Five Years and Two Hundred Posts!

Two hundred years ago, on July 4, 1817, construction of the Erie Canal began.  It had been a long time in the making. First proposed in 1780 as a means to create a navigable water route between Buffalo and the Great Lakes to the west and New York City and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Erie Canal had its share of roadblocks, delays, and controversies.

 

Construction wasn’t completed until 1825, and along the way, there was plenty of public backlash and criticism.  Skeptics of the canal referred to it as “Clinton’s Folly” and DeWitt’s Ditch,” mocking one of the primary movers and shakers of the new waterway, New York State governor DeWitt Clinton.  But it was Clinton and other proponents who would ultimately have the last laugh. The canal fostered a population upsurge in upstate and western New York, including my hometown of Rochester.  And it also served the primary purpose for which it was built.  By 1855, 33,000 commercial shipments traveled up and down the Erie Canal.

 

That number would slowly and inexorably decrease as the decades ensued, as first the railway and, later, the automobile and the truck superseded the canal as avenues for shipments.  Nevertheless, the Erie Canal would live on.  It wouldn’t stagnate and succumb to neglect and decay.  As the canal’s primary function shifted from shipping goods to recreation, it would remain an enduring jewel of the Empire State.  Today, water enthusiasts still can boat along the canal, either in their own craft or on a cruise.  Bicyclists, joggers, and walkers (Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski among them!) enjoy the miles of trails that line the water’s edge.  Two hundred years after ground was broken for New York State’s grand man-made waterway, the Erie Canal continues to prosper.

 

The Eye-Dancers blog is no Erie Canal!  But this entry marks the site’s two-hundredth post.  If someone would have told me, back in the summer of 2012, that The Eye-Dancers website would last five years and two hundred posts, I would have smiled and asked them if they might like to buy a bridge I wanted to sell.  There was no way I could envision it.  I was just trying to craft a few coherent blog posts, not make a fool of myself in the process, and help to spread the word of the at-that-time soon-to-be-released novel The Eye-Dancers.  Along the way, though, I learned that there was nothing to worry about.  I learned that the WordPress community is made up of generous, kind, interesting, and wonderful people who welcome blogging neophytes with open arms.

 

And so, today, five years on, I pause, take stock, glance back, look forward, and thank you all so much.  You are the reason why I’m still here, still blogging, still enjoying every minute of it.  If it weren’t for you, there surely wouldn’t be a two-hundredth post.  You have all inspired me to keep going, keep writing, keep believing, even when doubt and uncertainty threatened to sabotage my efforts.

 

That’s true, too, of The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  The support I have received from you regarding the sequel has been a motivator, an elixir, encouraging me to press forward with optimism.  I am in the stretch run of editing The Singularity Wheel, and will look forward to releasing it just as the trees here in the Northeast begin to transform from a canopy of green to a color show of golds, reds, and oranges.

 

In the meantime, and long afterward, I will continue to post, and continue to appreciate everything I have learned and experienced in this worldwide community.  I hope you’ll stick around for the next two hundred posts!

 

Thanks so much for all the support these past five years, and thanks, as always, for reading.

–Mike

Our Stars, Our Memories (Or, a YA Reminder)

“So, why do you write YA fiction?” is a question I get often.  “What is it about YA that inspires you to write in that genre?”

I suppose the question is natural enough.  After all, The Eye-Dancers is a YA sci-fi/fantasy novel, and its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, due out late this summer, is as well.  But the truth is, I’m not a YA writer–at least, not exclusively.  Prior to The Eye-Dancers, in fact, I had rarely ventured into the YA waters.  For years, I wrote short stories–dozens of them.  And nearly all of them are mainstream/literary.

 

Even at that time, though, there was an occasional appeal to write about younger protagonists.  One story in particular, called “Marbles,” about a teenage boy who has a moment of epiphany causing him to realize and fully embrace that he’s no longer a child, and that he must look forward and prepare for his life as an adult, stayed with me.  It wasn’t long after writing “Marbles” that I began working on The Eye-Dancers.

 

It’s odd on the surface.  I am a long way from being a teenager myself.  The days of junior high and high school, for me, reside in a previous century, back when smartphones were unheard of and the personal computer was only just becoming mainstream.  When I was in junior high, Larry Bird was the three-time reigning NBA MVP, postage stamps cost 25 cents, and Tiffany was topping the pop charts with “Could’ve Been.”

 

It was a long time ago.

And yet . . . are we ever truly beyond our formative years?  Do we ever “outgrow” our first date, our first rejection, our first triumph?  Experiences from our past do not disappear like smoke upon an autumn breeze.  They linger.  Sometimes they hide in the shadows, buried beneath the layers of intervening years.  Other times they rise to the fore, reminders of an experience decades gone, remarkably vivid, as sharp and vibrant in our mind’s eye as the day they happened.

 

But still.  Why revisit the old haunts of adolescence on purpose?  Why write an entire novel (or two!) about teenage protagonists up to their chins in angst and insecurities?  Why walk the perilous path down memory lane that retouches old wounds and scabs?  It’s something many writers, as well as readers, do.  In fact, a 2012 survey concluded that 55 percent of YA readers are adults.  Again, the question of why resurfaces.

 

I can’t speak for others, only myself, and for me, writing The Eye-Dancers–and now, finishing up The Singularity Wheel–has been a labor of love.  The characters of Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan Swinton were all inspired by neighborhood friends from my childhood, and then merged together with sprinklings from my own life.  When, for instance, I describe Mitchell’s enjoyment of his favorite comic book in chapter 1 of The Singularity Wheel, I am, in essence, remembering my own discovery of that same issue when I was a teenager . . .

 

“He refocused on Fantastic Four number 51.  It was a remarkable issue—the first appearance of The Negative Zone, an alternate universe composed of negative, rather than positive, matter.  In the story, Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, has just made the discovery and resolves to explore this new and dangerous place.  He journeys through the void, bridges the gap between dimensions.

“Just like I did once, he thought.  Like we all did.  Five years ago.”

Of course, I’ve never traveled across time and space, as Mitchell has, but the appreciation he and I share for old comic books is real–and a reminder for me of what it was like when I was Mitchell’s age.

 

Not all of my adolescent memories are positive. Some of my most humiliating experiences happened in school.  Like so many others, I was at times the butt of jokes, the object of derision.  In high school, I struggled with acne and was overweight.  Believe me, I was made aware of both on a weekly, and sometimes daily, basis.

 

But I was lucky.  Even on the worst days, I understood that.  I had a strong, stable family life–my parents never moved.  Many of our neighbors remained the same through the years.  Friendships in the old neighborhood ran deep.  The real-life inspirations for Mitchell, Joe, Marc, and Ryan would all get together with me–especially in summer.  We’d hang out on the driveway, shooting baskets; we’d invent games and spend entire afternoons arguing about the ever-evolving rules, having a blast the whole time; when we grew a little older, became teenagers, we’d talk about the things adolescent boys talk about, and we’d compete in sports and play strategic board games that lasted for hours.

 

Through it all, there was a camaraderie that was resilient, strong, enduring.  We still keep in touch today–not that often, not like we used to.  But whenever we get together, special things happen.  The years peel away, and the memories merge with the present day, creating a synchronicity in the space-time continuum that can only be described as magic.  And I am taken back to a simpler time, a time when forty was still decades hence, when, despite setbacks and doubts and insecurities, opportunities still seemed endless and all things were possible.

 

Maybe that’s why we write, and read, YA fiction, even as we get older.  Maybe as we take on the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood, as we perhaps feel trapped in a career we don’t love, a situation we can’t extricate ourselves from, a diagnosis we can’t pretend away, we need a reminder.  We need to remember what it was like when we were young.

 

As I look back through the lens of memory, I remember those summer evenings, lingering in the driveway, leaning against the car, talking with my friends as we swatted at the mosquitoes in seek of our blood and watched the fireflies dance and glow in the dark.  We’d talk about nothing, and everything.  We weren’t in a hurry.  Just being there was enough.

 

And we’d look up at the night sky, feel a sense of awe, and wonder.  I hope that sense of awe, that desire to probe and question and discover, that willingness to wonder and to believe in the so-called “impossible,” remains always.  I hope it never grows old.

 

“The stars are yours,” Ray Bradbury once wrote, “if you have the head, the hands, and the heart for them.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Quality of Mercy

Ryan Swinton knows how it feels to be an outsider.  In The Singularity Wheel, the sequel to The Eye-Dancers, set to be released later this summer, Ryan is in a major slump.  Now seventeen years old, on the cusp of his senior year in high school, he struggles to find his place in the world.  To his eyes, it seems that all of his classmates know what they want to do with their lives.  Even his kid brother, Tyler, has plans to become a marine biologist one day.  But what about Ryan?  What will he do?

 

From chapter 3 of The Singularity Wheel:

“He [Ryan] walked into the living room.  A fifty-gallon saltwater aquarium, with bright orange-and-white clown fish and yellow tangs and angel fish, lit up for the night with a florescent bulb, served as a reminder that Tyler was focused, determined, sure of what he wanted and how to get there.  Even the fish appeared to know just where to swim, as if they had each staked a claim to designated areas within the aquarium.  Everyone and everything always seemed to have a plan, a clue, a path to follow.  Why was it so different for him?”

 

In short, Ryan Swinton all too often feels like an outcast, a reject.  An other.

********************************

In the third-season Twilight Zone episode “A Quality of Mercy,” a young lieutenant fresh on the scene of battle understands well what it’s like to view someone else as “the other.”

 

Rod Serling introduces the episode this way in a voice-over:

“It’s August 1945, the last grimy pages of a dirty, torn book of war. The place is the Philippine Islands. The men are what’s left of a platoon of American infantry, whose dulled and tired eyes set deep in dulled and tired faces can now look toward a miracle, that moment when the nightmare appears to be coming to an end. But they’ve got one more battle to fight, and in a moment we’ll observe that battle. August 1945, Philippine Islands. But in reality it’s high noon in the Twilight Zone.”

 

The American platoon in question, a ragtag group of perhaps twenty men, have taken the high ground overlooking a cave.  Holed up in that cave, a small group of Japanese soldiers, many of them sick and wounded, resist surrender.  The American force shells the cave incessantly, hoping, thus far in vain, that the sheer bombardment will force the Japanese soldiers to quit.

 

This is the situation Lieutenant Katell inherits.  He arrives on the scene, a fresh-faced commanding officer, full of vim and vigor.  When he is briefed by Sergeant Causarano, a battle-hardened veteran, Lieutenant Katell exclaims that since the artillery didn’t smoke the Japanese soldiers from their cave, “It looks like we’ll have to do a little mopping up ourselves.  Move in frontally.  Go right in there and wipe ’em out.”

 

The sergeant and some of the soldiers push back.  What the lieutenant is proposing would guarantee casualties, on both sides.  There is little justification to assault the cave in a frontal attack.  Causarano asks the lieutenant how long he’s been out there, on the battlefield.

“What’s that got to do with it?” Katell responds, defensively.

“You talk like it’s a football game, Lieutenant,” Causarano says.  “And this is no football game. . . . You have to remember . . . you haven’t been shot at yet.  And you haven’t shot anybody, either.”

Lieutenant Katell acknowledges his relative inexperience, but promises, “When it comes to killing Japanese, I think you’ll find me a pretty efficient officer.”

 

Later, the men smear mud on their faces for camouflage.  They are grim.  There isn’t much talking. The decision has been made–they are gearing up to assault the cave.

As they prepare, Lieutenant Katell notices Sergeant Causarano giving him a look.

“I’m not your cup of tea, am I, Sergeant?” Katell asks.

“You got a little too much vinegar for me, Lieutenant,” Causarano says, and makes a plea to bypass the cave.  The men trapped in there are “sick and half-starved.”  Why go through with this?

“Because they’re Japs!” the lieutenant snarls, as if that explains everything.

“They’re men,” the sergeant counters.

 

Lieutenant Katell cannot hide his disdain.  “If I had to size you up,” he says, “I’d say you’ve either got battle fatigue or you’re chicken.”

Causarano admits he may be a little of both. The war has gone on too long.  Too much has been lost. Enough is enough.

Katell blasts him again, calling him a “lousy soldier,” and reminding him that “when you fight a war, you fight a war!  And you kill until you’re ordered to stop killing!”

 

The sergeant can only shake his head.  “What’s your pleasure, Lieutenant?” he says.  “How many men have to die before you’re satisfied?”

To which Katell answers, “Offhand, I’d say all of ’em!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they get it!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they get it!”

Here, flustered, the lieutenant drops his binoculars.  And everything changes . . .

 

A Japanese soldier picks up the binoculars, hands them to the lieutenant, addressing him as “Lieutenant Yamuri.”

 

The lieutenant, shaken and confused, runs off, only to be shot at by enemy gunfire.  But when he looks at the enemy soldiers, he sees they are American soldiers.

When he returns to where his men are, he asks, “Who are you?  Where are we?  When?”

To his astonishment, he is told it is May 1942–over three years earlier.  Even more perplexing, the lieutenant slowly understands he is now–somehow–a Japanese officer.  “What’s going on?  What’s happened to me?” he wants to know.

 

The captain arrives.  He is a serious, scowling-faced man, and he is not pleased with the lieutenant’s antics and confusion.  He tells him so.  Lieutenant Yamuri, nee Katell, tries to pull himself together, tells the captain he is okay now, that he was just “feverish for a moment.”

The captain then reports that the artillery fire has failed to do its job.  The Americans trapped in the cave before them have not been destroyed, and have not surrendered.  They will undertake a full frontal assault, and Lieutenant Yamuri will lead the charge.

But the lieutenant is shaken.  It has dawned on him that he is now living the same situation, except in reverse.  No longer is he an American officer commanding a platoon to ambush a cave full of beaten, injured Japanese soldiers.  Now he is a Japanese officer being commanded to lead an assault on a cave full of beaten, wounded American soldiers.

He objects to the mission.  The Americans holed up in that cave are wounded, sick.  Couldn’t they simply bypass the cave?  Why attack it?

 

The captain is not sympathetic.  “They are Americans!” he says.  “They are the enemy!  We have to destroy them.”  He goes on to explain the well-being of enemy soldiers should concern the lieutenant no more than an anthill he might step on during the attack.

“But they are men!” Lieutenant Yamuri says.

The captain slaps him, leaves him there.  They will attack without him.

 

“May I ask the captain,” Yamuri says, “how many must die before he is satisfied?”

The captain’s words are hauntingly familiar:  “I would say all of them!  No matter who they are or where they are, if they’re the enemy, they die!  First day of the war or last day of the war, they die!”

 

Stunned, the lieutenant glances at his binoculars, and in that instant, he is returned to 1945.  He is the American Lieutenant Katell again, in the moments just before he and his men are to ambush the Japanese cave.

But he is no longer the angry, gung-ho man of action.  His face is ashen.

Suddenly, there is cheering among the soldiers in the camp.  Army headquarters has called.  The war is over.  The platoon has been ordered to retreat.  The impending battle has been averted.

Sergeant Causarano, seeing the lieutenant standing there, shell-shocked, mistakes his reaction to be one of disappointment.

“I wouldn’t fret,” Causarano says.  “There’ll be other caves, other wars, other human beings you can knock off.”

To which Lieutenant Katell, changed, solemn, remarks, “I hope not.  God help us, I hope not.”

 

*******************************

The fracturing of society, the clear lines of demarcation many people draw between themselves and others is by no means a thing of the past, relegated to television shows in grainy black and white, originally aired six decades ago.  Our time has been witness to a disheartening and increasing extremism, a polarization of politics, where nationalism, xenophobia, and an “us-versus-them” worldview are on full display.

 

Ryan Swinton does not like being viewed as an “other.”  He doesn’t like being left out, abandoned, misunderstood.  Shamed.  None of us do.

As he so often did, Rod Serling offered a fitting takeaway.  In the closing voice-over to “A Quality of Mercy,” Serling says:

“‘The quality of mercy is not strained.  It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’  Shakespeare.  The Merchant of Venice.  But applicable to any moment in time, to any group of soldiery, to any nation on the face of the earth–or, as in this case, to the Twilight Zone.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

The Most Bittersweet of Words

On the surface of it, the accomplishment should elicit nothing but joy.  So much work has been put in, so many hours spent, so many unexpected hurdles and twists and roundabouts have been navigated.  It should be a celebration on par with a holiday parade.

 

And yet . . .

***************

Recently, after three-and-a-half years of working on the manuscript, I finally completed the first draft of The Singularity Wheel.  The Singularity Wheel (which didn’t name itself until I was three-quarters of the way through the story) is the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It wasn’t necessarily planned.  When I wrote The Eye-Dancers, I expected it to be a one-off, not the start of a protracted story arc that would need to span multiple books.

 

But one day, while taking a walk, an image popped into my head–just like that.  Snap-your-fingers fast.  I hadn’t been thinking of The Eye-Dancers on that walk.  I hadn’t been thinking about any of the characters, or anything related to the novel.  But there it was, and it was strong enough that I had to stop moving.  I just stood there, seeing it.  I blinked, shook my head.  The mental painting did not recede or fade away.  If anything, it clarified, coalesced, the blurred edges straightening and sharpening, the smaller details coming in to focus, as if caught under a magnifying glass.

 

There they were in my mind’s eye–Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski–the main characters of The Eye-Dancers.  Only, in this image, they were devoid of color.  Everything was.  The road they were standing on, the field behind them, rich with tall grasses swaying in the breeze–all was a monochrome, a black-and-white world drained of greens and oranges and yellows.  There was only gray.

 

They stood before a monstrous structure, easily the width of a dozen football fields and as tall as a skyscraper.  Each floor of the building had an exterior walkway and countless doors, all closed.  And somewhere, several stories up, they saw a gray, colorless man frantically roaming from door to door, trying to open them, desperate, as if in search of something lifesaving.

 

High above them, above the structure and everything else, the sky was gunmetal gray.  But then it changed.  Two eyes formed in the clouds.  They expanded until they blotted out the sky, became the sky–a deep, penetrating blue.  The image shifted, the picture moved, and the eyes slanted and darkened.  They were angry.  The boys shrank back, but there was nowhere to hide, nowhere to run.  They knew, as well as I, that those weren’t just anyone’s eyes.  They belonged to Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl” from The Eye-Dancers.  After five years, she had come back for them.

 

Nothing else came to me that day, but it didn’t matter.  Something within me was urging me forward, letting me know there was a new story that needed to be told.  In the days that followed, gaps filled in, motives crystallized, story lines emerged.  A fortnight later, I sat down in front of my PC, opened an empty Word file, and keyed in the first sentence.

 

At the time, I couldn’t have known how difficult, or how long, the journey would be.  If The Eye-Dancers was “out there,” The Singularity Wheel was a million light-years away, spinning its threads from some far-off corner of the universe, regularly making me pause, rub my eyes, and ask, “Is there any way I can pull all of this together?”  The characters’ problems this time around were more nuanced, more complex.  Five years had passed since the conclusion of The Eye-Dancers.  They were about to enter their senior year in high school.  They were saddled with girl problems, family issues, worries about their future.  Some of them felt as though a continent had fallen on their shoulders.

 

But perhaps the character who had changed the most in five years was the “ghost girl” herself.  Unlike in The Eye-Dancers, in The Singularity Wheel, Monica is now a point-of-view character.  In fact, the sequel begins with her, in her bedroom, about to undertake a (quite literally) infinity-spanning trip across the layers and undulations of time and space.  And it will be a trip that puts her life–along with those of Mitchell, Joe, Ryan, and Marc–in peril.

Throughout the creative process–through the surges of “aha” moments, the flourishes of frenzied writing sessions on the dark side of midnight, the inevitable blocks that at times seemed to render the entire project null and void, and the incessant, nagging self-criticisms–the ending often felt far away, a high meadow lying beyond a range of towering mountain peaks.  But I forced myself to persist.

 

The only way I could, I discovered, was to focus on the now.  Sure, I needed to have an overall goal in mind, a general direction I was working toward.  But if I thought too far ahead, I would become bogged down, overwhelmed with the vast distances I still needed to traverse to reach the destination.  “One chapter at a time,” I said to myself, over and over.  “One scene at a time.  One paragraph at a time.”  I felt like a walking, living cliche, the coach who spouts off “coach-speak” to overeager reporters desperate for a scoop they wouldn’t get.  But it was the only way I could keep moving forward.

 

And when I got there, when, just the other night, I keyed in the bold, decisive words “The End,” I felt elated–for perhaps a minute.  And then I realized–I had been living with these characters, thinking with and through them, struggling along with them and cheering them on for over three years (almost eight, in fact, if you go all the way back to the start of writing The Eye-Dancers).  And while I still need to flip back to page 1 and undertake a full-book edit, and while I will blog about the characters and the sequel quite a bit in the weeks and months to come, the actual process of writing the story itself is over.

 

Writing a novel, particularly when there are stops and starts to the writing process, and when you can’t devote uninterrupted time to writing the book, is a marathon, a grueling exercise that tests an author’s will just as much, and probably more, than it does his or her imagination and storytelling abilities.  To finally arrive at “The End” is a tremendous relief, an event to celebrate.  And celebrate I did.  I popped some popcorn, fired up a DVD of a favorite movie (I am old school with digital entertainment!), kicked back, and enjoyed.  (I know, I’m a wild one, aren’t I, with the way I celebrate?)

 

But, mixed with the relief and feeling of accomplishment, there is also a profound loss.  Writing about the characters that populate your novel is not the same as writing through and with and for them.  When you are in the middle of writing a novel, you not only are writing it when you’re sitting at your desk pecking away at the keyboard.  You are “writing” it 24/7.  At any point of the day–in the shower, half-asleep in bed, at work, driving down the interstate–an idea might arise, a new direction might become clear, a new approach to a scene or a chapter might manifest itself.  Those moments, once you have typed “The End,” are gone.  They cannot return–the book is finished, the race is over and run.

 

There will be future books, of course, future projects.  I will get back in the game.  But for now, it is on to editing, to blogging more (which I look forward to doing!), to transforming an imperfect first draft into a (hopefully) polished and presentable product.

 

So am I glad?  Happy?  Satisfied?  You bet.  A literary-sized albatross–the work-in-progress–has been lifted from my neck.  The sense of relief is tangible.

 

But will I miss it?  Will I miss the process, the Everest-like highs of inspiration, when the muse is generous?  I will.  I’ll even miss the struggles, the walls, the worries of what I’ll do ten chapters hence.  It’s exhausting, confounding, and at times all-consuming.  But I love it.  And its absence leaves an undeniable void.

 

Then again, maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow with a new idea, a new seed that demands to be planted and allowed to grow.

 

Can it be, then, that “The End” is only just the beginning?

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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