Saturday, April 4, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 14 AKA Keeping Calm and at Home

Second full week of physical distancing. For me, this is my third week of working from home. I know there can be a lull or a blurring of days. So far, here at the house, we've avoided that. Part of the reason is our appointment television. When you want to tune in to the new episode of New Amsterdam or The Curse of Oak Island (one of my wife's favorite shows), it helps to know what day it is. Also, I've taken to marking the days on my wall calendar with a big red X. Lastly, my watch tells me what day it is, so there's that, too.

This'll be the third weekend under Houston's stay-at-home order. In order to make the weekend days seem different, we have a different schedule. Naturally, I don't work and my son doesn't attend school. But he and I have taken to driving around--without getting out--and listening to an album. He's discovered quite a lot of music and, since his tastes run similar to mine, it's good to get out and drive.

Our occasional Friday Night at the Movies has been set in stone. Last weekend, we caught Damien: Omen II. Boy, that's 107 minutes I won't get back. Last night, we finished the trilogy. My son is expanding his viewing of classic horror films and now those are off the list.

Reading


I usually read on one of my two ereaders: the Kindle and the Kobo. I like them for different reasons, but I really love the obvious: I can browse on them and download samples. I especially appreciate both devices linking with my local library. I'm still reading Jedi Twilight by Michael Reaves. It's a PI story set in the Star Wars universe.

I also downloaded the Comixology app for my older iPad so now I can keep reading comics albeit in a digital form. I'm partial to trade paperback collections and I picked up the first set of DC's Starman (1994). I've heard good things and now's the time. I'm also working my way through the first volume of Master of Kung Fu. I bought this last year at Houston's Comicpalooza. Really enjoying this.

Music


Now that I'm WFH, I have my collection of CDs readily available to me. I'm rediscovering some albums I haven't heard in forever. This week's highlight: Ska Island. It's a 1997 compilation from Island Records and it is fantastic. I'm not sure why I haven't spun it in a long time, but I've listened to it every day this week. Here's the link.

Writing


Through all the turmoil, I'm still writing and creating. I do it every morning when I wake up. With zero commute, I actually have more time. But I keep the world at bay and never check the news before I get in my daily words. No sense messing with the mojo.

The website project I had always intended to launch this year is still progressing. I want to get more of it finished before I make it public, but the idea of it is even more applicable in this new environment. I'm not sure what we're going to call the After Times (Post-Covid; Post-Coronavirus, etc.) , but it'll be different. Hopefully, the website I'm creating can find an audience.

Well, this isn't a long blog but it's a snapshot in time. Hope you are staying safe and healthy and doing your individual part and staying at home. You may think it's no big deal because you are one person, but if we all do it collectively, we can save lives and help our health care workers.

Until next week...

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 13 AKA Be a Historian

Well, how's everyone doing?

So far, my family has heeded the local directive to stay home and stay safe. It seems like such a small thing, but it's really something giant.

Consider voting. It's our duty and honor to vote, but when we do it, the action itself is small. Here in Houston, we have voting machines that include a scroll wheel. Back in the day, I'd go with my parents into those voting booths with the curtains and the levers. No matter how we do it, casting a vote is a small, simple action on an individual level but can have sweeping power when counted all the other votes.

The same is true for our various stay-at-home orders. My family of three is safe here in the house. The virus--we hope--is outside and we are inside. I've only ventured out last weekend to go to the grocery store and the hardware store. That's it. As of last night, we've eaten take out only twice, both times on Fridays. That's now become the thing we look forward to doing.

We took some extra precautions last night with the food: we used our patio table as a staging area. We emptied the Italian food out of the to-go containers and into clean plates from inside. The plastic containers remained outside until I used a plastic grocery bag to take them to the outside trash can.

I'll admit: it was a little weird going into the restaurant. It was bustling and busy, but I just didn't want to touch anything. I didn't. I had my protocol in place: credit card already removed from my wallet, my own pen, plastic gloves, and a paper bag in the car on which to set the food (and throw away later). Overkill? Nope. Not in this environment.

The New Normal


Speaking of environment, this is still a writing blog and I do have a few writing things I read this week.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch published the second of two business-related post on what she is calling The Waiting Game. In these posts, she discusses how we writers can weather this black swan event and emerge on the other side ready to face the new normal. Because that's what is going to happen: there won't be the old normal. There will only be post-Coronavirus normal. It's best we prepare for it.

Speaking of the new normal, yesterday, writer Kevin Tumlinson published a fantastic series of tweets on his Twitter account (@KevinTumlinson) about the new normal. In his series, he posits that YouTube is well positioned to become the go-to location for on-demand entertainment. Most of us already know this, but not as many writers are there. Our own Beau Johnson does his posts via video on Fridays. Ironically it was something I had considered in 2019, but pushed aside for reasons I can't remember.

Anyway, back to Kevin's thread. Just read it. There is lots of good information in here, and it really makes you think differently about the future.



Be a Historian


The historian in me continues to be fascinated at some of the parallels that 2020 is reflecting. The obvious is the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. Another is The Battle of Britain, 1940, as the folks in England hunkered down every night for nearly three months and endured the constant bombing.

But another is the sacrifice folks made who survived the Great Depression. For most of my 51 years, I looked back at those times with awe and reverence at how everyday citizens survived the greatest economic disaster of the Twentieth Century.

One of the things that lets us know what life was like back in history are personal letters and journals. When I conducted research for my Masters thesis, I studied the 14th Texas Infantry in the Civil War. A key document was a journal of one of the captains. It gave me a first-hand account of camp life, and even provided me with a title.

I encourage everyone to keep records of this time. Write a daily journal, or jot down your thoughts and fears and expectations and the little things you are doing now to get through each day. Save emails in a special folder. I've already got my "Coronovirus" folder in gmail. Write it all down to help you remember.

I used to ask my grandparents what it was like in the Great Depression and World War II. Those questions started in the 1980s, forty years after the fact. Sure, their memories were fine, but imagine if they had kept a journal.

Decades from now, it'll be our grandkids who ask us what it was like to live through 2020 as the Coronavirus inexorably swept across the world. All the events we haven't experienced yet might color our memories. Now, those future memories are real life.

Write them down and remember.

Stay safe, my friends.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 12 AKA Control the Contollables

I’ll admit something: I often write these posts with little reference to real world. I’ve always thought folks who read the posts here at get enough of the real world, so why inject it here?

Not today. I do have writing comments, but I’ll get to them later. Let’s talk about what’s happening.

Coronavirus Is Changing the World


I’m a historian and I always look at things in the long span of history. It’s why many things that irritate me don’t surprise me because we’ve likely seen it before. Back when this virus started, my wife asked if it would get over here. I said of course it would. If the 1918 Spanish Flu could reach American shores with only boats and trains, the 2020 Coronavirus would have a much easier time with planes thrown in the mix.

Now, we’re all hunkered down in our homes and apartments. Many of us are losing our jobs. When this whole thing started for us Americans, I likened the Wuhan portion to the start of a war, the invasion of Poland, for example that initiated World War II. This week, however, I’ve taken on a more nuanced viewpoint: this is like the Battle of Britain in 1940.

For months, England was bombed by the Nazis. Nightly, the population spent time in bomb shelters, praying the bombs wouldn’t fall right where they were. They carried on their lives, but it was different, challenging, and seemingly forever. What ironic timing I started listening to Erik Larson’s new book, The Splendid and the Vile, about that very event.

Eventually, however, the bombs stopped falling. There was an end. The Allies persevered, but things had changed.

Things will change in 2020 as well. As much as we want this hunkering down to end, what we really want is to know what happens next in the story of human history. Ain’t that the truth. I opined to the family that the ‘words of the year’ might be ‘flatten the curve.’

But that got me to thinking about New Year’s Eve 2020. Nine months away. What’s it going to be like then? Will this be over, or will Phase 2 be in full swing? Boy, do we want the answers to that, huh?

Controlling the Controllables


On the writing front, I’ve posted here about controlling the controllables. That is, we can write, edit, format, and design a book all we want right up until it’s published. After that, a book belongs to the world, and readers will make up their own minds about the book.

The same thing applies here with our current crisis. The sheer enormity of the situation can almost paralyze us into non-action or, worse, destructive action. I can’t fathom what doctors have to do on a daily basis in Italy. I can’t imagine needing medical supplies but having none. I can’t comprehend some of the numbers and data I see on the news.

If I were to let it get to me, I’d probably cry every day. I did, once, mainly because my son is a high school senior and his memories will be of staying home and away from his friends, likely no prom. Graduation is iffy. It freaking sucks.

But I had a moment of clarity one morning as I said my daily prayers. I think it was Tuesday, the first full day I worked from home. I am not a doctor or a medical professional. I’m not a decision maker, a restauranteur, or a guy stocking shelves in the grocery store. I’m just one guy—a son, a husband, a father, a friend, a co-worker—who is in the same boat as everyone else. The best thing, the absolute best thing I can do for me, my family, and my community is to do my part.

To control what I can control, and that means staying put.

I listen to the mayor and the police chief as they talk about local directives. I listen to the state and national leaders. I monitor the news, but do not obsess over it. Nor do I check it frequently. One reason is that it can be so depressing. Another is I have a day job at an oil and gas company. Talk about double anxiety.

That moment of clarity I was talking about? Well, here it is: my whole life has prepared me for what’s to come. I am who I am today as a result of every single decision I made from the time I could make them until today. Did I ever think I could work from home? Not really, until I discovered I could in 2011 and learned how to be even more productive. Did I ever think I could stay optimistic in times like these? Yes, because I had family members who showed me how. Did I ever think I could write a book? No, until I did, and I did it word by word, chapter by chapter, day by day, until the words ended up as a book.

Day by day is the only way we have to deal with our situation. You are stronger than you can possibly imagine. If you can simply get through a new day, count your blessings and do it all again the next day. It ain’t easy. In fact, it can be damn hard. But it’s not impossible. A thing is only impossible when you haven’t done it yet. After that, it gets so much easier. Well, how about more straightforward. Life isn’t exactly easy nowadays.

Control the controllables. Works for writing books. It’ll work for the year 2020.

The Secret Weapon for Creatives: Keep Creating


I promised something writing related, so here it is.

I’m writing a story for an upcoming project. It’s one of my Calvin Carter, Railroad Detective, stories set in the 1880s. I’ll admit all this real-world news killed the imagination for the first part of the month.

But this week, something changed. Maybe it was the work-from-home environment where I don’t have to commute and, thus, have more time prior to work time, but I found myself getting through this story in chunks.

And man oh man, did it feel good to write those words! For a little bit each day, I got to escape to the 1880s and stand next to my characters as they figure out how to stop a hijacked train.

So, you writers or creatives out there: keep creating. Keep writing. If nothing else, you’ll escape.

Stay safe. Stay calm. Stay focused on what you can do to help.

That’s my message to you this week.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 11

Well, it's been a week.

I'm not going to spend much time about the COVID-19 virus because it's all over the news and sometimes, we need to step away from the news. Just for a little bit. It's good to put some distance between the constant news scrolling across our screens or the various tweets on Twitter.

This is Spring Break down here in Houston and my wife's birthday. I took two days off from the job. One day was spent here in town, having a nice brunch, catching a showing of "The Invisible Man," and ended with some excellent sushi. The other day involved us traveling to Alvin, Texas, to visit the antique mall, a lunch at Killen's BBQ in Pearland, Texas, and a Half Price Books stop. Found HELLBENT, the third Orphan X novel by Gregg Hurwitz. I love finding books you want out in the wild.

Both days had me away from the news and social media for large swaths of both days. It was a nice break, especially when we tuned back into the news and seeing our new reality set in. I'd recommend it from time to time. Remain vigilant, of course, but you don't have to be vigilant 24/7.

The two-day break wasn't the only good thing this week.

Between Stories


Over on his website, Steven Pressfield had a timely post. It stemmed from a question: What to do between books.

His answer: there should be no 'between books.'

Why? Because it kills your momentum. Pressfield paraphrases the bodybuilder Jack Lalanne: every day we miss, it is that much harder to start writing again.

Boy, ain't that the truth. I started writing a new story for an anthology this week. Yay! The opening scene was pretty easily penned in one session. Yay again. Chapter 2 not so much. I know what I am going to write--mostly--but the words didn't flow as smoothly as when I was writing every day.

But the good news was the words came. And it felt good to be writing again, especially this week.

I started on 11 March, which was my grandfather's birthday. I aim to keep the momentum going.

For both things: writing and in creating breaks from the news.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 10 AKA Organic Growth and Contingency Plans

I started the week thinking I'd write about one thing. I ended the week with a cautionary tale

Organic Growth


My son is a fan of a particular franchise. He makes videos about it, sharing them, and watching videos taken by other fans.

But he also takes a break from active fandom. For the latter part of each year through February, he doesn't devote much time to watch videos of other fans or much of anything. He sets a date for his new season to start, and he hit that mark this week.

On 1 March when he started up again, he marveled at how many more views his videos had received during his time away. He was really happy that viewership rose without him uploading new content. His subscriber list also grew.

"That's organic growth," I told him. "It's the kind of thing all creatives long for."

I asked him more questions about his videos. Turns out one seems to be a catalyst. It's an adjacent video, one not directly related to the franchise, but one that melds two franchises together. (I know I'm being vague, but he didn't want me to name drop him.)

His one, out-of-the-ordinary video actually got him more interested viewers. It also brought it viewers of that other franchise who watched, liked what they saw, and watch more of my son's videos.

In other words, his back list brought him more subscribers, more fans. Now, this year, as he makes newer videos, he'll be able to grow his fan base.

But I was struck by that one franchise-merging video. For him, that was the one of the key drivers to earn more viewers. I got to thinking how a writer might do something like that.

I'm still thinking, but the possibilities are exciting and nearly endless.

Oh, and I can't help but wonder if he's onto something in taking a break from a beloved franchise. His excitement built up until his new season started, making it all the more sweeter.

Contingency Plans


I'm thinking the vast majority of us writers--both traditionally published and independents--do not make our money solely from our writing. For those of us in this group, we have day jobs that serve as the primary means of our income, leaving the book business as a side hustle.

That's where I am. I love the book business, but for me, it's the second thing I do. By day, I have a job.

And, after this week, I still do.

Every company goes through a reorganization from time to time, and my company's doing it now. Well, just my team. I am incredibly blessed and fortunate to have maintained my position. I've been on the other side before and it ain't pretty. Most recently, in October 2017, was without a job. I thought I'd get tons of writing done with all the free time because, really, how much time could looking for a job take?

All of it. Looking for a job is a full-time job. Not only that, but it drains the mental energy, too.

Some of that dread seeped into my mind this week before I was told I would stay. It naturally got me to thinking about the side hustle. At the present time, it's not a lot of money. I get nearly all my joy in the writing of the tales. The icing on the cake is where others read them. But I really do enjoy readers who read and share my books.

I have lots of ideas about improving my discoverability, but up to now, I've not acted on them. After this week, and after the example of my son's franchise, maybe it's time to start.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Author: Week 9

Welcome to Leap Day. It's an extra day for the year, and an extra day to prepare before the new month starts tomorrow.

I might have mentioned this before, but as consequential New Year's Resolutions can be, New Month Resolutions can also be helpful. I tend not to think of them as resolutions. Instead, the starts of new months are opportunities to begin a new project or, in my case, re-start a stalled book.

The Benefits of a Fallow Period 


I started the novel as part of NaNoWriMo and I made excellent progress. But I hit a snag in December and stopped writing. I didn't think much of it. December is a time for Christmas movies and books and TV specials and music. Besides, I told myself, I'd just pick up the tale on New Year's Day.

Didn't happen.

Again, I shrugged. I had just stared a new-to-me book--Orphan X by Gregg Hurwitz--and I decided to read more than write. I'd get back to my own book soon enough.

That didn't happen either.

Then, I started to wonder why I didn't jump back on the book. I started to edge towards chastising myself for not writing. I stopped short. There was a reason I wasn't writing, and I decided to ride that wave.

When February started, I thought I'd get back to the book. Didn't. I kept reading, moving on to The Nowhere Man, the second Orphan X novel, and added the first few issues of the famous comic book series MASTER OF KUNG FU. I enjoyed reading and, frankly, enjoyed not writing.

But as late February took hold, I began to feel that pull. It felt good. To get myself back on track, I re-read my manuscript, and two things happened.

One, I read the story and enjoyed it. I saw the better writing, could see my progress as a writer from where I was five years ago. I actually smiled at more than one part.

The second thing was I saw what got me off track. I read and edited as I went. I made an outline on paper, keeping notes of things to fix. By the time I got to where I stopped, I knew exactly what I needed to do to course correct this book.

And I can't wait until tomorrow when I jump back on the book and move forward.

Clive Cussler


This week, the world lost a great writer.

I came to Clive Cussler late and via his Isaac Bell series. I knew about Dirk Pitt and his adventure series, but only read a book or two. Maybe only one. I think I've read one or two of the other series as well.

Isaac Bell, on the other hand, well, I'm literally listening to the latest book, Titanic Secret, when I learned of Cussler's passing. I love the Bell series and the historical settings.

I'm not the only one who loved Cussler's books. Millions of readers have loved the adventures Cussler pens. This week, as word of his passing spread over the internet, I enjoyed reading what Cussler meant to these readers. What really made me smile was reading how Cussler was the author lots of dads read.

As a writer, however, I grew to appreciate and study how Cussler structured his books. I listened to almost all of them--narrated by the excellent Scott Brick--but I would constantly take notes. I would realize how excited or tense I was during certain passages and then go back and study those passages to figure out why.

For me, reading a Cussler book was not only an adventure, it was an education.

Rest in peace, Mr. Cussler, and thanks for all the stories.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Year of an Indie Writer: Week 8 AKA Greg Rolie and Steve Perry

I've been listening to the first three Journey albums recently, and it got me to thinking if I'm in the Greg Rolie stage of my writing career or have I reached Steve Perry.


Original Journey



If you're like me, if you think about the band Journey, you most likely hear Steve Perry high soaring vocals in your mind. But he was not the original singer. Greg Rolie was.

I think I've mentioned my son has been discovering old classic rock records I've never heard. About a month ago, he picked up Journey, the 1975 self-titled debut of the band. Made up of members of Santana's original band, Journey produced three albums that captured the mid 70s vibe of prog rock and fusion, all performed by guys incredibly proficient on their instruments.

Boy, is that original album good. Sure, it's 45 years old, but I'm really digging it. In fact, I'm loving it so much I went out and purchased Look Into the Future (1976) and Next (1977) straight away. I've been jamming to them this past week. You can hear them trying to get to a place of stardom and land songs on the charts, but they didn't quite get there. This despite how well they play, the intricacies of their songs, and their incredible musicianship.

The more I listened to original Journey, the more I wondered how and why Steve Perry joined the band. Turns out the band's manager wanted to take them to the next level and he knew they needed a different singer and a different producer. Props to Rolie who stayed in the band a couple more albums even when Perry joined and took the spotlight.

I did a fun thing yesterday. I listened to album three and then went right into the the fourth, Perry's debut. I wanted to hear the change. Infinity opens with the famous song "Lights" and it takes no time at all to realize the band has taken everything up a notch. They leveled up and never looked back.


How Does This Relate to Writing?



This week, my indie writing hit the five year mark. Unbeknownst to me back in 2014, my debut shares the same date as the debut album by KISS in 1974. It was neat thing when I realized it.

I'm proud of what I've accomplished in five years. Seven novels and eleven short stories for a total of 18 stories. I've got more on the way in 2020, but 18 is where I stand on the fifth anniversary of my company.

Some writers know who they are from the start: Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Clive Cussler, John Grisham, Alan Dean Foster, and more that you can think of. Others took a little time to discover themselves: Erle Stanley Gardner, James Patterson, Dan Brown, and who knows how many more.

In essence, the writers in the latter group had their own Greg Rolie Era before the Steve Perry Era began.

So, this week, I've been ruminating about my career. Am I in my own Greg Rolie period or did I emerge out of the gate already in the Steve Perry Era?

If I'm honest, it's the Rolie Era. If that's true, then I wonder what book will take me to the next level?

I already know that answer, too. It's always the next one. It'll always be the next one because I'm constantly learning. But as I'm re-reading an unfinished book I started in late 2019 (so I can restart it again), I'm realizing the book's pretty good. I can actually see the progress I've made over five years right there on the page. It's exciting, and I can't wait to start it up again.

Maybe it'll be like Journey's Infinity. Maybe it'll end up being in my Rolie Period. Who knows? But I can certainly see progress.

Here's to the next five years.

For your writing careers, what era are you in?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 7 AKA Bond and Batman

Well, if it wasn’t for Matt Reeves and Billie Eilish, I’d have darn near nothing to discuss today.

You see, this has been a bit of a nothing week. After Gregg Hurwitz week last week, not much happened. I’m reading The Nowhere Man, Hurwitz’s second Orphan X novel. Really digging it and the character.

I’m also reading some Star Wars comics from the late 70s, specifically the months leading up to the release of The Empire Strikes Back in May 1980.

TV wise, I’m catching up on Magnum PI via my CBS All Access subscription. The move from Monday nights to Fridays pretty much screwed my airtime viewing of the show. When I went and reviewed the list, I realized I had only seen two episode. Now, I’ve watched six episodes in three days. Love being able to watch on my Chromebook at lunch at work.

Thus I didn’t have much to write about. Until Thursday.

No Time To Die by Billie Eilish


I’ll be the first to admit that I disliked the news Eilish had been given the opportunity to write and sing the new James Bond theme song. I’ve seen her on SNL and random other live events and I’ve been less than impressed. Even her rendition of “Yesterday” last week at the Oscars left me wanting.

Still, she’s on a terrific run. She’s following up her four Grammy wins—the four biggest of the night—with a Bond song. Bueno to her for having a moment. And, clearly, she’s popular.

But what kind of Bond song would she create? The Daniel Craig films, if I’m being honest, have batter .500. I really enjoy Skyfall and You Know My Name. I ended up only tolerating Writing’s on the Wall while watching Spectre. And I don’t like Another Way to Die, the theme from Quantum of Solace.

Fear not: the record for the worst Bond song is firmly set: Madonna’s Did Another Day. Too bad. Pierce Brosnan had some great theme songs and a bonus: kd lang’s Surrender, the best non-main-theme song of the entire Bond oeuvre.

So it was with great trepidation I dialed up Eilish’s song on Thursday night. I sighed at my son as I started the video. He left. I sat and listened.


By the time it ended, I had a verdict:

I didn’t hate it.

It was quiet, somber. Her voice actually seemed to fit. It had an elegiac vibe, pretty nifty considering this is Craig’s last bow as Bond. I actually liked the “Food me once, fool me twice” part, segueing directly into a short orchestral part.

There were some good Bond-music elements in the piece, especially the last chord.

So it looks like my opinion of Billie Eilish singing a Bond song was wrong. I do find it fascinating, however, that three of the five Craig theme songs were slow. Wonder what that means, if anything.

The New Batman Revealed


Also on Thursday night came the first images of Robert Patinson in his own Batman suit. Yeah, I only know him from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and the Twilight movies. His casting didn’t bother me. He was new. He was different. I’m looking forward to the new Batman movie. I’ll wait to see the movie before I pass judgement.

But how did the suit look? I’ll freely admit I liked Ben Affleck’s suit in his two appearances on screen. It was very comic book accurate, the best we’ve had to date.

Here it is.

But in a real-world environment—the vibe Matt Reeves seems to be going for—the body armor suit seems appropriate.

We didn’t get to see a lot of Pattinson’s suit. We saw the symbol, which looked like it that bat-symbol could be popped out and used as a weapon. Interesting. Makes me also think of the Kevin Smith-penned story from Detective Comics issue 1,000 in which Bruce took the gun used to kill his parents, melted it down, and inserted it into his suit as a breast plate. Wonder if that’s part of it.

Pattinson’s cowl looks really fascinating. There are what appear to be stitching along the front, leading me to wonder if this Bruce Wayne doesn’t have the tech gadgetry of the Nolan films. I would actually like that. I like also how the eyes are either hidden in the shadow of the red-hued film or actually behind some sort of lenses.

Oh, and that Michael Giacchino music? CanNOT wait for that. Giacchino is great at everything he does. You heard his music for 2012’s John Carter? Great.

Assumptions Busted


All in all, it’s a week of assumptions being busted. Well, only one with Eilish. I’m an open book when it comes to Pattinson.

Either way, I’m looking forward to the last Craig-as-Bond film in a few weeks and am eager for Pattinson’s Batman.

What are y’all’s thoughts on both things?

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Year 5 of an Indie Writer: Week 6 AKA Gregg Hurwitz Week

Who knew this week would turn out to be Gregg Hurwitz Week for me?

The week started with Hurwitz's author event here in Houston. He showed up at Murder by the Book to promote his latest novel--and latest Orphan X thriller--INTO THE FIRE. Much of the author talk was typical--here's my full post--but I really appreciated the answer to one of my questions.

Since Hurwitz is new to me, I asked him how he scored his gig writing Batman comics early in the 2010s. His answer proved instructive to any creative, myself included.

After a brief stint at Marvel, DC Comics wooed Hurwitz with a tantalizing offer: you can write anything you want. Thinking of how THE KILLING JOKE is often referred to as the definitive Joker story, he wanted to write the definitive Penguin story. He got his chance, and, in 2011, PAIN AND PREJUDICE was released. The mini-series got such good press and fan reaction that DC offered Hurwitz a writing gig for one of the monthly Batman books. By opting for a true passion project, new opportunities opened up.

I told this story to my book club group on Tuesday, and one of my friends made an excellent point: you never know when a break might arrive, so you'd better have something in the hopper you can trot out when that break happens.

A day after my post, I put up my full review of ORPHAN X, the debut of Evan Smoak. I enjoyed it for being a different of thriller. Some of the best scenes in the book are the ones not to include action sequences. They are the ones in which Evan merely talks to people who live in his building, his daily life in his apartment, and fixing a drink. Weird, I know, but that's what makes ORPHAN X different, and makes me look forward to diving into the second book, THE NOWHERE MAN.

I closed out the week by reading the Penguin mini-series, PAIN AND PREJUDICE. I wanted to see what a definitive Penguin story looked like and did Hurwitz achieve what he set out to do. In short: yeah. The long version: my review.

A Positive Message About Being a Writer


I've mentioned how every Thursday, Kristine Kathryn Rusch publishes a post on the business aspects of the book business. This week was something different. Entitled "Business Musings: Optimism And The Writer," Rusch extols the virtues of having a positive attitude in this business, both behind the keyboard as you write, and in public as you talk about your stuff. Read the whole thing, but here's a portion of it.

The most optimistic among us do play and make things up for the rest of our lives.
The realistic optimists, that is. The ones who know that being the best at our job requires us to keep learning, keep trying, and keep striving. Who know that the best is just around the corner.
We believe this even when our luck is bad. When events have gone poorly for us. When life conspires against us. When we get that awful diagnosis that reminds us that our time on this earth is finite.
When we can see the end.
We still keep moving forward, and trying to be the best we can be.
Because writers—professional writers—are optimists. Realistic optimists, fighting against the odds, knowing that someone gets to succeed—and if someone does, it might as well be me. At least I’m trying.
And to tie it back to Hurwitz (you know Gregg Hurwitz Week) is this quote from Wayne Gretzky via Rusch:  “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Rusch continues:

The core of any unusual profession—from writer to hockey player—is embodied in that quote. The math is pretty simple: You can’t succeed if you don’t try.
But what gets you to try? Optimism. That tiny thread of hope that this time, it’ll work. This time, the stars will align, the final bit of craft will come together, the last bit of effort will pay off.
And if it doesn’t—we’ll try again.
And again.
Until the end of (our) time.
Easily written. Sometimes difficult to believe and internalize.

Late in the week, I ran across an interview with Scott Snyder about writing comics. He said this:

"You can only write the story today that you’d like to pick up and read the most. It doesn’t have to be the smartest, it doesn’t have to be the most action-packed, but whatever it is that would change your life today that you would pick up and be like, “I love this story,” that’s the one you have to go write."

See how it all ties together? Write the best thing you can possibly write at any given time--the one thing you'd like to read--and have fun with it. Repeat.

Music of the Week: Texas Sun by Leon Bridges and Khruangbin 


Yesterday, a four-song EP dropped featuring this new soul singer out of Ft. Worth, Texas, and this three-piece band from Houston. They toured together last year and ended up making some music. Lots and lots of influences you can hear, from early 1070s Miles Davis and Marvin Gaye to dreamy psychedelic pop. Been hearing the title track for a month now. Five dollars at Amazon gets you the digital tunes, $4 if you like what you hear and want to purchase direct from Khruangbin. https://khruangbin.bandcamp.com/album/texas-sun

Here's the title track.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Is Pain and Prejudice the Definitive Penguin Story?

At a recent author event promoting his latest novel INTO THE FIRE, Gregg Hurwitz was asked how he became one of the writers on a monthly Batman comic book. His answer was simple: I wanted to write the definitive Penguin story.

Can You Name a Penguin Comic Story?


He made an interesting couple of points in discussing his Penguin mini-series, Pain and Prejudice. One was The Killing Joke. For nearly every comic reader, that 1989 one-shot by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland is the definitive story on the Joker and his backstory. To Hurwitz's mind, Oswald Cobblepot, AKA The Penguin, didn't have one. I've been reading comics for forty-five years, and the only Penguin thing that comes to mind is the cover of Batman #228 that I owned (and still own) as a child...yet I can't think of the story at all.


Granted, I can easily remember numerous Penguin episodes from the Adam West Batman TV series from the 1960s. Who doesn't think of Burgess Meredith when you hear about Batman's rogue, The Penguin?

In fact, the more I thought of it, the only other Penguin story that comes to mind is Batman Returns, the 1992 Tim Burton film. I can't even narrow down a Penguin-centric episode from The Animated Series. Yes, the Penguin was a central figure from the TV show Gotham, but I only watched the first season, but I enjoyed what I saw of Robin Lord Taylor's performance.

But when it comes to the comics, I honestly can't think of a Penguin story.

Hurwitz was onto something.

Is The Penguin Sane?


The other, and more interesting point, was Hurwitz's comment that the Penguin was the only sane Batman villain. That one gave me pause. Clearly the Joker is bonkers. Ra's al Ghul is insane only insofar as what he wants to accomplish. The Riddler had a makeover a decade or so ago into a hyper-intelligent adversary to Batman, but insane? Not sure. Two-Face? Probably. 

The only argument I could make for a sane villain is Mr. Freeze, the version created by Paul Dini. He was driven to find a cure to save his wife, making him commit crimes to fund his research. Oh, and Catwoman. Almost every version, she's just on the edge of criminality.

But the point is well taken: Penguin is unique among the rogues gallery. So how does Pain and Prejudice hold up?

Pain and Prejudice: The Mini-Series


With art by Szymon Kudranski, Hurwitz delivers a five-part mini-series published in 2011, soon after the huge New 52 event (when DC Comics restarted its universe). Oswald Cobblepot is a crime boss, no a crime lord. In dark-hued panels, we get to see how Cobblepot rules his empire: through fear and whispers. What Cobblepot wants, Cobblepot gets.

Interspersed through the main story, Hurwitz gives us flashbacks to Oswald's upbringing and childhood. We learn the events that made him the formidable crime lord he is, and what he did to get there. The color palette for the present-day story is very dark and black. The flashbacks, however, are sepia tone. Nice touch.

What's compelling is the fear that runs through the story. You see how people stumble over themselves to stay in the Penguin's good graces. You also see how he deals with those who cross him, even if the cross is merely a mis-stated word. The Penguin doesn't do anything to you. He just does things to your family.

What changes the story is when Batman shows up. Now, everyone can see what Cobblepot himself truly fears. Not only that, his stature is diminished by Batman. Now, Cobblepot's hatred grows.

A side story is his own yearning to look good and be accepted. He's still the craggy nosed guy you see in the Animated Series and other comics (and a little of Danny DeVito's version minus the flipper hands) He has no love life until he meets Cassandra, a blind woman who views herself as something less than perfect (as do others who make fun of her). Definitely playing up the 'prejudice' aspect of the title.

Hurwitz gives us good dialogue between Cassandra and Oswald and the budding relationship. But Oswald won't let her touch his face in order for her to "see" him. He prefers she keep her image of him as perfect as possible. The panel Kudranski draws when Cobblepot realizes this is almost heartbreaking. Almost. We are talking a ruthless criminal here.

Naturally, Cobblepot's machinations afoul of Batman and there is a confrontation. Along the way, however, we see the genesis of the monocle, the umbrellas, and why he loves birds and penguins so much. He's got a knack for gadgets so there are things Batman must fight. Throughout this sequence--and, indeed, the entire run--the art is fantastic. I especially loved the onomatopoeia of the sound effects.

The Verdict


So, is Pain and Prejudice the definitive story of Oswald Cobblepot, AKA The Penguin? Yeah, it is. Hurwitz and Kudranski give us not just a story of a hero and villain, but of two antagonists, filled with depth and pathos (well, at least from Cobblepot's point of view). We know Batman's story, and I like how he's used here. He is The Other, the shadowed one, the more perfect man opposite Cobblepot's shorter, imperfect specimen.

I enjoyed Pain and Prejudice. Now I want to read the other Batman titles Hurwitz wrote to see how he handled The Dark Knight himself as well as other members of the Bat-Family.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Orphan X Review - Not Your Typical Thriller Hero

For a few years now, the Orphan X series by Gregg Hurwitz, has been circling my radar. I'd download a sample onto my Kindle, but never get around to it. I'd see the second, third, and fourth books in the series be published, but still I didn't move off high center.

Until late last month.

In that timeless week between Christmas and New Year's Day, I was at the paperback racks at a Barnes and Noble in far west Houston and saw OUT OF THE DARK, the fourth volume in the series. My new standard for reading books is to read the book that captured my attention, no matter what number it is in the series. But when I realized it was an Orphan X novel, I was reminded that this series is one I should try.

From the beginning.

Evan Smoak - Not Your Typical Action Hero


If you read ten thrillers, how many of them open with the main character--or a side character--running? Seven? Eight? It's a perfectly acceptable trope for the genre, but I was happily surprised ORPHAN X didn't begin that way. True, Evan is bleeding from a knife wound and he's trying to get back to his apartment in Los Angeles, but there are no bad guys chasing him. Instead, we get a domestic scene with Evan trying not to show fellow tenants of his high-rise apartment he's bleeding. Not the nosy old lady nor the single mom who lives a few floors below. But her son suspects the truth. The entire tension of chapter one is whether or not Evan can make it up to his apartment without anyone noticing he's bleeding.

That is how ORPHAN X starts, and it makes all the difference.

It tells you that you're in for a different type of thriller, one I couldn't put my finger on until I saw Gregg Hurwitz at Houston's Murder by the Book on Monday.

A Normal Situation


Another thing Hurwitz does well is showing you what Evan's typical life is like. As an orphan, he was taken out of foster care and trained to be an off-the-books assassin. The kind with complete deniability. The only contact he has is his father-figure/trainer/teacher Jack Johns. For years, Jack trained Evan until--as we learn in the middle of the book--an even takes place that causes Evan to leave that life and disappear.

Now, he's the Nowhere Man, a man hiding in plain sight. Like the A-Team, if there's a person who needs help, all they have to do is call the special number: 1-855-2NOWHERE. Evan will help you. The only payment: pass his number--once--to another person who needs help.

Thus, the opening section of the book, we get an example of this "normal" life Evan has made for himself. You see him plan how he's going to help teenaged Morena, the terrible situation in which she and her younger sister find themselves, and how he goes about solving her problem. Intricate detail that reads fast and swift, never losing tension and anticipation.

It's when the next person calls--presumably Morena's pay-it-forward charge--that things really kick into a higher gear.

The Layers Unravel


Interspersed throughout the novel are flashbacks to Evan's training days and his early assignments. You get a deeper sense of what kind of man he is, what kind of person Jack Johns is, and how the two ultimately bring out nuances in each other both probably didn't expect.

I never saw the twists coming, which made for an even more entertaining read. It's no surprise--it's on the dust jacket--that some of the people after Evan are fellow Orphans, so he's not going up against run-of-the-mill thugs, but highly trained adversaries. Hurwitz, I learned on Monday night when I attended his author event, has done his research. But I already knew that. The details not only of the fighting but the weapons and accouterments are rich and descriptive.

Why is This Book So Good?


I knew going into the book the action would be good and thrilling. What surprised me, however, were the character moments. The time in the elevator I just mentioned. The times when he's having to worry about the bad guys and some busybody confronts him about not attending the HOA meeting. In addition, seeing Evan at home, in his apartment, what he did, what he drank, how he ate, all of that is there. I gravitated toward those moments just as much, if not more, than the action.

Why?

Well, on Monday night, Hurwitz commented that part of the genesis of Evan Smoak was the idea that you never saw James Bond go home.* You never saw Jason Bourne have an awkward conversation with regular folks.

That was the key to why I enjoyed ORPHAN X so much. That's why I'll keep reading the series.



*In the novel MOONRAKER (1954)--which is nothing like the 1979 movie--Ian Fleming writes a lot about Bond in the office, in his house, and playing cards. Not exactly pulse-pounding excitement, but wonderful to read. But the point Hurwitz is probably making is that none of the films show Bond in a normal setting. Not coincidentally, it is these scenes in MOONRAKER I remember well and hardly any of the larger plot. But hardly anyone remembers the original novel. You see? Hurwitz was onto something.


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@Barrie Summy