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.

Breathing Underwater

Hey readers, hope you had a good weekend. I don’t typically update on Sunday night, but a couple of things got my butt in the chair. Thing the first: a weekend of not writing. I allowed myself a day-and-a-half of not writing to recharge the battery to avoid some of that lovely burnout casserole. So far so good. I still feel up to writing.

1380783973_Creative_Wallpaper_Girl_under_Water_034917_Thing the second: Sunday evening blues. Lots of folks seem to suffer it and while there is supposed to be a connection to the start of the work week, I don’t believe my own blues have to do with work. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t do backflips at the thought of starting the work week once again. I’m just not devastated or even blue at the idea. It’s just whatever. My Sunday blues are almost always more of an existential variety, a bittersweet melancholy that things are not all okay with my world or my life, but I’m in the best place I could be at that moment. As juvenile as it may sound, the lyrics of Metric’s “Breathing Underwater” actually come to mind at times like this:

They were right when they said
We were breathing underwater
Out of place all the time
In a world that wasn’t mine to take

I’ve always read that song as her saying that “things aren’t great right now and I’m okay with that. They may be good one day, but not now.” And I suppose that does hit where I am very succinctly. Life is improving. I am taking steps to improve it. But right now it’s not all great. What can you do?

Pencil_paperAt least the writing is coming along. I have gone through the chapters and decided which stay and which go. Final count is 13 that stay as-is, 16 that remain but change to fit with the new narrative flow, and 8 that get jettisoned. With that in mind I am now retooling how the chapters work in the new version. I’m at Chapter 10 and have 4 new chapters coming so far. It’s kind of front-loaded on the new chapters, however, as a good deal of the back-end stuff is in that 13 that stay as-is.

The new narrative shows us a naive Dean who agrees to sex addiction counseling to dodge jail time and ends up not only realizing that he has an actual problem but meets the woman who will become his wife there. We also get to see Stephen joining at the same time and going down a slightly different path, becoming something of a holy roller. There are a few subplots that I’ll talk about as we go through the next draft. I feel good about the direction, so hey, there’s a positive.

Anyway. I will catch you some time tomorrow, even if it’s a short entry. Hope all is well and you have a great week.

Aniko Carmean’s “Stolen Climates” and 90s EPs

So, let’s talk about horror fiction. Let’s assume that, like me, you enjoy horror fiction – books, movies, what have you. Tell me now, how do you like your horror fiction? The gist of my question is whether you prefer your horror scary, yet ending on a note of triumph, or bleak, with every twist or turn leading down a dark, dangerous alley and nary a happy ending in sight? If it’s the former, well, more power to you. If it’s the latter, Aniko Carmean’s Stolen Climates is for you; at least, I know it was for me, but I generally like my fiction with a side of bleak.

Stolen Climates introduces us to Genny, her husband Malcolm, and their daughter Linnae. The family is house-hunting in the small Texas town of Breaker (think Troll 2’s Nilbog crossed with Twin Peaks). They endure the house shopping tour from hell, rejecting increasingly disturbing houses as their real estate agent takes them on a tour of rural decay. In a rush, the family finally decides on the last house, a place called The Argentine that was essentially abandoned by its previous occupants and shows some disturbing accommodations, such as metal shutters that are to be lowered at night and an ax covered in old blood.

From there, the craziness increases exponentially, encompassing the strange occupants of the only hotel in town, the proprietor of the only diner in town, and a pair of odd twins. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the seeming oddity of the townsfolk becomes a bit clearer as the novel proceeds, reaching a nice, logical – though heartbreaking – crescendo. Let me warn you, though, the book became almost impossible to put down during the second half.

I’ve seen this novel compared to the original Wicker Man, and while that might seem like high honors (and it is), it’s far from hyperbole. I got a very similar vibe reading through it from outsiders looking in on the seemingly odd ways of an ancient order all the way to the circumstances that surround the family. I can’t say too much else without spoiling it, but if you liked Wicker Man you should like this.

My only quibble is that the family acts a bit odd themselves at the beginning of the novel. It’s a little confusing and at times I felt like the family must have something else going on as well – it’s still a little hard to understand why they stay with their house hunting after their initial few houses are such abysmal places, but that question had been long forgotten by the end of the book. It’s a very minor false note, and didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all.

This book also does not pull its punches whatsoever, and I love it for that. I’ve seen too many horror novels and movies recently pull back at the moment where good, compentent horror should be pressing the point, bloody and/or gory as that point might be. Stolen Climates has no such compunctions and the author clearly knows what makes for good horror. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you read it. For my money, I’ll never look at a breakfast burrito in quite the same way.

Overall, I recommend Stolen Climates without hesitation. Ms. Carmean shows that she not only has great influences but can also pull forth fresh life and ideas from those influences. That really sums up my experience with this novel: fresh, yet familiar, and I think that’s one of the best things that a story can do. She’s currently working on a new series, and I’m excited to see what comes next.


Today, of course, is Monday, and Monday is the day when we update Found Music – at least, for now. This week I’m bringing you a two-fer of EPs that focus on a 90s sound:

It’s EP week again, kiddies! I figured it was only fair to give you a couple of different options since there’s a good chance I won’t be able to update next week (trip to Las Vegas – wedding – long story). Thankfully, these are both pretty good EPs.

You can go check out Inward Eye and Skiploader now.

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Quick Hit and Two New Artists at Found Music

Hey all. Quick entry today, as I’m contending with a few different beasts on several different fronts: big training project at work, collaborating on a possible cover for The Station, digging deep into Room 3 editing, and getting started with City of the Dead. It’s all a lot of fun stuff, but it demands my attention.

Oh, by the way. That cover for The Station? Shaping up to be great. Can’t wait to unveil the final version for you guys, and I hope we can do the same sort of cover for the rest of the series. I think it’s something new and yet familiar.

Okay, that said, just wanted to add that this week’s Found Music is up, and it’s a two-fer:

This week, in the interest of both variety and giving you the same number of tracks as last week, I’ve decided to feature two EPs from a couple of very different artists. One is a fairly polished sounding rap-rock band, the other a very raw girl band.  What I’m saying is that I’m trying to offer you options here. OPTIONS!

So please, head on over and check it out!

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Connecting to the Muse: Plugging into the Subconscious

I’ve struggled for the right idea for today’s blog. The ever-helpful @AuthorTinaGayle ( suggested talking about the wonders of caffeine, which might be a good topic for Friday. But @NailahCarter ( suggested doing something else to fire my muse, and the answer dropped right into my lap: music.

I’ve talked about music on this blog before. I’ve talked about how certain artists have elicited different emotions in me and the kinds of playlists and soundtracks that I have built for creating moods in works. It’s all a lot of fun, though sometimes I need silence to hear my inner voice. I considered listening to music, as Nai’lah suggested, but the real answer came to me: play the music.

You see, I’ve also wanted to be a songwriter for years. Like my fiction writing, ideas come to me without any prompting. I have several years’ worth of songs that have floated through my head. The problem, as I’ve described it to friends, is that I lack the language to transcribe those ideas into something that I can share with others. Aside from a few jam sessions with a friend’s band back in 1994/95 (during which said friend showed me a few basic riffs) and writing some lyrics for the band, the whole thing seemed beyond me. Continue reading

Make the Music: Chapter References in The Corridors of the Dead

This post marks the end of The Corridors of the Dead week, and the bonus material for the book. For those who come here for my writing posts, they’ll start up next week. This little detour has given me time to build up a store of ideas once again, so even if these aren’t your thing, we’ll have more of the old stuff in the near future. But for now…

I’m crazy about music. No kidding. I have an enormous collection of music, ranging from Classical to Jazz to Rock to Country to Hip Hop. I discovered the connection between music and my own writing back in my early teenage years, finding that different songs fit different moods. I’ve talked about this before on my site, and found that a lot of other writers have a similar experience.

For regular readers who are also music fans, you might recognize many of the titles that I use for posts; they’re almost always pulled from a song title or lyric that I feel applies to a post in some oblique fashion. I’ve learned that it’s how I relate to titles of any sort, and I’ve carried it over to The Corridors of the Dead, where each chapter title is an oblique reference of some sort. I thought it might be fun to take a look at the chapter titles and offer either a musical sample or some sort of information on the reference. Of course, not all chapters are references, so I’ve left out those which are not.

Oh and some of these titles do represent spoilers, so proceed with caution.

Chapter 1 – Strange Things are Afoot

The book begins at a Circle K, so it only seemed appropriate to throw in this Bill and Ted reference.


Chapter 2 – Got No Room to Breathe Continue reading

The Soundtrack of Our Lives

It’s Friday and you know what that means. Okay, well it actually doesn’t mean all that much in terms of the site, but typically on Fridays I post links to music that I enjoy as a way to share a song here or there. Today I thought I’d a broaden my horizons a bit and talk about my own personal rich relationship between music and writing.

I started with one of these bad boys.

I can’t exactly say when I discovered my own link between music and writing. My earliest writing efforts were on one of those comically giant manual typewriters – the thing came from a yard sale and wasn’t even electric. I used that typewriter to primarily write down some of the stories that I came up with while playing with my toys, but I was also creating a series about a private investigator in North Dakota, the name of which is lost to time. No music then, just a handful of ideas.

I moved onto an electric typewriter after a few years – one that my mother had been using for a home business. It still wasn’t an automatic typewriter, though, the difference being that I still had to use whiteout, there was no automatic carriage return, and the typing action, while faster than the old manual, was still a bit slower than some of the automatics I would use later. I still hadn’t really made the transition to music at that point – my “song” was the rapid-fire chatter of the keys – but I did manage to bang out a novel on that old typewriter, may it rest in peace wherever it is.

All this leads me to guess that it would possibly have been early high school or late middle school when I discovered the connection, while writing journals and fiction in a dark room lit only by candlelight, rock music sealing away the outside world. My earliest memory of this method includes Nirvana’s Nevermind, which would have been when I was 15 and a sophomore in high school, but I’m pretty sure that it was earlier than that. I suspect I’ve just blocked out some very bad music – I mean, really bad late 80s stuff. Less said the better.

But I learned that that the music helped me transcend my surroundings and become more focused in the world that was evolving on the page. One particular example of this that comes to mind is when I was pursuing the concept of writing a modern day version of the Canterbury Tales, with titles such as the Junkie’s Tale, probably spurred on by some class assignment but expanding to a whole new life. I remember following my process at the time – filling up a small journal with the story, writing in long-hand by candlelight while listening to music (Siamese Dream, in this instance) and then later transcribing it to a friend’s computer and printing it out there. This proves to me that, in some way, transcription has always been a part of my writing process. Intriguing.

Of course, I was a teenager in the early ’90s so the music that I listened to as I wrote was mostly angsty, alternative rock.  I remember Nine Inch Nails being particularly effective because I was writing a lot of nihilistic stuff.  As I got older and refined my approach to use certain types of music for certain scenes and certain characters, I began to discover more atmospheric music.  One of my go-tos to this day is the score to the original Crow movie. It’s exceedingly atmospheric and I’ve searched far and wide to try to find music that sounds like it and I still haven’t quite succeeded.  Here’s a sample track:

As my musical taste continued to evolve into my 20s, so too did my approach to mixing the music and genres.  Some of my early explorations into other types of music and becoming more of a music connoisseur could be marked down to just this – trying to create an effect as I was writing.

I know I’m not alone in this. A lot of writers use music to set the mood for their stories; Nietzsche wrote a treatise on tragedy inspired by Wagner, for example. Some people consider the music the soundtrack to their work, but I don’t know that I would go that far. By the time I’m done doing my editing and rewrites a lot of what was captured in that scene may no longer be present, but it does offer the atmosphere that I’m seeking. For instance, with my character Matty from Corridors of the Dead, I built a pretty extensive playlist of punk music that she liked, so anytime I was focused on a totally Mattie-intensive scene I would put the playlist on and it helped me to get into her head and really hear her voice speaking to me.

That’s definitely not the first time, either. I know that if I haven’t been able to figure out or nail down a character’s musical taste then it’s going to be a lot harder for me to hear their voice.  For some reason, I feel like musical tastes lead to the way that people sound, right down to their cadence. That applies even to people who don’t really listen to music; there’s something to that attitude as well that can shape a character. In my fiancé’s fanfic community, they use and create elaborate soundtracks for the stories that they write.  It’s kind of an interesting idea, I guess. If you can pick a song or two that might sell someone on the mood of your book, I suppose I don’t see a problem with that as long as the artist is compensated.

The crux of this, however, is my own curiosity about other writers. Do you use mixes? If so, do you have character specific mixes?  Book specific mixes?  Or do you just have one long playlist that you listen to as you write?  Please, let me know in the comments, I’m very curious. If you’d also you’d like to recommend some bands or music that sound somewhat like I was describing up there, I’d appreciate it.

Fighting the Good Fight: About Planning

And generally my generation wouldn’t be caught dead
Working for the man and generally I agree with them
Trouble is you gotta have yourself an alternate plan
Ani DiFranco, “Not a Pretty Girl

I had so many ideas about where to begin, but it seems to start right here with these lyrics. After talking so much about following the passion of characters and your own life, it might be time to step back and talk a bit about the planning process and how it fits into life and writing. I saw Ani in concert back in the Summer of 1999, on the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, and though I was only a casual fan to that point, I found the evening quite inspirational. The passion in her performance, the fact that she was quite clearly having fun and doing something she loved – it spoke to me. It pushed me farther in my own art. Yet I never lost sight of how she had arrived at that point.

For those who aren’t familiar with her, she built her career from the ground up, starting her own record label as a way of avoiding major label interference, and has turned down lucrative offers to record for the major labels. She’s also been an outspoken critic of the major label system, and has successfully jump-started the careers of several other artists via her record label. That, combined with her passion, really made me think about how she fused her passion and love for her art with a business and planning acumen – the essence of the DIY ethic that I’ve spoken about, but for now let’s leave the DIY discussion in the past.

Continuing down this path…I don’t often watch television, but when I do, I watch shows like Intervention. Blame my fascination with abnormal psychology; there’s something about the recurring patterns and trying to read the situations that appeals to me. I’ve been accused of being a natural-born therapist, and perhaps I am, but let’s not forget that these skills also come in extremely handy when writing fiction. I’d be lying if I said some hints of these people don’t slip into the characters that I write, even if subconsciously, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, let’s talk about one of the traits that so many of the poor addicts on the show have: the delusion that somehow everything is going to work out. For instance, on a recent episode a girl in her late teens talked about how she and her boyfriend were going to end up with this large house with a lot of dogs and a perfect life, but I was absolutely perplexed as to how she planned for this to happen.

Granted, she was young, and the addiction had frozen her at an even younger age – something that I suspect happens to many of the addicts with this form of denial. The thought process is not unfamiliar to me, as I suffered from it myself for many years when I struggled with my own codependency, but again, that’s not my focus here. My focus is how many people who are otherwise reasonable and don’t seem to have addiction or co-addiction problems think in this same fashion. They don’t see how much power they really have over their own lives and remain stuck in “everyday life”, wondering why others “have all the luck”.

This is the point in the tale where everything starts to come together. We take the information from Point A – DiFranco’s savvy blend of planning and passion and blend it with Point B – the lack of planning that leaves people stuck in the rut of everyday life, season with a little bit of inspiration, and we start to see an answer emerge. Perhaps the answer to the doldrums of everyday life, to living on the treadmill of life, is to mix the passion of whatever it is that you truly love with some measure of planning to help dig out of the hole? Hell, with this approach, even if you fail, you can say you’ve done something truly exceptional in your life. Everyday that I practice this approach, I feel more alive and in touch with both who I am and the world around me.

But the nuts and bolts, the nuts and bolts, that is the true crux of the problem. Where to begin with the plan? How to harness all that excitement? I can’t tell you what will work for you, but I can tell you what works for me. Maybe you can take some of that and translate it into a workable idea for you.

Today, I will give you the outline of how I do it, and tomorrow I will expand on those points, as we’re already running a little long. It’s nothing earth-shattering, which makes me wonder why so few people really seem to pursue their dreams. The five steps are as follows, though they do have their own sub-steps, which we’ll examine tomorrow:

  1. Concept Creation
  2. Concept Growth
  3. Execution Plan
  4. Execution
  5. Checklist for Follow-Up
Check in tomorrow for Part 2.
Today’s featured link is Livin’ Life Through Books, a book review blog that seems to focus on young adult and supernatural romance books. She also interviews authors and has a feature that seems unique so far in my travels through book blogs: she includes short blurbs about books that are releasing on a given Wednesday. I’ve already learned about some new releases just through this feature. She also includes a song of the week, a nice little feature that makes me wonder…would it be a good idea here? Hmmm. Anyway, give her a read!

Getting Started

Yesterday was not my most productive day; in fact, it was the least productive day I’ve had in the last few weeks, barring any days I may have taken off. My plan for today is to really dive into things, and I’m also pretty sure I’ll make up a lot of time this weekend.  I’m trying to keep from getting locked into a business-like, almost nazi approach when it comes to being productive. I have a bad tendency to become compulsive about things, and I want to make sure I keep away from being compulsive about this, as right now it’s one of the most important things in my life.

I guess that’s a pretty wordy way to say “I don’t want to overdo it and burn out”. But that’s the point of a warmup, isn’t it?

I have always written to music. It’s been one of the defining traits of my writing  “career”, such as it is, and music itself has long been one of my own personal defining traits outside of its role in my creative processes. I think I have pretty good taste, with a smattering of guilty pleasures here and there, but let me tell you, it took a lot of cutting through crap and evolving to get there.

The reason I mention this is that I suddenly find myself unable to write when I’m listening to music. I don’t understand it, but the internal voice that I have to listen to when I write has become so strong that the music is just too much for it. I can’t connect with the voice, and my writing becomes mediocre. I have to be right there with the voice, present and connected. I’m very curious if this is the case with other writers. Is this what it’s like to finally find your voice? If so, I like it. A lot. But it has meant some changes in my writing process.

Part of my goal in maintaining this blog, aside from simply documenting my progress, is to offer some resources for other writers. It seems important to me that we offer one another support and learning opportunities, because this is a damned hard craft to practice. As such, I’m going to try to link some sort of writing resource daily – another writer’s blog, something along those lines. As I link these within the blog itself, I’ll add them to my list of links as well.

Today I’m linking to Author Culture. It’s a great collaborative effort that features extremely well-written posts on everything from book doctors to book reviews, editing and queries, and even cartoons. I’ve learned quite a bit on the business side of this whole thing over there, and I highly recommend it.