Tag Archives: writing

2017: What a Year

Hello there! As I look back at my feed, it appears I haven’t been very bloggy this year. I could point the blame of not writing to a certain leader of the free world, but that would be hitting it on the nose too hard. To counter that, let’s get one post in before 2018 comes bursting through the door.

Getcher Books Right Here!

Last Christmas brought me a couple of new tomes: biographies on two extraordinary gentlemen: Phil Collins and Jim Henson. Phil’s book, cleverly titled Not Dead Yet, was written in his voice with the help of a journalist. It showed me a more rounded portrait of one of my favorite drummers. He doesn’t pull any punches, talking about the good times and the bad times in his life. The musician in me wished he had talked more about his drumming, but it’s a very minor gripe. Henson’s biography, written by Brian Jay Jones, brought a whole new light to the creator of the Muppets. Be forewarned: get some tissues ready toward the end. Henson’s death crushed me, as if I had lost a family member. His imaginative works were so ingrained in my life, he earned an honorary status.

On the fiction side, I enjoyed Binti, the first of three novellas from Nnedi Okorafor. The main character was a delight, and the world she inhabits is fascinating. The second book in Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars Aftermath trilogy, Life Debt, was another winner. I can’t wait to get my hands on Empire’s End to see how this all pans out.

It took me a few years, but I finally completed Douglas Adams’ five-part trilogy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Mostly Harmless. It sorta became a tradition around Towel Day, May 25, to start reading the next H2G2 novel in honor of Adams.

Thanks to Christmas 2017, a few more books landed in my lap, including Thrawn, Timothy Zahn’s return to that diabolical character from Ye Olde Star Wars Expanded Universe; The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman, J.H. Williams III, Dave Stewart and Todd Klein; and a couple of trades featuring a mixture of articles from Star Wars Insider.

As always, I want to read sooooo much, as my Amazon.com wish list can attest, but I have to find the time. Plus I need to find time to write my own tales…

So Long, Tom

We lost quite a few legends this year (Adam West comes to mind, as does Fats Domino), but Tom Petty’s death hit me differently. I wasn’t a huge fan of Tom, per se, but I did enjoy his music throughout my life. The fact he grew up in Gainesville (my mom’s hometown and where I went to college) was probably a source of pride. I’m sure the music video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More” gave me nightmares, but as I got older, I came to appreciate more of his music. It helped that I recently discovered more of his music through his dedicated station on SiriusXM.

tom_petty
via Pitchfork

Then came the news that he was taken to the hospital. My heart sunk. No. This can’t be. I kept hoping against hope that sources were crossed and it was all one big misunderstanding.

Eventually, the official channels confirmed the news. Another artist gone before we figured it would be their time. Although listening to his songs immediately after his death didn’t phase me, hearing other people’s recollections of what Tom meant to them sent the tears free fallin’. When the University of Florida added “I Won’t Back Down” at the end of the third quarter for its football home games, I choked up.

I never saw Tom in concert, and while we’ll always have video footage, it’s not quite the same as being there. In the past few years, I’ve caught quite a few of my musical heroes in concert (Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Phil Collins, Steve Hackett, Rush, Al Jarreau, off the top of my head), and I hope to continue that into the new year (Mike and the Mechanics in March).

Hold On! I’m Comin’!

Did you ever walk into a building and feel like you were in the presence of greatness? That happened to me back in July, when I went to Memphis for a family reunion on my wife’s side. Our family visited to the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, which is built on the original site of the famed record studio that produced classics from Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Booker T. and the MGs, the Staple Singers, and so many more.

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Outside the Stax Museum. Photo by Michael Fortuna

I gotta tell you, stepping into the re-created studio, I could hear angels sing. This was where the magic happened. I wanted to take the plexiglas off the drum set and pretend I was Al Jackson Jr. keeping the groove going. I could’ve stood in front of the sound board all day and watch Steve Cropper talk about recording there.

Needless to say, the soulful sounds of Stax have wormed their way into my brain. I took home from the gift shop Booker T. and the MGs’ “McLemore Avenue,” the album paying tribute to the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” I also have received a DVD showing a concert from Stax’s 1967 European tour, as well as 3-CD best-of collection. If you haven’t been exposed to this music, I suggest you correct that oversight immediately.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to schedule another trip to the museum.

A Force To Be Reckoned With

I saw The Last Jedi on Dec. 15. For about a week after that, my brain wouldn’t let go of this movie.

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via StarWars.com

In most cases, when I see a movie and I enjoy it, a few scenes may pop in my head. I’ll chat about it with friends and family, then wait for it to appear on Blu-ray. Not with The Last Jedi. I have had thoughts about countless scenes.

As I was watching, the writer portion of my noggin kept trying to solve the story puzzles the movie presented. I tried to heed what Luke said, “This isn’t going to go the way you think.” Which is what I want, anyway. Thankfully, this movie zagged when I thought it would zig. It zigged when I least expected. I cheered, I cried, I gasped.

On the creative writing side of my life, it’s felt like pulling the wings off a gundark with only a set of tweezers. I’ve been working on one short story that I had started about this time last year, which came to life as a roundabout way of paying tribute to Carrie Fisher. I added a few ideas to my notes app. I opened and closed files. As you do.

Seeing The Last Jedi sparked those creative synapses in my brain once more, but at times it felt overloaded, as if I was trying too hard to think about story structure or character arcs.

The creative brain also got a jolt earlier this year when my sister and I went to Star Wars Celebration in Orlando for a day. It ended up being a writer-focused track, going to a panel featuring a bunch of writers including the aforementioned Wendig and Zahn. I ended up getting autographs from Wendig and Delilah Dawson, and I stumbled over my words to tell them I enjoyed their writing and their writing advice.

Being in the presence of these authors filled me with hope that maybe one day I can hold a novel that I wrote in my hands.

In some respects, apart from my awesome family, Star Wars did its best to keep my sanity in check throughout this year, whether it was The Last Jedi or Rebels (although it sorta broke my heart when they announced season four would be its last). Music also played a role in keeping the madness at bay, whether it was listening to it or playing it (albeit limited) on the drums.

Looking back, a lot of good things happened this year, despite you-know-who. Here’s hoping 2018 is a little less of a dumpster fire than 2017.

It has to be. There’s a Han Solo movie coming out next year.

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Fifty Years of the Final Frontier

Is there a Klingon word for “idiot”?

Back in September, Star Trek celebrated the 50th anniversary of its premiere on NBC.  I made a small contribution to this auspicious occasion with this article from The Villages Daily Sun.

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I meant to post this on Sept. 8 or thereabouts, but apparently my calculations to reach Ceti Alpha V weren’t quite right. I’ll let Mr. Scott know immediately to get it right next time.

I hope you enjoy the article, and may Star Trek continue to live long and prosper.

A Harry Education

Recently, one of my former journalism professors posted something about a new biography on the late Harry Crews. Like magic, my mind cued up my experiences with the author.

While studying journalism at the University of Florida during the mid-late 1990s, I figured I should take a creative writing class for one of my electives. Looking in the course catalog, I found one and proceeded to sign up. Turned out I needed a writing sample to turn in to be considered, so on the last day, I happened to have a copy of a short story I had done. Turned it in, went home.

Blood Bone and Marrow BookI received my class schedule a few days later (I think; memory’s foggy about that) and saw that I was enrolled. Thought nothing of it. Figured everyone would’ve gotten in.

Until I discovered that only a small number of students were admitted. And it was being taught by THE Harry Crews, although I was still a bit fuzzy about how big this guy was.

Turns out my grandfather was a fan of Crews’ work, owning quite a few of his novels. Right under my nose! He wanted me to have Crews autograph one of he books, but I felt too weird to ask, only to have another student thrust a book in front of him to sign. He gladly did it, but class was starting by this point, so I failed in my mission.

I wonder if I was the only one in the class who wasn’t aware of Crews’ backstory. Maybe that was a blessing in disguise; I just wanted to learn more about writing fiction, not revel in Crews’ past shenanigans.

The syllabus said the stories we’d be writing about wouldn’t include “talking cats.” So: literary fiction. Thank God I turned in a high-schooler-in-turmoil story and not my usual science fiction fare.

We had to turn in two stories that semester, so I went with more adventures from the high school universe.

I wish I could remember some piece of advice Crews imparted to the class. Half the time, it seemed like he was too sick to teach. I do remember the workshop setting. We all printed out our stories, then handed out copies to everyone to critique the following week. That was a strange feeling to hear people tear apart your work. The kicker for me was when just about everyone said that teenagers going to the mall just to hang out wasn’t “real enough.”

Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I still have Crews’ graded copies of my stories. The first story had just three handwritten words from Crews: “Reads well. Credible.”

The second story was filled with red and black ink marks, starting at the top with: “Problem: There is nothing of significance that can happen in a mall.” Throughout the tale, Crews could not fathom high schoolers hanging out at the mall when they could be sneaking away to have sex. I’m sure that might be true in some instances, but that wasn’t how I saw it for the characters at the time.

Looking back at his remarks all these years later, I could see his points. I probably should’ve tightened up certain passages or jettisoned them all together. But back then, I was mortified and angry. I could hear that guy from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: “You lost today, kid. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.”

(Actually, I was so ticked off by what they said about the story, I rewrote it to make it a bit more “realistic,” changed the narrator from the main character to a third person limited, etc.)

At some point he had told the class this would be his final semester teaching. My journalism brain immediately said, “Hey! You could do a story on him for your reporting class! Maybe even get it published!” So I asked him if I could interview him. He seemed hesitant but agreed to it.

We met in his office in Turlington Hall, which, if memory serves, didn’t have much of anything in it. Just his briefcase. With the help of my friend, Najah, I came up with a few questions to ask.

I was a bit nervous interviewing him. Even though his body wasn’t running at one hundred percent, he still looked like he could kick my ass.

The interview lasted about 30 minutes, although he tried to cut off the interview about five minutes sooner. Luckily I convinced him to keep going.

I wrote the story, edited it heavily with the help of my friend, Sheri, then gave it to my teacher’s assistant for my Reporting class.

I earned the highest grade out of all the stories I had written, and it was the last one of the semester. I did good.

When I tried to get the Independent Florida Alligator, the campus newspaper, to publish it, they refused. I tried to explain to the editor that he was a Pretty Big Deal and it was his last semester teaching, it didn’t matter. So it never saw the light of day.

In 2010, I went back to UF to participate in a Storytellers’ Summit. The keynote speaker was bestselling author Michael Connelly. During his talk, he mentioned taking Crews’ class back in the ’70s, but he didn’t take away any big revelations from the class, either. At least I wasn’t alone. But maybe I did internalize some fiction advice he gave during the class, letting it seep into my brain.

Two years later, I felt an appropriate punch to the gut when I read that Crews had passed away. I wished I had read a few more of his books (I’ve only read one of Crews’ novels, Scar Lover), wished I had given him that book to sign for my grandfather.

While one is impossible now, another I can rectify easily.

Comic contest cavalcade

I was gonna do it. I wasn’t gonna do it.

Late last summer, I read about a talent search the comic book company Top Cow was running. What interested me was they were accepting entries from unpublished writers as well as artists. So I uploaded the rules. Seemed OK. All I had to do was choose from a plethora of characters from the Top Cow universe.

I eventually decided on the futuristic world of the green-haired assassin Aphrodite IX. I picked up several issues featuring the character. I came up with a couple of possible story ideas.

Then I got cold feet.

I closed the comic script file and dillydallied on other writing projects. All the while, I’d get some idea spark, jot it down in the file, then forget about it.

This went on for several months. I eventually resigned to the fact I wasn’t going to enter the contest.

But the character kept nagging at me to write a story. All right, I told myself. I’ll give it a try.

Four days before the deadline in March, I fired up the laptop and got to typing. I came up with a quick outline for the story, typed Page One, Panel One, gulped, and dove right into the tale.

It was done within a couple of days. I read through it to make sure it didn’t have any glaring plot holes, then nervously sent it off to contest land.

Sadly, I did not win. Otherwise, I would have written a blog post that simply read, “OH MY GOD I WON THE CONTEST!1!!1!” It would have been cool to have my name printed on the cover of a comic book saying that I wrote this story, but alas, it wasn’t my time.

Am I burning with rage that I didn’t win? Absolutely not. I’ve got more than 30 rejections from my short story submissions. This is part of the process. I have to tell myself the story wasn’t right for the editors at that particular time. Otherwise, it’ll eat you alive and you may not get back to writing, which is what I should be doing anyway. Trying to get better.

And hey, I entered the contest, so that’s half the battle. The other half: I finished a comic book script.

Should Top Cow do another talent contest, I may give it another shot. Unless I get published elsewhere before that time. Which could happen. Maybe.

The story itself, “Lessons Learned,” was born from Aphrodite IX: The Hidden Files. That comic sports a lengthy timeline of the Aphrodite project. I noticed there was a wide gap from the time the character is put in stasis to when she is awakened in the first issue. I thought, I wonder what one does while in stasis.

The answer is in the script, found below the fold.

Continue reading Comic contest cavalcade

Gotta get back in time

Growing up, I was fascinated with cars.

But not just any cars. These had to be the most sophisticated pieces of machinery ever assembled. Like a talking car that could jump over chasms and banter with David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider). Or robots that could turn into vehicles (The Transformers). Or vehicles that could make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs (the Millennium Falcon).

So in 1985 (or maybe it was a year or two later, the memory is fluctuating), I discovered a little movie called Back to the Future. I think our family had first watched the movie when it came out on VHS. Being 9-10 years old, a lot of the plot probably flew past my head, but I was intrigued by Doctor Emmett Brown’s time machine: a DeLorean.

It had gull-wing doors! It could travel through the space-time continuum by reaching 88 mph, thus activating the flux capacitor! It got cold whenever it got back from its time trip! It sounded like Luke’s landspeeder from Star Wars! It had a clicking sound like the turn signal from my parents’ car!

Anyway, I had found my new favorite cool car.

Jump ahead in time to 2004. At my job, I spent a few years writing about classic cars and their owners. One day, when looking at a list of potential cars to write about, I spotted a familiar name. DeLorean.

Could it be?

It was!

After all these years, I finally got to be next to a real DeLorean. This was heavy.

Jump ahead once more to 2009, when lightning struck the clock tower twice. Someone else had a DeLorean! I could dust off my cheesy Back to the Future references once more.

In honor of the movie’s 30th anniversary (30 years? it is a nice round number), after the time jump (ahem), you can read those articles from the recent past. Feel free to cue up some Huey Lewis and the News or Marvin Berry.

Continue reading Gotta get back in time

It’s melody time

I’ve babbled a lot about my love of books, comics, and writing, but I haven’t delved too much into my other big love: music. It’s about as important as writing. If I was forced onto a deserted island and was given access to a few things, I would have to have something from both disciplines.

The seeds were planted from the time I came into the world, thanks to my musical parents. My mom teaches elementary music, my dad was a high school band director. They had all kinds of music playing in the house from pop to rock to jazz to classical. Heck, I heard “St. Thomas” as a marching band arrangement before I heard the Sonny Rollins version and thought, “Where have I heard this before?”

In middle school, students had a choice: PE or band. Being the not-so-athletic type, I decided to go with band, but which instrument to choose? What happens next may astound you.

My dad suggested I play the drums.

No, that’s not an error. I know the cliché, kid wants to play the drums, parents try every way to dissuade them. But that didn’t happen. They WANTED me to play the drums. How could I refuse?

I started out on the snare drum, and eventually made my way to the drum set. I felt like the king of the world when I could play a simple rock beat.

This lead me to listening to music in a different light. Instead of soaking in the entire song, I found myself drawn to what the drummer was doing. One of the first groups I latched onto was Genesis, featuring the amazing drumming of Phil Collins (and Chester Thompson on the live albums). Thanks to Modern Drummer magazine, I soaked in as much information through all those profiles and columns.

In the 10th grade, I transferred to an arts school in Jacksonville, where I was amongst my people. I had one class period devoted to percussion. I was learning music theory. Soon I got the crazy idea of becoming a professional musician. I thought I could be one of those session drummers I read about in Modern Drummer. I joined all the school bands from marching to concert. I participated in solo and ensemble contests.

And then, one day in my junior or senior year back in my old high school, something clicked.

I didn’t want to be a professional musician anymore.

A while back, someone on the Internet showed a graph tracking the path one takes when learning a craft. I’m paraphrasing here, but you climb and fall and climb and fall, and then you hit a wall. If you scale over the wall and keep going, things will get a little better. Most people hit the wall and turn around.

At the time, I thought there was something wrong with me. I was supposed to be a drummer! I had found my calling! My destiny!

Part of me now thinks I hit a wall with my drumming, and I didn’t want to keep going. So I scaled back the serious-o-meter, making drumming more of a hobby.

Thankfully, I discovered another career path — writing. But I haven’t abandoned music completely. When I went to the University of Florida, I got to play in some of the bands, including one of the jazz bands. I played the drums in local churches. And when I get a spare moment, I put on the headphones and play along with Phil and Chester.

And on occasion, I’ve found a way to marry both of these loves through my day job. But there are times when I wonder what would have happened if I had stuck with music.

But I don’t dwell on it too much.

Saluting Satchmo

Through a strange set of circumstances and serendipity, I discovered that July 31-Aug. 3 is the Satchmo SummerFest in New Orleans’ French Quarter. This festival celebrates the genius of jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong through numerous live performances, seminars, and food.

Louis Armstrong banner at the 2002 Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans.
Louis Armstrong banner at the 2002 Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans. (photo by Michael Fortuna)

I had gone to the 2002 edition to write some stories for the Daily Sun (there is a big club in The Villages devoted to jazz, so I figured they’d get a kick out of it). Not only was this my first attempt at covering an event like this on deadline (writing and taking photos), but it was my first opportunity to fly in an airplane. I said quite a few prayers from Jacksonville to Atlanta to New Orleans (yeah, that flight plan didn’t make sense to me either). Thankfully, all flights went off without a hitch.

I’ve been a fan of jazz for years, and the opportunity to go to the birthplace of the genre was too good to pass up. Throughout the three-day event, I heard some amazing local performers, tried some jambalaya, and walked around the French Quarter to soak in the atmosphere.

I came back with a few souvenirs: I bought Armstrong’s autobiography, as well as the massive anthology “Reading Jazz.” From the CD department, I picked up one of drummer Jason Marsalis’ albums. Drummers gotta represent.

Anywho, I had a great time. One of these days I need to go back.

Below the jump, you can read the three articles I wrote, as well as see some photos I took (please excuse the graininess; I took pictures of the pictures). I think the articles still hold up OK. Enjoy!

Continue reading Saluting Satchmo