Returning from That Summer Place

It’s almost back to school time here in southeastern Pennsylvania, which means the kids will be terminating their summer brain dumps, rushing to catch up on assigned reading and trying to remember how to convert improper fractions to mixed numbers. That usually means time for the grownups to start getting their acts together, too.

I admit that I’ve slacked off this summer in a few areas – writing every day being one of the biggest. But where spring has always been the traditional time of renewal for nature, back to school time is, for kids and adults, typically the start of something fresh. It’s an opportunity to establish new routines and actually stick to them because so many other scheduled events depend on things running smoothly.

Yeah, this summer my word count for Novel #2 has fallen off, but I’ve also gotten the chance to do some things that will help make that book better even though I’ve spent a few weeks not actively banging away at it. One of those weeks was spent at our family’s own summer place, this one deviating from past years by switching the Outer Banks of North Carolina for Folly Beach, S.C.

New places equal new inspiration, so in lots of respects it was a worthwhile trip. I’m hoping it ends up as a salable travel story for the freelance writing side of my work, and there are always little details I can pick up from somewhere new to add into a story. Plus, as someone who sets his books in South Carolina but is based full time in Pennsylvania, it’s good to get back once in a while and get in touch with the people you’re writing about.

It’s also been good to go down some roads in my own reading that I don’t often travel. I tilted more toward the fantasy side of things with Fran Wilde’s Updraft and delved into the world of the Mafia – particularly as it relates to Philadelphia and Wilmington, Del. – in Charles Brandt’s I Heard You Paint Houses (look for an upcoming story on Charles and the forthcoming film version of his book in September’s Out & About magazine).

Novel #2 includes more of a criminal enterprise subplot, so it was great to read Brandt’s book and get a window into mob life beyond that provided in the Mafia film pantheon of The Godfather, Goodfellas, etc. And it’s always interesting to see what styles other writers adapt. Wilde’s is lean and tight, which keeps her sprawling, world-building tale to a reasonable and accessible length. While I’m not creating new universes out of whole cloth this time around, I’m trying to keep things leaner myself, so reading other writers who can do so is a bit like taking a master class in how it’s done.

So, here’s to parlaying my non-writing experiences and unassigned summer reading into some good, solid work on Novel #2 once everyone in the house gets back to their school year schedules. It might not be lounging on the beach or by the pool, but there will be plenty of that again next year.

In the Wake of Charleston, Waiting for Tomorrowland

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Wow – what a weird couple of weeks. A few major Supreme Court decisions that permanently turned things in the U.S. in a dramatically different direction, preceded by the tragedy of the Charleston, S.C., church shooting. The day of the shooting was hard for me. So hard for me that by 11:30 a.m., I had already decided to decamp from home and take my two kids to the movies.

Our choice was Tomorrowland, the Disney feature loosely based on the section of Disneyland and Walt Disney World that focuses on The Future. The film itself has been equally praised and panned, with detractors saying that it offers too nostalgic a view of the world to come because it focuses precisely on that Baby Boomer bang-zoom jet-pack-and-hovercraft ideal in which everyone would get along and we’d all be strolling around in shiny spandex unitards.

I’d spent the morning trying to wrap my brain around yet another mass shooting, this one in a city very close to my heart for a number of reasons. Continue reading → In the Wake of Charleston, Waiting for Tomorrowland

God Bless Allyson Bird, For She Speaks the Truth

A few weeks ago I wrote about why going into journalism is a great career choice for people who want to write for a living but aren’t sure how toNewspaper readers actually translate that into rent and grocery money.

What I might have glossed over is the fact that today, possibly more than ever, it is one of the lowest paying, most thankless jobs out there. You will be called upon to do twice the work of normal humans for about a third of what most college-educated professionals are paid. It is stressful, relentless and exhausting.

No one has summed up the negatives of the field lately better than Allyson Bird. Allyson is a fellow University of South Carolina journalism school alum who distinguished herself in her undergrad years and went on to work at the highly-regarded Post and Courier, the major newspaper in Charleston, S.C.

Full disclosure: I attempted on numerous occasions early in my newspaper career to get a job at the Charleston paper, to no avail. While you don’t hear much about it outside Charleston, it’s a fine paper in a spectacular old city and generally considered a plum gig.

So when I received the USC J-School alumni newsletter that referred to her blog Sticky Valentines (named after a line in the Elvis Costello song “Alison” – which only increased her cachet with me), where she wrote at length about why she, not yet out of her 20s, was leaving journalism, I was intrigued.

It turns out that a decade apart, Allyson and I shared many of the very same concerns about the newspaper world and our place in it – specifically, how we would continue to survive the business in the face of increasing work demands and ever diminishing returns. She did what I attempted to do on a number of occasions – left the business and found a non-news job that let her put her skills to work and afford something other than a four-person apartment share and Ramen noodles.

I’ve actually written before on this same topic in response to a column by Connie Shultz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist formerly with the Cleveland Plain Dealer and now a columnist for the Parade magazine Sunday newspaper supplement. In it, she lamented the dearth of young people going into journalism, with many of them saying they would prefer to go into marketing, advertising or media relations. She expressed horror that j-school students would opt for “The Dark Side.” I, however, was not surprised at all.

I replied to her column via the Poynter Institute comment thread by noting that her outrage was silly, because for a college graduate – even one devoted to the cause of truth – to expect no more in her paycheck by her third job than a Burger King management trainee would is a travesty, and that until newspapers learned to pay people like the college-educated, highly skilled individuals they are, the trend would continue.

So as a counterpoint to my earlier blog entry, I invite you to read Allyson’s thoughts and consider them well before you jump into journalism as a long-term career. Per my earlier statements, I still heartily stand by the news biz as a great entry point for young writers. But as Allyson notes, it might not be the kind of career you want to stay with for the rest of your life.

Oh, and a little something for my fellow Gamecock, because I simply couldn’t resist.

Feel the Music

Music, much like smell, is a powerful memory trigger. Just as a whiff of a lover’s old cologne or perfume can ignite an encyclopedia of emotions, music carries with it the ability to draw a person back to a particular time, place or emotional state.

Personally, I think everyone has a time during their life when they’re especially susceptible to an imprint tied to music. And because an important key in being an effective writer is being able to tap into real emotions, music can be a tool for that.

For me, one of the first moments I recall music directly tied to emotion was as a pre-teen in the late 1970s. Disco was at its height and somewhere out of my field of vision punk was percolating in New York City and London.

But because I was living in a small town near the coast of South Carolina, my exposure to anything other than what was on the local Top 40 AM station was pretty limited. Consider that the first time I heard the Beatles was around that time period when a friend hoped to cure me of my ABBA fandom with a copy of Revolver. Thankfully it worked.Revolver

Still, a few bits of excellence filtered through on the airwaves. And while I, at that age, could have already told you that Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” was an abomination, I was able to pick out some gems that really stuck with me. Part of that is directly related to the fact that I was feeling the first pangs of late-grade school infatuation with members of the opposite sex.

So it should come as no surprise that a couple of standout songs from that period were “Is She Really Going Joe Jackson 1978Out With Him” by Joe Jackson and “Cruel to be Kind” by Nick Lowe. Both spoke volumes to what I felt was a cargo ship full of unrequited love I was going through at the time. Now, when I need to tap youthful heartbreak, it helps to cast my mind back to how those particular songs seemed to capture everything my much less cynical younger self felt.

Much like a Method actor, who uses real-life experience to tap into what emotions a character in a film or on stage might be feeling, as writers we are called to do the same things with our stories. Think about the songs during your life that have coincided with highly emotional events or have somehow captured the way you’ve felt about a person or situation and don’t be afraid to use them (and the feelings they recall) in creating genuine, rich and layered emotions for your characters.