A book by its cover

“I have something to share with you,” cries every book cover, album cover, website, blog post. “Check this out, I think it’s pretty cool.”

What draws us to pick it up may be a pretty picture, a name, a curious title, or caprice. What keeps us reading or listening or watching is … quality? the same caprice? the promise of the cover fulfilled?

The cover generates expectation. The interior must deliver, or the sampler won’t be back for many a day.

How to deliver? Have fun. Don’t think. Be silly sometimes. Do what you said you would do.

To a realistic and yet ambitious November

November is National Novel Writing Month, and traditionally folks use the month to challenge themselves to write a 50,000-word novel. But there’s more than one way to celebrate the month.

I launched into the challenge in November 2019 and sailed along for about a week before the train derailed. It was glorious for a while — composing 1,667 words a day was a snap. Before Nov. 1 I’d completed the first chapter of a novel, and over those first few days I added more than 11,000 words and five chapters. Next thing I knew, November was over and I had stopped writing the novel.

In the ensuing couple of years, I’ve learned a little more about how I write and why my brain does this to my stories. And for this November I have set somewhat more realistic goals and yet more ambitious goals than I have conjured in quite some time.

Not long ago I announced that I would release my now-long-awaited next novel, Jeep Thompson and the Lost Prince of Venus, on Nov. 26. Just like clockwork, once I made the announcement I stopped writing the novel. Some days I think I should find a nice therapist and talk about this.

Anyway, with Nov. 1, 2021, coming up Monday, I’m getting those goals set in my mind.

My first more realistic and yet more ambitious goal is to finish the first draft by Nov. 26. That would be about 20,000 words worth of story.

My second goal for the month is to make a plan to finish the other two novels that I have started and set aside in recent years, completing them in the first few months of 2022.

My third goal for the month is to set some realistic and yet ambitious goals for my writing during the rest of 2022.

My wish, my desire, my ambitious goal is to complete not just those three novels but three more before my 70th birthday, now a mere 18 months away, and to keep writing at that pace for as many days as remain. Actually, my wish and desire is to write much more swiftly than that and to have fun making so many books that I laugh at the idea I thought it was realistic to write only six novels in a year and a half.

Friday, I sketched out a first draft of a book-release plan for 2022. The first, second and fourth novels are the currently unfinished symphonies.

March 13 – Jeep Thompson and the Lost Prince of Venus
April – No Chance to Dream: A Comfort & Joy Mystery
May – Jeep Thompson and the Martian Alternative
July – The Girl, the Alien, and Me
September – Newly conceived novel, working title The First Travelers
November – Jeep Thompson and the World Jumpers

That schedule, and that pace, would give me time to release two or three more novels before that magic birthday in March 2023, so I have some wiggle room if I commit to only six novels. But my goal is to set an ambitious schedule and stick to it.

You may ask, if making announcements like this in the past has shifted my procrastination into overdrive, why am I announcing this? Hell, I don’t know. Another topic for that therapist.

The NaNoWriMo Lure

The heroine of his story looked over from her exile. “Now, boss? You want to hear the rest of the story now?”

“Pretty soon,” he promised. “Pretty soon.”

… or WAS it a promise? He’d been here before — trying to figure out his impulse to procrastinate, the fear of accomplishing the task, the certainty the story would not turn out as good as he wanted it to be. Why did he let that stop him every time?

When he was a child, the act of creation was the reward, the scribbles on paper telling stories or pulling songs of the ether was all he needed, and every so often something would really sing back to him. Even now a captured thought, a seized image, a turn of phrase would give him a private delight in the morning stillness. What was it that had turned the storytelling into a chore?

How could he turn the spigot back on once the flow of words has been closed for whatever reason for so long? The stories had come in spurts, then trickled, and finally dribbled into dryness. “Oh yeah, that’s normal,” the writing mentors insisted. “Just plow through.” “How?!” “Just do it.” “What?!?!”

He supposed it did make sense. If you give yourself no choice except to sit there motionless, you fill the page with anything until something emerges from the chaos. You become the infinite monkeys at typewriters and Hamlet is waiting in there to come out randomly. Is it as easy as that? Fill infinite pages and look back to find the accidental genius? It feels like that some days.

“Now, boss? Want to hear what comes next?”

He realized he could rescue his heroine faster by sitting down and putting words on the screen than by sitting on the couch watching this week’s game.

Did Eliot mean to write “The Waste Land” or was he tired of the blank page?

Keep doing your best

When I was at a newspaper slated for neutering and layoffs hung over us all, I told my colleagues, “Do the best you can for as long as you can until you’re told you can’t do it anymore.” Five years after the hangman came for me, I would add, “and after they tell you, keep on doing your best.”

If you still have the knack and the passion, being told you can’t is not an edict; it’s a challenge.

When I was laid off from my dream job reporting and editing, I took a little time to reassess, and I found myself reporting and editing again, this time because I wanted to and the community needed someone to. I continued for another four years, and I did the best I could until I couldn’t, and this time it was my decision. And there’s the point: It’s not someone else’s right to tell you to stop giving when you have more to give.

Create value. Everything you create has value, and the better your creation, the greater the value.

Listening: Wildflowers and All the Rest and more

There was a time when it looked like the vinyl long-playing record was dead and gone. And then one spring day in 1994, I found a store that was still selling LPs. New LPs! I don’t think I realized until that day that some vinyl was still being issued, albeit in limited editions because sales were way past their prime in those days when CDs and cassettes ruled.

I think I spent more than a hundred bucks that first time, and came back for more. And Tom Petty was in the middle of it all. Wildflowers and She’s The One, and one day I was enjoying Johnny Cash’s then-new and brilliant Unchained album and my mind boggled when I realized the Heartbreakers were integral players throughout.

In a few years, before vinyl staged its comeback and when collectors were paying incredible prices for early 1990s vinyl, I went on eBay and paid a lot of bills selling albums for two and three times what I’d spent just a few years earlier. In most cases I made backup recordings, so I didn’t lose the music completely. Wildflowers is one of the albums I play most often off the computer. Or it was.

Last week I picked up two albums with five vinyl disks between them: Wildflowers & All The Rest and Finding Wildflowers. The first is a remastered version of the original two-disk album, with a disk of 10 outtakes from those sessions. The second is a treasure trove of alternate takes of familiar songs, along with three more songs that didn’t make the final cut.

Lordy Lordy, Mr. Petty and his friends were in fine form during those years, which yielded not only Wildflowers but the soundtrack from She’s The One. From the gentle folk of the title track to rockers like “Honey Bee” and “You Wreck Me,” Wildflowers is/was 15 songs I could listen to over and over, and now all this other stuff.

It’s fun having access to alternate takes, seeing the creative process and the choices that went into the final versions. It had to have been hard to make some of those choices, although in most cases I can hear why the choices were made. Only one of the new songs — “You Saw Me Comin’” from Finding Wildflowers — struck me at first listen as definitely worthy of inclusion in the final product, but many of the others are pretty close.

I’m going to be putting these 10 sides on the turntable a lot in coming weeks, months and years.