Monday, November 20, 2017

Writing Within the Guardrails

Do you like driving inside the guardrails?
Earlier this week, I watched The Terry Kath Experience. It’s a documentary about one of the founders of the band Chicago. Kath was the only guitar player and he sang lead. I’ve long zeroed in on Kath as my favorite member of the original group of seven guys who made up the band with Robert Lamm a close second. This despite me, a kid who ‘discovered’ Chicago in 1985 and wondered why their ‘newest’ album was named ‘17.’ Anyway, when I learned Kath’s daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, was making this documentary to learn more about her father, I couldn’t wait to watch it. I thought I was going to have to purchase the DVD, but the channel AXS aired it. Lo and behold I actually get that channel and viola! I got to watch this wonderful film.

When you trace Terry Kath’s life, you see a truly remarkable musical genius. If you listen to any studio album, you can hear Kath’s intricate soloing. His talent for lead guitar playing was even more on display on any of the live albums featuring the original seven. With the advent of YouTube, I have been able to see live footage from the 1970s and the manic energy Kath brought to the fore as the only guitar player in the band. One of the all-time best shows available is the 1970 concert from Tanglewood. They open with my all-time favorite song, “Introduction,” and the group rarely slows down.

Speaking of “Introduction,” one of the reasons I love it so much is that it is track 1 of side 1 of Chicago’s first album. It’s the ‘mission statement song,’ the one song that encapsulated what Chicago was back then. In the documentary, there’s a segment that I hadn’t heard before. You see, Kath couldn’t read music, at least back then. He enlisted trombonist James Pankow—the third member who helped shape the sound of the band in the beginning(s)—to write down the chart for everyone. When Pankow complied, he was astounded that a song as intricate and complex as “Introduction” was all there…in Kath’s mind.

Many folks might chalk Chicago up to a band who excelled in mid-tempo hits in the 70s and ballads in the 80s. That’s true, but that isn’t how they started. For the time, they were a progressive band, their song often involving intricate arrangements and constantly shifting time signatures. Guys like Lamm and Kath loved that part of the early tenure of the band. But fame and fortune did the same thing it did to many artists: it began to suffocate them. The more hits the band produced, the more audiences expected to hear certain songs. Where Kath was able to put “Free Form Guitar” on the first album (a 6-minute track with just Kath, his guitar, and the amp) and the band opened side 1 of Chicago VII with a bunch of experimental instrumentals, gradually the pressure to play “Saturday in the Park,” “Just You n’ Me,” and “If You Me Now,” every single night began to weigh on him.

As the documentary relates, by the last tour, Kath was all but ready to bolt. He missed playing whatever he felt like playing. You get the impression that Kath’s mindset was akin to “Look, I’m gonna play what I’m gonna play, the audience be damned.” In that spirit, he’s in the same boat as Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix to name just two. Chicago did that for the Chicago VII tour…and they’ve never done it since. They saw the audience reactions to their long solos and instrumentals. It wasn’t why audiences came to their shows. They wanted the hits and little else.

Thus, we have the age-old conflict between artistic vision and commercial expectations. Sure, you can play whatever you want on an album, but if you don’t give the listeners what they want, then you’re albums sales will fall and your concerts will be less attended.

The very same thing applies to us writers (and artists and other creative types), too. We can be perfectly happy to write some genre title that no one has ever seen, but you have to put yourself out there and suffer the consequences. Sometimes, you can strike gold and be an outlier. For the majority of us, however, it seems like we need to drive within the guardrails already laid out by writers before us. Some days, you might chaff at the guardrails, but they’ve been laid by not only writers but readers. They are there to help steer you straight.

I count myself in this latter group. And I’m perfectly happy to be there. Are you?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Get ON With It

Twenty two chapters.

What does that mean for us this morning? That’s the number of chapters it took for the action to get started in Dan Brown’s latest novel, ORIGIN. Heck, I’m not even sure that’s the exact answer—it might have been twenty three or twenty one, but I just don’t care enough to toggle back in my Audible file to find the answer because it’s beside the point.

What happened for all that time up until Chapter Twenty Two? Talking. Lots and lots of talking. And even after the action gets started, there is more talking. Lots of talking. Mini lectures, actually. It’s almost like a Michael Crichton novel. I have a distinct memory of reading RISING SUN and, every now and then, I’d turn the page and there’s be wall-to-wall text and I knew I was in for a mini lecture. Heck, Crichton even had footnotes. At least Brown mostly put his lectures—but not all—in the form of dialogue.

I never disliked Dan Brown. I was one of those millions of readers who jumped on the THE DA VINCI CODE bandwagon. That was a thrilling book. Think about it. In that book, chapter one showed a murder and introduced the bad guy, chapter two introduced hero Robert Langdon, and we were off and running. I even diagrammed the first 100 pages of DA VINCI CODE to see how Brown made it work. It was an “aha” moment.

From there, I happily jumped back to ANGELS AND DEMONS and enjoyed it. In some ways, it was better than DA VINCI CODE. I read THE LOST SYMBOL (AKA, “Da Vinci Code in America”), but something must have happened because I completely bypassed INFERNO. For whatever reason, I felt the tug of ORIGIN and, with a new, long commute, I thought “why not?” With the audiobook clocking in at eighteen hours, it would certainly get me through a week or two.

I lasted for about twelve hours before I bumped up the speaking speed to 1.25.  At least then I’d be able to get through the novel in a shorter amount of time. I’m not even done (about three hours until the end) and I’m more or less still listening because I at least want to know the big reveal at the end.

But come on! If the book is supposed to be a thrill ride of a story, put some thrills in it. And speed up the pace. I’m not advocating Brown write a pulp fiction novel. He’s got something to say and has clearly done a lot of research—most likely, it all found its way into the text. But at least Crichton put lots of chases and escapes in his stories. They were exciting to read. Heck, DA VINCI CODE was an exciting and thrilling read. ORIGIN is simply dull.

Maybe the ending will be worth it. We’ll find out.

Coincidentally, in my science fiction book club, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight III: Master Race was selected. This is yet another sequel to his seminal 1986 work, The Dark Knight Returns, a fantastic graphic novel. I intentionally bypassed DKIII because I so loathed The Dark Knight Strikes Again (or whatever the second book was called). With that book, I got the distinct impression the good folks at DC Comics didn’t care what Miller produced as long as he gave them something they could sell. One might argue he didn’t really have an editor, because if he did, some of the stuff he threw in would have been chopped.

Same with Dan Brown, at least with ORIGIN. There’s a story here, but it is one that should have been tightened up, trimmed down, and streamlined. Maybe he’s of a particular stature now that he can pretty much write whatever he wants and it’ll get published. Maybe not, but if  you’re an author who writes a chase book, please start the action way before chapter twenty two.


I finished the book on Sunday. I'm not one to write a full review of a book I didn't like and I'm not gonna start now. But of the four Dan Brown books I've read, this is fourth on the list. I suppose there was a reason I skipped INFERNO. Now I know. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Unfurl Your Writing Banner

Never shrink away from proudly letting the world know you are a writer. Sometimes it might open a door for you.

I started a new job this week and, yet again, it isn’t Full-Time Fiction Writer. Someday. In the meantime, however, I am a…well, it’s a funny thing. You see, the job description used the title “Technical Writer IV” (I love the way that looks; like the fourth movie in a kick-ass movie franchise) but the internal job description uses “IT Content Advisor.” That latter title reads like a high-powered government job or something out of Silicon Valley. Actually, it’s neither. I now work at the main campus of ExxonMobil in Spring, Texas. The project is part of the unified IT initiative where I’m part of a team that consolidates scores of content sources and brings it all under one umbrella. Daunting and challenging, but very interesting. The commute is pretty long—45 minutes in the mornings and 65 in the afternoons; I’ve already adjusted to mental mindset of there’s no quick route—but I started listening to Dan Brown’s ORIGIN so I’m getting by.

What does this have to do with flying that writing banner proudly? It comes down to my resume. When I updated my day-job resume, I debated whether or not to include my writing credentials. By that, I mean my mystery and western novels and stories. I opted for inclusion. In my interview, after all the day-job-type questions were asked, my interviewers asked me about my fiction. It enabled the three of us to have a few moments of informality and ended the interview on a jovial note. I found out this week that the fiction was one of the things that differentiated me above other candidates. My history degrees were also a factor. The clients were looking for something a little different and my liberal arts degree* and creative fiction writing set me apart. Another writer started the same day and she has a behavioral science degree, so we both are not your typical technical writer types.

When I decided to include my fiction, I did so with little regret. My fiction is a part of who I am, and I’m damned proud of the accomplishments. And it helped me get my foot in the door. The pride is just a little bit more now.

So, fellow writers like me who have a day job, I recommend you always put your fiction on your resumes if you don’t already do so. In fact, that’s my question for the week. Do y’all include y’all’s fiction on your day-job resumes?

*The Art of Manliness podcast—one of my favorites; the main website is awesome, too—had an excellent episode entitled “The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education.” Host Brett McKay interviews author George Anders, author of You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. In the episode, they discuss how creative people often possess skills that can be used in various fields and businesses. I had to smile because it came true for me.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Proofing Hardcopies is Essential

When you are an independent author, it means you have control over all aspects of the writing. It also means you are an independent publisher and, When it comes to hardcopies, you have to match what the traditional publishers do all the time.

For my four mystery novels, I created new Second Edition ebook covers. Those came out back in May. All four now have a unified look and feel and, moving forward, future books in this growing series featuring three characters will all sport similar covers.

But I hadn’t updated the paperbacks. I removed them from CreateSpace back in May with the intention of focusing on ebooks. But now, in the fall, I’m revising the paperbacks. I updated the covers with Adobe Illustrator and revamped the interior layouts with InDesign. Those files looked very good on the screen in those two programs and they even looked good on CreateSpace’s online viewer. Nevertheless, I ordered hardcopy proofs. I still get a charge when I open a box from the mail and see my books inside.

Despite how good they looked initially, I dove into their pages. I wanted to verify all the minute details were perfect before I approved them for the public.

Boy am I glad I did.

Little things that my eyes and brain easily missed when looking at a computer screen were easily spotted on the printed page. No, it wasn’t with the novels themselves; it was with all the extra material I included within the two covers. For example, in the back of each book, I include some excerpts of other novels. Well, the fonts for the titles of those stories were slightly different across all four books. Easy to miss when you examine each individual file but glaringly obvious when you have all four hardcopies on a table in front of you each turned to the same respective page. Ditto for the “About the Author” sections. One cover’s image was off by a couple of millimeters. Again: it was something I only would have noticed with a hardcopy.

The end result—after some tweaking to the files and re-uploading them—will be better, more cohesive books that will equal those from traditional publishers.

Now, I suspect some of y’all reading this will have the same obvious conclusion: of course this is what you’re supposed to do. I know it and have done it time and time again. But when it comes to a series of books that have a unified look-and-feel, I advise all authors out there to place all the books in front of you, laid out on a table. It will only be then that discrepancies show themselves, discrepancies you might have missed upon reviewing each book separately.

Have y’all ever had an issue like this?

Monday, October 16, 2017

What Batman: The Animated Series Got Right

I think most folks here know Batman is my favorite superhero, and, by general consensus, Batman: The Animated Series is arguably the best on-screen rendition of the character. This year is the 25th Anniversary of the series. All four seasons are available on Amazon Prime so I’ve been watching an episode or two most every day.

Boy, does this show hold up well.

By 1992, we were about six years into the Dark Era of Batman, birthed by Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987). Throw in Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum (1989) and you had the character shift from a man who was a detective (and who had a life) to the brooding, unhumorous character we got for the next twenty years. As cool as it was in the late 80s to see Batman portrayed like that, when it became the *only* way he was written, it grew tedious and tiresome.

Which was why Batman: The Animated Series (TAS) was such a surprise at the time and such a breath of fresh air twenty-five years on. Back in 1992, seeing a TV version of Batman that reflected the current trend in the comics as well as the two Burton movies was fantastic. Batman was born a creature of the night, and TAS remembered his Depression-era origins. But TAS was a kids’ cartoon so the violence you started to see in the comics could not be shown on TV. That, to me, kept the focus on the character and his interactions rather than gratuitous violence for the sake of shock value.

We got our darker episodes where various facets of Batman’s character were examined. The violence was present, but it was often just off camera. It had the dual effect of allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks and to pass the censors. “Robin’s Reckoning” and “A Bullet for Bullock” come to mind. “I am the Night” is also a good example because Bruce Wayne doubts whether or not his crusade against crime is worth it. But there were also the lighter, funnier episodes like “Almost Got’em” where a cadre of villains talk about how they almost killed Batman, almost always with a big trap.

TAS also never forgot Batman was actually Bruce Wayne in two key aspects. One, Bruce was human. He needed to sleep and eat, something Alfred constantly harped on in almost every episode. Two, and most important, Bruce/Batman reached waged war against crime each in their own venue. Sometimes, it was Batman punching out bad guys. Other times it was Bruce using his wealth to buy out a bad company. Too often in the past quarter century, we only get Broody Batman and rarely Bruce Wayne. It was such a great thing to see TAS touch on both aspects of the man.

And it is, to date, the only version where Bruce offers the wink to the audience that we know his secret identity. Superman did this all the time in the 1950s series and the 1970s comics, but Batman rarely did.

Among my favorites (and likely yours, too) are: Heart of Ice; Beware the Gray Ghost (Adam West guest-starring!); Joker’s Favor; Perchance to Dream; The Laughing Fish; If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich? to name but a very few. Even a ‘bad’ episode isn’t really that bad.*

Oh, and the opening of each episode is a mini movie, sans any words…but you don’t need any.

So, do y’all have any favorite TAS episodes?

*For my book club, one of the members picked Frank Miller’s Dark Knight III: The Master Race. I loathed the second volume, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, but I am re-reading it before reading DKIII. I am reminded of why I disliked TDKSA so much…while watching TAS’s greatness. Sigh.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Heat Storm by Richard Castle

I fell in love with the TV show “Castle” from the moment I saw the trailer.

As a refresher, the character of Richard Castle, as played superbly by Nathan Fillion, is a rock star author famous for his thriller series featuring the character Derek Storm. In the series premiere, Castle is celebrating his latest novel, the book in which he killed off Storm. And he’s suffering from writer’s block. Cut to a killer who is using scenes from Castle’s novels and the New York City police, in the person of Detective Kate Beckett, come and question Castle. He ends up helping solve the case, complete with delicious sexual tension, and pulls some strings with the mayor to get a favor: allow Castle to tag along with Beckett as an observer while he does “research” for a new series of novels featuring his new character, Detective Nikki Heat, as inspired by Beckett.

Got that?

Yeah, it’s a mind twist when you write it all out, but what was even more twisty was when Season 2 premiered in the fall of 2009…and an actual Castle book landed on actual store shelves. It had Fillion’s face on the back and HEAT WAVE was the first Nikki Heat book. Every fall, a new season would start and a new Nikki Heat novel would be published. Heck, even Derek Storm himself was revived (he faked his death!) and new Storm novels were published. Graphic novels, too. It was heady days for fans of the show.

Ultimately, the TV show was cancelled, but the books kept going. HIGH HEAT arrived last fall and, with HEAT STORM, the series comes to an end. HIGH HEAT actually was published back in May, but with other books on my TBR pile, I decided to wait until September to read (actually listen) to this last novel. Even Nikki Heat novel has “Heat” in the title and every Derek Storm novel has “Storm” in the title, so you know exactly what happens with HEAT STORM: Nikki Heat and Derek Storm team up.

In a series of alternating POV chapters, HEAT STORM picks up right after the cliffhanger of HIGH HEAT. Storm has been tracking down Chinese counterfeiters and his trail has led him back to Heat, but not Nikki. Her mother, Cynthia. In yet another mind-bendy twist, the life events of the TV show character Beckett (who’s mother was killed and that prompted Beckett to become a cop) are also the same for Nikki Heat (her mother also was killed). But in the course of HIGH HEAT, someone who looks remarkably like Cynthia Heat is roaming around NYC. And the secret is revealed here in HEAT STORM.

I have loved every single novel as published by “Richard Castle” and have read some more than once. Oddly, NAKED HEAT, the second novel, is one I’ve read about 3-4 times, the latter two was when I deconstructed the novel to determine how the writer crafted such an easy going page turner. I’ve used that information on my own books.

HEAT STORM serves as a greatest hits. You’ve got Storm doing super-spy stuff and Heat doing her best detective work. She’s a great character who, over the course of the entire series, was given a chance to grow and breathe. Surprisingly, the character of Jameson Rook (the counterpart of “Richard Castle”) doesn’t feature too prominently so you certainly have to take that into account. But the author (you can likely find the answer if you search the internet) ends the book series in a satisfying manner.

The entire series is well worth your time. As both the TV series and the book series went on, what I loved was how the books reflected the TV show. It took Castle and Beckett something like four seasons to get together. In the books, their counterparts got together in book 1. It was a model of how to keep the romantic chemistry going even though the “will they or won’t they” aspect had already been revealed.

The entire Castle phenomenon was one-of-a-kind. I still miss the TV show and now, with the publication of HEAT STORM, the book series is also at a end. As melancholy as that realization is , the Nikki Heat series remains one of my favorite book series of all time.

(This is the October 2017 edition of Barrie Summy’s book review club. For the complete list, click the icon below.)

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@Barrie Summy

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Into Uncharted Territory

Come Monday morning, I will be unemployed for the first time in my life.

I started working a day job back in February 1999. Of course, back then, it was the only job. I have worked steadily ever since. As 2017 rolled around, everyone at my company knew the project for which we were hired to work would end. For many of my co-workers, that end arrived back on 30 June. For me and two other technical writers, we got an extra three months. That time ran out on Friday. Actually it was Thursday since my boss decided we three didn’t have to come to work yesterday. T’was a nice gesture and we thanked him for it. Actually, yesterday just seemed like one of my bi-weekly days off. Come Monday, things will be different.

I don’t know about y’all but I love to work. Sure, the paychecks are nice and necessary, but I crave the structure and routine of work. I enjoy working through problems, developing content, and delivering products. I enjoy using my skills to help my company and my clients. I have no problem with getting up in the pre-dawn darkness, knocking out a thousand words, and getting the boy out to school and me to the office. I was fortunate enough to work close to my house, enabling me to come home for lunch with the wife.

Come Monday, all of that remains in place except the office part. Everyone I speak with tells me I’ll find something. I know I will, but it’s the uncertainty that’s new to me. I’m the type of person who is ready to establish a new work/life routine as of yesterday. I’m ready for the next day job challenge and I’m eager to dive into a new set of assignments and delivery high-quality documentation.

But until that next day job arrives, it’ll be time for a new routine. And I think everyone here knows exactly what it will entail. For the longest time, I’ve always referred to my day job as the primary job and the fiction writing job as the other one. Come Monday, that routine will be flipped. I’ll be here, writing most of the day, every day. The early morning part will remain the same: wake, get the boy off to school by 6:25 a.m., and then, instead of hopping into the car to head off to work, I’ll come back here and start my new novel. I purposefully didn’t work on it yesterday or today and I won’t do anything tomorrow. For the near future, my fiction writing job is my day job. I’ll be living (admittedly not of my own choosing) the life of a full-time fiction writer.

It is what I ultimately want, but I’m not ready yet. I’ll make the most of it, but come Monday, I’ll be looking forward to the day in which I can be a full-time technical writer again.