Wow. The performance by Green Day at Philadelphia’s Liacouras Center last night was nothing short of magnificent.  At the intimate 10,000-seat venue, Green Day, led by singer-guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong, treated the full house to a nearly two-and-a-half hour display of raw energy.  If Billie Joe was any worse for wear following his recent stint in rehab for alcohol and prescription drug abuse, it didn’t show.
 
The pop-punk trio, complemented by three touring musicians, led off the evening with the endlessly infectious 99 Revolutions which lends its name to the 2013 tour.  The band then provided a march through history rather than focusing on the recently released Uno!, Dos!, and Tre! albums.  In fact, Green Day seemed to have a solid grip on the best offerings from the good-not-great trilogy,
performing Oh Love, Stay the Night, X-Kid, and Brutal Love, in addition to 99 Revolutions, while leaving behind the more questionable material.
 
Following the opener, Green Day moved into Know Your Enemy, the only song of the evening that would come from 21st Century Breakdown, the album that sharply divided Green Day’s following into those (this writer included) who found the album to be a masterpiece of epic proportions and those
that longed for a return to Green Day’s three-minutes-and-done roots.

In between calling for the crowd to swing its arms, thrust its fists, and mimic his vocal crooning, Billie Joe Armstrong and his colleagues blasted out clusters of songs that represented largely the best from each of their albums.

In going back to its early years, Billie Joe gave a nod to JC Dobbs, the seminal South Street bar in Philly that Green Day played in the early 1990’s when it was just getting started.  After dedicating Burnout, from 1994’s breakout album Dookie, the band ran off five more from that era including J.A.R.All by Myself, Dominated Love Slave, Going to Pasalacqua, and Brain Stew before returning to more recent times.  During the country-kitsch Dominated Love Slave, Tre Cool came from behind the drums to play guitar and sing while Billie Joe Armstrong handled the drumming, further demonstrating the enormous talent of the musicians.  Mike Dirnt capably pounded out bass rhythms all night long.

Following Brain Stew, Billie Joe jumped into one of the evening’s highlights, a powerful rendition of St. Jimmy that at times recalled Billie Joe’s alter ego from the stage production of American Idiot, and
at other times, of Jesus himself as Green Day’s front man stood on a platform, arms stretched outward from his shoulders, being worshiped by his flock.
 
Over the course of the evening, Green Day treated the audience to generous portions of its most commercially successful albums, Dookie and American Idiot.  The band ran off When I Come Around, Longview, Basket Case, and She, back to back to back to back, before launching into the comically-delivered but high-powered King for a Day, off of Nimrod.

Minority closed out the set before Green Day returned to the stage for its encore. Appealing to the crowd, still on its feet and screaming for more, an American flag alit on the stage’s electronic backdrop and the opening guitar riff signaled the arrival of the expected, but highly anticipated American Idiot. Green Day followed up with its opus and perhaps greatest work, Jesus of Suburbia
Next, nearing exhaustion, the audience listened quietly, transfixed, to the eminently soulful Brutal Love from Tre!, during which Billie Joe showed off his vocal range. While  he didn’t quite hit the highest notes from the recorded version of the song, it was perhaps not unreasonable after two-plus hours of singing and calling to the crowd.

Billie Joe returned to the stage with his acoustic guitar for a final sendoff, Good Riddance, the perfect cap to a tremendous performance by a tremendous talent. Billie Joe’s appreciation for his fans
shows in everything he does and is just one of many reasons why there is no band today that can touch Green Day.

Michael Scott Miller is the author of the novels, Ladies and Gentlemen…The Redeemers and The Book of Sylvia.
 
 
To borrow from The Caulfields’ song, Devil’s Diary, “I’m bigger than Jesus now.”

Okay, not really, but my novel, The Book of Sylvia leapfrogged over the Bible in Amazon’s Top 100 Free Books for the Kindle the other day. Don’t believe me? Check this out.
So it didn’t last.  But that Bible thing has been around since, well, since The Beginning.  Meanwhile, fame is fleeting for us mortals.  That’s just how it is. But still, it was kind of cool while it lasted.

Hopefully the big guy knows I’m just having a bit of fun.  No smiting, please.  Hold the fire and brimstone.

Why free, you may ask. No, it wasn’t to take on the Good Book mano a mano.  Simply, it was a way to get the work of an unknown author (me, that is) into the hands of thousands of readers with little more investment than their time.

I’m sure all writers set goals for themselves.  Jumping ahead of Jesus wasn’t one of mine.  My goal was, and still is, simply to have my novel attract enough interest to get readers to recommend others to purchase it now that it’s back to its original $2.99 price.

What’s the novel about? The Book of Sylvia happens be about a priest, and uh, um, a prostitute. Hmm.  Perhaps there is some smiting in my future.  Actually, I think I kept it reasonably clean, given the characters. There are a few moments, where, well, I won’t say, but you get the idea.  

The competition goes on, but now the big guy has an advantage.  No, not that advantage.  It’s just tough to take on the all-seeing, all-knowing, master of the universe with a $2.99 price disadvantage. But as my friend Jeff advised, my long term prospects are probably better if I let Jesus win anyway.

I do hope you’ll read The Book of Sylvia and keep me in the game.
 
 
For those of you unfamiliar with the term as it applies to novel writing, the blurb is the brief description that goes on the back of the paperback version of a book.  More importantly, though, it is what a
potential reader sees when shopping online for books.

At its most basic, the blurb is supposed to be a teaser, a 50 to 100 word lure to get readers interested in reading the other 60,000 to 70,000 words in the novel.  And that’s precisely where it breaks down for me.  In the math.  I simply struggle to distill 60,000 carefully chosen words and phrases that I’ve poured into a novel into what amounts to a sound bite.  When I sit down to write blurbs, they a) come out superficial, b) give away too much of the story, or c) both.  Here’s why.

My stories aim to get readers engaged with the characters. That’s hard to capture in a blurb. How does one get a reader emotionally invested in 100 words?  I see where the blurb works in an action story:  U.S. and Soviet intelligence agents race to locate a Soviet submarine as it attempts to defect to the west and bring with it a trove of military intelligence.  Or maybe:  Man-eating shark stalks idyllic
New England town and scares the bejesus out of its residents.
 But in a character driven story? Not so easy.

I also hate giving away any of the story.  There’s no double standard here.  I feel the same way when I’m reading.  I don’t want to know before beginning the Hunger Games that Katniss will be forced to represent District 12 in a brutal game created for the amusement of the Capitol.  I don’t want to know that the guests invited to the island mansion in And Then There Were None are going to get killed one by one. That doesn’t leave much uncertainty about what’s going to happen next until pretty darn close to the end of the book. Unless something is going to happen on page one, I just don't want to
know about it before I start reading.

As a writer, I feel like I've made every scene in the story important, every word, every utterance.  Okay, so maybe that’s a bit overstated.  But still, I'm supposed to filter this thing down to 100 words?

I'm almost embarrassed to admit that I’ve spent hours and hours working and reworking my blurbs. 
At times, it feels more difficult than writing the book itself.

So with this background, I am presenting to you the two blurbs for The Book of Sylvia that I finally decided were good enough to see the light of day.  The first is the original, and the second is the new and improved version.  Or is it the other way around?


Original

Under suspicion of abetting a robbery, London streetwalker Sylvia Smith doesn’t know where to turn. Frightened and alone, she arrives on the steps of St. Alban’s church, where she meets Father
Christopher Fosberry, a priest consumed with self-doubt as he struggles to resurrect his dying church. Together they set out to recover the stolen money, following a cryptic clue whispered to Sylvia by her client as he was taken into custody. They quickly find themselves drawn toward one another by a mutual sense of despair and a desire to help the other. But Sylvia soon discovers that the more she guides the priest, the deeper she drives a wedge between the man and the church.


New

Unwittingly pulled into a high profile crime by her client, London call girl Sylvia Smith doesn’t know where to turn. Frightened and alone, she seeks solace at a rural church, where she meets Father Christopher, a priest consumed with his own set of struggles. Father Christopher takes her in,
reluctantly, but is soon drawn into Sylvia’s obsession with the cryptic message that the client left behind. In this journey of self-discovery cloaked in a  mystery, Sylvia and the priest grapple with the police, their demons, and temptation.


Let me know what you think!
 
 
When I completed my first novel, Ladies and Gentlemen…The Redeemers, I routinely got asked a difficult question: “How long did it take to write?”  I honestly didn’t know the answer.  I knew that I had begun writing the book something like ten years earlier but even that was guess.  In terms of time truly committed, well, that was impossible to estimate.  I had gone long stretches of time, sometimes years, without working on the novel.  Even when I was on a good run, I’d hit patches where months would go by without progress.  Writer’s block, my day job, the birth of my third child.  Whatever the cause, days and weeks would slip by.

But now, as I release my second novel, thanks to the magic of Microsoft Word and my desire to be prepared with an answer this time, I know exactly how long it took to write—six days, nine hours, and one minute.  Okay, that really represents the amount of time consumed if it were all in one continuous run—no eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, going to work.  Just writing, writing, and more writing.  Nonstop.  Nine thousand one hundred eighty-one minutes.

In terms of elapsed time, I know that too.  Two hundred forty-three days.  Writing in the early morning hours when the kids were asleep and before the work day began, and from time to time, writing at night, I completed The Book of Sylvia in almost exactly eight months.  Well, the first draft anyway.

Two months and many edits later, both on my own and with my professional editor, it’s time.  I have released The Book of Sylvia into the wild.  Here’s the synopsis:

Under suspicion of abetting a robbery, London streetwalker Sylvia Smith doesn’t know where to turn. Frightened and alone, she arrives on the steps of St. Alban’s church, where she meets Father Christopher Fosberry, a priest consumed with self-doubt as he struggles to resurrect his dying church.

Together they set out to recover the stolen money, following a cryptic clue whispered to Sylvia by her client as he was taken into custody. They quickly find themselves drawn toward one another by a mutual sense of despair and a desire to help the other. But Sylvia soon discovers that the more she guides the priest, the deeper she drives a wedge between the man and the church.

I hope you enjoy the book.
 
 
The contest is now closed.

 Congrats to S.K. of Watervliet, Michigan, the winner of the signed copy of Ladies and Gentlemen...The Redeemers.

Other winners are announced on the official Authors in Bloom website.
Thanks for participating!

 
 
We weren’t even supposed to be in Las Vegas.  My wife, three children, and I were headed to the national parks of the Southwest and were only in Vegas because of the airport’s relative proximity to Zion National Park.  But since we were, my oldest daughter wanted a picture by the iconic Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada sign that greets visitors on Las Vegas Boulevard.

As we drove to the landmark in our rental car, the sounds of Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas suddenly filled the car.  My daughter makes effective use of YouTube anytime she needs timely access to a song, a movie clip, or a Saturday Night Live skit.  The song poured forth from her Blackberry.

After more Elvis Presley than I was inclined to listen to, I asked her to search for my personal favorite rendition of the tune, the one performed by the Dead Kennedys, the seminal punk rock bank of the early 80’s.  Another quick YouTube search and shortly, the strains of Jello Biafra, the front man for the DK’s, replaced the King’s.

It was at that moment that I stepped back in time.  Twenty-eight years earlier, back in my college days, three friends and I attended a punk rock festival held on the Mall in Washington, D.C., headlined by those same Dead Kennedys.  As my friend Jeff would later remind me later, the event had been the politically charged Rock against Reagan concert.

For certain, Jeff, Dave, Andy, and I had attended the concert for the music rather than to deliver any anti-establishment message to the U.S. government.  We were ivy leaguers, probably the only ones in the crowd of thousands, and while perhaps not thrilled with the Reagan-era policies, we didn’t feel victimized as I imagine the masses in attendance felt.  Still, when Jello Biafra pointed at the Washington Monument that formed the backdrop for the crowd, and declared it the “eternal klansman,” the metaphor somehow seemed to fit.  With the sun setting in the background, the monument’s blinking red lights seemed like eyes, and its overwhelming whiteness and pointed top completed the picture.

I shared this story with my family as we took one quick pass through the glitzy Vegas strip before heading out to parts more naturally beautiful.  As I did, I thought about our shared love for music as a tie that binds the children and me.  Despite the few points at which our musical tastes intersect, we find ourselves discussing music frequently and on rare occasions, like finding gold, we discover a song or a band that the other also enjoys.

My tastes lean toward current and older alternative rock along with a smattering of classic rock.  The kids’ tastes tend toward the pop flavor of the month--Party Rock Anthem, Grenade, Forget You.    But still, we find common ground.  In fact, we have attended Green Day and Black Eyed Peas concerts together. The kids have been exposed to, and fallen in love with, Queen’s Radio Gaga and Weezer’s The Girl Got Hot.  And as for me, I admit to a guilty enjoyment of Katy Perry’s Last Friday Night and Pink’s So What.

Sometimes we appreciate each other’s music and sometimes we don’t, but music always gives us something to talk about.  I love that.
 
 
“I Can’t Believe I Have to Write a 250-Word Essay!”  Many things have changed since I went to school but this is not one of them.  Kids still complain about the cruel and unusual punishment meted out by their teachers in the form of the 250-word essay.  Just the other day, I heard one of my kids complaining about one of these assignments.  I had to laugh.

Sure, back in the day, 250 words seemed unbearably lengthy to me too.  Teachers would tell us it was about the length of a handwritten page and I still remember writing in extra-large print to fill the page more quickly and hoping the teachers wouldn’t actually count.  Yes, I went to school before the age of computers and Microsoft Word.  Of course, today’s technique is to enlarge the fonts and increase the margins – the electronic equivalent of printing larger letters.

The other trick that students use to effectively shave about fifty words off the count is to write an intro and conclusion that essentially parrot the body of the work.  Believe it or not, teachers are still teaching that the opening paragraph should summarize what the body of the essay is going to say and the concluding paragraph should reiterate what the body of the essay says.  It’s the classic “say what you are going to say, say it, then say what you said.”  To me, that’s not good writing.  That’s tedious and repetitious.  The opener should frame what the writer is going to say while the essay should end with a bang – a pithy point that leaves the reader thinking or perhaps a particularly insightful wrap-up of the point being made.  But I digress.

What made me laugh is my newfound perspective on just how few words 250 really is.  My first novel is just over 70,000 words.  That’s a lot of 250-word pages.  And I just hit a milestone working on my second novel, having reached the 45,000 word mark and still going.

Not long ago, I found myself writing a blurb about my novel for a website that would be promoting the book and the site had set a word limit.  How great would that have been in school?  A maximum word count rather than a minimum.  The funny thing was that the constraint was, well, constraining.  I struggled mightily to pare down the blurb and distill it to its absolute essence to get within the prescribed limit.  Yes, the world of my youth has been turned upside down.  It is now more difficult to write less than to write more.

So now, when my kids complain about having to write 250 words, I will ask them what their favorite book is and how many pages that book contains.  I will then give them the perspective that the 250-word essay assigned by their slave driving teacher is the equivalent of one measly page in that favorite book.  Not very much after all, is it?
 
 
31%.  Seriously.  That’s the rate at which PET plastic bottles are recycled in the United States.  I heard that on the car radio the other day and almost drove off the road.

If you had asked me, I would have ventured a guess in the 70% range.  My logic would have been something like this.  Recycling is fairly easy these days.  Many communities have curbside pickup which requires no more effort than tossing the bottles into a bin in the garage from the doorway and taking them out to the curb once a week.  Even big urban areas like Philadelphia now have curbside pickup.  We have blue recycling buckets in our offices.  Most parks, malls, sports and concert venues, and other public places have well-placed and plentiful recycling bins.

If recycling were this easy everywhere, my guess would have been 90%.  But it isn’t.  There are some areas without curbside pickup, where residents have to save their plastic bottles over time and bring them to a recycling center.  A hassle?  Sure.  But difficult?  No.  We’re not talking about toting heavy bales of newspaper.  We’re talking about nearly weightless plastic bottles.  So what would be a reasonable rate in non-curbside areas?  I don’t know.  50%?  33%?  Given human nature, and to more dramatically assert my point, let’s go with the lower figure.

I decided to do some research.  According to earth911.com, about half the country has curbside pickup, although that number has certainly grown since that information was released.  But assuming a 50/50 split, where half the country should be at 90% and half should be at 33%, the average works out to be just over 60%, not too far from my gut estimate.

So what would drive the number below 60%?  People being lazy or uninformed about recycling, people with the best of intentions occasionally leaving a bottle behind somewhere, and…and…that’s pretty much all I could come up with.

31% is patently shameful.  Recycling plastic bottles is not a difficult task.  Put a recycling bin where it’s convenient in your house.  Teach your children good habits.  Get out of your office chair and throw the bottle in the bin down the hall.  If you’re somewhere that doesn’t have a recycling bin, put the bottle in your car and take it home.  It’s really easy.

The plastic bottle recycling rate has increased only marginally over the last few years.  I see where we might be satisfied with incremental year to year gains if this rate was in the 80%-90% range, but at 31%, incremental doesn’t cut it.  It’s time for a quantum leap forward.

Come on, everybody.
 
 
This topic received a great deal of reader interest when I posted it as a guest blog previously so I thought I'd give it an encore here, including a bit of a refresh.


Anyone who has read my novel, Ladies and Gentlemen…The Redeemers, or has even seen the cover, knows that I have a passion for music.

I love how music can become so intertwined, so inextricably connected to a scene in a movie that its presence defines the scene or even the entire film.   Let me be clear.  I’m not talking about movie soundtracks, especially the ones on which movie producers put songs that are nearly impossible to detect in the film.  No, I’m talking about how a song can set a mood or elicit an emotional response from the viewer that is so strong that it is forever associated with the movie.

With that introduction, I thought I'd share with you my picks for the best use of music in movies and then give you the chance to share yours.

Picture
Almost Famous (2000)

This movie contains perhaps my all-time favorite movie scene.  The movie, written and directed by Cameron Crowe, tells the story of a teenage journalist who follows the fictional band, Stillwater, for Rolling Stone magazine.  At one point in the story, the band has had a long night that has left them not speaking with one another.  The following morning, as everyone sits in the tour bus stewing in silence, Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” comes on the radio.  Little by little, the travelers start singing along until the entire bus is singing the tune, all wounds healed.  I can’t tell you how many times this song and this scene played through my head while I was writing the book and how much the song energized me every time I heard it on the radio.


Picture
Blue Velvet (1986)

“A candy colored clown they call the sandman…”  Dennis Hopper’s off-the-wall crazy character is obsessed with Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” and this haunting opening lyric in David Lynch’s noir classic, Blue Velvet.   The movie is a creepy, psychological drama that I love for the way it makes me want to keep watching despite Lynch’s uncanny ability to make me simultaneously want to look away.  The peak of the creepiness occurs when Dennis Hopper kidnaps Kyle MacLachlan and takes him to a bizarre party where a ghostly Dean Stockwell lip-syncs the song while Dennis Hopper hypnotically mouths the words next to him.  Lynch is a master at using music to set the mood in his films and this scene may be his best.


Picture
Pulp Fiction (1994)

It’s difficult to single out one of Quentin Tarantino’s masterful music selections that so completely complement his storylines, but I have to give the nod here to his use of Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” in Pulp Fiction.  What makes this one stand out is the scene’s near absence of dialog, or frankly, action.  John Travolta arrives at a spectacularly well decorated house to pick up Uma Thurman, who is shown secretly observing Travolta’s movements on security camera monitors.  The only words are exchanged over the room’s intercom shortly after Travolta arrives, and the remainder of the scene is little more than Travolta pouring himself a drink and admiring the room’s décor while he waits for Thurman.  I can’t explain why it works, but it does.  Right down to the moment when the needle lifts on the record and Thurman announces in person, “Let’s go.”

 
 
My teenage daughter recently returned from a community service trip to Nicaragua and it marked a rite of passage for both of us.  Traveling with an organization named Global Works, my daughter had been seeking something of significance to do for the summer and something a little off the beaten path.  I was seeking the same.
 
The difference is that I was the overprotective father, the guy who, fifteen years ago, carried the baby monitor from room to room to make sure that if she uttered a peep, I’d be there to hear it.  Now I was the guy who was willing to send her off to Central America for three weeks, to Nicaragua, a country whose only association I had was with the Sandanistas and the legendary Clash album of the same name (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the musical reference.  It’s a weak point of mine).
 
The group of eighteen teenagers worked in El Sauce, a city in the North Pacific section of the country, and Moyogalpa, a town on the island of Ometepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua.  The community service involved planting trees to restore the Reserva Madronos nature reserve, painting a children’s nursery, and laying the foundation for walls that would protect a village’s water supply.  While the teens labored, the local villagers brought the group food.  I was stunned to learn that the same kid who rarely ventured beyond pizza or ribs at home ate what the villagers offered.
 
On a day spent at a local farm, my daughter milked cows and held chickens.  When I remarked my surprise, she told me that I couldn’t have cut it there.  Perhaps that was true, perhaps not, but more importantly, I felt a glow that my daughter, firmly planted in a cushy suburban existence, the girl whose idea of roughing it was going to a place without a cell phone signal, was able to venture out and experience what much of the world is really like.

As an author who loves writing character-driven stories, I loved hearing about the people that my daughter met there:  the small girl who took her hand and showed her around the local church and her home, the villagers that welcomed the teens into their homes, the others on the tour with whom she bonded.
 
One night in Ometepe, while the counselors slept, the teenagers snuck out for a midnight swim in the warm lake.  It was the kind of thing a father doesn’t want to know about until safely after-the-fact.  But as I reflected on my own youth, I couldn’t help but feel vicarious excitement at their breaking the rules for some harmless fun.
 
My instincts had been correct.  Allowing my daughter to explore and experience the world on her own provided immeasurable value.  She returned home with a newfound appreciation of what she has, a new outlook, and new friends who I have no doubt she will stay in touch with for years to come.  She contributed to a society so vastly different from her own and learned how great it feels to help others.

I am so proud of her…and a little proud of me.