You Spin Me Round

Growing up, our family were generally late-adopters of new technologies. While I remember having a color television throughout the 1970s and beyond, we also had a small B&W set in the kitchen that pre-dated it. We didn’t have to get up and tune the dial to get our 13 channels on the main set; we had a converter box, but that was hard wired to the TV set. For a time, my parents had an 8-track player in the station wagon, but for the most part long car rides were accompanied by Light FM/AM stations that to this day gives me a reflexive dislike for the music of John Denver, The Carpenters, and Jim Croce.

Though I will confess I’ve been coming around a little on ABBA.

We got our first VCR in, I believe, 1983. It was a Betamax. Recommended to as the superior format (which it was), but made finding movies to rent a little difficult as the decade progressed. We didn’t get our first VHS player until 1988 or 1989. Though to be fair, the Beta player lasted well into the 90s, and ended up being used, for the most part, for recording TV shows (because, yes, the picture and sound quality of a Betamax tape was noticeably superior). The Beta resided in the rec room downstairs, hooked up to a 19 inch Sony Trinitron. It sat in an entertainment unit built by my uncle, along with our stereo and record player. There were more than a few jokes around my home in the early 90s, mostly from friends who said descending into the Abraham rec room was like taking a trip back in time to 1981.  

So what does all of the above have to do with Vinyl? Keep reading.

Pictured: $42 in music

Our music collection was, for the most part and for a very long time, strictly Vinyl. It was my parents’ record collection from their formative years. My dad’s Beach Boys and Chicago and Billy Joel albums; my mom’s Beatles and Ray Charles ones (and my then and still-favorite, the American Graffiti soundtrack album). Our home stereo had a tape deck, and both our family cars – Volvos, natch – had cassette players, so most of those vinyl records were recorded to tape to be played in the car. If there was an album we wanted to listen to in the car and at home, we bought the vinyl and made a copy to listen to. This was how I experienced Purple Rain and Seven And The Ragged Tiger, and the Miami Vice soundtrack. This always meant the sound quality was lesser than what you got on the radio tuner, so by and large pre-recorded music was saved for when you traveled outside the range of any decent radio stations, and had to choose between static and crazy-fire-and-brimstone religious radio (we preferred static).

We never made the transition to CD though, and through my high school years and into college, I was still buying cassettes. This was for a number of reasons. Portability for one, cost for another. In the early 90s a CD would run you close to 20 bucks. A cassette could be had for half that. You could score two cassettes for the price of one CD. Were I to buy a CD I’d have to take it home, copy it to cassette, then listen to it on my Walkman. A cassette I could pop into my Walkman outside the store or in my car tape deck, and be listening to new music before I was out of sight of the store.

I didn’t transition to CDs formally until 1995, when I got my first Laserdisc player, which could play CDs as well as LDs. Once hooking it up and running the audio through a roommate’s stereo system was I able to start buying/borrowing CDs and making my own copies on cassette.

I still buy CDs, though my new music purchases have dropped off in the last five or so years, picking up one, maybe two new-release albums a year. Yes, there’s MP3s and streaming audio, but I prefer to have a solid, non-digital backup of my albums of choice. Yet coinciding, roughly, with the beginnings of a global pandemic of which, right now, there is no end in sight,  I began to take a deeper dive into Vinyl records and Vinyl collecting.

If your music collection doesn’t include Cheap Trick at Budokan what are you even doing with your life?

Why Vinyl? There are arguments for and against. Most audiophiles will tell you it’s superior sound-wise to CD. It’s warmer, you can pick up nuances with vinyl you can’t with digital downloads. For me though it’s a little more complex, and gets to the heart of my long preamble to this post.

Example: I own Jack White’s Lazaretto on both CD and Vinyl. And I will concede that side-by-size, I can’t quite hear much of a difference. But with the Vinyl, if I want to listen to Lazaretto the album, I have to commit myself to spending the next 40 minutes or so doing just that. I can’t skip tracks, I can’t pause, I can’t do dishes or make dinner, or do work while spinning the vinyl. I have to L I S T E N to it and nothing else. I make a tea, I sit in my comfy chair, I drop the needle, notch the groove, and just sit there and listen to it. Side A. Side B.

Usually I won’t stop at just one either. As one album is nearing the conclusion I’m already flipping through my collection and deciding what comes next. Do I keep with the Third Man Records theme and put on The White Stripes: The Peel Sessions next, or do I backtrack to one of the White Stripes (and Jack White’s) bigger influences – the garage rock pre-punk sounds of The Kinks?

A band whose work I only own on vinyl.

Another band whose work I only own on vinyl (outside their Greatest Hits collection from 1985 and one of the first albums I bought for myself with my own money – cassette, natch), is The Cars. If I want to spin their self-titled debut it’s pretty much a given I’m going to be at it for a while. I’ve more than once killed a weekend afternoon spinning The Cars, followed by Candy-O, Panorama, Shake-It-Up, and Moving In Stereo (I don’t yet own Door to Door; I’m working on it). If I want to listen to the Cars or The Kinks, I need to listen to the Vinyl. As a result they’re both in my top pantheon of favorite bands, despite only really “discovering” their back catalog in the last couple of years. To listen to either requires a commitment of time. I can’t do anything else but listen.

Shake it up …

It’s quite easy to collect vinyl these days too. I’ve scored some great finds at yard sales, at Church fundraisers, and at used bookstores. And eBay has also been a great source for affordable copies of some classic (and not-so-classic) albums. While you will pay through the nose for The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, I scored Preservation Act I and II together for eight bucks with shipping. Big bands and big albums will command big dollars wherever you look, but there’s always going to be some more interesting stuff lurking in the margins if you know where to look.

The other thing about Vinyl that draws me to it, is because it’s not a perfect format. There’s always going to be a hiss, a crackle, a pop, maybe even a skip. I’ve been able to restore some 50 + year old records with a cleaning kit, but they’re never going to sound pristine, which I kind of like. Those little imperfections are what makes vinyl such a better listen, particularly used records. Used albums have a life to them. Those little crackles are signs of a long life. They may be well into middle-age, but they have lived their lives. How many times were they spun on some bedroom briefcase turntable in the 60s and 70s? Did they have a long life of use, or did they spend the intervening decades sitting on a shelf, waiting to be played again? Old vinyl can be magic; the simple act of playing one releasing its music to fill your room and your heart. The little flaws in them are just that bit of grit or sand in the gears of a machine; the imperceptible flaws that give its engine a unique thrum that can be recorded but never duplicated.

Though a little cleaning care goes a LONG way …

That’s why I limit myself to used vinyl. Records with a history. They may hiss and pop and skip, but they have a life to themselves. I also won’t spend more than $8.00 on a single record album. I haven’t splurged on those deluxe vinyl reissues with bonus tracks and booklets and the like. If I may use a cooking metaphor, a good used vinyl record is like a good cast-iron skillet you’ve been using for ten plus years. It will retain the flavor of everything ever cooked in it, and and if you take care of it, it’ll last forever.

Collecting vinyl, also, gets to the heart of Why We Collect Things. Why? Why do we keep old books, old albums? Why do we still buy DVDs and Blu-rays? Why do we collect old toys? Why do we (okay, just myself) create a comic book about mixtapes? I think it’s because these things, these objects, possess a meaning beyond their physical form. Toys are just wood and plastic and metal. Mixtapes are just recordings on tape. Records are just grooves carved into vinyl disks. Books are words on wood-pulp wrapped in a slightly sturdier cover.

But a box of old paperbacks isn’t just words printed on slowly moldering paper. It’s the aged creases in the spine of that Stephen King you bought brand new. It’s every time you read that book and re-read it. It’s the smell. My copy of Different Seasons pictured below isn’t just a paperback; it’s the Caribbean vacation I took it on and read cover-to-cover. It’s the ocean breeze, it’s the sandy beach, and it’s the sea-salt from the waves crashing to shore. 

Yes, I collect these too …

Same thing with old comics. It would be easy to sell off my old collection and just repurchase them digitally or in trade paperback form. Yet I have seven or eight long-boxes full of comics taking up space in our storage unit. As a semi-regular contributor to the G.I. Joe: A Real American Headcast comics podcast, once a month or so I get to pull another issue out of the long-box, slide it out of its Mylar bag and hold, in my hands, the very same comic I bought at the corner store spinner rack 35, 36 years ago. I still own it, but “it” isn’t just the story. It’s the slowly fading pages of artwork, it’s the creases in the spine and it’s the old ads I used to gloss over but now instill a nostalgia for things I never appreciated at the time.

Ten bucks from a local thrift store. They gave me the Conan comic for free.

We collect things from our past, from our childhood, for many reasons. But I think it’s during times like the ones we’re living through at present that make collecting, that make nostalgia and its pain of remembering all the more essential. There’s a tangible quality to those things that made us happy a long time ago. The 60s had Vietnam and civil unrest. The 70s had the oil crisis and national malaise. The 80s had the cold war and nuclear saber rattling and exploding space shuttles. The 90s had the Spice Girls (sorry). Every era has its ups, it has its downs. It has its struggles. We’re currently in the middle of the next one. And I think if you look around you’ll find people are pining very strongly for a time when things felt simpler.

You can dig through your memories for those seemingly happy moments, but that dig is a lot easier having something tangible tying you to that point in your life. It’s why when I sold off my collections of old Transformers and Star Wars and G.I. Joe toys, I made sure to keep a select handful of items from each line. I wanted to retain something of that old era; something I could pick up in my own hands, and feel beneath my fingertips.

Vinyl is the same thing. It’s not sequences of 1s and 0s on a CD. It’s not music recorded onto ever-deteriorating magnetic tape. It’s not an internet-connected audio stream. Vinyl is a tangible thing. It’s grooves carved into vinyl plastic creating vibrations that are translated into music, and from music into feeling and memory.

So as we enter month three of this uncertainty I think we’re all trying to find things to distract us, to keep our minds off the current predicament by submerging them in the memories of a time and place when we felt safer. Where the world felt like it still made some sense. So I can be expected to keep spinning my vinyls until this current crisis ends and probably beyond it too. To the day when, years from now, I’ll give my by then VERY old records a listen and remember a time when they became a life-raft and kept us all going while we waited for the tide to wash us back to shore.

No word of a lie these JUST arrived as I was proofing this post.

How about you? What was/is your favorite album, Vinyl or otherwise and why? Sound off in the comments below!

Delete Facebook

Let’s talk about online life, shall we? When the clock rolled forth on January 1st, 2000, none of us knew what was coming. As an avid Sci-Fi fan, creator, and reader, I can say that nobody in the genre ever predicted what Social Media would become. It didn’t even predict social media, let alone the internet. Seriously; in the grand scale and scope of speculative fiction, NOBODY ever predicted the world-wide-web accurately. William Gibson likely came closest with Neuromancer. While the internet was a thing in the 80s we just didn’t hear about it.

The Internet. It could have been beautiful. And had kung-fu.

We do everything online these days. Much of it we do through mobile technology. Through phones that carry more processing power than your standard-issue desktop computer circa 1998 did. The internet has changed our way of life, but it’s also changed the way people think and relate to one another.

It hasn’t been pretty. Especially, it seems, in the last five or so years. Reducing people to names and profile pictures on Facebook or Twitter has done more to dehumanize each other than was probably intended. Or maybe that was the point

Pictured: Twitter. Where the cruelty IS the point.

I don’t really get involved online anymore. Not with debates, not with “being in a community”. It just holds no interest for me. Because I used to get involved. In debates. In “community”. I used to spend much more time online in the morass of social media than was probably healthy. I told myself it was for work; as a writer, you need to engage with your audience, you need to promote, you have to hustle. But doing all those things felt empty. Like it was just work. And it was just work, only the kine that largely gave me back little in return. So, in 2019 I said goodbye to Twitter (I said goodbye to Facebook in 2013, though I do maintain an author page though another administrator runs it). I’m still on Instagram but I’m only really there to follow art and travel and photography accounts. Comments are generally closed on my posts, I don’t allow strangers to drop in and spam me with promo. It’s “anti-social-networking”.

This all began in earnest last spring, as I was in the early stages of outlining my next book. It takes place in the 1980s; a pre-internet era. And I decided to be method in my writing in that I wasn’t going to use social media at all while drafting. I could use the internet but only for research. If I needed to know for example what the Top 10 songs in the US were the third week of April 1985, I could do that.

Pictured: a scene from my next book

But the minutia of checking Twitter or Facebook or whatever went away. And after finishing my draft four months later, it kind of stayed that way. I got used to not having social media around, and I have to say I like it not being around. I like not knowing what everybody’s up in arms about, or arguing over. I like being out of the loop. In fact, in the process I rediscovered what we’ve all been missing; the fine art of Not Knowing.

If you’re of a certain age, you remember Not Knowing. You didn’t know what was going on the next town over, or the next suburb. Heck, even venturing to the other side of your small town was a trek. Here you encountered people you’d never seen before and never would again, unless you went back. You had friends, you made friends, and when you moved away, you lost touch with them. I can look at my old school photos, from Kindergarten to pretty much Eighth Grade and only recognize a couple names, and only few faces beyond those. When I got older I thought things would change; that I’d remain closer to people I knew in high school, and college. And for a time – the early, generally non-evil Facebook years of 2007-2010 – I did remain close; re-establishing contact with people I’d lost along the way.

Even then, by 2012 I was getting tired of keeping up. I realized that these people I knew once upon a time weren’t the same people. And the thing is I wanted them to be those same people, and knew that wasn’t possible. they’d changed, and I’d changed, and shortly thereafter – as in seven years ago today – I logged into Facebook one final time, to delete my profile.

Was losing touch better? I hate to say it, but yeah; it kind of was. Because knowing those places, those moments, those friendships were impermanent is what made them special. It’s what made me cherish those moments and my memories of them.

One other positive aspect of walking away from social media is I can enjoy things on their own merits now. It seems that in the last five years or so the culture wars have migrated over into entertainment in a big way, to the point where who you are as a person is judged by the art you consume. If you like X you’re a bad person. If you didn’t see XX you’re the reason XX failed and that makes you a bad person. There’s no middle ground anymore; you’re either with the mob or against it. It’s almost like you can’t be indifferent to anything anymore.

Because we ALL have opinions …

Being outside that bubble has been liberating. Not that I ever cared what people though of me because of the things I enjoyed, but being sidelined by choice has been an eye opener as to how people related to one another now. It’s no longer enough to watch X, listen to Y, read Z. You have to declare allegiance to your tribe, you have to wear the colors, you have to gather on the field of battle and face off against Those People.

My motto is simple: enjoy the stuff you enjoy, ignore the rest. Don’t let anyone dictate what you should/should not entertain yourself with. As long as it isn’t something horribly offensive you aren’t hurting anybody by watching or reading or listening to it. And if you truly love something, love it. Don’t let the naysayers tell you “it was crap, it was terrible”. And likewise don’t tell them the same with something you didn’t like. You have the power. The world won’t stop turning because you did or didn’t express your opinion or share a thought.

My advice? Find your happiness, embrace it, and never let it go. Likewise, anything that makes you miserable, sets you on edge, get rid of it. I know that’s not always possible. Your boss could be an asshole but you need that job. But there’s always another job, another town, another place.

My life has improved in many ways because of this. Just in the case of time. Because don’t realize how much of your life you can waste in a day by hitting “refresh”.

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s December 1993. I’ve just returned a car-load of film equipment to the Film Building at my university, where I’m a student. I’m in a contemplative mood this day and with nothing else on tap for the afternoon, decide to take a little drive.

The car is mine. I was home for my mother’s birthday at the end of November and decided to drive back to school seeing as I’d be coming back after exams a few weeks hence. I’m renting a house in the city’s west end with five other film and theater students so I have free parking for the month.

I drive without any real destination, but when hunger pangs hit I decide to drive up to my old neighborhood – the one I lived in ten years before, which would become, in my memory anyway, the happiest time of my life. There’s a burger joint near there I used to frequent, one of those old-school 1960s establishments that hasn’t changed in the fifty years since it was started. I go and grab my favorite meal – steak on a Kaiser with pepper and a little bit of BBQ sauce, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

I park, I eat, then I keep driving, the car smelling of my lunch. I drive north. I cruise past my old house; I swing through crescents and side-streets where I used to play with the other neighborhood kids. I swing past the house of my best friend, who’s still living there, but is at work that day. The memory tank has been refilled, but I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

I pull over and park at the edge of the local park, get out, and climb a slow sloping grade of landfill that’s been turned into a hill. We used to just call it the “toboggan hill” because that’s what we did on it in the winter. There’s a bench and a couple lonely pine trees at the summit, and when you sit there you have a view of the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, and elementary school below.

This was my old school. The one I attended for only a few short years – April 1982- to June 1985 – but it still looms large and casts a long shadow over my life then. 1993 has been a rough year for me, and December of that year marks the one year anniversary of my parents announcing they were separating. I’m so devastated I nearly flunk my first year of university, but I manage to pull my grades out of a nose-dive and pass. Barely.

So that’s my frame of mind as I sit on that bench and stare out over my old school. It’s just before 2:00pm. I know this because the recess bell rings a minute or so later, and the kids come streaming out. To play four-square. To throw the ball around. To jump rope and play on the playground equipment – the same I played on ten years before.

What does all of this have to do with GI Joe? Everything.

It’s April, 1982. We’ve just moved to this new city. Moves have been a fact of life for me. By 1982 I’ve lived in six different cities. I just turned 9 years old. By this point I know the drill; my dad comes home to say “we’re moving again” because he got another job transfer and promotion to go a long with it. A move means excitement and sadness in equal measure. Excitement because it’s a new city, a new house (our new one will have a swimming pool), and new friends. But a move also means saying goodbye to old friends. In this pre-internet era, goodbyes really do mean goodbye. It means never seeing those familiar friendly faced again. You move away, they move on, and pretty soon you forget what they looked like.

We move just before Easter, which means I and my sister are starting at our new schools nearly through the end of the year. I have two months of Grade 3 and then summer. Will that be time enough to make friends? So the spring as I remember it is cold, dark, and lonely.

I can’t remember the actual date, but the specifics of it, I’ll never forget. It must be some afternoon after school I first see the commercial. It’s slick, animated, and trumpeting what looks like a new cartoon series. But it’s not a cartoon series, yet. It’s not a movie either. It’s this:

Now let me paint a picture for all of you here in the year 2018. In the 1980s, things were slower. The pace was different. Your average hour long TV show ran 52 minutes. There were only a handful of TV channels. Music was on the radio. There was no MTV outside of a few small outlets in the US. If you wanted to go shopping, you went to a mall. Movies? The theater.

And Star Wars movies were released 3 years apart. Three years to a 9 year-old may as well be a lifetime. But fortunately you have the toys – the action figures, the vehicles, the play sets. You have the comics and newspaper strips – al of which is designed to keep you interested in the property until the next installment.

But there was something else these little pieces of molded plastic were important for – something the designers didn’t anticipate. They were how you made new friends in new cities. Just the act of bringing a Star Wars toy to your new school was enough to get other kids to come over and talk to you. Several friendships (short lived ones, but friendships nonetheless) began that way. I’d bring a Bespin Han Solo or Hoth Luke to school; some kid would ask what other Star Wars toys I had. I’d tell them, they’d tell me theirs. They’d invite me over to play, and vice versa. Toys were how you got to know others. They were how you found your new tribe.

By the time I moved  it had been two years since The Empire Strikes Back. Five since Star Wars. Time moves slow as a child but it moves really slow when you’re a Star Wars fan. You need toys to fill the gaps between films. Between Star Wars and Empire alone there was Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole. Between Empire and the third installment due next year – Revenge of the Jedi – there’s been Smurfs, and Indiana Jones, and a lot more I’ve forgotten. But they’ve all been peg-warmers and gap fillers. By 1982 nobody is playing Battlestar Galactica. They may still be playing Star Wars, but the wait between films is so long to a 9 or 10 year-old. You need something else.

Something different.

And so it was, one evening in April, when my mother was taking my sister to the local mall to do some clothes shopping one evening after school sometime in April. I begged off to browse the toy aisle, and when I get there the first thing I noticed were the colors of red, white, and blue on the floor display.

GI Joe: A Real American Hero.

The packaging was the first thing that lept off the shelf at me. Whereas the Star Wars figures featured the toy in a plastic bubble and a photo of that character (no matter how minor) from the movie, these featured a beautiful painted image of the character in action. The back of the card featured smaller paintings of the other figures in the line, and below those, a file-card with the character name, code-name, rank, specialty, and place of birth. With nothing else to go on but the packaging you had a psyche profile of what that character’s personality was like.

I begged my mom to buy me some. She ended up relenting and getting me three: Breaker, Grunt, and Snake-Eyes. I took them home, took them out of their packages, and plated with them until bed-time. But the real fun came the next day when I snuck Snake-Eyes into my book-bag and took him to school. Come morning recess, I brought him out and it was like moths to the flame. None of the other kids had seen a GI Joe up close before, though they had seen the commercials. So here was the new kid with the hottest new toy. And from that moment, friendships were born.

That was just the beginning though. See, I didn’t really get “in” to GI Joe beyond those first three figures. They were just three tots if many, and my heart still belonged to Star Wars.

In 1983, we were on vacation in Vermont, and on the first day I broke my leg skiing. That vacation became a three-month odyssey of traction and body casts and being stuck at home. And while some school friends did visit me (and I did have a tutor so I could keep up with school) it was a very lonely time.

Then my dad came home from work one night with a gift for me. Well, two gifts anyway. One was a new GI Joe called Snow-Job, the other was a snowmobile called the Polar Battle Bear.

Which I still have, by the way.

Maybe he picked those because he knew our ski vacation had been cut short and I blamed myself, maybe it was just because he wanted me to have some fun while I was bedridden, but it did the trick. By the time the cast came off I had acquired more GI Joe toys. I. Was. Hooked. By the time September rolled around Return of the Jedi had come and gone, but I was fully on the GI Joe train. Joe became the linkage to my friends, and their interests (including the aforementioned best friend who I met that September because he was talking about James Bond, another of my childhood touchstones).

And for a GI Joe fan the hits kept on coming. That September saw the release of the 5-part miniseries A Real American Hero, which aired on a local station after school Monday-Friday. That Christmas I added a whole slew of new GI Joe toys to my collection – the MOBAT Tank, VAMP Jeep, Dragonfly Copter, the Headquarters Command Center, and more figures. Joe became my life, but in no bigger way than the following summer when visiting some old friends out west who introduced me to the Marvel comic.

The first issue I ever bought. Still have it too.

That span of years, from 1983-1985 were some of the finest of my life, and it was largely due to those little plastic men and women.

Then, everything changed.

[To Be Continued in Part II]

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.

The Dog-end of a Day Gone By

To call 2016 challenging is to undersell it. It was certainly the most difficult year I’ve endured, and that’s just on a personal level. Caring for a 1 year-old while managing a career as a writer is no easy task. There have been frayed nerves, sleepless nights, and the ever-present worry that this is pretty much it for me and my career; that I can’t do both those things without failing at one of them. And yet, I’m still here, you’re still here, and we need to be because 2017 will probably be worse. It’ll take away people and things we love, the bad guys will keep winning. This is the beginning of the winter George RR Martin’s Stark family keeps telling us is coming.

But it’s important not to give into that despair. You have to fight, you have to strive, you have to marshal resources and press on. Because capitulation is not victory. It will feel like it for a while, but those things you’re trying to hide from will find you eventually.

Think of it this way; we all have some sort of comfort food. Some meal that you love, less because of what it is than what it represents. For me, it’s the traditional roast beef diner my grandmother used to make. The roast was always a little dry, the gravy a little starchy, but I’ve spent the last twenty-three years trying to re-create. But that really isn’t the point; the point is when I do make it, I get a minor taste of what that meal represented; the closeness of family, the smiles, the laughter of people now long gone. There’s warmth to it, and sadness. It’s nostalgic, the comfort meal.

As Michel Houllebecq wrote;

Nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics — it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we’ve lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful.

That’s comfort food; and art can be comfort food for the soul. Books, movies, TV, music … those perennial works you return to over and over again, not because they remind you of happier times, but because they remind you of a time in your life that you survived. So in the spirit of the season, here are some of my artistic comfort foods.

  1. Bond. James Bond.

bond

I grew up with James Bond; the Roger Moore ones specifically, because they were the first ones I saw. I remember how a Bond movie would often be the ABC Saturday night movie; the World Premiere of Moonraker or something Over the last month and a bit my wife and I watched (in reverse order for some reason) the Moore Bond series, and the Dalton ones. We’re now into the Brosnan era. There’s just something about them that gives me a warm feeling, and that, I think, has been their success; by offering us what we want while tweaking the formulas ever so much. From Octopussy on I saw every Bond in the theater, including Never Say Never Again, though I shamefully confess I missed Spectre, being a newly minted parent my movie watching was pretty much impossible. To this day remains difficult – last I saw in the theater was … actually, I legit can’t remember. It was summer, I know that. Maybe X-Men Apocalypse (which was terrible by the way). Did I mention the year that was has been rough? Well, yeah. No time for movies.

2. High. Degrassi Jr. High.

degrassi

Not much time for TV either, though one seminal series turns 30(!) next year. Yes, on January 18, 1987 a little Canadian TV series called Degrassi Jr. High made its debut on TV. My friends and I in the States all mocked it, for its cheesiness, for its obviously plotted by adults for kids aesthetic. But we still watched it. When the final TV movie “School’s Out” aired five years later, I think everyone in school must have watched it because the next day all people could say was “You fucked Tessa Campinelli?” Over the following years it aired in reruns, was relaunched as an enormously successful show called Degrassi that’s still going strong. But now, 30 years on, it’s become comfort TV, for me anyway, because of the cheesiness, because of the plots, because of the amateurish nature of using non-actors. It even makes a brief cameo appearance in my next novel. Those kids are all in their 40s now – and I’m sure the ones who grew up not watching it but actually watching in secret still remember the theme song.

3. God Save the Queen
queen_band_members

If you know me this will come as a shock, but I grew up listening to Queen. First instance was in 1982, and at my new school, had to participate daily in a thing called the Health Hustle. This was an initiative to include mandatory physical activity for school children (recess twice a day was not enough apparently). So when the announcement came we were marched to the gym, where a teacher led us through the health hustle routine of jumping jacks and running in place. I had no idea what or why it was, but there was music on the PA, and that year the music was Queen. We Are the Champions, and We Will Rock you in particular (along with some other songs and bands I’ve forgotten, though I think bad Leroy Brown was one of them). That was my intro to Queen, though they would pop up periodically through my life in the next decade. I even remember the day Freddie Mercury passed away.  Bohemian Rhapsody climbed the charts once again. To this day a Queen song takes me back to those years and memories.

Just don’t ask me to do the Health Hustle.

4. Stand By Me
sk

People ask me who my favorite author is, I typically say Joe R. Lansdale because he’s awesome and everyone should read his books. But for various reasons Stephen King holds a special place in my heart and it was seeing Stand by Me in the theater that summer that prompted me to seek out Stephen King’s books – specifically the novella The Body, which the film was based on. I remember the surprised gasp that tremored through the theater when “Based on a novella by Stephen king” appeared on screen as the end credits rolled. That Stephen King? It bore some investigating, and I did, scoring a used paperback of Different Seasons the novella collection containing The Body (and Apt Pupil, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and the lesser-known The Breathing Method). I read The Body first, and was shocked by how dark it was. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was mournful in a way the movie wasn’t. The sadness at lost friends, and lost years, suffuses every page of The Body, and in the years since I think I may have read it every year or two. I get older with each read, but Gordie LaChance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio remain the same age I was when I saw Stand by Me. As a father to a young boy, it resonates even deeper now. Revisiting The Body is like revisiting old friends; ones you’ll never forget.

5. The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of …

sandman-covers

Of course I can’t leave 2016 without mentioning comic books. My career as a comic book creator has been on hold ever since our child was born, and I descended into the world of Magicians Impossible, but I hope to get back into making comics in 2017. To prepare for that I’ve been rereading several seminal titles, the greatest of which, to me, remains Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Everything’s been written about Sandman, its influence, its importance, over the last twenty-five, almost thirty years so what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Nothing. But for me it’s as unique as it was when it first appeared; both cosmic in its scope and intimate in its reach. I’d read periodic issues of it when they first came out, but it wasn’t until 1999, when I became a screenwriter by trade, that I had the money and the time to collect the trade paperbacks, and read them from start to finish. Maybe it’s the fact that it told a complete story. Maybe because every turn of the page felt strangely familiar. Reading it now it’s like an artifact from an earlier age, where my career as a writer was just beginning. But mostly because this story, like all stories, mattered to me, and had the power to change myworld, starting from the smallest speck of dust.

So, as we close up shop on 2016, I encourage each and every one of you to indulge in a little comfort food over the holidays. Listen to that album. Watch that movie. Re-read that book. Get some rest, see some family and friends. And when 2017 arrives, be prepared to fight your hardest for those people and things that mean the most to you.

UPDATE:

January 12, 2017 (Addendum)

There’s one more bit of comfort food I have to add, and it’s this …

Netflix has every Star Trek series available to stream, and I’ve begun what looks to be an epic re-watch of the Original Series. It’s been years since I watched any of these episodes, and i’m reasonably certain that, despite it being my favorite of the Trek series, I actually haven’t run the entire series. There’s episodes I’ve seen, ones I remember vividly (working a summer at a Star Trek exhibit in the mid 90s will do that to you), but many I have never seen or have no recollection of – mostly season 3 episodes, natch. So It’s going to be a fun little ride the next while. Lord knows I’m going to need the distraction.