Super Sting saves the show

Listening to: Sting. Fields of Gold.

Photo: St. Clouds restaurant. Seattle

I’ve been reading about “The Last Ship,” a show on Broadway for which Sting wrote the music and lyrics and that I’d like to see. (No idea how or when, since I sit on the other side of the country. But.) The story is kind of a downer and the production got mixed reviews. So, popular it isn’t, as Yoda would say.

To keep the show alive, Sting has announced that he will join the cast.

The New York Times calls this “one of the boldest gambles in many a theater season,” which seems like a create-conflict-make-news exaggeration. How risky is it to put Sting on stage singing his own songs? Granted, the last time he appeared in a Broadway musical was Threepenny Opera in 1989, and the reviews were terrible. Still, it’s Sting. And we’ve seen this strategy work before. When Billie Joe Armstrong joined the cast of “American Idiot,” ticket sales more than doubled. (But when Armstrong left, the box office numbers dropped.)

If I weren’t 3000 miles away, I’d definitely buy a ticket to see/hear Sting in “The Last Ship.” But since I can’t, the best I can do is watch from afar and follow what happens when he joins the cast on December 9.

I’ve ordered Marvel Comics: 75 Years of Cover Art from the Seattle Public Library. My friend Manu sent me a link to a blurb (that the WSJ won’t let me access without a subscription) that focuses on Alan Cowsill’s forward in which he discusses “the groundbreaking approach that allowed [Marvel] to humanize its superheroes.”

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

About a month ago, I wrote about Elliot Smith and my love of Sad Songs. And I said that I would post my sketch for a song called “We’ll dance like we never met.” I’m still wrestling with the dance in the middle, and today I decided I don’t like the intro. But here are the bones of a verse.


Getting to song

I struggle with writing music. The physical process of putting notes on paper. I’m slow, I erase a lot, and so I have a hard time getting everything in my head written down before it falls out of my brain or metamorphosizes into something far less brilliant than my original flash of genius.

As I tell my nephew Michael, there are two kinds of people in the world: pigeons and goldfish. Pigeons remember subway lines and shortcuts. Goldfish head to the airport without their suitcases and start their weeklong vacations in Montana with a trip to Walmart to buy clothes.

I am a goldfish.

I asked my friend, Eugene, who plays guitar in the band Vigilante Santos, how he writes music. “I record myself while I pick things out on the guitar,” he told me, “and then I use a composing program.”

This was simple, life-changing information. Record myself. So I downloaded the Nokia Voice Recorder Pro+ app, propped up my Windows Phone on my piano’s music stand and started recording my “sketches.” But here’s the weird thing. I don’t pick out my songs on the piano. I sing them. That’s how I figure things out, by voicing ideas as soon as they enter my head.

I’m not sure why this is. I’ve been playing the piano since I learned to read — the piano is my instrument. But singing is where my songwriting process begins. Even though I have no desire to be a singer. I don’t even like my own voice. In fact, if I could write songs for anyone, I’d write for Dame Shirley Bassey, who, as you’ll discover in the next paragraph, sounds nothing like me.

Last week I was thinking about Shirley Bassey and what kind of song I’d write for her, and I started hearing a chorus in my head: “He’s got a hole down in his soul, he’s got the devil in his heart.” Yes, of course, another sad song. A leaving song. A sad domestic abuse leaving song. And the words and the tune arrived in my head at the same time, meaning I had twice as many things to forget. So I grabbed my phone, tapped on my new app, and recorded some ideas for my leaving song.

A few comments about that recording. First, it’s not the finished song. Not yet. It’s a bunch of ideas — words and phrases — that form the foundation of a song that has many miles to go before I can pronounce it “done.” Second, I know: I do not have the voice of a blues singer. Which creates a bit of a challenge for me, that I write by singing ideas for songs that I want to sound nothing like the way I sing.

I played the recording in my music lesson on Saturday, and L said, “We need to get you voice lessons so we can make a CD of you singing your songs.” I told her that I didn’t want to sing on a CD or anywhere else, that in my fantasy, someone else sings my songs. Maybe I’m behind the singer, playing the piano, but there’s lots of piped in fog so no one can see me.

This kind of confused her. Because the thing that people who like to perform don’t understand about people who don’t like to perform is that, well, we don’t like to perform.

The song is called “Never gonna start to love.” I had written down my melody so that I could work on the song in my lesson with L, with whom I’ve come to like to collaborate. We have different tastes, but that creates an interesting tension. She suggests things I would never consider on my own. Plus, I learn from her, because she knows a lot more than four chords, and it’s amazing to watch and listen as she improvises on my melody. I tell her the sound I want, and she shows me how to create it. It’s the best way for me to learn.

Here’s where my song is now. A very rough draft. It’s only slightly different from the sketch, but it’s enough different that it sounds more like the blues. And it’s written down, so I don’t need to sing it anymore into my recorder app. But it’s definitely not finished. I need to rework the rhythm, because it’s a difficult song to sing, evidence that I’m not a singer. I’ve written a melody that doesn’t have any rests, and so you can hear in the voice recording that I struggle to get through the long phrases without asphyxiating. Making the song singable without losing the forward movement is my project for this week.

As I was leaving L’s house on Saturday, she told me again that I should make a CD of my songs. I told her again that this was never going to happen, that I wasn’t a blues singer and my songs are simple. She stopped me and asked, “Who do you know who can do this?”

I told her, “Eugene.”

She said, “Who else? Who else do you know who can write a song?”

I stared at her for a few seconds, thinking.

“No one else,” she told me. “No one else can do this. Learn to celebrate that.”

Listening to: Aretha. The Great Diva Classics.

DIY fiction — Part 2

Get an editor. That was the big message at the Seattle Public Library‘s session Saturday afternoon on Successful Self-Publishing.

In recognition of National Novel Writing Month, the Library is sponsoring a variety of Seattle Writes activities to support local writers. One of these was a panel discussion this weekend, focused on tips for writers who want to publish their own works or work with an independent publisher.

Although I’ve decided to go it alone, I find self-publishing a little scary. But after listening to the panel, I feel less frightened and more excited. Publishing is changing, and there seem to be a number of advantages to skipping traditional publishers. One is timing. It takes about 2 years after you make a deal with a publisher before you see you work in print. Plus, many publishers have reduced the editorial process, meaning that the most exciting part (to me) of going the traditional route often doesn’t exist. And with the rise of Amazon and the weakening power of the big houses, we’re seeing new growth in independent presses.

The key to success, according to the panel, is to get a great developmental editor (v. a copy editor), someone who will help you with the big picture, making sure that the story is strong and holds together. This person can also help with writing an enticing summary that you can use in selling your book online or in finding an agent or independent publisher.

I had decided to edit my book myself, but after hearing the people on the panel — writers and editors — I definitely want to invest in an editor. In fact, I like the team from Girl Friday Productions that was at the library on Saturday and talked to them after the panel. They edit, help with pitching and develop marketing plans. And they seem down-to-earth. True book lovers. So I’m actually looking forward to working with them.

“Hire an editor” and Girl Friday. Those were my big finds this weekend. But I’ll share a few other tips I got from the panel:

Plan your launch. This comes from J. A. (Jennifer) Blackburn, who wrote the YA book Dragon Defender. Don’t just put your book on Amazon (via Createspace) and then worry about marketing. Set a launch date and work back from that, getting together your reviews and coordinating your friends and family, so that everyone buys your book on the launch date. This will get your book on the Amazon bestseller list, which makes it more visible to buyers.

Be wary of writing a check. Also a tip from Blackburn, which was seconded by everyone else on the panel. With the growth in self-publishing, there are lots of people looking to take advantage of new writers. These people offer blog tours, editing and reviews. Beware. Before you pay anyone, check them out.

Consider Netgalley. And do this as part of preparing for your launch. You post your book as a galley and it is downloaded by professional reviewers, librarians and bookstores. So the reviews are respectable. But the process takes about 4 months before you start to see reviews posted, and the service costs about $400 for 6 months.

Finally, yes, the panel did talk about your “platform” and “personal brand.” Terrifying words for all of us introverts who want to keep as much to ourselves as possible. But they offered some good/comforting advice. First, if you have to choose between spending your time writing your next book or marketing the current book, choose “writing.” Whew. Second, they made some suggestions that seemed easy-to-do:

1. Get on GoodReads and write reviews of other books. It’s good karma. Promote your fellow writers and someday they will promote you right back.
2. Do one tweet per day on books.
3. Spend 15 minutes each day on your blog.
4. Get onto the newer social platforms, like Snapchat and Instagram.
5. Provide content to blog sites that match your expertise/interests. (For me, that’s music.)
6. Follow and comment on blogs that match your expertise/interests. (Uh, yeah.)
7. If you’re in the Seattle area, get involved with Hugo House and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference, sponsored by PNWA, that takes place in July.

Listening to: Hiromi. At Marciac.

Her-O-ic: Oprah comes to town

Listening to: Sara Bareilles. The Blessed Unrest.

Through a series of serendipities, including being given a free ticket, I found myself sitting with 10,000 other women at Oprah’s “The Life Your Want” weekend. I have to say upfront that it was an amazing event. Set, music, lighting. Not even Celine Dion does it any bigger.

I will also confess that while I have fantasized about Oprah as president (yes, she could command armies and stare Putin into submission), I had no desire to pay $500 to hear her and her “trailblazers” encourage me to be all I can be. In fact, I had said, “no,” several weeks ago when my friend, Kirstin, told me she planned to go and invited me to join. Self-help books, motivational speakers, and getting a “personal” message in a sports arena from a billionaire celebrity are not my things. Even when Kirstin called to tell me she had won a ticket and asked me to join her, my first impulse was to refuse.

But I have been in a bit of a funk lately, and though I’m a practical woman, I do believe in signs. I regarded the free ticket as a gift from the universe, one that I would be foolish to refuse. So I hopped an Uber to Key Arena and joined Kirstin for Oprah’s kick off.

I completely enjoyed my time with Oprah. Every moment of her hyper-produced, completely choreographed, nothing unrehearsed stage show. She is a riveting storyteller, both because she knows how to spin a tale and because she has tales to spin. She has lived a life of amazing ups and downs, and she is especially interesting right now, because the jury is still out on whether or not she’s going to make a success out of OWN. The one thing more inspirational than Oprah at the top is Oprah climbing to the top. This is when we get to see her superhuman tenacity, focus, and understanding of what people want.

Oprah travels with a group of people she calls “the trailblazers”: Elizabeth Gilbert, Rob Bell, Iyanla Vanzant, and Mark Nepo. They are all good speakers, interesting personalities with valuable bits of wisdom to share, but none of them possess the power that is Oprah. Not even close. In fact, hearing their stories — though insightful and entertaining — made me appreciate Oprah even more. The best moments of the event came when Oprah was on stage.

Including the trailblazers, though, highlights Oprah’s genius. As I said, Oprah’s power is her story. And the people who have influenced her thinking are a part of that story. Just like the photos of Oprah’s favorite spot at her Santa Barbara home (a chair under twelve oak trees), her favorite music (played by VJ Kiss), and promos for upcoming Oprah-produced shows and movies (including the Martin Luther King biopic, “Selma,” which looks pretty great), the trailblazers provide windows into a woman who is one of the most fascinating people of my lifetime. They are an extension of her, evidence of who she is and what she values.