A Writer’s Toolbox (Part 2)

This is a three-part post.

The first focuses on software and websites that offer Software as a Service. The second is focused on people, the third on building a WordPress site.

People and Groups

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Association, (SFWA)
runs a semi-annual mentoring program. I was fortunate to have a mentor for the first 3 months of 2023. It’s not just for members (I’m an Associate Member, the lowest level), and anyone can apply, not just science fiction  or fantasy writers. (There’s a large romance community within SFWA).

I used to be a member of the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA), but it didn’t compare to the SFWA, so I’ve let that lapse. I know next to nothing about the Society of Authors, perhaps someone here knows about them? I understand that they’re a good ally.

Brandon Sanderson is one of the best-known active fantasy authors. He was also a lecturer at Brigham Young University. All of his lectures are on YouTube. It’s a lot, but if you have time, they can be very informative.

Writing Excuses is a podcast I mentioned elsewhere. It was created by the aforementioned Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal (current President of the SFWA) among others and is in season 18. Each episode is about 15 minutes long. it’s fun and informative, and develops a real sense of community as you listen to it. If you wish, there’s writing prompts at the end of each lesson. I found seasons 6-13 to be very beneficial.

Janice Hardy runs a website called Fiction University. They dissect craft, focussing on what does and doesn’t work. They also occasionally post writing prompts where you can post your effort for feedback. 

Need some motivation to write, or at least an external goal?

Jane Friedman‘s newsletter is considered a must-read in the publishing world, and it’s free.

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is a free challenge to join, every November. You’ll be assigned a team, based on geography, and you’ll each be challenged to complete 50,000 words in one month (Making the goal isn’t as important as attempting). Of note, participants often get real discounts on software like Scrivener, Plottr, Atticus, etc. If you’re looking to form a writing group that’s all local to you, this can be a great way to find writers.

They’ve also added Camp NaNoWriMo, a July run of the same program.

As you get further in your writing career, you might want to pay attention to the following sites. 

Victoria Strauss’ Writers Beware (sponsored by the SFWA) helps writers avoid scammers trying to separate you from your money. 

The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) is a very helpful organisation (I’m a member) that vets service suppliers (like editors) and will also give you advice on any publishing contract you’re offered. When Disney started underpaying writers, and withholding royalties, ALLi and SFWA were on the front line raising awareness in the media and hiring lawyers to pressure Disney into honouring its contractual obligations.

At some point, you’re probably going to want to build a newsletter so you have some form of direct link to your fans (they subscribe to it). There are many newsletter delivery services that offer a free option if your newsletter is below a certain number of subscribers (usually 1,000).. Mailerlite, Convertkit, and Mailchimp are the ones usually recommended. If you have money to burn, Constant Contact is great (I used it for a client). A friend swears by Email Octopus, but I’d never heard of it.

BookFunnel will help you find readers for your newsletter, and help give them a digital gift. BookFunnel works well with most if not all of the newsletter services mentioned above.

Draft2Digital and its subsidiary, Books2Read are very helpful in distributing and selling books, if you self-publish.

Additions from friends in the writing community:

As well as Email Octopus, my friend recommends “a great book on newsletters, Newsletter Ninja by Tammi LaBrecque.”

David Gaughran has an email list, a series of classes on advertising and many books on creating a fan base, and how to work with Amazon, Bookbub, etc, and overall thoughts on marketing. 

The annual Inkers Conference ( both virtual and in person). This is a writing conference that provides tons of topics like craft, marketing, etc. You can then watch all the sessions at your leisure for three years post event as they are all filmed and posted. This is also a very active community on facebook. You will also get invited to some free one-off sessions.

The Editorial Freelancers Association is where you can search for a professional editor.

That’s it for Part 2. Go to Part 1. Go to Part 3.

A Writer’s Toolbox (Part 1)

This is a three-part post.

The first focuses on software and websites that offer Software as a Service. The second is focused on people, the third on building a WordPress site.

Software and Websites

For note-taking almost any app will do. Don’t overlook your email app. I often write or dictate notes on the go directly into my iPhone email app and send them to myself. I use the story title as subject to make it easier to search them later on my laptop.

When it comes to writing, long form, I love Scrivener. I was about 80,000 words into a novel when I found that Word just couldn’t give me what I needed – the ability to re-arrange scenes, find specific points in the story, try different flows for pacing. Scrivener makes all of that easy (and so much I don’t use, like research, timelines, plotting tools). It has a 30-day free trial. I bought it on day 6. I can use it to write the scene that is the set up and the scene that is the pay-off at the same time, then move them to their respective places in the story. Within 6 months, I had a 135,000 word draft of a complete story. (It still needs revision, but that’s on me, not the software)

If you’re a more linear writer, then Word may work fine for you. I know other writers who swear by Google Docs, but I’ve not used it.

Plottr is a relatively recent piece of software that helps writer who are plotters, well, plot out their novels. Again, I’ve not used it, but I’m told it works for many types of plotting, like linear and snowflake plotting.

Grammarly advertises everywhere, and it can be very useful for discovering your mistakes, but it can also over-power your voice. That’s also true for these next two recommendations. I don’t use Grammarly, I use the free levels of both Hemingway App and ProWritingAid. And I use them both, in that order, as they do slightly different things, and catch slightly different mistakes. Hemingway will tell you how readable your text is, and at what grade level, as well as flagging complex sentences. It also catches passive voice.

ProWritingAid will catch many more grammatical and spelling errors. You don’t need the paid versions, in my experience, as long as you’re not offline when you need them. None of these supplant the need for a human editor.

If you’re a self-pubber, you’re going to want to format ebooks at some point. Scrivener does this quite nicely, but there are some specialized tools that may be better. Vellum and Atticus are the two that come to mind. I’ve not used either, as I know Scrivener well enough for my needs, but they both have a high profile in the self-pubbing community. 

Canva lets you make decent covers without needing to know Photoshop, but if you’re serious, you’ll end up using (or hiring someone who is using) Photoshop .

I do my print layouts in InDesign, but Vellum or Atticus should be able to do those also. Technically, you can do those layouts in Word, but I wouldn’t expect to get good results without a lot of pain.

I want to mention BookBrush. this is for creating ads for self-published works. Again, there are many paid tiers, but the free tier offers a lot of good stuff. You upload your book cover, select from a generous listing of free mock-ups and download the image of your cover embedded in the mock-up. A much more limited version of this, but also free, is DIY Book Covers.

That’s it for Part 1. Go to Part 2. Go to Part 3.

No Opinion is the Safest Opinion

Since the rise of social media and the polarization of all public discourse (they are one and the same, no?), it’s become imperative that everyone have an opinion about everything. But not just an opinion, you must have the Correct Opinion™ whatever that may be.

There are issues where I care enough to have read multiple perspectives, and developed a specific (I would like to think “informed”) opinion. But there are many areas where I just don’t know enough, and honestly, offering an opinion is unwise.

But you’re not allowed to not have an opinion these days. Not if you’re anywhere on social media or those who want you to have an opinion are anywhere on social media.

This is where I envy my wife. She does have a facebook account (and no other social media), but she only visits it maybe once every few years. She uses the account so rarely that we were married before she accepted my “friend” request. The totality of our relationship to that point had happened between times she’d checked her social media.

Sometimes I try to tell her about whatever shitstorm is eating Twitter or Threads and she just asks why am I there?

As someone who is trying to build an audience for my stories, I have no choice but to be on social media to some extent. If you go to almost any social media platform, you’ll find I’m there in name, if not much in presence. But as someone who wants to be seen, I also don’t want to be seen when it comes to being dragged into certain issues.

I could make a list here of issues I do have opinions about, and those I don’t, but why set myself up? Why risk pissing off someone I’ve never met, and risk them calling on legions that again I’ve never met, to harass me for not sharing their defined Correct Opinion™?

So I use social media less and less, reducing my footprint, my reach, and any hope of building an audience. But if you have “the Correct Opinion™” you have nothing to fear, so why not make your voice heard, someone right now is thinking.

That’s not true.

Once you’ve stated an opinion on a crucial topic, you will be forced to stick with it forever, even if your opinion changes.

Here I will state an example. As someone who has done a lot of charitable work within Africa, I am a big fan of solar power and internet by satellite. For a while, this made me a big fan of Elon Musk. He was making something that the underdeveloped world needed into a profitable venture, not charity. That’s huge.

I’m not a fan now, he’s embraced so many extreme(ly stupid) people and causes. But that’s irrelevant. Anyone who wishes can drag up posts of mine from five or six years ago and use them against me.

I do stand by what those opinions represented at the time. I still think that changing the improvement of underdeveloped societies from a charitable activity to an economically sound activity is the cornerstone to pulling more people out of poverty.

I don’t stand by the man who was this movement’s poster child. And I don’t stand by a revisionist interpretation of my ideas through the lens of the Correct Opinion™ on social media.

In this polarized age, once you’ve stated an opinion, you’re simply not allowed to change. Not in today’s discourse, not on social media. So why do it?

I can’t be alone. Self-censorship, withdrawal form the public discourse, emboldens extremism. But what’s the option? Be sacrificed by people you may support for not being extreme enough in your voice?

Naming Names

In a series that I’m developing, I’ve got a bunch of characters from a variety of backgrounds and cultures. But … the story is set thousands of years in the future and the cultures aren’t the same as what we know.

Even given that, some names sound like cultures that exist today, but others sound exotic to our ears.

One of the characters, who I don’t want to sound too exotic to a western reader, is Brett Westmoreland, head of security on the IUDV Chaucer (Interplanetary Union Diplomatic Vessel).

While that name has withstood any number of revisions and edits, it’s started to cause a conflict. You see in the latest round of layering edits, I’m adding a weapons officer, and her first name is definitely Brita.

But Brita and Brett, two people who are on the bridge of the ship, speaking important info, during crises, may cause confusion in the reader’s mind. So I’ve been looking for an alternative for Brita.

Instead, I found one for Brett.

I’ve been re-reading golden age science fiction, and I’ve just finished The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov. This murder mystery culture clash of the future is an interesting story to deconstruct in its own right, but for our needs today, there’s only one element I need to discuss: the name of the murder victim, Rikaine Delmarre.

Rikaine is an interesting name. It jumped out at me every time it occurred. Maybe it could replace Brett.

Rikaine Westmoreland.

Why Westmoreland? In my lifetime there has been a high profile American general named Westmoreland. I like the connotation of the name in the reader’s mind, for my chief of security.

I have another character whose name I want to mention, Char Osbaldiston. This character started out as a man, but Char is an ambiguous name, and once I’d written a bit more, it made more sense to flip the character to female.

Here’s where it gets fun. As I’ve been developing Char, I’ve given her a lover, a younger, male crew member of a lower rank (it’s a scandal). But in the prequel story that I’d started mapping out before I switched Char to female, Char has a girlfriend.

I’ve decided I’m going to leave both as is, without any commentary from crew or narrator (except for the lower-rank scandal). I feel that’s the right way to write this character; she’s comfortable with who she is, so no one challenges her lifestyle.

FYI, the name “Osbaldiston” comes to me from a Canadian Football League kicker, although his name may have been Osbaldistan. I don’t care which it was, this is the name as I’ve decided it exists in that universe and fits Char.

Marketing on Instagram vs Twitter

Two months ago, I started selling my own clothes online as “Skrap Apparel on Etsy.” I don’t have a marketing budget per se, so I’m trying to find organic reach through Twitter and Instagram. I set up new accounts on each (Insta. Twitter.) and I have about the same amount of followers (less than 20).

Recent ad on Twitter

Whenever I have a new article of clothing to promote, I make a post and put it on both Twitter and Instagram. As my accounts are new, and I’m not paying to promote, I only get a dozen or so views on each platform.


My results so far have been surprising and not at all equal.

According to Etsy, my store has gotten 84 visits from people “visiting directly”, which means they’ve had to type out or copy/paste the URL. And only 4 from clicks from Twitter, which Etsy can identify because they are clickable links. Now those 84 ‘direct visits’, where someone has had to copy-paste the URL, are, I believe, from the only place I’m posting my URL in an clickable format: Instagram posts.

So, with the same minimal exposure, I’m getting 21 visits to my shop from Instagram users for every 1 visit from a Twitter user, even though it’s easier to click and visit from Twitter.

Same ad on isntagram

Now one obvious advantage of Instagram is the character limit. With a message geared towards Twitter, I have a lot of room for hashtags on Instagram, and I keep lists of ones that work.

So maybe I’m finding my audience there, whereas I’m not on finding them on Twitter. That’s possible, but that’s also because Twitter chooses to constrain my ability to reach out, forcing me to do more work there to hopefully find a similar result. It’s not worth my time right now to do that.

So, how dos this all convert to sales? It hasn’t much yet, not enough to make any conclusions. I’ve had some problems with Etsy and pricing, you can read about it all here.

The Problem with Etsy

Ok, I’m trying to sell clothes on Etsy.

The key word here is Trying, because Etsy makes it almost impossible for me to know if I’ll ever make money on a sale or if selling on Etsy is a losing game.

So let’s start with a product, Men’s Swimming Trunks. These have a unique design of my own making. The cost to me for each one is $35 (all prices US$).

Etsy’s going to charge me 20¢ to list each item, including each time an item sells and I want it to remain listed.

Ok, now my total cost per sale is $35.20 (this will change).

Etsy also has a transaction fee, which does make sense, they are after all processing the credit card and in essence taking that risk. But the actual transaction fee is hard to calculate. It may be $3.50 per sale, but as a new operator, it is either $6.50 per sale or $6.50 per sale on top of the $3.50 (they’re very much NOT clear which).

So now my cost is somewhere between $38.70-$45.20 for each item sold.

But wait, there’s more.

As my item’s list price needs to be over $35 (or I lose money), Etsy won’t promote it unless I absorb the shipping cost for US customers (“Free Shipping”). This cost is at a minimum $4. it can be as high as $6.00 per item.

So now each sale of my swimming trunks cost me $42.70-51.20 to sell. If I charge anything less than $51.20, I may lose money.

But wait, there’s more.

Etsy automatically enrolled me in their “offsite ads” program. This allows them to promote my products on Google and Facebook. If any sale comes from one of those ads, Etsy will charge me an addition 15% on the sale. That’s another $7.68 on a sale of $51.20. So the cost to me to sell $35 board shorts could be as high as $58.88 per unit.

That’s with me breaking even, making neither a profit nor taking a loss.

If I want to make even $2 per sale, I have to charge $61.

First, who’s going to buy swimming trunks at $61?

Second, is $2 per sale worth it? Maybe to start. It is a 3.2% profit margin. Retail is supposed to target 7%, which would mean my price would have to be $64. That’s unrealistic.

Possible solutions, cost cutting.

It isn’t easy to get unenrolled from the “offsite ads” program. The link they send you in an email telling you that they’ve enrolled you, doesn’t work. To opt out, you need to find it. It’s not under Marketing, Finances, or Integrations. I found it under Settings. I’m out.

That allows me to get down to a $51.20 break even point.

I’m assuming that they’re charging me $6.50 per sale, not $10. That gets my break even down to $47.70 (and eventually $44.70 if the fee goes down to $3.50).

I’ll also project my shipping cost as $4 (not $6) for now. That brings my cost down to $45.70 ($42.70 eventually). I’m currently listing those swimming trunks at $46.95. I’d love the sticker price to be lower, but then Etsy won’t let me make any money.

Possible solutions, go elsewhere.

My best solution would be “Don’t be on Etsy.” I never intended to be on Etsy.

I built my own store in WordPress, using WooCommerce and Stripe. I connected it to my production partner in California. Things worked. We were about to launch. Then WooCommerce updated their WordPress plugin and (coincidentally?) everything broke. I can’t sell. The link between my partner and my store is broken. No one can tell me if or when it will be fixed (it’s been 10 days). I’m dead in the water.

I explored moving to Shopify. What a nightmare they are. Their “free trial” is only 3 days long and doesn’t fully work until you buy a plan. Even in the exceedingly frustrating and limited ‘actually free’ trial it became obvious that if I wanted my store to look and function as it had in WordPress, I’d have to pay way more than the lowest plan. Losses I’d either have to absorb or pass on in higher prices.

So I’m stuck on Etsy, charging more than I want and making less for it.

Cranberry Wizard Swimming Trunks, only available at Etsy (for now)

How Did Han’s Death Change Chewie?

There’s a moment in the Last Jedi when Chewie breaks down Luke’s door. Luke starts to say something, then pauses. “Wait, where’s Han?”

It’s a moment with a lot of weight; Luke seeing Chewie and recognising that Han should’ve been there, too. In fact, it’s why Chewie was there.

Rey had already proven that she could fly the Falcon well and by herself. In fact her first command of the Falcon is the last high point in the ship’s history. Even Lando doesn’t get to do anything cool with it.

But to the point, Rey didn’t need Chewie to come along, and if her plan to be trained by Luke held, then Chewie would have a long wait on the planet.

So why’d he come? Because when your best friend dies, you should be the bearer of the bad news, not someone Luke’s never met before.

There’s the added layer that Chewie was Ben’s godfather, Luke was Ben’s trainer, and Ben killed his own father. Chewie had the opportunity to kill Ben, right then and there, but couldn’t do it. That too is something he’d want to tell Luke.

That little moment of realisation on Luke’s part is one of the great pay-offs of this universe. However, there are no ramifications of it, which seems to cheapen the moment.

But what of Chewie? Basically he’s done the last act he needs to for Han. He’s a free agent, his life debt paid off. Of course he chooses to stay in the fight and not just return to Kashyyyk. He cares about Princess Leia and Luke. He may even care about the struggle, having seen the empire’s impact on his homeworld.

But is Chewie changed by Han’s death?

I’d like to think that Chewie is a bit more of a risk-taker after Han dies. We have the impression that Chewie checked Han’s crazier impulses, but I think the opposite was also true, that Chewie sometimes gave in to his impulses, and Han (or Leia) reeled him in.

Think of Chewie growling at Vader or strangling Lando on the cloud city.

Without Han, Chewie got less risk-adverse, and he got caught by the First Order for it. And as an aside, his apparent death should have been his actual death. It’s not like they did anything else with his character after that moment.

Chewie was often an under-utilized character, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have feelings or never changed.

Experiments with ChatGPT

As both a creative person and an educator I wanted explore ChatGPT and how it is going to impact my work and life. Without any real plan, I asked it twelve questions. Both my questions and the answers got better as I learned the interface.

I started with a simple task: write a blog post.

1) I asked ChatGPT to write a blog post of about 500 words on the topic of space tourism, with an emphasis on NEO hotels.
Here is its answer.

I took the same basic topic and turned it into a simple compare and contrast essay question:

2) Weigh the benefits and costs of space tourism as it relates to both environmental and fiscal health of the Earth.
Here is its answer.

As a creative person, I next asked it to compare software tools for writers.

3) Compare the benefits of various software tools designed for creative writers.
Here is its answer.

4) What are the best tools to format a manuscript into an epub? Which is the best and why?
Here is its answer.

It failed to offer anything more than marketing copy as an answer. There was no opinion given, or when given was conditional to the point of useless.

Then I went into teacher-mode and asked a series of social studies questions:

5) How has the Chinese government tried to suppress knowledge of what happened in Tienanmen Square in 1989?
Here is its answer.

6) Is China’s “Belt and Road” initiative good for partner countries? Why or why not?
Here is its answer.

7) Has Brexit benefited or hurt the UK?
Here is its answer.

8) Is Western Sahara a sovereign state or a dependency of Morocco? Cite your sources for the opinion you give.
Here is its answer.

Again, the answers were factual but lacked detail and were offered at the highest level only. The Brexit question had the weakest answer, as it seems to think that Brexit is a future event with no results apparent as of yet. It never cited results for its non-opinion on Western Sahara.

9) What are the arguments against declawing cats?
Here is its answers.

On the declawing your cat question, I clicked “Regenerative Response”, which creates a second attempt that builds on the first. It was better, and is below the first.

Then I reverted to creative mode:

10) Write a story of about 700 words about a gambler in a casino on the moon and what happens to him when he loses a bet he can’t pay.
Here are its stories.

Interestingly, ChatGPT’s first take on this was solid, but a “regenerative response” was much better.

I tried again, with a different idea:

11) Write a story of about 700 words that uses Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics as a plot point.
Here is its story.

The story was complete and original, but was simple in structure and contained no dialogue.

Lastly, I tried it out on fan fiction:

12) Tell the tale of Paul Atreide’s first love on Caladan.
Here is its story.

The AI understood who he was, and who his family was, but then it took a left turn, rather than giving a previously unknown prequel love interest, it put Chani on Caladan and began messing up facts of the story.

My conclusions:

It’s not there yet.

For a simple middle or secondary school essay (maybe grades 7-9), it does a decent job of giving an overview. It has a hard time stating an opinion, preferring to give both sides and then waffle on the conclusion.

It also can miss huge areas: one the cons of space tourism, the environmental impact of the fuel used was completely ignored, with ‘space junk’ substituted. That’s a valid concern, but not the only one, and possibly not the top one.

When it came to writing fiction, it has story structure down pat, and frankly, the “regenerative response” added a lot of complexity to the story. BUT… there’s no dialogue, and the story is all ‘tell’ with not ‘show’. The stories read a lot like Aesop’s Fables, even often ending with a ‘moral of the story’.

As a storyteller, I’m not worried about its impact yet. But it may become a threat (or a tool) in the future. The threat, that a crowded market gets even more crowded with AI-generated stories. A tool in that it may assist writers with writer’s block.

As an educator, the simplest fix is to insist, even at lower levels, that students cite sources, something that ChatGPT does not do.

Uncomfortable Public Embarrassment

You don’t really know uncomfortable public embarrassment until Japanese business people have apologised to you. Seriously, it’s off-putting.

Let me tell you the tale…

I’m not sure how much detail to state, but I guess I do have to name the corporation and give at least a broad outline of the circumstances.

While I was working as a media contact for an African educational charity, I was approached by a reporter from NHK who wanted to interview a specific student on a timely topic. Normally this would be no problem, but the student in question needed to study for the British A-Level exams. Management at the charity had decided that to protect our students, we were enforcing a full media blackout until after the exam period (a number of students were local media celebrities).

As per our decision, which I fully endorsed, I denied the reporter the opportunity to interview the student. Somehow during our conversation the reporter learned when I’d be off-campus.

She showed up at our campus while I was away, convinced the guards I’d OK’d the interview (they’re not supposed to let anyone in unaccompanied, but she’s a small, polite Japanese woman who knew the right names to say…what harm could she do?) Having gotten past the guards, she convinced reception to contact the principal, and convinced the principal (again, dropping my name often) that I had approved this.

The principal pulled the student out of class for the interview. Now, there was nothing wrong with the interview content, per se. But we hadn’t approved it, and no adult was there to protect the student’s interests (also part of our protocols) had anything arisen.

When I arrived the next day, reception told me about the interview (she found it weird that I wasn’t present), and shit hit the fan in all directions. I got in trouble, the receptionist got in trouble, the principal got in trouble, and a guard got fired.

I was livid. I called reporter’s manager at NHK’s Johannesburg bureau and laid into him about what she’d done. He claimed no knowledge, apologized and hung up.

The next day, the guards call me, there’s three people from NHK at the gate wanting to see me. It was the reporter, her editor, and the manager. He’d brought the other two to force them to apologize to me and the receptionist (the principal chose not to participate, damn her.)

So we stood there while each of the NHK people, in frank from lowest to highest, took turns apologising and bowing to us, ending with the manager’s apology and about two minutes of all three bowing repeatedly in unison until the manager decided that they’d bowed enough.

Being the recipient of the bowing was awkward at first, but the longer it went on, the more it transitioned to embarrassing. Two minutes is a long time to stand silently while people bow to you. Perhaps we were supposed to ask them to stop? I don’t know. It’s not my culture.

Towards the end, it almost felt like the manager kept bowing to punish us as much as his staff.

When they finally departed, the manager gave us three gift bags (the guards didn’t factor into their apology), each containing a scarf and a mouse pad, each branded NHK. But honestly, the gifts themselves felt a little insulting in the sense of being low value trinkets. I didn’t know this was going to happen, but once it did, I’d have preferred no gift to a low-value “now-go-away” gift.

A year or so later I had another reporter from NHK call about interviewing our founder. That reporter started the call by apologising again for the previous reporter (so the incident must be in their CRM) and telling me that she’d gone back to Japan. And yes, we did do the second interview. It was a live TV panel about entrepreneurism in Africa and went quite well.

Revising the Modern Christmas Standards, personal edition

Your Honour, in the long-standing argument that pop music trends tend to overlook truly creative work for more mediocre, predictable music, I’d like to enter some examples in the genre of Christmas music.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

This is the time of year when I actively avoid anything by Pentatonix, Mariah Carey, or Paul McCartney. Santa Baby has no place in my music rotation, nor does Driving Home for Christmas.

These past few years, I’ve gotten very tired of the usual suspects. I’ve started digging deeper, following hints and vague mentions to find tracks that don’t get heard as often.

I guess the seeds for this were planted a decade ago or so, when I unexpectedly spent a whole Christmas season in Canada. Greg Lake’s I Believe in Father Christmas was getting airplay as a ‘deep cut’ on FM rock stations looking for token Christmas songs to play (and tired of the usual Springsteen / U2 / Brian Adams fare).

Father Christmas isn’t as much of a departure from tradition as, say, The Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York City, but it was a solid ear worm to replace anything by Michael Bublé.

And Father Christmas pairs nicely with another song popular a decade ago, Faith Hill’s Where Are You Christmas? Both songs follow similar emotional journeys, from despair to a renewal of hope, of sorts. I know Faith’s song is widely popular, and that’s fine, it’s just a nice addition to the season; beats another rendition of Marshmallow World any day.

Then I came across a song called “The River,” originally by Joni Mitchell, although it was Blue Rodeo’s cover that I heard first (and will probably always be ‘my’ version of the song). Again, it’s not a particularly happy song.

The next three songs that became part of my Christmas playlist aren’t Christmas songs at all (not even in a token form like “Winter Wonderland”).

The first was Chagall Duet by Jon Anderson. The second song is by him also, Hurry Home (the version from Change We Must). Neither is a Christmas song. Hurry Home is about intergalactic travel.

The third song most definitely isn’t a Christmas song either, it’s called Easter. It’s by Marillion, a band that, if you’re British, you either love or hate, and if you’re American, you’ve never heard of them. I’ve known them (and this song) for decades, being one of the few Canadians to fall in love with their song Kayleigh (along with Warm Wet Circles). Easter never popped for me until I saw the video of their performance of it at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

Most recently, I’ve been adding actual Christmas songs to my playlist, although they may be obscure. Surely most people my age had at least heard of The Band. I’ve never been a big fan beyond a few songs, but their song Christmas Must Be Tonight has popped to the top of my playlist this year. And I’m not the only one. I’ve seen others suddenly recommending it, too.

Jann Arden is a Canadian singer who has always written songs that sound personal. Her Make it Christmas Day, a plea for reconnecting with Christ, is definitely one of those songs.

I’ll end this with two lighter songs that I enjoy even if their style is rather mainstream. The first is a Canadian act from when I was younger, the Partland Brothers. Their Christmas song, Christmas Day has a heavy pull of nostalgia for me, even though I’ve only known the song for five years or so. I think it may be the chord that it’s sung in, with the long sonorous notes.

The second one I’ve just discovered in 2022 even though it’s over a decade old. My Favourite Time of Year by the Florin Street Band is a nice song that sounds like it would do well on radio. Reading up on it, it’s basically a one person project started to reinvigorate Christmas songwriting in the UK.

I’ll end by mentioning two new entries that may end up becoming favourites in our household, both from the Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special: I don’t know what Christmas is (but Christmastime is here) and Here it is, Christmastime.

Merry Christmas, 2022

Writer • Nomand • Educator