Category Archives: Songwriting

Sometimes it’s the Journey

Longtime readers know that I’m a proponent of The Power of the Ending. In other words, if you have an appropriate, satisfying and strong ending, your readers will tend to forgive some of the gaffes you may have committed in the middle of the book. So if you’re all about commercial fiction, you’re all about a knockout opening and a killer ending, right?

Well… except when the ending doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s not the ending that makes the story worthwhile. Sometimes it’s the journey you take to get to the ending… no matter what that ending is.

Let’s take for example, one of my favorite songs, Gallo De Cielo by Tom Russell (although I prefer Joe Ely’s live version1). It’s a great piece about a man who steals a fighting rooster, sneaks it into the States, and begins to cash in on the bird’s victories, all for a very noble cause. When I first fell in love with the song, I played it in the car for my wife – “You gotta hear this!” Less than halfway through the song, she looked at me and said, “The rooster dies, right?”

Well, right. But I tried – and failed to properly explain – that this was not the point of the song. It was the way that Russell spun the words together, and the way that events build and build and build toward what may be an inevitable conclusion, and the lingering effects of what happens after Gallo del Cielo’s last fight. Russell even plays games with the point of view during the song. Yeah, the rooster does die, I said. But it’s the way it happens. I guess I was trying to justify the ending because I know that my wife doesn’t like unhappy endings.2

But the ending of this song doesn’t need justification. It’s all about the journey – literally, as Carlos Saragosa wanders the American southwest, putting his bird up to fight and netting increasing amounts of money – all for his Mission3. Alas, he fails, right when it matters the most, right when victory is in his grasp.

Saragosa’s story is a tragedy, one of those rare genres where the ending isn’t going to make up for what happens in the middle of the book, so the middle better be darn good. Why even bother with tragedy? For the journey. And before you say it can’t be done, have you seen Hamlet lately?4

I suppose there are other novels without much of an ending – much of a plot, even – where it is all about the Journey. Not even necessarily tragedies. Some of Vonnegut’s early stuff would qualify, although he was always better when he had a real plot and a real ending, as in Slaughterhouse Five.

So if you’re going to insist on a realistic ending, then your Journey had better be a darn good one. And if you have a gripping start, a great Journey, AND a great ending… that’s going to be some book.

However, it’s not for beginners. So if you are one, finish what you’re working on first. But you might want to start planning now.

  1. Ely being one of three country artists that I have more than one song or album by – as much country as a guy can be who opened for The Clash on their London Calling tour and sang backup on the song “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. A colleague of mine says Ely isn’t country… “He’s Texas.” I can’t argue with that.
  2. This being the same woman who, as we watched Lady and the Tramp with our children one evening, leaned over to me and whispered (so the kids wouldn’t hear), “This really would be a better story if Trusty died at the end.” And like me, you know in your heart that she’s right.
  3. With a capital M.
  4. Kenneth Branaugh’s full-text film is highly recommended.

Something is Happening

Okay, it’s finally time to say something because it’s all getting close.

I’m in for a writing career reboot here, and it’ll likely all start happening by the end of the month. The retooling of this web site some months ago was the first step, but now there are others. I’ve slowly been putting things into motion, but it looks like they’re all going to converge at once.

So I have not one, but two major announcements — and a minor one.

First, my new novel, …and that’s the end of the news, is almost done. I mean it for sure this time. After 10 years, a long hiatus to take care of my mother (during which time I tried to re-imagine myself as a songwriter and learned that I hated performing live) and four drafts, I’ve gotten the book where I want it, where it should be. So it’s soon to be going out in search of an agent and/or publisher.

This book has been with me for so long that it’s hard for me to look at it as “the new book”, but it’ll be new to the 99.99% of you who haven’t had some kind of preview or were pressed into service as an early reader. Anyway, once and/news goes out into the marketplace, it will be time to start what really will feel like a new novel. This will likely be the project that I have discreetly code-named “The UFO Novel.”

Which brings me to the minor announcement. Just for grins, I thought I would post very short excerpts from The UFO Novel as status updates on my Facebook Fan Page. There’ll be one excerpt from each chapter as I finish writing it, and there will be lots of chapters. It should be fun. Or not. Tantalizing, perhaps? That’s the idea. So become a fan now and get miniscule glimpses of a book in progress (or be tormented by them – your choice).

So now it’s time for Major Announcement number two. If you’re one of the lot who has been to my Facebook Fan Page, you may have seen the fanciful logo for an outfit called Thief Media (you can see it now in the upper right hand section of this page). That’s the imprint that I have started to release my old, out-of-print novels for the Amazon Kindle and in epub format for all the others. This will begin with my first published novel, A Death of Honor – which I hope to have out by early March – to include all 7 novels over the course of the next year or so.

(Actually, they will appear as only 6 novels – Ferman’s Devils and Boddekker’s Demons will be issued as one novel, which was my original intent.)

A Death of Honor's new look for the e-book market.

All of the novels will have new cover art, and all except for the Angel’s Luck trilogy will have some kind of bonus material included. A Death of Honor will feature the original epilog that I cut from the book before publication. The Company Man and Ferman’s Devils will feature short stories that overlap into the respective book’s universe.

In addition to my out-of-print titles, Thief Media will also be releasing two previously unpublished JCF novels. The Mushroom Shift is a profane and darkly funny novel about police work that was written between Honor and Company and will be released between them. Trust is a political thriller written in hopes of being published in time for the 1996 election. It will be released before Ferman’s Devils.

To celebrate this in a small way, I have changed the graphic in the banner above to a section of corrected page from the third draft of …and that’s the end of the news. There may or may not be other surprises and releases, but I’m going to leave things at this for the time being. After all, I have a lot of work to do right now.

Turn It On Again

Time to be creative again.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, I didn’t want to be creative anymore. The whole thing with chasing the creative process seemed useless and futile to me. I got so annoyed with having ideas popping into my head that I didn’t have time to do anything about that I seriously considered going to my doctor and asking for Prozac or the adult equivalent of Ritalin. Not that I was depressed or any more ADD than what I’m wired for, but because I have seen firsthand the creativity-numbing effects of both of these on other people. There was this switch in my head and I couldn’t reach it to turn it off, and for a while, that’s all I wanted to do.

Well, maybe not completely turn it off. Maybe it was more like a potentiometer, and I wanted to dial it down from 11, enough to take the clutter out of my head, leaving just enough so I could earn my daily bread at the agency. Say, down to 3 or 4.

And then my mother became ill and my ever-patient wife and I moved her into our home, and what little time I felt I had left for creative things became ether, and I really wanted to get that annoying buzz out of my head.

Well, before I had the chance to go to the doctor, something else came along. About the time Mom came to stay, I bought one of the first iPod Shuffles. I’d wanted an iPod since the first ones came out, but always managed to spend my money on other more important things, but the price point of the Shuffle was a good thing. It came in the mail, I loaded it up with songs, got into my car, plugged it into one of those FM transmitter thingies, and turned it on. “The Core” by Eric Clapton came rolling out of the speakers, and I never looked back. Not until later.

Later is when I noticed two important things. First, after I got the Shuffle, I noticed that my 25 – 45 minute commute, depending on traffic, no longer seemed interminable. It seemed to fly by with all of my favorite songs in tow.

The second thing I didn’t notice until much, much, much later. That was this: music in the car turned my creativity off.

That was a fascinating discovery. But there it was. And once I made it, it made perfect sense. After all, when were the two places I said that most of my ideas came to me? In the shower and on my commute. What do these two things have in common? Well, I’m performing a mundane task and am alone. For almost all the productive showers, and fifty percent of the commute, it’s in the morning. I’m a night person, and my standard dodge is that my brain doesn’t start working until 10 am, so during shower and commute time, it’s struggling to make sense of the world (on thinking about this as I write, the evening commutes don’t seem to be nearly as creatively productive as the morning ones). So faced with all of that, my mind just wanders off into that strange and wonderful land that gives me the idea to write a musical based on the O.J. Simpson murder trial (you think I’m kidding).

But when you bring music into the picture, everything changes. I’m doing a mundane task, but apparently the part of my brain that does creative wheel spinning is not skylarking in the rigging. Instead it becomes occupied with what is coming through the speakers. It’s either making me sing along, or analyzing lyrics, or following the bass line, or making envious note of how the song is constructed. I didn’t realize it until a few days ago, but I had inadvertently found what I was looking for – a form of Prozac to turn down the potentiometer – although it probably went down to 2 or 3, because the prolific songwriting I’d been doing in place of writing novels or whatever slowed to almost nothing.

This means the last couple of years I’ve been at peace, and I didn’t even know it. I hadn’t even thought about going to the doctor and asking for pharmaceuticals because the noise had been turned down and I didn’t even notice it. And with the noise down, that whole Prozac/Ritalin idea vanished.

Well, now some time has passed. I graduated from the Shuffle to a 30gb iPod. My son moved to the great frozen north. My daughter graduated from high school, went to and returned from Russia, and started college. The Lord called Mom home, making my wife and I true empty nesters. And the time at home that I’d been filling with TV (we didn’t have cable until Mom came to stay because it was a staple of her day, and I bought into watching it because if I got called to do something during a rerun of Third Rock From The Sun it was no big shakes, but if I was in the middle of writing a chase scene, that was something altogether different)… is still being filled with TV – and I’m just now realizing it.

There have been signs of the impending return of the urge to create. Back in September I started my webcomic, The Home World – but it’s important to note that the spark for it hit about two months after we could no longer take care of Mom and moved her to a nursing home. Then there was that Zombie game I came up with in November and December. Where did that come from?

It seems that when unfettered leisure time started to trickle back, my brain knew what to do with it even before I realized I had it.

It’s like I’ve gotten a whiff of the forbidden fruit again. The urge to read is coming back – but I’m trying to put it off until I get a Kindle. Some of the time I need to use for projects around the house that need done, but… still…

This morning on my commute I went to turn on my iPod and it seemed… like noise. Clutter. Only there wasn’t a potentiometer. I just wanted it off.

So I turned it off.

Then I started singing songs.

Ones that I had written.

And before I got to work, I had worked out a creative solution to one of my problem songs, A Free Man In London Town. It has been finished for a long time, but I couldn’t quite figure out how it should be performed. But while I was singing, I slipped into a reggae beat… and… it… worked. Bringing a nice, odd, almost ironic counterpoint to what the song is about.

The really odd thing? That creative noise didin’t seem like noise anymore. It was welcome back, old friend.

So I’m thinking it’s time to turn it on again. Maybe I’ll still listen on the commute home since that is the one that always seems the longest, and is less productive creatively anyway. We’ll see.

Meantime, I’m anxious to see what direction the return of insanity brings.

The Year Without End Ends

Well, 2008 has been quite a year. I got my daughter back from Russia. I made the decision to put my mother in a nursing home when my wife and I could no longer give her the level of care she required, and then said “see you later” when God took her home.

Well, my daughter is a student now, and my son is in a faraway city, and with mom in the hands of the Lord, my wife and I are real empty nesters now. So what am I going to do about it in 2009? Here are some things I’m considering.

  • Get back on the Wii Fit trail.
  • Finish the “clean house and get rid of unnecessary stuff” project – which may take all year.
  • Learn the 10 songs I’ve finished writing and haven’t yet learned – and learn them.
  • Find the 21 songs I singled out into a “haven’t finished writing but should finish because they’ll probably be good when they’re done” list – and finish writing them. Then I should probably learn them, too.
  • Speaking of my songs, I really should play out more. I’ve averaged one gig a year (except for 2006, which I missed completely).
  • I really should rewrite and edit my novel “,,,and that’s the end of the news”. Then I could use it to find a new agent. Or a publisher. Or both. Don’t know if I’ll get to this one, though.
  • I probably ought to fix that broken Christmas play, too. Again, don’t know if I’ll get there.
  • I need to get the two VBS plays into some kind of shape so they can be sold over the Interweb.
  • I’m also scheduled to write my third VBS show this year, and my first Christmas Pageant. I know I’ll get to those.
  • In October/November of this year I designed a game involving Zombies. Playtested it over Thanksgiving with my son, daughter, and assorted relatives. Now I need to tweak the rules and try another playtest. But when?
  • Finally, I need to get back on the reading wagon. Maybe I’ll buy a Kindle and forget about a lot of that unnecessary writing stuff.

It should be an interesting year.

A Nice Father and Son Thing to Do (Wife Included)

Tuesday evening I did something unusual – I was the opening act for my son.

Sort of.

Since my son has been in town to attend a series of weddings, my wife got the idea that we should all go to Muggswigz for Open Mike night. Natrually, this would entail his playing some songs off of his album and me playing some of my songs. Neither of us felt we were ready, but we had a few days to do some fever pitched rehearsing. Then I packed up my guitar and the keyboard I bought to do use in home recording (cheaper than a bass guitar and drum machine, and more versatile with all those voices inside it) and the three of us set off.

On the way we joked about who was going to open for whom. I also kept encouraging my son to plug his album, threatening to do it for him if he didn’t.

So we arrived at Muggs and dragged all the stuff in (guitar in case, keyboard and it’s attendant plugs and pedals, plus the stand) and settled in. I called Henry J to see if he wanted to come and play, too – in a conversation we’d had earlier, he’d complained that he hadn’t played out lately). He showed up without a guitar, just there to lend moral support for my son and I.

We got signed up. By the time we got to the sheet, the first four slots were open and five through nine had been taken. My son signed up for slot four, I took three, and an opening act was born. Then we waited.

My wife, bless her heart, showed great restraint. She loves to see us do this sort of thing and wants us both to do well at these things, and her tendency is to want to coach and offer advice beforehand. But son and I were so nervous that she didn’t. The only thing she did was, during the first open mike performer of the evening, she reminded me to take slow, deep breaths to relax. I did. It helped.

Since the last time I played out and wasn’t sure if I liked doing it, I’ve been playing in front of people more. I’ve done a couple of sound checks during shoots of Random Acts of Music tapings, and Henry J and I have jammed some – and during those times I realized that I was becoming less and less self-conscious and paralyzingly nervous before playing. All that and my fevered rehearsals paid off. When my time came and I got up to play, I didn’t have that paralyzing “hands of Jell-O” feeling that I’d been prone to earlier.

I also was playing more with my stage persona. I made a point to talk more between songs and tried to make the kind of witty comments that I throw in during conversations with friends. I should also add that I had earlier taken Henry J’s advice and rehearsed with a microphone so I could get used to singing into it.

All of this stuff paid off. This was a corner-turning performance for me. Going in I was convinced that playing out was not something I wanted to do. Now I think it’s something I can do. So new piece of advice from me: the rule is, if you’re going to play out, do it at least three times before you decide whether you’re going to keep it up or not.

I won’t bore you with the details (I’ve decided it’s not my place to review myself), but this was my set-list:

Wish I Were
One More Cigarette
Going to Texas #4

Finishing that, it was my son’s turn to play. We got the keyboard set up, and he was off. He was nervous at the idea of doing patter between songs, so he limited his comments to making a joke about being from the Twin Cities and the accent we all associate with that area. And yes, he plugged his album, too. He played three songs from Start:

Jazz & Vicodin
This College Life

I don’t know if I’m qualified to review my son’s performance, either, but he did really well. This was a corner-turning performance for him, too. He said he didn’t like playing live, but I was passing on wisdom from Henry J about the importance of playing songs before an audience, and I think that helped convince him to try (plus the extra nudging from his mother!). After he played, he said he enjoyed it, and I think that like me, the terror in the idea of performing was gone (there’s still stagefright, but that’s another thing). And bless his heart, Henry J was only too happy to offer critique and answer my son’s questions about all aspects of the music biz – I think that helped.

A couple of notes about his performance. When he started, he really got people’s attention. I don’t know if it was because he was the only keyboard player that night, or if it was because of his unique style of songwriting. People who were out of line of sight stopped what they were doing and walked around a corner to see what he was up to. And during the rollicking Wanda the audience started to clap along – and it wasn’t started by me or my wife. That wasn’t something we would have thought of doing, and if we had, I’m sure he could have disapproved. But one guy waiting for his latte at the bar started in and poof! – everyone joined it. It was a really cool moment for him, I’m sure.

During the postmortem on the drive home, we realized we should have played something together. A while back ago, before his move to the Twin Cities, I gave him a primitive recording of Going to Texas #4 with the idea of him doing backup vocals on it. For that matter, I could have sung the extra parts on Jazz & Vicodin or Wanda. We also talked about dragging my wife into things – she sang on his recording of Ti Dot Matre, and she and I have been working on a cover of Carpet of the Sun by Renaissance.

Or for that matter, we could collaborate on some kind of song. But that’s a project best left to the next time he comes home.

Meantime, I’m thinking about a new set of songs to play at Muggs in the near future…

Update, or, When I Have Nothing To Say, My Lips Are Sealed… Mostly

In the last two weeks, two people have told me that I really should post to the blog more often. So I guess it must be time for an update, even though I don’t have much to report, and what there is is probably insubstantial if you’re sitting on the other side of the screen reading.

For example, my mother has been in and out of the hospital again, draining time and energy. She’s okay for now, thanks, with specialist appointments coming up to see if they can figure out what is causing these spells of hers.

The Darkest Month is over, but I don’t know if my mood has changed any. My wife had me taking B Vitamin Complex, saying it might boost my mood. I didn’t notice any difference, so I quit taking them. She says she noticed a difference. I started taking them again. Then we ran out. I still feel about the same as I did when this whole enterprise started.

Maybe I should save this for the other blog I never update, but a family of raccoons has again moved nearby, making attempts to pillage the goat and chicken feed, the chicken eggs, and the chickens themselves (relax, the chooks are okay, just so frightened they want to live on our front porch). The racs don’t like the layer mash, which has brewer’s waste in it (kind of beery smelling), but they go for the sweet feet and chicken scratch. Picked up a new set of traps at Tractor Supply over the weekend. Have capped two young racs since, and will have to dispose of a third when I get home from work tonight. If it goes like it did last year, I’ll run out of the kids and pretty soon momma will blunder into the trap.

If it hasn’t been finished already – I don’t keep count, and just check every now and then – I’m about to complete my 50th song. Still no progress on recording it or the 49 that came before, and no progress playing out. Between mom and the raccoons, where’s the time?

My son and daughter are having adventures. Son is being laid off with two months’ notice by the giant corporation he works for. They’re giving a generous severance and retraining package, so he’s changing career course while he’s still young enough for his bones to bend. Daughter is still in Russia and faced getting run out a couple of times due to changes in their Visa policy. So recently she had to step out of the country long enough to get her Visa stamped, and now everything should be spinning in its bureaucratic groove. I’d tell you more, but she has been adroitly chronicling her adventures here.

I have a work colleague who thinks I should turn one of my novels into a graphic novel. I’m poking at that idea with a sharp pencil.

Meantime, the big project on the plate is this year’s Vacation Bible School adventure, which will feature a wild west theme. I haven’t told any of the principals at church this, because they won’t understand it, but I don’t have anything on paper yet. That’s because I’ve been working on it in my head. I’ll start typing hopefully soon, with an eye toward having a finished script at the end of April/beginning of May, Mom and Raccoons permitting.

Finally there is that novel that needs a final draft and that play that needs another draft. Sheesh, you look at all of the above and tell me when that is going to happen.

So there’s the update. Told you it wasn’t much. Y’all sure you want more frequent updates?

Stage Persona Non Grata, or, Can I Find the Real Me?

One of my duties, so to speak, with Random Acts of Music is The Henry and Joe, a talk show starring Henry J and myself, done for his internet radio station, Random Acts of Radio. In this show, we roll tape (well, actually, spin hard drive) and talk off the top of our heads for around thirty minutes. Sometimes we even stay on the music-related topic that I introduce.

The most recent show we taped, #13, was about the seeming inability of American acts to write fun, upbeat songs. And somehow or another, while discussing this subject, we got onto the subject of stage names and the personae that go with them. Henry said he liked my stage name, Mr. Faust, and wondered aloud what kind of stage persona I was going to have.

I thought, good question. I thought I was just going to be me.

Then I realized something that might be the key to this near-paralyzing stagefright I’ve been dealing with when I get up to play.

I’ve been thinking what an odd anomaly it is. After all, I’ve gotten up to speak in front of churches, civic clubs, classrooms, and skeptical clients and held forth on a number of topics. Sometimes I’ve had notes, other times not. Especially when I talk about writing. I just turn on my mouth and go. And though I have butterflies before hand, they leave when I get up and start speaking.

Ditto when I lead singing at church. Some butterflies, but nothing that doesn’t leave when the job starts.

And ditto ditto when I’m on stage in a community theater production. The worst jitters I get are opening night, and while I might be jumpy before going on for a big scene even on closing night, I always manage to go out and mostly get the job done.

So why the case of shakes that gets so bad that I can hardly strum?

I think Henry inadvertently hit on something when he asked me what my stage persona is.

I don’t have one.

See, in all of the other situations, I know who I am or what my mission is. I’m Joe Faust, an Elder in the Church, giving a lesson or leading the congregation in worship. I’m Joe Clifford Faust, author, spewing out information about writing. Or I’m somebody else – Norman Bulansky or Victor Velasco or Bob Ewell, and my job is to make the audience cry or laugh or hiss.

But when I’m out there with my guitar, well… in the words of the Firesign Theater, Who am us, anyway?.

I guess it’s just me. Joe. With a guitar.

I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before. At Church I have a goal in mind, and in every other situation I am technically somebody else. No wonder I’m scared. I don’t know how to be just me in a situation like that.

So I need to be somebody else. I need a stage persona.

That shouldn’t be so hard. Look at Johnny Cash – the Man in Black. Look at both David Bowie and Madonna, both of whom went through stage personae like they were tissues (facial or bathroom, take your pick). Ever seen David Byrne in Stop Making Sense and then seen an interview with him? In the former he commands the stage, in the latter he’s jittery and awkward, and doesn’t make eye contact with the interviewer.

The odd thing is, I might have been subconsciously reaching for something like this but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And it might have even started with everything I went through trying to pick out a stage name.

However, I’ve had other things trickle through my mind over the last several months. I went through a period where I thought about getting a hat to wear on stage. I have a ton of baseball caps – I thought about wearing a different one every time I play. But that idea didn’t click for me (although I do wear them a lot – maybe wearing one would be too much me on stage). But I couldn’t find anything else I liked that wasn’t stupid (Pith Helmets) or that weren’t being used by others with great success (Berets and Fedoras and Pork Pies).

I thought about clothing, but I’m not exactly a clothes horse or someone with an extensive wardrobe. About the only thing I could do would be wear all gray – I gravitate toward that color. But that would kill my wife, who (no doubt, correctly) thinks I look better in other colors.

Quite by accident, I realized that every time I have played Muggswigz, I have appeared with a different guitar. No. That could get ridiculously expensive, and I’d never get it past the aforementioned wife.

After the incident taping The Santa Song, I theorized that wearing sunglasses might obstruct my view of the audience and make me less fearful. But that’s kind of silly, too, I think (and again my wife would complain because I’d be covering up what she calls my expressive eyes).

(It occurs to me that if I got a divorce, I could become this grey-wearing, fedora-topped guy in sunglasses playing all the coffeehouses – but I’d no doubt be miserable as a result – the classic tortured artist, I suppose. On the other hand, maybe that’s the problem. I’m basically a happy guy. Maybe I’m not tortured enough. Perhaps my wife and I could start shooting heroin together like the Cobains.)

Probably the best thing I could do is just keep playing in front of people and learn how to be myself in the process. I’m not sure I like that idea. I’ve gotten rather used to the idea of being someone else in situations like that. And I had no idea how prevalent that has been in my life until now. I am thinking of the personality change I underwent when I ended up getting married to a gregarious girl from Ohio. I went from being outgoing to much more the quiet observer. I explain it this way: when our personalities started to click, I let my wife be outgoing for me because I realized that inside of me was an introvert who was just dying to stay in.

And now that introvert is supposed to get up on a stage with a guitar and be himself while playing songs for people. Especially since I’m not sure who the real me is.

Heh, yeah. That makes sense.

About as much sense as leading worship service. Or being in plays.

Well, they say that introverts have a switch they flip to be able to do things like this. I obviously have one for Church Leader, Actor, and Guest Speaker. I just need to find the one for Singer Songwriter and learn how to trip it.

It’s got to be there somewhere.

And if I can’t find it? Then I’m going to write a letter to David Bowie and see if he has any unused personae laying around.