Friday, April 21, 2017

To Be or Not to Be a Writer in 2017

What does it mean to be a writer in 2017? I know what you’re probably saying. Are you seriously starting off an essay with a question? That’s grade level stuff, man. The kind of stuff they teach you in school when you’re writing a persuasive essay. I should know since I teach seventh graders and tell them that starting off with a question is just one of many great ways to hook a reader. They’re a great way to start since they demand an answer. And the answer to my question is this: To be a writer in the year 2017 means you have to change your definition of what it means to be a writer altogether.

Let me explain. Being “a writer” essentially means the same thing it meant back in 600 B.C., i.e. that writing a language is the act of making words visible. That will never change. But the concept of being “a writer” has surely been altered over the years. For example, is a blogger a writer, or is a blogger a blogger? Is a poet a writer, or is a poet a poet? Surely the intent of how you write is equally as important as what you write. But in an era when news can be gathered in 120 characters or less, you have to wonder, has our beloved art form become less…sophisticated? Here’s a good one: Is a tweeter a writer? Is “Tweeter” even a word? (I looked it up. It is.)

I’m certain most “serious” writers will wonder if I’m mad to even pose such a question. Tweeting is not writing, silly. Tweeting is…whatever. A monkey could tweet. But am I really so crazy? Writing has always been one of the most malleable art forms out there. Look no further (Or look a lot further, if you like) than writers such as James Joyce, Hunter S, Thompson, and Ernest Hemingway. Hell, do you want somebody a little bit more current? Look at Mark Z. Danielewski, author of House of Leaves. All of these writers, and many, many more, have forever changed the idea of what “good” writing actually is. As a father and teacher who writes articles and ebooks in my spare time (shameless plug: Find my books on Amazon), I’ve had to reevaluate what the modern reader wants when they take time out of their busy schedule to actually sit down and “read.” And no, I didn’t make a mistake when I put quotation marks around the word “read,” since the concept of reading has changed over the years, too. But more on that later.

When I write today in 2017, I always wonder, how do my readers want their stories presented to them? Do they want them in audio form? Comics? Facebook videos? Instagram pictures? And do they want them to be lengthy, or short? Also, if I make them short, how short should they be? One hundred words? Fifty? Ten? A single image?

These are questions that writers weren’t asking themselves a hundred years ago, or even ten, for that matter. Sure, writers have always been asking themselves what the audience wants. But as videos and social media become more prevalent forms of getting stories and information out there, the way we distribute our writing is something we have to seriously consider. It’s gotten to the point where we really do need to ask ourselves, am I compromising my art for an audience that seems to want more bite-sized (and visual) renditions of my greatest hits? And, is it really a compromise at all, or is it an evolution? How has “reading” changed? As a teacher, I can tell you that it has changed substantially. My students are now sometimes tasked with answering questions after watching a video. The videos themselves are now considered a form of “reading.” In other words, the game has changed.

One thing that will never change though is that we need to be engaging. I recently wrote a short story that I’ve been shopping around about a future where there are no longer any human writers, except one. Almost all stories are written by highly advanced computers that are spit out through algorithms. This might seem crazy, but it isn’t if you’ve been following recent headlines. Computers have already started writing sports and business articles, and it’s impossible to tell the difference between them and human beings. Writing has often been thought to be one of the few areas where computers can’t infringe on the creative spirit, but that looks to be a thing of the past. Computers have already beaten people in Chess, Jeopardy, and now the Japanese strategy game, Go. So why couldn’t they write the next great American novel? Really, what I’m asking is this: how do we prevent ourselves from becoming expendable?

The answer is to be limber and to adapt to change. Here’s a question I often ask a lot of my reader friends. If you listen to an audiobook, are you reading? Some say yes, and some say no. I can tell you that it’s usually the stuffier people who rigidly claim that listening to a book is not the same thing as “reading” a book. But to millions of people out there, there really is no difference. Are they getting the same story that you’re getting but through their ears rather than through their eyes? Yes. In a sense, some might even say they’re getting a truer version of the story if the actual author is reading to them. So, what I’m saying is this: If writers want to continue to exist, we need to pull our heads out of our butts and follow the trends. One could say that the audience for “traditional” reading is shrinking. But it really all depends on what you consider modern reading to be in the first place. If you consider it as the consumption of ideas, then one might say it’s bigger than it’s ever been in its entire history.

The most important thing to remember is that “readers” don’t care what “writers” want. They don’t even care whether their writers are human or not. Unlike self-driving cars, readers don’t tend to fear a future where robots are in control. In many ways, a reader will always be a reader, but a writer is not necessarily just a writer anymore. A writer is a blogger, a vlogger, a tweeter, a shapchatter, a podcaster, or whatever else the reader demands them (us) to be. And we as “writers” need to take note of that, since the most important aspect of being a writer is being “listened to.”

Whatever that even means.

Review: Big Trouble in Mother Russia

Big Trouble in Little China the Illustrated Novel: Big Trouble in Mother RussiaBig Trouble in Little China the Illustrated Novel: Big Trouble in Mother Russia by Matthew J. Elliot
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This. Book. Sucks! As a massive fan of BTiLC, I am extremely disappointed that this book was even put on the shelves. It reads like bad fan fiction. First of all, the writer doesn't know how to write. Jack Burton, who has always been one to toot his own horn, never spoke in run-on sentences-he specialized in one-liners! But this writer can't seem to help trying to fit as many jokes in one sentence as possible when writing Jack's lines, and it's excruciating. How could the writer ruin Jack Burton like this? And the plot is just all over the place. Events occur, fireworks go off, and all the while, you wonder what the hell is going on. Maybe I had a hard time staying invested in what was happening because it wasn't interesting, but it reads like a complete and utter mess. Didn't anybody edit this garbage? I feel like it isn't even fit for Wattpad. This book preys on fans of the film and is a slapdash attempt of squeezing the money out of the many fans of the cult classic. If you see it on the shelf, don't pick it up. You will be disappointed. It's crazy how bad this book is. For shame.

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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Why I'm Stopping at Two Kids

Tomorrow (Twomorrow?) is the big day, since it's the day I get my vasectomy. Now, some guys might say, been there, done that, no big deal. And they're probably right. But just like when you get married, that night before feels like the ground just shifted beneath you and that you're going to be freefalling into...what? The abyss? The sweet forever? The unknown? It's hard to say until you actually make that leap, and when you do, everything changes. In my case, it's definitely been for the better, since married life has been very good to me. I have a wonderful wife and two beautiful children. And only two beautiful children, and that's just fine.

It's funny. At first, before I had kids, I thought, one kid would be a blessing, and two kids would be just enough. But after I set the date for my vasectomy, a lot of those thoughts changed. In the beginning, after hearing the news of what an actual vasectomy entailed (I've always been squeamish when it came to my internal workings), I pegged all my fears to the after-effects of what could potentially go wrong. I've heard everything from that it could lower my testosterone (false), make me pee more (inconclusive, but likely false) to it could raise my chances of getting prostate cancer (Proven incorrect), to it could give me scrotal pain for the rest of my life (A possibility). But in the end, as I sit here at my computer and the clock edges toward midnight, I find myself googling whether two kids is enough, with plenty of evidence to why it is, and plenty of evidence (Mostly from parents) about why it isn't. And now, I've come to my own, final conclusion.

They are enough.

Now, I might sound like I'm still on the fence, but here's the truth of the matter. I don't have enough money for three children, and I want to give these two wonderful kids I already have the best future possible. An article that really clinched it for me is this one by Slate. It's something I've known all along (That the more kids you have, the less money and attention you can give to each), but it's something that my nagging brain has been reluctant to believe because, like on the night before my wedding, it all seemed like the unknown, and so forever, a vasectomy. But here's a fact: I only have enough money, and barely enough as it is, for two college funds, and that is not even including all the money the kids will need when they're much older. When I think about all the cool things I want my two kids to experience, I realize how that would not be feasibly possible with three kids. It might not be feasibly possible for two. I never thought that I would ever think that I would actually want three kids, but I love the two darlings I already have, and I'm getting cold feet because of it. I'll be happy when this vasectomy has come and gone. Then, it truly will be final.

And then, there is the whole writing thing. My dream has always been to be recognized as a writer, and it's been very hard to write with two kids. Very hard indeed. But with my second child, I've found that I've gotten a lot more lax with my writing and my dreams, and I don't want to get to the age of 50 only to find that I've accomplished nothing. Too many times, parents start to see the dreams they never accomplished flowing into their children, and that's the last thing I want. My goal is to be successful in my own right, and to do it while my parents are still alive to see it. In fact, that may be the biggest, and most selfish reason why I'm sticking with two kids. I still want to be successful, and I don't see that happening with a third kid. Two kids, as much as I love them, already take up most of my time. I'm a morning writer. What am I doing writing at midnight? The answer: Because I'll wake up the kids if I get up early in the morning to write.

So in the end, two is enough. Two is more than enough. I look forward to the future with my wife and two kids. Three would be too much to handle. At least for me.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Review: The Horse and His boy

The Horse and His Boy (Chronicles of Narnia, #5)The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I find that I really do love these Narnia books. I'm glad I'm reading them as an adult and not a child since there's a lot of wit in here that I don't think I would have caught at a younger age. This book, chronologically the third in the series, starts off reading like fan fiction, but the characters all grow on you, and the story reads somewhat like The Hobbit. It certainly has that magical feel to it. It's a fun journey, and I'm hoping the others are as engaging. I know the four siblings are the main characters in most of the other books, but it was nice to have them as background characters here, with the world of Narnia being more of the focus An overall enjoyable book. I loved it!

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Dr. Diet: Or, Why I Learned to Keep Worrying and Love My Scale

Every morning, I get on my scale and weigh my fat ass. I call myself a fat ass, even though I lost 60 lbs and have kept it off for well over a year now. So what gives? Well, what gives is the constant fear that I'm going to gain all my weight back. It's not an idle fear, either. I have done it now twice, and it's something I never think is fully possible until I get on the scale one morning and I'm back in the 200s again, a bloated bubble of lard and rolls. So how do I keep it off? Well, it's simple. I weigh myself every morning. When I tell people this, they often shake their heads and say, "I can't do that. I'll go insane!" But that's the point. You want to go insane and worry about your weight. You see, if you're like me and you love food (And if you're American, then you're of course like me), then you know that you can sometimes get out of hand when it comes to your portion sizes. A handful of kettle corn can turn into a whole empty bag. A few cookies right after work can turn into a full-blown snack of 1000 calories or more. And don't even get me started on all the nibbling that turns into a full blown meal by the end of it. The fact is, it's really, really easy to let yourself go when you're not thinking about what you're eating, and that's why being cognizant of how many calories you're eating AT ALL TIMES is so important. Without that, there's really no stopping your appetite.

So that's why Myfitnesspal has changed my life. I can no longer grab a girl scout cookie and say, "Okay, just one more," because when I put in one cookie in the app (Which is free, by the way) and see that I already blew through 70 calories, I kind of pick and choose my battles. Weightwatchers has a similar system, but it's faulty. Certain items, like fruits, are zero points, so you can kind of go crazy with as many fruits as possible and think you're doing a great job on your diet, only to find yourself losing only a minimal amount of weight over time. Myfitnesspal doesn't allow that. Even an orange, which is about 70 calories (As much as one girl scout cookie!)can add to your weight gain, which in turn makes you decide that you'll take an orange INSTEAD of a cookie since it will fill you up more, rather than thinking you're doing a good job on your diet because you're eating as much fruit as you want. That's why it's paramount that you are always counting your calories as well as checking your weight on a daily basis. Half the difficulty is allowing yourself to know your own limitations and what fills you up. If you can figure that out, you can literally have cheat days every day as long as you're within your calorie range. I'll give you an example.

For breakfast, I might have a green juice, which is around 140 calories. You might be thinking, I can't just have a green juice for breakfast. I'll be starving until lunch time and thinking about my next meal, and I won't deny you that. Until you shrink your stomach, a juice for breakfast doesn't seem like enough. But keep listening. For lunch, I'll have like, a lean pocket, an orange, a greek yogurt, spinach, carrots, and a water. This all amounts to about 800 something calories. So at this point, I'm up to almost a 1000 calories by lunch. Since I'm relatively active, that means I can splurge for dinner. For instance, tonight, I had an Italian sausage and peppers sandwich with onion rings and a canoli for dessert. All told, it came to about 1700 calories. Now, you may think I'm insane, but I'm still in the parameters of my calorie count for the day. So I likely won't gain any weight tonight, even though I feel super full. But I'll know tomorrow morning all the same. And you know why? Because I'll weigh myself. So the secret to keeping weight off is to actually make sure that you hover around the weight that you wish to stay at, and the only way to do that is to constantly monitor your weight and to get angry when you go over it. It's really as simple as that. So yeah, scale + myfitnesspal=success. I guarantee it.

Review: Robot Visions

Robot Visions (Robot #0.5)Robot Visions by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Though I have not read all 400 (jeez) of Asimov's books, I have read his entire Foundation and Robot series, so I think I have a feel for the master's work. And like The Foundation series (Not so much his Robot series, which, like Asimov, I agree is pretty perfect), there are some great yarns, and some not so great yarns, and this book of short stories and essays is similar-Some great ones, and some not so great ones. There are some standout stories, like "Runaround" which was the first story to put the three laws of robots in print, and "The Bicentennial Man". But there are some truly awful short stories in here, too, that probably only got published since they had Asimov's name attached to them. Likewise with the essays. Some were extremely prescient, like his theory on what would eventually become social media, and some are lousy, like his essay on humor. All in all, not required reading by any means, but if you can pick and choose which stories you want to read by what sounds interesting, then you might enjoy it more than me.

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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (Chronicles of Narnia, #1)The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a charming little book. No wonder it's been beloved for so many years. Unlike say, The Golden Compass series, which is steeped in Atheism, Narnia is well-known to be an allegory for Christianity. But unlike The Golden Compass, which I consider this series' antithesis, the deeper message actually works here and isn't too preachy. At least not in this first book. That's not to say that Atheism weighs down The Golden Compass, but the narrative here is much more enjoyable and interesting. It's fun and playful like The Hobbit, which makes sense since Lewis and Tolkien were such good buddies. I plan to read the rest of the series and only hope that it doesn't get too serious like The Lord of the Rings did. A fun little story that never takes itself seriously. I enjoyed it.

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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Beyond Home Plate

Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After BaseballBeyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson on Life After Baseball by Michael G. Long
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jackie Robinson has always been an enlightening public figure. The younger generation that I belong to often sees him as the man who broke barriers and succeeded in being the first African-American to play in the major leagues. But as this book reveals, Mr. Robinson was more than just a trendsetter-He was a great mind. This book begins by talking about how the Republican Party has willfully claimed Jackie Robinson as one of their own, but this book shines light that Mr. Robinson was a very complex man with ever-changing views. This book, which encapsulates Robinson's political outlook and civil rights activism (with a sprinkle of his feelings on sports) creates a much broader picture of Robinson than I ever imagined. Upon the first few pages, which are dominated by sports, I was really thinking that this was a book for true fans and completists only. But the further I read, the more I respected the overall arc of this book which concludes with Robinson's overall disgust with the direction of the GOP. In that way, I feel this book is both timely and relevant given the current political arena we are unfortunately in. This book would get a slightly higher score if there wasn't any of that baseball or sports stuff in here. We've gotten enough written about that topic already. We didn't need more. But the rest of the book is solid and a thoroughly engaging read. Give it a look.

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Monday, March 20, 2017

Review: Moby Dick

Moby-Dick; or, The WhaleMoby-Dick; or, The Whale by Herman Melville
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Moby Dick is both the best and the worst book I've ever read. When it comes to symbolism-which I love-characters, and just, gee gosh, poetic prose, there is no finer book in the English language. But when it comes to actual storytelling, good God. Who was your editor, Melville? Do you care about the size of a whale's head? No? Sorry, dude. the next seven pages are just about that. Do you want to know how to catch a whale? No? Sorry, dude. This next whole chapter is about that very topic. What about the laws involving actually catching a whale? Surely you want to learn about that. No? Well, I don't know what to tell you. This next section is focused solely on that concept. I mean, jeez, man. This is like two totally different books. One is a rich tale about gods (or the absence of God) and monsters, of homosexuality and nature. And the other book is How to tame your whale. Still and all, the good is so good that it still makes this an American classic. I just wish it had less to say about whales! All the same, read it. Or at least skim it. It's definitely worth your time.

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Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review: 'Tis

'Tis (Frank McCourt, #2)'Tis by Frank McCourt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have finally finished the trilogy, written by the great Frank McCourt. It's crazy that he made a whole career out of writing about his life. What's even crazier is that this book, unlike the first, Angela's Ashes, or the third, Teacher Man, doesn't actually tell much of a story at all, but may be my favorite of the three. I drum it up to the humor. There are times in this book when Frank McCourt is just being reminiscent of some of the livelier characters in his life, and he still makes it super compelling. Something like getting a degree in English is an adventure in Frank McCourt's world, and it was an adventure I enjoyed traveling on. A skilled writer and a phenomenal teacher-by how he tells it. A great book, overall.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Review: The Zahir

The ZahirThe Zahir by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a strange book. I've never read The Alchemist, even though I'm probably the only reader on the planet who hasn't, so this is my first book by Paulo Coelho. But I can understand why people like him. He's like a spiritual version of Ayn Rand, and by that, I mean he has a single message in mind that courses through his work. His message is one of finding the true meaning of life...whatever that is. I'm not sure I could read another book of his and take all that spiritual claptrap, but one book works for me, so I guess this will be that book.

Anywho, the story centers around an insufferable writer (at first) who loses his wife. But, he doesn't really "lose" her in the sense that we would typically think of. She hasn't died after all. At least not physically. But emotionally, she's dead to him. Their marriage has reached the point of ennui. She has lost her love for her husband (Or has she) and decided to leave him without giving a word of where she was going, and the author, who at first takes on a string of girlfriends, finally realizes that he misses her. In that way, his wife becomes his "Zahir," which is an object or thing that is in plain view that never goes away, but we still can't attain it, which ultimately drives us crazy.

Didn't I tell you this was a strange book? But that's not why it's so strange. It's the ending. What a downer. I really like the ending because it's not traditional. I won't spoil it here, but it really muddles the message for me, which I like. This is not the story of struggling and finally finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It's not some gritty, realistic ending either and it stays within the bounds of everything that is presented before it, so it doesn't just come out of left field. But I could understand why some might not appreciate it for what it is. Either way, by the halfway point of this book, I was really annoyed by the protagonist. But by the time the story reached the end, I found that I was engrossed and wanted to know how it would conclude. An interesting story, to be sure. I don't recommend it for everyone, but it has its merits and an interesting ending. I enjoyed it.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Review: The Dead Zone

The Dead ZoneThe Dead Zone by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of my co-workers caught me reading this book, and she was like, do you like Stephen King? I said I did, and she was like, really? As if liking Stephen King was beneath me or something. But I love Stephen King and I've read most of his books. The man said so himself. He's the McDonald's of storytelling. And like McDonald's, some items on the menu are better than others. When it comes to that analogy, Drawing of the Three (the second book in the Dark Tower series) is a McRib Sandwich with a Shamrock shake with fries. The Dead Zone is more like a twenty piece box of chicken McNuggets. It's good for awhile, but then it wears out its welcome, and you're like, maybe I should have ordered something else. Like some fries or something. The problem with this book is that it's lopsided. Some sections are the best I think I've ever read of Stephen King-like the hunt for a vicious serial killer-while other parts just fall flat. Especially the third act, which is a little hokey. In the end, it's an okay book that reads at a brisk pace, but it's not one of his stronger works. I'd rather just go to another fast food joint over this one. Read it if you want to see a happy ending to the Trump Presidency.

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Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Never Let Me Go is a good book. It's sci-fi, but decidedly not sci-fi. It kind of feels like, in tone, anyway, an emo Handmaid's Tale. The story is very confusing until you realize just what's going on, and when you do, it all peels apart like a satisfyingly sweet onion. It does have its slow parts, but I like the author's restraint and patience. It could have been a disturbing story, but it turns out being heartfelt instead A fascinating book. Give it a read.

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Friday, January 20, 2017

Review: The Sweet Forever

The Sweet ForeverThe Sweet Forever by George Pelecanos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Holy smokes! What a book! Do you like The Wire? If so, then you will love this novel. Cops are crooked (but not all bad), criminals are evil (but not one-dimensional) and the streets of DC are a Coke-fueled war zone. Len Bias is actually a uniting thread throughout the story, and if you know anything about Len Bias's tragic end, then you already know the overall arc of this story. I now NEED to read every book in this cycle, which is kind of like August Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle, but with far less stories and set in D.C. Just a masterful work of crime fiction. Great stuff! Pick it up if you can find it

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Review: Sons and Lovers

Sons and LoversSons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Now here is a book that could have easily been 200 less pages. I mainly wanted to read it because of another book I read called Dubin's Lives by Bernard Malamud. It was about a biographer who was struggling to write a bio on D.H. Lawrence. Have you ever wanted to read another book because it was mentioned in a book you liked? If so, then you have probably felt the sting of it not being nearly as good as you were hoping it would be, and that's the problem with Sons and Lovers. It's a mostly autobiographical look at the author's mommy issues and his love of a married woman. The only problem though is that D.H., or Paul as he's called here, is one of the most boring aspects of this book. The more interesting characters are his older brother and his father, who kind of fade into the background for part 2 of the story, which is a major slog. But that first part is pretty damn good, which is why I'm giving this book three stars instead of two. Or even one. Anyway, it may be a classic, but it doesn't deserve to be. Don't read it unless you have to.

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