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For the Love of the Mix Tape

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Some of you might actually be old enough to remember making good, old-fashioned mix tapes (if you do you’ll know the significance of the picture above).

Maybe. But since I have no way to track the demographics of this blog other than by geography, for all I know every one of you could be 8-year-olds sneaking a peek behind your third-grade teacher’s back.

But I’ll assume that if some of you might not be able to remember making a mix tape, you’re at least old enough to be familiar with the concept.

Let me be clear – we’re talking about a mix TAPE here. Not a burned CD. Not an iPod or online playlist.

It’s a tape. That you mix. Yourself.

If you’ve never done this, here’s a short tutorial, compliments of one Mr. Cusack.

Yes, there are indeed rules – rules that you can only learn by doing exactly what John is doing in that clip, which is sitting in front of a stereo system with stacks of records and tapes and CDs and hand selecting the songs you are going to painstakingly record onto a compact cassette of magnetic tape over the course of several hours.

It is an act of artistic devotion. An expression of love. A declaration to the universe and every person that ever rummages through your music collection that this – THIS – is what you believe is music that deserves to be listened to over and over again.

Yes, iPod playlists or other digital media accomplish basically the same thing, Actually, this isn’t the first time I’ve written about musical mixology. In working on Immaculate Deception, I went so far as to create a custom-mixed “soundtrack” for the novel – an album-length collection of music that complemented and/or inspired the narrative. Early readers of the novel got custom burned CDs as little hand-crafted thank-you gifts.

But actual mix tapes were beautiful for one very important reason: whether intended  or not, they became artifacts of specific times, places and emotions.

Want to know what songs you compiled to accompany that last minute road trip to the beach the summer before college? There it is, sitting in a long-overlooked box, in its sturdy plastic case, the ball-point lettering on the song list long faded.

Want to know what songs you put together for that desperate first love? Ha! Too bad! Chances are you can’t (unless you married your first love) because you gave it to her as a token of your deep affection and she either threw it away in disgust over your cheating/boring/politically untenable nature or has treasured it always as a symbol of something dear and true she once had.

How about the mix for that Michael Bey-scale epic kegger your junior year? Ha! That’s lost, too, purloined by a friend or random guest who lifted it from the stereo after everyone else had passed out or retired to a corner or their room for less musical (but more rhythmic) activities. But somewhere that person might still have that tape.

And even if it ends up in a landfill, when the aliens come to excavate a dead Earth thousands of years from now, Flmbrg, commander of the interstellar expedition, might dig it up and consider it on par with the cryptic cave paintings of Neanderthals.

And in essence, that’s what a real mix tape is – something that serves as a musical complement to something in life, whether it’s a love affair, break up, an epic party or just … hell, I don’t know, Monday morning.

Oh, Hey … Did I Mention I Was On the Radio?

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As I mentioned here a few weeks ago, I was scheduled to appear on Destinines: The Voice of Science Fiction, a fantastic weekly radio show out of Stony Brook, N.Y., on Aug 16.

Well, the interview happened and I really can’t stop saying great things about it. Dr. Howard Margolin was a stellar host and had a great selection of thoughtful, insightful and funny questions to ask about Immaculate Deception and the process of creating it. I also had the opportunity to do my first radio reading of an excerpt from the book, so there’s that, too.

It’s under the assumption that the host enjoyed the book that authors are invited on these types of shows, and Howard was very kind in his praise.

I invite you to listen to the entire interview here. If you’re the interactive type, use the comment field to let me know what you thought of the interview and whether you plan to go out and buy ID (assuming, of course, that you haven’t already).

As a follow up, my good friend and Codorus Press colleague Tom Joyce (I order you to follow him on Twitter at @TomJoyceAuthor, as well as on Facebook, and to buy his new novel, The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report) gave me a very kind shout out on his own website talking about how ID harkens back to some of the sci-fi novels of the 1960s, when authors were starting to realize they weren’t bound by many of the conventions of the genre that had been established from its emergence through the 1950s.

Thanks again to Howard from Destinies and for the continued support from Codorus Press and our fine stable of authors.

A Barbecue-Basted Lesson in Creating Honest Characters

Bessinger's BBQ SauceWhat you see here is a bottle of barbecue sauce. With it I will give you some tips on writing compelling and honest characters.

Why barbecue sauce, and why specifically this one? Because it helps me illustrate some important points.

First, let’s talk about the sauce. It’s what’s known as Carolina mustard sauce, which, in the complex geography of South Carolina barbecue preference, is the style of choice from the state’s Midlands (Columbia and the surrounding counties) down to Charleston on the coast.

The Bessinger family has what might be called a barbecue empire in the Palmetto State. This bottle (smuggled up to me by my parents after a visit to my hometown of Camden for the Carolina Cup steeplechase) is produced by Thomas Bessinger. You probably haven’t heard of him, because he basically makes sauce, runs a restaurant or two and minds his own damn business. He is, however, challenged by the hurdles of being a businessman when he shares a last name with …

… Maurice Bessinger, who also makes sauce and runs a couple of barbecue restaurants, and is freakin’ famous – mainly for being a hyper-religious, Southern “heritage” zealot and fringe right-wing nutbar. Unlike his more business-minded relative, Maurice still plasters the Confederate flag on his bottles of sauce and plants right-wing leaflets at the tables of his restaurants. He begrudgingly lets non-Caucasians sit in his main dining room when it’s clear from the years he spent segregating his restaurants that he’d prefer they sit in the kitchen or at a picnic table out back.

Pretty much an asshole – so much so that I’ve declined to link to his restaurants here because most of the sites where he’s featured are along the lines of “Yay, Maurice! You’re an honest, racist American. You go, boy!”

And for lots of folks outside the South, they’d classify him along with other blatant Southern stereotypes – Boss Hogg, Big Daddy and that creepy banjo playing kid from Deliverance.

But not everyone in the South is a mini-Maurice. As is always they case, there’s hint of truth in all stereotypes. But what often gets overlooked is the nuance of the individuals who share similarities but defy the stereotype.

Take Maurice, for instance. In essence, he’s the Southern version of everyone’s Embarrassing Uncle.

Yes, the Embarrassing Uncle. He’s not just Southern – he can be anything. He’s basically the guy who fulfills a given ethnic, cultural or regional stereotype for your family to such a degree that you worry him blowing your image as a non-asshole, non-stereotypical member of your given group.

And don’t think that this is simply a “woe is us, the misrepresented Southerner” screed. This lesson goes to writing about any group with which you aren’t personally familiar and cuts across racial, ethnic, cultural and regional lines. I won’t list other stereotypes here – you know what they are for who you are – and me even acknowledging them would make me come off as kind of an asshole.

The problem with the Embarrassing Uncle is that he (or she – there’s plenty of traffic in Embarrassing Aunts, too) represents the absolute worst of a large, otherwise diverse group of people.

And even if they do share some of the Embarrassing Uncle’s unsavory traits, it’s less likely that they represent such an easily drawn image. Take the Embarrassing Uncle out of the mix and suddenly you have a nuanced, layered group of characters who, while having to deal with certain societal and personal issues specific to their region/ethnicity/culture, would still resonate with readers without looking like cartoon characters.

Striking this difference is difficult for many writers, because lots of people from outside the South think Southern characters are easy to write. Just throw in some neanderthal philosophies; some cute, deep-fried turns of phrase; wrap it up in some fake twang and serve it with a side of fried chicken and okra and everything will be OK, right?

I see this representation frequently on TV where Southern characters are thrown into decidedly non-Southern situations to represent regressive politics. Let’s say you have a (ahem … purely hypothetical) show about self-righteous, horny surgeons in Seattle or Santa Monica doctors who stand around discussing the ethics that none of them actually has when they’re not busy screwing each other. Need an anti-abortion or religious fanatic plot line? Well, hell … that’s easy. Throw in some folks with suspiciously Southern accents – regardless of the Pacific Northwest/Southern California geography – wind them up and go!

I make a point of calling bullshit on this whenever I see it because it speaks to writing that is lazy, lazy, lazy. You want people to fill that character? Great – but don’t assume that Neanderthal politics have to be represented by someone with a drawl. As with any stereotype, this sort of writing is an attempt to create characters out of literary Lego blocks – piece on some things that you think most folks believe about a particular group and then give that character a voice.

This brings us back to my barbecue example. If you were looking for a character to place in your story about a barbecue mogul, which one do you think would drive the narrative better? The Confederate flag-waving racist or his relative with the identical last name, who must deal daily with the challenges of being in the same business and trying to live down the stereotype here in the 21st century?

The obvious choice for many outside the South – where, unfortunately, most of our entertainment is created – would be Option A, because it would reinforce what most of the world actually believes about Southerners.

But the truth is Option B would make the much better primary character. He’s challenged by his relationship and deals with both inner and outer conflict.

Will the story still leave a tasty mustard-based tang in your reader’s mouth and suggest an atmosphere redolent of pit-roasted pig, hushpuppies and coleslaw? If you do it right, absolutely. But instead of nodding his head and muttering, “Yep, they’re all rednecks down there,” the reader will be challenged to consider that everyone everywhere has to deal with his or her own special kind of crap.

So whether you’re a Kansan who wants to write about South Philly mobsters, a New Yorker who wants to write about cowboys or an African-American who wants to write about the British servant class, you have to get a handle on a character’s humanity first, then layer on the things that speak to the world in which they live.

Jak Smyrl and the Joy of the Picasso Napkin

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There’s an old story about a woman who approached Pablo Picasso in a cafe and asked him to draw her something on a napkin. However, before he would give it to her he asked for an exorbitant sum of money because that tiny sketch represented the culmination of his life’s work up to that point.

Not many of us ever actually cross paths with a great artist, let alone get up the gumption to ask him or her to create something just for us. Still fewer will have an artist create on his own something so very personalized that it could only ever be yours, and then hand it to you as a mere throwaway gesture.

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Jak Smyrl in a typically rendered self-portrait.

I was fortunate enough to have that happen to me thanks to a gentleman named Jak Smyrl.

He was the first staff artist for The State newspaper, the major daily newspaper that covers Columbia, S.C., and the surrounding area. His satirical map of South Carolina (rife with intentional misspellings and regional in-jokes) was first published in the late 1960s and since then has become iconic. His style mimics that of many of the best Mad magazine artists with a flair that was straight-up Southern.

Back in 1995, when I was a young reporter and columnist at the Chronicle-Independent in Camden, S.C., Jak, who had retired to Camden, was suggested to me as someone who could create a logo for Rockin’ Horse ’96 (top).

Rockin’ Horse was a concert that grew out of a newspaper column I wrote calling for more entertainment surrounding the Carolina Cup steeplechase event, which annually brings in more than 60,000 visitors and millions of dollars to the town of about 8,000 or 9,000 people. The concert was held on the grounds of Historic Camden as a benefit for the Revolutionary War historic site.

In the absence of our own newspaper staff artist I could hire to do the logo on the side (we got all our editorial cartoons from syndicates), one of the ladies in the layout department suggested I get in touch with Mr. Smyrl. She described him in loose terms as a former artist for The State, a description that really only scratched the surface.

We met at his home studio and I did a rough sketch of what I was looking for. He gave me an anticipated date of delivery for the final image and we worked out terms that were entirely too reasonable for someone of his stature (I seem to recall he asked about $100 for the image).

When I went to pick up the sketch, he was out of the house, but he had left it for Jak Smyrl Scott Noteme in a manilla envelope adorned with the personalized image you see to the right. As a result, an item that would otherwise have been recycled or tossed in the trash became, for me, a valuable work of art.

Jak, who died in 2007, is the subject of a new exhibit that was recently dedicated at the University of South Carolina. That means a significant number of people who actually know what they’re talking about considered his work a valid subject for study and appreciation.

I’m not sure where the rocking horse-and-jockey drawing I commissioned for the concert stands in that body of work, but I do know it adorned t-shirts, tickets and banners associated with the event. If you lived in or visited Camden in the spring of 1996, chances are you or someone you know could still find a Rockin’ Horse ’96 tee stuffed in the back of a drawer somewhere.

Maybe if I contacted the University of South Carolina they’d ask to include it. If so, I’d happily donate it to the collection.

However, as for that small bit of an ordinary manilla envelope that in a few pen strokes became something only for me, that I’ll treasure as my own little napkin from Picasso.

Updating My Style

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I did something last week that had been unthinkable for the first 13 years of my working life – ordered my own copy of the Associated Press Stylebook.

Unthinkable because in every newsroom in which I landed from the moment I started in the newspaper business (including my university paper, The Gamecock), I was provided with one as a part of the job.

The one you see here is old – ancient in terms of stylebooks – having the distinction of being the first and (up until last week) only one I had actually paid money for. It was purchased in 1987 at the University of South Carolina Book Store at the beginning of my sophomore year when I decided to make the switch from broadcast journalism to news-editorial.

After I graduated, it sat on a number of bookshelves across the country but rarely got pulled down because in the place I really needed it – the newsroom – there was always a more recent version sitting on my desk.

So now, 26 years later, I figured that it was time to refresh things a bit. The new version arrived last Friday and just paging through it I was stunned by how much has really changed.

In 1987, having a personal computer in one’s dorm room was a luxury (I had an Apple IIC with a thermal printer). There was no Internet as we know it (that would take another decade to emerge) and all the reporting one did was in person or over the phone. Social networking didn’t exist. As such, there was no reason to focus on anything other than what we now regard as “analog” journalism.

The new version of the AP Stylebook is heavy with new (and not so new) digital-age references and style points, including how toAll the President's Men approach sources via e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. I love that today you can just cyber-stalk sources, where back in the day there were lots of editors telling lots of young reporters, “Sit in that bozo’s office until he comes out for lunch and get me that quote.”

It’s a stark reminder that between the time newspaper film classic All the President’s Men came out (1976) and when I graduated from college in 1991, nearly all that had changed in the “modern” newsroom was the arrival of clunky, pain-in-the-ass computers with green-on-black CRT displays that still required 12-character strings of code just to format a headline.

Simply the fact that you can now subscribe to digital versions of the Stylebook is a big indicator of how much has changed. I remember thinking during the internet boom of the late 1990s that an online Stylebook would be incredible. Now you can access it on your smartphone – something that very few of us anticipated.

So, with my new edition in hand I’ll study up and try to catch up on all the “official” bits that I’ve missed by not having been in a newsroom for nearly 10 years. The old one, however, will stay, simply because it now serves as a great little artifact and time capsule of where we once were and how far we’ve come.

99 Problems, But A Witch Ain’t One

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Throughout my life, I’ve been more of a fan of performing in stage musicals than seeing them.

But since my wife wanted to see a show for her birthday this year, I was just happy that she had to pick something other than Rent, which we saw three times in a row over the course of about five years. So Wicked it shall be, and we get to enjoy it with our 9-year-old son and my sister and brother-in-law, too.

And I feel pretty sure (and am exceptionally excited by the prospect) that no one in this show will be a heroin addict or suffering from AIDS.