Sunday, December 30, 2012

There and Back Again: Lessons Learned from Re-Reading The Hobbit

First posted 12/30/2012; updated 7/5/2020.

The Hobbit

J.R.R. Tolkien

First Publication: September 21, 1937

Category: fantasy novel

Sales: 140.6 million


About the Book:

The New York Times Book Review called The Hobbit “a glorious account of a magnificent adventure, filled with suspense and seasoned with a quiet humor that is irresistible.” AZ

“Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit who enjoys a comfortable, unambitious life…but his contentment is disturbed when the wizard Gandalf and a company of dwarves arrive on his doorstep…to whisk him away on an adventure.” WK They want to raid the treasure hoard of Smaug the dragon. Bilbo encounters the creature Gollum and finds a magic ring. “The story reaches its climax in the Battle of the Five Armies, where many of the characters and creatures from earlier chapters re-emerge to engage in conflict.” WK

The journey brings out Bilbo’s more adventurous nature as he “gains a new level of maturity, competence, and wisdom.” WK “Personal growth and…heroism are central themes of the story, along with motifs of warfare.” WK

“Tolkien’s own experiences during World War I…[were] instrumental in shaping the story. The author’s scholarly knowledge of Germanic philology and interest in mythology and fairy tales are often noted as influences.” WK

The Hobbit was “nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald Tribune for best juvenile fiction.” WK “The publisher was encouraged by the book’s critical and financial success and, therefore, requested a sequel.” WK Tolkien responded with a trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, also in this book. The four books were turned into a series of six movies.

December 30, 2012: Personal Reflection:

I took my 10-year-old son to see The Hobbit. I'm not sure which of us was more excited, although I will confess only one of us went in costume.

my son dressed as a hobbit

I read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy repeatedly through my adolescent years. While I didn't generally read fantasy and was never a particular fan of D&D, the world Tolkien created absolutely enraptured me. I was as ecstatic as the rest of the throngs when Peter Jackson waved his magic wand over his movie treatments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and proved they could be made into masterful movies.

While my son had not seen any of those movies, he was interested. I decided we might as well start with The Hobbit and work our way through the series logically. We read the book together and I delighted at seeing the story come to life for him. However, I was also troubled. Now that I am regularly writing myself, I nitpicked at certain aspects of Tolkien's writing style - mostly his wordiness.

I have certainly been known to commit that horrid writing sin of serving up too much detail. I'm a believer in coloring a scene and giving some background that might not be integral to the story, but gives it flavor.

Tolkien believes in this philosophy ten-fold. He can spend pages giving background story on a setting or character which is completely unnecessary to the overall tale. While some of this can enrich, it can also infuriate. Readers can reach a point of screaming, well, "Get to the point!"

Jackson was praised by many Tolkien fans (including myself) for his talent at carefully editing some of this detail out the Lord of the Rings. For example, in the original Fellowship of the Rings book, a whole chapter is dedicated to a totally superfluous tale about a character named Tom Bombadil who never figures into the overall plot. Jackson justifiably excised the character from the story.

At the same time, though, Jackson now finds himself criticized for doing exactly the opposite with The Hobbit. He has stretched one book into three movies. While his aim is to obviously link the two trilogies by fleshing out elements of Lord of the Rings which are only hinted at or left untouched in The Hobbit. He has also sought to infuse his movie version of The Hobbit with a darker tone than the book, again to seemingly match it up better with his movie versions of Lord of the Rings.

Now, exactly what point I’m making here, I’m not sure. Oh, right. I’m making the point that even the most celebrated of writers can find themselves distracted, drifting off on a tangent that may not benefit the overall story. Sometimes these diversions can become the essence of why a story becomes beloved, but they can also be the reason a story is despised. With that, I feel I should stop before I babble any longer. Some of you may wish I’d shut up already.

my son in front of the movie poster

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Saturday, December 1, 2012

National Novel Writing Month

image from

In November 2012, I participated in National Novel Writing Month, known as NaNoWriMo for short. The objective is to write the rough draft of a novel (50,000 words)in the month of November.

I've never been a steady, disciplined writer. The idea of writing a consistent 1500+ words a day was daunting. I hoped, though, that I could write in enough big spurts to pull it off.

My other challenge was hitting 50,000 words with one project. It just couldn't be done. My primary goal was to write the first draft of Otter and Arthur and the Round Table, which will be the sequel to Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. Learn more about those books at

However, that posed a problem. The first book runs about 26,500 words. I wasn't looking to change the word count for the second so doubling the size of the book wasn't a real option.

That meant cobbling together a couple projects. I also write non-fiction books about music history and was in the early stages of an intended book called The Top 100 Albums of All Time. Learn more about that project at

By tag-teaming the two books with some other smaller writing projects, I pulled it off! 52,045 words in 30 days. Woo hoo! I did it!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Otter and Arthur on TV!

On November 28, 2012, I appeared on the KCTV5 television show Better Kansas City (airing from 9:00am to 10:00am CST). I was interviewed about my book, Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and discussed the writing and publishing process.

Here's a detailed version of the interview with links included:

How did the book come about?
I’ve been a fan of King Arthur since I was a teenager. I wanted to share the stories with my kids, who are 10 and 7. However, books about King Arthur tend to be the equivalent of R-rated movies so I decided to write my own age-appropriate version. I focused on the young Arthur and how he is befriend by a mouse nicknamed Otter. This mouse is responsible for Arthur fulfilling the legend of pulling the sword from the stone and becoming king.

Where can people find the book?
The book is available through and at Shawnee Books & Toys.

What advice do you have for wannabe writers?
Write, write, write. Don’t worry about whether it is good. Don’t worry about how many words you write each day. Don’t worry about whether you have your idea fleshed out. Don’t worry about editing. Just write. Get your ideas down on paper. The rest will come later.

So how you stick it out and finish a book?
I recommend finding a writers’ group. I joined one I found through (The Kansas City Writers Meetup Group) by just searching for writers’ groups in the Kansas City area. The advantage of such a group is having a support system. They keep you focused and give valuable feedback to help you fine-tune and finish.

Your book is self-published. Why did you go that route instead of a traditional publisher?
The traditional route is a long and hard journey. One must write query letters to try to get agents, expect to get rejected many times over, and – even in the best case scenario, be prepared for a couple years to go by before the book is published. Even then, there’s no guarantee how much marketing power a publishing company will put behind the book.

What are the advantages of self-publishing?
I can get the book out there as fast as I want and I make all the decisions. For this book, I hired professionals to edit it and do the book design, but someone could even do that themselves.

So how does one get self-published?
I use It costs nothing, is easy to use, and is affiliated with Amazon. You upload a jpeg cover and a pdf file of the book’s content. The book lists on Amazon as a print-on-demand title which means the author can order one copy or a hundred. You can also create an ebook version for Kindle.

Click on any of the above icons (CreateSpace, Amazon, Kindle) to go to those sites and purchase Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone. You can also click on the "Buy the Book" tab on this site.

Follow Writ by Whit or Otter and Arthur on Facebook for more about writing and this book in particular.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Library of Congress "Books That Shaped America"

First posted 6/9/2020.

Library of Congress:

Books That Shaped America

From the Library of Congress website: “The titles featured here (by American authors) have had a profound effect on American life, but they are by no means the only influential ones…Curators and experts from throughout the Library of Congress contributed their choices, but there was much debate – even agony – in having to remove worthy titles from a much larger list in order to accommodate the physical constraints of this exhibition space. Some of the titles on display have been the source of great controversy, even derision, yet they nevertheless shaped Americans’ views of their world and often the world’s view of the United States.” Here are the 88 featured titles, listed alphabetically by the authors’ names.

  • Henry Adams The Education of Henry Adams (1907)
  • Louisa May Alcott Little Women (1869)
  • Horatio Alger Jr. Mark, the Match Boy (1869)
  • anonymous A Curious Hieroglyphick Bible (1788)
  • anonymous The New England Primer (1803)
  • James Baldwin The Fire Next Time (1963)
  • L. Frank Baum The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
  • Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe The American Woman’s Home (1869)
  • Boston Womens’ Health Book Collective Our Bodies, Ourselves (1973)
  • Benjamin A. Botkin A Treasury of American Folklore (1944)
  • Ray Bradbury Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
  • Sarah H. Bradford Harriet, the Moses of Her People (1901)
  • Gwendolyn Brooks A Street in Bronzeville (1945)
  • Dee Brown Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1971)
  • Margaret Wise Brown Goodnight Moon (1947)
  • Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan of the Apes (1914)
  • Truman Capote In Cold Blood (1966)
  • Dale Carnegie How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936)
  • Rachel Carson Silent Spring (1962)
  • Christopher Colles A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America (1789)
  • Steven Crane The Red Badge of Courage (1895)
  • Emily Dickinson Poems (1890)
  • Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)
  • W.E. Burghardt Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903)
  • Ralph Ellison Invisible Man (1952)
  • William Faulkner The Sound and the Fury (1929)
  • Federal Writers’ Project Idaho: A Guide in Word and Pictures (1937)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby (1925)
  • Benjamin Franklin Experiments and Observations on Electricity, Made at Philadelphia in America (1751)
  • Benjamin Franklin Poor Richard’s Almanac (1757)
  • Benjamin Franklin The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin (1793)
  • Betty Friedan The Feminine Mystique (1963)
  • Robert Frost New Hampshire, a Poem (1923)
  • Allen Ginsberg Howl and Other Poems (1956)
  • Samuel Goodrich Peter Parley’s Universal History (1837)
  • Zane Grey Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)
  • Alex Haley and Malcolm X The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
  • Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay The Federalist Papers (1787)
  • Dashiell Hammett Red Harvest (1929)
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne The Scarlet Letter (1850)
  • Robert A. Heinlein Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
  • Joseph Heller Catch-22 (1961)
  • Ernest Hemingway For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
  • Langston Hughes The Weary Blues (1926)
  • Zora Neal Hurston Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
  • Washington Irving The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1820)
  • William James Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking: Popular Lectures on Philosophy (1907)
  • Richard Jensen and John C. Hammerback (editors) The Words of César Chávez (2002)
  • Ezra Jack Keats The Snowy Day (1962)
  • Jack Kerouac On the Road (1957)
  • Alfred C. Kinsey Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)
  • Harper Lee To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
  • Meriweather Lewis History of the Expedition Under the Command of the Captains Lewis and Clark (1814)
  • Jack London The Call of the Wild (1903)
  • William Holmes McGuffey McGuffey’s Newly Revised Eclectic Primer (1849)
  • Herman Melville Moby-Dick (1851)
  • Margaret Mitchell Gone with the Wind (1936)
  • Toni Morrison Beloved (1987)
  • Ralph Nader Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-in Dangers of the American Automobile (1965)
  • Eugene O’Neill The Iceman Cometh, a Play (1946)
  • Thomas Paine Common Sense (1776)
  • Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged (1957)
  • Jacob Riis How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890)
  • Irma Rombauer Joy of Cooking (1931)
  • Carl Sagan Cosmos (1980)
  • J.D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  • Margaret Sanger Family Limitation (1914)
  • Maurice Sendak Where the Wild Things Are (1963)
  • Dr. Seuss The Cat in the Hat (1957)
  • Randy Shilts And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987)
  • Amelia Simmons American Cookery (1796)
  • Upton Sinclair The Jungle (1906)
  • Betty Smith A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)
  • Benjamin Spock Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946)
  • John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)
  • Ida Tarbell The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904)
  • Henry David Thoreau Walden, or Life in the Woods (1854)
  • Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
  • James D. Watson The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1968)
  • Noah Webster A Grammatical Institute of the English Language (1783)
  • E.B. White Charlotte’s Web (1952)
  • Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass (1855)
  • Thornton Wilder Our Town: A Play (1938)
  • Tennessee Williams A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)
  • William Carlos Williams Spring and All (1923)
  • Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith Alcoholics Anonymous (1939)
  • Richard Wright Native Son (1940)

Resources and Related Links:

Monday, May 21, 2012

My Interview on 101 The Fox

image from

This year I’ve been determined to more aggressively market my books. In researching effective marketing techniques, I found plenty of mentions of radio interviews. They allow the writer to have free advertising, are quick and easy to do, and can hit a widespread audience. Also, radio stations – especially talk show formats – are always looking for content.

I’ve spent most of my life in the Kansas City area and one of the radio station staples from my high school years on has been KCFX 101.1 FM (“The Fox”). They originated in 1983, playing album rock. In 1985, they became the first classic rock station in a major market, playing artists from the late 1960s through the 1980s. In 1990, they switched frequencies with Carrollton’s KMZU, moving from 100.7 to 101.1 on the dial. That was also the year they became the first FM music station to carry play-by-play for an NFL team when they became the official home for the Kansas City Chiefs radio broadcasts.

The station, which is owned by Cumulus Media, is housed in an office complex in the Overland Park, Kansas area within walking distance from my house. Where better to start marketing my book, The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era, than via the radio station in my back yard which I’ve listening to for more than 25 years?

I shot off an email describing the book and offering up a short bio. The program director shot the email to Slacker, the morning DJ. At their request, I brought in a review copy of the book and a couple more for giveaways. I sent a list of possible questions and within a couple weeks of the initial email, we’d booked a time for the interview.

Slacker, image from

I went in Friday morning, May 18 and taped the interview with Slacker in the studio. We talked about a half hour about my book, our kids, and how radio has changed over the years. Sandwiched in between our chatting, we squeezed in a roughly five-minute interview. Slacker asked me how the book came about and ran down the top 10 songs from the book, asking for commentary on some of them. I had a blast. I felt more like I was talking to a buddy about music than doing an interview. I’m ready for more.

Click to play my interview with Slacker at 101 The Fox

As an added bonus, I came back the next week with my kids. I assumed they'd just get to see the radio station, but Slacker put them on the air as well!

Click to play my kids' interview with Slacker

Resources and Related Links:

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reading at Boozefish: How to Spot Music Geeks

April 19, 2012: Rachel Ellyn (aka The Disfunctional Diva) and I did a reading at Boozefish Wine Bar in the Westport area of Kansas City. My selections were from various pieces I’ve written about music, tied together around the theme “How to Spot Music Geeks.” Earlier in the week, I posted my planned reading, but it underwent some transformation by the time Thursday night rolled around so I thought I’d repost. You can see the original post here.

My name is Dave and I have a problem. I am a music geek. This is a terrible affliction which may render its victims unable to have a conversation without slipping in bits of music trivia. Today I feel it is my responsibility to teach you “How to Spot Music Geeks.” If you know the warning signs, maybe you can help a music geek become a semi-functional human being who is a somewhat productive member of society. Please help – before it’s too late.

1. Seek them out in their natural habitats.
Music geeks can be found at concert venues and bars featuring local bands. They often hang out in basements downloading songs on the computer. Depending on their station in life, it may be in their mother’s house – even if they’re well into their thirties.

Once upon a time, the best place to find music geeks was in a record store. Sadly, the digital age has shuttered many a store, but some do still exist. Even those which have closed, however, still hold fond memories for music geeks. My first reading is taken from my in-the-works music themed novel Music Lessons from The Pit. While The Pit is a fictional store, it is modeled after my own fond memories of shopping at used record stores. Read the excerpt at the Writ by Whit Facebook page or read the full chapter from which the excerpt is taken. This was also fashioned into an article for my PopMatters column, "Aural Fixation".

“My advice is, don’t spend money on therapy. Spend it in a record store.” – German film director Wim Wenders

2. They take their love of music to obsessive levels.
Everyone can relate to having a favorite group or song, but Music geeks don’t just love music; they love it obsessively so. As evidence of the extremes to which music geeks will go, check out the title piece from my collection of essays, No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haze”. Read the excerpt at the Writ by Whit Facebook page or check out the original post on the DMDB blog.

“Music is my religion.” – Jimi Hendrix

3. Music geeks believe if it sells, it sucks.
This reading is an excerpt of an article I penned for my column “Aural Fixation.” In the piece, entitled “Waxing Nostalgic: The Mantras of the Music Geek,” I recounted some of the discussion between three friends over dinner at Joe’s Crab Shack. Read the excerpt at the Writ by Whit Facebook page or check out the original article in its entirety at

4. They believe any advancement in technology is crap.
Within the “Waxing Nostalgic” piece, I also broke down the changes in music technology over roughly the last 60 years and showed how diehard music geeks have steadfastly resisted any changes to come along, preferring to faithfully stick to vinyl. Read the excerpt at the Writ by Whit Facebook page or check out the original article in its entirety at

5. They bore everyone around them with music trivia.
Think of music geeks as savants. They may lack the skills to carry on normal conversation or be functioning members of society, but they excel in one area – the ability to completely bore the average adult with incessant music trivia. The most severe cases even write entire books devoted to the stuff.

For my book The Top 100 Songs of the Rock Era, I actually used a very objective method for determining which songs were featured. I aggregated hundreds of best-of lists along with chart data, sales figures, and awards to determine the top songs of the last half of the 20th century. Read a few snippets on the Writ by Whit Facebook page.

There is hope, however.
Even the staunchest of music geeks is capable of reform. They can learn to recognize that anyone’s musical interests are valid. Read the excerpt on the Writ by Whit Facebook page or read the original post on the DMDB blog. Also available in No One Needs 21 Versions of “Purple Haze”.

“Without music life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Music Lessons from The Pit: Blue Monday

This is an excerpt from my in-the-works music-themed novel tentatively titled Music Lessons from The Pit. In 2007, The Pit (a music store) could no longer compete in the digital age. As a last hurrah, Gil and his college friends from the ‘80s are reuniting to celebrate their favorite hangout from 25 years ago. While driving to the reunion with his buddy Declan (Dec for short), Gil plays songs from the era which bring back old memories. Think of the book as a sort of High Fidelity meets The Big Chill.

In 2007, on the way to the reunion at The Pit:

“Do you remember the first time you went in The Pit?” Dec asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, drifting off fondly. “Blue Monday.”

New Order "Blue Monday"

* * *

Fall 1983. Freshman year.

I had little to show for my first two weeks of college. I knew that a jaunt through the administration building shaved precious seconds when madly dashing to General Ecology. Hitting the student union for lunch was a bad idea without allowing twenty minutes to stand in line. A trek through the art building offered umbrella-free travel when thunderstorms soaked the quadrangle, but it also led to a tardy entrance into World History.

The struggle to arrive at classes on time was a minor obstacle. I would soon master the art of arriving when and if I felt like it, an important tool to crafting my apathetic persona. My greater frustration was with my failure to dig up similarly-minded souls with whom to feign aloofness and cynicism. So far everyone seemed pretty committed to something – becoming the super student or the supreme drinker or the one most likely to catch a sexual disease within the first month of college. I had yet to find someone devoted to the pursuit of apathy.

Wrapped in my blue funk, I strolled aimlessly out of my last class of the day. I wasn’t gung ho to get back to my dorm room, but wasn’t inspired to head anywhere else instead. I wandered in the general direction of my home-away-from-home, my eyes peeled for some diversion.

Chelsea Drive was my last hope. The road that separated my dorm from the rest of campus also served as the town’s primary artery. Instead of taking my usual left, I veered right to see what the ol’ burg had to offer. Thus far my off-campus exploits had been limited to a late-night Hardees run and a painful evening navigating the frat-and-sorority-dominated bar scene.

Lo and behold, there were actual non-collegiate-affiliated businesses mere blocks away. Well, that’s a matter of perspective in a university town. The local shops leaned heavily on the co-ed population as both customers and employees. My stroll down Chelsea turned up a tea house cleverly titled “2 a Tea.” Without even stepping in, I could sense the artsy student vibe wafting onto the sidewalk. Actually, I think it was the smell of cinnamon.

I didn’t go in, though, because beside the tea house was the Holy Grail for music obsessives – a used record store. A battered green awning with “4 the Record” in white lettering sheltered a large display window in which album covers were propped up on a window seat inside. Naturally the big hits of the day were prominently featured: The Police’s Synchronicity, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man, and the Flashdance soundtrack.

However, alongside the music for the masses were more left-of-center features – Elvis Costello’s Punch the Clock, the Fixx’s Reach the Beach, and the Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues. Sure, all had songs climbing the Billboard Hot 100, but these were still albums more suited to hip college students than bubblegum teeny-boppers.

The door was plastered with D.I.Y. flyers for bands coming to local clubs. I didn’t recognize any names, but hoped I’d know many of them soon.

I tugged at the handle of the wooden door swollen by the humidity. Instead of the bell on a string familiar to many a Mom-and-Pop shop, a well-worn tambourine announced my arrival, a bit louder than necessary considering the sudden jolt with which the door popped open.

A slight mustiness greeted me. It was as welcoming as the cinnamon from the tea shop. Few things authenticate a used record store more than the proper degree of dust and dirt.

A much abused hardwood floor with a noticeable warp splayed out toward shelves of cassettes and crates of records. Hand-lettered cardboard dividers separated albums alphabetically and into various genres.

Posters and album covers decorated the brick walls. Occasionally a corner of a poster drooped where the old masking tape had given out.

To my left was the front counter. Atop it was an old cash register, a plastic cup with incense for sale, and a textbook sprawled open. Huddled behind the book sat a thin-faced, sullen-looking guy. The rattling tambourine failed to budge his stare; his eyes remained downward, hidden behind a pair of round, John Lennon-esque sunglasses that hung on the bridge of his nose.

The purple tint of the shades was the only bit of color about the guy. He wore dark jeans and a long-sleeved grey button shirt over a black T-shirt. In the still-80-degree weather the unseasonably out-of-place outfit was a defiant statement that even Mother Nature couldn’t tell him what to do. In fact, this guy was modeling the quintessential, although ironic, “I’m Independent” uniform of the outsider.

Being a model of color coordination, Mr. Black’s hair was dyed to match. I muffled a snicker at how carefully it was coiffed to suggest that he’d just rolled out of bed.

The music pumping from the speakers hanging on the wall behind him had a detached vocal backed by a strong electronica beat. It reminded me of British synth-pop like Human League. The song had a vague familiarity – one of those “I think I’ve heard this before” kind of songs – but I couldn’t place it. I was curious enough to disrupt Mr. Black’s studies to inquire. “What’s this that’s playing?”

Seemingly innocent questions evoke absurdly detailed answers from true music geeks, which Mr. Black clearly was. Forgetting his commitment to looking perpetually bored, a twinge of glee sparked his expression as he peered above his rims. “‘Blue Monday’ by New Order,” he said with an air of disgust that a nuisance customer would dare to be musically illiterate. After what I’m pretty sure was a roll of his eyes, they dropped back behind his purple shield, practically commanding me to go away. I excused myself to rifle through the album crates. “Cool,” I said. “Thanks.”

Back home, Rich and I played the roles of faithful suburbanites and did most of our music shopping at the local mall. Occasionally we’d trek downtown to the handful of used-record stores within walking distance of each other. 4 the Record, however, had a charm beyond any other shop I’d seen. It wasn’t just that flipping through the old records left a coating of dust on one’s hands comparable to the residue after eating a bag of Cheetos.

The back corner is what sold me. The sunken seating area, like homes with a couple steps down into the living room, gave the store its nickname “The Pit.” It was decorated with second-hand furniture that looked like it had been passed over at a garage sale. In fact, The Pit likely was furnished by discards college students were unwilling or unable to cart home at the end of a school year.

A pair of unmatched couches fervently competed for ugliest fabric. The beat-up throw pillows looked to be specifically chosen to clash with the couches as much as possible. A slightly lopsided brown leather recliner leaned against one wall, propped up to keep the back of the chair from collapsing. It all wrapped around a battered wooden coffee table that looked so heavy it had seemingly been carved out of a tree trunk which had grown up right through the floor of the store.

Littered across the table were music magazines. The standards were there – Rolling Stone, Billboard, Creem – but there were also some British mags with which I was unfamiliar – Melody Maker and New Musical Express. I plopped down on one of the couches and scooped up the September 10 issue of the latter. It was in newspaper format and featured The Clash on the cover. The headline read: “The Clash Crash: Joe and Paul Sack Mick.”

A stereo system also graced the pit area. A pair of headphones made it clear that wary buyers could listen to potential purchases before plopping down dollars begged from parental units back home.

I leafed through the magazines before hitting the record crates. Never an audiophile, I favored cassettes. For browsing, however, records were the way to go. I did like “Blue Monday” but felt like buying the New Order album would be a transparent attempt to stroke Mr. Black’s ego. It was silly that I wanted to impress this guy, but he represented the musical identity I thought I wanted. Despite his aloof and apathetic exterior, this guy cared about music.

With The Clash on the brain, I headed for the C section. Their newest album, Combat Rock, came out the year before and I knew a couple cuts.

However, I was more interested in the older London Calling, despite not knowing any of the tracks. It spawned top 40 hit “Train in Vain (Stand by Me)”, but since it was an unlisted track, I wasn’t aware it was on the album.

I’d heard enough about what a great album it was to be curious. The cover featured a shot of band member Paul Simonon smashing his bass in the spirit of The Who’s legendary instrument-bashing antics. The graphic layout mimicked the lettering on Elvis Presley’s debut. It captured the duality of rock ‘n’ roll’s destructive vibe and respect for the genre’s forefathers.

Still, who buys an album for the artwork? I had albums with great covers – The Police’s Synchronicity and Duran Duran’s Rio came to mind – but I’d never bought an album because of its art. However, I couldn’t put it down. Well, I did, but only to seek out the cassette version instead.

I trotted up to the counter. Mr. Black begrudgingly set his book down, miffed that I dared to make him to do his job. Given his indifference when I entered the store, I assumed he would ring up my album with little or no conversation. I was wrong.

“This,” he said, pausing dramatically, “is a classic. Nice choice.”

I was pleased yet amused that it should matter to a customer what the seller thinks of the purchase. Still, Mr. Black represented exactly the kind of aloof “my musical tastes are better than yours” quality which I was seeking so his approval did mean something.

“You won’t be disappointed,” he continued. “You can’t get much better than The Clash.”

* * *

Back in 2007:

“So,” Dec said, after I’d finished playing the song. “That was your first trip to The Pit, eh?”

“Yep. Amazing how vivid that memory is, considering how many hundreds of times I was in the place after that.

“Ah, yes,” Dec mused. “Nothing beats that first time. Your virgin trip to The Pit.”

I sighed. “And now we’re going to visit it for the last time. Another ‘Blue Monday.’”

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The One and Only Ivan: Making Characters Unique

With seven Newbery-award-winning books under my belt already, I finally read the 2013 winner, The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate.

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I've joked in previous posts that clearly the trick to winning a Newbery is to write a book about a tween or teen uprooted from his or her home because of some family tragedy. Applegate's book puts a spin on this formula - a gorilla named Ivan is uprooted from his home because of some family tragedy.

Ivan has been part of a mall circus exhibit, the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade, for 27 years. He has accepted his fate, but when Ruby, a baby elephant arrives, Ivan decides this is no place for an animal to spend its life. He concocts a plan. He is going to free Ruby so that she can grow up in a zoo with other elephants.

Applegate creates a unique character by telling the story from the first-person perspective of a gorilla. To that end, she has written in a short, choppy style with chapters rarely lasting more than a couple pages, and sometimes just a couple sentences.

The lesson for my own writing is to find a way to make a character unique. That isn't always as easy as writing from the persective of a gorilla, but uniqueness can be achieved because of a character's unique circumstances or unique perspective. In Otter and Arthur and the Sword in the Stone and its in-progress sequel, I have been able to tell the story of King Arthur from the perspective of a mouse. As I write my next story, Abigail's Atlantis, my challenge is to find what makes the main character unique.

It is the challenge all writers must undertake - give readers a new experience through the uniqueness of the character, the circumstances, or perspective. After all, if the story isn't unique, what is the point in telling it?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables published 150 years ago

First posted 7/5/2020.

Les Misérables

Victor Hugo

First Publication: 1862

Category: fiction

Sales: 1 million

Accolades (click on badges to see full lists):

About the Book:

Les Misérables “ranks among the greatest novels of all time.” AZ It “gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait that resulted is larger than life, epic in scope – an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart.” AZ In 1980, it premiered as a musical which has run in London since 1985, making it the longest-running musical in the West End. WK

The story takes place in the 19th century “during a period of political unrest in Paris.” LT The focus is on Jean Valjean, “a French peasant, and his desire for redemption after serving nineteen years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a bishop inspires him by a tremendous act of mercy.” WK

“Trying to forget his past and live an honest life, …Valjean risks his freedom to take care of a motherless young girl.” LT As a result, “he is relentlessly tracked down by a police inspector named Javert.” WK

“Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them to the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose.” AZ

“Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier, and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds.” AZ

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