November 20

A Dream to the Rescue

There’s a story idea I’ve been brooding over for quite some time. It’s a science-fiction piece, set on a colony world that’s not terribly dissimilar to the early settlers in the American Old West. Not the cowboy era, but more like the homesteaders, eking out a living from the land around them.

But I’ve been stuck on it. I’ve made four solid attempts to write the story, but each time I end up dissatisfied by the first draft. And each successive draft has been very different from the previous one. So I filed it away out of frustration, but every so often it would pop into my head and I’ll think about it for a while…then move on to something else.

The thing is, the premise of the story is good, solid. I’m good with it. Where I’m running into problems is with the narrative. I can see the basic arc in my head, but I haven’t been able to find the right narrative to fit it, if that makes sense.

However, the other night I was laying in bed, drifting off to sleep, and I started thinking about the story again. I love that half-awake/half-asleep time, where reality and dream mingle and my mind drifts back and forth across the divide. That’s when I have some of my best story ideas, work out problems, inhabit my characters and see through their eyes. And once again, it came through for me. I could see my protagonist working in a  tilled field, planting seeds and wiping the sweat from his forehead with a bandanna. He hears the clang of the church bell in town, about a quarter of a mile away, and he sees a young boy running down the dirt road next to the field. The boy stops, breathless, and says, “Did you hear? The angel is coming back! Reverend Kyle saw it in the sky last night!” And something in my imagination clicked. I had it.

It turns out I’ve been overcomplicating the damn thing, overthinking it. That’s one of the curses of being a writer. Ray Bradbury, one of my writing idols, used to keep a note tacked over his typewriter that read, “Don’t Think!”. That’s good advice. Overthinking it instead of letting the story tell itself is usually what trips me up. And again, Bradbury was right. I miss that man.

Now I have a plan, I can see the story more clearly now what I need to do. It’s a weird feeling – part excitement to finally have a clear path; part anxiety from so many failed attempts. But I feel more confident, ready to tackle this little monster and get it all down on paper. Or on my hard drive. This is one of the last couple of stories I’m working on for my next collection. The end is in sight. Way in the distance, but  I now know I can make it.

My take away from this is to constantly remind myself: Don’t Think. I need to follow Bradbury’s lead and get that printed up in big, bold letters and tack it to the wall over my writing space. And maybe get it tattooed on my forehead. Backward, of course, so I can read it in a mirror.

Now..gotta get back to it. I have a story to write. Thanks, Mr. Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury

RB

October 30

A Halloween Treat

I’ve loved scary stories since I was a wee lad in South Florida, and one of my favorite things to do on Halloween was break out a vinyl album of mine. The album was Alfred Hitchcock presents Ghost Stories for Young People. It was released back in 1962 and I think I found it in a record store when I was around eight or nine years old.

I listened to it so many times when I was young I had it memorized…but it still gave me the shivers. Unfortunately, the original vinyl was lost to time, but I was lucky enough to find it on CD a few years ago. Of course, nowadays you can find almost anything online, and someone was awesome enough to post the entire album on YouTube.

If you’re looking for some Halloween chills, give it a listen. Hitchcock is a fantastic narrator, and the stories, while creepy, also contain a little bit of dark humor. It may be geared towards children, but this middle-aged man still loves it.

Note – the stories are broken out into separate videos, so be sure to listen to all of them!

Enjoy!

October 26

A Little Creativity

I find myself constantly amazed at the creativity shown by people during this pandemic. Yesterday I watched a segment on CBS Sunday Morning about how people are changing their Halloween plans to make them safer. Some of the adaptations included a long-distance candy dispenser for the trick-or-treaters and drive-through haunted houses.

I think it’s fantastic that people are willing to put in a little effort – and imagination – to keep spirits high in a time when we’re all feeling the pressure.

But the creativity doesn’t stop there. I was talking (online) to a friend who told me that over the past weekend he not only learned how to play bingo via Zoom, but also attended a Zoom-based murder mystery party. I didn’t have a chance to get all the logistics behind it, but I can’t imagine how they set that up. Regardless, it’s still an incredibly creative way to bring people together and interact while still remaining relatively safe.

I know, we hear a lot about people complaining about the lock downs, the social distancing, the mask wearing, but I look at this all as an opportunity. Think about it – we can look at all this as some massive pain in the ass that has turned our lives upside down and created chaos, or we can look at this as an opportunity to try new things, to do things in a different way, and to see just how creative we can be.

Don’t let the situation sour your perspective. Sure, things sort of suck at the moment, but you can still make the best of it. Improve yourself, help others, and most of all, be creative. You may have some hidden talents you didn’t know you had. All you have to do it try something new and see what happens.

RB

October 21

A Challenging Read

While I’m a fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, I don’t limit my reading list to those specific genres. I feel that, as a writer, I need to expose myself to a wide variety of ideas and input. Plus, my interests are all over the place, so if you took a peek at the stack of books on my shelves you’d see everything from astronomy and biology to biographies and fiction from almost every genre.

Currently, I’m reading The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and it’s possibly the most challenging book of fiction I’ve read. And this is despite the fact I’ve watched the movie multiple times over the years. It’s one of my favorites.

I’ll post a full review once I’ve finished it. I’m currently a little over halfway through this beast and, while I’m loving the story, it’s so incredibly dense with details and obscurities that it’s taking me a long time to read. And don’t get me wrong – I’m loving the adventure.

Eco is an incredible storyteller, and this medieval monastery murder mystery (alliteration intended!) is well-plotted. But what’s getting me is the almost overwhelming amount of detail he’s incorporated into the story. I’m finding that I have to pause every few pages to look up architectural details he’s described, or to translate some obscure passage from an ancient book of African poetry, or simply to translate some bit of latin. All those years growing up Catholic, you’d think some of that Latin would have stuck in my head. There’s also a great deal of theology and philosophy, so a few passages require a re-read or two to make sure I’m understanding it all.

Of course, it would probably have been easier for me to read it on my Kindle so I could have the footnotes and translations readily available, but no, I bought this one in hardback. It’s a keeper and a fine additional to my unwieldily home library.

I feel like in reading this book, I’m not only being entertained, I’m being educated. My Catholic background helps a bit. I’m familiar with a lot of the ceremony, the prayers, the traditions, so I can easily relate to many aspects of the story. But Eco did so much research into obscure parts of the religion that I find myself both confounded and impressed.

I’m hoping to finish the book by the end of the month, but I don’t want to rush it. This is a book to savor, to enjoy, to relish.

Now, back to it!

RB

 

 

October 19

Mesmerizing Music

Maybe it’s just me, but there are certain songs that, when I hear the start to play, make me stop whatever I’m doing so I can listen. It’s like they have power over me, pulling me away from the present moment and whisking me away to another place for a few minutes.

There aren’t many that can do that to me. And one of the interesting things is that they aren’t necessary similar. Sure, there’s may be a little bit of crossover – genre, style, instrumentation – but for the most part they are unique.

So with that said, I thought it might be interesting to share a few of them with you and, maybe, broaden your horizons a bit. You may have heard of some of these artists and these songs, and if so, fantastic! And for what it’s worth, I was inspired by another blog I follow, View from the Back, where Sheree posts Song Lyric Sundays.

Today I’m sharing a song that never fails to give me chills, especially this version of it. The artist is Bruce Springsteen, a New Jersey native who came to prominence in the 1970s, hit an amazing peak in the late 70s/early 80s, and continues to release well-crafted and thought-provoking music.

Springsteen is now in his 70s and shows no signs of stopping, which is fine by me. His music, especially his lyrics, have been an inspiration to me since I was a kid listening with headphones as his vinyl albums spun on the turntable. He’s an amazing lyricist, capturing a unique perspective on the lives of blue-collar and downtrodden people. Not all his songs are bleak, though. He can slip between melancholy and upbeat with a snap of his fingers. Or a strum of his guitar.

The song in question is titled Thunder Road, and while it sounds like a rocker, it’s actually a thoughtful look at a young woman about to transition from child to adult from the perspective of a man who’s trying to convince her to join him as he tries to escape his current life. The album version is wonderful, but my favorite version is from a concert he did at the Odeon in London in 1975. It’s a slower, sparser arrangement that’s just about perfect.

Here’s the video, lyrics are posted below. Hope you enjoy this as much as I do.

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely
Hey that’s me and I want you only
Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside, darling you know just what I’m here for
So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night
You ain’t a beauty, but hey you’re alright
Oh and that’s alright with me

You can hide ‘neath your covers and study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets
Well now I’m no hero, that’s understood
All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood
With a chance to make it good somehow
Hey what else can we do now
Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair
Well the night’s busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere
We got one last chance to make it real
To trade in these wings on some wheels
Climb in back, heaven’s waiting down on the tracks

Oh oh come take my hand
Riding out tonight to case the promised land
Oh oh oh oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road, oh Thunder Road
Lying out there like a killer in the sun
Hey I know it’s late, we can make it if we run
Oh oh oh oh Thunder Road, sit tight, take hold, Thunder Road

Well I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk
And my car’s out back if you’re ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door’s open but the ride it ain’t free
And I know you’re lonely for words that I ain’t spoken
Tonight we’ll be free, all the promises will be broken
There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away
They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets
They scream your name at night in the street
Your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet
And in the lonely cool before dawn
You hear their engines roaring on
But when you get to the porch they’re gone on the wind, so Mary climb in
It’s a town full of losers, I’m pulling out of here to win…

Music and Lyrics: Bruce Springsteen

____

RB

October 14

Old-School Scares

I’ve been a fan of horror movies since I was a kid. Growing up in South Florida, every Saturday morning one of the local television channels showed Creature Features starting at 10:30. And every weekend I’d tune in to watch the old black and white Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy movies. They’d also show the Godzilla flicks, along with some of the other giant monster movies that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Oh, and the occasional Hitchcock film.

I’d lay on the living room floor, wrapped in a blanket and holding one of my stuffed animals, and would peek through my fingers as whenever the creature of the week appeared on screen. Despite my fear, I always came back for more.

Later, in my teen years, the movies evolved. The slow-burning horror and scares became more graphic. There was Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and one of my favorites, Dawn of the Dead. The blood and guts didn’t really bother me, it just added a gross-out factor the the films. Besides, they were sort of fun, mostly because many of them were predictable. Couple having sex? Dead. Young woman in the shower? Dead. Wandering in the woods after dark? Dead. I probably should have watched them with a horror movie bingo card in hand.

At some point another evolution occurred and the genre moved into territory that I just can’t get into: the torture movies. Also often referred to as torture porn. Instead of the victims being killed off quickly – albeit sometimes messily – it was over and done with and the film moved on. Now, however, the victims are slowly tortured, and some of the scenes go on for what seems like forever. To me, that’s not scary, it’s just perverse.

I’m not saying the movies shouldn’t be made. There’s obviously a market for them and it’s still giving these movie-makers the opportunity to be creative. I’m all for that. I mean, I can appreciate the artistry that goes into creating a graphic, bloody death scene. I’m a fan of practical special effects and – when I was a kid – dreamed of working as a special effects artist.

It’s really personal taste. The torture movies just aren’t my thing. I’d rather watch an old Hitchcock movie than Human Centipede. I feel like the best scares are the ones that are partially left to my imagination. Hearing the screams coming from off-camera, the vague sound effects, shadows on the wall hinting at something sinister, is all fuel for my mind. To me, that’s the best kind of scare. What I can come up with in my head is going to be much darker than what I see on screen.

So this October I’ll be doing what I usually do, and that’s revisiting some of those classic horror films from past decades, enjoying the building tension, the ambiance, the mystery. And then I’ll use all that to feed my imagination when I sit down to write.

Boo!

RB

 

September 25

Possibilities

When it comes to art, I feel that the possibilities are endless. There are so many plots, characters, situations, and scenarios that I can’t imagine a time where artists don’t have something to work with.

However, there is a caveat. At least, in some areas of art. Consider the guitar, for example. There are six strings and twenty frets on a standard guitar. I’m not a math person, but that basically breaks down to something like 10,000 or so ways to play a note. Considering how many guitarists there are and have been, coupled with the number of songs that have been written, it would seem that every combination of notes has been played. Yet we still get new songs written on guitar.

Same with writing. The saying goes that every story that can be told has been told. This means that modern writers have to find new ways to tell their stories. Much like a guitarist has to find a new way to combine notes in order to come up with something unique.

Other art forms, painting for instance, don’t quite have the same limitations. There are so many colors and color variances that I can’t imagine how painters could ever run out of color schemes. Plus, paintings can run the gamut from landscapes and portraits to surrealistic and post-modern experimentations.

Regardless, even areas of art that might seem limited still offer possibilities. I think that’s one of the things that makes art and creativity so endearing to me. No matter what, there’s always another option, another angle, another way to approach your project.

For example, I may feel like I don’t have anything to write about (I do) and feel stuck. Looking out through the window on my back door I can see – right now as I write this – two hummingbirds jockeying for the feeder on my patio. There’s a story, right there. I could anthropomorphize them, give them names and personalities, and make them a pair of angry ex-lovers who happened to run into each other at the neighborhood feeder.

Or maybe I consider the fact one of my dogs is laying on the patio while this oddly cute battle wages overhead. Maybe I could get into her head and write about her surveying her domain and wondering if she needs to break up this lover’s quarrel.

And just now I heard a car horn blaring angrily on the street out front. That could be a guy who’s running late for work and got stuck behind someone who wants to drive the speed limit. And he always gets caught behind the same car every morning regardless of what time he leaves for work. Is it a conspiracy? Bad timing? A prank by a mischievous god or goddess?

Maybe it’s just me, but I love to consider the possibilities all around me everywhere I go. I can find stories in the smallest of events or the most mundane of settings. The secret is to not overthink. Don’t try to concoct some intricate scenario or multi-layered plot. Just take it all in, let you mind relax, and soon you’ll begin to see stories everywhere.

The possibilities are endless.

RB

September 21

My First Book

Do you remember the first book you read that really spoke to you, got into your head, made you want to be a writer? Or at the very least, made you a lifelong reader? I do. It was Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. I read it when I was nine years old. I know, sort of a heavier read for someone that age, but I made it through (using a dictionary when needed) and it lit a spark that forever changed my life.

Obviously, this isn’t a book a nine year old would pick up off the shelf at the local bookstore. No, I had an older family member who was in college and would bring me the books they were reading in class. Some were way beyond my ability to comprehend at that age, but others, like Siddhartha, resonated with me on levels I didn’t quite understand.

If you aren’t familiar with the book, it was written in the early 1920s by German author Herman Hesse, who also wrote several other fantastic novels. It tells the story of the title character, a young man who comes from a wealthy family in India. He feels empty, restless, like there is something missing inside, so he goes on a spiritual journey. He fasts, renounces all possessions, and eventually meets Gautama, the Buddha.

His path is not an easy one. There is love, loss, and reawakening. As a young man, Siddhartha’s restlessness and longing were something that appealed to me. I was getting to that age when the body and mind begin to morph into something new, so this story was relatable. And from a spiritual standpoint, I could appreciate the philosophy of Buddhism. It was distinctly different from the Catholicism I grew up in.

It’s interesting to note that while this novel is considered an “adult” book, it’s written in a very simple narrative voice, and it’s only 152 pages. Hesse did an amazing job of telling this deep, thoughtful story in a simple, unassuming manner. He didn’t need a thousand pages to get to the heart of the story. From a writer’s perspective, that’s impressive.

And this book has stuck with me over the years. The original copy went with me through middle school and high school, and I think I eventually lost it in one of my moves. I picked up another copy in my mid-twenties and it’s on the bookshelf next to my bed. I still go back and read it every few years. Partly because I love the story so much, but also as a reminder of the philosophy behind it and how it affected me all those years ago.

Is Siddhartha the best book I’ve read? No, but it is one of the most meaningful. I hope you have a book in your past that still resonates with you and I hope you still pick it up and re-read it every so often. There are millions of books out there for us to read, but only a few are special. Those are the ones we cherish.

Do you have a book that had this affect on you? If so, let me know about it.

RB