No One Going to Turn Me ‘Round: The Big Star Story

The title of the post is a reference to something in the post. Get it? Okay, let me dive right in. Saturday afternoon my mother sent me a Facebook message to check out the documentary about the band Big Star on Netflix (It’s Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me for you curious folks). Not aware that such a thing even existed, I jumped at the chance, as I’ve loved Big Star going back to the early 90s when R.E.M. name-checked them in a few interviews and I discovered the Replacements. Oh, for those of you who don’t know the Replacements song, I present Alex Chilton:

So. Watched the documentary Saturday night, and it really affected me. I’m sure some folks aren’t aware of what happened with Big Star/who the band was, so thumbnail version: Memphis band starts up and recruits Alex Chilton, who was lead signer for the band The Box Tops (who had a few big hits). The vision for the new band was to form a sort of Beatles for the ’70s, blending psychedelic sensibilities with a rawer feel, sort of Lennon and McCartney meet early Rock’N’Roll. the architect of the band’s sound, though I did not know it until I watched the documentary, was a Memphis songwriter named Chris Bell, who would play guitar, sing backup vocals, and help write songs alongside Chilton.

The band’s first album, #1 Record, is…well, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re into power pop it’s almost a holy grail. Early reviewers said that almost every track on the album could be a single and it’s no lie. I mean, listen to this and remember that it’s from 1972:

For my money, that’s one of the greatest power pop songs ever written. It’s not quite the Beatles, but it ranks up there. For a variety of reasons, the album never hit. Marketing was inadequate and best and their distribution sucked. In the documentary they tell stories of people calling the studio asking how to get copies of the record because they couldn’t find it.

ChrisBellAfter the failure of the album Chris Bell kind of lost his mind. He erased the master tapes and attempted suicide. The band debated even going on, but after a successful show for critics decided to go for a second album. Bell didn’t make it through the early stages of the second album, absconding to France after contributing to two songs and a handful of demos.

If the distribution for the first album was bad, distro for the second was an unmitigated disaster. It managed to sell even fewer albums, barely leaving the warehouse, as their record label, Stax, started to have financial problems. By the time they recorded their third album the label was done with supporting the band and didn’t even release it; it wouldn’t see the light for day for many years. The remainder of Big Star imploded shortly thereafter.

IamthecosmosChris Bell, in the meantime, returned to the US and ended up working at a restaurant while trying to write songs for a potential solo album. Alex Chilton tried to help him get it out there by putting together a 45″ for him between 76 and 77. He recorded quite a bit of material for the solo album, but it would never get released in his lifetime. He died in a tragic car accident in 1978, never knowing the ultimate fate of his music.

That brings me around to why I’m posting this story: I found myself relating most to Bell’s story. Here was a guy with a vision, something a little different from the mainstream. He was troubled, yes, and likely would have struggled even if Big Star had become a huge success, but he understood the quality of what they were doing and how it could move people. It doesn’t surprise me that he went crazy when they failed to find an audience, especially with so much of it out of their hands.

BigStarWhat really gets me, however, is that Big Star is now a well-respected and well-known band. They had an enormous influence on a huge swath of bands and are covered to this day. Bell has even been cited as a member of the “27” club, of rock legends who died at 27, with his name in the same breath as Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Janis Joplin. He’s posthumously recognized as a genius songwriter.

Yet he saw none of it. I can’t help wondering: if you told him that he would be recognized for his songs but wouldn’t see it until after he died, would he be satisfied? Would that be enough? It made me ask the same question of myself, and I think it’s something that speaks to a lot of us who continue to plug away even without the defined mainstream success.

For those of us who don’t define success as material gain, is the potential of posthumous recognition enough? I had to really think through it, which is why I took my time posting this. I think yes, it is. My definition of success is speaking directly to someone, no matter where or when, communicating some of my own reality and finding a common ground with that person. I’m inherently never going to be first party or even second party to that process, so why would the limitations of time matter? I can’t speak for Chris Bell and what he might have said, but it does help a little to know that he achieved something for which he fought so hard. Let’s hope others of us can do the same.

Set Adrift

Wow, so it’s already been ten days since my last entry? Certainly doesn’t feel that way. Shows the madness that is my life at the moment, I suppose. So much of my life is currently laser-focused on two things: 1. Determining where I will be in two months and 2. selling pretty much everything that isn’t nailed down to raise funds. It would be inaccurate to say that writing comes a distant third, as I am still writing everyday, albeit in a much-reduced capacity, but the end result is the same, in that I’m not working on the novel as much as I would like.

Truth is, I’m not good for much else than journal writing at the moment, most of it centered around the difficulties that we’re facing right now. Writing anything else has been extraordinarily difficult, as the feelings and situations of my fictional characters pale next to what I’m experiencing. The silver lining is that it’ll bring some more authenticity when I’m ready to write a story that have characters who undergo such trials, I guess.

In the meantime, not too much to report. This week I interview for the new version of my old position and while I feel confident, I know better than to believe I have the situation locked down. Any number of elements could converge to keep me out of the position. I’m prepared for that, however, which helps the confidence level. I also plan to write a bit more this week, as time (and nerves) allow. Sooner or later I plan to tell the whole story of this difficult period, but not just yet. As with all such situations, I need the benefit of time and context to judge what’s going on.

Anyway, I’m not abandoning the site this time. I’m not ready to do that. I’ll see you again soon.

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The Curious Case of A Mirror Untrue

Did you know that I once spent over six years on a novel? True story. The first draft of the first chapter was completed on July 31st, 1998. I was 22 years old and living in Blacksburg, Virginia. I can still remember the day that I birthed the concept – a hot sunny July afternoon, when this character just started pouring out of me Kerouac style (of course, some drugs might have been involved in this process). This story would be the one to put me on the map, a contemporary fiction work that combined showed a man’s slow descent from idealistic naivete to cold-blooded murder, with plenty of questions about the nature of art along the way. Hell, that’s the nature of the title, that what we see in the mirror rarely reflects what we feel on the inside, and it’s even more true in William’s case as he’s convinced himself that he’s still an idealistic outsider artist when in truth he degenerates into something of a scumbag who needs to redeem himself.

Part of the book is set in 1972 and is a rumination on idealism and the loss of innocence. A pack of 1972 baseball cards represents an idealized childhood that the protagonist never had in the first place.

Part of the book is set in 1972 and is a rumination on idealism and the loss of innocence. A pack of 1972 baseball cards represents an idealized childhood that the protagonist never had in the first place.

I abandoned the book at the end of 2003, which makes a whole lot of sense, as 2004 kind of marked the beginning of what I see as my “fallow period”. Words would come off-and-on for the next seven years, but the unbearable pain and confusion in my personal life overrode artistic concerns. I suspect there was also a great deal for mourning for Mirror Untrue, this fabled story that would never be told.

I made a few attempts over the year to punch it back into shape – my writing files show a trail of tears from revision to revision. The last major version to be completed was the second draft, though there are six more semi-complete versions of it floating around out there. The most recent attempt to revive it appears to have dated to July of 2011, and even then my notes make it look more like a half-hearted effort rather than any real reboot. I had Corridors and I had Room 3 and I really didn’t need a third book that didn’t fit into that sort of genre.

Well, that’s changed. I’ve recently made the discovery that critiquing and revising a few pages before writing a few pages and then repeating the cycle is an incredibly effective way to get the creative juices flowing. I started by critiquing the work of an Internet stranger, then rolled into my critique group, and then found myself with nothing to critique. Why not open up some old files and see what was hiding in there, maybe put some ideas in and see where they go?

I started yesterday by digging up the last version of Mirror Untrue and reading through the first chapter. I didn’t expect much.

It shocked me. The writing itself is a bit raw and needs work, and I obviously hadn’t learned a whole bag of tricks that I now carry around, but by God the concept itself – and the characters – are good, if I do say so myself. My final concept had been to layer the 1972 story in between the “modern” story, which I’m now going to leave in early 2001, as it was such a different world. But by God I think I’m going to breathe life into this old project and get it out the door. I’m not sure when or how, as this is a side-side project, but it might make it out there before the 20th anniversary of its inception. We’ll see.

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Marketing, Marketing, Marketing…

The subject can make you tear your hair out, especially when you’re already in a somewhat tough spot with your writing. I mean, let’s face it, it’s not especially easy to market what I’m writing, at least, not yet. I do feel that it will eventually become easier, but for now I’m kind of taking my lumps as part of paying my dues. That’s how it goes, you know. Anyway, I say all this because after last week’s announcement, I’m in the process of commissioning a few covers, each for different purposes, at least for now. Here is the final outcome of my work with Silyvia Yordanova:

Real Full SizThe idea, of course, being to represent a more “realistic” approach to the work and give readers a face to associate with Matty. I think the cover fits in with a lot of what I’ve seen out there and will be easier to sell in personal appearances, so this may be the final print cover; not certain just yet because I’ve also hired an illustrator to create a fully illustrated cover that will better bring the vision of the original cover to fruition. I mean this one:

The Corridors of the DeadThe current concept is to take this one and more fully realize it, with a cross between the art of movies like Metropolis and Alien. With both in hand, it should be easier to decide which path is the more viable one moving forward with the series.

Let me just say that City of the Dead has been on an arduous path from the outset; it’s easily rivaled Room 3 in complexity, even with a pre-planned plot set out before it. The concept is just as tricky and there are far more characters and moving parts within the story. That said, I’m confident that it will be finished and work as intended – I just don’t plan to fail, period.

It’s probably natural that the cover art for City has followed the same tortured path as its creation. There have already been two abortive attempts at covers, which is why I want to take the time to get this right by first perfecting the cover to Corridors and having the theme to carry through the series. This is already a very difficult series to sell, and it’s important to get the tone and approach just right.

Let’s just hope that Portal of the Dead is much easier. This trilogy may well kill me.

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Down in the Weeds: My Dirty Writing Habits

Happy Friday, folks. I don’t know about you, but I find shortened work weeks to be a mixed blessing; confusing at best and frustrating at worst. Oh, I enjoy the extra day off, don’t get me wrong, but…well, I deal in something that’s quantitative just as much as qualitative. I have a word count goal no matter how many “work days” we have in a given week. I know it would seem that a day off from work would give me more time to chew through that word count, but I’m also human. I’d like to enjoy that occasional day off, and that can throw a real wrench in the works. Guilt and/or frustration can build up and before you know it, I’m beating myself up for just wanting to take a break. It’s an unhealthy habit.

Which brings me to today’s topic. You see, I have some bad writing habits. I admit it. I’m a Bad Writer. I do things that probably shouldn’t work. For example, I don’t keep a set time to write, as is suggested in most writing manuals. I find that doing this transforms writing from something fun to an ongoing chore. So I grab writing time where I can. Sometimes it’s at my desk, with a cup of tea or a Mountain Dew, my mind locked into some story. Sometimes I write on the elevator, when a particularly good conversational exchange has popped into my head. I’ve written on trains, when a particularly vivid image grabbed me, and I’ve written during walks. I manage to get a good amount of writing done even with this strange schedule, for I believe in making writing itself a part of your daily routine, something that you don’t just visit once in awhile, like a country, but part of a lifestyle.

I don’t have an action plan. Oh, sure, I have a rough schedule in my head, and I know which books fit into my writing future in roughly which order, but I don’t have a plan that specifically states “you will start on Friday February 22nd and write 2,000 words a day. This manuscript will be 60,000 words and thus you will be finished by X date.” I know, that’s supposed to be a Good Writing Habit. I’ve tried it. It actually made me write less because, again, the whole thing became a mechanic, another function, rather than a living breathing thing.

My writing space is a mess. People say your surroundings are a reflection of your inner world and…well, yeah. I have to admit that’s accurate in my case. I’m not talking hoarder levels of mess or anything, but for a number of reasons I do tend to spread out and my organizational skills could certainly use some work. The damn thing is that that’s how my brain works. That’s where I find things like the random image of someone clutching their chest in a dramatic turn of events – my mind is filled with clutter, and every so often I turn it over and find something incredibly useful. Sometimes it feels like I’m one of those junk artists who pulls all that crap together to make something more valuable. I’ve been told that this is a common state of mind for us ADHD sufferers, and the trick is to learn how to live with it and be productive rather than letting it destroy things.

For a long time, I thought that these bad habits made me deficient somehow, that I couldn’t do what other writers did and therefore would find limited productivity and success. I realize that’s crap now. My number one lesson is learning that writing, for me, is a spiritual exercise. Creativity is about communion with something greater than oneself, whether you consider it the collective subconscious, upper or lowercase god, or simply unrealized self. When you think of it that way, doesn’t this make a whole lot more sense? For some folks, the best path to spirituality is through organized, rigorous practice – and I think that’s just fine. For other folks, like me, spirituality is best found through the vicissitudes and messiness of ordinary life, a series of events that slowly accumulate into a whole much greater than the sum of those rough-and-tumble parts.

To put it simply, my creative and spiritual processes, for whatever reason, defy categorization and standardization. That troubled me for quite some time, but I think that I’ve come to terms with it. No, better, embraced it, and I can now be proud of being a “Bad Writer”.

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Wednesday Fiction – Open Slay, Part 1: The Beast

Welcome back to Wednesday Fiction, folks! As promised, I’m ready to continue this ongoing fiction experiment. The new series, Open Slay, is designed to be delightfully cheesy B-movie schlock (is there any other kind), so don’t go into this expecting any sort of highbrow art. The concept itself is silly enough, so I felt that trying to carry out a “serious” take would just undermine the whole endeavor. Besides, I’ve loved cheesy horror anthologies ever since I was very young, cutting my teeth on The Twilight Zone and the Outer Limits and numerous comic horror anthologies. I wanted to write one of those stories, and…well, last week when we had breakfast at Cracker Barrel I saw a completely demented looking snowman. Thus was born Open Slay…

Todd Bell stepped away from his snowman, putting his hands on his hips as he admired his precise handiwork. The snowman proved that he deserved better than spending Christmas weekend banished to a remote cabin in the Poconos.   He should be sipping nice claret in a warm, dry studio, not standing shin-deep in the snow, his shoes covered in ridiculous plastic bags.

He promised that he would address the issue with Ally that very night. No matter how great a lover the girl might be, she was not worth the misery of this filth.

He sighed. Still, you must do what you can with what you’re given, he thought. He thought this to be the motto of a true artist; no, a creative force. A craftsman.

Critics had hailed Todd’s paintings as – dare he think it – genius, possessed of a dramatic flair natural for the Daniel Reich gallery. He had deliberately cultivated the shocking, bloody style, as one did not see it in many other Village artists. He felt he could have carved or thrown clay. The medium didn’t matter, his dedication to excellence mattered.

And you have certainly outdone yourself this time. He smirked. He had granted The Beast (as he had christened the snowman) a strange smile, crooked and a bit deranged, promising something far worse than holiday cheer.

I have to make sure that asshole Bailey sees this thing, Todd thought. Andrew Bailey. Voice art critic and bane of Todd’s existence, the troll of a man had appeared in several of Todd’s paintings now, first as a victim of a brutal back alley mugging and most recently as the disgustingly obese victim of a murderous wife.

This, though? This might well be the best likeness yet.. Todd had decided that The Beast’s mouth – as a central feature to Bailey’s ugly maw – would have to be its most important feature. Simple stones would never have done justice to the thing, so he had used a simple spoon to carve the teeth from the snow, ensuring that they came out pointy and jagged, in the same fashion as the snaggle-toothed critic. The eyes had been a simpler matter. He had rendered these as large, rounded things that regarded the world with a perpetual hunger. Todd’s point of pride, however, had to be The Beast’s limbs.  The lack of articulation had always been his objection to the snowmen that his friends had created as a child. Today, he had kicked them in the back of the head, fashioning The Beast’s legs into thick trunks that supported its barrel body.

Snickering, Todd whipped out his iPhone to snap a picture. He may not have been able to get a signal in this godforsaken asshole of the world, but he could still ensure that the world saw his genius, Instagrammed, the moment that he got 4G reception. Continue reading

Shadows, Shadows Everywhere!

Greets, readers, and welcome back to the ongoing show. Hope you Americans had a great holiday, and for those of you abroad, sincerest apologies for the radio silence last week. I took the week off, for whatever that means to 90% of writers. In my world, it just means that the word count took a temporary dip (as it does every year) as I spent time with family and friends. I continued to chew at my stories as a dog will chew at a bone, and I even managed to start writing the next story for Wednesday Fiction, a fun holiday story titled “Open Slay” (heh). Here’s a little hint as to the story’s subject matter:

Hmm. What could it be? Anyway, look for the first part on Wednesday, with the next three parts following on each week, culminating in the final “episode” on December 19th. This is the last story that will make the short story collection due out next year.

Speaking of which, big news on that front! The collection now has a title, as brainstormed with the lovely wife: Shadow Boxes. Shadow boxes, of course, are “enclosed glass-front case(s) containing an object or objects presented in a thematic grouping with artistic or personal significance” (Wikipedia). The title seemed especially fitting given that each of the short stories in this collection are played out on a single stage.  Continue reading

Friday Photography Week of October 12th

Okay, so here’s the deal: I’m trying to be a more productive author, which is why I haven’t had a Friday entry in some time. It’s just a lot to take up to 3,000 words from my fiction writing and put it into the blog. Not that I don’t like sharing with folks – not that at all. I just think that it’s a better way to spend my time.

HOWEVER, I do like sharing things, and I want to give my readers something extra. I also love to take photographs and haven’t done nearly enough of it lately, so I’m going to do something for the next few weeks: I’m going to give you Friday Photography, where I share my photographs from that week. It gives me some motivation to take more pictures and offers you some more unique content.

This week I have some of the pictures that I didn’t use from the Cox Farms visit, along with one of my favorite water fountains. Enjoy.

Continue reading

Still Kicking – With News!

Hey all, you may have noticed things have slowed down just a tad on the blog. That’s a very deliberate choice, as I’m now very close to the final phases of my editing on Room 3. This means that I hope to have the book in my editor’s hands by the end of the week, targeting a late September release for the book. Finally! I can’t wait to see what you folks have to say about it. I’ll have a big promotion to go along with the launch, including your chance to get copies of each of my books and short stories for free. Still more news to come on that…but in the meantime, my stories The Station and the Kayson Cycle are going to be free starting tomorrow and until Thursday! You can get to those by clicking the links above.

I’ll still have a story for Fiction Wednesday this week, but with the holiday weekend I’m still not sure of how my posting schedule will look. Stay tuned for more information.

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Strange Inspiration

This post is a little odd; it’s amazing that it even exists, frankly. The idea came to me earlier this week, and though I had, at first, decided to not even have a Friday entry this week (I’ve been embroiled in finishing up Room 3 and working on my upcoming Wednesday Fiction series), it seemed too good to pass up. At the very least, I thought it might be fun to look back at the source of some of my stories.

I suspect it’s common for writers to find themselves somewhat loathe to reveal the sources of their inspiration. I mean, is it really smart to show people how the sausage is made? What if people think that “inspiration” has instead spawned a total ripoff? I don’t know. I debated that for awhile, but I figure, what the hell? It’s not like I’m 100% ripping off a work of art, and it could be somewhat educational. It’s also not like I’ve avoided the topic in the past.

It’s something of a cliche, but inspiration really does come from the oddest places. Take my “Rudest Man in Rock” piece, for instance. Some people identified that character as being based on Billy Corgan, and it’s mostly true. The title (and the line about the Gaultier) come from an interview with the man back in 2000, which you can read here. I still laugh all these years later at this:

“Nice skirt,” says Q, by way of friendly introduction.

“It’s not a skirt,” he replies gruffly, pulling back the long flap to reveal two trousered legs. “It’s a Gaultier.”

Of course it is.

The rest is pulled from different bits and pieces of rock lore that I’ve picked up over the years. An interview with Eddie Vedder here, a Kurt Cobain piece there, maybe some Robert Plant thrown into the mix. It comes from a place of real fascination with the mythology of rock, which is why I feel it breathes so well.

That’s the real key to solid inspiration: it needs to come from a place you can feel. Room 3, for example, drew its initial inspiration from the fantastic horror movie Videodrome and my childhood fascination and repulsion with the film. That story in particular shows just how far from inspiration one can stray and still find a coherent, fitting tale – all of the elements inspired by that film have since been removed, though it popped up again on my short story On The Air, which you should be seeing in an anthology in the next few months (don’t worry, I’ll have lots more to say about it in the near future).

My recent work, Once Upon a Friday, is inspired by a great deal of real-life events that I’ve encountered along with a couple of Douglas Coupland books: JPod, which details the day-to-day life of a group of office workers at a gaming software company and Hey Nostradamus!, a book about a school shooting. Every character in Once Upon a Friday is also inspired by at least one real-world person, and in some cases are amalgams of two or three people.

I really want to talk about my upcoming work, though. This story has been bouncing around my skull for a few months, and the original version had been intended for a TESSpecFic anthology, which may or may not still happen. Known as I Was Born for the Stage, I’m really excited about it. The story is set in the Old West of an alternate world America, where a devastating plague came across the plains states and wiped out most of civilization, leaving people either dead or transformed into aggressive mutants.

Magic is a very real thing in this world; the protagonist, Elsbet, is an 11-year-old apprentice who’s traveling East with her father to find out whether her aunt’s homestead still stands (a story that will be told elsewhere). They stop off in a small dusty town in Arizona to load up on supplies when their puppy runs off into a mysterious theater where Elsbet discovers the town’s dirty secret. It’s pretty much writing itself and is a lot of fun, so I can’t wait to share it with you, but it also spurred this post, as its inspiration comes from a recent Shins video that grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let go:

So how about you? What movies, books, music, or other encounters have inspired your stories? I always love hearing these stories, so feel free to share.

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