Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Marketing Plan

Prepare to be dazzled and intimidated by my technical prowess; aided and abetted by decades of hard-won experience in the trenches of the business community, where I applied the Sun Tzu principles of zheng and qi to vanquish my white-collar foes with extreme prejudice, trampling upon the headstones of any competitive enterprise in cold fury.

Or not.

I don’t know much, but I know I love you. And that’s why I’m writing this. And also just to try to get that fetchingly irritating pop ditty in your head for the next hour or so. I am, contrary to Google’s company ethos, sometimes evil.

Look, it’s simple. A marketing plan is just a statement, a road map, if you will, of how you plan to bring your competitive product or service to market in a way that will benefit you, the evil mastermind, the most. After all, that’s what capitalism is. And it’s one of the most important documents you can have in your portfolio, along with your business plan. You do have one of those, too, right?

A good marketing plan is going to state a few things: descriptions of your target market, competitors, and the product or service you offer; an outline of your marketing budget and pricing strategy; and analyses of your sales, market share, expenses, and company financials. It will also document what history your enterprise has racked up, i.e., what’s already been tried and what worked and what failed. Most importantly, it should articulate what strategy you may have going forward.

Last week I wrote a wee bit on the publishing industry and gave you my take on where I think it’s headed by emphasizing certain areas of opportunity for the indie writer. A good indie writer ideally is able to be a one-man operation when necessary, but he is always surrounded by top-notch people who advise him, and whom he advises in turn. You can’t do this alone, in other words.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of technology, folks. eBooks are pushing writers and the industry that surrounds our activities like nothing since the printing press. Seriously. Be sure, when you write up your plan, that you account for eBooks. I’m not going to be too specific here, but when it comes to sound business, a good businessman looks for ways to lower his costs—called overhead—however he can. Well, if an indie author goes to print, more than likely he’s going to go POD or print on demand because he’s only printing what he’s already sold. And while that may sound like a great idea, for most authors out there it’s simply too expensive, and most of you are doing it backwards. Unless you’re in a niche market like cookbooks or glossy coffee table full color photography hardbacks, you might want to consider eschewing print altogether. I’ll say it like this: I believe, in the next couple of years, eBooks will become the new standard for mass market fiction. eReaders will be even cheaper and better, the free market will sort out the chaff, and Borders will be out of business. Oops. Looks like they’re already having trouble.

I’m over my limit here. Writers, Google is your friend (even though they're evil most of the time): search the terms of this blog and you’ll find more than you need to write up a solid marketing plan. Have an advisor look it over; even your local banker. Why not? Anyway, if a writer can write “tightly wound plots” and “compelling twists,” and is having trouble coming up with a marketing plan, I don’t offer him much hope for success. Just sayin’.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Boise Music Fest

Before we get started, for full disclosure: I love Rock n’ Roll. (And I also love Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who were the best part of the day Saturday). I even used to be a drummer, and on more than one occasion, and in more than one local band. I have played on the stage at what used to be the Big Easy here in Boise. So I know a little about the local music scene. That’s what I believe lends credibility to what follows.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that people, who are sometimes stupid, get even worse when one adds alcohol. And the crowd dynamic. When the Idaho Statesman reported that the Boise Music Festival would be, ahem, “improved” this year by the addition of more opportunities for people to buy and consume beer, I resolved to avoid it. More on why I in fact did not avoid it later.

Listen: I’m not against people having a right to drink (however absurd that may sound in a nation where our unwanted children don’t even have a right to live), however, rights are endowed by our Creator and come with equal and opposing duties. If, for instance, one has a right to drink beer, however ridiculous the idea may be, then that person also has a duty toward restraint. So, on the subject of alcohol: when a society and culture has cast off almost all restraint, it has therefore surrendered its duties toward responsible action, and also whatever rights it may have had as part of the bargain.

Pythagoras said it best: “As soon as laws are necessary for men, they are no longer fit for freedom.” But we no longer show the slightest interest in policing ourselves.

So here’s why I went to the Boise Music Fest: because that’s what my lovely wife wanted to do on her birthday. I love her, so even though large crowds are not my thing, and the music culture of late is growing more and more abhorrent to me as the days go by, I went, making a decision to make the best of it. And I succeeded, but I couldn’t help noticing a few things.

Never mind that the local acts weren’t even local, okay? I don’t know what geniuses decided to cut the local acts out of the action this year, and in favor of really bad regional “talent” besides, but that was a decision almost as ill-advised as having more beer on hand. But you know what, we don’t have much in the way of leadership anymore, at least insofar as it can be considered intelligent or responsible. So I’m not really surprised.

What got under my skin the most is that, once again, our popular culture just keeps on continuing to demonstrate its penchant for excess, instant gratification, irresponsibility, and just straight up partytime central. I wasn’t at the Boise Music Fest for very long—maybe five or six hours—but in that time I saw several drunken brawls, one of which I helped to break up because the idiots were threatening to spill into the area where my group was standing. I watched a girl walk by me with a child that couldn’t have been more than a few months old, which was altogether a bad decision, but what did she care about the baby? She was going to see the free show, by God, babysitter or no. I watched a woman walk out of the crowd, obviously drunk or high, and begin to dance seductively for a man directly in front of me, who was there with his girlfriend. I walked straight past the booth that was advertising for signatures on the petition for the Idaho Medical Choice Act, which was decorated with renderings of cannabis leaves in green marker; that was hilarious. I can always tell when something is supported by liberals: its name is always the exact opposite of its effect. I walked by some ardent supporters of the measure later, who had mobbed over to a distant corner of the park to toke about it, he he he. There's no mistaking that particular aroma. It’s all fun and games, isn’t it? And can someone explain to me how M.C. Hammer singing about a woman’s ass somehow speaks to the dignity of the human spirit? How is that even art, never mind entertainment? I thought, surely, after singing a song like that, he won’t try to preach from the stage about his relationship with Jesus. But he did anyway, and it makes a mockery of the gospel of Christ. Too bad, and so very sad.

I’m all about allowing people to choose for themselves and reap either reward or consequence. Hell, I do that every day myself. But I’m dismayed at the decay of our youth culture, of which music culture has been and is still such a large part. It bums me out that so many of us still haven’t grown up, and refuse to do so, even at forty, fifty plus years of age. So many of us are still living for the next party, the next drunken binge, the next opportunity to worm our way into the VIP area, go to the afterparty and get laid or whatever, and for what? It’s so been done before. What, did that fulfill you last time you tried it? Yeah. I didn’t think so.

Perhaps the saddest part of the Boise Music Fest is that it brings out the worst in us. I know I saw plenty on Saturday, and I still wonder: why are so many of us content to exist in the slums of life? Why are so many of us so damn stupid?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Red Rabbit, by Tom Clancy

Clancy’s Red Rabbit is a spy-procedural, I guess you’d call it, that stars perennial hero Jack Ryan in a retrospective-prequel set in the early 1980’s. Being that I haven’t yet read all of Clancy’s stuff, I got the impression that I was missing some inside jokes as I went along. It was like watching old episodes of Benny Hill, where you get the impression that you’re supposed to laugh but you’re not sure why. So there were a few things I didn’t get; a few details that overflew me as I read.

That’s not to say it was a bad book at all.  It’s actually a good book. Personally, I’m lately enjoying Cold War era spy novels, and Clancy delivers the goods in this one. Actually, I’m pretty sure the guy can’t write anything badly or even subpar. I’m reminded why I love Clancy’s style: he has an attention to detail that isn’t often found in fiction these days. In fact it’s more often found in college level textbooks, probably. He has a knack for explaining the science, the why behind a particular plot element in the story that adds to rather than takes away. It’s brilliant.

And can I just say here, too, that holy crap there is a whole lot of consumption going on with his characters. At any given point, the characters are using any kind of tobacco and drinking any kind of alcoholic beverage, up to and including every kind of crap Soviet vodka they ever made. Clancy’s cast is lush, and in more than one sense.

The ending is at least slightly open-ended, but it still satisfies. Thankfully there’s a substantial Clancy backlist out there just waiting for me to peruse at my local library. If anyone knows offhand what Clancy novel is next in the timeline, drop me a comment, because I’d like to know.

The only niggles I can come up with on this book have already been mentioned (which can be chalked up to operator error, in lots of ways), but there’s one to add: I just wonder about this. It seems backward to me, especially from the perspective I’ve gained as an editor. But it seems to me that Clancy may have submitted his final MS to the editor, and then the editor came back with this comment: “Good, but add 20%.” There’s about that much padding in there, honestly, and I think it detracts from the momentum of the story. I don’t like it when authors (or their editors) make me feel like they think I’m too stupid to grasp something the first time it’s mentioned, let alone after the second or third time. It gets almost plot-line preachy. But again, that may be because I missed some things that the rabid Clancy fan would have latched onto. All in all, Red Rabbit is a good summer read.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, Part 8: Publishing

Real power.

My good friend Aaron Patterson recently posted up a comment on Facebook about this: what’s it take to sell your book (basically)? I mean, some of us are selling and some of are not, and it’s not as if it’s cut and dried that the nonsellers are shitty writers. Pardon me, but come on. And there’s plenty of hot-selling total crapola out there. So it’s not simple.

Adding to the complexity is the free market, which I adore. The rise of the eBook confounds the Big Six publishers today just the same way Napster and iTunes changed just about everything in regard to the music business about ten years ago. Well…when I say everything…the point is that Bob Dylan was right about how times change, but only insofar as they don’t really, which was King Solomon’s counterbalancing bit of sagacity.

Aaron and I secretly agree that for the business-minded author, the entrepreneurial, the indie author, pssst, there’s really no need for a publisher. The dirty little secret is that the Big Six will expect you to work just as hard for them as if you were going it alone, and in exchange for that gigantic favor they will be taking about 85% of the pot, thanks. At least. I personally don’t want to shove against that wall. Someone else can shove it, if you get my meaning.

The facts, therefore, have been distilled down to these: editing, cover design, publishing, and marketing strategy. Those are the things that matter most, and the things that any competent publisher (even if he’s just a one-man operation, i.e. an indie writer) will spend the bucks on. Let’s have a look at ‘em one at a time.

Editing is the process, often painful, whereby you as the author pay large amounts of cash so that your work can be pulled apart by someone wiser than thou. It’s also so that you can be emotionally abused about it. A good editor will do that so nicely that you’ll catch yourself saying, “Thank you, sir, may I have another.” Remember that editing isn’t just spelling and grammar; it’s content, the creative bits, pacing, character development, plot, and so on. It’s my personal opinion that the best editors are a one-stop shop. Spelling and grammar are fixed pretty well by Word itself. Anyway, editors who only do spelling and grammar are often called proofreaders, not editors.

Cover design is something at which I suck. Just being honest. So few authors are double-edged swords, able to produce literary and graphic excellence. I recently posted on Facebook a cover I did for my upcoming novella The Marsburg Diary, alongside another cover that was professionally done, and asked people to vote. It was something on the order of 20:1 against mine. Not to say that I can’t learn eventually, but for now, I’ll be leaving it to the professionals. I’d counsel you to do the same. It’s almost impossible to spend too much on a good cover. Don’t be afraid to “focus group” it with your friends, either.

Publishing just means that you’re taking your work public. That’s all. And right now one of the best ways to do that is to convert your Word .docx (or .doc, if you’re Vincent Zandri) to Amazon’s eBook format. There are rumblings that Kindle devices will soon open and read any eBook file format, by the way. And guess what. Once you pay for the file conversion, there’s no more overhead, really, and Amazon pays out 70% royalties on eBooks, provided you’re within a certain price envelope.

But what of marketing strategy? What about print? What about eBooks? This is such a loaded subject that I think it might be best to broach it in a separate blog. There’s so many opinions on it. But you’ve got to know that all the work you’ve done before this point will rot like something nasty on the underside of a cafĂ© table if you’ve not got a marketing plan, and a good one. Also bear in mind that, hello, technology, love it or hate it, is a very important part of how well you’ll do as far as sales are concerned. It’s my opinion, and Aaron will probably back me up on this, that social media is still a large part of the best marketing plans for eBooks, and rightly so. Until the sea changes again, Facebook and Twitter are necessary evils at worst, and powerful tools at best.

Look, folks, the marketplace is changing everyday. It’s been that way ever since uncle Abu was hawking fish in the square in Mesopotamia and keeping the accounting ledger in Cuneiform. I love to write. In order to keep doing that, I have to sell the books I produce. While it’s not rocket science, there are certain requisites. I hope this longish post helped to illustrate some of those, and that you’ll be applying some of these tips to your own journey as a professional. Look alive; it’s a wonderful time to be a creator and artist.

Monday, July 18, 2011


The author hard at work in a different kind of office

In my affinity for all things old I have discovered a common thread: Most of the old things I like can also be described as substantial. They’re analog (i.e., non-digital). Maybe even traditional. Definitely physical; tangible. Since the world has become so virtual, I find myself longing for things that are real. Older cars, for instance. They don’t have bits of plastic and silicon in them. They’re 100% real. Somehow such a thing is more impressive to a man.

The quest for reality applies to a project I’ve been working on in my backyard, too. I used to be a part of a building company, see. It went under because we built an enormous Ishmael—that’s what I’m calling it—up in the Boise foothills in 2006-07. It’s still sitting empty and unfinished inside, waiting for a buyer. I don’t know who in their right mind would want to buy a 5,000 square foot log house in Robie Creek, but I do know about business failure (a post for another day). I also know a whole hell of a lot about how to build a house from footing to rafter, but in all that knowledge there’s precious little experience with the real old-school techniques. In other words, I know how to build with dimensional lumber, even logs, but not with bricks and mortar.

But the old is becoming new, at least to me. Hence my enthusiasm for my little backyard project. It all started when my wife’s dad popped over with a find from the Main Auction in Boise: an old fireplace insert. It was in good shape, but a little too ratty for an indoor install.

Now listen. I love my wife. She has vision. She didn’t know, setting out, how much work it would be to build what she wanted. When her imagination really got going though, and she started talking about an outdoor fireplace, the first thing I should have done was hit up the Costco for a family size pack of Motrin for the body aches that were coming for me. Instead I procrastinated until I broke ground, and the anti-inflammatory meds were an afterthought.

Anyway. I’m well into the middle of the beginning stages (!) of building a pretty nice little outdoor fireplace. I poured the slab, then started setting the cinder blocks that make the parapet around part of our little paver patio. That parapet is two blocks tall, and when the coping is finished, it’ll be a nice bench that ensconces our fireplace.

Building with bricks and mortar, though, is just another example of my quest to lay hold of something significant by mining history. I love, for instance, those massive heavy full color picture books at the library that feature architecture, whether it’s Roman arches or the Greek “golden section” (a ratio of 1 : 1.618), manifest in the Parthenon of Athens. Again, a post for another day. What fascinates me about building with bricks and mortar is that the tools and techniques really haven’t changed in several thousands of years. That’s quite unlike any other method of building that remains to us today. And I can’t help but feel, as I build, a distant but warm communion with the builders whose monumental works came (and sometimes went) before me.

Perspectives matter; they help to keep us anchored in what matters most. My little building project is a manifestation of the kind of real durability that lately I have been craving. When so few things last, it’s nice to know that I can create something that does.

Friday, July 15, 2011

An Hour with Alan Heathcock

I recently attended a reading of Volt, with Alan Heathcock, at the Boise library.

It may seem to most of you that I’m quite cultured and jet-set, experienced to the point of boredom with all the finer aspects of the literary culture, but that ain’t necessarily so. This event was the first of its kind that I have ever experienced, and it was enjoyably unique. I’ve played trumpet recitals and been a drummer (on more than one occasion), but this was completely different.

Though it wasn’t quite the same as the poetry reading scene from So I Married an Axe Murderer, it was satisfyingly highbrow. Mr. Heathcock’s reading was a little like the above scene, but also a lot like listening to an old-time Midwestern preacher wax eloquent for a while on some illustrative anecdote. It’s really indescribable, how Heathcock sounds when he reads, but it’s good. More of a performance than a reading, per se. He’s from Chicago, after all, a place from which both sides of my family hail, and for at least a few generations, and Chicago ain’t for sissy la la types.

On to the material: Mr. Heathcock is one of us: he has struggled under the whip of the muse. She can be a harsh mistress, and Alan fully understands this, having written two attempted novels only to watch them fall “like a house of cards” toward the final stages. Therefore his methods have changed over the years, and he has been known to sit for hours before the keyboard imagining the details of the world he’s committing to paper, before a single keystroke is exercised. He calls this “imaginative preparation.”

Maybe that’s why, according to him, it took 12 years to write his latest short story, Volt. What little I was able to co-imagine at the reading certainly seems to be high grade, and worth the wait. Alan says that he’s “never not a writer.” I can relate to that. It is a conscious act for me to walk away from my storytelling; I get brainwaves at all hours about that one last niggling thing that needs my attention in the story I’m crafting, and it will send me no matter what to my notebook so that I can write it down. But why do we writers work so hard all the time? It can be summed up in another Heathcock nugget: “I think writing is an act of hope.” So that’s why.

I can’t recommend more heartily the work and the man, who, though we met only briefly, certainly seems to be one of the good guys, a quality individual who is a genuine part of the community of writers, of people here in Boise. As Vincent Zandri has said, “Boise is the new Paris.” That very well may just be so, but time will tell. With the talent cropping up around here, I think our chances are good.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"Writing" by Talking

Writing with voice recognition software?

How could that be called writing, first off; I know. But it’s been an intriguing prospect for me for many years. It’s probably been that way for me because I didn’t pay much attention to Mrs. What’s-her-face in keyboard class in junior high. That’s the IBM Selectric keyboard as opposed to the Korg or Steinway varieties, to be clear. Anyway, typing is not my strong point. I’ve managed to get this far by using two or three fingers on each hand, and going back to the proper method would be quite painful.

All this to say that I’ve been waiting, pretty much ever since the time I got my first digital watch (as a reward for winning a T-ball game at eight or nine), to command my computer a la James T. Kirk: with my voice and not my clumsiness.

Enter the Dragon. Nuance’s Dragon Naturally Speaking, that is. This software is in a class of its own, really, as there don’t seem to be many competitors out there. According to the company’s Web site, Dragon is 99% accurate “right out of the box,” and works with your iPhone or iPod as the microphone (eliminating the need for a sexretary to take dictation), or you can use it to input directly into Word and other MS Office applications, “turning talk into text.” That’s more exciting than an early Christmas morning in the Richie Rich household.

Since I’ve not yet tried this particular nugget of tech though (and since I‘m deeply suspicious and hateful of technology in general), I won’t presume to provide any kind of review on its functionality. I’m just speculating here—because if the ad copy hype is anywhere near accurate, the learning curve would be quite easy, methinks, and in no time at all I’d be turning out 10,000 words a day. This blog, for instance, would be done by now.

But that raises the ultimate question. What effect would this technology have on the creative process for writers? Don’t think I’ve not noticed that there are times when my fingers cannot keep up with my brain. There’ve been times that I’ve lost completely the train of thought I wanted to record on the page simply because of butterfingers. And after all, we writers are just storytellers anyway, and weren’t Homer and his ilk orators in the final analysis? Too, and obviously, one would not be able to use this kind of software in all the indie author’s usual haunts; the coffee shop, the library, the kitchen table with the children buzzing past making WW II bomber noises. But think of all the places it could be used, and quite effectively. Like in the car. On a walk, perhaps. At the gym? That would be brazen. You’d make no friends that way.

I don’t know if I would use Dragon—or even try to use Dragon—to write a novel. And obviously the editing process would involve a keyboard still. But for blogging? Short stories? Dragon might just be the ticket. They’ve even got a social media plugin; woo-hoo. Before the year is out, I’d like to give it a shot. I think, used properly, voice recognition software has the potential to increase efficiency for most of the things I do as a writer, and that means I’d better try it and find out if my hunch is right.

Monday, July 11, 2011

No Blog Today

There's no blog today because of summer vacation, outdoor fireplaces, cigars, rum, sleepless small children, and my body, which is no longer eighteen. See you lovely people Wednesday.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

I have a confession to make. This book just irritated me. No, scratch that: I hated it. Why? Because it had no purpose. Maybe I’m just too stupid to comprehend it. If I was, I wouldn’t know. But I waited for hundreds upon hundreds of pages for Cronin to get to it, to make some kind of point with this avalanche of words, and it never came. It was a huge disappointment to me, just the prototypical template for postmodern futility. I’m over all that bullshit; it’s so been done. Art is meant to have a purpose in the life of the beholder these days. Novels are meant to pose universal questions and then answer them. It’s like this story was written by a roll of the dice; it’s insufferably random and not even the title makes any sense at all.

I originally borrowed this book from the library quite a while ago, returning it after a few pages. Call me capricious. Call me an acquisitions editor; call me jaded and predisposed to judge a manuscript by its first three chapters. Or pages, as the case may be. In other words, it just didn’t grab me by the collar and make me beg for more. I don’t mind being manhandled by a book from time to time; in fact I rather enjoy it. I guess I should have stuck with my gut.

I read The Passage on the recommendation of my brother, a voracious reader in his own right. He’s more into Sci Fi and L. Ron Hubbard and the like, whereas I’m into dictionaries and literature. Anyway I trust his judgment and he said it was really good, so I acquiesced and took home with me the paperback that he lent.

And right off the bat I have to say this: there wasn’t a single time that I sat stupefied by some example of glorious prose, lowering the book in reflective semi-awe as I soaked in the spell of profundity that some authors are gifted enough to provide. This book didn’t deliver that to me. It’s just that the book happened, sort of. It just ambled along in front of me, and I followed along obediently behind its clumsy cow-like hindquarters, both expecting and hoping for more, at some point.

To add to my irritation, Cronin seems to be particularly fond of two words: “thrum” and “spangled.” He uses them quite often, veering dangerously close to overuse. I’d think maybe twice each in a book of this size (enormous) would be sufficient, personally, but they kept popping up, like curious plants that are interesting the first couple of times they’re encountered, but eventually become annoying and are prime candidates for being rooted out. I would have expected a professor of English at a major university to have a better handle on it. That may sound harsh, but hello, wouldn’t we expect a petroleum engineer to be an expert in his field?

You know what else? Whenever I turned a corner in the book and started to get into the story again, a blaring phrase in passive voice would pop up and scare the bejeezus out of me—never mind the “virals” (the primary antagonists in the story). I mean, if the characters walk into a room that “appeared to be like a garage,” for instance, just tell it to me like it is! Tell me that they walked into a freakin garage! Not that it appeared to be like a garage. See how irritating that is? And wow, is this a long read. It just does…not…end.

Was I supposed to be scared? Okay, a few times I was, but that was when I was bedding down after spending the day reading it. Normal and passing. Given the subject matter, would I have liked to have been more scared? Well yeah. Yet again, it didn’t reach out and yank my chain. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer and I know how these things are made, but the book wasn’t a thriller—not for me. It was a future-shock post-apocalyptic Mad Max-meets-Dracula kind of hybrid, and I wasn’t into it. Why? Because it’s not really original. It’s a rewarmed rehash of all kinds of stuff that’s already been done.

The world really didn’t need another vampire novel anyway, especially one this badly executed.
The Passage, with its innumerable faults, its many plotlines left adrift and wandering, and the mildly repugnant nature of its entirety, is nothing I can recommend to anyone. If this is the kind of stuff the Big Six are investing in, no wonder we're seeing the rise of the Indie Author/Publisher. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Writing from Soundtracks and Other Oddities

I know all kinds of creative people. Writers are an interesting bunch because we have all kinds of ways we engage the process of our art. Some people like to sit down and crank out ten thousand words in a day. Others like to chip away at a novel in bites of three to four chapters. Some of us prefer procrastination, and whatever the case I’m sure I’ve been all three of these before.

But there’s one question about creative methods that really intrigues me because of the magnitude of the response usually given to the question…and that question is, “Do you write to music, and if so what?” That gets an undiluted reaction every time.

It’s usually an enthusiastic yes or a condescending no. Let’s explore those, shall we, because I’m both. Really.

First, the quiet-lover. I get this. I bought noise-cancelling earphones when I bought my laptop. I go to the public library to write quite often. And I have become an old fuddy-duddy apparently, because I give sternly crushing glares to the stupidly ignorant people who insist on having loud cell phone conversations in the fiction stacks. Sometimes I wonder what has happened to us as a nation, and then I remember: it’s the teachers’ unions, plus young skulls full of mush, plus an abandonment of Biblical truth that equals this, the youngest American generation. Ah, but I wore ridiculous clothing once myself, ‘tis true. ANYWAY. I sometimes like to write in dead-quiet environments. Rare as they have become. Especially since I have children of my own. Destruction, thy name is boy.

Second, the Stephenie Meyer. She famously writes to music. Muse is her muse. How quaint. I get that, too, because most of the work I did on Airel was to music; specifically movie soundtracks. One of them was Howard Shore’s brilliant score for The Lord of the Rings. Writing fight scenes with that kind of accompaniment, the imagery simply pours out in a torrent of words. Plus it's easier to write scenes that are supposed to be frightening when you've got appropriate music blasting in your ears, and there are some of those in Airel. I also stuck some Switchfoot songs on repeat all day, and more than once. The Hello Hurricane record (2009), if it would have been vinyl, would have been worn out on Sing it Out, Red Eyes, and Stitches, and quite a few of the more intimate moments between Airel and Michael received their treatments thanks to another song on that record, Yet. Still more musical inspiration helped me out on another book: The Marsburg Diary (coming soon). This music, however, came from another modern genius: John Williams, the man behind the music for movies like Indiana Jones and Star Wars. His score for Memoirs of a Geisha has been motivating my writing off and on for the better part of a year now.

So writing to music or writing to silence—as for me, I can do either. It just depends on my mooditude. If you’re a proponent of either camp, I’d encourage you to test the waters on the other side and see how things get on over there. I personally was amazed at how music greased the creative skids for me.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Independence and a Declaration

"Uncommon valor was a common virtue." ~ C.P. Nimitz at Iwo Jima
On this Independence Day it’s more than appropriate to define the word, because meaning is the foundation of sense.

Independence. n. The state or quality of being independent; absence of dependence; exemption from reliance on others, or control from them; self-subsistence or maintenance; direction of one’s own affairs without interference. ~Webster’s Unabridged (1890)

The entry above also includes a reference to our own Declaration of Independence: “The solemn declaration of the Congress of the United States of America on the 4th of July, 1776, by which they formally renounced their subjection to the government of Great Britain.”

Such language resounds deep with the heart of those of us who see the evil that threatens our very lives even today, and at the hands of our own government. Who would have thought that we would capitulate to socialism, to dictatorial authoritarianism, to the backward idiocy of Keynesian policy in such a feeble and docile manner, like sheep: too dumb to know, too stupid to care, trodding underfoot the solemnity of that Declaration.

Today I make my own declaration, because I have seen more than enough: That the government under whose thumb we now scratch out our meager living is guilty. I level the charge that our American government has taken by force of law, by crooked and subversive means, and by crony conspiracy, our God-given right to “exemption from reliance on others,” our God-given right to “self-subsistence or maintenance and the direction of our own affairs without interference.” I declare that our government is guilty of these things and therefore has ceased in any way, long ago, to be a servant of the public—as was its original design. I therefore also declare that it is our God-given right as a free people to throw off the bonds that our own government has laid upon our necks by refusing to be pilloried by it any longer. I trust that those who do not know the definition of pillory will have the sense to look it up; it is indeed instructive.

One might ask, “how then do we go about throwing off these bonds?” I have one idea, and like the best inspirations, this one came to me in the course of a day’s work in the Idaho countryside. I think part of the solution to our many national and cultural problems can be found in a return to the economy of Madison, of Jefferson, of Washington. These were actual men; not the effeminate wraiths in man-costume we see paraded before us today. There was a time in America when we used to not be helpless—that which we needed, we made, or made do, or made do without. We used to produce things, not only consume them. And we used to barter these, the fruits of our labors, for goods or engage in the trade of skill. There was no contractual exchange of consideration (favors), but trade based on debits against equities for which no books can be kept, at least not by honest, forthright, sensible people. That’s how Washington lived; it’s how men in his day thought. Everyone pulled together for the good, for wherever their interests, skills and goods overlapped and became common: where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. They did it not by coercion, not under duress or for fear of punishment. They did it with joy, magnanimity, with no expectation of undue return. There was not some great scramble for riches and power, in other words.

Let me illustrate with an example. The day that provided me with the inspiration for today’s blog was spent not long ago in a small town in Idaho’s countryside, where neighbors are neighborly, and living day-to-day is a team effort, one that requires all hands to carry the load. One of my friend’s neighbors, Rick, was working on his irrigation pump; he maintains a large acreage and raises cattle. A fitting on the irrigation line had punctured from fatigue; a funnel-shaped housing that isn’t simply stocked on the shelves of the small local hardware store, about a 30 minute drive away. Another neighbor stopped by and lent a hand. He’s an expert welder. As the day wore on and the situation was assessed, he ended up welding two large steel plates over the fitting’s weakest areas, mending Rick’s pump, allowing it to be reinstalled on the irrigation system, saving Rick’s alfalfa fields from the hot dry Idaho sun. No money changed hands. No “favors” were performed or called in. It was simply two men helping one another as God had designed.

Let the IRS bear the burden of proof so that these men can be taxed on their industry—if such a thing is possible. I will only add that We the People are not required to volunteer to pay as much tax as possible, contrary to the opinion of our sitting Vice President, who views it as our “patriotic duty.” In fact it is our obligation to minimize the tax as much as legally possible, and there are U.S. Supreme Court decisions that say as much, which is further in keeping with our founding principles and traditions.

I was struck by the simple order of nature that day. Surrounded by mountains in a high rolling plain, we were outnumbered not by bureaucrats but by the dragonflies, the field mice, the raptors that hunt them. A man’s handshake is firm there, his smile is genuine, and self-interest couples unparadoxically with selflessness. A man takes care of his business, and when circumstance overwhelms, his neighbor steps up to the plate and gives that heavy mistress a good hard shove in the back. Hands join in strength to overcome obstacles. Work in the working season begins at sunup and doesn’t stop until sundown, because good hard work is what good men understand they need most. That’s the objective. The purpose of it is to grab hard to life and suck the marrow out. Start early, finish strong, invest well.

This Independence Day, remember. Do not let the toil endured, the risks taken, the grief borne, the blood shed, the work performed by those brave ones who have gone before us rise up in contempt against this generation in witness against her own laziness. Honor the America that was founded as a Union of independent States who formed a government that would provide for the common defense and the impartial regulation of interstate trade, and insist that that government today toe the line; force these “servants” to either serve or vacate the office they defile with the excrement of their works. America, we are more than we have become. It is time to rise up and declare it to be so, to throw off the bonds of our would-be masters and assert our God-given right to self-govern as We the People.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Dial "M" for Murder

Since this week focuses on plot, I thought I’d further illustrate good plot with an old classic film from Alfred Hitchcock. This one’s based on a play, and it’s obvious because there’s not a whole lot of scene changing going on in it—which better illustrates one of my assertions about good plot; that the writer doesn’t have to go all Hollywood 3D on his readers in order to tell a cracking good story.

Ray Milland plays Tony Wendice, the villainous cuckolded husband, a former tennis pro. He runs into an old college chum, Lesgate, and manipulates him into going along with a carefully constructed “perfect crime”. Wendice wants to off his own wife, Margot Mary, played by none other than the legendary Grace Kelly. The plan involves a late night phone call and a roll of the dice on our oh-so-human propensity to live our lives by a set routine. I don’t want to spoil things if you haven’t seen it, but suffice it to say that there’s plenty of twists and turns as the perfect crime comes unraveled and improvisation comes into play.

I love the way the villain, Wendice, is written—and acted. He’s a cool customer, a man probably descended from aristocracy (though he’s far from an aristocrat in the story—he’s rather motivated by money). He never loses his cool, he always has a plan, and he’s not accustomed to being refused by anyone.

The sub-villain, Lesgate, is also perfectly presented to us. He’s the ultimate compliment to Wendice, very much his opposite and therefore indispensible to the plot. He comes off slightly dirty and common, and it’s his eagerness for easy gain that makes him what he is. His character is the wild card on which the plot turns, in fact.

And of course Grace Kelly is golden age Hollywood glamour; the soft counterpoint both visually and structurally that helps carry us through the story. She shames the starlets of today, all of them too quick to disrobe, too stupid to understand proper nuance, proper femininity...and portray it with dignity.

That brings me to my Andy Rooney-esque point. They just don’t make movies like this anymore. Well, maybe they do, but they’re rare. I see an alarming overreliance on 3D and digital effects nowadays in our popular films. What’s worse is that most of the writing that forms the construct of their storylines is vapid, limp, disgusting warm air. I hope and pray that it’s not because we are considered by filmmakers too stupid to appreciate a properly stimulating and complex storyline. It's almost like Hollywood writers are making their movies for the kind of people who star in them these days. In others words, morons. But Dial “M” for Murder delivers good plot in spades. It’s just another example of why I love old movies. And why you won't  find me at the theater very often.