Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Today's Inspiration #4

Today's Inspiration: earworms,  sleepless nights and swallows.  Vacillating from one of thought to another, to another then back to the first, over and over again, is infuriating.  It's like a series of commercials replaying on a loop in my brain.  That was my night last night.  Though I got less than an hour of total sleep, after getting the kids off to school this morning, I am still aroused by these nagging intrusions in my brain.

Christmas songs, damn Christmas songs.  You know how it is.  Minding your own business, shopping in the mall, or maybe driving in your car, it strikes!  I won't identify any one as a likely candidate since the phenomenon is idiosyncratic.  Some researchers call it a "brain itch" that has to be scratched over and over.  I blame a Facebook post by a friend about playing the songs for weeks already and the subsequent comments about playing the music - especially the lament by her husband.  Though it could equally be attributed to the kids practicing for upcoming concerts.  Regardless, all night, one of my earworms was a Christmas song - this time, one I had written - you wouldn't know it since I have never played it for anyone but my kids.  I have only myself to blame, you might say.

Of course that was only one third of my problem.  The second "itch" came from a scene I had just finished writing before trying to get to sleep.  After getting the kids to bed I usually try to get some writing done.  Last night was particularly productive and I completed an entire chapter before realizing it was about half past two and I had to get up at six to make breakfast and lunches.  Once in bed it started, however, reworking a scene in my mind, trying it from a different character's perspective, shifting the timeline - annoying to say the least.  Trying to put it out of my head, so that I could sleep only caused the thoughts to shift over to that Christmas song.  This led to the third and most annoying shift - thinking about yesterday's post and the bird reference contained therein.

If you read yesterday's post you would have seen the exerpt from Wikipedia of the translated original lyrics of Leontovych's Shchedryk or Carol of the Bells.  They bugged me then, and even more so as I was thinking about them in bed.  They begin with the line, "A little swallow flew" about a Winter meeting between a farmer and this swallow.  I could not reconcile the implausibility of this line - swallows wouldn't be around in the winter.  Swallows feed on flying insects while airborne - so when the insects are scarce, like in the cold wintery regions of the planet, they migrate to warmer, tropical climates.  Why would Leontovych use this reference in his song then - a summer bird, an image of hope, to contrast with the winter theme, perhaps.  Or maybe he just liked swallows.  I wondered about what time of year it was when he wrote the lyrics - perhaps that influenced his choice of bird.  Or he may have simply lifted the image from a folk song he had learned in his childhood.  The possibilities are endless - enough to keep me awake at night.

I think that tonight I will try to trick my brain by forcing an earworm on it.  ELO wrote the song "Can't get it out of my head".  I always found that Jeff Lynne's vocals, and the strings and Ahhs in the background combine to sound lullabyish (well at least to me it sounds like a lullaby).  So perhaps this earworm will help to induce rather than prevent sleep.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Today's Inspiration #3

Today's inspiration: Carol of the Bells, the English version of the Ukrainian song Shchedryk written by Mykola Leontovych is one of the familiar tunes that we associate with the holiday season.  Consistent with a lack of appreciation many of us feel for the familiar, I never felt compelled to research its origin and history.

I was inspired to do just that last night.  My children (13 and 15 years old) were given an arrangement of this song a couple of weeks ago by their piano teacher to perform as a duet (arrangement by Melody Bober).  As most parents with musical children know, the first couple weeks with a new piece is often excruciatingly painful to the ears.  I took care of that last year by giving my children in-ear headphones, which they dutifully plug into the electric piano during their practice sessions (a mixed blessing, as I miss out on some of their developmental achievements, but I can live with that!)  After practicing for about 10 days individually, last night they attempted to work it out together.  While it was not perfect, as expected, I was surprised to find that some parts were so beautiful that tears came to my eyes - parental pride can't be discounted of course.  Surprisingly emotional reactions are often the most quickly encoded into memory, and the most likely to cause knee jerk reactions like impulse buying - something composers inwardly desire while outwardly stating that they did it simply for the pleasure it gives to others.

In my own work, I would love to create something that evokes such a strong emotional connection with others.  I remember last summer when my son was reading "Bees to Benny" (my first book) and I could hear him laughing from the other room as he reached a scene which he later wrote in a note to me "was so funny!" (The scene was set in the Liebe's kitchen as the family learned that Jacob had just been inside the home of their elusive neighbours, who had lived across the street for fourteen years, though no one had met or even seen them enter or leave their house.)

My knee jerk reaction, upon hearing the kids last night, was to learn more about the composer and the song that I had taken for granted.  Leontovych did not get rich from this song - if fact it didn't even become popular until it was Americanized after his death, complete with English words about Christmas that did not relate in any way to the initial text of the song.  Shchedryk was about a bird telling a farmer that Winter is temporary and will pass, bringing a bountiful new year for him and his family (very rough translation.)  Here is Wikipedia's translation of some of the lyrics:

A little swallow flew [into the household]
and started to twitter,
to summon the master:
"Come out, come out, O master [of the household],
look at the sheep pen,
there the ewes are nestling
and the lambkin have been born
Your goods [livestock] are great,
you will have a lot of money, [by selling them]

if not money, then chaff: [from all the grain you will harvest]
you have a dark-eyebrowed [beautiful] wife."
Shchedryk, shchedryk, a shchedrivka,
A little swallow flew.

Apparently, the song was written for an assignment in a course he was taking on harmony.  Here is a version of the original song recently recorded by a Bulgarian choir.  Enjoy!


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Today's Inspiration #2

Today's inspiration:  Aesop's Fables were once required reading for scholars.  I went out for a walk earlier to work out a scene for my current writing project, and my mind drifted to thoughts of morals and common sense.  Upon returning home I looked up morals in wikipedia - this brought me to Aesop's fables.  I downloaded a free Kobo version of the fables and wasted a few hours reading.

It seems that a lot of the essence of common sense exists in these fables:  the tortoise and the hare, the ants and the grasshopper and there are hundreds more.   They have served as the inspiration for many books, plays, movies and songs.  For example, the fable "The Mountain in Labour" ends with the moral "Don't make much ado about nothing" - perhaps the inspiration for another famous work of that name written thousands of years later by Shakespeare?

If the written text seems too stale for you, you can always try the youtube versions: Rocky and Bullwinkle had a segment called Aesop and Son that was hilarious.  Here's a link to one of my favourites:


Inspiration fizzled out?  read (or watch) a few of these fables - one may be just the spark you need to reignite the flame of creativity.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Today's Inspiration #1

Readers of this blog may have noticed a running theme in the posts of the past few weeks.  Each piece details one or more of the sources that have inspired my writing over the past year.  I have mentioned my kids, my education and past life - the common things that pushes each of us toward some activity, not always a constructive one, unfortunately.  I have also mentioned music and literature.  These two sources of pleasure have the distinction of being both the products of, and the producers of inspiration.  Despite loving a variety of music forms and literary genres, I don't often find that they motivate me to be especially creative.  Once in a while they do, but not too often.

Life is a daily, unpredictable, chaotic assemblage of events.  And we are fickle creatures who tend toward boredom if we perceive that things are becoming a tad ordinary.  The unpredictable can challenge us, spook us or at the very least awaken us.  They are a source of learning, a medium for humour, a topic for water-cooler gossip and an excuse for mistakes and accidents.  In addition, they can be a daily dose of inspiration, motivating us to develop, to create and to build.  

In my creative pursuits I am in constant need of external sources of inspiration.  Life is always ready to deliver.  Unfortunately, I am not always receptive.  The emotional pendulum swings up and down for everyone, including me - sometimes it swings high, other times low.  Often I am too wrapped up in the moment to embrace the changes, and pay attention.  Nevertheless, I have found that a few minutes of reflection each day can help me to identify at least one thing that occurred within the past 24 hours to give me a little thrill.  It's surprising how these little pick-me-ups accumulate.  I don't think that I would have been able to write four novels and over a dozen songs this year without them.  

Every couple of days, I will post one of these inspirational moments.  I encourage you to reply with a moment in your last 24 hours that surprised you, challenged you, reminded you of something important to your life, or in some way inspired you to do something creative.  

So here's today's inspiration:  reading the obit of Lynn Margulis in today's NY Times reminded me of the many scientists whose work touched my worldview.  Margulis struggled for years (and eventually succeeded) to persuade the scientific community of the importance of symbiosis as a major factor in the evolution of organisms.  These ideas can be found in Socialite books in the siloplast technology described initially in book 1, then developed in each of the subsequent books.

So tell me what inspired you today - something you read, saw, heard etc.  How did it affect you creatively?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Copyright and Marcel the Shell

Viral campaigns come and go.  Such is the nature of the internet.  Two of these that I found particularly interesting are the SOPA battle and Marcel the Shell.   One is serious, and heated, the other frivolous and fun.  These campaigns illustrate several features of the internet that contributed to the plot in the book series, Socialite 1.

SOPA opposition goes viral reads the headline in a recent Washington Post article about the use of social media, Facebook, Twitter etc. to motivate people around the world to pressure the US government to abandon its latest proposed internet piracy protection legislation.  I won't go into the nuts and bolts of the legal stuff, though here is a link explaining some of the particulars: How SOPA would affect you: FAQ.
Importantly, the legislation gives the US government a lot of power over the material that US citizens are allowed to access - resembling a movement toward the Chinese government's approach.  It's no wonder, then, that over a million people have sent emails to the US gov.

Getting a million people to support one cause is no small task.  There is no simple formula.  If there was I would use it to get a million sales of my books (as would every other self-published author!)  Few campaigns, including SOPA, are so clear cut that a large number of people agree that they're good or bad.    Regarding censorship, most people can be offended by certain types of content, and prefer such content to be regulated, before it reaches them and their children's email, or favourite websites.  That requires censorship.  As well, protecting the copyright of content creators necessitates, in many cases, government and legal intervention.

Then there are the websites that seem so frivolous that no one would think of applying restrictions to them.  Take the popular Marcel the Shell youtube videos.  The first one MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON - YouTube has over 13 million views.  The second in this series MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON, TWO, released last week, already has 2.5 million views.  That's a huge audience!  The videos portray a talking snail, making short, cute comments about his life.  For example, "guess why I smile a lot; uh, cause it's worth it."

In China, however, where the internet is strictly regulated, creative, funny or seemingly innocuous content  is used to mask the true message - one that would not be allowed to be viewed by people in that country.
This recent article in the NY Times illustrates the methods that some people are using in China to spread their blacklisted messages: Political Outsiders Turn to Microblog Campaigns in China - NYTimes ....  While advocates of SOPA insist that the legislation is not designed to block free speech, its detractors assert that the bill is so broad that it could be used to block almost anything.    As the China example illustrates, however, people will probably find creative ways to get around the legislation, no matter how broad it is.   It just takes one clever person to find a clever trick that goes viral, and suddenly millions of people are doing the same thing.  You can't legislate that!

In Socialite 1, the idea of internet control is explored from a variety of perspectives.  In the story, "Socialite" is the internet.  Its creator, Ray Amis, uses it to find the perfect mate for his daughter and to protect his anonymity.  He maintains control over Socialite, as evidenced in Book 1: Jacob is given the awful nickname GYB by his friends, but that name is blocked from appearing in cellphone texts, or on the internet - so the people in Jacob's life quickly stop using the name.  The message is, if it doesn't exist on the net, it doesn't exist at all.  Later in the series the issues of censorship are developed further as the evangelist Benny attempts to control online content, initially by destroying Socialite video servers that hold a copy of a video created by the main characters during one of their fun comedy nights (called "novelty nights" in the books).

The side effect of censorship, the enhancement of creativity, is also explored in the series.  In Book 4, the development of the novel is discussed as a result of the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737.  This legislation resulted in books like Tom Jones, as many writers avoided censorship in theatre by switching their platform of expression.   It will be interesting to see how creativity is affected as the internet matures and new measures are enacted in the cat-and-mouse game of piracy versus copyright protection.

I look forward to your comments on these issues.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Books and Music in Socialite series

Hi everyone.  Readers of my books have probably noticed that I reference a variety of literary and musical genres in the text.  I have many reasons for doing this, but mostly it's because I love finding these gems in the books that I read.  When I find one I will research it to learn more about how it adds to the themes developed in the story.   Some of the references that I use are overt.  For example, the second seduction tool that Elle uses on Jacob, in Book 1, is poetry: she recites one of my favourite poems by E. E. Cummings - "i carry your heart with me".   Other references are more personal and obscure.  For example, after Elle uses her first seduction tool, sympathy, on Jacob, by wiping  the blood from his face, Jacob walks back to school thinking about a lyric from a Vancouver folk song.  That song is a lesser known piece by the Vancouver rock group PRISM, better known for their hit "Spaceship Superstar."

Throughout the series I have carefully placed these references so that they seamlessly integrate with the story, are consistent with the personalities of the character that uses them, and so they will meaningfully contribute to the major themes being developed.  Some of the references are broader reaching than others, of course.  I won't give it away, but there is one major classical piece of fiction that is referenced over and over.  In fact, in the story, that book is the reason that Elle's ancestors decided to begin the preparations for her mission.

Many of the references are also an homage to some of my favourite authors and musicians.  Hemingway, Shakespeare (I hope readers enjoy the comedy skit written in iambic pentameter in Book 2) and many others are included in the author list.  Of course in Book 2, the Christmas Book, I had to include a reference to Charles Dickens.  In Book 1, Jacob compares the song he sings ("Wander Free" about his mother's separation anxiety, which always makes her cry when she hears it) to the Beatles.  He actually tells his audience that they shouldn't expect it to sound like the Beatles - who could, after all?  The Beatles are one of my all time favourites, so I had to reference them again in Book 4 when the teens discuss John Lennon's philosophy and his relationship with Yoko.

Philosophical references used in the books are less easy to tie down to an individual source.  Most of the evolutionary theory that is discussed is consistent with Darwin, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett - authors that I have read extensively during my graduate studies.  Readers may see some resemblance in the philosophy of the evangelist Benny to past and present evangelists, though Benny's ramblings are merely an amalgamation of the teachings of various religions and cults, and not meant to identify him with any specific group.  His true beliefs are meant to be obscure, right until the final chapter of Book 4 - which provides a useful point to develop in the next series Socialite 2, which I am currently working on.

Some of you may be surprised by the paucity of references to famous Science Fiction.  Part of this stemmed from my desire to have the scifi aspect of the novels emerge gradually for the reader, so the story seemed more realistic and plausible.  In book 4, I do give a shout out to Voltaire as the author of one of the first, if not the first, published scifi stories, Micromegas.

I look forward to hearing which authors and musicians that you came across in Socialite 1 count among your favourites.   Keep checking my Facebook page (www.facebook.com/socialitebooks) for updates and announcements related to the Socialite series.  And thanks for reading, sharing with your friends and reviewing the books!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Social Science Fiction

One of the hardest parts of releasing a book is constructing a short, accurate, and engaging description of the story to attract readers.  I think that this is a process that can be aided by the input of people who have read the story and offer their own summary.  For example, one of my brothers described Socialite as "Social Sci Fi" a very short, and accurate summary.  According to wikipedia, then, it occupies the same sub-genre as books by H.G. Wells, Heinlein, Asimov, and several Nobel Prize laureates (including one of my favourites, Jose Saramago whose fantasy "Death with Interruptions" is amazingly creative in form and content!)

In keeping with the sub-genre, the story is less about technology.  Though there are some otherworldly devices, most of the tech that is described skirt the edges of plausibility for a society like our own, if perhaps advanced by a decade or so.   Similarly it does not involve space opera, as events primarily unfold on Earth.  In addition, social commentary is developed within plausible events that might typically generate such commentary in our own lives.  For example, a truck loaded with bee hives that crashes on the highway permits the discussion of self-sacrifice and group needs versus individual needs.  So themes of altruism, stereotyping and the malleability of behaviour are explored without (hopefully) making any of the characters appear preachy - except in the case of Benny, the evangelist, of course.

The "social" theme stretches beyond the characterization of Socialite itself as the social network acting as the glue uniting diverse characters throughout the story.  Certainly Socialite does that:  Ray Amis created the network so he could analyze data about millions of families around the world to find a mate for his daughter.  The theme is also developed through the interdependence between the main and secondary characters.  For example, Jacob, the 15 year old main male character is portrayed as independent in many ways, though most of his main decisions are affected, if not directed, by the behaviour of the other characters, especially his friends and later Elle, the 14 year old main female character.  Book 1 of the series is primarily the exploration of that theme within the context of Elle, finally interacting with humans after 14 years in seclusion, playing a game of seduction on Jacob and Ryan (Jacob's nemesis at school).

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Back to writing, finally!

A few weeks of programming epubs for the iBookstore and .mobi files for the Kindle store were distracting, and felt very non-productive.  Even more distracting was the last week, waiting for sales of my books listed at Amazon.  I've read the warnings of bloggers and self-publishing pundits.  Nevertheless, once you put a book (or four in my case) out there, you can't help but have expectations.

Today was a day of inspiration, however, that pulled me out of self-doubt and back into full, excited writing mode.  I'm working on a new series.  I decided to put Socialite to bed for a few months.  I have enough notes so that when I decide to write Socialite 2, it will flow really quickly.  But instead of working on that right now I wanted to get this nagging second series out of my head and into pages (mac users will understand).  I actually was going to write this murder mystery series first.  Then last February, the whole plot of the sixteen book Socialite series just presented itself in my mind and I started writing.  The songs for that book came really quickly as well, so I knew that I had to complete Socialite 1 before I could work on this second project.

Finished two chapters today and have the first third of the book mapped out in a spreadsheet (Numbers, not Excel, of course).  I'll write another post soon to update everyone on my progress.