When was the last time you … ?

Think. What do you love to do but haven’t done it for a long time?

I know. There are reasons why you haven’t done it. Everyone has excuses.

I’ve done something this past week that I haven’t done in about a year and it’s been real enjoyable: guitar playing and song composing.

I won’t go into all the ridiculous reasons that my guitar was packed away awaiting a move that never happened for a year, but I can attest that it really has been a year without playing it.  And I missed it.

And it struck me how that cliched comment about “it’s like riding a bike”  came to the forefront of my mind when I put the fretboard in my hand for the first time in 12 months. My brain and fingers remembered everything. It’s pretty remarkable. I forget stuff all the time, but all the chords and finger positionings came naturally like I never stopped playing.

I plucked out some chords to the melody I created that matched some lyrics I made which are related to a new novel I’m writing. Yeah, a bunch of strange connections there.

But the point it this: I enjoy playing guitar. I enjoy writing lyrics. I enjoy composing songs on the guitar, and it felt great to do it again.

What about you? What do you love to do that you haven’t done in a long time? Try it out again. It’s been far too long.

I’ll leave you with some of the lyrics to my untitled new song.

RANDOM UNTITLED SONG LYRICS

Part of me is reaching, to set upon the stars

To grasp a piece of heaven, to lunge to places far,

       Part of me is crying out, to reach inside your heart,

  But I hold no ill will.

           No, I hold no ill will.

Part of me is trying. To understand this world.

Untangle all the colors that blindness tends to swirl

And form the ground beneath our feet that heaven’s gate unfurls

But I hold no ill will.

Yes, I hold no ill will.

The past it paints its canvas black with speckled sparks of light,

Glimpses to remind me of where I’ve been,

 The future holds the promises of many well-fought fights,

But I’ll never turn away from where I’ve been.

                 Cause I’ve seen the poorest soul be trampled to the ground,

 And I cannot turn away from where I’ve been,

        And I’ve seen the lights of fame adorning all around

Yet even more, it grips my breast, and hold it tight onto my chest

               All the places, good or bad, I’ve ever been

(copyright 2019 Mark W Sasse)

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Setting: Real or Fictitious?

Choosing a setting for a novel isn’t always an easy task.  A writer friend advised me once to chose a fictitious setting for one of my novels, and she was absolutely right. In that case. The advantages of choosing a fictitious setting are many. Such as:

  1. The writer can make it look and feel however he or she wants.
  2.  There are no preconceived notions in a made-up setting.
  3.  It encourages the reader to use their imaginations much more to create the landscapes and sights and sounds of the locale.
  4. No one can say you got it wrong! Let’s face it, if you use a real location and aren’t really specific about it, mistakes can be made. Readers don’t like to read something incorrect about their hometown. I know, I’ve heard from one before when I misspelled a city’s name. Oops. Yes, embarrassing!

On the flip side, real setting can:

  1. Ground a story in historical details which might be crucial to the point you are trying to make.
  2. Enables the readers to readily identify with a scene. For example, if you put your story in Manhattan, everyone can easily imagine what it looks like even if they haven’t been there.
  3. Readers can be attracted to storylines which take place in their backyard or their home country.

As you might imagine, there’s no right or wrong answer about picking a setting. You just need to determine if a real location will make the story more effective or not.  My novels about Vietnam – The Reach of the Banyan Tree  & Beauty Rising absolutely depend upon the stories taking place in Vietnam. They are strongly mixed with history and real places and people that putting them in a fictitious setting would completely defeat their purpose and water them down to nothing.

However, my novel A Love Story for a Nation is set in an unnamed country. I did this on purpose as the story centers around one man’s struggle for freedom in a country under a dictatorship. These common themes can be seen in many countries around the world and it did not need to be specified. I remember one of my reviewers was confused at first because she couldn’t figure out where the story took place until she commented that it could have taken place anywhere. Yes, that’s the point.

In my other novel Which Half David I was playing a lot off of my southeast Asian experiences in creating a diverse culture that was a mix of many of the places I had lived and visited. So I decided to create a brand new island nation that would be a cross-section of those places. I think it worked well. I’ve seen this also in one of my favorite novels The Ugly American by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. It’s setting is the country of Sarkhan which is a mix of Thailand and Vietnam. The history of Sarkhan mimicked the post-WWII Vietnam history but the language and culture of Sarkhan was closer to that of Thailand.

As I’m starting writing my next novel – first two chapters finished – this topic has reared its head again because I still haven’t decided how to set this novel. I think it will end up being set in Malaysia. I’m still weighing the pros and cons.

So, think it through and get it right! Then commit to the setting with all you got.

The Best I Could Is No Longer The Best I Can

May this always be true: The best I could do is no longer the best I can do.

If this is true, it means improvement is happening. And that’s what we want, isn’t it? Growth?

I’m not the same writer I was five years ago. Honestly, that’s a very good thing.  When I was starting out as a newly published independent author, I made mistakes. A lot of mistakes. I’m still prone to mistakes today, but, boy, things were kind of rough back in the day, which makes me feel very appreciative of all those positive reviews these strangers left on what was not my best work.

There’s a reason I’m rambling on about writing growth. I have been meaning to start re-promoting one of my favorite novels, which I published in 2014 – The Reach of the Banyan Tree.  It was my third and longest novel at the time – a multi-generational, historical romance novel mixed with war, adventure, and contemporary intrigue. I’ve always loved the story behind this novel. It covered all my old stomping grounds from my ten years living in Vietnam.

Finally, I was ready to start re-promoting it, but something happened. I started reading through the beginning of this novel and, honestly, I cringed. No, I didn’t really write like that back then, did I?

I read more and sighed deeply with one simple realization: I did not want to promote this book if it’s going to make readers think that that’s the way I currently write. I didn’t want to give that impression because there were many problems with the way my prose flowed in 2013. So I had a decision to make: keep as is and no longer promote it or do a complete re-edit and revision.

Yep, what you know what I chose.  Over the last two weeks I did a thorough read and re-edit – getting rid of all those narrative issues and those needlessly wordy sentences. Oh, and those adverbs. There was more, but you get the picture.

Once the ebook was reformatted, then came the paperback. I came to realize that I didn’t even know what a drop-cap was back in 2013 when I was putting this together. So you know what I had done? I used some sort of anchored text box to make drop caps at the beginning of each chapter. They looked terrible.

The final re-edit isn’t perfect. I didn’t have unlimited time, but I’m much happier with the result, and I am now happy to start re-promoting it.

This whole process gives me hope that the best of my writing is yet to come. It’s exciting for me to see what’s brewing in the mind which will one day be a whole host of new stories. Let’s hope they are crisper than ever before.

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Wearing a New TECH Hat

My role as drama director has shifted as I now produce my shows in a brand new theatre-style auditorium. In the past, I’ve had a dedicated theatre tech staff, professionally trained in lighting design for dramatic shows. I used to tell those fine professionals what I wanted and they worked their magic.

Well, no more. I’ve had to add lighting tech to my list of responsibilities, and shall I say, I actually love it.  Here’s a photo of me doing design work from the ETC Element console in our auditorium.

Lighting Booth

I designed that setting red sun along with a blue wash for my play “No in Spite of Itself.” I added a starry gobo to it as well though not noticeable in the shot.

 

Lighting design is just the type of creative activity which I love to do. Along the course of my theatre journey, I’ve had to learn graphic design on photoshop, audio editing on Audacity, and now I’m knee deep in the wonderful world of theatre lighting.

I have a lot to learn, and I have to learn how to do proper lighting with the limitations of our new theatre.

Drive By

In this shot, spotlight on stage left focused on the mayor’s press conference. A scrim at center stage is lighted by a Source Four ellipsoidal and the cyclorama is lit in blue and red by our Source Four LED par lights.

dress rehearsal

Distant view of the same shot.

 

I was happy with the results of my first lighting design. I can’t wait to do more!  There’s really an unlimited type of creativity offered in this type of work–especially with the high-end LED lights that we have. The color, oh my, is tremendous. Every scene can be shaded differently to help set the tone.  So much fun!

I’m fortunate to be able to run the whole gamut of theatre in my current setting – writing, producing, directing, and now sound & lighting design.

Let’s keep it going! I have three more shows planned for next year.

Why I Produce Shows with Simple Sets.

“Why do you only have a backdrop of Broadway flats and black boxes for your shows?”

This is a common question I get from some of my students.

“Why can’t we wear costumes?”

This one too.

“We had this one set in the past that was amazing. It even had a zip line.”

This is a frequent comment.

If I can paraphrase a colleague of mine, who, by the way, happens to be a world class musician, many people want spectacle – shiny things to look at. I might say this: many people want to look at a Ferrari even if it has a cardboard engine under the hood.

Spectacle is fine. There’s a place for it. Superficial, light-hearted, simple entertainment is fine. There’s a place for it.

But its not what I want for my shows.

One of the best compliments I ever had was by a former colleague who told me that what I want to do it real drama – real theatre – not spectacle.

Thank you. He got it.

And I know what I do will never satisfy everyone, and that’s fine. As an author, I’ve learned to shake-off poor reviews. My goal is to produce well-told stories which have substance, and so I love to produce minimalistic, black-box, ensemble productions. Where the words, the movement, and the lights tell the story. We use ensemble black shirts – everyone dressed the same – and we use black drama cubes for everything, and I mean everything.

We put themed, short plays together in a fast-paced manner that makes the audience feel like they are on an emotional roller coaster.

It’s the type of  show which forces the actors to grow in their craft – to play more than one type of character in one night.

If you can’t tell already, I’m passionate about it cause I’ve seen what it can do for the actors and the audience.

You don’t need big shiny things to drama people in. (or at least not everyone) Humans love well-told stories even if the set lacks a zip line.

I’m going to keep telling those stories. I hope you enjoy.