Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Epiphanies Or Why Was I Not Already Doing It?

Epiphanies are funny. They provide that moment of clarity that, for whatever reason, you didn’t have before. Most epiphanies—at least mine—prompt you to say “Yo, dude, why hadn’t you been doing that before now? Why did it take, well, an epiphany to show you?” I can never answer, really. I always just chalk it up to “It Wasn’t the Right Time”.

So, there I was, sitting in front of my computer, and I read SFSignal’s report of Day 1 of ApolloCon. Dang, if it wasn’t in Houston, my hometown and where I now reside. Why the heck didn’t I know about this? And much of the focus was on SF/F *writing*. Aw man! And, the capper: David Hartwell, the editor of the Year’s Best SF anthologies published every year. The latest is Number 12. Again, I asked myself: why wasn’t I there?

Grumpily, I tell my wife about the ApolloCon and her first response was this: “Geek as you are, how did you not know about it?” Leave it to spouses to reinforce everything. My answer: well, I have not been paying attention to SF because I’m writing a straight mystery after my historical mystery. And that’s when I dawned on me: why am I doing that? Why, indeed.

Chris Roberson said it best in this interview:

“Science fiction is my native culture. (I'm stealing this phrase from someone else, but I can't for the life of me remember who originally said it. If no one steps forward, I'll claim it as my own.) Growing up in the States in the seventies and eighties, science fiction was ubiquitous. Everything from Saturday-morning cartoons to comic books to late-night B-movies to pulp novel reprints to blockbuster summer movies--it was all science fiction, in one form or another.

So I…decided not to fight it anymore.”

Bingo! That’s me, too. I mean, I have already written about how Star Wars changed my life and my love for the Harry Potter books. Why am I not writing anything science fictional? Dunno. But I’m starting now.

I took out my ideas book (Yeah, SF geek that I am, I still love the hard copy experience when compiling ideas) and wrote down all the various ideas that have been floating in my head for the past year. All of these that I have abandoned in some bizarre culling method to get to just ‘real’ stuff. Whatever.

Oh, and I bought Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF 12. Got to know what kind of stories that are being compiled in year’s best anthologies so I can, someday, get my work in there, too.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Writing that First Chapter...Finally!

Later on, when I finish my next novel, I can credit both my friend, Victoria Graydale, and Elmore Leonard for getting me off the snide and writing the first chapter. Last night, I attended a book signing for Graydale’s first novel, The Wizard’s Daughter, at OoLaLa in Houston, TX. It was the first book signing by an author I already know. And it was tres cool. Just seeing her there, copies of her book piled on the table, her artist bio poster acting as a backdrop, big smile on her face was a great feeling. And it reinforced my desire to do the same thing: have a signing for my books.

So how does Elmore Leonard come into play? I am reading (actually listening to the audiobook via Audible.com) his latest book, Up in Honey’s Room. I am greatly enjoying it, especially his co-star, Carl Webster. The reader does an especially fine job of conveying the speaking style of Carl, a boy who was born in Oklahoma in 1906, and all the other characters in Detroit of 1945.

But it is Leonard’s casual prose styling that I’ve been paying most attention to. His style is not flashy, just straightforward. As I have listened to this story, I remembered what my wife said to me as I tried, in vain, to write chapter 1. You are the storyteller, she said, so just tell me the story. I protested. But my wont is to be flashy, literary, unique. She smiled, and just repeated what she had just said: just tell me the story.

And I took that advice to heart last night. I pounded out six pages of text. And it felt good. It flowed nicely. So, I’m on the road. Thanks to Victoria and Elmore. See y’all on the other side.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Chicago III (1971): An Appreciation

Over at the Chicagofans site (free registration required), there is a new discussion about Chicago III (1971). For those who don’t know, III was Chicago’s third straight double-LP in two years. Later in 1971, they would release the 4-LP Chicago at Carnegie Hall. Impressive debut, if you ask me. Ten LPs, totaling 20 sides of music from 1969-1971.

Anyway, the consensus is mixed on III. Some love its obvious musical experimentation while some hate the mix or the overlong songs. In order to get my take on III, you have to know how I break down Chicago’s catalog. There was the Originals, that is 1967-1977. This included their first LP (Chicago Transit Authority) through Chicago XI. In January 1977, original guitarist/vocalist Terry Kath accidentally shot himself. So, no matter how good Chicago would go on to become, there was always a tinge of loss.

Of the decade that I call the Originals, Chicago at Carnegie Hall (usually given the moniker IV) marked a natural break. After IV, Chicago released its first single LP, the phenomenal Chicago V (1972) which walked the tightrope of long pieces and radio-friendly shorter songs. Chicago VI was more even more radio-friendly. By the time Chicago VII was released, the band’s last double-LP to date, Chicago was a radio-friendly band. How did they know that? Lots of fans dismissed LP#1 of Chicago VII, which had long instrumental tracks of more musical experimentation. Fans in concert grew bored with these longer passages and Chicago learned from that.

All this is to allow me to put Chicago III in context. While LP#1 of Chicago VII was their attempt to *return* to their experimental time, Chicago III was made when they were in the *middle* of it. You can tell they did not care about song lengths because they made three suites of music. And with four sides of music, only side 1/LP1 did not contain a suite. In their minds, they were creating extended musical statements, not necessarily extended solos.

Chicago III was, to my mind, the last record they made *for themselves* until 1993 and the still-unreleased Stone of Sisyphus. They did whatever they wanted. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young? Check with “Flight 602.” Classically-oriented horn piece? Check with “Elegy.” Environmental song? Check with “Mother,” a fascinating horn piece where trombonist Jimmy Pankow solos alongside…Jimmy Pankow. Latin-inspired number? Check with “Happy Cause I’m Going Home.” Social commentary? Check with the ending of Elegy, the Travel Suite, and Robert Lamm’s reading of “When All the Laughter Dies in Sorrow.” Killer guitar solo by Terry Kath? Check with "Sing a Mean Tune Kid." A couple of radio-friendly pieces? Check with “Lowdown” and “Free,” the latter of which includes on of the best horn breaks in all of Chicago’s oeuvre.

And then there's that album cover design of the logo... It evokes life in America during the final years of Vietnam. And the album insert had all seven band members dressed in various military uniforms posing in Arlington National Cemetery.

How do I rank III? While I have never ranked it among my Top 5 favorite records (CTA, II, Stone of Sisyphus, V, 17), it is in the top 10, usually jockeying with VII for positions number 6 or 7.

In short, Chicago III has a little bit of everything. And that might be its undoing in the eyes of many fans. There are other, more streamlined and precise LPs, even in the early catalog. But III, as a whole, is a bit untidy. And that, to me, is one of its graces.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Podcasting and the Future

I just finished listening to an interview with Scott Sigler over at Adventures in SciFi Publishing. Sigler podcasted his books and gained an actual print contract because of it. Just hearing his enthusiasm for the medium and the new way to get books out to people is infectious.

I am an avid listener of audiobooks. With a 45-minute (one-way) commute, I get more books read via audiobook than I do via hard copy. I have already given thought to podcasting Treason at Hanford. Now, with the success of Sigler’s (and others at www.podiobooks.com), I’m thinking that I definitely will podcast Treason. It is very, very exciting to ponder the possibilities…but not without realizing that it will not be easy. It will take hard work. The good thing is that I’m willing to do it.

Now, I just need to test my sound system and make sure I have good enough quality audio equipment. Stay tuned...

My take on Springsteen's "Born to Run"

I originally wrote this in 2002 after Springsteen's The Rising was released.

“Born to Run” has many elements that make it one of the quintessential rock and roll songs. It has meaningful lyrics that do not pander but tell it like it is for many people: isolation, desolation, searching, redemption. The fury with which the original blasted through the speakers is tempered only by the solo acoustic version of 1988. The fury with which the music is played counterpoints the desperation of the lyrics, the search for something better in life and in love. And, I could argue, the sax solo is the climax of the love affair between the singer and Wendy. After they are spent, they realize that there is still the search for 'that place in the sun,' a search that may never be resolved. But, they are together and, together, they will search.

And the more-adult, older Bruce that sings BTR with only his acoustic guitar is, one could argue, talking to the singer of BTR from the vantage point of age. Bruce, with his failed first marriage and the infidelities within, lived the life of one of his characters. The Bruce of 1988 is telling the Bruce of 1975 that even when you might think you have everything, it can crumble and leave you lower than before. So, the search continues and, the redemption [for all of its faults] is the love of a wife and children that he sings about on his 1992 CDs, Human Touch and Lucky Town.

In light of the redemptive qualities from his 2002 CD, The Rising, “Born to Run” is bittersweet. It is redemptive but still tentative.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Politics, Harry Potter, and Modern Culture

If you remember my earlier column detailing why I started reading the Harry Potter series this spring (21 May, "Reading Harry Potter"), here's another example of how aspects of the Harry Potter series has crept into our vocabulary (as well as a couple of other dreadful folks as well).

Here is the quote from this article:

Given the standing of these men at this moment, it was a little like watching Lord Voldemort trying to defend himself with character testimonies from Sauron of Mordor and the White Witch from Narnia.

Now that I've finished books 1-6, I know exactly what the author is talking about and can smile knowingly.

As, as a marker for history to judge, the title of that article is "The Democrats can't lose. Except in two ways." Hmm, let's see if this article is available during the first week of November 2008.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Summer Reading List

Now that I have finished the first six books of the Harry Potter series, here are the rest of the books that are on my summer reading list.

  • The Wizard’s Daughter by Victoria Graydale – a first novel by a friend of mine. The more I discuss promotional possibilities about her book the more I can’t wait for my first novel to find a publisher so I can get on with my writing career.
  • The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon – Chabon is that unique writer who can be at home both in the geek world of genre literature and the frou-frou world of Literature. In fact, his 2001 book, The Adventure of Kavalier and Clay did both…and won him the Pulitzer. Now, he’s crafted an alternate history, noir, detective novel set in Alaska where the Jewish nation was not created in the Middle East but in the town of Sitka. Chabon’s prose is what makes him special. Oh, to write close to that…
  • Up in Honey’s Room by Elmore Leonard – The Dialogue Master. Leonard’s way of writing is to get characters together, get them talking, and see what happens. That’s not exactly my way of doing things—so far, I’m an outliner because I like to plan my books and stories—but Leonard’s books are just plain fun.
  • The Overlook by Michael Connelly – The revised Harry Bosch story first published in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. I created an eBook version of the NYT story and, as a writer, it is fascinating to compare the two works and figure out why Connelly made certain corrections. It shall be a lesson in writing and a dang good story. I recently met him at a book signing and he inscribed the neatest thing for me: “Writing is fighting. I hope you knock them out.”
  • Short Science Fiction – For a few years, every summer I would buy both Gardner Dozois’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and David Hartwell’s Year’s Best SF. I don’t have a lot of time to read so I let them cull the field and then I’d read those stories. I got behind so I’m working my way through the ones I already have, both to finish the books as well as research into the current state of SF. I plan to publish SF in my writing career as well as historical novels and mysteries.
  • The Space Opera Renaissance - I am curious about space opera in the printed world. Sure, the movie/TV stuff is easy to watch and like: Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, the Adventure of Brisco County, Jr. But how did it evolve in the printed world. That's a question for the summer, too.
  • Heinlein’s YA Books – Ever since visiting DisneyWorld in April, the world of YA fiction has awakened in me. I’d like to try my hand at it. And since I can’t determine if my stories should be SF or straight-up mysteries, I’m starting with Heinlein’s classics: Have Spacesuit Will Travel, The Rolling Stones, and Citizen of the Galaxy. Why those? Because the library has audiobook versions.
  • Audiobooks – speaking of audiobooks, here is my list of audiobooks I’ll be listening to this summer: Boomsday, Nixon and Kissenger, Kingdom Keepers (another DisneyWorld connection), and Walt Disney’s biography.
  • One Hundred years of Solitude – It’s just one of those books I’ve wanted to read for about 15 years now. I know I should. Perhaps this will be the summer it happens.

That’s about all for now. This list keeps churning and changing so I’ll update it when necessary.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" and Modern Life

D-Day + 63 years.

I watched “The Day the Earth Stood Still” last night. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen it all the way through because I did not recognize hardly anything past the first five minutes. Among the interesting extras on the DVD was a 1951 newsreel clip. I watched it first so it set the tone before I watched the movie. I have a couple of thoughts about the film.

One, the movie is a perfect reflection of its time. The Korean War was raging, the Communists seemed to be everywhere, the Soviets had the A-Bomb, and a sense of unease permeated the country despite the happy diversions of radio and the then-emerging TV. It makes me wonder what the equivalent movie and story would be for 2007. Is there a way to illustrate our current malaise in an SF allegory or trope? That might be the new question of the summer.

Two, the nostalgic longing. I rarely get nostalgic for something I never knew. I have always enjoyed living in the time I have lived. That said, the seemingly ‘more simple time’ aspect of TDTESS was nice. Heck, I even liked the communal aspect of the boarding house in which Patricia Neal and her son lived. Granted, as a parent, the fact that she’d let her son wander the city with Klaatu (‘disguised’ as Mr. Carpenter), a man who just moved into the boarding house the previous day, a little disconcerting but that was the time. That was the time before JFK was killed, before MLK and RFK were killed, before Vietnam, before Watergate, and way before 9/11. Is it wrong to want to go back and live the more simple life, a less complicated life? There is so much to appreciate in the world of today but there is also much more complications. But it’s how we deal with both the good and bad things in life that define us.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Thoughts on Bruce Springsteen's New DVD: Live in Dublin

Today, released on DVD, CD, or a combination of both, is Bruce Springsteen’s Live in Dublin. For those who don’t know, this is a concert from Dublin with the Boss and his Seeger Sessions band. For press releases, go to his website.

I am a Springsteen fan. I used to not be—as recently as 1984, I called him the Constipation King because of the way he sounded—but I changed my mind with Tunnel of Love and have been a fan ever since. Admittedly, upon merely reading the Bruce was going to record some old folk songs as the follow-up to his acoustic “Devils and Dust” gave me trepidation. AS much as I love Springsteen, I prefer the band version over the acoustic version. But when I heard the actual CD (buy the second release with more songs, the American Land edition), I was pleasantly surprised. Even my wife—who considers Springsteen to be, at best, the third-most-important “Bruce” behind Cockburn and Hornsby—was interested to listen to some of the songs. She still does not like Springsteen all that much but appreciated the effort.

Now, comes the DVD of the concert. I missed the show because he did not bring his show to Houston. Bummer for me. But this DVD is fantastic. And the music is so much fun! I have always enjoyed Springsteen penchant for reinventing his songs in concert. I don’t’ necessarily want to hear the exact studio versions live. I want something different. And the Live in Dublin DVD delivers.

As a long-time fan, I enjoyed hearing what he’s done with the older songs in his catalog. “Atlantic City,” which already got the band treatment, is led off by banjo. It’s now a song that could have a home in Mississippi. “If I Should Fall Behind” has become something else entirely. Now, it is a husband and wife duet that rises to sensuality. And “Open All Night” is simply terrific. It might be my favorite song upon one listening. It’s a hootenanny. It’s swingin’, rappin’, foot-tappin’. I dare you to sit still when this song plays. And the newer Seeger Sessions songs get revamped as well. “Pay Me My Money Down” and “Old Dan Tucker” are just as lively as ever with extensive room for solo works. Since the show was filmed in Dublin, there is a good dose of Irish-sounding work throughout. And whoever heard of “When the Saints Go Marching In” as a ballad? It works.

Oh, and as a sax player, I loved the extensive use of the horn section, including the bari sax on the aforementioned “Open All Night.” And that trumpet player is just nasty good.

If I had to describe this concert in one word, it would be raucous. But I can’t just use one word. It is raucous, spiritual, fantastic, alive, fun…. It’s that good. Go buy it. Now.

Harry Potter and the Caught-Up Reader

A few thoughts today:

  • I’m finally finished! Now, I can read something else.
  • (sinking feeling of emptiness) I’m finished…I guess I’ll have to read something else…

Those are my contradictory thoughts on finishing Harry Potter books 1-6. In April, I decided to catch up with a large percentage of the world and get ready for Book 7 this summer. I have read nothing but Harry Potter since 22 April. I did the math last night: 6 books (of 3300+ pages) in 6 weeks. That was 550 pages a week, 78 pages a day. I have not read that much so fast since, perhaps elementary school when I blazed through Hardy Boys and Three Investigators books. As I mentioned in a prior post, the audiobook-in-the-day/real-book-at-night thing was great. I was never without Harry Potter and his friends. And the ending of the sixth book (I’m talking the last pages of the last chapter) really foreshadowed the feeling we all will get later this summer when we’ve all bought and read Book 7: life without Harry Potter will be upon us.

A few thoughts. I expected Ron and Hermoine to be together by now. The movies hinted at it quicker than the books. That surprised me. Harry and Ginny getting together. That was nice although I did not see it coming until Rowling wrote about Harry’s feelings. Makes sense, though. Draco’s hesitancy at killing Dumbledore was good to see. It showed his fa├žade as a ruthless person. Like the actor who plays Lucious said in the extras for the Chamber of Secrets movie, he wanted the audience to have some sympathy for Draco. Now, just like Harry, we actually do. It would be cool to have Harry save Draco in the sixth book.

So, like a lot of people, I’d like to write my Top-10 predictions. Why? Because that’s what I do. For those who still want to experience the joy of these books, stop reading now. SPOILERS TO FOLLOW.

  1. Snape is not purely evil nor is he purely on Voldemort’s side. Dumbledore has proof of Snape’s decision to be on Dumbledore’s side. I still trust Dumbledore. But, also, Draco said Snape is a double agent. Snape has his own agenda. And I think that somehow, somewhen, he made an unbreakable vow to James and/or Lily to look after and protect Harry. How else can you explain his actions against Harry at the end of Book 6. Snape could have easily just killed Harry but even in his flight, Snape kept teaching Harry, all but saying “The only way you can get me (and Voldemort) is to learn to cast spells without using your voice.”
  2. Ever since Book 2, I have had the sneaking suspicion that Harry, who was endowed with the power of love (no song, please) by his mother, would sacrifice himself. And, since Rowling has stated this is the end of the Harry Potter series, the best way for her to ensure no other books are written is to kill off her hero. Granted, that’s a bit of a market-driven reasoning but the Love Thing was emphasized in Book 6. So, somehow, I do think Harry is gone. It will all matter how Rowling sees her hero. For Frodo, he lived to destroy the ring. After that, he had nothing much to live for. For Luke Skywalker, he lived to become a Jedi and had something to live for. Which way will Harry go? A large part of me finds it hard to believe that Harry, after killing Voldemort, goes to work for the Ministry or becomes and Auror and lives happily ever after with Ginny.
  3. And speaking of Ginny, I think that she will not just allow Harry to go off and fight. Her steely resolve is part of the reason Harry is drawn to her. She will be there, in the end.
  4. But I also think that Snape will also sacrifice himself. It will bring him full-circle and rid himself of his irritating vows. He sneers at Harry partly because he sees James in Harry and, because of the vow, has to not take overt revenge on the son of his tormentor.
  5. Lily Potter. One thing that struck me at the end of Book 5: Dumbledore commented that Harry was a half-blood and that’s why Voldemort chose Harry over Neville. How is Harry a half-blood? James and Lily both went to Hogwarts. My only guess (and this goes to the flashback to the night Lily and James died) is that, somehow, Lily lost her powers. If I remember correctly, in the flashbacks, Voldemort asked Lily to leave and get out of the way. Perhaps that is because she did not have powers at that point. But that her sacrifice enabled her latent powers to be transferred to Harry.
  6. Draco. I’m thinking that his hesitation in killing Dumbledore will not be his undoing. Snape made the unbreakable vow to Draco’s mother and I predict he did it to James/Lily too. As such, I could certainly see Snape dying to save Draco or Harry.
  7. Harry and Draco. I don’t know if we’ll see a scene of the two of them teaming up to thwart the enemy but it is possible. At the very least, we’ll get a scene, I think, where Harry could easily choose to destroy/hurt Draco and choose not too. Now, depending on Draco’s reaction to this, he’ll either do something stupid and get in the way or ‘throw himself on his sword’. I don’t think the second is likely but it is possible.
  8. James’s death at the hands of Voldemort. IIRC, that has not yet been explained in detail. Snape figures in this, too.
  9. Sirius Black. I’m not sure he’s really dead but he’s certainly not walking on the earth. Since there were whispers from behind that curtain, he is certainly not alone. Might this be just one way to become a ghost.
  10. Neville. I’ve loved the progression of Neville’s character since book 1. And only he and Ginny responded to the alarm at the end of Book 6 so you know he’s ready for anything. There is still an outside shot the Neville can factor in Voldemort’s death.
  11. Ron and Hermoine. I do think they will end up together and will live happily ever after.

Oh, and I can’t wait until 21 July to see if I’m correct and to take one last long ride with Harry Potter.