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What's the Motive? Rebecca Slitt

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In this regular blog series, guest authors discuss the motive behind their latest books--or in this case, games. Maybe that’s the motive for murder in the traditional mystery sense, but writers will share some aspect of motive in their works without spoiling the plot. For example, rather than focusing on the killer, what is the protagonist’s motive? This could also be the author’s motive for writing the story. Why this story? Why now? Contributors are free to explore “motive” in all of its connotations. 

When it comes to Interactive Fiction, where reader choice matters, motive is a little more up-for-grabs. If you were a nerdy kid like me in the 80s, you remember Choose Your Own Adventure books, with multiple endings and reader choice all the way through. This form enjoys a vibrant life online today, as in Rebecca Slitt's Psy High.

Rebecca Slitt:

What’s the motive in Psy High? It’s whatever you decide it is.

Psy High is an interactive novel: on the border between a book and a game. As in all of the titles from Choice of Games, you the reader direct the action at every turn: you decide what the main character does and why. Not only that, but you get to choose the main character’s name, gender, orientation, personality, and goals. 

The story in Psy High is a mixture of mystery, romance, and supernatural elements, inspired by “Veronica Mars” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” You play a teenager with psychic powers – clairvoyance and telepathy – who uses their gifts to solve mysteries. When an old friend asks you to investigate why your classmates are acting strangely, you discover a plot that could put the whole school at risk. You have to maneuver around your teachers, parents, and even your friends while using your magical abilities to uncover the truth – not to mention going to class, trying out for the drama club play, and finding a date for the prom.

The culprit has their own motive, but you figure that out – along with the culprit’s identity – fairly early. The more complicated question is: what's your motive? When you discover what's really going on in your high school, what do you do about it, and why? 

Maybe you’re motivated by altruism: you want to do what will help the most people. That’s a noble goal, but it’s not always easy to figure out how to reach it. What helps one person might hurt another.

Maybe you’re motivated by affection: you see how all of these issues are affecting your friends and want to help them. Maybe you want to help your boyfriend or girlfriend, or do whatever it takes to make them happy, or just spend as much time with them as possible. The prom is coming up, after all, and what could be more important than that?

Maybe you’re motivated by power. There’s plenty of power to be had, both magical and otherwise, and plenty of secrets to uncover. Do you care about that more than you care about your classmates? More than going to college? More than anything?

Maybe you’re motivated by a desire to fit in. In high school, what’s worse than being different? You can try to reject your magical power, act like every other kid, keep your head down, study, and try to lead a perfectly ordinary life. 

Or, maybe you think that the villain isn't such a villain after all. Maybe you realize that you share their motive: you think that their plan will make the school a better place, not worse. That’s possible, too. You can team up with them and use your magic to help them.

What this all means is that you get to choose the kind of story that you’re participating in. It can be a story about love conquering all: You can find your true love and draw on the strength of that bond to triumph over whatever challenges come your way. It can be a story about discovering deeper truths about yourself and the world: learning what you truly care about, what your values are, and how far you’ll go to defend them. It can be a story about rebellion: breaking every rule, fighting the power wherever you find it, showing the world that you’re your own person. It can even be a story about failure: No matter how strong or noble your motives are, there’s no guarantee that you’ll succeed – so if you fail, what meaning will you draw from that?

There are dozens of stories to be told inside the mystery of Psy High, each with its own motive. You get to choose which story you want to tell.

Download and review Psy High.

Follow Rebecca Slitt on Twitter.

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Rebecca Slitt is an academic-turned-game-designer who uses her knowledge of medieval history to make sure that dragon battles follow the principles of chivalry and time travelers go to the right places in medieval London. She is an editor and author for Choice of Games, and has contributed to the tabletop RPGs Timewatch and Noirlandia

 


The Goodness of Gathering

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It's tempting, when you're freelancing or otherwise working from a home office, to become a hermit. You're finally free of the crowded bus; you no longer have to endure the cutthroat competition for the microwave at lunchtime. Even pants are optional.

But after you've soaked up scrumptious solitude for a good while, you start to crave communication. Someone to bounce ideas off of. Alternative answers to the questions you ponder silently every day. 

That's where writing conferences come in. As a writer, editor, and teacher with 25 years' experience, I've attended many conferences over my career, and I always learn something new at each one. At this year's Southwest Washington Writers Conference, there was plenty to absorb, from the art of cover design to the craft of villainy.

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Author Kyle Pratt, who presented at the conference, with his mug on a cookie.

Having recently completed a cover vote-a-thon, I found Gorham Printing rep Kathy Campbell's presentation on cover design very interesting. I hadn't realized that male readers prefer blue covers or that Millennials have a thing for vintage photos from the 60s and 70s. (Hmm... wonder what that's all about... ).

Memoirist Jennifer Lauck's presentation served for me as the perfect follow-up to Annie Dillard's The Writing Life, which I'd re-read right before the conference. Both Lauck and Dillard present a vision of the writing life that requires strong commitment, a dedication to the work, and an active reading practice. I loved Lauck's advice to read a book looking specifically for a particular aspect of structure, such as where and how to turn a scene or develop a character.

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Author Carolyn McCray, me, and Kyle.

I felt more in the mood for craft discussions over business talk, but when I read Carolyn McCray's bio, I realized I couldn't miss her showdown with Kyle Pratt over whether or not to publish exclusively with Amazon. The two presented equally compelling models for how to make it as an indie writer. They've both achieved great success but with radically different approaches.

Which brings me to this: There are so many different ways to be a writer. Sure, you can get advice and take a lot of rules to heart, but the writing life is as wide open as the sky. For example, there's writer Terri Read, who's published more than 40 books with Harlequin since 1993. She thinks of writing in terms of layers of cake, and her process is very structured, to the point of adhering to a set formula. Another conference presenter, Jill Williamson, takes a less structured approach with her self-described "weird books." She devoted her whole talk to villains, pointing out cliches and arguing that "the best villains are the ones readers actually like."

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Speaking of villains, get a load of these two. Just kidding - Kyle* and Pat are my fellow members of the Lewis County Writers Guild.

The most rewarding aspect of attending conferences is the opportunity to meet other writers. While there are always plenty of published and veteran authors in attendance, most of the people I meet are noobs just dipping a toe into the writing waters for the first time. So if you're holding back because you don't think you're experienced enough, let go of that right now. I hope to see you at the next one.

*I realize from the pics here it looks like I'm stalking Kyle Pratt. But I'm not. At least I don't think so. I think it's just that we're both becoming less camera-shy. ;)  


My Latest Game-Writing Project: Smash Squad

 

 I've been a writer and narrative designer in the digital game industry for going on nine years now. For the past five years, this has meant helping developers create strong storylines and integrate them with the "play" part of the game. But this spring I had the opportunity to shift gears and concentrate on just the writing itself, and in a very different type of game than the hidden-object puzzle adventure fare that was my focus at Big Fish. 

 The game, which just released on iOS, is called "Smash Squad," and it's an incredibly fun, addictive, fast-paced, top-down physics battler. While definitely focused on a pinball-style battle mechanic, it also has a role-playing and collectible element as well. The creative team obviously had a blast coming up with characters like Broomhilda Sweeps and Lumber Jacques. 

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 My task was to write the core narrative text, given a villain named Klon, a guide character, Trixie, and a set sequence of worlds the player would move through as the game progressed. This involved guidance from and discussion with the developers at WG Cells, with initial feedback on a trial sample to get the tone and story beats in line with the overall vision for the game. It was a great opportunity for me to stretch into more of a sit-com, one-liner writing style after years of working on mostly super-serious mystery games.

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 The team generously gave me leeway in developing a story arc to fit the game's mechanics. I decided it would be fun to have Klon try to recruit the player over to the, ah, Klon side, and they gave me the green light. 

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 Writing for games means making use of the world-building in the game's environmental art, as in this sequence below, which highlights the statues in the second level, Sooper City. This way the characters, though only onscreen for a short time and in 2D, are tied to the world, and the player can fill in the rest with her imagination. Here's how it looks in the context of the map world. While this dialogue string references the statues in the world, the previous one played on the giant octopus.

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Let me know after playing Smash Squad what you think of the story - I'm always looking for ways to improve my craft. If you haven't played it yet, check it out! The game is available now in the App Store.  


Measures of Success: Where I Am in This Publishing Experiment

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Lately I've heard from people who assume I'm earning piles of money from my books. They tell me I make the whole publishing thing look easy, and that it makes them want to jump in.

This is a really good example of why I try never to make assumptions. 

It's funny, because I've been pretty up-front about the whole thing from the beginning, as you can read in this post on my decision to self-publish as well as this post about what it took to hit the bestseller spot in two categories on Amazon. If you don't want to read those two posts, here they are in a nutshell: 1) My decision to self-publish was borne from a cold-eyed practicality that showed me getting an agent and a solid traditional publishing contract would be as likely as winning the lottery and 2) Hitting the bestseller lists on Amazon came after 25 years of toil, and I still had to make the book free.

But I guess my previous posts weren't enough. People see "bestseller" and the fact that I'm up for a couple of major awards, and they automatically assume I'm making piles of money. And maybe it's my own fault for trumpeting the bestseller achievement, which is a big win, don't get me wrong. But because publishing today is totally broken, it doesn't mean I'm making piles of money, or even enough to call this my new day job, neither of which I have actually claimed, but people seem to assume. There's a lot of hope and fantasy-making when it comes to the life of a writer. We still want to believe we can all be J.K. Rowling, and that getting there is easy. 

Here it is for the record: My husband/business partner and I are still in the red on these books. 

And here's why:

  1. Discoverability. By at least one estimate, there's a new book posted to Amazon every five minutes. Simply getting eyes on your product remains the biggest obstacle in all of entertainment. At the video-game company were I used to work, it was of chief consideration. We did the best when we had our own portal to funnel new games to players who'd played our previous games, but the Apple store made this more of a challenge. So if I could design a Lisa Brunette portal within Amazon that sent my book promos to readers who'd purchased my books before, or similar books, I'd be in business. But that's not possible.
  2. Have you bought my books? If you did, thank you. I hope you enjoyed them. But was it the print or audiobook version (which earn me just a few cents to a few dollars in royalties), the ebook version (which earns me even fewer cents to a couple of dollars in royalties), or the free version (which earns me next to nothing in royalties)?
  3. Sales of Cat in the Flock to-date are clocking in at just under 5,000 copies, most of those free, and sales of Framed and Burning are lower because it's been $3.99 since launch with no promos and no KDP enrollment (what this is). As for my other books, there's a reason I continually refer to poetry as a "labor of love." Ditto short stories.
  4. Most of the people who downloaded the free copy during the promotion that catapulted Cat in the Flock to bestseller status haven't yet read the book, which affects my royalties via Amazon's "normalized pages read" count, and they did not buy the second book in the series. This is a well-known result for bestsellers on Amazon these days, so writers and marketers generally hope the lift will boost sales a few times as others see the book in the ranking, which did happen for a time...or I don't know what else, and neither do they.
  5. I am no pro at promotion. It's funny because I keep getting notes of admiration/offers to hire me from other authors who think I do it well, and I tell them I'm just bumbling around here, but since authors on the whole tend to be really terrible at this, I guess I look good by comparison. I am still learning how to do the book sales and promo thing, so stay tuned. Hopefully I'll get even better!
  6. Most of the friends and family to whom I've given free copies of my books haven't read them. I try not to get too tripped up about this, as it seems to be a writer phenomenon: Those closest to us tend to be the least likely to read and discuss the book (with the exclusion of my husband/business partner, who's my biggest fan; he also has a stake in the game). But it's probably because reading the words of someone you know very well can be jarring. As my sister (who is actually very supportive) said, "I hear your voice in my head as I'm reading, and it's weird." This recently happened to me with an old friend who wrote a thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect after she blurbed my thriller set in a fundamentalist religious sect. I freaked out reading the first chapter and haven't been able to pick it up since. It wasn't just the voice; it was the inevitable comparison in subject matter. People you know look for themselves in your books; they can't help it.
  7. I've been very fortunate to have amazing supporters and fans who share my content, but I haven't had the time to grow my list the way I should. It's a business that is definitely more-than-full-time, like a start-up or your new local restaurant, but I have not yet had the luxury to focus on it 24/7 because I have to attend to my other sources of income. We spent this entire last weekend working on republishing both Dreamslippers books, for example, so we feel like we now need a weekend to recover from our working weekend.

We're not yet in the black, but we partners of Sky Harbor LLC invested more into the business than most indie authors, so we have more to make back. We saw this as a long-term strategy, and it's way too early to call since I've only published two books so far. The models I have for how this works didn't begin to make a living until they were into books three or four, and this goes for both the indies and the traditionally published authors. One traditional author tells me the only way he lives off his writing is through his foreign sales. His foreign publishers are also the ones who pay for his few book tours, as his U.S. publisher won't pay for any.

My approach is to be much more diversified, too. I'm currently working as a game writer, speaker, and journalist in addition to the fiction I write. I believe this is a healthier mix for these volatile economic times. But that means I'm trying to keep up with four different industry spaces, growing my contacts and experience in all of them at once. Some days, it feels like managing four different start-ups.

Overall, I'm flattered that people think I'm making a living at this, and I am thrilled with the success I've had with my fiction. With just two books under my belt, I've won one book award and am a finalist for two others. My first book hit the no. 1 spot not in some quirky niche but in two major categories on Amazon: paranormal mystery and private investigators, which, if you think about a book being published every five minutes, is a huge achievement. It's trending at 4.5 stars on 52 reviews, and the second book is close behind. I've been approached by a Hollywood director about TV rights (but don't get too excited--Hollywood is notoriously fickle). Enough readers and influencers have given their independent, non-paid praise of the books such that I know if I can surmount the hefty obstacles, I will begin to see some financial success. I've proved I am a serious career author with the speaking, marketing, and most of all, writing chops to go the distance. It's only a matter of time before the right people--and/or an army of readers--take notice. 

And if they never do, I will at least know that I gave it my all, heart and soul. Plus, look at the enviable experience I'll have to offer in my next day job...

  


The $6 Million Dollar Man in Today's Dollars

 

The other day I thought about how much I wish I had a bionic spine, and I remembered that back in the 70s, they totally promised us bionic everything when "The Six Million Dollar Man" debuted on television. Here it is 40 years later, and still no bionic dude.

The show only ran for four years, but in the monoculture of the time, everyone watched it. We kids fantasized what it would be like to have superhuman powers, which seemed well within the reach of science. "We can rebuild him," the narrator intones. "We have the technology." This is a great example of what I like to call "hand-waveology." Whenever science is used to further a plot without tackling sticky improbabilities like resource scarcity, return on investment, or actual scientific laws, the writers are sort of waving their hands, expecting us to accept it, no questions asked.

The other thing about the show is that it suggests technology can turn us into a better version of ourselves. Not some clunky inhuman cyborg but a man who's only a robot on the inside, where it doesn't mess up his man-ness, and the robotics only serve to make him stronger, faster, less vulnerable. And all for only $6M. I can remember that sounded like a lot of money back then. It doesn't anymore.

I wondered what that $6M would be in today's dollars, and it turns out it's $29,118,985.80. So the remake would have to be called "The Thirty Million Dollar Man." 

Of course, if they really did try to "rebuild" an astronaut today (LOL), assuming he's given permission to use his body as a science experiment (apparently not an issue for 1970s viewers), and assuming for the sake of argument that the technology actually does exist, it would probably run at least a billion, and there'd be cost overruns and delays. It would cause a huge controversy in a number of areas: government spending, the whole scary robots-taking-over-the-world-thing, the ethics of experimentation, etc., etc. There'd be lawsuits and counter lawsuits. #whyamisocynical #howcouldinotbe #thatisall


My Presentation for the IDEA Summit at University of Florida

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I finally had a chance to review my video from the IDEA Summit last month. To tell the truth, I find watching videos of myself to be a tough task, as I endlessly critique my performance, attire, physical appearance--you name it. There's also the truth that women who talk about games for women have been horribly harassed online. So I'll admit to some fear that being more visible as a woman in the industry making games for women will garner me the kind of attention I'd rather not receive. I hope that's not the case.

For the record: I've never been harassed about my game work, either in person or online. But I've also always worked in casual games, which means I've been working on games for families, or specifically for women, throughout the course of my eight-year career in the industry. In other words, I've never asked for changes to be made--or tried to change--the games being made for hardcore gaming audiences. The work I've done to help developers tailor their games to a female audience was by company directive, and in everyone's best interest, as it made the games sell. We always knew that if the games didn't sell, we'd all have to go home. So the work we did was tied directly to the bottom line and not due to a political objective, not that there's anything wrong with political objectives.

So that has likely insulated me, and I don't have much experience with that other world, outside of sometimes playing hardcore games myself or meeting people at the Game Development Conference. 

You can watch the video of my presentation here. All in all, I think I did all right. Most importantly, I loved the synergy between the students, faculty, and all conference presenters. The exchange of ideas and rich conversations will stay with me. I'm already looking for the next opportunity to participate in something like this, which I hope comes along soon.

I was also part of a panel discussion, along with a wide variety of people with varying expertise pertinent to entrepreneurship. This got spirited when the subject of sexism in the tech industry came up.

I'd be interested in hearing about your experience with games--both as a player, if you are one, or as someone who's stood outside the industry, looking in.


It's a Great, Big Digital World

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Here I am, guest-lecturing in a Game Design class.

I spent last week in Gainesville, Florida, for the first-ever International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit (IDEAS). The Summit grew out of a series of conversations I had with Marko Suvajdzic, a professor with the University of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute.

Marko and I have worked together for many years, but until now sort of on opposite sides of the fence. As he likes to explain, I'm the one who would mark up his game concept proposals and game design documents, asking him to make changes to the storylines. That was my job as Manager of Narrative Design for Big Fish, the publisher of the games Marko created through his studio O2D. He and I have collaborated on all of O2D's games for Big Fish, which includes the Vampire Legends series and the Mythic Wonders series

But now we've both moved on. Marko just sold O2D's Belgrade studio to Eipix Entertainment, another Big Fish developer, and I'm no longer with the Fish. However, with our shared experiences in both gaming and academia, a new kind of collaboration was inevitable. We started talking, and I served as a remote guest-lecturer in his Game Design class in December, and the IDEA summit was born. Marko brought together a serial entrepreneur from Tel Aviv, a Pakistan-born hybrid digital video artist who now lectures in Shanghai, an independent filmmaker who started in the business as a stuntman, and a social practice artist from the states. 

As I told Marko, he has great taste in friends. The week was a 24/7 incubator for ideas, debates, and lively exchanges. It was also a treat to meet other U of FL faculty, such as the lone female professor in the College of Engineering, who studies dance in an engineering context, and a professor of anesthesiology who wants to make games her patients can play as part of their palliative care, or even as the treatment itself.

The most endearing part of the weeklong experience was the students. I walked them through the game design process on the blockbuster game Christmas Stories: Nutcracker, and they had smart things to say throughout the two-hour class. The next evening, the students showcased their work at the Salon, and I was really impressed by the creativity and great ideas on exhibit. The winning entry was a re-imagining of breakdance set to elegant, graceful music, the stunning choreography turning the form on its head and blowing the viewer's expectations and stereotypes. The student judges were unanimous in their choice, they told me.

I'd never been to Gainesville before, so I was happy to get a tour from a delightful student who showed me the communal vegetable patch as well as this on-campus meditation center, which she and I dubbed 'the Gothic Pagoda':

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The Summit itself was an intense, one-day affair. I took part in a spirited discussion about women entrepreneurship on the morning panel, and then I blew everyone's mind with my presentation about interactive storytelling for women gamers. At least, that's what it felt like I did. Highlight: A female student came up to me and said she'd been considering giving up her plan to work in games due to a biased hiring experience, but my talk had changed her mind. She called me a "pioneer." I swallowed hard at that one and tried to give her the best advice I could. 

I left wondering if I should start my own game studio* even though my new pal Ofer Zinger, the keynote speaker, said about 90% of startups fail. What can I say? This entrepreneurship stuff is a heady drug.

IDEAS

* No, I'm not really going to start my own game studio, but if there are any VCs reading this, call me.


I'm Speaking at U of Florida's Digital Worlds Institute

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I was invited to participate in this summit on digital entrepreneurship, which is pretty damn cool. That week I'll be a guest lecturer in a digital design class (I've done this once before, remotely), a speaker at the summit itself, and a judge of student work at the salon. Here are the summit details:

International Digital Entrepreneurship Association Summit (IDEAS)

Presented at the University of Florida Digital Worlds Institute’s Research, Education and Visualization Environment (REVE) - March 25th, 2016, 9:30AM-5:00PM

Come join us for an amazing day of exploration & innovation with premiere guest speakers from around the world.

IDEAS is an inspirational event offering a day of learning how to succeed in the digital media business landscape. This one-day summit promotes the confluence of traditional entrepreneurship and new technologies, with an emphasis on new business forms and the opportunities created by these technologies. Guest panelists — academic and real-world practitioners — will link theory and practice, in a dialogue with participants, as they share their innovative stories, techniques, and ideas that have established them as leaders in their respective fields and industries.

Event page:  https://www.facebook.com/events/973184246099902/
Contact info:  
marko@digitalworlds.ufl.edu

The event is free but RSVP’s are required: rsvp@digitalworlds.ufl.edu

Event schedule, March 25th:

  • 9:30AM to 10:00AM – Coffee and registration
  • 10:00AM to 10:50AM – Key note (Ofer Zinger)
  • 11:00AM to 11:50AM – Panel discussion 
  • 12:00PM to 12:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (Nestor Gil)
  • 1:00PM to 2:00PM – Lunch
  • 2:00PM to 2:50PM – Guest speaker presentation (Lisa Brunette)
  • 3:00PM to 3:50PM - Guest speaker presentation (D.A. Jackson)
  • 4:00PM to 4:50PM- Guest speaker presentation (Taqi Shaheen)

Guest Speakers:

Ofer Zinger, Entrepreneurship - Hands-On

Being an entrepreneur is exciting, however, extremely risky;  more than 90% of the startups fail.  As a serial entrepreneur in the digital space, Mr. Zinger will cover the common pitfalls as well as the shortcuts to startup success that are often missing from standard textbooks, using real life hands-on examples.

Ofer Zinger has founded several companies in the digital space such as TLV Media, Dynamic Yield, Cedato, Ilivid (Acquired), Bundlore (Acquired) and others. Consultative to the Israeli Intelligence (8200), IAF, Iron dome project, and various companies in homeland security and medical devices sectors. Ofer Zinger is currently the Chairman of Feature Forward, a programmatic video advertising platform.  (https://www.linkedin.com/in/oferzinger

Lisa Brunette, Crafting Games for a Mainstream Audience
The current market is flooded with mid-core games targeted toward a male audience aged 18-35, while the audiences outside that demographic remain underserved. Learn how to craft game stories for women, older players of all gender identifications, and children in this talk from a recognized expert in premium casual storytelling.

Lisa Brunette has story design and writing credits in hundreds of bestselling video games, including the Mystery Case Files, Mystery Trackers, and Dark Tales series for Big Fish and AAA games for Nintendo and Microsoft platforms. She is featured in Boy’s Toys, a documentary about women in games. She earned an MFA in Fiction from University of Miami, and she is the past recipient of the AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission, and the William Stafford Award. (www.catintheflock.com)

Nestor Armando Gil, Labor Under Alternative Economies
Social practice art takes as its starting point relationships and dialogue, two elements crucial to a successful entrepreneurial enterprise.  By producing research, commodities, and performances in a social context, Nestor Gil addresses memory as a series of negotiations that are personal, cultural, and political. 

Nestor Armando Gil was born in Florida in 1971.  He received the Masters in Fine Art degree in 2009 from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  His performances and visual work have been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally in Spain, and the United Kingdom.

D. A. Jackson, Making Something Out of Nothing:  Independent Filmmaking in the Digital Age
Award winning director D.A. Jackson discusses the ins and outs of film production in the 21st Century.  Topics covered will be, how to use available resources, budgeting, directing, writing scripts, producing, VFX, and distribution.

D.A. Jackson has been working in the film industry for the past 18 years.  During his career, he has worked as a director, stuntman, fight choreographer, actor, and producer.  He has directed commercials, music videos, television shows for SPIKE,  and won numerous awards  for his independent feature films and shorts . His passion for storytelling  and unique approach to filmmaking has led him to be an often requested speaker at colleges and film festivals.

Taqi Shaheen, Being Digital: The Chinese Way

Born in Pakistan, and currently lecturing in Shanghai, China, Taqi is uniquely positioned to present the complex system of entrepreneurship as it exists in Asia today. From art works, to information technology and video games, Asia has been a hotbed of production and innovation. 

Taqi Shaheen is a filmmaker, visual artist and art educator whose work crosses mediums and defies genre distinctions to fashion witty and curious observations of contemporary Asian cultures and their urban landscapes. He graduated from the National College of Arts, Lahore, and uses hybrid digital video and film formats to research and construct non-fictional narratives collaborating with various visual artists, musicians and performers.) (http://www.taqishaheen.com/)

IDEAS is sponsored by UF Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Warrington College of Business Administration, supported by the UF Division of Sponsored Research, presented by the UF Digital Worlds Institute, and organized by Prof. Marko Suvajdzic.

Prof. Suvajdzic is a diverse thinker with 17+ years of achievement in academia and the creative digital research and production space. Marko’s experience includes a wide range of digital startups and educational projects. He has lectured internationally at schools and conferences in: U.S.A., U.K., India, Serbia, Norway, and China.


Audiobook Sneak Preview: Framed and Burning

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I'm reviewing the sound files for the audiobook version of Framed and Burning, which is narrated by Patricia Morris. She has 40 years' experience as an actor and singer. Her career began right out of high school when she toured with a national theater, and she has sung and acted professionally with theater groups and playhouses all over the U.S. Her credits include audiobooks, film, and TV.

Here's the prologue and first chapter, which I think she read beautifully:

Prologue

Chapter 1

 What do you think? Feel free to comment below.

 


(How to Get a) #1 Best-Seller!

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My first novel, Cat in the Flock, hit the #1 spot in two major categories on Amazon this morning:

Kindle ebooks>Mystery, Thriller & Suspense>Mystery>Private Investigators

and

Kindle ebooks>Mystery, Thriller & Suspense>Mystery>Paranormal

I made it my personal goal a couple of weeks ago to dominate the second category, Paranormal. So today when I saw that I'd secured the #1 spot in that one as well as Private Investigators, I had to do a double-take. There are a lot of private investigator books out there, so getting the dreamslippers to rise to #1 is no small feat.

Let me take a breath here.

Not two minutes after I announced this on Facebook, I had a message from an author who wants advice on whether or not to indie-publish. "You seem to have this figured out," he said.

I'm not sure that I do. And this isn't me minimizing my achievement; it's that a lot of the time it feels like we're all out here, every one of us, including all the indies like me as well as the traditionally published authors, we're all just pulling our careers together with sweat and duct tape. Anyone who promises you the moon doesn't have the moon, because the moon is a far away, tiny thing in the sky. We're all standing down here, trying to see it in the clouds.

But I did some things right that are worth noting. For example, I:

  • Put that first book through its paces with BETA readers for feedback and several editing passes.
  • Hired good editors. (Yes, I will give you their names: Elisa Mader and Jim Thomsen.)
  • Had literally worked on HUNDREDS of game narratives in the mystery genre before I'd even sat down to write it.
  • Had watched probably thousands of mystery TV shows and movies, if not hundreds of thousands.
  • Had read deeply in the genre and even interviewed top mystery authors, including two in the paranormal category.
  • Earned an MFA in creative writing and worked hard on my craft for 25 years, including teaching other people how to write and editing other people's copy.
  • Served as a BETA reader/early draft editor for an Edgar Award-winning author years ago before "BETA reader" was even a thing.
  • Reached out to Mary Daheim and Jon Talton, two established mystery authors, for their blurbs. I already had professional relationships with both of them (I interviewed Daheim once for Seattle Woman; I brought Talton's great writing to Crosscut when I was an editor there).
  • Paid for a review from Kirkus to give some added legitimacy since there is still a stigma against indies. Fortunately, they praised the book, but there's no guarantee they'll do that, and this was not a 'starred review.' They are known to be tough on genre writers.
  • Paid for a professional cover. This was after initially launching with my own creation, which turned out to be a huge problem as the book was erroneously plopped into the 'pet noir' category by Amazon regardless of the categories I'd chosen.
  • Tried to undo the damage of being erroneously placed in the 'pet noir' category on Amazon.
  • Tortured my husband with formatting changes. (Hat-tip to my husband/personal book formatter.)
  • Created a robust online presence and schooled myself on marketing.
  • Learned to think of marketing as another form of storytelling.
  • Formed an LLC and publishing company.
  • Gave print copies away to people at my own cost.
  • Held my own hand and babysat myself through the dust bowl days. OK, my husband must have been holding a foot. Probably both feet.
  • Profusely thanked and did return favors and thanked again anyone who helped me in any way.
  • Worked for a year and a half to promote the book, slowly racking up 40 reviews on Amazon. It's currently trending at 4.5 stars.
  • Tried to do everything with grace and integrity, or at least not come off as a book-hawking douche.

Still, none of this was enough to get to the #1 spot. That didn't happen until I'd done all of the above, put the second book out as well to critical acclaim, and THEN set the first book on ebook for FREE, and exclusively through Amazon. Mind you it's not enough to slap a book together and stick it on Amazon for free. I had to do all of the above and THEN offer it for free. It's a tough, tough business! I'm playing a long game here.

So there you have it. How to get to #1 spots on Amazon, with sweat and duct tape. To the author who asked me whether he should indie-publish or try to get an agent, I'd say you have to do almost all of the above whether you publish as an indie or with someone else. (Or maybe you'll get superstar lucky and win the book lotto, but I'm not one of those people, and I don't know anyone who is.)

Publishers save you from decision-making and hiring people yourself, so if you'd rather not do those things, don't be an indie. There is also the book store thing. Despite trying valiantly, I am only in a handful of book stores because most of them won't work with indies. So if you're attached to that, don't be an indie. The vast majority of my sales are on ebook, and I get to keep a far greater percentage of my royalties than any traditionally published author does. Say what you want about the return of print, but ebooks are totally here to stay.

Hey, I'm not there yet. Not by any stretch. I'm just getting started.

But for now, let me enjoy this victory. My friend and fellow author Chris Patchell congratulated me on Facebook, to which I replied, "It's a tough biz!" She wrote back: "Indeed it is, and we need to celebrate every victory. This is a great one for you."

It really is.


Undercover Christians, Part II

BRAG medallion ebook AT IN THE FLOCK

In my last post, I shared the "undercover Christian" experience I drew on to write the Plantation Church scenes in Cat in the Flock

I was also lucky to have--right in my own home--a first-person source for what it's really like inside a fundamentalist megachurch. My husband, Anthony Valterra, went undercover in the Ted Haggard New Life church as part of the research for his Master's thesis in Religious Studies.

(Spoiler Alert: In this piece, I discuss aspects of the book that could take away from the experience of certain plot twists and reveals.)

Hours of conversations about our experiences with evangelicals informed my writing. I was most fascinated by Ted Haggard's struggle with homosexuality, and the scandals that resulted. While I can't stress enough that my character Jim Plantation is definitely not Ted Haggard, I did use him as a model--at least Anthony's impressions of him. I refrained from specific research on Haggard because I didn't want the real image of him to dominate the story. Rather, I wanted to give life to the character I already had in my head.

I kept seeing Jim Plantation in the dream that Cat slips into:

 Cat could feel the heat of a red wall of fire and need inside him raging toward the dolls in the cabinet. There was a strong feeling of ownership and also responsibility. It was up to him to deliver them from evil. It was up to him to make sure they didn't sin. He was their keeper; he would make them obey the will of the Lord. The temptations were so raw. The dark, powerful sins of the flesh could tear a little girl to pieces inside until she let evil overcome her, making her hungry, making her spread her legs and let her juices flow, beckoning men with her ripe, red--

Cat recoiled against the force of the man's roiling emotions, knocking herself back. She hit the door behind her, hard. And there was the man in front of her; she could see his lean back in the muddy suit. She'd done it. She was out of him. He stood there gazing at his angels. He seemed unaware of Cat's presence.

"My pretty little angels," the man said in a voice with a lovely cadence that sounded familiar to her. "So perfect," he intoned, his voice reverent. "So clean." 

There are two kinds of sexual repression in the book, the self-imposed one that Plantation and his brethren visit upon themselves, and the antifeminist strictures they place on women and girls in their church. To me it was important to get inside and understand both of them.

In conversations with Anthony, I was particularly struck by his characterization of the church leaders as true believers and not just charlatans trying to fleece their flocks. On the one hand, this meshed with my own experience with the authentic conservatives in my family and social circles. On the other hand, I'd cynically assumed that those at the helms of such large organizations were out merely to take advantage--of their 501(c)3 status, of the generosity of their congregations, you name it.

This is often the characterization of evangelical leaders in stories today. In the popular "Grimm" TV series, writers depict a wolf in sheep's clothing who seems to have little real belief, and the one villain who got away with that egregious crime in the first season of "True Detective" is a church leader.

But these portrayals are a bit one-dimensional, or at least lacking in complexity, according to Anthony. "Ted Haggard, and many of his followers, are truly answering what they perceive to be the Lord's call, and their struggles to live up to their own standards and beliefs are real."

Certainly he witnessed members of the church reaching for roles that would give them more claim, or power, or prominence within the structure of the church. But it was always done with authenticity and conviction regarding the faith itself. This he witnessed while undercover, with an assumed name, for a whole summer. To this day, his true mission there was unknown.

The feelings of betrayal that Wendy expresses when she finds out Cat is lying, though? That's all fiction. 


Undercover Christians, Part I

BRAG medallion ebook AT IN THE FLOCK

In my debut novel, Cat in the Flock, the protagonist goes undercover in a fundamentalist Christian church, where she finds redemption and goodwill amidst hypocrisy and lies. To write this world convincingly, I drew upon some powerful real-life experiences.

First were my familial relationships with fundamentalists, most importantly the in-laws from my first marriage. My ex-husband's family was conservative Lutheran, the type who listened to Rush Limbaugh and agreed with him. We prayed before every meal, even in restaurants. Children in the family were given--sans the permission of their parents--picture books for Christmas that refuted evolution. Once I was invited to join in a photo of all the women in the family, a grouping of  "moms and future moms," as if that was the natural and sole identity of any woman. And no one thought to ask me or my husband about our family plans; it was just assumed.

I remember my then brother-in-law, who is a math teacher, once set up his telescope outside, providing us with a stupendous view of the craters on the surface of the moon. "Whenever I see something like this," he said, "it confirms my belief in the Lord." I envied his conviction, even if I didn't understand it. 

But as certain as the majority in the family were about their beliefs, they were loving and respectful to those of us who didn't share them. They really were Christians in every sense of the word, kind and warm and incredibly giving. They worked hard, played fair, trusted in their God, and comforted each other in times of grief. I felt welcomed by them, one of the family. 

And I knew where they were coming from, despite my liberal/progressive/political college days and young adulthood. I'd grown up in very conservative environments, and while my military father was at best agnostic, my mother was a loyal Catholic who dragged all four of her kids' butts to mass on Sundays whenever she could, without my father's help.

Now there's a huge difference between Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, as my former in-laws would be the first to tell you. I remember getting a bit of anti-papist sentiment at family gatherings. One member of the family scoffed at a Catholic friend's offer to light a candle for him, and when I shared stories of my brother playing with the kneelers in our church pews, a family member snottily remarked, "Well, we certainly don't kneel." I had been raised haphazardly Catholic, was never confirmed, and hadn't set foot inside a church in years, but that remark made me want to show up at the next family gathering swinging incense and dowsing everyone in holy water.

But like my in-laws' Christian beliefs, my mother's Catholicism trended toward the conservative end of the spectrum. Furthermore, and she will probably berate me for sharing this, but she became even more conservative in the 1980s thanks to the PTL Club. Yeah, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's shows broadcast like mad in Sacramento, and my mother, left alone to raise us while my father was off on TDY to South Korea, climbed into that clown car and thought for a while she was among friends. But we don't have to judge her for this. Who among ye hasn't been momentarily led astray, especially during hard times?

Unfortunately for me, this coincided with a burgeoning junior high-aged discovery of music, and thanks to the Bakkers, and a silly stunt pulled by Ozzy Osbourne, I came of age only to find that all the most enticing music was now off limits. So the PTL Club made its mark on me.

Still, I credit the Catholic faith with saving my mother during a traumatic time in her life. Her journey back to God is one I deeply honor and respect. And my own political activism was founded within the Jesuit tradition. Like Cat McCormick, I graduated from St. Louis University, and I still hold a great deal of respect for Jesuit education (my own was rigorous and query-based) and the Jesuit tradition of service. 

All of this was in the background as I wrote Cat in the Flock. While my own beliefs, such that I have any concrete ones, sway far from the fundamentalist fold, I admire those who find redemption and liberation through a closer walk with God, however that manifests.

In Undercover Christians, Part II, I'll describe another inspiration for Cat's fundamentalist church undercover work: My husband really did go undercover in the Ted Haggard church. Yes, that Ted Haggard.

 


What I'm Reading: Yes Please

Yes PleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started reading this for my book club but couldn't finish it. It's a funny look behind-the-scenes at celebrity life, but other than that, it failed to resonate with me. It seemed like everything came relatively easy to Amy Poehler - she knew at a young age she'd be part of the cast of SNL one day, and then she was. There's just not much story in that. The book also seemed heavily "produced." I had the sense I was reading something that a whole team had created. I wish fewer celebrities would write books. :)

View all my reviews


What I'm Reading: The End of Absence

The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant ConnectionThe End of Absence: Reclaiming What We've Lost in a World of Constant Connection by Michael Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This will definitely resonate with anyone who came of age pre-Internet. Interesting observations, and while Harris doesn't deliver much more than a "meditation" on what we should do about the loss of absence, I appreciated his even-handed approach to the subject.

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A So-Called 'Slacker' Talks Back

 

Mopirglisa_AV
The author in 1991, when she ran the summer canvass for Missouri Public Interest Research Group (MoPIRG).

Every time a social commentator dusts off the old generational saw and puts forth a new theory about what's happening with Generation X, I groan. After 25 years, it's tiresome to be told over and over that my entire generation is comprised of a bunch of "slackers," that my friends and I have somehow failed at the game of life. That is, when I have time to read the stories. I'm usually too busy working. 

When the movie "Slacker" came out in 1991, I didn't have time to see it in theaters. That year, I was enrolled in college full-time while simultaneously running what was then (in terms of membership) Missouri's largest environmental organization. I was also holding down several part-time jobs and putting myself through school on a mix of scholarships, loans, and my own income, as no one was paying my way.

When I finally saw the movie on VHS, I thought the "Madonna's pap smear" character had a sense of humor that was cannily similar to my high school best friend's, but other than that, the movie didn't resonate with me.

None of my friends seemed to be slacking off, either. That high school best friend went to one of the best journalism schools in the country, was politically active, and had launched her own paper devoted to animal rights issues. Most of the other people I knew were working in "the movement" in some way, knocking on doors in the evenings trying to raise money and grassroots support for bills that would, for example, bring least-cost utility planning to Missouri or raise corporate auto fuel efficiency standards. Not as sexy as a 60s protest, but these are the nuts-and-bolts of real social change.

So whenever Generation X gets unfavorably compared to the baby boomers, I feel defensive, and justifiably so. We've been living under the shadow of the baby boomers all our lives, and enough is enough. It's time to question the authority that taught us to question authority.

As a student activist for all of my undergrad days, I took part in quite a few public demonstrations: to protest the first Iraq War, to fight racist policies, to uphold Roe vs. Wade, to protest the Catholic church's stance on gays. But what I'm most proud of is the measurable change we brought about in the form of community gardens planted, food distributed to those without, and bills passed to protect our rights, our air, and our water. Some of the members of my generation did a fine job of continuing the legacy of the boomers, and the world is better off than it would have been without us. And we did it without burning down any buildings.

But Generation X has always been on the cusp of an empire in decline. And what that means is that a lot of us, despite our practical idealism, find ourselves in adulthood having to shift from savior mode into survival mode.

We've lived through a recession in the 90s followed by a short-lived boom followed by terrorism, wars, and economic collapse. Pensions, the likes of which many of our boomer parents still enjoy, have albeit disappeared for us. The very notion that a person could work for a company throughout her adulthood and then count on being taken care of by that company in her old age seems quaint and unreal to us, like Beaver Cleaver's white picket fence. We've had to do more with less than our parents. As this chart vividly illustrates, the U.S. was recently surpassed by China as the world's number one economy.

Most of us are saddled with student loan debt we might still be paying off in our old age. I don't know a single person who doesn't feel deeply depressed after clicking through her company's online retirement calculator, if she's lucky enough to have a job with a 401(k) plan. We know Social Security likely won't be there for us when we need it. The money taken out of our paychecks now funds the baby boomers' retirements, but it looks like it won't be there by the time we can no longer work. And even if by some miracle it is, it won't be enough to live on, especially since many of us won't own our own homes. Most of us figure we'll just have to keep going till we drop.

Even those Gen Xers who never tried to change the world were working hard at what they were doing: starting businesses, raising children, making art, you know, little things like trying to become writers during the collapse of the newspaper and publishing industries. That high school best friend of mine never got a chance to be a journalist despite her J-school pedigree.

By the time I hit my 30s, I had shifted from politics to non-profit fundraising to education, hoping to effect social change on an individual level with every student I taught. I turned down a university teaching post in favor of working for a community college, reasoning that I could have more of an impact with that student population than I would at an expensive, private university.

But even after earning tenure, I was still making far less than median salary for my region. Because my raise each year would be lower than the rate of inflation, I was staring down the barrel at a lifetime of personal economic struggle, in which I'd be effectively making less every year while the cost of living would continue to rise. 

And not only that - I felt like my impact on students was very limited by the broken educational system in which I tried to function. Washington state had put its funding into community colleges at the expense of four-year universities, and both students and teachers suffer as a result.

I'd expected to teach a traditional community college population of students in transition, some of them underprepared for college due to the challenges of their circumstances. Instead, community college instructors in Washington state are effectively asked to cover the first two years of a four-year education for the majority of students in the state, but for far less money than their university cohorts, with far fewer resources, and with a higher classroom student/teacher ratio. It's essentially McEducation.

On top of that was the pile of student loans I had to pay off. Then I rode the roller coaster real estate market, buying a house, selling it high, buying another, and having to sell it again, coming out on the whole deal with no gain and more debt.

So in my 30s, for the first time in my adulthood, I went to work for Corporate America, eschewing my idealistic mandate in the process. It's taken me a decade, but I'm almost out of student loan debt. Even so, I'm priced out of the housing market where I live, and my retirement calculator still makes me weep.

Perhaps in our shift to survival mode, we have failed to fight the good fight. These days, I'm an armchair activist at best. But some of my Gen X friends stayed in teaching, and they've done a lot of good, even if they haven't been able to change any of the frustrating aspects of the structure in which they must teach.

Cambodiafundraiser
The author with her husband, raising money for their spiritual center's trip to Cambodia.

Have I given up my idealism? I help my family, friends, and community whenever I can, and I donate an annual tithe to worthy causes. I've committed a portion of the sales of my book, Cat in the Flock, to Jubilee Women's Center, a fantastic org that helps women transition out of homelessness. At this point, I've donated more than I've earned on the book, and that's OK.

I'm relying on a lot of anecdotal evidence here to make the argument that my generation has never deserved its "slacker" label. You can mesh that with the statistics that have been flinging around the Internets for years about rising education costs, skyrocketing student loan debts, wage shrinkage for everyone except the topmost earners, the dissolution of the middle class, the real estate debacle, the dismal propects for Social Security, etc., etc.

While this argument is structured as a defense, I hope I don't sound overly defensive. Is it right to generalize any group of people, especially on so arbitrary a foundation as birth? Generational theory is specious at best. It's only meaningful in the event of a short-term, measurable spike in births, making the baby boomers the only true cohort we can examine. While I can look across the experiences of the men and women around my age and defend us in a general sense, I also see a great deal of variance.

 The baby boomers were the last generation that shared a common culture, focused as the nation was on a handful of TV and radio stations and newspapers. There used to be more of a collective gaze, a shared set of role models and celebrities. Everyone paid attention to the Beatles, or what was on top 40 radio. But now entertainment and media are balkanized, broken up into a gazillion cable and YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, and Instagram sensations. These days we gravitate toward tribes and identifications. My stepson, who's 15, has no idea what's happening in Seattle's indie rock hipster culture. But ask him about rap stars, and you get a dissertation. The very notion of a "popular" culture is being replaced by demographic preferences.

Generation X was on the cusp of this shift, and many of us are overly nostalgic about our vanished American childhoods as a result. We go wild when listicles like "You know you were born in the 70s/80s if you recognize these" pop up on social media, and we can't help but scroll through, pining for our lost Garbage Pail Kids. Despite acrimonious divorce and/or real abuse that sent many of us into therapy, our childhoods from this vantage point can seem recklessly idyllic. We picture ourselves back then, drinking from garden hoses with abandon and riding our bikes without helmets, the breeze blowing through our Farah Fawcett wings.

We also saw a shift in the idea of role model. Our parents' generation to this day continues to idealize men like Bobby Kennedy, JFK, and Martin Luther King - men who were rubbed out in the prime of their lives. My cynical Gen X mind wonders what would have happened to these men's legacies if they'd lived to old age. It's Ted Kennedy, after all, whom we link to Chappaquiddick, and the baby of the family hasn't been lionized like his brothers have. JFK may have been involved with Marilyn Monroe, but that just deepens his appeal.

By contrast, many of Gen X's would-be heroes have lived long enough to have flamed out in big, embarrassing ways: Pee-wee Herman's public masturbation, Bill Cosby's string of 13 (and counting) rape allegations, Bill Clinton as the highest office of sexual harrassment in the land. Then there's Michael Jackson, Gary Hart, Dennis Kucinich, Whitney Houston, Pete Rose, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Ted Nugent, the list goes on.

Some of them recover and reinvent, like Bill Clinton and Robert Downey, Jr. But still. 

A line from a Gen X-era song sums it up well: "Who'll be my role model/ now that my role model is gone, gone? He ducked back down the alley/ with some roly-poly litte bat-faced girl." Notably, the songwriter is Paul Simon, beloved baby boomer, adopted by my generation.

Perhaps the last best hope many of us had was Barack Obama. But when he reversed his campaign position on the Iraq War and government overreach in his first term, he kind of broke us. But then again, as much as that hurt, it didn't really surprise us. We've come to expect it. Some of us even voted for him a second time, because you know. Politics.

But just think for a moment about what kind of legacy he would have if god forbid he'd been assassinated during his first year in office.

Of course that couldn't have happened; we're in a different time and place than the baby boomers. Our struggles are not to change the social fabric of society the way the 60s hippies needed to do. While our parents were questioning the very authority that was the Great Empire of the United States, we're too busy trying to survive, or change what is still in our power to change, as that empire slowly but surely declines.

 

 


Why You Should Always 'Keep Looking Up'

Palau looking up

 After battling jet lag and a formidable language barrier, conquering a few annoying ailments, getting scammed at an ATM, being yelled at by an indignant Catalan waiter, and finding ourselves in the middle of a street protest, we could have called our honeymoon a disaster. We could have moped around like a couple of Mericans, wanting our money back or cutting our trip short. But we didn't.

Instead, we kept looking up.

It's a valuable and simple message, "keep looking up." PBS' Jack Horkheimer, AKA "the star hustler," used to sign off every episode of his show with that mantra. The man could rock a Members Only jacket AND knows his Betelgeuse from his Van Allen Belt, so he's worth paying attention to, even posthumously.

 

It's a good thing we took ol' Jack's advice, or we would have missed the Palace of Catalan Music. Or in the local tongue: Palau de la Musica Orfeo Catalan.

I was twice moved to tears by sights in Barcelona, and this was one of them.

Especially for a structure as old as the Palau, which was finished in 1908, it's full of whimsy, as if a pastry chef dancing to the music of "Fantasia" were let loose in a concert hall with a bag of icing. Life-sized pegasus horses emerge from the corners. Chandeliers tilt at jaunty angles. A row of musicians are rendered half in bas relief and half in 2D on stage, as if the drawings have somehow come to life. Those who perform here describe hearing these musicians behind them.

Palau X rosettes

Palau pegassus

Palau X chandelier

Palau X musicians

And above it all, a globe of stained glass, like a giant sun, illuminates everything, allowing natural light and color to make the theater glow.

Palau X dome and sweep

Like La Segrada Familia, the Palau exists solely on private donations, and also like Segrada, it is an example of the cultural pride and passion for the arts that exemplifies Catalonia. The grand choirs of the turn of the last century were the inspiration for its creation, and a roster of world-class performances continues to fill the space with sound befitting its visuals.

I'd go back to Barcelona just to see a concert there.

By the way, I once saw Jack Horkheimer, the star hustler himself, in person. I lived in Miami at the time, and he was the director of the planetarium there. I'd noticed his Member's Only jacket in front of me in line at the Winn-Dixie, and when I walked outside, there he was. It was nighttime, and you know what he was doing?

Standing there in the parking lot, looking up.