Saturday, March 31, 2007

Playing Favorites, Installment # 2 & # 3

"Dear Someone"
"Red Clay Halo"
by Gillian Welch
written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (2001)

Gillian Welch writes contemporary songs that sound like they were penned fifty, sixty, even a hundred years ago. You can hear elements of various styles in her music: country, gospel, mountain, roots, old-time, rock, and blues, to name just a few. But with "Dear Someone" what you get is pretty straightforward: a slow waltz that's in absolutely no hurry at all. Yet at just over three minutes, it's over far too soon.

As with much of Gillian's music, what you hear is very stripped down: two acoustic guitars and two voices, that's it. (That second voice, providing gorgeous harmony, belongs to Welch's partner David Rawlings.) Other than calling it a waltz, "Dear Someone" is hard to classify. Nothing in the song really identifies itself as "country" or "gospel" or anything else. It's just a waltz. A beautiful waltz of stunning simplicity.

The singer expresses her desire for freedom, freedom not only to see the world, but to find the one person waiting for her in a place she's only dreamed of. Only the stars – perhaps only one star – knows where this other person is, but the singer tenaciously clings to the hope that "one little star, smiling tonight/knows where you are."

"Dear Someone" is reflective, dreamlike, and yes, sentimental. The narrator doesn't know where help is coming from, but she's sure that that little star will guide her. That sense of almost childlike hope pushes her forward with excruciating slowness. You get the sense that even when she says "Hurry and take me straight into the arms of my dear someone," that it could take next to forever and her faith won't be deterred.

"Red Clay Halo," much livelier than "Dear Someone," sounds as old as the Appalachian hills. It's the type of old-time bluegrass/gospel tune you could've heard at a barn dance forty or fifty years ago. David Rawlings's picking sounds light, effortless, and at times just a little bit alien. If you ever see Welch live, you can't help but like Rawlings. He plays like he's in his own little world, then expands out beyond the universe of what seems possible, then gives you an "Aw, shucks" expression, like there's nothing to it.

In "Red Clay Halo," like many of Welch's songs, themes of anticipation and redemption are prominent. No one wants to dance (or associate) with the song's narrator, since he/she can't escape the indignity of clay, mud, and dirt that seems to inundate all of life. There's no friendship, no recognition here of anything beyond surfaces and appearances. This filth is part of life, but the narrator wonders if defilement will follow him/her into the next life.

But when I pass through the pearly gate,
Will my gown be gold instead?
Or just a red clay robe with red clay wings
And a red clay halo for my head?

Is it even possible for me to be cleansed? Will it matter that I'm filthy in heaven? By the time we get to the final verse, the narrator seems to be singing, "This is who I am and I can't change it."

And you know, the thing is, you don't even have to.

"Dear Someone" and "Red Clay Halo" appear on Gillian Welch's 2001 album Time (The Revelator).

Friday, March 30, 2007

Another One Out the Door

Put the finishing touches this morning on a new 3500-word horror story called "The Probationary Period." This is my third story to go out in as many weeks, so I feel like things are headed in the right direction.

I'm in somewhat of a dilemma about an older story, though. It's one I've had rejected nine times, but most of the rejections have included several positive comments, so I'm a little hesitant to just kill it. (Besides, ten is such a nice, round number, don't you think?) One of my stories got published after nine rejections, another after twelve.

What made me keep sending them out after all those rejections? I just felt there was something there. Some stories I've sent out just a few times, some just once before I realized that they just weren't working and I didn't know how to fix them. If you feel the story's got something, I think you either stay persistent or figure out what's wrong with it. But eventually you have to make a decision.

I will. After this next time. I promise...

Sunday, March 25, 2007

All Me to Summarize....Please....

Trying something different with the story I'm working on now. I'm sure it's not original, but I can't recall where I picked it up. (Feel free to contact me for proper credit.)

At the end of each paragraph of the story's first draft, I add a margin comment, stating what each paragraph "does." For instance, at the end of the first paragraph, I have in the comment, "Introduces protagonist Sandra and her immediate surroundings, hints at her financial condition and shows her intense fear of who might be calling her on the phone." Not that wordy, but you get the idea. If the paragraph doesn't do something to advance the story/characters, what's it doing there?

I'd sort of been doing this with several of the published stories I've been reading, which in short fiction can be a valuable exercise. I haven't seen a lot of unnecessary paragraphs in the published work of others; sentences sometimes, but rarely paragraphs. (I suppose you could do this exercise on the sentence level, too, and I'll probably do that next. Heck, maybe even the word level.)

This is a really good exercise for me. I tend to wander in some paragraphs, pursuing character elements that are important, but in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's helping tremendously, with this story, anyway. Anything that helps.

Friday, March 23, 2007


Cindy and I spent the first part of this week in Charlottesville, VA, taking a little mini-vacation. If you're a history buff or a book lover, Charlottesville is the place to go. The most famous attractions are the homes of three presidents: James Madison's Montpelier, James Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland, and of course, Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.

Monticello is quite impressive, especially if you have a good tour guide (or if you know enough to be your own guide. I do not.).
Monroe's Ash Lawn-Highland is more modest in scope and history, but still quite interesting with the right guide. (Ours was superb.) We passed on Madison's house in favor of...well, books.

Downtown Charlottesville has at least six used book stores and I hit them all. (My "Books Purchased" for March will completely obliterate previous months.) We missed the Virginia Book Festival by one day and Iris DeMent by a week (she'll be in Annapolis soon, though), but still had a great time.

Other stops included Spudnuts, a local C-ville shop specializing in doughnuts made from potatoes (tastes better than it sounds) and the Barboursville Vineyards and Ruins - an excellent winery with nearby ruins of a home designed by Jefferson for Virginia governor James Barbour. The house was destroyed by fire in 1884, but the wine's still good - we bought a couple of bottles---to go with the Spudnuts, of course.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Getting Closer

Received two short story rejections this week from major genre markets, both of them containing some positives.

From one,

There's some good stuff here, but ultimately it just didn't quite work for me.

and from another,

Almost works, but doesn't quite make it.

On the plus side, neither of these rejections were form letters and both lead me to believe I'm on the right track. Something is working with each of these stories, but each also contains something that's not quite there yet.

Small steps, but steps that are moving forward.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Cut It Out

Got a rejection letter yesterday, but at least it wasn't a form letter, plus it said that the story "Almost worked," so I suppose that's better than "Didn't work at all" or "Completely sucked" or "I've had more enjoyable root canals." (You have to take the small victories where you can find them.)

So I went to the next market on my list and noticed they have a 5000 word limit. Oops. My story was 5600 words. Hmmmmm.

I've cut stories before, trying the meet the word count, but the end result was never good. It probably would have been better if I'd just sent those markets different, shorter stories or just sent the longer stories somewhere else.

But I thought I'd have a go at trimming this one down. Turns out it made the story much stronger. I found several places where my first-person narrator said roughly the same thing in two different ways and a few other sentences that read like digressions. Losing those 600 extra words really wasn't that hard. They needed to be cut.

What do you say? Does cutting for word count ever make your stories stronger? It did for me in this case, but I'm thinking maybe that's not the norm. Let me know.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Which Are You - Hunter or Farmer?

In his book on writing, Word Work, Bruce Holland Rogers talks about two different types of people/writers: Hunters and Farmers.

Hunters (who may also, Rogers says, have a touch of ADD) "are distractable, risk-taking, and restless. We may be impulsive or irritable. Our moods shift often and (to others and ourselves) mysteriously. We likely have many projects going at once, but we may finish only the ones that someone makes us finish. We change our plans all the time. What we were enthusiastic about last week isn't so interesting now because we're onto something better."

Farmers "have it together. They find it easy to do one thing at a time.... Farmers know where their tools are. They plan a project, take it step by step, and clean up when they're done. Farmer emotions have a lot to do with what's going on right in front of them at the moment. When you have a conversation with a Farmer, she is right there with you, hearing every word you say."

Rogers expounds on both Hunters and Farmers, offering suggestions to those who want to balance their Hunter/Farmer natures.

I'd say I definitely lean more toward the Hunter camp, maybe 75% Hunter, 25% Farmer. Looking at my "Current Stories" file, I have fourteen stories I've started and not finished. Yet on the Farmer side, I told myself this week that I would send one of those stories out by Friday. (It's actually going out today.) Hunting...farming...hunting...farming... Which are you?


From the Upcoming Books I Must Have department, this from Jeff Ford.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Get Weird

Here's a great deal, boys and girls: from now until April 31, subscribe to one year of Weird Tales for just $12. Really. I wouldn't kid around about something like that.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Playing Favorites, Installment #1

I love lists. Don't know why, but I do. For years I've kept a list of my favorite movies and have wanted to do the same with albums and songs, but never got motivated to do it.

But lately I've been listening to my collection (partly as an exercise in weeding stuff out), asking myself why I like certain songs, certain albums. So I thought it might be fun to explore some of those songs here. Even though this is the first entry, these songs are in no particular order and future music posts will probably not appear on a regular basis. Just whenever the mood strikes me.

And these aren't what I consider "the greatest" songs or albums of all time. Just stuff I like. So here's the first one:

"No Expectations" - The Rolling Stones (1968)

If you could find someone who had somehow never heard of the Rolling Stones and played them "No Expectations" (the second track from Beggars Banquet), then played them just about any other Stones song, the novice listener would no doubt ask, "That's the same group?"

Of course it's the same group. As soon as you hear him sing the first notes, it's unmistakable Jagger, yet atypical Mick: subdued, reflective, almost tender. Keith Richards quietly strums his acoustic while Brian Jones delivers a great Mississippi Delta blues slide guitar, arguably some of his best work.

"That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing," Jagger reflected in 1995. Shortly after the release of Beggars Banquet, Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool. The song, written by Jagger and Richards, could be seen as a regretful look at life and love on the road or perhaps as Jones's epitaph.

The slide guitar brings the tune in line with not only the rest of the blues-based album, but also the band's own blues roots. Aside from Jones's slide work, the song's chord structure and lyrics are quite simple. Yet there's more going on. Nicky Hopkins (who played keyboards on several of the Stones recordings) enters after the third verse with a very unobtrusive, tasteful middle-register piano, changing the mood to something more refined, yet laced with melancholy. Hopkins pretty much stays in the middle register for the next two verses, then closes the song in the upper register with notes so delicate they sound like a stream of water running over rocks. It's the way this elegant piano line contrasts with Jones's pain-filled slide that elevates the tune to something truly memorable.

"No Expectations" was also released as a B-side to "Street Fighting Man" in the U.S.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Zodiac (2007)

I was in high school when I saw the last twenty minutes of a cable TV special (I think it was on HBO) about serial killers. This final segment of the show was devoted to California's Zodiac killer, which I thought was fascinating. I had no idea anyone had written a book about Zodiac until ten years later in 1988 when I saw Robert Graysmith's book in a used bookstore in Memphis (where I lived at the time). I took it home and read it in one night. I also didn't get much sleep that night.

Ever since then I'd hoped that one day someone would put together a good movie about Zodiac. Could David Fincher's new Zodiac be that film?

Zodiac is more a spotlight on police procedures than a conventional horror or thriller film. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of suspense and tension, but much of it is sustained through the characters - the police, the newspapermen, the families, the surviving victims - and the passage of time as the Zodiac manhunt progresses. Critic Richard Roeper said it's like looking at Silence of the Lambs through the eyes of Scott Glenn's FBI character. Procedure is a big part of Zodiac and it's handled smartly.

One of the reasons Zodiac works so well is that Fincher knows what not to do. He doesn't spend too much time on the crimes themselves. (Many of them don't even occur onscreen.) He doesn't have the killer make long, stupid speeches or show some crazed nutcase pouring over plans in his basement at 3:00AM. The audience pretty much learns what the police/journalists learn as it happens.

Of course the problem with this is - unless you're new to the story - you know what's going to happen. But knowledge of the case did not hinder my enjoyment of the film one bit. In fact, I was impressed with how closely the film followed the book.

There's a lot to like about Fincher's version. The film is nearly three hours long but never seems like it. The acting is excellent. I can't stand Robert Downey, Jr., but I have to admit his performance is superb. (And Gyllenhaal is quite good too.) And the attention to period detail must have been painstaking.

Don't be surprised if you read several negative reviews of the film. I think that comes from Fincher fans expecting to see another Se7en or Fight Club. Those are different films and it's unfair to compare Zodiac to them. Zodiac focuses on a different kind of fear, a different type of terror. What Fincher does so well is show that those who were attacked by Zodiac were not the only victims. The slow grind of seeking information, of following dead ends, even of looking over your shoulder when you get into your car at night --- all of these things add up and affect the characters and their families. It's fascinating to see how one crazed maniac could cause such widespread fear and how people react to it. Fincher knows this and knows how to convey it.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Adam Kingsley Smith

If you're going to be in my neck of the woods on Saturday, March 3 you owe it to yourself to drive, walk or crawl to the Severna Perk coffee house to check out Adam Kingsley Smith. Adam's a really cool singer/guitarist who's got some great stuff going on, including several tunes he wrote. As he mentions on his MySpace page, he's got some strong Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash influences. He'll be performing Saturday from 4:00-5:00PM. And it's free. Check him out.

Severna Perk
545 Benfield Rd
Severna Park, MD 21146