Mannheim Steamroller

Back on December 5, my wife and I had the opportunity to see Mannheim Steamroller in concert at the Pan American Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico. This was a special treat for me since I’ve been a big fan of this group of musicians since I first heard them way back in 1974. It was also a special treat because my youngest daughter was part of the choir selected to greet concert goers on their way into the show.

Now, I should note that I didn’t originally discover the Mannheim Steamroller musicians AS Mannheim Steamroller. Like many people I first heard them playing as the backup band for a country artist named C.W. McCall, whose hits at the time included such songs as “Convoy” and “Wolf Creek Pass.” C.W. McCall, in turn, was the nom de guerre of ad man Bill Fries. I’m still a fan of C.W. McCall, and in fact the space pirate story I posted this week at my Patreon site is inspired by “Convoy.”

I learned about Mannheim Steamroller as a separate entity from C.W. McCall when I went to college in 1984. My dorm’s RA was a fan of both groups and introduced me to their four albums at that point, the original Fresh Aire albums. A Mannheim Steamroller Christmas came out that very year and really defined the band for many people. For me, Mannheim Steamroller’s instrumental mix of renaissance, classical, jazz, and modern instruments was great music to study by and it’s still among my favorite music to write to. They currently seem to refer to themselves as a neo-classical group and the classification fits pretty well.

One of the first things I noticed when I got the program was that there are two touring groups for Mannheim Steamroller, nicknamed the Red and Green groups. This seemed quite fitting for a concert in New Mexico. The group that played for us was the “Green” Tour group. Most of their names were unfamiliar and when they came out, I realized that many of the people on stage were too young to have been playing since 1974. I came to realize that Mannheim Steamroller is now more like a classical ensemble with players who change out with time and less like a rock or a country band where you see a set of specific personalities.

The one personality who seems indelibly connected with Mannheim Steamroller is composer and one-time drummer Chip Davis. I gather he no longer tours with the group, but they showed videos during the concert where Davis spoke. They were interesting from a marketing standpoint. In one of the videos, Davis spoke about the band’s history and success, including clips from various television shows. Another was a direct appeal to visit the merchandise booth. The videos combined with the band’s performance brought to mind some great points about artists marketing themselves.

  1. First and foremost, create something your passionate about.
  2. Collaborate with experts in the craft to make your art shine.
  3. Tout your successes.
  4. Remind people to support your art through purchases.

Point one, should be pretty obvious. For a writer, point two can be as simple as working with a good editor or a good cover artist to breathe life into your work. It can also take other forms like working with a narrator on an audio book, or a team on a short film. Numbers three and four require some balance. To be honest, I was almost turned off by the video of the successes, but I came back around because the group in concert showed me what wonderful music they perform. That’s why the order of the list is actually important. You have to do as well as you can with steps one and two before you move on to steps three and four. What’s more, you need to remember that the art itself takes precedence.

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Art on Your Own Terms

In addition to Dexter Dogwood’s Fables from Elsewhere, which I wrote about on Saturday, Paul McComas sent me the fifteenth anniversary edition of his novel Unplugged. I have to admit, I looked at it with some skepticism. It’s the tale of a rock star named Dayna Clay who survived childhood sexual abuse and suffers from depression. On the last night of a big tour, she disappears off stage to go home and attempt suicide by asphyxiating herself with carbon monoxide fumes in her garage. Fortunately, a squirrel falls from the rafters and she feels she can’t take another life with her, even a small one, so she moves herself and the squirrel to safety.

After the suicide attempt, she gets in the car and retreats out west to the Badlands of South Dakota. Once there, she goes on a personal quest to discover who she is and whether or not she can continue with her music career. On the surface, it seems a lot more introspective and possibly even sad book than I would go in for. I will admit that I’ve had low points in my life and have even heard that frightening siren call from the back of my brain that made me think about suicide. Fortunately, between my amazing family and my own stubborn self-preservation instinct, I never got all that close to the brink, but I’ve glimpsed enough to know how scary it is and hesitated getting closer, even in fictional form. Despite that, I found myself captivated with Dayna’s story and how she becomes enchanted by the Badlands and the people she meets along her journey. Even though the novel opens with Dayna in a dark place, the novel proves hopeful and even fun at times as Dayna finds help for her depression and rebuilds her life.

One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was Dayna’s early decision that if she was going to return to the music world, she would return on her own terms. Dayna has a demanding agent, a full public appearance schedule, and pressure to get into the studio to record more songs. Dayna’s story actually parallels a lot of writers I know, who have numerous publishing obligations and travel to science fiction and comic conventions every available weekend. There are intense pressures to move the books already published and produce more books at a steady rate. In fact, I know some writers, editors, and agents who will insist that this kind of intense schedule is the only viable career path available. Anyone not on this path is a failure as a writer and should quit wasting their time.

I’m sorry. I just don’t accept that. All it takes to be a musician is to make music. All it takes to be a writer is to write. All it takes to be a painter is to paint. All it takes for something to be a career is that money from the occupation must flow to the person doing the job in some sustainable way. How an artist makes that happen is between the artist and those paying for the art. For any occupation to be sustainable, the person occupied must feel satisfied with their life as a whole. For me, right now, satisfaction with life includes spending time contributing to astronomy through my work at Kitt Peak, spending time with family, in addition to writing. I choose writing jobs and projects that both give me satisfaction and allow me to do the other things that give me satisfaction.

I’m glad I joined Dayna on her journey to the South Dakota Badlands and visiting the real Badlands is now something I must do. You can find the novel at: https://www.amazon.com/Unplugged-Anniversary-Novel-Paul-McComas/dp/1564746046. As I’ve mentioned, this is a novel about a musician. It turns out that Paul McComas has collaborated with Maya Kuper to create an album of Dayna’s music and it’s a pretty amazing listen. It’s also a great example of what can happen when you do art on your own terms. It frees you to explore and I was delighted to hear Dayna’s songs come to life. “Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Karma Bomb” will likely get frequent play from me, but all of the songs are great. You can listen and buy at: https://daynaclay.bandcamp.com/

Proceeds from both the novel and album go to benefit two causes. One is the Kennedy Forum, which works to improve the way mental health and addiction issues are treated in this country. You can learn more at kennedyforum.org. The other cause is the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network which runs the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. In addition to these two great causes, I want to share the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in case anyone reading this needs it: 1-800-273-8255

What’s Opera, Harlock?

Like many Americans of my age, my education in opera came from the wonderful 1957 Bugs Bunny short, “What’s Opera, Doc?” In the short, Bugs and Elmer Fudd satirize pieces from Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen among other operas.

It turns out, Bugs and Elmer aren’t the only characters from animation to take on Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In 1999, Leiji Matsumoto made an adaptation of Das Rheingold featuring Captain Harlock and the crew of the Arcadia called Harlock Saga. In this case, they don’t sing, but act out a loose, science fictional adaptation of the opera. I gather Matsumoto took the idea further in print and there are manga adaptations of Die Walküre and Siegfried as well as Der Rheingold.

In a way, bringing a character like Harlock into an opera closes a loop of sorts. Of course, Captain Harlock is a classic “space opera” character. So, what does “space opera” have to do with plain ol’ opera? To answer that, one has to go back to the original genre opera—the “horse opera.” The term “horse opera” goes all the way back to wild west shows of the nineteenth century. In that case, there’s a good chance that the term was a reference to the big spectacle that those shows represented.

By the time we get to the early twentieth century, the term “horse opera” began to be applied to movies we’d just call Westerns today. In fact, early Western star William Hart was called “the Caruso of the horse opera” in 1917. The term then migrated to western stories broadcast on the radio. When romance stories started on the radio, many sponsored by soap companies, they picked up the moniker “soap opera.” The term “space opera” started being applied to science fiction stories soon after that.

Today, when we speak of space opera, we tend to think of science fiction stories told on a grand scale, featuring larger-than-life characters, engaging in epic quests. In that sense, space opera is much the same kind of spectacle as, well, opera.

Lest one speak poorly of cartoons, I’ll note that “What’s Opera, Doc” and Harlock Saga have inspired my wife and I to finally watch Der Ring des Niberlungen. It’s definitely big and epic like a space opera. It’s also got its share of illicit romance, not unlike a soap opera. Of course, there’s the great music. Hours and hours of it. Der Ring des Niberlungen runs to some fifteen hours.

While I’m on the subject of space opera, today marks the relaunch of my space opera saga, now christened “The Space Pirates’ Legacy.” Click on the button below to visit my Patreon page and see the awesome cover Laura Givens created for the first book in the series, Firebrandt’s Legacy. If you become a Patron (and you can do so for just $1 a month), you’ll be able to read the book’s first story today. It first appeared in the collection Space Pirates, but I’ve given it a thorough edit to better line up with later stories in the book. My goal is that patrons will get to read at least one new story a month. If I get enough patrons, I’ll make sure they all get a copy of the complete book upon release. Click the button and get all the details right now.

Wrangling Sharks in the Wild West

This weekend, I’m at the Tucson Festival of Books on the University of Arizona campus. I’ll be on the Scientists Writing Science Fiction panel at 10am on Sunday morning in the Integrated Learning Center, room 151. I’ll be signing books afterwards. Also, be sure to stop by the Massoglia Books booth, number 446 to find out when I’ll be signing there.

I spent last weekend at Wild Wild West Con at Old Tucson Studios, which is always a treat. Old Tucson Studios is where many classic Western films from 3:10 to Yuma and Rio Bravo to Tombstone and The Quick and the Dead were made. Walking through the studios is like walking back in history in more ways than one.

I had to work the Thursday night before the convention, so I got a short nap and then drove down. Bill and Deb Ball The only thing scheduled was a reading, which happened during the heat of the afternoon outside when there was little traffic. A few people dropped by and sat down in seats I set up in the shade and listened for a while, but I think if I propose a similar event for next year, I’ll suggest we do this as an indoor event. Meanwhile, my wife and daughter set up our artist table in the dealer’s room, which I shared with authors David Drake and Sparky McTrowell, who provided one of my cover quotes for The Brazen Shark. As it turns out, Bob Vardeman, the other author who provided a cover quote, was also there, though he didn’t participate in panels. He just decided to hang out and have fun. Another treat was that my co-worker from Kitt Peak, Bill Ball, was around on Friday along with his wife Deb. That’s them on the left.

Friday night, my wife, daughter, and I went to a concert by the Dry River Yacht Club and Steam Powered Giraffe. Rabbit Both were excellent performances and really helped me get into the spirit of the event. Unfortunately, when we got back to the house where we were staying, I discovered my wife had left the garment bag at home with almost everything I planned to wear! Luckily, my wife did bring all my hats, I had an extra waistcoat, and our friend had a washer and dryer, so I was able to change out my look a bit for Saturday and still wear clean clothes!

I was scheduled for two presentations on Saturday, but was drafted for a third. My first presentation was called “The Wild West: Real and Mythical,” but could have been renamed “How it Sucked to be Anything but Anglo in the Wild West.” We took a hard look at Native American, Latino, Irish, and the Chinese as they were treated. You may look at that list, and say “but the Irish are white,” but it was very eye-opening to see how they were denigrated and forced to conform to “society norms” much like the other groups. After that presentation, Diesel Jester invited me to be on a panel about researching steampunk, where we discussed various historical resources we’ve found useful. On the panel with me were Diesel, Justin Andrew Hoke, Cynthia Diamond, Rose Corcoran, and Sean Walter. For my last presentation of the day, I discussed astronomy around the world during the Victorian age. Part of the discussion actually involved what one would call “Victorian age” astronomy because different parts of the world developed different mathematical tools and concepts at different times. For example, the Arab world gave us many of the mathematical tools for astronomy back in the 11th and 12th centuries while some schools of thought in Asia viewed an infinite universe of free-floating objects long before the common era.

Not only did I go to presentations, but I did some shopping at the convention. Because, I suddenly found myself without much of my wardrobe, I bought a new shirt and a new hat. Also, going between presentations, I was lucky enough to catch several of the great presentations going on all around, including an outdoor concert by the extremely talented cellist and singer, Unwoman.

Unwoman

On the final day of the convention, I was scheduled for a panel on multicultural steampunk literature with the delightful Madame Askew. We had a great time recommending such books as The Peshawar Lancers by S.M. Stirling, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohammed, and Beyond the Rails by Jack Tyler. Again, Diesel Jester asked me to be on a steampunk writing panel I wasn’t scheduled for. I joined the same gang as the day before and we continued our discussion of the process of writing steampunk. I finished the day at El Charro, a wonderful Mexican Restaurant in downtown Tucson with many friends from the convention. In the photo below courtesy James Spring, I’m not only showing off my Clockwork Legion Books, but my new shirt and hat!

David-With-Books-Small

So, what does all this have to do with wrangling sharks? Well, this was the debut event for the third novel in my Clockwork Legion series, The Brazen Shark. I ended up selling out of all but two copies of the new novel. Fortunately, a fresh shipment was waiting for me when I returned to Las Cruces, so I have plenty of copies for the Tucson Festival of Books. If you missed both events, don’t despair, you can wrangle a shark of your own by visiting Amazon.com or BN.com.

Cowboy Bebop

A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing through the video section of a local store when I came across a recent release of the TV series Cowboy Bebop. Although I’ve been an anime fan since I first saw Gigantor in the early 1970s, I managed to miss Cowboy Bebop’s debut on the Cartoon Network circa 2001. Cowboy Bebop Disc That was right after my wife and I decided that we weren’t getting enough out of cable to keep paying an exorbitant bill every month. I’d seen two or three episodes over the years at science fiction conventions and knew that I wanted to actually watch the series, so I picked it up.

If you’re like me and late to discovering Cowboy Bebop, it’s the story of two bounty hunters: a former cop named Jet Black and a former mob enforcer named Spike Spiegel, who travel through the solar system in a space ship called the Bebop looking for criminals to nab. As the series progresses, they’re joined by Faye Valentine, a bounty hunter with a mysterious past; Ein, a Welsh Corgi with a brain implant; and Radical Edward, a teenage girl who has mad computer skills. Unlike a lot of current anime, Cowboy Bebop has less of an overarching story and is more a series of self-contained episodes.

In this world Cowboys are Bounty Hunters, but space cowboy imagery runs through the series. Spike, Faye, and Jet all have their personal fighters, which are a little like their mechanical horses. There’s a sense of the solar system colonies on Mars and Jupiter’s moons requiring a kind of wild west frontier spirit to tame. Much of the look and feel of the show is reminiscent of Joss Whedon’s Firefly and if Whedon didn’t take some inspiration from Cowboy Bebop, then the similarities are a pretty big coincidence.

One of the great elements of Cowboy Bebop is a truly remarkable jazz soundtrack by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts. At points, the music slips away from the jazz and adopts a little lonely guitar to enhance the wild west feel.

Another thing that strikes me as especially well done is the characterization of Radical Edward. As the father of a bright teenage girl, she hits many of the right notes. Edward can be persuaded to be useful, but most of the time is more interested in sleeping, eating, or doing her own thing, which sometimes horrifies or confuses the adults around her.

The Pirates of Sufiro

My only real issue with the series is that it’s set in 2071, and though I would love to have many well populated colonies out in the solar system by then, I’m hard pressed to believe it will happen. Despite that, I love the look of the series and have long been attracted to the idea of stories about the rugged individuals who will go out and forge new lives among the stars, such as my novel The Pirates of Sufiro. In my story, space pirates are stranded on a distant world and must make a life there in a story that took some inspiration from my great grandparents who homesteaded in New Mexico and Texas. The link in the title will take you to the free PDF edition distributed by my publisher, which is my preferred edition.

Finally, I’ll wrap up today’s post with a brief update. At this point, we’ve decided that Tales of the Talisman will remain closed through 2016. However, Hadrosaur Productions will be reading for an anthology this year tentatively on the theme of Space Cowboys. Like the space cowboys of Cowboy Bebop and The Pirates of Sufiro, these are not necessarily literal cowboys, but people who embody the frontier spirit. Some may be quick with their blaster. Some may have to use their wits to survive in a harsh environment. Some may just be the people who are happy to be alone riding the range of space when no one else wants to. I hope to have guidelines posted at the Tales of the Talisman website by April, with the reading period this summer. Till next week…see you space cowboy.

Music-Evoked Imagery

This past week my editor handed The Brazen Shark off to the publisher for final formatting. This puts book three of the Clockwork Legion series one step closer to publication and I hope to have a release date soon. What’s more, I’ve seen a really cool cover concept from artist Laura Givens, so I’m hoping I’ll get to do a reveal soon.

In other posts, I’ve mentioned that when I write, I’m an outliner. However, I’ve noted that being an outliner doesn’t mean that I don’t find myself writing by the seat of my pants some times. A great example of how that works happened while writing The Brazen Shark. At one point, the outline had the wonderfully helpful phrase, “Fatemeh and Imagawa have a chance to discuss Imagawa’s future.” Fatemeh is one of the protagonists of the Clockwork Legion series. She’s a healer from Persia who immigrated to America where she met a Sheriff named Ramon Morales. The two married at the end of book two and book three tells the story of their honeymoon. Imagawa is a samurai warrior who stole a Russian airship as part of her conflict with Japan’s Meiji government.

By the time I reached that line in my outline it had become crystal clear that this scene was not a “discussion.” This scene was a confrontation that would resolve one of the novel’s central conflicts. The problem was, I had no idea how that conflict would play out until I heard this song, which was performed by Kokia for the end credits of a few episodes of the series Space Battleship Yamato 2199.

I was driving home from work when the song cycled around on my mp3 player and chills went up my arm. I “saw” the climactic scene form in almost synesthetic clarity. As soon as I got home, I sat down and wrote the scene. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how it actually plays out without giving spoilers. What I can say is that Fatemeh was pushed to an extreme I didn’t expect and Imagawa demonstrates what makes her the kind of villain you can’t help but respect. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about the scene when it’s released.

By the way, you can find a translation of the lyrics at the Sound of Harmony website. Those who listen closely may notice the word Hoshi, which means stars, but is also the name of the samurai character introduced in Lightning Wolves.

Denizens of Steam

Now, I can’t drop big hints about my forthcoming novel without giving you something for your trouble. Halloween weekend saw the release of the flash-fiction anthology Denizens of Steam which is completely free over on Smashwords. Just click the link to get a copy. My story in the antho jumps past The Brazen Shark and gives you a sneak peak at book four, Owl Riders. I can’t promise the scene in Denizens of Steam will appear unchanged in the upcoming novel, but it will give you an idea of what I have planned for Ramon and Fatemeh. What’s more, you’ll get splendiferous flash fiction from people like Bryce Raffle, Karen J. Carlisle, William J. Jackson, C.L. Zeitstruck, and Steve Moore. The anthology was created to commemorate the one year anniversary of The Scribbler’s Den group at The Steampunk Empire. It has been one of the most engaging writing discussion forums I’ve encountered on the web. If you’re interested in discussing steampunk writing, please come by and join us!

For those who have no idea who Ramon and Fatemeh are, you can grab Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves which are books one and two of the Clockwork Legion series while you’re over at Smashwords!

Owl Dance Events

My Wild West Steampunk Adventure novel Owl Dance is at the printer and publisher David Rozansky and I are planning some special events to mark its release. I’ll tell you about those in a moment, but first, I want to take a moment to share the complete wraparound cover.

Also, I want to share Richard Harland’s review of Owl Dance. Richard is the author of the wonderful steampunk novel Worldshaker. He says, “Owl Dance has everything. Airships, owl-ornithopters, a clockwork wolf, a multiple alien entity, a fast-shooting sheriff, a Russian plot to conquer America, and a very sexy, eco-aware, Bahá’í Persian healer-woman – I mean everything! Heaps of fun!”

Now for the events! On Friday, September 16, David Rozansky and I will be hosting an all-day on-line release party. Much of the fun will be on Twitter. If you have a Twitter account, be sure to follow @davidleesummers and @DavidRozansky. We’ll be chatting about the book, there will be giveaways, and I’ll be posting excerpts from Owl Dance here at the Web Journal. The Twitter party will run from 7am to 7pm Eastern Time. Use the hashtag #OwlDance to follow.

On September 17, there will be a special event at Enchanted Gardens, located at 270 Avenida de Mesilla in Las Cruces. I will read from Owl Dance and my friend Ysella Ayn Fulton will read from her novel Pomegranate. Both Ysella and I share a real affection for Las Cruces, its people, and the surrounding area. We hope to share some of the magic we see with you. Moreover, our kids will be helping us, providing music for the event. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll join us.

Whether you live in Las Cruces or not, you can be one of the first people in line to get the book. The book may be ordered at:
http://flyingpenpress.com/catalog/product_info.php?products_id=49.
The book is available at a special pre-order price of $9.95 until September 13.