About Beth Christopher

Hopeful writer who relies on music, nature and serendipity for inspiration, along with obscene amounts of coffee. www.bethchristopher.com

I Did NaNoWriMo and All I Got was this Lousy First Draft

“LET ME OUT, YOU $**@&!!”

*shoulder thuds repeatedly against door, which finally crashes open*

In case you were wondering, that was my highly offended inner editor, who was locked away during the entire month of November as I participated in the insanity known as NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to puke out a 50,000-word novel (roughly 175 pages) in a month. I finished today, and it feels darn good.

Here’s the lovely badge I earned.

Everyone who reaches the 50,000-word mark by November 30 is considered a winner. The use of the word winner in conjunction with a first draft barfed out in thirty days is quite a stretch, and my draft is no exception. There are plenty o’ drawbacks to writing like your pants are on fire. For one, I had to ice my wrists. My family already thinks I’m a little coo-coo, but the visual of me sitting at the computer with bags of frozen edamame on my wrists pretty much sealed the deal.

The hardest part? With the high daily word count goal, there was no time to revise. And let me tell you, that was painful. PAINFUL. My plot and character motivations changed a few chapters in. Halfway through the novel, I ditched my antagonist. I started using a second point of view. Left plot holes the size of Rhode Island. My inner editor was so outraged at being locked away, I could feel her red Sharpie gouging at my brain, desperate to break free and clean house on that mess of a manuscript.

But for as blucky as that splooged out draft is, I’m feeling rather smitten with its potential. Even though it needs a serious overhaul, I’m digging the story and characters enough to spend hours and weeks and months with them. My inner editor is going to have one heck of a field day.

Now the real work begins.

Congratulations to everyone who participated in NaNoWriMo this year! How was your experience?

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Guess Who’s NOT Invited to Participate in NaNoWriMo?

This blog might be a little on the quiet side for the month of November, as I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month, or as it’s known in the writing community, NaNoWriMo.

The goal of NaNoWriMo (other than having an obnoxious acronym) is to write a 50,000 word (175 page) novel by November 30. It takes a certain level of insanity to accomplish this, but it is doable. Over 35,000 people accomplished this goal during the 2011 NaNoWriMo.

Let’s be honest. A novel created in thirty days is going to reek of dingleberries. But that’s sort of the point. Because of the ticking clock, you have to crank out an average of 1,700 words a day. There’s no time for that pesky inner editor to criticize your purple prose or your character’s motivation. Besides, true writing happens in the revisions, anyway.

For me, writing my very first draft was like opening a door to a world I never knew existed. The words flowed like magic. While most of those words weren’t any good, I didn’t care because I was having so much fun.

Now, after multiple revisions, immersing myself in writing workshops, critique groups, and finding out how bloody hard it is to get published, I’ve learned a few things. The inner editor who lurks inside me sits there with her red sharpie, dying to tell me that the sentence I’ve written doesn’t move the story forward. She points out all the things I’m doing wrong, reminding me that agents and editors are so inundated, if my first page doesn’t sparkle with brilliance and a unique voice, they won’t get to page two. My inner editor is well aware of the components of a successful novel – compelling characters, intriguing plot, inciting incident. Macro and micro tension. High stakes. Themes. Subplots. A crisis, climax and satisfying resolution. Character arcs. Limited backstory. Original metaphors. No cliché. Internal and external conflict. It’s crazy-making.

I’m not trying to bash my inner editor. I’m glad she knows stuff, and it comes in handy with my critique partners and during revisions. But if I listen to her when I’m drafting, she’ll sap the life right out of the creative process.

That’s the beauty of NaNoWriMo. Thanks to the looming deadline and the necessity of churning out so many words a day, there’s simply no room for that inner editor.

I’m excited to jump into a brandy-new manuscript. My current MS (WRECTIFY) is sitting on my agent’s desk, hoping for the chance to go out on submission in the near future. That whole process and the lack of control involved is also crazy-making, so immersing myself in NaNoWriMo is very appealing. The working title of my new project is LUNA PARK, and it’s about a haunted amusement park. For you Denver folks, think Lakeside on the dark side. Aren’t you curious about what’s inside this tower? I can’t wait to write about it. And guess what, inner editor? You’re not invited. Neener, neener, neener!

 Anyone else out there doing NaNo? 

 

 

Lessons from the Mac Daddy of the Macabre

Give me a twisty psychological thriller to read any day, but horror? I don’t have the liver for it. I am the world’s biggest chicken. Kind of goes without saying that I don’t write horror either. But, there are a couple of scenes in my WIP that should be unnerving and spooky, and they weren’t coming off the page like I wanted them to. So I decided to study from the master himself, Mr. Stephen King.

A few years ago, I read On Writing, Stephen King’s book about urban hedgehogs. Just kidding. His advice on writing was so inspiring, it made me want to give his novels a shot. I felt like I’d been missing out, but yet, I didn’t want to read anything that would cause me to soil my britches. So I read The Green Mile, about a man on death row who has a supernatural ability to heal. Not supposed to be scary, but that electric chair scene . . . are you kidding me?

Fast forward to now. Guess which Stephen King novel I chose to study the craft of writing horror? The Shining, of course.

I am not very smart.

The Shining is so bone-numbingly terrifying, it will take me a year to finish it. I’m serious. I can only manage a chapter a week. And I only read it in the morning, so I have at least eight hours of daylight to let the creeptastic images burn off. Even then, my warped imagination kicks in as I try to sleep, and I picture poor little Danny mumbling “Redrum,” or being attacked by giant hedge animals. Shoot. I’m FREAKING MYSELF OUT RIGHT NOW!

*Deep breath*

I’m a little over halfway through. Here’s my take on why Stephen King’s novels are so blasted scary. It’s not because he surprises you with things that go bump in the night. It’s the opposite. King tells you up front what to be afraid of. He sets it up in the very first chapters. Then you get creeped out waiting for the bad thing to happen. But for pages and pages and pages, it doesn’t. He’s a wolf who toys with you like the mouse you are. He milks your sense of dread. And when the scary thing finally happens, things go down differently than how you’ve built them up in your mind. THEN he capitalizes on the element of surprise.

For example. In The Shining, young Danny Torrance (who is psychic) and his parents move into an isolated hotel to serve as caretakers for the winter. In the beginning of the novel, the hotel’s cook (also psychic) pulls Danny aside and warns him about spirits in the hotel. He tells Danny specifically to stay out of room 217. That’s the set-up.

As the novel progresses, Danny wanders past room 217 several times, but heeds the cook’s advice. Nearly halfway into the book, Danny goes into room 217 and sees a bloated nasty corpse of a woman in the bathtub. A disturbing visual of this scene is forever seared in my psyche from watching the movie on TV when I was a kid. Thankfully, the censors blocked out the corpse’s withered girlie bits, or my psychological problems would be much worse than they already are.

Now Danny is terrified, and the normal reader is mildly disturbed. I’m not the normal reader, as by this point, I’m prying my fingernails out of the ceiling. It gets downright unbearable when the corpse opens her eyes and comes out of the bathtub to attack Danny. Thank you, Stephen King, for a solid week of nightmares.

King switches scenes just as Danny struggles with the locked door and the corpse is stumbling toward him. We’re spared the gory details of that attack, but leaving it to the imagination is much worse. What happens next is where King really turns the screw. Danny’s parents haven’t wanted to believe that he’s psychic, but when the boy shows up with strangulation marks on his neck, they’re forced to listen. He spills it about the corpse in room 217. Jack, his father, who hasn’t gone all “Heere’s Johnny” yet, goes to check it out. You’re all kinds of scared when Jack enters room 217 and shuts the door behind him. When he walks into the bathroom, you’re totally bracing yourself to wet your pants. But it’s a normal hotel bathroom. The towels are neatly folded, no wet footprints on the rug, and wait for it . . . the shower curtain is closed. He stares at the white see-through shower curtain, fear building up in his spine, and then rips it open.

Nothing but an empty bathtub. Relief washes over him as he closes the curtain, realizing his son has a very overactive imagination. He even chuckles to himself. You breathe again, too. Jack leaves the bathroom, walks into the bedroom, and inspects the room to be sure no one is hiding there. And then it happens, just when you and Jack have let your guards down. The sound of metal scraping against metal . . . the shower curtain slowly opens. Wet, thudding footsteps coming toward you, I mean Jack, from the bathroom. Every hair on your arm is standing at attention as you scan the page to see how Jack will get away, his worst fears about his son and the hotel coming true.

THIS is why I have to read The Shining in broad daylight, served up with a chaser of cute baby animals to numb the nerves. Look at the wittle puppies. Don’t you feel better?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For fans of the book, guess what? 35 years after The Shining was published, Stephen King has written the sequel, called Doctor Sleep. It follows the story of Danny Torrance as a young man, and comes out next September. Now I know what I’m reading next Halloween. Surrounded by lots of pictures like this.

 

 

Do you dig scary books? What’s your favorite?

Happy Release Day!

Back in February, I had the pleasure of interviewing author Gennifer Albin about her path to publication. You can read the interview here.  And now, Genn’s debut novel is officially on the shelves! If you’re a fan of THE HUNGER GAMES, or Veronica Roth’s DIVERGENT series, you won’t want to miss CREWEL, which was chosen as BEA’s YA Editor’s Buzz Pick for 2012. Which is a ginormous honor.

Here’s more about CREWEL.

Incapable. Awkward. Artless.

That’s what the other girls whisper behind her back. But sixteen year-old Adelice Lewys has a secret: she wants to fail.

Gifted with the ability to weave time with matter, she’s exactly what the Guild is looking for, and in the world of Arras, being chosen as a Spinster is everything a girl could want. It means privilege, eternal beauty, and being something other than a secretary. It also means the power to embroider the very fabric of life. But if controlling what people eat, where they live and how many children they have is the price of having it all, Adelice isn’t interested.

Not that her feelings matter, because she slipped and wove a moment at testing, and they’re coming for her—tonight.

Now she has one hour to eat her mom’s overcooked pot roast. One hour to listen to her sister’s academy gossip and laugh at her Dad’s stupid jokes. One hour to pretend everything’s okay. And one hour to escape.

Because once you become a Spinster, there’s no turning back.

Congratulations, Gennifer. So blasted excited for you!

 

Hung up on Harry

One of the most perfect perks of parenting is reading with my kids. Bedtime in our house takes way longer than it should, since I’m just as curious to see what happens in the next chapter as my kids are. We’re about to start on the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, which were my favorite books on the planet when I was a kid. Considering the teensy rural Montana town I grew up in, Laura was pretty much a contemporary of mine. I have a hunch my seven-year old daughter will love them as much as me. BUT I’m dreading the inevitable questions like, “Mom, did you travel by horse and buggy when you were a kid?” I get those questions all the time. I’ve been asked if I was alive during the Revolutionary War. Or when Lincoln was president. And if coins existed when I was in school. Maybe I’m not so ready for the Little House books after all.

I’m getting off the point, here. As much fun as all those books are, the highlight of my reading-as-a-parent life has been sharing the world of Harry Potter with my wild children. I devoured those books when they first came out, back before Sam and Sophie were ever in the picture. I was in awe of J.K. Rowling’s world-building ability and the way her characters practically leaped off the page. And the over-arching message that love wins. I dreamed of the day when I could share them with kids of my own. That day seemed as far away as Hogwarts, but it came faster than a golden snitch.

We started the first of the seven books about three years ago. Sophie was a bit young, so we read them primarily to Sam. But Sophie’s never been one to miss out on anything, so she experienced the magical wizarding world, too. We read them at bedtime. We read them on road trips. We tried to imitate Hagrid’s loud, Scottish brogue, Voldemort’s high whisper, Professor Umbridge’s sinister giggle, dreamy Luna’s spacey voice. Our rule was that we had to finish the book before we watched the movie. And we watched those movies on lazy Saturday mornings in our pajamas, piled together on the couch. (It had to be mornings, so the images of dementors could burn off well before bedtime.)

Now, I’m snuffling in my butterbeer. After seven books, 4100 pages, and eight movies, we’ve reached those dreaded words . . . THE END. When we were almost finished with The Deathly Hallows – the last book in the series, I made a silent vow not to slip into hysterics when I read the closing lines. Well, that wasn’t my problem. SPOILER WARNING – Skip this paragraph if you haven’t read the last book. My problem came a few chapters prior to the end, when Harry accepts his fate and marches to what he believes is his final battle with Voldemort. Beloved spirits of those he had lost appear to him – including his parents. My attempts at reading the part where Harry and his mother are finally reunited crashed like a faulty Nimbus 2000. My voice resembled that of a choking kitten, and my throat felt like I’d swallowed a box of Weasley’s Wildfire Whizbangs. Darrick took over reading while tears ran down my face. Yes, I’m a ridiculous soft touch. But I love that books have the power to evoke our deepest emotions.

In an interview with Oprah, Rowling talked about how a young woman in her twenties came up to her on the street and said, “You are my childhood.” Rowling was blown away. I completely understand what that young woman meant. Sam and Sophie will play for hours, building entire Hogwarts villages and scenes and characters out of Legos. Great battles are waged in our living room, curses and magic spells zinging off the walls. When my kids are grown, there is no doubt that Harry will have his very own Room of Requirement in their heart’s memory of childhood.

Ultimate Battle for Hogwarts

A few years ago, Sam dressed up like Harry Potter for Halloween. He had the cute little glasses, the rumpled hair, the lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. Just as he was getting ready to catch the bus, I reminded him not to forget his wand. He rolled his eyes and with such an earnest voice said, “Mom. You can’t bring weapons to school.” Ah, good point.

Harry and Ron Jack o’ lanterns. That’s a spider on Ron’s cheek.

We’ve been full on Harry Potter for years now. I’m eternally grateful to Rowling for the joy she’s brought to the world and for the spark she lit in Sam’s and Sophie’s imagination. Seriously, I would willingly and with a glad heart clean Rowling’s oven for the rest of my life if she was my neighbor. But since she’s a bazillionaire, she’s probably got a self-cleaning oven that actually works.

Just the other day, Sophie, who is in second grade and just learning to read chapter books on her own, brought me the well-worn first book of the series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.” It’s in rough shape. The spine is broken, the cover is ripped, and the first several pages have fallen out. When she asked if we could fix it, my heart skipped a beat. I told her we could, or if not, we would get another copy.

Sophie wants to try to read the books on her own, starting from the very beginning.

It looks like our adventures with Harry may not be over just yet.

What were your favorite childhood books? Any new loves you’ve discovered reading with your kids?

Writing Tips from Famous Authors

I’m in the midst of a revision, and this post from BuzzFeed came at the perfect time. Too juicy not to share!

30 Indispensable Writing Tips From Famous Authors

Writing is easy: All you have to do is start writing, finish writing, and make sure it’s good. But here’s some vastly more useful wisdom and advice from people who seriously know what the hell they’re talking about.

Jack ShepherdBuzzFeed Staff

1. Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

2. Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard
Image by DERMOT CLEARY / AP

3. Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov

4. Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison
Image by Michael Lionstar / AP

5. George Orwell

George Orwell

6. E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow
Image by MARY ALTAFFER / AP

7. Henry Miller

Henry Miller

Library Of Congress

8. Elmore Leonard

Elmore Leonard
Image by Carlos Osorio / AP

9. John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

10. Stephen King

Stephen King
Image by Mark Lennihan / AP

11. Ralph Waldo Emmerson

Ralph Waldo Emmerson

12. Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

13. Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou
Image by Jemal Countess / Getty Images

14. James Patterson

James Patterson
Image by Deborah Feingold / Reuters

15. Stephen King

Stephen King
Image by MIKE SEGAR / Reuters

16. Mark Twain

Mark Twain

17. Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison
Image by Frank Polich / Getty Images

18. Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe

19. John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck

20. Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard

21. Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury
Image by STEVE CASTILLO / AP

22. Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow
Image by ELISE AMENDOLA / AP

23. Erica Jong

Erica Jong

24. Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut
Image by MARTY REICHENTHAL / AP

25. T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

26. Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway

27. Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein
Image by Library of Congress / Getty Images

28. F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Library Of Congress

29. Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman

30. G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton

Design by Chris Ritter for BuzzFeed

 

I Kissed a Llama and I Liked It

I might be sailing my freak flag a bit too high with this post, but I can’t resist. We just got back from our annual trip to western New York to visit Darrick’s family, and one of our stops was the 4-H fair. After passing the skeezy carnival rides run by probable felons, I made a beeline straight for the llama barn. Let me tell you right now that I adore llamas. Why? Click here. Seriously — how can you not love creatures who look like they walked straight out of a Dr. Suess book?

This year, much to my extreme delight, there was a BABY LLAMA! It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen. I lingered so long at its pen trying to commune with the little fuzz ball, I worried the 4-H’ers might get a restraining order. 

The rest of my family hasn’t guzzled the llama Kool-Aid as much as I have, and eventually we wandered over to watch the dog agility show. While we waited for the show to start, they asked for volunteers to run the dog through the obstacle course. My nine-year old son Sam was picked, but unfortunately he didn’t realize he was supposed to run along side the dog as they did the course. Those border collies are quick little suckers and Sam did his best to keep up. When it leaped over the first set of hurdles, so did Sam. The audience laughed like it was part of the act. Luckily, the instructor called him off before the dog headed into the water hazard.

So back to the llamas. While other kids tried their luck with the dogs, I caught sight of a girl standing near the bleachers with her llama. It was practically begging me to come over and chat. I asked innocuous questions about the llama’s age, eating habits, etc. when what I really wanted to do was throw my arms around that llama’s goofy neck. I learned the llama’s name was Desi, and she’s a big diva from getting to ride in cars and stay in the house. By now my wild children had joined me, primarily to be sure I wasn’t about to make off with this girl’s pet. Kids come in very handy sometimes, and I was able to ask if they could pet Desi. Sam gave me the stink eye because he knew I was the one with the burning need to pet the llama. Then I asked if we could take a picture. I slowly put my arm around Desi, unsure if that was a wise move, but I couldn’t help myself.  Even though llamas like to bat their big wonky eyeballs at you, they can kick like a hopped up ninja.

To my great surprise, Desi the llama leaned into me. I checked in with her owner to make sure I wasn’t about to get a face full of llama spit. Her owner said that Desi is affectionate, and that’s her way of saying she liked me. *HEART MELT!* That sealed the deal. I just had to kiss her.

Ode to Summer Jobs

Thanks to our summer shenanigans, I’ve been kind of a slacker with the blog. One thing I’ve noticed in our gadding about is all the teenagers who have joined the workforce. It makes me remember my first summer job, waiting tables at Sylvia’s, a restaurant in Red Lodge, MT. I liked the work. Red Lodge is on the way to Yellowstone Park, and Sylvia’s was popular with both locals and tourists alike. Customers for the most part were in good spirits and eager to chat.

I was schooled in so many ways. Instead of a uniform, we wore a khaki apron with the restaurant’s logo over our clothes. One day, I wore a sleeveless dress, and my co-worker informed me to never do that again, as “no one wants to gaze into your armpits when you’re setting down their food.” Excellent point. I also learned to drink coffee that summer. It feels almost blasphemous to admit, but I hated the taste at first. My shifts started at dark-thirty in the morning, and the freshly ground beans did smell fantastic. If you add enough cream and sugar, even dirty dishwater tastes good, and soon I was on my way to a life long addiction. I mean love affair.

Sylvia’s was attached to a bar called the Carbon County Coal Company. At that time in Montana, you could serve alcohol even if you weren’t old enough to drink it. Since the bar was closed during weekdays, if a customer ordered a cocktail I’d have to whip that sucker up. It was a little eerie heading into the deserted bar, with its upturned chairs and stale cigarette smell. My imagination took over when I took hold of the bar gun that shoots different mixers, and I’d pretend I was in the movie “Cocktail.” That’s where the fantasy ended, though, because I was completely clueless when it came to mixing drinks. If someone ordered a Crown and coke, for example, I’d have to find Sylvia, who was also the cook. I’d ask, “Is Crown rum or vodka?” She’d roll her eyes and tell me it was whiskey.

I also knew nothing about wine, other than it came in red, white, and pink. So when a customer asked what kind of wine we had, I’d die a little inside. I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t know how to pronounce the house wines, so I just gave it my best shot. I’d say, “We have merLOT, (yes, I actually said “lot”), charDONnay, and white zinFANdel.” I wasn’t about to tell them we had cabernet sauvingon. Lord only knew how I’d butcher that one. I’m sure the customers thought Sylvia found me in the bottom of a haystack somewhere.

After a month or so, I’d worked my way to the night shift, which was my favorite. The Coal Company had live music on weekends, often local favorite Billy Waldo and the Flying Grizzlies, and both the bar and restaurant would be hopping. It was all fun and games until someone ordered a bottle of wine. Sylvia tried to train me on the art of serving wine at a table. Using the tiny knife on the corkscrew, her hands deftly cut the foil off the top of the bottle. She made a little tent out of it and placed it on the table. Then she expertly removed the cork, placing it on the foil for the customer to examine. This took her all of five seconds. She’d done it a thousand times, and it must not have occurred to her that I might flop and flounder at the task that came so easily to her.

I was so very bad at opening wine bottles, that when I approached a table I offered to get them a beer or a cocktail, hoping the power of suggestion would lead them to not order wine. Of course this didn’t work. At least then I could just hand over a wine list, so I wouldn’t have to make a stab a pronouncing Châteauneuf du Pape. I’d do okay with making the little foil tent. It was the cork that did me in. Sometimes I’d drill too far in and break it, which meant I had to do the walk of shame to fetch another bottle. Even worse were the times I couldn’t get the blasted cork out. I’d wrestle with that bottle, longing to stick it between my knees so I’d have more leverage. Inevitably, the man at the table would go all macho and ask if I needed some help. I’d smile over gritted teeth, shake my head, and try to retain some shred of dignity.

Instrument of Instant Humiliation

I stayed in the restaurant biz throughout college. This included a VERY brief stint as a cocktail waitress, where I almost had my teeth rearranged because I used the single red tray from a pile of black trays. Apparently, this was a big no no. It was all about seniority, and the cocktail waitress who had earned the right to carry the red tray declared me her sworn enemy. It was a great reminder to stay the course and finish college.

I was not cut out to be a cocktail waitress. Drunk people always seemed to run into me when I was carrying a tray brimming with beverages. My roommates plugged their noses when I came home, as I reeked of cigarette smoke. So I finagled my way into a hostessing position at one of the schwankiest places in Missoula at the time, the restaurant at The Holiday Inn. You may laugh, but it really was fine dining. White linen tablecloths, candles, servers in black tie, and I had to wear a dress and heels every shift. During one of my shifts, an unknowing server even delivered room service to Robert Redford, who answered the door wearing only a towel.

My universe continued to expand. While I knew not to wear sleeveless tops anymore, I still had a ways to go. The tables were set with both water and wine glasses and I couldn’t tell the difference, so I watered the wrong ones. My boss lurked at the hostess station to thwart my backwater habits. As a customer approached, she’d hiss, “don’t fidget” or “stop leaning on the counter.”

As the rough edges were slowly pounded out of me, I learned about customer service. Like the time a very disgruntled customer approached the hostess station, banged both hands on the counter and yelled, “This is a G*# D*#* filthy establishment!” I probably would’ve shown him the door, but instead, I watched and learned as my boss expertly calmed him down. He actually came back the next night and had a lovely dinner.

I learned about tolerance, too. A cross-dressing older gentleman, rumored to be Ernest Hemingway’s grandson, moved into the hotel one summer. Dr. Meriweather would show up for dinner in a nice suite, and ask if we’d seen his wife. Playing along, I’d shake my head and say I hadn’t. He’d go look for her, and about thirty minutes later, Mrs. Meriweather would appear in a killer dress and heels, looking remarkably like her husband. Mrs. Meriweather always preferred the corner table by the window. While she waited for her husband, she liked to sip on a Chardonnay. Which I could now pronounce, thank you very much.

And I learned that just because someone is a Very Important Person, they can still have all the manners and finesse of a billy goat. A Montana senator who will remain nameless (but it rhymes with Bonrad Curns) came in for breakfast with several of his staff. When they finally left, no one had bothered to pay. On top of his dine and dash behavior, the senator had used his saucer as a spittoon. After recovering from the shock, I promptly called the front desk and charged his room for breakfast. And a generous tip, of course.

Thanks to my brief career in the food service industry, I have mad cloth napkin folding skills and a big time weakness for those little Andes mints in the green wrapper. I tip well. I think the world would be a better place if everyone worked in a restaurant, at least once in their lives. And I’m very thankful for screw-top wine bottles.

What was your first job, and what made it memorable? I’d love to hear from you!

Colorado is Burning

I’ve never been one to wish away a season, especially summer. I love farmer’s markets, outdoor concerts, and having the sunlight stretch into late evening. I love going barefoot and drinking iced tea and spending days on end with my wild children. I love listening to the show-offy trill of meadowlarks trying to out sing each other, and watching my dog disappear into tall grass as she chases a rabbit on the trail.

But this summer is different. This morning, the air was heavy with the acrid scent of smoke  from the High Park Fire, burning fifty miles north of us outside Fort Collins. More than 43,000 acres have burned so far, an area larger than Fort Collins itself. One hundred structures have been lost, as well as one human life and countless animals. The fire is only five percent contained. There’s no rain in the forecast.

High Park Fire, courtesy of Guardian LV

The West is one giant tinderbox, thanks to the mountain pine beetle who destroyed millions of trees these past several years. Last summer, I rode through a particularly devastating  section of beetle kill pine outside Grand Lake, and the feeling was akin to being in a graveyard. Perfectly quiet – no bird song, no usual sounds of the forest.

A forest fire will burn, even without the added kindling of beetle kill pine, but coupled with the abnormally dry season we’ve had, I’m afraid we’re in for a rough summer. The grasshoppers arrived in May this year, two months ahead of schedule. Mid-June is usually green and lush, but the landscape around here is a sun scorched yellow already.

My heart goes out to everyone who has lost forests and trails special to them, and especially to those who have lost loved ones, and their homes. Keep the brave firefighters in your thoughts and prayers. They have a long, hellish summer ahead of them.

Unless we stumble on a rain dance that actually works, the first frost can’t come soon enough.

On the Trail with a Tunesmith

I’m so excited for our cyber hike today with musician and songwriter, Tim Nordstrom! A native of Red Lodge, Montana, Tim and his brother Mike make up Montana Tunesmith, beloved around the state for their tight harmonies, acoustic style, and evocative lyrics.  Their debut album Under Yellowstone Skies was featured on National Public Radio. Montana Magazine wrote, “If I had to put one CD in a time capsule to represent Montana, Under Yellowstone Skies would be it.” Their second CD, Life is for the Living, was recorded in Austin, TX by Grammy winning producer Lloyd Maines. In December, Tim self produced the most recent album, Christmas is Calling, which features Grammy winning piano soloist George Winston, and Tim’s thirteen-year old daughter, Abbie. Tim also happens to be my cousin!

 

Beth:  Hi Tim! Thanks so much for agreeing to this “hike.” Tell us about the trail.

Tim: Thanks for having me along Beth. The trail is one that the Beartooth Recreational Trails Association of Red Lodge has developed for our community. I like to include this trail on my daily runs. I really like the openness of it, and the Montana “big sky” seems that much bigger when running on the West Bench of Red Lodge. My employer allows me one paid day of volunteer work per year, and I always choose to help work on this project as well.

Beth: I remember going to your house when I was little — maybe seven or eight — and you were playing the piano like a miniature Jerry Lee Lewis. My eyeballs about popped out of my head, as I’d never seen a kid play anything more technical than Chopsticks. Then you informed me you’d written that song. . . called “Wild Mustangs” maybe? It’s hard to remember through all the cobwebs. Anyway, tell us about your start in music. Did you study with anyone? Please don’t say it’s genetic, because that just wouldn’t be fair.

Tim:  Well, I’m impressed with your memory because if it was something about wild horses, I don’t even remember anymore. I took one year with a local pianist Lillian Gardner, who played in my grandfather’s dance band. I would manipulate her into showing me how the song that I would be working on for the next week goes, and then I’d play it by ear. So I hate to say it, but yes it’s all genetic. I’ve always been able to hear something and play it. This is great on one hand but quite a hindrance on the other. I think Willy Nelson said it best. “I play the guitar, I am not a guitarist”. If I could read music well, I’d be a pianist and a guitarist. My ear made it too easy.

Beth: You’ve set to music my memories of life in Montana — family, the ranch, the rivers and mountains — and I know I speak for countless others who feel the same way. What’s your songwriting process like? Do you wake up with a tune in your head and then go hunting for the lyrics? Or is it the other way around? Or a little of both?

Tim:  The best, most fun way is when it all floods out while playing the guitar; the melody, the lyrics flow out to make about 50% of the song. The rest takes some refinement and that can take hours, days or weeks. First Snow was written in an hour.

Another fun way is when I write a poem, and then put it to music. The song usually ends up feeling more poetic (duh) but I end up throwing most of those away- I think because it doesn’t start with the music. I think the most important, strongest part of a song that hits your emotional center comes first from the melody and then the chord structure.  Lyrics are last, they tap more into the cognitive side.

I write a lot of songs just humming as I commute to Billings. I write down a lot of ideas on scrap paper that I end up finding all over the house. Then…when the right mood matches up with the right lyrics that I pick up, a song can come pretty quickly. Another method that is really helpful is to pretend that I am another singer songwriter. Start singing in their style, etc. I’ve written a lot of songs this way because it seems to take away the inner critic, which can really stifle your creative process. It’s funny because you’d think the song would sound like the artist you are emulating, but I’ve tested it over and over and nobody ever says, “That sounds like so and so.”

Sometime I like to write a character sketch, sometimes a story song, sometimes write using chord progressions, or other times guitar licks drive the songs direction. I’m sure you figured out by now that there are many ways to skin this songwriting cat, but the MOST important thing is that after it starts to unfold, you have to let IT write itself, when you start to force it, you’ll ruin it nine times out of ten.

Beth:  Tell us about making your most recent album, Christmas is Calling. What was it like recording with your daughter? How’d you manage to snag George Winston?

Tim:  Abbie has a very fun personality, coupled with a confidence that allowed her to get into the studio and not let the fear ruin the experience. She had horrible allergies, which did hinder her performance, but we both felt that the process was worth more than the product anyway and it’s all relative- we weren’t striving for super polished. If she decides to continue in this avocation (or vocation) the product will continue to become more and more polished as you spend more time doing it anyway. So this was a great start for her.

George Winston is about as genuine and caring of a person as you could meet. I heard his piano style as I was listening to one of my demos one day. I looked up his label “Dancing Cat” and asked them if he’d be interested. He then listened to my first disc, “Under Yellowstone Skies” and he said it moved him. Having grown up in Montana, he could relate to this album, which I consider a “concept album”. In the studio it was really wild because I grew up listening to him. I mentioned to him that I really liked the harmonics that he does on the Summer album. He said “great idea”… next thing you know he was leaning halfway into the grand piano and playing at the same time, making some awesome effects tapping, dampening and getting some cool textures. He was like a mad scientist and I was a deer in headlights.

Beth: You and Mike have put a lot of miles on, performing all over the state. What are some of your most memorable gigs?

Tim: For the “cloud nine” experience, it would be playing a couple of performances with the Billings Symphony. You rarely are able to fully realize what you hear in your head (strings, etc.) when writing a song, so this was special. We played a huge gig in a park in Kalispell one time, did not know what to expect, and it was a very large group of developmentally disabled folks. They had so much fun, dancing, coming up on stage, etc.  It was a real feel good concert.

The backdrops have been everything from the top of Big Mountain in Whitefish, to the Yellowstone River outside Chico Hot Springs, to the top of the Beartooth Pass. But THE most memorable? A gig up at Piney Dell (in Red Lodge) that was SUPPOSED to be well marketed with press releases etc. We showed up, there were kegs of beer, BBQ pits, etc. and I thought it was going to be awesome.  But…the only people who showed up were our parents, Uncle Den, Aunt Mel and Gramma K. No joke.

Beth: That’s hysterical! Knowing that crew, they more than made up for the lack of audience. So what are you working on now? And what’s the best way for readers to get their mitts on your music?

Tim:  I’ve been really into alternative rock, Jack White (awesome solo album as well as his White Stripes and Raconteurs), Modest Mouse, etc. I’ve also been listening to a lot of Jack Johnson, but also more Bob Dylan etc. So my music has been a little edgier, but I am still trying to “write about what you know” like Mark Twain advised.  So I’m writing a lot about social justice, empowering people, etc. I’ve been a social worker for twenty years or so, so I have a lot of material to write about! If anyone is interested I’ll be posting new music and old at facebook.com/timmy.nordstrom (I know, someone already had tim.nordstrom!) Just go to Tim’s music store to listen and purchase CDs or individual songs.

Beth: Tim, thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I’ll be waiting patiently (NOT) for your next album!