Monday, January 29, 2018

Thoughts on Sleeping Beauties, Part I

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about the Netflix series, Godless, a good show on many levels but one that fell far short on living up to the promise of its preview, which looked to be a lot more woman-driven than it turned out to be. This week, I'm finally coming back to Sleeping Beauties, a 700+ page fantasy/horror novel by father-and-son combo Stephen and Owen King, a book I've been turning over in my mind quite a bit as I've thought about this particular post.

The basic premise of Sleeping Beauties is fairly simple: a mysterious 'flu' spreads across the world. Any female, from the tenderest infant to the most withered hag who falls asleep is quickly enshrouded in a cocoon of some mysterious substance. They're still alive, but woe to the person who removes the cocoon: doing so causes the woman to turn into something like a murderous zombie who destroys the fool who opened the cocoon. Having dispatched the offending sap with whatever is at hand (including hands, teeth, a rock, whatever), she falls back asleep and is re-wrapped. What is the world to do?

The sharp-eyed critic of media and society that lives in my house (aka, The Magpie), kind of sneered at the book when she saw that I had it, having heard of its premise on line and having read some reviews. When presented with this bare bones outline, it sounds inherently misogynist. Yet King the Elder at least has never shied away from putting women in starring roles (heck, his very first novel had women in pretty much every important role), and he is quite capable of delivering fully-fleshed out women who are not just damsels in need of man for either rescue or a good lay, or to serve as the sacrificial lamb to spur the hero on to Great Deeds. There are plenty of the latter in his books, to be sure, but not all of his heroines quite fit this mold.

And there's hope at the outset for Sleeping Beauties. The action centers on the down-at-its-heels town of Dooling, West Virginia, and Lila Norcross, town sheriff, and her husband, Clint, who is the psychologist at the nearby women's correctional center. When the story opens, Lila is coming home from a night shift while Clint is about to leave for work. Lila, who is brooding over a particular problem in her marriage, is just about to fall asleep when she gets an urgent call. She spends the first half of the book waging a heroic battle to stay awake and keep order in a rapidly unravelling situation. Predictably, the men of the world--and Dooling--start to come unhinged as the women of the world conk out and get cocooned.

As writers, we're told that one of the things that makes for a strong character is agency, namely, that the character makes choices and decisions based on his or her motivations and desires, and that these actions change the world around them. Without giving too much away (I hope), it's ultimately the women of Dooling who hold the fate of the world--our world, as we know it--in their cocooned hands. The Kings take a great deal of time (too much time, in my view) exploring SPOILER the Man Free version of Dooling that the women of the town find themselves in.END SPOILER The choice the women make, and how they make it, takes a back seat to the action taking place in the man's world.

And that's part of what disappointed me. Despite the huge amount of page time Lila Norcross gets, this is really her husband's story. Clint Norcross has a backtory, one that includes living in The Most Awful Foster Home Ever, which drives so much of his behavior. Lila, on the other hand, seems to have been born Sheriff of Dooling and Wife of Clint. We never really get to know her, not in the depth that we get to know Clint, anyway. In fact, we get more backstory on a lot of the side characters than we get on Lila, and that's too bad.

OKAY, this little post is already too long and I have more to say on this book (some of it good), but it's going to have to wait for next time. How's things by you?

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!