?” Listen, we’re wrapping up year two of a pandemic and my entire industry may decide to shut down again due to the latest covid variant so I don’t have the psychic energy to worry about whether or not the pretty people in the Christmas movie will overcome their fake obstacles in time for Santa’s visit.


In an odd way, these remind me of the Law & Order reruns I love to watch. I know all the story beats, I know the patterns, I’ve seen them all enough times that I can guess the episode by the way the random New Yorkers stumble across a body. They’re reassuring. Lenny Briscoe will have a quip, McCoy will get self righteous, Adam Schiff will grumble. Similarly reassuring, there is nothing in a Hallmark movie that can’t be solved by a cup of cocoa and the Power of Christmas.


So, since I’m not going anywhere and I once again bought too much egg nog, and my sister in law gave me an advent calendar full of different flavors of irish creme liqueurs, I am going to burrow in until New Year’s and enjoy my escapist fluff. There will be plenty of grit in 2022, so let’s enjoy ourselves while we can.


Mmm...Nog...

___________


Oh hey, since this is my last post before the New Year, I thought I’d throw in a bonus mini post and share my favorite things of the year!


Favorite Movies: The French Dispatch, In the Heights, tick…tick…BOOM

Honorable mentions to Fast 9 and Shang Chi, as these were the first films I saw in a theatre since March 2020 and my word did the popcorn just taste amazing.


Favorite Books: Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby, The Turnout by Megan Abbot, Friend of the Devil by Brubaker and Phillips


Favorite TV: Only Murders in the Building, What We Do In The Shadows, WandaVision, Schmigadoon!


Happy New Year!
Victor Catano

Victor Catano lives in New York City with his wonderful wife, Kim, and his adorable pughuaua, Danerys. When not writing, he works in live theater as a stage manager, production manager, and chaos coordinator. His hobbies include coffee, Broadway musicals, and complaining about the NY Mets and Philadelphia Eagles. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @vgcatano and find his books on Amazon

Monday, December 27, 2021

Review: Christmas 2021 is a Low Point for the Popular Series


It's that time of year again, when the latest Christmas sequel is released to eager fans. I know we're all feeling Christmas burnout, with a new entry in the franchise coming out annually since the year 0000, but I think this is one of the worst in that long history, and in this review I will explain why.
 
Let's get the usual criticisms out of the way first. These modern versions have deviated from what made the early Christmases special. The decision to have Jesus portrayed as a white man was the first step toward making Christmas political, and the last few years have addressed the "Merry Christmas" controversy in a ham-handed way, yet, miraculously, all that pearl-clutching has not put a damper on the meme of saying the popular slogan to strangers. The modern Christmases also continue to gloss over the pagan prequels and international spin-offs as if they never happened. Krampus hardly appears this year, giving way to even more Santa.

Friggin' Santa. The Jar Jar Binks of Christmas. This more recently introduced character never really fit with the rest of the ensemble cast—even if we suspend our sense of disbelief regarding the fantasy elements, why is he delivering mass-produced toys to every child he deems to be good. Who made him the ultimate judge of what is good and what is evil? He never even appears alongside the God character. What could have been a nuanced examination of moral reasoning is instead reduced to an unquestioning celebration of capitalism and consumption, which feels particularly icky in 2021.

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame

And yes, it is 2021, and the COVID-19 big bad introduced in Christmas 2020 is still around, so let's address the elephantine bearded man in the room: is Santa triple-vaccinated? Does he wear a mask when he enters each house? This is never addressed. After a few billion homes, I bet that filthy beard is harbouring microbes like a diner sponge, so if you’re looking for someone to blame for the rapid spread of disease, an older man with a poor diet who magically has close contact with every person on Earth in one night is a prime candidate.
 
But these flaws pale in comparison to Christmas 2021's primary failing: the Friends and Family characters hardly appear in this year's entry. Sure, you might catch them on computer screens or blink-and-you-miss-it cameos, but that's it. Everyone knows that Christmas isn't really about Jesus or Krampus or friggin' Santa—people keep coming back for Friends and Family.
 
Let's hope that the COVID-19 plotline is resolved by the time Christmas 2022 comes out, opening up fresh possibilities for Friends and Family, and just making Christmas fun again. In the meantime, I give Christmas 2021 two stars.


 

Christmas 2021

Created by: Saturn, God of Agriculture

PG; 24 hours

Opens Dec. 25, 2021

Thursday, December 23, 2021

My Favorite Audio Book Narrators This Year


www.KarissaLaurel.com

 2021 was the year when I got into audiobooks hard core. Previously I had treated them mostly as fodder for road trips. As if I could only indulge when I could be guaranteed a long, uninterrupted stint for listening. I'm privileged to have a short work commute, so it never made sense to bother with turning on a story I could only listen to for 15 minutes at a time (I've since changed that opinion). Then podcasts became a thing, and then COVID became a thing, and both seemed to have re-wired my brain.  This year, I've had a harder and harder time getting into written-word media, especially at novel length. All that sitting still and focusing took effort. But audiobooks allowed me to multi-task, and that was the perfect solution. I could gobble a book while walking, cooking, doing dishes, laundry, yard work, crochet etc., etc., etc.

Truth be told, I am mainly consuming novel length stories almost 100% by audio these days, and I have become quite particular about narrators. The following is a list of the best audiobooks I listened to in 2021, mostly because of an outstanding performance by the narrator. I feel like that's some kind of niche geekdom right there: Fangirling audiobook narrators.  I definitely choose books I'm curious about because of the author or subject matter, but in 2022 I suspect I'll be choosing more audiobooks out of love for particular narrators.

If you're a current audiobook fan, or are thinking of giving them a try, I hope you'll enjoy these books as much as I have.

The Sandman: Act II by Neil Gaiman; Narrated by: Various

The Audible production of the Sandman comics have been outstanding. I have to say I enjoyed Volume 1 a smidge more than Volume 2, but both are expertly casted and produced. If you love Neil Gaiman (who serves as the main narrator in this production and does an admirable job), you just have to give these volumes a listen. The stories are mostly voiced by a cast of big named celebrities and voice actors with years of talent under their belts. Volume two brings back James McAvoy as Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, the Sandman himself. I'm going to have a hard time watching the Netflix version of Sandman when it comes out because I'll be wishing for McAvoy's voice the whole time. He IS Dream for me. With Kat Denning as Death, Michael Sheen as Lucifer, and other favorites such as Bill Nighy, David Tennant, and John Lithgow playing key roles, this production takes on cinematic quality. I sincerely hope there is enough material still out there to compose a third volume. If so, I'll snap it up in an instant.


The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin; Narrated by Robin Miles

If you liked "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman, I think you'd really enjoy "The City We Became" by N.K. Jemisin. It's an absolute love letter to the city of New York, and as someone who is fond of New York, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the city literally come to life.

If you read the written-word version, that's wonderful! But I'm telling you... the audio book version is an absolute *performance* that harkens back to radio dramas of old. It's a complete production with sound effects and music that gives the story huge presence and impact.

Robin Miles's narration is masterful. I never felt like she was simply reading to me. Instead it felt like theater. I'd say it was theater for the ears, but she made the story so vivid it was easy to "see" every scene and character. She does black, white, Indian, Asian, man, woman, and everything in between with such skill that it almost seems like there's a separate actor doing each character.



The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune; Narrated by Daniel Henning

I've said before, elsewhere,  that this book reminded me a bit of a Pixar style movie, and that's a good thing. Sometimes it's nice to read something comfortable and comforting. The most compelling parts of the story, though, are the inhabitants of The House in the Cerulean Sea. The house is an orphanage giving home to a collection of unusual children. At first, I wasn't sure about Henning's narration. It wasn't bad, but I would have said it had no great sparkle to it. But once we started meeting the characters, especially the children (and especially Chauncy), Henning's narration talents truly began to shine. Each kid got a distinctive, recognizable voice, and I connected with each of them so much that I wanted to adopt them all.



The Vampire Empire series by Clay and Susan Griffith; Narrated by James Marsters

I picked up these books mainly because Clay and Susan are local authors. I've met them once or twice and follow them some on social media. They are a husband and wife writing team who have produced a few urban fantasy/historical fantasy series, including the novelizations of The Flash for DC and the CW network.  Another reason I picked up these books is because Clay and Susan often favor the steampunk aesthetic, and so do I.  These Vampire Empire books read like a mix of super hero comic, old fashion pulp adventure, and romance. I gobbled them up as fast as I could get through them.

But one of the best parts of this series is that the books were narrated by James Marsters. If you've ever been a Whedon fan (it's okay if you don't want to admit it these days), then you know Marsters's name. He played Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and spin-offs. I actually know him better from some of the other things he's stared in such as a brief appearance as Brainiac on Smallville, and as Victor Stein on Runaways, a Marvel title on Hulu. 

I knew he had taken up narrating audiobooks because a good friend who listened to the Dresden Files series had mentioned that Marsters was the narrator for the whole series and that he had done an excellent job. While I've never listened to a Dresden Files book (though I've read all but the most recent one), I have to agree with my friend. Marsters is a narrating genius. The Vampire Empire series required so much variety in gender, nationality, race, accents, etc., and he switched between them all with ease and deftness. I will definitely look for more stuff that he's narrated, and I'm even considering re-doing the Dresden files just to hear Marsters's performance.

Killing Floor (Jack Reacher, Book 1) by Lee Child; Narrated by Dick Hill

I won't lie. I really enjoyed the first Jack Reacher movie starring Tom Cruise, despite having mixed feelings about Tom Cruise. I don't care for him so much on a personal level, but as an action hero, I have more tolerance. I've mostly enjoyed all of his Mission Impossible movies, for example.  When I saw that Prime is doing a new Jack Reacher series, and that they had cast someone who was Cruise's complete physical opposite (Big, blond, and beefy as opposed to short, compact, and brunette), I decided it might be time to read one of the books and find out what was going on.

I don't know why I never made the connection before, but there are a lot of similarities between Jack Reacher and The Punisher. If I had realized that earlier, I probably would have jumped on these books sooner. Jack is a little less motivated by personal grief than Frank Castle, which I appreciate. The fridging of Castle's wife and kids was one of my less favorite plot points of the original Punisher storyline. Reacher does suffer some personal loss in Killing Floor, but for once, it wasn't a female love interest.

It was clear to me early on, however, that what really made this book work for me was Dick Hill's performance. At first, I thought Hill sounded a little old for the 36 year old Reacher, but he quickly grew on me, especially with his talent for voicing the individual and diverse characters in Child's books. In fact, I couldn't even get into the second Reacher book (Die Trying) because it was narrated by someone different and I was so disappointed he wasn't Dick Hill. Also maybe because the story just wasn't as good as the first book. I'm now listening to the 5th Jack Reacher book (Echo Burning), specifically because Dick Hill narrates it (and because it was immediately available at my library), and I'm pretty sure if I do more Reacher books after this one, I'll only do the Hill ones because he elevates a simple thriller into something more than.

Monday, December 20, 2021

BILLY is Number One Worldwide!

amazon.com/author/kozeniewski

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!

Hey, everybody!  I'm sorry, I cannot speak long, and though I say that a lot, I really can't this week.  I am moving on Tuesday, and my house feels farther from packed than when I started, which I think everyone can relate to.

However!  I do want to share some exciting news.  My third novel, BILLY AND THE CLONEASAURUS, is on sale for $0.99.  This weekend it hit:

#1 in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction on Amazon Australia

#1 in Horror Comedy on Amazon UK

#2 in Horror Comedy on Amazon Canada

#2 in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction on Amazon Canada

#2 in Horror on Kobo UK

There's still time before the sale ends to keep ranking up those stats, so tell your friends and grab a copy here.  And thanks to all my friends around the world.  I really needed this pick me up just now.







Thursday, December 16, 2021

Mediums Across Media: Story Adaptations

Hey there! Christian here, ready to string words together for my inaugural first blog post for ATB writers. I’ve been a fan of this blog for quite some time and was pretty ecstatic to be asked to come aboard. That being said, I promise to fulfill my duties to try my best to come up with something cool and story-related on a semi-annual monthly basis.

Though how I even got welcomed into this wonderfully published group of authors is… different? Unlike many of my cohorts, I’m not a very published author. My literature projects have mostly gone unfulfilled and mostly wishful promises of getting to it… eventually.  My inner thought demons bubble on a frequent basis, that despite all my time stressing over techniques, I’m never ever going to accomplish enough. Let alone, publish a full-fledged novel – though I know that I can.


On the positives, I have, however, been on the path to publishing a few graphic novels as of late. And in my day/freelancing job, I’m an entertainment journalist who has interviewed and learned a bunch from various creatives and celebrities, including some of the authors here at ATB. 


Most days, though, I spend my days writing and researching, while obsessing over the different mediums and approaches to storytelling. Topics I cover are video games, and more importantly, television in the modern age. But I also have scripted sketch comedy, written a web series, and am working on producing 2 graphic novels at the moment. 


Suffice to say, I genuinely like stories. I love seeing how they become interpreted. Which is what I wanted to talk about today… Adapted stories turned into different forms of media. So, let's talk about the big one this week: Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher, whose Season 2 Netflix adaptation is releasing about two days after this post. 



So far, the Witcher’s sophomore season has stellar early reviews. With journalists praising this season’s elaboration of its character backstories while building out their established familial relationships and character arcs established in Season one. This means more daddy Geralt, more mommy Yennifer, and a whole lot of chosen-one Ciri. 


Given, that the story is being adapted from six fantasy novels and 15 short stories, there’s a lot of Witcher storyline for the series to play with – let alone, adapt for multiple seasons. 


Now, the Witcher series has been seen as a cultural staple to the country of Poland since the 1990s. Even before Netflix, the series was already a TV adaptation, a national stamp, and a very successful series of video games. The series was so lauded in Poland, that the Prime Minister had actually gifted a copy to President Obama under the premise of ‘culturally significant’ literature.


Showrunner Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, who’d begun her career writing and doing research for The West Wing, adapted Sapkowski’s first short stories of The Last Wish and The Sword of Destiny in season one. She tried presenting it close to its original chapter order, staying as true to the short stories as possible. This lead to a bevy of confusion amongst fantasy fans, as keeping the chapter chronology of the initial shorts led to the plotline narratives becoming absolutely muddled – with past, present, and future plotlines cutting away back-and-forth in the same episode. 


Bringing it back to mediums across media, The Witcher short stories don’t exactly translate to the best episodic Witcher screenplays in terms of chronology. Why? Well, the short stories can be one-off tales so long as the reader takes away a lesson, theme, or message. 


But TV tends to be built upon dramatic narratives of character that grow as the episodes move in order. In fact, a lot of TV episodes can end with poor plotlines so long as the character just shows some degree of growth or lesson learned along the way. Short stories, however, really need to convey a resolution with something the audience can take away from it. 


It’s the difference in adapting the two mediums – as both approaches can drastically affect the same exact plotlines, and effectively, change the outcomes of the same exact story. The Last Wish in the show, is more about Yennifer’s journey to reach that particular point of need within her backstory. While the Last Wish in the book, is really meant to introduce that character as sort of a femme fatale and foil to Geralt, a sorceress whom we really don’t get to know until later.


To add another layer of complication to The Witcher, a lot of the Netflix series is also influenced by the CD Projekt Red videogames – a series greatly considered a masterpiece in storytelling for RPG gaming fiction. Now, storytelling in video games works slightly differently as well, as all game scripts add a narrative element of multiple-choice and choose your adventure. 


One of the things beloved about The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, was that while the story was a tale about the relationship between Geralt, Ciri, and Yennifer – the player’s chosen actions, determined the fate of who lived happily ever after and whose fates ended in often misunderstood tragedy – a common theme within The Witcher series. It’s something that emotionally resonates hard when it falls upon the responsibilities of you, the player, to determine the fates of these fake people you’ve come to love.


That said, there are consistencies across all three mediums: that the themes must always remain. The Witcher is a series about monsters integrated into the lives of everyday mortals – their struggles of seeking to be understood: often metaphors for race and political turmoil. These struggles are witnessed across all three types of media adaptations and provide conflicts of 'us versus the (laws of the) world'. There is also the importance of family and the inability to escape the responsibility of destiny (the law of surprise). These themes are often what ground the story and give it hope -- the whole: next generation will do better theme.


Great stories, regardless of medium or media, will present themselves in a way that brings the threads together. Be it a compilation of short stories, screenplay, and even branching video game script – the matters of the heart, and the lessons that need to be told, will always triumph. 


Which I think is important for any writer that fictionalizes across mediums needs to remember.  




Thursday, December 9, 2021

Edgar Allan Poe and his Relationship with Women

 

Edgar Allan Poe

Poe’s attitude about women greatly mirrored his real life with them. He was faced with tragedy over and over again when it came to women. Poe’s morose attitude probably came from his life as a man with bad luck with the feminine type, starting with the betrayal of his fiancĂ© Elmira, the death of his mother and adoptive mother, then the death of his young wife Virginia. This does not even complete the list of hardships he faced with women, but they founded what I would call a bittersweet affection for them as well as a deep resonating pessimistic outlook on what, to him, would inevitably end in the tragic death of the female character in nearly all of his works featuring or even merely mentioning females.

Poe’s stories encapsulated the female character in a guise of tragic, ethereal, unattainability. In his most famous poem, “The Raven”, the angelic Lenore is pined over and lamented by the tortured narrator. She is unattainable because death has stolen her, but the narrator does not speak ill of her even though she left him in this tormented state. He speaks of her beauty and her almost angelic nature. “The Raven” is the quintessential Poe poem that recounts his love and respect for the women in his life as well as their tragic demise which destroyed him.

Annabel Lee” is similar in the way Poe describes the female character. She and the narrator share a sweet, short romance in which the narrator describes her in a way that is almost fantastical and mythical. It is the story of two young lovers in their kingdom by the sea enjoying each other is sweet revere until Annabel Lee is killed by the cold, implying perhaps that she died of pneumonia or consumption which closely mirrors the death of Poe’s own young bride, Virginia. The fairy tale atmosphere is quickly shattered by the bleak cold hand of death once more taking away the narrator’s angel. Once again, the image of Poe’s woman character of that of a perfect, happy thing is shattered.

Hop-Frog”, a play I had the pleasure of seeing recently at Poe’s Evermore in Mount Hope, PA, is a story about a cruel king who humiliates the main character, Hop-Frog, a court jester who is a deformed dwarf. Though the female character, Trippetta is also a dwarf, she is described as beautiful and not malformed and of a caring and sweet nature. She is not central to this story, but she is the inspiration for the climatic ending in which Hop-Frog tricks the king into allowing himself to be burned to death as revenge for striking Trippetta and the two run off together. It is one of Poe’s rare “happy” endings, happy in that Trippetta does not sink into death, though the life she and Hop-Frog have led up until the ending had plenty of tragic implications. This story emulates from the strong love Hop-Frog has for his angelic beauty, Trippetta – a love so strong he kills to protect it.

Bridal Ballad”, a less popular work of Poe’s, uncharacteristically comes from the female’s point of view. It describes a bride as she prepares to wed a rich lord, though she expresses doubt about the marriage and admits to loving a man who has died in battle. She continues to try and convince herself she is happy, but even after the marriage cannot continue to pretend and will no longer be happy in her life. In this poem, the man is the nearly angelic presence for the narrator. It as if Poe’s attitude about this particular woman is that she too is wracked with sadness though she pretends through the positivity that is supposed to surround a wedding. Poe seems to admit that even though he has had the habit of placing women on a pedestal in his works, that even they can make dreadful mistakes that will inevitably destroy them emotionally. Poe thinks of women as emotionally and physically fragile beings that should be protected and made to be as happy as possible, but that even a rich lord cannot always do that.

In retrospect, Poe’s attitude about women is mostly a positive one despite the outward impression one gets from reading his dark work. In nearly all his works featuring them, they are the objects of desire, the protectors of the heart, the angels, the unattainable and most pure of creatures. Often times they are lamented, worshipped, wanted, and grieved over by the lowly narrator or main character of the story who we can say emulates Poe himself. They are pained creatures who often seek to make the men in their lives happy, even at the expense of their own happiness. The narrator often has some kind of flaw – physical like in “Hop-Frog” or mental as in “The Raven”, which makes him unworthy of the love he receives from his woman. As if to punish him for loving something which he does not deserve, the narrators are often mentally tortured by the memories of the women they once upon a time ago, could not live without. Love itself is both an enemy and a redeeming factor in Poe’s work, almost entirely stemming from the woman herself. Poe greatly respected and loved the women in his life, but he did not feel worthy of them in the long run.


Thursday, December 2, 2021

Beginning at the End: My first post, all about the legacy of others.

 Hello, all! This is my first post for Across the Board, and I am thrilled to be a part of this writing community and start a fresh, new beginning. 

So of course, I am going to start by talking about death. 


I spent this last weekend thinking about the legacies of two creative people, one who passed away after a long and insanely productive career and one who died suddenly and far too soon. 





  Sondheim and Larson. 



Broadway legend Stephen Sondheim died last Friday at the age of 91. It is not hyperbole to call him possibly the finest composer of the 20th century, in any medium. This led me to rewatch my favorite of all his musicals, Sunday in the Park With George. The show is a biographical look at the artist George Seurat, creator of the pointilism style of art (dots of paint on a canvas that trick the eye into seeing brighter colors), and his creative process in painting his masterwork, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. It’s paired with a story set in the present day about  his great-grandson, an artist with fears about his legacy and what he’ll leave behind. 


Jonathan Larson was the composer of Rent, the era-defining show of the Nineties. He tragically died on the night of the first off-broadway preview. He also wrote the rock monologue tick...tick...BOOM, recently adapted into a brilliant movie on Netflix by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The film is a biographical look at Larson and his creative process writing his first show - an avant-garde musical called Superbia - coupled with his fears about growing older and what he’ll leave behind.. 



This song is just insanely catchy.


Watching these two films on consecutive days got me thinking about the art of making art. These two works are marvellous, full of memorable songs, revolutionary technique, and are perhaps my two favorite looks at what it means to write, compose, paint, or just create. They are piercing looks at what it is to be an artist, what it means to those around you, and whether you have to live that “tortured artist” life or if you can still be happy both personally and professionally. 


The stories are linked in many ways, beyond the plot similarities. Larson - the film character and the real person - was obsessed with Stephen Sondheim. He is measuring himself against him constantly. Larson is turning 30 in a week and has nothing to show for it. By 29, Sondheim had written the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Larson has spent eight years working on his convoluted, satirical, science-fiction musical, buoyed by a few words of encouragement that none other than Sondheim himself gave him at a workshop. “First rate lyric and tune.” (And boy, watching that scene a day after Sondheim’s death…)


Seurat also struggles in his painting career. His style is too new and austere for the art salons and the rich patrons who frequent them. He’s cold to his mistress (who is also his model), and he neglects her because he gets consumed in his work, which causes her to leave him for a nice baker. Seurat died young, at age 31 from an unknown illness, and never sold a painting in his lifetime. 


There’s layers of irony here. Like Seurat’s art, Sondheim’s music was often considered austere and inaccessible by contemporary critics. (There’s a line in Merrily We Roll Along that he gives to a producer character. “Just give ‘em something to hum… let me know when Stravinsky has a hit.”) So of course Sondheim feels the connection. In the movie, Larson is shown watching a PBS recording of Sunday in the Park, and it’s obvious what his connection is. Larson has spent years working on his own inaccessible musical, convinced that it will find the right, appreciative audience. In a further tragic irony, Larson died at the age of 35 from an undiagnosed heart ailment. 


It’s a persistent theme in tick...tick...BOOM, the feeling that Larson is running out of time. Director Lin-Manuel Miranda also wrote a little musical you may have heard of, where the main character is repeatedly asked “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” This character also neglects his family and dies too young and is obsessed with his legacy. No wonder he was drawn to the material.


All of these shows - tick, Sunday, Hamilton - are about creation, be it a play, a painting or a nation. All of them are about men who are desperate to leave a mark, and who do so at the cost of personal happiness. There’s a touching moment in Sunday where an elderly Marie, George Seurat’s illegitimate daughter, sings about legacies as she is looking at the painting that her mother modelled for.. All we leave behind is children and art. 


Bernadette has been my favorite since I saw her on The Muppet Show when I was 7.



There’s a scene towards the end of tick...tick...BOOM that sticks with me so hard. Larson has finally had his reading of Superbia. It goes well! His idol, Stephen Sondheim, came to see it! He excitedly calls his agent, played by Judith Light, to see if any producers want to buy it. She tells him that everyone loved it, but no one wants to invest in it. It’s too expensive to mount off-Broadway and too "out there" for the tourist crowd. Larson is heartbroken. He’s spent eight years on this, it has cost him his girlfriend, it has alienated his best friend, he lives in a terrible apartment because he prioritized his art over a well-paying job.. What, he asks, is he supposed to do now?


Light sighs and tells him what every writer knows, but never wants to hear. “You start writing the next one. And after you finish that one, you start on the next. And on and on. And that’s what it is to be a writer, honey. You just keep throwing them against the wall and hoping against hope that eventually something sticks.”


Let me tell you, this brought me to tears. This is the hardest part about writing, how you can pour your heart and soul into something and be met with shrugs. You can spend years working on a book or a play or a painting, and be met with indifference. Hell, I’d almost welcome the bad book reviews since it meant someone actually paid attention enough to hate it. But you have to keep going. Or, as Sondheim says in Sunday in the Park, Move On. 


Stop worrying if your vision

Is new.

Let others make that decision.

They usually do.

You keep moving on


Bernadette is either a vampire or has a very old portrait in the attic.


While revered by fans, Sondheim’s musicals often met with a mixed response from critics, especially his more experimental ones like Sunday. This couplet is his response. All one can do is create and hope it finds an audience. If it doesn’t, you keep moving on. 


Sunday in the Park ends with one of my favorite lines in theatre. “White. A Blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.” 


And that is the dream we hang onto when writing. Maybe today I write the perfect sentence. Maybe today I puzzle out the plot hole that has been bedeviling me. Or, maybe today I write the worst, most cringy bit of dialogue. It’s ok! Possibilities are endless, and it’s up to us to explore them. And keep on doing so till we run out of time.


Victor Catano lives in New York City with his wonderful wife, Kim, and his adorable pughuaua, Danerys. When not writing, he works in live theater as a stage manager, production manager, and chaos coordinator. His hobbies include coffee, Broadway musicals, and complaining about the NY Mets and Philadelphia Eagles. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @vgcatano and find his books on Amazon. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

Hands

P.T. Phronk
A post by P.T. Phronk,
of Forest City Pulp fame
I swear I’m not on drugs right now, but have you ever thought about hands?

Our hands are what allow our brains to change the world. Aside from the occasional kick, shove, or kiss, everything we accomplish is accomplished with our hands. Way back, it started with tossing rocks to form sharper rocks. Smashing those rocks against trees gave us wood. With more tossing, smashing, and a few handshakes, we cooperated to build a house.

Iterate on those basic themes, add in some poking, pinching, flicking, grasping and gripping, and we end up with everything humans have ever built. Those wriggling flesh nubs in front of you have turned rocks and trees into everything from the Tesla factory (426,000 square meters) to the transistor gates on the computer chips that power those cars (14 nanometers).
 
We think of these things as being created with machines, but those machines were built by other machines, created by other machines, etc., until the only machine is, you guessed it, the ten bones wrapped in supple leather that are permanently attached to most of our upper limbs.


A hand.

These days, much of our communication happens with our hands, rather than our vocal cords. I’m wiggling my fingers in a fancy pattern here in Ontario, Canada, and you’re flicking at a slab of glass wherever you are, and somehow what’s in my brain is affecting what’s in your brain.
 
WE LAUNCHED PEOPLE TO THE GOD DAMN MOON USING ONLY THESE SCRATCHY SAUSAGES.
 
Whoa, where am I? Oh yeah, I forgot this is a writing blog, so let’s tie it back to writing. Arthur C. Clarke once wiggled his fingers to write that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. When the fingers of other writers engage in their own sort of telepathy with readers, perhaps it helps to keep in mind that no matter how strange the worlds they invent are, the real world is just as strange. A fantasy novel may have a complex magic system, but our own world has its own sort of magic. We can conjure factories and computer chips out of mere gestures.
 
Think about that next time you’re staring at your grabbers and daddles. 

Monday, November 22, 2021

In Defense of NaNoWriMo

 amazon.com/author/kozeniewski

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!

Howdy, cats and kittens!  I hope you're all doing well and will forgive me for being brief this month.  I have, amongst everything else going on in my life, a house to buy in a little under a month's time.  If you haven't gone house hunting in COVID times, then I do not recommend it.  I could write an entire post on what a nightmare that's been.

Instead, though, I want to write about the other massive thing that's taking up all of my time this month:

NaNoWriMo!

Now, like I said, I'll try to be quick here, not the least of reasons for which being that I still have to go write my words for the day.  This year I'm writing a piece I'm very excited about, my first horror novel to feature no speculative fiction elements, in the vein of Kristopher Triana's excellent and appropriately brutal novel FULL BRUTAL.  I'd like to call mine THE FORBEARANCE OF REPTILES because I'm a pompous nerd, but I can't shake the feeling that since it's about the main character being cancelled online (to the extreme!) that it will end up being called something like CANCELLED!  So for now I'm splitting the difference and giving it a Vonnegut-style dual title.  Here's the cover I dummied up:



And this month has been as close to a steady output as I usually come in these things.  I shot for two thousands words a day, and with a few exceptions reached that goal, which means I'm on track to finish up on the 24th or 25th.  If you're interested, here's a bar graph of my progress:



Now, if you don't know the basics of NaNo, as one of my friends so cleverly put it some years ago, "Have you ever even been on the internet?"  But, in short, it challenges you to write a complete 50,000 word manuscript, the barest of bare minimums to constitute a novel, in the month of November.

For a while it was a very nice thing that encouraged a lot of people who would otherwise dither to start writing.  It also encouraged a lot of people who thought they could write to shit or get off the pot, and they dutifully got off the pot.  NaNo bred a few great successes, for instance WATER FOR ELEPHANTS.  

Then, like all popular things, the blowback came.  And now it seems to me that even more storied than the tradition of people doing NaNo online is people complaining about NaNo online.  And these complaints usually boil down to a few basic arguments:

"Only a poser would need to have their hand held to actually write."

"Any real writer writes every day anyway so you don't need a special month to do it."

"All it does is make people who can't hang feel bad."

Well, I'm not going to counter any of the straw men I just made up.  I'm just going to tell you what I get out of NaNo instead.

This is the thirteenth year I've done NaNo.  With the exception of EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED, which I wrote before I started doing NaNo, and THE HEMATOPHAGES, which I wrote on a deadline, all of my published novels have been composed, to one degree or another, during NaNo.

I would prefer to write every day of the year, but like most human beings I have peaks and valleys.  I work on my writing career to one degree or another every single day.  But sometimes that just consists of composing some advertising tweets.  A lot of times it's editing, which doesn't really count as "writing."  Sometimes it's writing a blogpost like this one.

What's great about NaNo is it focuses me.  It forces me to put everything else aside and "just write."  And whereas during every other month of the year I will write as much as feels natural, or as much as I can to meet a deadline, and slave over sentences sometimes, or give up when I can't figure out a natural next direction, with NaNo I just have to keep pushing through.

Athletes talk about a "runner's high" after pushing through "the wall."  (Despite all of my years of running in the army, I've still never experienced a runner's high.  But I digress.)  Something akin to a writer's high occurs when you just have to pound out 1700 words a day, rain or shine.  I get into a zone where, since I have to push forward, my brain is solving Gordian knots in ways I never would have thought of under my normal process.  I use turns of phrase that I would never use, because some nonsensical ten word mixed metaphor is another ten words written.  My characters solve problems in ways both delightful and mundane, but certainly never in the perfectly crafted ways I would normally choose.

I don't want to be trite, but when the organizers of NaNo say "magical things happen during NaNo," I can personally attest to it.  I've created some of the most brilliant, searing prose of my career because I had no choice.  One month out of the year I have leave to exult in the simple pleasure of the creative process, without being bogged down by all the ancillary hokum.

And getting the chance to say, "Shit or get off the pot" to the posers is pretty great, too.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

I'm Moving On...



By Cheryl Oreglia

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," Lao Tzu. This step I am about to take is more like a step back, but nonetheless, a monumental shift from my comfortable rut, sending me in a new direction, with all the pitfalls and expectations of the unknown. 


I’ve been writing for Across the Board for the last five years, honing my craft as a blogger, exploring topics, styles of writing, and various formats. It’s been a full-bodied education, to say the least, and I’ve enjoyed the safety of being bundled with a talented group of writers. 


This year I made the bold decision to retire from my teaching gig of many years, as my husband and I enter into a new season of life, our winter years as they’re referred to, we plan to travel, play, kick it up a bit before we return to the dust from whence we came. 


Our adult children are docked all over the world. One of my sons has been enjoying the delights of Portugal for the last few years, one of my daughters makes her home in Boston, another son travels extensively for work, and my oldest child, a daughter, lives across the street. We plan on disrupting their lives as much as possible while we still can! 


I’m sure they’re thrilled.


My hope is that retirement will afford me undisturbed time to write without the guilt of family and work nipping at my heels. It’s as if life itself is tempting me to step outside, to go beyond the boundaries of my neatly groomed yard in the suburbs, to fully experience the world.


If only we weren't in the middle of a worldwide pandemic?  


I hope to put together a book of essays from my personal blog that seemed to resonate with readers, expand on the topics, offer it up as a modern-day memoir. 


It’s trending. 


I keep waiting for life to slow down, for the lull in the schedule to appear, so I can spend the day in my pajamas writing from the throne of my king-sized bed. 


Well, that doesn’t happen on its own, as we approach a new calendar year, I realize it’s time for me to start constructing my day, setting boundaries, creating my own space to write.


Life has a way of sneaking in between me and the keyboard as if a frightened child who demands my attention and surety. Yes, I understand that frightened child is indeed an aspect of myself, but regardless she’s insufferable and demanding.


I’m looking forward to this new chapter, I plan on living on the edge, using up all my energy, resources, and time until there is nothing I can squeeze out of myself. The nice thing about aging up is the freedom from the expectations, I no longer care what others think of me, in fact, I’m dropping the word “should” from my vocabulary. 


We waste so much time pleasing others, doing what is expected of us, not dropping a single ball for years and years as we juggle our responsibilities as if circus entertainers. 


I love that Polish proverb, “not my circus, not my monkey’s.” That’s going to be my new motto. Bahaha.


As I take my final bow, I can’t thank the team at Across the Board enough for welcoming me into this group, publicizing my work, and allowing me the space to find my own voice. It’s been an absolute privilege and honor to be a part of your team. I am forever grateful and appreciative. 


I will continue to host my personal blog, Living in the Gap, I employ you to drop by anytime, and join me in the comments. 













 
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