Monday, December 15, 2014

Art Camp and A Christmas Message

On the grounds of art camp
Allen here. I recently did 19 days at an art camp down in Virginia. That makes it sound kind 
My writing studio
of like a short jail sentence, which in a way it is. You get three hots and a cot and all that is expected of you is that you use that time to work on your art. In my case I was working on my Kickstarter novel, the latest in my Pastmaster series. The fact that the art camp is in a magnificent setting and there are plenty of other prisoners there, most of them interesting, is an added bonus. There are, as I have slowly learned, many of these facilities around the world. They’re called by different names -- artist’s colonies, artists residencies, fellowship programs, etc. -- but art camp is how I think of it. Thriller Guy wasn’t invited because as regular readers of this blog know, he can be an obnoxious asshole, and well, let’s be honest, a real prick when it comes to interacting with others, particularly artists, especially writers. So if he ever went to art camp, there would be fights. Particularly dangerous, at least for TG, would be the Lady Poets. (LPs) TG has faced down a lot of bad hombres over the years, but none of his enemies -- Viet Cong, Taliban, ISIS, Columbian drug lords -- have ever equaled the ferocity of the riled up LP. This is particularly true when they band together and roam the night, looking for hapless prey to eviscerate with their creative knives. You know who you are, the two Barbaras, and your other poetical gangsta sisters.


Art camp is full of a variety of artists: painters, photographers, writers – fiction and non-fiction, poets – and composers. I’m particularly interested in the composers because their art seems the most different from mine, and perhaps the most difficult. I know a little about music (I have for years been planning to write an opera, The Last Castrato) but the idea of stringing notes together into some sort of coherence completely baffles me, so it has been fascinating to lurk around the composer’s studios at art camp and listen to them work their way through the same sorts of problems that writers have to work through only using a piano instead of a word processor. This last stint at art camp, I met a wonderful composer, 
Andrew Rudin
Andrew Rudin. He’s about my age, so we share a relatively similar worldview, and because he’s a composer/teacher he has a huge fund of fascinating -- at least to me -- stories that I’ve never read or heard before. At dinner, and breakfast, he would regale us with anecdotes of the “And then Hindemeth said to Schoenberg…” variety, which left us in stitches. Andrew is a musician of some note (see what I did there?) who is well known for his early, pioneering work with Robert Moog. His continuing composition work has resulted
Andrew at the Moog synthesizer back in the day
in new and old pieces being performed all over the world.

Now, many of you are probably by now asking yourselves what is all this in aid of? as the Brits say, and what does it have to do in a writing/book blog? I’m getting to it.

Andrew is a “modern music” composer. That’s probably the wrong term, but most of you will understand what I mean by it. Rather than abide by the rules laid down by mostly old white classical composers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, his spirit roams over newer explorations of 20th and 21st century music. Meaning it can be difficult to listen to one of his pieces if you’re looking for a catchy tune to whistle, but putting in some effort will offer any number of interesting rewards. For those of you, my more avant-garde brethren, here’s a website where you can listen to some of his music.  

Be advised that Thriller Guy, the cranky, opinionated troublemaker who usually roams these pages, probably wouldn’t be a fan, but I have found much beauty in this sometimes fierce, intellectual music, even when I have to work at it a bit.

While talking one evening, Andrew said something I thought has as much to do with writing books as it does with writing music. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, (sorry Andrew) that after some years as a young musician working in electronic music and other advanced forms, he came to the realization that people just naturally “liked to hear a tune.” And so he decided to incorporate tunes – melodies – into his work. “But rather than being one of those guys who rummage through Bach’s wastebasket to come up with tunes, I decided to do it my own way.”

That’s when the nickel dropped. Rummage through Bach’s wastebasket. Brilliant.

As Thriller Guy has said, many times, humans seem to have a natural affinity, a need, for stories. From the days when early humans gathered around the proverbial fire eating their meal of roast mastodon, there was (probably) always a guy who recounted the story of the hunt, who told the stories of hunts past and the hunters and warriors who performed their glorious deeds. These were the proto-writers, the entertainers, the storytellers. When writing was figured out and printing presses invented, the need for stories could be fulfilled for everyone, once they learned to read. It seems to me that this need for stories is the same as the desire for melodies, tunes.

I am aware that this is not a particularly new or original thought, but we need to remind ourselves of it from time to time. Andrew’s next comment, about rummaging through Bach’s wastebasket, struck me particularly because, as a professional reviewer, I have read many, many novels that sound as if the author has spent his time, rather than coming up with a new and original premise/plot, rummaging around Dan Brown’s wastebasket, or Brad Thor’s or Larry Bond’s or Clive Cussler’s, instead of doing the hard work of thinking up and hammering out something ingenious, imaginative and remarkable in its own originality. Yes, it’s very difficult to do. TG has many times talked about strategies for coming up with new ideas – most of them involving gin – and there are many blogs and books out there that have their own methods, none of which are particularly easy or foolproof.

Or even necessary. Originality, that is, if your goal is simply making money. Consider the hundreds, thousands, of Da Vinci Code knock-offs, many of which have done extremely well in the marketplace, if not critically. And let me assure you, critics eventually become tired and dispirited writing reviews that sound mean-spirited and carping about how a book lacks originality when such books regularly climb the best seller lists and fly into the hands of readers, usually genre readers, who want more of the same stories, the kinds of stories that they love so much they’ll read various versions of it over and over and be perfectly happy. Maybe not as happy as if they had a book that gave a truly original spin on what they love, but they won’t know what they haven’t got unless they get it. Now there’s a convoluted sentence for you, but I think you understand my point.

Thriller Guy is always raving about certain writers, people who come from a life or career where they have some expertise that appears would lend itself to novelizing, who then pick a genre (usually mystery or thriller) and write a book (how hard could it be? they ask themselves) that ends up on my desk to review. This is seriously annoying for a number of reasons, but primarily because they haven’t read deeply in the canon and thus don’t know what’s already been done, and how not to break the rules that have been established by those who have gone before. The result is unoriginal stories littered with genre clichés. If they have a big enough platform – if they were “famous” for some reason -- they can usually get away with fooling publishers and convincing readers to read their books. But this doesn’t mean their work is any good, and I remain unmoved by their howls of pain when they read my lacerating reviews.

So, writers. Take my friend Andrew Rudin’s advice: get your heads out of someone else’s wastebasket. Think. Be original. Work harder. We want tunes and stories that are new. Always remember Thriller Guy’s mantra: Sit down, shut up, get to work.

Note to Dan Brown: please, put a lock on your dumpster.

A Christmas message from Thriller Guy: For those of you looking for a present for that special someone, or looking for something that will be much better than the usual crap you’re probably going to get, you could do far worse than journeying over to The Appel Store and picking up a novel, novella or an audio recording of one of Allen Appel’s books. Of special note is a download of the classic holiday tale,The Christmas Chicken. If this doesn’t move you to tears, of both laughter and emotion, Thriller Guy will send you your money back. Word, bro.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks TG. I think finishing a novel is the hardest, because it's the longest stretch of uninterrupted self-discipline that a person can do. I think even writing whatever the heck I want instead of what might sell - like 'super hero' stories or science fiction (genres I enjoy) get to a point where it's work. Avoiding cliches and beginner mistakes and coming up with something that people would say was a good story, and was a original - that is what I hope to achieve as a writer and what I think would be most satisfying. It could be to that writing enough of something original and entertaining that the selling part might take care of itself.

    Sometimes your blog posts don't stir up a need to comment, but are nevertheless there for digesting and noting, but rest assured your advice is always a good reminder and motivator, and so much appreciated.