Thank you Rocketman!


For the past couple of years I’ve spent so much time feeling nothing that when I finally did, it meant something. I recently saw Rocketman, the biopic about Elton John. The film reconnected me to his music in ways I’d never experienced. My attraction to music has always been more about the sound, its harmonies and melodies, a to-die-for guitar riff, or a head-banging beat more than the content of its lyrics. That changed with Rocketman.

Essentially, the film is a Broadway musical captured on film. The scenes of his life are tethered to the poetry – words and music welded together – that infuse a non-reader of poetry with an appreciation of its power. I will never take lyrics for granted again. Of course, this paring of music and narrative have been done for a hundred years, but it took this movie to bring it home for me.

Rocketman, written by Lee Hall and directed by Dexter Fletcher, offered a road map as to how life’s experiences – in this case, those of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, were and are translated into lyrics and melodies. For example, my personal favorite, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, became so much clearer once you understand the point of view is mostly Bernie’s and displayed against the arc of Elton’s life. The emotional impact of Someone Saved My Life Tonight becomes an anthem to those moments that, in retrospect, are life altering.

I know I’m late to the game in terms of appreciating all this which is why I’m grateful for having seen the film. As writers, we are thankful for opportunities that offer inspiration and teach us new ways and means of expressing our own thoughts and ideas. I’ve never been adept at reading and understanding poetry, and certainly talent-less at writing it, but I found if I set my thoughts down as if destined for transformation into a piece of music, they flowed readily.

I just might have to torture my friends and family with my nascent attempts to try out this new (to me) art form.



Book Review: The Trees Beneath Us

The Trees Beneath Us

A man named Finn goes for a walk, a really…long…walk; a hike actually, along a fifteen-hundred mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. As stories go, one might think it a yawner of a novel, but in the superbly capable hands of a master storyteller like Darren R Leo, it becomes a journey, not just of time and distance, but one that reaches into the soul. Leo leads a sojourn to the headwaters of emotion and treats us to the purest form of contemplative reflection on life and joy and heartache.

Like the switchbacks of a trail into the mountains, the book juxtaposes life along the path with snippets of the one left behind; the serenity of the forests, the perfect backdrop to sort out the experience of a lifetime in consideration of the question: “what do you do when you’re done living before your life is over?”

Readers who have suffered forms of clinical depression and anxiety, will instantly relate to Finn. Readers fortunate enough not to have suffered forms of clinical depression and anxiety, will have the opportunity to experience that cloud of darkness, which is the great gift writing such as this offers.

It’s hard to imagine how this book has not risen to the top of an Oprah booklist, or missed landing on the shortlist for any number of prestigious book awards. It’s said the true success of a book can be measured by how long the story will stay with you after reading the last page. This one might alter your DNA.

Theme: To Choose or Not to Choose…

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Every writer is ultimately asked:

“What’s your book about?”

“Oh, it’s about this guy who kills a store clerk and then tries to hide from the police.” The recipient of this information will give a nod of the head and then ask:

“Yeah, but what’s your book about?” This is the point where the writer suddenly has no words. Why?

It all comes down to theme. It’s the difference between writing a book that has a lot of plot: bombs going off, people chasing other people, innumerable twists and turns, and reading a book that lasts in the mind of the reader beyond the ten minutes after the book is finished. If you look up any of the cheat sheets like SparkNotes, there is always a treatment about the theme of a book. Some are very broad, like it’s about the forces of good vs. evil. Note: most books are in some way. If one were to write the story I suggested above (I haven’t) one theme I might suggest is that the story concerns how superficial facts are often taken as gospel without looking to the root causes. The perpetrator’s guilt is assured by the public because they simply read the initial facts in the newspaper. It’s still very broad, but it now speaks to a dire societal tendency. Now the book will become an indictment on how the forces of criminal justice and public media operate. The resonance of the book will carry much farther because it’s about something other than how the character ducks the police or the vigilantes at every turn.

Some writers go in with certain themes in mind; others just get the story down on paper first. Either way works, and I’ve used both approaches. In some ways knowing your theme from the beginning is an advantage because you can bear it in mind as you write, and seize the opportunity in the moment to strengthen the ties to your theme. But, here’s the really cool part. If you just sat and wrote from page one to page three hundred with no thought as to what your story is about beyond its characters and plots, you will have subconsciously introduced theme or themes into your story. That’s why revision can be so much fun. Put the finished novel away for a month and then sit down quietly and read it from start to finish. Read it as a writer, and look for what surfaces. In one of my novels I did just that. I told the story of a boy who goes through several traumatic incidents as he tries to deal with his mother’s murder. On reflection, I realized that I had introduced themes of social injustice, racism, and bullying into it with no forethought at all. On revision (so many revisions, including rewriting the entire novel in third from first person) I underscored these issues and strengthened passages with backstory, dialogue, narrative, and plot. The story that emerged was so much better than the first draft, or even the second and third.

One piece of advice: the literary approach to writing dwells significantly on character and theme, but don’t worry about this. Just write. If you have a theme, great, if you don’t, then just get the whole thing down first. It’s my personal belief that it’s possible to achieve a balance between literary and mainstream novel writing. Dan Brown is often accused of writing plot boilers, but if you really look at his novels, he deals with some very substantial themes like the subjugation of women and overpopulation.

To borrow a familiar iconic quote: if you build it, they will come. In writing, if you write it, the theme will come.

Happy writing!

© Vectorchef | - Character Boy Write Letter Theme Elements Photo

© Vectorchef | – Character Boy Write Letter Theme Elements Photo

Writing: Give yourself permission…


…an odd piece of advice, to be sure. Why would you need permission to write? Because you won’t succeed unless you do.

At its very core, writing is a solitary function. Not so much once you’ve completed a novel; at that point you will be sharing your work with beta readers, editors, proofreaders, agents, and hopefully a publisher. It won’t be so solitary at that point. The project itself, however, is a relationship between only you and your keyboard or, for some, a notepad. The permission you need to give yourself is to take that time away from friends and family. It means saying okay to feeling guilty about doing something for yourself, and not to be so vigilant about doing laundry or vacuuming or getting the car washed. Be a little selfish about understanding that anyone can get the chores done because only you can do your writing. I’ll repeat that: only you can do your writing. The expression of art comes from within; it is unique to the individual. Often, it requires taking that permission one-step farther, and it’s one of the hardest. You must learn to say no: no to invitations, no to watching an extra episode of a TV show, and no to friends and family on occasion because you must be faithful to the process of getting words down on paper.

I have also encountered another form of permission I needed to give myself. Story ideas circle like mad in our minds. While they’re tucked away up there, they remain safe. You remain safe from people thinking you’re a little bit touched in the head (face it – we are). Writers become fearful about bleeding their stories onto the page, as it becomes the evidence of our madness. Give yourself permission to write them anyway. I had a dream when I was about ten years old. Two of the characters in my dream were girls from school, but in my imagination they had morphed into leprechaun-like creatures, hell, they were even dressed in green. They virtually kidnapped me and brought me into their world. I still wish I could remember what went on during that part of the dream, but I distinctly recall them bringing me back at dawn and leaving me in the sunlit hallway of my house. I was frantic they were going to go away, because I wanted to go back. I woke up angry about losing my grip on the dream. I tried desperately to go back to sleep, but it was no use. That dream has haunted me most of my life. While it didn’t provide a distinct story idea, it did give me a sense of wonderment of the paranormal. Forty-odd years later, I did have a story idea, one that involved fairies and elves, but I felt ridiculous wanting to write it. Many people either love or hate the Twilight series, but I owe particular thanks to Stephenie Meyer. While reading her series, I recognized it was okay to put paranormal-esqe ideas into a novel. I’ve not felt funny about writing or sharing any subject since, because I gave myself permission to allow my imagination to produce a completely new world.

There are a gazillion forces and reasons, which prevent writers from writing. Be true to your inner passion and give yourself the permission to do whatever it takes to answer that call. Not every writer is destined to have a book or a short story published, but that has nothing to do with what’s inside. If you truly have the passion, if you actually feel resentful or annoyed when you’re prevented from getting those words out of your head, then write a permission slip to yourself and get to it. It’s the empowerment you need.