Your Musical Community Is Where You Find It

Music as a communal event is difficult for someone like me, who doesn't play any instrument and doesn't (or shouldn't) sing. I've attended concerts where the sense of community was created by the shared music we all knew, or by the intense efforts of the performer to make sure that connection happened. But for the most part, I've always Read more

Help Plot My 2015 Reading Tour

Would you like to hear me read Long Black Curl to you this summer? Maybe ask me some questions in person? If so, here's what you need to do.  Go to your local bookstore, ask if they'd be interested, and if they are, send me the contact info, including the name of the person in charge of author events. Don't Read more

Why I Haven't Blogged Lately

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta. Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you?  Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more

Win a copy of Mythica!

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here. Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more

The Manic Pixie Pout-Pout

Posted on by Alex in children, children's books, pop culture, reviews, storytelling, writing, zooey deschanel | 1 Comment

Since I now have another two-year-old, I’m back to reading the simplest books to her at bedtime. Most of these books are innocuous, if occasionally incompetent (i.e., Big Snowman, Little Snowman, a Frozen tie-in book that probably takes longer to read than it did to write). A few are brilliant, such as Room on the Broom. But I’m here to talk about the New York Times bestseller (it says so right there on the cover) The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen, and especially what it’s like to read this book to a daughter.


Pout Pout 1


So, here’s our hero, featured on the cover: the Pout-Pout fish. The plot, such as it is, has various sea creatures essentially telling the pathologically depressed Pout-Pout Fish to cheer the hell up, to which he repeatedly replies:

Pout Pout 2


I admire a fish who sticks to his…fins, I guess.

Anyway, with no warning, a female fish shows up.  She says nothing, but simply swims up to our hero and plants a smooch on him.


Pout Pout 3


This kiss totally turns him around.  One kiss from a total stranger, without reason or explanation, causes him to exclaim:

Pout Pout 4


The last page shows him kissing the nameless girl-fish again, but it’s unclear if it’s real, a fantasy, or simply a memory of the first kiss. But that wasn’t what bugged me. It was the idea that somewhere I’d seen this plot before…

Oh, yeah!

Garden State…


Sweet November…

And Autumn in New York, and (500) Days of Summer, and Almost Famous*, and The Girl Next Door, and…

This other fish–unnamed, unidentified, with no function other than to cheer up the protagonist–is…

A Manic Pixie Dream Fish!

(NOTE: if you’re unfamiliar with the term, “manic pixie dream girl,” check here.)

Okay, on the one hand, I’m sort of kidding. This is a kid’s board book after all, not the place to look for psychological depth or meaningful social interaction. It has funny animals and it rhymes, and I’m certain author Deborah Diesen had no ulterior motives.

Except on the other hand, I’m not kidding at all. The female fish exists for no other reason than to kiss the main character. She’s not identified as his mother, or his sister, or his girlfriend, or any other sort of character who might legitimately have a reason to kiss him. And while some of the other characters who complain to the Pout-Pout fish about his attitude are female, she’s the only one who takes any sort of action in the story, and the only one who gets to dominate a two-page spread. Is this, then, icthy-objectification?  And further, if the genders were reversed–if a strange male fish swam up and kissed the female main character–would we accept it as the wonderful thing this book presents? Isn’t it a kind of harassment?

I’ll keep reading the book to my daughter, because at her age, it’s a) essentially harmless, and b) counteracted by the things she sees around her, such as her dynamic and empowered mother. But when she’s older, I plan to show it to her again, and ask her what she thinks. If she’s the girl I think she is, she’ll be as amused/appalled then as I am right now.

What Does Revising Look Like?

Posted on by Alex in creativity, fantasy literature, movies, novel, Red Reaper, storytelling, writing | Leave a comment



The photo above is a page from the in-progress Red Reaper novel I’m writing with Tara Cardinal. The print text* is the first draft. All the notes are corrections for the second draft (or first revision, if you prefer).

This passage had some interesting challenges. Tara wrote it before she turned it over to me. Since this story is being told in first person by the character Aella, the voice has to be consistent throughout, and my first job was to try to do that. Since Tara created this character and her world, she’s the final arbiter of what’s properly “Aella-ish,” but I’ve tried to find my way to the same voice without simply mimicking her writing style. After all, if I was just going to do that, she might as well write it all herself, which she could do quite handily if she didn’t also have to, oh, make movies like Scarlet Samurai: Incarnation.

At this stage, two things are foremost in my mind: clarity, and rhythm. Clarity is simply knowing what point you want to make with the scene or passage, and tweaking the words to reflect that. Rhythm is trickier. It’s about finding the story’s (and in this case, the character’s) natural voice. The best way to do that, especially when you’re doing something in first person, is to read it aloud. At points where you stumble over words, you’ll usually find that your rhythm is off. It’s as simple as that.

Scanner issues prevented me from producing this image in full color, but the corrections are done in red ink, just like they say you’re not supposed to do in school anymore because it might hurt someone’s feelings. One advantage of this, in conjunction with the use of such a small font*, is that it gives you a quick visual idea of how close you are to a final draft. When there’s lots of red on a page, you still have work to do. When there are only one or two red marks, and they’re for minor things like commas or single words, you know you’re close to the end.

So, this is what part of my process looks like. Keep in mind, though, that every author does it differently, and every author’s process is valid. The only thing that counts is what ends up on the final page, in front of a paying reader. How it gets there is almost beside the point. Which is the way it should be.

*Yes, it’s in 8 point Times New Roman. I’ve worked in that size since I had a job proofing legal contracts, and realized I could read 8 point type fairly easily (one of the few practical values of near-sightedness). It saves both paper and ink.



Film Review: Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County

Posted on by Alex in filmmaking, folk music, Hum and the Shiver, isolation, music, reviews, storytelling, Tufa | 5 Comments

Way back in the early years of this century (being able to say that makes me smile), the spark of the idea that would become the Tufa struck me at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Also at that festival, I first heard Sheila Kay Adams at one of the midnight sessions, in a huge tent on a warm summer night. So her stories and music, and my fictional Tufa, have always been spiritually, if not literally, entwined.

Sheila Kay Adams

Sheila Kay is a traditional ballad singer, a woman who has dedicated her life to making sure that these old songs survive into the next generation. Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County is a documentary that takes us into her life, and shows how she’s passing on her traditions to the YouTube and iTunes generation. I first mentioned it here, when I interviewed director Kim Dryden during the film’s post-production.

The poster for “Over Home,” designed by Saro, who appears in the film.

You can watch the trailer:


and additional clips can be found here.

Sheila Kay learned these songs the old way, “knee to knee” on front porches from relatives who still gathered to share songs and stories when other more urban families were beginning to turn away from each other, to television, radio and other forms of passive mass communication. “They did not call them ballads,” she says in the film. “They called them love songs. And the gorier they were, the more I liked them. And if they mentioned cutting off heads and kicking them against the wall, I was all over it.” These were songs that came originally from Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries, brought with the first settlers and maintained intact among the isolated hills and hollows of Appalachia.

This is old stuff, literally and figuratively, if you’re a fan of my novel The Hum and the Shiver. But unlike my fictional Cloud County, the Madison County of this film is a real place, and the people you see in the film are genuine. Most compelling of the newcomers is sixteen-year-old Sarah Tucker, who bridges the traditional and the modern in a way that gives you real hope for the future of this music (and music in general). The scenery is expansive and beautiful, as are the Smoky Mountains themselves, but the most fascinating landscape of all is Sheila Kay Adams’s face as she talks about how music helped her persevere through personal tragedy.

Over Home is currently making the rounds of film festivals, and hopefully will soon be available on DVD and streaming. If it comes to a festival near you, definitely check it out (and if you have any pull in festival scheduling, I heartily recommend scheduling it).

Five Great Movies About Writers

Posted on by Alex in authors, criticism, fiction, John Carpenter, movies, novel, originality, pop culture, storytelling, trivia, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Anders Danielsen Lie (l) and Espen Klouman-Høiner in Reprise.

Writers aren’t that exciting to be around when we’re working. What we do–staring into space, muttering to ourselves, typing then backspacing and typing some more–isn’t exactly dynamic. It might be why there are so few good movies about writers actually writing. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of good movies with writer characters in them; that’s fairly common. But the movies that show accurately what the writing life is like, and how it affects the writer and people around him, those are rare indeed. Here are five of my favorites (notice I didn’t say, “best”).

In the Mouth of Madness

Writers figure in a lot of horror films, most of them courtesy of Stephen King (Misery, The Shining, Secret Window).  This isn’t a Stephen King adaptation, or a Lovecraft one, but its story of writer Sutter Kane (Jurgen Prochnow), who writes like Lovecraft and has a fan base like (and the same initials as) King, carries the idea of the “best seller” to a demented extreme. With Sam Neill as an insurance investigator and director John Carpenter’s sure hand, it takes us into a world where people are willing to give up their own dreams for the common nightmares of someone else. I can only wonder, if it was remade today (which I’m sure it will be), will King be the model of success, or will it be Stephanie Meyer or EL James?

Paris When It Sizzles

Williams Holden is on deadline to produce a script, and Audrey Hepburn is the secretary who both challenges him and keeps him on task. Holden, like a lot of us, knows when his story’s gone off the rails, so the stopping and starting over becomes part of the fun. Add to this scenes from the work-in-progress acted out by those two, plus a slew of dead-on cameos, and it becomes the kind of creative process we all like to think we have in our heads.


A masterpiece–there, I said it–from Norway about two friends who submit their first novels on the same day. One gets rejected, one becomes a best seller, but their friendship doesn’t suffer in the ways you might think.  An amazing cast, down to the smallest parts, and a perfectly-judged emotional pitch make this one way too close to comfort in some ways. But a brilliant film nonetheless. And bonus cool points for using Joy Division under the titles.

His Girl Friday

“Writing” can include reporting, and in fact, it used to: some of our best writers, and even me, started out as journalists back when that word meant something. Here it means Rosalind Russell as the ace reporter and Cary Grant as her fast-talking editor, who’s also her ex-husband determined to get her back. It’s a romantic comedy, to be sure, but director Howard Hawks also includes scenes of Russell doing her job, including an expert interview with a mousy convicted killer. And when the other cynical reporters take a look at what she’s written, their respect and silence–in a movie overloaded with the fastest dialogue you’ll ever hear–tells you all you need to know about her skill.

Chinese Coffee

You probably haven’t heard of this one. It started as a vanity project by Al Pacino, who wanted a filmed record of a play he loved appearing in. Pacino and Jerry Orbach star in this essentially two-person film, adapted from Ira Lewis’s play, about a writer (Pacino) and his friend (Orbach), who feels the writer has stolen from him: not plagiarism, exactly, but more from his real life and personality. It’s good because the actors are so good, and Pacino’s direction is unfussy and solid. Plus it’s an issue every fiction writer will encounter at some point.

Any other suggestions?

A story as tight as a sharkbite

Posted on by Alex in heroes, movies, storytelling, writers, writing | Leave a comment

“The head, the tail, the whole damn thing.”

Every year on the Fourth of July, we watch Jaws. It’s the original summer movie, and the template for everything great about the blockbuster/tentpole approach. It’s also a really good story (and yes, it was a good story when Melville first told it, too, but that’s another post).

The book it is based on, however, is not. A really good story, that is. It’s what used to be termed a “potboiler,” with lots of disparate elements tossed in to hopefully create a kind of plot stew that gives everyone something to like. Yes, there’s a shark, and it does essentially the same things the one in the movies does. But the characters are unpleasant and not really admirable people, and in the end (SPOILER) the shark just sort of dies of an accumulation of injuries, it isn’t cathartically destroyed by the last remaining hero. Also in the book, the ichthyologist Hooper has an affair with Chief Brody’s wife. (END SPOILER) The film takes the skeleton of the plot and puts entirely new, and much better, meat and muscle on it.

Here’s the key: in the film, every moment, whether it’s a dinner, a city council meeting, or the moment the three heroes finally set out to sea, ends up being about the shark. Even though it’s barely glimpsed until two-thirds of the way through the movie, the characters talk about, or around, the shark in every scene. And this doesn’t result in shallow or dull characters: it results in focused characters, whose presence works actively for the story.

Consider the three heroes. Chief Brody, the transplanted New Yorker with a fear of water (blessedly never explained as a childhood trauma, or [as it would inanely be today] the result of a previous shark attack, or some such half-assed psychological nonsense), finds his character tested by the way he reacts to the shark professionally, and personally. He begins as someone willing to be pushed around, then gradually rises to the challenge and takes the action he knows is right. In contrast you have Quint, sole survivor of the worst shark-related disaster in history, who refuses to change, and pays the price for it. And in between is the jester, Hooper, who takes things seriously but always sees the absurd, especially in Quint and Brody.

To see how badly a similar story can be done, check out Twister. The insipid romance between Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, as well as third wheel Jamie Gertz, is given as much screen time as the tornadoes themselves. When you’re dealing with one of the most powerful and unpredictable forces known to man, you’ve got enough drama–tell your story about that, and about the way it impinges on the characters. Otherwise, why are you telling a story about tornadoes at all?

You mean our bland love is not as compelling as nature’s greatest destructive force?

Each time I watch Jaws, I pick another favorite line (this year it was, “That’s a deliberate mutilation of a public-service message!”). But I get the same shiver of appreciation at renewing acquaintance with a story perfectly told, the same shiver that I get rereading Ceremony or listening to Darkness on the Edge of Town. In each case, the creators (Spielberg, Robert B. Parker, Bruce Springsteen) stayed tightly focused on their story, making everything echo back to the central concept. And they each created a work that bears up to revisits, that continues to reveal new treasures to even the most dedicated fans.

“We two are now more than us two”: messing with the rhythm

Posted on by Alex in movies, reviews, storytelling | Leave a comment

The American poster.

Every good work of dramatic storytelling has an internal rhythm that we, as readers/watchers/listeners, subconsciously pick up on as we go further into it. It often means we’re able to sense where a story is going before we should, based on hints the storyteller didn’t even know s/he was giving us. Sometimes it can be obvious, like the ten individual ten-minute takes that comprise Hitchcock’s film Rope. Other times it’s far more subtle, like the way the ending of Peter Hoeg’s novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow seems first jarring, and then in restrospect, inevitable.

I was reminded of this when I rewatched one of my favorite films, Wim Wenders 1987 story of angels in love, Wings of Desire. Yes, it was remade into a trite and obvious American film, City of Angels, but we’re talking about the original now, a film of startling brilliance and delicate touch (and, I must also add, a totally different ending).

Marion, unaware Damiel is watching.

Succinctly, the plot involves the angel Damiel falling in love with Marion, a trapeze artist in a two-bit circus stuck in West Berlin during the Cold War era. As an angel he’s followed her without her knowing it, learned her secret desires and sadness, and at last gives up his heavenly existence for the chance to meet her face to face.

This meeting happens in a Berlin nightclub, where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds provide a throbbing soundtrack. Marion and Damiel finally meet in the bar, and the scene is set for him to make a speech professing his love for her, which in turn will make her fall for him. It’s what we think the whole movie has been building toward.

But instead, she makes the speech to him. With no idea of his history, of who he really is or how long he’s watched and adored her.

This is part of what she says:

Damiel and Marion

Now it’s serious. At last it’s becoming serious. So I’ve grown older. Was I the only one who wasn’t serious? Is it our times that are not serious? I was never lonely neither when I was alone, nor with others. But I would have liked to be alone at last. Loneliness means I’m finally whole. Now I can say it as tonight, I’m at last alone. I must put an end to coincidence. The new moon of decision. I don’t know if there’s destiny but there’s a decision. Decide! We are now the times. Not only the whole town – the whole world is taking part in our decision. We two are now more than us two. We incarnate something. We’re representing the people now. And the whole place is full of those who are dreaming the same dream. We are deciding everyone’s game. I am ready. Now it’s your turn. You hold the game in your hand. Now or never. You need me. You will need me. There’s no greater story than ours, that of man and woman. It will be a story of giants… invisible… transposable… a story of new ancestors. Look. My eyes. They are the picture of necessity, of the future of everyone in the place. Last night I dreamt of a stranger… of my man. Only with him could I be alone, open up to him, wholly open, wholly for him. Welcome him wholly into me. Surround him with the labyrinth of shared happiness. I know… it’s you.

(You can see the scene on YouTube here.)

Sure the movie is stylized; it implies that Peter Falk, the actual actor and not a character, was once an angel as well. It’s loaded with poetic voice-overs, shifts from black-and-white to color, and has a sense of magic in the most mundane places in the world. But this is the moment when it all comes together and creates not just the romantic relationship between the protagonists, but the world view that they inhabit. Just as he secretly watched her, she somehow knows all about him.

David Gerrold, in one of his books describing his work on Star Trek, gave this simple advice for avoiding cliche (I’m paraphrasing): When you find yourself about to write something obvious, do the opposite. It’s good advice, and it’s what Wenders and his co-writer Peter Handke did. I assume this speech was written by Handke, the poet who contributed most of the monologues. But whoever wrote it, it was the brilliance of giving it to the opposite character from the one you’d expect that makes it resonate. Like the kindness of the angels in the film, the romance shows up where you least expect it.

So in a sense, Wings of Desire ends up exactly where we think it will. But it gets there via a totally unexpected path. It stays true to its rhythm, but at the same time surprises us by turning cliche on its head. And as such, it’s an object lesson for all storytellers working in any form.

Brother Blue (1921-2009)

Posted on by Alex in Brother Blue, George A. Romero, King Arthur, Knightriders, storytelling | 2 Comments

Brother Blue passed away earlier this month at age 88.

If you know of him at all, it’s probably from the George A. Romero film Knightriders.

In this Arthurian story of jousting motorcyclists, Brother Blue played Merlin, advisor to King William (Ed Harris). He was the troubled king’s lone confidante, and the one person who understood William’s desire to maintain a chivalric code against the world’s materialistic temptations. If this blog post does nothing else, I hope it encourages you to seek out Knightriders for yourself.

I met Brother Blue in 2001, as part of his main gig as a professional storyteller. The National Storytelling Festival, held every year in Jonesborough, Tennessee, attracts yarnspinners from all over the world and gives them a large, respectful forum for their talents. Brother Blue was not listed as an official participant, so when I saw his distinctive form–a bald African-American with butterflies painted on his face, in a blue robe and carrying a walking stick–I thought I was mistaken. But no, it was him, Brother Blue, Merlin from Knightriders.

Eventually I worked up the nerve to say hello. He was tremendously gracious, and when I told him how much I loved the film, he said I reminded him of Romero. I thought he meant that, like Romero, I was a big guy with a beard. But he told me differently, and while I don’t feel comfortable sharing exactly what he did say, the memory of it is a treasure.

But that wasn’t all. A week later, when I got ready to do the laundry from my trip, I found his card in a pocket. I know he didn’t give it to me; he must’ve slipped it there when I wasn’t looking. Or was it magic?

To me it was. And is. And although I never saw Brother Blue again, I still feel as if I met Merlin.

Gateway Characters (in Hell or Alaska)

Posted on by Alex in gateway characters, Hellboy, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, Myers, Northern Exposure, Rob Morrow, storytelling | 1 Comment

Lately the mater familias and I have been watching Northern Exposure, a show I caught only haphazardly during its network run in the early 90s. At the time I much preferred the grittier fantasmagoria of Twin Peaks to the bucolic magical realism of Northern Exposure; as I’ve mellowed (i.e., gotten older), though, I find that Northern Exposure (hereafter referred to as NX) has a charm and depth I completely missed before. But it developed a fatal flaw, one I also recently encountered in the otherwise-brilliant Hellboy 2: The Golden Army.

NX shows us the quirky citizens of Cicely, Alaska through the eyes of Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), a newly-minted Jewish doctor from New York. He is completely at odds with everything Cicely represents, and isn’t afraid to say so. The show’s effect comes from the clash between Fleischman’s Woody Allen-ish nebbish and the unflappable folks around him, especially tomboy pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner), who verbally gives as good as she gets.

In the final episode of Season 3 (“Cicely”), we learn about the founding of the town itself from a century-old eyewitness (the great Roberts Blossom). It’s a brilliant episode on a number of levels, and ends with Joel alone in the local bar, hearing these voices of the past and taking his first big step toward assimilation. It promised great things for future episodes.

Unfortunately, by the start of Season 4 Rob Morrow ran into difficulties with the show and his role in it. As a result, Joel’s importance was significantly minimized, and the momentum built up during Season 3 was completely lost. Worse, the show itself floundered because without Joel as the pivot, the other characters became a group of people who were merely quirky for the sake of being quirky. Some fans insist the show changed organically from being about Joel’s situation to being about the town itself, but what made the show compelling was the tension between Joel and the residents of Cicely. Without it, the show lost its rudder and the viewer lost his or her guide.

Now we jump to Hellboy. In the original 2004 film, Rupert Evans played Myers, a normal, straight-arrow FBI agent assigned to be the liason between Hellboy and the rest of the world. Myers’ responses to the characters and situations gave the viewer something normal to hang onto amidst the weirdness, in the tradition of many other SF and Fantasy stories (one reason Luke Skywalker was made a simple farmboy). As Myers warmed to Hellboy we did, too, and as he kept faith in Hellboy’s essential goodness, we did as well.

In Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, we have no Myers (he’s been transferred to Antarctica) or, more crucially, no Myers-type figure. Everyone in the story is a monster or creature of some sort (Jeffery Tambor’s Manning is human, but so clearly comic that he can’t take on the gateway role). As before Ron Perlman makes Hellboy into a likable blue-collar schmo, and the other performers bring emotion and heart to their creature-feature characters. But it’s all a little disorienting without a Myers to guide our responses. We’re not immediately sure which monsters should be considered outlandish and which ones commonplace.

There are still many great things in Hellboy 2 and the later seasons of NX. But with the loss or minimizing of these gateway characters, we’ve lost our way into these worlds. I miss Joel, even though he’s technically still around for Seasons 4 and 5, and I hope Myers gets back from Antarctica in time for Hellboy 3.