Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Joyful Playlist

I tend to go on and on about the "Ragged Glory" playlist that lasted me the whole time I worked on SPARKS, from the first draft to the last copyedits. The songs all have a ragged, soaring, triumphant quality that I wanted in the book. I don't think playlists help much with rough drafts, but they're fun to make and help me a lot on revisions. You play a song with the right vibe and try to build the scene to work like that song is playing in the background.

Today I made a very important decision that I think will change my life: I typed "Slade" into the "Create a Station" field on Pandora. The station this created has me jumping off the wall as I bang my head and sing along to "Somebody to Love," "Cum On Feel the Noise," and "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress."

It makes me want to talk about my "joyful" playlist, which I switched to for a couple of scenes in the book during revisions. Songs that sound like the band and singer are so happy they can hardly contain themselves and want you to feel the same way. Here's what's on that:

"Oh Yoko!" by John Lennon. The harmonica solo at the end is pure distilled joy.

"Hold Me Now" by Polyphonic Spree. I'm not sure what they're on about in this song - I'm never sure what these guys are on about. But they sure sound uplifting. It's like an indie "Up With People."

I always wanted to start a band called "Up To Here With People."

"Good Lovin" by the Grateful Dead. Once I was at a show where they played this, and a rainbow appeared in the sky. I told a dead head about it and he said "Yeah, that happens a lot at Dead shows. There's a lot of psychic energy." I'm pretty skeptical about stuff like that, but there's no possible scientific explanation to explain how all those VW micro-busses in the parceling lot are still running.

"We Are Golden" by Mika. Fun!

"Don't Stop Believin' (Glee version). I never felt like the show lived up to the promise of the pilot. I like it when their music really sounds more or less like something a really good glee club would do (plus guitar and drums). They usually just sound like karaoke versions. But I sure loved that pilot! Did they ever get around to the gag I assumed they were going for where "new directions" sounds like "nude erections?" The "Halo/Walking On Sunshine" mashup is on there, too.

"My Favorite Things" by The Mountain Goats. One of their dozens of "unreleased" numbers. A minute long song about hearing John Coltrane on the radio while dancing with someone you're probably about to sleep with. "you put your arm around me and it felt real fine /and your ankle brushed up against mine /  and resonating in my bones / the precise, crisp, drumming of Mr. Elvin Jones / god damn it! / i love john coltrane!" I swear he actually sings the exclamation point. John Darnielle tends to sing in italics. He does not sing his songs so much as he declares them.

"Oh, Mary Don't You Weep" by Bruce Springsteen an the Seeger Sessions band. The Seeger Sessions band sounded like what old folk music should have always sounded like, but it's a sound that couldn't exist in a world without mixing boards. An 18 piece folk band with a banjo, a tuba, an accordion, and a ragged band of gypsies vibe. I really hope he brings this band back - or makes up for the loss of Clarence by sort of merging the E Street band with some of these guys (which is pretty much what he's already started).

"Janglin" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. These guys (like Polyphonic Spree) sort of seem like a cult. But what a swell cult! One line I just can't get past here is "We want to heal ya / we don't mean to kill ya." Well, good. I wouldn't want to listen to a band that meant to kill me (and wasn't a Norwegian black metal band).

"Kick Drum Heart" by The Avett Brothers. A bouncy song on an album that is generally not bouncy.

"In The Aeroplane Over the Sea" by Neutral Milk Hotel seems like it fits into every playlist ever. All building up to the line "can't believe / how strange it is to be anything at all" which is sort of what Sparks is all about. I would have written that right in, but Flux is pretty hardcore about not quoting any lyrics. This made writing the scenes where they listen to "God Only Knows" and "This Year" and "It's All right Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" an interesting challenge. This is not a song Debbie would like, though. It took forever for this band to click with me, and Debbie is not into artsy, avant grade-type stuff. Maybe one day she will be. Not yet.

"Such Great Heights" by The Postal Service. This makes me think of my wife.

"Love the One You're With" by Stephen Stills. When I was about 14 I went to see a Shakespeare in the Park thing where they did Midsummer Night's Dream with hippies in place of fairies, and between acts a band played this. One of those songs (like "You may Be Right" by Billy Joel) where, if you pay too much attention, you'll start thinking the singer is acting like a complete douchebag, but they make it fun anyway.

"What Is Life" by George Harrison. My favorite of his solo songs. "Waiting ON You All" would have worked in any Sparks playlist, too.

"My Roller Coaster" by Kimya Dawson. One of her happier songs. All the people in this book need to listen to more Kimya Dawson records. We all do, probably. The importance of "Nothing Came Out' by her band, The Moldy Peaches, to SPARKS can not be over-stated. Sounds like a funny song if you've never been "there," but I think it's really their most doggedly serious song.

"Queen of the World" by Ida Maria. I love Ida Maria. This is one of her happier songs, where the depression underneath is more effectively buried. She features very prominently on the playlist for another upcoming book tentatively titled Mad to Live, and "We're All Going to Hell" is on the Satanic YA book playlists (of course).

"Valerie Plame" by the Decemberists. "Engine Driver" turns up in most of my other playlists, but this one delights me more. Something about opening a song with "Valerie Plame / if that really IS your name" makes me smile.

"What Light" by Wilco. THe "Sing, Sing a Song" of my generation.

"The Happy Wanderer" by The Polkaholics. These guys are the greatest band in Chicago. They are a guitar-drum-bass combo that sounds like early Green Day, only they play polka. All polka is happy. It is happy music for happy people. "The Beer Barrel Polka" teaches us that something can start in Scranton and go to Number 1. The lead singer, Dandy Don Hedekker, is the name sake of the appliance store in the book I Put a Spell on You.

"Constructive Summer" by The Hold Steady. The Ragged Glory playlist was heavy on these guys.

Just added today to this list  is "Stuck On F**in' You" by Lady Gaga. Sounds like a Beggar's Banquet outtake. She should do more songs like this. I found myself wishing that whole last record was a big more organic (but in that Jim Steinman and Meatloaf way, if that makes any sense).

Some other music writings I've done:
On Green Day
The Gospel of the Mountain Goats
The Hold Steady and the Gaslight Anthem: Two Gangs Fighting In the Same Springsteen Song
On 90s Alternative as Oldies

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

News, all sizes

Some time soon I'll be doing a radio interview on KMSU's Weekly Reader program. More details when I have them.

Fiction State of Mind has a nice review of Sparks today.

Selzer and I are continuing work on Satan's Parents' Basement: A Novel For Young Adults Who Worship the Devil. No word on what we'll DO with it - we're very happy with it, but we're realistic about its chances of fitting into today's market. Contemporary humor with a male protagonist is a hell of a tough sell today.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


If you take the map of Cornersville Trace , the made-up suburb of Des Moines where SPARKS takes place, and overlay it on a map of where it would actually be in Des Moines, Lisa's house in the book would be right about where Newt Gingrich just opened his new headquarters.  Ugh.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Hail Satan?

About a year ago Adam Selzer (my boss on the Smart Aleck Staff) got into a discussion about Christian YA novels and joked that he should write a Satanic one. He started writing down a few lines and had the first chapter pretty quickly.

He and I are collaborating on it now. he brought me in because he needed some "14+" stuff in it.

It's the story of Leon, the kid from his first two books, as an 18 year old slacker, three years after his girlfriend moved to Europe and he sort of let himself go. He now works in a b-rate ice cream place, may or may not be graduating with his class, and spends most of his time hanging around with his assistant manager, who claims to be Satan and serves as Jeeves to his Wooster. There's a full draft of it now, and we've been going through and revising it.

But what should we DO with it, anyway?

There's really no market for books like this. It's a humorous boy book in which no one gets shot or blown up. A few years ago there would have been a market for something like that, but for a book like that to find an audience these days, it pretty much has to be written by John Green. We have a lot of friends TRYING to sell books like this, and even if an editor wants it, all they're hearing from sales and marketing is "we could sell this if it were by John Green, but since it's not...."  John is sort of lucky - in the post-Twilight world, he's a YA writer that it's still socially acceptable for boys (and smart, left-of-center kids in general) to be seen reading. Boys were always a tough market in YA - it's not that they don't read, but when they hit "ya" age, they tend to gravitate more towards adult sci-fi/fantasy/horror and graphic novels. And who can blame them? The YA section is still "The Twilight Section" these days. Even most of the books that AREN'T dystopia/paranormal romance are marketed mainly to the girls who read those.

And if someone DID publish it, we don't think there's any chance they'd actually MARKET it as "a novel for young adults who worship the devil." The chain stores would probably tell them they wouldn't order any unless they removed all references to the dark lord from the cover, title, and description. And then they probably wouldn't order it anyway (getting them to carry a boy book by a midlister is a real trick these days - we'd need to have a movie version coming out or something before there'd be any demand for it).

The obvious choice, then, is to just put it out as an e-book. But there's a danger that "once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny." Will it make it harder for us to get traditional publishers (and good contracts) for our other books if they think we're willing to just throw things out for no money upfront? And who's going to edit it? And who'll READ it? These stories you hear about people selling tons and tons (or, well, gigs and gigs) of ebooks are the exception, not the rule. What sales Adam and I get tend to come about mainly because of our good reviews reviews in the trades. We wouldn't get reviewed in the trades at all if we put it out ourselves.

And is it really better to put it out at all, or is it more fun to just tease people about it? It can be like those albums that bands record and are rumored to be masterpieces, but that, for some reason, never actually get released, and become the stuff of legend, even though they're really just okay? Not releasing this it all lends it a kind of air of mystery, doesn't it?

Anyway, the book is in revision now, and the title is either Satan's Parents' Basement or Are You There, Satan? It's Me, Leon. The Holy Quests, who did the "theme song" for Sparks, are recording a whole EP of songs connected to it which we could offer as a free download.

Or maybe we'll just keep it all on our hard drives and let you all stay curious. Muhahahaha.
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