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Well, my new experiment is already off to a roaring stop. This was such a busy week that I couldn’t even think of writing a blog post until today, and now I actually have something to write about. That’s a “problem” I can deal with, though.

Recently, I jumped into some old files on my back-up drive and was reading my earliest work. Some people might cringe at that thought, and sometimes it makes me cringe, too. But typically it’s a humbling experience.

My very first novel that I ever wrote to completion was called The Dragon Slayer War (or rather, that was the title of the series; I can’t recall what I named the first book). At the time, I was proud of it. I shopped it around to agents and received a number of rejection letters (which I still have in a binder as trophies of a bygone era). After a while, I decided to take another pass at it and polish it up, as well as change up a few things that started to bug me about it.

Thus began a chain of uncompleted rewrites that ultimately resulted in the hard decision to scrap the project altogether. I just could not get it to a point where I was happy with it. I was depressed about the decision, but at the same time it felt good to untether myself from it and to move on to other things.

However, as I was reading my old pages this past week, I began to feel very wistful about the project. Sure, the writing is terrible. It was a story I started writing at the beginning of high school and completed by the end of college (with the ensuing rewrites taking place over the course of several years after). I’ve gotten much better and more self-aware of what I’m doing since then. But the story…

Yes, it’s overcomplicated and convoluted. Yes, there are one or two Mary Sue characters, as well as characters that don’t need to take up page space. Yes, the dialogue is hokey and unbelievable. But I found myself sucked into it. Sucked into my own story. And that’s when it hit me.

I spent much of my time during the rewrites trying to make it less of a traditional fantasy. I had elves and dwarves and an evil villain in there, and I was worried that it wouldn’t be taken seriously, that it needed to be original and different. And I was so worried about that, that I forgot how fun the original version with the elves and dwarves and evil villain in it was. I had written a story that I wanted to read, something like the Dragonlance books that I had grown up reading (sometimes over and over again). And I realized that its a book – and a series – that I want to see completed.

It may not be the next book I work on, but I think I’ve decided that it’s time to once again take a pass at this monster that I created nearly two decades ago. Because, seriously, I think at its core it’s a story that’s worth sharing. I just need to mold it into something that works and that I’m proud of. And I need to just say “Who cares?” to the fact that I’m putting traditional fantasy elements into it.

I’ve spent so much time trying to write “different” stories that I think I’ve earned the right to be self-indulgent for once.

A Reality Check

This post will not be an overly positive one, but that’s the point of it – life is not always positive. So, if you don’t want to look down the barrel of a negative, albeit realistic, post, you might want to wait until I do my next album review post later in the week.

I grew up hearing the age old axioms “If you try enough at something, you’ll succeed” and “If you want it bad enough, you’ll get it.” And I fell into the trap of believing that for a long time. But when you boil it down to its essence, it’s just words.

Now, I’m not saying don’t try. I’m not saying you shouldn’t want something with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. I’m not saying that you’ll never achieve your goal or succeed at something important to you. I’m telling you that much of what gets tossed around as inspiration pep-talking is not infallible doctrine, so don’t build up yourself on that foundation.

I’m only thirty-four. I understand that I have many years to try to become to a successful writer. But it’s hard to maintain that positive outlook when I’ve been writing non-stop since I was fifteen or sixteen, working my butt off at publishing my own stuff, and sacrificing so many things to do both, and I still feel like I’m treading water. And guess what? There’s the distinct possibility that I might never reach that success point that I’m aiming for.

My realizing that doesn’t make it a forgone conclusion. My realizing that doesn’t mean I’ve given up. What it means is that I’m not blindly running forward going, “I’m going to win, I’m going to win, I’m going to win…” I might never reach that finish line. Then again, I might. But I can’t be sure.

I know people who believe in the power of positive thinking. And I do try to stay positive. But as a writer, I’m aware of reality and what life really is, and what it can do to someone. I can’t turn a blind eye to that; I have to accept it, but at the same time I have to keep up the fight. Why? Because the possibility is still there.

In short, don’t be a fool and leap blindly, trusting for the best. Check to make sure your parachute is fully functioning and jump with knowledge that you might hit the ground hard.

I warned you this wasn’t a lighthearted post.

In my pontificating upon what to do in cases of lack of writing blog material (as was the case with this week), I came up with an idea that I’m very excited about. I can’t guarantee that you will be, but for me it’ll be a good exercise and something that I will enjoy. I will be reviewing a good portion of my music collection.

As I pointed out in a fairly recent post, music has been extremely important to me, not just in terms of something to inspire or motivate me while writing, but it weaves through my life. Many songs and albums are attached to important memories, good and bad. And music and writing are not so far apart in similarities; both require masterful crafting to produce something beautiful from many individual parts.

So, these reviews will provide me fodder to write about, it will give me a chance to talk about albums that are important to me (and even the ones that aren’t), and it will challenge me to get through nearly 500 albums (and that’s just the current number).  This is not to say that I will no longer be talking about writing.  This is just for the times when I struggle to think of something else to write about, or if I just really want to talk about an album.  The best case scenario will be that you’ll get at least two blog posts in a week – one about music and one about writing.

My initial plan was to compile all of my albums and review them alphabetically by album title. However, I want to kick this thing off by reviewing an important album to me because the band is celebrating its 30th anniversary at this time, and I thought that would be a good way to start. So, album #1 is…

Images and Words by Dream Theater

Images_and_WordsBy the end of my junior year in high school, in the ancient days of 1998, I was mostly still a metal head when it came to music. I listened to a lot of alternative stuff, but it was mostly the harder bands.  I was big on Metallica, Megadeth, Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson, and Korn. And then, one day towards the end of the school year, we were cleaning out our lockers when a classmate with whom I wasn’t friends turned to me and handed me a cassette tape, asking if I wanted it. It was commercial cassette tape that had been taped and recorded over (the older folks will know what I’m talking about), and a piece of white masking tape had been used as a label with a handwritten “Dream Theater: Images and Words”. I took it, because why not?

When I finally got around to listening to it, the first song, “Pull Me Under”, completely blew me away. It was metal, but it wasn’t. It was heavy, but at the same time it was complex. What was going on? Then the second song, a softer one, introduced saxophone fills! Granted, they were synthesizer created, but still – saxophone in metal? The entire album was an eye opener to me, pushing me into a realm of music that I didn’t know even existed and gave me an admiration for technical prowess over catchy riffs.

Backing up a bit, I suppose I should explain a little bit about the band. Dream Theater is progressive metal band that formed in the eighties, and while Images and Words (1992) wasn’t their first album, it’s their breakout album with what would be their main lineup. Progressive metal, in a nutshell, is a style of metal that relies on technical playing and complex song structures. A typical Dream Theater song can be about eight minutes (although they range from about three minutes to over twenty minutes).

In any case, after a short while I ditched the cassette tape and got my hands on a CD copy of Images and Words. To this day, out of their extensive discography, it remains my favorite and has my favorite song, “Metropolis, Pt 1: The Miracle and the Sleeper” (with “Pull Me Under” being a very, very close second). Dream Theater, and Images and Words specifically, took a run-of-the-mill metal head and showed him that music can be hard-edged and beautiful at the same time. And for that, I will always be greatful.

I swore that I had written a post about this subject a while ago, but I combed through my archives and couldn’t find one. Maybe I’m going crazy…

Anyway, I’ve been plugging away at my current writing projects, one of which is Blood of the Father. However, my productivity level seems to be down. And I know it’s for a number of reasons, but I believe one of the big reasons is that I haven’t had a “writing area” for a long time now.

Because of life circumstances, we have been renting space from my father-in-law for a while now. While it has been a huge help to us, it does carry with it some certain inconveniences, such as utilizing his furniture instead of our own and not being able to set up rooms the way we would like. And Katie has taken over the extra bedroom to use for her sewing room (and rightfully so; she does have the job that brings in a steady income). So I’m left with only a few spots in the house to write, and none of them are very conducive to a good writing experience.

To be fair, I’ve never had a “perfect” writing area. The closest was when in a rental house we lived in from 2010 to 2011. There was a bedroom that was big enough for us to use as a half sewing room and half writing office. It was rather pleasant. Otherwise, it’s always been a pain to make a little corner of an apartment an “office”. Occasionally I’ll find a coffee house or something to call home for a little bit, but I haven’t been able to do that much since my son was born.

So I push on, moving from room to room with my laptop whenever I get a chance to write. We’re at the beginning of the long journey of finding a house of our own, and on the wish list is an extra bedroom or spot in the house that I can use for writing. Hopefully that wish will materialize. Until then, the couch will have to suffice.

Like many writers, I have my little routines and habits that I have to adhere to when I write. For example, just as I was about to write this entry, I realized that I didn’t have a hot cup of coffee next to me. I like to drink coffee while I’m writing, not because of the caffeine or anything, but because it’s something that puts me in the writing mood. Occasionally at night I’ll swap the joe with a glass of bourbon or scotch, but that’s neither here nor there.

One of the major things I need to have while writing, though, is music. I like to have something playing in the background while I dig into a story or a blog post or whatever. Music has been a passion of mine for a long, long time. My taste in music changes from time to time, but my acceptance of different genres is extremely broad. I listen to everything from classic rock to 90s alternative to punk to progressive metal to jazz to new age to… well, I could keep going on and on.

I used to listen to just about anything when I’d write. Sometimes I can still get into that zone. More often these days, though, I have to listen to stuff that doesn’t have lyrics. And I prefer something with complex or experimental melodies. For a long time I’d listen to Orbital (and I still do) because their music is mellow and rhythmic with a lot of complexity to it. And after learning about him through the animated series The Venture Brothers, I would rotate in J.G. Thirwell’s experimental music.

Recently, however, I’ve discovered a slew of musicians that do lyric-less metal in a variety of sub-genres – progressive metal, djent*, jazz metal, and stuff that kind of defies labeling. I like stuff like this because it’s heavy enough to keep my juices flowing, but complex enough to keep the wheels in my head turning.

I know the word “metal” makes a lot of people turn away, thinking of things like screaming bearded guys and screeching guitars.  That’s not what this stuff is, I assure you.  If you’re interested in checking any of it out for your own writing needs (or whatever), here’s a list of stuff available on YouTube for you to listen to. Many of these musicians are also on Bandcamp, so if you like their music, please consider actually purchasing their albums (I’ve purchased a handful already and have plans to binge a little bit more).

Sithu Aye: A musician from Scotland whose metal is “happy”. Seriously, it’s amazing – and, at times, heavy – music that doesn’t sound dark or ominous. I suggest starting with Invent the Universe, one of my personal favorites.

Wide Eyes: These guys put out an amazing amount of music in each album. Much more metal than Sithu Aye, but with great complex riffs and solos. Their album Volume is great if you like a little bit of electronic mixed in with your metal, and Samsara is great if you like a slightly softer edge.

Plini: Less metal, more progressive rock, but awesome nonetheless. Superb guitar playing and songs that you’ll be happy to have stuck in your head. Took me a little bit to get into them, but the album Sweet Nothings is one of my staples now.

Anup Sastry: The drummer from the band Intervals (which is another great band with lyric-less music) has a sound that I’ve never heard anywhere else. It’s heavy, it’s fast, and it’s great if you need an adrenaline rush while you’re writing. The album Titan is amazing (though far too short).

Modern Day Babylon: Heavy, ambient, driving, and melodic all at once. Travelers is one of my favorite albums to put on when I’m not sure which sub-genre to listen to.

God Is An Astronaut: A recent find for me, these guys are not metal at all. They’re labeled as post-rock, but I just consider them ambient rock. It’s… ethereal I guess would be the best way to put it. I love it, and the more I listen to them, the more I love it. Start with the album All is Violent, All is Bright.

Deathmole: Anyone who has read the webcomic Questionable Content should at least have a passing familiarity with this “band”. In reality, it’s just one person – QC artist Jeph Jacques. His death metal/post-rock sound is perfect background music (as well as great music to listen to in the car). I suggest the album Permanence (not available on YouTube, but you can listen to it on Bandcamp).

*I am aware from hearing many metalheads argue the point that “djent” is not an actual genre, but more of a style of playing.  For the sake of my post, though, I am leaving my statement as is.

I really don’t like people telling me what to do. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that here and there before, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Unfortunately, this sometimes extends to people kindly giving me advice, and sometimes that’s detrimental to me.  But not always.

I was thinking about this yesterday as I was blatantly not writing because of the heat. When it gets too hot hot outside, my energy and brain power gets sapped. And all I could think of was all those writers out there who say things to the effect of, “Just sit down and write, and don’t worry if it comes out bad, you can fix it later.” But the problem is that’s not how I’m wired; if I know I’m not going to do a decent job – not a perfect one or even a great one – then I can’t bring myself to do it at all. And you know what? Despite what all those rah-rah writers say, that’s okay.

We’re all wired differently. Some of us can bring a laptop and write in a coffee shop. Some of us need a quite office space. Some of us need a hot cup of coffee at arm’s length. Some of us need glass of scotch. Some of us can write thousands of words without stopping. Some of us can only do a few paragraphs at a time. But the defining thing between us all is the need to keep writing. How we do it isn’t an equation that can be solved by plugging in the same factors each time. We all have our own ways of doing things. Just because one writer is able to sit down and power through even though the temperature is 150 degrees outside, it doesn’t mean that I can do it.

Don’t let your writing routine be defined by another writer. Try things that are suggested, sure, but don’t feel that you need to conform your way of doing things to a specific person’s way, regardless of how successful he or she is. Remember – that success was due to a number of things, not just what software program they used to write their book.

Stop Being So Nice

Being an independent creative is tough in a lot of ways. I think one of the toughest for me is when to stop being nice.

I know, that sounds weird, right? But it’s the truth. As an indie creator with a lot of friends who are also in the game, and as a nice guy, I try to help out where I can. This means I’ll try to buy something when I can (which is not as often as I’d like), spread the word on my social networks, share advice, etc. And if I don’t, I feel guilty about it, like I’ve let my friends down.

The thing that I have to remind myself of, however, is that it’s okay if I can’t help out. I juggle so many projects that I’m constantly pushing my own things, getting word out about my writing and art, and that leaves me with little time to do so for other people. Not to mention that I don’t want to bombard my followers with my own projects and someone else’s. And there is a bit of selfishness in that; I want people following me to see my stuff.  There’s nothing wrong with that because that’s why they’re following me in the first place. In short, I sometimes have to block out everything else and focus on myself.

That’s not a bad thing; that’s the nature of being an entrepreneur. And it’s not to say that there won’t be times that there are lulls in your work where you can promote someone else’s work, especially if you admire it. Paying it forward is a wonderful thing to do.

On the flip side of the coin, it’s important to remember that nobody is obligated to help you out, either. It doesn’t matter if it’s friends, family, readers, or strangers – nobody owes you anything, and you can’t hold that against them. If they do help you out, that’s fantastic and you should thank them up and down, and return the favor if and when you can. But if they don’t, keep in mind that they have their own projects and their own lives. Or maybe they just don’t have a connection to your work. Not everyone is required to like what you do, even if they’re related to you or go out drinking with you once a week.

In short, be good to people and help them out, but be good to yourself, too. We creatives often forget to do the latter.

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