Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019: My Year in Books

Each year for the past few years, I've set a goal of reading 52 books, or one per week. I use Goodreads to track my reading and as of this writing, I've read 50 books. There are still a few days left in 2019, and I know I'll finish at least the novel I'm on (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë) and I'll probably pick up a graphic novel for that number 52 at the last minute.

It was quite the variety again. Look: 

Through my local library, I run a book club with fellow author, James Maxey: The First Monday Classics Book Club. As you might guess, we discuss a work of classic literature on the first Monday of each month. We're in our fourth year as a book club, with many members participating the whole time, and we work to find books that are classic in the sense of having a lasting impact, while still avoiding reading only "dead white guys." It amounts to 11 books a year most years, since Labor Day falls on a first Monday and the library is closed. 

This year's list included (in the order I read them): 
  1. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  2. Roots by Alex Haley
  3. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  4. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
  5. The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
  6. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
  7. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain
  8. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  9. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
  10. Les Liasions Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
  11. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Of these, The Sun Also Rises, The Haunting of Hill House, Les Liasions Dangereuses, and The Call of the Wild were re-reads for me. I can't really stomach Hemingway anymore, but the other three held up quite well, especially Shirley Jackson! 

The jewel of the collection was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which is a heartbreaker if I've ever read one, the most disappointing was Fahrenheit 451 which is definitely NOT the best thing Mr. Bradbury wrote, and the most painful to read was Tristram Shandy which far too long considering it's really just a shaggy dog story

Several of my other reads were books by friends, colleagues, and members of professional organizations I'm in or that I support. 

Some I promised to read to help another author garner some reviews. 

A few I read because I was judging a contest. 

Others, I just wanted to read because I'd heard so much about the work from spending time on panels and at author events with these talented people. 

This list includes (in the order I read them): 
  1. Kristen Brand's Hero Status
  2. A Pocket Watch, Spray Paint & Morphine: How Viv the Librarian Weathers the Boom by Kimberly Lynne
  3. Designer You by Sarahlyn Bruck
  4. Just Cause by Ian Thomas Healy
  5. Bedside Manners by Heather Frimmer
  6. Storm Forged (The Darkest Storm #1) by Patrick Dugan
  7. The Ghost and Dr. Watson: A Shadow Council Archives Novella by Alexandra Christian
  8. Cinched: Imagination Unbound (various authors)
  9. My Dad is a Mad Scientist (The Adventures of Ubergirl #1) by Matthew S. Cox
  10. A Nighttime of Forever (Vampire Innocent #1) by Matthew S. Cox
  11. A Fall in Autumn by Michael G. Williams
  12. Sisters of the Wild Sage: A Weird Western Collection by Nicole Givens Kurtz
  13. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty
The shining star in this collection was Michael G. Williams's A Fall in Autumn. Gorgeous prose, fascinating world, and amazing characters. Far future noir. Lovely. 

A close second was Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty, which was very creative in narrative structure and genre bending in that it was a locked room mystery in space. 

I also really loved Cinched and Sisters of the Wild Sage, two collections of short stories that startled me in the best ways. 

The Ghost and Dr. Watson was beautifully realized, and I loved this interpretation of Dr. Watson!

My main writing project since summer has been a gothic romance, so I read quite a few things to feed that project: classics in the genre, works set in a similar era, and a bit of nonfiction for historical detail and inspiration.

This list includes (in the order I read them): 
  1. Monstress, Vol. 1: Awakening (Monstress #1) by Marjorie M. Liu and Sana Takeda (Illustrator)
  2. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe
  3. Pride and Prometheus by John Kessel
  4. Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by  Charlotte Gordon
  5. The Monk by Matthew Lewis
  6. The Cater Street Hangman (Charlotte & Thomas Pitt #1) by  Anne Perry
  7. Wild Women: Crusaders, Curmudgeons, and Completely Corsetless Ladies in the Otherwise Virtuous Victorian Era by Autumn Stephens
  8. Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
  9. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë (finishing in the next couple of days)
The standout among these was Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, especially when compared to The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Monk, two of the other classic gothic novels on the list. While the latter two novels suffer from the passage of time and feel clunky or outright offensive in sections, Lady Audley is still quite a page turner, and much in the vein of what I'm attempting to write myself, so quite an inspiration. 

Romantic Outlaws and Pride and Prometheus are wonderful for their insights into work I already love, the first by filling in details of Mary Shelley's life and work and the second by melding two work of fiction I already love and admire. 

The last category was books that I'd heard a lot of buzz about and wanted to read based on that--a bit of keeping up with what's going on in my chosen industry. 

This list includes (in the order I read them): 
  1. Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
  2. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
  3. The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
  4. The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
  5. Becoming by Michelle Obama
  6. Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse
  7. The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
  8. Sass & Sorcery: Rat Queens #1 by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch
  9. An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
  10. The Obelisk Gate by NK Jemisin
  11. The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O'Meara
  12. The Power by Naomi Alderman
Rebecca Roanhorse, Mary Robinette Kowal, and NK Jemisin all blew me away in different ways. I don't think I can choose a favorite among their books (five of which are on this list). Most of the list held up to the hype and I'm glad I read all of them. 

There's only a few others on the list I didn't mention. My semi-regular neighborhood book club was responsible for some choices, and others I don't rightly remember why I picked that one in that moment. Looking back, though, I had an excellent reading year! I only wish I could have fit in even more books. 

How was yours? Did we read anything in common? What did you love reading this year?

Update 31 December: I made it!

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Disney+ Project: Part Four: early 1940s

We're on holiday vacation now, which means we can spare a little more time for enjoying some couch time together. The littlest Bryant and I are continuing our Disney+ Project. In the past few days, we've watch Dumbo, Bambi, Saludos Amigos, and The Three Caballeros.

We missed Victory Through Air Power. It wasn't available on Disney+ and appears to have been a propaganda film of the war era. I'd still like to see it sometime, but it won't be part of this project since it's not available on the Disney+ service.

You can see what we thought of other Disney movies here, here, and here.

Truth be told, I was dreading watching Dumbo and Bambi. I remembered them as traumatizing from childhood.

They're still a bit brutal by contemporary standards for children's entertainment, but not as bad as I remembered. Of course, I'm also no longer six.

Poor Dumbo's mother is incarcerated for trying to protect her baby and he himself is subject to bullying from what should have been his community. Thank goodness for Timothy Q. Mouse! A spark of human kindness (in mouse form) in an otherwise desolate landscape.

Bambi may have fared better. Though he lost his mother, he still had a loving father and a loving community around him. His tragedy feels less tragic.

So, our thoughts:

First Dumbo. How hateful is it that the movie is titled with the derogatory nickname awarded a child by bullies? His real name is Jumbo, Jr. (And where is Jumbo, senior, BTW? He's even more absent than Bambi's dad).

My daughter and I both had trouble getting our minds around how making Dumbo a circus star was supposed to help his poor incarcerated mother. This wasn't a movie where animals could talk to humans, so the new circus star Dumbo would exactly be able to demand his mother's freedom in exchange for his work.

Then again, maybe the empathetic Timothy Q. Mouse was just trying to keep hope in his friend's life and help him build a life for himself.

Even the twelve-year-old watching with me questioned the kid-logic of the plan. The story reminded us both of the old stop motion Rudolph in that there is socially sanctioned bullying a child by adults and dubious messaging about what is and isn't supposed to be acceptable.

Those other elephants were horrid. First they pick on a baby elephant for his unusual physical attributes, then they shun him when, effectively orphaned, he takes work as a clown. Those elephants felt like they could have the society dames on Downton Abbey, or like Oscar Wilde might have enjoyed lampooning them in a play. Lady Bracknell as dowager elephant.

The drunken elephant sequence was still horrifying, and the minstrel crows made me cringe. Kudos to our society that my twelve-year-old didn't understand the depictions overall. I'm proud that she needed an explanation to understand what was going on with the crows. She's not familiar with those particular racial stereotypes, which means they're probably dying! w00t!

When the movie ended, after only a little over an hour, my daughter's main comment was that "they wrapped that up awfully quickly." I agree. It's like 55 minutes of abusing a child, followed by 10 minutes of magically making it all better. I guess it was easier than writing a real resolution to problems a baby elephant had no power to effect.

Now, Bambi. Bambi is a very odd movie. It feel more like a nature documentary with a little more anthropomorphism than usual. We watch a cycle of life: baby deer is born, grows up, faces dangers, survives, and we end with another baby deer (twins this time!). The joy in watching Bambi is the art of it. It's beautiful visually--water drops, naturalistic animal movement, forest greenery, light, and even the fire. (It is a little disconcerting how all so many of the female animals end up looking like they're wearing makeup though--like eyeshadow is what defines femininity).

My daughter thought they did an amazing job making the animals' mouths move in a way that still let them look like deer, rabbits, birds, etc., but made speech believable. I hadn't considered that, but I have to agree.

Bambi's mother's death didn't hit my daughter as hard as it hit me as a child. Maybe it's a difference in us as people, or a difference in what age we saw the film at (I was much younger when I saw it for the first time than her current twelve years). But she took it more in stride than I did as a child.

Compared to the kidney-punch-in-the-feels approach of a contemporary Pixar film, Bambi's mother's death felt, if anything, underplayed and subtle. While the gunshot ringing out and the silence that follows are still harrowing, Bambi (and the viewer) does not see his mother die, and he is not left long without guidance.

He is sad, but we quickly move forward in time to springtime and puberty to continue the cycle of life. As I mentioned above, Bambi has a good social support network, with a father who steps up and friends that stay by his side. The entire forest community is on the lookout for him. In that way, he's a very lucky boy.

After the two tearjerkers in a row, my daughter and I were happy to move onto "lighter" fare in Saludos Amigos and The Three Cabelleros. Saludos Amigos was a lot like The Reluctant Dragon in that it intermixed live action with cartoons and was, in part, a behind-the-scenes narrative about how animated features were made, involving animators traveling to South America to study the culture and creatures.

The highlight of Saludos Amigos was Goofy in "El Gaucho Goofy" which bears some similarity to "How to Ride a Horse" from The Reluctant Dragon in that it's a lot of physical humor involving Goofy trying to ride a horse. But it was still a lot of fun!

Since we watched it directly before The Three Caballeros, we got to see what the animators did with what they learned in their South American sojourn.

Unfortunately, what they did with it was turn Donald Duck into "a wolf" and throw him at beautiful women (animated and real) made of eye-rolling stereotypes.

So much red lipstick!

Saludos Amigos got a little boring for us before it was over. Maybe because it was mostly a travelogue and we've seen a lot of depictions of that part of the world already, so it was "old news."

The Three Cabelleros had more animated stories and less educational lecture, so we enjoyed it more. It started strong with the story of "The Cold-Blooded Penguin" Pablo who leaves the South Pole for the Galápagos Islands. Both of us enjoyed the creativity of the story--that bathtub speedboat was the best!

"The Flying Gauchito" was also charming, telling the story of a boy who finds a flying donkey. The other features were far less entertaining and memorable.

The story does feature the first intermixture of animated characters alongside live action ones though, in the form of Donald Duck and José Carioca, a parrot introduced in Saludos Amigos, competing for the attentions of Aurora Miranda, sister of the more famous Carmen Miranda. Intermixing live action and animation has come a long way since 1944 (compare it to Roger Rabbit or Space Jam), but it was an impressive beginning!

Our project continues into the later 1940s now with several features I don't remember ever watching and one that I suspect we won't be able to get: the contentious Song of the South.

I'd love to hear what you remember about any of these features in the comments! Thanks for reading!

Friday, December 13, 2019

Disney+ Project: Part Three: The Reluctant Dragon

Welcome to part three of the Bryant Disney+ project, in which the youngest Bryant and I watch all the animated features in chronological order. You can read our earlier adventures with Snow White and Pinocchio here and with Fantasia here.

We're up to 1941 and The Reluctant Dragon, an interesting piece consisting of a live action narrative that gives behind-the-scenes access to the animation process at Disney interlaced with shorter animated features.

I didn't remember this one, so it might be one I missed in my youth, or one that I only saw once.

My daughter enjoys nonfiction, informational kinds of shows. I know this, but I was still surprised with how pulled she was by the live action component. I think she may have enjoyed that more than the animated bits. I guess that makes sense given her own love of drawing and animation. It's really right up her alley.

For my part, I found Robert Benchley too smarmy and the narrative that he was wandering the Disney complex avoiding meeting with Walt Disney an odd choice. But I also liked seeing the color mixing, maquette making, storyboarding, expression studies, sound effects, and other aspects of the craft we explored in his adventures.

There was one cringe-inducing moment with an asian woman in the life drawing class with an elephant, and way too much of Benchley flirting with young women trying to do their jobs, but we were both able to just roll our eyes at those sections and move on.

It was very cool to see the face of the man who voiced Donald Duck and a pleasant little treat to find Alan Ladd portraying one of the storyboard men. I loved learning that Clara Cluck was voiced by an opera singer. How fun!

I learned in reading about this movie that it was released during an animation strike, which might explain, at least in part, why it was the sort of piece it was and why several of the people we see in the movie are not actually animators.

The title is a little misleading in that The Reluctant Dragon story itself only makes up the last fifteen or so minutes of the feature. It's a charming story about a dragon who is uninterested in fighting and would rather drink tea and recite poetry. We both enjoyed it immensely.

Other stories included a black and white segment from "Casey Junior" (from Dumbo), "Baby Weems" told partly in storyboard and partly fully animated, and Goofy's "How to Ride a Horse."

The song from Casey Junior has been running through my head since our watching--it's a darn catchy thing.

Baby Weems was just okay, not really charming either one of us, but we both loved How to Ride a Horse. If you're already a Goofy fan, then you know what to expect and won't be disappointed. Lots of good natured foolishness and hilarious physical comedy.

Alongside this one, we also watched a couple of older shorts including Ferdinand the Bull, a childhood favorite of mine that is still pretty fun (though I wonder if I would feel that way if I were a Spaniard) and The Plausible Impossible, a feature in which Walt Disney talked about the concept of making impossible things seems plausible in animation.

Next we're taking on Dumbo and Bambi, more traditional full length features. It's funny that my daughter has seen neither of these films, but already knows that we're in for a rough go in terms of sad stories. I guess the stories are just that engrained in American culture that she knows them to some extent even though she hasn't viewed them. I'm looking forward to finding out what she thinks!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Disney+ Project: Part Two: Fantasia

My younger daughter and I have taken on a little project: we're watching all of the animated Disney films in chronological order and looking at how story and animation changes over time. You can read the first installment about Snow White and Pinocchio here.

I had more exposure to classical musical as a child than was average for those around me. My beloved grandfather was a fan, especially of Wagner and Beethoven. You know how some kids sneak into the back of movie theaters to watch movies without paying? My grandfather, as a boy, snuck into the back of Music Hall to listen to opera and classical music.

I also took dance lessons. My parents hoped it would make me less clumsy, and I did enjoy it even though I didn't have much talent. Later, I was in the band and the chorus. All that is to say that I liked classical music more than many children around me, so the classical aspect of this film was not a hard sell for me, even then.

My younger daughter isn't particularly a classical music fan, but she appreciates music and animation in combination and does listen to quite a bit of instrumental music on her own.  She was quite open to giving this film a chance, and remembered the Mickey Mouse sorcerer part from Fantasia 2000, which we watched kind of a lot when she was smaller.

For both of us, one of the oddest aspects of Fantasia were the bits between pieces. We were tempted to fast forward the man talking to us about the music (Deems Taylor) to get to the "good part" where we actually hear it and see what the artists did with it.

Program notes are tricky beasts. Classical programs always seem to want to combine education with entertainment, and the audience overall does seem to want that background about the composers and the times they wrote in. Neither of us found these particular program notes all that engaging though. The bit where Mickey came out and shook hands with the conductor was cute and charming. The bit where the musicians randomly knocked over their own instrument was weird. The rest was utterly forgettable. In fact, I don't actually remember anything said during this part now.

I guess the program notes were intended to add some gravitas? To make sure we didn't feel the serious music was disrespected by the animated interpretations? I don't know. Maybe it's a product of its times. It was 1940 and I'm watching in 2019. I think I'd have left this part out and just put in a title slide letting me know the name of the piece, the composer, and when it was written.

"The Sorcerer's Apprentice" by Paul Dukas is still the most memorable piece in the collection. Perhaps this is because it has a plot, whereas most of the others don't really tell a story, or maybe it's because of Mickey Mouse. It's beautifully matched to the music and Mickey is sympathetic as the apprentice looking for a shortcut for his labor. My daughter was as charmed by those relentless water-hauling broomsticks as I had been as a child, and it ends on a cute laugh where Mickey is punished by the scary wizard, but in a "get out of here, you scamp" way which is a relief of tension.

"Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor" by Bach, the opening piece, probably did the least for either of us. It morphed from live action images of the orchestra into increasing abstract images. My daughter--the visual artist of the two of us--admired the moment of transition, noting that at some points it was difficult to tell if something was real or drawn, but I was impatient. It doesn't help that I'm not particularly a Bach fan, so the music didn't pull me in either.

"The Nutcracker Suite" by Tchaikovsky is by far the piece of music we both know best. Thanks to the popularity of the ballet, that score is etched into our brains. This one must have made an impression on me when I was a child, because it hit with a rush of nostalgia, especially the long-legged fairies the dancing mushrooms.

My daughter was especially charmed by the Russian flower people section. Overall, we both enjoyed this section immensely for the way it reinterpreted the music while still referencing the familiar and popular aspects of the ballet.

"Rites of Spring" by Igor Stravinksy or "the dinosaur part" as children remember it reminded me of Bambi. The part where the spike-tailed dinosaur fights for life and loses it to the T-Rex (who has larger "hands" than are usually depicted, which made him even more terrifying) was heartbreaking, with all the other dinos hiding in the greenery and watching him die. Disney really loves to get gruesome in its pathos sometimes.

My daughter's highlight in this part was the pterodactyls (who were pretty scary looking too) getting their comeuppance for torturing the squid they'd captured by losing one of their count to the large-jawed sea creature. It suited her sense of justice.

"The Pastoral Symphony" by Beethoven, in contrast, was so pastel-romantic that it was funny. The plot of this one involves little cupid babies trying to get centaurs and "centaurettes" (I kid you not: they actually called them that in the intro) together for a little spring romance, then everyone being attacked by Zeus with thunderbolts for a while. Oh yeah, and the bit with a chubby comically drunk Dionysus.

Now, my daughter is into Greek mythology. She's a fan of a Red from Overly Sarcastic Productions on YouTube (whom I also really enjoy! She's witty and sarcastic and unapologetic in her interpretations and opinions). So, my girl was a little startled by this portrayal of the gods, though she thought Zeus randomly throwing lightning at people because he was bored was very on-brand. He's such a bro-dude.

I was more taken aback by these simpering, beauty-obsessed female centaurs. (Not that the boys did much either--they seemed to mostly mope about hoping one of the girls would notice them, or jump around athletically). In my first piece on this project, I talked about my ambivalence about Disney, some of which stems from portrayals of female characters. This is some of the kind that bothers me. Every Centaur girl was so passive and sweetly docile. How about just one with a little moxie?

Still, the art was idyllic, soft and pretty. And Zeus definitely looked like a jerk for attacking their party with lightning for no clear reason.

"Dance of the Hours" by Amilcare Ponchielli didn't sound familiar until we got to the bit that was stolen for "Camp Granada," but I did remember the dancing hippos fondly. This one was clearly meant to re-engage the younger children who might have lost interest during the pastoral languor. We have ostriches, hippos, elephants, and alligators dancing ballet. It's cute and funny. Watching, my daughter and I were a little confused as to the intentions of the alligators. Did they want to eat the hippos or date them? It seemed a bit of both.

"Night on Bald Mountain" by Mussorgsky was a surprise. Chernabog the demon/devil dude was pretty darn dark and scary looking. I recently read a book about Milicent Patrick, an artist who worked on this segment and later went on to create the Gill-man, my favorite old movie monster and I thought about that while I was watching, wondering what parts she'd been responsible for.

My daughter often creates demon OCs (original characters) in her sketchbook (though hers are usually cute-creepy rather than large-scary), so she sat up and took notice during this part, too. She ooo-ed and ahh-ed over the imagery of his drawing ghosts out, skeletons and ghostly figures swirling through the air.

We were both struck by the effect of the church bell sound on Chernabog. Such expression on his face! The animation work is just amazing here. In fact, there's much that I've seen echoed in later animations: the use of light to indicate power, the body language, the shapes of wing and face. From Gargoyles to Maleficent, lots of future Disney scares seem to have found inspiration in this demon character.

I confess that the Ave Maria that ended the piece put me to sleep, though. In part, this is because I was a tired mother at the end of a long day, resting under a cozy blanket on the sofa. In part it was just so soothing, both the music and the animation of the souls walking into eternity, which is apparently a beautiful wooded landscape with gorgeous bridges, reflective waters, and elaborate gateways. I missed the last two minutes because I had literally drifted off!

My daughter laughed at me, but confessed it had left her feeling sleepy, too. So, I'm not sure what to make of that as an end note.

Since this piece contained so many different stories and styles, it's hard to compare to the single-character-arc stories of Snow White and Cinderella. It's just too different a critter to compare easily.

An interesting aspect of any anthology piece like this one is the effect of the order of the pieces: knowing what emotion to draw in your audience with and what to send them out with, when to up the tension and when to throw in comic relief or something else to calm the audience. Fantasia is beautifully paced for the most part in this way, balancing the different pieces. It's still so well worth viewing!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

IWSG: When I Grow Up . . .

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop.

If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

The awesome co-hosts for the December 4 posting of the IWSG are Tonja Drecker, Beverly Stowe McClure, Nicki Elson, Fundy Blue, and Tyrean Martinson! I hope you'll check out their blogs as well as some of the others on this blog hop after you see what I have to say.

December 4 question - Let's play a game. Imagine. Role-play. How would you describe your future writer self, your life and what it looks and feels like if you were living the dream? Or if you are already there, what does it look and feel like? Tell the rest of us. What would you change or improve?

I've always had a lot of dreams about what my life would be like when I grew up. If you went back and talked to six-year-old Samantha, you'd have heard about the giant house she'd have on a cliff above a raging sea, with a tower room where she kept her art supplies and dancing shoes. The gardens would rival the ones I'd seen at Biltmore that one time on vacation and there would be a waterfall in my backyard.

I planned to finance all that by being a teacher, which shows that I didn't have much of a practical understanding of money, but was full of optimism. That's probably still true to some extent :-)

I wasn't much older than six when I decided I'd be a writer, too. Of course, my dreams about how that looks have changed a bit since then. 

When I was a kid, I imagined that a writer spent all her time walking around in long sweeping dresses across gloomy landscapes (like a Brontë sister), then went home and wrote passionate poems (like Emily Dickinson). I didn't spare a moment imagining how this writer bought her pop tarts and hot chocolate. I probably thought my mom would keep taking care of that for me. 

Now, I'm closer to living the dream of my writing life than I have ever been. I've had my first taste of success with three of my novels accepted for publication. They sell at least a few copies every month and I get invited to author events several times a year.

I'm a "real writer" by nearly anyone's estimate and I have to say it feels good. I write every single day and I get my words into print regularly. I'm more confident in my work every day, and know I'm building a career that will see me through to the end. 

My imagination, at least when it comes to imaging my own future, doesn't run as wild and free as it did when I was six. Even my "crazy dreams" are a little more realistic. They are possible, at least, even if they're unlikely.  

I imagine the Menopausal Superheroes getting picked up by Netflix and made into a series with Kathy Bates and Helen Mirren in the cast. It's a huge hit of course, and Hollywood realizes that there's a huge market for stories about strong women of all ages and they've been missing out on millions of dollars by only marketing to and casting the young.
(Menopausal Superheroes as drawn by Charles C. Dowd)
I get more offers than I can find time to fulfill to write more stories. I make so much cash that I send my second daughter to college without borrowing any money and pay off everything I borrowed for the eldest! I take my husband and family on wonderful trips to all the places we've always wished we could go see. I drive a car during the same decade it was manufactured!

Ellen DeGeneres calls and I charm everyone with my genuine awkwardness in my stint on her show. I use the opportunity to raise money for my foundation that sponsors women creators to produce the work they were meant to make. My foundation frees thousands of women from the struggle of making ends meet and their creations change the world for the better. 

I still teach, because I love teaching, but I do it part time, only for students who care about learning what I am trying to teach. I still write every day, because that's the fun part. How about you? What do your dreams of superstardom look like? 

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Our Disney+ Project: Part One

I'm ambivalent about Disney.

The company has created a lot of stories that I've enjoyed in my life, but they have also helped feed a narrative of women either as helpless and needing rescue or objects of censure for being anything not considered "wholesome."

Even as a little girl, I chafed at some of the underlying messages. But there's a magic about this films, especially when they get you at a young age.

I'm a sucker for a musical, and Disney has more than a few out there that made up the soundtrack of my childhood. Even if I don't always like how the "princess" narrative goes--Disney has a long history of female led stories that garnered huge audiences, crossing generational lines. The cultural significance of that can't be ignored.

Since Disney now owns Star Wars and Marvel--two fandoms that dominate our household, we got the new Disney+ service.

So, I've decided to watch the Disney animated features in chronological order with my younger daughter. She's into animation, and hasn't seen some of the older ones at all, so I think it'll be an interesting view on the body of work.

So, that starts us out in 1937, with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. We'll need to watch 11 films to get to 1950, the year my parents were born.

Those first five I know well. I've seen them all many times, starting in early childhood, and moving through VHS and DVD and streaming services with my cousins and friends and eventually my elder daughter. We don't think our youngest has seen any of them before, though she's seen a lot of Disney's more recent movies.

I don't remember ever seeing Saludos Amigos, Make Mine Music, or Fun or Fancy Free, at least not by title. The Three Cabelleros, Melody Time, and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad ring only vague bells.

At this writing, the youngest Bryant and I have watched Snow White and Pinocchio.

Some thoughts:

Snow White is weird-looking. She is portrayed as neither a woman nor a child, but some sort of hybrid: adult-sized and apparently considered marriageable drawn as if she is wearing eye makeup and lipstick, but with a chubby baby-fat kind of look more like a toddler, no womanly curves, and a very childish voice.

It's disconcerting. The animation on the dwarves is more expressive than on our princess.

We noticed that sometimes when Snow turns her head, something strange happens to the planes of her face, as if it does not actually have three dimensions. It reminded us of hieroglyphic art in that the face was always to the front, no matter what. We began to wonder if there were any ears under her hair because of all the moments when her movement made us expect to glimpse them, but none were seen.

Obviously animation of human-appearing characters has come a long way since this first feature film.

The Blue Fairy has a similar plasticity, but it is less disturbing since she's a supernatural character: a
fairy who lives in a wishing star. Pinocchio only looks "real" for a couple of minutes at the end, so there wasn't time for him to pull us too far into the uncanny valley.

Story-wise it was interesting the parts of the story that weren't portrayed.

My daughter and I are very familiar with Snow White in thousands of iterations, from the Grimm fairy tale telling through hundreds of reinterpretations in books, movies, and other media.

In the Disney animated feature, we never see Snow White interact with her stepmother until the stepmother comes to the dwarves' cottage disguised as the apple peddler. That's an interesting storytelling choice that really adds to the stepmother/witch's malice.

Neither of us has read The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, however. When we talked it through, we realized that the only other version of Pinocchio either of us could remember seeing is the character in the Shrek movie series. We did both feel like we already knew this character well, though, despite exploring him far less thoroughly. We must have absorbed him through cultural osmosis.

In the movie, we wondered why we didn't get to see Geppetto get swallowed by the whale. His whole adventure happened off screen. Both of us agreed that would have been more interesting than the whole Pleasure Island sequence that went on too long.

Some parts of the stories didn't age that well.

The ick-factor of Snow's awakening by a kiss from a complete stranger is alleviated by having the prince meet her early in the movie with the wishing well scene. Thank goodness. It really did help with that moment.

The evil gypsy puppeteer Mangiafuoco in Pinocchio definitely made the movie feel old, and not in a good way. Racial stereotypes like that don't play as simply as they once did and we both felt squiggy watching that part. And the cartoon logic of having a pet cat that acts like a cat in the same movie as a talking fox who acts like a human is something we don't often see any more.

Also, is Geppetto the worst dad ever? He sends a boy who was literally a block of wood yesterday off to school alone and wonders why he doesn't get there? I mean, I don't like the helicopter parenting we see these days either, but a little preparation and leading the way might have been a good idea. 

"Heigh-Ho", "Whistle While You Work",  and "I Got No Strings" still had our feet tapping. Those songs hold up well. The warbling love bits, less so. 

I'd love to hear what you memories and experiences surrounding these films are like and hope you'll come back to talk about the rest of the project. There are more than 50 movies in the list, so it might take us a year or so to watch them all!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Why I NaNoWriMo

A writer friend asked me the other day why I would bother with NaNoWriMo. She meant it as a compliment since I'm a "real writer" now. "Isn't every month novel-writing month for you?" she asked. 

She has a point. I write every day, come hell or high water. My daily writing chain is now over six years long and along the way I've seen three novels through to publication and written three others that I hope to publish someday. 

So, in that sense, I don't "need" NaNoWriMo. 

I'm going to write, regardless of what month it is, and I generally write 50, 000 or more words per month. But there is something special about participation, something that pushes me to regard the work differently, at least short term and that shift of perspective can be refreshing and reinvigorating. What it's doing for me this year is keeping my energy focused on my novel, rather than spread between the novel, blogposts, articles, short stories, proposals, promotional work, and other kinds of writing. This month, at least, I'll neglect all the rest of my writing life in favor or writing words on one novel. 

The first time I did NaNoWriMo was 2013. I was working on a historical women's fiction novel, working title Cold Spring. As I remember it, I kept getting bogged down in research details, which made it hard to move the story forward. 

A challenge of writing historical fiction is having enough detail to capture the era believably, but not forget that the thrust of the story is the characters and what happens to them. I actually really enjoy research and it was easy to let all my writing time slip by in research and not actually add anything to the story. 

So NaNoWriMo was good for me in that way, letting me get down the story and trust to the revision process for the details. I often found that the detail I longed to go research didn't matter in the end and all that time would have been wasted. 

The next year, I wrote something I intended to be a Middle Grades novel, Rat Jones and the Lacrosse Zombies. It was a brand new idea, begun on the first day of the challenge. 

I still found that NaNoWriMo was good for keeping me from overthinking, but I'm not pleased with what I ended up with. 

It's the wrong tone for the age group and genre and rewriting it will not be simple, which is why it keeps getting back-burnered even though I really love Rat and want to tell her story. 

I used the challenge in 2015 and 2016 to work on Face the Change, the third of the Menopausal Superhero novels, losing once and winning once, but ending up with a novel that has since been published and received good reviews. So, definitely a win overall!

In 2017, I used to get a chunk of work done on a new novel, Thursday's Children (currently shelved, because I don't have the heart to write dystopian right now). The nice thing about failing NaNoWriMo is that even a writer who doesn't write 50,000 words still wrote words, so they still win. I have some 80,000 words on that project waiting for me when I can find the heart for it again. 

I didn't play along in 2018. But I'm back in 2019, with The Architect and The Heir, a gothic romance. As I write this, I'm seventeen days in, which means that I should have written 28,399 words, to stay "on track." I haven't. I've written 18,204. But they're good words, ones I'll likely keep. The story is finding its footing. It feels good and right and the daily focus is helping me sort out some of the issues and work out the intrigue. 

In past NaNoWriMo outings, I've felt a little like I was tumbling downhill, barely able to keep my feet under me. It's exciting, but it's not sustainable. That's why it's National Novel Writing Month…once a year, not a technique to undertake as the day to day method of operations. At least not for me. A breakneck pace all the time would eventually…well, break my neck. 

But for one month? I can handle being a little breathless for the life it brings to the work. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Nightmare Fuel: The Collection

For the past few years, I've participated in an October Flash Fiction Challenge called The Nightmare Fuel Project. Fellow writer Bliss Morgan gathers pictures and posts one each day, inviting other writers to compose creepy flash fiction based on what they see.

I usually need a boost in my writing life at right about this time of year, and this challenge is perfect, letting me remember what it's like to play in my writing life and create pieces without worrying about their publishing potential. It has the side benefit of being thematic to my favorite holiday: Halloween. Each day, I wrote a story and posted it. I wrote each in less than an hour, so they are good practice on pushing my efficiency too!

I really enjoy this challenge and some of the stories are seeds I will come back to and grow into full plants, um, stories.

So, here's my favorite one of the ones I wrote this year. Below you can find links to all the posts on my author Facebook or on pluspora (in case you're not a Facebook user). I'd love to hear what you think about any of them, or about your own experience with writing challenges and what they bring to your creative life in the comments!

Lantern Man:

Emily sat on the sand, weeping. She’d gotten separated from the rest of the kids on the way back from the pier and she was pretty sure she’d been walking in the wrong direction for an hour now. Exhausted and scared, she watched the last of the sunlight turn orange, then amber, dreading the darkness to come.

Her mother was going to be so mad. At least she hoped she’d have the chance to be yelled at by her mother. The alternatives were too scary to contemplate.

Then, she spotted the man. An older man, by his walk, wearing a hat and carrying a lantern in each hand. “Mister!” she called out, hoping he might at least tell her which way to walk, or help her get to a phone. She didn’t know the phone number of the hotel, but at least she could get to someplace dry and well lit to wait for help.

She chased after the man, but he didn’t slow his pace. Maybe his hearing wasn’t that good, or maybe the wind was blowing away her cries. She redoubled her pace, but never seemed to narrow the gap between them. The ground grew rougher, rockier and more uneven under her sand-filled sneakers, but she was afraid that if she stopped to empty her shoes or rest she would lose track of the lantern man.

It was totally dark now. The lanterns were the only light in the starless, moonless, and Emily could make out only the outline of the man. “Please!” she cried out again. She rested only a moment, bending to rest her hands on her knees, gasping for air. When she looked back up, the man seemed impossibly far ahead.

“Wait!” she cried and ran as fast as she could. She never saw the cliff’s edge. When they found her body, three days later, she was lying next to a much older body and the remains of two old fashioned lanterns.
#31: Untitled Facebook Pluspora
#30: Foggy Morning Facebook Pluspora
#29: Vengeance Facebook Pluspora
#28: Jeannie Facebook Pluspora
#27: The Neighbor Facebook Pluspora
#26 Lantern Man Facebook Pluspora
#25:The Museum of the Macabre Facebook Pluspora
#24: Play with me? Facebook Pluspora
#23: Rumour in the woods: Facebook Pluspora
#22: Out of Darkness: Facebook Pluspora
#21: The Sand Mother: Facebook Pluspora
#20: Dead Man's Apartment: Facebook Pluspora
#19: Phantom Shrapnel: Facebook Pluspora
#18: Jean's Escape: Facebook Pluspora
#17: The Inheritance: Facebook Pluspora
#16: Hurry Down Doomsday: Facebook Pluspora
#15: Urban Exploration: Facebook Pluspora
#14: Nessie of the North: Facebook Pluspora
#13: Reggie: Facebook Pluspora
#12: Cursed: Facebook Pluspora
#11: Widow Jane: Facebook Pluspora
#10: Icy Death: Facebook Pluspora
#9: The Doll: Facebook Pluspora
#8: Virtual Reality: Facebook Pluspora
#7: My Sister's New Face: Facebook Pluspora
#6: Unfixed: Facebook Pluspora
#5: Helen's Heat: Facebook Pluspora
#4: Digging: Facebook Pluspora
#3: The Other Jack: Facebook Pluspora
#2: Anubis in Hakone: Facebook Pluspora
#1: The Stairs: Facebook Pluspora

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

IWSG: Lowered Expectations

Welcome to the first Wednesday of the month. You know what that means! It's time to let our insecurities hang out. Yep, it's the Insecure Writer's Support Group blog hop. If you're a writer at any stage of career, I highly recommend this blog hop as a way to connect with other writers for support, sympathy, ideas, and networking.

If you're a reader, it's a great way to peek behind the curtain of a writing life.

The awesome co-hosts for the November 6 posting of the IWSG are  Sadira Stone, Patricia Josephine, Lisa Buie-Collard, Erika Beebe, and C. Lee McKenzie! I hope you'll check out their blogs as well as some of the others on this blog hop after you see what I have to say.

My insecurities are beating me up right now.

I finally have to admit I bit off more than I can chew.

I'm not good at that. I think I can do everything.

That can-do stubbornness serves me well on some fronts, keeping me from caving to pressure or giving up just because something is difficult, but it's a two-edged sword that cuts back sometimes, too.

And Stories from Shadow Hill has been postponed, which breaks my heart.

I planned to release my first all-indie project for Halloween. It's a collection of thirteen weird tales called Stories from Shadow Hill, set in an imaginary suburban neighborhood with suspicious similarities to the one I live in, but with more interesting (and supernatural) causes for the weirdness.

I thought I had planned it out well. I'd done a lot of research and had what I thought was a good understanding of what exactly I needed to do and what it would cost.

I hired an editor for proofreading, found a book cover designer, and taught myself the layout software (Vellum is super easy, at least at a base level, by the way).

But then I ran into two problems: money and time.

Indie publishing can be expensive, especially for your first project, when you don't already a system in place.

My expenses:

  1. Buying layout software: Vellum $249.99 for unlimited ebooks and paperbacks
  2. Hiring a cover made: $100 from a freelancing friend who gave me her "friends and family" discount
  3. Hiring proofreading: $620 from a freelancer who approached me through Facebook some months ago. 
  4. Getting a logo made for my imprint: $25 from a freelancing friend, giving me a "friends and family" discount again
  5. Buying ISBN numbers: $295 for 10 (they're a better deal the more you buy at once, and I intend to put out more indie projects in the future, so I thought I'd start with 10). 
I managed 1-4 over the course of a few months by living spare and robbing Peter to pay Paul. But when it came time for #4, I was out of money. My hot water heater needed sudden replacement, my summer teaching paychecks were light, and there went my Bowker money. My parents gave me my holiday money early (thanks Mom and Dad!), but I needed most of that to get copies of my already-published work for my fall and winter author events. 

Couple this with my time problems, and you see my dilemma. 

I was trying to keep my regular writing life going. Doing my October tradition of writing one piece of flash fiction every day as part of the Nightmare Fuel Project AND processing my edits from that proofreader was just too many hours work for the hours I was able to devote (I can get 1-2 hours a day for writing life during the school year, tops). 

And I was stubborn, not wanting to let anything go. Maybe I could have done it if I had given up Nightmare Fuel, but I *love* Nightmare Fuel. Maybe I could have let that Instagram October Author Challenge go, but I was enjoying it and it was increasing my reach on social media. Maybe I could have given up my day job, but I like eating and having a roof over my head. I tried giving up sleep and just ended up with a crick in my neck from falling asleep in my chair.

In the end, I had to admit I couldn't get the project ready by October 31. Especially since I had only a basic understanding of Vellum and might still need to seek advice and help from more experienced colleagues if I run into snags. 

So, now I don't know exactly when I am going to get this project out. October came and went and I still have a distressingly long to-do list: 
  1. Process the other half of the edits (complicated by grammar differences between my Canadian editor and my American writing style--lots of second guessing and researching whether what she marked is an error or a national preference)
  2. Format the book in Vellum (which has subset jobs of #3 and #4 below)
  3. Finalize the print version of the cover
  4. Finalize the imprint logo
  5. Buy ISBNs
  6. Learn to navigate uploads to Amazon
  7. Make my decisions about exclusivity to Amazon or going wide
  8. Promote the book

November is supposed to be for NaNoWriMo, finishing the first draft of the Gothic romance I started writing this summer, so I can get it out in 2020.

I'd love to hear from other creatives about how you manage all the demands of indie creation, especially if you, like me, manage it with a day job and keep your sanity. How do you keep heart when you have to lower your expectations?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Halloween Viewing: Tim Burton Favs

My youngest daughter is even *more* into Halloween than I am, so we are both so gleeful the entire month that it's a wonder the rest of the Bryants can deal with us at all.

One way we're enjoying is by watching Halloween movies. We're on a Tim Burton kick right now. His aesthetic is right there in that middle ground between whimsical and disturbing…which could probably describe us as well (though there's less mascara and lace involved for us). She's already seen and loved The Nightmare Before Christmas, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, 9, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland. I'm planning to share a few more Burton favorites with her across the season.

But, the youngest Bryant had never seen The Corpse Bride (at least not that she can remember), so we kicked off our season with that.  I found it slower than I remembered (thought still good), but she really enjoyed it.

My take: I had forgotten the lovely wedding vows. Really some of the most romantic ones I've heard. It was also very sweet how the two misfit children whose families were trying to use them for social gain actually had a connection and some hope of making each other happy in the end. A more romantic story overall than I remembered.

Her take: She loved Scraps, Victor's dead dog (who reminded her of Zero from Nightmare Before Christmas), but agreed with me that the Peter Lorre aping worm was grosser than funny. She knew almost from his entrance that Barkis Bittern was going to turn out to be the long lost "love" of the Bride. Kids these days, so steeped in tropes it's hard to surprise them.

Next we tried on Sweeney Todd.

I fell in love with this musical as a college student, listening to the Broadway recording with Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett and Len Cariou as Sweeney. So, when this movie version was announced, I was hyped. I was pretty sure the youngest Bryant would love it too.

My take: Visually, it's quite a treat, gritty and atmospheric. I quite enjoyed Helena Bonham Carter's Mrs. Lovett both in singing and acting, and she has great onscreen chemistry with Johnny Depp. Johnny's Sweeney was better in visuals and speaking than singing (I loved the way he held his jaw--so stiff, seething with suppressed emotions). He was "not bad" on the singing. If I didn't already know the music as voiced by Cariou, I might have liked his take better (much like I felt about Hugh Jackman's Valjean) . The best moment in Depp's performance, in my opinion, is when Todd snaps the rest of the way and goes from wanting specific vengeance to decide that "they all deserve to die."

Her take: She's becoming quite a Sondheim fan, having been enamored of Into the Woods for a year or two now. She loved the lyric complexity. She wasn't as sure about the obviously fake over-red blood for the gory scenes. She said it pulled her out of it too much, but she conceded it might have been "too horrible" if the blood had looked realistic. We agreed at the end that poor Johanna and Toby were damaged for life by the trauma of having wandered into this story.

Next up, I'm planning to show her Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow, both of which I enjoyed when they were new and haven't really seen since. My girl likes Winona Ryder, both in Stranger Things and in some of her younger roles (Heathers, Beetlejuice), so I think she'll enjoy them.

Any other Tim Burton fans out there? Which ones are your favorites and why? Any that you don't recommend?