Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Grab Hold of the Week Like That Ex Who Just Wouldn’t Let Go

Something about spring, the more agreeable weather and the additional daylight gets me back on the motivation train. The last few weeks have been marked by significant progress on the new novel, Mystery White Boy, and a couple of great events where people responded well to work both old and new.

But Monday’s are still hard for most of us, particularly as the weather grows better. Because you’re able to jam more fun into the weekend, the hangover seems extra severe when 7 a.m. on the first workday of the week rolls around. So what better to get you going than a healthy dose of good, solid rock. Continue reading

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Today’s Funky Friday Brought to You by The Roots and … Elvis Costello? (A Rumination on Genre Busting)

130828-EvlisC-The-Roots

OK, lemme ‘splain.

Anyone who’s read this blog … you know – ever – has a pretty good idea that I’m an Elvis Costello fan from way back, and there’s a good reason: I consider my discovery of Costello on par with my initiation into a musical world that included the Beatles as its foundation.

But I’ve never really explained why.

Better than why, I’ll explain when. It was 1983, and I was 15, riding with my dad in his tiny Chevy pickup truck to help him out with a rehearsal for a play he was directing at the Chapel Street Playhouse, a tiny but very active community theater in Newark, Del. As we got closer to the theater, this song came on the radio – likely longstanding Wilmington, Del., Top 40 station WSTW. Something about the opening piano chords with the bass guitar right up front grabbed me, then the singer’s falsetto kicked in, followed by a more normal register, and the sound of the female background singers.

That’s about 20 seconds into the song. And man, I was hooked. I did something I rarely did. I asked my dad to just sit there in the parking lot and leave the radio on while I listened to the rest of the song, which turned out to be about a lovelorn writer using literary imagery to explain the ups and downs of a romantic relationship.

OK, I thought. You got me. I’m done. Who is this guy?

But the DJ didn’t say. Because this was the Stone Ages, when there was no handy digital display to tell you the artist if the DJ neglected to, I was in the dark. When I got home, I was doubly in the dark, because my family had no cable TV, and thus no MTV. That might have been the last time I heard it on the radio.

Sadly, even though the song was on the 1983 album Punch the Clock, it took me until 1985 to actually own the song with the release of Elvis_costello_best_1985The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1985. It contained the single I had heard – “Every Day I Write the Book” – as well as enough cuts from his back catalog to make me want to investigate further.

What I found was not a gold mine but a friggin’ platinum mine. Here’s this skinny dork (hello, 115-pound theater nerd 11th-grader) who not only rocks with this weird amalgam of new wave pop and pissed-off punk, but who is obviously literate. His songs, dense with words and metaphor and cross references, were like novellas in themselves.

Since then I’ve been a permanent fan, and pretty much anyone who knows me well is aware of this. Example: When I met up for lunch with a former college girlfriend a few years after graduation, one of her first questions as we made awkward smalltalk was, “Still like Elvis Costello?”

I wanted to say, “Yes, because he A) Didn’t break up with me, and B) Writes great brokenhearted nerd songs that helped me get over you.”

But it was more than that. I admired not only the literary quality of the songs, but the fact that his style was all over the map. One minute he was channeling pop-punk rage, while the other he was crooning a country song or paying homage to the sweet harmonies of Motown.

It was that ability to adapt and cross genres that, in the end, kept me as a fan. And, as it turns out, those same qualities are frequently what I look for in the authors I read and the ones I try to apply to my own writing.

As much as I love science fiction in books, film and TV, it’s the work that is able to admit that it’s other things that really grabs me. For instance, one of my favorite authors is Christopher Moore. If you’ve ever read his work, you know he’s hard to pin down as far as genre. Does he write humorous fantasy? Fantastic humor? Is it horror? Scifi? Occult? Why does he say the F-word so much?

Exactly! You never really know where he’s going – only that along the way you will be taken on an absurd and ultimately sweet adventure. Whether it’s a Pacific Island cargo cult, a pesky Native American trickster spirit or a rumination on what happened during the “lost” years in the life of Jesus, you will laugh and you will encounter elements of the weird, fantastic, science-fictional and – occasionally – the kinky and naughty.

Another example: I just watched the movie Safety Not Guaranteed, about a team of magazine writers pursuing a story about the guy behind a classified ad seeking a time travel companion.

Is it science fiction because there’s the prospect – real or imagined – of time travel? I say yes. But what makes it great is that around that conceit is a deep story of real people trying to recapture lost time or bygone days. The emotions are true and the situations believable, even if, at the center of things, is a concept that goes back to the earliest science fiction novels. The same could be said for films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

So, how does this all relate back to the funk mentioned in this post’s title?

In his latest collaboration, Elvis Costello has teamed with perhaps The Best Band in the World, The Roots (hailing from my adopted metro area of Philadelphia), working together to fuse The Roots’ particular brand of neo-soul, funk, hip hop and R&B to Costello’s dense storytelling. It’s what makes me love Costello still, repackaged and re-purposed with a funky back beat, a driving horn section and a noir feel that he hasn’t inhabited in years.

There’s no fear as both he and The Roots venture into uncharted waters of creativity, and the result, as it frequently is when fear is cast aside and new frontiers are explored, are extraordinary.

 

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The Lawnmower: My Nemesis, My Muse

mowing the lawn

Thanks to the borderline monsoon conditions we’ve been experiencing on the East Coast so far this summer, I’ve gotten exactly zero reprieve from my weekly task of lawn length maintenance. In fact, it’s probably what I’m doing right now.

Unlike the winter, when I can sit and pray, plead and sacrifice small animals in the hope of no snow and thus (if all that works out) save myself the task of shoveling my driveway, in summer there’s no escape from the weekly toil. The best I can hope for is a dry stretch – which, in the bigger picture, isn’t such a great thing for stuff like crops and drinking water.

But there’s been nothing dry about this summer. We in Pennsylvania have been getting a little taste of Florida life with almost daily afternoon thundershowers. The result, if you stand outside and listen closely, is that you can actually hear the grass growing. OK, maybe not really, but you get the picture.

And while mowing 3/4 of an acre in conditions approaching 100-percent humidity doesn’t really thrill me, it does provide me something that I don’t get a lot of the rest of the year – time alone to think.

For me, mowing the lawn is probably the most zen thing I do during the week. While it’s physically challenging (I use a walk-behind, rather than riding, mower), there’s a set pattern that never changes. As such, even though I have what amounts to a mechanized death machine rolling along in front of me, I’m able to partially remove my brain from the task at hand and allow it to focus on other things.

This time is really crucial to the working writer, because it’s when lots of things can get sorted out. I find that I can – for lack of a better term – program my mind to work on writing tasks that in no way relate to lawn care. Whether its addressing plot points that need to be organized in my second novel or just coming up with a few good short story or magazine article ideas, this period of intellectual emptiness results in a brain full of ideas – so much so that I make sure to pack my smartphone in a pocket so I can quickly type them into a notes file.

Letting your mind churn away on a task while you’re in the middle of doing something else has historically been known by non-creative people as daydreaming. But while “normal” people see that as a derogatory term, it’s in fact a creative person’s greatest ally, and I would argue that time to daydream is something that’s in terribly short supply these days.

In the workplace, any appearance of non-productivity can make your supervisor wonder what you’re up to. Meanwhile, periods of non-activity that were once fertile ground for coming up with ideas, crafting fantasies or envisioning your future – your daily commute, lunch break or tedious meetings – are now filled with inane and non-creative pursuits like using your smartphone to check your Facebook status. (I mock, but I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else.)

There’s lots of noise in life without supplementing it with more. You can’t get in the damn grocery line without a TV blaring at you, for crying out loud. But as my zen lawn mowing proves, sometimes the thing that ends up making the noise fade away and your mind open to what’s possible in your work ends up being your loudest job of the week.

 

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99 Problems, But A Witch Ain’t One

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Throughout my life, I’ve been more of a fan of performing in stage musicals than seeing them.

But since my wife wanted to see a show for her birthday this year, I was just happy that she had to pick something other than Rent, which we saw three times in a row over the course of about five years. So Wicked it shall be, and we get to enjoy it with our 9-year-old son and my sister and brother-in-law, too.

And I feel pretty sure (and am exceptionally excited by the prospect) that no one in this show will be a heroin addict or suffering from AIDS.

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More About Ray

Chances are if you’re visiting this blog today it’s because you read an essay I wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer about my former boss, Ray Daub, who passed away Thanksgiving week at the age of 61. If so, thanks for stopping by and for being interested in finding out a bit more about Ray and me.

Ray Daub

Ray Daub in better days, while renovating the Dickens Village Christmas Carol display at Philadelphia’s flagship Strawbridge & Clothier department store. Photo/Philadelphia Weekly

If you arrived here via some other referral, thanks to you, too. It’s always nice to see some new faces. If you’re interested in the essay referenced above, you can find in the paper edition of today’s (Dec. 12) Inquirer or here at Philly.com. If you need to head over there to get caught up, I’ll give you a minute. Here’s some background music to read by.

Good? No worries. I promise we weren’t talking about you while you were gone.

Actually, it’s funny because Ray would have appreciated that musical interlude as much as anyone. In addition to being a master craftsman of lifelike static and animated figures, he was an unrepentant music fan and occasional snob.

In his workshop there was always music – usually a radio tuned to Philadelphia rock stations WMMR or WYSP – and he never passed up the chance to mock a moldy classic rock war horse (he used to refer to the band U2 as “Why Me?” and, as a longtime Motown and Stax soul fan, was notorious for rhetorically asking when black people would start making decent music again). He’s the one who first recommended to me the Squeeze album (we called them albums back in the ’80s when they were big and vinyl) East Side Story as a pillar of alternative pop. His love for music was brought to life professionally when he helped craft a life-sized figure of blues legend Muddy Waters for the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss., in 1990.

If you read the essay in the Inquirer, you know that I credit Ray with a lifetime of inspiration on what it really takes to be a working artist. What you might not know, however, is that I was inspired by Ray in another, more unorthodox way.

I’ve mentioned in this space that it took me 20 years to complete my first (and so far only) novel, Immaculate Deception. During that long period of time, I found myself reaching into various different areas of my life for inspiration. So when it came time for me to create the character of William Z. Robert, a low-rent, chain-smoking demon, I knew where from my own life to pull his appearance and character traits – Ray.

Just take a look at the photo above (taken about 20 years after I last worked for him) and then read this:

“He was not what Jon expected, especially after Eli’s briefing. He seemed of indeterminate ethnicity – maybe Italian somewhere – with thick, dark hair trailing down the back of his neck in what his dad used to call a mullet. Jon imagined the length in back  was to compensate for the thinning of the hair that remained on top. On his face was a full beard that was in need of a trim, and the droopy lids and half-moon circles under his eyes suggested it had been a while since he had slept well. He wore a white tank T-shirt and, on his legs crossed at the ankles under the desk, Jon saw khaki chinos and block high-top Chuck Taylor sneakers. His ancient metal office chair creaked as he leaned back and pulled on his cigarette while tapping out a quick rhythm on his thigh with the other hand.”

If you had ever spent more than 15 minutes with Ray during the 1980s – or I’d wager at any time during his life – you would know that when I was imagining Robert offering Jon Templeton a less-than-aboveboard contract for service, I was envisioning Ray.

And just so you know, despite the occasional crap Ray dished out, he was never demonic. I’m not beyond using revenge against a living human to craft an unsavory character, but in this case it was a shout-out to someone who in my mind – and I’m sure the minds of many others – was the quintessential Character. There was no way you could meet Ray and not remember him. Now I hope generations of readers will enjoy my tip of the hat to the way I remembered him, too.

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Morning Is Broken

No, we’re not talking about the good ol’ Yusef Islam (nee’ Cat Stevens) tune of a similar name. Today the topic is why you’ve already wasted half your day when you could have been writing. It’s because your morning – the time that you could use to do great things – is broken.

A common lament among people who want to be writers goes something like this: “I have a full-time job, kids, PTO, and yard work to do. How the hell am I ever going to find time to loose upon the world my literary vision of sparkly, sexy vampire aliens who attack earth with non-stop tentacle porn and demands from their leader (who looks remarkably like Oprah) to turn over all basset hounds under the age of three to our new rulers?”

Everyone who has ever wanted to write and simultaneously eat and have a roof over his head has asked the same (OK, maybe not exactly the same) question. And it’s a really good question. How do you find the time to bang out 250 pages of brilliant prose when time seems in short supply.

Recently, I was up earlier than honest people should be (about 4:30 a.m. – on a Saturday, no less) to drive to a book festival about two hours away. I stopped by my neighborhood Wawa (the Nirvana of convenience stores, for those outside the Northeast corridor/Philadelphia metro area) to get much needed coffee and some breakfast, and there was a guy standing outside the store showered, shaved and fully dressed in office clothes, on his cell phone already taking care of business. After I got my purchases, I watched him wrap up his call and drive away in his very expensive car.

This man reminded me that a lot gets done in this world before most everyone is already awake. The people who truly bust their asses are all up before first light and likely on the job before the rest of us hit the snooze the fourth time. My wife, a nurse practitioner, is one of them. When I worked at an afternoon newspaper (with a noon deadline) I was one of them, too. And when I was determined to finish my novel Immaculate Deception, I became one of them again.

Here’s how it works: You get up early, write for an hour or so, then get on with your normal life. Rinse and repeat for eight months to a year and you’ll have a completed manuscript.

Naturally, it’s not quite that easy. There are zillions of places you can get time management advice that will increase your productivity throughout the day. What I’m going to talk about here is some help for those of you who want to carve out time from your  busy life to write, but don’t know where to start. So here’s a little primer based on my own personal experiences, assuming you have a typical 9-5 job and an otherwise busy life.

  • First of all, commit. If you’re going to whine about shifting your hours around to accomplish this tremendous and admirable goal you’ve set for yourself, look somewhere else. Consider this as a second job, and work at it accordingly.
  • The night before – Assess your evening routine. Are you addicted to Letterman or The Daily Show or anything else that keeps you up until or past midnight? If so, either break the addiction or DVR everything to watch the following evening (at a decent hour).
  • Also regarding TV – Consider what you’re watching between 10 and 11 p.m. If it’s just some dreck that you’re using to pass the time until the news/late-night bloc kicks in, eliminate it and make 10 p.m. your new bedtime.
  • In the morning – ease your wake-up time backwards 15 minutes each day for a week, until you reach the desired wake-up time (I like 5:30 a.m. – early, but not too early). Once you’re there, DO NOT HIT THE SNOOZE.
  • To ease the waking and working routine, have a reward ready. If you drink coffee, get a timed brewer that can have your Joe ready when you stagger to the kitchen. Get an insulated cup to pour it into so it will stay hot and you won’t spill it, then head to the computer.
  • DO NOT get online. Don’t even open the browser. Just don’t. This is crucial, since you’re not up at this ungodly hour to check Facebook or personal e-mails. Save that for during breakfast or at work (don’t tell your boss I said that).
  • Use a kitchen timer or the timer function on your smartphone (I have a great app called Timers4You on my Droid that has three different timers built in) and set it for the desired amount of time you need to work.
  • Open your word processing program, open your file, scroll down to where you finished the day before and … GO!
  • DO NOT STOP until your timer goes off.
  • When the timer rings, stop. Save the file, close it and get on with your day. Save reviews and edits for your lunch hour (you do use your lunch hour, right?). Note: If you are fortunate enough to live in an area where you have a good public transit system, use it. Your laptop plus a half-hour or 45-minute train commute equal even more working time automatically built into your day.  While I was finishing Immaculate Deception, my 45-minute train ride to my job in Philadelphia was gold – no family interruptions, no phone, no idle conversation – just work.

Follow these simple suggestions, and here’s what it gets you: if you have to be at work by 9 a.m. and want time for a shower, quick breakfast and a half-hour commute, a 5:30 a.m. wake-up – shazam! –  gets you about an hour and a half to two hours of work every day. Assuming you have even a partially formed concept going in, this will get you a completed manuscript in a year or less.

Naturally, no one will tell you that it’s guaranteed to be a good manuscript, but you will at least have a complete first draft to hone and craft to face-melting excellence. That is the difference between telling people you’re writing a book and actually getting the book written.

P.S. Here’s a little musical bonus, hoping that with these new found hours to your day, your soul will indeed be psychadelicized.

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Keep It Short

I’m proud to say that I’m a member in mediocre standing of a great writers’ group, the Brandywine Valley Writers Group, that regularly features great and informative guests at its meetings. My mediocrity stems from only being able to make about half of their monthly meetings thanks to my wife’s rotating work schedule.

So when I was able to attend the November meeting with no elaborate scheduling shifts or kid hand-offs required, I was pretty excited (of course, it might have also had something to do with the meetings being held at a great Irish pub with Guinness on tap, but that’s neither here nor there).

The speaker that night was Dennis Tafoya, a writer of modern noir who lives in another part of the Philadelphia area

Dennis Tafoya, author of crime thrillers

and whose novels include Dope Thief and The Wolves of Fairmount Park. The vibe at BVWG meetings is pretty informal, much like a dinner party where one guest is allowed to hold forth and everyone else gets to eat, drink and be educated. Dennis was very gracious in sharing with us his process of writing, his literary philosophy and what drives him to do what he does.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that his success in mainstream publishing can be directly attributed to his having short stories published with a few online journals, then discovered by a West Coast film agent who steered him in the direction of an East Coast literary agent. It’s that magical publishing kismet that you sometimes hear about, then hate having the knowledge that this apparently really happens to some people.

My first response to this was surprise that Hollywood folks, who only seem able to rehash old crap or generate new crap these days are actually trawling through online fiction journals looking for great stories and their authors. My second thought was, “Wow … I’ve really got to up my short story game.”

That would be, at this point, a game that doesn’t really exist. Approximately 20 years ago, I managed to bang out and finish a nice little story that was published in the University of South Carolina literary magazine, Portfolio. Please ignore that it was at the same time I happened to be the fiction editor. Really … that had nothing to do with it. I swear.

Anyway, that story won an honorable mention in a statewide competition, which was very cool. Since then, though, I’ve been stuck. No nice little awards – not even honorable mentions, mainly because there haven’t been any stories.

See, my trouble with short story writing is that A)  the things I begin working on intending them to be short stories morph into full-scale novels that end up taking 20 years to finish (please see Immaculate Deception), or B) I have great ideas that I get started on but never actually finish.

As I speak, I have between 10 and 15 half- or 1/4-complete short stories sitting in a computer file awaiting my attention after months or years. If they were people, they would have given up and moved on long ago. Even though they’re just stories, I still imagine them tapping their feet and looking at their watches impatiently, wondering when I might return.

Yeah, me too, guys.

I try doing a little self education every so often, attempting to get myself into the short story groove by re-reading collections like William Gibson’s Burning Chrome and Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and even the hefty (especially in paperback) collection of Mark Twain’s shorties hoping that some of their excellence at brevity will rub off on me. I like to think that rather than soaking it up right away, I’m slowly processing and absorbing it in the hopes that at some point it will blossom within me and I’ll be able to easily crank out some stellar (and short … and entirely complete) piece of fiction.

So far, though … nothin’. Well, that’s not true. I did start something the other day, but if I had a nickel for every time I started a story I didn’t finish I’d have … um … it looks like about 75 cents.

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Sons of Beaches

Forgot to mention last week that Immaculate Deception was named a reader pick for “great beach reads” in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Summer Reading package from the June 26 edition of the paper. Find the story online here.

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Do the Hustle

There are plenty of newbie or wannabe authors roaming around out there that are still under the mistaken impression that a big publishing house will do the work of marketing and promotions for every author it takes on. Every time I come up against this misconception (usually put forth by someone who has rejected independent publishing out of hand as something that “real authors” don’t do), I do my best to correct it.

This week the Philadelphia Inquirer went a long way towards doing that for me with this story on how all authors are now responsible for a good portion of their own marketing, and are forced to be darn creative about it, too. For instance, the author who wrote a book about the New Jersey Shore has done much of her marketing – especially now that summer is here – at the exceptionally busy resort towns along New Jersey’s coast. As a result she targets not only year-round locals, but the year-round residents of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware who flock their in droves as soon as Memorial Day arrives.

I have a colleague and fellow novelist, Bob Yearick, who wrote an excellent novel called Sawyer that is essentially a detective mystery set in the world of professional football, with one of the players serving as the de facto private eye. When we saw each other at a professional event not long ago, he tapped me for a little marketing advice and the first thing I suggested was that he start setting up tables to sell the novel in the dealer rooms at sports memorabelia events, trading card conventions or other sports-related gatherings. It doesn’t matter that you’re selling books and you therefore feel like all your appearances should be at libraries and book stores – the goal is to find where your readers will be and go to them.

That also means going beyond the physical world and deep into the virtual, targeting bloggers that can help spread the word for you in a much quicker, more efficient and, most important of all, less expensive (often free) way.

I’ve seen written a number of places that as much as “launch parties” can stroke an author’s ego, there’s really no payoff for the ordinary – and certainly not for the independently published – author. You’re announcing a party to a public who has no idea who you are and frankly doesn’t really care. Aside from giving friends and family a chance to congratulate you in person, such an event is really pretty useless as far as building the buzz needed for a book to succeed.

For me, the target market  for Immaculate Deception from the very beginning has been split between science fiction fans and folks interested in how we’ve gone about setting up Codorus Press. As side markets, there are the coastal areas of South Carolina, in which the novel is set. The only real “signing” I’ve done was in my home town, where I knew I had a ready base of buyers from my time spent there as a child and as a newspaper reporter during adulthood.

Otherwise, the press itself has done larger events like the Philadelphia Book Festival and other regional book events. This fall we’re shooting for, among other things, the Collingswood Book Festival and the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Book Festival, as well as PhilCon – the Philadelphia area’s huge science fiction convention.

We’ve also made shameless use of our former (and current) newspaper connections. Some of the best traditional press I’ve received so far has been from newspapers I used to work for. We’ve also used the editorial judgement we developed on the desks at a number of papers to craft better and more effective press releases. We know what editors see as a story, and we try to give it to them each time we send out a release.

So in marketing your work, make sure you explore all angles, both the most and least obvious. It’ll result in a better payoff for you all around.

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