Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Humble Index Card

Like many a wordsmith, I've tried multiple ways to get a story out of my head and onto paper. I've outlined, planned, and written stories without and outline. I've even tried the index card method, but it has been a long time since I employed this method.

But I'm trying it again with my current book.

What is the Index Card Method?

The way I do it, one index card equals one scene. It's not necessarily a chapter a scene, but I know that some scenes will be long enough to be a chapter. I've read a few books in recent years that have something like 125 chapters and I know that every scene is a chapter. I'm not a huge fan of short-as-a-page chapters. I prefer to group them together into larger chapters. You?


Anyway, the beauty of index cards is the ability to see the story laid out on your table or on a corkboard. You can lay them out any way you, but I've done mine this way just about every time I use this method. The scene number is in the upper left. The upper right is the setting, while the middle top line is the POV character. In this case, Keene is my main character. 

In the body of the card, I list the action. I am using a blue ballpoint pen for the first time in forever. Not sure why, but I started that way and I'm running with it. Every time a character appears on stage for the first time, I use all caps and underline the names. You can see that listed here with a pair of HPD detectives. 

For this card in particular, in pencil, I wrote a question to myself. It's a guide for my thinking about the story and whether or not this scene is actually needed. If it's not, I can discard and not bother writing it.

With the "NEED" comment, that's also a note to myself. When I get around to writing this chapter in a few days, I'll need to work in that little comment. 

The "EXPAND" comment refers to the 1.0 version of this book that's already written. I'll likely not simply rewrite/retype this chapter when I get to it, but I'll revise what's already written in my 1.0 manuscript. This note, in red ink, serves as a reminder to expand on something that's already in the text. 

Every morning, after I've poured my coffee, I'll lay out the existing cards and move forward. I'm up to scene 27 so I don't necessarily have to lay out the first dozen scenes or so, but I lay out the last dozen. I'll follow my thought process and then start writing new scenes. I have a comp book in which I write additional notes, mainly about structure and overall thinking. Together, I have an ongoing mindmap-type thing that I can re-read along the way. Also, when this book is done, I can re-visit all my thought processes, especially if they veer away from the index cards.

Yeah, it can happen.

Do you use index cards? If so, how.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Cherishing a New Bruce Springsteen Song

 A couple things occurred to me on Thursday when I heard the new Bruce Springsteen song, "Letter to You," from his forthcoming album of the same name.

The most obvious one was that there was a brand-new Bruce Springsteen song! Just a day after the rumor started, the official press release drops as does the first single. It is always a great day when there's a new Springsteen tune, especially in 2020 (a damn good year for music). It struck me, however, that this one was slightly different. 

Not only was it a record with the E Street Band, but it was by an artist who had already reached the age of seventy. The Boss is seventy? Seriously? And then the video shows the entire band recording the songs for the album. It was like seeing old friends gathered again, smiling, laughing, working, creating, all in its black-and-white glory. 

The song's lyrics are mature and nuanced, deep with emotion. Hearing them, reading them as they played across the screen, I'll admit to a bit of emotion. Not nearly as much as last year's "Hello Sunshine" debut, but it was there. Why? Well, the meaning of the lyrics, of course, but also the echo of a question I hated to admit at the time: how many more days will we have that feature a new Springsteen song? 

He's seventy and the rest of the band ain't getting any younger. Unless Springsteen releases an album and unequivocably announces it is the last one, chances are we'll never know which day was the last to hear a brand-new Springsteen song. We'll be able to look back and note it, but not on that actual day.

I swept those thoughts away from the front of mind, but confess to thinking them and just relished the song.

Know what else made it special? The person I was with when I heard it.

I wake early every morning to work on my fiction writing, so I had already been alerted that the new song dropped. I had read the press release, seen the album cover, and read the tracklisting (which means little ahead of hearing the actual album). I was ready to hear the song. Last year, with "Hello Sunshine," I had listened to it about five times before my son got out of bed.

But on Thursday, I waited. My son, a college freshman, likes a few Springsteen albums and I know he'd want to hear the song before he drove to school. Well, *I* wanted him to hear it before school, so I made sure he did. Perhaps, on an unconscious level, the thoughts about The Boss not getting any younger played a role. I can't say, but I wanted to share the experience.

And it was all the more special.

It also made me think of all the other musicians, authors, and actors who I've grown up with. Some have already passed on but most of my favorites are still with us. Made me cherish them and their work all the more.


Saturday, September 5, 2020

Recognizing Progress in Your Own Writing

Should I or shouldn't I re-read a completed manuscript before picking it back up again to work on it?

I debated with myself for longer than you'd expect, but let me give you a little backstory.

I wrote and completed the 1.0 draft a few years ago. I particularly enjoy the premise and the characters in this mystery/thriller. I remembered how the story started and the very end, but not a lot in the middle. I had vague memories but nothing crystal clear. Maybe it wasn't that good?

So a year or so ago, I attempted to write the story again *from scratch*. That is, do not read the old manuscript, but just rewrite the story. I changed some of the focus of the story, but ultimately shelved the 2.0 version in favor of books I've already published.

But I really like the tale. I decided it would be my Fall 2020 writing project. And that should I or shouldn't I question kept swirling in my head. On the one hand, were I to pick up the 2.0 version and just keep going, I might leave some cool stuff out that I didn't remember. Yeah, I know that if I don't remember something, it must not be memorable, but I don't subscribe to that idea. There are plenty of things about which I can remember my personal reaction but not quite the details. The end of Redshirts by John Scalzi is one.

I finally came down on the side of re-reading the 1.0 version. This was over 500 manuscript pages and, as of yesterday, I have about 100 pages left. Two things struck me.

One, there were indeed some cool scenes and moments in the book. I found myself actively reading and enjoying the story anew. I'm still time constrained in the mornings before work, and just about every day, I cursed the alarm that signaled it was time to get ready for the day job. I was into it and glad I decided to re-read the 1.0.

I read it with my yellow legal pad next to me, outlining the story as I read it. I noted POV, settings, character names, and general flow. All of this was in blue ink.

It was the red inked notes that told me just how far I've come as a writer.

These red notes are ones where I'd say "Need more description" in a scene where I'd introduce a character, but then give either a cursory physical description or none at all. I know, right? Other times I'd write "Need new option" when the 2020 me, reading the story, could see the next step a mile away. 

The biggest thing I noticed was how easy the characters had it. In more than one spot, I'd have a challenge and the next thing I knew, they had solved it. Really? I mean, if I'm irritated that they had it so easy, you know other readers will fire off a 2-star review.

I'll finish my re-read of the 1.0 version this weekend. I'll follow through with a re-read of the 2.0 version (about 75 pages) and do the same outlining. Then, with my improved storytelling skills, I'll craft the 3.0 version.

Have you re-read old material and realized you've improved your skills?

Monday, August 31, 2020

Bill and Ted Face the Music, Grow Old, and Teach Us a Most Excellent Lesson

It’s the little things in this movie that really stood out to me. Oh, and the big, goofy grin plastered on my face nearly the entire time.

1989

I’ll admit something here I’ve mentioned elsewhere: I didn’t go to see Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure because I knew what it was and wanted to see it. I went because the trailer for the 1989 Batman movie was playing before it. So basically, I bought a ticket for a trailer and got a movie as a bonus.

And what a movie it was. History major that I was (and am), I loved Excellent Adventure and saw it multiple times in the theater. And no, not just because the Batman trailer was attached. I enjoyed the film for what it was: an overly enthusiastic, charming adventure movie about a couple of Gen X high schoolers to which I could relate, even if I lived in the suburbs of Houston and they San Dimas, California.

The snippets of dialogue became engrained in my head and the culture. I mean, how many of us in the past thirty-one years have not thought about something being strangely afoot when we pass a Circle K? How many of us can recite Bill and Ted’s basic mantra: Be Excellent To Each Other. And Party On, Dudes!

Bogus Journey was different, but still good. I like the first one more largely because I could see myself in that story, but Bogus Journey had some marvelous sequences, most of which feature William Sadler as Death.

But that was it. For the past twenty-nine years, Bill and Ted 3 lived its own bogus journey in development hell. I didn’t think it would ever get made. Part of me didn’t think we needed it. Seriously, did we want to see Bill and Ted…old? Was there even a story there?

Face the Music: The Set Up

Turns out, there was.

The writing duo of Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon—the same folks who wrote the first two movies—proved there was a story worth telling. And a story worth viewing by all of us, especially the members of Generation X.

When we finally meet Bill and Ted in the third movie, they are fiftyish. Long gone are the heady days immediately following Bogus Journey when they saved the world and toured as Wyld Stallyns, complete with Death as the, um, killer bass player. Now, the lovable duo are ensconced in the suburbs, living next door to each other, married to the literal princesses from Bogus Journey, each with a twenty-five-year-old daughter. Bill’s daughter (played by Samara Weaving, kin to Hugo Weaving from The Matrix fame) is Thea and Ted’s daughter (played to a T by Brigette Lundy-Paine) is Billie. You see what they did there? Bill’s daughter is…Ted and Ted’s daughter is…Bill. [Cue air guitar]

The one thing they’ve not done is write The Song that will unite the world. [As an aside, I kinda thought that was how Bogus Journey ended, but what they hey.] In fact, they’ve sputtered into middle age, complete with marital problems. The two wives just want their respective husbands to recognize how co-dependent Bill and Ted are for each other and to channel some of that energy into their respective marriages. The daughters are just like their dads, complete with an intricate knowledge of music.

Which is when the future intervenes. The Great Leader sends Kelly, daughter of George Carlin’s Rufus, back in time to give Bill and Ted their mission: write The Song in 77 minutes or all of space and time will be destroyed. Taking a cue from their earlier adventures, the pair decide to travel into their own futures to meet their older selves and get the song that way.

In the meantime, the future wives have traveled back in time to get their younger selves to leave Bill and Ted.

And also in the meantime, Billie and Thea meet Kelly and the daughters take her time machine back in time to form a most excellent band for their dads. [Cue air guitar]


Face the Music Actually Says a Lot

While I’ll admit it took a few minutes for me to get into seeing Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter as old versions of their iconic characters, once the time traveling stuff started, it was all fun from there. Meeting their future selves didn’t necessarily pan out like they’d thought it would. Future Bill and Ted are bitter at losing their wives and their daughters and not having written the song. They blame Present Bill and Ted and actively try and thwart them. Thus, Bill and Ted become the villains…to Bill and Ted.

Hey, it worked for me. Why? Simple: what if your younger self could see how your life turned out?

Think about it. When you’re in high school, your head is full of dreams for your future. Whatever you want to be when you grow up, your dreams put you in the best possible version. You’re a doctor? Then you cure cancer. You’re a teacher? Then you educate the next president. You’re a baseball player? You hit the game winning home run to win the World Series. And if you’re a musician? Then you write the song that can unite the world.

I think few of us would even want to travel back in time and tell our younger selves how we turned out. You had the dream of being a musician? Well, now you have an office job in a cube (or at home, in 2020’s reality) and your guitar sits dusty in the corner of the room. You wanted to be a baseball player? Well, the injury you sustained in college killed that dream and you had to adjust.

Because adjusting is what we all do. We figure things out as we go along, rarely sticking to the dream path we envisioned. Some do, yes, and more power to them. But for many of us, how we envisioned the future may not necessarily be how we’re actually living in it.

Gen X Grows Old

Another obvious aspect of the film is the age of Bill and Ted. Reeves and Winter look great, but they still look middle aged, especially after having watched Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey to prep for Face the Music. You can’t hide age.

Name your reunion movie in which beloved TV characters from your favorite show come together. Gunsmoke. The Andy Griffith Show. The Brady Bunch. Perry Mason. The Rockford Files. The Wild Wild West. Gilligan’s Island. Whatever. The original TV shows are burned into our consciousness, especially us Gen Xers who, as latch key kids, grew up watching reruns. Ron Howard is forever Opie (or Richie Cunningham) in our minds, the small youth walking and whistling with Andy. Bob Denver will always be twenty-nine or so, the lovable goof from the island.

But seeing these same actors play the same characters years or decades older is odd. (The Brady kids kind of get a pass because they had multiple spinoffs and we got to see them age up almost in real time. And I’m not talking about reunion specials when the actors gather to discuss their shows.) There’s something you have to get used to. Exactly the same with Bill and Ted (and William Sadler as Death).

They got old.

But so did we.

Many of us may not have access to our high school yearbooks anymore (I still have mine) but we have access to the movies of our high school (or early college) years. Up until 2020, Reeves and Winter, were forever frozen in 1989 or 1991. Reeves not so much because we saw him age up in his movies, but as Bill and Ted, they are like fossils, preserved in amber.

But so is everything about growing up Gen X. Think about this: to the best of my knowledge, Bill and Ted are the only 80s icons we revisit in middle age. The Breakfast Club are still in high school. So are the kids from Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ridgemont High, St. Elmo’s Fire, the Goonies, and, of course, Ferris Bueller. They are forever young, forever looking to their futures and their dreams.

With Bill and Ted, however, we get to see them how we are now. Older, shaken from our younger dreams, and heading into the realm of being a senior citizen.

The Real Message of Face the Music: It’s Never Too Late

All of this talk about dashed dreams may seem like a downer—especially in 2020—but there’s an underlying ray of light in this movie: It’s Never Too Late.

One of the small things I really appreciated is the moment with Ted and his father. Played again by Hal Landon Jr., Captain Logan never got over his desire to set his son’s path in life straighter. In the first two films, military school was the answer. And in this one, he explodes to his son and Bill about their wasted lives. Because Gen X was basically labeled as the slacker generation, and we have dozens of films to reinforce the point.

But Captain Logan gets himself drug into the larger plot and he finally realizes that the thing Bill and Ted have talked about for thirty years was real. It all was. The father comes to realize his son really did make a difference to the world, and he apologizes for his misunderstanding. Here’s the father, nearing retirement age, figuring out it’s never too late to apologize.

Late in the film, Present Bill and Ted visit their elderly selves, the villains of most of the film. There, Middle-Aged Bill and Ted get to have a heart-to-heart with Elderly Bill and Ted and clear the air. Both versions of Bill and Ted realize it’s never too late to come to terms and appreciate all the choices they’ve made—and we’ve made—with our lives. We are the accumulation of every single decision we’ve made, the good ones, the bad ones, the cherished ones, and the anguished ones. I live with few regrets, but there are always the little things I wish I could go back and tweak. But all of that vanished the day my son was born. It was that day I realized each and every decision I made led up to that day, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

Another small thing is with Bill and Ted’s marriages. For their entire adult lives, they’ve been blinded by their mutual affection for each other. Boy, to have a friend like that, huh? But during the movie and after meeting their future selves, they realize it’s never too late to reinvest in their marriages with their wives.

Then there’s the big little thing, the one the whole movie hinges on: Bill and Ted realize it’s never too late to pass the torch onto the next generation. Slight spoilers here, but ones you could pretty much see coming.

Their daughters go on their own most excellent adventure, drafting the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Louis Armstrong, and Mozart form the band to play The Song. But the fathers don’t have the song. They don’t even know it.

But they realize, even as the seconds are counting down to annihilation, that it’s never too late to help your children do great things, especially if that thing is to save space and time. The parents facilitate all that’s necessary to enable their daughters to do what they could not: unite the world through a song.

Conclusion

Yeah, this piece edged into heady territory, especially for a movie that’s often laugh out loud funny. But it has a lot of heart and emotion in this film. And I think it can speak to multiple generations. For my son, a college freshman, it’s a fun movie with lots of in jokes and over-the-top shots. I’m thinking Jesus walking on water next to George Washington as he crosses the Delaware River. Or how the two actresses playing the daughters nail their respective impressions of their fathers yet still make the characters unique.

But for us middle-aged Gen Xers, there’s an entirely different movie playing in front of our eyes. It’s a movie about our lives that we never expected, never saw coming, but is so important to many of us. We are getting older. Heck, we *are* old. We’ve become our parents and, with that perspective, we can reevaluate how our parents raised us. For me, I’ve long known my parents were most excellent role models and if I could follow their examples, I’d do well. But only after I became a parent did even more things come into view about my own childhood. Most of us have these realizations some time or other, and now Bill and Ted do, too.

It’s remarkable that a film about two genuinely lovable dudes who possess a genuine affection for each other and the world could deliver such a profound message to the world in 2020. I’m sure the screenwriters could never have dreamed the finished film would land the way it did: in few theaters and on demand (how we watched it) in the middle of a pandemic and an election year with racial strife and fellow Americans yelling at each other. If ever we needed Wyld Stallyns to sing their song, it’s 2020.

But we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with a genuinely funny and heartfelt movie, and also the realization that it’s never too late to look at our fellow humans on this planet and preach and act in the way Bill and Ted told us to do over thirty years ago: Be Excellent to Each Other.

 


Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Summer of Bosch

A few weeks ago, I wrote about watching the Amazon Prime TV series Bosch. Based on Michael Connelly’s novel series, there are now six seasons, 60 episodes of excellent television.

And I’ve gone through them all.

Now I’ve caught up with the rest of the folks who watched Bosch live as it aired. I’m not a binger. I still have the weekly airing of TV episodes ingrained in my DNA. But with streaming, I have modified my viewing. With about an hour a day for TV, my wife and I watch a show at 9pm every night. Thus, a 10-episode season of Bosch typically took about ten days, more or less.

Except the last couple of seasons.

Now, work nights, I still have only an hour for TV, but when the viewing bled into the weekends? Well, we might watch two or (shocker) three a night. I know that sounds funny to some of y’all, but I don’t like to blow through TV shows and have nothing left.

Early on this summer, we watched season 1 of Bosch then switched to another show. Prodigal Son. Happened again after season 2 (although I forgot the other show). Then the magic happened. After season 3 as we were discussing which show to watch next, the wife suggested Bosch season 4.

Done!

And we didn’t look back until we had finished the entire series to date.

I wrote earlier about the cast and they remain the best thing about the show. But as the series went on, I particularly liked the relationship between Bosch and his daughter who, by season six, is a college student finding her way through life. Titus Welliver and Madison Lintz have such good chemistry that you’d almost think they really are father and daughter.

The one thing I dislike about binging is the sudden void after you’ve reached the end. Tis why I like to watch shows slow. When we reached episode 60, there was a moment where we looked at each other and questioned if that was it? (We had purposefully avoided looking up anything on the internet because we didn’t want any spoilers. My wife spoiled herself when she was reading about the show and learned the fate of one of the major characters.)

Yes, there will be a season 7, but that’ll be it. Amazon has cancelled the show, but allowed it to end gracefully.

So it turned out that the Bosch TV show was our through line during the summer of 2020. I couldn’t be more satisfied.

 

BTW, our next show is Glitch (Netflix), an Australian show with an interesting premise: a few dead folks crawl out of their graves one night without any memories but in perfect health. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Learning About Life from Reruns

Late Sunday evening, after the wife and I watched a new-to-us show, Glitch, on Netflix, we turned off the steaming service and landed back on regular cable TV. This being a weekend, the channel was still tuned to MeTV, the channel that shows classic TV. I love Saturdays because it’s westerns all day. During our Covid-19 era, Sundays have become The Brady Bunch day right after I stream my church’s service.

That Sunday evening, the show being broadcast was The Dick Van Dyke Show. It was "Show of Hands," a season 4 (1965) episode in which Rob and Laura and their son, Ritchie, accidentally get their hands stained with black ink. This being episode 28 of the season, it was probably late spring 1965. What gave the show its comedic element was that they were to attend an awards show specifically, although not explicitly, on the in-show’s treatment of the equality of African-Americans in society.

The acceptance speech Rob gives—after he admits the truth about why he's wearing gloves and takes them off to show his black hands—basically said that to treat each other equally is the right thing to do. The characters on the show all laughed at Rob's predicament. This episode led directly into the next.


Tired though I was, I sat and watched these two episodes. The wife did, too. We started chatting about us being latch key kids in the 1970s. That is, we school-aged kids would go home after school to an empty house because both parents would be working. Sure there was homework, but there was also the freedom to do what you wanted with no parent telling you 'no.'

Not having the plethora of entertainment options available in 2020, we'd zero in on TV and the reruns being broadcast. Here in Houston, that was mostly Channel 39 and Channel 26, the two independent UHF channels. Here's where we'd get a steady diet of shows from the 1950s (I Love Lucy) and the 1960s (Dick Van Dyke, Gilligan's Island, The Brady Bunch, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeanie, etc.). Day after day, we'd consume these shows, memorizing them, laughing at them.

And learning from them.

It was my wife who made the observation: Because these shows we watched in reruns were intended for adult audiences (or at least the entire family), they were not specifically geared to children and their tastes. That was for Saturday morning cartoons and PBS. Watching and seeing how adults interacted with each other, we learned about adult life. Sure, it was often over the top and overly funny, but the common thread was there. Adults got into situations, worried about what to do and the consequences, and made decisions. If it was the wrong decision, they learned. If it was the right one, someone on the show also learned. 

We kids absorbed what we saw and internalized it without even knowing it.

Now, don't get me wrong: entertainment geared for kids is perfectly fine. And yes, lots of it is imbued with lessons to learn. But when you have a diet consisting only of kids entertainment, how do you learn about the adult world? Yes, I know, learning about life from TV is not really how you do it. You get out there and live life, learning along the way. But entertainment plays a role, too. Movies, TV, books, music: it's all in the mix. 

Seeing Old Shows With Fresh Eyes


What's fun about catching an episode of an old show like the Dick Van Dyke Show we saw as an adult is the ability to see the content with fresh eyes. Sometimes, your adult self sees old episodes you remember as a kid and you go "Boy, was that silly" or "How did I even like that?" Often, as we're eating lunch on Sundays and The Brady Bunch (actually, the Brady Brunch where MeTV sequences four episodes with a common theme) is on, the wife will remember and (sometimes) chuckle, while the boy rolls his eyes. I simply grin and keep watching. it's the historian in me.

Then again, you catch an episode like "Show of Hands" and you realize a subtle, powerful message was being delivered not only to adults in 1965 or the kids who might also be watching in 1965, but to folks in the 1970s and beyond. Especially kids. 

We were learning and laughing at the same time and didn't even realize it.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

How Do You Find New Books?

by

Scott D. Parker

Earlier this week, a friend of mine at church posted an article about the mental benefits of listening to new music. In his post, he asked us how we discover new music.

I answered by saying nearly all of my nearly two dozens albums in 2020 stemmed from two sources: Frontiers Music (keeping melodic rock alive and kicking) and bands featured on the Texas Music Scene TV show. 

When I stumbled on Frontiers Music in 2019, I ended up downloading a sampler CD and listening. That led directly to purchases. It also led me to subscribe to Frontiers’s newsletter. Every week, I get an email talking about the new releases of that week. I also Liked their page on Facebook. Now, whenever I get the weekly email or I scroll to the Frontiers Music Facebook page, I listen. Heck, this week I discovered a band called Pride of Lions and their kick-ass song “Carry Me Back.” I heard the first few bars of this tune and instantly marked the new album as a prerelease. Only later did I learn one of the lead singer (and lead guitarist) is Jim Peterik, a founder of Survivor and…The Ides of March! Yeah, the guy that sings “Vehicle” is still making music. Oh, and how cool is Peter’s guitar!

The Texas Music Scene is a syndicated TV show that comes on Saturdays at midnight, right after SNL. It used to be a casual show. Now it is appointment television. I take notes on the bands and the songs they perform. Then I go out and buy the albums. I’ve got quite a list and I’m slowly working my way through all the new-to-me music. 

But for books, how does it work? How do I find new books?

Well, J. Kingston Pierce’s The Rap Sheet is top dog for me. Somehow, he finds the time to compile not only awesome lists of new books, but he pens fantastic articles about mystery and crime fiction. His Revue of Reviewers is a highlight as is his lists of awards. Plus, he has a knack for zeroing in on those fun old crime TV shows, complete with links. I often find new-to-me stuff there.

Turning my attention to the local scene, I subscribe to the Murder by the Book email list. All during the quarantine, they have continued their author events, only now, they’re online. They debut on Facebook and then show up on their YouTube page. Interviews with J. Todd Scott and Brad Thor have directly led me to book purchases. 

Here’s the link to their events page.

But, to be brutally honest, other than a few other newsletters, that’s it for me. 

So this post is actually a call to action: how do you find new books? I’d like to know so I can learn about even more books that are being published. 

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Routines Gives Covid Days Structure and Builds Anticipation

It’s not often when the day job and the fiction job intersect, but they did this week.

On the day job front, we had our weekly team meeting yesterday. We’ve got a team of about 25 folks and, ever since 16 March, we’ve been working from home. Fridays are our Zoom calls and we get to see each other’s faces and enjoy an hour of camaraderie.

Yesterday, the grandboss asked how we were doing. And not in a flippant way, but an honest deep dive into how we were coping with the new paradigm of remote working. How were we feeling? How are we getting along with our families? The discussion was good with a few of my team members relating the sameness of our day-to-day lives. One of us commented that she sometimes realized that she needed to just get up out of her chair and walk outside to break up the monotony of her home office.

On the internet and Facebook this week, a few of my fellow writers voiced their frustration with the inability to write ever since the Coronavirus descended over all of us. When we’re all stuck at home with few prospects of getting out to typical places like movie theaters, theme parks, or seemingly every other summer tradition, how the heck can we harness the creativity to write?

I can’t answer these questions, but I can answer them with techniques I use that gets me through each day and each week.

Routine and Built-in Anticipation


Some of y’all will read this and chuckle. You may even give me a hard time. Don’t worry about it: my family gives me a hard time about it, too, but I still carry on.

Maybe it’s a sign of my age (51) but I seek out routine and thrive in it.

On the creative side of things, I hold one rule steadfast: write first thing in the morning. No internet. No email. Nothing other than a cup of coffee, a Bible reading, and the immediate opening of the laptop to work on a story. For the past month, it’s been edits and revision to my next book. Soon it’ll be a return to new stories, but, above all else, I carve out the time to be creative when the world is still dark and I’m the only one in the house awake. It was a routine I needed to create, but now that I have, it’s one of my favorite parts of the day.

This routine paid for itself on Monday of this week when, after I had a productive session, I logged into my bank to pay bills and discovered one of our checks had been stolen and forged. Yes, money had also been stolen. It’s resolved now, but the point is this: had I not already done my creative work, I did not have the mindset to be creative after that discovery. So, write in the morning before the day gets to you.

Building Anticipation


How good is a tuna fish sandwich? How valuable is movie night? How do these things relate to each other?

I love tuna fish sandwiches. It’s one of my favorite things to each for lunch. I branch out and try different recipes, often with salads, but the good, old-fashioned tuna fish sandwich is one of my favorite comfort foods.

But ever since I started working from home, I limit the traditional tuna fish sandwich to my Friday lunches. Why? To build anticipation. I’ll admit I look forward to lunches everyday because not only does my entire family of three eat together, but my wife and I play three games each of backgammon and Yahtzee. But I only eat tuna fish sandwiches on Fridays. Now, my family gently ribs me about this, but I can’t tell you how good that tuna sandwich tastes after a week of anticipation. Yesterday’s sandwich was particularly good. It’s something I look forward to all week long.

Ditto the Friday Night Movies. In the summer of 2020 when Covid has robbed us of a typical summer movie blockbuster season, I invented one. I’ve been revisiting summer movies from the past with even-numbered anniversaries (i.e., years ending in 0 or 5) and it’s been fun. But my point is that Fridays are movie nights. The other six days, sure we can watch a movie (we rarely do; the wife and I watch TV shows every night), but the special day is Friday.

Just like the tuna fish sandwich, I look forward to movie nights all week long. I build the anticipation, and that makes the sometimes monotonous days go by faster. And it makes Fridays all the more special.

Saturday mornings are do-nuts from Shipley’s, a cartoon (currently Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated) and every episode of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. Saturday nights feature the Texas Music Scene TV show. Sunday mornings are online church. Every night at 9pm is our TV show time (about to start season 6 of Bosch). Friday night (lots of Friday things) is also cocktail night. Thursday is often take-out food night.

Yes, there are times when the wife makes tuna fish on a Tuesday and I’ll opt out. Yeah, really. It’s to keep those Friday lunches special. It’s to build anticipation.

So that’s a glimpse into how I’m coping with working from home and maintaining my creativity.

How are you doing?


Saturday, August 1, 2020

What’s Your Book About? The Challenge of Book Descriptions

What do you think about book descriptions?

When someone asks us what our book is about, some of us are hamstrung. Having lived with the book for potentially months, we know the ins and outs of the story. Some of us launch into a massively detailed description of the book, the characters, the plots and sub-plots.

That’s not entirely helpful.

You’ve read a lot of book descriptions. I know I have. They either catch you or they don’t. Well, there’s another thing that can sometimes happen: the book description that tells too much. How irritating are those movie trailers that all but show you the entire film? We are all sophisticated viewers (and readers) so I don’t think we need every single beat of a story told in a description.

The reason I’m talking book descriptions is that I’m preparing my next book for publication. It’s called TREASON AT HANFORD: A HARRY TRUMAN MYSTERY. I’ve been re-reading it and making edits and changes most of the summer. I’ve got a cover concept (well, at least five) and I sent it to some of my fellow graphic designers to get their take. One of them came back: what’s the book about?

So I sent the description.

What’s problematic about a book featuring Harry Truman is that most folks know he was president and probably instantly jump to that conclusion when they think of Truman. But my tale takes place the year before he became vice president and then president. So I needed at least a sentence or two to lay the groundwork that I’m referring to Senator Truman and not President Truman.

After a few attempts, here’s what I wrote:

Before he became vice president in 1945, Senator Harry Truman led a congressional committee dedicated to ferreting out corruption during World War II. The investigators of the Truman Committee adhere to a simple credo: help the country win the war and bring our soldiers home.

In the spring of 1944, Truman receives a series of ominous letters from a lawyer out in Hanford, Washington. His client, a common farmer who lost his land when the government confiscated miles of territory for a secret project, has been drafted to keep him quiet about what he’s seen going on around a local warehouse with direct ties to the giant facility in the area.

Fearing the worst, Truman leads the investigation himself, bringing along Carl Hancock, a former policeman. Soon after they start poking around, Truman and Hancock witness a pair of brutally murdered corpses, a town clouded in secrecy, and the warehouse owner who is ready to pull strings and dismiss the pesky senator.

But the man from Independence, Missouri, is tenacious, and in no time, Truman and Hancock not only find themselves embroiled in the top-secret world of the Manhattan Project but also must confront the worst act of treason in American history since Benedict Arnold.
 

Analysis:

To me, paragraph one sets the stage in the reader’s mind that this is Senator Truman I’m writing about. Paragraph two features the incident that gets Truman’s attention and start the investigation. The third paragraph ups the stakes by throwing in corpses and the world of 1944. And the final paragraph—which could almost be a log line itself—tosses the phrases “Benedict Arnold” and “The Manhattan Project” into the mix, letting the reader know the just how high the stakes are.

I think it’s a good description and should tell potential readers whether or not they’d like the book.


Then there’s the elevator pitch. Maybe it’s the log line, the one-sentence version of the book. Kudos for any creative type who can sum up a work in a sentence. It’s crucial, mind you, but it’s a skill that must be learned if you don’t already have it.

Like I just wrote, the last paragraph of the description could serve as the elevator pitch, but I also have a sentence on the cover: Before Harry Truman dropped the bomb, he had to save it.

I debated whether or not to include ‘A Harry Truman Mystery’ or not as a sub-title and will likely opt not to have it and leave in the cover blurb. Not sure. Still tweaking the cover concept.

What’s the cover look like? Well, you’ll just have to watch a little bit longer.

What are  your thoughts on book descriptions? How do you structure them?

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Breaking Down Bosch on TV

When you're a writer, you always notice structure in a story, no matter the medium.

Not sure why the wife and I never started watching Amazon Prime's Bosch TV show, based on Michael Connelly's series of books, but a few weeks ago, we pulled the plug.

And have loved every moment of the first three seasons. Titus Welliver as the titular character is fantastic. Now, I say that as someone who's read only a handful of the Bosch books so he may or may not be everyone's first choice, but with Connelly on as an executive producer, he saw something he liked. Besides, it's a different medium. I love his intensity and Bosch's sense of justice no matter the cost, even to himself or his career. We're just a couple of episodes into the fourth season and I so love the fact that Bosch was assigned the main case because he wasn't the target of the victim, a dead lawyer who had gone after cops. How'd Bosch miss this guy?

Jerry Edgar, or J. Edgar, is Bosch's partner. Played by Jamie Hector of The Wire fame, he's naturally much younger than Bosch. You do get the typical veteran-to-younger guy vibe, but that's okay. J. Edgar dresses nice, has a wife and two young children, and is in a different place in life. Hector does a fine job of saying much by saying little, and I liked how his character gradually changed over the first three seasons, especially the third as he came to understand what makes Bosch tick.

The imposing Lance Reddick plays Irvin Irving, a guy who ends up being promoted to interim chief of police. I swear, if he were interrogating me, all he'd have to do was just stare at me and I'd talk. Another veteran of The Wire, Reddick brings a simmering intensity to even the most mundane of scenes. When the chief experiences a personal tragedy, there is one scene Reddick nails.

Amy Aquino plays Bosch's long-suffering lieutenant. Like all the cast in this show, she fits right in with the hard-boiled detectives of her squad. She gives as good as she gets, and is always there to back Bosch. We got a little of her backstory in season three and its...dicey.

I could go on, but I wanted to circle back to being a writer and watching a show like this. Each season is ten episodes, each about 45-50 minutes, give or take. The writers spin multiple threads during season three. There's the murder-of-the-season, there's the cold case involving the murder of Bosch's prostitute mother, there's Bosch's family life (teenaged daughter and ex-wife and her husband; the ex is a professional poker player), there's J. Edgar's family, and Chief Irving's story. That's five not including the bad guys who are involved in the season-long mystery.

I find it fascinating how well the stories ebb and flow, play off each other, and become resolved. Sometimes, it's about a 30-second scene with a few lines of dialogue. Other times, it's a full section. I haven't yet sat down to analyze a single episode, but I'm thinking about it. It seems so effortless, but I know it's based on long and hard work. You can learn structure and story by breaking down a book or TV show. I did it with The Da Vinci Code back in the day and a few episodes of Castle.

I'll keep watching for structure as we get through season four. It opens up new ideas in my head for how to craft a story. Writers. We're always learning.

The only problem with binge viewing? You eventually reach the end. Next season is next year. But I'm gonna enjoy this show. It'll probably lead me to the books.

What are the best Bosch books?

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Prodigal Son: Come for the Premise, Stay for the Twists


I had seen the promos for Fox’s PRODIGAL SON back in 2019 and my eyes slid off it. “What if Hannibal Lector had a son and they solved mysteries together?” Wasn’t interested.

A few weeks ago, with my wife’s urging, we gave it a try. I am converted.

The Premise

The story focuses on Malcolm Bright (played by Tom Payne), a former FBI profiler, who now works with a small team at the NYPD. The police squad is led by Lt. Gil Arroyo (perennial favorite Lou Diamond Phillips) with Detectives Dani Powell (Aurora Perrineau) and JT Tarmel (Frank Harts) as part of the team. Keiko Agena plays Dr. Edrisa Tanaka, the medical examiner.

It is Malcolm’s father who is the serial killer known as The Surgeon, and for good reason: he is renowned surgeon Dr. Martin Whitly. Rouding out the main cast is Malcolm’s mother, Jessica (Bellamy Young) and his sister, Ainsley (Halston Sage).

The pilot centers on a copycat killer who is using The Surgeon’s MO, so Malcolm is brought in. As a kid, Malcolm was the one who exposed his father, leading to his arrest and imprisonment. Lt. Arroyo was there and has taken a fatherly interest in Malcolm ever since.

The Central Question

This is your typical killer-of-the-week type of show, but it is the characters who help lift this show above the mundane. Despite my initial reticence, you might have thought the premise alone would have hooked me, but I’m not a huge fan of serial killer stories. Still the dynamics of Malcolm’s character make it pretty interesting. With a title like PRODIGAL SON and Malcolm’s own mental issues, there’s a strong chord throughout the show asking the simple question: Is Malcolm like his father? Could the younger Whitly succumb just like his father?

The “Is he or is he not a killer?” is a nice twist on the traditional “Will they or won’t they?” question we ask of shows like CASTLE. Speaking of one of my all-time favorite shows, the pilot is very similar to to CASTLE’s pilot. Shrug.

There is also the question revolving around Malcolm’s continued flashbacks to one night, when he was a child, and saw a woman in a chest. Was she a victim? Who was she? And what happened to her?

The Characters

Even if a premise hooks you, it is often the characters who compel you to stay. Here, despite the guardrails of a network television show, the characters are pretty darn good. Malcolm’s great and his mind trips are, well, a trip. His relationships with the various members of his family are dramatic if not a little too dramatic. When he visits his dad, they’re always very formal, with the son referring to his dad as “Dr. Whitly.” But it’s really neat to see the progression of their relationship as the 20-episode first season goes on.

Speaking of The Surgeon, Michael Sheen is having a blast. He knows he’s often the comedic relief and he plays it up. It’s a little jarring at first to see this serial killer be funny and you laugh at his comments, but Sheen does a fine job. Know what else he’s good at? The sudden shift from funny to dangerous, sometimes at the blink of an eye. It is in those moments when you go, “Oh, right, he’s killed twentysomething people.”

Phillips is solid as a rock. He is even-keeled who knows he has to go by the book, but also realizes “by the book” doesn’t apply to Malcolm. This is an “eccentric detective with cops” show after all. He really cares for Malcolm and does his best to keep the young man out of as much trouble as he can, not always successfully.

The Stories

Like most shows nowadays, there is the crime-of-the-week ones and the season-long story arc. Both are satisfying but there are bumps along the road. Highlights include one in which Malcolm wakes to find himself chained inside a cellar (episode 11), the pilot (for setting everything in motion and hooking me), the one with a former cop who worked The Surgeon’s case (episode 10), and the last trio of episodes. I can’t think of a single episode that was sub-par, and many were quite entertaining.

The Twists

If given the premise and the central questions I listed above, I’m guessing you’d form your own opinions on what might happen during the season. Trust me: I had them, too. But creators Chris Fedak and Sam Sklaver know what you’re thinking and deliver something different. It’s nice to say that some of the questions are resolved while others just make you anticipate season 2 that much more.

The Verdict

I thoroughly enjoyed season 1 of PRODIGAL SON and would certainly recommend. I know I’m eagerly waiting for season 2.