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.

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

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!

Victorian-Inspired Fantasia

This past week, I’ve been focused on revising my novel The Brazen Shark based on notes sent to me by me editor. My goal has been to tighten the novel in places, show not tell in others, and generally work to make the prose paint the pictures I want it to paint. This novel makes a break from the wild west setting of Owl Dance and Lightning Wolves. I’ve been having a great time making a trans-Pacific airship voyage with Captain Cisneros, and having Samurai Imagawa Masako match wits with the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev. I even wander the streets of Meiji-era Tokyo with our heroes Ramon and Fatemeh.

OldPhotoKyobashi

There’s a definition of punk rock over at urbandictionary.com that essentially reads as follows: One fellow asks another, “What is punk?” The second fellow kicks over a garbage can and says, “That’s punk!” So the first fellow kicks over the garbage can and says, “So, that’s punk?” To which, the first guy responds, “No, that’s trendy.”

Moving the action in my series from the western U.S. to Asia is one way I kick down my own garbage can. Hopefully it helps to put a new layer of “punk” in my “wild west steampunk.”

With that in mind, I came across a discussion this week about the definition of steampunk. The problem is that steampunk often gets the off-handed definition of “Victorian science fiction.” Well, some steampunk certainly is Victorian science fiction. It’s also true that for many readers, “science fiction” encompasses anything even remotely fantastical from paranormal horror to stories of space travel to stories of crossing over to the realm of faerie. And, the thing is, I’ve seen steampunk stories that would encompass all of those.

Another problem with calling steampunk “Victorian science fiction” is that it doesn’t do justice to how broad steampunk is. It’s not just a literary genre, but a music genre, a visual arts genre, even a lifestyle. Thinking about it, the phrase that popped to my mind is “Victorian-Inspired Fantasia.” Paraphrasing Merriam-Webster, a fantasia is a work in which the creator’s fancy roves unrestricted.

What I like about this definition is that it seems to cover all of the steampunk I can think of. It covers the diverse musical styles that steampunk bands play. It covers science fiction set in the Victorian age. It covers post-apocalyptic stories where people have returned to Victorian technology. It covers creative costumers who might start with some Victorian clothing and modify it, taking it in new and unusual directions. The definition also takes into account the punk element, because when you rove unrestricted, you’re liable to kick down a garbage can or two.

Have you heard or do you have a definition of steampunk that you particularly like? If so, feel free speak up in the comments.