Cruising Down Sunset

A third event has been added to the West Coast leg of the Magicians Impossible Book Tour, and it’s one I’m very excited about.

That’s right; I’ll be appearing at the legendary Book Soup Bookstore on the equally legendary Sunset Blvd.I’ll be there Tuesday, September 26th at 7pm to read from, answer questions about, and sign copies of Magicians Impossible.

Another cool thing about this event? Book Soup is right across from a music establishment of some note. You may be familiar with it:

As a big music geek you can bet I’ll be taking some pictures of the Whisky too.

If you’re in LA and are planning to come out to the event, I’ll see you there. if you can’t make it but still want a signed book, you can pre-order your book here.

More events and details to come!

Why We Write

NOTE: This is an updated version of a post I wrote five years ago, about the writing process, or at least “my” writing process. As we near the release of Magicians Impossible I wanted to revisit this piece, and add some additional flavor. 

I’m not much for talking about my “process”. There are plenty of places you can look to read about “process”, and there are plenty of people who are happy to share what their process is. They’re all interesting and informative, and also contradictory and probably of little use to you. That’s because they’re talking about their process; they aren’t talking about what process works best for you. Some insist on powering through the first draft and revising after it’s finished; others swear by revision as you go. Some obsess on word count or pages per day; others are concerned only with “good” pages. Some brave souls rise at 5am and write for three hours before starting the day proper; others write in the evenings when the day is done. Some say you need to write every day; others say weekends are fine. They’re all right … and they’re all wrong.

So here’s a piece about my process. Please feel free to ignore it.

For me it all starts with the idea. Sometimes it’s a detailed idea; other times it’s just a rough sketch. From there I think about whose story “my” story is; the characters. Male or female, child or adult – I’ll try various combinations and complications before settling on POV. From there, assuming the story I’ve put together is any good, and the characters I’ve conceived are going to be interesting enough to follow, I clear the decks, close my door and start writing. I outline before I draft, I treatment after I outline, I look for leaks and plug plot holes the best I’m able, and once that’s done, I start writing. Because if I don’t, this happens:

Pictured: What happens when you don’t plug leaks, or when your manuscript/screenplay hits an iceberg.

But before I do any of the above … I listen to music. Music may in fact be the most important part of my process. If I haven’t decided on what music I’m going to write to, chances are I won’t be able to do any writing, and what I do write will be shit.

Okay maybe not shit, but difficult.

My favorite approach to this is to assemble a playlist or mixtape to accompany whatever particular project I’m working on. This is music that gets me into “the zone”, but more importantly into the character’s heads. I’ll tailor a playlist to a specific character, and use the songs I choose to illustrate their personalities, their hopes, their fears, their everything. I’ll create several such playlists for any given project, and I’ll listen to them when I’m focusing on a particular character or subplot.

Pictured: my soundtrack

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first I already mentioned; to get into the characters and the world they inhabit. But the second is more basic; to get me going. Because some days you just … can’t … get … into … the writing part of writing.

You have lousy sleep or a lousy day. You’re at one of those points in the story where you’ve lost the plot. You want to do anything but write. Every writer has days like this. But since I started creating playlists those days are fewer and come further between.

That’s where the playlist comes in. Because you’ll sit there and you’ll listen to it, or you’ll throw it on your iPod and go for a walk, and pretty soon the story will come back to you. And once the story comes back to you, you’re able to write it down.

Now, this music doesn’t have to be of the period the project is set in; in fact I’d strongly advise against that. The reason you create a playlist is not to be authentic but to be real. To connect with the characters and the story on an emotional level. So unless you grew up listening to Civil War era grassroots music, using that music to score your Civil War era story is going to make it a dry museum piece. Ask yourself what your characters would listen to if they were alive today (and seeing as they are your characters they are alive). Would they be into rock? Punk? Country? Hip-hop? Put yourself in their headspace and assemble a list of songs that relate to them, their trials, and their troubles. See them as living, breathing people, not just words on the page and an idea in your head. Once they become “real” to you, they will be to the reader.

Some examples: my first (unpublished) novel was a murder mystery set in Renaissance Italy. It was written primarily to 60s British Invasion and 90s Britpop. There are two main characters, each with alternating perspective chapters. One was 50-something, the other a 20 year-old. Any time I was writing for the older character I lived on a steady stream of Rolling Stones, The Hollies, Manfred Mann, and the Yardbirds. For the 20 year-old, it was Blur, Oasis, Elastica, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, and so on.

Squadron, a TV series I’m developing with Copperheart Entertainment, was largely written to early 90s alternative; grunge mostly, but a lot of Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, early U2, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran. I wanted to capture a feeling of excitement in the lives of WWI flyers, all young twenty-somethings taking to the skies to vanquish their enemies. Because a substantial portion of the story deals with the after effects of being the most famous killers in the world, I balanced fast paced rock with more introspective music for the quieter moments.

There are other examples. A suspense thriller I wrote some years back (also unsold – see the pattern?) was scored to a lot of Madchester-era music, which is appropriate given the main character has walled herself off from the world and is living in something of a nostalgia bubble. It made sense for her to be into the music she was into as a teenager, like she never grew past 2000. A thriller I wrote for a prod co about an EMT on the edge had a lot of 70s Punk in the mix – The Diodes, The Demics, The Clash, The Ramones. Music that reflects the thoughts of a main character living on the edge.

And there’s Magicians Impossible.

The Magicians Mixtape (which will be released on Spotify September 12) is pretty eclectic, featuring Metric, The Kills, The Dread Weather, T. Rex, David Bowie, The Jam, The Vaselines, XTC, The Human league … the list goes on. That playlist is distilled from about seven separate ones I created, each focusing on a major character or moment in the story. Because a novel has more working parts than a screenplay or comic book, I needed to go into greater musical depth. The end-result 50 track mix loosely follows the plot of the book and is a great accompaniment (though I recommend you listen to it after reading the book).

That all being said if your particular project is of a period where music – contemporary music – is available, use it. If there’s an emotional component also, even better. The novel I’m drafting right now features music as a major plot point; specifically one-hit wonders of the 80s and 90s. The music the main characters – all teenagers – would have grown up listening to because that was the music of their parents’ generation.

So that’s it, really. That’s my process and it probably only works for me. But maybe it’s worth a shot if you’re stuck on a plot point or something with your story that just isn’t working for you. If you can’t figure out where your character goes next, why not think about the music they would enjoy and the memories that would be associated with it?

In the end, you need to find what works best for you, and stick to that. Don’t let people like me or anybody else tell you what you’re doing is wrong because it’s not wrong; it’s right for you. As long as what you do works for you it’s better to stay on that track than try and write like someone else.

Because they can already do that. Your job is to write like you.

A Long Time Ago …

In case you missed the news, 40 years ago today a little movie called Star Wars arrived in theaters. it was not expected to do well. In fact, George Lucas was so convinced it would be a disaster he fled Los Angeles for Hawaii to build sand-castles with his buddy Steven Spielberg, where they ended up hashing out what would become Raiders of the Lost Ark.

But of course Star Wars did not flop. Star Wars became STAR WARS, and we’ve been living with it for four decades now. In the last two years we’ve seen two new Star Wars movies, and this Christmas we’ll see another. It’s not inconceivable for Star Wars to outlive the generation that grew up with it. It’s a piece of modern myth-making writ large.

Scads of words have been written on its cultural significance but ever person has a different story about the role Star Wars played in their lives. For me it began in 1977 as a 4 year-old whose father took him to an evening show to see some movie a co-worker had told him I would enjoy. He bought me a bag of popcorn and cup of cola and apparently when the Star Destroyer flew overhead in the famous opening shot the popcorn hit the floor untouched and I stared, open-mouthed at the screen for the entire two hours.

I was captivated. And as a child who lived in four different cities by the time Return of the Jedi arrived six years later, Star Wars had become the constant friend in a childhood with not many of the real kind.

After JediStar Wars faded from the landscape and my life. There was a brief resurgence on the 10th anniversary when I picked up a special issue of Starlog magazine, but Star Wars was pretty much dead by 1987, through the early 90s. Then the Timothy Zahn series of Star Wars books arrived. then the Dark Empire comic book series from Dark Horse. the Power of the Force toy line made its debut in 1995 and I was on my second Star Wars kick, which lasted all the way to 1999, and the release of The Phantom Menace.

I have not come to bury the prequels or to praise them either. What I will say once Revenge of the Sith hit theaters that it was pretty much a given Star Wars was finished. there would be the Clone Wars TV series which, despite a rough start, became a genuinely wonderfully realized story. But Star Wars on the big screen; that was done, right?

So we’re living through the third Star Wars cycle and its unlikely to end anytime soon. Sure, a few consecutively crappy films could happen, but if 007  could survive nearly sixty years, Star Wars could last at least to 2037.

For me  Star Wars will not end. That’s because my child, who turns two this July, is approaching the age I was when I first saw Star Wars. I’ve gone back and forth on how to introduce him to the series. By the time he’s four, Episode IX will have come and gone, so he’ll have the entire Skywalker saga at his fingertips. Do we run the series in order – 1-9 – with Rogue One and the hitherto untitled Han Solo movie (and if it’s NOT called Han: Solo they suck)? Do I show him Episodes 4-9 and pretend the Prequels don’t exist? What about Clone Wars and its spin-off, Rebels?

No, I need a plan of attack … and think I’ve found one.

On the day he’s ready, I’m going to ask him if he wants to watch a movie. I’ll put on Star Wars and hopefully he’ll be dazzled by it. But rather than segue right into The Empire Strikes Back, I’m going to let him live with Episode IV for a little while. Let him engage with the story, the characters, let him play with the toys and imagine their own future adventures. Then, when his interest in it starts to wane, I’ll  show him The Empire Strikes Back, and we’ll repeat the process. I want him to be re-introduced to Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids. I want him to gasp at the revelation of what happened to Luke’s father. Then when that’s run its course, Return Of The Jedi.

I want to let him live with those movies as long as he wants to. Then, when he’s losing interest, I’ll ask him if he’d like to see how Anakin Skywalker  became Darth Vader.

We’ll watch the prequels in quicker succession, not because they aren’t as good (I like parts of them I don’t like other parts, and am well outside the demographic when they were released anyway), but because they’re too interconnected.

After that we’ll dive into Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels which, buy the time that wraps up, should segue into Rogue One. By then the current trilogy will have concluded, and with the weight of the entire saga behind us, we can watch those however we want to.

As you can probably tell, I’ve given this a lot of thought.

But as far back as I can remember, my life has been one where stories were shared in a multitude of ways. From bedtime stories read to me by my parents, to my father taking me to see one of his favorite movies 2001: A Space Odyssey when it played as part of a roadshow re-release in the 1980s.

I want to pass these movies on to my child because how stories are told matter as much as what they tell. I want him to cherish these stories, but to also cherish the way he was introduced to a galaxy far, far away.

And because I want him to know that many years before, his dad discovered them at the same age.

 

But we’re hiring a babysitter so we can go see The Last Jedi. Sorry, kid.

On The Road (With Apologies to Kerouac)

On Friday, February 26, 2017, I delivered the final edit of Magicians Impossible to St. Martins Press. It is finally, FINALLY finished, and it has been the most difficult, most lengthy, and most rewarding project I have ever undertaken. The stats on that: I first sat down with editor Brendan Deneen to talk about the book in April of 2014. Now, three years less a month later, the journey is over.

Well, not OVER over. There’s still the the matter of the release of the book on September 12, and all that comes with it. Magicians is going to keep me busy through the fall and probably into next year, especially when the paperback is released. But the writing journey is over. I’m on the next project already, and have pages to deliver to my agent this month so she can run with them, which will be a journey in itself.

Now, with “journey” on your tongue, a pop quiz. What do …

And …

Along with …

And let’s not forget …

And, finally …

All have in common?

They’re all places I’ve been to, and they all feature prominently in Magicians (which you haven’t read yet), but they do figure into the story, some in very significant ways. I bring them all up because they’re all part of what I believe is the key to good writing, or at least the authentic kind.

Joe R. Lansdale, one of my favorite writers, once said (and I paraphrase) that “you can tell when a virgin’s writing a sex scene.”  Likewise, you can tell when someone’s writing a story with no idea what they’re actually writing about. Like they never experienced the place, the feelings, the emotions of what they’re describing. To me, that is one of the most important aspects of writing; the part most writers fail to mention.

Travel. Adventure. The whole “step away from your desk and experience life” thing.

A lot of writers go on about their word counts, or their endless rewrites, or writer’s block. I don’t see many going on about an adventure (or misadventure) they had. Some object d’art that inspired them. Some unexpected journey that gave them an idea they nurtured into a story. Some wrong turn that ended up being the best mistake they ever made.

I first visited Paris in 2011, as part of a post Fresh Meat victory lap. My wife and I spent our Christmas there, renting a charming flat in Montmartre, and spending the entire week in the city. We hit Versailles, the Catacombs, stumbled upon Francois Truffaut’s grave in Montmartre Cemetery, shopped the Galleries du Lafayette, ate lots of cheese and drank an alarming amount of wine … and visited the Louvre, where we fell in love with its beautiful sculpture garden …

And this statue in particular.

Not to spoil anything, but a central portion of Magicians takes place within the walls of the Louvre, and this sculpture garden in particular. Now, it goes without saying I never would have conceived the idea if I hadn’t gone to Paris and to the Louvre. But the idea of staging something in the Louvre was born that day in late 2011 – five years ago, and two years before I began Magicians.

This is another example. All characters need to come from someplace, and when I was developing the backstory of Jason Bishop, Magicians’ protagonist, I knew I wanted him to have grown up in the village of Cold Spring, NY, which is an hour and a bit by train north of NYC. My wife and I spent a wedding anniversary weekend up there back in 2012. We saw the sights, we hiked, we ate very well, and it was on one of those walks that I first glimpsed Storm King Mountain, just across the river and a little further north. Something about the name Storm King just stuck; it made me think of the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Disney’s Fantasia, and an image of a wizard’s battle on the road that winds along its side popped into my mind. So, when I was trying to find a place for Jason Bishop to have spent his childhood, Cold Spring was a perfect fit. Had I never visited, it would have been someplace else. But over drafts of the novel I realized just how important Cold Spring was to the story. In the end it is probably the most important locale (and I ended up getting my wizard’s battle on Storm King after all).

Ditto Jason’s place of work. The location of The Locksmith bar in the book is just below Dyckman Street on Broadway, a spot occupied currently by the Tryon Public House. But the layout of the place is actually based on a bar further north once called The Piper’s Kilt (now the Tubby Hook), and takes its name from a bar further south that used to be called the Locksmith. I picked the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan to park Jason at his job because it’s a neighborhood I’m familiar with. Any time I needed a refresher on some detail all I needed to do was go for a walk.

There are other real-life places that figure into the book, but those are the major ones. So to me, anyway, travelling is the most important thing I don’t hear a lot of writers talk about. It’s authenticity. The idea of experiencing things off the beaten path, to use a cliché. It doesn’t even have to be an overseas trip; sometimes just walking down a different street in your city or town can give you an idea.

Even if Sci-Fi or Fantasy is your thing, you can still benefit from travelling outside your comfort zone. Go to a place where they speak a language different than your own. Try and sample the local cuisine. Get lost. You don’t even have to go far; even the next town or state over can reveal wonders. It’s amazing how many people rarely venture outside their home town or city or state or province. Only 36% of Americans even own a passport; they’ve never set foot outside of their country.

So, if you’re a writer, aspiring or otherwise, I strongly encourage you to step away from the desk, step outside your life, and see what’s out there. Your next story could be waiting for you as close as the next street over. All you need to do is find it.

 

Impossible Tracks

So, a lot has happened since I delivered the Magicians Impossible manuscript to my editor at Thomas Dunne Books on January 6th. Manuscript was received, I received the rest of my advance, and took a breath to orient myself after what was a long haul project.

Since then … a lot more has happened. Word started getting out; some book blogs picked up word on Magicians Impossible, the dedication and acknowledgements were written and submitted so the book could be sent to the printer’s for those galleys to be sent out to reviewers in April. July 4, 2017 was fast approaching.

Then… things changed.The original release date of July 4th was always fluid, with my hope they’d move it up to June 27 so people could get the book in hand before the summer officially began on the long weekend.

That was my hope, anyway.

Instead, the sales, marketing, and publicity departments, along with my editor, jointly decided that an autumn release date would be better for the book.

Which is why Magicians Impossible will now be released September 12, 2017. I’m told through the grapevine that the higher ups at St. Martin’s Press (where Thomas Dunne Books, my imprint, has its home) feel Magicians has the potential to do much better in the fall market, which is typically when the big five release their major titles. It’s a huge vote of confidence in me and Magicians that they would make such a decision.

[As an aside, a friend who worked in sales at a UK publisher for years said it means SMP wants Magicians to be an anchor of their Christmas line-up.  So, Merry Christmas to me]

What does this change? Well, nothing in the short term, except now we have a little more time to get the whole machine up and running. My agent, Jodi, and I are meeting with the SMP team in early April to plot promotional, marketing, and publicity strategies – and she and I will be strategic on our own as how to maximize the new release daye, the months leading to it, and the ones following.

Right now it’s looking likely I’ll be appearing at Book Expo America in NYC in early June (where the book gets its official “pre-launch” launch). My promotional tour (New York, Los Angeles, and possibly Toronto) will run in September-October, with appearances and signings continuing through the fall at basically any place that will have me. One advantage of living in NYC is everything from D.C. to Boston and parts between are only a drive away. I’m hoping to hit up everyplace I can on the East Coast this fall. West Coast (outside of LA) and parts in between will be on a TBD basis. I hope to hit up cities that aren’t on the usual publicity tour stops like Chicago, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Memphis, Nashville, and my old NC stomping grounds.

Anyway, to keep up with what’s happening with Magicians Impossible, I now have an author page up at the MacMillan Books website. I also have a Facebook page you can swing by and like for more updates.

And, of course, the book’s available for pre-order at fine bookstores everywhere.

I made mention in the previous update that I’d be leading up to the book’s July release with a series of entries about things I discovered about writing and process. That’s still happening, but for obvious reasons is being delayed a couple months. But I’ll have some new non-Magicians related material up sooner than later. I hope.

TTFN