Category Archives: Only Wild Plums

Will Write For Music

“I got the music in me.” The year before I was born, Buddy Holly died when his plane crashed in a field not far from my family’s home.

Born and raised in Mason City, Iowa—portrayed as River City in Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man”—I always took note of music. My great-grandfather was an amateur Irish fiddler who played at wakes and weddings, in parlors and barns.

My childhood household had an eclectic soundtrack: Peter, Paul & Mary; Simon & Garfunkel; Petula Clark; Gene Autry, the Chipmunks. We listened to records and the radio. We sang in the car, my mother on lead vocals for “This Old Man” and “On Top of Old Smokey” and “Kumbaya.”

I started buying records while in elementary school, but even earlier, I was a pop music fan. My family’s lore includes a tale about the time when a little older than a toddler, I asked to stay in the car so I could listen to the end of “Georgie Girl” on the radio. My mother agreed, but warned me not to touch anything. Evidently, I put the car into gear, and my mom’s car rolled down our steep driveway, toward the street. Fortunately, my big brother Danny had left his big metal truck out, and the toy truck stopped the car from crashing into the street.

Each summer, Band Festival Day celebrated my small town’s big connection to the Music Man with parades of marching bands. The Presentation Sisters at my grade school emphasized musical education, too. They allowed us to sing songs of the times from Jesus Christ Superstar or John Denver. They taught us a long list of songs celebrating our Irish heritage. I sang in school choir and a small choir that sang at funerals in our parish. But even then, I felt more comfortable in the audience than performing on stage or from a choir loft in our church.

I never had music lessons and learned only the basics of reading music. I was a fan, and something of a fanatic, but I was on the receiving end of the musical spectrum. As a teenager, I started attending concerts. One of my first concert venues was the Surf Ballroom, the Clear Lake, Iowa, venue Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson played the night of their deadly plane crash.

I instinctively loved the music scene as well as the live music. I loved some musicians, too. I invested in the best stereo equipment I could afford, and played my music relentlessly. Just ask any of my college roommates.

My adulthood moved from vinyl records to 8-track tapes to cassettes to Walkmans to CDs to iPods to iTunes. I’ve kept music close along the way. Now a middle-aged adult, I find myself writing regularly about music. A longtime freelancer for newspapers and magazines, I’ve interviewed a number of musicians, published a number of features on musical festivals; in addition to several multiple choice musical quizzes.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band quiz

70s Rock quiz

The Eagles rock quiz

Sweet Strains of Outdoor Music Fests

Jackson Browne Red Rocks Date

As a member of The Denver Post’s heyreverb.com staff, I’ve covered dozens of concerts ranging from Jackson Browne to Maroon 5 to Denver Brass to Train to The Fray to Los Lobos to Trace Adkins to Sheryl Crow to Carrie Underwood.

• Here’s a link to my concert reviews on heyreverb.com

Reporting on rock and other genres is a sweet note. Some of the happiest times of my life have been at concerts where music transported me above and beyond the cares of my everyday life and into another realm of harmony and good vibrations, dancing or singing or just listening my cares away. I’ve always respected musicians as magicians, of sort, with instruments as their magical wands. Music continues to sustain me. As I’ve grown older, and as I’ve reported on music, I’ve learned a lot more about different genres: Classical, reggae, roots rock, Blues, and more. I still obsess about songs, playing tracks over and over until somehow I’ve absorbed every note, every lick, every lyric.

One of my goals in life was to learn to play the piano, but at this stage, I’m willing to admit it’s a goal I may never accomplish. I’ll settle, though, for playing out my musical interests on my computer keyboard: Will write for music.

Colleen Smith’s gift book “Laid-Back Skier” celebrates alpine skiing and life.

Colleen Smith’s first novel, “Glass Halo”— a finalist for the 2010 Santa Fe Literary Prize — is available in hardcover or e-book.

To learn more:

• FridayJonesPublishing.com

• GlassHaloNovel.com

• Become a friend on Facebook, or follow FridayPublisher on Twitter.

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Novelists now expected to write two books per year—and then some.

Publishers now expect novelists to churn out not one novel per year, but two. And in between, some digital short stories or other ditties to keep the audience’s appetites whetted.

Last Sunday, the cover of The New York Times quoted best-selling author Lisa Cottoline: “…today the culture is a great big hungry maw, and you have to feed it.” The article’s headline: “In E-Book Era, Rule for Writers is Type Faster!”

Faster is the coin of the digital realm, yet writers ought to be judged more for quality than quantity, at least in my book. Words should be weighed, not measured, I read somewhere along the line.

Yet every writer and journalist I know is doing more in the digital age. The Internet keeps us connected, wired, and frantic. We’re not only making deadline, we’re blogging, Tweeting, Pinning. We’re chatting live and Linked In. We’re Google Plus and then some.

The culture moves fast. Furiously. As the Times article pointed out, “Television shows are rushed online only hours after they are originally broadcast, and some movies are offered on demand at home before they have left theaters. In this environment, publishers say producing one book a year and nothing else, is just not enough.”

My old process clearly will not work. I labored over my first novel, “Glass Halo,” for about 27 years. I’m finishing my second novel, “Only Wild Plums,” after beginning it in 1983, or thereabouts.

Could I write two novels in a year? I like to think I could do it now that I’ve written two novels and a gift book: “Laid-Back Skier.” I give myself the benefit of the doubt, but only if I did not also have my magazine and newspaper articles, my Examiner.com page, my art direction jobs, my ghostwriting and copywriting and assorted other writer duties.

Two books per year every year? I’m an idea junkie, but that sounds like a lot of material, even for a gear head like myself.

And the novelists are not off the hook from other writing. Publishers expect them to do more than ever. “Everybody’s doing a little more. It seems like we’re all running faster to stay in the same place,” said British thriller writer Lee Child, published by Delacorte Press, a branch of Random House.

“I almost feel sorry for authors these days with how much publishers are asking of them,” said Jennifer Enderlin, associate publisher of St. Martin’s Press.

The Times article by Julie Bosman also mentioned one of my favorite writers: J.D. Salinger. I’ve long admired Salinger’s literary and personal style as an off-stage writer.  His sort won’t do in the digital age:  “Publishers also believe that Salinger-like reclusiveness, which once created an aura of intrigue around an author, is not a viable option in the age of interconnectivity,” Bosman reported.

The publisher of HarperCollins’ William Morrow, Avon, and Voyager imprints, Liate Stehrow said, “Now it seems to make more sense to have your author out in the media consciousness as much as you can.”

As for my part, I post regularly on Friday Jones Publishing’s Facebook page. I Tweet. I maintain a number of Pinterest boards. I blog, as evidenced here. I publish regularly on my Examiner.com page. And I do my best to keep all the other plates spinning, too, as a novelist, author, journalist, copywriter, and any other job that crosses my desk.

It’s never been easy eeking out a living as a freelance writer, but I think it’s now harder than ever.

Excuse, me, I’ve got to get back to work now.

Wag your tale. Doubletime.

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Titanic: Saga of hubris floats the boat of many artists

Like many writers, the tragic history of Titanic’s sinking made waves on my imagination.

I first learned about Titanic as a child in elementary school. I remember the story sparking something in my young mind.

In later years, when I learned the meaning of the word “hubris,” Titanic resurfaced in my mind as a clear tale of deadly pride: The proclamation that Titanic was unsinkable seemed to me as deadly as the iceberg that brought the ship down in the cold North Atlantic.

Last weekend’s commemoration of the centennial of Titanic’s sinking inspired a host of creative endeavors ranging from performances of music played on Titanic to readings from “A Night To Remember” by Walter Lord to screenings of Titanic films.

The ship’s maiden voyage forever leaves in her wake a shared grieving.

In the mid-90s, I watched an IMAX film about discovering Titanic, and the documentary struck me again, inspiring a scene in my forthcoming novel. In this scene, Dugan Larkin and his girlfriend are on a date as they watch the film.

An excerpt from Only Wild Plums: Chapter Seven: “The Smell of Icebergs” follows:

“We retreated to the air-conditioned darkness of the IMAX Theater to watch a documentary about Titanic. As the opening frames rolled, I leaned over and whispered, “Titanic was a ship, by the way, not a boat.”

“Shh,” she said.

I leaned forward in my seat as I listened to the narrator. I learned that just before the invisible, mountainous remnant of a glacier on the starboard bow sliced Titanic in two, the night watchman in the crow’s nest that moonless night smelled icebergs.

I held Cam’s hand and my breath, watching the deep-sea footage of all that uncorked, vintage champagne leftover from that celebrated maiden voyage. Far below the daggered surface of the cold North Atlantic, the ship’s china remained unbroken, place settings strewn randomly on the sandy ocean floor. Partying passengers dropped ice chips from the blue berg into their cocktails served on the deck that night before she went down.

In the documentary, an elderly woman interviewed in an old stone church in England related the tale of boarding Titanic with her parents; her small, black dog, and her large, brown teddy bear. The film included vintage black and white photographs of the privileged girl and her prosperous parents, including several in which the family dog stared at the lens, eyes large with expectation.

In the end of the chapter, Dugan decides to sail beyond his fears about commitment to marriage and children. As he winds down his narration, he feels not entirely safe, yet willing to proceed into the unknown; and his last line is, “I smell no icebergs.”

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