Write What You Know, but Don't Be Selfish

 Hey, what's the big idea?

Hey, what's the big idea?

I started my next book, Phantom Profits, last night. Since querying is such a slow process, I’ll have time to finish a couple drafts while I’m searching for an agent to represent my first novel. I finished that one, Rosie Got Smoked, about a month ago. What followed was a strictly enforced vacation from writing—maybe the longest I’ve ever endured. It was hard as hell, but I needed it. Perfectionist workaholics like me burn out fast. Last night was one of the easiest 1,000 words of my life. I’m glad I took the time to mentally refresh. Self-care is a real thing, people. Don’t burn yourself out. The days you don’t write are just as important as the days you do.

As I kick off this journey with Phantom Profits, I keep thinking about what I learned from writing and editing an entire book. Turns out, there isn’t some golden rule that descends from the heavens the moment you hit save for the last time. Finishing a book, despite the finality of the phrase, is a long process where lessons creep up on you when you least expect it. I’ve already said your book can’t be about everything. This is the best distillation of the past couple years. However, I recently stumbled across a variation of that lesson in an offhand conversation with my girlfriend. Get ready for the title drop. Here it is!

Writing what you know is great advice, but there’s a caveat. Write what you know, but don’t be selfish.

Rosie Got Smoked is a very personal story. That made it easy. That also made it extremely difficult. Most of my time and energy was spent sorting through my childhood memories of New Hampshire lake towns. The first draft of Rosie Got Smoked was basically indulgent fan service for my own nostalgia. Sure, those memories matter to me. They’re some of my fondest. But that doesn’t mean they’ll matter to anyone else.

The most important part of writing what you know is converting the personal to the universal. I struggled with this for four long drafts. How do I make people care about those lazy summer drives my dad and I took to drop off recycling at the town dump? I had to rewrite. And rewrite. And rewrite. That scene survived the merciless cuts. Many others didn’t. The ones I couldn’t salvage were solely for me and added nothing to the plot or character. I cut an entire chapter in the final draft because I couldn’t justify its existence. The main cast goes on a hike together, very similar to a trail I conquered with my family every summer. I loved that chapter. Why wouldn’t I? It stirred up happy memories. But it was only for me because none of the characters made big moves. The plot didn’t budge an inch. It was 3,000 words of self-absorbed writing. It could not stay.

I’m happily applying this lesson to Phantom Profits. The book is inspired by my day job—specifically a business trip to a haunted hotel that happened last year. Unsurprisingly, I have a lot to say about my corporate overlords. Now, I understand the concept of writing what I know without being selfish. Phantom Profits could easily become another book that exists exclusively to make myself feel better. And to be clear—there’s nothing wrong with that sort of writing if you’re just doing it for yourself or friends and family. That’s what first drafts are for. Write the first couple for yourself. Work it out of your system.

Then, get to work making the personal universal.

As always, thanks for reading.

Danger Zone: A Musical Appreciation

 Cover of the  Danger Zone  12" single.

Cover of the Danger Zone 12" single.

Danger Zone is the best ‘80s song of all time. This is the hill I will die on.

I’ve always enjoyed this tune, but I’ve recently suffered a newfound appreciation for the jet fuel-drenched sing along air guitar anthem. I’m covering it on my upcoming EP, which means I’ve spent the last week picking it apart note by note. It’s been stuck in my head for days. I need to write about it.

Where do we start? There’s so much to unpack before delving into the eminently silly music video. Let’s begin as the song does: with that opening bassline. Probably played on the ubiquitous Yamaha DX7 (a favorite of many ‘80s producers including Giorgio Moroder), it’s got that punchy, tight timbre that instantly sends you back in time. It’s obviously not a bass guitar. No, it’s something better—a synthesizer.

Then, the huge drums thunder in with gated reverb. As a drummer, I’m a big fan of percussion sitting prominently in the mix. Drums shouldn’t just keep time. They should be the sonic anchor the entire song is mixed around. Dann Huff’s guitar comes in next. The distortion’s grit jackhammers through your ears. Huff’s guitar tone has so much body and presence you could cut it with a knife.

Danger Zone’s secret weapon is the quiet verse. The bass and guitar fade out, leaving the drums alone to craft a space with the reverb. As a fan of atmospheric music, I appreciate how much "empty" air is in this part. Pop tunes rarely breathe like this. Danger Zone’s loud-quiet-loud structure offers a surprising amount of nuance, especially for a song about fighter jets/and or women/and or transforming fighter jet women.

Speaking of, Loggins’ breathy vocals come in next. You can taste the Miramar sweat dripping off the lyrics. Like the rest of the song, they’re shamelessly cheesy in that earnest, maximally produced ‘80s way:

Revvin' up your engine

Listen to her howlin' roar

Metal under tension

Beggin' you to touch and go

Highway to the danger zone

Ride into the danger zone

What does any of that mean? More importantly, who cares? My other favorite part is during the middle eight:

You'll never say hello to you

Until you get it on the red line overload

You'll never know what you can do

Until you get it up as high as you can go

It’s so literal that it circles back around to confoundingly metaphorical. Unsurprisingly, these lyrics were written by Moroder’s mechanic/assistant Tom Whitlock. Whitlock’s career trajectory is fascinating in its own right; Mental Floss has a great write up.

And then—and then. After you think this song is already a perfect encapsulation of the ‘80s, a goddamn saxophone dive bombs into the final chorus. It’s official. Danger Zone has everything. Everything. Production by Giorgio Moroder. Lyrics by Tom Whitlock. Vocals by Kenny Loggins. Big drums. Synth bass. Saxophone. A weirdly sexual music video.

Oh boy. Let’s talk about that music video.

The cynic in me calls it a marketing tool, but the unabashed masochist in me calls it pure gold. Tony Scott, the director of Top Gun, shot the music video during what seems like his lunch break. Loggins stars alongside his incomprehensible mullet while he writhes in a bed and goes to town on himself. This is intercut with footage from the movie, so it’s completely reasonable to assume he’s getting hot and heavy while thinking about Maverick and Ice Man’s unspoken homoerotic bond.

Side note: those two men have the best love story in Top Gun. I will never give up hope for a sequel in which Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer’s characters reunite in a tranquil Sierra Nevada cabin and profess their mutual feelings. Give us that. Don’t give us another Transformers flick. Please.

Danger Zone's music video money shot is the close up of Loggins as he turns to the camera and dreamily mouths the lyrics straight into your soul. He has the cool sunglasses. He has what, if feeling generous, can be described as hair. What else can you ask for in an ‘80s sex symbol? I’m just assuming he was a sex symbol. How could he not have been?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Archer’s important role in reviving Danger Zone in pop culture. The song has been a running joke in the series since the first season. Kenny Loggins even played himself (and covered the song) in season five. That one’s a country cover, but the whole Archer crew also partially recreated the actual music video. All the important details are there, including Loggins’ odd shirt choice buttoned all the way up to his neck. Yes, Danger Zone is a punchline in Archer, but you can tell the joke comes from a deep appreciation. That’s the truest form of pop culture valuation--poke fun because you care enough to comment in the first place.

Danger Zone is the exact song I’d kill to make. The production is bombastic and unapologetic. It seems back in the ‘80s nobody was too cool for anything. They made songs with a level of cheese so earnest that you can’t help but buy in. As I like to say, earnestness is important in art. It’s so easy to wink at the audience and fake it. There’s no mugging in Danger Zone—only gosh darn larger-than-life rock and roll.

As always, thanks for reading. If you need me, I'll be washing my F-16 in the driveway.

Thoughts on Dunkirk

 Image: Warner Bros. 

Image: Warner Bros. 

I still can’t decide if Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is sweeping or intimate. Metaphorical or literal. Complex or elemental. But I’m damn sure the stunning war film is good art and that means it’s all of the above. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said it best:

[the film] is powered by an engine of combusting contradictions: It’s at once minimalist and maximalist, cynical and dopey, a big-boy white elephant art film that is actually a lean and mean suspense set-piece machine.

On the surface, Dunkirk has all the trappings of a modern blockbuster war film: big names like Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, 70mm IMAX cinematography, World War Two setting, and plenty of explosions. Dip below the water and you’ll find Dunkirk doesn’t fit within the genre lines so easily. Tom Hardy spends most of his screen time in a cramped Spitfire cockpit with his face covered. Cillian Murphy plays a traumatized soldier who spends most of the film brooding and cowering. The large format cinematography is used for sprawling, quiet shots with barely any dialogue. And finally, this is a World War Two movie without any Americans, about a dark time in British history when victory was retreat. Bayhem this is not.

Characters have names, but they aren’t important. There is dialogue, but most of it is lost in the screech of dive bombers, the bark of gunfire, and Hans Zimmer’s anxiety-inducing ticking clock score. Characters here are defined by their actions. We know very little of their backstory. They are propelled forward by the urge to survive and save lives. These characters are only what they do. Most of the film’s little exposition is delivered by Kenneth Branagh’s pier-master Commander Bolton. He’s the best character to spout it off and it mostly works, but it sticks out in a film that’s otherwise so mechanically minimalist.

Dunkirk’s main conceit is how it weaves three storylines that occur over different periods of time. The longest one is The Mole (took me a while to realize this refers to a “pier” and not to the small burrowing mammal) which takes place over a week. The Sea takes place over one day and follows Mark Rylance as a stoic, duty-bound Brit who braves the English Channel in his personal sailboat. The Sky occurs over one hour as RAF pilots defend retreating ships from the Luftwaffe.

While this can be confusing at times and counterintuitive to immersion, it’s a brilliant tool to ratchet up the tension alongside the precise, merciless editing. Since Nolan and editor Lee Smith have two other timelines to cut away to at any given moment, they can take an event that would play out in only seconds in real life and stretch it for agonizing minutes. Here’s Nolan, talking to Business Insider about the score and story structure:

I interwove the three timelines in such a way that there's a continual feeling of intensity. Increasing intensity. So I wanted to build the music on similar mathematical principals. So there's a fusion of music and sound effects and picture that we've never been able to achieve before.

Through the direction and editing, Dunkirk’s action sequences take on a hypnotic quality. When the narratives converge during the last act, the audience hops back and forth between all three sets of characters. It shows how the subjective power of editing can make time appear to move forward and stand still simultaneously.

Debate will continue for a while over whether Dunkirk is a masterpiece. However, it’s certainly masterful from all formal perspectives. Coming from film school, I can see professors using it to teach editing techniques, non-linear screenwriting, cinematography, production design, sound design, and large-scale direction. There’s so much to pick apart in the nuts and bolts of this movie. Like Baby Driver, it’s a piece of art obviously created by skilled technicians firing on all cylinders (pun intended, I guess).

That’s why I’m inclined to cut Nolan some slack for the ending’s treacly patriotism. After all, this has been his passion project for years and I’m not sure I could resist the same urge. Nolan and Interstellar cinematographer Hoytevan Hoytema wring out gorgeous images even in Dunkirk’s sappiest moments. There’s the fertile metaphor of an RAF Spitfire gliding over the French beach with an empty gas tank. There’s Hardy silhouetted as he watches flames devour his trusty plane. It’s the most beautiful shot in a film packed with beautiful shots from end to end. If the uplifting score and Churchill’s famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech come off as oversentimental, the film has earned it by this point. The cynic in me was stirred despite my best efforts. That’s an accomplishment I recognize and respect.

On the writing side of things, I haven’t received any rejections since last week. It’s a waiting game, which makes it worse than Monooly and Don’t Wake Daddy combined. More updates as they come.

Oh yeah! I can finally play the entire intro to Don’t Stop Believin’ on the piano. It only took me three years of intermittent practice. At this rate, I’ll know the entire song by 2020!

As always, thanks for reading.