December Write Day: Distraction Winter

November felt very full, and it also flew by. The holidays have been more fun this year since our 4-year-old is starting to understand the holiday season a bit. He loves all the lights and decorations on houses in our neighborhood.

I’ve been distracting myself from stress at work with some new shows and books, so that’s been interesting, too.

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Finish 9-section outlines.
  2. Finish New Earth, The Herb Witch Tales #2 draft.
  3. Read three books.
  4. Exercise three times per week.

Finish 9-section outlines?

Yes, and I finished them so early in November that I forgot I had done them. I created 9-section outlines for five main characters in The Warden of Everfeld: Legacy, most of whose story arcs intertwine with the others. It’s not perfect, but it gives me a general plot direction for each character.

This exercise helped me understand that I’m conflicted about one of my characters. I think their arc will provide some much needed perspective about a particular conflict, but I’m still not sure how their arc will end. So I’ll need to figure that out.

Finish New Earth draft?

No, but I’ve gotten closer, and that’s good. With really only the final resolutions to cover, I’ve been proactively outlining as I go. I will usually take a few notes at the bottom of my document, but more recently I’ve gotten into the habit of writing several lines about the next few beats I want to make in the story.

That has helped focus my writing energy on the immediate plot, rather than side-quests. I do love a good story side-quest, though.

Read three books?

Yes, and I nearly read four. I’m still working through A Memory of Light, and I’ve started working through the Sherlock Holmes series, stories I’ve never actually read before.

Exercise three times per week?

Recently? Yes. For all of November? No. I’ve gone completely minimalist in my routine, because something is better than nothing until I figure this out. A few calisthenics type exercises for one muscle group – 10 or 15 minutes, tops. If I can find 20 minutes for a real yoga session, fantastic. That’s where I’m at right now.

Goals for December

  1. Finish New Earth. I’m so close. I’m not tracking a monthly word count goal at the moment, but I am going to try a weekly goal. I organize my work tasks on a weekly basis, so why not try that with writing? Monthly has not been working of late. I’ll write about how that goes next month.
  2. Read three books. I’m pretty well on my way.
  3. Exercise three times per week. Minimalist.

Steve D

Passing on the Storytelling Love

Our four-year-old loves to read before bed. Reading has been baked into his bedtime routine since he was a baby. He takes a bath, brushes his teeth, gets his pajamas on, picks some books, and then we snuggle up to read.

I always let him pick the books. I tell him how many we have time for, and he makes the picks. He usually goes through phases of reading three same three to five stories ecru night for a couple weeks, until a new set is chosen.

I usually read to him. He loves hearing each story told in a certain cadence. He asks questions about the words he hears and the pictures he sees.

For a while, I tried to teach him basic reading as we went, sounding out the letters of simple words like “dog” as we read. He was not into it. He would just like to be read to, thank you very much.

He tells fantastic stories to himself as he plays, and he tries to tell us about his imaginary party house we have yet to see.

A couple months ago, I was worried that he would be slow to pick up reading on his own. After talking about it with my wife, I realized that was a premature idea.

For one, he’s still too young to really grasp reading on his own, without being a prodigy. And two, my mom read too me every night before bed until I was much older than he is now. Maybe 10? And even once I started reading too myself, I read a lot of the same books over and over.

The Redwall series, various Calvin and Hobbes collections, Animorphs, probably some Roald Dahl.

I didn’t pick up The Hobbit until I was 12, and I didn’t expand my reading list much beyond what was assigned to me in school until I was in college.

I was a late bloomer as a reader. And the four-year-old might be, too.

I’m cool with that. It may just give me more time to read with him. And the chance to share some of the novels I loved as a kid.

He loves stories. He loves hearing them told, and he loves telling them, even to himself. I’m just here to listen.

Steve D

Book Review: THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE delivers a fantastic modern fairytale

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is my second foray into Neil Gaiman’s fantastical storytelling, and I am in awe once again, as I was when I read Stardust.

Gaiman has an otherworldly knack for telling modern fairytales, both as a writer and as a narrator. I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which Gaiman himself narrates.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fascinating exploration of memory, friendship, and the underpinnings of existence itself.

Told from the perspective of a jaded adult remembering a fantastical experience he had as a young boy, this story is full of wonder, fear, and anxiety about the world of grown-ups and other things as can only be seen through the eyes of a child.

The story begins when the protagonist, unnamed, goes on a drive to get away from the drudgery of a funeral he is attending.

He soon finds himself driving to the lane where he grew, where his house no longer stands, and at the old farmhouse at the end of the lane. He doesn’t quite understand why, but he seems to be drawn to this place. He speaks with the old woman over a spot of tea, then goes to sit by the pond out back, which the little girl he used to know there called an ocean. Then, the memories flood back to him.

This framework story toys with the idea of memory, why we remember the things we do and may be better off not, or remember the things we don’t when those things could change our lives, our very existence.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a rich story that weaves these concepts deftly in and out of the narrative, so you only ever feel like you’re hearing a fairytale, and not a lecture on childhood memory and the forgotten perceptions of adulthood.

Gaiman masterfully narrates the audiobook as well. Having listened to two of his novels on audiobook, and never having read the print copies, it’s actually difficult for me to imagine not hearing these stories told in his deliberate, inquisitive, and soothing narrative style. Other than Jonathan Keeble’s raucous delivery of The Saxon Stories, I can’t think of a narrator who so intrinsically captures the tone of the story they’re reading, let alone an author capturing their own work. Gaiman brings a level of depth to his characters, dialog, and descriptions that I might be able to conjure myself if I read the print version.

Steve D

THE RINGS OF POWER reignites Middle Earth

Season one of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is in the books, and I, for one, am mostly pleased with how this season went. Here is my review of this show, where I will talk freely about everything that happened.

Spoilers ahoy!

Overall, I really enjoyed this show. The car was incredible, each of the storylines was fulfilling and had something to offer. Morfydd Clark’s portrayal of Galadriel is among my favorite performances in recent memory. Clark’s smoldering rage, steadfast determination, sword and riding skills, and empathetic story perfectly encapsulated such an iconic literary character.

The Harfoot plot was endearing and ultimately paid off with our very own Gandalf-like figure. In fascinated by the power this Istar may wield in future seasons.

The friendship between Elrond and Durin was heartfelt and funny. I just wish they hadn’t discovered the massive vein of mithril or woken the Balrog so quickly.

The Numenorean plot was intriguing, but I honestly expected a little more politicking there. Elendil feels like a strong character going forward.

Arondir, Bronwyn, Theo, and the Southlanders had some cool encounters with the Orks. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing more of Adar, who was somehow a sympathetic character despite wanting to block out the sun.

And Halbrand. I didn’t want him to be Sauron, but it became too obvious not to be true. His confrontation with Galadriel in the finale was legitimately unsettling.

My main gripe with this show is the pacing. I think they could have really benefited from at least two more episodes to draw out Halbrand’s trickery with Celebrimbor. My understanding is the production schedule was disrupted by the pandemic, so here’s hoping season two can be produced and released on time.

The Rings of Power was entertaining and recaptured the magic of Peter Jackson’s trilogy while adding new characters and new lore. I think this show’s biggest achievement is how much it feels like Tolkien, like Middle Earth. That’s a testament to all the details of dialog, set design, and story that the showrunners pieced together.

I’m already looking forward to a rewatch in preparation for season two.

How did you feel about The Rings of Power?

Steve D

Way-Too-Early Reactions to HOUSE OF THE DRAGON

It’s official. We’re back in Westeros after a 6-year hiatus from decent storytelling in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy universe.

As the first spin-off show we’re getting in the wake of Game of Thrones, I’ve been cautiously optimistic about this House of the Dragon.

With director Miguel Sapochnik, who directed several of Thrones‘s most harrowing and exciting episodes (see “Hardhome” and “Battle of the Bastards”), Martin himself more closely involved once again, and a star-studded cast, I felt like House of the Dragon had legitimate potential to be great.

After the debut episode, “Heirs of the Dragon”, all I can say is… I think I was right.

This premier introduced a set of characters who are poised to clash politically — or otherwise — and laid the groundwork for the rest of the season in an interesting way. They even managed to introduce a bit of lore that even the most ardent of book-readers could not have guessed.

I will not go into detail about the plot of the episode except to say that there is a jousting tournament with phenomenal cinematography and some pretty brutal violence. (The jousting show at the Maryland Renaissance Faire is one of my favorite events of the year, so I was thrilled to see such an exhilarating sequence in this show.)

I had honestly forgotten how unforgiving the early seasons of Game of Thrones could be, so to see it again in this premier was a bit of a shock.

While I have read part of The World of Ice and Fire, and Fire and Blood sits on my unread shelf, I’ve decided not to follow along with Martin’s writings while watching this show. I want to experience the show for its own merits, and then read the stories again.

Between the intriguing cast of characters, the tight-knit plot, the broader narrative it introduced, and the incredible looking dragons (more than one!), it’s apparent that the showrunners have set out to prove that the expanding Thrones-verse is still a force to be reckoned within the IP-as-content wars.

All in all, the showrunners have set the stage for what I anticipate will be an enjoyable, suspenseful, and action-packed season of television.

And of course, there are the dragons.

Share your thoughts or way-too-early reactions about this first episode of House of the Dragon in the comments below.

Steve D

Review: TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT overcomes Middle Book Syndrome

Towers of Midnight is the thirteenth and penultimate book in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. I’ve been reading this series off and on for about six years. It took me some time to get through this book, primarily because I wanted to savor it, rather than rush through it to get to the end. That was a wise decision.

I consider this installment a “middle” book for two reasons.

  1. The Gathering Storm (book 12), Towers of Midnight (book 13), and A Memory of Light (book 14) are very clearly the final act in this sprawling series, narratively.
  2. They are also the final act in their production. Sanderson worked with the editor, Jordan’s widow, to split the final act into three books, and produced these three volumes.

This review contains spoilers for this book and those preceding it in The Wheel of Time.

So when I say that Towers of Midnight overcomes Middle Book Syndrome, I really mean that as a transitionary book to build to the climax that is surely waiting in A Memory of Light, this book succeeds.

Towers of Midnight is a compelling read jam-packed with fascinating plot lines centered around our main characters, especially Mat and Perrin, but also Elayne and Egwene. Other staple characters like Faile, Nynaeve, Lan, Galad and Gawyn also build towards a rich narrative.

It is very much a middle book in that these plot lines serve to close out long-running narrative threads, such as Perrin’s rise to leadership, Mat’s shifting focus back towards Rand and the Last Battle, Egwene’s cementing of her power as Amyrlin, and Elayne’s marshaling of power around her throne in Caemlyn.

These characters are shifting, slowly and inexorably, towards the Last Battle. In doing so, Towers of Midnight necessarily takes on the hefty task of transitioning the characters, all of the hundreds of characters, and the reader into Tarmon Gaidon.

That’s not to say that A Memory of Light opens with the Last Battle and is one massive compendium of fighting. (I’m a few pages in and can confirm this is not the case.) But after 13 novels of ever-increasing length and complexity, everyone is facing the same direction: towards The End.

Some sections of the book drag a bit — Perrin’s training in the wolf dream with Hopper and his inevitable face-off with Slayer took me a bit to get through, both because of the tension that had been built and because I wanted to get past it. Still, I understood in the moment that his realization and acceptance of his true self was necessary to Perrin’s facing of the Whitecloaks.

Overall, though, Sanderson churns through these plot lines and still manages to provide some surprises, some poignant moments, and some clean breaks with narrative threads that would no longer serve the end of this series.

After the numerous books I struggled to get through, or even to understand at points because they were so weighed down with characters about whom I could not bring myself to care, I’m honestly still a little awestruck at how neatly Towers of Midnight, and The Gathering Storm before it, have brought us to this point.

Like I said, I’ve already started A Memory of Light. I’m thrilled and simultaneously reluctant to get to the end of this series. That, I think, is testament enough to its storytelling power.

Steve D

The MCU and the Multiverse of Expectations

I’ve mostly been following along with the Marvel Cinematic Universe as they’ve plotted their course from Avengers: Endgame through Phase Four – otherwise known as the Disney+ era. Of the Phase Four properties, I have yet to watch:

  • Spider-Man: No Way Home – because honestly, this movie is impossible to find without buying the DVD/Bluray outright, which I’ll probably end up doing. I feel like I’ve absorbed most of the major spoilers through pop culture osmosis, however, so there’s that.
  • Thor: Love and Thunder – which, if you’ve been here recently, you know I was excited about. I still am. I just need to get to a theater.
  • Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – because it’s not out yet, but is definitively the best MCU trailer ever.
  • What If…? – because I wasn’t that interested or into the animation style.
  • There are also the upcoming She-Hulk and Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special, neither of which strike a chord with me at this point.
  • I am also on episode 6 of Ms. Marvel – but I had to write this post instead of watching it!

Obviously, I haven’t watched everything, but from what I’ve and heard about Phase Four, I have some thoughts. Specifically, I have reservations about the wider story that Marvel seems to be building, or crucially, not building to this point.

Seriously, just watch that trailer if you haven’t yet. Or if you have.

Spoiler warning – From here on out, I will talk freely about Phases Four, Five, and Six (and previous phases) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

To me, Phase Four feels like a bunch of individual stories with very little connective tissue. There have been some very good origin stories (Shang-Chi) and some moderately good passing of various torches (Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Hawkeye). There are tons of really interesting new characters, such as Yelena, Oscar Isaac’s multiple personalities, Kamala Khan, alternate timeline Loki, Sylvie, and Shang-Chi. And I’ve had a lot of fun watching most of these people do superhero things.

What feels sorely missing is the feeling that we are actively building towards something bigger. Phase One was all origin stories for the first Avengers team that were independent of each other, but used specific characters, like Nick Fury or Coulson, to tie them together and build anticipation.

Now, I’m fully aware of the announcements Marvel just made for Phases Five and Six, respectively, telling us that we are building towards Avengers: Secret Wars and Avengers: The Kang Dynasty. Those are coming alongside a lot exciting titles over the next few years, but I’m not really interested in stories that haven’t come to the screen yet.

What I want to know is how all of the characters we have seen so far coexist in their world. How can they coexist without any overlap? Why was no one aware of what Wanda was up to for a few canonical years in isolation? How did two Egyptian gods coming to life over the Cairo skyline not elicit some response from Dr. Strange, or anyone else?

Who or what will be binding these characters together, aside from Kang the Conqueror as the eventual Big Bad and the Secret Invasion as the Big Crisis?

Marvel hasn’t tried to start planting these seeds yet, at least not with any consistency. Loki met a version of Kang. Dr. Strange (and Kamala?) have traveled the multiverse. Captain Marvel, Wong, and Hulk are interested in Shang-Chi’s Ten Rings. Nick Fury is still off-world. Hints have been dropped along the way, but it’s really not clear at this point how they’re all related. Will half of the superheroes be off fighting Kang while the others deal with the Secret Wars? Or will all of them come together in two gigantic team-ups?

I know the overall path because Marvel has told us, but not really because that’s what the storytelling has shown us. With Phase Four wrapping up this November, it feels like an assortment of stories, rather than the beginning of a new saga.

Those are my feelings on the MCU. What are yours? Have you enjoyed Phase Four?

Steve D

Spare Parts for Broken Hearts – Songs that Stick to My Brain part 2

It’s time to return to my review of Spare Parts for Broken Hearts, the L.A.-based rock band whose eight singles have inhabited my ear space for the last couple of months.

When I listen to and review an album, the goal is to understand the music as a whole piece, rather than a critique.

I reviewed Spare Parts for Broken Hearts’ first for singles a few weeks ago. Today we’ll listen to the back four.

Previous post: Spare Parts for Broken Hearts – Songs that Stick to My Brain part 1

“You’re softer / When we collide

Gentle acoustic strums open “Pleasure Delay”, paired with lead singer Sarah Green’s off-kilter verses. The sound steadily builds with rhythm guitar and then drums.

Then the chorus hits with atmospheric sound–crashing cymbals, heavy chords, and eerie vocal tracks from Green behind the lyrics: “I could really show you something / I could be your one and only”

This song is a plea, perhaps for connection, but with a darker self-awareness, or maybe an admission: “But if you’re gonna die would you do it for me”.

“Take my hand and watch it burn”

“Say When” opens with a kind of slurring verse that seems to be directed at a former significant other. The music treads forward inexorably to a wailing chorus of old wounds: “Say when / Tell me you don’t want me then you hurt me just to stick around”.

In the second verse, the music quiets to a walking bass line and light drums, but Green’s vocals retain the anguish: “Take my hand and watch it burn / Oh I am shaking / From the love I can’t return”.

As in the first crop of songs from my previous post, “Say When” exemplifies Spare Parts for Broken Hearts’ ability to embody diverse and often conflicting emotional tones between songs, within songs, or even within a single verse.

“Build a bridge / Burn it down together”

“Mush” is the first song I ever heard by this group, and I was immediately struck by the weighty post-grunge overtones and Green’s ability to take her voice from warm and breezy to a full-throated gale and back in an instant.

I’m counting this entry as two songs, because the acoustic version of “Mush” is just as poignant as the full-band version. If someone had shown me the acoustic version first and told me it was the original, I would have believed them.

The authenticity of Spare Parts for Broken Hearts’ music is what resonates with me. It feels real, and even when the tones of the music seem to contradict the anguished lyrics, that contradiction feels intentional.

It makes listening to these songs a layered experience, even after the tenth or twentieth time.

Steve D

June Write Day: Oops

Holy crap it’s June. Apologies for my recent absence. A week of time off and the holiday weekend threw me off. I forgot to post a haiku on Sunday for the first time in like… three years. And then I forgot to schedule this post for this morning. So now I’m cramming.

June is off to a great start!

Last Month’s Goals

  1. Write 6,600 words.
  2. Read 3 books.
  3. Continue the exercise climb.

Write 6,600 words?

NOPE. I think I write about 2,000 words to start the month, and then did not write again. I was away from home for the week before Memorial Day without reliable internet access, so I knew I had limited writing time in May.

My adjusted goal for available writing time was supposed to account for this, but I need to tweak it to a lower weird count goal.

I’ll probably try for 400 words per available day, or some such.

Read three books?

Almost. I finished two books in May, and I’ve made good headway on three others. One of this might be a comic volume, but who’s keeping track?

Continue the exercise climb?

Another hiccup in May. My week away consisted of virtually no exercise. That was due to the renovation work I was helping a friend with on his Thousand Islands cabin. Turns out that tearing out drywall and old wood, carrying supplies, and installing new flooring is damn tiring. Thus, I didn’t really need the extra exercise.

I had a great week in cabin in the river with a few friends, though.

Goals for June

  1. Write 8,800 words. This is my adjusted goal, counting 400 words per day for twenty-two available writing days. June is (hopefully) a slow month for us.
  2. Read three books. As I said, I feel like I have enough of a head start to reach this.
  3. Continue the exercise climb. I’m back on track, I think, so I feel pretty good about this.
  4. Reorganize this site. You may have noticed some new headers on this site’s navigation. Or maybe not. Either way, I’m shifting my writing topics to themes rather than formats. I’m debating whether I want to re-tag my archive with these new themes, so there may be more changes to come.

Steve D