Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

I know I’ve discussed the current Cobalt City novel RESISTANCE once or twice before. For new readers (or those with the memory of goldfish), RESISTANCE is the novel I started last November as a way to process what I saw as our country’s decline into fascism and straight up dystopia. I’d hoped to be finished with it by now. I’m only 2/3 of the way through it, but picking up speed as I near the end. The goal is to have this draft done by sometime in October.

See…I process the world around me in my writing. I suspect most writers do that, to some degree. It’s part of that whole “write what you know” chestnut. Our life, our experiences, provide a filter and springboard in many ways for our stories. I’m a pretty political person. I pay attention to what’s going on in the world around me, the good and the bad, and I try to learn from as many people from as many different viewpoints as I can. I don’t always succeed. And sometimes that viewpoint is little more than ill-informed hatred that, upon examination, I can dismiss.

Several of the Cobalt City books have provided filters for me to process parts of this world through the medium of superhero storytelling. This actually came up with my therapist the other day, which might be a bit of an overshare, but she think’s it’s healthy, so I’m inclined to agree. I can’t fix the world. I can’t FIGHT the world.

But in Cobalt City, I can. So I do. And sometimes it surprises me how that manifests. The huge cast (spread out over seven arcs that condense down into four arcs and then into, essentially one) is all grappling with the same core issue: what are the responsibilities of heroes in a country that has turned toward fascism? Who do they serve, and what are they willing to risk?

Amid these larger arcs are three isolated chapters that help provide context, coloring in a larger view of what’s going on in the country and world. These chapters also allow me to write about things I see going on right now, every day in the news. As such, they’re proving to be particularly brutal to write. They’re a little too immediate. A little too real.

The first one was from the point of view of a C-list vigilante hero who was a police detective in her day job. As protest marches continue to grow around the city, the city, bowing to pressure from the federal government, is changing how they deal with protests. They’re bringing a more militarized presence, prepared to treat them less as peaceful marches than riots. While she understands the righteousness of the protests and the protesters, and knows first hand that yes, there are good cops, she also knows all too well that there are bad ones, too. She sees the conflict escalating from a perspective no one else in the book has, knows it’s a powder keg, and knows it’s only a matter of time before someone lights it.

The final of these chapters will be coming up in a day or two, and shows two heroes, both rich white women, returning to the country from Brazil after a mission, and will, hopefully, be the easiest of the three to write. I know they’re going to encounter problems with security overreach. And I know it’s going to raise blood pressure over privacy issues when I get to it. Thankfully I don’t have to deal with that one, yet.

In the meantime, I just finished wrestling with a chapter that I thought was going to be a fun little aside but proved me wrong.

Chapter 23, in which Xia Lo, former (and kind of still current) enforcer of Cobalt City’s underworld is meeting with the Asian Business & Community Alliance over police inaction regarding increased harassment. They’ve come to her, asking not only to maybe apply some pressure on the police to take these claims more seriously and increase patrols, but also to help them form a volunteer civilian protection force. Not a neighborhood watch. Effectively, a militia. And she knows that while it will help against random violence, it could also be seen as a provocation–reason for the government to use ICE to disrupt the community and sow fear. But maybe it’s a risk worth taking. Maybe it’s time to go to war. Because lives are already at risk. Businesses have been damaged. People have been not just confidently and loudly threatened in public, but outright attacked, including one who was shot dead in a bar in the Hollows (also, the only crime for which there had been an arrest) while the killer shouted that “This is OUR country now!”

It’s making me angry.

It’s making me angry, because this is happening. Not just in Cobalt City, but here. In Seattle. It doesn’t matter if it’s a community that the president or any of his sycophants have singled out for abuse. Violence, threats, harassment against Muslim and Jewish communities have surged, due in no small part to people in power vilifying those communities. But beyond that, this atmosphere of hate has seemingly empowered bigots of all stripes, with the only thing they hate more than people who are different is being called on it. It’s a terrifying time.

And I don’t know how to deal with it. So I write about it.

I write about it so that maybe shed light on a bigger part of the narrative–both Cobalt City and ours. I write about it to encourage people to stay strong in the face of authoritarianism, to push back against Fascism, to protect your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers from the hatred and violence of bigots. I write about it to show that no, if you punch a Nazi that doesn’t make you as bad as them, that standing up to protect someone from harassment and violence is fundamentally different than standing up to oppress someone. I write about it to show that no one is threatening your way of life or your culture simply by enjoying theirs, that it’s not just YOUR country–it’s all of ours, so fucking learn to share.

We’re on an express train to dystopia in this country right now. But it’s still not too late to fix things. Even now. Not everyone can march. Not everyone can go on strike. Not everyone can punch a Nazi in the head. Do what you can. Do what you need to. Then catch your breath and get back out there. And hydrate. Always remember to hydrate.

I might be able to fix Cobalt City. I’m counting on all of you to help fix the rest of it.

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Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

If you’ve been reading this blog for long enough, you’ve probably heard me talk about Of Rooks and Ravens, the big, weird fantasy novel set in the world of Ravensgate. If you have missed all the randomness about how the project evolved, that’s okay. It’s a Gothic high-fantasy with an ace/aro female academic forced by fate into a world of intrigue, politics, and birds.

You’ll love it.

Anyway, the big change is that I found a publisher for the book last year and we’re in the edit process so that we can launch in early October of this year. And I realized that this was a great opportunity to talk about edits. And more importantly, working with publishers and editors on edits.

So get yourself an iced coffee and pull up a chair. Shit is about to get real.

I don’t know how many times I’ve edited this book. This includes at least one and a half edit passes heavy enough I’d almost consider them rewrites. It got at least two big edits before I let anyone read it or the first time. And a few more since then.

And you’d think with all those edits, all that time, the book should be in really damn good shape, right?

Well, yes and no.

If you do your job well and the stars align and you get your manuscript out to the right people, all of your previous edits might be enough to get it noticed. They might like it. They might, heaven forbid, actually think it’s good!

But that doesn’t mean you’re done.

Because why the fuck are you settling for good?

With a talented editor or two by your side, you should set your sights on great. But even if you never quite reach that vague plateau, if you commit to the collaborative process with good editors, you can at least attain better. 

They are your allies. They are there with the same goal you have: to tell the best story possible. No, they aren’t always right. But trust me on this: neither are you. Take your ego out of it and learn to listen.

Anyone who has gone through this process knows there are different degrees of editing. Everyone should at least have an extra set of eyes looking for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the level of things a copy editor looks for. But ideally, you will find an editor who challenges you to look at the manuscript in new ways and find things that you overlooked.

“But Unca Nate! I’ve gone through this novel with a fine-toothed comb three times. I created this world! How could I have overlooked anything?”

Again, don’t get defensive. Do you know how much work I’ve done in Ravensgate? Years and years of work on this university city in the high mountain pass next to a vast, dark lake.

YEARS!

Guess what? It never occurred to me until the last set of deep edits that Preston had never eaten fish before because no one would eat something that came out of that giant, dead lake. It never occurred to me that despite the altitude and the cold that it was weird  the lake never froze over. You’d think someone would have commented on that

And then in an edit meeting yesterday something else occurred to all of us. Not only is the lake, which is so central to the city not even mentioned until the second chapter, but I’ve never thought to actually give the lake a goddamned name.

I’d like to take this moment to commend Alisha Knaff and Christine Smith from Razorgirl Press. The first time we sat down to talk edits, we went through an entire novel’s worth of notes and suggestions over coffee. It took almost three hours. After that edit pass, we sat down again and looked not only at those changes, but at the whole novel and, in particular, the first chapter which was annotated and flagged with tiny tweaks and questions like a conspiracy board of the Kennedy Assassination.

And we dug into those for over an hour, note by note by note.

It was the most intensively collaborative editing step I’ve ever experienced.

And I mean that in the best way possible. Because several of those flags marked things that were already great. Some were simple suggestions of revised word choice. And some were little tweaks to bring in more depth and detail.

I dug into the notes today and started the latest edit pass. Two pages in, and I had to take a break to write this post. Because no matter how good you think your book is, it’s possible to make it better. Because that book you read that changed your life, that blew you away and made you want to be a writer? I can pretty much promise you it didn’t just happen.

I loved Of Rooks and Ravens. I loved this weird story about an awkward girl forced out of her comfort zone and into a bigger world which she has to navigate alongside an utter bastard of an accidental mentor. I loved it more after that last edit pass I turned in earlier this spring. And holy shit, guys, I can’t wait for you to read what it’s going to be when we’re done.

You’ll be able to see for yourself in October. And pay attention to this space. I’ll be revealing more, including the cover, in coming months.

 

 

Novel Fuel

Authorial Essentials

On May 16th, Meerkat Press will release their eagerly awaited superhero anthology Behind the Mask. (It’s available for pre-order now and the advance reviews have been great and the table of contents boasts some exciting names.)

This is particularly relevant to me because my Cobalt City story “Madjack” happens to be between those pages–a fact I couldn’t possibly be happier about. It’s particularly joyous for me, because the concept of Madjack has been kicking around in my cranium in some capacity since late 1991. And I can pinpoint it with that much accuracy because the two initial inspirations were Marvel’s Captain Britain with a costume that was more Jack of Clubs and less flag and… wait for it… Freddie Mercury.

The original Madjack was a British man with a terminal illness who could hold off death but only as long as he remained in his transformed Madjack self. Which he did for a while because he feared what would happen to him after his death. But when the time came, he accepted fate and sacrificed himself so the team could live.

Yes. The martyr trope. Such anguish. Much wow. What can I say? I was 22 and Queen’s “Show Must Go On” devastated me.

And I thought that was it. But still the idea of a Madjack–not a person so much as a concept that was passed down, a symbol of something unknown–it stuck with me on some level.

Fifteen years later, I was living in Seattle and part of a writing group that tried to turn out fresh material every other week. Somehow, Madjack resurfaced. But this time, the story centered on young man from a wealthy family in Hong Kong whose industrialist father dies under mysterious circumstances. Forced to return home from the states, he begins to uncover that his father might have been, much to everyone’s surprise, the superhero known as Madjack. And what’s more, his father wasn’t even from “around here,” and it was up to this young man to pick up his father’s mantle and legacy to avenge him.

And honestly, I never finished writing the story. Never got more than a few thousand words into it. Something was missing.

That’s the thing with what I call “junk drawer” stories. They’re often little more than neat concepts or characters looking for something else to make them complete.

I thought I had that something just a few years later when my love of early David Bowie sparked with the Madjack idea. What if, just what if Ziggy Stardust really HAD been an alien who came to Earth and became a musician? What if his own daughter didn’t really know if it was true or not? A musician in her own right, trying to forge some kind of her own path in the shadow of her exponentially more famous father, what was her story? It’s worth noting that at this point, Madjack moved away from the normal superhero tropes of “person with super strength and force fields and flight” and into something more complicated–“person with extreme empathy and projective empathy, with the other powers stepped down to take a back seat.”

I even plotted out a full novel I’d intended to write for NaNoWriMo in 2015. Called Throne of Stars, it was going to involve the new Madjack hiring John Gallows to act as her bodyguard during a week long period of shows in Cobalt City while she figured her shit out and processed her father’s death (and the followup attack of the aliens who killed him in the first place.) Think the movie The Bodyguard, but with a teleporter with self-esteem problems in the Kevin Costner role.

The problem is, I still couldn’t find the damn hook, and it was bugging the hell out of me. But I figured I could put it back in the junk drawer and let it rattle around a little bit longer. There was no pressing reason I had to write it now, right?

Then January 10th, 2016.

I was back in Durango, staying with my mom and helping my son move when I heard David Bowie died. I was a wreck for a couple of months. And let’s face it. 2016 was a brutal goddamned year.

I got talking with a few of the other Cobalt City authors, and we started kicking around the idea of writing stories about rock and roll set in the city. And I knew I had something with Madjack. I needed to do something with her. I had a few false starts, but something was missing. There was an emotional core that was missing, and I couldn’t find it.

So I went on a drive. No destination in mind, I just packed up my laptop, put a few CDs in the car stereo, and took off in a northerly direction. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting out of your head and letting things happen. It certainly was in this case.

I don’t honestly know how many times I had to hear this particular song before it clicked, but suddenly it did. I listened to it again and things started falling into place. I kept listening to the song as I raced to the nearest place with coffee and an electrical outlet. And in doing so, I figured out the heart of the story. I posted up in a Starbucks in some anonymous mall off the interstate and dropped down the first half of the story. The next two days, I wrote the rest of that first draft and sent it out to a friend for another opinion.

I loved the hell out of it, but didn’t know what to do with it.

I mean, what to do with a superhero story where no one is fighting crime? Who wants a superhero story about a person dealing with their complicated family life and questions of identity?

Then Behind the Mask showed up on my radar, looking for stories of superheroes on their downtime. It was perfect timing. Weirdly perfect timing.

So now Madjack is almost out in the world and I can hardly wait for you to read it and the other incredible stories in Behind the Mask. I think you’ll enjoy. Madjack will even play a part in the Cobalt City novel I’m currently in the middle of. Her journey is just beginning.

Oh, and the song that provided the final spark? I borrowed my protagonist’s name from it.

Gato Loco + Shadow

The devil rides tonight!

I don’t know how other authors do it, but at least in my case, it’s uncommon for a character to leap fully-formed from brain to paper. I find that often times the character comes together in bits and pieces until they’re ready to be seen. And even then, they can continue to evolve over time. For me, it’s one of the most compelling things about writing.

So, let’s take a look at Gato Loco.

Gato Loco began not as Gato Loco, but as Manuel de la Vega, a swashbuckling hero created for a 7th Sea RPG somewhere around 1999-2000. Inspired by the character Richard St Vier from Ellen Kushner’s fantastic novel Swordspoint, he was driven to be the best swordsman around. If you’re unfamiliar with it, I highly suggest it. Courtly manners, dashing swordplay, and a fabulous gay protagonist. The game only lasted a few sessions before personalities caused it implode, but during that brief run, Manuel did get the chance to mask up to conceal his identity. Making an improvised mask from a bit of curtain, he proclaimed himself el grande pantalones. Yes. The swashbuckler known as The Big Pants.

It should be pointed out, my Spanish at the time was pretty much non-existent.

I liked something about his personality enough that when I ran an even shorter term superhero game on the Paladium superhero RPG, I brought him back. This time many of the familiar elements of the character were present: black leather cycling suit, cat-head helmet, sleek motor cycle, nimble, and a little bit psychic. Much of this visualization was inspired by the look of Kaneda in the manga/movie Akira. Swap out his red costume for black, slap on a helmet, and you’re there. He even had the iconic giant laser gun known from the end of the movie. However, he wasn’t even called Gato Loco yet. Instead, he used the name Krazy Kat.

In 2002, Green Ronin released the Mutants & Mastermind RPG, and a distillation of Manuel de la Vega surfaced again in a game run for my kids and girl friend (and then wife) over the summer. This time, I dropped the laser, added the familiar stage-field generator force fields, and adopted the name Gato Loco (both because Krazy Kat was a cartoon cat and at this time the character of Wild Kat was being added to the setting). This game which came to be known as the Mysterious Five also saw the creation of the Tesla Twins, Mister Grey, the Society of Evil Geniuses (including Kara Sparx, Lumien, and Nicodemus Candledark).

It then spun out into a big blow-out one-shot game that saw the Icons leave Earth, followed by a massive extra-dimensional invasion that allowed me to bring most of the core of the next iteration of the game. This was the longest run period of Gato Loco as a character, even though he’d largely been side-lined to a support character in favor of Mister Grey. During this period, the Protectorate took shape and I started taking writing seriously again.

Part of that was writing the Gato Loco story “Masks.” While an early story, it helped solidify the shape of Gato Loco as a fiction character, and the shape of the Cobalt City universe as a something other than a game setting. Encouraged by Kathleen, Wild Kat’s creator, I undertook writing a novel for the first time in my adult life. I chose to write a Cobalt City novel, the book that became Cobalt City Blues. In it, I told an epic story that was logistically impossible to run as a game–too many solo elements. It had been written for fun. Just something to share among the players in the game. And not only did it give me a chance to tell a big chunk of Gato Loco story, it brought back the giant cutting laser not seen since the old Paladium game–though this time it was wielded by the panda Snowflake. And the chemistry between Manuel and Snowflake was undeniable.

Cobalt City Blues ended up became something enduring. Much to my surprise.

Then in November 2005, in the middle of some huge life changes, I decided to undertake National Novel Writing Month. That month, I wrote Greetings from Buena Rosa. Taking part a year after the dissolution of the Protectorate, it was yet another evolution of Manuel de la Vega. Crippled by the events that led to the end of the Protectorate, he hadn’t been Gato Loco for a year. Forced out of retirement to help a cousin in a Mexican border town, it focused on Manuel as a detective looking for his place in the world rather than the grim specter of Cobalt City. It and the subsequent book allowed me to kind of go back to his roots as a cycle racer and detective, travelling around the country with Snowflake.

And now, I’m evolving him yet again: back in Cobalt City, legs and spine damaged beyond the point where he can wear the Gato Loco suit, he’s busy training his replacement and figuring out what’s next. Gato Loco may not ride anymore, but Manuel de la Vega goes on.

I look forward to exploring that in future stories on my Patreon.

If you’re not a subscriber yet, you might want to look into it. I expect to have a new Manuel de la Vega story posted sometime in June.

 

Time is never on our side.

Time is never on our side.

It was a pretty typical Saturday morning writing group–some writing, some socializing, some knocking ideas around. In discussing how some town names are more common than others, a story idea was born.

Well, less an idea and more of a seed. A McGuffin.

And when it was suggested that I write that story, sooner rather than later, I might have snapped a little. I got…defensive. Like, weirdly defensive.

This morning, I figured out why while doing bookkeeping. Not balancing my check book or doing my personal taxes. No, the kind of bookkeeping that is an essential part of being a working author. The care and feeding of creative projects kind of bookkeeping.

Once I broke it all down, I could see why I cracked.

As it stands now, midway through February I have on my docket:

  • My urban fantasy novel Ink Calls to Ink which has been looking for a home for over 2 years now.
  • The pulp sci-fi novel from a few years ago that I recently did a rewrite on that needs one more pass before I send it out into the world.
  • The orphaned urban fantasy/horror novella I wrote last year that was intended to be part of a trilogy. I’ve done two strong passes of rewrites. Now I’m wrestling with whether I want to sell as a novella trilogy or write the other two parts and combine them into a single novel.
  • The first part of the epic fantasy Ravensgate triptych, Rooks and Ravens, which got a solid second draft that wrapped up a month ago. It needs one more edit pass before I consider sending it out, but I might want to find beta readers for it first.
  • The new Cobalt City novel, Thicker than Water that I wrote last fall. I did a second pass on it earlier this month, but will need to do another close pass and need to get an editor to look at it prior to the planned September release. On top of that, I want to get copies out for early reviews, etc. And I need to get the cover and other promotional material ready for it.
  • The SECOND part of the Ravenstage triptych, Redemption of the Yellow Wolf is now halfway through the first draft. It’s what I’ve been spending my time on in the last week. After nothing but editing the previous two months, it feels nice to write again.

Now, keep in mind that Norwescon is coming up the first week of April. I’ll be running the Horror track which includes moderating a panel or three, so I want to do some prep for that. Two weeks after that, I’ve got a writing retreat on the books, so that will help balance things out a bit, otherwise I might be crying right now.

Time is never on our side. There are 168 hours in a week. Once you take out the hours spent at the day jobbery (including time too and from) and sleep, there’s about 50-55 hours in which to cram in everything else. Some of that will be eaten up by basic adulting stuff: minimally some housecleaning, eating, interacting with people that keep you from stepping in front of a speeding bus, and at least a little bit of down-time.

I used to try to write every day. Every. Single. Day.

It was a recipe for burnout. At least for me.

Now, I still carry my notebooks around with me everywhere. I’m constantly jotting down notes for existing projects or ideas for future projects. Sometimes I get scene set pieces. Sometimes I get dialogue. I’m making an effort to do something creative every day. But I can go days without opening up my work in progress documents.

I’m fond of saying that if you try to find time to write, you’ll never find it. Something else will always soak up those hours. You have to make time.

Currently, I spend most of Saturday, from around 8am, sometimes until as late as 6pm, working on my writing. I also write on Sundays, every-other week from around noon until 5pm or so. (I run a D&D game on alternating Sundays, so I set aside those afternoons to get the game prepped and ready for my players). I have a writing group that meets every Thursday for a few hours, and if I’m feeling in the zone I can get a solid 2-4 hours of writing in then. I also have the option of a writing group on the 1st and 3rd Tuesdays that I hit when I have the time.

That gives me somewhere around 12 hours of writing time on a sub-optimal week, and around 25 on a really ambitious week. When I’m in the zone, I can write pretty fast. And editing, well, it takes the time it requires, and that varies depending on a lot of factors.

I still don’t have enough time. I’ll never really have enough time. But finding more comes with sacrifices I’m not comfortable making. Day jobbery and commute is kind of non-negotiable because bills have to be paid. I have some flex with sleep, but that’s no long-term fix unless I’m wiling to sacrifice my health and sanity. And there’s only so much I can cut social time before those relationships suffer, and the relationships I have now are too valuable to let atrophy.

So no, I’m not going to write that story right now. I’m not going to write that story soon, even. Because I don’t know what the story is yet. But the seed is there, notated with crisp block lettering in my Field Notes notebook in purple ink. And if the seed takes root, we’ll see. Until then, I have books to work on.

The Calm Between Novels

Posted: January 18, 2014 in Novels
Tags: ,
He waits beneath the bridge. Dark, with long arms.

He waits beneath the bridge. Dark, with long arms.

As announced elsewhere, I finished the first book of the Ravensgate Chronicles a week ago. Yep. Draft uno of Of Rooks and Ravens is behind me, complete at 86k and change. The next book, Redemption of the Yellow Wolf, which will feature the undead hunter Ulls Sturmgard, the silent monk Whisper, and the feral Bloodood rider Melkin, gets underway soon. It’s already mostly outlined and just waiting for me to pick it up. The third book is set for next year’s project. And then I may spin the survivors from Of Rooks and Ravens out into an epic fantasy espionage series. The characters and where I leave them kind of call out for it.

None of that starts until next week.

There are a few other things in my hopper at the moment.

First off, I’m taking another, fresh look at an old project. Originally conceived over fifteen years ago as a screenplay, then re-imagined as a novel (the second I ever finished, in point of fact), it turned into an idea for a trilogy. But there were a few hold-ups. Despite liking the concept of the trilogy, I was having a difficult time with the second and third books. The second felt padded when I looked at the outline. And the third I couldn’t even get through an outline. I knew what the end of the series had to be, but I couldn’t stretch it into a novel. It was solid, but short. So after pitching the novel a few places (and having one very enlightening conversation with an agent where she told me that “no one will publish an urban fantasy with a married hero.”), I let it sit in a drawer. But I’m looking at it again, realizing I can strip it down to a leaner, meaner project.

And along the way, I have the opportunity to fix some of the diversity problems that I didn’t think about when I wrote the original draft. In the entire original novel, the primary cast was all very white. The only exception was a support character, a folklore expert who happened to be Chinese-American. And the hero was a reclusive millionaire. So, that needed to be changed. In stripping this down, the only characters who remain mostly the same are the cop support character (though I changed his name), and the protagonist’s young son. Everything else has gotten an overhaul and put back together in an outline that feels much more vibrant than the original. And rewriting it from scratch, it will reflect where my writing talents are now, compared to when I wrote the first draft, ten year ago. Bonus!

So I’m mostly finished with outlining the three pieces. I hope to have it done soon, then I can boil it down into a presentable format.

Maybe I’ll find the time to re-write a few short stories and get them back out to markets while I’m at it.

Next Saturday…heck, maybe by Thursday, I expect to be back in the world of Ravensgate. I need to get this second book done in time to let me edit stuff from last year and then prep for NaNoWriMo 2014.

This is shaping up to be a busy year.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lyrical Influence

Posted: July 19, 2013 in Music
Tags: ,

One of the things us writerly types like to preach is that to be a good writer, you should also be a reader. It’s sound advice. We learn by watching someone else do it. You can stand to learn a lot from good writing, like how to pace an action sequence, or how to foreshadow plot elements. Reading bad writing is also useful, because it shows by bad examples what poor character development looks like, or how angry people can get over plot holes.

And I’m going to go one step further.

You can also learn by listening to music.

Put down your glow-sticks and giant pacifier, kid. I’m not talking about all music. There are a lot of different reasons to listen to music. I tend to feel that all are valid in their own ways, and reflexively distrust people who don’t like any music. But a writer would be remiss if they didn’t consider the rich narrative tradition of story songs as a good source of inspiration.

For example, “17 and 53” by Danielle Ate the Sandwich compacts a powerful story about parents, children, and things left unsaid into a melodic few minutes.

And “American Without Tears” by Elvis Costello (originally recorded as The Costello Show on the album King of America), tells a multi-layered story about a British immigrant to the States encountering the story of British GI brides from another generation. Rich with history, loss, and hope, all in one simple song. Honestly, I could have picked several songs off this album to illustrate this point. Elvis Costello is a gifted storyteller, and songs such as “Sleep of the Just” and “Our Little Angel” are amazing micro stories in song form. If you can find King of America, I maintain it is one of the best albums front-to-back that he’s ever recorded.

It ultimately doesn’t matter too much what kind of music you like as long as there are lyrics. Spend some time with the liner notes, or pull them up online, and you might be amazed at what you can find. When I was younger, that’s just what you did. When you listened to music, you goddamned listened to it. Sure, some of it was insipid. Even some of it that I genuinely enjoy has very little to recommend it lyrically. I don’t love Jet’s “Are You Gonna Be My Girl?” because of the story–I love it because of how it evokes that raw 60’s garage rock sound. But for the most part, lyrics have always been a huge part of why I prefer some artist over others.

From Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” and the Barenaked Ladies “Conventioneers,” all the way back to Marty Robbins’ “Long Iron,” the story song is everywhere. Let the lyrics in, let them share their story, and see where it leads you. Hell, Coheed and Cambria, not content with a single concept album, did a four album that told a sprawling sci-fi epic over the course of four albums.

There is a reason that Manuel de la Vega is frequently wearing a Calexico tour t-shirt in the Gato Loco novels. Their music speaks to me, helps inform the character of the work in progress. I can honestly say I wouldn’t have written two Gato novels with more in planning stages if not for Calexico.

Sometimes the story that is told comes in pieces–dreamy, fragmented bits of images that haunt you like a David Lynch movie. Take for example “Star Witness” by Neko Case (as wonderfully recorded here by Ontario High School students Kate and Janelle). Here you have a series of interconnected scenes, flashes of a bigger story that stirs the imagination. What is the full story? Fill that in for yourself.

And sometimes, the song serves up a heaping epic of operatic proportions. Bruce Springsteen is great at that. He articulates a certain narrative just as surely as Cormac McCarthy does. And he rocks it. I can’t think of a better example of storytelling through song than his masterpiece “Jungleland.”

Reading is great. By all means, if you want to write, you need to read. But be on the lookout. There are stories everywhere if you know where to look…and how to listen